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A Little Unsteady

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The battle brought more attention than any of those on the tarmac deigned to realize. His were not the only eyes watching the display, although he felt the distinct lack of his brother's attention. The oaf was doing as good a job as always at keeping the peace on Midgard. Though it was to Loki's advantage that Thor hadn't taken notice. It meant one less quite important pair of eyes to stay hidden from whilst observing.

The fight itself was nothing more than sparring. Both sides pulled punches and only worked to disable the other. It was a difference of opinion and that fact itself was the important bit. These would-be defenders of Midgard were currently split. It was a weakness, something others could work against them, and one foe in particular deliberately worked against them now. Would they fracture completely? Or would they overcome this and form stronger bonds in the end? Such things wouldn't be discovered today but Loki surveyed the fight for potential.

Midgard, and indeed all nine realms, required protection. Thanos drew ever nearer, closer now than any but himself realized.

The thought of that creature and the Chitauri made Loki's skin crawl. Nightmarish memories loomed forward. He shook his head, banishing all thoughts to the furthest corners of his mind, and refocused on the battle happening some distance away.

He'd picked a vantage point on one of the airport's upper levels but far enough away to go completely unnoticed by mortal or otherwise. He'd adopted the simplest of disguises. A dark grey Midgardian suit highlighted with emerald green accessories and a black cane. His hair was cropped shorter in the style of the realm's males. He looked himself but yet unremarkable enough to not be noticed as himself. Loki was dead, after all, and this Midgardian here merely bore a resemblance and nothing more. Wards placed around him and on his corner of the airport protected him from any magical detection, both from those in the fray and the others he sensed watching.

Of those fighting, few seemed remarkable. The new woman and the being with his staff's shard were the most dangerous. They were no mere mortals. He took care not to linger on either's mind. They were distracted but not stupid and he wished not to be noticed. They wielded magic. Both could do with some training but natural gifts were astoundingly on display when the airport's watch tower fell. Barton and Romanoff were remarkable simply for keeping up with the rest. Another played with toys he didn't quite understand. One thought himself unique for having wings. An Iron Man clone. The young man swinging around had potential. One was filled to overflowing with vengeance. Vengeance against the one with the metal arm. That one had a mind so jumbled that a sinking sensation of understanding flowed over Loki. They were quite similar...

The two who had spiked his interest and called him to this event were older, more battle worn than they'd been even in Sokovia. Rogers flailed against the tide in order to save that which he'd thought had been lost, convinced against all reason that his way was right. On the other hand, Stark was equally as desperate but his weight was even greater. He was desperate to save them all, to save himself, to save the world. It was a manic, frantic feeling that shook Loki merely to brush against it. How the man sounded so calm commanding his crew was a testament to how much practice he had at dealing with the anxiety.

It all came to an abrupt, shuddering end. Loki had to pull back his mind as panic washed over friend and foe alike at the sight of Rhodes' fall. The mortal yet breathed but he was broken. Stark's panic and pain grew. It was too much. Loki blocked everything. He took a steadying breath and reinforced the wards around himself before allowing his mind to wander in thought.

They were strong but this would never be enough against Thanos. They would need more heart and cooperation. After Rhodes' fall, however... Was there a way he could nudge their path? He hated waiting in the wings. What if nothing was mended after this? Midgard needed a strong united front. Yet what could he do? Time might be the only way to mend it and they had precious little.

The weight of the throne sat heavily on his shoulders.

He stood thinking for longer than he'd meant to allow himself. The sunlight was nearly gone when he refocused his eyes on his surroundings. Medical had already come and gone with Rhodes. Those comrades of Rogers who'd been left behind were gone too, arrested by the local authorities. The place was eerily quiet and empty, the whole facility on lockdown until morning repairs. He relaxed his mind and looked for those who had been watching. They were gone too.

Loki released an exhausted breath and waved away the wards around his end of the airport. He tapped his cane along the polished floor and walked down the hall. It wouldn't do to teleport from here. He wasn't going to risk being noticed by those others who had been interested in the events. He would put some distance between himself and the place before using magic.

