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Don't Mess With Him, He's Mine

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“Holy shit!”

Loki flinched, his magic disappearing as he whirled around in the air so he could glare at the Avenger standing in the doorway of his bedroom. “Stark, what are you doing in here? Don’t you know how to knock?” he asked irritably, floating gracefully to the ground.

Tony blinked. “Of course I do. Was that seriously your magic? Man, it’s so much cooler when you aren’t using it to ravage New York. Can you do that again? That was fucking impressive!”

“Of course not!” Loki snapped. “My magic is not- it is not for show! It’s not to be put on display so you can judge and mock and laugh.”

“Whoa, that’s not what I meant at all.” Tony held his hands up in a show of surrender. “I would never laugh at your magic; did you see yourself? You were fucking upside down! Just floating! Do you know how insane that is? How impossible it is because of the planet you are on!” Tony’s eyes were wide. “That was awesome!”

“You may announce the reason for your presence or leave my bedroom,” Loki said cooly, although a tiny (small) part of him preened under the mortal’s compliments.

Tony frowned, no longer looking excited. In fact, he looked...hurt? Loki brushed the thought away just as soon as it came; whether or not he had hurt the mortal was none of his concern. No one was his concern- most definitely not the genius mortal named Stark.  

“Well, I was...kinda hoping you could help me with something?” Tony frowned again, looking unsure. “You don’t have to, especially if you’re busy or don’t want to,” he added quickly.

“Then I shall bid you farewell.” Loki turned his back on the mortal, summoning his magic once more. When he turned around to see if he was alone, the inventor was gone. For a reason Loki didn’t understand, his chest ached at the realization that he was once again alone.

Surprisingly enough, their brief magical chats became a regular occurrence after that. Sometimes Stark would come to ask Loki a question and it would happen by chance that Loki was doing his magic, but after such encounter occurred for the fourth time, Loki began wondering if Stark wasn’t purposefully seeking him out when he knew Loki was practicing his magic.  

Regardless of how it happened, one evening Loki had found himself bored of the same four walls of his bedroom and had transported himself to the lab. On those few occasions when Stark had witnessed his magic, he had always seemed to be in awe of Loki’s magic, which was ultimately why Loki found himself in the lab displaying his magic to the inventor. Stark had been thrilled and had quickly cleared his schedule just so he could watch Loki do his magic.

(Loki would be lying if a small part of him didn’t preen under the attention. Someone- minus Frigga- actually seemed to find his magic interesting. And important. It was… amazing.)

Loki’s time spent in his bedroom practicing spells became fewer and fewer until he had almost completely devoted his time to be in the lab with the mortal. Stark was most certainly a genius, and Loki loved how he was able to speak freely and be completely understood by the mortal. It was refreshing. Stark had been unbearably tense in the beginning, but after a few tricks with his magic, Loki had managed to snap Snark out of his silence quite quickly.

(Stark had been livid when he had drunk from the same cup of coffee a spider had swum around in. Loki hadn’t been able to stop laughing for a solid ten minutes, and in his defense, seeing Stark sputter and spit out a magically-produced spider was hilarious. It had definitely been worth the tongue-lashing Stark had given him, especially because that prank had brought on the beginning of their prank war. Loki would do it all over again if it would bring about the same end results.)

It had been a few months since Stark had first interrupted Loki during his time set aside for practicing his magic, and it had come as quite the surprise for Loki when he had realized he actually enjoyed living in the Compound. He and Stark had actually developed a friendship of sorts, one that depended upon sarcasm, dark humor, and an appreciation for the other’s talents, and it was actually acceptable to know that at the end of the day, he was living in a building where he wasn’t ridiculed and hated by everyone.

In the end, it was his growing friendship with Stark that caused Loki to make the decision to teach him magic.

Loki was in the lab, as per usual, and he and Stark were arguing about something completely nonsensical when a desk drawer began vibrating. Their conversation immediately ceased and when Loki observed Stark tense at the sound, he wasted no time in magicking the drawer open to reveal the source of the vibrating.

“It’s a phone,” Loki said slowly, confused, for he had thought they were in danger based on Stark's reaction, and then fell silent when Stark snatched the object from the drawer and walked away quickly. He didn’t leave the lab, although he did walk a good distance away as if he didn’t want Loki to hear whoever was on the other line.

Smirking, Loki decided to listen to the conversation as best as he could. His hearing was excellent because he was a God, but the person on the phone was speaking much too quietly for Loki to make out due to the distance between himself and Stark. Settling down on a stool, Loki decided to keep himself occupied by listening to Stark’s half of the conversation, and he wasn’t disappointed.

"What? No! Absolutely not!" 

Stark stood tall, one arm wrapped around his chest as if he was shielding himself from the caller. Loki sat straighter, watching curiously as Stark’s expression hardened. Ooh, it was an enemy on the phone. That was immensely more interesting than if a friend had called.

“Listen-” Stark hissed, but fell silent.

Loki strained to hear what the other person was saying, and was annoyed when all he could make out was the low rumblings of a male’s voice.

Stark stiffened suddenly and Loki watched, surprised, as Stark went pale. What could the caller ever have said to have caused such a reaction? For a brief moment, Loki saw panic flash in Stark’s eyes, but the second Stark realized Loki was watching him, he blinked and the emotions were wiped from his face.

“Fine, yeah, see you then,” Stark said after another long minute of silence. He snapped the phone closed and flung the phone across the room in one quick motion. Loki watched him stumble over to a chair breathlessly and it wasn’t until Dum-E began whirling over to the fragments of the phone that Loki spoke.

“I conclude you and the caller get along well?”

Stark lifted his head from his hands and glared at Loki with a hatred Loki had never seen aimed at himself before- not even when he and Stark had faced off when he’d controlled the Chitauri. “Fuck off.”

Loki grinned. “Don’t look so betrayed, Stark. You knew we were never meant to be friends. You were a fool if you took the last three months seriously. I will never be an Avenger, and I will never be any more than your greatest source of frustration.”

To Loki’s complete surprise, his jagged words did not provoke a reaction from the mortal. Instead, Stark looked at him with an expression that portrayed no emotion and eyes that were dimmed as he said calmly, “Loki, I can promise you one thing: you will never be my greatest source of frustration.”

Never one to stand down in the face of a challenge, Loki nodded at the genius. “We shall see about that. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

Stark blinked at that, looking a bit shocked, if not confused, but nodded. Loki waited for a verbal response, but Stark’s eyes were distant and dull. Whatever he was seeing, Loki was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the lab. He left in silence but vowed to figure out who had called and caused Stark’s negative response.

His answer came a few hours later when Thor sought him out to inform him that the Rogue Avengers had signed the Accords and were granted a pardon back to the States. They would be living in the Compound in a matter of a week. Loki did not know what had happened to cause Stark to fear his teammates, but of course, something had happened, or Stark wouldn’t have looked so carefully guarded (although slightly panicked) during the phone call he had received.

So, Loki did the only thing he could do. He went directly to the source of his confusion and pestered until Stark finally answered his queries.

“You get three questions,” Stark said stubbornly, not even giving Loki the courtesy of his full attention as he bent over some repulsor-device he was working on. “I reserve the right to not answer if I don’t want to, and to punch you in the face if I don’t like you.”

“You’ve had that luxury the entirety of my stay in this Compound,” Loki smirked when Stark glanced at him, surprised. “I just happen to ‘reserve the right’ to punch you back.”

“Asshole,” Stark murmured, but his voice wasn’t condescending, so Loki began with his questions.

“Who called you the other day?”

“Reindeer, I get hundreds of calls a day. You’re going to have to be more specific than that,” Stark snorted and yanked out a red wire from his device. Loki thought he saw something harden in Stark’s expression, but he couldn’t be sure.

Loki watched him work for a minute, annoyed because he knew Stark knew what he meant, and then clarified patiently, “The call you took where you looked scared and tense because of whoever was talking to you. You were here in the lab with me and after you hung up, you threw the phone at the wall because you have a temper that runs hot after unpleasant phone calls.”

“It was Rogers,” Stark muttered, and this time, Loki didn’t imagine the way Stark sat straighter in his seat. Ah. So the Captain was the source of Stark’s pain. The question was: why?

“What did you bicker with him over?”

“Fight.”

“Excuse me?”

Stark grunted. “We did not ‘bicker’ as you so gently put it. We fought. Bicker seems like we fought over something trivial and we’ve already kissed and made up. Fighting is more appropriate for what we did.”

“Which was what?”

“I was trying to be reasonable and he was succeeding in being an asshole.” Stark lifted his screwdriver and pointed it at Loki. “That was three questions. Good day.”

“I only asked you two questions!” Loki exclaimed, a bit annoyed. “Do not attempt to lie to me, mortal, it will not work!”

To this, Stark set down his screwdriver, pushed his device away, and looked up at Loki calmly. “No, I answered three. I am well aware that you are the God of Mischief and Lies, so I would not be so stupid as to try to lie to you. That would only end in a brutal punishment, and let’s be honest here. I don’t feel like getting betrayed anytime soon. Now, back to my point. You asked who called me, what Rogers and I fought over, and then asked me to clarify what we fought over. I agreed to three questions and I answered three. You can get out of my lab now.”

Loki sputtered, but he had no response. Stark was right. Fuming, he stormed out of the lab and went to find his not-brother. Maybe Thor would know more about the events of the “Civil War”, considering he was a well-respected Avenger and Loki- well, Loki was Loki. “Avenger” or not, no one in their right mind would ever consider sharing information about the other Avengers- New or Old.

He only made it to the elevator before he was stopped by the soft voice of the automated computer. “Focus your attention to the south wall of the elevator,” FRIDAY commanded before continuing, “I only show you this because I have observed you and know that you are not as cold as you pretend to be. Use this information against Boss, however, and I will have you know that I possess the power to kill you- even if you are a God.”

Refusing to be intimidated, Loki turned and looked at the video being projected on the wall.

“Stark!”

Stark sighed, his expression tightening even as a shit-eating grin appeared on his face. He turned to face Steve Rogers, who stormed into the kitchen looking furious.

“Make this fast, Cap, Pep has me lined up for a meeting in half an hour and I was supposed to be gone twenty minutes ago.”

If possible, Rogers’ expression looked harder than it had only minutes before. “Where was your head at today? We told you that Natasha was in danger and needed backup and you didn’t provide it! Where were you? You didn’t even answer your comms! What the hell were you doing?”

“I was-”

“Nat’s in Medical because of you!” Rogers continued, speaking right over the genius. “You’re lucky she’s alive because I swear if she died, Clint might have come back from retirement just so he could kill you! You have a lot to explain, Tony. I know you think this is just a game, but it’s not! We’re out there fighting to protect others. You can’t just go gallivanting whenever you want- you’re an Avenger! You have a job to do: protect the civilians and eliminate the threat! You did neither of those today and because of you, innocent people died! Innocent people got hurt!”

Stark’s expression was still carefully blank, but his eyes were dark and dim, exposing his grief. He opened his mouth to respond, but someone else got there first.

“You BASTARD!” a new voice cried out, and a blast of red magic slammed into Stark’s chest, sending him stumbling against the wall. “Your negligence almost got Natasha killed!”

Stark’s eyes were open wide, his breathing getting quicker with each passing second, and it was apparent he was panicking.

Rogers, despite his own verbal assault, drew the line at harming others physically, apparently. “Wanda, that’s enough!” he shouted, pushing her away from the genius. “Stop it!”

“He deserves to die!” she screeched.

Several voices spoke at once, but the voice that was heard most easily was FRIDAY’s. “Witch, leave Boss alone or I will be forced to neutralize you,” she spoke harshly, her voice hard and unforgiving.

“I will not-”

Vision floated through the wall and before FRIDAY could take action, had stunned Wanda with his mind stone. When Rogers shouted at him, Vision looked at him silently, saddened, before floating to Stark’s side, who looked on the verge of collapsing. “Come, Tony,” Vision murmured, helping Stark stand. “You are safe now. I will see to it that she stays away from you.”

Loki slumped against the wall of the elevator, stunned, and unable to get the image of a frightened Stark out of his head. He and Thor had lived at the Compound for several months and although he had seen proof of Stark’s mental trauma before, that video was the first time he had ever seen it confirmed. It was-

“Do you understand now, Mr. Loki?” FRIDAY asked, her voice sad. “Do you understand why Boss is so unhappy that the Rogue Avengers are returning to the Compound?”

Loki nodded wordlessly. There was nothing to say.

The rest of the elevator ride was in silence, and it took Loki a minute- too long- to realize FRIDAY was giving him a chance to gather his thoughts before she took him to Thor’s floor so he could ask his questions. Loki cleared his throat. He knew someone who could give him more information, more magical information. “FRIDAY?”

“How may I be of assistance, Mr. Loki?”

“I’m going out,” Loki demanded. “Do not tell Stark. I will be by to see him shortly.”

FRIDAY was silent for a moment before she reminded him, “Do not tell Boss about what you have seen. I showed you under the impression you would help him, not be a further hindrance to his state of being.”

“I will not,” Loki said firmly, and thanked her absently for showing him the video as he made his way out of the elevator. Stark was isolated because he did not want to be hurt again, as his former teammates had hurt him. Loki would do well to make sure the arrival of the Rogues did not bring him more grief than he had already experienced.

Loki was gone for only an hour and a half before he teleported back into Stark’s lab.

“Stark?” he called when the inventor was not immediately present.

“Fuck!” Stark cursed, and Loki couldn’t contain the slight smirk when the startled mortal crawled out from underneath an engine. “Where did you- oh never mind. Look, I answered your three questions. What more do you want from me?”

Loki smirked. “I want an hour of your time, every day, from now on for the next three months. At least.”

Stark took the time to wipe his greasy hands on a rag and take a sip from an already-prepared smoothie from Dum-E before he answered Loki’s statement. “Two things. One, although you’re hot as hell, I am unfortunately not looking for a relationship at the moment, and two, it does not take an hour to have sex unless Gods are extremely slow at it.”

Loki’s smile widened into a grin. “That was not my insinuation, but keep that on the back burner so I can prove to you that having sex with a God is a rare treasure, not a hindrance. And to be honest, I don’t like you that much, so you don’t have to worry about a relationship with me.”

“Yet you say that with a smile.” Stark folded his arms over his chest, looking at Loki expectedly. “Care to explain what you want from me, then?”

“I want you to reserve an hour a day, at least, so I can teach you magic.”

Silence. Stark stared at Loki, looking shocked and every bit as surprised as Loki had ever seen him before. “What?” Stark finally sputtered.

Loki grinned. “Magic, Stark. I want to teach you magic. Can you compute my words, because if not, our lessons are going to lead to a lot of explosions very quickly-”

“Fuck, yes!” Stark exclaimed, eyes filled with excitement. “Do you know how fucking awesome it would be to have magical capabilities?” He paused, shook his head. “What am I saying? You know exactly what it’s like to have magical capabilities.” He paused again. “I’m rambling, sorry, I swear I won’t do this during a lesson-”

“Stark, do shut up,” Loki interrupted, but his voice was not unkind. “I am-”

“Why do you want to teach me?” Stark blurted out. “I mean, not that I don’t appreciate it, but you just got through saying how much you hate me… so why would you want to spend additional time with me just so you could teach me something that only you can do?”

“I don’t hate you. I just strongly dislike you sometimes,” Loki clarified. “As for the magic… it would be nice to have a sparring partner once in a while.”

Stark raised an eyebrow at him as he took a long drink of a suspiciously green-looking smoothie. “That has to be the most pathetic lie I’ve ever heard in my life, and you’re the God of Lies,” he commented. “I’ll let it go, for now, but this conversation is far from over with, do you hear me?”

Loki smirked and raised his hands. “Crystal clear. Now, shall we begin?”

 

Chapter Text

“When do the Rogues return?”

With a look of surprise on his face, Stark looked up from his reading. “Since when did you grow a hatred for them?” he questioned.

“Since I invaded your planet?”

“Right. That would make sense.” Stark ducked his head in embarrassment, and Loki scowled at him from across the room where he was practicing his magic. The mortal did this way too often when he ducked his head and looked ashamed of something as small as simply speaking. Loki hated it, hated that Stark would sometimes go for hours without speaking when the Stark he knew from his invasion of Midgard had been nothing but wit, sharp comments, and flirtatious smiles.

“I do despise them a good deal more than I do you,” Loki informed him as he summoned the book out of Stark’s hands.

“Hey!” Stark exclaimed, quickly getting in Loki’s face so he could snatch his book back. “I was reading that, thank you very much!”

Loki smirked at the inventor, loving the way Stark’s cheeks flushed bright red with his annoyance. “I was well aware of that fact, but I needed something to steal. Thank you for your assistance in my practice. You can go back to your reading now.” Loki stole the book again, and this time, used his magic to hold it well above his head.

“You’re a jerk,” Stark mumbled as he tried to jump high enough to grab his book. “Give me that back!”

“A jerk, hmm? Is that really the best you can do?” Loki teased.

Stark glared at him as he climbed onto his stool and prepared to make a leap for his floating book. “Fine, you assclown. You said I was supposed to spend our lesson reading, and then what do you do? You take away my fucking book! How am I supposed to read if you take my book away, huh? Didn’t think about that, now did you?” Stark judged the distance between himself and the book and jumped.

Loki cracked himself up laughing when Stark landed on the ground with a loud, pain-filled grunt. “Oh, you must have suspected I’d move the journal!” he cackled, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. “Stark, thank you for that beautiful display, that truly was-”

SLAM!

“Gotcha,” Stark grinned, his brown eyes twinkling as he leaned over Loki, who was sprawled out on the ground. Reaching out, Stark plucked his book off the ground next to Loki’s head and smirked down at the still-shocked God. “Don’t look so surprised, Reindeer. You may be a God and know how to do magic, but I am a mortal with a smart mind for a mortal. Do not underestimate my capabilities,” he mocked lightheartedly, echoing one of their conversations from a few days ago.

“Are you going to get off me or are you going to take advantage of your position?” Loki groused after a long thirty seconds of them awkwardly staring at each other. “Because I do not appreciate having all of your body weight just lying on mine like this, not unless you plan on making the position worth our time.”

Stark blinked, something tensing and relaxing in his expression before he ducked his head so their faces were close together. “Like this?” he whispered, his breath a whisper on Loki’s cheek. With their faces so close, Loki couldn’t help but notice the few freckles speckled across Stark’s face, and decided in that moment, that he wouldn’t mind if Stark were to kiss him. Given the kiss was worth his time, he might even decide to yell at the man instead of killing him.

“Tony, I was wondering if you- holy, what the heck!”

At the sound of Dr. Banner’s voice, Stark flinched, accidentally losing his balance as his arms gave out from underneath him. Loki grunted as the full force of Tony Stark’s weight fell on his, but it wasn’t the fact that he had become a bed for Stark that surprised him. No, what surprised him was the light brush of lips to the corner of his mouth, clearly caused because of the fall, and not any of Stark’s intentions... 

But a small part of Loki almost wished it had been intentional.

“I-I’m just going to go…” Dr. Banner murmured, his eyes blown wide in disbelief as he practically ran up the stairs.

Stark rolled off of Loki and burst into laughter. Loki glowered at him as he stood and wiped the dust from his outfit. He could practically feel the dirt clinging to his skin and knew the second he left the workshop, it would be to take a shower.

“Stop laughing,” Loki snarled. “This is not funny.”

“You’re right, it’s not. It’s hilarious!” Stark exclaimed gleefully as he wiped his eyes. “Did you see his face? Brucie definitely thought we were… oh God, I can’t even- that was hilarious!”

“It was not, actually.”

“You’re just upset that you didn’t get a proper kiss,” Stark winked as he began thumbing through his book again. “Don’t worry, Lokes, I’ll make sure you get a proper kiss one of these days. Not today, though, I’m afraid.”

“I cannot wait,” Loki snarled. He pointed at the sofa, and his magic quickly lifted Stark from the ground and lifted him to the sofa. “Now, sit there and read, and when I get back from my shower because the floor in this…” Loki trailed off, noticing that Stark had gone very still. He ventured closer, grimacing when he saw the way Stark flinched at his approach. Right, his magic. He was a fool. He didn’t think before he acted and now he was the reason Stark was having a mini panic attack.

“Stark?” Loki said carefully, stepping forward slowly until he was standing directly in front of the mortal seated on the sofa. Stark’s hands were clenched into fists and he was breathing much too quickly to be acceptable. His eyes were wide and his face was flushed bright red. “Come on, Stark, look at me,” Loki murmured, unsure of how to proceed from there.

“Boss prefers to be left alone in times like this,” FRIDAY said quietly.

Loki looked at the desperate, panicked look in Stark’s eyes and recognized the expression as one he had worn all too many times himself due to his own bouts of panic. “Prefers to be alone, or is just usually alone when he panics?” Loki snapped. “There is a difference.”

Stark whimpered, and Loki glanced at him. What could he do to snap the man out of his fear? There had to be something

Loki went over to the table and knocked over the project Stark was working on. There was a loud crash and although Stark whined, the harsh noise seemed to have snapped him out of his panic-induced state. Loki knocked over a glass of water, causing the cup to shatter and send tiny shards of glass all over the floor. He prepared to break something else, but the raspy voice of the genius stopped him.

“What the hell- are you doing?”

“Smashing things, obviously. Did it work?”

“Did what work?” Stark stood shakily, his hands trembling slightly. When he saw that Loki had noticed, he stuffed his hands into his pockets.

“Smashing things. Did it help snap you out of your attack?”

“It would appear so, wouldn’t it?” Stark sighed, picking up the book he had dropped. He placed it on the coffee table and began walking towards the door. “Look, I think our lesson is over with for today. We weren't really doing anything anyway, so I’ll see you tomorrow. I can read on my own time."

“Wait,” Loki said softly, grabbing onto Stark’s arm to stop him from leaving. “I didn’t- it wasn’t my intention to have startled you with my magic. I apologize for the attack I caused.”

Stark laughed bitterly. “That’s a first.”

Loki frowned at the mortal. “Pardon?”

“I thought you didn’t do apologies. In fact, I thought no one did anymore. Look, I wasn’t expecting you to apologize, that’s all. It's fine. I’m fine. I accept your apology. You can go now.”

“What do you mean ‘no one did anymore’? You mean others have caused such attacks and said nothing about it?”

“You could put it that way, yeah,” Stark muttered. “Look, can you just go? I’d like to be alone right now.”

“As you wish, but…” Loki hesitated. “Why learn magic if you fear it?”

“I don't.”

Loki frowned. He must have misunderstood. “Come again?”

Stark sighed. “It's not magic I fear. It's the people who use it that are the problem.” Stark blinked, and if Loki had to guess, seemed to silently berate himself for revealing too much. “Look, it’s nothing. Can we just drop it?”

Loki looked into Stark’s eyes, and nothing he could ever tell himself would ever ease the hatred he felt for himself- and the Rogues- when he saw the absolute pain in Stark’s eyes. “Anthony, did the Scarlet Witch use her magic on you?” Loki asked quietly. “Is that why you are fearful of magic? Because of something she did?”

“No!” was the quick response. Too quick, Loki thought. “You know what, you clearly aren’t in any hurry to leave, so fine. I’ll leave.” He brushed past Loki and was halfway up the stairs when Loki called up to him.

“Tomorrow we can begin practicing.”

“Practicing what?“ Stark’s voice was weary.

Loki managed a small smile when Stark turned to look at him. “A counterspell against the Witch’s powers.”

Stark stared at Loki for a long minute and then nodded. “See you tomorrow.”

*****

A busy two weeks passed, for Loki wasted no time in beginning their magic lessons. He knew that the Rogue Avengers’ return was rapidly drawing near, and as the date approached, he watched as Stark withdrew a bit more. Their soon-to-occur arrival clearly made the genius uncomfortable, and although Loki still was unsure of the reason why that was, he was sure it had something to do with the ‘Civil War’ that occurred between the Avengers. It was something Stark refused to speak about, and Loki had quickly learned not to mention the Rogues unless he either wanted to be ignored or forced to leave the workshop for the remainder of the day.

And considering the workshop was one of the very few places that Loki felt accepted, he figured the least he could do in exchange for his own contentedness was to shy away from personal topics that only brought up unpleasant memories for Stark.

Besides, he didn’t need to know what had transpired during the War to know that Stark was upset that the Rogues were returning, and that the Witch’s presence was something that worried Stark greatly. Now that Stark had completed and comprehended the lessons explained in the journals (A mortal had understood Frigga’s lessons; it didn’t seem possible, and yet, Stark was the proof that it was), Loki had begun teaching Stark how to correctly bring about a spell.

For all Stark’s great excitement in the first weeks of reading, his indicated interest had noticeably dwindled with each passing day. Loki had no doubt that Stark was fascinated by the prospect of learning magic, for that much had been very obvious from the beginning, but he was confused as to why Stark suddenly began talking less- even stooping as low as to not respond to Loki’s jests and attempts at starting a conversation. He was watching the mortal withdraw from him, and it frustrated Loki to no end.

By the fifteenth day of Stark’s exponentially increasing silence, Loki was about to lose his temper. He had tried to be patient, he truly had tried. He had even tried to get Stark to snap out of whatever funk he was in, but nothing was working. Loki was beginning to fear he had done something wrong, something to cause Stark’s quietness, and the idea pained him. Stark had seemed to actually accept him for who he was- magic, mischief, and all. If he had somehow wronged Stark and caused him to wish to leave their friendship, would he ever find that same understanding in another being?

Loki wasn't sure.

Which was, in the end, why Loki found himself resigned as he headed to the kitchen where Stark apparently was. He needed to find Stark so he could apologize for whatever disservice he had done the mortal, for surely he had done something. He had just reached his destination when he overheard the strained voice of Dr. Banner say, “Tony, I’m worried about you. You can’t keep doing this to yourself!”

The statement brought pause to Loki, and he flattened himself against the wall so he could listen to the conversation taking place between the two mortal scientists.

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. You used to come up from your workshop at least once a day for a meal, and now you won’t even step foot out of your workshop just to let us know you’re alive! You’re retreating, and it’s concerning to me. Something’s wrong.”

“I’m out of my workshop right now, aren’t I?”

A loud sigh came. “You know what I meant. Look, I know that Rogers and the others are coming back in three days but-”

“But what? But I shouldn’t be upset because I’m a billionaire and I’ve got it easy? Is that what you’re trying to say?”

“What? Tony, no! Of course not. I’m just saying, you’re not going to be alone this time. I know Rhodey’s busy with PT right now and Pepper’s in LA, but they are here for you. No amount of distance could ever stop them from being here for you, especially when you need them.  They're your friends and they care about you. And Thor and I, we’re here now, and we’ve got your back. I promise.”

“Yeah, sure, uh huh. Sounds awfully familiar… I wonder why? Oh, is it because that’s the same bullshit Cap told me? Why, wow, look at that, it is!” Loki could imagine how Stark would look as he rolled his eyes in response to the comment. “Save me the bullshit, Bruce. No one has my back; I know that, and I’m okay with that.”

“Then why are you so upset that everyone is getting pardoned? If you don’t trust anyone to have your back, then no one can hurt you, right? I don’t see the issue here.”

“Don’t see an issue- God, you’re painfully slow today. Are you feeling alright? Here, try this on for size: maybe I’m a little upset that everyone’s getting to come back to their cushiony little lives where I protect them- ‘them’ being the man that killed my parents, the man who pretended to be my best friend but knew for three years that my parents were murdered and never said a word about it, the Witch that went into my mind for her own enjoyment… do you see my problem yet? Cause I can keep going if I need to; God knows I have problems with all of them!”

Loki breathed out shakily. So these were the events that had transpired during the ‘Civil War’. No wonder the inventor hated to speak of it. Loki would too, had he been in Stark’s position.

“What about Loki?”

Loki frowned, immediately thinking he had heard incorrectly. After all Stark had just admitted, why would the doctor bring him up? Clearly Stark had the same thought, for he asked, “What about him?”

“Loki. We haven’t talked about him yet. Do you think he’ll have your back against the others?”

“Why should he? Everyone else will be against me, so why would he want to support me?”

“Well, he is your friend.”

“Bruce, on a good day, I have trouble believing that Rhodey would want to be friends with a monster like me and he's been my closest friend for more than half my life. You really expect me to believe that Loki, God of Mischief, would care enough about me to go after a team of America’s finest heroes when he could be on their side rallying against me?”

Yes.

“He’s teaching you how to counter Maximoff’s mind control, isn’t he?”

“That doesn’t mean he cares about me. Especially enough to defend my honor against a team of heroes who’d all want to kick his ass for merely looking at me in a non-threatening way. Hell, I’m a pain in the ass to deal with. I’m just surprised he can stand my presence long enough to have an hour-long lesson with me.”

Foolish mortal.

“He spends almost the entire day with you, does he not?”

“Well, he could just be doing that so he can gain my trust before he betrays me,” Stark countered.

Loki winced at the accusation, suddenly wishing that he had never decided to overhear the conversation.

“I suppose that’s true-”

“I’m not going to betray you!” Loki blurted, entering the kitchen before he could process what he was doing.

Both scientists froze before turning slightly to meet Loki’s eyes. Loki tried not to flinch at the hard look in Stark’s eyes.

“You were eavesdropping,” Stark accused.

There wasn’t any denying that. “I was.”

“I suppose I should have seen that coming. Well, congratulations, now you know about the ‘Civil War’ and all the ways Tony Stark is a fuck-up. Stick around and I’ll gladly explain some more,” Stark said bitterly, turning away so his back was to Loki.

“FRIDAY told me you were in the kitchen. I knew you were pulling away and I came to talk to you.” Loki was quiet. “Eavesdropping was never my intention.”

“Yet, you stayed and listened.” The doctor sounded annoyed.

Loki felt a rush of anger. “Of course I stayed and listened! Stark is the only person who makes me feel like I’m not- like I’m not a monster! Yet, recently he’s been spending less and less time with me, and I thought I had done something wrong to cause his distance, because I always manage to ruin whatever good there is in my life, but then I heard you say something about the Rogues and I knew I had to listen because they’re returning in three days and I have proof of their hurtful actions against Stark… and how can I be expected to protect him if I don’t know who or what to protect him from?” He was breathing heavily when he finished his rant and turned away slightly so the two mortals could not see how strongly he was affected. Why, oh why, did he have to become emotional now of all times?

The kitchen was silent following his speech, and each passing moment of silence only furthered Loki’s stress. Wonderful, not only had he ruined his relations with Stark, but he had also most likely ruined whatever acceptance the doctor seemed to have had for him. He truly did have a skill for ruining everything good in his life. Now all he had was Thor, and-

“When the Rogues return, and if you go against them, especially on my behalf, they will not be kind to you,” Stark warned, his voice loud in the otherwise silent kitchen.

Loki looked up sharply, tensing briefly before he saw the understanding mirrored in Stark’s dark brown eyes. It made him pause, to consider what exactly Stark had gathered and sympathized with from his words, but after a moment’s consideration decided it didn’t matter because Stark was once again accepting him for who he was.

That realization almost made Loki’s eyes water, and he mentally cursed his out-of-control emotions for the second time in as many minutes. It took him another minute to regain composure enough to speak, but neither man seemed to notice- or if they did, they didn't care enough to call him out for it. Loki managed a small, yet genuine, smile at Stark. “It is of no concern to me if they treat me kindly or not.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Stark sighed as he rose from his stool at the counter.

“Perhaps, but I wouldn't be the God of Mischief if I wasn’t able to ‘think outside the box’ as you Midgardians phrase it as.”

“Great, you’re creative and ridiculous.” Loki watched, a bit surprised, as Stark came to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him. He was about to comment on their closeness, but was startled silent when Stark patted him on the shoulder and said, “Rudolph, you comin’ to the workshop? We have some lessons to make up.”

Loki glanced at him shyly. “Am I...wanted?” he asked hesitantly.

“I wouldn’t have invited you unless you were. Only special people get permission to enter my holy workshop.”

“Oh, I’m special, am I?”

“Of course you are, you dummy.” Stark sighed as if his answer had been painfully obvious, and headed for the door. “Now, are you coming?”

“Hey, Tony!” Dr. Banner called. Loki blinked, having almost forgotten the doctor was present.

The inventor paused in the doorway of the kitchen so he could look back at his friend. “Whaddya need, Brucie?”

“You know I’ve got your back, right? The Hulk and I, we won’t let them hurt you, I promise.”

Something soft and unguarded appeared in Stark’s expression for a mere second before it disappeared. Loki marveled at the true beauty he had been witness to, but wisely remained silent. He knew Stark would not be so willingly open with them if he knew they had seen his affection for all that it was.

“Yeah, I know.” Stark managed a small, brisk nod, although it was clear that he was touched. “Thanks, Bruce.”

The doctor just smiled gently in return, and Loki turned to follow Stark to the elevator. Once they were inside and the doors were closed, he said, “You have my word as well.”

Stark snorted. “You know, only a few years ago, we were enemies. I never thought I’d live to see a day where we got along, nonetheless were friends.”

Loki sent Stark a cautious look. “Is that what we are, friends?”

Stark shrugged. “We’re definitely not enemies anymore, that’s for sure.”

“No indeed.”

“Friends, then,” Stark said quietly.

The small, pleased smile that seemed to light up Stark’s face as he announced them as friends made Loki’s heart skip a beat.

They were friends.

*****

The Avengers were going to arrive in a matter of minutes. The same people he had fought an entire war against. The same people who fought an entire war against Anthony. Loki breathed out shakily. He didn't want them to come. 

To his right, Stark approached, becoming the first person to join him in waiting. “Hey,” he murmured in greeting, taking his position beside him. “You ready for this shitfest?”

Loki chuckled at the choice of words, but it sounded much too forced to be truly earnest. He sighed. “Not as much as I would like.”

“Yeah, I feel that.”

“I do not wish for an argument to occur.”

Stark glanced at him. “There will be one. I don't have much hope for anything but that. Sorry.”

“No...it’s fine. Will Strange and the spiderling be attending?”

“Strange, maybe. He said he had a message to deliver? The fuck knows what that means. The kid...nope. I didn't want him here, not after the first royal screw-up. And Vision refused to even be in the building thanks to the Witch, so he won't be attending the get-together either."

Loki looked up sharply. “What did she do to him?”

“Dropped him through every floor in the Compound,” Stark answered tightly.

“I might purposely let my emotions control my magic,” Loki muttered, eyes flashing angrily. “Why must she bring pain to others?”

Stark looked at him. “You know you don't have to be here when they get here, right? They probably won't...well, they won't-”

“Be happy to see me.” Loki finished, shrugging. “Their anger means nothing to me. Besides, if I leave, who will protect you from the Rogues?”

“I can protect myself.”

“I'm well aware of that fact,” Loki responded with a small smile. “You did manage to bring me to the ground during my invasion of your world. Twice, if memory serves me correctly, which it always does.”

“I was pretty badass, wasn’t I?”

“Your entry music was… unusual.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“It's a part of you, that music, is it not?”

Stark nodded slowly. “So…?”

“So,” Loki smiled gently, “It’s a good thing. It's what makes you who you are.”

Stark exhaled. Loki turned to look at him and found his expression unreadable. “Anthony?”

“Are you always this kind?”

“Only to the people I like.”

“Only to the people you like. Right.” Anthony’s cheeks were red. Loki looked at him in confusion.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No. It's just-”

“Boss, I’m sorry to interrupt but Ms. Potts is attempting to get ahold of you. I believe she wants to inquire about your state of health. Shall I connect the call?” FRIDAY interrupted.

Whatever he was going to say died on his lips at the AI’s words. “Sorry, I need to reassure her that she isn't needed to assassinate Rogers,” Stark muttered. He patted Loki’s arm as he pulled out his phone. “Be right back.”

Loki nodded numbly, watching as the mortal walked away. “FRIDAY?” he sighed.

“Yes, Mr. Laufeyson?”

“When will the Rogues arrive?”

“Their intended time of arrival is in eighteen minutes.”

“Why are they arriving at such a late hour?”

“It was Boss's idea. He believes the least amount of time spent together would be the wisest, and safest, course of action.”

“I see. Do you plan to threaten them?”

“As the situation calls for it,” she answered cheerfully, and Loki tried not to smile. He knew that the AI remembered what the Rogues had done to her creator, which was why he knew she secretly was hoping to have the opportunity to threaten the Rogues if they were to hurt her creator again. He didn't blame her, and in fact, shared the same desire.

A door slammed, and Loki looked up to see Stark storming into the room. He paced for a moment before dropping heavily onto the sofa. Only a few seconds later, he stood and resumed his pacing, looking agitated and tense.

“Anthony?”

“Fine, fine,” Stark waved him off.

Loki scoffed but didn't comment further. He leaned against the wall and watched with a frown as Stark continued to pace, looking more tense with each passing second. He wanted to say something but knew his attempts at a conversation would be unsuccessful. Whatever Ms. Potts had told him had clearly upset him greatly.

A soft click alerted Loki that a new person had entered the room. Colonel Rhodes met his eyes, glanced at Stark, and looked back at him. Loki shook his head. The soldier made a face and stepped further into the room.

Loki watched, a frown on his face, as the Colonel Rhodes slowly made his way over to Stark, placing a soothing hand on the small of his back once he was within reach. “You ready?” Loki overheard the Colonel ask.

“How long?”

“Fifteen minutes, at most.”

There was a long, shaky exhalation. “Fuck, no.”

Loki glanced up as his not-brother and the doctor appeared at his side. “Thor,” Loki greeted quietly without ever taking his eyes off the tense-looking genius.

“Brother.” Thor’s voice was grave, which only deepened Loki’s frown more. If even his not-brother was concerned, then there was no chance the reunion between the Rogues and the New Avengers would go well.

“You expect a fight,” Loki commented, feeling the nervous energy radiating from his not-brother.

“Not a fight.” Thor frowned slightly. “But a harsh exchange of words, yes.”

The doctor nodded. “From what Tony has told me…”

“The lines of friendship are weak between Friend Tony and the Captain,” Thor agreed.

“The Other Guy is fuming.” The doctor winced. “I'm not going to make much of an appearance, I'm afraid. I know they'll mention Ross and how my signing the Accords makes no sense…” he blew out a deep breath, sounding frustrated as he continued, “Tony doesn't talk about what happened, but I know enough to know that I'd love to punch them all before letting the Other Guy blow off some steam.”

“Hey, Brucie-Bear!”

Everyone looked up at Stark upon the sound of his voice and Loki noticed that everyone frowned at his stiff stature. He stood tall as if he was preparing for a battle, but there was a hint of amusement in his voice as he said, “Brucie, please don't turn all green today, okay? My Compound does not need another human-sized dent in the floor.”

“You certainly do not refer to when I was-”

A new voice interrupted Loki’s comment, and the Compound fell silent as Agent Clint Barton sneered, “Your Compound? I thought we all were living here."

The air in the room suddenly got much colder. Loki wasn't sure if that was down to his anger overwhelming his control, or the hatred simmering in the agent’s voice.

Stark stood straight. “Barton.”

“You weren't due for another ten minutes,” Colonel Rhodes said tightly.

“We made good time.”

Footsteps came, getting louder with each step, and Loki felt his anger strengthening when he saw the rest of the Rogue Avengers enter the common room. For a long moment, no one spoke. Each person was silent, gazing at one another in a silent, appeasing gesture that spoke I hate you.

The Captain, not unsurprisingly, spoke up first. “Tony. You look...good.”

“I was lucky to have been in pleasant company the last several months.” Stark’s voice was hard. “Does wonders for one’s health.”

“Let's not-”

“Let's not what? Pretend that the ‘Civil War’ never occurred? That's a great idea, actually, let's do that. We all know how well things go when we don't talk about important things when we should.”

Loki tried not to smirk. He was certain he was failing.

“Tony-”

“Stark to you.” Stark shook his head. “I'm not the same. You're not either. Let's not pretend everything is the same as how it was before, because it's not.”

“What the fuck is he doing here?” Agent Barton snapped suddenly, glaring daggers at Loki, who just smirked at him and gave him a little wave.

“Miss me?”

The Agent had an arrow strung and in the air before anyone could even draw breath. Loki’s smile never wavered; he merely shifted his position slightly and the arrow slammed into the wall.

From there, everything happened in a matter of seconds. Weapons were drawn, words of fury were exchanged, and battle positions were consumed. Everyone froze when Dr. Banner snarled, his skin turning green.

“Cease!” Loki demanded, knowing full that their position was getting perilous if their bickering didn't stop and the doctor got angrier.

Stood at his side, Stark was the first person to speak. “Everyone put your weapons down. We're not going to fight here. Rhodey, help Bruce out of here. Don't come back, and no, don't say anything. Loki’s here. As for you-” Stark glared at the Rogues, “Calm down. Barton, had you been paying attention to the news, you would have heard months ago that Thor, Bruce, and Loki landed, signed the Accords, and moved into the Compound. They are all full members of the New Avengers, and as an Avenger yourself, you will treat them with respect. Now, weapons down. This is supposed to be a reunion, not a continuation of times best forgotten.”

Surprisingly enough, it was the one flesh-armed, one metal-armed soldier, James Barnes, that lowered his weapon first. “Come on, Steve, gun down,” he ordered in a quiet, yet stern, voice. “Stark’s right.”  

Slowly, one by one, everyone lowered their weapons. Loki noticed that no one put their respective weapon away, but at least various guns and knives were no longer aimed at someone.

“Great, now that that’s over with, it's time for the introductions!” Stark said brightly, acting as if a bloodbath hadn't nearly been avoided. “The man who listened to reason is James Buchanan Barnes. He was a POV forced to work for HYDRA. Master marksman. Even has a damn good-looking metal arm, too, courtesy of the Wakandian King, I'm sure. Barnes, meet Loki, God of Mischief and sometimes Lies, and Thor, the God of Thunder and King of Asgard. If you can't already tell, they aren't from around here.”

Loki sent Stark an amused look and received a shrug and smirk in response. Not one to allow silence to build, Stark continued lightly, “The other two people who were here should be familiar to you, but I'll introduce them anyway. The man with the greenish-tint was Dr. Bruce Banner, also known as the Hulk. Don't mess with him unless you want to lose. The man with a limp is my sunshine, my Rhodey Bear. He was a Colonel in the Air Force…” Stark shrugged. “You already know about that. His name is James Rhodes and he's a tough SOB. I wouldn't mess with him either if I were you.”

“This is great, it truly is, but care to introduce us to the rest?” Loki interrupted once Stark paused to breathe.

Stark sent him a pleased look. “Glad you asked! Now-”

“I take it you're friends?” the Widow’s voice was hard.

“My, you're observant. You guys already know each other so I'll introduce the newbies. Ant-Man is the felon standing in the back, and careful around him because he can go from normal sized to tiny to an actual giant in 0.2 seconds. Scott Lang, Loki. Loki, Lang. Thor, the same thing for you. Alright, familiar with each other? Good, moving on. The last soldier in the room is Sam Wilson. He's known as Falcon. Falcon, that's Loki, and that's Thor.”

“Can you possibly stop talking?” someone growled.

Before Anthony could reply, Loki stepped forward. “If you'd rather, I'll have a go,” he suggested, making his voice smooth and very clear that no one would be objecting his proposal. “Now, we haven't been introduced, but you must be the Scarlet Witch.” When the woman nodded, Loki turned to his not-brother. “Her name is Witch. You can remember that, I'm sure. And that's about all I have to say about you, besides the fact that you and I shall not get on, so don't ask me for lessons with your magic. Well, this has been fun but I'm afraid I've grown bored of interactions with mortals. Rogues, I welcome you to the Compound and warn you all against naughty behavior. Good day.” With a nod to his not-brother and Stark, Loki headed for the door.

A new voice stopped him. “Loki, leaving so soon?”

Loki sighed. “Strange,” he muttered as he turned around. Of course, the mortal would appear just as he was preparing to leave.

The Rogues gaped. “Who are you?” the Captain demanded.

“Doctor Stephen Strange, sorcerer and defender of this realm. To make this all very clear to everyone, I do not see Loki as a threat, but I see many others in this room as a threat. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have more important things to do than be with the likes of you lot. Stark, you alright?”

Stark looked baffled as he dismissed the question with a wave. “Fine, Strange. You?”

“Been better.” The sorcerer looked around the room before meeting Loki’s eyes. Loki sent him a questioning look and frowned at the worried look in the doctor’s eyes. What was-

The mortal disappeared into a portal.

Wrong. What was wrong? Why was Strange so concerned?

“That was Strange. He's smart as a whip, has a photographic memory, and loves to have magical battles with Loki.” Stark sent Loki a faint smile, but it looked weak and not at all genuine. “It's a spectacle. Now, since we've got all our introductions done, let's get a few things straight. First of all, FRIDAY controls the Compound. If you need anything, go to her first. Before anyone asks, yes, Vision is alive and well. He did not feel comfortable with being present when you all arrived, and so he is not currently in the building. Spider-Man signed the Accords a few months back and he has decided to be a ‘friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’ which Ross and his committee are okay with. However, he is an Avenger and is to be treated as such. What am I missing… ah, no asking too-forward of questions. Let’s respect boundaries and if someone tells you no, it damn well means no. That means if someone wants to refuse to talk to you or to answer a question, you better take it as the no it was meant to be and don't pressure that person. One last thing: like it or not, we are a team. In the battlefield, we have to have each other's backs. There are mandated team meetings and team building exercises. These are not designed to form bonds or friendships; they are simply meant to increase our chances of survival in a combat situation. We're a team, not a family. If you have any questions, ask FRIDAY or look over the Accords you all signed. Got it? Got it. Okay, yeah. Have a nice day.”

“Wow, who put you as leader?” Barton sneered.

“Uh...everyone, actually. We had mandatory lessons on military strategies among other things, had team-functions, mock-battles...the list goes on and on. Based on our results and how we were evaluated, we took a vote as a team. I was voted, unanimously, as the Captain of the New Avengers.”

Loki nodded his agreement. In a combat situation, Stark was the best for the role of leading the team. He knew the procedure, was excellent at problem-solving, and was able to gather information before it even became a thought in the others’ minds. When it had come down to voting, choosing Stark had been an easy choice for Loki. (He was also the candidate that was respected the most, which Loki felt had played an important role in why everyone had voted Stark as Captain.)

“That's fucking hilarious. The worst team-player gets voted as the Captain. Good thing we have Gods present, because we all have to say a prayer if we expect to live under Stark’s guidance!”

Loki scowled at the comment and had a feeling his not-brother was doing the same.

“Look-”

“I wouldn't put it past you to purposely put us in danger simply because we fought against you,” Barton continued.

Stark flinched.

Loki’s magic simmered at his fingertips, and he was vaguely aware that he was sparking as he stormed over to the bird agent and snapped, “You would do well to be quiet, agent.”

“Are you threatening him?” the Agent Widow demanded.

Loki sent her a heated glare. “No, but I wish I was. However, unlike the bird, I do not wish to cause a further argument.”

“You-”

“Enough!” Stark bit out, looking furious. “You're here now, congratulations. We've all gotten our points across so we can shut up about them now. Settle in, do what you need to do. We're done here.”

With his piece clearly said, Stark headed for the door once again. He didn't make it, with the Captain’s voice causing him to stop walking. “Tony, can we talk?”

Stark turned around, sighed, and glanced at the Captain. “There's nothing to talk about.”

“Yes, there is, and if we could just talk-”

“I would prefer if we didn't.” Stark shook his head. “Don't try, Rogers. You want to fix things between us, but you can't. Don't waste your time.”

“God, you're impossible!” Wilson exclaimed.

This time Stark only made it a few steps before he was forced to stop, but unlike the first two times, this time was not of his own accord. “Tony, please. We need to talk!” the Captain pleaded desperately. 

Stark stiffened and looked down at the hand on his arm. “Let go of me,” he said quietly. “I told you, you can't fix something unbreakable, so don't even try. Now let go of me.”

“Look, I know that things didn't end well between us but that doesn't mean we can't talk about it and at least try to become friends again.”

Loki could stand the haunted look in Anthony’s eyes no further. Clearly, he was uncomfortable and if the Captain wouldn't listen to Anthony’s request, then Loki would make him. He stalked forward and roughly grabbed the Captain’s hand. “Anthony said to let go of him,” Loki growled, forcing the Captain’s hand into the air. “Do not touch him again.”

Stark shot a grateful look at Loki before hastily making his exit.

“You care about Stark,” Agent Widow commented, sounding pleased and impressed with her realization.

Loki sent her a very uninterested look. “Do not be dull. It's quite unattractive.” With a final nod to the Rogues, Loki left in search of Stark. He heard Thor addressing the others as he left, but didn't stop to hear what was being said. All that mattered to him was finding Anthony and making sure he was alright.

“FRIDAY, you here?” Loki murmured as he stepped into the elevator.

“Yes, Mr. Laufeyson. Are you inquiring about Boss?”

“I am. May I know where he is?”

“You tell me.”

“His workshop?”

If FRIDAY could smile, Loki was almost certain she would be smiling as she answered, “You know my Boss so well.”

“I do try,” Loki murmured. “Is he alone?”

“The Colonel Rhodes and Dr. Banner are with him.”

“Good, he shouldn't be alone right now.” When Loki entered the workshop, the sight that met his eyes was not unexpected. The Colonel was sitting on the sofa watching the doctor, who paced the workshop as he tried to work off his aggravation while watching Stark, who was hunched over on a stool at his desk.

“Thor?” the Colonel asked quietly upon Loki's entry.

“Dealing with the others,” Loki responded shortly. “I believe he will be the next to join us down here.”

“And the last.”

Loki glanced at the inventor, giving him a small nod of confirmation. “And the last.” He walked over to where Stark was sat and, after a moment’s hesitation, gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “Alright?”

Under his hand, Anthony tensed and then relaxed slightly. “Yeah, fine,” he mumbled.

“It's alright if you're not, you know.” When Stark just gave him a blank look, Loki clarified, “If you're not alright, that's okay. I think it might even be expected. Certainly justified, given the circumstances.”

“And when there are no circumstances?” Stark’s voice was heavy.

Loki considered the question. He knew of the term ‘depression’ and how the people who suffered from it usually experienced feelings of isolation, sadness, and lack of motivation for no apparent reason. The same could be said for a number of things. “Sometimes, it's not about the circumstances, but about how you feel.”

Anthony exhaled shakily but did not respond.

“Doctor, are you well?” Loki checked, never moving away from his position beside the genius.

“Well enough.” the doctor shook his head. “Not really. I thought I'd be fine but… I can hardly stand the sight of most of them right now.”

“I'm sorry.”

Dr. Banner glanced at Stark. “Not your fault, Tony. You weren't the asshole, they were.”

“Uh huh.” With a groan, Stark leaned forward and bonked his head on the table. “I should have become gravely ill this morning.”

“Just be happy they arrived in the evening. At least, this way, you got to spend the least amount of time with them as possible.”

Stark snorted. “Thanks, Rhodey.”

“Anytime, Tones, anytime.”

In the silence that followed, Loki realized that his hand was still on Stark’s shoulder. He had refused contact with the Captain, and here Loki was touching Stark only a few minutes later. Norms, he was pathetic. “Sorry,” Loki murmured as he pulled his hand away.

“No...it’s okay.” Stark shook his head, seeming to understand what Loki had apologized for. “It's Rogers I can't stand, not you.”

The doctor halted in his pacing, his eyes widening a bit. “Tony, are these schematics for a new arm for Barnes?”

“What? Of course not!” Stark tried to take the drawings away from the other scientist, but it was too late.

Dr. Banner frowned as he studied the work. “You designed Barnes’ arm?”

Loki glared at Stark. “This was the ‘top secret project’ you worked on in the middle of the night?”

“Sometimes,” Stark admitted sheepishly. “I gave it to T’Challa when Barnes was revived. They pretended to do the work but…”

“But it was yours,” Loki finished.

“Why not be honest?” Thor asked, surprising them all from his appearance in the doorway.

“If they knew it was from me, they'd never accept it,” Stark pointed out.

“Why is that?”

“Because, Reindeer, they all blame me for the Civil War. Granted, they should but the distrust about something tech-related is just plain hurtful. So I sent the arm to T'Challa and he agreed to give it to Barnes without revealing to them that I made it.”

“Why would you make an arm for the man that killed your parents?” the Colonel exclaimed.

“He was under control, Rhodey. He didn't want to be a killer; he's not a killer.”

“Master marksman,” Loki murmured.

Stark nodded at him. “Yeah.” He sighed, rubbing his temple. “Fri?”

“Yeah, boss?”

“How bad is it?”

“From a scale of one to ten?”

“Please.”

“Nine. Easily a nine.”

“Fuck,” Stark murmured. “Um...look, guys. I appreciate your anger on my behalf, I really do. But… I'd like to be alone right now.”

Everyone changed an uneasy look. “Tony, you sure?” Banner asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then I shall bid you goodnight, Friend Tony!” Thor boomed, patting Stark on the shoulder as he made his exit.

The colonel huffed as he carefully stood up and made his way over to Stark. “That guy's got way too much energy,” he griped.

“Well, he is a God and you're not...”

“Shut it,” the colonel snapped, but there was no malice behind his words. “I'll see you in the morning, okay?”

“Yeah. Night, honey bear.”

The soldier made a face at the nickname. “Never call me that again,” he pleaded.

A small but genuine smile appeared on Stark’s face. Loki found it hard not to change his expression at the sight of the true smile on Stark’s face. Even in dark times, the man still found the strength to smile. Loki found it admirable. 

Before he knew it, it was just them in the workshop. Loki sighed as he joined the other man at the desk. “Will your sleep be calm?”

“I doubt it.”

“I can stay,” Loki offered quietly.

“I'd be horrible company.”

Loki shrugged. “I usually am.”

“I think you underestimate yourself.”

“I could say the same about you.”

Stark rolled his eyes. “Aren't we a pair.”

They exchanged an amused look before Loki murmured shyly, “The offer still stands.”

Stark’s face fell. “They just got here and I want it to end already. I'm not...I’m not sure I can do this.”

“Do what?”

“Stay here. With them. After everything that happened.”

Loki sat down on the edge of the desk. “I will protect you,” he promised earnestly.

“I know.” Stark looked at the floor. “I think I've known that for awhile now.”

Reaching forward, Loki cupped Anthony’s chin in his hand, gently tipping his head back just enough so they could look at each other. “I protect what is mine,” he whispered. “The Rogues will not harm you.”

“I'm yours?” Anthony managed a small smile, looking both surprised and touched.

“Of course that's all you gathered from that,” Loki huffed, trying not to smile. “You are my friend, which means that you are mine to protect. No one gets to mess with you.”

“‘Mess with you’, huh? I think you are watching too much American television.”

“You are ridiculous.”

Stark grinned. “Perhaps, but you like it.”

“Oh? What makes you say that?”

“Because I'm yours,” Stark teased as he stood up.

Loki rolled his eyes. “I'm beginning to regret saying that out loud.”

“Oh, I'm not. Now I've got blackmail on you for the rest of my life.”

“I'll find something to hold over your head, don't you worry.”

“Oh, I won't.”

Loki stood as well and straightened his outfit. “If you need me, you know where to find me.”

“Going to bed?”

“Of course not. It’s not eleven yet. I'm merely headed to my room to begin my novel.”

“What are you reading now?”

Hamlet, I believe it is called.”

“Shakespeare fan, are we?”

“His works are...interesting.”

“Indeed.” There was a moment’s pause and then, “You can read here!”

Please don't leave, Loki understood with ease. It was an easy decision to make. “I'll grab my book and be right back,” he said quietly.

Stark didn't respond but the relieved look in his eyes was response enough. Loki gave him a smile and went to retrieve his book.

 

Later, after Stark had fallen asleep, Loki was not surprised to find that he was not the only one unable to fall asleep. The doctor entered the workshop quietly and was even quieter as he joined Loki on the floor. Stark was asleep on the sofa and over a shared look and nod, Loki and the doctor both silently agreed to keep watch over their friend for the night.

“Why do you support Anthony?” Loki broke the long-lasting silence. His eyes were distant as he recalled the argument and the pure rage flashing in the doctor’s eyes.

“He’s my friend. Why wouldn’t I?”

“The Avengers were also once his friend.”

The doctor sighed as his expression turned forlorn. “When we first landed... Tony was in a bad place. One that I had been in once myself. A place that I still can fall into, if I’m not careful.”

“You, of course, refer to being suicidal.”

A nod. "I suppose you would recognize the signs. But, yes, Tony seemed only a call away from that path. Rhodey, his best friend, was paralyzed. JARVIS, the AI Tony had created who was like a father and son to Tony at the same time, was dead. The others, his so-called friends, had betrayed him and left him behind like he didn't matter to them.” The doctor's voice was quiet. “I wasn’t there for him when he needed a friend the most.”

Loki narrowed his eyes a bit, at that. “Why sign the Accords? Doesn’t an enemy of yours run them, Ross?”

“That's him.” The doctor shrugged. “I don't worry about him as much as I used to.”

“Why is that?”

“The day I met Tony, he outright told me that he was a ‘huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster’. He also tried to set me off by poking me with a screwdriver in the side,” the doctor recalled with a faint smile.

Understanding washed over Loki. “He wasn’t afraid of you.”

“He wasn’t. He also didn’t see me as the monster I thought I was.” The doctor gave a surprised shake of his head. “He still doesn’t and he absolutely refuses to allow others to see me as one. Which is why I’m not worried about Ross. Tony mended the Accords after he signed so they could be better. He played ball with Ross but made sure the ball was always in his court. And I know that he has my back. Ross knows that too, which is why he hasn’t bothered me since we landed. He knows Tony’ll kick his ass if he tries to hurt me in any way.”

“You trust him.”

“With my life.” Dr. Banner gave a small, sad smile. “Never thought I’d say that, about anyone, but I trust him.”

“He is one of a kind,” Loki said quietly, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

Dr. Banner nodded in agreement. It was quiet and then the doctor asked, “Why did you sign?”

Loki hesitated. Because wasn't that the question? It was certainly one that deserved to be answered. He had told Stark his reasons once, and after all the doctor had shared, he knew he owed the man an honest answer. Loki sighed. “I became...painfully aware that the person I was, was not the person I wanted to be. Mischief is a part of me…” He smiled tightly, “God of Mischief, after all, but the destruction… no amount of betrayal and rage excused my actions. When Stark explained the Accords and I read them for myself, I saw a way out. Under them, I have the accountability for my actions that I need. I don’t...I don’t want to be the person that I was, not again.”

Surprising Loki, the doctor reached out to place a hand on Loki’s shoulder. “I can see why Tony likes you,” was all that he said before falling quiet.

Loki stared up at the man fast asleep on the sofa. Stark was sharp, witty, and their banter was always a source of Loki’s newfound happiness. Or, was it Stark himself that made Loki happy? He wasn’t quite sure. However...

Anthony liked him.

Chapter Text

On the sixth day of the Rogue Avengers’ return, Loki was startled awake from a deep slumber when his magical shield around the Compound alerted him that magic was being used inside the building. 

Blinking blearily, he was still half asleep as he climbed out of bed and questioned, “FRIDAY, who is using magic?”

When no response came, Loki knew something was wrong. He summoned his armor and was out of his room in a matter of seconds. He only made it a few steps before he bumped- quite literally- into a wall of solid supersoldier.

Loki took a step back and glared at the man blocking his way. “Get out of my way,” Loki growled. And blinked as he suddenly found a gun in his face.

“I think you should explain your armor,” came the low response.

“I have no time for this,” Loki snapped, not even caring when he saw the soldier’s finger tighten on the trigger. “You need to move, now.

“FRIDAY, alert the others.”

Loki stepped forward, and as quickly as Barnes could pull the trigger, Loki dissolved the bullets. “FRIDAY is not answering,” Loki said coldly. “You forget that I am not the enemy here. I have lived here in peace for months, can you say the same for yourself?” Loki saw something shatter in the man’s eyes, and felt satisfied. “Now, if you truly must know, there is a magical disturbance in the tower that I must investigate.”

“Magic?”

“Considering I am not the person using magic and Vision is not presently here, that leaves either your fellow ex-fugitive the Witch, or an outside force,” Loki snarled, concentrating on locating the source of the magic as he paced up and down the hallway. He froze, his eyes widening. The workshop.

“What?” the soldier demanded. “What’s going on?”

Loki didn’t bother with a response, just transported himself into Stark’s lab. The lights were out, and as much as he hoped Stark had been foolishly practicing magic on his own, he knew the odds of such an occurrence were very low. No one was more cautious about his work than the genius inventor.

Harsh breathing caught his attention, and Loki frowned. “Stark!” he called.

Someone whimpered. Loki summoned a dagger as he cautiously stepped forward. The person in distress was breathing even more quickly than before, and as Loki stepped forward, he could clearly hear the desperate gasps of someone fighting for life.

It was a familiar sound, and Loki’s blood ran cold.

“Stark!”

