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the state of my head

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At this point, Tony is running almost entirely on adrenaline and good old-fashioned Stark bravado (patent pending), so he’s pretty much prepared for things to go completely to shit at any second. The particular variety of shit remains to be seen, but honestly, shit is shit and he’s mostly just banking on JARVIS deploying the new suit before Loki switches from talking to shooting.

Then Loki reaches for him with the scepter, and Tony has about a second to think, very calmly, well now I’m just screwed before the scepter taps his arc reactor and the creepy blue glow just sort of…fizzles out.

Loki stops, his eyebrows drawing together in a look of consternation that would be hilarious in practically any other situation but is still pretty comical because let’s face it, Tony Stark takes the funny wherever he can find it. Even better is Loki’s puzzled voice when he does it again and says, frowning, “This usually works.”

“Well, you know, performance issues,” Tony says, because the rush of giddy relief that he can’t be controlled this way is maybe making him even more flippant and reckless than usual, and he never knows when to stop running his mouth even under the least life-threatening of circumstances. “One out of five—”

Loki’s eyes flick up to his, a spark of anger starting there that hints at gory revenge, and then his eyes go wide with something that doesn’t look like anger, and Tony has no time either to figure out what that means or brace himself before Loki lunges for him.

Which is when things stop being garden-variety weird and take a hard left into straight-up bat-country surreal.

For about the longest three seconds of his life, all Tony registers is that Loki has grabbed him and yanked him in close, and he’s like 5000% certain there’s a knife buried in his gut that he’s in too much shock to feel yet. Except he keeps not feeling it, and Loki keeps holding him, and Tony’s brain kind of short-circuits as it tries to process what the hell is happening here.

Because Loki is…not attacking him. Loki is clinging to him like the proverbial drowning man to a proverbial life preserver, his head pressed to Tony’s chest, arms wrapped around Tony in the world’s most unexpected bear hug, and he’s shaking like a junkie and gasping like he’ll never get enough air.

So, okay, he’s…going to crush him or suffocate him or something, or this is a bizarrely elaborate lead-up to a knife in the back, because that’s still weird but it’s within the general realm of reasonable expectations, right? But Loki just holds onto him and shudders, and keeps doing that as the seconds keep ticking by, and finally Tony says, “Okay, what the fuck?”

Loki’s grip tightens, and Tony almost relaxes because at least that makes more sense, but nope, it’s still just a really intense, honest-to-Cthulhu hug, Loki’s hands fisting in the back of Tony’s shirt and the side of his head pressing even harder against…oh, hey, Tony’s arc reactor. And then his brain finally registers that Loki’s hanging onto him with both hands and therefore no longer holding the scepter. When he cranes his neck to look for it, he spots it lying on the floor a couple feet to his left, and a nasty suspicion starts coming together in his head.

“Hey, man,” he says, speaking mostly to Loki’s hair (spiky and stiff as hell, and a tiny part of his brain irrelevantly wonders whether space Viking hair products are anything like their Earthling counterparts), “not that this isn’t nice, but actually it’s pretty awkward and I usually prefer to cause awkwardness instead of experiencing it, and also normally I make people at least buy me a drink if they want to get all handsy—”

Loki makes a choked noise that Tony feels more than hears. “Please,” he says hoarsely, his voice a little muffled against Tony’s shirt, and hearing it is honestly not as satisfying as Tony would’ve thought, even with Coulson still fresh in his mind. “Do not—I—I can still hear him, I can still feel his fingers in my head, d-don’t send me back to that, I cannot—please—”

“Okay,” Tony interrupts, because Loki desperately hugging him was uncomfortable enough, but this confirmation of his theory combined with abject begging is starting to make him feel actively ill. “Okay, listen, there’s a couch right over here, let’s figure out something more comfortable, huh? If your back’s not killing you yet, it’s gonna start pretty quick here.”