As he reached the stairwell and opened the door, he cast his mind out in search of security and the like. He'd need a story if he ran into any but the excuse of hiding during the fighting would work on such simpletons.

A rush of panic and fear slammed into him.

He nearly tripped down the first set of stairs but caught himself on the railing. His mind had crashed with something unexpected. He flicked a hand back to magic the door into shutting silently behind him, his gaze dropping down over the railing to peer toward the bottom floor.

Stark.

My fault. My fault. What have I done? Why is it all wrong? Why does everything I do go wrong? What's wrong with me? My fault! It's all gone to fucking hell. We're going to die. We're all going to die. It's going to be my fault. I can't help. I can never help. Falling. Slamming. Broken. MY FAULT! Rhodey Rhodey Rhodey. What am I doing here? I should be with him. Can't breathe. Had to hide. Broken. Always broken. Calculations off. I'm off. Me. I'm the wrong variable. Me. It's always me. My fault.

Loki took care with each step as he made his way silently down. He should turn around. He should leave. He cannot allow Stark to sense him, in any capacity, but his feet moved him down all the same. This was not the Stark he knew. How had he become so... ripped apart inside? Where were the jokes, the smug confidence? Yes his friend had been injured, horribly so, but the Stark he knew would be there patching up his friend, not here alone in the dark with his own yet darker thoughts.

As Barnes' thoughts had pulled on Loki earlier, Stark's dragged up so many memories he'd fought over the years to suppress. The fear, the dread, the pain. It was intense. Raw. Rough. It was difficult to continue to hear Stark's streaming thoughts as the panic attack rushed through him but it was impossible to turn away.

He reached the ground floor and his own eyes were well adjusted to the pitch dark. He could see the discarded Iron Man suit near the door leading outside where Stark had come in to hide. It gleamed in what little light was to be had and the sight of it brought back mixed emotions in Loki. He'd been under the Chitauri’s control during their first meetings but he'd liked Stark. All bravado and wit. He was fun to spar with. He was interesting. Far more interesting than most mortals. Yet Stark had brought down that threat, broken him free from Chitauri control, and he had helped to send Loki back to Asgard. Stark was one very important reason why Loki was precisely where he was now. For better or worse.

Stark sat curled in a ball at the far corner beneath the stairwell. Arms wrapped around himself and up over his head. Panicked breaths and hidden tears. Alone.

How was no one here with him?

Loki cast his mind out but found no one but security and locals. Anger swelled at the discovery. How could anyone simply leave him here? Alone? Even if he appeared normal, Rhodes was injured. Why had no one stayed to get him on his way to whatever facility was treating his friend? Why had no one cared?

If he had stopped to think, he would have merely cast a calming spell and left. It would've been for the best. He could not afford more. Yet he didn't think. He acted. Loki set his cane aside and stepped resolutely towards Stark. The man didn't notice Loki's approach until he was sitting beside him.

“Wh-who? Get away from me!” Stark reflexively shoved a hand out, pushing the unknown company back, and shifted to launch himself up. His legs didn't cooperate, however. The panic attack was still gripping him roughly by the shoulders with ice cold talons digging into his flesh. Instead of getting up, he fell onto his side, fighting to breathe. He struggled to get up again, hands shaking, body not cooperating.

“It's alright,” Loki soothed in his own voice. It was faintly familiar enough to cause Stark to pause. Loki did his best to infuse his words with warmth and understanding, unconsciously enchanting them a bit in hopes of helping. “I mean you no harm. Calm yourself. Deep breaths. It is not your fault.”

Yes it is!!” Stark shouted with such force that his voice echoed in the stairwell. He gave up on running away, his limbs shaking too much to master, and instead curled himself into a ball on his side. The words came out fast and manic. “My fault. My fault. I failed. I always fail. They're going to come. We're going to die. I can't keep them safe. I can't keep anyone safe. I can't. I can't. My fault!”

Loki raised an eyebrow at his alluding to a 'they' which he'd not expected anyone to recognize as a looming threat. This mortal was always surprising. He did not give himself nearly enough credit if he truly worried still about the Chitauri. Loki shifted ever so slightly to press his weight against Stark's curled up legs, hoping to come off as something stable and solid against him. “They are not yet here. Do not worry over them right now. Everyone is safe. Breathe. In and out. Slowly.”