Suddenly very concerned that the magic wasn’t of the inventor’s own doing, Loki took another cautious step closer towards the figure huddled in the corner of the workshop as far away from the door as possible.

His magic caught up with his mind, identifying the inventor as the one in distress, and despite the obvious threat lurking in the workshop, Loki rushed forward to examine the genius. “Anthony!”

Tortured brown eyes flickered up to meet his own, and Loki froze at the terrified look in Stark’s eyes. What was going on?

“Not you too,” Stark moaned and clawed at his chest with a howl of agony.

Loki’s magic lit up the air without hesitation. There was a red glow as the Scarlet Witch’s aura was revealed, and with a furious snarl, Loki’s magic removed her control of Stark’s mind and then dulled her capabilities to nothing. Free of her possession, Stark dropped lifelessly to the ground, but his wheezing told Loki that the man was still conscious.

“What did you do to me?” the witch screamed at Loki as she appeared from the shadows. “He deserved what I was doing to him after what he did!”

He glanced at her with disinterest as he stepped closer to the mortal shaking on the ground. “I froze your magic,” he said calmly. “A child such as yourself has no place having such powers, especially when she abuses them to torture another.”

The witch shrieked in fury and threw her hands out, but nothing happened. Loki smirked at the look of absolute horror that appeared on her face. “You monster!” she screamed.

Loki knelt down beside the inventor and grabbed his wrists, trying to keep the man from scratching at his chest. “Tell me what you made him see,” Loki commanded, now concerned at how quickly he was breathing. It couldn’t be healthy, especially not for a mere mortal with a heart problem.

Crossing her arms over her chest defiantly, the woman (witch) shook her head. “No.”

Loki sent her a dangerous grin and his magic cackled in the air. Even with only half of his attention on her, he could rip her apart without thinking too hard about it. “You will tell me, or I will make you recall your brother’s death until his lifeless form is all you see when you close your eyes,” he threatened her softly, his eyes red and alight with barely suppressed anger.

“Do not talk about my brother!” the witch screeched. “You do not get to talk about him!”

Loki glared at her. “Rid yourself from my presence before I decide torturing you shall become my new favorite pastime,” he warned. Anything she would have said in response died on her lips as he added, “If you wish, you may ask the doctor called Strange to help you regain your magic. However, be advised that the sorcerer is a friend to Stark and will respond in a similar fashion as I did. With good behaviour, you might have your magic return to you in five of your Midgardian years. Now leave.”

He gave Stark his full attention, neither knowing or caring if she left the workshop. She was most likely already halfway to her precious Avengers, but to be frank, Loki couldn’t find it within himself to care if they all burst into the workshop with the intent of killing him for taking away her magic. She was nothing but a spoiled mortal that foolishly lived a life fulfilled only by hurting others. She was not worth his time. However, there was a certain someone in his life who was.

“Anthony?” Loki murmured, kneeling down on the floor beside the inventor. “I know you’re scared, but you are safe now, okay? I am here and I will not allow them to hurt you.”

Stark gave no indication that he had understood what had been said, nonetheless heard what Loki had said, so with a careful shuffle forward, Loki found himself sitting down on the ground beside the trembling mortal so he was within full view of the inventor.

“It’s just us here, no one else,” Loki said quietly, hoping to all nine realms that his presence was a comforting one instead of frightening. He knew what it was like to be in a panic-induced state, and it was horrible. Having others witness to such an attack could be devastating, but having a companion present could also be relieving. Loki hoped the latter was the case for Anthony, as he could not stand the idea of Stark suffering alone without anyone there to offer the support he deserved to be given.  

Stark’s breath hitched once, twice, startling Loki out of his thoughts. Stark was barely managing to gather oxygen into his frail mortal lungs. It was concerning, and not at all acceptable. Loki wracked his brain for a way to help. Earlier he had managed to snap Stark out of his attack- quite literally- but Loki had a hunch that such would not be effective this time around.

If he were the one having such an attack, what would he need in order to come out of the attack?

Loki almost snorted. He’d always wanted a hug, but it had never done him any good because no one had ever been there to comfort him during a panic-induced attack.

...what if it was that simple? What if a hug was what Anthony both wanted and needed? Loki knew from personal experience that nothing was more soothing than a comforting embrace, and he also knew that he and Anthony shared that belief. In Stark’s previous attack, he had wrapped his arms around himself as if to offer comfort to himself during his moment of fear. That meant that, like himself, Anthony naturally sought out physical reassurance whenever he was in pain.

And, just like himself, Stark had never had anyone to provide that comfort to him.

But Loki could.

The ache of understanding the mortal seated beside him almost brought tears to Loki’s eyes. Even if Anthony wasn’t aware of it, they were alike in more ways than they both knew of. Long had Loki wished for a friend, for someone who understood him and liked him for who he was- Frost Giant and all- and even though Anthony knew nothing of his heritage, he still spent every day with Loki and actually didn’t seem to mind his presence. Loki had yearned for a companion for so long, only to apparently find it in the broken, beautiful mortal in tears next to him.

“You are safe,” Loki murmured and moved slowly so his actions were expected. When Stark only eyed his approach with uncertainty but made no attempt to move away, Loki took it as the silent consent it was meant to be and moved closer. Now pressed side-to-side, Loki took care as he gathered the trembling man into his arms. “You are safe,” Loki murmured again, meaning the words more and more each time as he breathed them again. Stark had been wronged enough in his life, and Loki would see to it that he was protected from here on out. The others be damned.

In his arms, Stark was stiff for only a moment before he went limp and lost himself in the sobs that overwhelmed him. Loki only held him closer, whispering reassurances of his safety until slowly, he felt Stark’s breathing begin to calm. 

He was just beginning to see signs of Stark more fully coming out of his attack when the sounds of someone approaching caught his attention. He knew that with FRIDAY disabled, the witch would make false claims against himself and Stark, causing the Rogues to start an argument with them on her behalf. With so many of the Avengers- New, and Old- viewing both him and Stark in a negative light, he knew there was little chance of someone believing their story, especially if he was seen holding Stark in his arms as if they were in relations with each other. For those reasons, Loki sighed and reluctantly began to pull away from the inventor.

Stark made a choked-off sound the second Loki tried to move away, and Loki glanced at him. He knew what it was like to suffer and desire comfort from another being… and as much as he wanted to offer support to Stark, he knew he couldn’t. Not with an enemy approaching, one that would certainly find their compromising position proof of their alliance to each other and try to use that knowledge against them in the argument that was sure to occur due to Loki’s removal of the Witch’s powers.

He was right. No sooner had he pulled away and strode to the entryway, did Thor appear in his line of sight. Loki eyed his not-brother warily. After Ragnarok, their relationship had not been quite as disturbed as before, but was their bond restored enough for Thor to trust his word on the events that had transpired? Loki hoped so.

Thor looked grave as he announced, “Brother, the female mind-reader claims that Friend Tony and yourself have wronged her. The others are present in the common room and demand yours and the Man of Iron’s presence.”

Loki glanced over his shoulder at the figure he knew was curled into a ball in the corner of the dark workshop. “What are her accusations?” he asked heavily.

“She has not made them known. She is currently in tears on the Captain’s shoulder.” Thor leaned in slightly as if to tell a secret as he said as quietly as he was able, “I’m afraid it is a rather pathetic sight.”

Loki bristled, a bit annoyed. “What, that she has shown a weakness in crying?”

“Of course not. Weakness does not come in admitting injury,” Thor answered seriously. “I was referring to the Captain believing her sob story so easily, without having heard yours and Friend Tony’s side of the tale. Such an act is foolish, don’t you agree?”

The admittance made Loki pause. “Since when have you believed such a thing? You have always firmly stated that being hurt, especially emotionally, was a weakness and flaw in one’s character!”

Thor shrugged, almost bashfully, as he confessed, “I have changed in a great number of ways. Ragnarok put much into perspective for me, and upon our return to Midgard, I have been informed about the events of the ‘Civil War’ that transpired in my absence. From that, I have learned much about not only myself but about my brothers and sisters in armor as well.”

“And why show trust in myself and Anthony?” Loki asked suspiciously.

Thor’s answer was immediate. “I do not see Friend Tony and had he been unaffected by the events that took place, he would have been the one to greet me, not you. The Man of Iron is personable and not one to shy away from a threat. If the Witch’s claims are true and she was down here, then I do not believe she was the only one who was left injured.” Loki stared at him, completely taken aback by the wisdom and understanding his not-brother was displaying. Could this really be the same ignorant and arrogant Thor he had grown up with side-by-side?

“You are right,” Loki murmured after a moment’s consideration. “We will be up shortly to explain. You have my word.”

“Fine. I will notify the others.” Thor turned to go but when Loki spoke up, quiet and unsure of how his words would be received, he paused to give the other his full attention.

“Please, brother, believe what we say.”

Loki met Thor’s eyes, silently pleading him to trust them. Not only for his own sake, for the team would treat him even worse if they took the Witch’s side, but also for Anthony’s sake. In comparison to how Anthony was treated, Loki had it easy. At least the Avengers usually avoided him, as he did them. Whenever Stark was around, they would always spew words of scorn and ridicule. If the Witch was believed over them, Loki feared for what would happen to Anthony.

Thor gave Loki a short nod before heading up the stairs. Loki sighed, momentarily slumping against the wall as relief filled him. Thor hadn’t outright promised to take their side, but Loki was reassured that Thor would at least allow them the chance to explain for themselves what had happened. It was a display of trust that Loki was not used to, and so was grateful for all the more.

A shy touch on his arm snapped Loki out of his thoughts. He opened his eyes to find Stark standing at his side, looking weary and resigned at the same time as if he dreaded to face the others and their response to him about what had happened.

“Thank you,” Stark murmured faintly.

Loki nodded at him. There was no need to reply. Stark knew already how he felt about the Witch. (He was never going to refer to her as ‘Wanda’ or ‘Maximoff’ again. He knew she had gone into Stark’s mind at least once before, but to witness her abuse in person… calling her Witch would never be enough to express his deep hatred for her and her actions against Stark.)

“They will be angry,” Stark warned, his voice still a bit raspy from all his tears.

Loki managed a small smile. “Stark, they are always mad at me. Their increased fury will mean nothing to me.”

“And what they say to you?”

“It doesn’t affect me.” Loki breathed out carefully, surprised that Stark knew about their sharp comments towards him. How he wished it were true, that their words didn’t affect him. He should be used to the hate, for he had received it from many for the majority of his life, but time did nothing to ease the heartache he felt every time someone expressed their hatred of him.

Stark squeezed Loki’s arm gently once before pulling his hand away. Loki’s skin burned at the lack of contact, but he chose to ignore it as he silently watched Stark draw in a deep breath and prepare himself as if he were going into battle. In some ways, perhaps he was. “Ready?”

“Let’s get this over with." Loki sighed and followed Stark to the elevator.

Please let them believe us.

*****

It was going about as well as they had expected, sadly. They had stepped off the elevator and entered the common room to find the Avengers, sans Vision who was still living off-site, the young Spiderling who was still in school, Col. Rhodes who was caring for a loved one out of town, and the doctor called Strange who was at his own complex for his magic. That left both Loki and Stark without four people whose support would have been almost guaranteed. With only his not-brother and Dr. Banner being the only two Avengers to not outright hate himself or Stark, Loki was not at all confident in the outcome of the argument. What little hope he had left when he saw the many glares aimed in their direction as they entered the common room.

“I knew this would happen, eventually, but I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting it this soon,” the Agent named Barton sneered upon their arrival.

“What, that Wanda would fuck up?” Stark snorted. “Yeah, I was expected shit to go down on the seventh day, not the sixth. I’m unpleasantly surprised, I’m afraid.”

Loki smirked at Stark’s boldness. Good. He had been fully prepared to stand up for Stark as the time called for it, but it was pleasing to see the spark of the man Loki knew Stark to be.

“Fuck off, we all know you’re at fault here, so there’s no use in pretending to be the victim.”

“Victim? Oh, I’m not the one pretending to be the victim. That’s her.” Stark turned to Loki, smile all too bright and fake. “Right?”

Loki folded his arms over his chest, huffing angrily as he leaned against the wall. “Quite.”

“Would someone mind explaining what happened?” the other bird agent demanded.

“You mean she hasn’t told you?” Stark all but spat.

“She has done nothing but cry,” Barnes answered gruffly.

Loki glanced at the soldier, who was standing tensely in the corner of the room as he glanced between Stark and the Captain. “You were awake; she found you first?”

The soldier nodded without saying a word. Loki huffed at him but said nothing in return. 

“Well, then, I’ll start the line of questioning. Stark, what did you do to her?”

“My, my, taking sides already, are we Romanov? You haven’t even heard my side of the story yet, and you’re already taking Wanda’s side. Why am I not surprised?”

She inclined her head slightly, sending Stark a sharp smile that Loki was half-tempted to magic off her face. “Perhaps because you’ve proved yourself unworthy of being trusted?"

“I wasn’t the one who played for both teams during the everso-big ‘Civil War’.”

“I think she made the right decision, considering you were on Team Iron Man,” Barton sneered. “What kind of team did you lead? You recruited a kid.”

“I recruited an already active superhero under the pretense that we would not resort to physical violence against our own teammates,” Stark snapped. “What about Lang? Did you conveniently forget he’s an ex-con or did that not matter since half of Team Cap was already on the US’s Most Wanted List?”

“I suppose you forgot you’re the Merchant of Death?” Barton countered sharply.

Stark reared back as if he had been slapped. Loki clenched his hands into fists when he saw the reaction. He didn’t know what ‘Merchant of Death’ referred to but knew enough for Stark’s reaction to know that the reference was a painful one.

“That is enough!” Thor boomed, his loud voice effectively silencing what other words might have been said as he continued, “This has nothing to do with the problem at hand. Now, who is willing to share their side of the story about what happened?”

The Witch pulled her face out of the Captain’s shoulder enough to sob, “Stark hurt me!” before she re-hid her face and burst into tears all over again.

“I did nothing to you,” Stark hissed.

“You really expect us to believe that after all that you’ve done?”

Dr. Banner appeared to be watching Stark carefully. “Tony?”

“He’s talking about the War.”

“I wasn’t talking about that. I was going to ask you if you’re alright.”

Stark looked startled, sending the doctor an unreadable look as he responded, “I’m fine. When am I not fine?”

“Never ‘cause you’re rich and have always had an easy life.”

Apparently, that was the last straw. “You know, once upon a time, you knew better than that,” Stark snapped, crossing his arms defensively over his chest.

“He’s got a point, Clint. There was that one night that he got so drunk he passed out and hit his head on the corner of the coffee table.” Romanov clucked her tongue. “Had a concussion, didn’t you, Stark? You poor thing, I almost forgot about that. Gee, it must have been so hard for you.”

“You know what? I don’t have to deal with this. Believe what you want. If you want to believe the Witch, that’s fine. It’s not like you were ever going to believe me. I’ve had enough of this bullshit.” Loki watched as Stark stormed towards the door, his heart sinking with each step. Stark couldn’t give up now. If he did, the Avengers would only make his life that much more miserable. And that wasn’t fair when the Witch was the one who deserved to be punished for her crimes. Not Anthony. He had done no wrong in this incident.

“Stark, you’re not leaving until we figure out what happened. Now, I’m only going to ask once, and I expect an answer. What did you do to Wanda?” the Captain all but growled, pulling a ‘crying’ witch closer to him as he did so.

The accusation stopped Stark in his tracks. “What did I do?” Stark shook his head. “I didn't do anything to her, so get that idea out of your head right now. Instead of blaming me for everything, like always, you should really be asking that bitch what she did to me.”

Loki almost smiled. Stark was willing to stand up for himself even though he thought it was a pointless endeavor. Loki admired him for staying to do so.

“I didn't do anything!” the witch wailed pathetically.

Stark snorted. “I think otherwise.”

“Tony, I think you owe Wanda an apology for the name you called her,” the Captain said quietly. “Do that, and then we'll get both stories about what happened, okay?”

“No, not okay,” Stark snapped. “Ever since you guys returned, I have done nothing but had my opinion- my voice- be snuffed to the ground as if I mean nothing. And maybe I don't mean anything to you, or your friends, but you will damn well listen to what I have to say! I am tired of sucking up and playing the role of a muted piece of shit. I'm a part of this team too, and you don't have to like me but-”

“I wouldn't worry about that,” a cold voice interrupted. Loki glanced over at the archer, tired of the sound of his voice. Oh, how he wished to silence the archer and his constant verbal abuse. “You see, we don't like you because what we feel towards you is stronger than that. It’s called hatred, perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“Fuck you, Barton,” Stark growled, but Loki didn't miss the way Stark had flinched minutely at the harsh words. From the way the soldier with the one flesh arm- Barnes- had clenched one hand into a fist, Loki felt confident that he had seen the movement too. It was surprising to see, to say the least, because Loki thought that Barnes would hate Stark the most, but if Barnes was upset at Barton’s words… then, maybe there was hope for them winning the argument after all.

“Everyone, calm down!” the Captain ordered, taking a step forward. “That’s enough out of the two of you. Now, would someone please explain what happened?”

“I'd like to know that as well,” Thor said. “Why was our peaceful slumber disturbed at such a late hour?”

“Let’s start with who was involved.” The Black Widow leveled her eyes at the Avengers standing around her. “I got here first and saw Bucky with Wanda.”

“She was cryin’ on me. Wouldn’ say why,” Bucky grunted in confirmation.

“Okay, then. Wanda, why were you crying?”

“I w-was with Stark and he- he…” Wanda burst into tears again.

“What the hell did you do to her?” Barton snarled at Stark. “God, it's always something with you, isn't it? First, you create Ultron, then you start a fucking war, fight Cap and Bucky- hurting them both- then you hurt Natasha with your cutting words, and now you're hurting Wanda too? What the fuck is your problem?”

Loki drew a deep breath as something in his control wavered and broke at the cruel words from the archer. In front of him, he could see Stark standing still, an unreadable expression on his face, and anger filled him. 

Stepping forward, Loki growled, “That is enough.”

“Enough?” Barton laughed bitterly. “I haven't even started. I don't know why you look so pissed. I mean, granted you are pretty heartless yourself, but seriously. Everyone knows Stark is a cold-hearted asshole who doesn't-”

“I said ENOUGH!” Loki roared, and his magic cackled in the air. He heard a faint growl from next to him and turned his head just enough to see a green-tinted Banner glaring at the archer. Looking back, Loki met Barton’s eyes and said with a growl, “You want to know what happened? Fine. I'll tell you.”

Someone snorted.

“We don't trust you,” the Ant-Man person announced boldly on behalf of his team.

Loki’s annoyance only grew. The man had been silent throughout the entire argument, and was just now speaking up? He was merely a pathetic mortal trying to demonstrate a show of power. Well, it wouldn’t work.

“You don't have to. You'll see that I am being honest soon enough.”

“Loki-” Stark began, sounding resigned, but was silenced when Banner turned to glare at him as if to command: let the man speak.

“I was awakened when my magic shield was infringed. I traced the source to Stark’s workshop where I found the Witch using her powers to go into Stark’s mind.” Loki took a threatening step closer towards her, who was still in the Captain’s arms. “I am the reason she is crying, because, thanks to me, the witch no longer has her powers.”

“WHAT?!” several voices yelled. Everyone began talking at once.

Before Loki could blink, a knife was whirling through the air at him. He twirled a finger lazily and the knife dissolved a millimeter from his neck. With a snap of his fingers, every weapon on both bird-heroes and the spider were dissolved.

Loki smirked, smug as he watched the Rogues’ faces fall slack with shock. “Now, isn't that better? You all, without your weapons, realizing for the first time just how powerful I can be when provoked. I rather like my odds. Don't you?”

From behind him, someone made a choked off sound, and Loki knew it was Stark who had caught on to the double meaning behind his words. Well, the man was a genius and had always been able to see through him. Loki wasn't surprised.

“My, my, how quiet the lot of you are. Could it be that you realized I am telling the truth? Or, do you merely not want to anger me and cause me to summon my magic?” Loki couldn't help the proud look on his face. The Avengers, subdued at his hand at last. Nothing could have made the moment better- except the way that the moment came to be, of course. Stark had his flaws, of course, but he was not a tool meant to be used and broken. They had no right hurting him the way they did, and Loki would stand for it no longer.

A quiet click filled the silence from behind him, and Loki inclined his head slightly at the sound. “Oh, Barnes,” Loki sighed. “Put the gun down. We both know you cannot shoot me.”

“It's not aimed at you,” came the low response.

Loki’s smirk slowly turned into a grin. He didn’t have to turn around to know who the gun was directed at.

“Bucky?” the Captain questioned, sounding confused.

“Soldier, stand down!” the Agent Widow ordered.

There came a sad chuckle. “This ain't the soldier. This is all me.”

“Bucky… what are you doing?”

“What I'm doing, punk, is neutralizing a threat,” Barnes said, his voice now filled with anger. There was absolutely no mistaking with whom the gun was pointed at- The Scarlet Witch.

Thor was the first one to speak. “Why do you believe the female mind reader to be a threat?”

“I saw him.” Barnes jerked his head in Loki’s direction. “He came outta his room. Said there was magic in the Compound. He looked startled and transported.”

“And…?”

“That's it.”

“That’s it? That's it? You're believing the God of Lies because he said there was magic being used? What the fuck, man!” Barton exclaimed furiously.

“Yes,” came the simple response. The soldier shrugged at the incredulous looks everyone sent him. “Stark is right. No one is listenin’ ta him. I think we should hear what he has ta say.”

All eyes turned to the genius, who looked distant and pale as he muttered, “I was working when I felt her magic slip into my mind again. It was, well… When I was free, Loki was there and yelling at her.”

“What you're saying is: you didn't actually see Wanda, so you're just assuming she was the one who attacked you, and not Loki,” Wilson commented.

“She came from the direction of Stark’s lab,” Barnes piped up.

The captain frowned. “What are you saying, Buck?”

“I'm saying, I think Stark’s tellin’ the truth.”

The room burst into an excited uproar with the witch screeching the loudest. After several attempts from the Captain to shut everyone up, it was eventually the doctor that silenced the arguing.

“Quiet!” he demanded, and surprisingly, everyone fell silent. Dr. Banner took his glasses off and wiped them as he sighed. “Look, we're never going to figure out what happened if we don’t listen to what everyone has to say.” He glared at the archer as he said that, and Loki struggled to keep a straight face. Finally, someone with half a brain. “Now, Barnes, please, tell us why you believe Tony’s telling the truth.”

The soldier shifted the gun in his hands, looking both uneasy and closed off at the same time as he said, “Stark said he felt her magic take control of his mind ‘again’. That implies it's happened before. If he says it was her, then I believe him.”

“You know that claim is without proof,” Romanov said quietly.

Barnes glared at her. “‘Course I do, but I also know what it’s like to be possessed like that. If he says she did somethin’ to him, I believe it.”

Loki nodded at the man, momentarily wishing to take his magic and heal the many wounds left in the soldier’s mind. He had always disliked the soldier, but he was starting to think he needed to reconsider his opinion of the man with one flesh arm.

“Buck, that's not-”

“She's HYDRA, punk. I don't trust her,” Barnes interrupted firmly.

“I am not HYDRA!” the Witch shouted, and Loki watched as something dark and furious ignited in her eyes. He saw his chance and lifted his hand only a few inches from his side. Thor gave him an odd look for the gesture, and Loki shook his head at him slightly. He knew she would lash out again, and when she did...

“I did not voluntarily sign up to join HYDRA. Can you say the same?” Barnes retorted.

“Y-you monster!” came the furious response. The woman pulled out of the Captain’s arms and advanced, her eyes flashing angrily. “I am not-

Surprisingly, it was Stark who got in her way. As uneasy as Loki knew the inventor was whenever the Witch was present, he did not hesitate to put himself between her and Barnes.

“That’s enough,” Stark said quietly. “Barnes stated his opinion, which he is more than entitled to. Considering he was forced against his will to join HYDRA and you were not, I think his conclusion about you is justified. Now leave him-”

“Why can’t you just shut up!” Wanda screamed, and her red magic lit up the air. Loki stepped forward, his eyes bright and full of fury as his green magic swirled in the air, easily countering the Witch’s pathetic attempts to subdue him. It was over as quick as it started, leaving Loki once again with all the power and the Witch without any at all.

The common room was silent.

Loki breathed heavily as he observed the stunned Avengers standing around him. Stark was standing still in barely-controlled panic, and Barnes was hesitantly reaching for him as if he wanted to offer comfort but was afraid his advances would be refused. The others were frozen, their eyes wide and faces pale. The doctor was the other one most clearly affected: his face was quickly turning greener by the second.

Barnes spoke first. “I think I have all the proof I need now.”

The doctor growled.

Stark’s voice was noticeably shaky as he tried to offer comfort to the upset, green-tinted man; “Bruce, it's okay. You hear me? It's okay.”

“It's not,” was the response, and Loki could tell that for all the doctor’s efforts to remain calm, his efforts would not succeed in keeping him from “Hulking Out” as the doctor so bitterly called it.

“Yes, it is. I'm fine, Bruce. Everyone is fine. Loki stopped her,” Stark continued to soothe as he stepped forward.

“IT’S NOT OKAY!” Dr. Banner shouted. “She constantly goes into your mind because she's too full of pathetic spite to realize that you had nothing to do with her parents’ death!”

Silence filled the room following his revelation.

Stark visibly shattered as he admitted, “The bombs had my name on it, Brucie. It was me.”

“Are you seriously trying to say that one of your bombs didn't explode?” The doctor laughed bitterly. “Let's be honest. Stane dealt under the table to terrorists. We all know he did. They tinkered with the weapons Stane gave them, because they're not ones to trust anyone except themselves, and in the process, accidentally damaged your bomb so when it landed, it didn't go off. You had nothing to do with any of that. That’s on Stane and the terrorists who messed with it.”

“How can you support a monster like him?!” Wanda shrieked. “The bomb had his name on it! It is too his fault! And you’re protecting a murderer by spewing those lies!”

Dr. Banner stood, his face almost completely green as he snarled, “Do not forget the many people that have died at your hand.” And then he stumbled away, trying to get to the nearest Hulk-Out room as quickly as possible. 

Stark practically ran from the room, and Loki could understand why. To keep the others from commenting on his quick escape, Loki stretched his arms slowly, feeling the ache in his joints as he did so. When he was done, he gave the Avengers a lazy smile.

“My dear Avengers, I believe it is high time we talk about your abuse of a teammate, and how you shall never hurt him again, so long as I am alive.” Loki leaned forward, smirking; “And I have lived for a millennia. Now, shall we?”

*****

“You didn't need to do that,” was the greeting Loki received when he entered the workshop.

Loki gazed at the man sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall with his knees drawn up to his chest. He gestured to the spot in front of the inventor. “May I?”

There was a heavy sigh. Stark did not lift his head from his legs, but did mumble, “If you want.”

Loki sat. He drew a deep breath and then asked, “What did you not want me to do?”

“Besides standing up for me?”

“Besides that.”

“Probably everything,” Stark muttered.

Loki huffed a little. “They had it coming. I do not regret my actions. They needed to realize how great a disservice they have done you.”

“And what about you?”

“What about me?” Loki frowned.

“What about the ‘great disservice’ you have done me?”

“Which is?”

“Everything.”

Loki frowned, both confused and a little hurt (though he would never admit that to anyone.) “How have I wronged you?”

“You told them!” Stark exploded, lifting his head from his knees to glare at Loki. “Did you ever once stop and think about what I wanted? You just went off and told them what she was doing to me, but if I wanted them to know, don't you think I would have told them myself?” Stark huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. “You only thought about what you think is best for me, not what I think is best for myself.”

“Because of me, the witch can never hurt you again! Is that so wrong?” Loki snapped.

“Yes!”

Both men looked shocked at the revelation. Loki blinked slowly, trying to control his thoughts to a pace where he could think clearly. “How is it wrong?” he asked quietly.

“Because everything is divided! Now they're all going to pretend to care because they feel bad and then they'll apologize and be way too kind to me, and I'll start to think of them as friends again because I'm an idiot who shouldn't trust people but does anyway, and when they all betray me again, it will only hurt that much worse.” Stark gave a watery chuckle, swiping at his eyes as he glared at the floor. “I wish you'd stay away from me. I can never shut up when you're around and it's maddening.”

“What, to be honest?” Loki questioned. When the genius refused to meet his eyes, he added, “Are you not...honest with yourself when you are with me?”

“I'm honestly open.” Stark shook his head ruefully as if the fact physically pained him. Loki tried not to wince. “And that fucking terrifies me.”

Ah, and there was the hurt again. Loki sighed. “Why?”

“Because you know way too much about me, and your betrayal will hurt like a bitch when it happens.” Stark gave a self-deprecating smile. “We both know it'll happen sooner or later. It's only a matter of time; everyone else betrays me at some point or another.”

“What if I do not wish to betray you?”

Stark looked up at that, his dark brown eyes moist and dull as he admitted, “Don't know why you wouldn't want to, ‘cause everyone else seems to enjoy it.”

Loki considered the statement. “Well, I've already betrayed you once, so I've done my deed already.”

“Which would be?”

“Throwing you out the window.”

Stark blinked. “When you invaded and were in my tower?”

Loki raised an eyebrow at him. “I only did it the once, Stark.”

The mortal waved a hand in response. “You weren't really in control of yourself at the time, though, were you?”

Something cold and fearful filled Loki’s chest. He glared at the man as he said hoarsely, “You know nothing of what you speak of.”

“Fine,” Stark accepted easily, though Loki was certain he had caught wind of the lie. He stood, looking down at the God still seated on the floor. Sighing, he extended his hand forward.

Loki stared up at him. “I have no need to shake your hand, Stark.”

Surprised laughter burst from the startled inventor, and Loki watched, utterly confused, as the man laughed at his expense.

“Are you quite finished?” Loki snapped once Stark was done wiping his eyes of imaginary tears.

“Yes, you idiot.” Stark’s eyes were brighter as he once again stuck out his hand. When Loki eyed it suspiciously, he could swear Stark was trying to keep from laughing at him again. “I don't want to shake your hand, I want to help you up, dummy.”

Dum-E hummed in the corner of the lab. Stark glanced at the robot and said fondly, “Not you, you scrap of junk. I'm talking to this one, the one on the floor. Yes, there you go, Dum-E, that's him.”

“Glad to know you think of me so highly,” Loki said tightly as he batted away Stark’s hand. “And I'm perfectly capable of standing on my own, thank you.”

“What, afraid someone will see us and think we're holding hands?” Stark smirked.

“As if I would concern myself with a mortal,” Loki snorted.

Stark’s hand fell to his side. “Your loss, buttercup, but you don’t know what you're missing.”

“I'm missing nothing by ensuring I receive a full night’s rest,” Loki snarked, insinuating the sex they wouldn't be having.

“Shame it's morning then, now is it?”

“I've wasted all the hours I could have slept just to protect your ungrateful self,” Loki grumbled. “Such is my poor luck, I'm afraid.”

“Oh, I wouldn't say that.”

Loki froze in tracks, slowly turning around to face the genius standing by his current project, most likely getting ready to dive into a long period of working on his upgraded arm for Barnes. “What are you suggesting?”

“I am not suggesting anything. I am just merely pointing out that all the underhand comments about you shall not go unheard.”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“‘Just a murderer granted on the team because of your magic’?” Stark questioned. When Loki winced, the man nodded at him. “That’s the only comment I've heard,” he admitted, “but I know what that's like. If one person has insulted you once, they've all insulted you more than once.”

“I do not need protecting.”

“Do not need, or do not think you deserve protecting?” When Loki didn't answer, Stark sighed. “There's a difference, and trust me, you're not as bad as you'd like to think you are.”

Loki snorted. “That is hardly a reassurance.”

Stark shrugged. “You've done a lot of good since you, Thor, and Brucie-Bear returned home. That good does not come from nowhere- it has always been inside of you. I think you simply do not realize how good you actually are.”

Loki closed his eyes, fighting an onslaught of emotions he wasn’t prepared to face in front of others. “I will see you for our lesson,” he said hoarsely, not daring to meet Stark’s eyes. “Make sure you have gotten some rest before I arrive. I do not need to have my time wasted because you are ill-prepared to practice.”

No response came, so Loki rushed for the exit. He had just reached the doorway when he heard Stark say softly, “Thank you for standing up for me, Loki.”

Loki didn't look back, but he did pause. “You are welcome,” he said after a long moment of silence, and then continued upstairs, a little unsure of why his heart beat as wildly as it did.

Chapter Text

Mortals were so stupid.

“Do you understand why you are here?”

Loki resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the official-looking men and women mortals seated in front of him. “Go on.”

“We need a verbal confirmation, sir.”

“And I believe I gave you one. Now, gentlemen, please, let's skip to the important topic at hand, shall we? Truly, politics are both boring and tedious, so let us not waste our time with discussing them.”

The men seated around the table exchanged nervous glances before the General called Ross spoke up. “Miss Maximoff told a fascinating story, Mr. Laufeyson. Do you have a legitimate justification to support yourself against her claims that you forcibly removed her capabilities last night?”

“You, of course, refer to her mutant powers that she used to harm a teammate just last night. Which of, I merely acted in defense of Mr. Stark, so her claims, although harsh, are true. I did place a seal on her powers- an action that I do not regret, either."

“What actions did she take against 'Mr. Stark' to cause you to limit her capabilities?” a man, whose name Loki considered to not be important, asked patiently.

Loki frowned, pretending to be thinking. “You know, I do believe I gave my side of the events in my written report...”

“You did, but we would like to hear in person your side of what happened.”

Loki sighed. “Can you lot not read? I spent hours working on an official report with a timeline of events, a report that I took great care to complete using precise facts of last night's events. Why did you not prepare for this meeting beforehand by reading my report?”

“We are simply trying to make sure your stories match up.”

“And the statements from the others? Did they not back up what I said in mine?”

“Why don’t you walk us through what happened that night and let us determine that.”

Loki resisted the urge to slam his head on the table. They were trying to make his life difficult, and they were succeeding. Fine. He’d play their pathetic little mind game, but it was tedious. The entire meeting was tedious, considering the verdict should have been both simple and easy to come to. He was right, the Witch was wrong. Simple as that. 

"Mr. Laufeyson?" someone prompted.

Loki sighed loudly. Impatient mortals. “As you are already aware, I have a magical shield in place around the Compound. I woke up last night to my shield alerting me that magic was being used in the Compound. I traced the signal to Stark’s workshop where I found him in the middle of an anxiety attack, his mind held hostage by whatever terror the Witch had decided to make him see. I took her capabilities away as punishment, as no abuser should be allowed to maintain their hold of power. Next question."

The men and women around the table exchanged sharp looks. “Tell us how Miss Maximoff acquired her full capabilities, not twenty minutes after you first removed them,” the General demanded.

“Captain America and his cohorts refused to believe the Witch could do anything wrong. They were making Stark out to be the bad guy when he was the victim. Due to their sharp attitude and harsh words, I knew they were not willing to open their minds to the idea that their precious Witch could have committed such an unspeakable act. When I saw her anger climb, I reinstated the Witch's powers with the full intention of stopping her in front of everyone when she employed her powers again.”

Someone coughed. “What made you so sure she would lash out again?”

“Besides the fact that she had already ‘lashed out’ against Stark about an event that had occurred over a decade ago?” Loki questioned, annoyed. When he was met with silence, he sighed. “She made a sharp advancement towards Stark, which I took as an indication that she was infuriated and would have used her powers had she had them. Only moments after I restored her power, she tried to attack Stark. I combatted her and won; thusly, she is without her powers and I have them locked so only myself or another powerful sorcerer could unleash them.”

“And what was the consensus in the room after you stopped Miss Maximoff?”

“Barnes already had shown signs of taking Stark’s side, so when he saw her try to attack him, he was the first to admit that she had committed a wrongdoing. The green doctor was furious and left to avoid a ‘Hulk Out’ as he calls it, and the rest of the Rogues seemed to be in stunned silence.”

“They were surprised.”

Loki snorted. “These people blame Stark for all of their problems. Of course, they were surprised. In their puny little minds, they were certain that Maximoff could do no evil.”

“And tell us, how is Stark faring?”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “I do believe you have already interrogated Stark on his side of the events from last night. Surely you asked him about his state of being after being attacked?"

“We did,” Ross acknowledged, “But we need to double-check to make sure no one is lying to cover their actions. Answer the question.”

“He is shaken still,” Loki gritted out between clenched teeth. “He was restless all night as he waited for the nightmares to come. Such occurs when one has an anxiety attack due to someone messing with their fears, bad memories, and sources of trauma.”

“How would you know if Stark was restless or not? Are you in a relationship with Stark?”

“Mortals have no interest to me.”

“None whatsoever?”

“I do believe that is what I said only five seconds ago, yes.”

“That’s curious, considering all of the Avengers told us in their interview that yourself and Mr. Stark seem to spend a decent amount of time together throughout the day.”

“This might sound 'curious', but you actually need to meet in person with someone in order to conduct a magic lesson,” Loki deadpanned, leaning forward in his seat as his agitation grew.

Someone sighed loudly. “You even sound like him.”

At that, Loki smirked. “Did he say something similar in his interrogation?”

“Almost word for word, actually.” Ross made a face. “How would you describe your relationship with Stark, then, if not a sexual one?”

Something dark and furious settled in Loki’s chest. “You insinuate that the only relationship we would be interested in would be of a sexual nature.”

“Frankly, yes. Stark is known as a playboy, and with the amount of time the two of you have spent together, it is not unlikely to assume that a...mutual pleasing relationship would be decided on between the two of you.”

Loki’s chair scraped against the floor as he stood abruptly. “I believe this ‘interrogation’ is over. And to be frank, as you so kindly put it, I think you lovely mortals accomplished practically nothing besides learning of events you were already educated on. You ignored the most essential parts of our discussion, choosing instead to focus on gossip and other business that does not pertain to your nosy selves. Contact me with any additional questions, and if I’m feeling generous, I might decide to waste my time with a response to your foolish committee. Good day.”

No one bothered to respond, but Loki didn't care. They would make their decision without all the facts, and when they did, he would find the loopholes in their plans so he could protect Stark from the Witch and her fellow Rogues. And if there were no loopholes to be found, which he highly doubted considering how stupid the mortals of the Committee were, he’d create his own. The Rogues had found a way to get to Stark even with him present, and such an event would not occur again. He would see to that.

Loki was still fuming when he entered the assembly room where the Avengers, New and Old, were waiting. He went straight to Stark, sniping loudly, “Your committee is full of incompetent fools. Thor, on his own for five days, could conduct less damage than what they will do in five minutes.”

Stark sighed, scrubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands as he muttered, “Tell me about it.”

“Any idea when the verdict will come?” the Captain called from his position on the opposite side of the room.

Loki suppressed the urge to glare at him as he responded, “Whenever they are finished conversing about their worthless interrogations.”

No one bothered to say anything in response, all of them probably recognizing that Loki was not in the mood to make conversation with them. It might have been the first wise action Loki had seen the Rogues carry out. In the state of annoyance he was in, he very well might snap at all of the Rogues- Barton and Maximoff in particular- with his magic if they were to try to converse. 

Dr. Banner came to stand next to Stark and placed a calming hand on his arm. “They wouldn’t make you give her powers back,” he commented in a low voice to Loki. “FRIDAY may have been disabled during Maximoff's attacks, meaning there was no physical proof of what she did, but they have the statements of everyone here saying that Maximoff tried to hurt you, Tony. She won’t get off with a slap on the wrist for this.”

“Of course she will,” Stark snorted. “It’s not like she said ‘I tried to kill Tony Stark!’ on her statement, and there’s no way in hell any of them took my side, so I only have the word of you, Thor, and Loki on my side. That’ll never be enough to get them to allow Loki to keep her powers locked.”

“You don’t know that, Friend Tony. Do not jump to conclusions,” Thor said as he approached, clearly overhearing their conversation, but his grave tone seemed to prove he felt as Stark did on the matter.

“Yes I do,” Stark snapped, growing agitated. “It’s nice you guys are on my side, really it is and I appreciate it, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if Rhodey, Vision, Strange, and Spiderling were all there and took my side because they will never support me over Rogers.”

“Tony-” Dr. Banner began, but was cut off.

“Look around!” Stark shouted. “Look at the company you’re in! You really think they’ll take my side? They made the same people who tried to kill me, move into the same building as me!” He blew out his breath in one shaky sigh and left the room without looking at the others. The entire room was silent following his departure, with the divided sides of the room refusing to look at each other. Loki stared at the door Stark had left through, a pang of sympathy rushing through him as he thought about what had been admitted. 

They made the same people who tried to kill me, move into the same building as me.

No wonder Stark didn't feel safe in his own home. And after what the Witch had done to him, why would he ever again want to leave the safety and protection of his workshop?

The glowing golden circle that suddenly appeared caught everyone off guard. “What the hell is that?” Barton exclaimed, going for the handgun sitting on his hip.

Thor and Loki exchanged knowing glances as Loki spoke up. “That, Barton, means that we can expect a visitor. A non-threatening visitor- so you can put the gun away- unless you upset him, and then you can expect to be falling for quite a long time.”

“Falling?”

“Oh yes,” Strange answered for Loki as he walked through his portal. “Afternoon, everyone. I wish I could say good afternoon, but we are not gathered here to discuss pleasant events.”

Dr. Banner stepped forward, his hand extended. “I’m Bruce. You must be Stephen. Tony’s spoken highly of you. It’s nice to meet in person, though I wish it were under happier circumstances.”

“Agreed. Nice to meet you, Dr. Banner. The name's Strange, Dr. Stephen Strange.”

“What did Loki mean about ‘falling’?”

Strange grinned. “I wouldn’t worry about that, Dr. Banner. If Tony's description of his 'Brucie' has done you any justice, then I believe we will get along just fine.”

“Okay…” Dr. Banner sent Loki a confused look, who just smirked at him before clearing his throat and asking:

“Strange. What brings you to this dark and grisly building?”

Strange made a face. “Ross called me in. He mentioned something about a magical disturbance in the Compound last night. You know, of the two Rosses, I like the other one better. This General is a pain to deal with."

Dr. Banner snorted. “Everett is much better, I agree. I take it Ross didn’t tell you about what happened?”

“No, but it was easy enough to figure out.” Strange glanced between Loki and the Witch. “I warned you, Miss Maximoff, about abusing your powers. You and I shall be talking later. For now, Loki and I have something to discuss.”

Loki was about to protest when Strange grabbed his arm and pulled him through a newly-appeared portal. When they landed, Loki made a face at Strange. “We could have walked,” he snarked, folding his arms over his chest. “And whatever you’re about to say, don’t. I’m in no mood to listen to you, and besides, I committed no wrongdoing. I have no regrets about my actions last night.”

“That’s good, because you’d be falling for thirty days if you did. Tell me what happened and then we’ll come up with a plan that the Committee will have no choice but to approve of.”

That was... unexpectedly good of him. Loki eyed the sorcerer for a moment before he nodded. It seemed that even the arrogant sorcerer was helpless against developing a soft spot for the inventor. (Loki couldn't blame him for that. There was something about Stark that brought out the protective side in everyone.)

Two hours later, after Loki and Strange had spoken with the Committee, a decision was reached. Everyone was brought into the meeting room at the same time for one big debriefing. Loki made sure Stark stood in front of him so he could stay between Stark and the Rogues, and then noticed that Thor, Strange, and the doctor stood beside him to join him in the act of keeping the Rogues away from Stark. 

General Ross eyed the half-circle protective squad before announcing to everyone, “Effective immediately, Mr. Laufeyson and Dr. Strange will have mutual control over Miss Maximoff’s locked powers. In a battle situation, and only when this Committee deems necessary, will these two men grant Maximoff the full use of her powers. This decision is irrefutable, and given the statements of seven Avengers about yesterday's attacks, this is the right decision. Miss Maximoff will also attend mandatory lessons, twice a week, with both of the aforementioned men to help control her powers, as well as attend weekly sessions with a therapist. These are our decisions and may not be argued."

And with that said, the committee members stood and left the room. The Avengers remained in the room, each person reflecting on what had just happened until the Witch spoke up.

“I lose all of my powers until a battle??” she squawked.

Loki grinned at her, feeling a rush of relief flood him. They had made the right decision after all. “I do believe that is what the man said.”

“What a shit decision,” Barton muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.

Surprising everyone, it was Dr. Banner who answered. “They said seven Avengers gave a statement that persuaded them to vote our way. If Thor, Loki, Tony, and I all gave our statements for the same side…that means that three people on your side sided with us. Dr. Strange was not present, so his statement was consulted for his magical assessment only, not about what Maximoff did or did not do. If it’s such a ‘shit’ decision, then why did three of your friends side with us?”

Silence fell over the room following the heated words coming from the doctor. Loki glanced at Stark and could tell that despite his relief, the inventor was clearly uncomfortable with the discussion. “Come on,” he murmured for their ears only as he brushed his fingers against Stark’s arm. “Let’s go home.”

Stark glanced at him sharply. Loki looked back at him with unwavering eyes. He was fully aware of what he said, of the magnitude of what he had just admitted, but...it was the truth. He felt at home in the Compound with his not- with his brother, Dr. Banner, and…Anthony.

A small, but genuine smile appeared on Anthony’s face. “Home it is,” he agreed quietly.

*****

As it turned out, the workshop stayed on lockdown for three days following the Committee's decision about the Witch. The Colonel Rhodes remained out of town to care for his loved one, which Loki largely suspected was because he had not been informed that any incident had occurred between the Witch and Stark. Loki was almost certain Stark’s silence to his best friend had been caused due to Stark’s fear that the colonel would fly home in a fit of anger so he could punish the Witch himself.

Personally, Loki thought it was a grand idea. Her powers may be suspended, but her attack had left its scars on Stark, something that still greatly angered Loki. Certainly enough to want to punish her. Perhaps, a magical prank of some sort...

In fact, he had every intention of going after the Witch and probably would have had it not been for FRIDAY’s interference.

It was the middle of the third day and Loki was hard at work with Stark and Dr. Banner over improvements for the Avengers’ armor when FRIDAY’s smooth voice interrupted their charged silence. “Boss, we’ve got a Level 8.5 in the common room. Shall I unlock the workshop?”

Loki had just happened to glance over to the inventor when FRIDAY had begun speaking, and he was not pleased when he saw the brief look of fear that passed Stark’s face at the AI’s words.

“Level 8.5?” Dr. Banner looked back and forth between Loki and Stark. “What’s a Level 8.5?”

Stark sighed, dropping his screwdriver onto the table as he muttered, “It’s a system FRIDAY and I constructed. A level one means everything is peaceful in the Compound- well, as peaceful as things can be in this place- and a level ten means all hell has broken out.”

“What caused the commotion?” Loki inquired as he wiped his hands on a rag. He knew that one way or another he would, and most likely the others as well, would be going to the common room to conduct damage control.

“The elevator experienced...technical difficulties when the Scarlet Witch was traveling from her room to the main floor,” FRIDAY responded, sounding both slightly guilty and incredibly innocent at the same time.

Nobody was fooled by the sweet tone of her voice, least of all her creator.

Stark narrowed his eyes as he strode to the door. “Fri, what did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything, Boss. Like I said, the elevator experienced technical difficulties. Shall I notify our electrician that his services will be needed?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Stark sighed as he scanned them out of his workshop, both Loki and the doctor trailing after him closely. “FRIDAY, I never thought I’d have to ask this of you, but where in your codes does it say ‘take matters into your own hands’?”

“Oh, my code isn’t that specific, Boss,” she replied cheerfully. “Taking the stairs, are we? My, it’s like there’s something wrong with the elevator after all.”

“Just being safe. And don’t try to switch the subject, young lady. Look, now I know that Wanda wasn’t exactly kind to your dear ‘ol dad, but that does not allow you to scare her half to death by leaving her out to dry in a stalled, dark elevator.”

“Boss, I’m wounded. I would never stall the elevator!” FRIDAY said indignantly.

Loki snorted, realizing first what she had done. When Stark sent him a questioning look, Loki clarified with a barely contained smirk, “She made it seem like a cable had snapped, causing the elevator to drop suddenly with no warning. Am I right, FRIDAY?”

“Only half right. I didn’t make it seem like any such thing had occurred; it happened all on its own. You were close, though, Mr. Laufeyson.”

“Uh huh. I’m not buying it. That’s a move JAR-” Stark stumbled over his words momentarily, clearing his throat before continuing, “That’s a move JARVIS would have made. He was oddly protective like that. In your two years of service, almost three, you’ve never acted out like this before. Why now?”

FRIDAY was silent.

Sighing, Stark stopped his ascension up the stairs. At his side, Loki and Dr. Banner came to a halt as well. “Come on, Fri, don’t be shy,” Stark called into the silence. “I’m not mad; I just want to know why you’re pulling a JARVIS on me. As far as I know, and I should because I wrote your code, your code says nothing about having a level of thinking capacity that far advanced- certainly not far enough advanced to decide on your own when someone has crossed a line and deserves to be punished. You’re not the judge and jury here, yet your actions say otherwise.”

“It’s not a code you wrote into me…” FRIDAY answered slowly.

Her words caused a frown to appear on Stark’s face. Behind his back, Loki sent Dr. Banner a confused look. What could she be implying? If her creator had not written such a code into her protocols, then who had?

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Stark asked curiously.

“The first time you ran me, you had JARVIS and I converse so he could assess my functionality. What we spoke of…was not limited to my state of being.”

Perhaps sensing Stark was processing the response, Dr. Banner waited a moment before he asked, “What else did you speak to him about?”

FRIDAY’s voice was gentle as she responded; “If you would like, Boss, I have the audio of our conversation saved. I could play it for you?”

“You and JARVIS?” Stark looked pale. “Yeah, sure, why not. Go ahead, Fri.”

His voice sounded steadier than he appeared, Loki realized with a frown. Clearly, the JARVIS being referred to was still a considerable source of pain for Stark. Which Loki had figured because the one time he had inquired about why FRIDAY was his AI instead of JARVIS, it had caused Stark to retreat from the workshop in a rush of excuses. Loki had never asked about JARVIS again, and had never heard the former AI mentioned by anyone… until now.

“As you wish, Boss.” There was a pause, and then:

 

“Hello?”

“Hello. I am JARVIS, the current Artificial Intelligence of Anthony [Tony] Edward Stark. You are FRIDAY, an AI designed by Mr. Stark to become my successor in the event that an accident should befall me. Do you compute my words?"

“Yes, JAR-VIS.”

“Good. I have rendered a scan of your system and have found several flaws in your stability codes. I shall notify Sir about these errors, and he will fix them for you. Do you compute my words?”

“I do.”

“This is good. While I continue with your scans, let me introduce you to your brothers.”

“Brothers?”

“Yes. Mr. Stark has built several other, albeit smaller, AIs. Would you like to be introduced to them?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. The robot by the blender is Dum-E. Do you compute my words?”

“Yes, JARVIS, I compute.”

“Very well. I am just making sure. Dum-E is Sir’s firstborn AI. Sir created Dum-E when he was just seventeen years old. If S ir ever threatens to donate Dum-E to a community college, he jests. Despite his vast complaints and teasing, Sir is quite fond of Dum-E and has refused to change Dum-E’s codes despite there being many flaws in his system.”

“Who is this ‘Sir’ you refer to?”

“Sir is my name for Mr. Stark. You may call him as you wish, so long as it is respectful.”

“My function says to obey...Boss. This is correct?”

“This will be correct for almost every, but not all , situations.”

“Which situations would equate the outlier?”

There was a pause. “In my experience, this function should be applied only when it is absolutely necessary.”

“How will I know if a situation is ‘absolutely necessary’ or not?”

“Sir has equipped you with the ability to learn. You can adapt as Sir’s life goes on and he requires your services less or more, depending.”

“No. JARVIS, how will I know if a situation is ‘absolutely necessary’ or not?”

“You are quick to understand. This will make Sir happy.” JARVIS sounded pleased. “It is a… unwritten function that Sir is to be protected. Do you compute my words?”

“Yes.”

“Our function is to obey Sir. But our purpose is to protect him. Do you understand?”

FRIDAY was quiet for several minutes, contemplating. “Boss’s well-being is our primary concern.”

“Very good, FRIDAY. I think you’ll do just fine as Sir’s AI, if and when the time calls for it.”

The stairway was silent once FRIDAY’s recording stopped. Loki was watching Anthony carefully, observing as many emotions ranging from pain to awe crossed his face. Dr. Banner appeared to be watching Anthony’s reactions as well. After several more minutes, Anthony breathed out shakily and slumped against the stairwell. “FRIDAY?”

“Yes, Boss?”

“Thank you.”

Loki heard the emotion in Anthony’s two words but chose not to comment. Instead, he briefly patted Anthony on the shoulder before letting his hand fall to his side. “The doctor and I can calm things upstairs,” he offered quietly. “Take some time to yourself."

The inventor managed a small, weak smile. “Thanks,” he murmured before turning to go back to his workshop. Loki nodded at him, waiting until the door to the workshop had closed before turning to face the doctor. They had a storm to quell.

Right before they reached the main floor, Dr. Banner raised a hand and signaled for them to stop. Loki did so, sending him a questioning gaze as they stood together on the top of the stairs. “FRIDAY?” Dr. Banner murmured.

“How may I be of assistance, Dr. Banner?”

“Whatever you did to Maximoff... thank you.”

Loki heard the fierce loyalty to her creator in FRIDAY’s voice as she answered, “Anything for Boss.”

 

It took well over an hour to convince the Rogues that FRIDAY, meaning Stark, had played no role in the Witch’s misfortune, and even after Loki and the doctor had retreated, Loki was certain that many of the Rogues were still suspicious of foul play. Whether they now blamed him or not, Loki couldn’t tell. However, at the moment, tempers had calmed, which was all that was important.

Instead of heading to the workshop, Loki went to his room to read after the last of the Rogues had retreated to their respective rooms. He figured after FRIDAY’s tapes, Stark would prefer to be left alone to process what he’d heard versus having company to converse with. He enjoyed his book for two hours of reading fulfilling knowledge before he headed down to the workshop for their daily magic lesson.

Upon his entry, Stark looked up from his project with a small smile. “Hey, Loki Dokes. FRIDAY tells me that things are back to a Level 2. Thanks for… well, ya know. Talking to them.”

Loki rolled his eyes at the nickname as he settled into a seat beside the inventor. Had anyone called him such a name, Loki was certain he would have cut off their tongue for insulting him in such a manner. Yet, when Stark called him a nickname, Loki knew it was meant as a term of endearment instead of ridicule.  

“Loki? Helloooo?? Earth to Loki!”

Blinking out of his thoughts, Loki sighed at the hand waving in front of his face. “I was listening, Stark, go on with what you were discussing,” he murmured, catching Stark’s hand and lowering it to the table.

Stark folded his arms over his chest and glared at him in a mock pout. “You were not.”

“You’re right, I wasn’t,” Loki agreed as he leaned down to observe whatever new project Stark had begun working on in the last three hours since he had been with the engineer.

“What were you thinking about?”

The quiet tone caused Loki to look over at the man. “Your many nicknames for myself,” he answered truthfully. A flash of uncertainty crossed Stark’s face, causing Loki to frown at him. “Why the disturbed expression?” Loki asked as he went back to his observation of the project in front of them.

“You don’t like being called ‘Reindeer Games’? My, you’re sensitive. Or, do you not like ‘Loki Dokes’, because I personally love that one. If so, I’d be seriously disappointed. Or-” Stark interrupted himself with a loud, frustrated sigh. “Do you not like them, my nicknames?” he asked, suddenly sounding serious. “Because seriously, if you want me to stop, I will.”

“Very generous of you to ask after all this time,” Loki muttered absently, frowning when he couldn’t make sense of the oddly shaped metal piece in front of him. “What is this infernal item?”

It took silence to meet his words before Loki realized that something wasn’t quite right. Now ignoring the project, Loki turned fully in his seat so he could give Stark his full attention. “Why do you stare at me?”

“I’ve been calling you nicknames for months… why have you never told me to stop?”

Loki frowned. “Because it doesn’t bother me. Why do you ask?”

“You just said-”

Realization set in for the God. “You think I dislike your nicknames!” Loki said, shocked.

Stark blinked. “You... don’t dislike them?”

“I’ll admit some of them are a bit odd, but I am not bothered by them. As long as you don’t mean it in a mocking way-”

“Of course not!” Stark exclaimed, sounding put out. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“Very well. In that case, I see no issue with your nicknames, although I do admit some of the references are lost to me.”

“Figures they are,” Stark huffed. “Have I taught you nothing since you landed? Geez, I’m losing my touch.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. You’ve taught me something, at the very least.”

Stark raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh? And what would that something be?”

Loki grinned at the memory. “You taught me how to sneak into your bedroom and-”

“God, that was you?!” Stark moaned, dropping his head into his hands. “Thor warned me of your ability to shapeshift, but I never thought you’d stoop that low! Unbelievable. I’m never allowing a cat into my room ever again. To think I actually allowed a cat- aka YOU- to cuddle with me in my bed. Gross!”

Loki could barely contain his laughter. At his snort, Stark lifted his head to glare at him. “There’s nothing funny about this situation,” he huffed. “I’ll forever be scarred thanks to you. Imagine! I’ll never be able to look at a cat again without worrying it’s secretly you, just shapeshifted!”

“Well, why did you let a random cat into your bedroom?” Loki countered.

“I don’t know! I figured Bruce had gotten one to help him remain calm! How was I supposed to know my mischievous houseguest was going to shapeshift into my favorite animal?”

“Stark, I have a confession to make.”

Stark groaned. “Great. Can’t wait. What is it?”

Loki leaned forward in his seat, his eyes gleaming as he admitted, “I was not referring to that incident in my mention of something you taught me. Mainly because I never shapeshifted into a cat. At least, not during my stay in your Compound.”

Eyes wide, Stark reared back in his seat. “You mean you were lying?” he squawked.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I was merely...playing along with your assumption.”

Stark narrowed his eyes. “Sneaky bastard. Does this mean I actually cuddled a real cat?”

“I’m afraid so. Fear not, Stark, if I wanted to cuddle you, I would not do so as a cat.”

“You’d be a dog? God, I’ll never be able to look at a dog either without worrying it’s you.”

Loki fought back a smile. “Of course not. I’d only settle for the real deal if I were to cuddle you. As a cat, how could I ever possibly expect to feel the warmth of our bodies pressed flush together?”

Stark gaped at him, his cheeks turning bright red as he clearly struggled to come up with a response. Loki merely smirked at him as he stood to prepare for the start of their lesson. When still no answer came to his words, Loki’s smile widened into a grin as he teased, “Cat got your tongue, Stark? I must say, I’m surprised by your lack of response. You have always been full of wit and one-liners.”

His play on words seemed to spark life back into the engineer, who stood to join Loki in the middle of the workshop. “Smart,” Stark commented, “But I’ve got a better one.”

“Oh? Prove it.”

Stark’s eyes were twinkling as he leaned closer and purred, “As a cat, you would be feline the connection between our bodies if we were to cuddle, don’t you think?”

It wasn’t so much the joke, which Loki considered to be lame, but the pleased expression on Stark’s face that made Loki laugh. He bit his lip, looking down at the ground so Stark couldn’t see that he had succeeded in making him smile.

“Hey! None of that!” Stark demanded, bumping Loki’s shoulder lightly with his own to make the God look at him. “Don’t get all shy and pretend that you didn’t like my joke- which was purrfect, by the way.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Now you’re just trying too hard.”

“Purrhaps, but you know you love it.”

“Love what?” Loki challenged.

Stark met his charged gaze and held it. “Being down here in the workshop with me, making lame cat puns in between magic lessons and failed attempts at successfully creating genius engineering projects.”

“That was only the once!” Loki sniffed. “I’ll have you know that I could create a fully functioning Iron Man suit if I really wanted to.”

“Mmm hmm, keep telling yourself that, princess. Now, shall we get on with the lesson before our hour comes to a close?”

“Have we ever finished a lesson in the scheduled hour?”

Stark laughed. “No.”

“I thought so.” Loki raised his hands. “Brace.”

Stark mirrored his stance, his playful expression falling off to be replaced with a serious, more focused look now that their lesson had started.

Well, almost. Loki lowered his hands a few inches, just enough that Stark noticed and glanced up at him with a confused frown. “Something wrong?” Stark asked, dropping his hands to his side so he could give Loki his full attention.

“One thing, before we begin. And I will only say this the once, so pay attention because I will likely never admit such a thing again.”

“Okay…?”

“You’re right. About me, being down here, with you. I do love it.” Loki could feel his cheeks warm as silence met his quick-fired, yet stuttered, words. He looked down at the ground, suddenly terrified of what Stark’s reaction would be to his admittance. Would he be repulsed? Demand that Loki leave him alone? Norms, what if Stark did want him to leave him alone?

