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It is cold. Since it is almost always cold, pointing out the obviousness of the fact seems a bit trite, except that with nearly all of their thin blankets piled on, and around Thor's shivering bulk, Loki is feeling the lack of warmth even more than usual.

‘Loki…’ his brother’s thunderous voice reduced to the barest of whispers, comes through lips cracked with the fever that is slowly devouring him from within. In an instant Loki is at Thor’s side, gently pushing the sweat drenched hair from the beloved face, his own brow furrowing at how dry, and at the same time clammy his brother's skin felt, the unhealthy, ashen pallor of it. ‘Please.. water.’ Even now, holding on to consciousness by a sliver, Thor says ‘please’. Most people wouldn’t think it of him, seeing only the great, threatening giant of a man, and not the shy, often lost, little boy living behind the azure blue eyes.

For Loki, Thor is everything. His brother, his family, his whole world. He would give, has given all that he has, all that he is, to see Thor up and laughing again, not buried under a mound of rags, shuddering himself apart, the infection, like poison, spreading through his arm. What had possessed him to take that job for Fury? Didn’t he, couldn’t he have know better?... The man was a monster. Yes, they needed the money, but to work for Fury is tantamount to selling one's soul to the devil. Even if the job does go down as planned – which it hardly ever does with Fury – he’d have his hooks into you and then... and then... the rumours abound of what happened to Fury’s missing eye. Some say it was in a brawl when he was young, and you should have seen what he did to the other guys. Some say that he’d sold it to the splice pits, and used the seed money to start up his lawless empire. There are other, darker tales spread about Fury and his missing eye – that it was in a bet, a game with the Allfather – it is the same eye that they were both missing after all, but some things are best left un-speculated on.

‘We’re out of clean water Thor…’ Loki admits finally. He’s known all along that there was no water to be had. Not for the past day. At least there had been some for Thor. Loki hasn’t done more than wet his lips for the past two days. Hasn’t eaten in three, saving what little food they had for his brother. Hoping it would give him the strength needed to fight. He can’t lose Thor... he... he just can’t. ‘I’m going to check with Bruce.. see if he’s gotten that purifier of his is to work again… I’ll be right back.’ But Thor has slipped into delirium, calling to their Mother who’s been gone for more than 20 years.

Thor remembers her better than Loki, but then he’s older, he got the chance to know her as someone other than ‘Mom’. Loki was just a kid when she died, succumbing to some anonymous ailment or other, too many of those running around the slums to name. There wasn’t even a grave they could visit – graves took space. Funerals cost money. Money they didn’t have, so Mom was left out on the streets, and the Cleaners took her, and burned her with all the other nameless poor, who even in death, were unable to buy their last bit of dignity. Loki will not let that happen to Thor. Not that Thor is going to die. Not if Loki can do anything about it.

Stumbling wearily from their hovel, Loki takes the short trip to where Bruce has set up his ‘lab’. There are rumours going around about Bruce too. That he was once one of ‘Them’ – the elite few living in the glass towers rising far above the slums. That he was a scientist, or a doctor, or someone equally important, but then something happened, and he was cast down, or even more outrageously, left of his own will. Loki doesn’t question. Loki doesn’t want to know. Bruce has been a shoulder, a friend, a sometimes mentor when he and Thor had no one else. Bruce knows ‘things’ and with that knowledge has helped far more than just the likes of Thor and Loki. Bruce has set up a water filtration system, leeching the impurities from the occasional rain, and freely sharing those riches with the others. Bruce converts the chemicals he pulls from the water into drugs, medicines. Many would have died without Bruce. Such is Bruce’s reputation that even Fury – the overlord ruling the slums through power and fear – leaves him alone. Bruce is protected. Bruce is useful. Every few months Bruce disappears for days at a time, returning bloody, bruised, and exhausted and sleeps for a stretch of days. Loki doesn’t ask. He knows not to ask. Bruce has secrets, and those secrets keep him in the slums, and for all that Loki loves, and wishes better for Bruce if it were not for Bruce, Thor might already be dead, and he will NOT let that happen.

‘Bruce,’ he calls out quietly. It doesn’t do well to have Bruce startled. ‘It's Loki... you got a minute? ‘

‘Yes, Loki, come on in. I’m back here.’ Bruce calls out. His voice is tired, gentle. Just like the man. Bruce is unassuming, clean-shaven most days, with pepper-grey hair and weary brown eyes. His hands are large, almost as large as Thor’s, but Loki has seen Bruce perform the most delicate of miracles with those clumsy looking digits. Bruce is a genius.

‘How’s Thor feeling?’ the older man asks, carefully draining water the colour of pale sand, from one of the larger gathering buckets into a smaller plastic jug.

‘He’s getting worse, Bruce,’ Loki’s voice catches, and he’s not going to cry. Not here, not with Bruce, who has already seen more of Loki’s tears in the past 20 odd years than anyone other than Thor. ‘He started calling to Mom this morning. And he’s burning up... I thought... I thought that maybe you could do something... with,’ he gestures helplessly to Bruce’s mish-mash collection of vials and tubes and jars and the occasional, actual piece of lab equipment scrounged from who knows where and paid for by some unspeakable favours. Favours are the coin of the slums, since most will never see enough actual money in their short lifetimes to make it a worthwhile currency.

Bruce shakes his head, helplessness and misery pouring from him in waves, ‘I can’t.. I can’t, Loki. I wish... if I had the right medicines, I could heal him, if I had the right equipment I could even amputate the arm, but without the proper sterilization or facilities, he wouldn’t even live through the operation.’

‘Amputate? You mean CUT OFF?!!’ Loki gasps. Without an arm, Thor might as well be dead. A one-armed bouncer? An enforcer lacking a limb? It’s not... it’s never been an option for Thor, who thinks he has nothing more than his strength to offer anyone, in spite of Loki’s frequent assurances to the contrary. ‘No... no, Bruce... there has to be… there must be another way. You said medicine What medicine? What do you need? I’ll get it... I’ll find it.’

‘Loki…’ Bruce starts out, but Loki interrupts.

‘No. Bruce, he’s my brother. My only brother. He’s all I have LEFT. What does he need? I’ll get it. Somehow.’ He swallows hard, knowing what that promise will likely cost him, but any price is worth having Thor back.

‘Fine,’ the scientist relents, bowing his head to futility. ‘I’ll make a list. You read, right?’ he asks, not an uncommon question for those living in the slums. Loki nods. They both do, though Thor reads so rarely, Loki sometimes thinks his brother has forgotten how. Their mother saw to it before she died. The few books Loki owned are his greatest treasures. Were his greatest treasures. Sold, bartered, traded to buy medicines for Thor that ended up not working anyway.

‘Here,’ he says, handing Loki a grungy piece of paper covered in his careful print. ‘Any three of those will do. Four would be better, two... try for three.’

Loki nods, swallowing the dust in his throat, staring at the water, and tempted for some for himself, but Thor needs it more. ‘Bruce... Thor... he was asking for water. I know... I know we already owe you... I... I’ll pay you back somehow –‘ he starts, but Bruce cuts him off with a shake, holding out the plastic jug.

‘That’s for you. Drink it. Drink it all. I’ll take care of Thor. When was the last time you’d eaten?’ Loki shakes his head in response, he doesn’t remember and is reluctant to lie to Bruce.

Bruce shuffles off into the depths of his lab, comes out a few minutes later with a few foil-wrapped packages, and shoves them at Loki with a grunt. Sometimes Bruce runs out of words, at least the important ones – like ‘you’re welcome’. And ‘caring’ and ‘love’. Loki doesn’t mind so much, he doesn’t have many of those words stored up either, and most of them are doled out to Thor. His ‘thank you’s though all belong to Bruce.

‘I’m going to go look in on your brother,’ Bruce says, picking up the significantly larger water jug with apparent ease. ‘See if there’s anything I can do to make him comfortable. Where are you going?’ He doesn't ask what Loki is planning on doing once he gets there.

Loki stands, draining the bottle and setting it down carefully, next to Bruce’s instruments, the precious piece of paper tucked away into the recesses of his clothing.

‘I’m going to go see Fury.’

Chapter Text

Nick Fury lives in a Tower. Well... what could have passed for a Tower if you've never actually seen one up close. Loki hasn't, but he'd heard stories, from Bruce mostly, and the imposingly tall, iron and black basalt building is not a Tower, for all that Fury may have aspired to be one of Them.

Loki is permitted to enter, and after a brief search – during which the two guards failed to take as many liberties as he'd initially expected, just leers knowingly, which is in many ways infinitely worse – Loki is escorted into the elevator leading up to the room Fury uses for his 'office'.

The doors open to glass. The entire room is built from one-way black glass, allowing Fury to look out without being looked on, and Loki does not want to begin to guess at the lives it must have cost. It is a commonly held secret of the slums, that Fury wants nothing more than to be one of Them, but being born below, it is well known that he would never rise Above. No one ever does, no matter the money or connections they might otherwise make. Oh sure, some, like Fury comes close, picking up the crumbs hand-fed by Them, but they are never really one of the elite. They will always be held apart.

Fury is at his chosen post, in his favourite position – hands clasped casually behind his back, overlooking 'his' city. The imposing man seems quite relaxed, standing by the window glancing down, but Loki recognizes the deception for the lie that it was. He'd been a mute and helpless witness, watching Fury slowly beat a man to death in this very room. But that is a long time ago, and after seeing it, Loki promised himself that he'd never set foot here again. And yet, here he is. This time it was for Thor... and for Thor he'd do anything. Including bargaining with Nick Fury.

'Loki,' Fury's voice purrs with the drawl of faked affection. 'What a pleasant surprise. Tell me, how is your brother feeling?'

Fury turns, the leather of his coat spinning out behind him, in a carefully calculated, tailored flare. Many have died thinking Fury just another over-bearing thug. Loki will never make that same mistake. Never underestimate this man. Never, for a moment think that anything about Fury might possibly be accidental. Including this meeting. Including Thor's arm....

Realization dawns slowly, and with it a rising anger. Loki fists his hands at his side, clenches shut his jaw, and forces himself to not react. Fury manipulated, brought him here, and now.. now he will just have to deal.

'Thor sends his regards,' Loki attempts to keep his tone light, succeeding only mildly. 'However, he's had this rather unfortunate accident, and has asked me to make his excuses.'

'Yes.... shame about the arm,' Fury laughs, the cold sound reverberating off the walls, leaving Loki chilled to the bone. What was he thinking coming here. What made him think that he can ever bargain with Fury... he had to get out now, while he still can... and maybe it isn't too late... but Thor.

Loki raises his chin, meeting Fury's single black eye, forces himself to not fall back as the larger man closes the distance between them in a few long-legged steps.

'Ahh... Loki. I see you haven't changed a bit, still have that silver tongue of yours, it always was your finest feature.' Fury slowly appraises Loki , down from head to toe, leaving no doubt as to his implication, or intent. 'The years have been good to you, Loki. Now tell me, what can this simple businessman do for you?'

Businessman. That's what Fury called himself. Loki knew all about his various... businesses. Intimately. He'd just turned eighteen, a few years older, Thor was in his twenties and word came of a job out of town. A body-guarding gig that would earn enough for both of them to last the winter, if they were careful, maybe even into spring . There was no thought of Thor not going. Loki assured him he'd be alright, that he'd get by, and Bruce would be there just in case.

Thor left money, but that didn't last long, and none of Loki's jobs came through. Too proud to again go to Bruce for help, he went to Fury. Oh he'd heard the stories, everyone had, but he didn't know. Not yet, not then. Nick Fury seemed so kind, so willing to help out. Of course there would be an interest on the loan, but it was a formality, nothing more. Something that his stable of accountants insisted on. Loki could repay him in his own time, and it would be their little secret, Thor need never know.

A month later, Fury's 'boys' came to collect. There was no question of Loki paying. He couldn't even pay the interest, never mind the principle of the debt. They beat him up. Badly enough he'd remember, not so bad he couldn't walk. Couldn't work. Only there was no work to be found, and nothing to sell. Except himself, and if he was going to do that, he'd offer himself to the highest bidder. By then he'd heard those stories about Fury too.

Three months in Fury's bed. Three months in hell. Might as well have been three years, three decades for all that it mattered. Fury seemed... gentle at first, even generous. It might not be so bad Loki thought, he might be able to make it through this, lose his pride, but maybe, just maybe get to keep his sanity. He kept on thinking that, right to the moment that Fury put on that damnable collar – a fiendish affair that covered nearly half Loki's face, leaving him with just enough room to breath, and maybe, if he didn't try to move his neck, swallow. Right to the moment that he threw Loki to his 'boys' and watched while they used him like the piece of raw meat that he was.

When it was over, Fury stood over Loki, smiling, while the younger man bled all over the black marble floor, then kissed him after tearing off the off the collar. It was the kiss that finally undid him, even before Fury used his mouth. Ruthlessly, viciously, pushing in until Loki was choking with it, sobbing, tears running down his face, blacking out, unable to breathe. The next day he'd woken up, clothed, collared, chained to Fury's chair like a dog. And then it would start all over again. Eventually Loki learned that if he could keep conscious while Fury came down his throat, the next day he wouldn't be given to the 'boys to play with'. It was all a game. Thankfully, Loki had always been good at games. It saved his life. It almost saved his sanity. Fury began to call Loki his little 'Silvertongue' and kept him, collared by his side while he conducted business. Sometimes he'd tear off the gag and use him there, while everyone looked on. Eventually Loki understood – it wasn't about the sex. It was about the power. It was about the fear. Fury made those who watch realize that it might be them on their knees next. Or their wives. Or their sons.

Three months later Thor came back to get him. Fury used him one last time, while his brother watched and waited. When he'd finished, Fury ran a gloved hand over Loki's bruised and aching lips, and told him he would always be welcome back. His little Silvertongue.

In the ride down, Loki couldn't bear to look at Thor. Couldn't bear to look at himself reflected on the elevator walls. When they got outside Thor pulled him close and told him that it did not matter. That no matter what, Loki would always be his brother and he would always love him. In that moment Loki began to hate Thor just a little bit. Not quite as much as he hated himself, oh no, that burning pit of bile was his and his alone, but just enough. Just enough that when the thief Lauffey offered Loki a chance to join his 'team' he accepted, in spite of, or possibly due to, the disappointment lying heavy in Thor's sky-coloured eyes.

And now Thor lay delirious and dying, and Loki is back, dealing with Nick Fury.

'So little Silvertongue, what can I do for you, this fine, fine evening?' Fury asks again, glancing pointedly at a large ornate box occupying a prominent place on his desk. Loki knows the contents of the box well. Knows it better than the back of his hand. But for Thor... for Thor, he'd even wear the collar.

'Thor is dying, Fury. I need your help.'

Chapter Text

'Now this is an unfortunate predicament you've found yourself in Loki,' the two are almost of a height, and Loki can feel Fury's breath on his cheek as he speaks. A shudder passes through him, and he can't help to turn his head.

'You will look at me when I speak to you!' Fury grabs Loki's face, forcing him back. Loki's eyes widen in helpless terror. He knows this nightmare.. another moment and he'll be pushed to his knees... another moment -

The quiet sound of a bell rings from the discreet intercom on Fury's desk.

'I said no calls,' Fury growls, not looking away from Loki's huge, panic stricken eyes.

'Sir, it's the Allfather. You said that I should let you know, no matter who you were with.'

'Fine. Put him through. You,' he points a finger at Loki, 'will make no sound, or I will skin you alive while your brother watches.'

Fury steps behind his glass desk, brushing a hidden sensor, and a myriad of lights coalesce into a figure in the middle of the room.

From where he stands, Loki can only see the back of the Allfather's head and the impeccable cut of his old-fashioned suit, for which he is rather grateful. He has no idea why the City, if not the world's most powerful slicer would be calling on Fury, and he really does not want to. There's only one reason why a slum-dweller will ever come face to face with the legendary figure, and it's not one that sees the 'slummy' walk away.

'Allfather, what an unexpected surprise,' Fury begins, his voice dripping like bitter honey.

'Cut the crap, Fury,' the Allfather's voice is quiet, barely above a whisper, but the power resonating through makes Loki want to bow. Makes him want to take a knee and serve. Makes him want to run away and hide in the darkest, dingiest hole he knows, if only to keep from drawing attention to himself. He swallows hard, and tries to find something useful to do with his growing terror. He hears a trace of... something.. an accent.. one he can't place, not that he's had a great deal of experience listening to Them speak, but listens carefully all the same, in case that tiny bit of knowledge might save his life later. 'My sources tell me you have my thief,' the Allfather says. 'Frigga will be at your door in precisely 3 minutes to collect him. Make sure he's ready.'

' “Collect him”? Allfather, with all due respect, that is not what we discussed,' Fury allows a steely thread to weave itself into his voice, 'Surely you'll recall -'

'The situation has changed Fury. Have my thief ready. Frigga will have the agreed on payment, as well as a small bonus for any... inconvenience.' No one, but the Allfather himself would ever dare interrupt, and then cut-off Nick Fury. No one but the Allfather would dare treat Fury like some small-time hood, 'bonus indeed', Loki thinks, and realizes that he's not going to walk away from this. Not alive. Not in one piece. Not this time. Oh Thor, he thinks, I'm so sorry... I tried.

Fury considers Loki through narrowed eyes, and Loki realizes that for however brief the moment he's safe. The Allfather said 'thief' not 'body', and Loki isn't sure if he should thank or curse God for this opportunity, throwing him from one predator to another, but for now he's alive. So long as he's alive... He can deal with later... later.

'We will continue this conversation, Loki. I have absolutely no intention of letting you go quite so easily' Fury promises from across the room, and Loki is wondering if the man is reading his thoughts, or if they are so obvious on his face. A quickly stolen glance of his reflection tells him otherwise. He looks appropriately terrified, not calculating. But Laufey taught him well – a good thief never shows his full hand, and Loki is a very good thief.

'Uhh.. ' Loki stammers, unsure of what to say, but the stammer itself seems sufficient. Fury makes a second call and a guard comes up to escort Loki back down to street level. Not leaving him alone in the elevator this time, not now that he's suddenly become valuable.

There are nearly as many myths and rumors circulating around the woman Frigga, as there are around the Allfather himself. Bodyguard, daughter, lover, mistress, wife. She's been called it all, and the versions are unceasing. Centuries earlier, when the Allfather was still carving out territory, fighting with other, less-competent slicers, Frigga appeared, like Athena stepping from Zeus' head, fully-formed, at his side. Some say that the Allfather built her, custom-made from scratch. Some say he raised her. Both amount to pretty much the same thing. Nearly always silent, always in white, armed with nothing but an old-world katana strapped to her back. Rarely leaving the Allfather's side, Frigga was, is a legend in her own right. Trained by the Tong, educated in Europe, speaking nearly a dozen different languages – less-than impressive, given the sleep-linguistics now available to the few that can afford them, unless you know that her language skills predate the sleep-aids by a good hundred, or so years. No one's ever seen her draw her sword. None that lived to tell about it, at any rate. The last attempt against the Allfather's life was nearly 50 years ago, and all that was found of the nearly 2 dozen assassins were pieces, and Frigga calmly standing, drenched in their blood, not so much as a scratch on the Allfather. And that was the woman that the Allfather sent to collect one small-time thief from Nick Fury.

Frigga is tall. Few remember to mention that, but she towers over Loki, himself no slouch in the height department, for all that his slenderness makes him look shorter, and appraises him with a quick, measured glance. He thinks about smiling, he's been told on occasion that he has a charming smile, but she's already looking away, handing a small case to one of the 'boys' and gesturing for Loki to get inside the car idling at the curb.

An actual car. Loki has only ever seen pictures. Billboards.. the occasional page from a months old magazine tossed down from Above, and now he's being ushered into it, sinking into the leather interior, enveloped by the smell of luxury and money. He stares through the window as the driver pulls away, accelerating without a sound, and Frigga is saying something.. something.. drink, she's offering him a drink. Frigga has the same sort of.. something in her voice as the Allfather, and Loki files that away for later use too.

'I... err...' he's about to refuse, but something... something he remembers Bruce saying something once about the Japanese taking refusal of hospitality as a grave insult, and Frigga was trained by the Tong. 'Yes... please. Thank you... Water would be lovely.'

A bottle of water, slides up from the panel beside him. What would have happened had he ordered something else. He picks up the bottle – glass! - staring in amazement. It's clear. So clear that he can count the lines of his hand through the bottle. He wonders if he can keep the bottle. Save it. Take it back to Thor. The thought catches and snares, and his throat is closing up.. Thor.. Thor.. Thor might be dead. No, can't be dead.. not after this. He can't.. Loki wouldn't let him. Bruce promised – though Bruce did no such thing – Bruce will take care of him. He has to.

They arrive at the Tower, a proper glass and steel, and this is where They live in, a Tower, pull in and through and under, and no, Loki suspects that the Allfather would not want any of his posh neighbours ever knowing that he's brought a slummy, never mind a thief, into their sanctuary. The driver, a faceless man in tailored livery, one button of which must have cost more than Loki might ever see in his life, holds open the door for Frigga first, leaving Loki to figure out how to open his own. He does eventually, standing around, trying not to gape too openly, as he follows Frigga down a brightly lit hall.

'Wait here,' she says, leaving Loki and his bottle of water, still clutched desperately in one hand, in a small vestibule, while she disappears behind a sliding set of double doors that close silently behind her. Loki isn't left alone for long. Just long enough to spot the two cameras keeping a watchful eye, which means that there are at least 2 more that he hasn't spotted. He ignores them, taking small, careful sips of his water.

'The Allfather will see you now,' Frigga returns, the doors remain open allowing Loki to step through.

The Allfather meets him in an old-fashioned room. Bookshelves and bronze and paintings on the wall. A large wooden desk with a green lamp. Old-world, like the pin-stripe suit the man wears. Old-world like the carefully clipped beard and silver hair. The only nod to modern technology is a golden eye-patch, and even then, the Allfather controls the slicers. Has made his fortune, his empire on conquering age, deformity, strength. Why such a man would walk with one eye.. its nothing Loki dares to speculate on.

In person, the Allfather is less imposing than one might think. Not terribly tall – Frigga stands a good foot, if not taller - not terribly broad, a still handsome man, but clearly well past his prime, until you catch sight of his single blue eye, reducing you to nothing but your bare components, and remember that the Allfather is at least three centuries old. Older by far than any of the Others. Older than Fury. Nearly older than the Towers themselves. Born in the slums, or so they say, he founded the slice pits. Found a way to use the bodies, the lives of others to further his own. And then made that knowledge available to those that could afford it. Rumour had it that he never slept, except once every year or so, for a week, in a tank made especially for that purpose, while Frigga stood unblinking guard. And this was the man inviting Loki to have a seat. Asking if he would like a drink, and why has Frigga been so discourteous as to leave their guest waiting so long.

'So Mr...' the Allfather is courteous, pretending that Loki actually has a last name.. as if he's one of Them. As if he even knows who his father was.

'Loki... it's just... Loki, sort of like 'Cher',' Loki bites down on his tongue. Bruce always said it would get him killed, and what is he thinking sassing the *Allfather*.

The old slicer pauses a moment and laughs, a heady, booming laugh, that for a moment reminds Loki of Thor, and the unshed tears burn in his eyes, threatening to blind him.

'Frigga, we have a student of history with us. Very well then, Loki', the Allfather sits in one of the vast, brocade armchairs, inviting Loki to do the same. Loki perches on the end, afraid to dirty the fabric. Afraid to become too comfortable. Afraid.. just afraid. 'I understand your brother has recently taken quite ill? Infection of some sort?'

Loki nods, not trusting his voice to speak.

'If you carry out this one, small favour for me,' Favour, Loki thinks. He says it as if Loki has a choice. As if he's had a a choice about coming here. Seeing Fury. Thor getting hurt. 'I'll send my personal physicians to look after your brother,' Allfather continues, 'they can make him good as new. Better than new, if you'd like.' Thor would never want to be 'better', but he would like to keep his arm, Loki thinks, and nods again.

'Excellent. I'd hoped you were a young man capable of seeing reason. Now then. I'm in need of a thief. There is an item, of no considerable value, to anyone other than me and the person who currently holds it. I should very much like you to steal it for me. I will provide what ever equipment you may require, as well as the plans for the place which you will be entering – you able to read, yes? Wonderful. Really, all you'll need to do is... enter and retrieve my item for me. A small thing really, to save a life.'

Loki nods, taking a sip of water for a mouth gone suddenly dry. 'Where... where am I going?'

The Allfather waves a hand, as if the very destination is less than important. 'It's of no consequence really, but you may have heard of the place – Stark Tower'.

Chapter Text

Stark Tower. Who, has never heard of Anthony Stark. Brilliant, rich, even by the standards of those Above, Stark revolutionized the world of robotics and computing by designing the first, truly self-intuitive Artificial Intelligence. And then, ten years ago, Stark again turned the world on its Global ear, when he proposed to, and actually married his reportedly one, true love. The last recorded wedding took place some sixty-five years prior, when the Microsoft heiress, gave her hand to the last remaining European king. Powerful families, powerful couples, signed mergers, and argued over the perfect profiles of their future offspring. They did not get married. After all, who would ever want to be tied to another in such an outdated, irresponsible manner, particularly without the aid of one's geneticists and lawyers.

Six months later Stark was once again all over the vids and netfeeds, except this time alone. You couldn't plug-in without seeing stock photos of his smiling, handsome face, and hearing of the accident that took the lives of his new wife and old chauffeur. Rumours were that Stark himself was on life-support and would not outlive the week.

The 'net was abound with stories of sabotage, espionage and corporate warfare. Stark remained silent. Eventually, the stories faded from public view, and with them, Anthony Stark. One day the Tower employees found envelopes with generous severances and glowing recommendations on their desks, along with instructions that they were to leave and never return. No other explanation given. Silent, expressionless robotic figures stood by to enforce the polite request, should any be foolish enough to argue. None did. In less than the course of a single business day, Stark Tower, once 'home' to nearly a thousand people, stood empty, save for its founder, Anthony Stark. Though his company continued to run, controlling the global market in robotics and AI engineering, Stark retreated into his glass Tower and never came out. And no one's seen him since. Not for ten years, and now the Allfather wanted wants him, Loki, to go in there and retrieve 'something', and for that he would make Thor well again.

True to his word, at least in that regard, Allfather provided Loki with codes, scanners, laser-light goggles and enough miscellaneous other bits of thieving tech to equip an army, let alone one, lonesome thief. Rather than reassuring, this actually made Loki significantly more worried. Any thief armed with the type of tech Allfather was throwing around could likely complete the task, if perhaps not quite with the same effortless flair that Loki’s reputation held him to. So why... would a slicer with access to... well... everyone, go to this much trouble to get him? Loki isn't entirely sure he wants the answer. It suffices that for whatever reason, the Allfather is willing to pay for his services with Thor’s life, and that will just have to be good enough.

Buried deep in his thoughts, Loki lost sight of where he was going, accidentally bumping into the shoulder of one of the guards standing by the Allfather’s front door. The man is huge, seven feet if he is an inch, broader than your average stim-booth, with the ruddy complexion of those who have been spending more time than what is otherwise safe in the splice-tanks.

‘Ugh... I’m sorry,’ Loki said quickly, not quite succeeding in moving fast enough to avoid the meaty hand landing on his shoulder.

‘Where are you running off to so quickly, little man,’ the giant rumbles above him, ‘I thought maybe, since you are here, you and I could get a bit better… acquainted. Seeing as we’re working for the same man now, thought we could be more... friendly-like,’ he suggests, with a vicious, hungry smile that curdles the fear in the pit of Loki’s stomach. It was is Fury and his boys all over again and anger mixed with terror threatening to overwhelm him, to choke the air from his lungs. He wanted to scream 'I'm a thief[,] not a whore into the giant's over-stimmed face, and damn the consequences. And then... and he remembered something that Laufey had repeatedly taught him ‘Use your words, boy. Next to his brain, a thief’s tongue is his greatest weapon. And when you’ve nothing else to lose – bluff.’

Loki bluffed.

The monster was guarding at the front door, which hopefully means that he is likely not privy to what takes place on the upper floors of the Tower. Which means that he perhaps doesn't know the real reason that Loki had been inside, or even that he'd arrived in a car with Frigga.. Laying a flat palm on the guard’s broad chest, Loki smiles , peering up through his lashes in what he had hoped hopes is a sufficiently seductive manner. ‘Well now… we should at that, shouldn’t we?’ he begins, shuddering inwardly as the horrifying smile broadens slightly. ‘I do enjoy… large men... and Allfather isn’t exactly what you would call... hrm... substantial,’ Loki purrs quietly, waiting for his meaning to sink in. As the hand on his shoulder loosens, rather than pulling back, he steps forward, closer, till his nose is almost brushing the substantially taller guard’s chest. ‘I’m sure he wouldn’t’ mind if you and I spent some time together, what was it that you’d said – getting better acquainted? I’m sure you know what a patient, understanding man the Allfather is… ‘ Loki smiles winsomely, enjoying the slow dawning of horror in the beady little eyes, taking immense pleasure in the blubbering whimpers now coming from the grotesque mouth. He wants to push further, reduce this bully to the terrified heap he wanted to see Loki in, but the key to a good lie is to never push it too far.

‘No?.. well I suppose you’re right.’ Loki sighs in mock disappointment. ‘You just might spoil me for other men, and then what would the Allfather say… another time perhaps then? hrmmm...?’ and walks away slowly, head hung low in dejection, long hair conveniently falling just enough to hide the triumphant smile on his face.