“But Rhodey. Rhodey.” Stark curled himself down against the cement floor, pressing his face into the hard surface. He shook but didn't pull away from Loki's contact.

“Rhodes is alive and he will see you when you're well,” Loki reassured. He brushed a hand along Stark's exposed side, smoothing over the thin cotton shirt, then repeated the action when Stark didn't pull away. “Deep breaths. With me.”

Stark trembled but his breathing evened out. He followed Loki's lead and focused on his breathing. Slowly, oh so slowly, his mind calmed and his body stilled. Eventually his words slipped out quiet and defeated, face still scrunched against the cement. “I'll never be well.”

Something tugged at Loki. The conviction in Stark's voice. It was awful to hear. It echoed his own haunting thoughts. He struggled to put together a proper retort and settled on, “Nothing is ever certain.”

Stark snorted dryly. “That the best you can do? Even my psychotic breaks are awful.” He curled towards Loki's thigh and half rested his head on his lap, the back of it resting on Loki’s calf. “You seem pretty real but you can't be.”

“No?” So Stark thought him imaginary? All for the best, he supposed, even if the thought made him sad for reasons he'd rather not dwell on.

“Nope,” Stark said definitively as he looked up in the general direction of Loki's face, unseeing in the dark of the stairwell. “You're dead. I'm crazy. So you're some kind of psychotic break to help me deal with that last attack.”

A wash of worry rushed over Loki. He'd recognized him. How? From his voice? Truly? Stark was smart but he hadn't expected to be recognized in the dark.

Stark seemed to pick up on the reaction as he reassured, “It's okay. You were cute, when you weren't trying to kill me, so I approve of the choice, dear old addled brain of mine.” He nuzzled a little ridiculously at Loki's calf.

Loki blushed. In the dark but still blushed. Another wave of emotion flowed over him but he stifled this one down immediately. “Thank you, I suppose,” he answered to likely the kindest eulogy given on him. “I'm pleased you're feeling better.” He was silent a moment before he gave in to an overwhelming urge and moved a hand to brush back Stark's short bangs. In the dark, with his eyesight, he could still see the lines on Stark's face that were far more prevalent than a short handful of years prior. Mortals...

Stark remained a bit cold, a bit pulled away from the conversation, struggling to piece himself back together, but he leaned in to Loki's touch, starved for any sort of comfort. “I call you cute and you thank me? Fucking hell, princess.”

Loki snorted a laugh and tugged on the short cropped hair. “Yes I'd say you're definitely feeling better.”

“Better is relative,” Stark said a little too darkly.

Loki continued to play fingers through Stark's hair as the conversation stalled. They stayed like that for some time, fingers brushing along scalp over and over again, before Stark eventually shifted away. He pulled himself upright and gripped at a railing to get onto his feet again.

“Well, it's gotta be the nicest panic attack on record. Thanks for the company, psychotic break, but here's hoping you disappear when I get in the suit. No offense. I mean, a handsome reindeer as an imaginary friend, not the worst thing ever, but ya know.” He walked his way stiffly to his suit.

Loki chuckled some as he effortlessly pulled himself to his feet. “You're welcome, Stark. I promise. I'll be gone.”

Stark's features dropped a little at the promise but he nodded all the same and muttered, “Good...”

There was a long pause before Stark climbed into his suit, as if he wished to say more, but he didn't. Instead, he finally stepped forward and the suit molded itself around him. Night vision flickered on as the suit booted up.

Nothing.

Stark stepped forward and cast a long look around the stairwell, then shook his head at himself and stepped out the door to find his way to Rhodes.

Loki watched from his enchanted corner, concealed from all sensors, until the Midgardian had gone.

Why did he feel sorry to have Stark write it all off? What did it matter if this was all there would be?

Perhaps. Perhaps it had been nice to be seen. Seen as himself and not masquerading as Odin or anyone else. He was Loki in those few moments. And Stark had not turned him away.