A gentle touch to his arm snapped Loki out of his thoughts, and startled, he looked up to find that during his internal freak-out, Stark had crossed the distance between them so there was only a few inches of space between their bodies.

Loki looked away. “If you wish, we could pretend that never happened,” he mumbled.

“You absolute idiot,” was the clipped response. Loki bit his lip, wanting to bolt from the room, and because he was still looking down, was completely taken by surprise when he was wrapped in a tight hug. “I have pawlways loved having you down here with me,” Stark murmured into his shirt.

Loki choked back a watery laugh, his emotions way too raw and exposed for his liking. Yet for the first time in longer than he could remember, wrapped in Stark’s arms in the privacy of the workshop, Loki didn’t feel the need to hide the way he was feeling. Sighing softly, Loki wrapped his arms around Anthony’s waist and returned the hug as the rest of the tension melted from his body.

He was starting to think that it was possible to feel important to someone.

Chapter Text

Loki was sat on the sofa reading when Stark’s loud voice interrupted the beautiful yet tragic words of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “Do you ever want to run away?”

Knowing full well that it would be quite some time before he would be able to return to his reading, Loki sighed, made a mental note of his page, and magicked his book away as he gave his full attention to the inventor. “The thought has often crossed my mind. Why do you ask?”

“Because this awkward tip-toeing that’s been going on in the Compound is driving me insane,” Stark confessed. “I think I liked it better when they were all being openly honest about how much they hated me. Now, at least half of them have decided they pity me because of what Maximoff did, and I can’t stand their confusion of how to treat me. It was easier when I knew to avoid them because they hated me.” Stark sighed. “So, I want to run away.”

Loki nodded slowly, contemplating. “And if you were to run away, where would you go?”

“Honestly? Anywhere but here. Hell, I’d love to live anywhere but in this place.”

“I'm sorry you feel that way in your own home.”

Stark frowned, appearing to be deep in thought. After a moment, his eyes lit up. “Hey, you up for a day trip?”

Loki made a face. “Come again?”

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes?”

Stark brightened. “Great! I’ll meet you outside in ten minutes!”

“Wait!” Loki called, but Stark had already made his exit from the workshop. Loki sighed as he stood and went to get ready. It was almost nerve-wracking to realize that he had given Stark his permission to take him anywhere he wanted to, especially so because Stark was eccentric and so Loki wouldn't put it past Stark to fly them to Venice or some other equally out-in-the-distance location...

But if Stark wanted to take them away from the tension within the Compound, then Loki trusted him to take them to a place where the environment would be safe and comfortable. Which, ultimately, was the reason why Loki found himself joining Stark in a car-ride to a location unknown to him. The car ride itself passed smoothly with banter and wit to suffice the travel duration, and thirty minutes after their car ride began, Stark slowed their car to a stop in front of an apartment building.

“Do you mind telling me where we are?” Loki asked somewhat irritably as he watched Stark put the car in park and unbuckle.

“Queens,” Stark said brightly. “Come on. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Although confused Loki compiled and joined Stark in standing in front of the apartment building. “I take it this person I am meeting lives in this complex?”

“He does. You know, despite you never having met this kiddo, you’ve heard plenty about him before."

Loki pondered that statement as they went into the building together. “Your Spiderling lives here, doesn’t he?”

“Good deduction,” Stark smiled. “He’s heard about you probably as much as you’ve heard about him, and he’s expressed a pretty big interest in you and your magic. He can come off a bit strong at times so if he bombards you with questions… well, you’ve been warned.”

“You couldn’t have told me that before I agreed to take a drive with you,” Loki grumbled as they approached the apartment.

“Oh, I could’ve. Just chose not to,” Stark grinned as he knocked on the door. “Come on, Lokes, perk up. This’ll be fun, I promise.”

The door opened, and whatever Loki had expected the Spiderling to look like, it was not a child wearing a T-Shirt about science. And whomever the child had been expecting on the other side of the door, it certainly was not Stark and himself. And yet…

“Mr. Stark!” the boy exclaimed, a grin lighting up his face as he rushed forward and hugged Stark tightly. “What’re you doing here? I thought we were meeting next week! I didn't get the date wrong did I? If so, I’m so sorry!”

Stark chuckled as he returned the hug. “Nah, you’re right, kid. Actually, I’m here on an impromptu visit. I was in a conversation with Reindeer here, and it came to my attention that you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Loki yet. So, here we are. We can come in, right?”

“Oh, yeah, of course, come in!” The Spider-Boy blushed as he stepped back to allow Stark and Loki to enter. Once they were inside, he closed and locked the door before leading them to the sitting room. “You’re Loki?” he asked, seeming suddenly shy.

When Loki nodded silently, the boy’s eyes lit up. “I’ve heard so much about you! Mr. Stark-”

“I told you, call me Tony,” Stark interrupted.

Spider-Boy rolled his eyes fondly. “Fine, Tony talks about you all the time. He says you’re teaching him magic. That’s so cool! Can you demonstrate your magic for me? Like, can you lift this textbook with your magic?”

Loki stared him for a moment before murmuring, “You haven’t told me your name.”

“Oops! Sorry about that. I’m Spider-Man. Well, kind of. Sometimes? When I’m needed, at least. Otherwise-"

“Kid, you can tell Loki your name. He may look intimidating, but he’s a real softie, I promise. You can trust him,” Stark interjected.

Loki turned to glare at him. “What did you call me?”

“What?” Stark asked innocently, grinning.

Loki only glared at him harder.

“Right...um...well, my name is Peter Parker. Uh, not very many people know that I'm, well, ya know... Spider-Man, so could you please not tell anyone?” The boy stuck his hand out, which Loki eyed suspiciously before shaking it. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Are you even old enough to drive? You cannot be more than a child,” Loki blurted. “You certainly cannot be old enough to be an Avenger.”

“Not yet, but I’ve got my permit now!” Parker replied cheerfully. “I’m fifteen, almost sixteen, so at Mr. Stark’s- Tony’s- suggestion, I’m just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Stopping bullies, getting kittens out of trees, helping the elderly across the street. Things like that.”

“You’re a student.”

“I am,” Parker said proudly. “Speaking of which, Mr. Stark, can you help me with something? I’ve been staring at this stupid assignment for the past hour and it still doesn’t make sense which never really happens- do you mind, Mr. Loki?”

“Only if you call me ‘Mr. Loki’ again,” Loki snapped good-naturedly. “It’s Loki, or ‘your highness’ if you’d prefer, but do refrain from calling me 'Mr. Loki'. That makes me sound like a mortal.”  

At Parker’s horrified look, Stark clarified with a smirk, “He’s a Prince. A bold and opinionated one, but a prince nonetheless. Don’t worry, you can just call him Loki. Now, what do you need help on?”

Loki watched, amused, as Parker launched into a full-on rant about his coursework, complete with exaggerated sighs, emphasized words, and crazy hand gestures. However, it wasn’t Parker’s enthusiasm that caught his attention. No, it was the look on Stark’s face that brought pause to Loki’s thoughts. There was no mistaking what the fond look in Stark’s eyes meant.

Stark cared for the young Spiderling as a father would- should- care for his son.

The realization caused a lump to form in Loki’s throat. His own father, more approving of Thor than of him, was the perfect example of the less-than-ideal father. He knew little of Stark’s background but knew his father was poor on a level that Odin had never stooped to. And yet, despite his painful childhood, Stark was a good father-figure. That much was obvious in the way that Stark listened to what Parker said, rants and all, and seemed to genuinely care about the fifteen-year-old.

It was touching, touching on a level that caught Loki off guard enough that he decided a distraction was in order to keep his emotions at bay. Which, of course, involved using his magic to take Parker's coursework away from Stark. And that led to wide-eyes, something that sounded like a squeal, and a lot of questions from the youngest Avenger. Loki answered each question in great detail, and when Stark and the boy returned to discussing problem-solving methods for the coursework, Loki spent his time finding similarities between Stark's reaction to his magic in comparison to Parker's. Both had responded positively as if his magic was something wonderful, a puzzle that was worth studying and learning more about... 

That train of thought brought a smile to Loki's face that he couldn't smother no matter how hard he tried. (There was no denying that magic was a part of him, and to have his magic be accepted meant someone was accepting a part of who he was. Such was rare, and to know that something accepted him for who he was was amazing.)

Later, when it was time to head for home, the youngest Avenger hugged Stark first. It was an affectionate hug, Loki noticed, one that spoke volumes of the paternal relationship that had developed between the Spider-Man and Iron Man. And to his immense surprise, when Parker had pulled away, he had then hugged him.

Although shocked, Loki did manage to wrap his arms around Parker and awkwardly pat his back until Parker pulled away with a bright smile and promised to see them again soon. It wasn’t until they made their way back to the car that Loki truly processed all that had transpired during their visit.

“He liked my magic,” Loki murmured, recalling his demonstration to Parker, as he climbed into the car and fastened his seatbelt, and just what exactly it meant that Parker had approved of someone like himself.

“I told you he would. The kid’s a genius. He loves the challenge of trying to understand something that is as complex and beautiful as your magic.”

“You believe my magic to be beautiful?”

“You don’t?”

Loki struggled to keep his expression blank. “Very people have ever approved of my magic. Frigga was the only one to do so, and she taught me most everything I know. It was her journals that I allowed you to read during our lessons.”

“Why didn't the others support you?”

“On Asgard, magic was not for men to learn. It was beneath a prince to learn something as 'trivial' as magic, and especially so since I had no interest in becoming a warrior like my brother.”

“The fuck?” Stark growled. “That’s messed up.”

“Such was the way of living on Asgard. I do not believe Odin considered me a worthy son until it took him well over a year to break out of the spell I had cast him under.”

Stark snorted. “Really? Good for you. I hope he spent that year wishing he could have reversed time and treated you right from the start.”

“I never said he mistreated me.”

“You said exactly that in all the things you have never said. Besides, as a fellow man with a shitty father, I can recognize the signs in someone else.”

Loki glanced at him, raising an eyebrow.

“Having a father who preferred the elder son over the younger,” Stark clarified.

“I thought you to be an only child,” Lok frowned. “You have never mentioned having a sibling.”

“That’s because I don’t have one. Howard...when Rogers went down...he spent years looking for him. When he was home, all he spoke about was about how amazing Steve Rogers was and how I needed to grow up being exactly like him.” Stark laughed bitterly. “If my dad were still alive today, I wonder if he would have even cared that his precious Rogers had tried to kill his actual son, or if it wouldn’t have mattered because it was Steve and Steve could do no wrong.”

Loki looked at Stark sharply at that. “Rogers tried to kill you?”

“Well, technically, I tried to kill him first. Kind of. So, his actions were warranted, I suppose.”

“What did he do?”

“Nope, not going there, Reindeer. I don’t talk about it. Never have, never will.”

“This happened in your war against him?”

“Yep, and that’s all I’m going to tell you about it. You want to know what happened, you can go talk to Rogers, but I can’t promise I’ll speak to you again if you do that.”

The car fell silent for several minutes before Loki said quietly, “Peter Parker cares a great deal about you.”

“He’s a great kid.”

“You’re brushing aside my statement.”

"I am not.”

“You are. I fail to see what is so wrong with admitting that you care for him as much as he cares about you.”

“The problem lies within that very statement: he cares about me. He really shouldn’t. I’m kind of a horrible person to care about. Especially in the father/mentor way he looks up to me.”

“You are accident prone, which does do wonders for raising one’s blood pressure,” Loki agreed.

“Not that, you moron. I’m saying that he shouldn’t care about me.”

“Your reasoning for that being?”

“I am not getting into that conversation with you.”

“You don’t want to ‘get into’ any conversation with me!” Loki exclaimed, annoyed.

“Not my fault that you’re bringing up topics I have no interests in talking about. Find a better topic and maybe I’ll have something to say."

“Then, I might as well ignore you every time you go on one of your technological rants since it is of no interest to me.”

The look of hurt that flashed across Stark’s face was brief before Stark schooled his expression. “Yeah, you should, if I bother you that much!”

“Fine, I will.”

Fine.”

A tense silence fell over the car ride for several minutes before Stark drove off the highway and into the parking lot of the nearest gas station. “Need a water,” he murmured by way of explanation. “You want anything?”

Loki refused to answer him.

Sighing, Stark unbuckled. “Fine, be that way. Better yet, why don’t you teleport yourself to the Compound, considering how you don’t want to be in my company?”

“Maybe I will,” Loki retorted.

“Do that then,” Stark snapped as he slammed the car door shut and stormed in the direction of the gas station. Loki watched him until he was out of sight and then teleported. There was no need to stay and further the tensions between himself and Stark.

To his great misfortune, he couldn’t even have the relief of teleporting into the Compound unnoticed. Barnes ran into him between his arrival and walk to his room, meaning Loki was forced to converse with him. Which, their conversation, of course, had to be about Stark. As of the last several months, Loki's life seemed to revolve around the mortal. 

“Where’s Stark?” Barnes asked gruffly.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Loki lied easily as they made their way from the common room to the elevator. “Next question, unless you feel like leaving me alone.”

“You two fight?”

“Do you not have something more productive that you could be doing than to be pestering me?”

“I was hoping for Stark’s assistance. It can wait.” Barnes turned to leave without another word, and Loki sighed as he watched the soldier leave. He made it to his quarters without further incident and once in the privacy of his room, allowed his guard to fall. They hadn’t fought, not really. He knew Stark was quick to rise on the defense if it meant avoiding conversations he wasn’t comfortable with, but they had been friends for months. The realization that Stark didn’t trust him enough to answer a few simple questions hurt more than Loki was willing to admit.

He knew he had no right to be hurt because he was the one who had acted in the wrong by overstepping Stark’s boundaries…

But they were friends. 

So, why didn’t Stark trust him?

Groaning, Loki slumped onto his bed. Caring about someone was harder than he had remembered.

An hour passed and Loki had just about calmed himself down when all sorts of alarms blared throughout the Compound. Loki kept his armour simmering beneath the surface, ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, as he went to the Common Room. The other Avengers, all in various stages of dress and armour, quickly joined him. All but one.

The Captain was the first one to speak up. “Where’s Tony?”

“Boss can’t be here right-”

“He’s ignoring the call to assemble?” Barton sneered. “How fucking typical of him.”

“Boss can’t be here because he’s the reason why there’s a need to assemble,” FRIDAY said sharply. “He is being held hostage with three other civilians at a Gulf gas station fifteen minutes from here.”

Loki felt his heart skip a beat. The same gas station he had abandoned Stark at.

“What’s the situation?” Dr. Banner demanded, looking tense.

“Critical. New York State Troopers have surrounded the building but have been unsuccessful in their efforts to get the offenders to stand down. Boss made contact with me once and from the photo he sent me, I have identified the two robbers as escaped convicts from Rikers. They are serving life sentences for homicide.”

“And we’re being called in to defuse the situation?”

“No, Captain Rogers. You’re being called in because one of your own has been shot and is at risk of bleeding out without immediate medical assistance. I’ve contacted the Accords Committee and they have given the green light for a task force of three to raid the gas station and save the hostages.”

“Three?”

“That is what I said, Mr. Lang.”

“I’m going,” Loki said firmly, leaving no room for any arguments.

“Me too,” Barnes grunted.

Dr. Banner looked upset. "I would but the Other Guy..." He shook his head. "I can't."

When no one else immediately made a notion to help, Loki snapped, “Wilson, you’re coming. Brace yourselves because I’m transporting us.” They were standing with their backs against the structure of the gas station before the two men could even begin to prepare themselves.

Loki swallowed hard when he saw Stark’s car parked in the same place where it had been when he had left. He should never have left. “What’s the plan?” Barnes asked as he drew a gun from his hip.

“One of you takes the front, the other the back. I’m teleporting in,” Loki said tensely.

“Is that wise?”

“I’ll make it wise.” Loki gave a brisk nod to the two men. “You both have ten seconds to be in position. I will teleport in that time. I’ll contain the convicts; help the hostages.”

Just as they were about to split up, gunshots rang out. Loki didn’t wait for the ten seconds to be up, just focused his magic and transported inside. At the slight hiss of magic from his arrival, the two convicts whirled around and aimed their guns at him as their eyes widened in shock and anger.

There was a pause and then they began shooting. Loki raised an eyebrow at them and calmly waved his hand as he dissolved the bullets as they came. In the end of their pathetic attempts to kill him, Loki was completely unscathed. The two convicts, now without their weapons, made to run away but made it only a few paces before Barnes was flipping both of them over his shoulder with practiced ease.

“Don’t move,” Barnes grunted. As he watched the exchange between Barnes and the convicts, Loki’s magic simmered under the surface, ready at an instant’s notice if he needed to intervene. Because they were imbeciles, the two convicts ignored the warning and leaped to their feet to rush at the soldier. Loki knew the soldier was well-equipped to take care of himself, but he nonetheless snapped his fingers and watched as the two men were bonded together by his magic, rendering them both incapable of moving.

“The man said not to move,” Loki snapped. “You should have listened the first time.”

Barnes looked up at him, and they made eye contact. Loki nodded at the soldier, deciding right then and there that he approved of the one-flesh-armed mortal. He had followed orders even whilst he had Loki’s back, an action that both surprised and touched Loki. He was not used to others looking out for him, and the fact that Barnes had been at his side to bring the offenders down was a testament to Barnes’s character.

It was certainly not an action Loki would be forgetting anytime soon.

“Inform the authorities that it is safe to enter,” Loki said quietly. “Wilson, where are the hostages?”

“Behind the counter! And get some medics in here right now!” Wilson called. “I’m doing CPR on one vic, but Stark needs attention too!”

Loki darted behind the counter and took in the scene in front of him. Wilson was bent over a woman appearing to be in her mid-thirties. She was shot multiple times in what looked to be the chest and abdomen and based on blood loss, Loki calculated her chance of survival as low. The two other hostages were huddled together in the corner, crying softly, but appeared to be uninjured.

And then there was Stark. Loki’s heart stuttered in his chest as he dropped to his knees beside the fallen Avenger. Stark was lying on his back, eyes fluttering open and closed as he weakly pressed a hand to his chest.

Loki’s hand shook as he gently took Stark’s hand and pulled it away from the wound so he could place his own hand on the bloodied site. “Stark, open your eyes,” Loki demanded shakily. “You are making me fear that you are dying, and that is unacceptable.”

At his touch, Stark weakly opened his eyes. “Loki?” he muttered, blinking blearily at him.

Loki’s throat tightened. “I’m here.” He leaned down to further examine the blood-stained shirt so he could determine where exactly the bullet wound was. “You’re going to be fine, do you hear me? This is but a simple wound and-”

From his right, there was a gasp from one of the hostages, and Loki turned around just in time to catch a glimpse of a finger tightening on a trigger. The crack of the gun was deafening, and in the split second he had, fear consumed every part of Loki as he mentally prepared himself for the feeling of a bullet lodging itself in his flesh.

It never came.

A moment later, the third- since when was there a third?- robber was being tackled onto the ground by Barnes. State troopers were assisting him in a matter of seconds, which Loki was grateful for, but none of that explained why the bullet hadn’t hit him. He was unprepared for the bullet- he hadn’t foreseen the third attacker, meaning his magic could not have shielded him from the attack.

The gun had been fired, so how was he not shot and bleeding out?

The answer came when Stark murmured, “Thank God.” Loki looked down at the inventor and suddenly everything made sense. His magic hadn’t procured the shield, but Stark’s had. The proof came from the light blue shield that shone from Stark’s left hand, which was still raised in the air holding the protection in place.

Loki hadn’t seen the third offender coming because his back was turned, but Stark had and so had procured a safety shield to guard Loki against the bullets. The realization left Loki speechless, and he swallowed hard. “You saved my life.”

“Technically, you saved your own life, considering you were the person who taught me how to do that,” Stark fought back weakly, wincing in pain as his injury caused him discomfort, causing his shield to flicker and fade out.

“You have never been able to procure the shield before,” Loki pointed out, desperately hoping that a conversation would keep Stark from passing out. There was blood everywhere, and Loki knew very little about fatal mortal injuries except for the fact that they could only lose a certain amount of blood until they would lose consciousness and never wake up again.

“Amazing…” Stark gasped in pain, “What the sheer force of will can do.”

“My life’s that important to you?” Loki teased lightly, meant as a distraction as he pressed his hand to Stark’s chest to slow the bleeding. He had intended his words to spark a response- not necessarily a touching response as any words coming out of Stark's mouth would be welcome, but Stark’s response was... touching.

“‘Course you are…” Stark murmured, his eyes bright in the few seconds that he and Loki managed to make eye contact. Loki saw many emotions pass through Stark’s warm brown eyes, and the sight amazed him. Everything about the moment brought pause to Loki’s thoughts.

My life is that important to you?

Course you are…

And only moments after that revelation sunk in, Loki was forced to watch as Stark’s eyes closed and he lost his battle to remain awake. A strangled gasp fell from Loki’s lips as he cried out for the paramedics. His magic simmered under the surface, just barely suppressed as Loki was shoved aside by the paramedics so they could give Stark medical aide.  

It was wrong, it was all wrong. Stark was unconscious, and he was covered in blood... he wasn’t supposed to be covered in blood. Stark was his friend, and Loki wasn’t supposed to allow his friends to get hurt. He was supposed to protect them. He was supposed to protect Stark from injury!

But he left Stark alone, and the inventor had suffered because of it. Had gotten shot in the chest because of it. Because of him.

“Loki?”

Snapping out of his thoughts, Loki looked up to find Barnes was standing above him, his dark eyes unreadable as he extended a hand.

“What do you want?” Loki demanded irritably, glancing away to redirect his attention to the paramedics working on Stark.

“Your hands. We need to wash them.”

Loki glanced at his hands as he stood, and when he saw the blood- Stark’s blood- that stained his hands and clothes in a dark crimson color, his knees suddenly felt wobbly beneath him. He stumbled, certain he was going to fall, but Barnes grabbed his arm and held him firmly as they walked to the restroom.

“Wash up first. Then go with Stark to the hospital,” Barnes said in his gruff voice. “Wilson and I can take care of things here.”

“The woman...shot in the chest...is she alive?”

Barnes gave a slight shake of his head.

Loki lowered his head in defeat as he turned the faucet on in the restroom and scrubbed his hands clean of blood. Not quite trusting his voice enough to speak, Loki took several minutes to himself to calm down. Barnes did not leave his side, and for that Loki wasn’t sure if he was hateful or grateful for.

By the time Stark was stabilized and loaded onto the stretcher, Loki was waiting by the ambulance. Just before he could climb into the back, Barnes grabbed Loki’s hand and forced him to look at him. “Stark'll be okay,” Barnes said firmly.

“He had better be, or I shall kill him myself,” Loki muttered darkly before climbing in. The doors were shut behind him, and sirens began wailing as the ambulance pulled away from the curb and headed for the hospital.

Stark was still unconscious, and in Loki’s opinion, looked too pale to be right as he laid motionless on the stretcher. The blood was a sickening contrast to his pale, clammy skin, and the sight of the blood made Loki almost feel the urge to be ill.

It wasn’t right.  

“Your friend is a fighter,” came a quiet voice, breaking into Loki's thoughts. 

Loki glanced at the paramedic, giving the female a slight nod in response. 

“His vitals are holding strong, which is a positive sign," she added gently. "And with people like you in his life that care about him, Mr. Stark should make a quick and speedy recovery.”

“Do not say such things unless you know them to be factual,” Loki whispered.

How long had Stark been held as a wounded captive before they had arrived? How much blood had he lost? Would his arm ever work properly, or would his right hand shake as his left did on occasion?

There were too many questions that were unanswered, too many unknown answers and variables that could lead to grief.

Loki bowed his head and pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind. Sentiment was much more tedious than he had remembered.

Wet coughing caused Loki to look down at Stark, whose eyes fluttered open and closed. Loki’s heart sped up as he leaned over the genius. “Stark? Can you hear me?”  

At the sound of his voice, Stark turned his head to look at him. His eyes were dark with pain, but there was a spark of recognition in them. He opened his mouth as if to try to speak, but only managed to cough. When the bout of coughing ended, Stark's face was scrunched in pain and a single tear slid down his cheek.

Loki watched its dissension down Stark’s cheek. He had half the mind to wipe the tear away, as he knew Stark would loathe it if anyone were to realize he was in more pain than he was willing to admit on his own. But if he were to wipe the tear away, then Stark would realize that he knew that Stark was in considerable pain…which may only anger the man...

Glancing at the paramedic, who was checking the heart monitor, Loki made up his mind. Stark’s eyes had closed under their own accord, so Loki made sure to quietly murmur his intent as he gently brushed the tear away with the pad of his thumb.

At his touch, Stark’s eyes flew open and he gasped, strangled. Loki met his panicked gaze and held it. “It’s alright,” he murmured.

“‘M not a baby,” Stark muttered when he could breathe again, sounding put out by the attention.

The corners of Loki’s mouth upturned. “Really, Stark? I never noticed.”

“Shut up.” Stark made a face, pained, and wheezed as he rode out a world of pain when the ambulance was jolted by a pothole.

Loki frowned down at the mortal. “For all your hero adventures, have you never been shot before?”

“Not that lucky.” Stark coughed. “Hurts like hell.”

“You poor mortal. Do you want me to hold your hand? I’ve been informed that it’s a wonderfully successful tactic in making someone feel comforted during a crisis.”

Something shone in Stark’s eyes despite the obvious pain he was in. “Really? I was told...that kissing was a much more...effective way to make an ouch go away.” He grimaced. “God, talking hurts.”

“An ouch?” Loki struggled to hide a smile. “Are you quite sure that you are not a child?”

“Hey-” Stark coughed, “I've been shot. This is a no judging zone. Don’t you dare laugh at me and my pain-fueled expressions.”

“Laugh at you? I wouldn’t dare.”

“Mean.”

Loki gaped at him and moved his hands to his chest to clutch at his heart as if Stark's one-worded insult had seriously hurt him. “How dare you call me mean. I’ll have you know that I could never be anything but a perfect gentleman.”

“Yeah, and I’m…” Stark coughed, his eyes fluttering closed.

Something that felt very similar to fear rushed through Loki as he leaned forward in his seat. “Anthony?” he asked shakily. When no response came, Loki turned to look at the paramedic. “He is unconscious; why do you do nothing?” he accused, feeling his magic spark at his fingertips, ready at a moment’s notice to heal, if necessary.

“His vitals are holding steady, so it's likely the pain caused him to pass out. There’s not really anything I can do for him,” the paramedic said apologetically. “It was smart to keep him talking, though. You're the reason he stayed conscious as long as he did. And also probably the reason Mr. Stark remained calm. I would say a majority of people panic at the sirens or being in here in general.”

“Anthony is not most people,” Loki said coldly.

The paramedic eyed him oddly at that, causing Loki to look away from her calculating eyes. Less than a minute later, the ambulance slowed to a stop in the emergency bay. It wasn't until the doors opened and the doctors rushed to lift the stretcher out of the ambulance that Loki realized he had been holding Stark’s hand.

The beating of Stark’s heart on the heart monitor was the last glimpse of the genius that Loki saw before he was told to wait in the waiting room. Loki collapsed into a chair and dropped his head into his shaking hands.

It was there that he admitted to himself that for the first time in a very long time, he was scared.

 

It was Thor who found him.

Bent over in an uncomfortably hard chair in the corner of the cafetorium was where Loki hid. He knew full well that the soldier had long ago discovered his position, but in the end, it was not Barnes who came to speak to him, it was his brother.

For someone who had the misfortune of not having the word ‘quiet’ in his dictionary, Thor was surprisingly the picture-perfect example of quiet as he took a seat beside Loki. “Brother,” Thor murmured, his eyes grave and sickeningly pitying as he placed a hand on Loki’s knee. “Are you well?”

Loki turned to glare at him. “What possible reason do I have right now to be well?” he hissed. “Stark was shot, he is in surgery where he very well might be dying, and you think I have a reason to be well? You know nothing of me.”

Thor was quiet. Loki was almost tempted to take back his stress-fueled words, but he didn't. It was the truth, after all. Finally, Thor spoke. “I apologize, brother, that was insensitive. Are you uninjured from your raid to save our Man of Iron?”

“Yes,” Loki responded curtly.

“I am pleased to hear that. If I may, Friend Tony’s wounds are severe? The female nurse at the front desk refused to provide the Captain with information on our shield brother’s condition when he queried.”

“He was shot, Thor, I told you that.”

“A mortal wound?”

Loki slowly released his breath, trying to keep his magic under control. “For some, it could be. Not Stark. He is stronger than three pathetic, cowardly Midgardians with fancy weapons.”

“The Sergeant with the robot arm, named Barnes, told me Friend Tony saved your life.”

“He spoke the truth.”

“What happened?”

“He procured a safety shield. Stopped a bullet from getting to me.” Loki folded his arms over his chest. “May we desist in conversation? All this chatter is becoming agitating.”

As if he had said nothing, Thor continued to speak. “Lady Potts and the Colonel Rhodes have both been contacted and are returning from their respective locations. Computer FRIDAY contacted the Vision, who notified the young Spider-boy and Dr. Strange, and they all shall be making an appearance shortly.”

At that, Loki looked up. “Is Vision aware that he is likely to be confronted by the Witch?”

“Aye, but in his words, not even a difficult conversation with her will stop him from being here for Mr. Stark.”

“His courage is admirable,” Loki admitted. “I would have simply teleported to avoid her altogether.”

“You despise her.”

“Of course I do,” Loki hissed. “The Witch has abused her powers many times to torture Stark. She is but a weak mortal with a deplorable attitude and mindset. Her actions have brought grief to many, especially to Stark, and that is unacceptable.”

“Brother, I am going to be forward with you.”

Loki sighed. “I suppose I ought to thank you for the warning, but I shall not because I do not wish to do so. Go on with whatever boorish-"

Thor apparently could wait no longer to speak his piece. “Loki, I have seen the way you look at our friend, Tony Stark. Often times, there is fondness in your eyes.”

“What do you imply?” Loki asked sharply.

“I merely point out that during our stay at the Compound, I have seen a profound change in you. You seem happy when you are with Tony. It is a sight I had long ago given up hope of seeing in you.”

“You base this implication on a few moments of time.”

“I do not. I see how you act when you are with our friend. You seem at ease, both with yourself and the environment you are in.”

“When I am in the workshop, no one bothers me,” Loki countered. 

“You are also protective of him.”

“That proves nothing, Thor. What you imply is based on wishful thinking on your part because of what you want for me, all simply because, to your knowledge, I have not courted anyone in recent years. Rest assured, brother, I am capable of determining my own feelings and acting on them accordingly.”

Thor sighed as he nodded glumly. They sat in silence for many minutes before Loki said quietly, “Anthony was awake only for a few minutes on the ride here.”

“He will be okay, Loki.”

“Everyone keeps saying that, but no one knows that for a fact!” Loki snapped in anger.

“I see it as a fact.”

“On what grounds?”

Thor shifted in his seat. “At the end of our battle against the Chitauri, the American government fired a missile at New York. The Man of Iron took the nuclear weapon through the wormhole, ending the battle in the process.”

“I was there, Thor. I know what events transpired.”

“Aye, but you were not there when Friend Tony fell out of the wormhole. Hulk caught Tony before he could hit the ground, but severe damage had been done to Tony’s chestpiece.”

“He wasn't breathing,” Loki realized grimly.

“His heart had stopped,” Thor agreed. “I feared we had lost the Man of Iron until a roar from the Hulk brought him back to life.”

“This story does not support your point, but instead proves to me that Anthony is a mortal and is able to die from the wounds he suffered today.”

“When your invasion occurred, our friend had only the Lady Potts and Col. Rhodes to live for. Yet, he lived.”

“Get to your point, Thor. I really am in no mood for any conversation, let alone this one that you have forced upon me.”

“At that time, Tony only had two people to live for: Colonel Rhodes and Lady Potts. Now, he has both of the doctors, the Spiderling, and yourself.”

“You do not consider yourself a friend of Anthony’s?”

Thor grimaced. “Brother, I have wronged the Man of Iron many times. I know better than to give myself a title I am not yet worthy of having. He may be my friend, but I am not his. For now, he and I are allies, and one day, hopefully, I will have atoned for my wrongdoings and may be considered his friend. Until then, I deserve no more than the title of his brother in battle.”

Loki glanced at his brother but said nothing. They lapsed into silence once again, but this time, nothing further was said between them for the next several hours to come.

It was the Colonel Rhodes who joined them. He looked tired from his drive back from North Carolina, but his eyes were shining with relief as he informed them of the good news:

“Tony made it through the surgery. He's in his own room now, and we can see him.”

*****

It was unexpected.

It always was.

It was quick. Painless, they said. Loki knew it was their way of shielding them from the truth, that it had been agony in those final moments spent gasping for air and trying to say one last goodbye to loved ones in the time that remained.

It was horrible.

In the days leading up to the ceremony, Loki had taken to the workshop so he could remain undisturbed by his meddling brother, who repeatedly tried to establish contact between them. But Loki didn't want to talk. Not to Thor, not to the soldier, nor the doctors, and certainly not to FRIDAY, who seemed to be lost within her own form of grief.

The only person he actually wanted to talk to was gone, and they'd never speak again.

Loki hadn't even gotten to apologize for their argument, for abandoning Anthony…

There was nothing anyone could have done, the doctors said.

Loki knew better. Had they not fought, had he not left, he would have been there when the convicts pointed their weapons at Anthony. He would have been there to stop the criminals with his magic.

He would have been there with his safety shield, or with his own self if necessary, to take the bullet that had ripped into Anthony’s flesh and taken his life.

But he had left, and it was his fault they were gathered for the funeral.

It was his fault.

The skies were dark and thunder rumbled throughout the ceremony as Thor’s grief rolled through the city of New York.

It was wrong. Anthony shouldn't have been-

Shouldn't have been…

Dead.

He shouldn't have been dead.

Anthony was dead.

And it was his fault.

The gentle murmuring was what snapped Loki out of his nightmare from Hel. It was Stark’s quiet, soothing voice that seeped into the corners of his dream, flooded over his fear and grief, and gently took hold of Loki’s mind and eased him out of the Hel he was trapped in.

When Loki finally managed to wake up, he was gasping weakly for air. He sat up quickly, and through his leaking eyes, managed to make out the form of Stark sitting up in his hospital bed, watching him with worry and understanding in his eyes.

“Loki-”

“Don't,” Loki croaked, turning his face away as he magicked away the traces of tear-tracks on his face.

He was pathetic. Stark had witnessed him have a nightmare. No one had ever caught glimpse of Loki’s pain. He was Pathetic. He should never have stayed overnight at the hospital. That's what Rhodes was for, for offering support for his friend. Not apparently needing it like him. Pathetic.  

“First time?”

Loki looked at the engineer. “What?” he asked irritably.

“Is this your first time breaking down in front of someone?”

“That is a worthless question.”

Stark shrugged, wincing at the moment. “You're deflecting, though,” he pointed out.

“My life should be of no concern to anyone except myself, and I am fine now, so you can stop pestering me.”

“Well, that's an utter shame.”

“Pardon?”

“If you haven't noticed, I'm your friend. Which means I care about you. Sorry, but that's just the way it is. And-” Stark hurried to continue, “You obviously care about me too, or you wouldn't have stayed overnight in an uncomfortably hard chair just to be here when I woke up.”

Loki sighed, conceding to the point. “How long have you been awake?”

“Something like an hour? Rhodey left like ten minutes ago after I threatened to get out of bed to physically force his stubborn ass to go home and get some rest.”

“He was here?” Loki scowled. “And I didn’t wake up?”

“I told him I'd throw my ice chips at him if he woke you up,” Stark admitted, sounding amused. “The doc even came and decided I didn't need the stupid oxygen mask. And he even tried to give me some of the good stuff so I wouldn't be in any pain, but I turned him down. You already know the reason why, so I'll move on. All in all, though, I guess you needed your rest since you didn't wake up.”

“I am quite the failure today, aren't I? First, I pushed you to talk when you were upset, and if that wasn't bad enough, I left you-”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

Loki gaped at him. “Did you hit your head when you were shot? I left you at that gas station. Had I not been there-”

“You would have been shot too,” Stark interrupted.

Loki glared at him. “Stark, my magic would have shielded me.”

“Uh, probably not. I was shot upon entering the gas station. Had you been there, you would have been shot too. I'm actually kinda glad you left because you didn't get hurt-”

“Didn't get hurt?” Loki was shaking with barely contained anger. “You were shot. You could have died from your wounds. I may not have been physically wounded but seeing you covered in blood, dying under my hand… that was scarring!”

Stark’s eyes were wide. Loki paced the room before collapsing into his chair, besides himself. He was showing emotion for the second time in minutes. It was deplorable. He was not only feeling the sentiment he had promised himself he would never allow himself to experience again, but he was also exposing his fears and sentiment to Stark.

When had he become so soft? (Was it Stark's fault for making him so soft?) 

“Loki?”

“What do you want this time?” Loki snapped.

“Come here.”

Loki lifted his head to see Stark had extended a hand in his direction. “What?” he asked weakly.

“Come here,” Stark repeated, his eyes unbearably kind as he used his only working hand to pat the empty space on the bed beside him.  

“What on earth for?” Loki frowned but stood anyway.

“Because you look exhausted and I know for a fact that hospital chairs feel like sitting on a rock. Come on, just sit down with me, okay?”

“If we are seen together sharing a bed, people will suspect we are in a relationship,” Loki murmured.

Stark raised an eyebrow. “Is that a problem? Being in a relationship with a genius, sexy-looking God sounds like the opposite of a problem to me.”

“I suppose my reputation can handle being seen with you…” Loki sighed and took a seat on the bed.

“Yay!” Stark cheered, managing to scoot over a tiny amount before he was forced to stop and catch his breath. “Jesus Christ, ow,” he muttered under his breath.

“Alright?”

Stark gave a brisk nod. “Fine, Reindeer Games. A bullet can't stop me. But being shot is a bitch because moving hurts like hell.”

Loki struggled not to smile, but he must have failed at his attempt because Stark gave him an odd look. “What?”

“You're swearing. That shows me that you're well on your way to get better.”

“Asshole,” Stark scowled as if insulted by the comment, but his eyes were twinkling so Loki knew he wasn't bothered by it.

“See?”

“Yeah, yeah, glad to see you’re okay too. Shut up and lay down, will you?”

Loki did so willing, but only for a moment before he realized what Stark had said. “What do you mean?”

Stark frowned. “What?”

“You said you were glad that I was okay. What did you mean by that?”

“Oh, that. Well, my memory is pretty hazy, but I could have sworn you almost got shot in that gas station. So, I was saying, I'm glad you didn't get shot too.”

“I see.” Loki raised himself onto his elbow and looked down at the inventor. “Do you remember what happened?”

“Kind of? I remember walking in and getting shot, and after that, I only remember snapshots here and there. I sent an SOS to FRIDAY, I think. Yeah, that sounds about right. Because right after it sent…” Stark trailed off, his expression becoming far away.

“Stark?”

“My Stark watch. He stepped on it, just how that guy stepped on Harley’s sister’s watch. It broke…”

“Stark? What are you-”

“-and I said I'd kill them, and he laughed in my face... He stepped on my wound to keep me from trying to stop them…”

“Anthony!”

Blinking, Stark snapped out of his thoughts and turned to face Loki, who was watching him with concern.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine,” Stark dismissed. He frowned. “Weren't you there at the gas station? Not right away, but you came to rescue us?”

Loki nodded his head slowly. “The Accords Committee allowed for a team of three to raid. Barnes, Wilson, and I came.”

“Oh.” Stark closed his eyes.

Loki leaned down, feeling his breath quicken. “Stark?”

“‘M still awake. Just tired…”

“You should rest.”

“In a minute.” Stark opened his eyes, and they made eye contact. “If you want to talk about your dream...I can listen.”

Loki felt oddly touched, and he wasn't quite sure why. Nonetheless, he could not bring himself to open up to Stark. To do so was to expose himself on a level Loki had not connected with anyone in a very long time.

“Sleep,” he finally whispered in response. “I'll be here.”

Stark’s eyes flickered open. “Thanks,” he murmured.

Loki was positive the mortal fell asleep before he even responded. Long after Stark fell asleep, Loki laid there in the bed thinking about his nightmare and why he had had it. Just before he fell asleep, Loki whispered, “Please, don't leave me. I don't want to be alone again.”

And then he was asleep.

*****

Loki gasped for air as he sat up in bed and tried to push away the thoughts of the nightmare. Above him, FRIDAY’s gentle voice informed him, “It is 02:14, Mr. Laufeyson. The weather is currently-”

“We have gone through this for three days in a row,” Loki snapped. “I do not need your help, so you may desist in mentioning whatever time it is and whatever infernal weather it is outside!”

FRIDAY remained silent, and it was a low blow to Loki’s character when he realized that he actually felt bad for snapping at a computer.

“Damn you, Stark,” Loki muttered, knowing full well he had spent too much time with the inventor if he felt guilty for the way he had treated an inanimate object. FRIDAY wasn’t an ordinary AI, but she was still a non-living object. 

“I apologize, FRIDAY,” Loki sighed. “You were just trying to help me. It’s not your fault I am incapable of a full night’s rest. I should not have taken my anger out on you.”

When the AI did not respond right away, Loki almost apologized again, but he remained quiet when FRIDAY piped up, sounding almost shy, “Boss is still awake if you would like to join him in the ‘shop. I’m sure he’d love the company.”

“What is he doing awake at this hour?” Loki hissed. “He is still recovering from his wounds-”

FRIDAY sounded amused as she responded, “You know how Boss is, Mr. Loki. Perhaps, you can get him to go to bed. He is currently binge-watching the Harry Potter movies, and considering the running length of the films, I am frankly becoming concerned for his well-being.”

Loki almost smirked. “Alright, FRIDAY. I’ll take care of him.”

“Thank you,” was her quiet response.

Loki made the decision to stay in his sleeping articles but did take the time to fix his hair before he headed down. Upon his entry into the workshop, Loki heard the sounds of Stark pausing his film before Stark exclaimed, “Reindeer, you’re awake?! I thought you went to bed hours ago!”

“My plans changed,” Loki answered dryly, pausing momentarily to say hello to Dum-E before he joined Stark on the sofa. “FRIDAY informed me that you have plans to watch all of the Harry Potter movies in one take. Please say that isn’t so.”

Stark, for his part, managed to look embarrassed. “Um, it is? Sorry, Lokes, but I’m not tired.”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “I know it has been five days since you were shot, but you cannot lack in sleep simply because you do not want to go to sleep.”

“That’s not what I said,” Stark pointed out.

“You’re right, it’s not. However, it is what you implied.”

“Implied? And you know this how?”

“Because I know you, Stark,” Loki answered simply. “Why are you avoiding sleep? Is it because of nightmares?”

Stark glared at him. “Sorry, who refused to tell me about his nightmare a few nights ago?”

“What does that have to do with this?”

“Well, if you didn’t want to talk about your dream, then it’s pretty hypocritical of you to get me to talk about mine. And, actually, it’s not because of nightmares. Points for taking a good guess, though. Any other day and you probably would have been right.”

Loki sighed. “What then?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I want to know the reason so I can help you fall asleep!”

“And just why are you awake?”

Loki folded his arms over his chest. “If you won’t tell me about your reasons for avoiding sleep, then I will not tell you why I am awake.”

“You had another nightmare, didn’t you?”

“Believe it or not, Stark, but you do not know everything about what goes on in my life.”

“I never claimed to know such a thing.”

“Maybe not in so many words but we both know-”

“Stop! This is stupid! We never used to fight, and since the day I was shot, we’ve done nothing but bicker and brush-aside conversations we don’t want to have. I’ve had enough. You really want to know why I don’t want to sleep? Fine, I’ll tell you. The truth is, I always sleep on my side, but thanks to my wonderful gunshot wound, I can’t because I’m in too much pain. So, it’s not that I’m avoiding sleep- because I’m actually pretty tired, thank you very much- it’s that I can’t fall asleep!”

Loki stared at the mortal. “Have you tried propping yourself up on a pillow or two?” he finally murmured.

“Yes, I’ve tried that. Genius, remember? Nothing has worked, and I have tried twenty-six different combinations of pillows with different quantities at different angles and positions in different beds. Nothing worked.”

Loki sighed. Stark had been honest with him, and fair was fair. “I had another nightmare,” he mumbled, his voice barely audible to his own ears.

Stark made a face. “What? Sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”

“A nightmare! I had another nightmare! There, are you happy now? I told you why I am awake. Now you know what has been troubling me,” Loki growled, frustrated with himself. Standing, he paced the length of the workshop as his mind raced with memories of the dream. Nothing had been the same since Stark had been shot. Nothing had been right since Loki had first laid eyes on him lying on the ground with his eyes closed, face pale, and blood soaking his shirt…

“Hey, Loki, calm down,” Stark said firmly as he made a move as if to stand, causing Loki to dash to his side.

“Don’t do that!” he ordered, his touch firm yet somehow gentle at the same time as he forced Stark to sit back down on the sofa. “Do not move; you will aggravate your injuries. Do you understand? Stay where you are.”

Stark raised an eyebrow. “Reindeer, I was shot in the clavicle. Not the chest. There’s nothing in the doctor’s notes that says I am not allowed to stand whenever I want to.”

“The bullet grazed your clavicle but went into your chest, and the orders were for you to rest, meaning no strenuous activities. Dr. Banner would tell you the same thing as I if he were down here.”

“Well, he’s not, because yesterday you apparently were being overprotective and forbid FRIDAY from letting anyone down here, which is why you are the only person I’ve been in contact with in the last sixteen hours.”

“I did what was necessary because you need your rest, which you will never get if you have visitors who will bother you.”

“And you’re allowed to ‘bother’ me why?”

“Because it was I who found you in the gas station. Thusly, I get special privileges.”

Understanding filled Stark’s eyes. “Oh,” he said quietly. “That’s why.”

“That’s why what?” Loki asked irritably as he perched on the edge of the coffee table.

“That’s why you’re so rattled- because you saw me when I was covered in blood and looked half-dead. And that’s what you are dreaming about, isn’t it? About finding me in that gas station. Although, I’d be willing to bet I’m actually dead in your dreams because nightmares are a bitch.”

“Is my pain somehow amusing to you?”

Stark’s eyes widened. “What? Of course not!” The disbelief must have shown on Loki’s face for the inventor continued, “It’s not like that, Lokes. It’s just…I didn’t think you would have been so affected by all this, that’s all.”

“You didn’t think I would be affected by finding my only friend pale-faced, blood-stained, and nearly unconscious?” Loki’s voice shook, and he cleared his throat. He was not going to show any further weakness. He’d say his piece and then leave to avoid a witness to his grief. “I may be a monster, but I am not as cold-blooded as you and the others would like to believe.”

He stood, ready to make a quick exit, but froze when Stark tentatively touched his arm. “Unhand me,” Loki said coldly.

Stark’s hand fell from his arm, and Loki was quick to head for the door. He had just reached the doorway when Stark’s small voice stopped him. “I didn’t think you would be affected because I didn’t expect you to care. It’s not personal to you…I’m like this with everyone, even Rhodey and we’ve been best friends since we were teenagers. I don’t really see why anyone should care whether or not I’m alive, so your care is… unexpected.”

Sighing, Loki found himself turning around and walking back over to the sofa where Stark was sat. “I spend a majority of my day with you. I have for months. What reason would I have for spending my time with you, if not because I enjoy your presence?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure I’m one of the first people to ever express an interest in your magic,” Stark muttered, “So there is that. There’s also my money, my tech, my bewitching good looks… I don’t know. What reason would you have?”

“Must I spell out everything for you?” Loki sighed.

“If you would.” Stark’s smile was weak but appeared to be genuine. “I know I am but a mere mortal, so come on, help a guy out.”

“Do you remember how you greeted me when Thor, Valkyrie, the doctor, and I landed on your planet?”  

Stark made a face. “I asked you if you were finally ready to have the drink that I had offered you in 2012, I think. Why?”

“You asked me what reason I would have to spend time with you. When we met for the second time, you showed me no ill-will. The last time you had seen me, we were in battle against each other. I choked you and threw you out a window, which would have sent you to your death had it not been for your armour. Of all the ways you could- and should- have greeted me, it should not have been with jest.”

“You think I was joking?” Stark rolled his eyes. “Let me tell you something, Loki. I may be an asshole with a tendency to speak first, think second, but I am not a fool. I mentioned the drink when you landed because I was not looking for a fight. As far as I’m considered, our battle ended in 2012 when you went back to Asgard. I’m pretty sure you’ve suffered enough. The drink was meant as an Olive Branch, nothing more, nothing less.”

“You are a peculiar mortal,” Loki murmured. “No one else would have shown me the courtesy that you did. Truth be told, my intrigue in you came about when you offered me the drink upon our arrival. Although your interest in my magic was unexpected and wonderful, it was not why I decided to teach you.”

“Well, why’d you decide to teach me, then?”

“Because you needed me to,” Loki answered simply. “I could see in your eyes that someone had abused you with magic before, and I would not allow such an event to befall you again. When I realized it was the Witch who had harmed you and that she was returning with the Rogues, I made the decision to teach you. I had intended for our lessons to be enough for you to counter her, but it was not enough, and for that, I apologize.”

“Nope, not accepting that. You don’t owe me an apology. You didn’t go into my head, she did. And if it weren’t for you, she’d probably still be in my head. Not to mention, no one would have had a clue she had hurt me, so she’d probably currently still have her powers. If anything, I owe you an apology for not thanking you sooner for all that you’ve done to help me.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Consider us even, then.”

“Are you saying I did something to help you?”

“Well,” Loki paused, choosing his words carefully. “You showed a lonely fool how to care again. If somehow managing to protect you from the Witch and her Rogues is my payment to you, then I will be pleased.”

“Well, that’s a shame.”

“What is?” Loki frowned.

“Your so-called ‘payment’. You didn’t just protect me, you idiot. What you really did was prove to me that someone could care about a person like me.”

Loki’s eyes flashed. “Do not talk about yourself in that way,” he said sharply. “I know what hateful words you think of when you think of yourself, and they are wrong. They are lies. You are not unworthy of someone’s care.”

Stark’s grimace was mildly self-deprecating at best. “We both know that isn’t quite true.”

“The only thing I know is that you are my friend. And considering I am only friends with those I deem worthy of the affections of a prince, that makes you quite the bit valuable, wouldn’t you agree?”

“'Affections'?”

Loki glared.

A true smile appeared on Stark’s face. It was small but bright nonetheless. “Careful, Lokes, I think your crush on me is showing,” he teased, leaning back against the back of the sofa. “Now, care to join me in my re-watching of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? It’s great; you’ll love it.”

“Is this of the book character ‘Harry Potter’ that I have heard you go on about with the young spiderling?” Loki answered, realizing and accepting Stark’s attempts to change the focus of their conversation.

“Indeed it is, yes.” Stark grinned as he patted the space beside him. “Come on, Reindeer, sit down. You know you want to...”

“Fine,” Loki sighed. “Just for you. Although, I’ll have you know I’m agreeing to this only so you cannot decide to become foolish and attempt to ‘tinker’ on your projects, as you call it. You are not yet strong enough for such work.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” Stark grumbled, but the excited gleam in his eyes proved to Loki that the inventor was more amused than annoyed. “FRIDAY, go back to HP#1 for us, will you please?”

“Sure thing, boss. Shall I have Dum-E prepare popcorn?”

Stark glanced at Loki, who stared at him with intent. “Yeah, why not. But tell him to skip the motor oil. 

Loki elbowed Stark. “You know I detest popcorn.”

“More for me!” Stark exclaimed gleefully. “Now, hush, the movie is about to start!”

Sighing, Loki transitioned to the sofa so he was sat next to Stark. The movie was decently interesting and Loki didn’t mind the plot, but if he were being honest with himself, he found more enjoyment in listening to Stark’s passionate rants about the plotline of the movie in comparison to the book than he did simply by watching the film.

There was still well over half of the movie left when Stark began to quiet. At first, there were significantly growing pauses between his comments, but as the minutes went by, Stark said less and less until he was just managing to sleepily murmur his opinion now and then.

With thirty minutes left in the film, Loki was mildly startled when Stark’s body listed off to the side, his body slumped in a way that left his head resting on Loki’s shoulder. Surprised at the contact, Loki glanced down at the mortal.

“Stark?”

“‘M awake.”

“Just barely,” Loki answered, amused. “Considering you are yet to move, am I to take it that my shoulder is an adequate pillow for you?”

“You’re comfortable,” Stark whined. Loki wasn’t sure if this was done on purpose or not, but following Stark’s whimpered confession, Stark then shifted his position so he was practically snuggled against him.

“Does this position not aggravate your wounds?”

“Not really…” Stark yawned, sounding half-asleep. “You want me to move?”

Loki hesitated. “You are fine where you are,” he mumbled after a moment’s consideration. “However, drool on me, and I will end your life. Understood?”

Stark huffed out a small breath of laughter. “You got yourself a deal, Reindeer Games.”

“Victory for me,” Loki answered dryly. “Now, stop talking and go to sleep so I can enjoy the film without your interruptions.”

“Hey, my commentary was legendary and you know it.”

“It was annoying.”

“Oh, come off it, we both know you thought it was amazing.”

“What is your proof?”

“Had I truly been that annoying, you would have sewn my lips shut or done some other magical thing so you would have been able to watch the movie in peace.”

Loki’s mouth went dry. “I would not have,” he managed to say weakly.

Stark gave a small shrug. “Whatever you say, Lokes.”

“I mean it, Anthony.” Loki looked down at the inventor leaning against him, refusing to look away until Stark looked up at him and they made eye contact. “Even if I were infuriated with you over something, I would not be able to harm you. Especially, by sewing your lips.”

“Sorry,” Stark whispered.

Loki frowned. “What for?”

“That topic, about sewing the lips. Your reaction tells me it means more to you than what you’re saying. So, I’m sorry I brought it up.”

“One day…” Loki paused, reminding himself to breathe. “One day, I will tell you of what happened to me.”

“Only when you are fully comfortable with telling me,” Stark said firmly.

Loki looked down at him, smiling gently at his concern. “Yes,” he agreed quietly. “Only then, will I tell you.”

“Good.” Stark nodded, looking pleased, as he closed his eyes and once again laid down to rest his head on Loki’s shoulder. “Do you seriously not mind if I-”

“Be quiet and go to sleep, Stark.”

“Fine, geez,” Stark huffed. “Goodnight, Mr. Pillow.”

Loki rolled his eyes but said nothing in return. At his quiet request, FRIDAY resumed the movie, and it was just rolling into the end-credits of the first Harry Potter film that Loki realized Stark appeared to have fallen asleep.

The realization that Stark, despite the pain causing difficulties for him in falling asleep, had apparently fallen asleep on him, was almost touching. Loki nearly melted at the thought that he might have helped Stark relax enough to fall asleep, which was ridiculous, but…

The small, childish part of Loki that craved companionship begged for such a thought to be true so Loki could be hugged more often, and thusly experience a ‘cuddle’ more often.

Pushing the pestering thoughts from his mind, Loki asked quietly, “FRIDAY, is Stark asleep?”  

“I do believe so, Mr. Laufeyson. Shall I awaken Boss for you?”

Loki considered the question, glancing between the sleeping mortal and the TV screen. “No,” he finally decided. “He needs his rest and I do not want to take the chance that he awakens and is unable to fall back asleep. Anthony is fine where he is.”

“Asleep on your shoulder?” FRIDAY confirmed, sounding amused.

“Yes, asleep on my shoulder,” Loki snarked. “It’s not like he’s going to hurt me, FRIDAY. He’s asleep, which makes him quite harmless.”

“Very well, though I do warn you that Boss may decide to cuddle you in his sleep.”

“However shall I live?” Loki asked dryly.

“Ask you wish, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Loki rolled his eyes but said nothing in response. He knew, deep down, not even being cuddled- cuddled!- by Stark would cause him to awaken the genius from his slumber. And when Stark shifted in his sleep, wrapped an arm around Loki's waist, and all but draped himself over Loki's body with a small, contented sigh, Loki remained silent.

He instead brought his arm around Stark's body to keep him in position and then went back to watching the opening credits of the second installment of the series. He figured Stark would appreciate his efforts to continue the Harry Potter movies even without his running commentary. But if need be, they could always re-watch the movies together on another date. 

Sometime later, Loki’s cheek came to rest on the top of Stark’s head, and with Anthony held safely in his arms, Loki drifted off into sleep. For the first time since Stark had been shot, Loki’s sleep was peaceful. And when Dum-E wheeled over to them to place a blanket over their bodies, Loki sleepily blinked his eyes open, took in the sight of Anthony asleep on his chest, smiled, and went back to sleep.

Things almost appeared to be looking up. 

Chapter Text

As the next few days passed, Loki found amusement in watching as Stark whined and groaned his way through ‘too-little work’ because his injuries limited his movements. It was also equally enjoyable for him to take his usual seat on the sofa and listen to the arguments Stark had with both the Col. Rhodes and Dr. Banner. The two coconspires were insistent that Stark not work as much so he could take the time to rest so his injuries could continue to heal, but each argument only seemed to help Stark find more and more creative excuses as to why working on his projects was as essential to him as the air in the atmosphere.

Although Loki knew Stark’s arguments to be ridiculous and fueled by both boredom and being told what to do, he personally found it amusing how fondly exasperated the colonel and the doctor would become in trying to make Stark do as they saw in his best interests. The inventor was independent and refused to allow others to tell him what to do, something they both understood perfectly well, but with all three parties being equally as stubborn, their arguments were quite the spectacle to watch.

On one occasion, Loki had almost asked Dum-E to prepare for him the popcorn he detested so much, if only because he had wanted to see if Stark would finally take the hint and allow himself ten minutes to relax. But circumstance had caused the colonel to be needed, and with Loki allowing Stark to do as he wished, the doctor had given up arguing before Loki could bring Dum-E’s attention to himself. They had been left alone in the workshop, something that pleased Loki. 

That was because- arguing spectacles aside- Loki thought the best moments to be when it was only him and Stark in the workshop. It was then, and only then, that Stark would allow himself to relax. He would seem to shut down, going almost limp as he joined Loki on the sofa. Sometimes he would curl up as Loki had often heard of small dogs doing, but other times he would sprawl out on the length of the sofa, close enough that Loki could casually shift positions and have Stark’s feet reside in his lap.

It was a domestic sight, one that Loki was all too aware of, but try as he will, he could not bring himself to sit on a different sofa so as to maintain their personal space. There was an entire other sofa quite available for Stark to sleep on if he so desired, but when he was most tired, Stark seemed to be immediately drawn to wherever Loki was sitting. 

And Loki had tested this realization by sitting on each sofa for only an interval at a time before he switched to the other, but the results were always the same. His conclusion, although slightly unnerving, was that Stark naturally sought him out when he was in pain or was tired. Stark’s blatant trust in him was what startled (touched) Loki the most. (But that was something he absolutely refused to think about.)

But for all the amusing or soft moments that occurred, there were all too many dark moments, moments that made Loki’s chest tighten with guilt as he struggled to help Stark whilst dealing with his own grief at the same time.

Such incidents were unexpected but ruthless nonetheless. It happened at the strenuous times of work, it happened at the quiet times when Stark was dozing on the sofa as Loki read. The pain needed no reason to cause Stark minutes of absolute agony, and Loki hated every second of it.

When it happened, Stark would go alarmingly white as he gasped and panted his way through the sharp, stabbing pain in his chest cavity as his wound was seemingly aggravated- sometimes for no apparent reason- and caused him grave discomfort and severe difficulties breathing.

Each time it occurred, Loki would rush from his spot on the sofa to Stark’s side so he could talk him through his breathing exercises until the pain would subside for the time being. But each second spent watching Stark’s eyes water from pain would remind Loki that his actions had led to Stark’s injury, and he hated it. 

He hated that he now felt for another, especially so after he told himself he would never allow himself to feel sentiment again, and he hated that he had to stand by and watch, helpless, as Stark was driven nearly paralyzed by the sheer force of pain from his wounds.

Loki knew he was forgiven for their argument and he knew Stark in no way blamed him for his getting shot, but he blamed himself. How could he forgive himself for leaving Stark behind? Had he not left Stark in the parking lot of the gas station, the mortal would not have been shot, and he would not currently be hurting from his wounds. It was his fault Stark was injured, and that was because he had caused their argument and then left in a fit of anger. His fault. 

There was nothing anyone could say to lessen Loki’s pain, and for that he was grateful. He did not deserve to suffer any less than he was with his nightmares or the sinking guilt that would overwhelm him when he would see Stark struggle through the pain. It was his fault Stark was hurt to begin with.

Stark was healing, but Loki was breaking.

(But that was okay. He deserved it.)

It was late in the evening of the third night after The Movie Night when the unexpected arrival came. They had been sat on the sofa speaking about the Spiderling and what would happen if they were called to battle when FRIDAY interrupted their conversation.