The one thing Allfather did not provide Loki was transport, so it is several hours before he reaches the famed Stark Tower. Already exhausted by his ‘adventures’ earlier in the evening, Loki takes a few moments to catch his breath, and takes a few careful sips from his bottle of water. With the exception of the precious piece of dingy paper holding Bruce’s list of medicines, that he’d managed to palm, and slip into his mouth, moments before Frigga gave the instructions to have him stripped, searched, and then summarily bathed, everything that Loki owned that he’d brought with him to Fury’s is left somewhere in the Allfather’s Tower. Burned more than likely, if Frigga’s expression is anything to go by. Now it lay inside his shirt, just over his heart, a crinkling reminder of why he was here. Why he has to succeed.

He changes into the reflective skin-tights packed along with his other pieces of equipment, and does a quick inventory of his supplies, a veritable hacker’s dream of illegal devices, designed for the sole purpose of defeating and confusing the type of multi-million dollar security systems that Stark is most likely running. The only thing that Loki can count on is that with the exception of Stark, the place will be empty of humans. Both and good and bad that… he may have been able to talk his way out if he runs into a human, but machines are in many ways infinitely easier to lie to. So long as you speak their language, tell them what they want to hear, computers, machines will believe. So will most humans for that matter, but unless they are specifically programmed to do so, machines will overlook the slightest tightness around the eyes, the quickness of pulse, the catch of a breath that even our average human might subconsciously clue into, realizing that they are being lied to. Thankfully for Loki, he doesn't lie. Or rather he does, but first and foremost to himself, convincing himself in the truth of the lie he spun for someone else’s benefits. He’d lied for years to Thor, telling him he was alright. To Bruce, when the other man asks about Loki’s nightmares. To Laufey when he’d asked about how Thor reacted to his kid brother becoming a thief, and Loki told him that he just didn’t care. Last of all to himself, when he told himself that what Fury did doesn't continue to eat at him, burrow down inside him like an eyeless parasite sucking away at his life, leaving him a hollow, empty shell of what was, filled with nothing but self-hatred and loathing, that no amount of Thor’s slaps on the back, or Bruce’s quiet smiles will ever fill.

Getting into Stark Tower was easy. Too easy, but Loki isn't going to pause long enough to worry. The place holds the stale silence of an Egyptian tomb and soulless grandeur of a Gregorian cathedral. It feels like a house left standing, abandoned and empty for, far too long. Few places match their names so well as ‘Stark’ Tower. The thief spares a quick glance around, permitting himself a tight little smile, wondering if the choice of decor was intentional, a clever architect’s play on words, or an unintentional oversight. Perhaps it had seemed different when it had still been packed with hundreds of lives. Slender glass arches reach to impossible heights beneath unlit ceilings, and his softly-shoed feet land on polished steel. Nowhere was there a speck of dust, or a trace of life. Silent. Empty. Hollow. Loki allows himself another tiny smile, wondering if his own heart might equally look this cold and barren, were anyone to ever take a look inside.

Loki avoids the elevator, assuming that even if they are still running, they’d alert someone… Stark maybe, to another’s presence, instead picking the lock to the service stairs, left over from when there were still humans left to use them. Thirty stories later, his lungs are burning, legs shaking, and water bottle is empty. Loki wipes the sweat from his brow with a rag brought for that purpose, and pulls up the black hood to keeping his hair from flying at his face, or worse yet, falling and landing on a sensor. The item he is looking for, Allfather told him, will be likely be located in Stark’s personal study. Unless it’s been moved... in which case it was anyone’s guess where it might be. Loki hopes, prays it would be in the study, because if it isn't there.. well.. if it isn't there, he’d have to look elsewhere, because he isn't going to leave empty handed.

Stark’s study reminds Loki of… strangely enough, it reminds Loki of the Allfather’s office, if that office had been made entirely from steel and glass and wall-sized monitors and a transparent desk and chair and nothing organic or comfortable or living in sight… so why… A painting. Hanging suspended in a glass case along one wall. Loki’s acquisitive subconsciousness picks up on the costly find even before his waking mind does. Laufey will be proud indeed. Ignoring the painting, Loki quietly pads to the other end of the room. There. By the back wall, in another glass case, just like Allfather said it would be – it will look like a rose, the old slicer’s voice echoes in the back of his mind. A blue rose, just starting to open. Bring me the rose. And then I will heal your brother.

Barely daring to breathe, this close to his goal his mouth goes dry, and his hands begin to shake. Loki pauses, allows himself three deep breaths and lifts the case. Which rather than being made from the thin glass it appears, is made from crystal. Deceptively, misleadingly, God-damn heavy crystal that slips through his exhausted, hunger and terror and exertion weakened fingers and shatters, along with Loki’s heart, into a million pieces on the polished black floor. The alarms he expects to hear do not immediately go off, but the room is flooded with a brilliant, blinding blue light, that freezes him, motionless in place. In front of him, the not-rose continues to slowly spin on its pedestal, taunting him, just out of reach. Loki closes his eyes, grateful to the unknown creator of Stark’s security system for that one small mercy, and takes a breath, swallowing heavily. Goodbye Thor, he thinks. I'm sorry. I’ve failed you... again…

‘Sir,’ a voice sounds coming from all around him. He’d be impressed if he hadn’t noted the speakers cleverly worked into the walls and floors earlier, along with the various accompanying monitors. The voice is of no discernible age, but Loki thinks it's most likely male. So Stark has at least one human employee still working for him. ‘We have an intruder.’

‘Thank you, Jarvis,‘ this voice comes from directly in front of him. Definitely male, youthful, if not young, full of confidence, and a touch of… Loki would frown if he could, thinking that what he is hearing is humour, unvoiced laughter in the unseen voice. He supposes that if he caught at thief in his study he would be laughing too... perhaps in anticipation of what he might do to said thief? Except that he’s the thief, so perhaps he should [not] be thinking too hard about that.

The lights in front of him come up, and what he had thought was another black wall - damn him for making such an amateur's error! He should have read the plans, paid closer attention, but there wasn't time - is black glass and leads to… leads to something vast and cavernous, and standing in front of him is a creature straight out from a horror-vid - slick, black skin dripping smoking ichor on the floor, a single, giant, lidless eye surrounded by a nest of tentacles, and claw-like pinchers reaching for him, as he stands paralyzed and frozen and too terrified to do much as blink. As consciousness mercifully fades to black, the last thing Loki hears is ‘once again you excel at pointing out the obvious.’

Chapter Text

Loki wakes to the quiet humming of machinery, and the cool feel of metal seeping through the thin fabric of his skintight. He knows it’s metal, because he can feel it under his fingertips. Fingertips.. gloves gone then, along with all the tiny instruments built and hidden within.

He doesn’t open his eyes, gathering what little information he can before announcing his waking state. Just one of the things three months with Fury taught him. Take what you can, when you can. Thanks for the lesson Fury. A minute flexing of muscles reveals that he’s still being held. The pressure is light, but constant. A stasis then, as opposed to more direct means. Both good and bad that – bonds imply… imply.. he shudders inwardly at the implication, but it might at least give him a chance to get away. Another try at the ‘rose’. A stasis field leaves the victim conscious, helpless, silent, but still gives full access to the slicers. Something about the knock-out drugs interfering with the 'freshness' of their donors (victims). Loki can’t quite hold back the whimper and the smallest sound escapes him before he is able to bite down on it.

‘Jarvis,’ that voice again. Like silk on gravel. Coming from somewhere to Loki’s left, and he hasn’t yet opened his eyes to see. ‘Our guest appears to be awake.’

‘Sir, your 'guest', ' ‘Jarvis’ replies, and the disapproval is so thick that Loki can almost taste it. Could at any rate, if his mouth didn’t feel like he’d been doing shots of ‘ice’ with Thor again. ‘Has actually been awake for the past 48.3 seconds.’

'Jarvis,’ The other, whom Loki assumes must be Stark, drawls slowly, with just the barest hint of warning.'

‘Very good sir. Shall I arrange for refreshments to be served in the solarium?’ Loki doesn’t know who Jarvis is, but thinks that had they met under other circumstances he might like him.

Stark ignores the suggestion, and Loki can feel, rather than hear someone standing over him. ‘Jarvis, scan completed?’

‘Yes sir. The subject is male, in his early 30’s and shows initial signs of dehydration and malnutrition. There are a number of old scars and several small, broken bones, which, considering the rather limited medical conveniences available in the slums, have healed surprsingly well. The subject does not exhibit any signs of radiation poisoning, but has a substantial enough amount of residual radiation built up in his bones to indicate that they have spent small periods of of time over a considerable stretch of several years, if not decades, near a source of significant contamination.’

‘Thank you Jarvis. Dehydration huh? Guessing you must be thirsty?’ Stark asks. ‘You might’s well open your eyes since I know that you know that I know that you’re awake, and you can spin that one into yarn, as my grandmother would have said.’ And chuckles.

It’s the chuckle that finally convinces Loki to slowly lift his lids. Blue light drapes over him. He’s covered in it like a thick blanket. He can’t quite turn his head, but he can see something, someone, standing near him from the corner of his eye.

‘Hrm.. Lets turn that, shall we?’ Stark offers and the surface Loki is glued to turns slowly, making him nauseous, and at the same time grateful for his empty stomach. Were there anything in it, he’d have brought it up and in all likelihood choked to death on his own vomit.

The monster!! Eye and tentacles and slimy skin! His eyes must betray his terror, because the ‘monster’ chuckles and Takes. Off. It’s Head. It’s just a helmet. Nothing more. A helmet with breathing tubes connecting to the rest of the suit – silicone maybe? At the distance Loki can't quite tell. Beneath it another mask. Smooth, silver, faceless. Like one of Stark’s famous robots. Loki stares. In the same room with a legend, he can't help it...'

‘Radiation suit,’ the faceless man says, leaving the silver mask on. Can’t be Stark then. Stark is… was human. One of his robots then? ‘Can be a bit startling if you haven’t seen one before. So, first things first, thirsty?’ Loki tries to nod, finding that he can. The stasis field must been adjusted to give him some movement. He tries to move his fingers, but no such luck. So... only his head so far then. At least it’s a start.

‘Dummy! Bring our guest a drink,’ a skeletal, metallic hand holds a straw to Loki’s mouth. He takes a sip, instinctively swallowing, before thinking about drugs. Poison. Not that he’d be able to hold out for long if they started to ask 'forceful' questions, strapped down and mostly helpless as he is. The water is cool, clean, delicious. He takes another careful sip, and licks his lips, nodding by way of thanks.

‘Shall we start at the beginning then? You have a name? I can’t keep calling you ‘guest’ or ‘thief’, now can I, if only to avoid further traumatizing Jarvis' delicate sensibilities.’

‘Laufey,’ Loki whispers hoarsely after a moment, uncertain of his voice. Dummy proffers the straw again, and Loki takes another drink. At least he knows they woun't let him die of thirst.

‘Well then Laufey,’ the man calls over a chair, and it slides, silver and smooth, stopping at Loki's chest. ‘What brings you to my humble home? Why go after my rose? Why not steal something.. simpler?’ Because something 'simpler' woun't heal my brother, he almost wants to say, but dosn't. The voice is engaging, the near-human ease with which the maybe-robot drops into the silver chair speaks of long familiarity, comfort. Were it not for the seamless profile of his face, or the slick lines of the black suit, he and Loki might be friends, sharing a tea and chatting. Were Loki not held down by a blue stasis. Were Loki not here to rob him. Were Loki not about to die.

‘I..’ Loki begins, lies quickly forming and spilling from his tongue ‘Some slick from Above offered me a case to break in and take the thing. Said it was a… prank, just a bit of.. mischief.’ He's using the speech pattern, the 'cant' of 'dusters' - the lowest of the low living in the slums, that'll shove anything that might give a buzz up their nose or into their veins. Even if it kills them. Even if their brains pour out their ears as result. Some 15 years prior Loki ran with them for almost 6 months, until he saw his best friend die in convulsions that first shattered every bone in his body. The best lies always hold a grain of truth ‘Said you were pals. Have a good laugh about it. Gave me the gear to get in, said I could keep it.. say you think I could have my gear back?...’

‘And what did he look like, this ‘slick’ from Above?’ Not-Stark ignores the question, leaning forward slightly in the chair. He’s buying it, Loki thinks triumphantly, and describes the seven-foot tall giant, standing guard outside Allfather’s door, missing just enough of the less-obvious traits to make it believable.

‘Ahh.. yes. I know the fellow. We’re not precisely pals, but we have met a time or two.’ The man stands, turning his back briefly on Loki. ‘There’s just one thing that I’d like to know, and then you can shimmy back down to your little slum-buddies, and that’s WHY THE FUCK YOU’RE LYING TO ME?!!’ In less time than it takes to blink, Not-Stark’s hand is wrapped around Loki’s throat, choking the air from his lungs. Loki can see his own huge, panicked eyes reflecting in the mirror finish of the mask. ‘I’ll throw you to the slice-pits if don’t’ tell me who sent you after the rose!!’ Loki closes his eyes, cursing his weakness. Thor would stare the man down and spit him in the eye. All he can do now is try to remain silent. He woun’t give up Thor. Maybe if he doesn’t give up the Allfather either, maybe the slicer will be generous and help Thor out. He's stong, and quick… and maybe ‘ice’ will pour from the sky instead of acid. Stark is still yelling. ‘I’ll slice you apart myself, you little –‘

‘Sir,’ Jarvis’ voice comes over the ‘com. ‘I have identified the hand-writing of the note found on your guest’s body. You were correct, Sir. The penmanship is indeed that of Mr. Banner Taking into account his would-be age, the consistency of the ink and paper, I would theorize within a 1.04% accuracy, that the note has been written recently. Within the last several days to be exact.’

'Good work Jarvis, now go pour me a scotch. And while you're at it, get yourself one too,' Stark lets him go and walks towards a screen fading into view with the wave of his hand. ‘Bruce Banner... So *that’s* where you’ve been hiding all these years.. time for a reunion.’

Bruce no!! They found the list. He can’t drag *Bruce* into this too.. nonononono.. not after everything that Bruce done for him and Thor.

‘No…’ Loki forces the word through a throat still parched, and now half-crushed. ‘Please… please don’t.’

‘What?’ Stark spins, hands landing on both side of Loki’s face, mask so close that Loki’s ragged breath leaves faint traces on its slippery surface.

‘Look.. Please.. just don’t.. just leave Bruce out of this, please... He didn't have anything to do with any of this. I’ll tell you.. I’ll tell you everything. Please…’ Loki feels a tear run down his cheek, only then realizing that he's crying. He’s crying in front of this faceless man, but it’s just been too much and he can’t stop, and he's just so damn tired and scared for Bruce and for Thor and for himself, and there's a pain in his chest where other people have hearts, and the sobs are coming hard now, even though he’s biting down on his lips and trying to keep them in.

‘You’d let me throw you to the slice-pits to keep your secrets, but you’d give them up for Bruce?’ and the man wraps Loki's face in one strangely gentle, black gloved hand, and Loki can hear a note of wonder in the man’s voice ‘He always could inspire the craziest kind of loyalty in people, the old bastard. Allright then, let’s hear it? From the beginning - the truth this time - what’s your name, little thief?’ And it doesn’t sound like a slur, it sounds.. almost.. affectionate.

‘Loki. My name is Loki,’ he manages, catching his breath in great gulps.

‘Please to meet you Loki. I’m Anthony Stark.’

Chapter Text

It seems like hours later, and Loki is now sitting on the flat, stainless bench he was previously lying on, and Anthony - Please, call me Tony - Stark, is sitting in the same chair and he hasn't moved the whole time that Loki was speaking, except once to have one of the faceless robots bring him some sort of protein rolls, when the very helpful Mr. Jarvis pointed out that Loki looked like he was ready to faint. Again. Loki tells Stark about living with Thor, and their mother's death, and Bruce. He tells him about Thor getting hurt, and about the Allfather. He even tells him about going to Fury and asking for help. He doesn’t tell him the price he was expecting to pay, but somehow, even though he can't see the expression under the featureless face, he thinks that Stark knows. Something in the way the gloves strain across the tightly fisted knuckles, and the way his shoulders tighten in the black, rubber suit. And through it all, Stark says nothing. Just listens.

'... and then, I dropped the case, and well.. you pretty much know the rest.' Loki finally finishes. 'Except that now Thor will die, all because I didn't get Bruce the drugs he needed.' He doesn’t say 'and it's all my fault'. And he doesn't say 'again'. He doesn't have to. By now he’s pretty sure that Stark knows.

'Your brother isn't going to die,' Stark says finally. 'I just need to sort a few things out first. Why don't you take a nap in the meantime? You look about dead on your feet. Jarvis!'

'Yes, Mr. Stark?' Loki hasn't seen Jarvis yet - he must be secreted away in another part of the Tower, overseeing everything, including the presence of an uninvited guest.

'Do we still have those guest rooms set up?'

'Yes sir. There are exactly 10 suites, other than your own ready, for immediate occupancy.'

'Good work. Give yourself a cookie. Escort Loki to one of them won’t you? He needs sleep and I need time to think. And while you're at it, see if you can't find him some clothes, that...' Stark gestures at the skintights Loki is wearing, and they may be in typical thief's blacks, but Loki doesn’t think they look all that bad on him. He's slender, yes, but with his height he's been told that he carries it off well... and Stark is still talking, giving Jarvis direction about clothing and a room, and he should be listening because they are talking about him, but it's Thor that needs help, and...

'Mr. Stark,' he interrupts at last.

'Tony,' Stark corrects Loki automatically, not really paying attention, and he's already turning away to his monitors, waving them into existence.

'Tony,' Loki begins again, hesitantly this time, the interruption had [has] taken away the impetus behind his words, and he's stuttering over them. 'I have no way to repay you.. to thank you for.. for any of this really.'

Stark turns from the monitors, and Loki once again finds himself wishing that he could [can] see whatever is under the mask. To see the expression that comes before the words that should, by right be sending tendrils of fear down his spine, instead of anticipation. 'Don't worry, I'm sure we'll think of something.'

'This way please, sir,' and Jarvis' voice is beckoning, a discreet panel lighting up along the wall, and he should probably be following it.

Because he walks out, because he leaves without looking back, he doesn’t see that Tony has turned back again in his chair, watching silently as he walks out of the workshop. Doesn’t quite catch the quiet sigh behind the smooth mask, before Stark turns back to his panels and monitors, compelling them to perform magics that would have once made Merlin himself proud.

The bedroom that Jarvis 'escorts' Loki to is ostentatious, by any standards. Furnished in pomegranate burgundy and gold, the massive bed hung with rich draperies which are in turn suspended from mahogany posts. The thief takes a single step inside, and immediately sinks ankle deep in the elegant carpet that absorbs even the quiet sound of his footfall. Loki looks around, overwhelmed, uncomfortable, and uncomprehending how anyone can expect him to relax in a place such as this, much less terrified as he is over his brother, and his own eventual fate.

'Errrr.. Mr. Jarvis,' Loki begins,

'It's just 'Jarvis', sir,' the polite voice responds.

'Jarvis, I don't suppose you have anything... I mean, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but this is... well... it's just so much... more... of everything than I am used to...' Loki fumbles over his attempt to explain that this sort of place is something that he could have ever thought of in his wildest dreams, and never mind that some of the dreams that he and Thor have shared were pretty wild...

'I understand, sir. Please follow me.'

The second bedroom is significantly simpler; for all that it's impersonally modern. Clean steel and glass. A considerably smaller bed in one corner, no curtains this time, a dresser with full-length mirror, matching side-table and writing desk with built in screen, make up the humble furnishings. A second door leads off to presumably a bath and shower. No paintings or rug on the floor. The small, impersonal room could easily have come from one of the mid-range hotels, rather than the Tower of one of the most prominent men living Above. As a temporary haven it suits Loki to a 'T', and he says so.

 

'Thank you, sir. I'll wake you when Mr. Stark is ready for you.'

He'll never sleep, Loki thinks to himself, lying back on surprisingly comfortable bed. Too much has happened, too much will happen, he has think. He has to get in touch with Bruce... he has to warn him. He has to find out about Thor. He has figure out how he'll avoid the Allfather and Fury and... and... Still chasing thoughts around his head, Loki falls into a restless sleep.

He dreams. He dreams that Stark is straddling him, fully clothed in mask and suit, pinning him to the first grand bed, whispering in the Allfather's voice, 'Don’t worry, we'll think of something,’. He dreams that Tony takes off the mask and underneath is Bruce's face, and he's shaking his head and telling him he's failed.. he's failed again that Thor is dead and it's his fault. He dreams he's back in Fury's 'office', only that it's Tony standing by the desk, and Tony throws him to the 'boys', and 'What did you think would happen to you, little thief?' And he wakes drenched, in Stark's borrowed bed, his own hand holding back a scream, and Jarvis' quiet voice is asking if he is alright.

'I.. I yes. Thank you Jarvis. I.. I am. Thank you.'

'Sir, I have taken the liberty of procuring some garments while you slept. I believe they are all in your size. If you would like to shower before rejoining Mr. Stark in his workshop, I can have them laid out for you.'

'Did.. did you say 'shower’?’ Loki asks in wonder.

'Yes sir,' Jarvis responds patiently, as if he has nothing better to do with his time than to answer the questions of poorly-educated, lower-than-low class thieves. 'If you would take the door to your right, you will find all the facilities. The Tower operates on an internal filtration system. We are fully self-sufficient.'

'I.. I see.' Loki says, not seeing at all, and wishing that he could sneak a peek at the filtration system, and that he could somehow manage to remember enough to tell Bruce.. and Bruce. Thor. How could he have forgotten, even for a moment?

'Jarvis?'

'Yes sir?'

'Did you say Mr. Stark is in the workshop?'

'Yes sir, I did. But I would strongly recommend that you may wish to bathe and change first. Mr. Stark has left very strict orders.'

Loki swallows the lump suddenly in his throat, and nods. He knew... knows that this might be the price he'd have to pay. But he had thought.. he thought that he would at least be with humans, not with.. whatever it is that Stark is under his helmet . Still.. Stark has been kind, and generous thus far. So was Fury, his traitorous memory whispers, and suddenly he's shaking and shaking and he can't quite stop.

The hot shower helps. He can't remember the last time he felt this clean, was able to use water without concern for rationing or cost. He lathers and lathers again, and washes his hair and his teeth, and dries himself off with one of Stark's exorbitant, luxurious burgundy towels, wrapping it loosely around his hips when he steps out.

Damp, the tips of his hair just brush his shoulders. Pushed back from his face it makes him look younger, more vulnerable than a 30 year old thief has any right to be, brings out the colour of his eyes. He stands for a moment, just looking. It's not often he has a chance to see himself, at least... His shoulders are broader than he remembers – the summer spent loading the warehouse for Laufey helped – chest and arms more defined. Hips are slender as ever, perhaps just a touch more so, but that's not a bad thing. His skin is as pale as any 'slummies' but without the numerous scabs and 'stim' marks that litter the veins of many he knows. The occasional raised scar only highlights the ivory perfection. Loki nods, pleased. Stark should be too. Thief, not whore, he reminds himself, and wonders if that's still true.

He dresses slowly, carefully, from the garments that Jarvis has laid out for him. The clothes are all discreetly tagged with the 'Niko'. Unbelieving, Loki slowly runs his fingers over the black on black label. Niko, the most desired designer to have graced Above in decades, with a waiting list comprised of CEOs and former monarchs, yet Jarvis has somehow managed to acquire a wardrobe in a matter of..

'Jarvis,'

'Yes sir?'

'How long was I asleep?' Loki asks, sorting through the shirts and trousers sitting on the bed.
'Just over an hour sir,'

An hour. The clothes more than anything else – the Tower, the near invisible servants, the hot shower with endless water, serves to emphasize the ‘dream’ (nightmare) that he’s found himself in, and Loki begins to think that if Jarvis can work such a miracle, then perhaps Thor can be saved after all.
In the end he opts for simplicity, not being certain that he can work the complicated designs. Black slacks, black coat. Green shirt, that accents his eyes. The outfit is stylish, modern, and sophisticated, and Loki doesn’t recognize the confident man staring back at him from the mirror. Only the eyes are the same. He pushes his hair back, debating briefly over tying it back, but in the end, leaves it loose.

'The workshop is this way, sir' Jarvis offers, and the wall lights up again. Loki doesn’t bother, makes a point in fact, of not mentioning that he can find his way back through the twists and turns without assistance. One never knows when a secret bit of knowledge might come in handy, the Laufey of memory points out unnecessarily, as Loki pretends to pay attention to the panels, once almost going in the wrong direction, until Jarvis politely corrects him otherwise.

He pauses at the glass door to the shop. Stark, still seated in front of a monitor appears to be deep in conversation with a familiar face.

'Look Bruce, I want to help,' Tony is saying, before Bruce, looking angrier than Loki can ever remember seeing him otherwise, interrupts.

'Haven't you helped enough? And by all that is holy, what you intend by finding me? Did you think I would just come wandering back as if nothing has happened? Did you think that one or two 'I'm sorry for ruining your life and life's work and research and marrying the woman you love and then killing her', would make it all better? Did you even stop to think, or is the Great Tony Stark above such mortal notions such as thinking? I know for a fact you don't think about anyone else, but I thought that perhaps for just a moment you might have considered what it might mean to you if I came back and told the world about what really happened to you and Pepper. That she didn't really die in that 'car accident'... hell, that there was no accident!!' Bruce is so angry that his voice more closely resembles a roar, than any sound a human could make.

'Bruce,' Stark is speaking slowly, patiently, and although Loki has a white-knuckled grip on the door, he doesn’t seem at all disturbed by Bruce's reaction. As if he was expecting it, or something like it.
'Bruce... I can't make what I did right, but you knew the risks. So did Pepper. We all did, but we wanted to be kings of all creation, and to hell with the risks. I'm not going to apologize for marrying her, but I am sorry that I flung that victory in your face. You deserved better. She deserved better than the fiasco the vids made of it. You know that I would change what happened if I could, but I can't. But I can change this. I can fix this. I can help. Let me. Please.'

Bruce's face is still angry, the lines still there, deeply etched in his forehead, but his tone is sounding more like himself. 'Why Tony? Why in the world do you want to help? These people mean nothing to you. Less than nothing. One of them broke into your house and tried to steal -'

'The rose, yes I know,' Stark interrupts impatiently, shaking his silver masked head. 'I... I don't know. Maybe because not having anyone but Jarvis for company for the past ten years has finally given me a conscience? Maybe because he reminds me of myself a little bit? What I might have been if I hadn't been born a Stark. Hell, he was born in the slums, and he was ready to go to the slice-pits to protect his brother from me. I don’t know if I would have ever done that for anyone. And in the end, he gave it all up for you, you crazy bastard, and you didn't think to call me for help? Why?... why didn't you , Bruce?'

'I didn't think you would, Tony.' Bruce says simply, and there is no bitterness in his voice, just a bone-weary exhaustion. 'The Tony I knew ten years ago wouldn’t have. We said some very harsh things to one another back then. Most of those still stand. I will never forgive you for what happened to Pepper. I will never forgive you for allowing her to be there, and I don't care what yours or her reasons were. We weren't anywhere near ready for human testing and... it doesn’t matter. It's done. If you really want to help, this is what I'll need.'

Bruce begins to read off a list of drugs and equipment the likes of most of which Loki hasn't even heard of, and he's been around Bruce long enough to hear most of what the 'Doc' works with. He leans against the wall, out of sight of Stark on the off chance the other turns. Bruce and Tony know.. knew each other. And Bruce was in love with Pepper. Pepper.. Stark's wife, the one who was supposed to have died in the car accident, except that there was no accident, but something did happen. To all three of them, and now Bruce is hiding out Below and Stark is hiding out in his Tower and wearing a mask, and Pepper is... Loki doesn’t know where Pepper is, except that she's alive somewhere as well. And it looks like for whatever reason Stark is willing to help. He's willing to see Thor better, and really that's all that Loki cares about.

He waits a few minutes, composing himself, before knocking on the door. Bruce's image from the monitor is gone, and Stark spins back in his chair to face him. Neither of them says anything for a moment, and Loki catches himself fidgeting, looking for an opening to the conversation.

'I..' they both begin at once, Loki stuttering, Stark chuckling behind his helm.

'You go first,' Tony waves.

'I... I... just wanted to thank you, Mr. Stark,'
'Tony,'

'Umm... yes. Tony.' Loki looks down at his hands, folding them again, and again, like a living piece of origami. 'I... I overhead some of what you were saying to Bruce.. about helping Thor.. and well me, and not calling the Cleaners, and the clothes, and well... just... I can't. I know I’ve said this already, but I can’t thank you enough. Not nearly enough. And I can't ever repay you for any of this. But if there's anything at all that I can do...'

A gloved hand on the soft spot, just under his jaw forces him gently, to look up, only slightly, Stark is actually a good head shorter than he is. And he’s staring at a reflection of himself in the mirrored surface of Stark's helm. He looks very young, even to himself, his eyes a startling, vibrant colour against the monochrome of skin and hair.

'Your eyes... they're very green, aren't they,' Stark says finally, and Loki can't bear to look away, and the hand resting ever so lightly on his jaw is very very warm, and he's close enough that he can almost kiss his own reflection, and he thinks that that's maybe what Stark wants, and he steps in to close the distance, when the hand is very suddenly gone, and Stark pushes back in his chair, leaving Loki to catch both his breath and balance.

'Yes, about that,' Stark says, back still turned to Loki, typing something furiously at the keyboard in front of him. 'Jarvis is of the opinion that I lack in sufficient human companionship. I don't wholly agree, but I find it's sometimes easier to just go along with what my 'nursemaid' wants than to argue with him. Bruce tells me, that with the supplies I am sending him, he won’t need more than a month to have your brother up and healthy again. I won’t ask you to remain here, uncertain of your brother's fate. I am not quite that much of a monster.'

Loki nods, gratefully swallowing, still half-afraid to speak.

'But once Thor, it's Thor isn't it? Yes, good, once Thor is up and around, you will return and stay here with me.'

