It was a dark, stormy day when the third faction of the Avengers reappeared on Earth. The thunder and flickering lights were impossible to miss. Tony got up from his workstation - pausing to brace himself on the edge, because for a moment the room swam in a way that had nothing to do with Thor - and moved slowly to the window. They were filtered constantly now so that Tony could see out, but no one could see in.
Out on the lawn, the light slowly faded to reveal three people. Tony couldn't muster up any surprise to see that the Hulk and Loki were both with Thor. Even as Tony watched, the Hulk shrank back into Bruce Banner. Banner was the one who moved forward, one hand out-stretched, to meet the stream of new Avengers that spilled out of the Compound.
Banner and Thor would vouch for each other, Tony thought, and then both of them would probably vouch for Loki. He could see it clear as day. That meant there was no need for Tony to make an appearance. He returned to his desk and continued working on the bracers for Rhodey. So far, Rhodey couldn't walk with them for more than a couple of minutes before it got too painful, and no amount of physical therapy seemed to be making a difference. He was convinced that the problem was in the bracers, and determined to figure out a way to change that.
He couldn't avoid the new arrivals forever, though. The compound was only so large, and when Tony needed coffee he didn't care who or what got in his way. About a week after the three of them arrived - and only a day since Carol's report accepting Thor and Banner into the new Avengers crossed his desk - Tony stumbled into the kitchen and headed straight for the coffee machine. His vision was filled with spots as he poured himself half a cup and then filled the rest with milk. He hated the way coffee tasted bitter the more his little side reared its head, but he needed the caffeine more than he needed to enjoy the taste.
"Tony? Are you okay?"
"Go away," Tony said without heat, drinking half the cup in one fell swoop. At least the milk cooled the coffee enough that he didn't burn his tongue. Last time that happened, he'd broken down into tears and nearly fallen apart completely. Only the sound of FRIDAY's voice, giving him short, simple instructions, had enabled him to cling to the last of his self-control.
"Tony," Banner said again. He sounded worried.
Tony sighed into his cup and turned around. "Let me say this once," he said, as patiently as possible. "I don't care that you're here. I really don't. I have more important things to worry about." He held in a laugh that would sound a little too hysterical to be safe. Behind Banner, he saw that Loki and Thor were watching him closely. Strange. Not too long ago, Loki couldn't stand to be within a mile of his brother. Distantly, Tony wondered what had changed. Banner would probably tell him if he asked, or Loki would kill him on the spot for being nosy. Either one would be fine at this rate.
"Don't," Tony said, cutting Banner off. He held up a hand. His fingers were shaking, he saw. It felt like his whole body was going to rattle apart. He'd never gone this long without letting himself be little. The longest was after Afghanistan, before Steve came into his life.
"I have to go," Tony said, and fled without even refilling his cup. He barely made it back to his room before the tears came, hot and shameful on his face. He was trying so hard not to care that Steve and the others had abandoned him, and most of the time he was successful. It was only when the ever-persistent thoughts of his daddy snuck up on him that he couldn't hold it together.
He cried for well over an hour, curled up on his bed, which was 59 minutes more than Steve Rogers deserved, and even then it was only because he cried himself to sleep. He woke up when he wet the bed, his bladder releasing because he wasn't awake to properly concentrate. Tony scrambled out of the sodden sheets and quickly stripped the bed, tossing the mess and his ruined boxers and jeans into the trash. His throat felt tight as he climbed into the shower to erase the rest of the evidence.
"Something has to change," Rhodey said on the phone later that night. "You can't keep going on like this, Tones. It's not healthy."
Why had he told Rhodey again? Oh yeah. Because in exchange for testing out the bracers and being honest about feedback, Rhodey had extracted a promise that Tony would be honest when he was coming too close to being little. Tony scowled at the nearest speaker. "I'm fine."
"You're not fine. Like time I saw you, you were so pale you could give Caspar a run for his money."
"You've forgotten the "friendly ghost"?" Rhodey said, voice full of disbelief. "Now I know something is wrong. You used to love watching that movie."
"Shut up. It's not that bad," Tony muttered, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. He had a near-constant headache now. He would never admit it, but this was only getting worse, not better.
"Yes it is. You're building up to a full-scale meltdown. Don't try to tell me otherwise. You need to book yourself some time at a retreat."
"I've been going down on my own," Tony lied. He wouldn't say as much, but the thought of a retreat was terrifying. He couldn't risk letting a stranger put their hands on him, not when his last caregiver had nearly killed him. His hands started to shake again at the reminder. He had to put the gauntlet he was working on down for fear of dropping it.
"Now why don't I believe that?" Rhodey muttered. "And even if you have, which I doubt, you and I both know that you're too little for it to make any difference."