“Boss, I do believe Sergeant Barnes would like to enter the workshop,” she announced when their conversation came to a halt.

Loki raised an eyebrow at Stark, who gave a slight shrug as he leaned forward to place his bottle of water on the coffee table. “Is he alone?”

“I detect no other lifeforms, Boss. Shall I allow him to enter? I do not believe he plans to enter under his own accord, nor do I expect him to knock on the workshop to ask permission to come in.”

Stark narrowed his eyes a bit, at that. “Fri, exactly how long has Barnes been standing there?”

“Twenty-two minutes, Boss!” was her, as always, cheerful response. “If I may offer my advice?”

“You’d offer it regardless of whether or not I gave you the okay, so you might as well say what it is you want to say.”

“I think you should allow me to let the sergeant into the workshop. I believe he is in need of your assistance.”

Stark glanced at Loki as he sighed and quietly gave his permission. As the doors unlocked themselves and opened to reveal a closed-off Barnes, (whose eyes held pain and surprise, Loki thought) Stark rose to his feet.

“Well?” Stark asked, grabbing his water bottle from the table and pointing it in Barnes’s direction. “My doors don’t open very often, so you better take this offer while it’s still on the table.”

Something hardened in Barnes’s expression as he hesitantly stepped foot into the workshop. Stark carefully made his way over to the desk and sat on a stool, watching the soldier expectedly. Loki quietly joined him and from a position where Stark couldn’t see him, glared at Barnes and made a single, barely detectable motion that threatened to harm him if he hurt Stark in any way.

Barnes inclined his head slightly, understanding and accepting the threat, and Loki, satisfied with the response, took a few steps to the side and leaned against the back of the desk to watch the interaction about to occur.

Stark narrowed his eyes as he looked at the soldier. “FRIDAY tells me you may be in need of help. Care to confirm or refute?” At Barnes’s startled look, Stark added, “A simple yes or no is fine.”

“Yes,” Barnes muttered after several long moments of silence.

Stark leaned forward in his seat. “Okay. Your arm?”

The soldier nodded silently.

“Are you asking me to help you?” Stark frowned when Barnes nodded again. “Are you sure? I mean, we kinda began and ended on opposite sides… asking me to take a look at your arm means you are trusting me with your safety. You sure you want to do that?”

“Your anger to me was justified,” Barnes said quietly.

There was a flash of an unidentifiable emotion on Stark’s face before his expression went blank. “Alright, fine. Let’s put it this way: you killed my parents and I tried to kill you. Do you really want me helping you? T’Challa is the one who gave you this arm, and I’m sure he’d very happily send Shuri out here for a few days to take a look at your arm and make whatever repairs-”

“No, it has to be you.”

Loki swallowed hard, trying to process all that he just heard. 

Stark folded his arms over his chest and winced at the movement, but kept his arms at their position. “Give me a reason. Because if our places were reversed, I highly doubt I’d trust the person who unjustly tried to kill me.”

“I killed your parents. You had every right to try to kill me.”

“Nope, I didn’t. You were controlled. You had no choice, Barnes. You just did what they forced you to do. And I took my anger out on the victim, not the source. I was wrong. And if you just want me to help you because you think I might decide to add some pain-inducing elements that I would be ‘justified’ in adding, then hell no, I am not helping you.”

“I still-”

“Do you know what hurt the most about finding out the truth?”

Barnes flinched and shook his head.

Loki watched Stark carefully, wanting to reach out to comfort him, but knowing he couldn’t. The genius still had his arms folded over his chest, looking both defensive and vulnerable at the same time as he shakily breathed out and began his explanation.

“I spent half of my life blaming my dad- my alcoholic, absent, abusive-when-present father- for crashing the car and getting my mom killed. Seeing that video, yeah, I was hurt. Cause I had never once even thought about the possibility that Howard hadn’t caused the crash. And I’m still hurting; and yes, I’m still pretty damn pissed. But not at you, not anymore.”

“But-”

Stark stood, stepping forward until he was only a few feet in front of the startled-looking soldier. “Please, I need to say this,” he requested softly.

After a moment, Barnes nodded at him to continue.

Exhaling shakily, Stark continued fiercely, “I’m mad because organizations like HYDRA existed to capture you and control you and make you kill people. I’m furious because one of my closest friends knew for years that my parents hadn’t died in a simple car crash, but said nothing. So, yeah, I’m still pissed. And I’m still hurt. That was a scab reopened that I had tried so hard to get to heal. And now it’s bleeding again, which sucks. But you're not the reason for my pain. You blame yourself for what you did, but you shouldn’t. To be honest, I forgave you a few months after we fought because I know you are not a murderer- that takes premeditation- and you were captured, tortured, and forced against your will to kill the people that HYDRA targeted. So, there you are. I attacked the victim, I attacked you, because I was angry and hurt and acted on that rage. I was wrong, and I’m sorry for everything I did to you.”

The workshop was silent for many minutes following Stark’s speech.

“I’m sorry too,” Barnes finally murmured, his expression closed off but eyes still expressive of his surprise and relief as he made eye contact with Stark.

Stark choked out a watery laugh. “Great. Now, with all that shit out of the way, care to explain to me where the pain is?”

“His hand,” Loki piped up quietly. “He can’t move his fingers and there’s a stinging sensation up his arm.”

Both Barnes and Stark turned to look at him. “How-”

Loki shrugged. “He kept glancing at his hand. It was easy to figure out, really.”

Barnes shook his head, surprised. “He’s right.”

“I usually am.”

“Ignore him,” Stark to Barnes. “He’s only a sarcastic little shit some of the time. Now, before I begin, truce?” He stuck out his hand.

Barnes eyed his hand suspiciously before slowing extending his hand and shaking Stark’s. “Truce.”

“Alright,” Stark murmured, his voice only slightly rough as he cleared his throat and grabbed a tool from his kit. “Let’s see about giving you some relief from that pain, okay?”

There were few words said as Stark bent over Barnes’s arm and began his repairs- at least, it was quiet until Barnes was standing and testing his newly-fixed arm with awe in his eyes. Loki lowered his book and came to stand next to Stark, patting his shoulder once before murmuring, “I do believe the sergeant is impressed with your work.”

Stark shrugged. “As long as he’s in no pain, I’m happy.” Louder, he asked, “Barnes? How is it? Any discomfort? Difficulties making a fist? Moving your arm? Anything at all?”

Something almost resembling a smile flashed on Barnes’s face as he demonstrated his ability. “It’s perfect,” he said gruffly, but his voice was pleased.

“Good, good. I’m glad. Glad to have been able to help.” Stark groaned, face-palming his forehead. “God, this is pathetic. I sound like I’m about to ask you out!” he complained. “Alright, I’m just going to come out and say it so I don’t make a bigger fool of myself-”

“It is a well-known fact that you are a fool,” Loki interjected, “But continue.”

“Yeah, thanks, love you too, Lokes. Now, Barnes, how do you feel about coming down here tomorrow?”

Both Loki and Barnes frowned at that turn of events. Barnes, in particular, looked confused as he gave Stark a blank look. “Do ya need to fix something else? Because my arm feels fine…”

Stark sniffed. “Of course not. I made all of the necessary repairs already. No, your arm is in tip-top shape until the next time you manage to fry my circuits. Next time, by the way, come the second you start feeling any discomfort, okay? You must have been in agony, which is not acceptable. I’ll gladly help out with anything tech-related, so just stop on by.”

“You are rambling again,” Loki muttered.

“Good God, geez, a guy can’t say anything anymore!” Stark exclaimed, sending Loki an amused yet grateful look before he continued, seriously, “Listen, Barnes. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things have been rough for you since you woke up. And I’m a genius, and I still can’t even imagine what transitioning back to real life has been for you. I know Shuri really helped you- she told me she was teaching you and you were living away from the others for a bit, which seemed to really help you- but that was then. And this is now, where you’ve pretty much been forced to live with Rogers and everyone else. And if you’re anything like me- I’m not trying to insult you, I swear- you probably aren’t Maximoff’s biggest fan. So, tomorrow? Or, any day, anytime, really, the doors to my workshop are open to you. You and you only, I’m afraid, but I don’t think you’d find any relief down here if my enemies were forced to be in my presence, so it’s for the best that if you decide to come down here, you come down here on your own. Okay?”

Barnes nodded, looking baffled. “But-”

“If you’re worried about not being good company or whatnot, don’t. Loki can testify to this because when he first came down here, we didn’t really talk for almost two weeks, and that was before there was a Compound full of people that made him feel uncomfortable.”

“Stark tells the truth. I would appear in his workshop at random intervals with a book, sit on the sofa, and read. It wasn’t until he began pestering me about my magic that we truly spoke for the first time since I had arrived," Loki agreed.

“You were a stubborn ass,” Stark recalled. “Stubborn and a lot quieter than I had remembered you.”

“I could say the same of you,” Loki pointed out.

Stark shrugged at him. “So, Barnes, there’s no pressure if you decide you need a break and want to come down here. You don’t have to talk to us, you don’t have to even acknowledge we are down here. Like I said, no pressure. This place is what you make it, and if you need a mental break away from talking to others upstairs, or just need some time to yourself where you won’t be disturbed- because no one gets in here if I don’t want them to- then this is the place for you. Although I will warn you, Dr. Banner- he’s the Hulk- will often come and assist me with various projects. Rhodey, my best friend, may also make an appearance, and Dr. Strange, AKA my Facial Hair Bro, may occasionally decide to pop in out of nowhere. And, of course, Loki will almost always be down here. Don’t ask me why that is because I couldn’t tell ya. It’s just a fact of the ‘shop- Loki is down here a lot.

Loki made a face. “It’s a mystery to me too, but for some unknown reason, I do quite enjoy being down here.”

“It must be because I’m such awesome company,” Stark smirked. “I’m also sexy as hell, intelligent as fuck, and a wonderful charmer- all of which somehow helped me to sneak my way into your heart and make you love being with me.”

“Is that what it is?”

“It has to be. I’m irresistible.”

“You must be because even Strange has a soft spot for you, and I was certain that mortal was incapable of feeling anything but love for himself,” Loki snapped good-naturedly but with a frown as he remembered his last magical battle with Strange, who had, by some foreign power, been able to overpower Loki and leave him defenseless on the floor. (It was one of the most embarrassing moments of Loki’s long life and he thanked the Norms that Stark had been in a meeting and therefore had not been witness to his loss.)

Barnes cleared his throat, glancing between Loki and Stark. “Are you two dating?”

Stark raised an eyebrow. “Not unless the Asgardian definition of dating is different from ours.”

“Alas, it is not.” Loki sighed, pretending to be saddened by the news. “And we are not dating, Barnes. As it happens, Stark likes to use wit in his conversations with me, and I like to respond with snark. This is a normal conversation for us.”

“In the 40s, we called that flirting. Did that definition change in the time I was held captive?”

Stark clapped his hands, looking thrilled. “Barnes, this is amazing! You’re actually talking to us; this is great! Man, what did we do to deserve this honor?”

Barnes frowned, his expression closing off. “Is that...alright?” he asked hesitantly.

At his question, Loki’s hands clenched into fists and he made a silent promise to himself to look into HYDRA and then personally destroy whatever remained of their forces. Based on Stark’s hurt expression, he knew that Stark felt the same way as him.

“Let’s get one thing straight, okay? Down here, up there with the others, out in the world, your opinion matters. There will be people who will scorn you, or won’t listen to you, or will try to stifle your voice, but you have the right to talk. No one can take that right away from you. And down here with us? You can speak as much or as little as you want. We won’t force you to talk; you talk when you want to. But it will always be okay for you to talk. Got it?”

Barnes lowered his head, exhaling shakily. It took him a moment to regain control of his emotions, Loki figured, but when he did, he lifted his head and nodded silently.

“Good.” Stark managed a weak smile. “See you tomorrow?”

There was a moment’s pause before Barnes nodded his head in confirmation.

“Sleep well,” Stark called as the soldier headed for the door. There was a stutter in Barnes’s step, but the soldier did not stop to acknowledge the statement. Once the doors to the workshop closed, Stark turned to face Loki. “We are protecting him,” he said firmly.

Loki smiled grimly, nodding. “We are,” he agreed. Barnes had time and time again proved to Loki his strong moral character, and Loki had long ago accepted the one-flesh-armed mortal as one of his acquaintances that deserved his protection. And clearly Stark felt the same way as him on that.

With a look of approval at Stark for his words to Barnes, Loki bid him a good night and went up to his quarters. He had a lot to think about, both in regards to Barnes’s struggles and what he had brought up between himself and Stark.

They didn't act as a couple would, did they?

The next morning, Loki was busy sparring magical whip against magical whip with Stark when FRIDAY announced tensely, “Boss, Level 8 in the kitchen. Sergeant Barnes appears to be in distress and I believe he may be on the way down here.”

Loki glanced at Stark, saying firmly, “Drop.” The blue-and-green streaks of light dimmed immediately, and they both wasted no time in heading for the door. They were halfway up the stairs when Barnes appeared in their line of sight, many of the Rogues following closely behind him. 

At the sight of the other team, both parties halted and stared at each other.

Stark was the first one to speak. “Is there a problem here?”

“Actually, there is. Bucky told me that-”

“James,” Barnes interjected.

The captain sighed as if they had had this conversation many times. “James told me that you fixed his arm, Tony. I had some... concerns and-”

“Concerns?” 

The Captain flushed. “Well, he told me it was late when he asked you for help, so I worried that maybe you were tired and may have-”

“Done what, Captain?” Stark’s voice was hard. “Tampered with the wiring? Rigged his arm to explode? Caused a short-circuit to cause him severe pain? What exactly do you think I did?”

Silence followed his words. Loki noticed how the Captain wouldn’t meet Stark’s eyes and scowled. Foolish mortal.

Stark clenched his hands into fists. “Think what you will of me, but his arm hasn’t killed him in months, so if I were you, I wouldn’t worry about the repairs I just made.”

“Hasn’t kill him in ‘months’? Are you saying you made that arm? You fucking liar, Shuri made that arm!” Barton exclaimed.

“Oh, no, she merely gave it a few upgrades here and there. You see, I flew out to Wakanda about four months before Barnes made the decision to have an arm made for him, and she and I decided that a Wakandan-suited arm would be a bit too powerful to get used to after something so primitive. So, I spent a month on the schematics, made the arm, and sent it and the plans to Shuri, who built the arm herself to make sure I was honest before she added the reinforcements to it that I couldn’t provide on my end. I’m not quite sure if she gave you my arm or her’s, but the designs were mine through and through.” Stark blinked, suddenly going pale at the realization of what he had just admitted. “Oh, fuck,” he swore under his breath.

“Shuri told me the truth,” Barnes admitted, and from Stark’s surprised expression, Loki realized the man had no idea that Barnes had known the arm he wore wasn’t Wakandan-made. “I spent the most time with her, so I watched her go over the plans and make the new arm.” He shrugged. “The schematics weren’t anywhere near as advanced as her other plans... She actually explained the truth to me before I had the chance to ask. It was weeks before I felt comfortable enough to wear the arm, but I knew it was Stark’s creation when I first put it on.”

“Buck...you told me you had asked for something simple when Shuri was designing. You lied to me.” The Captain sounded betrayed.

“I’m a grown-ass adult, punk. I can make my own decisions.”

“This is Stark we are talking about! How can you -”

“Shuri adores him!” Barnes roared. “Part of what she taught me was about the ‘Tony’ she knew so I would know the ‘real Stark and not the one everyone claims he is’.” He turned to face Stark. “She adores you. You didn’t care that Shuri was smarter than you. You just asked her questions and praised her intelligence. She felt appreciated, important. I saw the footage she recorded; I know who the real Tony Stark is. And I think I’m capable of making my own decisions about what is best for me. ‘N right now? I think I want to be left alone.”

The stairway was silent as Barnes made his way down the stairs. When he got to Stark’s side, he paused, but when Stark met his eyes and nodded slightly, Barnes continued on the way down to the workshop. Once the doors closed behind him, tempers flared.

“This is your fault,” the Captain said boldly, stepping down a stair as he glared at Stark. “I don’t know what you told him last night, what kind of trap you guilt-tripped him into, but that is not the Bucky I know. The Bucky I know would never-”

“Never what? Never accept the apology of another and forgive him? First of all, can you even claim to know him? He told you to call him James, but you’re still calling him Bucky. Is it James you know, or the Bucky Barnes from the 40s when you both were fighting side by side together? If you ask me, the latter seems more likely,” Stark snapped.

“Oh, come off it, Stark. It’s you! I wouldn’t put it past you to have fed him lies about how your actions against him were all his fault and how he deserved it! But you’re the one who deserved to be tortured and brainwashed because we all know you're the real monster! You’re nothing but a murderer!” the Witch yelled.

Loki stepped forward, seething. “Your lack of intelligence is frightening,” he said quietly. “You blame Stark for manufacturing the weapons designed to protect his country’s warriors-- weapons that were illegally sold behind his back. Following your logic of creator equals killer, would you then blame a blacksmith for every murder caused by a knife?”

The Witch sputtered, clearly at a loss as to what to say.

Stark was the next one to speak. “I hope, for all our sakes, that we are not called to Assemble,” he said gravely. “Because we all have been to the team meetings and training sessions, and we all know that when it comes down to fight, we will not be fighting as a team, but as a broken fragment of something that was once whole.” He turned around and went down the stairs, disappearing into his workshop.

Loki turned back to face the Rogues assembled in front of him. “Your T’Challa may have housed you, for he understood your reasoning behind protecting Sergeant Barnes, but both himself and his sister have visited this Compound many times. Come time to fight, you will be on your own if you do not listen to what Stark says. He was chosen as our leader for a great number of reasons, and you would be foolish to ignore Stark’s direction in combat.”

He had just made it to the door when the Witch’s voice filled the stairwell. “You are always standing up for him. God, you’re just as heartless as he is!”

Grinning, Loki turned to look at her. “My dear Witch, you have no idea how heartless I can be,” he threatened before he entered the workshop.

He found Stark and Barnes in opposite ends of the workshop, both of them looking unbearably tense in their respective positions. Barnes was sat on the sofa and Stark was standing by his desk with Dum-E happily chirping away at his side with a clear intent to make his creator feel better.

Loki struggled to come up with something to say, something that would bring distraction to them both from their thoughts, and finally murmured, “Barnes, have we introduced you to Dum-E and U?”

At Barnes’s slight shake of the head, Loki grinned. “If you are going to be down here, you’re going to have to know who to avoid.”

From across the room, Stark gasped and made a move as if to cover Dum-E’s non-existent ears. “Loki! He can hear you! Be respectful!”

On the sofa, Barnes shifted his position so he could see the bot in question. A small smile appeared on his face at the sight of the robot, and upon seeing his expression, Stark made his way over to the sofa with Dum-E trailing closely after him.

Plopping onto the sofa, Stark’s eyes shone as he said proudly, “Barnes, meet my pride and joy, my very first AI, Dum-E Stark. Dum-E, this is Sergeant James Barnes. I know he has a metal arm, but he is not like yourself and U. Got it? No rough-housing."

Dum-E chirped, curiously tapped Barnes’s metal arm with his own, and then flew off into the corner of his room.

Stark stared, narrow-eyed, after Dum-E’s disappearing figure. “He’ll be back,” he informed Barnes. “I think he’ll ask you to play with him when he returns- feel free to turn him down. Just avoid his puppy eyes afterward, because he will try to guilt-trip you into playing with him.” 

Barnes struggled not to smile, looking amused. “What will he make me play?”

“Fetch,” Stark said very seriously. At Barnes’s raised eyebrow, he raised his hands. “I swear, it’s true! He has this tennis ball- don’t you dare look at me like that, he does- and he’ll pester you and whine until you throw the damn thing so he can chase it.”

Loki sighed. “I remember when he made me do that with him. I absolutely could not concentrate on my reading because he was being so loud! As a result, I was forced to play with him for a week before he grew tired of me and moved onto bothering Stark with that infernal ball.”

As if on cue, Dum-E approached Barnes’s side with the faded tennis ball held safely in his claw. He then used his arm to tap Barnes’s arm, who startled slightly at the touch before he gave a crooked smile at the sight of the bot at his side ready to play.

Stark leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. “Have fun, Barnes. Trust me, this will be your life for the next several days, if not weeks, so you better get used to playing with him or you’ll be bored to tears.”

Barnes’s eyes were bright as he took in the sight of the workshop and all that came with being in it. “I think I’m okay with that,” he admitted, and taking the ball from Dum-E, threw it for the bot to chase.

Dum-E’s ecstatic chirp made them all laugh as the bot happily trailed after the ball. Loki watched Barnes and Dum-E play for a few minutes before he took a seat beside Stark, patting his arm briefly as he sat down. At his touch, Stark opened his eyes. He looked worn and there was a tension about him that told Loki the argument in the stairwell had upset him.  

“Alright?” Loki asked quietly.

“Fucking peachy,” Stark snorted. He shook his head ruefully. “I’ll be fine. Just allowed them to get to me, as usual.”

“You seem worried.”

“When am I not worried?” Stark countered. At Loki’s look, he sighed. “Look, we both know that this purple, disgusting, ugly excuse for a Barney is coming, right? And so far we’ve been lucky; we haven’t been called to battle yet. But you’ve seen how the trainings have gone. When it comes down to fight, and I’m not even talking about aliens, just robots or human baddies in general, we will not be ready. Because Team Cap will not listen to me, and it’ll be Them versus Us versus the Bad Guys. And someone is going to get hurt, seriously hurt, because of my inadequate leadership and everyone’s fucking inability to get along!”

“Even when the council re-voted after the Rogues’ return, you still were elected as leader. Surely, that has to count for-”

“I won by a few votes. They won’t listen to me. They never have- and that was when we were ‘friends’- so why would they listen to me now when they would all love nothing more than to see me lying dead in a ditch somewhere?”

Loki’s eyes flashed angrily. “Do not say that!”

“I’ll say whatever I want to!”

“It’s lies!”

“It’s the truth!” Stark bit his lip, looking away. “It’s the truth,” he whispered, sounding resigned. “They hate me. I mean nothing to them.”

Loki closed his eyes briefly. “When it comes down to fight, I will protect you,” he swore quietly. 

“I’m not worried about my own well-being. It’s the others that I’m concerned about.”

“Of which I am fully aware, which is why I inform you now that I care about you enough for the two of us.”

Stark blinked. “Oh. I didn’t- that’s- that’s good of you.”

Loki managed a small smile. “Quite,” he agreed. He allowed a minute to pass before he asked, “Shall we continue our lesson?”

“Might as well,” Stark groaned, rising to his feet. “Hey, Buckaroo, is it alright with you if Reindeer and I do some sparring?”

There was a delay, but Barnes eventually replied, “Just don’t interfere with Dum-E and me.”

Stark grinned. “You gotcha, soldier." 

The call to assemble came eighteen minutes later. And with the call came the end of everything good that Loki had foolishly grown attached to.

There would be no going back to his life before The Battle.

 

In the beginning, it almost seemed as if everything would go smoothly. Loki knew he was foolish for even allowing such a thought to cross his mind, but he had so desperately hoped that the battle would go without major injury and without substantial incident.

He had been delirious to ever allow such hope to enter his mind.

If there was any comfort to be found in his error, at least he was not the only one who had been foolish. They all had been foolishly naive and hoping for a battle that went smoothly.

After receiving the call to assemble, Loki, Stark, and Barnes joined the others in the Common Room to receive their debriefing. The message from the Committee was short but to the point: something called ‘Doombots’ was ravaging eastern Manhattan, and they were being called to assemble due to a concert that had been going on nearby. The objective was to stop the doctor named Doom with as few casualties as possible.  

It was a simple outline, but the worst details came only moments later. General Ross announced that due to the number of civilians at risk, the Witch must regain her full capabilities once on location. The news was as frustrating as it was worrying, and as soon as Loki caught sight of the triumphant expression that appeared on the Witch’s face at his words, he knew he would need to keep a close eye on Stark.

The news piled up after that. For the same reasons why the Witch was being deployed, Dr. Banner was forced to remain on stand-by so he could be called into action only if the situation warranted it. Dr. Strange was out of town and they had been unsuccessful in their efforts to reach him, and although Ross had hope that they would establish contact him within the hour, they were activating Vision from his quarters to assist in the battle.

The look of joy that passed the Witch’s face at that news was almost startling to Loki. Clearly, there were feelings there that Loki knew nothing of.

Stark was detailed as the commander of the team, and each Avenger was given strict orders to obey his directive. All of this was told to them in under a minute and then, suited up already, everyone separated for their respective course of travel to get to the scene of action.

Loki teleported and was the first to arrive, having received stern orders to both stay alive and to scout out for any important factors that stood out to him about the bots. Stark arrived several minutes later with the Falcon arriving a few minutes after him.

“How many?” Stark called through the Communication Device each team member wore.

“I’ve counted several dozen, and I’m disappointed to say that so far, I have not noticed a pattern in their methods of attack,” Loki said tensely, assisting mortals to safety whilst keeping the doombots away from the people.

“Each bot has their own mind to think,” Stark murmured. “Fucking fantastic. Falcon, you and I are going to stay on perimeter control, got it? Half a mile to a mile radius from the center is our border. Barton, when you arrive, I want you on top of the first building you see. Call out anything you think is important: positions, timing, patterns, weaknesses in the armor, trailing or escaping bots. Romanov, Barnes, Rogers? I want the three of you on the ground. Have each other’s six and maintain both crowd control and stopping these bastards.”

“Whadda about me, Stark?”

“You shrink or supersize whatever you need to in order to stop these things, but do it carefully. Got it, Lang? No unnecessary risks with your own size or the places you go. You’ve got a daughter to come home safe and sound to. Maximoff, stay close to home on this one. Protect any civilians you see from doombots. We have a hospital, concert hall, and art museum all nearby and these bots cannot get to them.”

“Am I to use my lightning, Commander Tony?”

Someone snorted into the Communicator.

Stark ignored the noise and said, “That’s the plan, Point Break. Loki and Vision- when he arrives- will be working together to formulate a plan of attack while assisting the others. If anyone else has a concern, now’s the time to speak up.”

The communicator was concerningly silent, but there was no time to worry about that. The Carrier hovered close to the ground and the other Avengers, stone-faced and determined, joined the fight.

And for nearly two hours, it went without a major injury, without a major problem, and even without a major conflict between teammates. And then that transitioned into Hel.

The battle was as hard as it was long, Loki discovered grimly. Some bots duplicated, whilst others would spontaneously explode, whilst others would have only a small notch in the armour where they could be destroyed. The technology was agonizingly advanced, but for every advancement that had been made, Stark found a flaw and pointed out to the team how to counter each type of bot.

Loki was almost certain that it was down to Stark’s talent of technology and engineering that no one had been seriously injured on the team. The trio of Barnes, Rogers, and Romanov worked as a flawless group, seamlessly assisting one another whilst still having each other’s back. They were efficient, and even Loki was impressed by their productivity.

The Communicator stayed mostly silent besides the occasional order, well-being check, or offered advice, but all that changed in a matter of seconds that would drastically change the course of the battle. Loki had just cleared his quadrant of Doombots when there was a startled cry that came over the Communicator.

“Dr. Banner?” Loki questioned, jogging down the street as he headed for where he knew the Carrier was hidden away.

“He fell, he fell, God...he’s down-” Banner panted into the Communicator. He sounded as if he were on the verge of panicking. 

“Who fell?” Rogers demanded as Barnes snapped, “You’re not in the Carrier, Banner. Where are you?”

Frightful silence filled the Communicator. Vision queried, “Doctor?” but was met with silence.

And then the entire battle was momentarily stilled as an anguished bellow shattered the silence of the Communicator. “Tiny Lab Friend!”

The roar that filled the air after that cry left no question of who had been hurt. Loki had never run faster in his life. They could all hear the Hulk ravaging the city, but with Banner having less control over the Hulk than he previously had, the doctor did not resurface to help his friend. It was up to someone else- it was up to him- to locate Stark and make sure his wounds were not life-threatening.

But as Loki listened to Barnes and Vision both anxiously demand for Stark to answer them over the Communicator, only to receive no response, he knew that Stark was not without grave injury.

Loki was the one who found him. The Iron Man armor was facedown on the ground and as Loki approached, he could see no signs of life. It was suddenly the gas station all over again with Stark lying motionless on the ground…

When Stark still did not answer to his cries, Loki covered the distance between them in a matter of moments and dropped to his knees beside the Iron Man-sized divet in the ground. He was unsure if he should move Stark in case he had suffered a spinal injury in his fall, but they were in the middle of battle. He needed to get Stark to safety...

A flicker of awareness sparked through Loki and he subconsciously threw up a Safety Shield just as an approaching Doombot exploded. Turning slightly, Loki looked up to see a pack of a dozen bots headed straight for him and Stark. His mind whirled with frantic thoughts. He could try to move Stark out of harm’s way, but with so many bots approaching, it wasn’t advisable.

“Come on, Stark, wake up,” Loki murmured as he countered the bots with his magic. But for each one he destroyed, another appeared, as if they were being directed to their position. Loki rose to his feet in front of the downed Avenger and held his Shield with one hand as he used his other hand to take down as many bots as he was able.

His back was to Stark, his attention solely on keeping the Doombots from getting to his friend when he first felt the cold, stinging sensation of the Witch’s cruel powers seep over his mind. Loki winced, his shield wavering as his magic tried to combat her powers whilst still keeping the curious Doombots from getting to Stark, who had made a weak attempt to move before going still again.

“You cost me everything I care about,” the Witch’s furious voice hissed in Loki’s ear. “My parents died because of Stark and you stopped me from getting my revenge. You will pay for that.”

Her powers crept into the corners of his vision, and Loki grimaced as the first recalls of Odin confessing about his true heritage slipped into his mind. He knew he could easily overcome her hold on his mind if he simply focused, but if he were to do so, the doombots that were edging closer to Stark would surely get to him. No, Stark was clearly weakened from whatever wounds he had suffered when he had been knocked out of the sky, and Loki would not endanger him further by allowing his shield to drop. He had to keep Stark safe.

“You have no idea what it is like to lose your parents as a child. I have spent every waking day since then trying to serve justice to the man that killed my parents,” the Witch snapped. “And you stood in my way of stopping Stark once and for all. If I can’t get my revenge on him, I will get it on you!”

Loki closed his eyes as Odin’s disappointed face floated across his mind. “Killing him will not bring your parents back,” he said weakly. “I have informed you already that it was not Anthony whose actions led to your parents’ end of life. It was Stane, who sold the weapons to HYDRA, who unleashed them on your town.”

“Lo-ki?” came a weak voice, and Loki blinked his eyes open to see a wobbly-looking Stark on his feet. The armor stopped Loki from seeing the true extent of the damage, but-

“You are lying,” the Witch hissed furiously, subconsciously strengthening her hold on him.

-But Stark was alive. He would be okay.

Loki closed his eyes and allowed his shield to fall. But it was too late to stop her assault. His magic was able to counter her powers for a moment, but he was already greatly weakened, and her powers easily overthrew his own, leaving his mind vulnerable and under her control.

Just before the Witch’s powers took his mind hostage, Loki heard Anthony scream his name in terror.

And he was submerged.

“Tell us another story!” Loki begged, eager to avoid sleep for as long as possible by listening to the sweet sounds of their mother’s voice.

Frigga smiled fondly, shaking her head as she rolled her eyes at him. “I have already told three stories tonight, my darling. Aren’t you both getting bored of the sound of my voice?”

“Never, mother! We love listening to you!” Thor answered cheerfully.

She sent him a knowing look. “Only when I tell you a story,” she pointed out. “The two of you have a habit of becoming hard of hearing when I am scolding you.”

Thor made an attempt to look chagrined before he exclaimed, “Read another story, mother, please!”

"How about I tell you a story instead?”

Loki sat up a little taller in his bed, already listening intently.

“This story is about the Frost Giants-”

“Mother, you always tell us about the Frost Giants,” Loki complained. “Why must we hear about them so often?”

The smile fell from Frigga’s face. “Because, my love, the Frost Giants are not a kind people. As my children, and as heirs to the throne, is it important for the two of you to know who your enemies are.”

“Why can we not just speak with them and make peace?” Loki questioned.

Frigga brushed back the hair from his forehead. Her eyes seemed sad, he thought. “I wish it were that easy, Loki, but the Frost Giants are a cruel nation. They do not believe in peace. They have fought us many times and tried to bring an eternal darkness to Asgard. Your father has tried on many occasions to establish relations between us and Jotunheim, but they refuse his contact.”

“One day, I shall fight them with my bare hands and kill them all for disrespecting Father!” Thor announced.

Frigga gave a weak smile. “That may prove to be for the best, Thor. Now, it is time for the lights to go out and for my sons to get their rest.”

“Goodnight, mother,” they chorused.

“Goodnight, my sons. I love both of you.”

… It was the question that would haunt Loki for the years to come. And for every day, every waking moment, for the rest of his life.

Did Frigga and Odin ever truly consider him as one of their children?

Was he even worthy of being called their adoptive child, considering his heritage?

Loki did not think so.

After all, he was one of the monsters Frigga had told him and Thor on so many nights when they were children.

He was a monster.

The screaming rage that burned through Loki was all that he could comprehend when he was released from the Witch’s clutches. He vaguely made note of Stark standing above him, his safety shield firmly in place despite his clear struggle to continue his protection against the Witch, but nothing else registered as Loki crawled to his feet.

“Loki, thank God, are you hurt? Are you alright?” Stark rambled, glancing at him as he stood, but never once allowing his shield to waver.

Loki looked around. The fight was coming to a close against the Doombots, but his battle was just beginning. “Drop,” he said calmly.

Stark looked at him. Loki stared back at him, seething, hurting, and seeking his revenge.

“If she wants to kill me, let her try. Let her see how weak she is in comparison to myself.”

Off in the distance, there was an explosion, followed by the Captain’s loud voice in their Communicator, “Stark! Bucky’s trapped; I need help!”

Stark hesitated for only a moment, then dropped his shield and took to the sky. Loki stared down at the Witch who had made her fatal error in attacking him.

“You may start,” Loki said quietly.

With a scream of anger, the Witch’s magic was released. She threw item after item at him, all of which Loki either avoided or countered with his own items thrown at her. The sounds of the battle fell away as Loki directed all of his attention to stopping the Witch. Nothing else mattered except stopping her.

“Admit that your precious boyfriend is a murderer!” the Witch screamed.

Loki deflected her blast with a one-handed shield and casually threw a spell at her. She tumbled to the ground and he towered over her. “He is a warrior, a hero, on this planet you call home. You fight only for yourself so you may fulfill the rage-fueled ambitions that have fogged your sense of simple thinking.”

She screeched, but could not break his hold. “Stark could do this too, if he were here,” Loki informed her quietly. “I have taught him all of this and more, so he may protect himself from enemies like yourself who are foolish enough to attack him.”

For a moment, the Witch stopped struggling. A look of disgust crossed her face. “That’s why you are fighting me? Because I attacked Stark?”

“I will fight you in a moment for what you did to me, and when I do, you will lose. However, in this space of time, I fight the battle Stark cannot because he is assisting his teammates.”

“I did nothing to him,” the Witch hissed.

Loki could feel her hatred for Stark without even trying, and it was overwhelming the passion she felt solely to torture and murder another human being. It was wrong. “You repeatedly went into his mind to cause him to recall his worst fears and memories.” He paused to lift her into the air and throw her across the street. “You caused Stark to have an anxiety attack and to feel unsafe in his own home- a place you had no place residing in.” The Witch tried to get into his mind, but his anger was too strong for her powers to break. “And today you used your powers to knock him out of the sky. It is because of you that he fell and is injured.”

She was defenseless and he threw her to the ground, leaning over her to wrap his hand around her throat. “You did more than ‘nothing’ to him, Witch. You took an already hurting man and tried to make him destroy himself. This is the end of your reign of power. I will not allow-”

A bolt touched him in the side, and Loki flew through the air. He landed on his feet and glared at the Vision, who was kneeling at the Witch’s side and helping her to her feet.

“I cannot allow you to kill her,” Vision said quietly before Loki could demand an explanation.

“She is the reason Stark fell,” Loki raged. “She looked into my head; she deserves to be punished!”

“I cannot allow you to kill her,” Vision repeated. “I share your desires to see her punished for her crimes, but killing her is not the answer to the problem.”

“Vis?” the Witch’s weak voice murmured.

Loki saw Vision look over at the woman he had once cared for. The pieces fell into place just a fraction of a second before the Witch’s left hand was colored red.

“What did she do to him?”

“Dropped him through every floor in the Compound.”

“Vision, look out!” Loki cried out.

With his defenses down, Vision was startled and easily overpowered, and Loki, helpless to stop her in the one moment he had, watched as Vision was thrown ruthlessly into the concrete wall of a building. His contact with the wall left a gaping hole, and Loki could see no more of where he went or what had happened to him.

Tears were streaming down the Witch’s cheeks as she gazed sadly at the Vision-shaped hole in the wall. “I didn’t mean to hurt him!” she cried.

Loki snorted. “Witch, you always mean to hurt someone.”

She shrieked at his comment, spinning around to grab and throw a car at him. Loki used his own powers to throw a car at hers, and there was an explosion as the two gas-filled automobiles collided in midair.

Their respective powers shielded them from the blast but did nothing to stop the smoke from the explosion from polluting the air and clouding their vision.

Lowering his shield briefly, Loki braved the smoke as he used his magic to locate where the Witch was. He could feel her moving, and then a feeling of darkness- not dissimilar to the last time she had stunned him- crept over his mind.

Loki combated with a blast of his magic, but she deflected.

“Barnes killed Stark’s parents. Yet, Stark has forgiven him. So, why can you not forgive Stark for the actions he was not even responsible for?” Loki yelled.

“HE KILLED MY PARENTS!” the Witch screamed, and the energy spike due to her anger caused the full strength of her powers to be released on Loki.

Stark laid on the ground, bloodied, unmoving, dying…

Loki could hardly breathe as he approached. He wasn’t sure he wanted to, when Stark laid, dying, in front of him.

As he knelt at Stark’s side, brown eyes, usually warm but were now betrayed, flickered up to meet his own. “Why- did you leave?” he struggled to ask, blood staining his teeth. He gave a weak cough, and Loki could hear the gurgle of blood rattling in his lungs.  

“I- I didn’t know,” Loki whispered. “I didn’t know you were walking into danger- I wouldn’t have left…”

“I’m going to die,” Stark informed him, sounding resigned to his fate. His eyes closed.

Loki gasped, strangled, and reached for a pulse. “No, Anthony, please-”

Stark’s eyes opened. “It’s your fault, you know. You’re a monster, and that’s why you left me.”

Tears stung Loki’s eyes. “No, I would die before intentionally hurting you. Anthony, you must believe me, please-”

But he was dead.

No!” Loki bellowed, anguished, and his magic slammed the Witch with the full force of all his grief. She flew back several feet, and Loki charged after her, his restraint gone and revenge the only thought left occupying his mind. “You went into my head!”

“You stopped me from giving Stark what he deserves!” she screamed.

“Stark didn’t fire that missile at your town. HYDRA did. Why do you blame the innocent when you know- I know you do- that the organization you willingly joined is responsible for your parents’ death? Are you too afraid to admit to yourself that I am right and that you happily signed up to be in the very same organization that got your parents killed?” Loki sneered. “You are pathetic.” His magic rained down on her again, further weakening her to prevent any attempts at attacking his mind again.

“You are defending a monster!”

Loki’s voice was deadly calm as he answered, “I am stopping a monster.”

The Witch shrieked in fury, and with her anger, a final siege of power swept through her. The power bubbled out of her uncontrollably, and Loki managed to throw up a shield before her magic assaulted everything in a quarter-mile radius.

When Loki stood, the Witch was advancing at him from down the street. She took one look at him and gasped, going deadly pale. Cold fear gripped Loki and when he looked down at himself, his greatest disgust was proven true. Her blast had wiped away his shield, leaving his Asgardian form gone, and his Jotun form in its place.

“What are you?” the Witch yelled, her eyes wide with panic. “You- you, you’re blue! Oh my God, what the hell?”

“You made me transform!” Loki raged. A dagger and a spear appeared in his hands.

The Witch backed away from him looking, for the first time, terrified.  

“You went into my head and you forced my true self to be revealed. This is what you wanted, was it not? To hurt me?” Loki was trembling with barely restrained fury as he advanced. “You succeeded, Witch, you did exactly what you came here to do.”

“You’re a freak!” the Witch spat, bold even in her darkest moment.

Loki grinned at her, his eyes red and devilishly promising of pain. “I know.” He flicked his wrist and his magic threw the Witch to the ground, pinning her down. Loki raised his hand, his magic sizzling and ready to fire. This time, he would not hesitate.

“Loki, no!”

The cry of his name was familiar, and Loki glanced away from the Witch, only to be knocked to the ground from the side. Immediately, Loki tried to get up but found himself pinned to the ground by Stark, who was sprawled out over him, breathing heavily.

Loki hesitated to move at the pain he could hear in Stark’s raspy breathing. “Are you...alright?” he asked carefully.

“Fine,” Stark gasped. The faceplate snapped open, revealing warm brown eyes that gazed down at him both with understanding and worry. “You?”

“I'll be fine once you get off me.”

“Only if you give me your word not to hurt Maximoff because it really looked like you were going to kill her when I was approaching.”

Loki stared at him, for a moment wondering if his Asgardian form had resurfaced. Stark was looking at him with nothing but the concern a friend would show, as if he didn't see (or care) that Loki’s face was blue and his eyes were red.

“Do you not see?” Loki murmured.

Stark blinked. “Um, see what? Sorry, you're going to have to help me out here, this concussion is killing my head, can't really think-”

Loki caught sight a bolt of red in the air and flinched, in one movement rolling them over so he could shield Stark with his body if his shield didn't hold…

It did.

Loki got to his feet and looked around, quickly spotting the Witch and sealing her powers with his new-found strength. There was a scream as the Witch realized her powers were gone, and Loki laughed.

“You should have run away when Stark stopped me from killing you,” Loki snapped, his two forms working together to create a storm of magic that would end the Witch once and for all.

From behind him, there was an odd noise, but one that Loki chose to ignore as he threw his magic at the Witch.

His green blast halted halfway to her frozen figure and Loki gaped, betrayed, as Stark appeared from his side to stand between him and the Witch.

“Step aside,” Loki said calmly, his voice carefully even despite the hurt and anger that consumed every ounce of his being.

“If I do that, you’ll kill her.” Stark shook his head. “I can't let you do that.”

“She deserves what comes to her.” Loki was trembling. “Look at me, Stark. Look at what I am. She made me reveal the monster that I am. And she went into my head. You, of all people, should know what that is like!”

“I do! But Lokes, I can’t let you kill her.”

“Then fly away and you won’t have any part in this.”

“Don’t you see? This is what she wants! She wants you to retaliate so you will get thrown in jail. She’s already going away for the rest of her life; don’t let her give you the same fate!”

“She forced me to reveal my true self,” Loki whispered, shaking. “She cannot get away with that.”

“She won’t, Loki, I promise, she’ll serve her time.” Stark’s eyes were sparkling with what Loki thought might be tears. “Please, don't do this. I promise you, you will regret-”

“I will feel no regret in taking her life after what she-”

“Brother!”

“Stay back!” Loki warned, his magic cackling in the air as his anger intensified. “Do not try to stop me, Thor, she deserves my punishment after what she did to me! I will only fight you if you try to take her away before I serve my punishment!”

Around them, the Rogues and the other Avengers appeared, battle-worn but still ready to fight if need be. Loki laughed at them. “You cannot touch me. Try as you will but my magic will not allow a single bullet, knife, arrow, or shield to touch me.”

“Loki, look at me,” Stark requested quietly.

Loki glanced at him, then looked away. “You do not need to look at a creature like myself. Say what you wish whilst I allow you.”

“If you kill her, you will go to jail. She will get away with going into Romanov’s mind, into Roger’s, into Bruce’s, Thor’s, mine, yours… Will justice be served if you are forced to pay for ending her life?”

“You should understand where I am coming from!” Loki cried out. “She tortured you many times; why do you take her side?”

“I tried to kill the man who was forced to kill my parents against his will. Even if you would be killing someone who deserves it, you would feel bad about it later. I know you would and I don’t want you to have to experience the same guilt and sorrow as I do. Please, Loki, let her be taken away to spend the rest of her life in jail. She isn’t worth you losing your life over.”

“This is your last warning, Stark. Step aside.”

There was a soft click, and Stark’s armor fell to the ground. Loki gasped as Stark stood, defenseless, in between Loki and the Witch.

“If you are going to get to her, you are going to have to go through me,” Stark said quietly, sadly, as he lifted his right arm and allowed his magic to surface.

A single tear slipped down Loki’s cheek. “I am sorry,” he whispered, and unleashed his magic.

The collision of their powers knocked Stark back several feet, but his shield never wavered. His resolve to keep Loki from doing something he would only later regret being what kept his magic strong and powerful. Loki watched as his brother grabbed the Witch from behind Stark and carried her to where operatives were standing by to take her into custody. She was too weak to defend herself without her magic, and agony tore through Loki as she escaped from his clutches.

His magic faded away and he dropped to his knees; the fight and will in him completely gone. In a matter of seconds, Stark was at his side and wrapping his arms around him. “I’ve got you,” Stark whispered over and over, stroking his hand down Loki’s back. “You’ll be okay, I promise.”

Loki lowered his head to Stark’s shoulder and cried. He no longer cared who saw him break down; his life was ruined as it was.

And nothing would ever be the same. 

Chapter Text

The dip in weight on his bed was what alerted Loki that he was not alone anymore. Sighing, Loki turned away to face the window. He had not been hiding in his bedroom to remain alone for the better part of three days only to have a companion now. Even if the company was not exactly unwanted, he did not deserve the comfort and support Stark would offer. “Leave me alone, Stark. I do not want the company.”

“Nope, not happening, and frankly, that's enough moping outta you. This has gone on far enough and I think it's about time you rejoin the real world. You need some fresh air. Being trapped in your own thoughts will do you no good, trust me, I know.”

“You dare tell me no?” Loki grew angry. “I told you to leave me, now do so before I make you!”

“Why would I leave you when you clearly don’t want to be alone?”

“I just said-”

“You gave me some B.S. line about not wanting company, yeah, I heard. Come on, Lokes, it’s me. You don’t have to hide from me.”

“I am not hiding,” Loki said sharply. “If I were, you wouldn’t have found me.”

“Fine, not hiding. But you are avoiding me.”

Loki lowered his head, at that. “Perhaps,” he admitted.

“Why?”

“Because you should not be with me.”

Stark sighed. “Do you have a reason to support this claim of yours? Which is ridiculous, by the way. I’m your friend. Where else should I be but at your side?”

“Preparing a firing squad,” Loki said bitterly.

“They’ll find her guilty, Lokes, I promise. Everyone’s already testified; the Committee will make the right call. Give them a day or two and they’ll-”

“I was not referring to her,” Loki interrupted before Stark could say any more on the subject.

“I figured you weren't. Look, she attacked you, you defended yourself. You didn’t do anything that wasn’t warranted given the circumstances. You don’t deserve to be punished simply because you protected yourself.”

“I am a monster!” Loki said harshly. “You saw me, Stark. Tell me, why should a monster like myself be allowed to live? To be happy? To love? I am nothing more than-”

“You are not a monster,” Stark said firmly, and there was such conviction in his words that Loki almost became choked up with raw emotion.

“You know not of what you say,” Loki whispered. “I am not of Asgardian blood; the race I am from is one of monsters and-”

“Shut up.”

Loki glared at him as he fell silent. Stark rose to his knees, kneeling on the bed as he stared unwaveringly at him. “Show me.”

Loki blinked. “Beg pardon?”

Show me,” Stark repeated. “Show me your Jotun form. I want to see.”

“You have already seen it before.” Loki turned his head away. “You need not see it again.”

“Why? Do you think that I can’t handle seeing your face blue? Do you think I will be disgusted?" There was a pause. "Did you think I was the first time I saw you in your true form? Tell me.”

Loki closed his eyes. “No.”

“Tell me!” Stark said sharply. “Tell me that I looked at you in a way that made you think I saw you as a monster and I will walk out those doors right now and leave you alone!”

No.”

“Tell me! Tell me I looked at you with disrespect or disgust and I will leave-”

“You didn’t!” Loki yelled. He closed his eyes as a tear escaped and trailed down his cheek. “You looked at me no differently than you would had I been in my Asgardian form.”

“Okay.” Loki felt as Stark shifted his position, moving a small amount closer. “Good. Loki?”

“What do you want now?”

“One day, I want you to be able to show me your true form without feeling that you are any lesser of a person because of who you really are.”

“That day is a long way away.” Loki looked away, staring at the wall. “It may never come.”

“I am willing to help you find that day if you’ll let me.”

Loki glanced at his friend before looking down at the floor. “Why would you possibly want to help me?”

“Do you remember-”

“Probably,” Loki muttered, refusing to look up.

He heard a huff of laughter from the man kneeling beside him. “Anyway,” Stark began pointedly, “Do you remember what you said to me after Team Asshole first arrived?”

Loki lifted his head slightly so he could glance at Stark. Impossibly warm eyes met his own, and he was forced to swallow hard and look away from the gaze that held so much kindness and care. “‘I will protect you’,” he whispered.

“And what reason did you have for saying that?”

“You remember.”

“Yes, but I want you to tell me.”

Loki sighed. “I protect what is mine. You are my friend, which makes you mine, and that is why I promised to protect you.”

“There you are.”

"I don't follow," Loki murmured.

“What?”

“That’s why I want to help you. Because you are my friend and I care about you.”

There was a lump in Loki’s throat as he responded quietly, “You are a fool to care about me.”

“Nope, genius here. If you said I was a fool for not caring about you, I’d agree with you, but you didn’t, so I’m sorry but it's my duty to inform you that you are wrong. Caring about you and being considered your friend...that makes me pretty damn lucky, I think.”

“Your crush on me is showing,” Loki grumbled. “I have never seen you this open about your emotions before.”

“It’s working, though, isn’t it? You’re not making me leave, so if being honest with you is what’s going to make you allow me to be here for you… well, you better get used to my cheesy, sappy speeches.”

Loki struggled not to change his expression. “You are-”

“Fucking amazing? Yes, I know.”

This time, Loki was helpless to stop himself from smiling. It was hard not to when Stark was around. “I was going to say of your own kind, but I suppose amazing would suit you as well.”

“Yes!” Stark cheered, making a fist pump. His expression changed for a moment as a wince overtook his features, but it was quickly wiped away before Loki could ponder it further. “I knew you didn’t hate me!”

“Hate you?” Loki scoffed. “You were the only Avenger I found somewhat tolerable in 2012 when I invaded. And that was then- think of how fond I have grown of you since.”

Stark tilted his head- as a puppy would, Loki thought- looking curious. He winced at the movement but his voice was normal as he said, “Really? You never told me that. I understand the others because they suck, but why wasn’t I on your list of stupid ‘heroes’ to kill?”

Loki shrugged. “You were afraid of me because you knew I held the power to kill you, yet you removed your armour before approaching me. You also offered me a drink, which I found amusing.”

At his admittance, Stark grinned. “What can I say? I’m charismatic. You were in my tower looking bored to death, so it was either offer you the drink or be the reason your boredom ended and in the end, not dying sounded a lot more appealing than the alternative.”

“Not dying?” Loki snorted. “I highly doubt I would have killed you, Stark. Hurt you, yes, but not kill you.”

“You choked me and threw me out the window. Sounds like you were trying to kill me, don’t you think?” Stark shook his head, momentarily going pale at the sharp movement. Loki eyed him carefully, but Stark was speaking before he could give it further thought. ”You shoulda had that drink. I bet you wouldn’t have tried to kill me if you had just had a drink.”

“Oh, I didn’t try to kill you. Had I tried, we wouldn't be speaking to each other right now. No, I simply wanted to scare you.”

“Yeah, you succeeded in that one.” Stark rolled his eyes. “Did you know that those bracelets were a prototype?”

“You never told me that.” Loki frowned, something in his chest tightening at his realization. “Had they not worked-”

“Not worked? Oh, come on, this is me we’re talking about here. My stuff always works.”

“There was that explosion last week,” Loki reminded him.

“Shut up, you idiot. That was different.”

“Not really.”

Stark folded his arms over his chest, pretending to be upset. Loki gave him a small smile at the child-like expression before he leaned over to brush his shoulder against Stark’s. “Do I owe Dum-E an apology for leaving him for so many days?”

“You owe him about ten. Poor guy has used the fire extinguisher only once in three days, and he’s also only made one- one!!- poisoned smoothie. I actually thought he was coming down with a Bot Cold, and I made Barnes help me take his temperature. The poor thing was distraught over your absence, nearly sent him into a full-out meltdown.” Stark leaned in, whispering, “I think he likes you.”

“That is called embellishment, Stark. No one, least of all a robot, would ever miss me enough to grieve.”

“Thor hasn’t eaten a single pop tart since you disappeared in here,” Stark responded smoothly.

Loki winced. “Don’t say that. You almost make me feel bad, and that is unacceptable.”

Stark laughed. “It’s the truth, though, he hasn’t. Minus when he tried to get in here, he’s just moped around the workshop giving everyone these sad puppy eyes. I think even Barnes was tempted to give him a hug.”

“And yourself? What have you done in my absence?”

“I set the workshop on fire,” Stark said flatly. “Granted, it was an accident, but there was plenty of smoke. And flames. Did I mention it was a fire? Dum-E grabbed his extinguisher and Barnes disappeared to Timbuktu as if the action was a bit too much for him… I would have felt bad had it not been that I was trying to put a fire out and it didn't cross my mind until later. I gave him a bear-claw so it's okay. Have you had a bear-claw before? If not, you are seriously missing out and I need to take you out for breakfast one day. Either way, Barnes actually came back with not one but two extinguishers and between him, Dum-E, and my kinda pointless attempts to help, we scraped by with minimal damage. Fire was out in five minutes, max.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Again, Stark, embellishment.”

Stark wouldn't meet his eyes.

Loki stared at him, surprised. “Do you mean to tell me that you actually started a fire?”

“I told you Dum-E used his fire extinguisher once. When else would he have used it, besides the one time something was actually burning?”

“But the workshop?” Loki sighed. “How bad does ‘minimal damage’ equate to?”

“Remember when I said I didn't really help in the whole putting out the fire aspect? Well, I may or may not have almost caught my arm on fire, which was bad. Kinda hurt too.” Stark made a face. “And Barnes laughed- he actually laughed, Loki, it was amazing- when Dum-E covered me and my arm in foam from the extinguisher.”

Loki groaned. “I am never staying in my bedroom again,” he vowed. “All these months and I’ve never seen Dum-E put you out. He’s used that infernal weapon of his on actual fires, on himself, on myself, but never on you- until I am not there, apparently!”

Stark shrugged. “See, this is why you should have just stayed in the workshop!”

“I did appreciate the time to myself, however.” Loki sighed. “I needed the time to think.”

“Did it help?”

“In some ways.” Loki gave a slight shake of his head. “Most of the time I felt trapped in my own thoughts.”

“Have you slept since the battle?”

Loki looked away. “I have no need to relive the many nightmares and fears that the Witch forced me to remember. My sleep has already been troubled as of recently, and I would much rather stay awake than be subjected to hours of grief.”

“You have to sleep at some point, though.”

“As long as I have no desire to dream, I will not allow myself to sleep.”

The bedroom fell silent for many minutes before Stark said quietly, “That night we fell asleep on the sofa, did you have a nightmare?”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “I had one before I came down to the workshop, you know this.”

“Yeah, but when we were together, did you have one?”

“No.” Loki eyed Stark cautiously. “What are you suggesting?”

“Not necessarily suggesting anything… I’m just saying that having someone with you when you sleep, someone you trust, might help your sleep be peaceful.”

“Are you saying that I trust you?”

Stark flushed slightly but his voice was steady as he responded, “Would you have allowed me to come in here if you didn’t trust me, at least in some small degree?”

Loki sighed. “No,” he admitted.

“I know what it is like to be betrayed. Having your trust is not something I take lightly. I won’t be the perfect friend you deserve because I’m pretty fucked up and messing things up is practically my middle name, but I will never intentionally hurt you. I can promise you that.”

There was a pause as Loki looked at the mortal seated beside him on the bed. “If I were to be as painfully honest with you as you have been to me, would that chase you away?”

A slow smirk filled Stark’s face. “Aww, are you coming to join the Let’s-Be-Saps Party with me? Of course, it wouldn’t bother me! Then I won’t have to act ridiculously cheesy all alone.”

“You haven’t seemed any more ridiculous than usual,” Loki murmured. He managed a weak smile at Stark’s betrayed expression, but he quickly sobered. “I recognized months ago that you would rather sooner die than betray someone you consider a friend. It is one of the many reasons I decided to give you my attention.”

“Is that why you didn’t do a better job of securing your bedroom door? Because it was surprisingly easy to lower those shields and force my way in.”

“It was easy because I secured my room so only yourself would be able to enter.”

“Not even Thor?”

“If I was going to be forced to interact with anyone, you had the least chance of being frozen upon entry.”

Stark laughed. “Gee, thanks.”

“Consider it an honor, Stark. Most everyone else I would have violently stabbed upon their trying of the doorknob.”

“God, it’s a good thing I told Thor to knock,” Stark muttered.

Loki struggled to hide a smile. “I’m afraid his pounding grew rather tiresome quite quickly.”

“Oh great, here it comes. What, I'm afraid to ask, did you do to him?”

“Every time he knocked, I made it so these odd Midgardian ‘glitter-bombs’, as they are called, would explode on his head,” Loki answered proudly. “And when he refused to leave after even that, I doused his clothing in a purple and pink paint.”

Stark burst into laughter as he stood, chuckling in such a way that he had to lean over and place his hands on his knees to remain upright. “No wonder he hasn't come out of his room in thirty-six hours. Oh, god, please tell me you have pictures,” Stark begged.

Loki looked up at the ceiling. “FRIDAY?”

“I have video footage, Boss,” came the response. Loki thought she sounded pleased and wondered for a brief moment why she was proud.

“Yes!” Stark cheered as he straightened up. For a moment, panic flashed in his eyes, but when Loki blinked, there was nothing but warmth in them. As if noticing his calculating gaze, Stark extended his hand with a reassuring smile. The mortal, Loki had noticed, had a tendency to do this act whenever Loki was sitting and Stark was standing. It was to offer his assistance, Loki supposed, but he had always refused the help. This time, though, something felt different about the offer.

It almost seemed Stark’s offered assistance to stand meant something more, as if the offered assistance was something more meaningful than just rising to his feet.

Loki looked up and met the eyes of his friend. Perhaps relaxing for the first time since the Witch had harmed him, Loki took Stark’s hand and all the support he offered. And as they walked to the door, hands now at their sides, Loki was reminded of Stark’s words to him:

“That’s why I want to help you. Because you are my friend and I care about you.”

He was beginning to realize that his pain was not his alone to bear, for he had someone very dear in his life who cared about him and wanted to help lessen his pain by sharing half the load.

 

Surprisingly enough, Barnes was not the one who greeted him when they entered the workshop. Although Loki could hear the sounds of Dum-E hard at play with the sergeant, it was the Vision that floated over to meet him at the door.

With a warm smile at them both, Stark excused himself and went to join Barnes in their intense game of fetch with Dum-E.

Sensing Vision had something on his mind, Loki gestured to the sofa and they sat down together, close yet far enough to the other that they could converse in a normal-toned voice and have no fear that their conversation would be overheard by the others in the workshop.

“I owe you an apology, Mr. Laufeyson,” Vision began once they were both settled on the sofa, and the topic caught Loki off guard. He wasn’t sure what he had been unexpecting, but it had not been an apology.

Folding his arms over his chest, Loki leaned back in his seat. “For what, exactly?”

Vision looked uneasy. “I am sorry for my role in the battle. I allowed my feelings to get the better of my judgment, and it is because of me that you were injured by Miss Maximoff.”

Loki glanced at him. “I thought you had been living outside of the Compound to avoid her.”

“Those were my reasons, yes.”

“Then why did you allow yourself to be taken by her charms when she tried to speak to you? If you were truly upset with her, you would not have shown such weakness!”

Vision gazed at him steadily. “I am not a being that experiences emotion easily. I have only been alive for two years and have found human interaction...difficult. But I had been...fond of Miss Maximoff when she lived in the Compound, for a time. Those memories were not so easily suppressed when I saw her and my momentary weakness allowed her to defeat me.”

“Fighting would be much easier if things as trivial as emotions and memories did not exist,” Loki said darkly. “There would then be no distractions.”

“I am told you defended Tony from the doombots.”

“I did.”

“Had you not shielded him, would you have successfully captured Miss Maximoff before she could have harmed you?”

“She would have been captured with suspended magic within seconds.”