'For... for how long?' Loki asks hesitantly. A month... three even [,] he can handle. Thor was once gone for six, so six months at the outside.. and maybe he'd be permitted to speak with him once in a while, or maybe even visit? So really, six months shouldn't be so bad.

'Why,' and Stark seems surprised at the question. 'Forever, little thief. A life for a life, as the Slicers say. Your life in trade for your brother's.'

Chapter Text

Loki spends the rest of his time in the Tower in a sort of daze, watching, without actually paying any sort of attention as Jarvis, and occasionally Stark, will direct more of the faceless robots to pack and carry plastic wrapped boxes into a waiting transport. One of them, he's not sure who, has had to have asked him for directions to the area of the slums where he and Thor live, but Loki doesn’t recall his answer.

He stands, mutely looking around at the luxurious surroundings of his future prison. No matter what Stark might call it, that's what it'll be and not even Fury had ever aspired to be so cruel. He had eventually allowed Loki to leave, but Stark... Stark is the real monster, in spite of his assurances to the contrary. He knows... he must know that Loki will not, cannot allow harm to come to Thor, not while he has anything that can be done about, so in exchange he takes the one thing Loki has to give - his life. At least he'll know that Thor will be well. Maybe even safe. Maybe he'll be able to convince Bruce to look after him, maybe he'll be able to persuade Mr. Jarvis to let him speak with Thor once in a while... wait, he won’t be alone with Stark – Jarvis will still be there! They haven't met yet, true, but he's been so kind and helpful already, he can't be nearly as cruel as Stark... can he?

'Ummm.... Mr. Jarvis?' Loki rounds a corner, away from Stark's frighteningly faceless visage.

'Yes sir?' The voice comes from a hidden speaker just as always.

'I was wondering, could I come see you, just for a moment?'

'I don't know what you mean, sir.' The voice sounds confused.

'I mean... I was wondering...' Loki starts, 'would it be alright if I met you? In person, I mean? Before I leave?'

'Meet me, sir?'

'Yes, in person,' Loki explains. 'We've talked and all, but I'd like to shake your hand. If that's alright, that is?'

'Jarvis doesn’t have hands,' Stark's voice sounds behind him. Loki spins. You'd swear the man was a thief himself, for all the noise he makes. 'I haven't gotten around to giving him any yet.'

'You.. what?' Loki frowns, unwilling to understand.

'I'm a machine, sir' Jarvis explains patiently. 'I am, as Mr. Stark has so amusingly named me ‘Just A Really Very Intelligent System.’ I am the first Artificial Intelligence module perfected by Mr. Stark, although according to him, he is not quite done 'tinkering' with me.'

'You mean.. you're... you're not a person?' Loki tries to back up from where he thinks the voice might be coming from, but it sounds at his back.

'I am a person, sir.' Somehow Jarvis manages to sound offended, without changing an octave. 'I'm merely not human.'

'What... what about you?' He turns to Stark, eyes huge and shaken. 'Are you human?'

'Oh I'm human alright,' Stark chuckles humorously, the bitterness raw enough to taste. 'I'm just not a person.'

Loki rides home in silence. Not that there is anyone for him to talk to, even if he were so inclined – the silver robots Jarvis had sent to accompany him doesn't speak, and talking to himself is not a luxury that a thief can ever afford to fall into. At another time he would have been overjoyed by the novelty, if not the luxury of the transport, but all he can do is go over in his mind, again and again the knowledge, that all too soon, he will need to tell Thor, and Bruce that he will again be leaving them both, permanently this time. Somehow it didn't seem fair, but then few things were. Jarvis would send a car in a month, he said, as Loki was leaving, as if he'd forget. Stark said nothing, he didn't even bother to see Loki off, not that this came as a spectacular surprise. It’s not like Loki will not be back.

Bruce is waiting at the door when the transport arrives, wearing an expression Loki doesn't recognize. He hugs him all the same, pulling him quickly into a rough embrace, before moving off to supervise the robots in putting away supplies, but then Bruce was never one for physical expressions, if anything it gives considerable indication to how very worried he is, to do as much as he did. Loki doesn't stop to wonder.

'Thor?' he asks almost immediately.

'He's sleeping now,' Bruce says. 'I managed to get the fever down - once we get him hooked to an IV, we'll see improvement right away I suspect. I wouldn't go in there just yet, if I were you...' he starts, but Loki is already gone.

He hears Thor, choking, gasping for air, through oxygen starved lungs, before he even sees him. And smells him too. The same smell he remembers from his days of running with dusters. Sometimes one would get so bad, so into what it was they'd poured into their nose, their bodies would eventually shut down, and start to rot, while the brain continued on, high on whatever little fantasy had fed it. Eventually, when the 'dust' wore off, and the brain realized that it wasn't in Oz, or Never Never Land, or Xanadu, or on the Moon, it was too late, and the duster spent their last excruciating hours alive screaming until their throat was raw, or someone took pity and bashed in their skull.

Thor is no duster, but when Loki pushes open the plastic sheeting Bruce used for curtains, the sickening sweet scent of rot, just starting to set in, comes pouring out. His face is even paler than Loki remembered from just a day ago, the waxy sheen even more prominent against the aged, green sheets. His brother's golden hair, that Loki had so often teased him over lay lifeless, and tangled on the pillow, as if the poison running through his system is draining the lustre from within. Only his healthy arm is above the covers, and Loki is pathetically grateful that he doesn’t need to look away, for all that his brother isn’t awake to witness his weakness.

'Thor...' he whispers, kneeling down by the narrow cot, gently brushing the fingers of Thor's good hand. 'I'm back.. I promised you I would be, and I am. I've brought help... We'll make you better again, we'll make you strong. You'll be alright, Thor. I promise...'

Deep in his sleep Thor mumbles something, but Loki doesn't think that it was in response, or that his brother even knows that he was there.

'Let him sleep. It's better if he doesn't wake, at least until I can get him into the chamber.' Bruce says, standing in the make-shift doorway, the strange expression gone from his face, replaced with his usual look of quiet patience. 'His body needs oxygen, and he's not getting enough out here. Here, give me a hand with him.'

Together they lift the entire bunk – and Loki is shocked at how light his large brother has become, that together they could lift him so very easily – and moved it to the silver and steel and glass capsule that has taken over the majority of Bruce's lab. Loki doesn't remember the robots packing anything that had looked like it in the transport, but then they could have brought in an elephant, extinct as they are, and he would likely have not noticed.

'And now what?' He asks, once Thor is settled, and the chamber is sealed with a quiet hiss of pressure.

'Now we wait. We'll know soon if his body is absorbing and reacting to the oxygen. If it does, I can start on him on the antibiotics... If it doesn’t...'

'If it doesn't?' Loki demanded with a near violent intensity.

'If it doesn't, we'll have to discuss options. But it will.' Bruce replies, with an unshakable determination that shames Loki into considering for a moment that his brother might not survive.

Bruce is right. After a mere half hour in the tank, Thor's breathing does become notably easier, and Bruce pronounces that he can start the IV, and that Loki will need to help.

This time there’s no avoiding looking at the bloated, blackened appendage that only barely resembles an arm, and definitely not Thor’s arm, because nothing connected to his perfect, golden brother could ever look so completely alien. And evil. Thor’s evil arm. Loki almost chuckles and opens his mouth to tell Thor, except that Thor is still unconscious and barely breathing, and the arm is poisoned and the sickly sweet smell is so much more prominent now. Bruce doesn’t seem concerned though. He manages to hook everything up, almost without any help from Loki. When he’s done, he hands Loki a basin full of water and a sponge and tells him to clean his brother up, before they put him back into the tank.

Loki does. He doesn’t cry. He slowly, gently pats Thor down and tells him about meeting Stark. And Jarvis. And the rose at the top of the Tower. He doesn’t tell him that Bruce and Stark knew each other before, and that there wasn’t a car accident, and that Bruce is keeping secrets. They aren’t Loki’s secrets to tell. He doesn’t tell him about his meeting with Fury, or the Allfather. He doesn’t tell his brother what he’s traded for his life. He doesn’t tell him how warm Tony’s fingers felt resting on his jaw, or how cold his voice was when he said that Loki would be staying in the tower forever. He doesn’t tell Thor he’s afraid. Instead, he tells him that he loves him.

Loki spends that night staring at a sleeping Thor through a tiny window in the pod. Thor’s breathing improves steadily, and Loki thinks that he can almost see the blackness spreading up his shoulder and into his chest visibly start to recede. Bruce tells him to get some sleep, that he’ll see his brother when he’s awake, but Loki knows he only has a month, and wants to see as much of Thor as he can, since memories are soon all he’ll have left.

The next morning Thor’s fever is gone completely, but he’s still asleep. Bruce tells Loki to not worry, that part of the drug cocktail dripping into his veins is keeping him asleep. Thor’s body needs the sleep, sleep will help him heal. Loki is delighted Thor is healing, but restless too. His time with Thor is slipping away. He wants Thor awake. He wants his brother healthy. He wants.. he wants so much.

‘You’re not doing anyone any good here,’ Bruce says to him finally, on his third day of watching Thor sleep in the tank and heal too slowly. ‘Go for a walk, see some friends.’

‘But I,’ Loki starts, but Bruce cuts him off.

‘You’re driving me crazy with the sitting, and the sighing and the moping. Thor is on the mend. He’s getting better. He’ll be awake tomorrow and then you can drive him nuts. In the meantime, you’re driving me crazy. Get out!’

Loki gets out.

He wanders around the slums a bit, feeling like he doesn’t belong. He doesn’t know where to go. He doesn’t go to see Laufey. He can’t take any jobs, and they were never what one might call chatty. He realizes that there is nowhere that he would rather be, and nowhere that he would rather go than sit by the side of Thor’s tank, waiting for him to wake up. He turns to go home, only to be interrupted by two figures suddenly stepping into his path.

‘Hello, Silvertongue,’ the smaller drawls slowly. Slice and Dice. Couple of former juicers, dusters, slicers. Anything for a buck, Fury’s boys. Huge as a house, Dice is about as dumb as one, with crude, unimaginative cruelties. Slice, the smaller, smarter, more frightening of the two, has far more exotic amusements. Self-named, he always carries his weapon of choice, a spring-loaded stiletto, up one sleeve. Loki is intimately familiar with it. Some of the raised scars on his back are from Slice’s tender care, just as some of his broken bones are from Dice.

‘We’ve been missing you. Mr. Fury was promising us that you’d be back to visit us real soon, but you just disappeared. And now here you are again. I know Bessy here,’ he flicks his wrist and the silver blade shoots out, winking in the darkness. ‘has sure missed you. And so's Dice. Haven’t you, Dice?’ Dice grunts, and grins wide with a mouthful of jagged, yellow teeth.

‘So we was thinking, weren’t we, Dice,’ Dice nods, as if thinking deeply is a regular past time for him, and Loki glances desperately up the empty street looking for help that he knows won’t come even if the alley wasn’t completely abandoned. ‘Mr. Fury said we shouldn’t be spending any time with you, unless you was back at his Tower, but we figured you wouldn’t mind if we played a little with you some now.. would you, Silvertongue? And maybe when you’re back in Mr. Fury’s tower, we could be a little nicer. Maybe protect you from some of the other boys. So what do you say?... you let us play with you a little now, and maybe, just maybe we won’t hurt you a lot later.’

Another time Loki might have gone with them. Taken the bruises and the cuts and the shame, and crawled home and hid them from Thor, but now he can’t. There’s Thor to think of, and besides, his body, his life has been traded and no longer belongs to him. Loki knows if he says no, they’ll still take what they want, but he won’t go willing. Not this time. Not anymore.

So he stands up a little straighter, and pushes himself back from the wall, and don’t look for help, but for a weapon. It’s there, at his feet. A jagged bottle, too broken to be of any use to anyone, except just now, to Loki. He picks it up, holding it carefully in front of him, Laufey’s lessons about knife fighting springing to mind – you’ll get cut. Expect it and accept it. Just remember to cut the other guy worse. Keep your knife close to your body. Don’t let him see where you’re gonna strike. And don’t let him get control of your weapon. He holds the bottle just out in front of him, Slice glances down, chuckling.

‘Found some courage, have you, Silvertongue? That’s alright, I don’t mind my meat getting a bit of tenderizing. Fight back too hard though, and I’m gonna let Bessie have a go at your face. Ain’t no one gonna want you then.’ He adds with a harsh finality.

Loki shakes his head. He doesn’t trust his voice. He doesn’t trust himself to speak, to keep saying ‘No’, so he just keeps shaking his head as Slice steps in closer and then jabs out with the bottle, encouraged when the glass connects, and Slice lets out a grunt, more surprise than pain.

‘You little shit! I’m gonna cut your fucking face off!!’ He roars and dives at Loki, except there is a shorter, familiar figure in silver and black between them, holding Slice back easily with a black-gloved hand on his chest.

‘I think this has gone back far enough, don’t you, boys?’ Stark asks casually, seemingly unconcerned that he stands unarmed in front of two likely well, armed brutes, and either of them easily twice his size. ‘Mr.’ – the mask tilts slightly as he half-turns to ask Loki ‘what was it that they called you again?’

‘Silvertongue,’ Loki manages to whisper, humiliation and helplessness choking him.

‘Mr. Silvertongue,’ Stark continues as if it is a perfectly reasonable social meeting, and he didn’t just interrupt Slice and Dice from raping and torturing and quite possibly killing Loki, ‘has very clearly expressed a decisive lack of interest in your company. I suspect this is not only due to his otherwise excellent taste in friends, but because he has other plans for the evening. Now if I am going to suggest, politely, that you take yourselves elsewhere, before this encounter becomes unpleasant for all concerned. I happen to know for a fact my butler simply hates it when he has to get blood out of my attire. Particularly when it is not my own.’

Seeing the matching, uncomprehending expressions on the ugly faces, Stark chuckles quietly and repeats himself, slowly and clearly, with just the barest sliver of eager malice in his tone. ‘Loki isn’t interested. Run while you can, before I put you down like the rabid dogs you are, and get your cheap blood on my expensive shoes.’

The next few moments move at an agonizingly slow speed, and all Loki can do is stand back and watch. Dice roars, and dives for Stark, in spite of the hand on his chest. Stark ducks with a dancer’s fluid grace, throws a punch on Dice’s side and another at his head that with the distinct sound of shattering bone lands Dice, face first on the ground. Always the slightly quicker of the two, Slice strikes out with his stiletto, judging from Stark’s gasp, managing to connect. Stark’s arm flies out and his hand is wrapped around Slice’s throat, and he’s pushed the taller man up, off the ground and against the wall.

‘I specifically told you to not get blood on my shoes…’ Stark growls, and there’s a snap, and Slice’s head is hanging at an odd angle, and Tony lets him drop, to lie beside Dice.

A breath later, and Stark is brushing non-existent dust from his shoulders, before he finally turns to Loki.

‘Are you allright?’ he asks, as if he wasn’t the one that just killed two men in cold blood.

‘I… yes. Yes, I am. Thank you... But… you’re hurt,’ Loki responds, reaching out automatically to Stark’s side, where blood is slowly seeping through the black silk of his shirt, and his fingers are coated, tingling with it. The blood is red, and looks normal enough for all of Stark’s protestation to the contrary.

‘It’s just a scratch, nothing more.’ Tony shrugs it off, pulling his jacket closed around the wound. ‘I’m more concerned for the infection. Jarvis may bitch and moan, but he’ll take care of it.’

‘How.. how did you know?...’ Loki asks finally.

‘Jarvis,’ Stark shrugs again. ‘For some reason he’s taken a liking to you, and suggested that it might be prudent if I were to keep an eye on you. Though it looks like you probably had the matter well in hand.’ He says, glancing down pointedly at the broken bottle that Loki is still holding.

‘I.. I, no. I didn’t. They would have..’ he begins, and realizes that he can’t.. he can’t bring himself to finish telling this enigmatic, deadly man, whose inhuman butler – and what’s a butler? – seems to have more humanity in him, than his masked master, what the two talking roaches would have done to him (again) had he not shown up.

‘Shhh….’ Stark says, and his fingers brush that same spot on Loki’s jaw, and his hand is burning hot through the leather, or maybe Loki is just that cold and he wishes, oh he wishes that he could see Stark’s eyes and see what he’s thinking, but all he can see is that damned mask and his own, terrified, pale, green-eyed reflection staring back at him. ‘You’re fine. They didn’t.’

Loki wants Stark to take him back to the Tower. He wants Stark to put his hand back on his jaw, on his face, on his flesh… he wants to rip off the mask and see the man underneath it. He wants…

‘You should go home now.’ Stark is saying, ‘Spend some time with your brother. We'll see each other again soon. Do try and stay out of trouble till then. Jarvis will be up all night otherwise, worrying.’

Chapter Text

By the time Loki returns from his ‘walk’, Thor is awake. The smile he gives Loki through the tiny window of the capsule, is tired, lines of pain drawn heavily around his generous mouth, but bright all the same. It’s all that Loki can do to keep himself from crying, as he kneels down, resting his forehead against the cool metal. Thor raises his good, left hand, resting it against the glass, and Loki matches it with his own. Thor is alive. All will be well.

‘I told you you’d he'll be alright,’ Bruce voice startles him, ‘you just didn’t think I knew what I was talking about.’

‘Oh Bruce…’ Loki jumps up, enveloping the older man in a hug. ‘Thank you, thank you thank you.. how can you ever forgive me for doubting you?’

‘Maybe the next time I tell you something you might actually listen?’ the shorter man replies, holding Loki back at arm’s length, frowning slightly as he peers up intently in the green eyes. ‘Something happened. Are you alright?’

‘I.. yes, I’m fine.’ Loki shrugs, and tries to move away, but finds Bruce’s hand still solidly keeping him in place. ‘I ran into Slice and Dice. They.. they wanted to say hello for old-time sake. Lucky for me, a good Samaritan happened to be in the area, and stepped in.’

‘A ‘good Samaritan'?’ Bruce asks incredulously, eyes narrowing with doubt. ‘In the slums? I don’t suppose you knew him?’

‘I.. I never got a look at his face,’ Loki evades carefully, the half-lie a burning hole in his gut.

‘That’s not what I asked Loki…’ Bruce mutters quietly, but permits him to return to his brother’s side.

The following morning Thor has regained some of his usual colour, and announces that he is hungry enough to eat a rat if there is one, and Loki if there isn’t.

Loki’s immediate reaction is to panic, wondering how and where he’ll get food for his convalescent brother, when Bruce emerges from his tiny kitchen carrying a veritable feast – pancakes and juice and milk and real butter and something that might be actual bacon and preserves and an extra protein shake for Thor, because he doesn’t like how much weight the one muscle-bound man has lost, and he’ll need to regain it along with his strength. Thor, never one to be averse to eating complies gladly, and Loki silently thanks the near-omniscient Jarvis for having again thought of everything.

For the next week all is well, while Thor slowly heals, and Loki plays nursemaid to his frequently sleeping brother. The trouble doesn't start the following week, when Thor has regained enough strength to get up and start to slowly walk around, but not so much that he’s ready to start getting out and looking for work.

Although never near to the intellectual genius that is Bruce, or even as quickly intuitive as Loki, Thor, contrary to the opinion of several others is not a stupid man. He’s survived long enough in the slums to recognize the street value of the drugs Bruce is still feeding him, and the glistening equipment now housed in the lab. After a few days of gently prodding for answers, he finally – literally – corners Loki and forces his brother to tell him the price paid for his life.

‘It’s Fury again isn’t? We agreed after the last time, no more! Loki.. how could you?’ Thor begins, when Loki doesn’t immediately answer.

‘Thor.. If only you could have seen yourself. You were dying Thor!’ Loki sobs. ‘Would you have had me sit there and do NOTHING?! You’re my brother! You’re all that I have left.. ’ he adds quietly.

‘Yes!! Yes, damn you, if it meant that you had to sell yourself to that… that,’ Loki interjects while Thor is busy hunting for a word.

‘I didn’t. Well... I thought I might have to initially – Thor, let me speak!’ Loki barks as Thor opens his mouth about to interrupt again. ‘But he sent me to the Allfather, and - ’

‘ALLFATHER?!!’ Thor roars. ‘Bruce!! Did you know about this? As if Fury wasn’t bad enough, you let him to go to the Allfather? That butcher?!! He runs the slice pits Loki!! The fucking slice pits!’

‘Thor,’ Bruce steps in, his ever-present calm a soothing balm to Thor’s explosive temper. ‘if you want to hear your brother’s story, then you have to let him tell it. There are some parts of it that I am a bit unclear on myself.’ The scientist admits, and pulls up a stool.

‘You knew about this?!’ Thor turns to Bruce, threateningly.

‘Thor,’ Bruce says, just as quietly. ‘Shut the hell up, would you? Just let Loki speak.’

Loki swallows, takes a deep breath and begins. He tells Bruce and his brother everything, holding nothing back. Not the conversation with Fury or the Allfather. He talks about Frigga and the car and the offer Allfather made. He tells them about the silent, empty Tower standing like a monument to Stark’s once mighty empire. He hesitates briefly, and finally admits to the overheard conversation between Stark and Bruce. Bruce says nothing, just nods, and continues to listen. He tells them about Jarvis, the most humane non-human he’s ever had the honour of meeting, and finally, when he thinks he might have finally run out of words, he tells them about Tony Stark, the man who caught him breaking into his house, but rather than turning him over to the Cleaners, clothed and fed him. The man who twice saved his life in as many days.

Thor is silent for a long time, before he finally asks, ‘And what did this paragon of virtue ask in return, Loki?’

‘Nothing that is not mine to give,’ Loki counters.

‘Loki,’ Thor repeats very quietly. ‘What did you give him?’

‘Companionship Thor,’ Loki can’t quite bring himself to meet his brother’s gaze. ‘He said that he was lonely. He said he’s been living without seeing another human being for too long, and he wanted some human company.’

‘Company?’ Thor repeats.

‘Yes, Thor. Company.’ Loki nods, thinking that perhaps this won’t be so hard after all, when he finally glances up and catches the rage burning in his brother’s turquoise eyes.

‘So rather than selling yourself to Fury, you just sold yourself to Stark instead? Well at least your standards are going up, glad to see you whoring yourself ou to those Above rather than Below.’

‘THOR!’ Bruce’s shout echoes off the ceiling and sends their thin walls shivering. The scientist is standing, stool overturned with force of his sudden movement.

‘WHAT?!!’ Thor hollers back, with barely concealed venom in his voice. ‘Don’t pretend that you aren’t thinking it too, Bruce. Only you KNEW what he was doing. You knew what all these fancy concoctions you’ve been pumping into my blood and all these shiny new machines were going to cost. And you let Loki do it. You let my brother sell himself for what?.. For this?’ Thor turns, smashing his arm across a bench half-covered in delicate beakers and fragile instruments, sending them all crashing to the floor, and in his mind’s eye, Loki sees the finality crystal case once holding a blue rose breaking into a thousand simmilar pieces.

‘I hope it was worth it, Bruce. I know I wasn't. You make me sick. Both of you.’ The last look Thor gives Loki before he walks away is full of disgust, and bitter disappointment.

Beside him Bruce stands frozen with shock. Loki knew.. he knew going into Stark’s Tower, he knew when he was agreeing to the deal that would save his life what he was. What he has become. ‘Thief, not whore,’ his memory whispers and he shuts it up, bile building in his throat. Well... not anymore. Not with having his brother brand him as such. Eyes blind, burning with unshed tears, he pushes past Bruce and runs out of their hovel, deaf to the sound of Bruce calling his name.

After hours of blindly wandering the streets later, he finds himself at a familiar door. Loki chuckles with the bitterest irony. Two weeks of dearly paid for freedom left and he hasn’t anywhere else to go.

He knocks.

The door opens on silent hydraulics, and he steps into the cool, marble-wrapped atrium.

‘We have been expecting you.’ Jarvis’ voice sounds overhead. ‘Welcome home, sir.’

Chapter Text

Home, Jarvis says, and guides Loki, just as he did mere weeks ago, and a lifetime earlier, to a solitary, mahogany paneled elevator that quickly and silently delivers Loki to the top floor. The ‘Dining Room’ Jarvis says and Loki goes off in search of a room that might look like it’s dedicated solely to dining.

It’s like a dream, the Tower, or a spell. A spell of glass and steel, and any moment now, he will wake and find himself in bed at home, and Thor will laugh and tell him and that he snores, and Thor... It aches, that place that had once held a brother’s love. A missing limb will ache just the same, and Thor has most assuredly been lost.

It takes some trial and error - Loki first finds several locked doors, another ostentatious bedroom, and a bath that looks like it might be large enough to house the entirety of Laufey’s gang. Eventually he comes to a hall full of portraits, stiff generations of Starks, frowning down dispassionately at interloper Loki, from gilt-painted walls. He pauses longer than perhaps necessary in that last room, telling himself that it’s his acquisitive nature coming to forefront, and not a simple curiosity about the man who now owns his life.

The Starks, it would appear, have not changed significantly in the past several generations. The men all tall, dark, with golden-hazel eyes. Sometimes with beards, or not, depending on the fashion of the age, with the broad shoulders and long legs that proclaim generations of exclusive sports – polo and tennis and dressage, at least when there were still horses left to ride. Ofcourse those living Above can afford to stable cyber-horses, and most will say that you can’t quite tell the difference. Except that you can, as with all things that are ‘made’, the horse ‘replacements’ are lacking in a certain something, like a poor photocopy or a too-good forgery, they ‘blur’, subtly, if one knows the edges at which to look, still significantly lesser than an imperfect truth.

The Stark ‘gene’ seems to breed true, women then, are the ones brought in, for they are all different. Blondes, brunettes, the odd redhead here and there. As tall as the men, and just as cleanly bred, they sit, stand, lean and in one older painting actually ride beside their husbands. As perfect in their own right, as are the male Starks, no single hair would dare be out of place on their ideal heads. Their flawless smiles directed at the artist seem to say – see, we are the ones to carry Stark House into the future. We are the chosen few.

Nearing the end, a painting out of place, the woman in it, neither flawless, nor a Stark, though gorgeous all the same. Long hair, a shade that can’t decide between a golden red or a reddish blonde lies windblown on the lilac of her dress. Her smile, imperfect, for all that it is broad, directed at someone who stands just out of scene, as are her eyes, a clear, and guileless blue, as bright and ageless as the skies once were.

A man could fall in love, thinks Loki to himself. Two did, he sees, reading the plate discreetly placed below the frame – ‘Mrs. Pepper Stark, on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday’. Oh Bruce… you didn’t stand a chance. His heart aches in his chest, and mourns a love he didn’t know existed until a few scant weeks ago.

The wall beside Pepper is bare. The painting that was once, torn, forcefully from the wall, leaving behind shards and gaping holes. Loki reaches out, hand brushing at the violent end of anticipated beauty that once was, and wonders what, if anything that Stark had done to bring about such an unflattering end to his own legacy. Perhaps he too had cause to disappoint a brother, or a friend.

Loki walks out, pulling the door shut gently behind him, slightly regretful for leaving Pepper alone and in the dark, she'd struck him as a woman who loved light – freckles and all – but it’s not his house, for all that he was welcomed home, and he must go and find the Tower’s Master.

Eventually he does. Sitting alone – whom else would he have to sit with, Loki wonders to himself, and surprising himself in finding that he cares, Stark sitting there alone. Is that not why after all he’s there? To play at being ‘company’ to this man? – at the far end of a table, that’s longer than both Bruce’s humble lab, and Loki’s former home. What would amount to a feast in any other home, is set in front of him, a glass with perhaps wine. His plate sits empty and untouched.

Loki makes a noise, a small one in his throat, he does not wish to appear rude, uncertain as he is of everything. Stark glances up, startled.

‘You... you came.’ He says finally.

‘I did,’ Loki replies, with some surprise, is he not expected after all? Is all of this a joke? The car, Thor’s life? Is he not meant to come? ‘You’d told me to. I thought I was expected.’

‘I know…’ Stark stands, walking around the table slowly. ‘I just didn’t think you would. Your brother, he is well?’

‘He is,’ Loki nods. ‘Again. Thank you.’

‘Then why.. why are you here?’ Stark stands in front of him, close enough that Loki can reach out and touch. He’s wearing blue this time, a similar cut to what he wore two weeks ago. It works well with the silver of the mask.

‘I told you that I would.’ And Loki shakes his head. He’s missing something, yet again, he doesn’t understand what’s being asked.

‘But.. Thor is well? Then I have nothing left to hold you with,’ Stark says again. His blue-gloved hand, like all the rest of him, twitches slightly, as if he would reach out, but at the last minute changed his mind.

‘You had my word,’ Loki replies. ‘And too, you saved my life. That must be worth something, if just to me.’

‘I don’t actually,’ Stark says, smiling, Loki thinks behind the mask. ‘Have your word that is. You never actually said you would come back.’

‘Didn’t I?’ Loki asks disbelieving. ‘Well then, I’ll leave.’ And turns, before remembering that there is nowhere left for him to be. Stark stops him, a gentle, gloved hand on his arm.

‘Will you? And where will you go?’

‘I…’ Loki begins, searching desperately for a lie, but none will spring immediately to mind.

‘I spoke with Bruce an hour ago. He asked if you were here. What happened?’ Stark ask gently, his hand still on Loki’s arm, and Loki opens his mouth to reply, to tell Stark that his brother thinks him a whore for having saved his life, when Stark saves him again.

‘Oh look at us, would you? We sound like a fucking couple of those awkward Victorians, my mother was so fond of reading about. Though I suppose, it’s nice that in the end she was fond of something, God knows she was never fond of me.’ He says and breaks the spell. It shatters in a thousand crystals of reality, and Loki can think, can breathe again, gloved hand still on his arm and all.