Tony flushed with shame, biting his tongue. It was true. Even if he diapered himself and prepared a bottle beforehand, he usually came up feeling worse than if he'd never bothered at all. It just wasn't the same without a caregiver. But who was he going to ask? Pepper? Yeah right. Their relationship was still on unsteady ground at best. Rhodey was confined to a wheelchair. Vision barely spoke to him. The other new Avengers were friendly enough, but Tony couldn't trust them with something like this. Not when he needed their respect more than he needed a hug.
"Seriously. I'm worried about you."
"I'm fine," Tony said, but less confidently. They both knew that he wasn't, but as far as Tony was concerned there was no easy answer.
"You're not fine. You need to stop saying that."
"If I stop saying it, then it might not be true."
"It isn't true," Rhodey said, sounding exasperated now. "I can still care for you -"
"No!" Tony said immediately. He wouldn't put that on Rhodey. Not with everything else Rhodey had to deal with. Tony was a real handful when he was little, needing constant attention. That was too much to ask of anyone, much less someone who had already given him so much.
"Tones, really, it's not a big deal. I like spending time with you when you're little."
"Maybe later. I gotta go, Platypus. Love and kisses." Tony hung up before Rhodey could answer. His phone began to ring again, but he ignored it. He wasn't going to put this on Rhodey's plate. Tony would just have to figure out how to keep going on his own.
Sheer determination kept him going for another two and a half weeks. He ignored Banner's presence, but Thor and Loki were harder to ignore: the U.N. was freaking out about the Asgardians and what was going to happen to them. Tony got dragged into a half a dozen committees and another three sub-committees. One of the most surreal moments of his life was standing before two dozen governments and telling them that he believed Thor when Thor claimed that Loki was reformed.
It was bullshit. Tony didn't believe that at all. But with Thanos coming, he did believe that Earth needed every scrap of help they could get. And it wasn't too difficult for Thor to convince the U.N. of the same thing. Loki didn't become an official Avenger, and he wasn't given an official pardon - but he wasn't thrown in jail, so that basically amounted to the same thing in Tony's book.
Some seventeen or so days after Tony had his conversation with Rhodey, he returned to the compound well after 1am. He was so tired that he was literally stumbling, his arms numb around the stack of papers he was holding. He didn't see the coffee table in his way until it was too late. He cracked his knee on the edge and yelped, dropping his papers.
That was it. Almost before the pain had registered, Tony was crying. He had the vague thought, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he was right out in the living room and anyone could walk in on him, but he just couldn't bring himself to care. The tenuous hold on his big headspace shattered completely and he sank down onto the edge of the couch, sobbing into his hands.
He was just so tired. He didn't want to have to work all the time! He wanted things to go back to the way they used to be. He missed his daddy. He missed the rest of the team. He missed not having to dread the phone ringing. He missed being able to sleep. He missed having conversations with Rhodey that were about more than just concern for Tony.
He didn't know how long he'd been crying for when the living room light turned on unexpectedly. Tony curled in on himself with an embarrassed whimper, still hiding his face. He felt way too little to do anything but sit there and cry. The thought of trying to run away never even crossed his mind. All he could do was hope that whoever had walked in would leave him be.
But that wasn't to be.
"Tony," Banner's voice said. He sounded distressed. "Oh my god. Hey, don't -"
Someone walked over to Tony. Strong hands slid under his arms and lifted him up. Tony held his breath in shock as he was settled on a hip, cuddled close against someone's chest. The person rubbed a hand up and down his back. He wanted to squirm to get down, but his body reacted of its own accord and melted into the embrace. He started to cry again, harder than before, wailing against the person's shoulder.
"What are you doing?" Banner asked, sounding stunned.
"He is a baby. I will not leave a baby to cry."
Loki. It was Loki. Tony's breath stuttered on a sob. Incredibly Loki shushed him, rocking him back and forth. He seemed to know exactly how to hold Tony, as though this was something they had done dozens of times.
"You're weirdly good at that."
"I should hope so. I am a mother."
There was a pause. Tony could picture Loki's cool look of scorn perfectly even as Loki finally replied, "Surely you have heard the tales of Asgardians that have filtered down to Midgard. Selvig told me many of them. Not all of them are true, of course, but some are."
"I'd heard them, I just didn't think they were true."
"Some are," Loki repeated. He crooned softly in a language Tony didn't understand, bouncing Tony gently. The crooning was remarkably soothing. Tony whimpered, tears still streaming down his face. He didn't even register the need to pee until it had already happened, wet warmth spreading between him and Loki.
"Uh oh," said Banner. "I should've warned you; Tony's a Little who can't control his bladder or bowels."
"No matter. You will show me to where his supplies are kept."
"I don't know if they're in the same - um, yeah, sure. I can do that."