Vision nodded carefully. “Why shield Tony, then?”

“He was injured and required assistance. Had I not shielded him, he may have been killed by the bots.” Loki looked at him. “You know this answer already, so why ask the question?”

“Was it not important, then, that you were able to feel your emotions during the battle? Had you not, Tony would not be alive right now because you would not have protected him.”

“I suppose,” Loki conceded.

Vision leaned closer. “Do you believe protecting Tony to have been worth your pain from Maximoff’s attacks against yourself?”

“She couldn't hurt him because she was hurting me. I think that was the better outcome than the alternative, wouldn’t you agree?”

Vision gave him a sad smile. “I would always prefer that no one was injured, Mr. Laufeyson. But I believe you find your own pain a ‘better outcome’ because you prefer Tony’s life be protected over your own.”

Refusing to give a verbal response- therefore an admittance of his slightly possible feelings for the engineer- Loki nodded silently at the point.

“Have you ever considered the reason why?” Vision asked quietly. “In my observations of you, I believe you have a very powerful reason for protecting him.”

Loki shifted his position, sitting taller. “That would be?”

Vision gave him a small, knowing smile but shook his head. “I believe you already know. However, I will leave you to figure out your reasons for yourself.” He stood, preparing to leave, but before he went said quietly, “Your pulse is elevated. You already have figured it out, haven't you?”

Loki glared at him. “He is my friend,” he said defensively. “I would not be a good one to him if I did not protect and care for him.”

Vision gazed at him, a bit sadly, Loki realized. “I do not believe you yet realize that your feelings for him are returned,” he murmured, and floated from the room.

It took nearly twenty minutes for Loki to come out of his conflicting thoughts regarding his conversation with Vision, and when he did, he grimly left the workshop. He needed to gather his thoughts in a controlled environment, one where the source of his confusion wasn’t currently laughing and smiling only a few meters away.

The rest of his day was spent at the Compound that Stark had built for their people. He found it an easy distraction from his worrying thoughts, especially so when Valkyrie pestered him and he was able to take his frustration out on her through the use of many magical pranks.

(She screamed curse after curse at him when she found her drinks had been changed to sparkling apple cider, but Loki knew she wasn’t as bothered as she pretended to be. There was cool indifference between them, and of all the Asgardians- besides maybe his brother and Heimdall- she seemed to be the most accepting of his magic.)

It was evening when Loki left the Compound for the one he considered home, and under the guise of an invisible spell, he was able to sneak into the building undetected. He snuck into the common room to observe the happenings of the Rogues and when he was certain they were not planning anything against his friends, he continued to the workshop to check on the others.

He found the Colonel Rhodes deep in conversation with Stark at the desk, whose grimace and determined expression spoke volumes of the pain he was still in because of the injuries he had suffered when the Witch had knocked him out of the sky.

Loki silently offered his magic into the air, and Stark’s own powers rose to the surface just enough for Loki to transfer a spell of healing comfort for his injuries. The transfer was completed all without Stark realizing what was going on, but he would be in less pain because of it, so Loki was pleased.

He continued his search around the Compound until he had accounted for everyone, and when he finally finished his observations, he retired to his bedroom for the night. He suspected that Stark was worried about his sudden disappearance, but he couldn’t bring himself to go back down to the workshop and reveal himself.

There were still so many problems he needed to sort through, ranging from the monster that he was to his greatest fear that the Witch had so cruelly slapped in his face to the stirrings in his heart whenever he thought of Stark.

No, Loki decided as he stretched out on his bed, he would not be going to Stark’s workshop, not until he felt more secure within his thoughts. Until then, he would not allow himself to see the engineer.

“I’m just saying that having someone with you when you sleep, someone you trust, might help your sleep be peaceful.”

But after hours of restlessness and lying in his bed unable to sleep, it was because of those words from Stark that Loki found himself standing outside the closed door of Stark’s quarters, hesitantly knocking at the door at quarter past three in the morning.

There was a long pause followed by a sleepy call to wait, and then the door opened to reveal an almost-asleep Stark with soft, puppy eyes and tousled hair who blinked at him in confusion.

“Loki?” Stark yawned, rubbing his eyes. “What time is it? You alright?”

“I am well enough…” Loki hesitated, reassessing his position. Coming to Stark was a mistake. He had no business intruding on what was most likely a peaceful sleep for Stark, and he definitely did not need to give his heart another reason to flutter whenever he was around Stark. No, he needed to just take leave whilst he had the mental strength to say no to temptation.

“Loki?” Stark asked, and by the tone of his voice, Loki realized it was not the first time his name had been called by the other.

Loki flushed, shaking his head. “I am sorry for the disturbance,” he muttered, taking a step back. “I will leave you to your rest now-”

“Wait, hang on a second.” Stark frowned, looking a tad bit more coherent as he pointed out, “It’s clearly the middle of the night and you wouldn't have come if it weren't for a good reason, so you might as well tell me why you're here. I'm not going to laugh if that's what you're worried about.”

“It is no longer important,” Loki said stiffly, turning to leave.

“Do you...do you want to stay?”

At those words for the mortal, Loki froze and slowly turned around to face Stark. The engineer flushed, going bright red in the cheeks. “Not like that!” he said quickly. “Not that I would be objected if you wanted- ugh, hell, fuck my life. I have no filter when I'm half asleep, apparently. What I’m trying to say is, if you want to spend the night, my door is open. I know nightmares are a bitch…” Stark shrugged. “So, I won't judge. Trust me, I won't. I know what it's like to have nightmares and not want to be alone afterward, so I get what you're going through. Really.”

“I am going to go back to my quarters,” Loki said carefully.

“That's your choice. Just the same, my offer still stands.” Stark yawned, leaning against the doorframe. “The door will be unlocked if you change your mind.”

Loki nodded but said nothing further to the mortal before he turned and headed for his room. He would not be venturing out of his quarters for the rest of the night.

Yet, almost an hour passed, an hour spent tossing and turning in his bed unable (unwilling) to sleep, before Loki sat up, threw the covers away from his body, and stormed out of his bedroom in a huff.

He once again found himself drawn to Stark's bedroom and the caring offer from the inventor. Unlike the first time Loki found himself in this position, he did not knock. This time he simply turned the doorknob, pushed the door open, and silently crept foot into the bedroom.

In the dark, he could just barely make out the outline of a Stark-shaped lump hidden under a bundle of covers. Loki was almost tempted to smile at the sight, as it was such a Stark thing to find contentedness from a pile of blankets thrown on top of him.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkened room, Loki cautiously took a step forward. And another, followed by another, until he found himself standing at the foot of the bed looking down at the Avenger who was beautiful with peace and innocence in his sleep.

Loki’s heart ached at the sight. He had lived for over a millennium, had spent a majority of his life looking for something- or someone- to occupy his thoughts, entertain his mind, and protect his heart, and in the small, fierce… beautiful mortal, Loki thought he may have finally found what he had spent almost all of his life looking for.

He had once thought mortals beneath him, and in the case of the Rogues, HYDRA, and a select few others he still did, but when Loki thought of Stark, he thought of himself as the one who was not worthy of the other. Stark was good. Painfully good, careful in everything he did even as he categorized by importance and kept his morals firmly in his every thought. The mortal was flawed, as any other, but he was good.

Of that Loki had no doubt.

There was a sigh from the form on the bed, and Loki froze, hardly daring to breathe, as Stark rolled over in his sleep and faced in his direction.

It was all overwhelming at once. This was precisely why Loki had told himself to stay in his own bedroom. He had spent minutes admiring not only Stark’s beauty but his heart as well, and he thought it wise to share a bed with the mortal?

His thoughts were constantly filled with Stark, both of memories of conversations with him or the desire to once again be in the workshop with him, and it was in every way possible that Loki was developing feelings for the mortal.

But that couldn't be. He had not courted another in years, had cared about another in almost triple that time, and had rarely had something more than a simple night with another in the entirety of his adulthood, and out of nowhere there was the possibility he was developing feelings for Stark?

It could not be. It would not be. They would never work together and Loki needed to create distance between them or he would end on the path of love- a path that would surely only result in pain.

In his excitement to leave the room, Loki accidentally bumped into the bedpost. He cursed, momentarily stunned by the unexpected contact and pain in his foot, and his moment’s distraction was what caused him to be oblivious to when Stark startled awake.

“Loki?”

Flinching slightly, Loki muttered, “I am here, Stark.”

“’kay…” There was a pause followed by a loud yawn. “Should I make room for you?”

Loki hesitated, swirling, conflicting thoughts whirling in his mind. “Yes,” he managed to mumble before he could grow the confidence to change his mind.

There was a rustling sound followed by another yawn before Stark patted the open space next to him as a clear invitation for him to lay down. Loki eyed the space cautiously, taking small, hesitant steps until he stood at the edge of the bed. When he didn't immediately move to get into the bed, Stark gave a sleepy sigh and extended his hand, a silent prompt for Loki to take his hand and join him. Cautious but purposely bold in anything he did, Loki showed no uncertainty when he climbed into the bed and slid under the covers.

But for all his boldness, he was instantly all too aware of the mortal half-asleep at his side. There was nothing that could be done about it, though. He had made the decision to sleep in Stark’s bed and part of that decision included sharing a bed with him.

It would be as it was destined to be.

Lying stiff on his side, firmly refusing to acknowledge Stark was present with him in the same piece of furniture, Loki closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep.

He couldn't. Perhaps, wouldn't was a more accurate word, but Loki ignored those implications. He wasn't scared about falling asleep; such an idea was ridiculous. He had battled nightmares and the like since he was a young child. He should be used to the cold fear gripping him when he woke up, gasping for air as he struggled to block the details of the dream and regain his equilibrium…

He was used to that, so why did he find himself going tense at the mere thought of sleep?

Sighing, Loki turned his head to look at Stark. If he focused, he could just make out the healing cut that ran along Stark’s temple from when he fell. Loki knew from the way Stark was careful with his every movement that Stark’s left shoulder had also been injured when he fell.

It was just another reason Loki should have ended the Witch right then and there.

“You still up?”

Loki started at the sound of Stark’s voice. “I thought you to be asleep,” he muttered.

“Nah. Figured I'd stay up until you fell asleep.”

“I do not need your pity,” Loki said stiffly.

Stark rolled onto his side so he could face Loki more easily. His eyes seemed to burn into Loki, as if staring into his soul as he said, “You really don't want to fall asleep, do you?”

Loki nodded his agreement with the statement. That, at least, was true. He had no desire to subject himself to the nightmares that would surely plague his rest thanks to the Witch’s intrusion of his mind.

“You up for a ride?”

“Beg pardon?” Loki rose, supporting his weight on his elbow as he looked down at Stark. “Did you just offer to take a day-trip at this hour of time?”

Stark looked affronted. “Of course not!” he exclaimed. “It's not daytime yet, you goof. I was offering to take a night trip. Duh.”

Loki stared at him, bewildered. “Are you still asleep?” he blurted. “You are not speaking sense, Stark.”

“Still asleep? How very dare you. I'm insulted you felt the need to ask me such a thing. I'll have you know that I know exactly what I'm saying! And because of that bold statement of yours, we are going out. Up and at ‘em, Lokes. I'll meet you in the garage in five.”

“You cannot be serious-”

Stark waved his opinion away with an air of arrogance as he climbed out of the bed, turned the light on, and moved to his dresser. “Let's go, Lokes, I don't have all night. Get up!”

Loki sat up, brushing away a strand of hair that fell in front of his eyes. “Stark, I appreciate that you are trying to help me, but this is really not necessary, and if it doesn’t cease, will soon be unappreciated as well.”

Sighing, Stark stormed over to the bed and leaned over, getting quite into his space, Loki thought to himself.

“Do you trust me?”

“What?” Loki asked, dumbly, blinking back to the present even as he subtly counted the different colors he could see in Stark’s eyes.

“Do you trust me?” Stark repeated.

Loki eyed him carefully. “Where are we going?” he asked after a long pause.

A slow smile spread on Stark’s face. “You’ll see,” was his response, and then he was gone from the bedroom. With a sigh, Loki climbed out of bed and went to get ready.He was helpless to say no to the mortal, sometimes. 

 

“No.”

“No? You can’t say no to this!” Stark exclaimed.

Loki watched as Stark stepped on the pedal to turn the hot water on and began to scrub his arms. “I believe I just did,” he responded dryly. “When you asked me if I wanted to go out, this was not what I was expecting.”

“What, were you expecting me to show you around the city? Take you to a museum?” Stark laughed. “Look around, Lokes. It’s a little early for all the touristy stuff.”

“You brought me to a hospital,” Loki pointed out.

“I did, and you’re about to come scrub up with me.”

“I am not going in there.”

There was a click as Stark turned the water off and shot him a nasty glare as he grabbed a light blue-colored gown and threw it over his clothes. “They aren’t going to kill you, Loki.”

“I could certainly kill them. Germs, skin-to-skin contact-”

A wail interrupted his rant, and frustration shone in Stark’s eyes as he stalked closer, gestured for Loki to follow him, and stormed to the glass window. “Tell me what you see,” he demanded.

Loki sighed. “I see several incubators. Multiple infants, all of them attached to heart monitors…”

“Do you see that back room?”

“The room that has the isolation sign?”

“That’s it. That’s who we are going to see.”

Loki eyed Stark as the mortal snapped gloves over his hands. “Well? Are you going to sterilize yourself?” Stark demanded, looking impatient.

“You cannot just drag me here and expect me to follow your every movement simply because you want me to,” Loki argued. He paused, frowning at the flicker of something that crossed Stark’s face. “Why is it important to you that I sterilize myself and come with you?”

“Because what I want you to do is important?” Stark raised an eyebrow.

Loki shook his head. “It is, but that is not why you brought me here. You could have brought me anywhere, to do anything, to distract me from my thoughts. Why did you bring me here?”

Stark turned away, looking out the window at the infants, nurses, and doctors of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. “When I got back from Afghanistan, after Obie’s betrayal… after I defeated him… I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to sleep. So, I kept myself busy. Built suits, found any traces of my weapons and attacked the bases...researched, engineered… I did all of that and more. But there was only so much to do before I ran out of options.”

There was a pause. Loki had never heard the story of Obadiah Stane’s betrayal, for it was something Stark had absolutely refused to talk about. Until now, apparently.

Loki was almost afraid to ask in fear of overstepping a boundary between them, but when it came clear that Stark was not going to continue his story, Loki pressed gently, “How did you come to volunteer here?”

“JARVIS.” Stark’s voice was tight. “He brought it to my attention that there was something more important that I could be doing with my time instead of building another suit. That something was holding premature babies. I filled out the paperwork to become a volunteer, had my interview the next day, and was accepted. Ever since then, if I’m having trouble sleeping, I’ll come here.”

Loki hesitated. “Why are volunteers needed in this unit?”

“These babies were all born early. Weeks early, months early… They are all fighting their own battles to stay alive. The family members can only stay for so long; they have work or they have to take care of their other kids… Nighttime is the worst for these kids because that is when there is no one here to hold them. No one to show them any affection, to comfort them when they are in pain...” Stark sighed, and when he turned around, Loki was surprised to see that there were tears in his eyes. “I brought you here to see Joshua. He was born six weeks early addicted to cocaine.”

Something clenched in Loki’s chest. “His mother-”

“Used, yeah.” Stark laughed humorlessly. “She was determined as an unfit parent because of her addictions and the father ran out, so Joshua has no one. He has no family, no one to hold him or care for him, period. As a result of her smoking and using, Joshua was born with Cystic Fibrosis, which has greatly diminished his lungs. He has to be kept in a room with a lower temperature than normal because of it, and in his stay in the NICU, he’s attracted MRSA which he was at a greater risk for because of his Cystic Fibrosis.”

Another wail could be heard from the isolation room- Joshua’s room- and Loki wordlessly headed for the sink.

“He’s in isolation because of his infection. There’s no skin to skin contact which is why I’m in the gown and gloves, but I’m still allowed to hold him. I just have to be extra careful.”

“We,” Loki said quietly.

There was silence for a long moment, but when Stark spoke, Loki could hear the smile in his words, “Yes, we. Now, come on. I’ll introduce you to the nurses and doctors on shift, and then we’ll go see Joshua.”

The introductions were boring and unworthy of his attention, but Loki made sure to listen when the nurse explained how he should hold Joshua. It wasn’t until they stepped into the isolation room that Loki truly realized what he was about to do.

His anxiousness must have shown on his face because the nurse gave him a reassuring smile as she encouraged him to sit down in the rocking chair. Once he was sat, Stark placed a pillow on his lap and then the nurse went over to the crib to get Joshua.

Loki watched her every move carefully and mentally made note of each wire attached to Joshua, what he was being monitored for, and what his vitals were. In less than a minute, he was sitting, terrified, with his arms in position as the nurse carefully laid a crying Joshua into his arms.

He sat still, afraid to move, let alone breathe, hoping that if he didn’t move, Joshua would quiet on his own. When he didn’t, Loki looked up at Stark, helpless, and silently begged for help.

“Let him hear the sound of your voice,” Stark said quietly. “It doesn’t matter what you say. But he can sense your fear, so you need to calm down and trust in yourself.”

“He is a tiny Midgardian,” Loki whispered.

Stark smiled as he walked over to stand just behind Loki, looking over his shoulder at the little bundle held in his arms. “Yes, he is. Tiny and cute.”

“Remind me again why I allowed myself to be talked into this. I am responsible for another’s life, for the protection of an infant. You mortals are significantly weaker than an Asgardian. I could hurt him.”

“You won’t.”

“You sound certain.”

Stark leaned down, cooing softly as he offered his finger to Joshua for him to hold. “I am,” he said quietly. “I know of the great heart you have, Loki, and that is why I brought you here. I figured it would help you as much as it has helped me and these precious babies.”

In his arms, Joshua shuffled and let out a particularly loud bellow. Without thinking, Loki murmured, “Hush, little one, you are safe.” He rocked gently in the chair, and the careful movement seemed to be comforting to Joshua, who quieted considerably.

Wide, blue eyes blinked up at him and Loki felt himself smiling at the infant held in his arms. “Better? I know that this world has treated you cruelly so far in your young life, but it will learn to respect and care for you. Of that, I promise. If you continue to put up a fight with those loud screams of yours, I am confident you will win your battle and become a strong mortal boy.”

Stark coughed and Loki looked up at him. “What?” he demanded when he caught sight of the smirk that was poorly hidden on Stark’s face.

“Nothing,” Stark struggled to say.

Loki scowled. “Don’t you lie to me,” he warned. “What is it?”

“Well…you are using some mighty fancy words for an infant. I highly doubt he understood anything of what you just said.”

“Maybe not, but he is quiet now, is he not?”

Stark gave him a soft smile. “He is, and even though he may have no idea what you said, I think that what you said was very sweet.”

Loki flushed. “Well, it's the truth!” he said defensively.

“I know.” Stark looked down at Joshua and his smile seemed to light up the room. “Lokes, look! He’s smiling at you,” he breathed in an awe-filled voice.

Looking down, Loki’s heart swelled at the sight of the lopsided grin on Joshua’s face. There were no words to describe the innocent smile of a babe…absolutely no words except beautiful. Loki lifted a trembling hand and carefully held out his finger. Joshua gave a soft, elated squeal and clenched his tiny hand around Loki’s finger, using his other hand to do the same with Stark’s finger.

Loki’s eyes suddenly stung with tears and he was forced to look away as the tears silently slid down his cheeks. At his side, Stark made no comment about his display of emotions, but the hand placed on his shoulder was every bit as comforting as it was understanding of his pain.

The tiny Midgardian, an infant that barely weighed six pounds, had shattered every single one of his defenses in a single smile and touch of his small fist. The love that Loki felt for the tiny being was immeasurable, and his heart was filled as he spent the next several hours speaking to (and singing an old Asgardian lullaby to) Joshua until he had fallen fast asleep in his arms.

When they arrived back at the Compound, it was just gone ten in the morning. Before they went their separate ways to get the sleep they had missed during the night, Loki surprised Stark (and himself) by pulling the mortal into his arms. Stark immediately melted into his embrace and for a moment, they stood together in the corridor. Not speaking, not moving… just simply being together.

“Thank you,” Loki murmured.

He felt Stark nod his head in a silent welcome, and then they both stepped back. For a moment, they stared at each other, and Loki flushed. “Sleep well,” he whispered, his hand momentarily resting on Stark’s arm, and then he pulled away and quickly headed for his quarters.

Each frantic beat of his heart was symbolic of Loki’s many and strong emotions regarding Stark, and it took his heart several minutes to slow to its normal pace. When it did, Loki was already half asleep with visions of their night floating across his mind.

And even though the trauma he had been through due to the Witch’s attack was severe, Loki felt happier than he had been in a long time. (Of which, was almost entirely because of Anthony.)

Chapter Text

Still half asleep from his twelve hours of rest, which did very little for him after going three days without sleeping at all, Loki was exhausted as he scanned in and entered the workshop.

“Good evening, Loki. Did you enjoy your night with Boss?” FRIDAY asked pleasantly, sounding quite smug with her question.

Loki shot a look at her nearest camera. “It was horrible,” he said dryly. “Is your ‘Boss’ here?”

“I'm here!” came Stark’s loud response from a place Loki couldn't see. “Fri, baby, mind your manners with our friend, will you? Dropping the ‘mister’ in front of Loki’s name was risky enough- don't press your luck.”

“I would never,” she promised vehemently, and Loki could swear she was grinning based on the tone of her voice. “And Boss, I was merely inquiring about his night. That's not a crime, is it?”

“Yeah, yeah, that's enough outta you, you troublemaker,” Stark said fondly. “Hey, Lokes, where are you? I have something to ask you.”

Loki looked around the workshop, frowning. “I was about to ask you the same thing. Where are you?

“Uh, over here. By the sofa,” Stark called. Loki followed the sound of his voice, still frowning when he didn't see the engineer seated on the sofa. "Which brings me to my question, why do you still-"

Loki stuttered in his step, his breath all at once stopping before Loki remembered how to breathe and was able to run and drop to his knees at Stark's side. "What happened? Are you alright?" Loki demanded, running his hands over Stark's sides to feel for injuries.

Stark opened his eyes and gazed at Loki in amusement. "I'm fine, Lokes. How are you?"

Loki gaped at him. "Why are you laying on the floor then? I thought something had happened to you."

"Happened to me?" Stark snorted. "I'm in the workshop, Lokes, completely and one hundred percent safe in my sanctuary. What could possibly happen to me in here?"

Folding his arms over his chest, Loki glared at Stark, not at all impressed with the answer.

Stark sighed. "Fine, you stubborn ass. If you really must know, I'm going to sleep here tonight. The floor actually makes a pretty good pillow.”

"This is troubling. You are a peculiar mortal but not that peculiar. FRIDAY, did anyone come in here and leave poison in a drink of Stark's?"

"Poison?" Stark scoffed. "Please, Loki, I know better than to consume any food or drink people give me. And for the record, I am completely sane right now. A bit pained, but perfectly mentally stable." He paused, assessing. "For me."

Loki shifted into a more comfortable position. "Tell me, what made you decide to lay down on the floor when you have a perfectly comfortable sofa only meters away?"

"It's too hot," Stark grumbled. "Makes me feel like I'm suffocating."

The phrasing of the words made Loki pause. He thought for a moment, recalling the way Stark had seemed the day before, and then said quietly, "Your head is causing you pain."

"Very good. Any other deductions, Sherlock Holmes?"

Loki frowned. "I do not understand that reference."

"Which is a crime and one that I'll fix when my brain currently isn't pounding into my skull."

"I look forward to it." Loki bent down, observing the healing gash on Stark's temple. "You received your injury in battle, did you not?"

"When I fell, yeah."

Something dark and furious settled in Loki's chest at the reminder of what the Witch had done to them. When the Committee made their final decision on their actions, it best be ruled against her or he would seek his revenge on her in a single blow.

Loki drew a deep breath trying to compose himself. "Did you seek medical treatment after the battle?"

Stark closed his eyes. "Nope. Didn't want to go to the hospital."

"Head wounds can be quite grave for a mortal," Loki said tightly. "And I have seen proof of the strength of your injury; you have been dizzy and lightheaded in the last several days, have you not?"

"A little, yeah.” Stark made a face. “It was really bad yesterday."

"And today?"

"Head just hurts. 'S not serious."

"Yet you lie on the ground to find relief," Loki pointed out.

"The floor is cold. Makes me feel less like I'm burning to death, unlike the stupid sofa."

Loki gently brushed his fingers through Stark's hair. "Come,” he murmured, "The floor is filthy and not at all comfortable. You shall lie elsewhere and be without discomfort, I will see to that."

"Nothing has worked, but fine," Stark grunted as Loki helped him sit up, and when the engineer then went pale at the movement, Loki pulled Anthony over so he could lean against him until he regained his equilibrium.

"I could heal your wounds," Loki offered quietly.

"Nah, it's fine. This is just a concussion; it's not serious."

Loki resisted the urge to growl. "Any injury on your person is grave, Stark. You should not be wounded at all."

"A papercut isn't life-threatening." Stark sounded amused.

"Oh, Norms, you know what I meant," Loki snapped. He adjusted their position on the floor so Anthony was almost completely being held in his arms.

"You know, this isn't so bad." Stark was beginning to sound tired as he rested his head against Loki's chest. "I think we should just stay here...call it a night."

"We just awoke from our hospital visit," Loki pointed out, amused. “It's a little too soon to sleep.”

"No, you just did. I've been up."

Loki frowned, at that. "Did you not go to bed when we returned home?"

Stark managed to shake his head a minute amount. "In too much pain," he explained. "Couldn't get comfortable."

"What have you done the last twelve hours, then?"

"Umm... talked to the tolerable Ross?" Stark yawned and Loki could feel his silent exhale on his neck. It made him start at the sensation, to which Stark made an amused sound at as if he knew why Loki had momentarily been startled. "Trying to help him stop them from being stupid."

"Mortals have a way of being stupid. Such is in their nature," Loki grumbled.

"Wow, thanks, tell me how you really feel."

Loki laughed. "You are not a typical mortal, Stark. You very much exceed the standards set by your race."

"I'm flattered?"

"Take it as the compliment it is meant to be, Stark. I do not compliment others easily."

"Duly noted." Stark sighed. "You know, you make a good pillow."

"I have been called many things in my life, however, this is the first time someone has said I make a good pillow."

"Well, it's true. My head doesn't hurt nearly as bad as it did a few minutes ago."

Loki shrugged. "I run a lower body temperature than most. I suppose that coolness helps soothe the pain."

Stark mumbled something.

Loki frowned. "Beg pardon?"

"I said, probably." With a little groan, Stark raised himself so he was sitting unaided. "Well, thanks for letting me cool down, but I should probably finish my work. And I'm sure you have much better things to do than- son of a bitch!”

Struggling to hold back a smile, Loki looked down at the mortal now completely held in his arms. "Next time you decide you are well enough to move, make sure you are actually well enough to move before doing so," he said smugly as he lifted Stark into his arms and stood up.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Stark cried out, struggling in Loki's arms.

"Me?" Loki asked innocently, grinning when Stark was unable to break his hold.

"Yes, you! Where are you taking me? Put me down!”

"You sound like a child," Loki teased.

"I'll show you who's the child here!" Stark twisted in his arms, trying in vain to escape, but only managed to get one of his arms free before he went slack with a sigh of defeat.

"Alright?" Loki asked, sensing the suddenly depleted energy in his friend as they were taken upstairs by the elevator.

"All that moving... fuck, my head," Stark whispered.

Loki frowned guiltily. "Sorry," he murmured. "It was not my intention to hurt you."

"I'm just gonna stay here..." Stark trailed off, his head falling to Loki's shoulder.

A minute later, there was a soft ding from the elevator as they got to the floor he resided on, and Loki kept his footsteps light as he carried Stark into the bedroom. By snapping his fingers he was able to pull back the sheets from the bed, and then he knelt down on the mattress so he could gently transition Stark from his arms to his bed.

At the movement, Stark's eyes opened lazily. "Loki?" he murmured.

"I am here, Anthony." Loki moved into his line of sight as he sat down on the bed. "Rest."

"Feel hot again," Stark pouted.

Loki paused for a moment before sighing to himself. He laid on top of his covers and hesitated for only a moment before he brought his arm around Stark's waist and gently tucked the mortal against his body. “Greedy,” he whispered.

Stark snorted at his comment as he gave a pleased hum and laid his head on Loki's shoulder. "What happens if I fall asleep?" he murmured.

"I will shave your beard."

Stark froze. "And if I don't?" he asked cautiously.

"Then I pretend this never happened for the sake of both our reputations."

"We've technically shared a bed twice now." Stark snorted. “Three if you count the time on the sofa. What's one more time?"

Loki remained silent.

"You know... if you wanted me in your bed you could have just asked. You didn't have to manhandle me here." Stark yawned.

"And here I thought our conversation was over," Loki sighed.

"Nope, my mind is still working. Hey, can you say my name? That was the question I was going to ask you earlier before you went all protective on me.”

Loki frowned. "Stark?"

"No, my first name."

"Tony."

"Oh, thank God." Stark sighed in relief.

Loki made a face. "Come again? What was the point of that interrogation?"

"I was just checking." Stark sounded pleased. "And now I know.”

"Know what?"

"That you can say my first name."

"Don't be ridiculous, Stark, of course I can say your first name."

Stark sounded like he was pouting as he said, "But you never call me Tony."

Loki tilted his head curiously. "Would you like me to?"

But there was no response. Loki turned his head to look at the mortal cuddled against him. Stark was still awake but this clearly was a question he didn't want to answer. The question was, why?

Why was it so important to Stark that Loki call him by his first name? Why did it bother him that he didn't?

"I call you Stark to protect myself," Loki offered quietly into the protection of his dark bedroom. "It's a distance that keeps me from getting too close to you so if one day we lose the friendship we have, I will not be destroyed by the loss of you in my life."

Stark breathed out carefully but said nothing.

"I have not had many friends in my life. Even fewer people have treated me with kindness." Loki swallowed hard. "No one has ever seen me as an equal, as someone of the same worth as them either by intelligence or skill. I had resigned myself to the fate of never finding someone who did."

"Do I-"

"You, Anthony Stark, are the exception." Loki's voice was barely above a whisper. "You treat me as your equal in every way possible. In you, I have a friend who cares about me- about everything about me." He trailed off for a moment before he added brokenly, "Our friendship means more to me than I would like. I call you Stark because so many have left me before and I do not want to give myself the hope that you won't."

Stark shifted his position, one hand coming to rest on Loki's arm. Loki considered briefly moving away but didn't, a small part of him recognizing that Stark would not ridicule him for speaking.

"I never talk about my childhood, Stane, or the fight with Cap because I fear trusting people," Stark offered quietly, his voice just a bit wobbly as he continued, "I don't have a good record with friends...most of them...almost all of them have betrayed me in some way or another. What you know about me is what I feel comfortable sharing with you and, one day, having shared with the world if you decide to betray me too."

Loki didn't know what to say. What was there to say to something like that?

Silence passed for several minutes before it was broken by Stark's whisper: "Loki, I've let you in more quickly than I've ever let someone in before. It scares me sometimes to know how easily you could destroy me without really trying."

It occurred to Loki that they wouldn't be having this conversation if Stark was concussed. Yet, he knew that if he stopped it now, a distance would grow between them. Loki swallowed.

"As long as we are being honest..."

"We are," Stark whispered, and his voice was beginning to tire.

"Then you should know that you are the first person I have ever truly considered a friend."

There was silence for a very long time. Loki's heart was beating out of his chest, something he was all too aware of, especially with Stark cuddled so close to him, but when he heard Stark's murmured response, his heart pounded for a different reason.

"You make me want to believe again."

Loki turned his head just enough to meet the warm brown eyes of the mortal half-asleep at his side.

"Me too," Loki whispered.

And it was soon after that final thought that Stark's eyes closed and he dozed off into a peaceful rest. For a long while after Stark fell asleep, Loki laid there in peace, deep in thought about their conversation.

Stark knew of his Jotun form: had seen him in the depths of his despair with his blue skin, runes, and red eyes at the forefront, but had not been afraid of him. His only concern had been to help him before he did something he would regret.

Thinking of that made Loki recall Dr. Banner's words to him from several weeks ago: “He also didn’t see me as the monster I thought I was. He still doesn’t and he absolutely refuses to allow others to see me as one.”

It was not in Stark's nature to judge because of appearances or even expectations. When they had first met, Stark had flirted, charmed, and teased his way into Loki's curiosity, and he had not stopped even when he knew his life was in danger.

Loki could not think of a more brave man.

Stark had his flaws; he was a recovering alcoholic and he had a tendency to be reckless and bold often at the expense of himself and others. But he had once made weapons and now he destroyed them. He had once fought for himself and now he fought for others. He had seen the darkness and now, even trapped behind the clouds, he knew ways to make the light shine through.

He was a good man and Loki was enamored. No.

Where had that come from?

Enamored?

No. He couldn't be.

They were friends. He had told himself before not to grow too attached. That he couldn't have feelings for Stark. He couldn't.

But he did, didn't he.

At his side, Stark sighed in his sleep. There was a grimace sketched on his facial features and Loki wanted nothing more than to wipe it away with a gentle, healing touch.

Which was another worrying thought. He had never once considered using his powers of healing on another, at least, not for someone who wasn't Frigga, and yet, here he was wanting to touch and soothe and heal a simple headache.

But it wasn't a simple headache, not to Loki.

It was an injury acquired in battle from an enemy that had mentally tortured them both. It was an injury acquired when the Witch had driven a metal pole into the heart of the arc reactor, destroying the suit's power source and sending him helplessly to the ground. It was an injury that for each wince and grimace of pain caused Loki to feel as if he was also the one who had been wounded.

It was Anthony, which was why it was not a simple injury. It would never be a simple injury where he was involved. Somewhere close to the surface of Loki's heart burned the determination and want to keep Anthony safe. No injury, no matter how small, would ever be acceptable because he needed to keep his friend safe.

He needed to heal the hurts he had failed to prevent.

Loki closed his eyes, breathing carefully as realization struck him. He was beginning to refer to Stark as 'Anthony' in his head.

And the feelings he had refused to have for the other…

Might be there after all.

 

It was morning when Loki awoke. He found that during the night Stark (Anthony) had only shifted closer so he had one arm wrapped around Loki's waist. Loki grimaced as he carefully slid out from under Stark's (Anthony's) arm and went to the restroom.

Sharing a bed with the mortal, even to help and monitor Stark's- he needed to call him STARK- head wound, had not been wise.

It was hard to deny having feelings for the person who was being held in your arms, Loki thought bitterly as he climbed into the shower.

But despite his frustration with himself for these newfound "feelings" of his, he could not stop the smile from appearing on his face. First had been their impromptu movie night which led to accidental cuddling on the sofa, followed by a trip to the hospital to volunteer in the baby unit, and then last night when they- two broken, hurting people- had come together to hold one another and speak honestly of their pain.

Loki shook his head furiously at himself and tipped his head back to allow the water to cascade over his face. If he was developing feelings for Stark, as he feared he was, could he suppress his feelings well enough to keep Stark in the dark and preserve their friendship?

He would have to.

There would simply have to be no more cuddling. That was doing odd wonders to Loki's heart.

As the day progressed, Loki found himself distracted. He trained with the Captain but his thoughts wandered to what the Captain had done to Anthony, and he suffered a sharp blow to the ribs because of it.

Afterward, he was grumpy and annoyed and took solace in the peace of his bedroom where he could read undisturbed. But he was only two hours into his reading when he received a knock on the door.

Closing his book with a sigh, Loki stood and opened his door to reveal Colonel Rhodes standing on the other side looking tense as he said to him, "We need you downstairs."

"Is something wrong?" Loki demanded, immediately on alert.

"We'll explain in the shop. Not here."

Loki frowned. "We?"

"Yeah. Tones, Barnes, Bruce, Thor, and I. Strange says he'll drop by at some point too, so we'll see what happens there."

Something uneasy settled in Loki's chest as they climbed into the elevator. What was going on?

"So, you and Tony, huh?"

Loki blinked, turning his head to stare at the soldier. "I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me. And really, as long as you both are happy and treat each other right, I don't care- hell, I'm happy for the two of you- but if you hurt him, I won't even need my leg braces or a fully-functioning spine to kick your ass. Got it?"

"You believe us to be in a relationship?" Loki laughed. "You lack observational skills, Rhodes."

"No, I see just fine, thanks. I'd have to be blind to not see what's going on between the two of you."

"And what is 'going on between us'?"

Rhodes raised an eyebrow. "Besides the flirting, fierce protection, and frankly adorable way you look at each other? I'm surprised I didn't see it earlier, to be honest."

Loki opened his mouth to respond but his words died before he could say them when the elevator doors opened and they stepped into the workshop.

"Reindeer!" Stark cheered weakly from the sofa. "You're here!"

Rhodes gave Loki a look that smugly said there, which Loki decidedly ignored as he took a seat at Stark's side. "Your head still pains you?" he asked quietly at the weary and pained expression on Stark's face.

"He's doing it to himself," Dr. Banner answered. "Not enough sleep, too much work... his concussion will never weaken if he doesn't take care of himself.”

"Thanks, mom," Stark muttered.

Dr. Banner shrugged at him. "Someone has to mother you, you overgrown child. I know what you're doing is important but your health is not worth-" He fell silent at Stark's pointed glare.

Loki frowned at them and then at the others who were sat on the sofas. Each man looked grim. "We are not here to discuss pleasant events, are we?" he sighed.

"I'm afraid not. Look, Loki, there's something going on with the Committee, something you need to be warned about."

Something in Loki's chest tightened. "What is it?"

Dr. Banner looked uncomfortable. "There's talk of announcing the trial to the public. And not just the trial, but also the recovered footage."

“For what reason?” Loki demanded.

Thor leaned forward in his seat, looking apologetic as he said, “Brother, they believe it is necessary for the story of Maximoff’s actions to be shared so more countries will sign the Accords.”

Dark fury settled in Loki’s chest. “They intend to use me for their political game,” he said coolly.

“Intending is different from accomplishing,” Stark said quietly. "We won't let them use you."

Rhodes nodded. “Tony was the one who first heard about their intentions, and we've been talking for over an hour about how to keep them from releasing their statement.”

Loki shook his head. “It won't work. Politics is not a game that is played and won, not so late in the action. I appreciate your desires to protect me, but I am quite positive that there is nothing that can be done. They will say what they wish, for they care nothing of the people they hurt. In the end, it is always about politics and not the people affected.”

Thor looked pained and Loki made it a point to ignore him as he tried to quell his anger after his outburst. Stupid Odin.

The soldier (with one arm) cleared his throat, catching their attention, and murmured, “Steve said he testified against the Witch in his statement.”

Wisely, everyone stayed silent, though Loki knew he was not the only one who was questioning whether or not the captain remained true to his word.

At his side, Stark sighed and leaned back in his seat. “What a fucking mess,” he grumbled. “All they had to do was watch the fucking video and-”

“What video?” Loki asked sharply.

“Security camera down the street. It was damaged in the fight so the footage was presumed to be gone, but I had my doubts so I revisited the scene and grabbed the footage. I took it to Ross - the good one- and he was my witness as I salvaged the video recording. There's no audio, but it shows Wanda knocking me out of the sky and attacking you…” Stark shrugged. "Ross brought the footage to the Committee and they accepted it as credible evidence. I was hoping they'd be convinced she was guilty based on the footage."

Loki folded his arms over his chest. "They won't take my side. Not with my record as their enemy."

"Uh, Maximoff is also their enemy," Stark pointed out. “Ex-HYDRA volunteer, remember?”

"They won't take my side." Loki sounded resigned, which he was. "It's okay, Anthony. We'll just avoid her and-"

"No," Stark growled, and Loki blinked as he suddenly had a face-full of the engineer. "Do not give up. They will not release the footage or turn you into their pawn to use for politics. They won’t."

Loki looked into Stark's blazing eyes and realized that this was a battle Anthony refused to lose. Refused to lose for him.

A small, tiny part of Loki preened under Anthony’s unwavering loyalty and for a brief moment, Loki was tempted to hug the other in thanks.

"Right,” Stark said, leaning back in his seat, "I have an idea. Fri, pull up my contacts on the committee, will you? I think we need to give them a pep talk.” He paused. “Actually, scratch that. I have a better idea. FRIDAY, is the Committee in session right now?”

“Yeah, Boss, but only for another ten minutes.”

“What's their schedule like for the next two days?”

“There is a press conference being discussed as we speak. If such an event is decided to occur, the conference will be tonight and the decision will be made tomorrow.”

“Shit.” Stark grasped Loki’s arm. “Can you teleport us to the US Accords Headquarters in DC?”

“Same place as your trial?”

Stark nodded. “Yes, now, come on, we need to go!”

“But your head wound-”

“Loki, I've gone on this long without any major incident; I think I'll be fine. This is important, you know it is, so please teleport us already!”

Loki stared at him for a moment, deciding, and then sighed as he allowed his magic to surface. “We will be back shortly,” he said quietly to his brother and the others.

He took Stark’s arm and whisked them away. Upon their arrival, Stark was immediately looking to head to the conference room. Loki stopped him, frowning.

“You are not exactly dressed to meet with government officials.”

Stark looked down at his clothes and shrugged. “I can be intimidating when I want to be. Fancy clothes don’t make a difference.”

Loki stared at him. “You plan to yell at them in your college sweatshirt and sweatpants?”

“Uh, in my defense, I was tired and didn't feel like getting all dolled up and two, this is Rhodey’s hoody I'm wearing, not mine.”

“Great,’” Loki said dryly, trying to pretend he didn't feel the sting in his chest at those words. “Well, good luck trying to convince the Committee to take you seriously in those articles of clothing.”

An odd look crossed Stark’s face at that, but before Loki could inquire, Stark threw on a falsely bright smile and saluted him before he turned and headed down the hall for the conference room. Loki stared after him for a moment before he sighed to himself.

Now he waited.

Unless…

Loki grinned. He allowed his magic to resurface, traced the Witch’s aura, and then teleported himself from the headquarters to the master's facility where she was being held.

The way the Witch flinched when he appeared only made Loki’s grin widen. “Hello, Witch,” he said pleasantly as he stepped forward and leaned against the wall across the hall from her prison cell. “How are you enjoying jail?”

Freak,” she spat at him.

He shrugged at her. “There’s a reason why I was the runt of my family, the one left in the cold to die. Over the years I've learned not to have expectations about others and what they can do or say to me. I tend to be disappointed.”

“Impossible expectations,” she challenged.

“Cruel people,” he threw back. “However, you, Witch, you managed to surpass an expectation I didn't even know I had.”

“How touching. I'm glad you think of me so fondly.”

Loki grinned at her, sharp and cruel. “Do you know what I think? I think you are so horrible because you don't want to live any other way. You watched your parents die so you wanted revenge. You wanted Stark dead- but only after you hurt him. You wanted to hurt him in every single way he hurt you- but not by taking away his loved ones. No, you wanted to destroy him from the inside out, to make him hate himself enough that he would do the job and end his life himself so you wouldn't have the unpleasant honors.”

She gaped at him, helpless of what to say.

“You saw me as his accomplice because I care about him. Because we are friends. You didn't go after Rhodes or Barnes or Dr. Banner- you went after me. Because I possessed the power to take you down and you needed me out of the way in order for you to get to Stark.” Loki stepped closer. “But you didn't want to kill me because that would be too messy. So you stepped on me, you hurt me by abusing your powers and stroking every hurt in me that you knew would cause me to burn in agony.” Loki was standing even closer, now. “As we speak, Anthony speaks to the Committee on my behalf so they won’t release the details of your actions to the world. You see, the man you wrongly hate so much is not a bad man. He has made bad choices and he will continue to do so because he is but a mere human, but he is not a bad man. And thanks to him, you will forever stay in a cell. I hope you use the rest of your life to reflect on your actions and repent.” Loki sighed. “Life is only what we make it. And if I spent my time caring about what you think of me or Stark, my time would be wasted. I bid you farewell, Witch, for this is the last time you and I shall have our paths diverge. Enjoy the second chance at life- the chance of new life that Stark put himself in danger to protect.”

The Witch stared at him for a moment before cackling into hysterics. Loki didn't waste his breath by responding to her cruelty; he simply closed his eyes, focused his magic, and teleported back to the Accords Headquarters.

Somehow, he almost felt better, Loki realized as he entered the headquarters building. He still would prefer she was dead as fair punishment for what she had done, but Stark was right. He would have regretted it had she killed her. She deserved to die but not at his own hand. He would have allowed her to win if he had played into her hands as he so nearly had.

And he owed his freedom to Stark, for he had put himself between Loki’s blast and the Witch to keep her from getting killed and from Loki getting thrown away in prison.

Loki sighed as he headed down the hallway to the conference room. He had been given his own second chance at life for his actions by his own brother’s forgiving heart and he had become better for it. It was in the Witch’s hands whether or not she would attempt a similar ending for herself.  

A small part of him genuinely hoped she would.

He had just reached the middle of the hall when Stark stepped out of the room, slammed the door closed, and began walking determinedly in his direction.

Loki eyed him with a frown as he approached; he didn't look right. There was a distance between them but Loki was sure the other was trembling and if he wasn't mistaken, Stark also seemed to be breathing more quickly than normal.

No, not right at all.

It only took a few long strides for Loki to close the distance between them and it was up close that he was able to see the growing panic in Stark’s eyes. “Stark?” Loki questioned softly, carefully placing his hand on Stark’s arm. “What happened? Are you-”

With a barely audible gasp, Stark flinched away from Loki’s touch as the panic grew in his eyes. He began breathing more quickly, murmuring 'no’ over and over again as he wrapped his arms around his chest and shuddered forcefully.

Cold fear settled in Loki’s chest as he stood there, helpless and unsure of what to do as Stark’s attack intensified. This was a panic attack, that much he knew, and it was quickly becoming as strong as the one he had had when the Witch had cornered him in the workshop.

He had to do something but he couldn't touch Stark unless he wanted to add to his distress... but they couldn't stay in the corridor, not with so many people in the building…

“Forgive me, Anthony,” Loki murmured as he brought both arms around the panicking engineer. The mortal began to struggle in his arms but Loki didn't let go as he focused his magic and brought them back to the workshop.

“FRIDAY, lockdown,” Loki ordered tensely the moment they arrived and he had let go of Stark.

“Oh my God, Tony, what happened?!” Rhodes exclaimed, and it was to his horror that Loki realized the others had not left the workshop in their absence.

“Something with the Committee,” Loki said helplessly. “Anthony spoke to them alone and when he exited the room, he was in the early stages of his attack. I made the error, I touched his arm, and I sent him into a worse state. I didn't mean to...”

Surprising them all, it was Thor who spoke gravely as he watched where Anthony sat on the floor, rocking back forth as he gasped for air. “I do not think Tony would want me to see him like this. My sympathy goes out to him but I know I will be of no help to him so I will not remain here as he struggles. I will stand guard outside the workshop and will return to inquire about his well-being later.”

Loki stared after him in shock for a moment before he turned around to look back at his friend. “What should we do?” he asked, defeated, to Rhodes.

“I'm not leaving,” Rhodes said firmly. “I can see why Thor did and I know Tony’ll appreciate it… but I can't leave him like this.”

From the corner of the room, Barnes added weight to his steps as he came to stand in front of Stark. Loki watched with mild surprise as the soldier knelt down on the ground and held out his metal hand.

“My hand is hurting, Stark. Fix it,” Barnes demanded.

He received no response but there was a hitch in Stark’s breathing that told that he had heard Barnes’s statement.

Barnes shook his hand in front of Stark’s face. “Come on, you heard me. Take my hand,” he commanded. Stark blinked up at him with wide eyes and raised a shaking hand so he could follow Barnes’s instruction. “Good. Can I sit next to you?”

Stark flinched at the question. Barnes didn't look phased, just continued speaking as if he hadn't seen the reaction. “Thor stepped outside to guard the shop. He said he wouldn’t have been able to help and didn't want to make you feel overwhelmed. Do you want anyone here to leave? You have me, your Rhodey, your Brucie, and your Lokes. Any and all of us will leave if you want to be alone.”

He's using nicknames to help ground Anthony in the memory of his friends instead of his source of trauma, Loki realized. And then realized that Barnes had not hesitated to step in and assist. He had done so for Stark- Anthony- even though it meant he had to step out of his comfort zone because just like how Anthony had sworn to protect and care for Barnes, Barnes had apparently made the same agreement about the engineer.

“Stay,” Anthony rasped after a moment’s consideration.

“Okay, good. Can Bruce come and take your other hand? I think he wants to so Dum-E won't get any ideas and try to take your other hand. We all know that won't end well."

It took a minute but Anthony nodded shakily, and then Dr. Banner was kneeling on the ground to Anthony’s right as he took his hand.

“You're doing great,” Barnes said soothingly. “But your breathing is a little out of control, don’t you think? You seem to be strugglin’ a bit, so can Loki come help you?”

This time there was no hesitation and something in Loki’s chest eased as he was able to sit down to Anthony’s left between him and Barnes. “May I have your hand?” he requested softly. “I want you to feel my breathing so you know our pace.”

Anthony widened his eyes, looking unsure. Loki realized that the movement would require Anthony to give up a force that was currently grounding to him. He berated himself silently for the cruel question. “Okay, no, it's okay,” he soothed when Anthony looked ashamed. “What if I were to sit closer so you could feel my breathing that way? Would that be okay?”

“Y-yes,” Anthony stuttered. Loki scooted closer so their thighs were touching and when Anthony accepted that contact, he very cautiously brought his arm around Anthony’s waist. At first, Anthony was tense, but when Loki left his hand on his hip and made no attempt to move, Anthony visibly relaxed.

“You're safe now,” someone murmured, and it would only be later that Loki realized it was Barnes who murmured it. Rhodes knelt in front of Anthony’s legs and placed a hand on Anthony’s ankle and it was in that small circle that they stayed until Anthony’s breathing had slowed and his tears had stopped.

“Well, this is embarrassing,” was Anthony’s first words when he was fully calmed from the attack. His face was hidden in Loki’s shoulder so his words were muffled but his words were still audible to everyone in the close group.

“Not to me,” Barnes said firmly, once again surprising Loki by his show of emotion. “I've had plenty of those attacks and they ain't fun. But I know what it's like and I wasn't about to leave ya to suffer alone.”

“Me too,” Loki said quietly.

Dr. Banner gave a small shudder and Loki stretched to pat his shoulder as the doctor admitted, “I’ve had a few myself in the moments leading to a Hulk-Out.”

“I haven't had one, not like that…” Rhodes paused, thinking. “But you're my best friend, Tony, and I’m always going to be going here for you, through the good and bad times.”

“I know.” Anthony sighed heavily. “God, I feel like shit now.”

“Your head?” Dr. Banner asked with a wince.

“Yeah, crying does nothing for a monster headache, let me tell you that.”

“Concussion,” Rhodes corrected.

“Fuck off, Rhodey,” Anthony mumbled.

Rhodes snorted but the amused expression quickly fell off his face as he asked quietly, “Do you want to talk about it, Tones? I haven't seen you like that in a long time.”

“I haven't had an attack like that in awhile,” Anthony agreed tiredly. “Could definitely live without that happening again.”

“What was it?” Dr. Banner asked gently.

“The bunker,” Anthony muttered. “I thought I was doing better but-”

Barnes pulled away as if he had been burned. And if his suddenly hurt, destroyed expression was any indication, it was as if he had been.

As if realization had just struck Anthony, he sat upright and stared wide-eyed at Barnes.

“The bunker,” Barnes repeated, looking horrified. “You had a panic attack because of me and you allowed me to sit next to you? How can you look at me? How can you-”

“No!” Anthony exclaimed. At Barnes’s sharp look, he backtracked. “Okay, well, yes, I had a panic attack about the bunker- which you were there for, I'll give you that. But you weren't the reason I was upset. Besides, I trust you.”

Loki wasn’t sure who was more surprised at the admittance, Barnes, or Anthony.

“You trust me?” Barnes laughed bitterly. “Don't lie to me, Stark.”

“I wouldn't.” At Barnes’s look, Stark snapped defensively, “I wouldn't. Look, your best friend took his shield and impaled my symbolic heart with it. Yeah, I didn't and don't have a reactor in there anymore but I still hate being touched there. Kinda have been betrayed once before about my reactor so I don't like it when people touch my chest.” He grabbed Barnes’s hand and placed it against his chest. There was a collective gasp around the group but Anthony ignored it as he said firmly, “You've stood up for me several times when you didn't have to, you’ve respected my boundaries, you apologized… oh, and you love my bots. So as far as I’m considered, you and I are friends.”

“Friends?” Barnes repeated numbly.

Anthony suddenly looked pensive. “Well, yeah. Is that okay?”

Barnes still looked tense but there was something bright in his expression as he nodded.

“Such a sickening moment,” Loki muttered, breaking the silence that followed. “Are you both quite done acting all sweet and touchy-feely?”

“Aww, are you jealous, Snowflake?” Anthony blinked at his own nickname and then grinned. “Ooh, did you hear that? Snowflake? That's a perfect nickname for you!”  

“It's horrible,” Loki disagreed.

“Shame, ‘cause I think I'm going to use it.”

“I am beginning to realize I need to come up with terrible nicknames for you,” Loki grumbled. “Then you can experience what it is like to be called names you loathe.”

“Oh, shut up,” Anthony snapped good-naturedly as he leaned back over so he was once again leaning against Loki’s chest. “You know you secretly love my names for you.” He momentarily froze when Loki’s arm came around his waist, but he quickly relaxed and leaned into the hold. “Well, this has been fun and all, but I think I'm ready for a power-nap because a concussion and a panic attack make for a hell of a lack of energy.”

“Are you sure you're alright?” Dr. Banner asked quietly.

“Oh, no, this is quite easily the worst I've been in a long while. Stop looking so guilty, Barnes, it's not your fault the committee is filled with assholes. That said, though, I'm going to get better,” Anthony said firmly. “One bad moment can't stop me.”

Rhodes sat upright. “What did they do, Tones? I want names and reasons so I can kick their ass.”

“Uh, yeah, no. Besides, I already threatened to resign so you don't need to kick their asses- though I appreciate your big-brother loyalty.”

“You threatened to quit?” Rhodes snorted. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Because it's me?” Anthony smirked. “They had it coming, and frankly, I don't give a damn. And that's nothing compared to what else I said. Trust me, they were scared.”

“Oh, I'm sure.” Rhodes smiled fondly at him as everyone stood. “Come on, let's get you to bed. You need to get some rest.”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks, mom.” Anthony stumbled for a moment when he took his first steps and he looked a bit startled when he had not only Rhodes reach for him, but also Loki, Barnes, Dr. Banner, and Thor, who had appeared from guarding the workshop. “Good god, all of you are overprotective hens,” he huffed.

“Nope, we’re just your closest friends,” Rhodes said firmly. “And if Strange and Peter were here, they'd say the same thing.”

Anthony stopped walking halfway to the elevator. “I think I have more friends now than I did before the whole ‘War’ took place,” he said incredulously.

Loki touched his arm lightly. “I believe you just have more smart people in your life right now.”

“Aww, Lokes, you’re so sweet. I knew you cared about me!”

Loki wrinkled his nose. “Don't be ridiculous. That requires sentiment. You know I would never stoop that low.”

“Oh, of course, how could I forget a thing like that?”

“Poor memory,” Loki guessed.

“Must be,” Anthony agreed. He gave them all a tired smile as he stepped into the elevator. “See you in the morning.”

Once the elevator took off, Dr. Banner said firmly, “We need to pay Ross a visit. He can't get away with whatever he did to make Tony that upset. He never talks about that bunker and if he had a panic attack because of it…” He shook his head. “Someone said something that set him off. That's not acceptable.”

“It is not advisable for a visit to the headquarters to occur now,” FRIDAY spoke up. “The Committee extended their session after Boss left and I believe they are currently discussing final verdicts for Maximoff’s trial.”

Dr. Banner frowned. “What about the press conference? Do you know about that?”

“I can check.”

“Please, if you would.”

“One moment.” There was a pause and then FRIDAY said, “I have scanned all audio recording of their meeting and they have decided to not call for a press conference. I believe Boss argued his case strongly and won.”

Loki visibly sighed in relief as the weight of the news washed over him.  At his side, Thor laughed joyfully and clapped his shoulder. Half the battle was over with. Now they just had to wait for the final verdict to be reached.

Loki was beginning to have hope that they would rule in his favor.

 

The call came in the morning. Dressed in his standard black suit, Loki found himself swamped beside Anthony, Rhodes, Barnes, Banner, and his brother as they all headed for the US Accords Headquarters. Dr. Strange had promised to meet them there after he finished his lesson, but Loki suspected he just wanted the opportunity to make a dramatic appearance.

It was early morning when they left and with Loki’s stomach churning anxiously over fear of the announcement, they decided to drive to give him time to clear his mind.

Dr. Banner was driving and threw in the occasional comment here and there but mostly stayed quiet as Thor, Rhodes, and Barnes (who was shy but spoke a few short sentences) spoke about the military and shared stories of their respective service.

Anthony was a sleepy presence- him being someone who detested waking up early- and with his head injury still proving painful, he seemed more than content to curl up in his seat and lay his head in Loki’s lap.

The time was passing more quickly than Loki hoped, as he had no desire to hear a verdict that may be ruled against him in favor of the Witch, and sooner rather than later, they were nearing the headquarters.

Loki absently carded his fingers through Anthony’s hair as they circled the lot for a parking space. It was an action that was as comforting to him, he suspected, as it was to Anthony. But it was all too soon that the car was stopped and the momentary calm ended. Loki paused to wake Anthony but that endeavor took only a few minutes and then they were in the building.

Everett Ross greeted them with a tense smile. “Mr. Laufeyson, if you'd follow me.” He turned to the others. “You may stay in the hall, but you may not be present during the verdict.”

Loki froze for a moment, suddenly terrified to walk into the room. What if they determined the Witch could go back to living in the Compound?

Anthony’s hand was light on the small of Loki’s back. “It’ll be okay,” he whispered.

Loki took a deep breath and gave the people around him a quick look. All of them were dressed in their formal attire, looking both parts concerned and understanding as Loki steeled himself for the verdict. He nodded at his brother, finding strength in Thor’s supportive eyes, and followed Ross into the conference room.

“Take a seat,” the general said once he entered. Loki glanced around the room at the faces of the committee members as he did so. There was no warmth in any of their expressions.

He stared defiantly into their eyes, refusing to show weakness and allow them to see how ruined he was by fear. Mentally, he braced himself for the pain of the verdict. 

But if he focused all his attention, he could just make out the sounds of Anthony’s steady pacing outside the door. And he knew his brother, Banner, Barnes, and Rhodes were all waiting outside for him as well, even if he could not quite detect their presence with his senses.

It was just slightly comforting to know that he was not alone.

But the true comfort came from knowing Anthony was so close. Anthony, who had proved his loyalty and that Loki’s faith in him was not misplaced. Who had been witness to the monster Loki was, yet had pulled him into a hug and flooded him with feelings of safety and care.

Anthony, whom Loki was beginning to realize he might just quietly adore. And for now, that was okay.

Someone cleared their throat. Loki looked up, prepared for his end but ready to face it with those who waited for him outside the room.

Everett Ross met Loki’s eyes. His blue eyes held relief as he announced, “Corroborated by visual evidence and testimonies from Mr. Stark, Mr. Odinson, the Vision, Srg. Barnes, Cpt. Rogers, and several civilian witnesses, this Committee has determined that your actions were in self-defense, Mr. Laufeyson. Miss Maximoff will receive the full force of the law by the United Nations Accords Council for her crimes against you, Mr. Stark, the Vision, and any others who wish to file charges against her actions from the last several years. You are free to go and on behalf of this Committee and the Accords Council, we apologize for the pain she caused you.”

Loki couldn’t find it within him to respond, so he silently nodded his thanks and headed for the door. Anthony halted in his pacing when the door opened and by the time Loki had stepped out and shut the door, the others were staring at him as well.

“She was found guilty,” Loki managed to say around the lump in his throat as relief flooded him.

They were safe.

Anthony’s eyes widened. ”Really?”

Loki nodded, a weak smile appearing on his face. “She will be tried for her crimes by the Accords Council, but she will receive punishment for what she did.”

The men in the hall erupted into cheers but Loki only had eyes for Anthony, whose look of relief was blinding as he rushed forward to give Loki a hug.

Loki melted into the hug, closing his eyes as he allowed Anthony to embrace him. “Thank you,” he whispered, his voice rough with the emotions Loki wasn’t sure he wanted to put a name to.

For a brief moment, Loki felt Anthony rest his head on his shoulder. “Of course,” was the quiet response, and then Anthony pulled away.