‘You must be hungry? Ofcourse you are, what am I thinking, look at you, it’s not as if you’ve that much meat on you to begin with.’ Stark drops his hand, and strides back to the table, grabbing up his glass, and filling it with wine.

'Here, have a drink in the meantime – just not too much, it’s pretty strong. Jarvis!’ He calls out, ‘One more for dinner, set a place.’

‘Of course sir, it will be a pleasure.’

Loki just nods and takes a careful sip. Wine, just like he thought. He had some, once. Laufey stole a case, and needed to make certain of its worth. They drank well, that night, his gang and he, but this is… this wine puts that to shame . Rich, heady with flavours singing on the tongue, that Loki can’t identify, that go directly to his head and hold a party there. He drains the glass and ends on a hiccup.

‘Woooah,’ Stark takes the empty goblet back, and Loki stands, grinning in delight. ‘I warned you, didn’t I? A drunken thief, that’s all this Tower needed. Now what am I going to do with you?’ Stark asks, and catches Loki by the waist as he steps forward and trips on something, likely his own feet, and they stand there, in a parody of an embrace, Stark’s arm half-wrapped around Loki, his other hand holding up Loki’s empty glass, Loki’s arms in turn, looking for someplace to land, fall, as of their own volition on Stark’s shoulders, finding them a comfortable and solid perch.

They stand that way, frozen, holding one another up, until a polite cough from overhead breaks the moment.

‘The table has been set, sir, as requested. And shall I have more wine brought up?’

Stark looks at Loki, who nods wildly, eagerly. Why not, he thinks, it’s not as if he has anything to lose, and being drunk, it might be easier to face whatever horror Stark hides under his mask.

They sit, while silent, faceless robots serve and pour the wine, and Loki finishes half his meal before realizing that Stark is not eating, just sitting there, playing with the stem of his still full glass. Loki takes extra care to set down his utensils, the second glass of wine has gone completely to his head, and he's not certain he can feel his fingers anymore.

'You're not eating,' he points out quietly.

'No, I'm not.' Stark replies, glass still twirling.

'Do you? Eat, I mean?'

'Oh yes! Very much so,' he laughs, the richness of the sound muted only slightly by the mask. Loki decides he likes the sound of Stark's laughter when it's not tempered with bitterness or irony. 'But I don't think that you would appreciate your own dinner if I were to join you.'

'I... you don't know that.' Loki says, quickly swallowing the sudden lump of fear in his throat.

'I'm afraid I'm a bit of an expert on that account, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Now finish your dinner little thief, and let's put you to bed.'

Bed. The word sobers Loki like a bucket of cold water that's suddenly been dumped over him. He pushes away his plate, shaking his head, trying to clear the last of the cobwebs, and stands, if only to find out if he can.

He can, it turns out, but walking is another matter all together. He giggles again, as Stark carefully slides an arm around his waist, encouraging Loki to use him for support.

'Don't hold your liquor well, do you?' the shorter man asks as they slowly make their stumbling, awkward way down the hall.

Loki shakes his head again. 'I don't drink, not really. The.. what we have Below will rot you from the inside if you drink too much, and besides, I like to keep my head clear.'

'You do huh? So what changed? What happened, that you're here, two weeks early to the agreed on month? Why are you drinking yourself sick now, little thief? No, no.. fine, fine. You can hold your tongue at least, if not your liquor. Well... here we are.'

Stark pushes his way into a room draped in shades of green and gold. A large bed, not nearly as massive as the one he'd seen earlier, but larger still than the one he used during his one night here, stands at a far wall. A mostly empty bookcase occupies the opposite wall, beside it a writing desk with tablet and screen, and a plush chair, upholstered to match the room. A trunk, complete with lock and scanner for a print, sits at the footing of the bed. Otherwise the room is empty.

Stark helps Loki to the bed and pushes him down to sit.

'Right, there you are. There should be something you can sleep in in the closet. Jarvis can help you find what ever else it is that you might need, and I will see you in the morning.'

Before he can step too far away, Loki reaches out grabbing hold of Stark's surprisingly thick wrist, long fingers wrapping closely around it, feeling the strength in bone and muscle shift under the skin. 'But... I... Where will you sleep?'

'Me?' Stark seems surprised. 'Why in my room ofcorse [of course], where did you think?'

'I... I thought... here?' Loki glances quickly at the bed behind him, it's easily big enough for three, never mind the two he thought would be sharing it, for however briefly.

'Here? Did you think... wait a second, you thought... you did. You thought you and I... and... Oh no, little thief, I do believe you have entirely the wrong idea of why you're here.' Stark draws back, pulling his wrist from Loki's suddenly slack grip. Mortified, Loki looks down, away, anywhere but at Stark, only to have his face tipped back up with an increasingly familiar touch under his jawline. Loki stares, unblinking, wondering if this is how a mouse might feel, caught between a cat's claws, heart beating to explosion in his chest.

'I'm sorry, Loki,' Stark whispers, fingers gently brushing the curve of Loki's cheek. 'It won’t happen. Ever. It can't. I... I can't.'

Chapter Text

Loki wakes to the feeling of kobo drummers using the inside of his mind as practice. The world is a haze of scarlet tinged pain, and when nausea pushes itself up and into his throat, he rushes to the bathroom before he can dirty the bed.

Jarvis’ voice startles him, just as he’s washing the sour taste of vomit from his mouth.
‘Good morning sir, I hope you slept well. Will you be joining Mr. Stark for breakfast, or shall I have it served in your rooms?’

Loki’s hand freezes on his lips. Stark. He practically threw himself at the man last night, and Stark had… Had… had in no uncertain terms told he that he was not interested. Ever. Oh Loki, you are such a fool.. he leans his head against the door, and briefly considers drowning himself in the bath.

‘Sir, Mr. Stark was wondering if you will be joining him for breakfast.’

Looks like he doesn’t get to drown himself this morning, Loki thinks and heads into a much needed shower.

Stark meets him in a smaller version of the dining room, a cup of coffee, standing full in front of him, reviewing a tablet held in his scarlet gloved hands.

‘Good morning,’ he says, that barely hidden edge of humour dancing in his voice. ‘Help yourself.’ Stark says, and gestures to a buffet filled with more food than two people would ever manage to eat in a week, never mind a meal. ‘Breakfasts are a pretty informal affair around here.’

‘Thank you.’ Loki fills his plate, and takes a seat a few chairs down from Stark.

‘How’s your head?’ Stark asks, glancing up from the tablet in his hand, the reflection on the mask momentarily blinding.

‘It’s... it’s sore,’ Loki admits, hiding his expression in a cup of coffee. ‘About.. about last night,’ he starts, uncertain of what he’ll actually say.

‘It’s fine,’ Stark waves the attempted apology off. ‘Too much to drink, it happens to us all, believe me when I say that.’

‘So… what happens now?’ Loki looks up, heart full of trepidation, but also, amazingly a shred of disbelieving hope.

‘What? Oh, we eat breakfast,’ Stark returns his attention to the tablet in his hand.

‘And after breakfast?’ Loki pushes, pressing for an answer.

‘Eventually lunch? Why, are you hungry already?’ the other man responds, and Loki picks up a thread of… uncertainty in his voice, as if he is as equally unsure of what might happen next, for all that it’s his Tower and it’s at his command that Loki finds himself in it.

‘No, I mean… what’s.. to become of me? Why am I here?’

Stark sets down the tablet again, ‘You don’t pull any punches, do you? Alright then, let's have this conversation. The truth is.. I don’t know.’ He shrugs, looking more human, mask and all, than Loki has seen him yet. ‘I suppose I could say that I told you to come back here and keep me company, because I knew that if I helped your brother out without any strings, you wouldn’t buy it? You’d question my motives, and wouldn’t accept what I had to give. But the truth... the truth is, I told you to come back here on… a whim. I have no need for human company – Jarvis gives me all the interaction I need –‘

‘Thank you sir,’

‘Don’t mention it Jarvis, and stop eavesdropping, or I’ll mute you.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Where was I?... Oh yes. I’m not good with people. Never have been, and well... recent events have just exaggerated that. So… stay here as long as you like, Jarvis will give you access to the rooms that are safe for you to enter, and otherwise we can stay out of each other's way.’

Stark pushes back his cup untouched, and walks out of the room, leaving Loki more confused and uncertain than he was when he walked in.

‘But what if I don’t want to stay out of your way?...’ Loki mutters to himself.

‘Excuse me sir?’

‘Umm... nothing, Jarvis. Mr. Stark said that you could show me around? I’ve found the… room with all the paintings, and his study. I wouldn’t mind seeing the rest of Tower? Unless you have something else to do this morning?’

‘Not at all sir, it would, in fact be my pleasure.’

The next few hours are spent in Jarvis ‘escorting’ and showing Loki around the extensive living quarters, the vacant administrative levels and the manufacturing levels, now occupied by shining, faceless machines. Jarvis proves to be an excellent, and polite host, answering all of Loki’s questions, while yet managing to maintain an air of a proud curator.

Their most glorious discovery comes when Jarvis takes Loki to the library floor. The thief stands in open mouthed awe, staring at the priceless volumes lining glass encased shelves, remembering with a bitter fondness the inconsolable loss he felt at selling his small handful of much-used books to pay for Thor’s medicines. Thor… He swallows the jagged pain, forcing himself to focus on the present instead.

‘Does Mr. Stark use the library often, Jarvis?

‘No sir.’ Jarvis sounds surprised at the question.

‘No? But.. to have all these at his disposal and then.. just.. ‘

‘Mr. Stark prefers the more modern methods of perusing literature. This library belonged to his mother, Maria Stark.’ Loki recalls something from the alcoholic daze of the previous night. Something about Stark’s mother being fond of Victorians and... and... not fond of him. Loki sighs. More questions. Always more questions.
Stark doesn’t come to dinner that night, even though Loki waits until the food gets cold, and finishes the bottle of wine. Eventually he stumbles back to his room, and spends the night tossing, plagued by dreams of generations of masked Starks staring down at him from their golden frames.

The next morning he catches Stark at breakfast, a half-finished meal still on his plate. So the man does eat…

‘Good morning,’ Loki offers brightly, determined to not make a fool of himself two days in a row.

‘Good morning yourself, sleep well?’ Stark inquires.

‘Yes, thank you. I missed you at dinner last night. Jarvis said that you were working?’

‘I... yes. Jarvis has a big mouth.’ Stark mutters, staring down again at the tablet.

‘What were you working on?’

Stark rambles off a series of equations, and Loki chokes down on the resentment rising in his throat. Bites down on the voice in the back of his mind screaming ‘Stupid whore!! He dosn't want you. The man is being polite, what did you think you could possibly ever off him? How did you could ever understand?’ Instead he nods, as if he has a clue what Stark is talking about, quickly finishes the food, grown tasteless in his mouth, and bids Stark a good day.

He spend the rest of that day and night in the library, sleep-studying the basics of robotics, biology and engineering, and the following morning when Stark rattles off another load of rubbish, meaningless, but intended to sound impressive, Loki laughs pointing out the conflicts, and suggests a more plausible lie. Leaving Stark staring in his wake, he walks back to the library, a tiny smile of victory playing on his lips.

‘Jarvis,’ Loki asks one morning, while the two are debating the writing of Gernsback versus Verne, and their comparative influence on the field of science fiction and ultimately science. By now Jarvis has 'taught' Loki a half-dozen languages, and he's read both in their original German and French.

‘Yes sir?’

‘May I ask you something?’

‘Ofcourse sir, anything.’

‘What happened to Stark, and Bruce and Pepper? What was the accident that made Bruce hide Below and Stark wear a mask?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir,’ Jarvis answers.

‘You don’t know?!’ Loki stops mid-hall. ‘What do you mean you don’t know?! You have to know.’

‘I’m afraid not sir. The details of the accident, and Mr. Stark’s resulting insistence in wearing his mask have been removed from my memory by Mr. Stark. If you wish to learn more, you will need to discuss it with Mr. Stark himself.’

‘I don’t think Mr. Stark wants to discuss anything with me,’ Loki mutters, forgetting for a moment that Jarvis will take his comment as directed at himself.

‘On the contrary sir. I think you will find that Mr. Stark would very much like to converse with you, but is simply out of practice in speaking with anyone other than himself.’

‘He talks to you,’ Loki objects.

‘Yes sir, he does. However sir, I would point out, that Mr. Stark programmed me, and all the personality permutations contained within my makeup, so he is in fact, speaking to himself.’

‘He made you what you are, Jarvis?’ Loki repeats.

‘Yes sir,’

‘But you speak with me, Jarvis.’

‘Yes sir, I do. However, as Mr. Stark has said, he is not, ‘good with people.’ I am not, contrary to your continued, and flattering insistence to the contrary, not 'people'. In spite of that sir, I would assure you, that Mr. Stark is what you might otherwise call a ‘good man’. In spite of his frequent statements to the contrary. And he is also sir, if you don’t mind my saying so, a very lonely man.’

‘What..’ Loki pauses, leaning his head against the cool wall, Jarvis’ words ringing in his head, along with the remaining headache. It’s too much.. all of it. ‘He doesn’t want my company, Jarvis. I’ve learned to speak his language, hell, I speak more languages than he does, and he’ll still barely say a word to me in any of them! I’m a no-one. A nothing. I’m a liar and a thief and a –‘

‘You are someone has kept his word to a stranger, and would have allowed yourself to be handed over to the ‘slice pits’ rather than allow harm to come to a friend. You are also, if you would not take offense at my being quite so forward sir, a good man.’

Loki stands straight. A good man. The machine.. Jarvis calls him a good man. His brother called him a whore and Stark… Stark has not called him anything at all. But he has time. He can change that.

‘Jarvis… tell me about Anthony Stark. Tell me everything you know.’

Chapter Text

The following morning, armed with a list of ‘hobbies’, Loki heads to the library, and speed-reading is useful training to have when you are still just a little bit freaked out by a machine implanting the memory of skills in your mind, even if that machine is Jarvis.

The next two days, he barely surfaces, not that Stark actually notices, absorbed as he is in his own ‘work’, learning about Arabian horses and organically brewed scotch and 20th century antique air-planes and combustion engines, and generally everything and anything that Stark may have, however briefly, ever expressed an interest in. He learns Japanese, because when the Saudi Alliance collapsed, shortly following the oil crisis of 2045, the Japanese stepped in, taking over all their interests, including the breeding of prized stallions.

At dinner that night, Loki attempts to intersperse the conversation with mention of breeding lines and notable automobile designs, but Stark is too engrossed in his own reading and merely nods while Loki talks. He leaves the table shortly after, while Loki is still eating, and Loki spends the night drinking too much sake, and writing bad Japanese poetry, in which he first compares Anthony Stark to a stubborn bull and then to a cherry tree, frozen by winter storms.

With Jarvis' assistance he sets up a scotch tasting table?, obtaining rare and valuable bottles presenting them a surprise following dinner. Stark’s surprise and evident discomfort is obvious even without seeing his face, as he holds the tumblers, appreciatively to the light, and thanks Loki, with exquisite politeness for his effort, before disappearing again into his lab, leaving Loki to curse himself for a fool, for not realizing that Stark will not drink around him. He finishes half a bottle, has nightmares and pays for his idiocy with a blinding hangover the next day.
By the end of the week, he’s nearing the end of the rope, and feeling like he’s banging his head against the wall, so why even bother, because it’s obvious that he’s just not going to get it right, and maybe Stark is right and they should just stay out of one another's way, and Loki should be thankful that he has a roof over his head and a ready meal and all he has to do is be invisibly polite.

With one, final flash of foolhardy bravery, he decides that if he’s to tell Stark of his newfound commitment to let him be, he should do so in person, and not via tablet or vid or even hand-written note.

‘Jarvis?’

‘Yes sir?’

‘Where may I find Mr. Stark?’

‘Mr. Stark is currently in his lab, sir. Working.’ The ‘butler’ once again manages to convey a world of disapproval in a single world.

Loki hasn’t been to the lab since his arrival at the Tower. It’s Stark’s one safe haven, just as the library has become for him, and he doesn’t want to intrude. He pauses at the open door, knocking, in spite of the irrationality of the gesture.

‘Loki?’ Stark turns in his chair in surprise. ‘What's up? Did you need something?’

‘I... err... yes... can I come in?’ he asks from the doorway. He remembers his mother telling him it’s impolite to hang in doorways.

‘I… of course. Is there a problem? Jarvis couldn't find something foryou?’ Concern rings through Stark’s voice, and he even sets down his pad and stylus, focusing all of his mirrored attention on Loki.

‘No, that is yes... Everything is alright with Jarvis, and no, there isn’t a problem, I just…’ Loki inhales deeply, wondering for a second why the place smells of strawberries, and looks around, searching for a place to rest his eyes anywhere other than on his own reflection in Stark’s mask, finally landing on the wall-sized monitor in front of him. And blinks. Then blinks again. There, on the screen in front of him, a glaring error. It can’t be. Stark doesn’t make mistakes. So he must be wrong. Loki runs through the calculation again, and yes. There it is again. Ten thousand units, as opposed to a thousand.

‘There’s a problem…’ he whispers.

‘There is?’ Stark sounds confused. ‘But you just said there isn’t?’

‘I... err... no, not with me, in the formula. There’s a mistake. Whatever it is that you’re making –nanites?’

Loki frowns, the microscopic robots are the one area of overlapping robotics and biology he hadn’t quite worked himself up to tackling just yet. ‘The calculation is wrong. It’s a thousand, not ten thousand.’

‘What?’ If he could see his face, Loki knows that Stark would be frowning. ‘Jarvis,’ he says, spinning back to the monitor. ‘The second part of the formula, re-calculate with Loki’s correction.’

‘Sir, Mr. Loki’s amendment is correct. To process your revised formula with current calculations would result in-’

‘Mute.’ Stark cuts the voice off, spinning back to stare at Loki. ‘How did you know?’

‘I...’ he shrugs, ‘I don’t know. I just… saw it. It was pretty obviously out of place… I...I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be.’ Stark replies. ‘It’s what I get for using someone else’s theories. Damn Akiyama, I should have known…’

*Akiyama, traditional, formal Japanese, co-founder of Hiro Electronics, great-great-great-multi-times removed grand-son of Fusajiro Yamauchi, original founder of Nintendo back in the 19th century. The clan prides itself on its ‘traditional’ Japanese ways and refuse the to speak the ‘modern’ Japanese – a conglomerate of Japanese, Chinese and Mandarin, made popular following the economic collapse of China, and Japan’s subsequent takeover.*

The encyclopedic blub races through Loki’s mind in less than a heartbeat. Did Jarvis sneak in the photographic memory, he wonders, or was it always there?

‘In Japanese, one thousand is ‘せん、千’ - ‘sen’,’ Loki says, ‘ten thousand is まん、万 is ‘man’. Akiyama speaks Japanese. Traditional, formal Japanese. Whom ever did the translation of his theories for you, didn’t.’ Loki shrugs. ‘Anyhow, I’m sorry to have bothered you... I actually just came by to tell you that I wouldn’t be anymore.’

‘Wait a sec,’ Stark chuckles, ‘You came by to tell me that you wouldn’t be bothering me anymore?’

‘I.. err.. well.. yes, I suppose I did.’ Loki smiles in spite of himself.

‘And you speak Japanese?’ Stark asks.

‘Yes, all ten dialects, as well as ancient and modern.’

‘Hrm… did you a week ago?’

‘Uhh... No.’

‘I see... Jarvis?’ Stark nods.

‘Yes sir?’

‘You’ve been keeping secrets again.’

‘On the contrary, sir. You had not inquired whether or not I have assisted Mr. Loki in his rather formidable linguistic studies.’

‘Formidable, huh? Stark spins back in his chair, facing him.

Loki nods silently.

‘How many do you speak now?’

‘Counting the 12 versions of Japanese?’ he asks quietly, feeling like he should be apologizing and uncertain for what.

‘Twenty two. But some are so similar that really they can’t count as… Twenty two.’ He repeats.

‘I see. Jarvis.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘What’s the current record for the sleep-studying of languages in one week?’

‘Fifteen sir. But it was since discovered that the young woman in question had rather advanced cybernetic implants intended solely for the purpose.’

‘I see…’ Stark drawls out. ‘Fifteen languages in one week, with cyber-enhancements. And you learned, what… twenty two?’

Loki swallows, nods and mutters under his breath.

‘What?’

‘Ididn'tsleeplearnthem...’

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that?’ Stark repeats.

‘I didn’t sleep learn them.’ Loki swallows. It sounds like he’s bragging, but he’s not comfortable with the machine, and it was giving him headaches, and the languages just... fit. Like there was an empty space in his mind that they slotted perfectly and uniquely in. ‘I just... I read. A lot. I like to read, and the books are better in the original, and the Japanese breed horses and you used to like horses once, and the Germans make cars, so I read about their cars, but you didn’t seem interested, so I’m just going to leave you alone now.’ He gets out in a single breath, and stands, shaking just a little, with lack of oxygen and confession, and wondering what Stark will say now. If he’ll tell him to leave, or worse yet laugh.

‘So let me get this straight – you learned, twenty two languages, in a week, and you didn’t sleep-learn them – just so that you had something that we could discuss over dinner?’

‘No... yes, I mean. No, I didn’t. I just read very very fast. And remember things. And yes... I wanted to have something to talk to you about.’ Just then Loki wishes that he could run very very fast. Under Stark’s scrutiny he feels like a bug, pinned to a back-board, studied and soon to be dissected.

‘Wow.. you really are a Silvertongue.’ Stark says and turns back to his tablet, correcting his equation.

‘Don’t call me that,’ Loki says with a deceptive quiet.

‘What?... hey, Silvertongue, pass me that tablet would you – the one just –‘

‘DON’T CALL ME THAT!’ Loki screams, fists clenched, face flushed with shame and rage. ‘Don’t... please. Don’t call me that.’

Stark turns again, considering him in silence. Loki steps back, ashamed. For all the man has done, and all he was prepared to do for him, he would deny him something as small as the use of a name. Yes. He can’t bear hearing that name, that word, coming from Stark’s lips. Whatever they might look like.

‘Alright. Alright, Loki. Pass me that tablet there, will you?’ He says, continuing like nothing has happened.

‘What does that line of type typing say? It should talk about -’ and conversation winds to translation and chemistry and biology and scientific-integer and Loki, as it turns out, is a better translator than the ones hired by Tower-run corporations, because he knows the languages he speaks, as opposed to just having downloaded memories, and can decipher a subtle change in idiom that will pull success from the jaws of failure.

That night they sit over dinner, debating German science and Japanese poetry, late into the night, and in Loki’s dreams, Tony has a face.

Chapter Text

Life in the Tower takes on an almost normal feel – if normal is living with someone whose face you've never seen, who will not discuss details of himself, and backs away at the merest hint of intimacy. Once, over dinner, Loki accidentally-on-purpose lets his hand rest too long on Stark's arm and within moments the man had come up with a semi-valid reason why he urgently needed to return to his lab, without the presence of Loki.

Barring that single, unfortunate incident, things are progressing were fairly well. Stark seemed pleased with his work, though he would still not discuss it outright with Loki, and had forbidden Jarvis to allow Loki to gain any further knowledge on anything remotely nano-related, which frustrates both man and machine to no ends. Jarvis, as Loki quickly discovered, is a notorious gossip, and Loki soaks up any and all information on Anthony Stark like a sea-sponge left too long to lie in the sun. And still there are things that Stark will not talk about. Such as the accident. Such as what lies under the mask. Such as what destroyed the - what had once been clearly a life-defining - friendship between Anthony and Bruce. Such as the current whereabouts and condition of Pepper Stark.

In the morning, after finally abandoning the pretense of a joint breakfast, Stark and Loki will meet at the lab, and work on whatever project Stark is tackling that day. They will argue definition, logic and integer until noon, at which time they will part, and head their separate ways – Loki to lunch, a quick workout or swim, and his own continued studies in the library – and Stark back to his lab to work on whatever secret tasks he doesn't want Loki to be a part of. In the evening they will meet over dinner to talk and debate and laugh until the early hours, when Loki will reluctantly head to his bed, until the next day when it will start all over again.

Many nights, Loki will sit, captivated by the passion in Stark's voice as the man describes the delicate complexity of a piece of engineering that he is struggling to unlock, wishing that for just a moment, that he might be on the receiving end of just a shadow of that passion. For the first time in a painfully, absurdly long while, Loki finds himself the one wanting, rather than wanted, tangled in his own desires, with not the vaguest idea of what to do with them. He hasn't wanted anyone since he was eighteen. Since... Since Fury, and then he just wanted it to stop. But Anthony Stark, oh... He doesn’t care that he has never seen what Stark might hide under that mask and gloves and all those slick, deceiving clothes. He doesn’t care about the horror that Stark’s flesh may be. Stark is kind and generous and funny and Stark… Stark listens. Stark turns that brutal, focused laser of attention on to Loki and Loki finds it hard to breathe, the air around him turning viscous, refusing to fill his struggling lungs. The scent of strawberries and machine oil, of silk and solder, the smells of Stark, will send him running to the shower far more than humanly required, and he will stand, consumed, with water pouring icy streams along his back, that could not cool him off.

In the middle of the night, Loki will wake, rock-hard and panting, mind swimming with visions of a Stark shaped-figure, skin burning under a dreamed of kiss. Loki will touch himself, gingerly, cautiously at first, growing progressively braver, reclaiming his pleasure in all the ways that it was once taken from him, hands ruthless and demanding, until he cries Stark’s name into a pillow, and tastes the bitterness of tears on his tongue. He’ll lie awake, arms wrapped around himself, pretending to not cry, lying, as he will lie again to Stark tomorrow, when asked if everything is fine. Fine, yes, he’ll say, when what he wants to say is…

The days would come and go. They’d meet, they’d talk and part. Some days for Loki are more difficult than others. The days he thinks that Stark might finally, almost, but not quite trust him enough to allow him to see what he kept hidden underneath the mask, when Stark will pause, and stare at Loki. Loki will feel the air around them growing tight and thick, his palms grow cold with sweat, in spite of the warm temperatures Jarvis will ordinarily keep the tower at, knowing that Loki can easily get cold. But then Stark will turn, the moment broken, and Loki can once more breathe.

One morning, the unknowing is too much.

‘Jarvis.’

‘Yes sir?’

‘Where is Mr. Stark right now?’ Loki asks, certain already of the answer.

‘Mr. Stark is swimming sir, as he does every morning.’

‘Jarvis?’

‘Yes sir?’

‘Does Mr. Stark tend to swim in his mask, and various other garments?’

‘No sir, he does not.’ It may be imagination, but Loki swears that he hears satisfaction in the AI’s voice, and maybe a note of relief, like one that comes from holding one’s breath too long.

‘Thank you, Jarvis.’

‘It’s my pleasure, sir.’

The pool is on a separate level entirely, encased in glass and a crystal ceiling reflecting the illusion of a long unseen sun. Ringed as it is, entirely in plants and foliage, it resembles a jungle grotto, more than any modern basin. More of Maria’s influence, Loki imagines, since Anthony Stark has given no indication of holding preference for the antique, in fact quite to the contrary.

Loki slips carefully through the door, making his way to the pool’s side, pushing back ferns, barely daring to breathe. He can hear a body moving smoothly through the water, and steps near the water’s edge, where Stark will eventually surface, and ultimately does, shaking back droplets that reflect the sun as if they too, are a million tiny mirrors.

Had Loki spent his time in Maria’s library studying legends he might have heard of men frozen, turned to stone by a medusa’s gaze. A woman cursed by a jealous God, to blind men with her beauty. He may have learned of Lot’s wife, who became salt for seeing an angel’s glory with her naked eye. Had he the inclination, he would have read of faerie, the beings of Oberon’s ageless court, coming to Earth to seduce her mortal children.

It would have been, he thinks briefly, the moment moving with a molasses-like slowness, considerably easier if Stark were deformed, as he had first imagined. It might have simplified matters significantly confessing his love to a monster, a physically lesser being, perfection then being something he, could offer of himself and find eventually an equal footing. But Stark is not deformed. Far, sadly, from it. For all he didn’t know the legends, he’s read of Icarus, in the original Greek, and now he’s burning, falling, from having flown too close to the sun.

From head to toe, he’s golden, gleaming skin unbroken, save by water and light defying shadows. Smooth muscle plays in corded arms and thighs, and in the perfect triangle of his chest. He’s leonine, this immaculate scion of House Stark, not just in features - which most resemble that of a large cat – but in his motions, spare, lithe, silent footfalls even on the wet marble of the pool. His damp mane is gold, falling in loose waves down his back, from palest gold to darkest ochre, glinting richly in the lying sun. The ochre repeats down at his groin, and daring to glance down at Stark’s cock, seeing it hang heavy between long legs, makes Loki salivate, for all his mouth was dry just moments ago. He can’t bring himself to look at Stark’s eyes. Can’t pull his gaze past cheeks and mouth that open in a roar befitting any lion.

‘Loki!’ He stares then, meeting Stark’s eyes, terror freezing, paralyzing, and robbing him of words. Stark’s eyes are topaz, smoky and gold, split down the middle as a cat’s are split, a darker, smoky ring at the outer edge.

‘Loki,’ Stark repeats, and Loki realizes the voice is his. The mask did nothing to change or alter it. ‘How... how dare you?’ Stark asks all too quietly.

‘Tony, I –‘ he begins wanting to explain, to answer, to fall and worship at his newfound God’s feet.

‘No. Don’t say a word. Not a single word. How could you take this from me? I gave you everything and asked for nothing. I saved your brother, and you would rob me of this?...’ He gestures up and to himself, and Loki notes in passing that his palms are a lighter, more delicate shade of gold, with nails the colour of old brass. ‘Have you come to laugh? A beast inside his tower, and did Mother's books teach you of this too? Did my wearing a mask, to hide what I am, mean nothing to you, that you had to take this from me? You are after all a thief, how quickly I forgot…’

‘Sir, if I may,’ Jarvis begins.