Loki coughs out a sound about halfway between a laugh and a sob, but he goes with it when Tony starts maneuvering them in the general direction of the couch. “In exchange for keeping a little of my own mind and will, Stark, I would bear far worse pains. I did, I tried, but it didn’t work, I-I wasn’t—”

“Right,” Tony says, taking them in a wide arc around the scepter. Loki shuffles with him, apparently too determined to stick to the arc reactor to care about tripping, so Tony has to worry about it for both of them. “Two steps down here. Careful, if you go down I’m going with you and I’d really rather not, these floors are granite, really high-quality stuff, super durable and long-lasting, just not the most comfy,” and now he’s babbling because that’s less awful than listening to Loki talk and probably tripping right into an Afghanistan flashback if he’s not careful. “Aaaaand couch. Okay, let’s just—” He gets one leg up onto the couch and sort of falls against the padded arm and the cushions, and Loki ends up dragged sideways with him, his long legs sprawled half on and half off the sofa. He’s even more tense now, if anything, and he hasn’t stopped trembling for even a second, so it falls to Tony to shift them both into a more comfortable position. It would be pretty cozy, honestly, aside from the fact that he’s effectively snuggled up with a broken sort-of supervillain, instead of, say, Pepper or literally anyone else. (Well. Not quite literally. Actually he can think of a lot of people he’d like to cuddle even less, although as it is, Loki’s pretty damned heavy.)

He tries to tug his arm free, and Loki just clutches harder, hanging on with desperate strength. He makes a pained, almost frantic sound of protest, way too close to a whimper for Tony’s liking, and Tony finds himself making the kind of wordless soothing noises Pepper often does for him when he’s coming out of an especially bad nightmare, because apparently he switched into Bizarro World when he wasn’t paying attention. “Rudolph, hey, you’re okay,” he says quickly, “I just want my arms back, can we do that?”

After a moment, Loki finally relaxes his hold a little, and Tony slides his arms free, which is still awkward because now he has to figure out where to put his hands with a space Viking’s face buried in his chest. Well, first things first. “JARVIS,” he calls, “patch me into the rest of the team’s comm system.”

“Certainly, sir,” JARVIS replies, and Loki flinches, the shakes only getting worse.

“Please,” he whispers, his voice cracking. “I will tell you everything, I will be your prisoner if I must, SHIELD, or, or your Avengers, only do not let him take my mind again, he will rip me inside out and I cannot—”

“Brother?” says Thor’s confused, wary voice from the speakers, and Tony takes a second to be grateful that he insisted everyone take a StarkTech earpiece before all hell broke loose on the carrier.

Loki, somehow, manages to get even more tense. Tony actually shushes him and starts patting his shoulder in what he really hopes is a comforting manner because sure, why the hell not. “Hey guys,” he says, “plot twist, what if somebody’s actually pulling Loki’s strings too with that scepter and he hasn’t been in control this whole time? And also apparently my arc reactor is creating some kind of limited—very limited—nullifying field that cancels out the scepter’s influence a little bit.”

There’s about five seconds of resounding silence, during which Loki shivers and barely seems to be breathing and Tony keeps rubbing his shoulder because apparently this is his life now, and then Barton says, “What the fuck, Stark?”

“Yeah, that was my question too. Look, short version is he tried to put the whammy on me and thanks to my arc reactor it didn’t work, except the backlash weakened the mind control, I’m just spitballing here because I haven’t actually been able to study it but the upshot is, Loki’s not under the scepter’s influence if he’s close to my arc reactor. Like, really close. Like constant contact. JARVIS, buddy, we’ve got a spare somewhere, right?”

“Unless that means the invasion’s off, we’ve still got a problem,” Rogers says tightly. “Maybe you haven’t seen but it looks like the tesseract’s gonna open a portal any second now, and we don’t know—”

“It can be closed still,” Loki interrupts. “Selvig and I—there is a failsafe. The scepter. If you hurry, you can shut it down before any of them come through.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, “you never gave us any details on your army.”

Loki flinches again. “Not my army. Never mine.”

“Brother,” Thor starts again, sounding concerned.

Rogers cuts him off, all business now. “Then we have to shut it down. Where’s the scepter now?”