Loki began to walk, carrying Tony with him. Tony instinctively wound his arms around Loki's shoulders, pressing his face to Loki's neck. He desperately didn't want to be seen by anyone else in the compound, even if that meant literally cuddling with the enemy.
Banner had never been in Tony's section of the compound before, but apparently Tony was easy to read: Banner knew exactly where his Little supplies were kept. Very shortly, Tony found himself laying on a changing table while Loki stripped his clothing off. Tony sucked anxiously at his thumb, still crying, but unable to muster the words that would make Loki stop. He couldn't deny that it felt good to be touched.
"Hey Tony," Banner said softly, standing over Loki's shoulder. He smiled, eyes worried.
"He has not been cared for," Loki said upon removing Tony's boxers. Tony whimpered and squirmed when Loki's fingers ghosted over the rash between his thighs. His skin was too sensitive, and that was what happened when he wet the bed and didn't immediately wake up.
"Well, Steve was his daddy and he's been gone for a while," Banner said.
Steve. Tony sobbed again. Loki pinned Banner with a look. Banner winced.
"Here, use this. It'll help." Banner picked up a vial of diaper cream and handed it to Loki.
"This is very primitive," said Loki.
"If Tony agrees, you can take him to see one of your Asgardian healers later. For now." Banner pointedly nudged the cream. "This will alleviate the pain."
Loki pinched his lips but said nothing. His touch was very gentle as he spread the cream across Tony's thighs and genitals. He then put the diaper on Tony like he'd done it a hundred times, smoothing the straps into place with unwarranted expertise. Then he picked Tony up again, opting to wrap Tony in a blanket as opposed to putting clothing on him.
Swaddled in the blanket, Tony had to admit that it felt nice. He was comfortably enclosed, his bottom no longer hurt, and he was being held against someone's chest. It was the first time in months that he actually wanted to sleep, and could sleep, without worrying about wetting himself. He blinked sleepily up at Loki and Banner.
"Here, Tony," Banner whispered, pulling Tony's thumb away and replacing it with a pacifier. Tony accepted it, sucking lazily, and fell asleep in Loki's arms.
He half woke when Loki changed his soiled diaper, but quickly sank back into sleep. He didn't wake for real until Loki began bouncing him again for that purpose, and, when Tony blinked, a nipple was pressed to his mouth. Tony was still so tired he couldn't even muster the strength to suck. Not until Loki squeezed the bottle and a spurt of milk trickled into his mouth and down his throat. Then his hunger woke with a vengeance, and he began to suck without even thinking about it.
"Are you sure about this, Loki?" Thor asked. He was somewhere close by, but all Tony could see was Loki's face looking down at him. There was something unexpectedly soft, even affectionate, in Loki's eyes.
"He is child-minded, Thor, and has no caregiver," Loki replied, not looking away from Tony.
"Yes, but he was also your enemy. Tony may not want you as a caregiver."
"Be that as it may, I will not leave until he is the one to tell me that."
Thor sighed, but it sounded more amused than exasperated. There was a shuffling sound and then Thor's face came into Tony's view as well. Thor smiled down at him, the sort of look any adult gives a baby, and it made Tony feel really little.
"Hello, small one," Thor murmured. He curled his big hand around Tony's, squeezing it. "I wish you had told us your troubles when we arrived. It worries me that you were pushed to such lengths."
Tony just blinked at him and kept drinking his milk. Even if he weren't preoccupied with the bottle, he wouldn't have been capable of words. Not right now. It didn't seem to matter. Thor looked back at Loki and they continued their conversation in a language Tony didn't understand. When Tony was finished his bottle, Loki lifted him up onto his shoulder and patted his back until Tony burped.
Thor wrinkled his nose. "I did not anticipate that kind of mess."
"He is a baby," Loki said, wiping Tony's face with a cloth. "You should get used to it. If you have an heir, this will be your life."
"Heirs are still a long way off for me. I have barely gotten used to having the throne myself."
"That much is obvious."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
Tony drifted back to sleep to the sound of their squabbling. Every time he woke over the next three or four days, Loki was there. He changed Tony's diapers, wiped him down with a wet cloth in lieu of a bath, gave him bottles, and tenderly rocked him to sleep without a word of discontent. It was the most loved that Tony had felt for a very long time.
Maybe that was why Tony felt so conflicted the next time he woke. He sat up on his own, realizing that he was wearing a diaper and a onesie. His teddy bear was laying next to him, as was a pacifier. He wasn't little, not right at the moment, but he could feel his headspace hovering around him. It wouldn't take much to make him slip into it. He tried to push it away, looking around the room.
Loki was seated in the rocking chair, watching him calmly. Tony met his gaze, slightly unnerved. Part of him wanted nothing more than to crawl into Loki's arms and fall asleep. But another part was struggling to remember that this was someone the Avengers had once fought against.