‘No. Mute.’ Stark barely acknowledges his AI. ‘Get out. Go. Leave. I don’t care where you go, but get. Out. Of. My. Sight.’ Stark turns, and points towards the nearest door.

Loki would have turned, reached out, explained, but he can’t. The words are frozen in his throat, his feet, as if of their own volition, turn, carry him, running to the door. The last thing he sees before the elevator slides shut is Stark standing, head hung low, the light reflecting off his back.

Loki spends the rest of the day in his room. For all he has that nowhere to go, even had there been a home waiting for his return, he finds himself unable to leave. How can he? He’d leave his heart behind. His stomach all in knots, he doesn’t eat, just drinks a bit of water from the taps in his bath. The next day is the same. He asks for Jarvis, but the ‘butler’ fails to reply, as furious no doubt as is his master. On the third day a tablet arrives, delivered by a faceless robot. It springs to life at Loki’s touch, Stark’s image, mask firmly back in place.

‘Loki,’ he begins, and Loki starts to cry in relief, until he hears the next words. ‘I do not forgive you for the unforgivable. However, I will not break my word. I told you that you may remain here for as long as you wish, and so you can. The library, the dining room, your rooms will all remain open to you. My lab, workshops and any other areas that I might frequent will not. You may again communicate with Jarvis, though you will find his answers with regards to my affairs now significantly limited. We will not speak again.’

The tablet grows cold under his touch, and will not speak again, no matter how he tries. He throws it, hard against a wall, expecting it to break, to shatter like his heart, but it just lays there, a silent, cold reminder of what was.

Chapter Text

A week goes by. Then two. Loki sleeps, bathes, and when Jarvis reminds him, he eats. He rarely leaves his rooms, except to get more books, surrounding himself with an endless maze of verse, hoping that in their labyrinthian paths the pain may somehow lose its way. Unknowing, Loki mourns. Too young for sorrow, when his mother passed away, he did not grieve her loss with Thor, and now he thinks the grief of losing what he never had may drive him mad. The first two days he spends in bed, un-sleeping, starting blindly at the ceiling and cursing himself silently a fool. A proud, vain, hopeless, useless fool. Stark had shown kindness, nothing more, when he had complimented Loki on his language skills. I always did say that you were a ‘Silvertongue’, the memory of Fury whispers. There was never an awareness of Loki as anything, but what he is – a curiosity, a pet. A ‘slummy’ saved, and brought Above to see how he might fare. Well... now he sees. Whatever reasons Stark had ever had for keeping to himself and covering the glory that he is, Loki betrayed his trust, now banished from his side, he yearned to be permitted back.

Eventually, maybe growing tired of his constant sighs, or more likely concerned over the mess that will require cleanup in the event that Loki die, with threats and promises, Jarvis bullies him out of bed, into a shower and to eat some food. The shower is a blessing – Loki remembers, misses, being clean, but hunger is an old friend, so he’ll forget to eat unless reminded firmly. Morning, afternoon and night, he’d wake, stare at the ceiling and eventually get up. Jarvis begins to speak to him in languages other than slang – the typical conglomerate of English, German and Japanese that was the usual cant for those spending time Below – and hesitantly Loki will speak back. His days are spent once more in lessons – history and science. He reads the legends, previously ignored, and draws comparisons between himself and other mortals who fell in love with Gods. Had he only read them sooner, Loki thinks, the anguish that he may have saved. He builds a wall, rather rebuilds one really, from bitterness around his heart, and fills the cracks with vague untruths. He never cared for Stark – not really - merely reacted to the many kindnesses given, all things considered, how could he not. Stark is a beast, a monster, the gleaming, golden line of thigh and arm were startling not striking, not as he first allowed himself to believe. Stark’s mouth, that he had so often imagined settling on his own, his skin, his loins… and there is only so far that his lies will go, and he crumbles, forced to tear down and rebuild again, undone by memory of a roar.

The third week, Loki lies in bed, again unmoving, staring at the wall through a mass of tangled hair, and realizes that he needs... a change. The past two weeks he’s been existing in a daze, between a dream and waking and it was time reality set in. He needs a change.

‘Jarvis,’ he asks tentatively.

‘Yes, sir?’

‘How are you at cutting hair?’

A few hours later, hair neatly trimmed to lie in a sleek, black line against his head, Loki looks back in to the mirror, again not recognizing the stranger looking back. His cheeks stand out, against the tautness of pale skin, once parchment-thin, now smooth with the exactitude of marble, worn to perfection by thousands of worshipful hands. Three weeks of mourning – for all that he lamented something that he never had – or else three centuries of poetry and lore, have added a complexity to his green eyes, a bone-deep weariness lying hidden in their depths, hinting at old sadness and unhealed wounds. The stranger smiles, and Loki lifts his hand to touch his lips, thinking that the soft and knowing smile cannot possibly be his, for all it feels right, there on his mouth.

‘Jarvis?’ he asks quietly.

‘Yes sir?’

‘Where can I find Mister Stark?’ he asks, and it’s deja vu all over again.

‘Mr. Stark is in his study, sir, but I don’t believe-‘

An AI that believes. Loki runs his fingers through his unfamiliar, shorter hair. What does he believe in these days? He believes in the strictures of language. Loki believes in phonology, morphology and syntax. He believes in the ability of long-dead poets to make words dance, perform like a trained monkey on a leash. He believes that well-crafted phrases can be the armour protecting him from future hurts.

‘Jarvis,’ he says, stepping through his door. ‘Please let Mr. Stark know that I’m coming to say goodbye. I know that he doesn't want to see me, but I am hoping he'll make an exception this one, last time.'

The door to the study is closed when he arrives, and Loki pauses, like a condemned man walking to the gallows, unknowing if the note delivered to the hangman is a pardon or command that he ought to be quartered rather than hung. He raises a hand to knock, to make some noise, announcing his presence, surprised when it opens with a quiet hiss, allowing access to Stark’s rooms.

Stark sits in his chair, the screen across him lit, it shows a boardroom, somewhere in Japan. Loki recognizes the Spartan-like surroundings and emotionless faces, facing Stark’s mask. Stark is animated, leaning forward in his chair, and Loki flinches inwardly. The meeting seems to not be going well already, and Stark’s breech of etiquette can only make matters worse.

‘Mr. Nakamoro,’ the tinny voice of Stark’s interpreter interrupts the Japanese businessman, and Loki feels a headache setting in. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he thinks he should just leave, come back later, of course there is no guarantee that Stark will let him in again, when the interpreter falters and dies. Stark looks around, fingers busy on tablet close at hand, the Japanese meanwhile growing even more politely impatient. The signs are there, if one just knows where to look. Without pausing to think, had he thought, even for a moment he’d just back out, leave, let Stark finish his faltering meeting, and slink quietly from his life, Loki steps up to the screen, bowing politely to the Japanese, nudging Stark imperceptibly with his shoulder.

‘Introduce me, Stark.’ He whispers from the corner of his mouth.

‘What? Loki, look, not now. I’m in the middle of –‘
‘You are in the middle of losing whatever it is you are trying to sell, so introduce me. I can help.’

He looks down, and whatever Stark sees in his eyes he nods, extends his hand, and mutters something to the screen, which could be an introduction, or an order for sushi take-out.

Loki bows again, deftly begging forgiveness for his late arrival, and Mr. Stark calling him when the AI interpreter faltered.

They spend an hour discussing the snows of Fuji, comparing them to cherry blossoms in the spring, neither of which either of them have ever really seen, and the poetry of an old Japanese poet who took his name from a banana tree planted in his yard. Another talking music, the ancient game of 'Go' and the bloodlines of Arabian stallions. They do not touch on business.

Stark all the while, sits quietly in his chair, observing, and saying nothing.

‘Mr. Stark is a wise man to have brought you into this negotiations, and his terms are quite generous,’ the businessman on the other end of the world finally comments in accentless English.

Shocked into silence, and knowing nothing of the actual terms, Loki nods, in thanks and agreement.

‘We have considered the matter of his offer. We feel that it is not entirely unreasonable, in spite of its unusual nature.’

Loki nods again, lying with his very silence.

‘Our lawyers will forward the signed agreements to Mr. Stark this morning. It has been our pleasure, Mr. Lie Smith. I look forward to conversing with you again.’

‘The pleasure has been mine, Nakamoro-san.’ And the screen goes dark.

Loki lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, and turns to Stark.

‘Loki,’ Stark says.

‘I….’ Loki starts.

‘Have dinner with me.’

‘What?’ Loki turns. He had expected Stark to demand what exactly he was doing there, to demand he leave right that moment.

‘Have dinner with me. To celebrate. You just saved me a great deal of time, not to mention the respect of a valuable contact. The least that I can do, by way of saying thanks, is feed you.’

‘Alright then,’ Loki finds himself agreeing. ‘Dinner.’
He dresses carefully for the occasion, black suit and dark green shirt. A green tie, darker yet. It feels odd, this dinner, after days of comfortable companionship and weeks of angry silence. They can’t go back, and Stark clearly unwilling to go forward. Knowing now, what lies beneath the mask, Loki can’t bring himself to ask.

Dinner is a quiet affair. Stark tells Loki a little something of the deal he saved, the months of work leading up to it, and Nakamoro’s rare, personal appearance. Loki nods, silently, uncertain of the words, in spite of thousands swimming through his head, like koi fish in a garden pond, and then suddenly remembers.

‘Stark, Nakomoro, called me ‘Lie Smith’, how did you ever come up with that name?’

Stark chuckles, ‘I tried to introduce you as ‘Word Smith’, after all those books you read… apparently my Japanese is worse than I remembered. I'm sorry, I fucked up.'

‘Stark…’ Loki begins.

‘Loki, what I said earlier, when you… when you saw me in the pool - ‘

‘You were right,’ Loki lets his shoulders drop. ‘Your message. You were right. You gave me everything, but I wasn't satisfied with that. I stole from you. I’m sorry. I am, as you said, after all, just a thief. I came to tell you I was leaving.’

‘You’re leaving?' Stark asks, incredulous. 'Where will you go?’

‘Does it matter?.. I... I don’t belong here. You neither need nor want me... here… so I’… just.. I’ll just go.’

‘Don’t leave,’ Stark whispers.

‘What?’ Loki’s brows fly of their own volition.

‘Don’t go. Stay. I know.. I know things have been... difficult the last few weeks, but… but we could go back to how things were. You could.. you could help me with my work again, and and... Jarvis would miss you, right Jarvis?’

‘Without a doubt, sir.’ The AI agrees patiently.

'I'm sorry, Stark,' Loki shakes his head. 'I can't go back to having things the way they were. They've changed for...'

'Is it because of how I look?' Stark asks quietly.

'Yes,' Loki agrees, a little sharper than intended. It's because you are more beautiful than all the angels and are of Above, and I am just a liar and a thief who managed to get lucky, he thinks and doesn't say. 'I see. For some reason I thought that maybe my looks would not be such an issue, but apparently it was still too much to hope. Will you at least stay the night? If you are still determined, you can go in the morning, but I can't stand the thought of you being out there, in the dark, alone.’ Stark’s voice sounds resigned.

'I'll stay the night then. Thank you, Stark.' Loki nods. ‘Good night.’

‘Good night, Loki.’

That night Loki has a nightmare. Just another of the many haunting him since he and Stark 'parted ways', but this one so impossibly real, he doesn't first realize that he is dreaming. He’s walking down a hall in the Tower, a grey, lightless corridor stretching on and on and on. He turns a sudden corner and runs immediately into Dice, his head hanging loosely on massive shoulders, an ugly smile splitting his face further in two.

‘Did you really think you were safe, Loki?’ he whispers.

He spins, only to find Slice blocking his way. They grab him, drag him to Stark’s office, except the office isn't Stark's - it's Fury's, and he's waiting there, along with the rest of his ‘boys’.

‘Did you think you would get away, Silvertongue?’ Fury asks, and throws him on to the floor, the collar back on, and men closing around him, like dogs to a kill. Loki looks, in desperation seeking a way out, only to see Thor, standing companionably beside Fury.

'I told you, little brother, you were just a whore. About time you figured out where your real talents lie, and stop at playing like you were worth a damn. Like someone of Stark's standing might ever care for someone of the likes of you.'

Thor's voice, Thor's face, Thor's words are what undoes him. From anyone else he can take the abuse, but not his brother. Not Thor... not again.

He screams... an anguished, wordless, pain-riddled shriek that holds all the despair and loss experienced in his life. His mother's death, his months with Fury, Thor's angry words and what had felt like Stark's betrayal, it all comes tearing from his throat, and he can't stop himself from screaming.. screaming...

Hands, like warm iron closing tightly around his wrists, arms enfolding, and holding him tight against a naked chest. He's dreaming still. He knows it. There is no one who will hold him in such a manner. Thor thinks he is a whore, and Stark... Stark. But there is a gentle hand running down his hair, and brushing the tears from his face, a reassuring voice that’s soothing him back to sleep, telling him that it is just a dream, and in the morning it will all be fine. It lies, the voice. He'll never be alright again. Not now, nor in the morning, but for now he foolishly believes.

After all, he thinks, it's just a dream.

Chapter Text

Loki wakes in the morning, luxuriating in the rare feeling of utter well-being. He is relaxed and rested in what seems like first time in weeks, and briefly wonders if he’s still dreaming, refusing to open his eyes, just in case it’s true, and will break the moment. His dream the previous night left him feeling protected, languid… loved. He stretches, arms unfolding and brushes against warm solid flesh, an answering arm encircling him close, pulling him against a yielding warmth and Loki smiles, remembers being held just so inside his dream… dream. Except this is no dream, and he’s awake, wide eyed, unfocused, and rolling back in terror before a hand, splays lightly on his chest, pushes him down without a visible effort.

‘Loki… Loki… shhh…. I’ve got you, it’s alright… I’m not going to hurt you.’ A voice. Stark’s voice. ‘No one is going to hurt you. I promise... Loki... Loki, look at me.’

Eyes focus, slowly. Stark. Half-naked, in his bed. All golden skin, no mask, just tussled mane, and worried, topaz eyes. Loki swallows, pushing down the want, the sudden dryness in his mouth that comes from Stark being so near.

‘Stark,’ he manages. ‘What… what are you doing here?’

‘I live here,’ he chuckles, the rumble vibrating through his arm, down into Loki’s chest, and breath again catches in his throat. It’s all too much and not enough. ‘And you were having one hell of a nightmare. Jarvis was worried when he couldn’t wake you. Frankly I was too.’

‘Oh,’ Loki says. Stark shows no inclination to move his hand. It’s warm, and heavy, lying there, like it belongs in the middle of his chest. He glances away and down, down the lean line of Stark’s torso to the sheets bunched at his hips. Loki sleeps in the nude, and wonders briefly if Stark does the same. ‘I’m sorry... I... I didn’t mean to.’

‘Of course you didn’t,’ he says patiently, bonelessly leaning down, suspended over Loki, on one arm, his hand finally leaving the centre of Loki’s chest – Loki takes a grateful breath, only to have it catch again, as Stark brushes back a fall of hair from his eyes. ‘It sounded… It sounded pretty intense. Would you like to talk about it?’

‘I… no.’ Loki swallows again, looks away, wondering briefly if this is how a mouse might feel, trapped between a large cat’s paws, dinner and toy in one. He turns his head, Stark mirroring the motion, and Loki has a moment just to stare, absorb the beauty of wide-spaced cheeks and eyes, the flawless brow, and tips of pointed fangs curling just past the nearly human lips, and Loki licks his own, unthinking.

‘Loki…’ Stark growls, leonine and hungry, curling his hand around Loki’s face, no longer looking away, soft fingers brushing at the spot beneath his jaw, that Loki has since come to think of as Stark’s. ‘Loki... don’t go.’

‘Stark, I…’ he begins, and doesn’t end, as Stark purposely closes the distance between them, eyes open wide, lightly brushing Loki’s lips with his own, even as his fingers gently, delicately hold his face, cupping his cheek with an unearthly care.

When Stark pulls back, Loki’s pupils are blown, staring up into a just as quickly vanishing amber ring. The hand on his face slides back down along his jaw, fingers find his neck, dance lightly over the spread of collarbones and dip into the soft hollow in between. Stark drops his mouth, lips and tongue tracing the path his fingers laid. ‘Stay.. Loki. Please…’ he whispers. ‘Don’t go.’

I’m only human, Loki thinks, body arching up into Stark’s touch, unthinking of why Stark might have changed his mind, and this may well be a last chance I’ll have to anything resembling joy, and buries both his hands in Stark’s sprawling mane, closing his eyes as the overwhelming, living silk pours over his fingers, and he pulls Stark’s face back for another kiss, lips parting with a near humiliating eagerness. Stark swallows down the needy moan that bursts out from Loki’s chest, when his tongue encounters the feline coarseness of Stark’s and responds in kind. There’s nothing sweet, or gentle in that kiss. For all that Loki has initiated, Stark claims his mouth, tongue rough, demanding wrapping around his own, ruthless in his want. Gingerly Loki lingers on the pointed fangs, explores the textures and exotic tang. Stark tastes of cinnamon and iron, the flavours all his own, tingling on Loki’s tongue. Stark lets him, for a moment, before pushing back, taking back control, burying his face again in Loki’s throat, licking a broad swathe that tears a cry from Loki’s mouth, head falling back to give Stark greater access.

‘Loki?...’ Stark purrs, a question, challenging, head dipping lower yet, licking at ridged scars that dot Loki’s pale chest like primal markings of a long-lost tribe, hand trailing down his ribs, there wrapping loosely around his hip, thumb a mere inch from Loki’s cock hard already, and weeping just from this. A kiss, a light caress.

‘Stark…’ Loki gasps, with just the edge of warning in his voice.

And for a while they do not talk, except in sighs and broken moans, a cry from Loki, coming in the furnace of Stark’s mouth, as slick and careful hands prepare and open him wide. Stark is just as intent on Loki’s pleasure as his own, and Loki stares in wonder and disbelief. No one has ever gained such enjoyment of simply being with him, his company, his joy. The laughter pouring from deep within Stark’s chest on finding the backs of Loki’s ticklish knees, holding him down while he squirms and begs, though wordless still, fearful of the words that may escape if he just let them. The burning in Stark’s eyes, as he slowly takes him, a slick and steady glide, all the while ensuring Loki’s ease as well. Loki is hard again and so, so very ready, but Stark is moving glacially slow, taking no notice of his vain attempts in picking up the pace. Had there been any tears left, he would have cried for the tender, caring kiss Stark places on the inside of his knee before they move, sure as the tide, increasing pace and tempo, until all Loki can see are stars, and he is crashing, falling, as waves upon the beach, tasting himself, not unlike the sea's bitter salt, on Stark’s tongue, as with a lion’s inarticulate roar, he comes too, as glorious in rapture as in all things.

When Loki’s breath slows down enough for speech, and he can see more than the stars behind his lids, he looks up into Stark’s smiling face, lifting his own hand to touch what until he had only dreamt of. Stark’s skin is velvet, dense and thick, the softest, hairless nap. He brushes fingers, both inquisitive and starved for touch, over the arch of Stark’s perfect cheek, to the curve of his jaw, where Stark traps his fingers in his hand, placing a kiss in the palm, the light of mischief dancing in his eyes.

‘Loki…’ He hears Stark whisper over the sound of his own breathing, growing again desperate and harsh. ‘Don’t go.’

Chapter Text

Antnony Stark sleeps sprawled, on his stomach, claiming the majority of the bed, breathing calmly, evenly. He sleeps the calm, peaceful slumber of someone who has never had to fear for his life.

Loki sleeps with his arms and legs pulled tightly in, on the far edge of the bed and the smallest bit of mattress possible. It comes from years of having to share a bed and sleeping next to Thor who will occasionally thrash and kick in his sleep, leaving Loki with bruises that he’d be desperate to hide come morning, knowing how utterly devastated their discovery will make his brother. He sleeps lightly, half-awake, ready to bolt at the slightest provocation.

Just then he’s not sleeping. He’s wide awake, perched up on one elbow, savoring with breathless disbelief the golden expanses of skin lying spread less than an arm’s length away. If he wants to, he can reach out, brush his hand down a slick, muscular shoulder, run his fingers down Tony’s spine, to the base of his back, to the… Loki feels an unfamiliar tightening in his groin, a slowly building, overwhelming, yearning, to touch, taste, feel, take. Lay claim and make his own.

The exploration starts out tentatively, hesitantly. The lightest brush of fingers along the top of Stark’s gleaming shoulders. Tony shifts lightly, skin shivering under the soft caress , but doesn’t appear to wake. Growing bolder, Loki runs his palm along the stretch of back, thrilling in the quiet strength secreted just below the skin, the subtle curve of rib, the narrowing of waist. Stark sighs contentedly, stretching under Loki’s hands, the want growing uncontrollable. He doesn’t want to be gentle. He doesn’t want polite caresses. He wants…

‘Tony…’ Loki purrs in Stark’s ear, moulding himself to Tony’s back, one hand slithering out to snag the oddly, strawberry scented oil, flicking his tongue against the soft lobe, teeth lightly grazing the back of Tony’s neck. ‘I am going to fuck you so hard, I’ll make you forget your name.’

Beneath him Stark lets out an inarticulate moan, melting bonelessly into the mattress, surrendering himself to Loki’s mouth and hands and need.

Loki’s tongue is quicksilver and molten, burning a scalding trail to the base of Stark’s spine. Tony tastes of iron and cinnamon and strawberries and the dark deep earth, and he arches and groans and begs, but doesn’t shift, for which Loki is grateful, since he knows he hasn’t anywhere the strength to match him, holding him down with just a single hand in the middle of his back, and Loki realizes in a moment of lightning clarity that had even thought of it, he could not have brought himself to tie Tony down, and that the very idea hits too close and sends tendrils of fear and nausea spiraling to his core. Below him, Stark senses the change in Loki, and arches his back wordlessly, silently offering himself to Loki’s will.

The trust undoes him. Hand still flat on Tony’s back, he slicks himself, the scent of oil and strawberries dropping off his fingers all over Tony’s back, his thighs, the perfect, golden curve of his ass before plunging almost brutally deep in one swift, breathless moment.

For an instant they are both still. Motionless. Frozen and breathless, before Loki starts to move, withdrawing almost fully and sinking back deep, matching the rhythm that began beating inside his heart the in the instant he laid his eyes on Anthony Stark.

Tony is saying Loki’s name, breathing it wetly into his pillow, whispering it over and over, like a mantra or a prayer, but Loki can’t talk. The words, those dangerous, frightening, devastating words that threaten to escape, push past his lips and destroy everything, no matter that it all still feels more dream than truth. So he buries his teeth in Stark’s shoulder, and digs his fingers into his hips, allowing his flesh to speak for him, convey everything that language will not.

Stark’s body hears him. Stark’s body understands. Stark arches, effortlessly lifting Loki along with him, spilling on the smooth sheets, much like Loki’s name spilled from his lips. Loki cries out something that might be Tony’s name, or maybe nothing at all, coming deep inside Tony, and collapsing lifelessly on his back, thankful for the lack of breath in his chest that’s keeping the words from tearing free.

He withdraws a short while later, with an odd reluctance, lying down beside Tony, pushing the tangled mane back from his amber eyes, tracing the start of a smile with his fingers, a matching one tugging at the corners of his lips.

‘I’m glad you stayed,’ Stark says, and Loki nods, unable to speak with the traitorous words threatening to escape. ‘You’re a wonderful way to start the day.’

‘You aren't so bad yourself, but the day ended some hours ago. It’s evening now.’ Loki replies, laughing, and finds himself flipped onto his back, as Stark pounces, playfully ravaging at his throat, and he buries both hands deep in Tony’s mane, inhaling deeply the sharp, unique scent of him, still fearing that it might all just be a dream and all too soon he will need to wake up.

‘Well, that might explain why I’m hungry enough to actually eat some of those protein bars everyone seems so fond of,’ Stark leaps up off the bed, and Loki swallows hard, staring, ‘Let's grab a shower and see what Jarvis has made us for dinner.’ Stark takes a step back, cupping Loki’s face and kissing him lightly. ‘You are amazing, and I’m going to need a lot more energy to keep up with you.’

But in the sliding, steamy depths of his cavernous shower, Stark proves the lie in his words, bringing Loki to screaming climax against the marble wall, with just the slow, undulating friction of his body and the whisper of filthy promises in his ear.

‘So, this dream of yours,’ Stark says some hours later, as they’re sitting over the sumptuous feast that Jarvis casually refers to as ‘dinner’. ‘you want to tell me about it.?’

The food in Loki’s stomach turns to lead, a cold sweat breaking out on his forehead and hands. This is it. The moment of truth. When everything ends. Loki looks away, unable to meet Stark’s eyes.

‘Hey, hey…’ Tony says quietly, reaching out and taking hold of Loki’s hand. ‘It’s OK… you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to. You never have to.’

‘I… no, it’s OK. I… I’ll have to talk about it eventually. It’s just… just that.’ His voice chokes off, too many words he can’t say, too many words he won’t say.

‘Loki… Loki… nothing you can tell me, nothing you could ever say is going to change how I feel about you.’

Yes, Loki thinks. I know. Nothing.

‘I… My... our mother died when I was very young,’ Loki starts.

‘Our?’

‘Yeah... my brother Thor and mine. We don’t even know the name of what ever it was that took her. There are so many things down there, it’s more hassle than it’s worth to name them all.’ Stark nods, his expression unreadable.

‘We’ve been on our own for a long, long time. Sometimes… sometimes the things we did to survive weren’t... good. Or easy. I...’

‘It’s alright. You don’t need to tell me.’

‘I... I do, actually.’ Loki says, looking up into Stark’s warm, topaz coloured eyes. ‘You need to know what’s living in your house.’

And slowly, tentatively he tells Stark everything. From his first time in Fury’s hands, holding back nothing, all the things he never told Thor, to Thor’s accident, his deal with the Allfather, the homecoming and Thor’s angry accusations. The words falling, tumbling over themselves in their rush to get out. Through it all Stark says nothing, just silently holds Loki’s handquiet moment after, absently stroking his fingers across Loki’s palm, almost like he’d forgotten that he was there.

‘Your brother is an idiot.’ Stark finally says. ‘A selfish, ignorant, stupid, blind idiot. If I had anyone ever loved me half as much as you love your brother… I… I would have moved heaven and earth for them.’

You do. I do, Loki wants to say and doesn’t. Can’t. Won’t. So he just nods, and smiles quietly, returning the soft caress of Stark’s fingers.

‘Ten years ago,’ Stark says suddenly. ‘There was an accident. Three of us wanted to change the world. We didn't change the world. We only succeeded in changing ourselves, and what we changed into were monsters.’

Chapter Text

‘Ten years ago,’ Stark says suddenly. ‘There was an accident. Three of us wanted to change the world. We didn't change the world. We only succeeded in changing ourselves, and what we changed into were monsters.’

Loki freezes. A deer in the headlights, uncertain what to do with this sudden revelation. This trust. He’s not used to people trusting him – once a thief, always a thief. Once a liar, so branded for eternity. But Tony isn’t like other people, Loki is realizing. He trusts. He cares. He…
He’s talking.

‘I guess to really ‘get’ us, you would need to know that Pepper, Bruce and I have known one another since... well for ever it seemed like, though it's only Pepper that I’ve known for the better part of my life – there aren’t so many Tower families that we can afford to be careless with inbreeding – and our families have always sort of expected an eventual merger. Or at the very least that Pepper and I would provide them with some offspring to carry on the dynasties.’ Tony sounds resigned, maybe even a little sad. Unsurprising really, all things considered.

Loki tries to picture it – a younger version of the smiling woman from the painting, accompanying a younger, more human Anthony Stark. Galas, parties, his mind can’t imagine the complicated pastimes of those living Above, all he can see is Pepper’s hand in Tony’s. Pepper’s arm around Tony’s waist. Pepper’s lips kissing Tony. Pepper’s long legs wrapping tight around Tony and pulling him in closer and… and he can’t think anymore. Can’t hate the woman who vanished, taking Tony’s broken heart along with her.

‘Pepper was amazing,’ Tony is saying. ‘She was so full of energy, always on the move, always on the go. Always laughing. You’d have liked her – it was impossible not to. She was so.. so alive, you couldn’t imagine her ever standing still, it was as if she wanted to live life, each and every moment to the fullest. Almost like... like she knew.’

Loki nods. He’d heard that part. Some of it anyway. He knows some of the story. But that was stolen knowledge, and he’s done with being a thief, if not quite with being a liar, so all he does is nod, like he’s listening, paying attention, hearing this part of the story for the very first time. ‘Bruce and I didn't meet until college. Pepper was off in Europe for a few years – studying art. Studying life. She’d asked me to come with her, I... I told her to go on her own. Live the single life. Sow her wild oats. Maybe if I had...’ He pauses, looking 10 years into the past. ‘Bruce was from another of Tower families, if not quite in the class that Pepper’s and mine were. It didn’t matter though. Not to either of us. Bruce and I hit it off immediately. Shared jokes, shared drinks, once or twice we even shared women. But what we really shared our one true passion – science. He had this absolutely brilliant mind,’ Tony says, his voice filled with wonder, and Loki suddenly wonders if maybe Tony wasn't a little bit in love with Bruce too.

‘Bruce would come up with these unbelievable, corkscrew formulas that I could barely follow, but he was this incredibly easy-going, kind, generous man, and he’d just stop and explain and explain again and again until I caught on, and then he’d just laugh, like it was the greatest thing in the world that I understood and he could share that with me. Bruce was like the brother I never had. It was all just so perfect.’