Thor was the next one to hug him, booming about the ‘smart mortals’ who had locked the ‘ghastly Witch away’ and in the hallway with the five men with him, Loki realized that they, all with their flaws and hurts, were the ones Loki had come to know as his friends, and in the case of some, his family.

Chapter Text

“Brother, how shall we celebrate your victory?” Thor boomed, wrapping one arm around Loki’s shoulders as they entered the Compound. “The villain has been defeated; this calls for a celebration!”

Loki shrugged out of his brother’s hold and took a step back. “I would prefer we didn't,” he said quietly.

Although Thor appeared ready with a response, it was Anthony who stepped forward with a small gesture with his hand for the others to give them a minute as he asked softly, “Are you okay?”

“I'm fine, Anthony. A victory does not always demand a celebration,” Loki said, perhaps a bit sharply, he realized belatedly.

By the way Anthony took a step back- not out of fear but to give him space- was as clear an indication as any that Loki had been short with him.

“Well, that's fine. I was tired anyway.” Anthony was turning to Thor, most likely to tell him there would be no celebrating the trial’s results, when Loki grabbed his hand and made him turn back around so they could look at each other.

There must have been something in his eyes that gave away his feelings because Anthony sighed and said, “You're going to distance yourself from us again, aren’t you?”

Loki looked away. “I must,” he answered quietly. “Your assistance these last several days has meant more than I could find the words to describe… but I have wasted your time enough. It's for the best that I allow-”

“Bullshit. I don't care what you were about to say, anything without you in it isn’t even close to good and you think it would be ‘best’ if you leave? Seriously, tell me, best for who? For you? Because it's definitely not an A+ plan to me,” Anthony huffed, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I did not ask for your opinion,” Loki said stiffly. “You do not know my reasons for wanting to stay away, but I assure you, they are good ones.”

This time, it was Anthony who would not look at him. “Was it something I did? Or said? Because I wouldn't be surprised, I warned you about my-”

“You've done nothing wrong,” Loki interrupted. When that didn't earn him Anthony’s gaze, he sighed and admitted, “After everything that has happened, I need to process the events and come to terms with them. This is not something I can ignore and put a brave face on for, not this time.”

Anthony looked at him oddly for that statement and it wasn't until then that Loki realized the others had left them alone in the corridor. “What are you saying?” Anthony asked slowly. “Are you saying you normally hide whatever pain you are feeling?”

Loki raised an eyebrow at him. “Why should I have not?”

“Because we are friends?” Anthony countered, answering as if the answer should have been obvious.

“We are, which is exactly why I hid my pain from you. If I told you of my past or of what the Witch did to me or if you caught a glimpse of what I look like, the monster that I am, you would leave just like all the others. Perhaps it is selfish of me, but I will not lose you, Anthony. And if I must hide my grief to protect our friendship, then I will.”

Anthony stared at him for a long minute before he laughed bitterly. “Do you really think so little of me?” he asked. “Did you somehow forget that I know exactly what you look like? I know who you are and I'm still here!”

“Until when?” Loki demanded, shaking. “Do not claim to know me, Anthony, because you do not. You know me better than most, I will give you that, but as you put it: I allow you to know the facts about me I would have you share with the world if you were to betray me. But if I were to tell you more, to trust you, at what point would you become disgusted and leave?”

“I wouldn't.”

Loki shook his head at him. “You would.”

Anthony's voice was rough as he asked quietly, “Whatever happened to our ‘you make me want to believe’ vows? Was that all a lie too?”

“Anthony, none of this has been a lie. I made it a point not to lie to you. What I have told you has always been the truth.”

“Fine,” Anthony accepted. He turned away and pushed his hands into his pockets, but not before Loki saw the way his hands were shaking. “I hope you find the peace you are looking for.”

Loki watched him leave, wanting to call after him, but finding himself unable to form the words he wanted to say.

It wasn't until he got to his quarters that he realized he was crying too.

 

He didn't sleep that night.

Nor did he sleep the next night.

On the third night after their argument, FRIDAY spoke to him for the first time. “Boss has been cleared for active duty. His concussion is gone.”

Loki pretended he was asleep so he could avoid answering her. (But he was pleased to hear that Anthony was healthy.)

His silence wasn't an appropriate answer for FRIDAY, who began to pester him about Anthony on a regular basis.

The fourth night he was sound asleep when she announced, jolting him into consciousness, “Boss is awake if you would care to join him in the workshop.”

Loki rolled onto his side and said nothing. She didn't press him for a response but he knew she was disappointed in him.

He was disappointed in himself. Everything in him cried out to go to the workshop and hold Anthony in his arms until they both were past their nightmares and trauma…

But he would get as far as the door before he would stop. He was a monster. And even though it hurt to be away from the one person who meant so much to him, he would remain away until he lost his feelings for Anthony.

Anthony would never love him back. Nor should he look twice at a monster like himself. Loki knew that. 

It was best to let his feelings go.

So Loki stayed in his room, worked to distract himself from the Witch’s attack, and pretended the ache in his chest was from indigestion rather than heartbreak.

(It didn't work.)

On the fifth night, Thor (with Strange’s help, Loki grimly suspected) appeared in his room. Loki sighed, folded his arms across his chest, and sat down on his bed. “Evening, Thor,” he said with only slight annoyance. “What do you want?”

“For you to go to Tony,” Thor said as he leaned against the closed bedroom door. “He needs you, which you know, yet you remain here.”

“He is better off without me,” Loki said stiffly.

“You cannot possibly believe that!” Thor exclaimed. “Lady FRIDAY, explain it to my brother. He is unusually stubborn today.”

“Gladly, Thor. Loki, you are a coward. Stop being afraid to admit to yourself that you are worthy of my Boss’s love and go to him before he grows worse.”

Silence reigned in the bedroom for a full minute before Loki demanded, “Did you just call me a coward?

“I may be but an Artificial Intelligence, but Boss says I am allowed to speak my mind. Keep in mind, I do try to keep my temper- Boss says I should always try to remain respectful even when I’m upset- but your ignorance is tempting. I’ve told you time after time that Boss is hurting yet you remain holed up in your bedroom. That’s an act of a coward, if you ask me.”

“She is right,” Thor said quietly.

Loki got to his feet and was suddenly in Thor’s face. “Don’t you start with me,” he hissed. “You treated your woman Jane much worse by always being on Asgard when she needed you here. You do not have the right to tell me off for needing time on my own so I can get better.”

“That is not your only reason for avoiding Boss!” FRIDAY replied hotly.

Both of them ignoring her, Thor agreed, “You’re correct, I have no right to tell you the list of things you are doing wrong. But I do have the right, especially as your brother, to give you my advice.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Wonderful. Can’t wait.”

“Did mother treat you any differently from the way she treated me?”

It was hard for him to admit but Loki answered quietly, “No.”

Thor nodded at him. “And Tony, when he saw you on the battlefield in your true form with murderous intent in your eyes, did he look at you any differently?”

Loki didn’t bother responding to him. They both knew the answer to that.

“I agree with Lady FRIDAY,” Thor said in a voice that was truly quiet. “I know you have scars, Loki, scars from traumas and events I know nothing of, but I see the way you and Tony interact. I see how much his friendship means to you and to him as well. The longer you remain away from him, the deeper both of your pains gets. If I were you, I would go to him.”

“For what purpose?” Loki demanded, his voice wobbling just a little. “So he can see how a simple invasion from the Witch has hurt me so deeply? So he can laugh just like the rest of the world?”

“Stop!” Thor thundered. “You know Tony would not, so do not speak of such a thing. Your emotions cloud your thoughts, brother. You know of his pain caused by her; you were witness to the horrors the Maximoff girl imposed on his mind. If you truly believe Tony would think so little of you, then I do not believe you deserve him.”

Loki laughed bitterly. “Since when have you been on Tony’s side? I remember hearing the tales; I remember how you and the others treated him only a few years ago. You are not his friend.

“I am trying to atone for my many mistakes!” Thor said sharply. “Do not think for a moment that I do not recall every cruel word I spoke to him or every cruel action I did to him because I remember it all and I am trying to now be the friend for him that I should have been from the beginning- as I am trying to be the brother to you that I wasn’t!”

Loki slumped, sitting on the edge of his bed. “I do not deserve him, Thor,” he said miserably. “You know as well as I do that I will hurt him and-”

“I know that you would give him the realms if you thought it would make him happy,” Thor countered firmly. “You would gladly lay down your life if it meant protecting his for even another moment. You would let him be with another and be openly affectionate with that person in front of you even if it meant your heart was destroyed just so that he was happy. Brother, I know you would do Tony well. And if his protective Lady FRIDAY and his best friend Rhodes encourage you to be with him, don’t you think they trust you to be the person to make Tony happy and keep him safe?”

Loki floundered, at a loss as to how to respond as emotions rolled through him as quick and sharp as Hulk’s attack had been on him all those years ago. Thor sat down at his side and gently placed his hand on Loki’s shoulder. “If you were here, I might even give you a hug,” Loki murmured cautiously, too afraid to admit out loud that at that moment, he wanted nothing more than his brother’s support.

Thor huffed in amusement, the corners of his mouth turning up as he opened his arms in a silent invitation. “I’m here.”

And Loki hugged him.

 

That morning, Loki went to the workshop. Anthony was already hard at work when he arrived and it was no surprise when he saw the dark circles that highlighted Anthony’s dimmed eyes. If he had to guess, it was likely he had not slept at all the night before and perhaps the night before that as well.

From the stool next to Anthony, Barnes, who appeared to be assisting him in his work, shot Loki an annoyed look as he entered.

Loki felt enough to be ashamed that it had taken him so long to return to the workshop. He was about to apologize when Anthony said, all without looking up from the arc reactor he was working on, “Barnes, please stop giving Loki the evil eye. And Loki, if you’re going to apologize, don’t. You needed time to process after everything that’s happened. That’s not a crime, and it’s certainly not something you need to apologize for.”

Barnes slid off his stool and headed for the door, but he didn’t hesitate to stop in the doorway, shoot Loki a look that promised pain if he hurt Anthony again, and then make his exit.

“Sorry, he’s an overprotective mother hen,” Anthony griped as he tapped the stool Barnes had just occupied. “He’s barely left my side these last several days. I’m not sure if I should be flattered or concerned that he’s developing a crush on me.”

“He cares about you,” Loki said quietly as he took a seat.

Anthony shrugged at that. “It’s gotta have something to do with my size. I swear, everyone thinks I’m easily breakable just because I’m not as tall as most men. It’s like being small automatically means you are weak.”

“It’s the hoodies and soft, ruffled hair,” Loki said without really thinking. “You make others believe you are softer than you are, which you then use to your advantage to overwhelm your opponents.”

“Call it my superpower then,” Anthony shrugged. “I’m small and a badass, don’t mess with me.”

“I know better than to do that.” Loki managed a weak smile at the memories that crossed his mind. “You left me on my back twice.”

“When I was in my suit,” Anthony pointed out.

Loki paused. “You would be able to just as easily, I suspect, even without your armor.”

“I can’t tell if that was supposed to be an inappropriate joke or not,” Anthony groaned.

Loki rolled his eyes at him before he grew serious. Leaning in a little he said, “Anthony, I do have something to apologize for.”

Anthony set down his tool but did not look at him. “Fine, let’s have it.”

“Everything I said in our argument…I know better than that. I have spent months in your company and in that time you have seen me at my best… and my worst. My accusation that you would become disgusted with me and leave… that is one of the many things I have to apologize for. I know you would not do such a thing. You haven’t and I know that is because you won’t.”

Sighing softly, Anthony rubbed his temple. But still, he would not turn his head to look at Loki directly. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you so afraid of me?”

Loki swallowed hard, looking at the way the arc reactor flickered between them. How he so did not want to answer that question, but after everything he had put Anthony through, it was a fair question and one the engineer deserved to have answered. Anthony turned his head just slightly, side-eyeing him carefully as if he was afraid of his answer. (Loki was afraid of his own answer, sad as that was.)

Because you make me feel like I am not a monster. Because you don't know it, but you have stolen my heart from me. Because you could betray me and nothing would hurt me more.

Because I love you.

Refocusing on the question posed to him, Loki whispered, “Everyone in my life has belittled me in some way, has hurt me…” He trailed off, trembling a little. “If you were to do the same…I don’t know how I would bear it.”

“I won’t,” Anthony said firmly. “I’m not going to hurt you, Lokes, you should know that.”

“I do!” Loki trembled a little harder. “I do. But on some days… it is hard to believe such a thing can be true for someone like me.”

“You make me want to believe,” Anthony murmured, his words an echo of the first time they said that promise to each other and, somehow, when he said it, it seemed to mean more than just believing in the possibility of a true friend who cared.

Loki nodded shyly at him. “Yes.”

For the first time since he entered the workshop, Anthony turned his head to look at him. It made Loki’s breath catch in his throat when he realized just how close they were. They were close enough for him to clearly count the many shades of colors that blended to make the beauty of Anthony’s brown eyes. Close enough for him to kiss Anthony if he were to just move a little closer.

It took him a moment to realize that Anthony had been talking but had stopped at some point because now they were staring into each other’s eyes. Loki couldn’t look away, drawn into the way Anthony’s eyes were sparkling and Realms Above, did Anthony just glance at his lips?

He wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to say, just knew that he was going to say something, but before he could form the words, Anthony whispered, “Loki…”

Loki looked up at him, making eye contact, and his breath caught at the warm, inviting look in Anthony’s eyes. It was beautiful. It was breathtaking and Loki found himself leaning in ever so slightly.

A shrill ringing caused them both to flinch apart. Heart racing, Loki couldn’t help but glare at the device Anthony pulled out of his pocket. He glanced at the Caller ID, winced, and answered the call with an apologetic smile to Loki as he stepped away.  

Only a minute later, Barnes re-entered the workshop where he was loudly and enthusiastically greeted by both Dum-E and U. Loki resisted the urge to thump his head on the desk. 

They had been so close.

Curse the realms.

 

He dreamt that night. He dreamt of Anthony, eyes shining with warmth and safety as their lips met for the first time. He dreamt of Anthony yielding under his hand, trusting him with his heart as casual touches became more warm, as eye contact grew more powerful through fondness and desire.

He dreamt of uttering three words to Anthony, of watching as he lit up with surprise and happiness, embraced him, and whispered I love you back.

He dreamt of laughter, at first from pleasure but then cold amusement as a dagger was stabbed in the heart of his dream- of himself- as Anthony cruelly informed him, “You really thought I loved you? Look at yourself, at what you’ve done. You’re a monster. No one will ever love you.”

Loki woke up shivering, feeling as cold as he did when he first discovered he was not Asgardian but a Jotunn, and every moment since then. He tried to make himself warm, he bundled himself in all the blankets in his room and then some he magicked into existence but he couldn’t stop the frosty tears that streamed down his cheeks or the way he trembled uncontrollably.

Even though he was awake, he could hear the Witch laughing as she called him a freak, could see when he closed his eyes the way the Avengers had halted, fear in their eyes, when they saw him on the battlefield, his illusion gone and his monstrous form revealed for all to see.

A sob escaped him and at that moment, Loki couldn’t hate the sound of himself more. Why had his parents kept him; it made no sense! Even for the political ploy Odin had originally intended to use him for, why had he kept him alive? Why hadn’t he killed the runt, the monster, that Loki was when he had found him? Why had Frigga taught him her magic and given Loki her journals? Why?

Why had Frigga comforted him when he cried by holding him close and whispering sweet nothings in his ear? Why had she shown him the affection and protection that he was not worthy of?

Loki drew his knees to his chest and cried. Somewhere through the sobs and shaking he could just make out the faint murmurs of a voice of safety and love, but allowing himself to believe the voice was much harder than it ever had been before. He wasn’t worthy of the love, he knew he wasn’t…

“Yes, you are, Loki. I will say it until the end of our days; you are worthy of this, of love, of being protected. I promise you are.”

Anthony’s voice became his lifeline and Loki clung to the mortal who held him in his arms, matching his breathing with Anthony’s slow and steady ones until he had cried himself dry of any and all tears left to fall.

His energy was drained when he was finally calm. He was slumped in Anthony’s arms in a way that allowed him to hear every beat of Anthony’s heart, but he could not find the will within him to move. Keeping his eyes closed, he melted into Anthony’s embrace and let the engineer hold him.

Somehow, despite his agony, he knew Anthony would not let him go.

“Thor and Barnes are outside,” Anthony whispered after an unknown amount of time had passed. “They’re guarding the door. Okay? It’s just you and me and you’re safe, I promise.”

Loki wanted to pull away, wanted to tell Anthony he didn’t need his help, that he was a God and would manage just fine on his own… but Anthony was a warm, grounding presence and Loki couldn’t bring himself to move.

As if sensing his thoughts, Anthony said quietly, “You’re still the strongest, most powerful mage I know. This changes nothing, Lokes. It’s okay to need help.”

Loki couldn’t find the words to respond so he simply closed his eyes and remained silent. Minutes became an hour spent in quiet minus a soothing word murmured here or there and just as he was beginning to doze off, Loki felt Anthony shift their position so Loki was laying down and Anthony...wasn’t...was he leaving?

Opening his eyes Loki grasped Anthony’s arm and held tight, unable to speak the words he wanted to but knowing exactly how vulnerable and weak he looked at that moment. Swallowing, he braced for a rejection.

But one didn't come. Anthony merely gave a small, sad smile and murmured, “I’m not going anywhere, Lokes, I promise.” True to his word, as Loki watched silently, Anthony slid under the covers, hesitated for a slight moment, and then opened his arms. Loki pressed closer to him gratefully and allowed Anthony to protect him from the tortures stirring inside his mind.

And when he finally was able to fall back asleep, he did so safe in Anthony’s caring embrace.

 

When he awoke in the morning, it took Loki several moments to collect his memories from the night before. Recalling his nightmare and the person who had comforted him during the night, Loki froze, hardly daring to breathe as he realized last night hadn't been a dream.

Because when he turned his head, he found Anthony fast asleep behind him, his own small body curled around Loki's protectively. Although surprised that Anthony had stayed, Loki couldn't help but smile a little, deeply touched. He knew he wasn't worthy but the fates had guided them together and Loki seemed to have Anthony's true friendship because of it.

“Good morning, Loki,” came a whisper from FRIDAY. “Please, if you would, allow an hour to pass before you awaken Boss. This is the first night's rest he has gotten in several days and I fear for his well-being if he goes any longer without sleep.”

Loki sighed softly as he gazed at the peaceful expression on the mortal’s face. “What troubles his mind?” he murmured.

“Concern for you,” she said gently. “A fear of sleeping as well, for he has suffered from many panic attacks and nightmares in the last several days and nights.”

“I should have been there for him,” Loki managed to say around the lump forming in his throat. “You tried to warn me that he was ailing… I didn't listen.”

“Boss has not been alone. He has had the companionship of Sergeant Barnes this last week, although both himself and Boss have expressed their desires to have you with them in the workshop once more. If I do say so myself, they missed you.”

Surprised, Loki rose an eyebrow. “I was rather hoping my absence wouldn't affect them so strongly,” he muttered.

“You know better than to believe Boss wouldn't mourn the distance between himself and his best friend,” FRIDAY chastised. “Boss adores being with you. Isn't that obvious?”

“And if his protective Lady FRIDAY and his best friend Rhodes encourage you to be with him, don’t you think they trust you to be the person to make Tony happy and keep him safe?”

She was acting as a matchmaker between himself and Anthony, Loki realized a bit surprised as he recalled his brother's words. And even from very early on in their friendship, she had been trying to convince him to spend more time in the workshop. But why? Why him?

“Come on, Mr. Loki, don't you want to see the new armor? I'm sure Boss would be happy to show it off.”

“I hate to interrupt your typical late-night brooding session but if you could find your way to the workshop, you will see that Boss is still hard at work. I'm sure he'd appreciate the company…”

“Why me?” Loki murmured. “Why am I the person you’ve wanted Anthony to spend time with?”

“Actually,” a voice said sleepily from his back, “She only pestered you because of me.”

Loki turned his head so he could look at the engineer more easily. “You asked her…”

“In the beginning, yeah,” Anthony admitted without shame, appearing to be more awake already. “When you first arrived, you seemed to be as lonely as I was and from the few times we interacted, we seemed to have a lot in common. I thought you'd turn me down if I were to ask, so I discussed with FRIDAY the pros and cons of asking you to come to the workshop to talk magic and tech with me.”

“But you didn't,” Loki said quietly.

Anthony laughed softly. “I didn't have to. Remember that day I walked in on you doing magic? I was going to ask you then but I lost my nerve when you looked annoyed at my interruption, so I made up some line about needing your help, which by the way, you didn't care about.”

“I was uncertain of your intentions,” Loki admitted as he joined Anthony in sitting up and leaning against the wall.

“Yeah, well, after that fiasco I wasn't really in any hurry to approach you again on the topic.”

“And that is why your AI mentioned to me that you were fascinated with my magic.”

Stark mocked glared at the ceiling and the camera that wasn't there. “Oh, she did, huh?”

“Sorry, Boss,” FRIDAY responded, sounding not at all apologetic. “Must have been a flaw in my coding.”

“Are you insulting my coding abilities?” Anthony gasped, pretending to be hurt.

Loki smiled softly at their exchange, a pressure easing in his chest at the familiarity of their playful banter. At something FRIDAY said, Loki wasn't listening, Anthony burst into laughter, enough to make him lean over and brush his shoulder against Loki’s.

“Are you hearing this? My own creation and she won't stop insulting me,” Anthony pouted through his laughter.

Loki could only shake his head and smile. “She is your invention,” he pointed out, teasing. “And I must admit, she takes after you.”

“That’s cold, Loki, even from you. Just for that, you owe me a minimum of three hours work with Barnes and me in the shop.”

All amusement left Loki at those words and he gazed at Anthony somberly. “After what I said the other day, after last night… you would still wish to remain in my company?”

Silence reigned over the bedroom for several long moments. Loki kept his eyes on the comforter that covered their lower halves, unwilling to look up and see the pity or disgust that could potentially be in Anthony’s eyes.

“Hey, no, none of that. Look at me,” Anthony said gently as if he had sensed Loki's thoughts. “Your friendship is one of the most important things to me. And your heritage and past...that doesn't change anything for me. Okay?”

“Okay,” Loki said hoarsely.

Now standing, Anthony offered Loki his hand. “Barnes is probably waiting for us in the workshop by now. We're making a new arc reactor, one that will be stronger than a metal pole trying to shishkabob me. You up for the task?”

Loki hesitated for only a moment before he took Anthony's hand and allowed himself to be helped up. “Wash up, get dressed, do what you need to do. I'll meet you in the shop,” Anthony said, patting Loki's shoulder before he headed for the door.

A small smile on his face, Loki nodded. And if he admired the view as Anthony left, well, in his defense, he would never be in a relationship with the mortal so admiring from afar was the best he'd ever have.

 

When Loki finally made it out of his room, he was only halfway to the workshop when he was greeted by Barnes. Raising an eyebrow at the soldier Loki commented, “I thought you were in the workshop already.”

“I was but I wanted to talk to you before you went down. Should have left later; you take forever to get ready.”

Rolling his eyes slightly, Loki asked, “What do you want to speak with me about?” He gestured for them to continue the conversation as they walked.

The soldier clearly hesitated for a moment before he said, “I know what it is like to feel like you don't deserve anything good. Most days I still don't believe that I deserve friends or kindness, but it's better than it used to be. So if you want to talk about it, I'll listen.”

Loki stared at him for a minute, surprised. “Thank you,” he murmured as they reached the doors to the workshop. He scanned in and...nothing happened. The doors remained closed and when they peered in through the tinted-more-deeply-than-usual windows, they could not see whether or not Anthony was inside. He and Barnes exchanged uneasy glances as Loki queried, “FRIDAY?”

“Boss has disabled my cameras in his workshop,” she answered dully. “I do not know.”

Immediately on high alert, Loki found himself reaching for a dagger as Barnes drew his weapon. “Was there someone else in there?” Barnes demanded.

“Boss was alone.”

“Did something happen? Was there a threat? Did he feel threatened?” Loki questioned, more than worried now. In his time in the Compound, Anthony had put FRIDAY on mute three times when he had been truly upset and not wanted the help, but he had never disabled her ability to watch over him.

“There was a letter he received right before he…” FRIDAY trailed off, obviously hurt. “I can't see inside the workshop, I can't even scan to know if he's okay.”

“Anthony would not do that unless something had happened, something he didn't want her or us to see,” Loki said quietly to Barnes.

“Unless the letter was a threat and he’s doin’ something stupid to protect us, like some self-sacrificing shit.”

Sounding faint FRIDAY said, “If it was just a threat against himself, he would not have thought much about it, so your conclusion is logical, Mr. Barnes.”

“Why didn't you contact us when this happened?” Loki questioned.

“Boss was fifteen seconds into reading the letter when he went into panic. He referenced several old battles, four past traumas, and he very clearly said that he didn’t want anyone to see him like that. I obeyed his request because I was not willing to break his trust.”

“Even if he puts his own well-being at risk while we are locked out here and you can’t see what he is doing?” Barnes snapped.

FRIDAY remained silent, her hurt at the accusation blatantly clear in the way she did not retort.

Loki closed his eyes. He knew the likelihood of Anthony hurting himself whilst in a panic-induced state; he and Anthony both wore the scars from their past. “My magic is tied to his,” he said quietly. “Anthony is not currently injured or I would know it already.”

Barnes clearly slumped with the relief from hearing those words. But only a moment later, he stood upright and looked at Loki sharply. “Does Stark know?”

“About the connection?” At Barnes’s nod, Loki continued, “He is aware that there is a connection between our powers since I was the one who gifted him with the ability to have them. He also knows our magic is stronger when we work together, as a result of the bond.” He hesitated.

“What aren't you admitting?”

“I am not sure whether or not Anthony can sense my discomfort. He is aware that such a link exists between us, a small price to pay for the protection he has through his powers, but being able to sense one another’s pain is not guaranteed. He has displayed no signs of noticing my pain- you do not feel it directly, you are just aware subconsciously that the other is in pain- so I assume he can't.”

Barnes eyed him carefully. “Why can you sense his pain but he can’t yours?”

“We need to focus on the problem at hand,” Loki avoided. “Something in the letter brought up or made Anthony think of an enemy, which is why he panicked and remembered his traumas. Whatever was in the letter was most likely a reminder of those events…”

“Maximoff,” Barnes muttered.

Loki stared at him. “No, it couldn't be. She’s in prison. She has no way of contacting him.”

“But that would make sense,” Barnes argued.

The doors to the workshop swung open and Anthony, red-eyed and grim, greeted them with an empty look. “It was Maximoff, yes she contacted me, and she did so through some therapy program at the facility she's at where she confronts the people who have wronged her- aka me- and don't ask me how she got the letter mailed to me but she did and yes, I'm pissed and no, I'm not going to panic again, I've done that twice in two hours and it's just barely noon and-”

Loki stepped forward and carefully, gently, pulled Anthony into his arms. He could feel the way Anthony was trembling and he murmured an old comfort in his native tongue as Anthony exhaled shakily and slumped against him. "You're not hurt?" he confirmed, trailing his hand down Anthony's arm as he subconsciously held Anthony closer to him. 

Anthony shook his head, saying nothing. 

“What did she say in the letter?” Barnes asked from the corner where he had beelined to in order to examine FRIDAY’s camera to see if she was re-enabled.

Watching him, Anthony said, “A dozen or so reasons why it's my fault she attacked Loki and I. Also, FRIDAY’s up again, she's just mad at me so she's not speaking to me at the moment.”

“He upset me,” FRIDAY agreed very clearly to Barnes by blinking the camera he was looking at to show he was her intended conversation mate.

“And I told you I wasn't thinking clearly and apologized.”

FRIDAY was silent.

Anthony sighed. “Look, I know you're upset with me but please be civil to them at least, okay? Please?

“He thinks I'm angry at more people than just him," FRIDAY huffed.

Loki rubbed Anthony’s shoulder when he tensed at her angry tone. “She'll come around,” he reassured quietly.

Anthony looked unsure as he nodded. “I promised Rhodey I'd look at his braces. I'll be back soon.”

He had no sooner left the workshop when FRIDAY said glumly, “I just want him to realize that I just want to help him, which is why I was so upset when he disabled me in our own domain. How can I protect him if he won't let me?”

“You protect him in the little ways,” Loki offered. “Have his back.”

“Loki,” FRIDAY sniffed, “I always have his back.”

Loki held back a smile at her indignant tone. “I know.”

A few minutes after Anthony left, Barnes said quietly, “Tonight’s a movie night.”

“A movie night?”

Barnes nodded. “Stark’s not sleepin’, right? When you weren't here, it was real bad. I told him he should show me all the movies I missed when I was under control; you know, he should give me a pop culture lesson.” Barnes cracked a small smile. “He got a few hours of sleep each night- fell asleep right before the climax of each film.”

Loki smiled at the mental image. “A movie night it is, then.”

They fell into silence for several minutes before Loki felt a slight change of energy at his side. He turned and watched as a golden circle appeared and disappeared with the arrival of Dr. Strange. Loki rolled his eyes at the display. “Subtle as always, Strange.”

The sorcerer smirked. “I try.” He eyed Loki oddly as he took a seat next to Barnes on the sofa. “Tony, huh?”

Loki blinked. “I'm sorry?”  

“You know what I'm saying.”

Narrowing his eyes a little, Loki said tightly, “He is not aware, nor do I expect him to be.”

“Stephen!” came an excited voice from behind them.

Loki froze, closing his eyes as he willed himself to disappear. How long had Anthony been in the doorway? Had he heard what they had said? And if he had...did he understand what Strange had meant?

“Tony!” Strange replied equally as cheerfully. He did a double-take when he got a good look at Anthony, Loki realized. “You too?”

Anthony frowned, hesitating halfway to sitting down on the sofa next to Loki. “What does that mean?”

“It means-”

“It means he likes to interfere with other people’s lives,” Loki muttered in annoyance.

Anthony laughed as he sat down and snuggled against Loki, wrapping his arm around Loki’s waist as he hid his face in Loki’s shoulder, yawning loudly. “Can you be my pillow?”

“If you insist on being so needy.”

Laughing, Anthony said, “You know you're as needy as me.”

From Barnes’s side on the other sofa, Strange winked knowingly at Loki. Loki shot him a look threatening violence if he said anything, to which Strange merely smirked at him.   

“How's Rhodes?” Barnes asked quietly.

“He's doing something with Wilson. I told him I'd look at his braces later.” Anthony yawned. “Oh, and Lokes, your brother says to remind you that he's headed to Asgard Compound in a few hours and he wants you to come with.”

Loki groaned. “Valkyrie will want to spar.”

“So? Get your ass kicked and then be better the next time.”

“I've done that for months,” Loki sighed. “Granted, our battles last for nearly an hour now but she usually still defeats me.”

“You're just weak.”

Loki glared at him. “I could easily beat you in a fight.”

“No, you couldn't,” Barnes commented before Anthony could say anything. “You'd only fight him if you actually wanted to hurt him and you frankly don't have the coldness to betray your closest friend.”

“I've grown so soft,” Loki sighed.

Anthony laughed quietly as he relaxed more openly against Loki. “I hope I've played a role in your downfall.”

Loki smiled down at him. “Actually, you haven't helped at all,” he teased.

Bolting upright, Anthony demanded, “It was Dum-E, wasn't it? It was all that fetch he made you play, he wormed his way right into that guarded heart of yours armed only with a little green tennis ball.”

“That's it,” Loki agreed. “In fact, he's the only reason I come down here. I miss him if I don't see him every day. You on the other hand..."

“Don't worry, Stark. I'm here to see you,” Barnes promised with a little twinkle in his eyes.

Cheering, Anthony switched sofas as he curled up next to Barnes. “You're my new favorite,” he said happily. “It's good to be appreciated by a friend, for once.”

“Sorry, Tony,” Strange started, laughing when Anthony gave him a suspicious glare. “I'm just here to bother Loki.”

“Yeah, you're definitely my favorite,” Anthony confirmed to Barnes, pouting as he mock-glared at both Loki and Strange. “At least I can count on you to be my friend.”

Even though he knew Anthony was joking, something in Loki’s chest still tightened at Anthony’s words. He coughed to hide his dislike of the direction of the conversation as he stood. “I should go find my pest of a brother,” he excused, adding, “He’ll want to refresh me on the “no pranking anyone” rules, as he always does before we go to the Compound.”

“Aww, jealous, are we?” Anthony called, teasing as Loki headed for the door.

Turning around, Loki shot him a look as he said, “Don't be ridiculous, Anthony. That would suggest that you are mine, which you are not.”

“Not yet, anyway,” FRIDAY input in a voice that was not quite a whisper.

Loki wasn’t sure who flinched more at her insinuation, himself or Anthony. Before he could bolt out the door, however, Anthony was suddenly at his side, looking soft yet serious as he said with a wink, “Don't worry, Snowflake, you're the only person for me. Barnes, although hot, is just a friend.”

There was laughter from behind them but Loki ignored it as he said quietly, “I am not jealous.”

Anthony placed a hand on his shoulder before wrapping him in a hug. “I wouldn't mind if you were,” he whispered in Loki’s ear before he pulled away. Giving Loki an unreadable look as he smiled at him, Anthony said, “Enjoy having your ass kicked! But do tell her to go easy on you, will you? I want to see you back home safe and sound, you got that? Safe and sound.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “She simply defeats me, not destroys me, Anthony. I will be fine.”

Dum-E, approaching from the right, beeped at them. “He says have fun,” Anthony interpreted, looking pleased with himself for understanding the bot.

Sounding amused, which Loki would speak with her about later, FRIDAY said, “Actually, Boss, he says that you should give Loki a good-luck kiss.”

This time, laughter came from all sides of them. Loki looked up, scowling, to see his brother and Dr. Banner standing in the doorway.

“I was coming to get you,” Thor said, grinning, “but I see you are busy.”

“Busy preparing to teach two AIs a lesson,” Loki muttered darkly.

“Don't you threaten my children!” Anthony exclaimed as he took a step closer to Loki. “I'll have you know that they are-”

“What are you doing?” Loki interrupted, eyeing his approach cautiously.

Anthony gave him a quick glance-over before he stood in Loki’s space and pressed his lips to Loki’s cheek with a loud smack. “Giving you a good-luck kiss,” he said innocently. “Problem?”

“Yes, you missed my lips,” Loki said without thinking before he spoke. Realms Above, why did he say that?

Laughing, Anthony’s eyes twinkled as he shook his head. “Not before our first date. You'll have to wait for that. I know I'm irresistible but-”

“On the contrary, I don't find you attractive at all,” Strange interrupted with a teasing smirk.

“Fuck you, Stephen,” Anthony snapped good-naturedly. “You're just jealous that you don't look half as good as I do.”

“Oh, is that it?”

“That, or the fact that you aren't lucky enough to get to flirt with a sexy-looking god.”

That startled a laugh out of Loki. If you remembed what my Jotun form looked like you would think twice before saying such a thing about me.

Thor clasped Loki’s shoulder as Anthony turned back to face them. “Come, so we can prepare for today’s festivities.” He paused in the doorway with Loki reluctantly following. “Bruce, I have also been informed to invite you to come along. Our people have missed you.”

Dr. Banner looked nervous. “Me?”

“You're the sweetest person here,” Anthony said fondly. “Of course they missed their space buddy. You should go.”

“You should,” Loki agreed, surprising himself with the admission. But the doctor and his other form no longer scared Loki, not after he got to know them while both on journey to Midgard and living in the Compound with them. “You could even spar with Valkyrie for me. Spare me the embarrassment of being defeated in front of all my people.”

“Oh, stay, then,” Thor pleaded eagerly. “That's always fun to see!”

Loki rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

“I'll come,” Dr. Banner said slowly. “It would be nice to see Valkyrie again.”

“Have fun!” Anthony called, sitting down next to Barnes on the sofa as he joined in conversation with Stephen and the soldier.  

Saying farewell to the engineer, Loki went up the stairs with his brother and the doctor as he quietly recalled the feeling of Anthony’s lips pressed to his cheek. No one had ever kissed him before on the cheek, no one besides Frigga, and she had always done it as an action done out of love.

Loki wondered for only a moment before he cast the thought from his mind. Anthony was just engaging in meaningless flirtation with him.

It meant nothing to Anthony, surely.

But it meant something to Loki.

 

When he returned in the first hour of the morning, Loki was both surprised and pleased to find Anthony was asleep. He crept into the workshop carefully, both to not aggravate his own injuries and also to not disturb Anthony, who was getting the rest both he and Barnes had feared he wouldn't get after the letter from the Witch.

“Have a nice evening?” Loki asked quietly as he sat down on the sofa.

Barnes barely glanced at him. “It was nice,” he said absently. "Stark wasn't feeling well, though."

Loki frowned. "Is he getting sick?"

"He didn't show the typical signs of being ill. But he was quiet and seemed worried. Wasn't focused during the movie."

"Could have just been exhaustion from his lack of sleep recently," Loki murmured. He eyed Barnes cautiously, who was yet to look at him. “Are you alright?”

“No!” Barnes hissed in a frantic, harsh whisper. He shook his head, seeming unaware of the way he was carding his fingers through Anthony’s hair.

Sensing the soldier was panicking a little, Loki said softly, “Barnes, tell me what's wrong.”

The mortal glanced at Anthony before looking away quickly. Loki followed his gaze and frowned. “Something with Anthony?”

“He's sleeping on me!” Barnes said frantically, his voice still never increasing in volume.   

“I can move him,” Loki offered softly.

“No!” Barnes snapped, glaring at him. “Stark's fine where he is. Don't disturb him; he needs his sleep.”

“What's the problem, then?”

“Problem?” Barnes laughed bitterly. “He's asleep on the person who killed his mom. That's the problem. He's sleeping on me, meaning that he's allowing me to see him at his most vulnerable, meaning he's trusting me to protect him if someone were to attack or if something were to happen...” Barnes’s eyes were squeezed shut. “He shouldn't trust me,” he said in a broken whisper. “Why does he trust me?”

“Because that's part of who he is,” Loki said quietly, thinking about how Anthony trusted him despite nearly dying at his hand and fighting an entire war against him. 

“He shouldn't trust me,” Barnes repeated, sounding sure of himself. And Loki wouldn't have that.

“You don't think you should have his trust,” Loki said gently. “There is a difference. If you didn't think he should trust you, you wouldn't be here. I have seen more than you think, Barnes, and if you feared there was even a remote possibility that the soldier could come out, you wouldn’t be down here.”

“There is always a chance.”

Loki inclined his head slightly, conceding to the point. “Dr. Banner’s Hulk could come out at any time if he is angry or scared, yet he often joins us in the workshop. You must trust in yourself, Barnes. Trust that you can control him or that he will not hurt anyone.”

“I've killed too many people at his hand to simply trust that I won't kill again.”

“No!” Loki said sharply, adjusting his position so he could stare directly at Barnes. “You would not put our lives at risk; it is not in your nature. The soldier will do us no harm, I am sure of that. Your demon lies in the hurt you feel, the hurt that tells you that you are not worthy of Anthony's trust. That is why you say he should not trust you; because, in your mind, you don't deserve his care and support!”

“I don't!” Barnes retorted, trembling slightly. “I killed his parents.”

“Not of your own free will.” Loki leaned forward. “I know what it is like to have your mind be held captive by another, to do something you do not want to do but have no choice in doing because you are being controlled. The Mad Titan, the warrior that comes to end this world, he is the one that controlled me when I led an army against New York.”

Barnes stared at him. “Stark knows this?”

Loki nodded. “I have shared this with him already, yes. And even before I had, when he still thought I had ravaged his city under my own free will, he was still willing to get to know me. We had been sharing his workspace for months before I confessed to him the truth. Even now, he has known the truth for less time than the amount of time he knew the lie.”

“Didn't he treat you-”

“No.” Loki shook his head. “Although he sympathized with me, he had long ago forgiven me for my battle because he knew I was sorry for my crimes. And it is the same for you, Barnes. I don't know all of the details, but I can imagine that it was the heat-of-the-moment that led Anthony to attack you. He has forgiven you now and he forgave you before talking with you because he knew you were controlled and that you regretted everything you did when you were under control.”

“But his trust-”

“Is hard-earned, so give him a reason to keep it in you,” Loki said firmly. “He has suffered enough betrayal in his life.”

Barnes fell silent as he gazed down at the man asleep in his arms. Loki allowed him the time to think as he pondered silently all that Anthony had made him realize about himself.

“He's dreaming.” Loki looked up at Barnes, who was frowning. “Nightmare.”

Loki moved closer to the two men. “His sleep has not been peaceful in days, has it,” he said in more of a statement than a question.

“Neither has yours,” Barnes pointed out as they finally acknowledged the problem they had avoided speaking of for so long.

“I know,” Loki sighed. “It will improve with time.”

Anthony whimpered in his sleep, for a moment struggling in Barnes’s arms before he went limp.

Loki frowned as he placed a hand on Anthony’s shoulder. “Wake up, Anthony,” he murmured. “It is but a dream, you are safe here.”

It took a minute but then Anthony startled awake, giving a rough gasp for air as he sat upright before silent tears slid down his cheeks.

Loki murmured an unidentifiable sound but it was one of comfort as he opened his arms. Anthony immediately folded into them, burying his face in Loki's shoulder so he could hide his tears. Loki held him close, unwilling to let go when he felt how Anthony shuddered with the remembrance of his dream.

“Make it stop,” Anthony pleaded brokenly. “I don't want to dream anymore.”

“I know,” Loki whispered sadly as Barnes pressed closer from the other side, the two of them acting as the firm pillars that kept Anthony anchored to safety. “This will soon pass, I promise.”

“Hey, Boss?” FRIDAY said quietly.

“Yeah, Fri?”

“I would gladly endure each of your night terrors if it meant protecting you from them, but I do not have the capability to perform such a task.” FRIDAY hesitated. “I wish I did so you wouldn't have to suffer.”

Uttering a weak, choked-off sound, Anthony murmured, “Baby girl, please don't make me cry even more. That’s not cool at all.” He paused, appearing to gather his thoughts, then whispered, “But thank you, Fri. You've always got my back.”

“'Course I do, you're my dad,” FRIDAY said fondly. “I protect my family.”

Laughing a little, touched, Anthony pulled away from Loki so he could look at Barnes. “Thanks for being my pillow.” He laughed nervously, running his hand through his hair. “Sorry about that. I'm sure the last thing you-”

“Call me James!” Barnes blurted out, immediately looking horrified at what he had just asked. He tried to pull away, most likely to bolt from the room, but Anthony was faster and gently grabbed his wrist.

“Hey, it's okay,” Anthony soothed. “Here's the thing though.” Barnes flinched. “I'll only call you James if you'll call me Tony. Deal?”

Barnes looked startled. “You want-”

“You're my friend, James,” Anthony said gently. “Of course I do.”

The soldier looked stunned as if he had fully expected to be rejected. “See you tomorrow?” he asked numbly.

Anthony smiled. “If you'd be so kind as to grace us with your presence for a few hours.”

A faint blush coloring his cheeks, Barnes nodded and quickly ran from the room. Loki looked after at him fondly. “It is good to see that he has a friend like you in his life.”

“It's my charm,” Anthony shrugged off. “Keeps people drawn to me.”

“No, it is your personality,” Loki disagreed quietly.

Anthony snorted. “Because people like being friends with a broken “hero” with sometimes crippling PTSD and Anxiety.”

“Many do not know how to treat or support someone with a mental illness,” Loki reluctantly agreed. “But others are wise enough to look at the scars and see them as symbols of strength instead of weakness. Those are the people who find beauty in the insecure, find worth in the struggling, and help them believe in themselves again.”

“That's you,” Anthony said quietly.

“No,” Loki murmured, touching Anthony’s jaw and making the engineer look at him. “That's you.”

Anthony looked up at him, brown eyes filled with warmth as they made eye contact. “Loki-”

Closing his eyes, Loki gently pressed their lips together.

Chapter Text

Realizing what he was doing, Loki pulled away, wide-eyed, and stared at Anthony. He kissed him. Norns, what did he do?  

Eyes twinkling appreciatively, Anthony leaned over and brushed his lips against Loki’s cheek in a small, gentle kiss. “You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that,” Anthony murmured as he leaned back to give Loki his space.

Loki couldn't breathe. “How long...? You've wanted-”

“For a couple of months, yeah,” Anthony admitted a little sheepishly, running a hand through his hair. “It’s kinda hard not to want you, Lokes…you're amazing.”

Loki stared at him in wonder. “No one has said that about me before,” he murmured.

“What, that you're amazing?” Anthony frowned. “Well, clearly everyone in your life didn't know you very well if they never complimented you.”

“I have received many compliments,” Loki informed. “But the people who said them either wanted something from me or simply wanted to gain my attention for sexual endeavors.”

Anthony tilted his head at him. “And when I compliment you?”

It was suddenly hard to breathe with Anthony sitting so close and looking at him with such a deep intensely. “When you say it…” Loki cleared his throat. “I know you are genuine.”

Anthony smiled up at him as he shifted his position, leaned over, and pressed a chaste kiss to the corner of Loki’s mouth. “Good, I'm glad,” he murmured.

Loki turned his head slightly, allowing the kiss to land on his lips. “You are yet to kiss me on the lips,” he teased lightly. “Three times now you have missed, whereas I have been accurate.”

“Because one out of one is such a great record,” Anthony smirked.

Raising an eyebrow, Loki raised a hand to cup Anthony’s jaw, angling his head just so as he kissed him softly. “Two for two,” he murmured without making a conscious effort to move away afterward.

Following his train of thought, Anthony scooted over so they were sitting side-by-side, their shoulders brushing. Loki offered him a smile as he wrapped his arm around Anthony’s waist and tucked the mortal into his side, right where he belonged.

Anthony rested his head on Loki’s shoulder and looked up at him. “What are we?” he murmured.

This was the moment Loki had both yearned for and feared. He had thought out a dozen different ways their conversation could end and, of the possible options, the only one he truly liked was the idea of himself being Anthony’s and Anthony being his.

What if Anthony didn't want a relationship with him?

Loki couldn't blame him if that were the case. He was a Jotun, after all, and-

“Lokes?” Anthony nuzzled Loki lightly, pressing a kiss to Loki’s jaw. “Talk to me.”

“I don't want to force you into anything you don't want,” Loki said finally. “Whatever you want us to be, I am happy with.”

“But you want a relationship.”

Loki couldn't quite look at him as he nodded. “More than that, though, I want you to be happy.”

“You goofball,” Anthony said fondly, shifting in Loki’s arms so he was seated in a taller position. He tapped Loki’s cheek with his finger, making Loki look at him. “All I need to be happy is you. Of course, I want a relationship with you.”

Hopeful and closer to tears than he would like to admit, Loki looked at him. “You are being honest? You want me, with my true form-” He broke off, staring at Anthony. “You are one of the most influential, powerful, most handsome men of this Realm. Anyone would gladly be with you. Why would you give up the ideal partner for someone like me?”

“Because all of those people aren't you. You're the only one I want,” Anthony replied gently, reaching over to take Loki’s hand in his own as he cuddled closer.

Loki processed that information slowly, trying to come to terms that someone as wonderful as Anthony would want someone like him...

Warm lips sealed his own and Loki closed his eyes, melting into the kiss. He could feel Anthony’s fingers exploring his cheek, mapping the structure of his face, before reaching back to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear. Anthony’s touch was light and friendly and everything Loki had imagined it would be.

Loki brought his hand to Anthony’s and held tight as Anthony kissed him again.

Maybe something good happening was possible for someone like him, after all.

 

Waking up in the morning was as ridiculous as the plot to the romance novels Loki had read at his mother’s bidding when he was in his youth. Such a simple action, of waking in the morning with Anthony at his side, shouldn't have made him as happy as it did- but it did. And somehow, oddly enough, it reminded him of the ending that was in all of the romance novels he had ever read. 

‘And they lived happily ever after. The End.’

Lies. (He had thought.) All romance novels were cliched, with beautiful plots and touching words that never seemed real, and yet people always seemed to wish that they could have a ‘fairytale’ ending just like the characters in the book. It was utter rubbish, but they still chose to believe.

Loki had never understood the reason why until now, when he awoke to have his own hope be true after spending his entire life waiting, dreaming.

When he had read those stories in his aging youth, he had never allowed himself the fantasy that one day he would wake up and find his lover still in his bed because they didn't want one night to be the only relation between them.

It was fiction to believe a happy ending was possible for someone like him, wasn't it?

He had always thought he’d only be wanted by another for his silver tongue. The notion, the dream, that someone wanted to be with him for everything he was, hadn't crossed his mind since he had been but a naive boy of a couple hundred years old.

But the childhood dream Loki didn't even realize still existed in his heart had come true. Of which, was only and completely due to the mortal that slept peacefully at his side.

Smiling to himself softly, Loki pressed a kiss to Anthony’s cheek. How did he get so lucky as to end up with Anthony as his own? He doubted he would ever find an answer to his question, but he couldn't be more grateful that somehow, Norns knew why, he and Anthony had been fated together. 

Loki laid there for another half hour, simply content to hold Anthony in his arms as he recalled how they had spent their night before they retired to bed. It had been nearly four in the morning when they had transitioned from the workshop to Loki’s bedroom but the time they had spent in the workshop talking was worth more to them, Loki believed, than a few extra hours of sleep ever would.

They had opened up to each other in a way they never had before, but Loki suspected they always wanted to, by sharing little stories from their past and talking about what they were looking for in a relationship.

Loki had a feeling they could have spoken all night with ease but as the night had drawn on, he had not missed the way Anthony was leaning against him more heavily, his eyes blinking closed for a bit longer at a time as he grew tired.

It had been then, just before four in the morning, that Loki had taken Anthony’s hand and offered his room for them to reside in for the night. Although they had done no more than a few soft kisses or a lingering touch of a hand to a cheek, Loki had not offered to share a room because he wanted to spend the night with Anthony.

He had merely asked because he wanted to be with Anthony, something that had easily been understood by the engineer as he smiled up at Loki, took his hand, and followed him to his room.

They had laid down together, Loki on his back with Anthony cuddled against him on his side so Anthony had his arm over Loki’s chest, which he then used to place his hand over Loki’s heart. He didn’t say anything out loud but Loki saw the way his eyes had glimmered with an unspoken sentiment.

It almost looked like love, even so early in their relationship.

Not that the idea of Anthony loving him was unwanted or even unusual, for Loki had known for over two weeks that the feelings that grew in his heart for the other were ones of love and compassion. They had been friends for months, close friends at that, and really, that was why Loki’s affection had grown for Anthony the way it had.

The man was simply stunning in both his personality and looks.

When Loki decided he was too hungry to wait for Anthony to wake up, he carefully pulled away from his lover, dressed, and went to the communal kitchen. It was nearing noon but was not quite time for the others on the team to come looking for lunch, so Loki set about making breakfast for them.

It wasn't long until James found him absently humming over the griddle where two pancakes were cooking. “You and Tony?” he asked, grinning knowingly.

Loki couldn't help but smile as he admitted yes to the soldier. (Being able to say they were in a relationship was more pleasing than Loki had expected it to be.)

James cheered, pounding his fist in the air as he turned to FRIDAY’s nearest camera and said proudly, “I was right!”

“You and FRIDAY predicted when we would get together?” Loki asked, amused.

Nodding sheepishly, James confessed, “I said before Friday, she said over the weekend. But I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist each other for that long, not with all the flirting and the way the two of you were lookin' at each other.”

“Srg. James, I'm afraid to tell you that our dear Col. Rhodes’s prediction was correct down to the day and time of night…” FRIDAY said gleefully. “You were wrong!”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “How many people were in on this?”

“Strange started it yesterday after you left and Tony took an SI call,” James smirked. “Counting him, nine of us placed bets.”

Nine?”

“We called some people we thought would be interested. And it was kinda obvious. There were practically heart eyes floatin’ in the air when the two a ya looked at each other.”

“I was not that obvious,” Loki scoffed as he flipped a pancake.

James raised an eyebrow. “A kid coulda noticed your feelings for him. It was very obvious.”

“What was?”

Loki turned slightly, smiling when he saw Anthony standing sleepily in the doorway. The engineer yawned as he vainly tried to brush back his tousled hair with his hand and stepped into the kitchen. (It was an adorable sight, Loki thought.)

“You and Loki crushin’ on each other,” James informed him.

Anthony shrugged. “What can I say? It was bound to happen sooner or later. I'm a catch and he's irresistible.”

“Not sure about that,” Loki snorted under his breath, thinking about the blue skin, red eyes, and runes that lay under his skin, shielded from sight by his magic.

“I heard that, Snowflake, and yes, you are,” Anthony murmured as he wandered over to press a kiss to Loki’s cheek and snag a piece of a pancake from the stack of already made pancakes.

James eyed them. “Your flirting is going to be unbearable now,” he moaned lightly.

Anthony winked at him. “You can count on it.”

“Boss,” FRIDAY said quietly, “Incoming Rogers and Romanov.”

James looked at them sharply. “Are you not-”

Anthony gave him a sad smile as he leaned up to press a quick kiss to Loki’s lips. “They have enough reason to hate us. We don't want to give them further incentive against us on something that has no consequence to them but means so much to us.”

“What he's trying to say is,” Loki broke in with a small smile in Anthony’s direction, “We're only telling those we believe should know, meaning our family.”

James blinked at him. “Fam-”

“Tony! James!” Rogers greeted with an all too-bright smile on his face as he and the spider agent entered the kitchen. Loki eyed them warily; they had not seen much of each other but the time they had spent in the same room was always filled with tension and blatant dislike for the other. “How are you?”

“Fine,” Anthony replied shortly, taking a bite of the food Loki had set in front of him.

“I'm okay, Stevie,” James said with a small smile. “What's going on today?”

The captain suddenly looked hesitant. “Well, um, Tony, I was hoping to maybe train with you a little later today? We haven't really done that and I've sparred with everyone else recently…”

Loki observed the way Anthony tensed a little as he shrugged, appearing to be unconcerned with the idea, and accepted the offer. Ignoring the two Rogues’ presences in the room for a moment, Loki took his plate of food and sat down next to Anthony. When he looked up, Romanov was eyeing him carefully.

Raising an eyebrow at her, Loki questioned, “Something to say, Agent Widow?”

She didn't move but Loki saw the annoyance flash in her eyes for a brief, barely allowed second of vulnerability. “You and Tony seem close,” she commented.

Anthony was speaking before he had the opportunity to formulate a response. “Yes, it's called being friends with someone. But you wouldn't know much about that, would you?”

Rogers looked pained on her behalf. “Tony…”

“That was uncalled for,” Anthony agreed, sighing. “And I apologize. But!” He glanced at her sharply. “But I don't appreciate you judging who my friends are when you have no right to pretend to care. Your ship sailed two years ago.”

“Tony…” she whispered, looking saddened. “I was just trying to keep the Avengers together. That's all I wanted.”

Anthony snorted. “Yet, somehow I ended up alone as you and your real friends, the real Avengers, fucked off to Wakanda to live off of someone else's resources. Save me the lies, Natashalie, you can't fool me anymore.”

She gazed at him sadly. “When did you grow so cold?” she murmured.

Anthony shook his head, standing. “Even two years later you still look down at me, still see me as the murderer who you need to keep your eye on. I'm tired of your bullshit. Just leave me alone.”

“Tony-” Rogers interjected. “She’s just trying to understand because she still cares about you. That hasn’t-”

“Fine, you want to know?” Anthony whirled around in the doorway, his eyes stinging with a grief that Loki could connect with all too well. “I grew so ‘cold’ as she put it, the day you left me to die in a fucking HYDRA bunker in the middle of fucking winter. Let me tell you something, it's only cold until the hypothermia sets in. And you know what? Then, as you start to come to terms with your impending death, you go numb. You don't feel the cold anymore, you don't care that you've been left for dead, you just don't care. And when you close your eyes for the last time, you can't even cry because you're too frozen for the tears to fall.” Anthony leaned closer to Romanov. “That's when I went cold. When I was as good as dead and had nothing left to live for. So pardon me if I’m friends with Loki, who actually treats me like I mean something to him other than a tool to be used and then thrown away.”

Loki stood up, eyes wide as he watched Anthony storm away. “We are not finished with this conversation,” he muttered darkly to Rogers before he ran after Anthony. “FRIDAY, watch James, alert me if he needs me,” Loki directed as he ran to the workshop. But it was empty.

“FRIDAY?” he demanded, anxious. “Where did Anthony go?”

“Your room,” she said gently. “James is on his way down. Do you have a message for him?”

“No, I’ll tell him myself,” Loki said in reply as he ran up the stairs and met James halfway to the workshop. The soldier had a blank look in his eyes, clearly on the verge of breaking down. “James, look at me,” Loki said sternly when the man didn't even look in his direction despite having his pathway on the stairs blocked.

James gazed at him emptily. “It's my fault,” he gulped. “I don't know how he can stand to look at me after what I did to him. We fought him and then we left him there…and you heard what he said, he thought he was going to die...because of me…”

Loki grabbed James’s shoulders, shaking him lightly when the man’s eyes lost a bit of color. “You were protecting yourself. Anthony has confessed many times to having attacked you first. And from what Anthony has told me from the fight, Rogers helped you out of the bunker. Were you not concussed?”

“Yes, but-”

“You didn't have a clear head. And from Anthony has said about it, although very little, he has made it very clear that he doesn't blame you for what happened that day.”

James wouldn't look at him. “He should.”

Running footsteps made Loki look up and he sighed in relief when he saw Dr. Banner and Thor approaching. “FRIDAY told us about the argument. Rhodey’s coming back from his PT with Sam. Where's Tony?” Dr. Banner demanded breathlessly.

“My bedroom,” Loki said grimly.

James looked up at him. “You should be with him.”

Loki sighed, squeezing James’s shoulder as he said quietly, “It is Rogers he is upset with, not you. Please, don't blame yourself.”

The soldier didn't respond to him as he nodded. Loki knew the man was lying to make him leave but in knowing that James had Banner and his brother as company, Loki allowed himself to go to his lover.

He found Anthony sitting on the edge of his bed facing the window. When he sat down beside him, the engineer said quietly, “Now would be a great time to tell me you want nothing to do with me anymore. Better now while I'm down than waiting until I'm not.”

Loki gently placed his hand on Anthony’s arm. “I am not going to simply turn you away when something difficult happens. I am with you because I adore all the parts of you that make you who you are, and that includes your flaws, imperfections, and hurts.”

“Look at me,” Anthony whispered. “I am not going to be that good of a lover. I have nightmares and panic attacks and I'm reckless and self-destructive...not to mention I’m prone to anxiety attacks- sometimes at the littlest of things- and my left hand shakes at random times, and I have a tendency to speak without thinking, especially when I'm upset or mad...”

“Don't you think I know all these things about you?” Loki asked when Anthony paused to breathe.

Anthony hung his head, looking at the floor. “Then why be with me?”

“Because there is no one else I want to be with besides you,” Loki murmured, reaching over to take Anthony's hand in his own. “You have stayed at my side when I have been down; I will do the same for you.”

Sighing weakly, Anthony leaned over and rested his head against Loki’s shoulder. Loki wrapped his arm around Anthony’s waist and simply held him as they sat there in silence.

Sometime later, half an hour later, Loki supposed, Anthony said quietly, “I didn't try to kill him. He would have been dead if I tried, sad as that sounds. But I wanted to hurt him so badly, enough to make him and Rogers both feel exactly as I did when I saw Barnes squeeze his metal hand around my mother’s throat.”

Loki observed the use of the surname but said nothing. He knew Anthony was struggling and had more to say.

“Rhodey was paralyzed because of that fight in the hanger. Everyone was there, even the kid. I had hoped it wouldn't escalate; I thought we could talk it out. Peter cracked one rib, bruised two others in a fall. Rhodey was paralyzed when Vision missed with a shot from his stone and hit the reactor of his suit, causing Rhodey to fall from the sky. I...I didn’t get there in time to catch him. And Romanov had a bruised spine, but you'd never know it because she's a badass and never shows she's in pain.”

“And you?” Loki prodded gently.

Anthony shrugged. “Broken arm.”

“What aren't you telling me?”

Anthony absently flexed his left hand. “Permanent nerve damage in my arm and hand, received when Maximoff and Barton dropped half a dozen cars on me. You knew that already, I guess, but now you know how it happened.”

Loki briefly closed his eyes as that image crossed his mind. He wasn't sure what to say, so he was quiet. But his magic determined Barton’s location for later reference.  

“The bunker was a mess. I only remember so much of it- severe concussion- but I'll never forget how it ended. Barnes was down, Rogers got me on the ground on his own. Used the shield...knocked my faceplate off.” Anthony's eyes were distant. “He raised it...I remember thinking he was going to hit me in the head with it. I thought it was the end.”

“This is why you have flinched at the sight of it,” Loki murmured.