Then again, Tony's last caregiver had also been someone he'd ended up fighting against.
"You have misgivings," Loki said, when the silence dragged on.
Tony looked at him sharply. "Of course I do. What are you doing? Why are you caring for me?" Why do you care? He wanted to ask.
"You are child-minded."
"So? I was a Little when you threw me out the window."
Loki frowned. "I didn't know," he admitted. "Had I known, I would've been more careful. I would've tied you up, or done something else to get you out of the way that wouldn't have risked harming you."
"I don't know if I believe that," Tony said doubtfully.
"I love children. I have never harmed them," Loki said.
"You hurt lots of them when you let aliens into New York," Tony pointed out.
"Those aliens would've found a way here regardless of whether I was involved. I was merely a shortcut," Loki said. "I have never directly harmed a child, and I never will. When I saw you crying, I realized you were child-minded and felt obligated to comfort you."
Obligated. Tony loathed that word, and it hurt more than he wanted to admit to hear it from Loki. "Well, I'm releasing you from your obligation," he snapped. "I'm fine now. I can take care of myself."
"Your friend Banner tells me that breakdowns in humans are not a symptom of being fine," said Loki.
"Yeah, well, Bruce says a lot of things," Tony said, pulling himself to his feet. He'd gotten out of the crib on his own plenty of times before, but his legs were unexpectedly weak beneath him. He stumbled, reaching for the latch, and would've cracked his head on the side of the crib had Loki not caught him.
Frustrated tears burned at Tony's eyes. Why the hell did everything have to be so hard?
"Ssshh," Loki shushed him, picking Tony up out of the crib with ease. He hugged Tony to his chest. "Don't cry. It's okay."
"It's not okay," Tony whispered, rubbing at his eyes with his fists. All he'd ever really wanted was someone who wanted to care for him. Not because they felt they had to. Apparently that was too much to ask for.
"Yes it is," Loki murmured. He was quiet for a moment, then walked over to rocking chair and sat with Tony in his lap. He began to push the chair, rocking them both. It was more soothing than Tony wanted it to be, but he couldn't help relaxing into the movement. His head came to rest against Loki's shoulder.
"I had children once. Three of them. I loved them very much, but the Allfather took them away from me," Loki said after several minutes of silence. "To this day, I'm not sure where they are."
"Why?" Tony asked. He started to slip his thumb into his mouth, but Loki gently pushed his hand away and substituted a pacifier.
"At the time, I thought he wanted to punish me. Now, I think he sought a way to better control me. It didn't work. I realized that he wouldn't have allowed me to see them no matter what I did. I stopped having children after that. That was centuries ago, so they would be grown now." Loki sighed, his breath ruffling Tony's hair. "I had forgotten how peaceful it was to look after a baby. I have enjoyed caring for you."
"No one likes taking care of me," Tony mumbled. The words were slurred thanks to the pacifier, but it seemed Loki heard them perfectly.
"I did. I am not lying. Human babies are relatively simple to care for," Loki said. "You require diaper changes, bottle feedings, sleep, and affection. I am more than capable of providing all four of those things, should you allow me."
It took Tony a moment to parse the meaning of that, and when he did he pulled the pacifier out and sat back to stare at Loki. "You... you want to keep looking after me?"
"Yes," Loki said, as though that were the obvious answer, as though he couldn't fathom why Tony was shocked.
Tony's thoughts were in a turmoil. Loki couldn't be trusted. He was the enemy. Tony knew that. But... Thor and Banner both thought Loki had changed, at least enough to bring him back to Earth. Thor couldn't really be trusted when it came to his brother, but Banner had no reason to arbitrarily trust Loki. His opinion, at least, was probably sound.
And Loki had been taking good care of him. He'd never once touched Tony with anything but gentleness and kindness. He'd been there every single time Tony woke up. Never once had he shied away from anything, not even a stinky diaper change. Even now, he was rubbing Tony's lower back while still rocking them in the chair.
It was a stupid idea. Possibly suicidal. But every part of Tony craved affection, and he couldn't bear the thought of losing this. He couldn't go back to ignoring his little side while working himself into the ground. He wasn't strong enough for that.
"Okay," he whispered. "For a little while, anyway. Okay."
Loki smiled at him. "Banner said you need to be little for a while longer, correct?"
Tony nodded. "I should be. I haven't been in... god, close to two years." He was exhausted just remembering it. All those long, empty, lonely nights. He shivered, feeling renewed tears form in his eyes.
"Be as little as you need for as long as you need," Loki said, guiding Tony's head back down against his shoulder. He hummed a little, then started to sing in that other language. His voice was soft and sweet, caressing each note, and Tony's eyelashes fluttered. He let Loki put the pacifier back into his mouth and relaxed fully, listening to the sound of Loki's voice.