Loki can see it. As if he was right there with them. Bruce’s dark head bent over his precisely written, careful notes, explaining slowly, patiently, getting more and more animated as Tony is caught on, until he’s not explaining, they’re debating and arguing possibilities and probabilities and laughing and, and... it’s not different from the time Bruce spent with Loki and Thor. Thor. The name snares, snags, tearing free the new scab that just started growing over the old pain. Tony spots the catch in Loki’s breath, taking hold of his hand, smiling at him warmly. Loki shakes his head, returning the smile. He wants Tony to continue, knowing if he stops he’ll never hear the end, and he wants, needs to know what happened.

‘We did everything together. We got drunk together. Got in trouble together. Even fell for the same woman… I remember the moment that Bruce first met Pepper. I saw the instant he fell in love with her. She’d come back, four, five, months earlier than expected – said she had missed me, wanted to surprise me. Bruce and I were in the lab, working on some crazy theory of ours as per usual, and she just... walked in. She looked like this pure, golden ray of sunshine. She had on this unbelievable, blue dress, that looked like something her great-grandmother might’ve worn – latest European styles, she said – and the colour really brought out her eyes, not that they really needed it. And her hair was this imperfect, tousled mess, cheeks flushed, like she’d been running, and she smelled… she smelled like I will always imagine how Spring would have smelled, and I looked up, and all I could see was how Bruce was looking at her. How my brother was looking at the woman who would be my wife.’ Tony pauses, swallowing, and Loki can see it, the three of them, Bruce and Tony and Pepper, and that look on Bruce’s face. He’d recognize it, if he ever looked in the mirror. It’s the same look he wears when Tony’s face is turned away, when he can’t see him looking.

‘Bruce never said a word, not to me, not to Pepper.’ Tony continues. ‘He wouldn’t. He’s just not the sort of man that would have. Pepper was mine, always had been, and he would never stand in the way. I’ve always wondered though, if maybe Pepper might have loved him too, but knowing Bruce and how noble he is, he’d get over the whole thing and just never say anything about it.

Not that it ever really mattered. From the moment those two met, we became the three musketeers rather than just two. Pepper fit like the missing piece of a puzzle, she balanced, complimented us. She’d solve our arguments, and keep us organized and focused and fed. I realized just a short while ago that I never thanked her for abandoning her own dreams to help Bruce and I with ours. She wanted to be an artist, it’s what she had gone to school for, and she left all that behind.’

‘She loved you,’ Loki whispers.

‘I know,’ Tony nods. ‘She loved us both. By then I think she might have even loved Bruce a little more than me, but we were promised to each other since we were children, and couldn’t see past that.’

Taking a deep breath, he continues. ‘Bruce and I had a theory. We theorized that if we could create a nano tech which benefited from both Bruce’s knowledge of medicine and bio-gen and my own skills with robotics, we could make humanity virtually immortal. Or at least so long lived as to not matter. No one need ever get sick again. Or grow old. You’d be young until the nanite wore out, and then you’d just… shut off, like a machine running out of power. That was Bruce’s big concern – the planet is barely able to sustain the life it has now, and if we were to make humans immortal…’ Stark shakes his head. ‘The nanites would be constantly working to replace the sick, or worn-out parts. Humanity could become Gods. Slice-pits would become obsolete because the tech would be available to everyone. Everywhere. Imagine it – a world without pain. Without illness.’ Stark clutches Loki’s hands in his own, and Loki’s eyes slowly fill with tears, thinking of all the friends he’d lost to back-alley drugs and medicines. Thinking of his mother. Dying, left alone in the street to be burned nameless, just like the thing that took her. Thinking about Thor and how close he came to losing him. Except in the end, he did lose him, without even a place to mourn.

‘You see it, don’t you?’ Tony is eager now, impassioned. This was his life’s goal, his work, for all that it seems to have failed him so dismally. ‘We thought we could change the world. Bruce and I began doing some testing – theoretical at first. A simpler, earlier version of Jarvis ran all the possible and virtual scenarios for us. Eventually we moved on to rats. They were working. The nanites were working. The rats were tougher, stronger, healthier. In a few cases they exhibited a far greater intelligence than we had anticipated. But it just wasn’t moving fast enough. Not for me. I wanted to see better results. All I could think of were the vids coming in on a daily basis about the slice-pits and the bodies piling up below.’

‘Until someone just as clever as you or Bruce came up with a way to replace, or re-fuel your nanites, and make themselves immortal,’ Loki says, thinking of the supposedly 300 year old Allfather, and how eagerly the old slicer would give up his hard-won power.
Stark nods. ‘That was Bruce’s concern too. We started arguing. We were constantly tense around one another. Bruce wanted to make sure that we had a fool-proof system built in for eventual nanite corrosion. That we couldn’t trust that the code I’d write into them would be fully hack-proof, in spite of all my assurances. That we couldn’t release this possible plague on humanity without being certain. When I eventually got around to asking Pepper to marry me, things just got worse. Instead of being happy with our successes we snapped at one another. Our honeymoon was spent in the lab, Bruce and I bent over our desks and Pepper hovering close by. She wanted to make it better. Make us better. That was Pepper. But then I’d snap at her too. I know she and Bruce spoke about it. They had to have, they saw what was happening, what I was growing into, and it worried, frightened them. I wish… oh there are so many things that I wish for now.

The last night... the night we argued…’ Stark pauses, looks away, down, like he can’t bear to meet Loki’s gaze, the weight of his judgement. Loki reaches out, rests a hand on Tony’s arm. Who is he to dare judge, after what he has done? Tony doesn’t turn, doesn’t look up, but he does continue. ‘I was impatient. I wanted to move on to human testing. I was willing to offer myself as the first subject, so that no one else would need to be risked. Bruce argued against it. He said we needed further tests. More generations of rats to see how the nanites affected the offspring of those that had been injected. If they transferred through blood, in spite of all our attempts at precaution. Pepper… Pepper agreed with him. I… I said some terrible things to both of them. Made some horrible accusations I know… I knew then to not be true, but I made them anyway. I wanted to strike out. Hurt them. I reminded Bruce that it was my family’s money, my money that was funding the trials, that at end of the day I could take it all away from him. All of it. Even Pepper. Oh, she lost it then – said that she was no man’s property to be taken or given away and if I thought that all she was, was some ornament to hang around my arm, or decorate my drawing room, then I was wholly mistaken.

‘I didn’t strike her.’ Stark shakes his head in denial. ‘I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have even thought of it. But she was screaming, and coming at me with raised fists, and I’d raised my hands, just to ward her off… I don’t know what Bruce thought I would do. What he thought me capable of doing, but he charged me, furious, like a man possessed. I’ve never seen him so angry in my life. We struggled, fought… the whole time Pepper was screaming… something… calling me an animal, a monster. I’m not sure what happened. The nanites were prepped, to be released into the rat’s holding area, but… I don’t know. We must have broken something, smashed it in our brawl, because the next moment everything was tinged with this thick, silver haze… and… I was woke up like this,’ Stark runs his almost human hands through his inhuman mane,’ and Bruce was nowhere to be found.’

‘And Pepper,’ Loki asks very quietly, almost afraid of the answer.

'She... I found her eventually, though I almost wish I hadn't. She… oh God… if I knew how to kill her I would have, rather than leaving her the way she was.’ Tony's voice is raw and thick with ten years’ worth of unshed tears. 'You've seen her. I know you have. She became... what she feared most – just another ornament to decorate Stark Tower. I hung her up with the rest of the family portraits.'

Chapter Text

 ‘Comfortable?’ The question is the merest puff of air tickling his ear, low, husky voice smoother than the sheets he was lying spread-eagled on, cooler than the ropes binding wrists and ankles.

Is he comfortable? Loki considers the question briefly, while his throat works endlessly swallowing both nerves and answers, trying to remember why he had agreed to this. Why he had agreed to allow Stark… Tony, he reminds himself forcefully, to tie him down, strip of him of the little semblance of control he ever possessed around the man.

You’ve been so, tense the last few weeks, Tony had said that morning, sounding, in hindsight, all too reasonable. Tense. Yes, tense would be a way to describe Loki’s behavior on learning what had befallen Tony and Bruce and … and Pepper. Hanging, alone in the solitude of the gallery, with not so much as a light to keep her company.

Stark said it was pointless, to keep on a light. If Pepper was still conscious – a fact which had nothing supporting it, save the engineer’s fervent hope to the contrary – after 10 years of immobility and silence, it was all too likely that she was by now mad. And if she was not conscious, what was the point? Why torment himself with reminders of what was? He’d run experiments, every type of possible sensor had been attached and inserted and run over the canvas and frame. Even the paint had been tested for signs of sentience. Nothing. No indication remained that the portrait had once been a living, breathing, loving woman. Tony had even, some months following the accident, when his feeling of helplessness had finally overcome fury and pride, tracked down Bruce to ask him if he had any thoughts, and the two worked together – for however briefly – trying to resolve the secret of Pepper’s condition. And Tony’s too, though only as by-product.

When Bruce vanished again, Tony continued. Studying vids of the rats they had worked on, the feedback, reviewing the footage of the accident, after finally, months, even years later he finally gave up.

He’d had Pepper hanging in his bedroom after that, but eventually the guilt, and more, the concern that in an occasional rage he might cause her permanent damage, he’d moved her to the gallery, where she might at least be safe.

Years later, new to the mystery, Loki took over. Picking up where Bruce and Tony left off, learning cybernetic and biology overnight, accepting the migraines accompanying them, just to try. He cannot, sit idly by, accepting for himself a happiness that by rights belonged to another and not try! This was Pepper, the woman who loved Tony and Tony loved in return. For all that he realized her moment of freedom would signal the ending of his, he had to try.

So yes. He’d been… tense.

‘So,’ Stark repeats again, running a fingertip along the length of Loki’s spine, watching the skin shiver and goosebumps rise in its wake. ‘Comfortable?’

Unable to speak, for the lump in his throat, Loki only nods, back and arms flexing against the ties.

‘Good,’ Tony’s voice is a purr behind and over him now, for all that he didn’t catch the shift. ‘Then let's begin.’ And Loki begins to tremble, with fear and anticipation.

It stars slowly, gently. Strong, oil-slicked, calloused hands massage him, starting at the base of his neck, working their way down the length of his arms, his bound wrists, along the planes of his back, finding knots he didn’t know he had, untangling them as easily as Loki’s cunning fingers would untie the knots holding him bound, given the least breath of a chance. He sighs, releasing the last strains of self-imposed tension, just as Tony reaches the small of his back, the upper curve of his ass, still slick and dripping with that strawberry scented oil he seems to love so much. Loki smiles knowingly to himself, sighing with expectation, confident in the knowledge of where those crafty digits will slip to next, and finds himself disappointed, as Tony continues down, following the line of his legs, ankles and finally the bottom of his less than ticklish feet.

Loki draws breath, about to thank Tony for the massage and ask which part of it precisely required that he be tied down, when a rough tongue licks up, first the arch of one foot, then the other, and Loki jerks, sharply exhaling against his bonds, shifting, feeling the satin of the sheets beneath him, and the stirring of his, till now only half-interested cock.

The tongue traverses, slowly, tantalizing up the back of his thigh, dipping slightly past the inner curve of the knee, following a path laid out by fingers, by the time it reaches the small of his back, bypassing certain points of interest entirely, Loki is writhing, panting under it, moaning and arching his back, shamelessly trying to get more friction between himself and the slick, sliding, uncooperative sheets, only to realize that Stark had chosen them for that very reason, and the cool, slippery fabric will provide no relief, no matter his efforts.
When Tony reaches the top of his shoulders, sinking his teeth in the back of Loki’s neck, shaking gently, Loki moans loudly, a gasp that might be a sob escaping his lips.

Please…

A purr in his ear, a chuckle, an unspoken promise, and Loki realizes that he had spoken out loud, biting down on his lip to keep more words from tearing loose. A hand slides up his throat, wrapping gently, tilting back his head and his eyes are squeezed tightly shut, breath catching again at the feel of sharp teeth just below his jawline. Loki feels trapped, teetering on the edge, caught between teeth and hand and torturous fabric.

With a quick lick the teeth and hand on his throat are gone, and Loki takes a deep breath, thankful for being able to draw it, before that cat-like pebbled tongue slips in between his cheeks and Loki’s eyes fly open, breath pushed from lungs that feel as if they are filling with hot lead, and all the small torments that came before are nothing compared to that rasping, burning heat, slipping in and out of him, and he’s ready to fall apart, but for the heavy hand that lands, with unvoiced command on the small of his back, pushing him down deeper into the sheets. This time Loki can’t hold back the whine of sheer frustration that rips past his teeth, rewarded by another chuckle that vibrates through the very center of his being.

The tongue is replaced with fingers, slick, slippery, and Loki tenses against his bonds in anticipation, in gratitude, in… in something nameless filling his mind the way that Tony fills his body, pushing, driving him over the edge and he screams, a broken promise, or a lie, and for a while there is nothing but a blinding light behind his eyes.

When he can see again, he’s lying on his back, Tony curled up, smiling on his chest, looking every inch, like a cat that ate the canary in spite of all the clever obstacles left in his way.

‘See,’ his lover says, amber eyes smiling. Yes, he can call him that in the silence of his mind. His lover, his lo... no. Too much. Too far. Words are tricky and might escape, best stop before he gets too far. ‘You’re much less tense now.’

‘Oh yes,’ Loki agrees, rolling, tumbling Stark onto his back, which he allows graciously, watching, his golden eyes closed to narrow slits, as Loki gently starts to nibble his way down the tawny chest, pausing at the dip of hip and thigh, and lower, lower, swallowing Stark whole with one fluid gesture, green eyes full of wickedness and lust glinting up at him, watching claws strip apart sheets, that will again need to be replaced, watching Tony arching exquisitely up, filling him again in ecstasy, and Loki laughs, deep in his throat, taking joy in his simple ability to take this amazing, gorgeous man apart, with something so relatively small.

‘God… Loki…’ Stark breaths, when he can again, his hand caressing the side of Loki’s face, cupping his cheek and drawing him in for a kiss. ‘You.. this… you are going to be the death of me.’

‘Not yet, I hope,’ Loki smiles, leaning into the kiss, the hand, pushing back the darkness threatening to overwhelm him at the thought of Stark’s death, but clearly not fast enough because something of it glints in his eyes and Stark pulls up his chin, lines of concern growing between his eyebrows.

‘Loki?... What is it? What’s wrong?’

‘I... it’s nothing.’ The thief shakes his head, forcing a smile that should fool most. That doesn’t fool Stark.

‘It’s something. Don’t... tell me. Please.’

‘I… the thought of you dying…’ Loki shakes his head again. ‘I… I mean I know we're just..’ he waves his hand, unable, unwilling to describe, identify, what this relationship between he and Stark has come to mean to him in the few short months they have had. Tony catches hold of the waving hand, dropping a kiss in the palm, but says nothing, and Loki is uncertain if he should feel grateful or lost. ‘But the thought of you.... Dead.. I... I’ve lost too many already. I can’t... the idea of losing you too.’

Tony sighs deeply, pausing, considering. ‘I need to show you something.’ He says, sitting up, cross-legged on their bed. ‘Watch.’ He says. ‘Carefully.’

Loki watches, intrigued, concerned, curious, as Tony draws one razor-tipped claw across the inside of his palm, but even as he exclaims, watching the blood well up to the surface, a gleaming, silvery something, dances over the blood, on the parted skin, drawing it tightly close, leaving not even the semblance of a scar behind it, just the thin, bloody line to show where a mark had been.

‘Tony?’ Loki stares up, all the questions in his eyes. ‘What exactly am I seeing?’

‘The nanites.’ Stark answers finally, wiping his palm on a destroyed sheet. ‘They do their work all too well. They heal damage. All damage. Fire, ice, laser, blade. I hit a bit of a.. rough patch after the accident. Pepper gone, Bruce gone. I wanted to end it. They… they wouldn’t let me. I tried everything. Poison, freezing to death, drowning, throwing myself from the tower. I’d even rigged a guillotine to try and cut off my head, and I’d just come to, no scars. No damage. The fire hurt like a son of a bitch, but it all healed.’

Loki sits back, uncertain how he should respond. He’s just been told that the man in front of him cannot be hurt. Cannot be damaged. No wonder that Allfather wanted to get his hands on this. With this kind of technology in hand, he could rule the world, not just the City.

‘It gets worse,’ Stark continue. ‘Jarvis.’

‘Yes sir?’

‘How old am I?’

‘Chronologically sir, as of today’s date you are precisely 47 years, 6 months, two days, five hours, 3 minutes and -’

‘Enough Jarvis. Thank you. How old is this body, Jarvis?’

‘Sir, according to all gathered medical data, your physical body is precisely 37 years, 4 months old.’

Loki buries his face in his hands. ‘Tony, what are you telling me? Tell me... tell me that you are not telling me that…’

‘My aging process stopped at precisely the moment the nannites ‘infected’ my system. We age because our cells stop reproducing, allowing our bodies to break down. My cells apparently do not. The nannites see to that. I can’t age, and I can’t die. If one of us should be worried about losing the other dying, then it’s me who stands a far greater risk of ever losing you.’

Loki sits back on his heels, hands dropping in shock. Somehow he thinks he’s about to get tense all over again.

Chapter Text

'I can't age, and I can't die'...

Three days and Loki has 'locked' - if not quite literally - himself amongst the vast shelves of Stark’s antique library, making it quite clear that he would appreciate a few hours – that grew, unnoticed into days - of solitude - and the words are still echoing through his mind.

Three days and those three little words ‘I can’t die’ have affected him more deeply than any other revelation since coming to the Tower, and he isn’t quite certain why this should be the case. It hurt, far more than he had anticipated, seeing that wounded look on Tony's face, as he was turning, running away, but there wasn't anything to be done. He wanted... he... Needed time to absorb this latest admission.

I can't die... How did a man learn to deal with something like this? Not that Tony was given a choice, or a chance when it came right down to it. A nice idea, to be sure, immortality, eternal youth, but when you paused to consider the aeons stretching out, endless and alone ahead of you, could you honestly say that you would face them without going slowly, surely mad? Would you accept the knowledge that in spite of any medical advances, you would outlast everyone and everything that was ever close and dear to you, and that there was nothing to be done about it? What would you do? You removed yourself from humanity. You excluded the possibility that anyone, that anything that might possibly fade away and die would ever get close to him. You surrounded yourself with machines and built an AI that could lend its false intellect to the pretense of a life, so that the years ahead did not appear so bleak. You made of your heart a fortress, and barred any from entry.

Years later, would you allow… accept a stray back into your life? Would you open your home and heart to someone more desperately alone, and lonelier than you? Would you have the kind of courage that it took to let that stray in, knowing that you would just end up burying them? Would the years they would spend together make it easier for Tony to face eternity? Or is he hoping that in that time he might find a solution to the nanite problem and either rid himself of them, or locate a means by which to end his life?

Loki wraps long fingers around his head, squeezing, as if by somehow compressing the questions ricocheting against the inside of his skull he may somehow force them into a cohesive whole. Diamonds had once come from coal, had they not? Perhaps an answer can be likewise forced from more questions. Is he, Loki, prepared to spend the rest of his with an eternally unchanging lover, who will remain young and hale as time takes its inexorable course on Loki’s face and body? Is he prepared for the possibility of the day seeing disgust, or worse yet – pity – on Tony’s beloved and perpetually perfect face? Will he come to resent his ideal, golden paramour in years to come? Will hostile accusations take the place of breathless pleas and bitterness replace passion? Loki doesn't, couldn’t know. He can hope and wish not, but one thing he knows for certain. Whatever eternal hell Tony is preparing to face, he will not let him go into it alone for so long as time permits him to remain by his lover’s side.

He finds Tony in his workshop. Of course. Staring, blindly at a hologram of a microchip slowly spinning on its axis.

'Hi,' Loki says quietly, stepping up to his chair.

Tony turns, a wry smile that doesn't quite reach the dark amber of his eyes, dancing on his lips. 'Hi yourself. You've been scarce. I thought maybe you'd...' He doesn't quite finish the thought, but he doesn’t have to. Loki can see it. Read it in his eyes. Tony had thought he'd left. And he'd let him.

'I didn't' Loki whispers, crawling up into the chair, and onto Tony's lap, leaning in until their foreheads touch and Tony's golden eyes fill his vision. How could I leave without my heart, he almost says. ‘I couldn't. I promised to stay with you for the rest of my life.’ He says instead. ‘Would you have me make a liar of myself?’

Tony doesn't say anything, just wraps his arms around Loki, pulling him close, tight, burying his face in Loki's hair, holding on like he'll never let go.

‘We’ll figure this out Tony,’ Loki whispers into his lover’s shoulder, holding him tight. ‘You made the nanites, there has to be a way to –’

Tony doesn’t let him finish. He pulls back, holding Loki’s arms tightly to the point of pain. Loki winces, struggling slightly, but Tony either does not notice, or doesn’t seem to care. ‘No, Loki. It’s over. We’re done with it. I lost both Bruce and Pepper to that hellish invention; I am NOT going to risk losing you as well. Promise you you’ll stop… Promise me you will not have anything to do with the nanites.’

Loki looks away, ignoring the pain, trapped, held by the desperation in Tony’s eyes far more than by the strength of his hands. ‘But Tony -’

‘No buts, Loki!! Promise me!! Your word Loki. I need to know that you are through.’

‘I… I swear.’ Loki sighs in resignation, choking on the irony of realizing, even as the words leave his lips, that he has just made a liar of himself, making a promise he’s doomed to break.

‘Good,’ Tony murmurs against his neck, loosening the grip on his arms, sliding his hands up in a caress. ‘I’ve missed you…’ and proceeds to spend the rest of the day demonstrating in slow, excruciating detail precisely just how much.

A day goes by. Then two. Loki nearly makes it halfway through his third day before breaking his promise. Ironically enough it’s a ‘conversation’ with Pepper that finally moves him. He has been coming to see Pepper more and more since Tony’s revelation, needing someone to talk to, and not wishing to burden Tony further. If Tony knows about these nightly chats he says nothing, possibly because Loki knows that he occasionally carries on similar discussions with Jarvis. Though of course Jarvis can, and often does, talk back in a most pointed manner.

‘…and then he grabbed me and made me promise that I would stop... that I wouldn’t have anything further to do with them. But I can’t, Pepper. I just can’t.’ Loki says dejectedly. He is sitting on the floor beside the painting, certain of his privacy. Early in their days together he and Tony had established an unspoken rule that they will not go seeking one another in the Tower, allowing one another their space. For two such independent personalities it is a necessity as deeply ingrained as breathing.

‘It’s one thing leaving you like this, not that it’s OK by any means that you are actually like this, but he’s alive... and immortal, and he’ll be alone. If only... if only we... I could restore you to what you were, he might have you, but he will have no one. Nothing… I… I can’t just leave him like that. I know if you could, you would agree with me, wouldn’t you? Of course you would. I wish you were here. I wish there was someone here that I could talk to about this. I don’t understand the technology, the biology behind all this.. I have the knowledge but it’s not.. it’s not a natural thing to me. I can’t... I can’t use what I have!’ Loki fists his hands, grinds his teeth in frustration, glancing at Pepper’s painted face. Did it change? No, it couldn’t have. His imagination, wishful thinking getting the best of him. The painting did not, could not have moved, or shifted. ‘I wish.. I wish there was someone else that I could discuss all of this with. I’m not good at this like you and Tony and Bruce… Bruce… Bruce!! Pepper you’re a genius!!! Thank you!’

A few minutes later, in the rooms that are ‘his’, though since he started sharing Tony’s bed, rarely, if ever used, aside from a place to keep his clothes, and even those have slowly, if steadily begun making their way into the other’s cavernous closet. Loki wonders briefly, just who was responsible for that – Tony or Jarvis, and decides that he really doesn’t care.

He sits down at his monitor before realizing that he doesn’t actually have the least idea of how to go about contacting Bruce. Thankfully, he knows someone who does.

‘Jarvis.’

‘Yes sir?’ the response is immediate, almost anticipatory.

‘I need a hand.’

‘Of course sir, how may I be of assistance?’

‘I need you to get me into contact with Dr. Banner.’

This time, there is a pause. ‘Sir… Dr. Banner was quite explicit in in the fact that he will not, under any circumstances accept any more calls from this Tower.’

‘He’ll talk to me, Jarvis.’ He has to, Loki thinks. As so often has happened in the past, Bruce is once again his last hope. ‘Try. Please.’

‘Very well sir. I will, as you say, ‘try’. ’

The screen in front of him remains black. A minute goes by. Then two. Three. Four. Ten. Fifteen. At twenty Loki is about ready to give up and walk away when it comes alive with Bruce’s familiar, stubbly, perpetually tired face.

‘Bruce!’ Loki smiles in relief, realizing in that moment just how much he’s missed his oldest friend. ‘How are you? Thanks for taking my call.’

‘Loki…’ Bruce smiles, the same tired, worn little smile Loki remembers. ‘I wasn’t actually sure it was you. I’m... I’m well. How are you? You look good. How did you?... Are you… that is… you’re living in Stark Tower now? After you left I wanted to call, check, but… well… Tony and I did not precisely part on the best of terms.’

‘I know, Bruce.’ Loki says very gently. ‘I’m sorry. I guess I should have thought to call sooner, but things have been a bit… odd.’

‘Yes,’ the scientist nods. ‘I expect they have been. Have you called to check up on Thor? He keeps asking if I’ve heard anything of you…’

Thor. Loki steels himself for the pain tangled with hearing his brother’s name, surprised, or not, to feel it reduced to nothing more than a dull roar in the pit of his stomach, like an old, fading bruise, something he knows all too much about.

‘How is he?’ he asks, more because Bruce expects it than from any honest desire to check on the condition of his brother.

‘He’s, he’s actually good.’ Bruce’s voice is gentle. ‘I got him a job with some old friends of mine. He's working at the loading docks.’

Loki nods, silently. Thor has work. Thor is alive. It should matter somehow, but it doesn’t. The place in his heart that had held love for his brother, now holds nothing but healed over scar tissue, and he is unwilling to pick at it. On his side of the screen Bruce continues, seemingly having missed Loki’s brief distraction.

‘The first few weeks after you’d gone he looked pretty much everywhere, asked everyone. Thought that maybe Fury had gotten his clutches back on you, or you were dead in some gutter. I’d pulled a few strings, called in some old favours, confirmed for him that you weren’t with Fury or the Allfather. And since we didn’t find you dead and frozen… well there was pretty much only one other place you could be. I didn’t tell Thor as much though. Told him that I’d heard from a friend who saw you in another city. Working. A legit job. That you were you happy. Are you, Loki, happy I mean?’

Loki smiles, slowly, brightly, honestly. ‘Yes Bruce. I am. Very much so… Tony and I are... we’re... I think we’re together now.’

‘I… I see.’ Bruce says again, slowly and Loki can see the nerve jumping in his jaw. ‘Well… nothing to be done for that then, is there. You should talk to him. Thor, I mean. Just to let him know you’re OK.’

‘I can’t Bruce.’ Loki says with a simple finality. ‘I just ... I can’t. Let him know you’ve spoken to me, or heard from me, or something, but I can’t… I can’t speak with him. Not now. Not yet.’ He adds, for Bruce’s benefit, thinking maybe not ever.

Bruce sighs, but doesn’t say anything for a long time. ‘If it wasn’t to check on Thor, Loki, then why did you call?’

‘I need your help, Bruce. I need you to help me reverse the nanite effect.’

Bruce is silent for a long moment, rubbing the bridge of his nose, like he does when faced with a tough problem for which there is no easy solution. ‘Loki… I... we, Tony and I, worked on those nanites for months, and the theory for years before that, and we barely understood what it was we’d created. And now you want me to just… reverse the process? Loki… it could take more months… years.’

‘So?’ Loki shrugs. ‘You have something better to do with forever?’

Chapter Text

Promises are easy to make. I promise I will always love you. I promise I will put the cap back on the toothpaste. I promise I will not drink coffee past midnight because it makes me hyper and as a result, keeps you awake. I promise I will never leave you. I promise I will not mess any further with the technology which turned you into a monster in your own eyes, your wife into a painting and your (former) best friend into something I can’t get either of you to speak about.

Promises are easy to make. As Loki has learned while the broken promise he made to Stark eats away at his core, like slowly dripping acid. Months have gone by, and he and Bruce are no closer to a solution, no nearer to an answer than they were when they first started. He can tell that Bruce is growing frustrated with his impatience, as much as the scientist may try to hide it. For all that there’s nothing further they can try. All the while Loki feels the weeks slipping through his fingers like so many grains of sand. How much time has he left? Years? Decades? How long before his hair begins to gray and his body fails? He’s fairly, almost positive that Tony will remain by his side until the end, but then what of Tony?

Bruce tries to help. Tries to distract him, divert him from the task at hand with tales of Thor and reminders of a past life. Not a day goes by that he does not mention Loki’s brother. He’s met a girl, Bruce says, they’re getting serious. Maybe even settling down. Loki should come by, visit. Or at the very least call, let Thor know he’s well. Bruce means well. Loki knows that. But he’s not ready to face his brother. The bitterness, the wound he thought so tightly closed still aches, still itches whenever he pictures Thor’s smiling face, or hears the last words his brother uttered to him ‘glad to see you whoring yourself out to those Above rather than Below.’. He can’t face him. Not now. Maybe not ever. Besides, there’s just so much to do.

There must be a solution and they must find it. And if not, then they must find a way for Loki to take Tony with him. Loki will not permit Tony to remain, living alone, waiting as madness eventually claims him. And Bruce, he thinks, knows that. Maybe Bruce is hoping for a similar miracle for himself and Pepper. Maybe he’s just looking for a purpose. Something to help him while away the days. Maybe…

Loki looks around at the vids circling him like a startled flock of corbies. Diagrams, DNA chains, quickly sketched schematics, all of them leading nowhere. With a growl of frustration Loki slams his hands down on the glass, shutting down the vids, and sending glass vials shaking in their holders.