“Right here in my living room, but, tiny logistical problem, pretty sure if Loki gets any further from my arc reactor and/or closer to the scepter, we’re gonna have a supervillain problem again, and I don’t think I have anything that hits hard enough for a quick cognitive recalibration. Is anybody close?”

“We’re still three minutes out in the quinjet,” Natasha says. “Thor, what’s your location?”

“And if he did make Tony his puppet, and this is a trap?” Barton says. “You wouldn’t know. You guys realize that, right?”

“That’s a risk we’ll have to take,” Rogers says firmly before Tony has to.

“I see your tower,” Thor says. “I can reach you in but a moment.”

“Hurry,” Loki says, “they are—” And then he goes completely rigid and gags a couple times before trying to curl inward with a breathless moan. At the exact same moment, something seems to rip way above their heads, and Barton swears into the comm.

“Portal’s open,” Rogers says a little redundantly, “we’ve got bogeys incoming. How many—”

“An army,” Loki says, and pauses to pant through clenched teeth. “They never told me—numbers—but I tried to keep the portal small—”

“That’s small?” Barton says incredulously.

“JARVIS, gimme a visual, I’m dying of suspense over here,” Tony says, and the nearest wall lights up: there’s a ragged hole in the sky directly above Stark Tower, probably at least as big across as the average skyscraper, with little black specks pouring out of it. Little black specks already shooting energy weapons straight out of Star Wars. “Shit.”

Loki squeezes his eyes shut and groans raggedly again, a pained sound that vibrates in Tony’s chest. “Burns,” he says, “it burns, I can’t—he wants me back—”

“Thor,” Rogers snaps. “Get the scepter, close the portal. We’ve got to start on containment but it won’t mean a thing unless—”

“I am here,” Thor says, his voice over the speaker accompanied by a thud on the deck outside, and Tony is pretty sure he hasn’t heard something so beautiful in a very long time. He twists his head in time to see Thor burst in right through the room’s giant plate-glass windows and stop short, staring at them.

Tony waves one hand in Thor’s general direction (Loki jerks at the sound of shattering glass but doesn’t otherwise react, his breathing harsh and uneven like he’s barely holding himself together). “Hi. I did say really close.”

“I see,” Thor says, his eyebrows furrowed in a way that’s almost identical to Loki’s earlier “wtf why isn’t this working” expression, which Tony still finds kind of funny despite the circumstances. But the look only lasts a second before he visibly sets his questions aside for later and strides toward the scepter, now glowing more strongly than before.

“Careful,” Loki gasps, his eyes still shut tight. “For once. Be careful. Do not touch the gem. You can…pierce the shield around the portal generator.”

Thor scoops it up with a decisive nod. “I will return shortly.” He whips the hammer around a couple times and shoots out through the broken windows.

Outside, the first explosions start. Loki cringes, makes another choked noise, and somehow burrows in even closer. Tony can feel something wet on his shirt, and because he’s not a complete asshole, he manages to restrain the impulse to ask if Loki’s crying—until he gets a look and sees the blood trickling from Loki’s nose. “Uh, is that—”

“He wants me back,” Loki repeats. He gasps again, shallow and strained. “Can you—do you have anything that will hold me, if—I fail and you need to bind me?”

“Guess we’ll find out,” Tony says, and he finds himself holding on tighter too, even though he knows that won’t make any difference. “JARVIS, I need you ready to deploy the suit the second I need it.”

“Ready, sir. I also located a spare arc-reactor prototype and installed it in a helmet modified for your guest’s measurements. Perhaps when the portal is closed, it will be useful.”

“JARVIS, you’re a fucking saint,” Tony says fervently.

“Almost certainly inaccurate on both counts, sir, but the sentiment is appreciated nonetheless,” JARVIS says dryly.

There’s another explosion and the building shakes around them, and gunfire comes in over the comms. “Thor, now!” Rogers barks, breathing hard.

“Almost there—” and then there’s that rip again, only somehow backwards, and Loki sags against him with a long, shuddering exhale.