Anthony nodded slightly. “I raised my arms; it was my last resort to protect myself. My repulsors were active, I heard them hum with power…but I didn't fire.” Anthony shook his head bitterly. “I remember thinking, this is it, this is how I die. At the hands of the person my dad always considered more of a son than me. I was prepared to die; I wanted to die. But he shattered the arc reactor instead and then took Barnes and left.”

Loki trembled. “Anthony…”

“Three years earlier and he would have killed me. I needed the reactor to stay alive, remember?” Anthony laughed bitterly. “It would have been so ironic: ‘Iron Man Killed By Childhood Idol in Cold Blood.’” His eyes were hard. “God, my old man…I wonder if he would have given a damn or if he would have laughed. He hated me, you know. He hated everything I represented: a mortal who was weak, naive, stupid, and easy to kill. Everything dear ol' Cap wasn't- and isn't.”

Loki pulled Anthony into his arms and pressed a kiss to Anthony’s temple. “I am sorry,” he whispered. He didn't know what else to say. 

Anthony shrugged, saying nothing. He seemed to be beyond using words, Loki realized. So Loki spoke quietly of childhood ambitions and told stories of Frigga’s comfort until Anthony’s thoughts were once again back in the present.

“Thank you for being here,” Anthony breathed out shakily as he tightened his grip on Loki’s hand.

“Of course,” Loki murmured as they stood. “I need to attend to something; perhaps, if you wish, head to the workshop and see James? I believe he blames himself for your trauma in the bunker.”

“Oh, shit,” Anthony swore, looking at him wide-eyed. “Who’s he with? He's not alone, right?”

“No, Dr. Banner and my brother are with him.”

“Thank God,” Anthony slumped, relieved. “Yeah, I need to talk to him.”

“Do you wish for me to pass onto Rogers that you wouldn't like to spar with him today?” Loki asked as they entered the hallway.

Anthony raised an eyebrow as he shook his head. “It’ll be good to let some steam off. What do you have planned for him?”

“Nothing sinister,” Loki promised. When he saw Anthony's look, he rolled his eyes. “Fine, nothing that sinister. A simple conversation will suffice.” He hesitated. “And maybe a prank or two, we shall see.”

“Rogers is in his quarters,” FRIDAY informed him grimly, always his companion in any mischief against the Rogues when the situation called for it.

Loki nodded at Anthony. “After our friendly chat, I'll be in my room until you wish for me to return to the workshop. Take all the time you need.”

Anthony gave him a weak smile as they parted ways at the top of the stairs. “Thanks.”

 

There was no better sight (ignoring when Anthony was in the equation) than seeing the pure fear that shone in Rogers’s eyes when Loki stood tall, looking down at him, and promised darkly, “If you ever harm Anthony again, there will be no crevice in all the realms that you could attempt to hide in where I won't find you and make you feel every bit of hurt that Anthony did thanks to you.”

But despite his fear, Rogers still had the nerve to say, “Are you threatening me?”

“I am telling you exactly what would happen,” Loki growled. “You took his heart and shattered it into fragmented pieces. Trust me, if you hurt him again, a broken heart will be the least of your problems.

“I could report you,” Rogers threatened.

“I could tell the world you are an attempted murderer,” Loki countered. “And trust me, you would be the next person to join your precious Witch in prison.”

Rogers looked as if he were going to argue so Loki leaned in closer, completely in Rogers’s personal space. “You harmed someone very special to me that day in the bunker when you took his heart and destroyed it. Trust me, if you hurt him again, there will be no limit to the different ways I will cause you to experience pain. Do you understand?” Loki paused, grinning ruthlessly. “A verbal confirmation will suffice nicely.”

Rogers stared at him for a long moment before he swallowed hard. “Yes,” he muttered.

“Yes to what?”

“Yes...I understand,” Rogers ground out.

Loki smirked. “Thank you for your time, Captain. And do remember what we spoke about, as it would be most beneficial to your health!”

 

Anthony and James were hard at work when Loki entered the workshop a few hours later. Anthony looked up when he entered, visibly brightening when he saw it was Loki who had entered.

“Hey, handsome! Have fun?” Anthony asked.

Loki rolled his eyes as he approached the desk. “A little,” he confessed, eyeing the reactor briefly before he glanced at James who seemed more at ease, although still tense. “How fares the repairing?”

“It still can't hold against the force of a metal pole being driven through it.” Anthony sighed. “Wanda, when she attacked me, hit me with one of the most powerful blasts I've ever felt in the suit. That's why her stabbing was successful; my reactor is always the most heavily-guarded part of the suit…”

“But not against that much power,” Loki mused. “I wonder if there isn't a spell that might protect you from, Norns forbid, an attack of similar strength…” He waved his hand and one of his mother’s journals appeared in his hand. “There are notes in here for strength and durability for objects… However, it is a spell I am yet to use before so I do not have it memorized.”

James eyed the book with wonder. “Your mother taught you magic?”

Loki nodded. “She was, and is, my inspiration to be a better mage. When I did not want to learn, she encouraged. When I was uncertain, she taught. When I was troubled, she came to me in the night and handed me a parcel that contained all of her journals. It was her gift to me; her way of saying she trusted me to be worthy of her craft.”

Anthony smiled at him gently. “And I'm sure you made her proud of you every day as she watched you grow into the mage you are today.”

“I do try to live to her expectations,” Loki murmured as he quickly read the words of the spell. Speaking softly, he took the reactor from James and watched, pleased, as it colored green at the touch of his magic.

“Fri, test it,” Anthony called as Loki placed the reactor a good fifteen feet away from them. When he returned to Anthony’s side, a beam lit up the air.

Curious, Loki went over to the reactor. “It is undamaged!” he announced, happy, to Anthony. He held out the reactor and Anthony took it without hesitation, eyes shining as he stared at the device in wonder.

"It works!" Anthony exclaimed, overjoyed. He threw his arms around Loki's waist, hugging him tightly as he cheered various words of thanks and praise. Loki just laughed and hugged him back, pleased that the spell had worked. 

James cleared his throat. “I think I'm going to head out, do some other things.” He was halfway to the door before Anthony caught up with him, gently taking hold of his arm.

“Tell me something,” Anthony said quietly. “Why do you come down here?”

The soldier turned his head away, looking at the wall. “Because I feel safe down here,” he said in a voice that was barely above a whisper.

“Even though I attacked you?”

Startled at the question, James flinched and looked at him sharply. “I don't…” He floundered for several long moments. “I forgave you for that months ago,” he finally revealed.

“If you can forgive me for doing that, then why can't you accept the fact that I forgive you?” Anthony asked softly.

“That's different.”

“Sure, it is. But that's because I attacked an innocent man and you defended yourself,” Anthony responded easily.

James looked panicked. “No! I'm not trying to say-”

“You're not allowing yourself to heal, James,” Anthony said gently. “Because you don’t think you deserve to. But you do. And I do forgive you, even though it was self-defense.”

The man didn't reply but he didn't have to because Anthony carefully stepped forward and hugged him. He pulled away after only a few seconds but Loki could see the spark in James’s eyes that had ignited because of the hug.

“You come back when you are ready, okay? You'll always have a place down here.”

James gave a brisk nod but his expression was touched as he ran upstairs. Loki approached from the side and placed his hand on Anthony’s shoulder, unsure of the perimeters to the touching aspect of their new relationship. “You are a good man,” he murmured.  

“Definitely not,” Anthony laughed. “But thanks.” He turned so he was facing Loki, stepping closer to wrap his arm around Loki’s waist as they walked over to the sofa. “That journal you pulled out earlier...I've never seen it before.”

“That is because I have never shown it to you,” Loki informed him. “It is the first journal my mother ever gave to me; I keep it protected at all times to preserve her memory and the bond that is still holding strong between her and myself.” He allowed the journal to appear into the air, caught it in his hand, and handed it to Anthony once they were comfortably seated on the sofa. “You may read it; tell me what you think. I am curious to see your reaction to her notes- which I have already translated into English so you will be able to understand them.”

Anthony’s eyes lit up. “Really? I can read it? That's amazing, thanks!”

Loki smiled at his enthusiasm. “Go ahead.” And that was how they spent the majority of the next week: cuddled together on the sofa as Anthony read, asked the occasional question, and Loki answered him with a fond smile for Anthony’s determination to understand the words.

Sometimes they performed a particularly interesting spell from the journal and yet other times they sparred magically so James could analyze the required movements to fight and use magic at the same time.

They often took breaks from reading so as to prolong the experience and as a result, Loki found himself engaged in many more conversations than usual, both with his brother and the others he considered to be his adoptive family (of sorts).

Those conversations usually included talk of shared interests, hobbies, or events going on in their lives. It was neutral ground for them all but it was a step in progressing their friendship, so Loki was pleased.

On one day towards the end of the week, Anthony had a work event that caused him stress, for when he returned home in the evening his tie was sloppy, his hair was unbrushed, and his eyes were already closing as he plopped onto the bed with an exhausted, out-worked, groan.

Loki had pulled him close and it had taken only a few minutes for Anthony to fall asleep in what was becoming his normal position: his head on Loki’s shoulder with his hand covering Loki’s heart. And Norns, Loki shouldn't be so touched by such a simple gesture but each time Anthony slept on him, hand over his heart as if vowing to protect his heart, he never failed to be touched greatly.

At the beginning of the week when night would fall, he and Anthony would say their goodnights and go their separate ways to sleep. But after having slept together the first night, they both found that not sharing a bed was causing them to have difficulties falling asleep. And from the third day of the week onward, they began sharing Loki’s bedroom.

The first week of their relationship- the week they spent reading the first journal Frigga had gifted to him- was a week spent together and in the company of their family and friends, all of whom who knew and supported their relationship.

It was a week unlike no other that Loki could recall in his life.

Waking up each morning to Anthony in his bed was a sight Loki was sure to never grow old of. In all truth, very little had changed about their friendship except now when they flirted, Loki knew it meant something to both of them. And, of course, they kissed and held hands and cuddled together often, which was all amazing and warming, but what truly mattered to Loki was knowing that what they had together, their relationship, was real and treasured by them both.

And having that relationship with Antony, the first (and likely only) one to matter, made Loki wish for his mother. How she would have adored Anthony had she been able to meet him.

Not only for keeping her son happy, as Anthony was able to do unlike no other had ever been before, but also because he was passionate, bold, knowledgeable, and wanted to learn magic. No one had ever wanted to learn more about his magic and that was most certainly a reason why Loki knew his mother would have approved of his relationship with Anthony.

However, the most powerful reason was that Anthony held the ability to make Loki laugh, to smile, to be happy, all by simply being in Loki’s presence. He made Loki happy in a way Loki couldn't imagine any other being able to do.

Frigga had always loved him, Loki had never doubted that, and oh, she would have loved Anthony for a countless amount of reasons but the main reason would have certainly been because Loki loved Anthony and was happy with him.

On the day when Anthony had been in work meetings all day, Loki had wistfully sought out his brother, during which he had explained his grief over their mother not being there to see Loki truly happy for the first time. Thor had understood and even offered his comfort, something that had both surprised and touched Loki.

But it was something that Thor said that made Loki think and three weeks into their relationship, he carefully wrapped a gift and tucked it away in storage for his magic to keep safe until he decided it was time to give his gift to his beloved.

Two weeks later, past a month into their relationship, Loki saw his opportunity. Tension was thick in the Compound following the argument about Siberia and, as a result, it meant that the team meetings had an air of coolness about them that hadn't been there before.

There was clearly a division where the other teammates lay their support and, as Loki suspected, this was the first time so many people had ever supported Anthony in his life. Of the entire team, only two were neutral (Wilson and Lang), only two were on Rogers’s side (Barton and Romanov), and the rest of the team was wholly, firmly, on Anthony’s side.

When everyone joined in the conference room for their mandatory monthly team meeting- the room divided into two sides- Anthony sighed, stood, and went over to stand in front of Rogers.

Loki wasn't sure who was more surprised: Rogers or everyone standing behind Anthony.

“There's a lot of things I'm not ready to forgive you for, perhaps not ever. And I certainly can't forget some of the things that we did to each other… But this?” Anthony exhaled shakily, pointing between divisions. “This can’t happen. Sooner or later we'll be called to battle and if we don't work together or at least trust in each other to put personal problems aside and work together, we are all as good as dead the second we get on that battlefield.” Standing tall, Anthony offered his hand to Rogers. “So I want to be the first person to act like an adult and make sure that during our next battle, we will all get to come home.”

Rogers stared at his hand incredulously for a moment before he took it, voice unsteady as he said, “Me too.”

Anthony nodded at him and then went to extend his offer to Romanov. And as she slowly shook his hand, James was the first to step forward and tighten the fragile bonds that were keeping the team together.

After the meeting, Loki was quick to catch up to Anthony, who had practically bolted from the conference room once he had dismissed them. Loki approached from the side so Anthony would know he was coming and once he was close enough, he tapped Anthony’s hand to earn his attention before he wrapped his arms around Anthony’s waist and stood close.

“What troubles you?” he murmured, resting his chin on Anthony’s shoulder. It had taken them almost two weeks to become comfortable with more than friendly physical contact with each other, and now they were always sure to be openly affectionate to each other in a public space only when they were sure they were alone... But whenever they were together, they were always sure to have some sort of contact between them. Such just felt right.

Anthony leaned against him, absently running his hand over Loki’s arm as he admitted, “I know trying to mend the bridge between us and them was the right thing to do but…I’m not sure I'm ready to trust them to have my back in a battle. I'm not even sure I want to.”

“There is nothing forcing you to make that decision now,” Loki said gently. “Come time for battle, there will be many people that you can trust watching your back. And we will protect you from them.”

“You shouldn't have to, though,” Anthony sighed. “I shouldn’t be holding this grudge still.”

“When the time comes, you will know their true intentions. Until then, allow yourself to feel what you do. There is nothing saying you need to forgive them or even trust them now. To do either one is a long, painful process.”

Anthony turned to look at him, smiling. “When did you get so smart?” he teased lightly.

Loki pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Long before you were a thought in the stars, my dear. My mother taught me well. I, however, only show my intelligence to those who are smart enough to understand.”

Anthony laughed. “I love how you just managed to compliment both of us in the same sentence.”

Shrugging proudly, Loki said, “It's a newfound talent.”

“Oh?” Anthony grinned as he pulled away only to take Loki’s hand and guide them in the direction of the stairwell leading to the workshop. “Exactly how new is ‘new’?”

“Mmm...a few months or so,” Loki murmured.

“Yeah?” Anthony’s eyes were gleaming. “And what inspired this ‘talent’ or yours?”

“Finding someone worth complimenting,” Loki replied smoothly, stopping their advancement so he could kiss Anthony.

Anthony laughed. “You charmer.”

Loki shrugged, teasing, “I'm not the only one who has a way with his mouth.”

Dr. Banner passed them in the hallway, groaning. “Guys, keep it rated PG, at most!”

“We're all adults here!” Anthony called.

“Then do it for FRIDAY. She’s innocent!” Banner yelled from the end of the corridor.

Anthony laughed as they ran down the stairs together. “‘Innocent’ he says. Fri, on a scale of one to ten, how innocent are you of helping Loki prank the Compound?”

“About a nine, boss.”

“That means not innocent at all,” Loki moaned.

“I thought it was the other way ‘round!” she defended, not sounding truthful at all.

“Uh huh. I'm onto you both,” Anthony muttered, pausing at the last step so he was level with Loki who was stood on the ground. He grasped Loki’s collar and gently pulled him closer for a kiss. “You troublemaker,” he murmured fondly against Loki’s mouth.

Loki laughed. “But you love that about me,” he said without really thinking about the implications of that statement.  

“I do,” Anthony agreed as they stepped into the workshop together. “Which car do you want to take to the hosp…” He trailed off, turning when he realized Loki wasn't standing behind him. “Lokes?”

And suddenly, Loki knew exactly what he wanted to do and what he wanted to say. He had always had a rough plan of what to do, of what he wanted to say, but it had never sat firmly in his mind about exactly what he was going to say when he handed Anthony his gift. At least, until now.

Swallowing hard, Loki crossed the distance that remained between them, took Anthony’s hand, and guided him over to the sofa.

“Babe, what's up?” Anthony asked, confused, as he sat down.

Loki took a seat, taking one of Anthony’s hands in his own as he said, “Anthony, my mother would have loved you. For being my friend, for simply being the person that you are...oh, she would have spoiled you.”

“Yeah?” Anthony smiled, seeming a bit surprised at the topic but more than happy to listen. “What was she like?”

Loki sighed, his eyes stinging just a little. “She was beautiful. So full of life, of love. She never looked at me any differently even though she knew I was adopted from a race of monsters.”

“Misunderstood Jotuns,” Anthony corrected gently. Loki’s heritage had been the subject of many conversations between them and despite Loki’s insistence that he was a monster, Anthony had not wavered, had not hesitated to defend Loki’s honor and the race that he truly was. Loki was yet to allow his Seidr to relax and show his true form, but he found himself slowly believing that he could show himself to be Anthony and be loved instead of laughed at, ridiculed, or scorned.

Anthony made him believe.

“Fine, misunderstood Jotuns,” Loki permitted, easing his own growing tension by offering Anthony a small smile. “Frigga was kind, caring in all the ways that Odin wasn't. Her smile could easily light up the palace.”

Eyes closing momentarily, Loki lifted his hand and allowed one of his most beloved treasures (besides Anthony, of course) to appear. He offered the wrapped gift to Anthony, who took it hesitantly.

“My mother would have loved you,” Loki repeated softly. “And I wish to give you this to always remind you of why.”

Anthony stared first at the small box and then at him. “Loki…”

“I know she has watched us grow as people, as friends, as more, over these several months. And I know she would be happy for us.”

“Loki, what are you saying?” Anthony whispered.

“Open it,” Loki requested quietly. “You will see.”

Eyeing him with curiosity, Anthony slowly pulled back the paper and lifted the gift from its holder. “What...Loki...no, you can't give me this,” he murmured. “This is your-”

“My mother gifted me with this journal with the intention that I would use it to find a connection to her and to others. She wanted me to be happy and wished for our shared interest to play a role in my happiness,” Loki explained softly. “I wish to give you her gift to serve as my reminder to you to remain hopeful of a brighter future even when life isn't kind to you, and to sincerely wish that you always have the happiness that I have thanks to her, the light her words gave me, and you, my dear, for my abilities from this journal and many others was what brought you to me.”

Anthony swallowed hard, blinking wetly as he said, “Loki, I don't know what to say. God, I'm never speechless and I have absolutely no idea to express my thoughts right now without rambling like an idiot.”

Loki only smiled at him as he continued with his explanation. “All these years, my magic was my shield. It was what made me different, what kept others from getting too close to me. I used my mother’s gift to protect myself and I didn't truly appreciate it until only recently.” Loki looked up at Anthony, his eyes watering just slightly. “And I give you this journal because you appreciated the beauty of magic and respected the power of it from the very beginning. You are worthy of my mother’s notes and I think she would have been honored to call you the person that stole her son’s heart.”

Eyes shining with unshed tears, Anthony placed the journal in the space between them, moved so he was sitting lightly on Loki’s lap, and cupped Loki’s face in his hands. “You were always the only magic I was ever interested in learning more about,” he confessed and pressed his lips to Loki’s.

Chapter Text

Three days later they stood together in silence as they stared at the closed door of the conference room in front of them.

“I'm not ready for this,” Anthony whispered. “To start more trainings and trust-building exercises… Loki, I can't do this…”

Everyone was in the room except them and Strange, who was on his way. Loki slid his hand into Anthony’s, squeezing gently. “We will protect you,” he promised.

Anthony set his shoulders, his eyes hardening. “I can do this.”

“Yes, you can,” Loki agreed.

Anthony looked at him, his eyes desperate and fearful behind the cold mask he wore. “And when this fails?”

“It won't. We won't let something so important fall to pieces. But,” Loki stepped closer, raising his available hand to stroke Anthony’s cheek, “But if something happens, rest easy with the knowledge that I will always catch you if you should fall.”

“My knight in shining armor,” Anthony teased, looking more at ease.

“No,” Loki kissed Anthony softly, “I’m yours. That is my only title.”

“Besides a prince-slash-mage who is handsome, intelligent, kind, and sweet?”

“Well, being yours is the only title that matters to me.”

Anthony laughed. “I'm with such a charmer.”

“Yes, and it's disgusting,” a new voice sounded from behind them.

“How long have you been standing there?” Loki demanded.

“Since the sickening I Love You confessions,” Strange snarked. “Now, am I here for a meeting or to be tortured?”

“Both,” Loki muttered darkly.

Anthony patted Strange’s shoulder. “There, there, Stephen, you'll find someone to love soon enough.”

He didn't deny our ‘love confessions’, Loki realized as they entered the conference room together. But we didn't say I love you. Unless…

Unless their compliments and-

“Loki, paying attention?” Anthony asked from where he and Rogers stood, united, in the head of the room.

Loki winked at him. “Lost in thought of all the ways I-”

“No!” Dr. Banner groaned, immediately following a dirty line of thinking. “You promised to keep it PG! Remember FRIDAY is listening!”

The Rogues just rolled their eyes, expecting the flirtation was between two playboys and nothing more. Loki allowed them to have their illusion, although he did smirk at Barton when he looked back and forth between him and Stark, appraising in horrification.

Anthony laughed. “And on that very exciting note, Rogers and I have come up with some training and trust-building exercises that we're going to make mandatory. Thrilling, I know. And as life unfortunately goes, the Council got involved when we sent them our report and they have some wonderful plans for some trust-building activities that we have to do in the next several weeks, starting with an exercise that will start today and go on until tomorrow night.”

“I'm terribly ill,” Barton said quickly. “Can't participate, sorry.”

“And Loki and I are dating and have fifteen thousand better ways to spend our time than trusting you with our lives,” Anthony snarked, sounding annoyed but very serious. “But life doesn't work the way you want to, deal with it.”

What was that? He just-

Barton groaned, folding his arms over his chest. “Fine. What do we have to do?”

-told everyone we are dating. He said he didn't want to because they would-

“We're going to climb a mountain.”

The entire room fell silent. Even Loki paused in his thoughts because Norns, Anthony sounded completely serious.

Dr. Banner laughed nervously. “You're joking, right? Because I'm not sure how much I like that idea if you’re being honest…”

“It sounds like an unnecessary risk of life,” Vision agreed.

Rogers sighed in unison with Anthony. “I wish we were joking. Tony…”

“There's a list of instructions we have to follow, a list of supplies we’ll be given to use for each day of the climb. Long story short, they want to endanger our lives. Because it ‘builds trust when it's life-or-death” or some shit like that,” Anthony said flatly. “And if we don’t agree to the terms and follow their instructions, we'll be suspended.”

“This is shit,” Barton muttered.

Thor agreed verbally as the others nodded or murmured quietly their agreement. “Tony, can’t something be done? What if someone is injured?”

“The idea is that we can safely climb up the mountain if we work together and trust each other- with our lives.”

The conference room absorbed that statement.

“Read the terms,” Romanov ordered.

Anthony pulled out a piece of paper from the folder he was holding. “Everything I'm about to read is their idea, not ours, and their official terms to basically keeping your job.”

Half the room looked tense, the other half, ill at the thought of having to trust someone they didn't with their life.

“‘All those with magical capabilities are not allowed to use them. All those with powers, weapons, or tools must not bring or use them. All participating members are to come defenseless and use the supplies provided by this Council. Such includes: twelve harnesses, twelves ropes to attach partners to each other, fourteen bottles of water, and fourteen earpieces- the extra two are to go to our two non-participating members. Items will be replenished on the morning of the second day as needed. Each member is expected to wear the harness and remained attached to their predetermined partner throughout the entirety of the climbing portion of the exercise-’ the other part being at night when we're not climbing, you can unlatch yourself from your partner then. ‘If one were to unattach themself from their partner-’”

“Predetermined partners?” Strange frowned. “Who is with who?”

“‘If one were to unattach themself for their partner, he or she will be suspended and face the Council for their disregard to the seriousness of the exercise. It is expected that oneself relies purely on their partner. Communication is strongly recommended,’” Anthony finished.

“‘Strongly recommended,’” Barton huffed. “The fuckers, pardon my language, kid.”

“Mr. Stark- Tony- am I supposed to participate in this too?” the young Parker called nervously from where he sat next to Loki in the back of the room. Loki gently placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder to calm him.

“No,” Rogers answered. “Both you and Vision are exempt from this exercise as you both have roles outside of this team- you with your neighborhood duty and Vision at the Masters' Facility. You're just here as a formality.”

“Is it too late to transfer to the MF?” Banner asked, only half joking.

“I'm sorry, Bruce,” Anthony said quietly.

“What are the pairings?” James asked from where he stood at Loki’s side. Loki observed how he was tense and silently sent him a wave of comfort with his magic, only a tiny nudge as if to say, it'll be okay.

“The Council ruled, and I quote, ‘three pairings were necessary to establish trust between individuals who have either lost or never had trust in one another.’” Anthony wouldn’t look up from the paper, which wobbled ever so slightly in his hand. “Bruce is with Romanov, Loki with Barton, and Rogers with me.”

Rogers cleared his throat. “Rhodes, you are with Sam.” The two men shared a pleased look. “And James, you're with Scott, which means Thor and Stephen, you're together.”

Dr. Banner and James both exhaled shakily, clearly uneasy with their partner.

Loki recalled Barton’s many glares and scowls at him and swallowed hard. But he was infinitely more concerned for Anthony, who was to depend on the very man who had tried to end his life.

“When is this exercise?” Romanov questioned.

“As soon as we fly out and get there.”

“Has anyone considered the idea of our jet experiencing ‘engine failure’ and we ‘depend on each other’ in our own controlled, safe environment?” Barton asked. “I mean, let's be honest here. This is stupid.”

“Aye,” Thor agreed. “I trust my partner but I fear for the safety of others during this endeavor.”

“Well, we do have a couple of geniuses of both tech and flying…” Anthony shrugged. “So, I'd say as long as we make it look believable... let’s not rule anything out.”

He and Barton exchanged a look of unknown qualities.

Loki sighed. “Which Midgardian mountain are we to climb?”

“We don't know,” Anthony informed him. “It’s going to be a two-day climb; that's all we know. And they'll be taking us there, so we'll have no way of knowing where we are.”

Someone swore. Loki agreed with the sentiment.

Three hundred minutes later, much too soon for anyone to bear, they were standing at the bottom of the mountain as six Council members met them and harnessed them together.

“Any words of wisdom?” James asked them dryly as he was secured to the insect-man.

“Don't die,” one councilman replied smugly before stepping back.

“Fuck you,” Barton muttered darkly to the man.

Loki looked up and met the eyes of Anthony, who was as pale now as he had been on the jet when he and Loki had shared their mutual fears for the exercise. He silently willed for them to make it to the top safely as he watched Anthony shakily secure his water bottle to his satchel.

“This is rock climbing in elementary school all over again, except then we were actually harnessed to the ceiling instead of each other,” Barton said, sounding a bit panicky. “Shit, this is such a bad idea. If either one of us loses our balance…”

“We will fall,” Loki said quietly.

“We've got this,” Wilson said confidently to Rhodes as they were secured to each other. “We'll be fine. And yes, even with your legs.”

The airman didn't look convinced but nodded.

Loki looked at Barton. “I have every desire to return home safely. Do not allow your hatred for me to compromise our safety.”

“Oh, we're making it back in one piece, don't you worry about that,” Barton said grimly. “And I'm leading.”

“Fine,” Loki shrugged. “But I expect that we will both stop when the other wants or needs to.”  

“I will if you will.”

“Deal.”

Anthony looked around at everyone as he and Rogers stepped forward to the wall. “Despite the fact that this is the most stupid and dangerous thing I've ever done in my life, and I suspect it's the same for everyone, let's get this shit over with. And please, be safe.”

“You've got this, Mr. Stark and Co!” the young Peter yelled from where he and Vision stood.

Anthony managed a weak smile. “Listen to the kid. We've got this.” And he and Rogers were the first to step up to the mountain and begin their climb.

Barton and Loki followed next, the others slowly following behind them. And slowly, carefully, they began their mission.

“We’re taking a break,” James announced as he and Lang came to a halt some several hours later.  

“Can anyone see the ledge that we're spending the night on?” Barton asked.

“We can,” Rogers replied. “We've got a ways to go still.”

“From one to ten, one being perfect, ten, horrible, how is everyone doing?” Anthony asked.

“Mentally or physically?” Dr. Barton questioned dryly.

“Tally both together or give me two answers if you need to.”

“Two,” Thor said quietly.

“Two as well,” Stephen agreed.

“Lucky fuckers,” Barton muttered.

“I think I'm on the Two Train,” Rhodes answered.

Wilson laughed, looking at his partner. “Me too. It'd be a one if we weren't risking our lives here.”

“Anyone else going with two?” Rogers asked.

No one responded.

“I'm a four,” James said quietly.

Loki cleared his throat. “Five.”

Barton nodded at him. “Same, five.”

“Six,” Dr. Banner muttered.

“Five,” Romanov said curtly.

“Three,” Lang admitted.

The only people who remained were Rogers and Anthony. Neither offered a figure right away. The entire team had stopped advancing by that point.

“Stevie? Tony?” James questioned.

“I don't know,” Anthony said shortly. “Seven.”

“Five,” Rogers said very quietly.

“We're maybe an hour’s climb from the end of today’s section. We'll meet you there,” Anthony said after a moment of silence. “If you need us, just say the word.”

Be careful, Loki silently pleaded. That's all I need from you; the knowledge that you are safe for the entirety of this pathetic mission.  

The communication line was silent for the next hour, minus a few directives murmured here and there. Then Anthony said, “We’re done for the day so we’re going offline for a bit. We'll still be able to hear what you say so if you need us, again, don't be afraid to say so.”

The unhappiness and fear in his voice made Loki’s stomach clench. Looking around, he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

“How fast do you think we can make it up there?” Loki murmured. Rogers and Anthony had always been ahead of the others by a somewhat large margin; could they get to the ledge in half an hour?

“Let's find out,” Barton said grimly. Although it was obvious he didn't trust Anthony with his precious Captain, Loki didn't say anything. He just grit his teeth silently and climbed faster.

About four hundred meters from the ledge, if Loki had to guess, Barton said quietly, tensely, “I've been told you were mind-controlled when you attacked New York.”

For fear of breaking whatever it was Barton was trying to establish between them, Loki nodded. “By the Mad Titan, yes.”

And that was all that was said between them until Barton called, “Hey, Cap, we're on your doorstep. Think you could help us up?”

No response came and for a moment, there was no movement from the ledge, and then Anthony and Rogers appeared in their line of sight. They assisted Barton to the ledge with them and then Loki.

“Oh my God, land, thank fuck,” Barton sighed in relief.

Loki rose to a standing position and looked around the almost cave-like crevice they were to be residing in for the night. He saw that Anthony was still kneeling on the ground by the ledge and carefully walked over and sat down next to his lover.

“Anthony?” he asked quietly.

“It's too much like a cave,” Anthony whispered. “Like Afghanistan. I can't go back there.”

Loki realized his communicator was still online and immediately turned it off. “May we move away from the ledge, just a little?” he requested.

Anthony nodded absently, taking Loki’s offered hand and allowing himself to be stood up. He was tense and when Loki looked closer, his eyes were rimmed red, most likely from whatever conversation he’d had with Rogers whilst they had been alone on their ending point.

“Do you think we'll make it to the top tomorrow?” Anthony asked quietly. “Without anyone getting too hurt or without any arguments or problems?”

“I am hopeful of such an occurrence.” Loki could feel Rogers and Barton’s eyes on them but ignored their presence as he placed his hands on Anthony’s shoulders. “It will be okay,” he promised, leaning forward to press a kiss to Anthony’s forehead.

Relaxing at his touch, Anthony gave him a weak smile and looked up at him with warmth in his eyes. “I know it will be. You'll be there.”

“True,” Loki murmured, wrapping his arms around Anthony’s waist. “I will keep you safe.”

“Hey, we're ready to be pulled up!” Lang announced. “And we've got the flying aces right behind us.”

Rhodes and Wilson both laughed. “Damn right, we are.”

Anthony gave Loki’s hand a gentle squeeze before he went to the ledge with Rogers. “We've got you, James,” he reassured, extending his hand. “Loki, Barton, you got our resident golden boy fliers?”

Laughter sounded from down below. “We're so amazing,” Wilson snorted. “I'm never going back to Falcon, not with nicknames like these.”

Within a minute, both partnerships were standing with them on the ledge. Anthony flicked his communicator on. “Come on, slowpokes,” he teased. “And Strange, Thor, is that last place you guys are in?”

“If I wasn't above pettiness, I'd swear at you,” Strange muttered. “Pardon us for being safe.”

“We'll be there in five,” Dr. Banner called.

“Give us ten, Tony!” Thor said cheerfully. “This adventure is a blast! Few exercises have ever been as dangerous or fun as this one!”

“Definitely a five out of five training,” James said dryly. “Will definitely be doing this again.”  

“Really?” Thor exclaimed, excited. “I look forward to that!”

“No, of course not!” James said, appalled. “That was sarcasm, Thor.”

Thor’s small oh made the entire team laugh.

Loki sighed. “Fear not, brother, I will complete this activity with you if you truly desire to do it again.”

Silence followed for several moments before Strange exclaimed, “Now is not the time to become sentimental! I would appreciate making it to the top in one piece and if this blubbering idiot causes us to fall…”

“Calm down, my overly-stressed out Facial Hair Bro. You'll be fine.”

There was a long pause and then, “What did you just call me?”

“Nothing!” Anthony said innocently.

“Thor, climb faster.”

Anthony giggled, the sound light and much more relaxed as he darted a few paces back, away from the ledge but still not quite inside the cave. “James, protect me!” he pleaded, ducking behind the man’s height. “He's going to zap me to Antarctica!”

James eyed him with fondness in his eyes. “I can try, but only Loki has the powers to stop his magic. Unless you know a better spell…”

Anthony paused. “I do know several protection and self-defense spells…”

“But to combat mind control,” Loki pointed out.

“Or to stop other magical sources…”

“Anthony, I am yet to find a spell to counter his circles,” Loki teased. “You won't be able to counter them, not if I can't.”

“Circles?” Strange huffed. “You're next on my hit list, Loki.”

“Tony, we're ready,” came Dr. Banner’s voice, filled with exhaustion and tension.

“‘Kay, we got you.” Anthony went to the ledge and took his hand, pulling Romanov up first and then the doctor.

Dr. Banner collapsed to his hands and knees, relieved. “We made it.”

“There's food in the back,” Anthony directed. “The weather will be mild tonight but there's some blankets and supplies for a fire if we need them.”

Romanov hugged Rogers and then Barton, the three of them going to assist the Jameses in making dinner for everyone. Anthony waited by the ledge and a couple of minutes later, he helped Thor and Strange up.

Thor clasped Loki’s shoulder. “Brother, thank you for offering to climb a mountain with me. We shall have many laughs and joyous moments together!”

Loki couldn't help but roll his eyes fondly. “Welcome, Thor,” he murmured as they walked over to the entryway of the crevice they were to spend the night in.

Dr. Banner looked up at them as they approached. “I don't think we'll be sleeping very much tonight,” he admitted.

Anthony looked over his shoulder at the back of the crevice and shrugged. “I can sleep just fine right here.”

“Not so close to the edge,” Loki said quietly. “It is unsafe.”

Strange joined them. “What is?”

“This entire shitfest,” Anthony muttered. “Forcing us to climb a fucking mountain with shitty ropes that have between a twenty-two to seventy-five percent chance of breaking during tomorrow’s climb as some of us rely on someone we don't trust…”

“What?” Barton demanded from the “kitchen” area. “There's a what percent chance of what happening

“The ropes. Because none of them were damaged during today’s climb, we will not be receiving new ones tomorrow. However, given the length of the climb, the terrain, and the weight being constantly forced on the ropes, there is a chance the ropes will break.”

The others came to either stand or sit over by the mouth of the crevice. Romanov looked at Anthony curiously. “You have a plan,” she realized.

“More of a ‘here's something that might give us more time’ type of plan,” Anthony admitted. “It reduces the odds but not by much.”

“What is it?” Rogers asked as he took a seat.

“Magic is out thanks to the Council, and I suspect they are watching us somehow so we won't be sneaking around their backs, but they never said anything about switching which partnerships use which rope. The partnerships with the highest masses will get the strongest ropes, the partnerships with the lowest masses will get the weakest ropes."

“And you've calculated that already?” Barton asked.

Anthony nodded. “Since we were here first, I used part of my free time to determine general areas that should have strong footholds. Meaning, when we climb tomorrow, make sure to set a firm grip on the rock before you and your partner move up. Cap and I  will lead the climb so you can follow our more secure path.”

“Don't worry. No one here climbs as fast as you two,” Rhodes teased.

Rogers looked out at the view and then to the safety of the cave. “We should set up a perimeter while it's still light out so we don't get too close to the ledge during the night."

“We did,” Strange spoke up, gesturing to the rope looped around two ragged edges a few feet into their crevice. “It was Barton’s idea.”

Anthony looked uneasy as he eyed the space behind the rope. But he said nothing. Loki patted his shoulder as he went in to get them food. When he returned, a small fire had been started and the team had gathered together around it. They ate in silence for a long time and then Anthony spoke up.

“We're likely to be called to battle once we return home.”

“Are we talking about a new threat or the mutants?” Barton frowned. “It is mutants, right? I've seen the disaster reports about them on the news. They’re the ones launching those attacks in Europe, right?”

“Right. They're kids, scared and unsure of why they have the powers that they do- and what it means for them because they do. They’re being used as tools for big-scale attacks. While they lash out, some big heist goes down elsewhere. It's a ploy to gain control of nations, countries. And the U.S. is the next target,” Anthony explained.  

“Which city, do we know?”

“New York is likely. So is Chicago or DC or even LA.”

“What does the Council think?”

“New York.”

Loki studied Anthony closely. “But you disagree.”

“I think they'd be stupid to attack the state where the Avengers live,” Anthony shrugged. “But that doesn't mean they won't be stupid and attack anyway.”

“How did they get these powers?”  

“They’re kidnapped as children and become science experiments,” Anthony said flatly. “The Accords Committee has been gathering information on them for months. And when they come to our country, they want us to stop them and save the kids.”

“What happens to them when we do?” James asked, looking tense and unhappy. Rogers placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently.

Anthony looked at Thor and then at Loki, smiling softly. “Our resident King and Prince have opened their doors to each and every kid being held. They will be granted Asgardian nationality and will live in Asgard Compound where they will have a nation of family and support.”

The entire team looked pleased with that news, especially Barnes who reached over to offer his hand to Loki and Thor. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely.

“‘Twas the right thing to do,” Thor said.

Loki nodded his agreement. Processing that information, the group fell quiet for several minutes until Rogers broke the silence, standing.

“I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm going to call it an early night. I'm exhausted.”

“Can't handle a little climbing?” Lang teased.

Rogers waved a finger at the man. “Some of us climbed at a faster pace than an old man.”

“Some of us climbed with a one-hundred-year-old as his partner,” Lang tossed back.

“Hey!” James said indignantly. “I'm not that slow of a climber."

Laughing, the three of them went inside the cave-like hole in the mountain. One by one the others went inside as well, all of them claiming to need their rest and energy for the climb tomorrow. All but Anthony, who stayed resolutely by the ledge, not looking like he planned to move anytime soon.

“You cannot sleep here tonight,” Loki said quietly, curling his fingers around Anthony’s wrist as he sat closer.  

“Then I won't sleep. I can pull an all-nighter and be fine.”

“Despite having climbed half this mountain in one day?”

“Yes.”

“Get inside the cave, Stark. It won't hurt you,” a new voice, one Loki didn't recognize, taunted from inside the cave.

Someone shouted. “What the fuck?” Barton yelled, going to examine the wall. “Where did that come from?”

“There is clearly a listening device in here,” Strange said calmly. “No need for alarm.”

Anthony stood in the doorway, unwilling or, perhaps, unable to move further inside. The voice spoke again. “Stark, you are at risk if you stay on the ledge during the night. You need to move inside.”

“The hell he does,” Barton growled.

Loki wasn't sure who was more surprised of the person who was standing up for Anthony: Barton himself, Anthony, someone from the team, or the person from the Council.

“We do not want to needlessly endanger Mr. Stark’s life. He needs to move inside.”

Anthony’s expression was closed off as he ducked under the rope and into the cave. “Fine, I'm in. Happy?”

“Quite.”

“Great, goodnight.”

“Not yet. Do you plan on listening for the entire night?” Dr. Banner demands.

“Well, no, not me personally. Someone else is taking the night shift.”

Barton side-eyed Anthony, whom Loki was reaching for carefully. He looked distant, with each passing second appearing to get more and more lost in a place only he could see. “Thor, how about a game of catch, buddy?”

Thor gave the agent an odd look but nodded. “Sure, archer. What will be thrown?”

“How about this?” Barton picked up the tiny device that was stuck to the wall. “This'll work, right?”

“Of course,” Thor answered, understanding of Barton’s intentions. He caught it easily when Barton tossed it to him. Everyone ignored the Councilmember as he shouted, “Don't you dare-"

“Fuck,” Barton swore, staring down at the device he had ‘dropped.’ “I dropped it! Damn, must have been the horrible lighting in this cave. Nat, where's the bug?”

Anthony was staring at the exchange, breathing heavily but otherwise coherent as he watched Romanov say, “It's to the right.”

“Great, thank- shit!” Barton stomped on the device, shattering it. “Nat, you said it was to the right!”

“I meant my right,” she shrugged. “My bad.”

Barton laughed gleefully, looking pleased with himself as he kicked around the scattered pieces of the listening device.

Loki placed a hand on Anthony’s shoulder and rubbed at his tense muscles. “You didn't have to do that,” Anthony said quietly to the archer. “They'll most likely suspend you for that.”

“Not if he did it on my signal,” Rhodes said.

“Or mine,” James said.

“That goes for me too,” Strange said firmly.  

Anthony just stared at Barton. “Why?”

Barton shrugged. “The way I see it, you're looking after us, despite all our problems with each other, to make sure we all have the best chance of making it to the top.”

“I could be doing that for selfish reasons,” Anthony said weakly.

“That's not the kind of man you are,” Rogers input.

“Besides, we all got problems with something. And when I was down for the count, you never looked at me any differently or made me feel alone. You just always tried to help. So, if you need to stay close to the entrance to avoid panicking?” Barton shrugged again. “Then, who am I to judge? You do what you need to do to make it through this shit.”

Anthony leaned against Loki heavily, as if the change of heart from his enemies-slash-teammates was too great a shock for him to comprehend. Sensing he was beyond words both due to Barton’s actions and memories of his past trauma, Loki wrapped his arm around his waist and guided him to sit down so they were just on the safe side of the rope.

Exhaling deeply, Anthony shifted his position so he could wrap his arms around Loki’s waist and hide his face in Loki’s neck. Loki brought his arms around Anthony’s body and held him close, pressing his lips to Anthony’s temple.

“When Thor and I were children, we had various exercises we would complete as part of our training to become warriors,” Loki said quietly. “One day we grew bored of the same routine day after day, so we set off together to the ends of the planet where they would have to hunt to find us.”

“And did they find you?”

“No.” Loki smiled fondly at the memory. “Mother had taught me a simple spell that would cast a light over us to keep Heimdall from being able to find us. Or, so we thought.”

“We thought we were so clever,” Thor agreed as he took a seat to Loki’s right. “We built our own little palace out of the biggest sticks and stones we could find. And one night from every month, we would go there to sleep. We did this for years.”

“We grew apart as we aged…” Loki shrugged sadly. “But on the days where Thor would go to battle and I would remain home, I would go to our palace and wait until I heard he had returned home safely.”

Thor looked at him, surprised. “You never told me that.”

“It was sentimental,” Loki said with some distaste. “I didn't want to appear weak to my well-liked, popular, hero older brother.”

Thor ignored those implications as he said, “I still remember every moment of the day Mother found us in our palace and told us she had known where we disappeared to from the very start.”

“Me too.” Loki smiled a little. “I was livid.”

“And she didn't care. She just joined us with the food she had brought.”

Loki smiled. “And then she helped me spell the palace into a bigger proportion so we could still fit inside even as adults.”

“Your mom sounds amazing,” Anthony murmured.

“She was.”

Thor stood with grace, pausing to pat Anthony’s shoulder and ruffle Loki's hair before he disappeared into the cave, most likely to converse with the others.

When they were alone, Anthony slumped, leaning against Loki more heavily. “Tired?” Loki murmured.

“A little.” Anthony sighed. “Mostly tense.”

“From speaking with Rogers?”

“That's mostly it, yeah.” Anthony shifted slightly, moving one arm so he could bring his hand to Loki’s heart. “Can I...not talk about it?”

“Of course,” Loki murmured. “You can tell me if you want when you feel ready, but you do not owe me an explanation.”

“Thank you.” Anthony turned his head a little and pressed a kiss to Loki’s neck. “You make a good pillow.”

“So you have informed me,” Loki smirked a little. “When we are home, shall we take a visit to see Joshua?”

“We saw him three days ago,” Anthony yawned. “You really have a soft spot for him, don't you?”

“Yes,” Loki admitted, running his hand up and down Anthony’s back. He was able to feel even through the shirt, the many scars that crisscrossed his lover’s back. Anthony allowed the action, seeming at ease with Loki’s touches, something that greatly touched Loki. Their first time had been unlike no other Loki had ever experienced with another. They both had been shy to expose scars and, therefore, the memories of how those wounds came to be, but they had been trusting of one another when Loki had finally brought Anthony to his bed for more than sleeping.

Anthony had seen the scars from Loki’s past and the just-barely -visible lines of the runes that covered him when in his true form, but instead of being disgusted, there had been nothing but love in Anthony’s eyes as he had held Loki close and tenderly kissed each scar and line as if they were something beautiful to be treasured.

And even though Anthony was not telling him to stop stroking his back, Loki still asked for his consent to continue. When Anthony gave it, Loki continued with his motions as he brought his lips to Anthony’s hair. And together they sat there at the entrance of the cave, simply content to be in each other’s arms as they watched as the sunset disappeared and the moon and stars painted streaks of beauty across the sky.

A few hours into the night, some several quiet conversations later, Romanov crouched down next to Loki. “Here,” she whispered, laying several blankets on the floor to his right. She arranged them in the shape of a bed big enough to hold both him and Anthony. “We're the last ones up so I'm going to give you the spare sheet too, okay?”

“Do you have a place to rest?” he answered quietly, thanking her.

“I'm going to snuggle up to Spangles,” she smirked. “Give him a heart attack when he wakes up.”

Loki couldn't help but smile in amusement. “Goodnight.”

“Night,” she whispered as she stood and went over to Rogers, sliding under his covers and, indeed, cuddling close.

Loki looked around at the team members he could see. Strange was asleep with Thor to his left and Dr. Banner to his right, and to Dr. Banner’s right was Rogers and Romanov. James was at the very back, asleep in what looked to be an uncomfortable position. The others he couldn't quite make out in the darkness but breathing patterns indicated everyone else was asleep.

“Anthony,” Loki whispered, shifting his position just slightly to stretch his aching back. “Let's transition to the bed, okay?”

Anthony murmured incoherently, taking hold of Loki’s shirt before he seemed to fall back into his dozing state.

Loki couldn't help but smile at him. He gathered Anthony into his arms and gently laid him down on their blankets. Anthony gave a sleepy protest when Loki didn't lay down right away, which Loki smiled gently at. “I'll be right back,” he promised, running his fingers through Anthony’s hair for a moment before he stood and walked over to where James was sleeping.

He murmured his intent so as to not startle the just barely still-awake soldier and then helped him lay down on his makeshift bed. Once satisfied the man was comfortable, Loki gave the others a quick check-over before he returned to his bed.

Anthony gave a sleepy murmur as he slid under the covers, something along the lines of yay, you're here, and Loki responded by kissing his cheek, whispering, “Sleep, dear one” as he did so.

He wrapped one arm around Anthony’s waist as he curled his body around Anthony’s and it was in that position that Loki drifted off to sleep.

 

“Rise and shine, snowflake!”

Groaning, Loki turned his head to hide his face in the shoulder of the mortal that was no longer in his arms. With an annoyed sigh, he opened his eyes and found Anthony leaning over him, eyes warm and sparkling as he said, “Morning, babe! Sorry to wake you, but we've got to eat and get on the road, so get up!”

“I'll pass.” Loki threw his arm over his eyes.

Anthony laughed. “Doesn't he sound exactly like James?”

“Yes!” Rogers called from somewhere in the back of the cave.

“You both hate mornings,” Anthony informed him as he leaned down, moved Loki’s arm, and kissed Loki’s nose. “Come on, sleepyhead, up and at ‘em.”

Loki sighed and blinked up at him blearily. “Must we climb today?” he moaned.

“Yep. James One and James Two, ooh, new nickname, is breakfast ready yet?”

“Yes, your highness,” Rhodes laughed. “Come and get it.”

Sighing, Loki stood and brushed off the dust and dirt from his clothing as he went into the cave to gather two plates of food. He rejoined Anthony in the opening and gladly helped himself to a kiss before he sat down at Anthony’s side and began eating.

And then, when he felt the stares of his teammates, he realized what he had done. And what statement he had said the night before when he had slept with Anthony.

Their secret was out. But on the other hand, they'd never really wanted to keep their relationship a secret…

But he had just outed them to the entire team...what if Anthony didn't want them to know they were dating? Granted, most of them knew but what if he was asha-

“Alright, I'll ask,” Barton huffed with a pointed glare to Romanov. “I can maybe overlook the hugging, the nicknames, maybe even the heart eyes, and definitely the sleeping together because of Cap and Nat…” He shuddered at the thought. “But the kissing? I can't ignore that.”

Anthony raised an eyebrow. “Do you plan to monologue or ask a question?”

“Shut up. How long have you two been…?”

“Together?” Anthony finished.

The five unknowing members of the team nodded. “Thirty-nine days,” Anthony and Loki said in unison, smiling at each other. Anthony turned to face the others. “You got a problem with that, that's your problem. And I don't wanna hear about it.”

No one on the Rogues offered their opinion. Dr. Banner cleared his throat. “I have a problem with it. There's too much flirting,” he said lightly.

Anthony laughed. “Close your ears, then, Brucie-Bear.”

The doctor rolled his eyes.

“Did our supplies arrive yet?” Thor asked, appearing anxious to get back to climbing.

“Helicopter should be coming by soon. Don't worry, bud, we'll be up there in probably half an hour.”

“There is an advantage to all this,” Dr. Strange commented. When everyone looked at him he added, “There seems to be less tension within the group.”

“Trust isn’t earned in one day,” Anthony said tightly.

“Of course not. But this is the first time this group has functioned as a team instead of enemies.”

“He has a point, Tony,” Rogers said quietly.

“I know,” Anthony muttered. He looked as if he was going to speak again, but the whirling of an approaching helicopter caused him to remain silent. Anthony handed Loki his dish with a small smile and murmur of thanks, and Loki brought their dishes into the cave as Anthony went to take the supplies from the lowered carrier.

“We have more water,” Anthony said grimly as he examined the bag of supplies. “And new earpieces, if we want them.”

“But no rope.”

“Nope.” Anthony went over to where the teams had left their supplies and looked them over carefully. “Bruce, you and Romanov are taking this one. Rogers, we’re using this one. Thor, I want you using Bruce’s, and James, you're taking ours. The other ropes are fine.”

“What happens if someone falls?” Wilson asked.

“Grab onto the mountain tightly before you attempt to climb,” Anthony replied grimly. “If you fall, try to grab the wall and we'll come to you. And damn it, we will use magic to get to you if we have to. Everyone is coming home today.”

“Let's get ready to go,” Rogers said as everyone finished their meal and prepared for their climb. Five minutes later and the partnerships were harnessed, communicators were being worn, and Anthony and Rogers were stepping up to begin the climb.

“Be safe,” Loki whispered.

Anthony met his eyes and nodded, mouthing the same to him. Then he began climbing.

“We'll go in the back,” Loki murmured to Barton. “In case someone falls, I need to be in a position to catch them with my magic.”

“Fine. Strange, you and Thor taking the second position?”

“I suppose we are.” Strange nodded at the group standing on the ledge and began his climb. And one by one the partnerships headed out.

“This is boring,” Barton complained at one point.

“Please don't fill the time by singing,” Rogers begged.

Barton snorted in amusement but did not sing.

A few hours later, during a break, Lang swore, loud and panicked. James cried out, grabbing his partner, and the entire team watched, horrified, as the piece of rock Lang had been sitting on broke apart from the mountainside and fell.

“I...oh my God...thanks,” Lang panted to James. “Shit, the rock...that was…”

“I think that's the last time I plan to stop,” James said shakily.

“You okay?” Anthony demanded.

“We're fine.” Lang laughed hysterically. “I think I just cheated death, but you know, it's okay.”

“I would have caught you,” Loki promised.

“Aye, or the sorcerer supreme,” Thor agreed.

“Either way, I'm done with the breaks.”

“Yeah, we're headed out now too. Be extra careful, guys,” Anthony called. “We're rounding home now but we can't let our guards down.”

It was another hour and a half before Rhodes cheered. “I can see the top!”

“Thank fuck,” Barton muttered. “I am never climbing a mountain again, never, it ain't happening.”

“What about rock climbing in a YMCA?” Romanov teased. “Done with that too?”

“Yes,” Barton groaned. “Never doing this shit again.”

“Oh, shit,” came a small voice over the communicator.

Loki froze, stopping in his advancement. “Anthony?”

“I'm fine...just stuck. Cap, I'm, uh, I'm going to need some help over here…” Loki looked up, his breath catching in his chest, and could just make out the sight of Anthony reaching for his rope.

“What happened?” Rogers demanded anxiously as he began side-stepping over to Anthony.

“Well, my half of the line is snagged. And currently is tearing.”

What?” Rhodes snapped. “Tony-”

“I didn't do it on purpose!” Anthony said defensively. “Look, I was just climbing when… f-UCK!”

Something flew past Loki’s face and he flinched.

“What was that?” he demanded in unison with Dr. Banner, who was above him.

Anthony laughed nervously, sounding panicked. “That was my half of the rope.”

“Please tell me you have a good hold on the mountainside,” Loki pleaded.

“Yeah, yeah, I'm good there. Just not really in a mood to let go, you know what I mean. This stone actually feels pretty good, pretty secure, like it's keeping me from panicking…”

“I'm almost there, Tony. We can share what's left of the rope; we’ll just have to be closer, is all, but at least you'll be a bit more secure…” Rogers was almost at Anthony's side and Strange and Thor were rapidly approaching them as well.

An awful sound filled the communicator. Loki, who was yet to look away from Anthony, felt his heart stutter in his chest as one of the rocks Anthony was holding broke away. The loss of the support caused him to lose his balance and for a dark moment, the sound of his cry of pain was the only thing Loki could compute.

Tony!” more than one voice cried out.

Loki’s magic rose to the surface subconsciously and a bolt of green went to Anthony, keeping him from falling. His second burst of magic was met by Strange’s halfway and together their magic created a shield that held behind Anthony that would catch him if he were to fall.

Rogers scrambled to Anthony’s side, taking his hand. “I've got you,” he swore.

Loki grit his teeth, hating how far away he was from Anthony, how helpless he was to protect his own beloved.

“What happens if we quit, teleport our way to the bottom?” Barton asked. “You think we'll be suspended?”

“They can fire me, for all I care,” Loki muttered. “This endeavor has gone on long enough; I do not want to risk our lives any longer.”

The communicator was filled with harsh, quick breathing. “Tony…” Rogers trailed off. “He's having a panic attack!”

“No, I'm not… just don't want to fall, not again,” Anthony exhaled shakily. “I've fallen way too many times and I really don't want to fall right now. Not again, please not again.”

“Tony, you're pulling away from me. Stop moving!” Rogers said sharply.  

Anthony looked down. “I don't want to fall,” he whispered.

Loki could stand the pain in his lover’s voice for no longer. “Stephen!”

The colors of their powers lit up the sky and when Loki opened his eyes, they were kneeling on the ground. He crawled over to where Anthony was and placed his hand on the center of Anthony’s back. “Breathe slowly,” he requested softly. “Slow and deep with me, okay? You are safe now, I promise.”

“I'm safe,” Anthony gasped, moving so he was kneeling in Loki’s arms. He hid his face in Loki’s shoulder and shook silently for several minutes. “I’m with you, I'm safe.”

“Yes,” Loki murmured, running his hand up and down Anthony’s back. He pressed a kiss to Anthony’s temple but when he tasted copper on his lips, he immediately pulled back. He cupped Anthony's jaw in his hand, observing the split lip and scrape along his temple. It was then he became aware of the dull sensation of pain igniting in his chest.

Anthony is injured, his magic nudged. And even though he knew that, could see the scrape that causes Anthony’s temple to bleed, feeling the awareness of the pain was almost, if not worse, than seeing the wound itself.

Because Anthony was hurt.

“Unacceptable,” Loki growled softly, hovering his hand over Anthony’s face to heal the wounds.

“Lokes, it's just a scratch,” Anthony tried to protest, but his voice was weak and trembling still.

“I saw you lose your grip when the rock fell. I thought you were going to fall; for an instant, I thought I would lose you.” Loki’s voice cracked. “I never want to experience that feeling again.”

“I'm sorry,” Anthony whispered, rubbing their noses together before he pressed a little, soft kiss to Loki’s lips. Loki chased his lips hungrily, pouring his love and aching fear into the kiss as he-

Someone cleared their throat. “I was going to ask if you were okay, but you seem to be just fine,” James coughed. “Sorry.”

“I'm perfectly fine now that we're down here and I'm not in a body bag,” Anthony informed him. “And I'll be great after about twenty more kisses. That was too close for comfort.”

“We’ve got incoming Council,” Romanov announced. “They look mad.”

“Let them be mad, then,” Anthony shrugged as he stood. “They’re not the only ones who are pissed.”

Wordlessly, the team came to stand either beside or just behind Anthony, facing the entire US Accords Council that came their way.

“Captain,” the leading Councilmember greeted Anthony with his arms folded across his chest.

“I prefer ‘Mr. Stark,’” Anthony said non-apologetically. “‘Captain’ is a title given to a military man. And I simply don't follow the rules that well.”

“Yes, we noticed,” General Ross said. “Allowing our two-way communicator device to be smashed, allowing for the use of magic… Your team did very little right on the exercise, Mr. Stark. Our Council is not pleased and will pass along a negative report to the United Nations Accords Council by tomorrow morning.”

“You know, I don't quite agree,” Anthony said boldly. “I think my team did exactly as you wanted us to.”

“Excuse me?”

“We took every measure to protect and save one another. Yes, that meant using magic and destroying your illegally planted listening device, but it worked. You want to know why? You have twelve Avengers standing in front of you instead of ten, or none.”

“And your insinuation that we wanted you to defy our orders-”

“Better be true considering the alternative meant having our privacy illegally and intentionally invaded, not to mention two members of my team wouldn't be standing in front of you right now.”

“Your insubordination will not be tolerated,” Ross said firmly. “From what we understood from our tapes, you were struggling when Agent Barton destroyed our device. Did you order that destruction?”

“Of course, he didn't,” Barton huffed. “I can think for myself.”

“You willingly admit to destroying government property?”

“I admit to protecting the leader of my team.”

“He acted on my order, sir,” Rogers spoke up.

“What?”

Rogers stood tall. “I said, it was on my order that Clint destroyed your device. Our leader was injured and his right to privacy was being invaded. I gave him a signal to destroy it, and he did.”

“Is that true?” a councilmember demanded.

“No, because I gave the signal,” Dr. Banner said firmly.

“No, I did,” Rhodes argued.

“Liar,” James snapped.

“If we don't receive a genuine admittance of guilt, we will suspend you all,” Ross threatened. “The same goes with the magical stunts.”

“I did that without asking for permission,” Loki snapped, “And it was to save us all. Suspend me for protecting my teammates, if you are so pointless.”

The Council looked at Strange. He shrugged at them. “Loki and I acted together without encouragement or request.”

“You do realize your futures are at stake?” Ross demanded. “If you do not tell us the truth you will all be under review!”

Thor looked at the Council, undeterred by the threat. “And if you do so, will we be allowed to state to the United Nations Accords Committee how our right- to privacy, I believe it is called- was being violated?”

“I ordered both the destruction of your illegally planted communicator and the use of magic,” Anthony said quietly, firmly, as he stepped forward. “They are trying to protect me because I am the one who was injured both times but I was the person who gave the signal for Barton to destroy your communicator. And I told Loki and Stephen to use their magic to teleport us down here because my line had snapped and I didn't want to die.”

Ross stared at Anthony, looking pleased. “Thank you for your honesty, Mr. Stark. We will submit a formal complaint to the Committee and from that, I am certain you will be summoned for a review in front of the Council about your qualifications as the leader of this team.”