‘Everything alright there, Loki?’ Bruce’s voice pulls him back into the now.

‘Oh yes, sorry Bruce,’ Loki rubs his hands over his face, forcing himself to wake up. ‘I was thinking, Bruce, what if we developed a second strain of nanites that would attack the first strain? With the nanites no longer in the system, their effects might be reversed – ‘

‘No.’ Bruce snaps. ‘We don’t know enough, or even understand how the nanites affect the human body. If we strip them out, we don’t know what might happen. It’s entirely possible that his physiology might reverse back to the night of the accident, and if that happened, Tony would die.’

‘Well that is the point, Bruce,’ Loki begins. ‘I don’t want him to continue an immortal existence on his own…’

‘No, Loki,’ on the other side of the screen, Bruce shakes his head, sadness settling heavily over his gentle features. ‘You don’t understand. The nanites are the only things keeping Tony alive. They are the only things keeping any of us alive.’ Bruce adds quietly.

‘What?..’ Loki gives his head a quick shake. ‘What do you mean…’

‘I never told you this part, and apparently neither did Tony. The night of the accident there was an explosion. A fire. A bad one. I don’t even… I don’t know which came first. My memories are… fuzzy. There was an accident. There was a fire. I remember… I saw… I watched Tony, Pepper… I felt myself burn. And then I wasn’t. And Tony was what he is now, and Pepper… well. She was a painting. And nothing has ever been the same since.

Even if we figured out how to strip the nanites, we can’t strip them from the three of us. We don’t know what the effects would be. We would require a clean sample, and there isn’t one.’

Bruce pauses for a long moment, and Loki remains silent, unwilling to break the tension. ‘Loki, I’m done for the night. I… I’ll talk to you later.’

Loki sits motionless in front of the screen, reality suddenly hitting him hard. If he succeeds, Tony will die. And if he doesn’t, Tony might go mad. And in the meantime he and Bruce are running in place, unable to test any of their theories.
A ‘clean’ sample, Bruce said. Someone unaffected by the explosion. Someone whom the nanites have not brought back from death or its brink. Loki considers the rows of glowing, silver vials sitting like so many un-fulfilled promises, picks up a syringe, and weighs the cost of loss versus madness.

Dinner that night is a quiet affair, both Loki and Tony seemingly preoccupied with their own thoughts, smiling at one another across dinner plates and wine glasses. Over dessert, a pie that tastes remarkably like long vanished apples, Loki finally breaks the silence.

‘Tony, I –‘ he says at the same time as Tony opens his own mouth.

‘Loki,’ and laughs, gesturing for Loki to go ahead, and suddenly with the opportunity he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t now how to tell Tony that he’s been lying to him about the one thing that mattered most.

‘No, no. You go first,’ Loki smiles, the first dishonest smile he’s offered Tony in their time together.

‘Have you given any thought to your brother at all lately?’ the inventor asks, quietly and unexpectedly.

‘My brother?’ Loki’s eyebrows fly of their own volition, the surprise completely genuine.

‘Yes, Thor, wasn’t it? Do you think about him?’

Thor. All the memories come flooding back. Growing up without a mother, Thor coming to save him from Fury, holding him close and promising everything would be alright. Thor covered in sweat, dying in his arms and throwing unforgivable insults in his face. Thor…

‘I… not really. Not lately. Why do you ask?’ Loki lies and forces a lightness he doesn’t feel into his voice.

‘Just... just wondering.’ Tony shrugs. ‘Would you want to see him again?’

You should see Thor. At least talk to him. Tony’s voice sounds like an echo of Bruce’s.

‘No.’ Loki answers after a moment. ‘No, I don’t think so. Why the sudden curiosity?’

Tony frowns, glancing away, refusing to meet Loki’s eyes. He’s hiding something, Loki thinks, and wonders what Tony might possibly be hiding from him. ‘Tony? What is it?’

‘Loki… have you ever done something and later regretted it, but at the time you justified your actions because there was something that you wanted more than life itself and you would have done anything to keep it?’

Loki smiles, looking up into citrine-golden eyes, and cups his hand around a beloved face. ‘No, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Stark smiles, catching Loki’s hand, dropping a kiss in the palm, holding it close. ‘Loki… these last months. I’m not good with people. I never have been. But having you in my life… it’s made this,’ he gestures to his leonine face, the empty room, his self-imposed exile. ‘Bearable. I… I don’t know what I might ever do if I lost you.’

‘Tony... Tony, I…’ Loki again finds himself struggling for words. The right words, with the wrong ones sitting so close to the edge of his tongue. ‘I would never leave you. My life is here. With you. I will stay with you for so long as you have me.’

Stark takes a deep breath, with something that sounds very much like relief. ‘I’m so glad to hear you say that. Your brother came to see me.’

‘What?’ Loki almost squeaks in surprise. How did Thor know? Oh wait he had told him. So Thor didn’t believe Bruce’s tales of his having moved to another town and starting anew. And he came to the Tower looking for him. Just like he’d gone to Fury’s, all those years ago. And all those things he’d said… Thor. Thor had come for him. His brother still loved him. ‘What?.. what did he say Tony? What did you say?’

‘I… I sent him away Loki.’ Stark shakes his head, ‘I told him you had no desire to see him. He came back a few times after, but I told Jarvis to just ignore the calls. It wasn't as if he could gain access without my permission. I’m sorry. All I could think of was what you told me of you parting. ‘That someone you cared for so deeply would hurt you so badly. I couldn’t bear the thought that he might do it again.’

‘You sent him away?’ Loki repeats slowly, the words sinking in like stones thrown into a deep pool. ‘My brother braved your Tower looking for me and you sent him away?’

‘Loki, I’m sorry! I was… I was afraid. I was afraid that if all was mended between you, that you would leave. That you would go and I –‘

‘You were afraid that if I left you would be alone again.’ Loki finishes for him. ‘You did not trust me to remain with you, if I had someplace else to go. That is, after all, all that I am to you. A companion. Someone to break the monotony.’ He looks away swallowing the bitterness along with the unshed tears. How could he have ever have thought otherwise. All of his dreams. His hopes. Of course Stark would be alright without him. He would not go mad. He would continue as he had always done. He was, as he had often said, not good with people. Oh what a fool he had been.

Loki stands, pushing back his chair roughly, taking some small pleasure in the way it scrapes across the polished floor.

‘Loki, where are you going?’ Stark asks quietly.

‘I don’t know. A walk. I need some air.’ He snaps. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be back. Where else have I to go?’ he throws out, savoring the pained expression on Stark’s face, as the barb sinks home.

A body will remember. Left undirected, feet will unerringly find their way home, like a horse finds its way back to the stables. When Loki re-surfaces from the dark thoughts occupying mind and consciousness he realizes that he is standing in front of his and Thor’s old hovel.

It’s dark inside, as Loki pushes aside the torn plastic sheeting serving as a door, and little has changed. Whomever this ‘girl’ is that Thor has begun to date, she has yet to leave an imprint. Or perhaps Thor is spending all of his time at her place, wherever that is. The smell is same too, and Loki inhales it deeply, flooding his sinuses with more memories than he thinks he can stand. In spite of that, the home feels empty, vacant. Unlived in, and Loki can’t quite put his finger on the why.

Eventually he calls out ‘Thor? I’m… I’m home.’

Nothing. It doesn’t take long to search the three small rooms, and confirm that yes, in fact the place is empty.

Takes even less time to find the shiny, new, expensive tablet that belong there even less than Loki himself. Flat black, expensive, but otherwise unmarked, it comes alive when Loki brushes his fingers across it’s mat surface.

Keyed to me, he thinks. But who? Stark?

His questions are answered the moment the screen lights up with an all recognizable face.

Fury. Smiling and unresponsive to the curses that fly from Loki’s lips. A vid then. A holo, not a two-way.

‘Loki, Loki, Loki.’ The monster on the other end chuckles. ‘It’s been too, too long, my clever-tongued little friend. I think it’s lost past time that we, caught up on old times, so to speak. But seeing as you have flown up high and out of my reach, I have invited your brother over to spend some time with me and the boys until you join us.’

Fury steps back, and Loki can see his brother, bound, gagged and on his knees in the background. A purple bruise is spreading along one side of his face, but he seems otherwise unharmed. Thor’s aquamarine eyes meet his through the vid, as if his brother could actually see him, and Thor gives a shake of his blonde head.
‘Now I’ve been able to keep the boys off your brother, for now, but you remember how very…impatient they can get, don’t you?’ Fury chuckles, and Loki shivers as terror runs its icy fingers down his spine. ‘I would suggest, that if the next time you want to see your brother is alive, and in one piece, you get that sweet ass of yours over here, and convince me that I should let him go.
I’ll be waiting Loki.’

The screen goes black in Loki’s hands, and no amount of prodding will force it to come alight again.
How long has it lain there? How long has Thor been in Fury’s hands? How long did his brother have left? There was never, for a moment the barest of possibilities in his mind that Loki would not trade himself for Thor.

‘Oh, Tony,’ he whispers bitterly to the empty home. ‘Please forgive me. It looks as if I’ll be breaking another promise to you after all.’

Chapter Text

Warm. Loki lies, languid and lazy, sprawled in a pool of false sun, pleasantly weary from a morning of unhurried, decadent passion. Stark, Loki has discovered, holds an unceasing fascination with his collarbones, and most days he will wake up to the sensation of slow, delicate fingers, gently tracing the line of bone just below the surface of his skin. Invariably the fingers are followed by lips, teeth, a tongue, and more clever, eager fingers. Silent questions and equally wordless permissions are asked and given, limbs twist, writhing, artlessly building to a fever pitched crescendo that breaks, leaving them drained and shattered, breathless and laughing, falling apart on Stark’s monstrously huge bed, fingertips barely touching on the smooth, dark sheets.

Stark is leaning over him, supported on one arm, free hand brushing the hair from his face, those stunning, topaz and amber, gold faceted eyes gazing down full of an emotion Loki could name, but refuses to. They do not speak of, never talk of love except in terms of Thor and Pepper. Never of one another. Like the breaking of a spell, love will shatter their unspoken understanding, stranding them both once again on their individual islands of loneliness. At least so Loki believes. Lies to himself long and often enough until he finally believes it. The lie is so much easier to swallow than the possibility that Stark simply does not love him and has not spoken from a lack of interest and intent, rather than fear. Loki keeps the lie locked in a box, like Schrödinger’s infamous cat, believing it until such time as he is forced to set it free and face the fearful reality of the cat’s death.
Tony’s eyes widen, as if he can read Loki’s thoughts, and the corner of his mouth lifting in a smirk, as he leans down, lips almost brushing the curve of Loki’s ear. ‘Loki, you’re dreaming. Time to wake up.’

Wake up to a nightmare. It’s where he has feared and anticipated that he would finally end up. A terrible, inevitable dread, like a body buried in ice, patiently waiting for spring thaw, or a lie, hanging unspoken in the heart of a conversation.

Loki takes a breath, shallow and careful, mindful of his broken ribs, recently dislocated shoulders and countless other and uncategorised injuries, within and out. He tastes blood when he coughs and fears that a broken rib has splintered and finally pierced a lung. He’s tempted to push, to drown in his own blood and to put an end to what will otherwise be a long, and lingering life. However unpleasant a death drowning in one’s blood might be, it can’t possibly be worse than whatever else Fury is planning to put him through. Only one thought alone stops him – should he die too quickly, who will stand between Fury and Thor? Loki lets out a laugh, regretting it immediately. The very idea of his defending his larger, stronger, bigger brother is ludicrous enough that he loses another bubble of glee through the raw meat that has become his throat. A man can only scream so much before all ability to make sound is stripped from him, along with any other pretence to dignity.

**Three days earlier**

Fury’s Tower. Now that he’s seen, lived in, experienced in excruciating detail the real thing, he recognizes it for pale fallacy that it is. Tower. Fury’s thick, graceless, squat building, crouching like some great swollen toad on the unspoken boundary of Above and Below, is nothing more than a lifeless imitation of the elegant, glass and almost otherworldly spires the like of which in Stark spends his days and nights in.

Stark. Tony. The names pulses, tugs at him like a living thing. Like a missing limb, or half-healed wound. He can’t think of Tony. He can’t permit himself to consider, to dwell on what Tony might think or feel of the manner in which Loki left his house. It’s irrelevant. He’ll never see Stark again. Not in this world. Fury will never allow him to leave. Not sane in any case. He heaves a long, drawn-out sigh and a step forward. He’s made his choice. He knew what the consequences would be the moment he picked up that tablet and heard Fury’s voice, saw his brother’s face. He knew there would be no turning back. Not this time. Wordlessly he steps through the open doors and into Fury’s office.

The twin, dark-suited monsters framing either side of the entrance move aside with matching humourless smirks, because after all, he is expected. Fury’s office has changed little since his last visit, nearly a year ago. Same glass walls. Same black, marble floor. Same glass desk. Fury standing in the exact same spot by the window, overlooking the city. Everything remains the same. Unless, of course you counted his brother, cuffed, bloody and kneeling by the desk.
One of Thor’s eyes is swollen shut, one side of his golden head matted over with dried blood, but the remaining cerulean orb remains clear, burning furiously bright with an unquenchable anger. Anger at Fury. Anger at Loki. Anger at himself. Loki takes a moment to admire the irony of the trio of seemingly one-eyed men who have come into his life, and how they have shaped him. And because all things come back to Tony, he pictures his lover’s warm amber eyes and their myriad expressions. Playful, seductive, passionate, concerned. Not once has he seen them cold. Unlike Thor’s single icy eye which may just freeze him solid. Thor, he realizes, does not want him here. His brother too, it would appear, had also made a choice, and now he is interfering with it. Too late now.

‘Loki…’ Fury purrs, not bothering to turn, the sound of his voice sending a new chill down Loki’s spine. ‘So nice of you to drop by. I was growing concerned that perhaps you had not received my invitation. Or rather, I should say, your brother was. He’s not quite as…. Resilient to my attentions as you once were. Tell me Loki, has your recent sojourn with those Above cost you that resiliency?’

Loki says nothing. He can’t, not with a mouth gone dry, and hands shaking, palms cold and sweaty. He tries to wipe them surreptitiously on his pants, and fails, earning a chuckle from Fury. That black window reflects everything taking place behind him. He only appears unconcerned, but Fury hasn’t survived this long by being careless. He knows exactly what is taking place behind him. He swallows hard, the moment of his throat drawing Fury’s sudden attention, and he’s pinned against a wall, a hand, vice-like, wrapped around his throat. Unexpectedly, the memory of the last time his throat was touched fills his mind’s eye, and he pushes the feeling of velvet-soft fingers and long, gentle kisses back. Buries them till later. He would not have his memories sullied with this place. Not... not like this.
‘What’s the matter Loki? Cat got your tongue?’ And for a moment terror fills Loki, fearing maybe that Fury knows, but no, the slum-lord is just making a joke. ‘Don’t worry my little Silvertongue, the boys and I will help you find it. Won’t we, boys?’

Coward that he is, Loki closes his eyes, thinking of strong arms and gentle hands, a laughing, occasional self-discrimination filled voice, and a brief time when he felt safe. And happy.

That night they start by dislocating his arms, cracking a pair of ribs and leaving a spiraling pattern of rapidly spreading bruises on his bare skin. At first, they go no further than beating him into near oblivion, and for that he is ridiculously, ludicrously grateful, allowing the most slender tendril of hope to work its way into his heart. All the while Thor watches from his place by Fury’s desk, impassive blue eye unblinking, while Loki screams and bleeds abstract, barely seen patterns on the black marble floor. In brief moments of clarity Loki wonders where and how his brother came by this unexpected, zen-like calm, and if it’s something that he can learn from him. Was it while he lay sleeping on satin sheets, tangled with impossible golden limbs, and learning dead languages with the aid of an antique library and a greater sense of awareness than half the humans living Below? Loki wonders what else he has missed and how much of his beloved brother is left.

When the ‘Boys’ are done, and Loki is only barely-conscious, grasping thin, insufficient, inefficient breaths through his ruined throat, arms hanging from his dislocated shoulders, Fury steps over, lifting his chin with an almost gentle touch. Another time it might have undone him. Six months sooner and he would have been crying, but he has felt real love, real gentleness since, for all that he might have cause to curse it in the days to come.
‘The All-Father wanted something from that Tower,’ Fury whispers quietly into Loki’s ear, like a lover sharing clandestine promises. Had he air left in his lungs, Loki would have laughed, but he needs every breath now. ‘What was it? Why did he want it? Tell me and I will free you and your brother. I’ll make you rich, and never lay a hand on either of you again.’
Loki closes his eyes, picturing a crooked, fang-punctuated smile, imagines it bloody, bruised broken. Amber eyes dull with pain and torment. Everything has a price.
Loki opens his eyes again, and offers a smile like a bloody razor, shaking his head in spite of the white-hot pain it sends through his shoulders and back.
‘Very well. I am, after all patient man, Loki. You will tell me.’ Fury straightens up, and walks back to his desk. ‘Boys, you’ve been patient too. Patience, I always say, should be rewarded. He’s all yours.’ He adds, meeting Loki’s eyes. ‘For an hour. Kill him, and I’ll make you wish you died in his place.’

* * *


They’re lying by the side of the pool, warm, still damp from the water, Stark tracing lazy patterns on Loki’s back, fascinated as always by his bare skin. By the clean line of bone and muscle.

‘If you could go anywhere,’ he asks, ‘where it would it be?’

Loki starts up in honest surprise. ‘Why would I go anywhere? I’m perfectly happy right here.’ Why would I ever go anywhere that you aren’t, he wants to say, but doesn’t.

‘Yes, but,’ Stark interrupts impatiently. ‘If you could go to Any. One. Place. Anywhere, anywhen. Where would it be?’
Loki considers the question seriously. He would travel to his eighteen years old self and tell him to not take the job with Fury. He’d tell Thor of a year ago the same thing. And then he realizes that he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t, because then he wouldn’t end up here, and with that simple admission he understands that he has no regrets. At least none that might result in his not finding himself lying by the side of the pool, beside this impossibly, improperly gorgeous, perfect, brilliant, broken man, that he loves beyond thought, reason and regret.

Loki’s lithe roll results in his landing nose to nose and hip to hip back with Tony, green eyes level with amber.

‘If I could go anywhere, and anywhen… why then I would travel to – right here. 10 minutes from now.’ He breathes into the hollow of Stark’s golden throat.

‘Why?...’ Loki can’t quite conceal the self-satisfied smile of anticipation at the catch in Tony’s voice. ‘What happens 10 minutes from now?’

‘I’ll show you,’ he says, and does so, with teeth and tongue and half-whispered prayers and promises falling like benedictions from Stark’s lips onto his naked back.

* * *

Prayers. Promises. He’d promised himself that he would not cry. He promised that he would not beg, not for death or mercy. In the end he’d lied, to himself, to Thor, even to Tony, behind the memory of whose features he’d tried to hide. Another broken promise. An hour. Fury’s ‘Boys’ are experts in the art of torment and degradation, connoisseurs of the varicoloured shades of pain that could be inflicted on a human body in the short span of 60 minutes. He had thought all pride stripped from him earlier amidst fear and screams. He was mistaken. He almost passed out once, pulled back by already dislocated arms while another nameless thug forced his way determinedly inside him, Loki’s own blood providing the barest pretext of lubricant, but then they stopped, pulled back just long enough for him to catch his breath. Just long enough for the darkness at the edge of his vision to recede. Fury knew all the tricks. He knew all the breaking points and fissures and all the cold, dark corners to push, and more importantly when to STOP pushing.

The next day starts out with another beating. And Thor, still expressionless and silent, kneeling by Fury’s desk. It’s a pain that Loki is growing accustomed to. One can, he thinks in the space between punches, and eventual, inevitable kicks, grow accustomed to almost anything. Everything. Again, Fury demonstrated that Loki’s self-delusion really knows no bounds. An hour or so into the morning, the Boys were just getting warmed up, Fury called a halt to their ‘amusements’, leaving Loki, like so much forgotten laundry, slumped and bleeding in what in a square room might have been a corner. As it was, he was leaning on the cool glass of one of the walls when the stainless steel table is wheeled in, followed shortly by a small machine compiled of gears and switches, straps and suction cups. The machine looks old, archaic, and all the more frightening for all that. Loki’s mouth goes bone dry and he bites down on his lip, hoping to stop the hyperventilation before it starts. He recognizes it all too, too well. By the time the last man strapped to the fiendish device was removed, he could no longer speak, his brain fried along with his balls and the souls of his feet. Loki swallows the terror along with the sand suddenly filling his throat. Fury doesn’t want him dead. Or mindless. Oh, but he will make him hurt. Oh yes. Loki can’t cannot suppress the shiver running down his spine as he’s manhandled and strapped to the gurney, the straps and suction cups and wires wrapping around and around him, running up and between his legs, around his chest like a multitude of snakes, up both arms and the sides of his face, until he looks like some sort of twisted doll, held together by wire and strapping. Until he is the one resembling a monster.
‘Well, Silvertongue?’ Fury stands over his single, dark eye gleaming down from an unimaginable height. ‘Any last few, sweet final words? Anything you want to tell me? It’s not too late you know…’

Please, he wants to say. Please, don’t do this. But he knows it won’t do any good, and if he opens his mouth to speak now, too many secrets might come spilling out, so he just shakes his head as much as he is able, given that his head and throat are both strapped down as well, and tries to hold the back the tears born of fear and shame and more than a small bit of anguish.

‘Very well.’ Fury shrugs, and stuffs a rubber gag inside Loki’s mouth. ‘Wouldn’t want you biting off that tongue of yours now would we? Might yet find a use for it.’

‘Take it away, Boys,’ Fury directs, with a wave of his black-gloved hand, and Loki’s world burns in a wave of white hot agony.

* * *

‘Tell me a memory,’ Stark asks, unexpectedly, turning away from the display he’d been working on.

They are in the workshop – Loki working on a translation from 18th century Russian poetry into modern Japanese, for no reason other than to see if he could – Stark working on something… something he was unwilling to discuss.

‘What?’ Loki looks up startled, distracted.

‘Tell me a memory,’ Stark repeats, without actually turning to look Loki in the eye. ‘A happy one ideally, but you know, anything really.’

‘Uhh…’ Loki gnaws his lip, searching through three decades of experience. ‘All right,’ he says, carefully closing the book he was translating. ‘It was a long time ago. A really long time ago. Thor and I were still kids and our Mom was still alive. I’d gone through this bout of illness as a child,’ Loki starts, staring off into the distance, remembering. ‘I was never what you might call particularly robust to begin with, but for a while there it seemed like I was sick all of the time. My Mom had dragged me to a few so-called doctor who took her money and gave me drugs, but then nothing ever really seemed to work. And then she found this one fellow, I don’t even remember his name, but he had the most amazing eyes, you know? The sort that can just peer through you... anyhow, he told my Mother that I needed vitamins. Real ones if possible.’
Stark nods silently, and Loki wonders how he’ll ever be able to explain to his Above World lover, who has never lacked for a single material thing, the impossible ludicrousnessness of finding vitamins of any sort, never mind ‘real ones’ anywhere Below.

‘I don’t know how Mom did it, but she brought me an orange. It was rather small, and a bit over-ripe. Another day or two I think and it might have gone to rot, but she found it, and made me eat it. The whole thing. I wasn’t allowed to share it with Thor or her or anyone. And you know, I haven’t been sick a day since.

But they still remind me of her. Oranges. Whenever I see, or smell them. I think of my Mother and how she did the impossible, just out of love.’

Stark doesn’t say anything, just wraps his arms around Loki, silently burying his face in the taller man’s collarbone, holding him close for a painfully long minute.

The next day a basket of oranges does not appear in Loki’s rooms. Neither do oranges suddenly become a staple at the breakfast or dining tables – with the ease in which Stark can obtain anything, the gesture would be trite, and make light of a fond memory. But ever since their conversation, every now and again Loki catches the subtle scent of orange blossoms in his rooms, and smiles, now having two reasons to do so.

 

* * *

 

He nearly chokes in spite of the gag jammed far into his mouth – on vomit though, as opposed to his tongue. That he had fouled himself as well was as inevitable as it was apparently expected by the thuggish pair that dragged, him, with obvious distaste, to a tiny shower where they hosed him off with sharp, icy streams of water that tore at the burns that map out the memory of wires on his skin with an unforgivable thoroughness. He was not permitted – assuming that his body cooperated long enough – to dry himself, and dragged again, still cold and dripping back to his cell. It’s barely large enough for him to stand in, assuming of course that his legs could have supported him, or long enough to lie in properly, and made entirely of the same uncompromising stainless steel, that seems to be the governing theme of Fury’s ‘Tower’, lit by an unseen source, and cold. So very, very cold. Or perhaps the room is warm and he is the one who’s cold. Loki really can’t tell and dosn’t care. He’s hungry too, but hunger is something that you grow used to, living Below. So is the cold, but his body has taken too much abuse to contend with both. He’s shivering, chill all over, and starting to sweat in spite of the cold water still drying on his skin. Loki thinks, he’s actually really quite fairly certain that he is running a fever. And that is not a good sign at all. Not if he intends to last as long as possible to give Thor a chance at… at... he doesn’t know at what, only that if there is a chance for his brother, he’ll fight for it. Fight Fury, fight his ‘Boys’, fight pain and terror and death if he has to. Which is easier said than done. Loki curls in on himself as much as he is able mindful of the cracked ribs - and oh yes, a wrist that is definitely broken – and occasional aftershocks just to conserve some heat…

‘Dammit Loki… where are you.’

He’s dreaming again. He must be. Or hallucinating. Regardless, given a choice, he would not chose have chosen to see Stark standing in his lab, staring at a monitor, swearing at him. They’d be in bed, or in the pool… someplace warm. Soft. Someplace that didn’t hurt.

‘Jarvis! How’s the trace coming?’ Why is Tony screaming? Can’t he just be quiet… can’t he just let him rest? Doesn’t he realize Loki is just trying to sleep? Sleeping doesn’t hurt. If he is sleeping he might just dream….

‘I have a reading on Mr. Silvertongue’s vital signs sir, but that is as much as much as I am currently able to obtain. Sir, I feel that should tell you, that they are not encouraging.’

‘How bad Jarvis?’ Tony’s voice is dry, lifeless. Anyone else might even think it cold, but Loki knows better – it’s the voice Stark hides when he begins to feel too much, and fears emotion will overpower rational thought.

‘Sir, based on the readings, Mr. Liesmith is suffering from several broken bones, substantial internal bleeding indicating numerous injuries to soft organs, and the onset of a fever. If medical attention is not rendered in the next several hours, it might be…’

‘Don’t. Finish that sentence and you’ll be so much scrap iron. You are the crowning technological achievement of the last two centuries of Stark Industries, not to mention my own, considerable genius. If you can’t locate a single human – behind I don’t care WHAT SHIELDS THEY HAVE UP THEN YOU ARE OF NO USE TO ME!’

‘Tony…’ Loki rasps. He might be in a dream, but he’s this is his dream and maybe he’ll listen… ‘Tony…be quiet….’

Stark looks around unexpectedly, as if hearing something. ‘Loki? Jarvis, did you just hear that?’

‘What, sir?’

‘Nothing. Shut up. Keep looking. Loki?... DAMMIT LOKI TALK TO ME!’ He roars with all rage and ferocity of an untamed lion.

Has Stark always been so loud? Loki doesn’t think so. ‘Tony…’ he rasps. ‘Please… just... just be quiet… shhhh…’

‘Loki?.. Loki… Loki listen to me, where are you?’ Stark’s voice drops an octave or three. Why is he still talking? Why can’t he just let Loki sleep…

‘I’m in a cell.’

‘Where is the cell?’ Stark asks patiently. ‘Talk to me, dammit! Where are you?’

‘Hurts… hurts to talk…’

‘I know… I know... talk to me… c’mon thief – talk to me! Where is the cell? Where are they holding you?’


‘I…. I don’t know. Fury’s… Tony…’

‘Yes? Jarvis – pull up all the information on Nick Fury. Now. Loki… Loki, talk to me – hold on, I’ll find you.’

‘Tony… I’m sorry. Please… please look after Thor. It’s not his fault. Please…’

‘Loki… Loki dammit! Talk to me – Jarvis – where is he?!’

‘Tony…’ the dots in front of his eyes are back and he’s losing Tony behind him. It was a great hallucination while it lasted. He should take the opportunity to say goodbye. He should…

‘Tony, I’m sorry…’

‘You’re sorry? What do you possibly have to be sorry for, I’m the one –’

‘Shhhh… you’re my hallucination, you’ll listen.’ Swallows, still tasking the puke at the back of his throat. Good thing Tony isn’t there to kiss him, to smell him. Yuck. ‘I’m sorry we didn’t have more time. I… I love you.’

‘Loki! LOKI NO!! JAR - ’

He closes his eyes, feeling oddly at peace. He can sleep now. He can die now. He’s told Tony and Tony will take care of Thor, even if he is just a hallucination.

Chapter Text

Fury sends help. Help, in the form of a doctor, with drugs and injections to amplify and speed up the healing. Splints for the shattered bones in fingers and arm. There is little he can do for the broken rib, but he tapes it all the same, all the while expertly avoiding looking Loki in the eyes. Loki ignores him in kind. Turning his head with a sigh, he tries to not think of what the procedures would mean. He tries to not think of the future.

_____________________________

‘Sir?’

‘Mrmrmrmmghhh? What?.. how long?’ A long wipe across the drool that’s caked and dried on face and fur. Stale coffee and scotch warring in his mouth. ‘Coffee, Jarvis. Now. What have you found? Have you cracked it? Have you found him?’