“I could…try the helmet now,” he mumbles into Tony’s shirt, sounding exhausted. “The scepter still…but it is better with the portal closed.”

“Good, because Thor and I need to join the cleanup crew,” Tony says. “Cap, what’ve we got?”

“Probably several dozen aliens on flying bikes and we’re having a hard time keeping them from spreading without more air support,” Rogers says. “We need you both out here now.”

“Is that Bruce?” Barton says. “That’s…yep, that’s Bruce on a motorcycle. Cap, he’s gonna reach your position in about 30 seconds.”

Tony grins. “Tell him to suit up.”

“Sirs,” JARVIS says. Loki slithers one hand out from under Tony’s back and holds it out, and the new helmet flies to his hand, because sure, space Viking isn’t enough, why not be a Jedi too. It’s gold and shaped more or less like Loki’s helmet without the horns, because JARVIS is a classy and observant AI butler. Loki sits up enough to shove the helmet on, and his shoulders drop in relief as the arc reactor inside it lights up.

“You should notice increased effectiveness due to the arc reactor’s placement and the circuits inside the helmet,” JARVIS says.

“Yes,” Loki says. “Yes. I…” He glances up toward the nearest speaker. “Thank you.”

“Seriously,” Tony says. “Saint JARVIS. I’ll get somebody to make it official.”

There’s a roaring noise over the comms, and then Rogers: “Hulk? Smash.”

Loki hauls himself upright, one hand on the couch for balance, and Tony springs to his feet and spreads his arms. “JARVIS, hit me.” His armor comes flying into place, and he lets out a breath in relief as the suit takes shape around him.

Thor touches down, scepter in hand, as Loki steps away from the couch and sways a little. Thor rushes to steady him, and Tony grabs the scepter as he goes past. He deposits it in the big lead-lined floor safe behind the bar (never know when you might need something like that), on the assumption that it’s better than nothing for now.

“Brother, are you all right?” Thor asks. “When I closed the portal, I saw—”

“I am well enough to fight,” Loki says, glaring, so yeah, probably not all the baggage there was manufactured. “Certainly well enough to send these vermin to Hel where they belong.” He tugs his arm away, practically baring his teeth. “Whatever you may believe, I am not weak.

Thor nods soberly instead of arguing. “We will speak later, then, and find a more permanent way to free you from the scepter’s influence,” he says, and then he offers Loki a tentative smile. “I have long been a blind fool, but I know well your cleverness and your strength, and I would be very glad to fight alongside you once more. I have missed you, brother, more than I can say.”

Loki’s eyes go a little wide and he looks all young suddenly. He swallows, seeming lost for words. Tony, on the other hand, is never lost for words, and he’s at least known enough decent humans in his life to decide the brothers should have a little more privacy for whatever heart-to-heart they need to have. Plus there’s no reason to make Loki relive whatever exactly he went through more than the one time he’ll have to do it for the inevitable debriefing, at which Tony fully intends to give him that promised drink. He clomps his way back over to them. “Yay team, good pep talk, let’s go do this.”

Loki startles a little, one hand rising toward his ear, before clearly realizing that of course his new helmet has an earpiece too (and, Tony’s pretty sure, resigning himself to its existence). His expression hardens with determination. “Yes. Drive one of them to this tower. I will need a sled and one of their weapons if I am to be of the most use.”

“Got a bunch coming your way,” Barton interrupts.

“Whatever you’re gonna do, do it now,” Rogers says. “I need as many people in the air as possible.”

“Understood,” Thor says, and he launches himself out the window to collide with the nearest Chitauri craft. It veers wildly off course, Thor hauling it around in a wide arc toward the tower’s landing pad.

Loki jumps down to meet them, and Tony fires up his thrusters, zipping down to check that everything’s under control before he takes off. “You ready for this, Reindeer Games?”

“Thor, Iron Man,” Rogers says, and then after only the briefest hesitation, “Loki. Light ‘em up.”

Loki smiles. It’s not a particularly nice smile, but it does look like an Avenger kind of smile. He answers them both: “It will be my genuine pleasure.”