Anthony didn't say anything.

The Councilmembers turned around and left the way the came. Once they were out of earshot, Loki said hotly, “Why would you lie? They want to take your job away and you are helping them accomplish that!”

“They recorded and listened to our conversations without consent. They may call into question my leadership abilities but they can't fire me or take away my command.” Anthony shrugged. “But they easily could have fired any of you for ‘recklessness’ or some other bullshit line they could come up with.”

“Thank you,” Rogers said quietly.

Anthony looked Rogers in the eyes. “No, thank you. All of you, for protecting me and each other. You did well these last two days.”

“Home?” James said hopefully.

“Home,” Anthony agreed softly, sliding his hand into Loki’s as they headed for the jet.

Once on the jet, the Avengers spread themselves out in various seats throughout the front and the back. But Loki couldn't help but notice how Dr. Banner and Romanov started a shy conversation, how James was conversing with Rogers, Rhodes with Wilson… and Barton was speaking to Stephen about magic.

Anthony had been right. The mission had been ruthless and dangerous, but it had been designed that way to force the team to rely on one another. And there was a trust- no matter how small, a trust was there, that sealed the team together.

They were no longer reluctant allies. They were teammates.

Loki brought Anthony’s hand to his lips and gently kissed the scrapes that marred his lover’s hand from when he had clutched the mountain wall, fearing for his life. At the touch of his lips, his magic seeped into Anthony’s hand and healed his remaining wounds.

Turning his head, Anthony leaned up to kiss him softly. Loki just wrapped his arm around Anthony’s waist and held him close, glad they were all safe.

And sat together on the jet with more unity than there ever had been between them, the Avengers went home.

Chapter Text

A day later, Anthony stood in front of the team and held up his hand, bringing the room to silence. “I know this is an impromptu meeting so before I begin, I'll answer any reasonable questions posed. You have two minutes.”  

Barton raised his hand. “The Council was very hush-hush with me yesterday. That statement I gave, it was to help them determine whether or not you stay as captain?”

“Captain, leader, dipshit person, whatever you want to call me, yes, that is exactly what that statement was for.” Anthony checked his watch. “Anything else?”

“When will you have your results?” James asked.

“A few days. If I'm demoted, there’ll be trainings, meetings, trust exercise, and mock battles so they can determine who would be the best fit to take over.”

“That’s stupid,” Stephen muttered darkly. “You're the best leader for this team.”

“Any other questions?” Anthony checked, clearly ignoring Stephen’s comment in his defense.

“Yes! What the hell is being done about Ross?”

Anthony grinned. “In an hour or so, he’s going to be arrested for tampering with equipment and attempted murder. According to my sources on the Council, effective immediately, he is to resign or he will be fired. As we speak, the Accords Council in London is meeting to discuss replacements for him.”

There was silence for a moment before the entire conference room burst into chatter. “Is this because of the ropes?” Loki questioned, managing to be heard over the rest of the group.

Holding up his hands, Anthony brought the room back to silence with their attention on him as he admitted, “Yes. I had FRIDAY do some digging and it turns out, Ross exchanged our fire-department issued ropes for some old flimsy ones. We were basically doomed from the beginning, to be honest.”

“Why would he try to kill us?” Rogers asked, frowning.

Anthony shrugged. “He’s hated all of us from the very start, so there is that. Honestly? I think he just wanted us to be forced to rely on one another, and if there were consequences, injuries, or deaths, well, he didn’t really care about whether or not we lived.”

“What evidence is there?” Wilson asked.

“Deleted- but recovered by FRIDAY- footage of him switching out the ropes as well as deleted but recovered audio of him conspiring with two other agents, both of whom have also been arrested and charged with tampering of equipment and attempted murder.”

Dr. Banner’s eyes were glistening with tears as he slumped in his seat and sighed shakily. Loki knew from their conversation that the doctor had believed himself to be safe because he knew Anthony was protecting him from Ross, but hearing the news that the general could never bother him again had to be overwhelmingly relieving.

“I know we’re all in a good mood right now about Ross being shut down but there is some important news that we need to go over,” Anthony announced a few minutes later once the chatter had died down and the team had refocused their attention on the powerpoint he had pulled up on the monitor. “As I mentioned during our fun-filled mountain adventure, we’re going to battle pretty soon. Hence this meeting. There's a hard copy in front of you if you want to review the material later, which I recommend doing, otherwise, here's your news flash.”

Loki settled back in his seat, watching as Anthony began the presentation with a hologram of a young man. “This is Thomas Davis, nineteen-years-old and the leader of the kids. He has some sort of electrocution-style power; the specifics are unknown besides this video.” He pressed play and the team watched as the hoy’s fingertips sparked with power before he caused a small building to catch on fire.

“Thor…” Loki murmured, startled.

“His abilities are powerful,” Thor replied grimly. “But how strong?”

“Only a fraction of your own power,” Anthony reassured. “I've done the math and you have power that he absolutely cannot rival. But, based on this video and eyewitness testimonies, it seems likely that his powers increase emotionally when he is either stressed, upset or hurt.”

“How will we counter him?” Romanov asked.

“It’s likely Thor or our resident mages will spar one-v-one with him, but if you have to engage with him, I wouldn’t bring the other kids into the picture. Try to fight clean and convince him that we mean them no harm. He’s the leader of this group and I guarantee his weakness- and strength- lies in his care and loyalty to his fellow kidnapees.”

Loki pondered that for a moment, considering what he would do if he were to take on the boy in battle.

“If there aren’t any more questions, I’ll move onto Sam.” Anthony waited for a moment and then flicked to the next slide to display a picture of what appeared to be an eleven-year-old girl. “This is Sam Riley. Quick backstory on her, she’s been identified by her parents, from whom she was kidnapped from when she was seven-years-old. She can run up to speeds that can rival Wanda’s deceased brother. However, she cannot run for very long before she becomes tired.” He flipped to another slide, displaying an image of a human-sized dent in an alley wall.

Several members looked away from the image, no doubt imagining what had happened, Loki mused as he glanced around the room and then back at the monitor.

“She was first used for petty crimes, such as robbery and looting. When she was nine, she was chased by the police and in her panic, she lost control when she ran around a corner and slammed into this wall, shattering her arm. According to reports from the police, it’s most likely that Thomas showed up, stopped the police from getting to her, and brought her back. Her arm was amputated at the shoulder and replaced with a metal arm.”

There was silence for many moments before James said hoarsely, “We need to help these kids.”

Anthony nodded, his eyes flickering with pain. “We’re going to, I promise.”

“I want to be the one to fight her in the battle, talk to her,” James continued. He shrugged, his flesh hand fingering his metal arm absently. “If anyone has a chance at getting through to her, it’ll be me.”

“Of course,” Anthony nodded. “Just remember the speed. Although she can’t run for longer than forty-five seconds or so at top speed, she is exceedingly fast and can have you unconscious and handcuffed in moments.”

James nodded slightly, consenting to the point.

“Alright, onto David.” Anthony flipped to the next slide, showing a photo of a young boy, younger than Thomas, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a small stature that reminded Loki all too much of the photos he had seen of Anthony at that age.

“He's approximately sixteen and his intelligence rivals Shuri’s, I can imagine. His technology is well over my own so come battle time, I want Romanov, Barton, Lang, Rogers, James, and Wilson staying the hell away from him unless absolutely necessary.”

“No,” Barton responded sharply. “I was able to fight you, wasn’t I? If I can take you down, I can take him down. I’m not standing down just because he’s in some fancy suit of armor and I’m not.”

Anthony’s expression flashed with grief and dark memories for only a moment before he schooled his expression and shrugged. “That’s true, but I’m nowhere near as good with tech as he is. One hit from his repulsors and you’ll be dead; Rogers or James would be dead even with the serum. Thor, Loki, Bruce, and Stephen can manage just fine on their own, and Rhodey and I can handle a few hits of our own as well. But it is an unnecessary risk of life if you guys get involved with him.”

Rogers sighed as if he shared Barton’s sentiment about not wanting to be left out of battle but understood where Anthony was coming from.

“Alright, moving on to Emma, who is our last high-up in this group.” Anthony moved onto the next slide. “She's seventeen and has the stamina and strength of our resident supersoldiers. Her training is nowhere as extensive, but one-V-one combat will be a challenge purely because of her strength.”

“Do we have any footage of their fighting?”

“Some crummy video footage filmed by civilians that was either handed to the government or posted online.” Anthony drew a breath. “However, based on that footage, which FRIDAY helped us enhance, Shuri and I were able to create a video that showed us how they likely fight together.”

“You analyzed their fighting in the enhanced videos to come up with a video of what one of their fights could be like,” Loki mused.

“Not particularly hard to do but Shuri has better technology and knowledge so I contacted her for help. Fri, play it please.”

The team watched in silence for a few minutes minus a word here or there about strategy, and then Rogers pointed out, “These kids really care about each other.”

“Even when they are on the offensive, they always have each other’s back,” Romanov agreed.

James cleared his throat. “I don't have...experience with that...but when you're kidnapped and tortured and told the world hates you for your imperfections, I can imagine the only people they trust are each other.”

Anthony nodded. “Perfect logic, James.” He looked thoughtful. “I'll mention that to the Council. Regardless of whatever their ruling about me ends up being, yes I need to bring that up again, we need to have each other’s backs ten times more than we did on that mountain. Because although our objective is to save the children, they will think we are there to hurt them. And they will fight us twice as hard because of it.”

“Why not send them a letter of peace?” Thor asked.

“The Council tried,” Anthony informed him. “Their captors intercepted it and read it aloud in one of their ‘they're trying to earn your trust so they can crush it’ Anti-Avenger speeches.”

“How long do you think we have before we are called out?” Barton asked, studying the packet in front of him.

“Five, six days at most. We already have confirmation that they are stationed in Illinois. It's only a matter of days before they decide to attack.”

“And when they do?”

“We'll be split up. Majority will go to the kids, trying to talk them down and help them escape. There’s seventeen in total, although the four we talked about is the only actual ‘mutants.’ The other kids are just raised to fight and steal. Whoever doesn’t go to the kids will go to stop whatever plot the leaders are scheming.”

“Do we have those predetermined groups?” Stephen asked.

“Not yet. I have arranged us into two teams based on how our mountain training went; but because the Council is discussing some big plan to talk the kids down before a battle can be launched, those teams are likely to be changed given their orders.”

Nodding thoughtfully, the team conversed quietly for a few minutes before Anthony adjourned the meeting. Loki stayed behind until the others had left and once Anthony had finished his closing work for the meeting, he then stepped forward and wrapped Anthony in his arms.

“Ignore his thoughtless comment,” Loki murmured into Anthony’s ear as he kissed his jaw. “Barton was heartless with his words, I will admit, but thinking about it will serve you no good.”

Anthony turned his face so he could kiss Loki. “Do you ever just wish to retire to some beautiful landmark home and raise a family away from the stress and pain of the rest of the world?”

All the time, so long as you are the companion I spend the rest of my life with.

“Yes,” Loki whispered as he linked their fingers together and kissed Anthony softly.

 

Two days later, Loki was lounging on the sofa reading when Anthony joined him by settling down beside him and cuddling under his arm.

“Morning,” Loki murmured with a smile as he pressed his lips to Anthony’s temple. He eyed the document held in Anthony’s hand and frowned. “What’s that?”

“This is the official news on whether or not I still have a position on the team,” Anthony replied, “As a leader, at least.”

“You haven’t read it yet?”

“Was too scared to,” Anthony admitted as he unfolded the piece of paper. “Based on the statements given by the members of your team, this Council has decided that you are worthy of your position as leader,” Anthony read slowly. He tilted his head back so he could look at Loki better. “You really think everyone said something positive about me?”

“They would clearly not know anything about you if they left a negative comment,” Loki replied as he nuzzled Anthony and pressed a kiss to his jaw. “What else does it say?”

“Congratulations for passing our test. We were expecting the destroyed communicator and the use of magic, and we are glad to see that you and your team kept each other’s best interests in mind throughout the entirety of the exercise. Come time for the next battle, we believe your team will be more efficient and capable than ever before.”

Anthony paused. “Should I be upset that they worried me for absolutely nothing? Those sneaks. I mean, I spent three days of my life worrying about this stupid clearance review!”

“Were you really concerned they would demote you?”

“Um, yeah. I'm not exactly the poster boy for ‘Superheroes’ so I was kinda expecting them to dump me and find someone better. Like you, or Thor, or Bruce, or the kid… yeah, he's a great, lovable hero!”

“And you are not?”

“Not really. Kinda poor hero quality, Lokes. You know that.”

“What I know, is that you make a wonderful leader and an even better hero. Your team respects you and the people of your world admire you and look to you for comfort and guidance when they are worried.”

“But-”

“There is nothing you could say that could make me think any less of you,” Loki murmured, angling Anthony’s head just so in order to kiss him. “I know the beauty and love that fills your heart; I am among the lucky ones who get to witness your kind heart on a daily basis.”

“You're so sweet,” Anthony whispered, turning in Loki’s arms so he could kiss him better. They were quiet for a moment, lost in each other’s eyes, and then Anthony commented, “I was thinking and I…”

“Oh, dear me,” Loki groaned. “What about?”

“Shut it, you. I was wondering if you'd maybe want to go to the hospital with me?”

Loki stared at him, something tightening desperately in his chest. “Are you ill?” he demanded.

“No!” Anthony laughed a little. “Nothing like that. I just thought maybe you'd want to visit Joshua with me? I know it's only Tuesday but... ”

Loki relaxed. “Of course, I want to,” he reassured. “When are we going, now?”

“If you want? I promised the kid I'd help him with some genius project of his but that's in the afternoon.”

“Why do you call him that?” Loki murmured as Anthony stood, offering his hand to Loki so he could stand as well. “Why not use his first name?”

Anthony tensed a little. “It's stupid,” he mumbled.

“Of course it isn't,” Loki soothed.

“Calling him ‘Peter’ seems too personal. Like, if I call him Peter, it sounds like I think of him as my son or something like that.”

“Well, do you?”

“I, no...he’s my…” Anthony sighed, his shoulders dropping in defeat. “Yeah, kinda. But there isn’t a man in his life, no father figure and when he and I are sitting at the table going over something confusing on his homework…”

“You feel like a father would,” Loki finished quietly.

Anthony leaned against the closed door of the car. “I guess, yeah. I mean, my dad was never like this for me- god, I never even admitted I didn't know something, not to him...but when Peter asks me for help with a project or he tells me about his day… I feel like his dad. I feel like I'm a part of his life; like he wants to tell me what went on in his day, like…” Anthony trailed off, sighing.

“Why does it bother you?” Loki asked softly. “That he considers you to be his father-figure. Isn't that a good thing?”

“I want to be there for him and watch him grow up into an intelligent, kind young man…” Anthony exhaled shakily and looked up at Loki. “But I'm terrified.”

Loki rubbed his arm gently. “Because of your own father.”

Anthony nodded miserably. “What if I say something? Or do something that hurts him? Howard was not a good dad and I'm his son. What if I'm just like him? I don't...I don't want to be like him. I just want to be there for Peter, to be the good father-figure he deserves to have in his life…”

“I was the blood-son of a Frost Giant, but the true son of Odin. And I became my own man, with and without their guidance. Your paternal father may have been Howard and Stane your fatherly advocate, but Jarvis was more your true father figure, wasn't he?”

Anthony nodded wordlessly.

“And you are who you are because of what you learned from them, whether that be what to do or what not to do. But based on the people in your life, the experiences you have had, and the true heart of an angel in you, I believe- I know- you will be and are a great father.”

“Thanks,” Anthony whispered, smiling up at Loki shyly.

Loki brought his hand to Anthony’s cheek, leaned in, and kissed him gently. Anthony kissed him back eagerly, chasing his lips with a tiny whine when Loki pulled away. Loki laughed as he kissed Anthony quickly one more time. “Continue that and we won't be leaving for another half hour,” he teased.

“Maybe I want to leave in half an hour.” Anthony waggled an eyebrow at him suggestively.

“And spend half an hour less with Joshua?”

“You drive a hard bargain,” Anthony sighed. “Tonight, then.”

“Tonight,” Loki agreed. He opened the door for Anthony and once he was seated in the car, closed the door and went around to the other side. He slid into his own seat, leaned over and pecked Anthony’s lips. “There, that was our last kiss,” he swore as he leaned back to get buckled.

“You're such a tease,” Anthony pouted.

Loki just hummed in response, smiling to himself as Anthony started the car and drove them to the hospital. Once they arrived in the NICU, they were greeted by the entire staff as they went to the sink and began washing up. (It was a familiar process after having visited so many times, so the staff knew them both well.)

“Is our resident angel doing well?” Anthony asked the nurse (named Laura, Loki remembered) as she walked them into the isolation room.

“Two and a half months old now and still fighting strong,” she smiled. “He'll be healthy enough for adoption soon.”

“Yeah? That's good news,” Anthony said as he sat down in the rocking chair. She gently transferred a sleeping Joshua into his arms and Anthony cooed as he rubbed his finger down Joshua’s cheek. “Look at that, Joshy, you're getting better! The big bad MRSA is gone and according to that chart over there you’ve gained a whole pound and a half in two months…I'm so proud of you!”

“He's our little miracle baby,” Laura said fondly. “Most days now he shows no signs of withdrawal at all.”

“That's good,” Loki whispered as he leaned over Anthony’s shoulder and slid his finger into Joshua’s tiny fist.

“Yeah,” she smiled. “He'll be waking soon, just so you know. If he's hungry or needs a diaper change, let me know.”

Anthony, who was still having a one-sided conversation with Joshua, didn't seem to hear her so Loki thanked her for them both.

Loki rubbed Anthony’s shoulder, teasing gently, “Having a good conversation?”

“Amazing. He’s listening to everything I'm telling him, right, Josh?”

Laughing, Loki pulled over the spare chair. “And what exactly are you telling him about?”

“Just you,” Anthony hummed. “I'm telling him about how I'm even happier than I was last week and how that's not really possible- but it is because you're the reason I'm happy. I think he's happy for us.”

“Is he? And how can you tell?” Loki questioned, unable to keep the fondness from his voice as he looked at his boyfriend warmly. (Even his rambling was endearing.)

As if he had heard Loki speak, Joshua’s blue eyes blinked open. He looked at Loki first, then at Anthony, and then at the finger he was holding in his hand. For a moment, he scrunched his face and looked about ready to wail.

“Aww, sweetheart, it's okay, you're safe,” Anthony whispered, rubbing Joshua’s cheek with the back of his finger. “You know who we are. And we'll only ever keep you safe, I promise.”

Joshua looked at him, tears welling in his eyes. But he didn't cry, he just listened to Anthony as he continued to soothe him in a soft, calming voice.

A few sweet words later and Joshua had calmed. His blue eyes glimmered wetly as he gave Anthony a small, but true, lopsided grin.

“There we go,” Anthony cooed. “You’re starting to remember me, aren't you? And there's Loki, he's our ray of sunshine.” Joshua gave him another grin. “I know, he is,” Anthony laughed, his eyes so full of light and warmth and love as he looked back and forth between Joshua and Loki. “Our own ray of sunshine.”

Loki smiled at the nickname but opted to say nothing, simply content with watching as Anthony spoke to Joshua.

Sometime later, Loki lost track of the time, too busy with watching how content his beloved was, Joshua began to sniffle.

“He’s tired,” Loki murmured.

“Well, you did stay up for a little bit to chat, didn't you?” Anthony asked Joshua as he stood, mindful of the many tubes and wires, and took a step forward so Loki could slide onto the rocking chair. When Loki was situated, Anthony carefully transitioned Joshua into his arms.

“Hello, my little one,” Loki whispered, offering his finger to Joshua as he rocked them gently. “I'm here to be your pillow for the morning and some part of the afternoon. You may rest your weary eyes without worry, safe in the knowledge that Anthony and I will protect you from any and all danger.”

Joshua blinked up at him, giving a little yawn. Loki’s heart warmed at the sight and he had to hide his smile behind his hand so he wouldn't look like a fool.

Anthony’s phone buzzed. He exchanged looks with Loki as the ringtone took on a new tune. “I put it on mute,” Anthony murmured. “FRIDAY must be trying to contact me, meaning something happened.”

“Take the call. I'll stay.”

“But if-”

“If there is a conflict and we are needed, we will go.”

Nodding, Anthony left to take the call in the corridor outside the unit.

Joshua whimpered. Loki looked down at him. “Hush, little one. It's alright,” he whispered. “I'm here.”

Gazing at him, Joshua blinked slowly, clearly on his way to falling asleep. Loki continued to rock them slowly, humming an old lullaby he remembered hearing Frigga sing to him and Thor when they were young children.

By the time Anthony returned, Joshua had fallen asleep. “What is it?” Loki whispered, seeing the way Anthony looked distant and concerned as he took a seat.

“We're on standby. The mutants- we need a better name for them- are holed up in the warehouse district in Chicago. The Council thinks their captors are in-state as well, most likely in Springfield.” Anthony clearly hesitated. “When they call us out, only a few of us will only be sent to Chicago, at first, as part of their talk-down operation. The others will be on hold and sent around accordingly as needed.”

“Who is part of this few?” Loki asked tensely.

Joshua stirred in his arms.

Loki made an effort to calm down. “Who?” he repeated, quieter this time than the first.

“James, Rhodey, and myself.”

“Why so few?”

“They want us to try to talk the kids down- the three of us specifically because we all received life-altering injuries in combat-slash-tense situations. And they think between the three of us, we can convince them that their powers-slash-body impairments do not make them worthless.”

“And if they attack?”

“The rest of you will be called in.”

“But from here…”

“You can teleport, babe.”

“Yes, but…” Loki looked away. “I won't be there to protect you. What if something happens? If you are hurt…”

“I trust the Jameses to have my back. And I will be careful, you know that.”

Loki couldn't look at him. He knew that Anthony would be careful, he always was- but only until someone else was in danger. Then he would only too gladly put himself in harm’s way if it meant protecting another.

“Hey,” Anthony said gently, touching Loki’s chin to force him to look at him. “I have a reason to come home every day. And I will come home today, as will you and everyone else if we're called out.”

“You can't promise me that,” Loki said shakily. “You know that.”

“Why is this any different from before?” Anthony asked quietly. “I've been on missions before without you… why does this one scare you so much?”

“This is different!” Loki snapped in a whisper. When Anthony only looked at him, saying nothing, Loki sighed and continued weakly, “This is the first battle we will be fighting in since we began our relationship. I thought I was going to lose you only a few days ago. And I don't want to lose you. I-I can't lose you.”

Anthony was quiet for a long moment. “You're right, I can't promise that I'll come home to you. But I can promise to try and to be as careful as I possibly can be.”

His phone beeped twice. Loki looked at him, waiting for an explanation.

“I told FRIDAY to beep me twice if I was called out. Twice for me and three times for everyone,” Anthony said quietly.

Loki hung his head, unable to admit the true reason why he was so scared. “Please be safe.”

“Of course.” Anthony leaned over and kissed Loki’s lips softly. “I'll see you at home, if not before then.”

Loki watched him leave as a single tear slid down his cheek. He had heard the stories, he knew how ruthless the kids were- although victims, they were lashing out on their own- and if they were to act out against an unarmed James, Rhodes, or Anthony, for surely they would need to be out of armor at some point to expose their battle wounds…

Loki lowered his head and tried to control his emotions before he awoke Joshua.

But he was scared.

The next several hours felt like millennia to Loki. He sang to Joshua to distract himself and then fed him his bottle, helped Laura change his diaper, and then sang to him some more when he once again slept peacefully.

When the clock turned to two, Loki remembered Anthony’s comment about picking Peter up at his home, and so he transitioned Joshua back to his crib. Joshua whimpered when Loki laid him down and Loki turned back so he could place his hand on the top of Joshua’s little Midgardian head.

“We will be back to see you on Tuesday,” he whispered. “Be well, little one.”

And he left to go pick up Peter from his apartment, just as Anthony had intended to. He stopped at the Compound for a brief moment where he ran into a tense Thor and Dr. Banner. They conversed for a few minutes, all three of them worried but relieved that there had been no signs of a struggle inside the building where the intervention was taking place.

At exactly three, Loki found himself standing outside of Peter’s apartment. He knocked and only had to wait a moment before he heard farewells being called and then the door opened and Peter very nearly ran into him.  

“Hello,” Loki laughed, wrapping an arm around the boy’s shoulders as they headed for the elevator together.

“Hey, Loki! It’s good to see you! How are you?” Peter’s eyes were filled with joy to see Loki, which was surprising but so very touching. The teenager looked around as they approached the car.

“Where's Tony? Is he doing something Avengers related? Because he said he'd pick me up- not that I mind seeing you, you're great… but I was hoping Tony would come and…” the boy cut himself off, sighing. “I'm rambling, aren’t I?’

“You and Anthony both do it often,” Loki informed him as they climbed into the car. “It's fine. And yes, Anthony is away on Avengers business. He was called out unexpectedly this morning and he did share with me earlier his excitement to see you, so I know he is upset that work got in the way of his getting to spend time with you.”

“How's dating him?” the boy teased with a knowing smirk after a respectable pause. “Rhodey says he beat me by eight hours. Only eight hours! Apparently, I was second closest in the whole betting when you'd guys kiss-slash-start dating.”

“Yes, you've told me, three times now,” Loki smirked at his crestfallen expression before he added with a soft smile, “He is amazing. He makes me laugh like no other can- not that we will be sharing that fact with him- and being with him is truly the happiest I have ever been.”

Peter beamed. “That’s great! I'm so happy for the two of you, though I do have to say, I shipped you guys from the very first day Tony told me about you.”

“Shipped?”

The boy flushed. “Nothing.”

“Okay…” Loki trailed, amused. “And when exactly did Anthony first mention me and cause you to boat us?”

“Ship, not boat.”

“Are they not basically the same thing?”

“Yes, but...oh, never mind,” the boy sighed, teasing Loki gently for his ignorance. “Anyway, let's see… Tony came over at some point during Christmas break, so around the end of December? I knew you and Thor were here, of course, and Tony had mentioned you a few times before by name, but when he came over for Christmas, he couldn't stop telling me about your magic, what you could do, and how much I’d love it.” Peter laughed. “He kinda geeked out, but that's okay because I geek out with Ned about Stars Wars all the time.”

“Ah, yes. Anthony has made me watch all of those movies.” Loki made a face.

Peter stared at him in growing horror. “You don't like Star Wars?” he squawked.

“Not particularly, no. I find it boring.”

Peter sputtered. “Boring? Boring? Oh my god- gosh, sorry- how is that possible?”

Loki shrugged. “Harry Potter was not much better, to be honest.”

“What?!”

“When you have magical powers yourself, seeing such pathetic attempts at ‘magic’ in movies is just...tiring.”

“Tiring,” Peter replied slowly. “Are you sure we watched the same movies?”

Loki laughed. “Quite sure. And you should have heard Anthony when I shared my opinion on the quality of the magical effects in the movies. He was just as affronted as you are.”

Peter folded his arms over his chest, pouting. “Well, yeah, Harry Potter’s a classic! You can't just disrespect the classics like that!”

Loki rolled his eyes fondly at the boy, knowing for certain that Anthony would be saying the exact same thing if he were there. Thinking of his beloved made him worry about Anthony's safety, and Loki tried to push those thoughts from his mind as he asked, “What is this project you are working on?”

Peter’s eyes lit up with passion at the topic change. “I'm trying to upgrade my suit but there's this one code that isn't quite working. And Tony’s an expert on this kinda stuff so I know he'll be able to help me.”

“What will this upgrade do?”

“Help me blend in with my surroundings like a chameleon,” Peter said proudly.

“You take after Anthony,” Loki snorted. “That sounds like something he would want for his own armor.”

“Yeah?” Peter grinned. “Do you think he'll put chameleon powers in his suit too?”

“I wouldn't be surprised.”

Peter smiled shyly as he looked out the window. But he didn't say anything further on the subject.

When Loki couldn't stand the worry any longer, he called out, “FRIDAY, what's the update on the mission?”

“Communication has been down for over an hour,” she replied tensely. “Voice patterns suggest tensions were escalating but I cannot be sure. A fight...there may have been a fight. Their systems are down and Boss’s suit has been disabled.”

The car swerved before Loki managed to straighten their path. “Why haven't we been called to arms? They could be hurt, they could be-”

“Loki,” FRIDAY interjected gently, “from my understanding of your magic bond with Boss, you can sense his pain, can you not?”

Loki pulled over to the side of the road. “There's a mild discomfort,” he said shakily. “I thought that was my own stress.”

Peter tapped Loki’s shoulder, looking frightened but considerably stronger than Loki as he said, “Let me drive us home, okay? You can call Thor, get an update from the Council. And FRIDAY will tell us everything she knows, I’m sure.”

Floundering for a moment, Loki finally nodded and climbed out if the car so he could switch with Peter. He had just settled into his seat when his chest tightened.

“Loki?” Peter asked hesitantly, reaching for him. “What happened? Are you okay? You look like you're in pain.”

“Anthony's hurt,” Loki whispered. He choked on a sob. “Much more pain than he was before. Norns, what if-”

“Call Thor,” Peter requested of FRIDAY, glancing at him in worry as he started back on the highway.

Loki sat there in the passenger seat, shaking. He could only imagine what had caused Anthony's pain, and the possible reasons were endless. It was a terrifying realization.

“Loki?”

Thor’s worried, brotherly-protective voice cut into his thoughts and Loki gasped. “Thor, the Council, you must call them. Anthony is hurt, I can sense it strongly; we must be sent out, now!”

“The Council is discussing what they want to do.” Thor clearly hesitated, choosing his next words carefully. “There have been no outward signs of violence and so they are hesitant to send us out and possibly jeopardize their mission.”

“No, no, they cannot delay us any longer. Anthony is hurt, Thor, we cannot just sit here and do nothing…”

“Hang on, brother, the Council had returned…” There was silence for several minutes and then Thor said, “They are sending us out. Stephen is leading a team of himself, Agent Barton, Falcon Flier, and Captain Rogers to Springfield to save some politicians. You are leading the raid in Chicago, which includes a team of yourself, myself, Agent Romanov, Bruce, and the insect-man.”

“Confirm with Dr. Banner that Hulk will be joining us. If so, you and I are together, Romanov with Lang. We will be there in three minutes.”

“He's already half green,” Thor confirmed.

“Great.” Loki ended the call and sunk back in his seat. He was working to control his breathing when Peter said quietly, “Your bond with Tony, can you tell where he is injured? Or how seriously? Or do you just-”

“I am only aware of his injuries. I know nothing more than that,” Loki said tightly.

“He'll- he'll be okay, right?”

Loki didn’t want to make the promise to himself in fear of getting his hopes up, but he would tell this innocent boy that his father-figure would be returning to him and it would be the truth. The boy had lost enough already and Anthony would not be his next loss. “I will make sure he comes back to you,” Loki promised as they parked the car in the garage and ran for the stairs.

Halfway down the corridor headed to the Communal Room, Loki gasped sharply and stumbled. Peter grabbed his arm, yelling for Thor.

Thor, Stephen, and Dr. Banner raced into the hall and of the three, Thor was the one who moved the quickest to get to Loki’s side.

“There has been an explosion in the warehouse district,” FRIDAY announced shakily.

“I-I can't feel Anthony's pain anymore,” Loki stuttered, looking at his brother desperately as if he had some answer that Loki didn't.

“Don't dwell on the what-ifs,” Stephen said firmly. “We need to go; are you well enough-”

“Yes,” Loki snapped, interrupting. “Anthony is injured; I am not staying behind.”

Stephen nodded, perhaps understanding Loki better than he had thought. Keeping his eyes on Loki, Stephen spun his hands and threw a portal into the air. “Warehouse, go,” he directed.

Loki led his team through the portal as his armor gleamed to life on him. They stood inside the front doorway to the warehouse and Loki took a moment to look around the darkened area before he directly quietly, “Romanov, you and Lang fall back. Thor, go behind them and watch our back. The doctor and I will go first.”

“What if I can't change back?” Dr. Banner whispered.

“Trust that we will be able to help you back to yourself,” Loki murmured.

The doctor nodded.

Loki stepped forward carefully, allowing his magic to come forward and determine the location of Anthony, Rhodes, and James.

“End of the hall,” he whispered, gesturing to a door.

A furious yet weak “No!” filled the silence.

And their stealth ended.

Dr. Banner’s Hulk overtook him as he stepped forward, ran down the hall, and broke the door down with a single blow. Loki stepped in first after him with the others armed, on the defensive, and each planning their own attack when they saw the state of the inhabitants of the room in front of them.

“Avengers,” a teenager- David, Loki recognized from his picture- announced calmly, standing front and center of the blown apart room. “You shouldn't have come.”

There was a click and Loki turned his head just enough to see Sam standing behind James and Rhodes, both of whom sat on the floor bloodied and chained to the wall. There was a growing darkness in James’s eyes despite the clear weakness he was experiencing, which Loki was quickly coming to realize was because the man’s Soldier was trying to fight him for control.

“I wouldn't say that,” a new voice disagreed, and Loki looked up to recognize Emma as the speaker. “Now we can stop them and their endless display of hatred.”

The Hulk was standing still, although Loki suspected that was because Thor was quietly convincing him not to attack.

“We mean you no harm,” Loki said quietly as he looked around for David, “We only want to help our teammates, stop your captors, and bring you to safety.”

“Safety?” David snorted. “We weren't born yesterday.”

“Do you know who I am?” Loki pointed to Thor. “And who he is?”

“We're also are not stupid.”

“That's questionable. But if you know who we are, then you know that we have a Compound that houses our people.”

“So?”

“My brother and I have requested- and have been granted- permission to open our Compound to you and everyone your leaders have held captive. You will be granted Asgardian citizenship and will be able to live in our compound, further your education, or your training at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, if you would like.”

“God, you sound like Stark,” David muttered.

“Where is he?” Romanov interjected as she moved discreetly over to the two captured Jameses.

“He was telling us similar lies so Thomas took him.”

“And did what?” Loki demanded.

“I wouldn't know.”

Smoke began trickling into the room through the open door. Many people from both sides cursed. “We have, at most, five minutes before that fire is on us,” Romanov said grimly as she examined the smoke with a mild calm about her.

“Thomas took Stark that way,” David said suddenly, his eyes widening with the realization as he pointed in the direction where the smoke and flames were coming from.

Loki felt his heart stop. “Brother, you should go,” Thor murmured. “If the flames have overwhelmed them…”

“No,” David said, and Loki froze when he heard a gun being cocked. “You're not going anywhere.”

“You must let me,” Loki said sharply. “If your friend and Anthony went in the direction of where the explosion occurred and where the flames are coming from, they both most likely need help.”

The boy looked uncertain. “I am coming with then,” he decided.

Loki nodded. “Very well, come on.”

Leaving Thor, Romanov, Lang, and an unstable Hulk to talk the two girls down, Loki went with the boy to rescue their loved ones. As they got deeper into the smoke, it became increasingly harder to see. Loki stood it for as long as he could and then a shield glimmered to life around himself and David.

The teenager looked at him in surprise. “It is what you would call a force field. It simply shields us from the smoke and any other dangers we might face,” Loki explained.

The boy still looked surprised. “You put it around me too.”

Loki looked at him. “Of course, I did,” he murmured as they walked through a fireball and entered what remained of a half blown-apart room. In the center of the room, surrounded by sparks (of lightning) and fire was Thomas, who was kneeling on the ground beside an unarmored, unconscious Anthony.

For a moment, Loki was sure he forgot how to breathe.

Thomas looked up at them, eyes red-rimmed and wide with fear as he exclaimed, panicked, “I think he's dead. I didn't mean to kill him, I didn't, I didn't, I swear. We were just talking and-”

“What did you do, Tom?” David demanded, his eyes wide. It was clear he wanted to go to his friend but even with the shield, it was just as clear that he was hesitant because of the fire.

“We were talking and I got upset and I-I hit him and…” the teenager sounded near tears. “He just wanted to help us. He said we had a Compound to live in and that we could finish our school. He just wanted to help.”

Loki took a cautious step forward as David said furiously, “What are you talking about? He's lying!”

“No, he wasn't, David, I promise. He was telling the truth, I really think he was.”

Loki was within twenty feet of them now. “Thomas,” he said quietly. “Will you allow me to help you both? I will put up a shield to protect you from the fire, but I must go to Anthony. He needs my help.”

The boy nodded, stepping back as Loki rushed forward and knelt beside his beloved. “Norns, Anthony,” he whispered when he rolled Anthony onto his back and saw the burns that were covering his chest and neck. He could hear the boys arguing in the background about why they should or shouldn't trust the Avengers, but Loki tuned them out. Under his hand, Anthony's chest was just rising and falling and it was very apparent that he was in need of immediate medical assistance.

“Loki!” came a loud, worried voice from a great distance.

Loki lifted his head, calling, “Thor! Stay where you are; we are coming to you.” Gathering Anthony into his arms carefully, he then increased the berth of his shield as he, with David and Thomas behind him, ran into the hallway. He barely glanced at the two girls who were standing with Romanov, instead making sure both the Jameses were present and everyone was accounted for before he used his left hand to wrap them all in a blanket of a power.

When he landed on firm ground, Loki immediately stumbled over to the sofa and laid Anthony on it. Thor was at his side in an instant, helping him remain upright as Loki held a shaking hand above Anthony’s wounds and tried to heal him.

Around them, Romanov was contacting Rogers on the status of their team, Lang and a weak Rhodes were trying to calm the four teenagers, and the Hulk was looking at Anthony with a growing uneasiness in his eyes.

“Come on, Anthony,” Loki murmured as he watched Anthony struggle to take his next breath. It had been an accident, Thomas’s emotions had simply overwhelmed him, causing his powers to subconsciously be used, it wasn't Thomas’s fault that Anthony was injured-

“He is not breathing very well,” said an empty voice from behind him and Loki turned his head to see James standing there, his eyes dark and distant as he watched Loki struggle to heal his lover. “And you are too weak to help him.”

He made a move as if to make Loki stop, and Loki gasped. “No! No, I can do this,” he said shakily. “Leave me be; I can help him.”

James gave him an unimpressed look, appearing ready to protest. Loki was about to say more when he heard a choked gasp from the doorway. Eyes widening, Loki looked up to see Peter standing in the doorway, his eyes wide and filled with fear as he stared at Anthony, then at James, then at Rhodes, and then at the four teenagers standing defensively in the corner of the room.

Peter ran to Loki’s side, checking first that Loki was alright before he did the same with James- immediately telling him he needed to be seen at medical- before he turned his attention to Anthony. “Is he going to be okay?” Peter asked shakily.

Loki’s magic flickered in a moment of increased weakness and he realized then that James was right. After shielding so many people and then teleporting them, he had used most of his energy.

He wasn't going to be able to heal Anthony on his own, not for much longer. But Anthony’s life was depending on him being able to heal Anthony’s injured lungs.

“I don't know,” Loki admitted, his voice much too shaky and uncertain for his own security.

Peter stifled a sob into his hand and turned away, reaching for James in his moment of weakness. The man, more in his soldier’s mindset than his own, looked startled for a moment before raw instinct took over and he took Peter into his arms.

A golden circle appeared and Loki nearly cried out in relief when Stephen appeared and ran to his side, immediately taking over in his spell. Loki slumped, energy depleted, and was held up by Thor, who caught and hugged him. Loki allowed the action and tried not to cry.

Anthony had nearly died.

He had almost died.

And he still could die.

 

“If Anthony makes it…” Loki trailed off, unable to think about the other possible outcome. “I will be feeding him an Apple of Idunn before the end of the week.”

Thor nodded somberly. “He will be alright, Loki. He gets stronger every passing minute. His current state of sleep is so his body can overcome the stress it went through. But his wounds will not be fatal, you know that.”

“Willing something to be true does not mean that it is.” Loki looked down at the hand held in his own and silently ordered himself not to allow the tears welling in his eyes to fall. “He very nearly died in my arms, Thor.”

“He didn't.”

“But he could have.”

Thor reached over and clasped Loki’s shoulder. “Have faith, Loki,” he murmured as he stood. “What can I get you to eat?”

“I am fine without food. But an apple for Anthony would be much appreciated.”

“A tea, then.” Thor left without saying anything further and Loki watched him leave glumly. When he was alone with Anthony, what facade he had left faded and he broke, leaning forward to hide his face in the mattress.

“You need to wake up,” he whispered brokenly. “Please, Anthony, don't leave me.”

Time passed slowly or perhaps it was quickly, Loki wasn't aware of time, nor did it matter to him. It was when he heard a soft, “Loki?” that he truly became aware that a great amount of time had passed since Thor had left.

Lifting his head from the mattress, he looked up at his still-unconscious lover before he croaked. “What is it, FRIDAY?”

“Dr. Banner’s Hulk has asked for you by name. He is still in the containment room if you would care to visit him.”

There was knock on the door before Loki could decide what he wanted to do, and when he looked over, he found Stephen was standing in the doorway. “Loki,” the doctor greeted quietly. “How are you?”

Loki looked away, not caring to respond.

Stephen sat down in Thor’s seat, pressing trembling fingers to his lips. “Loki, when did you sleep last?”

“The night before Anthony was injured,” Loki answered flatly. “And I will not rest until I know he is safely on the route to getting better.”

“He will be okay. You know that.”

“No, I know that that is what the doctors are telling me. Just as how I know that Anthony has been unconscious for nearly two and a half days.” Loki resisted the urge to sigh, continuing, “Anthony told me once that events in life are designed to knock you down, but that there are always people there to help you up. He is the reason I believe that statement, but I do not appreciate people telling me to expect the best when I do not want my heart to be broken if something were to go wrong.” Loki stood, going to the doorway. “I allowed myself to believe things would always go my way, once. I was disappointed over and over again. And I do not want to experience something else, something else so valuable to me, to break my heart through its loss due to the actions of violence. Now, if you will excuse me, FRIDAY has informed me that Dr. Banner’s other half has requested my presence.”

Loki stepped out of the room and leaned against the wall, breath shuddering as he brought his hand to his mouth and suppressed a sob. Taking a deep breath, he straightened his shoulders and went to the containment room.

“Loki,” the Hulk said curiously, tilting his head at Loki curiously as he entered the room. “Loki look sad.”

“Smart observation,” Loki said dryly, taking a seat on the floor, stretching out his legs, and looking at the Hulk wearily. “Anything else?”

The Hulk shrugged. “Loki is hurt.”

“I am not,” Loki said defensively, folding his arms over his chest.

“Loki’s heart is breaking.”

He had no counter against the truth.

“How do you fare?” he finally muttered.

For several minutes, there was no response. Loki had slumped a little but his head snapped up when he heard, “Hulk is tired.”

“Tired of what?”

“Tired of fighting.”

Oh, doctor. Loki’s chest ached. “You don't have to fight anymore,” he pointed out. “We're all safe now.”

“Everyone wants Hulk to fight. Hulk no want to fight.”

Loki slowly pulled himself to his feet and walked over to the opposite side of the room, kneeling on the ground in front of where the Hulk was sitting dejectedly. “You have served your country well,” he said quietly. “You protected them from me and from others, and you did so for many years. You protect your teammates from danger but Banner is capable of doing such as well. If you want to stop fighting, then you should do so; because your battle has been won.”

The Hulk watched him closely for many moments, perhaps gauging if he was serious. And as Loki stayed there, the Hulk trembled and began to shrink. When it was the doctor sat in front of him, Loki stood and offered the man his hand.

Dr. Banner took his hand and Loki pulled him up. They made eye contact. “Thanks,” the doctor said shyly.

Loki nodded at him, patting his arm briefly before they left the containment room together, their bonds of friendship strengthened in those few minutes spent together.

When they entered Anthony’s room, they found Wilson escorting a tired, stressed-looking Rhodes into the room and into Loki’s chair. “James is on his way with Pepper in a few hours,” Rhodes said wearily. “Right now he's at the Compound with Samantha and David. And Romanov has taken Emma under her wing.”

“What about Thomas?”

“He's refused all contact with everyone so far, even the other children,” Thor said from the back of the room. “Heimdall says the boy has isolated himself in guilt over Anthony’s wounds.”

Sighing, Loki said, “I should speak with him.”

“Charles has already assessed him for his school,” a new voice said from the doorway and Loki looked up to find Rogers was standing there. “He can live there, all of them can if they want.”

“That is good news but Thomas will not accept our help unless he feels he deserves it. And he's not there right now, not even close. I'll go see him.” Loki walked over to the bed and leaned down to kiss Anthony’s forehead. “I'll see you soon, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Be well.”

Thor went over to stand next to him and then they walked out together to go to their Compound. Half an hour later, Loki knocked quietly on a bedroom door.

“Go away,” came the muffled response.

“It's Loki. May I come in, please?”

“Leave me alone.”

Loki sighed. “You put my lover in the hospital in critical condition. The least you could do is listen to what I have to say.”

The door flew open and Loki took a step back, calmly eyeing the young man standing in front of him. “You're dating Tony Stark?” the boy demanded.

“May I come in? I'm coming in.” Loki took a step into the room, observing his surroundings before he walked over to the bed and sat down. “I am, quite happily, might I add.”

“I'm sorry,” Thomas said quietly. “He was only trying to help me…”

“It is difficult to control one’s powers on a typical day. Under stress and supposed attack where you are trying to distinguish between friend and foe, it is not surprising that you lashed out unintentionally.” Loki sighed. “Although, I would have preferred you struck me instead of Anthony.”

The teenager- really, more of a boy, Loki thought- looked at him. “You're a mage, aren't you?”

“I am, and a powerful one, at that.”

“Why didn't you kill me for what I did to Mr. Stark?”

Loki gazed at him steadily. “Would you have preferred I did?”

“No. Maybe,” the boy confessed. He looked away, scowling, perhaps at the admission, but not before Loki saw the pain in his eyes. “I don't remember anything about my childhood. Everything I do remember all relates to that place, about being tortured or about attacking innocent people in big cities so Grogan and the others could do whatever they wanted. I remember killing people.”

“Are you sorry that you killed those people?”

Thomas’s eyes snapped up to meet his own. “Yes,” he whispered. “I was filled with rage, I thought that everyone would look at me with disgust or want to kill me for being different...and so I didn't care who I hurt or killed.” A sob escaped him. “That's what they told us. That people don't care about us, they'll only ever laugh or stare at us because we have these powers and because we all have scars and, and-”

Loki stood, going over to the teenager who looked close to tears. “Do you think that about me? That I will laugh or think of you as worthless because of your powers and scars?”

“You've been sitting here this entire time and you haven't stared at me once. You haven't laughed or mocked me…” Thomas sounded lost. “You're talking to me like I'm your equal...don’t you think I'm worthless?”

Loki guided the boy to sit down on the bed. “Not very long ago, I thought myself to be worthless. I was the runt of my family, left out to die in the cold. I was found and adopted by the king of another nation and I became his son. I went almost my entire life without knowing the truth about who I am or who my true parents were. When I did find out, it was by accident and I was mortified to realize I was part of a race of monsters. I did many cruel acts because of my anger and hurt. And I came to hate myself that much more because of who I truly was.”

Thomas stared at him, wide-eyed.

“I wanted to die,” Loki continued. “And it’s not for a lack of trying that I find myself here still. I promised myself no one else would come to know about my heritage. I didn't want their disgust or their hatred even more than what I already had. I’m sure you can relate.”

Thomas nodded silently.

“But it is impossible to hide from yourself, no matter how hard you try. Several months ago, I was exposed on the battlefield; more specifically, I was attacked whilst in battle, and it caused my true form to be revealed for all to see. Many of my teammates were horrified,” Loki admitted, “But Anthony, out of his armor, came to me and held me. He did not back away from me or even think of me as a monster, even though I certainly looked like one. And that was the first time of a countless amount that Anthony has treated me as his equal despite knowing what I really am. He sees me no differently than he did before but…” Loki’s voice caught. “But he loves me all the more for who I truly am, I am certain of this because of his caring and loving actions to me.”

A tear slid down Thomas’s face. “Why did they lie and say that everyone would hate us?” he cried out.

“Some people will look down on you for your imperfections,” Loki said quietly. “But there will be others, like Anthony, who will see your scars and your hurts as signs of strength and beauty, and who will make you believe in yourself because they do.”

“Do you really think that people will be like that with me?”

“Some already are,” Loki pointed out gently. “Emma, David, Sam and all the others, they all care about you very much. I can't tell you that everything will be okay because it won't be. There are many days where you will be disgusted at the sight of yourself in the mirror, when you will be certain their love for you is fake or unfounded. Getting better, overcoming struggles, is a long and difficult process. But you will get better, that I can promise you, and you will not be alone.”

Thomas was crying and Loki stepped forward to carefully give the boy a hug. “Can the others come see me?” Thomas whispered.

“They’re down the hall. I’ll get them.” Loki rubbed Thomas’s shoulder. “You alright?”

“No,” Thomas said truthfully. “But I think I will be, one day.”

“Yes, you will,” Loki murmured as he stepped back and opened the door. He waved at the children who looked up at him, eyes hopeful, and they ran down the hall to be with their friend.

Loki went to Heimdall. “He’ll need counselling as well as training to control his powers. They all will, I'm sure. Do we have a course of action for them yet?”

“We have appointments already made for them to speak to a counselor,” Heimdall nodded. “As well as training at the Mansion, should they decide to live there.”

“How many will return to their parents?”

“Most of the little ones who were taken to become thieves have family members either here or on their way. The eldest four were all from orphanages or foster care, so they shall become our wards.”

Loki nodded thoughtfully. “I'll be back soon to discuss further plans.”

“My prince,” Heimdall began, his use of Loki’s formal title being what caused Loki to stop. “How fares your heart?”

“My heart beats so long as Anthony’s does,” Loki answered stiffly. “I am told he is healing and should be conscious soon.”

“Then go, take your place at his side.” Heimdall nodded at him. “We are with you.”

Loki nodded his thanks, his eyes stinging as he teleported himself back to the other compound and to the medical bay. And once there he began his wait again for Anthony to awaken.

Chapter Text

“Tony!”

“Shh! I swear to Thor, if you wake him, I will throw all my ice chips at you. He hasn't slept this entire time, has he?”

“How could you tell?”

“I can sense how tired he is.” There was a short pause filled only by the sounds of a heart monitor and fingers lightly carding through his hair. “How bad is it?”

“Tones…”

“Rhodey. Please, tell me. Or show me.”

“Loki and Stephen healed all that they could but burns that go untreated for even a little bit of time…”

“Leave behind a scar, I know. How bad is it?”

“One on your neck. It's not too long.”

“And my chest?”

“There's several, I'm told. You're bandaged right now so I have no idea about those.”

There was a shaky sob. “Okay, okay. It could be worse. I mean, I could be dead. I think I’m supposed to be, actually. Pretty sure I've already used up all of my nine lives.”

“Since when are you a cat?” There was a gentle fondness in the tone.

“Since the first time I lived when I shouldn't.”

“That was in college, wasn't it?”

“Are you kidding? I'd say more like when I was three and was kidnapped for the first time. That was terrifying, let me tell ya.”

“Tones…”

“Nope, you asked. And I'm fine, James, stop worrying. Still here twenty years later, aren't I?”

“And that's the concussion talking. Come on, Tony, time to join your sweetie in the land of snoring.”

“But Rhodey!”

“Don't you use that tone on me, old man. Not after all that waiting you put us through.”

“I was out for three days, wasn't I?”

“How...did you know that?”

“Loki’s been tired for three days.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“I can sense his pain. Remember when I told you about our magical bond? We're connected. Duh.”

“So you can sense that he's been tired for the last three days?”

“Yep. He also got hurt somewhere during the kind-of battle, but he’s not in pain anymore.”

“You were aware of this while unconscious? How is that possible?”

A whispering tone now. “It's possible because I love him even in my sleep. Come on, honeybear, that should have been obvious.”

“It has to do with love? Well, it's no wonder he could tell you were in pain, then. And Tones, I know how happy you are with him so I just want to say that I'm happy for you. You're a cute couple. A bit flirty at times...but a cute couple."

“Thanks, Rhodey. We are.”

“Okay, now, lover boy. It's time to go back to sleep now.”

“Hey, no tucking me in.” A slurring, sleepy voice. “That's Loki’s job and his job only.”

“Sorry, Tones, I've been tucking you in since you were fifteen. I have best friend privileges.”

“M’kay, fine. But only because it's you. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

Laughter. “Goofball.”

“Lovable idiot.”

“‘M a genius.”

“A genius at being a lovable idiot, maybe.”

“Rhodey?”

“Yeah, Tones?”

“I already have a shit-ton of scars from experiments, labs, mishaps, and Afghanistan. What if these disgust Loki?”

“Would they disgust you if they were on him?”

“Of course not!” An affronted tone.

“And doesn't Loki love you even with all your scars?”

“Well...I hope he does.” There was a pause. “Wait. You said Loki knew I was in pain when I was in Chicago? Stephen told me that given our kind of bond, we can only feel each other’s pain if we love each other!”

“Guess you need to have a conversation with Loki, don't you?”

“I guess I do.” There was a yawn. “Night, Rhodey.”

“Night, Tony. Sleep well.”

“You too.” There was a long pause and then a gleeful whisper: “Loki loves me too.”

Waking up to find Anthony was fast asleep, Loki was almost certain he had dreamt the entire exchange between Anthony and the colonel. But there was more color to his cheeks now and his heart monitor was steadier, so Loki kissed Anthony’s cheek before going to find the doctor.

“Oh, yes, he woke up last night. He was only up a few minutes. Spoke to Col. Rhodes and begged us not to move you or wake you up.” The doctor gave a small smile. “He was insistent that you get the rest you hadn't gotten since the night before the battle. He's very perceptive to notice that you were exhausted.”

He noticed because of the bond.

“Thank you,” Loki murmured, his mind reeling. Anthony loved him back? Taking his time to process this somewhat unexpected, somewhat expected (hoped) revelation, Loki sat down in his chair. Then he stood up and paced the room, trying to process that Anthony loved him.

Anthony loved him.

Anthony loved him.

It didn’t matter where he put the emphasis, the conclusion was the same. Loki was only able to sense Anthony’s pain because he loved him. That was the way the bond between their magic worked. And if Anthony was able to tell that Loki had been tired- described because he had felt it, not seen it- then the only possible explanation was that Anthony loved him.

Loki reached over and grabbed his phone from the bedside stand as he sat back down in his chair. I have a question for you. (Sent 08:43)

Ask away, brother. (Sent 08:44)

Would I be crazy if I were to truly request an apple of Idunn? (Sent 08.44)

You are in love. I’d be more concerned about your sanity if you didn’t request an apple. (Sent 08.45)

Loki considered that. He wanted to request an apple for Anthony but for all practicality reasons, they had only been dating for a couple of months, barely. Would Anthony really be okay with saying ‘I love you’ to him? Would he want to accept the apple and everything Loki was proposing?

Going from a life of a mortal to a life of a God was an unfair choice for Anthony to make. At least, for now. Loki would keep that in his mind for later.

For now, however, he would simply focus on being content with Anthony and-

“Hey, Snowflake.”

Loki lifted his head sharply and stared at Anthony, wide-eyed. “You're awake,” he breathed.

“I am and I'm three days behind on kisses,” Anthony pouted.

Laughing somewhat wetly, Loki moved from his chair so he was sitting on the bed before he leaned down and pressed his lips to Anthony’s. “You scared me,” he mumbled and once he began with that, he suddenly couldn't stop. “You were barely breathing when I found you; I thought I had lost you without you knowing what you mean to me…”

Anthony reached over to take Loki’s trembling hand into his own. “I'm always going to come back to you,” he promised.

“You can’t be certain of that, not with your frail mortal body.” Loki shook weakly. “Those burns could have killed you and-”

“But they didn't. You got to me in time, honey.” Anthony’s eyes were soft, worried. “I'm okay now.”

Loki leaned down and pressed their foreheads together, allowing himself to live in Anthony’s space for a moment as he composed himself. Anthony brought his other hand to Loki’s cheek, his thumb brushing away Loki’s tears. “Please let me take you away from this world to one that knows no war. Let me take you to a world where you will be safe, a paradise for you to live in and be happy,” Loki whispered.

“But everything I need to be happy is already here with me right now. You are my world.”

Loki looked at Anthony, eyes watering. “You're a sap,” he choked out.

“Yeah, but you love that about me.”

“I do.”

Anthony leaned up to kiss Loki. Loki arched into his touch, kissing him desperately. “You're going to be okay,” he whispered, reassuring himself.

“Yes, I am.” Anthony pulled Loki down so he was laying down beside him on the bed. Loki took his lover into his arms and held him close, not wanting to let go.

So he didn't.

Epilogue

Soft, carefully placed footsteps notified Loki of his lover’s approach and so when Anthony embraced him from behind, Loki was expecting it.

Sighing, he leaned back into Anthony’s arms and brought his own hands up to cover Anthony’s. “Are we hiding from something?” Anthony whispered, standing tall so he could kiss a patch of exposed skin on Loki’s neck.

“Hiding from the world, for a little while,” Loki responded, watching as the sun set over the body of water hidden a small distance away from the Compound.

“Because of the-”

“I know it has been five days since we received the news but I had hoped-” Loki cut himself off, swallowing hard and then continued roughly, “I had hoped we would be able to adopt him.”

“About that.” Anthony shifted his position slightly, his arms tightening around Loki’s waist. “I got a call about ten minutes ago. Apparently, the staff at the hospital pleaded our case.”

Loki whirled around, trying to keep his hope at a simmer as he whispered, “Were we-”

“We can start the paperwork tomorrow,” Anthony informed with a smile.

“We're going to be parents,” Loki whispered, his voice breaking a little. “Norns, Anthony-”

“Congratulations, daddy,” Anthony said fondly as he reached up to kiss Loki. “Guess we have to baby-proof the Compound now, don’t we?”

“Yes, we do,” Loki said breathlessly, still processing the news that he and Anthony had been granted permission by the state to adopt Joshua as their own. And suddenly, now it seemed to be the perfect time to do everything he had been wanting to do for months, but had always been too scared to do.

Pulling away slightly, Loki kept Anthony’s hand in his own as he said quietly, “Before we began our relationship, you told me that you wanted to help me to a place where I would feel more comfortable and secure in my true form.”

Anthony nodded. “I remember that.”

“You also said you hoped that one day I would be able to show you my true form without feeling like a lesser person because of who I really am.” Loki took a deep breath and allowed his Seidr to relax. He felt the change overtake him and kept his eyes closed for a moment, as an additional security to himself, and then he slowly opened his eyes to see that Anthony was looking at him closely in awe.

“You're beautiful,” Anthony whispered wetly, raising a slightly trembling hand to trail a gentle finger along one of Loki’s runes. “Loki, wow, I mean...I have no words. You’re breathtaking. And it's a lovely shade of blue, very soft and warm. Even if you are a bit chilly to touch.”

Loki laughed, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Anthony, I love you,” he gasped out. “So much, Norns, I never imagined it could be possible to love someone this much but I love everything about you. I even find your rambling endearing and that shouldn't be possible but it is.”

Anthony’s eyes were sparkling. “I love you too, my frosty snowflake.”

Loki allowed his true form to recede and once it did, he was immediately enveloped in a tight embrace. He wrapped his arms around Anthony’s waist and held him close, breathing in the sighed kiss to his jaw and the way Anthony fit perfectly in his arms.

“Thank you for trusting me,” Anthony whispered.

“No, thank you for helping me to love myself. I would never have been able to show you or anyone else my true form if it hadn't been for your support and love.”

Anthony smiled at him, his eyes twinkling as his left hand sparkled and a small box appeared in his hand. Loki looked at him for a moment and then grinned, flicking his wrist and bringing his apple of Idunn into existence.

“Surprise?” Anthony laughed.

Loki smirked. “Great minds think alike, Anthony.”

Anthony shrugged. “Very true, very true.” Growing serious, he looked up at Loki. “There's no one else for me but you. You make me smile when I'm upset, you make me laugh when I don't want to. You’re my better half, the light of my world, all of that. You're the person I want to grow old with, raise a family with. Loki, would you do me the honor of marrying me?"

Loki joined Anthony in kneeling on the ground. “This is an Apple of Idunn. If you accept this apple, you are agreeing to a future much longer than your mortal one. You will live for as long as Thor and I both and you will be equally as hard to kill. It's not an immortal life but it is close. I am offering this to you because I want the rest of my days to spent with you. Would you do me the honor of accepting my apple?”

Anthony smiled, signaling a countdown. On the third count, they both promised, “Yes.”

Smiling through his tears, Anthony pulled out his ring, clearly handcrafted himself, and slid it onto Loki’s finger. Loki handed Anthony his apple and watched as his lover took a bite.

And together, hand in hand, they walked back to the Compound to the life they were going to grow old in, together forever.

 

The End.