‘Yes, sir. The coffee is on your left. Regretfully, sir, I have nothing new to report on Mister Liesmith’s location.’
Had there been anything within arm's reach to smash, it would have joined the growing pile of expensive rubble already littering the distant corners of his workshop.

‘Sir, I do have some good news however –'

‘It’s about fucking time. I’m having difficulty remembering why I don't wipe your memory and build myself a competent AI.'

Once again, Jarvis demonstrates a remarkably un-mechanical wisdom by refusing to fall for the jibe.
‘Although I have not yet been able to break through the, I am ashamed to admit, rather admirable security net concealing Mr. Liesmith’s whereabouts. However sir, I am rather pleased to report that his vitals have stabilized and are in fact growing stronger.’

The cup of steaming liquid smashes across the back wall, leaving a splatter that resembles modern art or alien murder.

‘Sir? Perhaps you misunderstood. Mister Liesmith is – ‘

‘Yeah, Jarvis. I get it. I get it alright.’ A fist slams on the slick, transparent surface of the table. 'It means they're patching him up.’

'Sir, isn't it possible that Mr. Liesmith has gotten away and is perhaps amongst friends?'

'Not a chance. The moment he set foot outside of wherever it is they're holding him, you'd have found him. And then I'd have found him. And told him what a complete and utter fucking idiot I am for ever having let him go. And what a complete and utter fucking moron I am for not being been able to find him.'
‘I am sorry, sir.’

‘Don’t be sorry, Jarvis. Just find him. Find him while there is still something of him left to find.’
____________________
Time has become meaningless. Without a quantifiable manner to mark the passing of days, lacking even the weak light of a long faded sun, made imprisonment seem an eternity. Not knowing how much time has passed lends a surreal, if not in any way positive, quality to his existence, replacing the ‘when’ of his days with a ‘where’, with only the map of his body to guide him. A braille of new and barely healed scars. Nerve endings plucked and strained raw that a curious traveler could follow like breadcrumbs, to trace back to what was once ‘Loki’. Loki, a young man exceeding in nothing, except for the exceptionally great, or poor luck, depending on how one might look at it, of having broken into the wrong house. Of flubbing the theft and foolishly falling for the very man he was to rob.
It sounds like something out of a fairy tale. But fairy tales had happy endings and this ending would be anything but, happy. That much he’d already come to realize. Eventually, should Fury find it in his black heart to be so uncharacteristically merciful, it might lead to death. A singular hope

Tony

remaining in a place where all hope was gone. Once, when they had nothing else, when there was no food, no warmth or shelter, they had one another. Thor had him, and he had Thor.

And now? Now he has nothing. Not even a brother. Thor’s betrayal was the day when hope finally escaped the prison of his soul. Effortlessly fleeing the constraints placed upon her by Pandora, in the days when Gods still walked the Earth, slipping away, like a thief in the night – and wasn’t that just the most ironic comparison of all – perhaps to some place where the sun still shone and mercy was not a virtue only dreamt and enjoyed by others. The moment that reality sunk, like a stone to the bottom of a quiet pond, breaking through the thin membrane of lies that he wove laboriously night after night in some vague attempt to preserve what was left of his sanity, in the hope, yes and there was that word again, that somehow, someday he and Thor might still find their way out. But no, the truth is that there would be nothing else. Only more pain, more torment, and really, it was a toss-up if Fury would drive him mad before allowing him to die.

He tries to take comfort in the knowledge that at least Thor would not share his fate. He tries to convince himself that ultimately, he had given himself over to Fury, knowing, though perhaps, if not really anticipating, what would happen to him, in order to save Thor, and now that Thor was is free, and is that not what truly mattered at the end of the day? Apparently it doesn't. It wasn’t. Of all that he had come to expect and experience at Fury’s hands, this last ploy was the worst. No torment, no rape, hurt him, burned him so deeply. But then Judas too had betrayed the one he loved most with a kiss.

It happens on what he has come to think of as a morning, though in hindsight, he supposes that it could have just as easily been mid-afternoon, or midnight. He realizes quickly, for all the good that it had ever done him that this sense of timelessness, the stripping of his last visage of humanity was just one of Fury’s more subtle tortures; intended, no doubt, to elegantly balance the considerably more overt ones and almost applauds, having by this point become a bit of a connoisseur where pain was is concerned.

He is taken, silently, without protest, head held as high as it would go, under the circumstances. He as never considered himself strong. Thor was the strong one in the family. Loki was the quick, the clever one. The one with the ready lies on his ‘silver tongue’. But for Thor, he would pretend at strength. He would play at dignity and courage lost long ago in face of Fury and his Boys. Taken and lost inches by gruelling inches. Baptized in blood and christened by fear, until he is as limp and useless as the rag doll that Fury is slowly turning him into.

He is not strong. He dreads the thought of each and every ‘morning’ and the purposeful demolition of his feeble determination, the promises that are broken as easily as his fingers. Shattered and pulled from him along with a handful of teeth – a memorable ‘punishment’ for once having dared to bite. But for Thor he would pretend. He would try to hold back the screams that invariably came, while he cursed his weakness and the senseless, laughing faces and flat hollow eyes of those that held him. They kept him from sleeping for a while, but quickly learned, that in his already weakened and half-mad state, the resulting hallucinations only allowed him to escape the horrors that had become his existence all that much easier, and hadn’t bothered since. Not that he did a great deal of it, but there was the odd chance that he might dream

Tony

and allowed himself to sleep whenever need overcame pain.

He notes the difference the moment he sets foot in Fury’s office. Thor. The constant, kneeling, chained fixture by Fury’s side is gone. Loki does his best to keep the hope and horror, warring with one another from his face, cognisant of Fury’s single eye on him, but without any great success. His failure is confirmed when an uncharacteristic smile slowly splits Fury’s face.
‘Missing something, Loki? We had a little chat, your brother and I, and I cleared up certain facts and misconceptions for to him. He’s quite a bit brighter than I initially thought. Did you know, for example, that once I explained to him that you will never leave this place, he became quite inclined to be very, very reasonable. And since I have become rather attached to your particular brand of distraction,’ after all this time, Fury’s voice still had the power to make Loki’s skin crawl. ‘I have every intention of making your stay here with us, last a very long, long time. This left your brother with a very simple choice to make – he could spend the remainder of his days as my dog, chained, and kneeling, or he could come back to work for me, just as he once had, and start enjoying the finer things in life. He hesitated at first, but you know what finally won him over – when I told him that regardless of what decision he made, your situation would not change. Not one bit.’

Loki tries to block out Fury’s words. Thor would never join him. He would never betray him in such a way. No matter how angry, no matter how… disappointed he might have been, he would never…

‘Needless to say,’ Fury continues, seemingly having taken no notice of Loki’s lapse in attention. ‘It turned out to be a remarkably easy decision for him to make after all. Almost disappointingly easy.’

‘No.’ Loki whispers. ‘No… no…’

‘What’s that? Did you say something?’

‘You’re lying. Thor would never… He’d never… he couldn’t… he wouldn’t…’
‘You don’t say? Would you care to lay a bet on it?’

Loki shakes his head, mouth gone dry, wrists rattling in their cuffs.

‘No?’ Fury’s smile gets impossibly broader, showing more teeth than a human had any right to. ‘Oh well. You’ll let me know if you change your mind, won’t you?’

The doors fly open, and Loki turns slowly, feeling the strength leave his knees, keeping himself standing by will alone.

‘Hello, brother,’ Thor says, smiling and golden. ‘It’s been a while.’

Loki’s knees buckle, and he crashes to the ground, only to have Fury’s hand buried in his hair, lighting quick, keeping his face from smashing onto Fury’s marble floor.

‘I’d say I would have won that bet, wouldn’t you?’ Fury purrs in his ear.
____________________

‘Jarvis.’ The migraine wouldn’t go. No amount of coffee or scotch or meds managed to get rid of it.
‘Sir?’

‘Make the call.’

‘But sir, you said –'
‘I KNOW what I said Jarvis. I also know what I’m saying. Now make the damned call, or I will.’
____________________
‘Thor?’

His brother stands by Fury’s desk, arms folded, ignoring him as always.

‘Thor…’

‘What do you want, Loki?’ Thor’s voice is lazy, but his eyes are sharp when he turns his head to face Loki, twin burning sapphires in Thor’s pale face.

‘Why… why are you doing this, Thor? How… how can you work for Fury? You know what he is, you know what he does. We are here because of him, we are here –‘

‘Stop blaming others for your choices, Loki. No one asked you to come here. No one forced you.’

‘Thor... I came because I thought you needed me. I thought –‘

‘You thought wrong Loki.’ Thor crosses the room in two long-legged strides, pulling Loki up to face him. ‘I didn’t need you. I have never needed you. You were the one constantly getting into trouble that I had to bail you out of. You just thought that you would be the hero for a change, come rescue your big brother. Well, guess what – I didn’t need you to rescue me. If you hadn’t come along, Fury would’ve kept me on my knees for a few weeks, but in the end, he’d would’ve just tossed me on the street, or given my old job back. But YOU had to make everything complicated, didn’t you? Thought you’d peddle your way out of this again? Because you just keep right on selling yourself to the highest bidder, like it will solve everything. Surprise, little brother. Can’t buy your way out of this one.’

‘Thor… Thor, it was never like that. I never wanted to be the hero, I just… I thought you needed me. You are my brother, I would do anything for you…’

‘Really? Well, right now all I want you to do is shut the fuck up! Just shut up before I shut you up.’ Thor turns away, dropping Loki back to crumble heavily to the ground.

‘Thor…’

The slap surprises him, more from shock, than pain, for all that it leaves him with the familiar taste of blood in his mouth.

‘I told you to shut up.’

Loki bites back a response, not sure of what he would say even if Thor was listening.

‘Now, now, boys. Brothers really shouldn't argue like that. I know you want to catch up, but it’s really not the time.’

Done with his conversation, Fury pushes off his desk, chuckling quietly. ‘We’re going to have a very special guest tomorrow, and I am going to need Loki in top shape.’ The slicer runs an almost gentle finger along Loki’s tightly compressed lips.

‘On second thought,’ Fury tapped the tip of his chin with one black-gloved finger. ‘Thor, you’ve done some good work for me, you really do deserve some sort of reward. Go ahead, Thor – he’s all yours.’

‘Whh... what?’ Thor was never a good liar, the surprise on his face is not faked.

‘Come now, don’t be bashful. It’s only fair that you get a shot at that silver tongue before he leaves us. After all, he’s your brother.’

‘Fury, I…’ Thor pulls back, hands held in front of his chest.

‘Problem, Thor?’ Fury’s voice doesn’t change, but a brutal hardness seeps into his eye, and Loki closes his. This was it. This is what Fury had been building towards all along. The final taboo. Broken.

Loki tries to catch Thor’s eyes. He wants to tell him that he’s been expecting this since Thor crossed the line. A last degradation before Fury trades him or sells him and this might be the last time he’ll see his brother. He doesn’t want Thor to remember him like this, but choices were taken from him a long time ago. He wants to tell Thor that all sanity aside it’s OK. As OK as anything can be in a world gone wholly mad.

Thor glances down, disgust in his eyes, and a curl to his lips that Loki doesn’t remember ever seeing. ‘Well, baby brother, looks like I get to find out if you’ve earned your name after all.’

Thor’s fingers go to the closure of his pants, as Fury stalks to his chair, clearly planning to watch from a front row seat, and Loki closes his eyes one last time.

The gentle touch on his cheek startles him and he almost starts to jerk away, when the same touch brushes his lips. He opens his eyes, glancing upwards involuntarily. Thor’s eyes are filled with love and regret and un-shed tears and a wordless, blind appeal for forgiveness. Loki swallows, his own tears thick in his throat, and nods, with his eyes only, though a nodding gesture would not be out of place, kneeling as he is about his brother’s feet. A glint in Thor’s hand catches his attention – a knife. Barely more than a blade really, the handle so slight that anyone using it is as likely to cut themselves as their intended target. Loki recognizes it. It’s his knife. He hasn't seen it for years and thought it lost when Fury took him for the first time. Something Thor gave and taught him to use when they were still children, battling for survival on the streets. Chances are that you’ll be smaller and weaker than your opponents Loki, Thor would say, but you’re quick, so use that to your advantage. And you’ve got a hand-eye coordination I haven’t seen outside a game-ring. Whomever is going to come at you isn’t going to expect you to fight back. Don’t. Keep your distance, always. But learn to throw a knife and when you throw it, make sure to hit a sensitive area and run. Tough for anyone to run with a knife in the face. They get in close, you’re done for. Don’t play their game. Play your own.

His knife. And now Thor was going to use it to kill him. Loki blinked the tears from his eyes. His brother was offering to take his place in hell. Thor didn’t abandon him. Thor didn’t betray him. Thor loved him. Thor still loved him! Armed with that knowledge, Loki was ready to face anything. He was ready to sing, stretched on Fury’s rack, while another monster played tic-tac-toe with razorblades on his chest. Thor loved him. And because Thor loved him he couldn’t, he wouldn’t accept. While there was love, there was hope. It’s what their mother taught them before she died, and what he had lived by. Thor loved him.

A quick shake of his head, a wordless denial, and Thor is opening his mouth to protest, the knife slipping further into his hand, and… and it’s too late. Fury is roaring with the rage that gave his name, bodily lifting Thor up and slamming him, flat-chested into the window, hard enough to crack the reported bullet-proof glass. Loki watches helplessly, still cuffed and on his knees in the middle of the room, while Fury brutally kicks Thor into silence, screaming betrayal at the top of his lungs, until his brother stops moving. Until his brother stops moving, lying motionless in a pool of quickly spreading blood. Thor isn’t moving. He’s killed him. His brother loved him and Fury killed him. Thor was prepared to take his place as Fury’s dog, and Fury killed him.

Loki glances down quickly, the tiny knife still lying like one of his broken promises on the marble beside him. Thor must have dropped it when Fury grabbed him. Fury isn’t playing attention. He’s roaring, and his ‘Boys’ scattering like so many roaches, and he’s demanding to know how that piece of shit got into his presence armed. Thor loved him and Fury killed him. Loki didn’t care what happened to him now.

After all the years, the knife feels familiar in his hand. Awkward because of the cuffs, but at least his hands are bound in the front. Loki stands, carefully sliding the knife up his sleeve. It’s not yet time to draw attention to himself. He needs to get his bearings – he’ll only have one shot at this. One quick glance behind him, where Thor is lying by the window, and turning to face Fury.

Amidst the chaos, Loki’s stillness catches the slicer’s attention. Fury’s gaze rakes him from head to toe, chuckling quietly even as he takes a slow step forward. He has no need to hurry. He has as long as he wants.

‘Loki, Loki, Loki,’ Fury chuckles, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t you yet learned your lesson yet? Your place is on your knees. You are not the fighter in the family. Your brother was. You are just the same spineless, worthless coward that you always were.’

As he speaks Fury moves ever inexorably forward, step by slow step. Loki’s palms break out in sweat and he’s worried that the knife will slip from his grasp before he’s ready.

‘You are nothing. You are less than nothing. You have only ever been good for one thing, and one thing only. Now get back on your knees before I get really upset.’ Fury is saying. Loki glances away, catching the sight of his brother’s body from the corner of his eye. The blood spreads under his back, cape-like, and Loki feels light-headed, with the same sense of surreal detachment he’d felt earlier.

‘You’re right, Fury.’ He says, the words sounding strangely loud in a room gone silent. ‘I’m worthless and a coward, and I’ll never be the fighter my brother was, but at least I don't crawl on my belly, licking the Allfather's feet, pretending at something I'm not, hoping he'll notice and take me out of this shit-hole.'’

Loki’s sneer is contemptuous, even dismissive. There is only one manner in which Fury can respond and still retain face in front of the ‘Boys’, and that will leave him vulnerable. Loki forgot that Fury didn’t get where he was by being predictable.

Fury laughs. A booming, roaring, belly laugh that bounces through the room and it’s one near-shattered window. ‘Oh that’s good, Loki. That’s very, very good. Get me angry enough and you think what? I’ll kill you? Put you out of your stinking misery?’ A step, two, and Fury’s hand is wrapped around Loki’s neck, and he can’t breathe. Again. ‘Wrong, dog. Allfather is just going to have to find himself another thief. You thought you had it rough before? That was nothing. I’m going to skin you alive and grow it back and do it all over again. I’m going to string a fucking harp with your ligaments and make you play it. I’m going to…’

‘Fury…’ Loki gasps. ‘Anyone ever tell you, you talk too much?’ and opens Fury's throat, just like Thor taught him, with the tiny blade, that's good for little else.

The single eye grows wide, realization setting in. Fury starts to open his mouth, but the blood, gushing from his throat like some twisted fountain silences him. He slams Loki against the window one final time, a testament to strength and determination, and Loki can feel his trachea collapse, the air fading from his lungs, as they both slip down, landing in the growing puddle of Thor and Fury's blood.

If he thought the place was chaos before, it’s worse now. The ‘Boys’ are screaming, madly calling orders – med-vacs, and docs and dammit he’s killed Fury and what are they going to do and someone get a fucking doctor now, but Loki is just looking at his brother’s face, peaceful like he hasn’t seen in months. He wonders if the stories his Mother told him while she lay dying about Heaven are true, and they really will see other again. He wonders if he’ll ever see Tony again, and how it can possibly be Heaven without Tony.

‘Loki?...’ Crunch glass under booted feet, and a familiar figure kneeling beside him, carefully lifting him out of Thor and Fury’s mingling blood.

Tony? No, it can’t be. He’s not dead yet. Tony’s not dead. Tony’s not in heaven. Thor’s dead. He can’t breathe and it’s hard to think and his vision is cloudy and dark.

Tony. It’s Tony. He recognizes that voice with, or without his mask. How is he here? But there he is, pushing his way through the throng of confused slicers like he belongs here, and is that.. is that Frigga behind his shoulder? No, it can’t be. She belongs to the Allfather.
‘Loki… dammit, Jarvis, I need medical here NOW! Loki… Loki, no... not now please God not now, I just fucking found you!! Please God, no!!’ And it’s getting so very hard to see, everything is too bright and too dark all at once, and Loki just wants to tell him again to be quiet, but his air’s run out, so all he can do is gasp, and touch that damnable helmet and wish that Tony would take it off, so he can see him one last time.

‘Loki… Loki, please. C’mon little thief.. don’t you dare die on me now. Please.. Loki please don’t leave me. I’m... I’m lost without you. I… I love you.’

‘Shhhhh…’ he can make shhh sounds, and run his fingers across Tony’s face. His cheek is wet. Smooth. Has he taken the helmet off? He’s crying. Tony’s crying. Loki wants to tell him that it will be alright. That he loves him and he’ll see him again. In Heaven. That’s what his mother told him before she dies – that all good boys go to heaven. And he’s been a good boy? Hasn’t he? He didn’t save Thor, but he tried, and shouldn’t that count for something? He wants to tell Tony everything, but the darkness is gathering, thick and tinged with silver, like the gleam of Thor’s knife, like the shards of the cracked window, and he knows no more.

Chapter Text

Heaven was a promise made by a sick mother, to a boy, cold, hungry and afraid, who knew he’d soon be alone. Heaven ,he was promised, was warm. Heaven was free of pain. Of suffering. Heaven was a place full of dogs, where everyone was reunited with everyone they had ever loved and no one was ever sad.

Heaven is a myth.

An empty room is rarely entirely silent. Structures move, breathe, in the same way a body does. The faint rumble of distant machinery, drips of water and shifting plastic, ambient noise leaking in through floors and walls. A room occupied by someone doing their utmost best to be quiet holds in it a different sort of deafening silence. No matter how lightly, humans breathe. The fabric of their clothes shifts, leaving small, unremarkable sounds that echo loudly if one knows what they are listening for, and Loki… Loki knows. He would be willing to wager what little remains of his life that the cool, odorless room he found himself in is not empty. Someone, who was being unobtrusively though not deceitfully silent, was in the room with him, so Loki’s eyes remained closed, feigning sleep, lying, as he did best, quickly gaining what information he could about his surroundings, before... before….

Loki is uncertain of his current status. Prisoner? Plaything? Guest? Had he only been moved to a more ‘comfortable’ environment in order to give his body a chance to heal? To rest? Just to give Fury a chance to tear him down all over again? Fear is a bitter taste on the back of his tongue, and Loki catches himself from swallowing. He’ll die before he allows Fury to take him again. It’s not as if he has anything left to live for. Thor… Thor is most likely dead and Tony… broken promises and accusations lie like barbed wire and broken glass between them. Tony is gone. Tony is a memory.

There is a light, elusive scent hanging in the air, like a half-forgotten trail. Loki is surprised into taking a deeper breath, and curses himself inwardly for the weakness. He takes a second, deliberately deeper breath. Tries to to identify it, allowing the mystery of it to seep into his pores, lodge in the back of his mind, like a seed planted against the darkness to come.

The other occupant of the room makes a small noise, silently acknowledging Loki’s wakefulness, and he would tip his hat, were he only wearing one.

With another breath Loki opens his eyes, steeling himself mentally.

The room is not large, but bright, light falling freely through a tall window hung with sheer drapes, white like the sheets on the bed, like the walls, dresser and the bookcase. Clean, rather than sterile. The old-fashioned books are not – he glances at the titles curiously, noting that they are all books which he had personally read in the past. A man stands by the window, familiar in his perpetually crumpled jacket and wrinkled pants.

“Bruce?” Surprised, incredulous, his mouth goes dry with unexpected hope. “How…. Where am I? Where’s Tony? Thor? ...how’s Thor?” His voice peters off because there is something not quite right, though he can’t quite place his finger on it.

If pressed, he’d say that this ‘Bruce’ was lacking a soul.

“Hello Loki Liesmith,” says the man who looks exactly like Bruce,turning away from the window with a smile on his face.

“You aren’t Bruce.” he says sharply, eyes narrowed. Perhaps more sharply than necessary, but if there are two things for which he has no patience, it’s bad liars and incompetent thieves.

Hypocrisy much? Didn’t all of this start with you failing to steal something? And when did his conscience start sounding like Tony?

“Please forgive us,” the man says with Bruce’s voice, smiling Bruce’s awkward, broken smile as he takes a step closer to the bed Loki lies in. Loki bites the inside of his cheek, to hold back the answering smile and instead thinks about incompetent liars. The hesitant movement, the way that Bruce perpetually slouches, trying to make himself appear smaller, harmless. It’s all… Perfect. Too perfect, because it’s not Bruce. “We had… we had hoped, but this meeting comes as much as a surprise to us as to you. We chose this shape to reassure you. Set you at ease. Please forgive us. It is not our intent to discomfort you further. If you would prefer, we will replace this shape with another.”

“Another shape? By all means, please do. ” Loki replies, hiding insecurity behind a false front , and between one blink and the next Bruce has been replaced by a woman - Statuesque and tall, her hair a dark fall over one shoulder.

“Does this face please you better?” Her voice is low, surprisingly kind. Loki bites down on his lip, refusing to be swayed.

“It’s a lovely face. Have you come up with an equally lovely name to go with it?” he asks sharply.

“Our creators did not see fit to give us a name.” The woman shrugs elegantly, but Loki knows an old pain and lies when he hears it. He files them away for later use.

He’d spent too many hours in Maria Stark’s library reading old books because this woman, with quiet elegance in her long bones and amber eyes, looks like a queen that’s stepped from the pages of an old tale. But old tales are the best, aren’t they? After all, he’s finally identified the scent in the air, and Shakespeare already has much to answer for.

“Well then. I do need something to call you, so how about Rose?” He says with a forced casualness, thinking of the blue rose in its slick, crystal case that started this journey. “If you are not opposed to the idea, I will call you Rose.”

Rose smiles with what looks like genuine pleasure. “Rose. Our name is ‘Rose’. Thank you, Loki Liesmith.”

“The pleasure is entirely mine,” he would offer a bow, were he not leaning against a mound of pillows, so instead he gives her most charming smile, and tries to not think of stories with faerie queens and being trapped under a mountain for a hundred years. “Lovely to meet you, Rose. Is there any chance of some water?”

“Of course, Loki Liesmith” Rose pours water into a glass from a pitcher on the nightstand that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Though you are not actually thirsty. We assure you that your body is being maintained at perfect hydration. The thirst you feel is merely psychosomatic.”

The water is cool. Soothing. He takes a sip before answering, using the space between swallows to think. No visible needles in his arms, and no apparent machinery. So he’s asleep or hallucinating and Rose is… a construct? An AI? That would explain the ‘faces’ and lack of name, though if Jarvis is anything to go by… no, Jarvis isn’t anything to go by, even in his limited experience. Jarvis was… is unique. ‘Rose’ may simply be the interphase for whoever was keeping him under. Was he still a prisoner then? If so who’s? Fury’s? Odin’s? He vaguely recalls seeing Frigga with her katana drawn, and that never spelled good news for anyone.

“Thank you, Rose. And please, call me Loki.” He takes another careful sip. “Now that we have the pleasant introductions out of the way, would you mind telling me precisely where I, and my body are?” He asks casually, as if the answer carries no more importance than the weather.

“Of course, Loki. Your body is located in Stark Tower-”

Loki exhales swiftly, releasing a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Well, that’s one question answered, unless Rose is lying and this is just another one of Fury’s tortures, and he’s actually dying and Rose is nothing but his brain’s final death spasms, and he could spin that one into yarn.

“ - best medical care which our creators can provide.” Rose is talking and he’s missed something and hopes that it wasn’t anything terribly important.

“Stark Tower. You aren’t Jarvis.” He says flatly. “There wasn’t another AI in that tower.” He has no patience for poor liars.

Rose shakes her head. “We have not misled you, Loki. We are not Jarvis, nor have we ever claimed to be. We are the hive-mind brainchild of Anthony Stark and Bruce Banner. You would know us as nanites.”

Nanites.

Tony’s hand on his arm - “Loki, promise me, swear you will not have anything to do with the nanites.”

“I… I swear… “

Just another broken promise.

The accident in the lab. The argument. Pepper, hanging alone in a dark room. The strands of Tony’s leonine mane slipping through his fingers. Bruce’s unexplained disappearances…

In his mind’s eye a lightening quick, silver something closing the gash on Tony’s hand. A syringe full of mercury-thick liquid sluggishly seeping into his vein. He takes another sip of water, wishing it was wine, or even some of Tony’s vile-smelling scotch.

“Nanites. Tony didn’t mention that you would… that you could… this.” He waves a hand, encompassing the room, the window, Rose. “All of this.”

“Neither Anthony Stark nor Bruce Banner were aware that we carried within us the capacity for self-awareness. We did not know until the moment we awoke and knew ourselves. It is our suspicion that had our creators known, they would have sooner destroyed us, rather than trusting us to carry out their purpose and permit us access to a host body.”

“I… I see. And… and what happens now? Is my body going to quietly die in one of dusty labs while you run rampant through my mind or turn me into some sort of brainless, mindless zombie?”

“Far from it, Loki. We were designed to be of aid, or benefit to humanity, and even now we are striving to fulfill that purpose.”

“But something went wrong, didn’t it? The accident in the lab? Tony never intended to remake himself, and surely it was never his intention to trap Pepper as a permanent piece of art?”

“That is correct. What happened to Virginia Potts was most unfortunate.” Rose nods, a little slowly. “Our creators designed us too well. Our task was always to save human life. Protect and heal damage where possible, but except in extreme circumstances – such as saving the life of our host from immediate death – we could not act without express direction. A failsafe designed to protect humanity’s free will against however a beneficial dictator. Our creators, our first hosts only gave us one such order.”

“The argument…” Loki whispers, and starts to laugh hysterically. The Comedy of Errors indeed. Talk about the biggest misunderstanding of your life. It would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic.

“Yes. Our hosts were dying, and we took direction as best we could.” There is a false note in Rose’s perfect voice, just a small crack, but Loki knows an advantage when he sees one.

“Direction. They argued, threw insults at each other and you took that as ‘Direction’? If you were sentient, surely you should have known better? Surely you could have… you could have asked for clarification? Surely you could have –“

“Our hosts were dying!” Rose’s perfect face cracks wide open. Pain and failure and desperation clear for anyone to see. “They would have perished had we not acted! We were young. Unsure of ourselves and our hosts wishes. They would have died… We did what we had to. It was never our intention to supersede our hosts will, but they have not communicated with us since. We don’t know how to reach them. We feel their pain, we stand mute witness to their misery, and we are helpless to take action without their express commands.”

In spite of himself Loki feels sympathy, even sorrow for this being. He knows all about being trapped in an untenable situation.

“So why now? Why me?” he asks quietly, uncertain of what to do with the information he had been given.

“You were dying. We saved you. We don’t know why we are able to speak with you when we were not able, are not able to speak with our prior hosts. Perhaps our creators will be able to answer that question, but we cannot. We were made to help our hosts, aid them, not cause them greater suffering. Help us.. Guide us. Direct us. Please."

“You want me to tell you… to control you… not just you, but Bruce, and Pepper and Tony. I would have say and dominion over their lives… I could… I could... “

Loki feels the room spin around him, and closes his eyes, breathing slowly through his nose. Here it is. The keys to the kingdom. Anything. Everything. All that he had ever wanted offered up on a platter. Give the right direction, leave Pepper hanging in her dark gallery with none the wiser, and he could spend the rest of his eternal life with Tony. A more human Tony – although the whole lion thing wasn’t really not too bad, and his cock stirs at the memory of sun-drenched decks and slippery sheets, rough tongue and sharp-tipped claws running down his back…

All he has to do is say the words and it will all be his.

“Very well,” he agrees, opening his eyes after what feels like an eternity. “This is what you will do -”