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“You know,” Loki rasps, twenty-two hours before things go to hell. “I could tell you, now. All of it. But that would be nice.”

 

Thor growls; Tony grunts something that might’ve passed for go to hell. Loki turns away from the glass door, and smiles.

 

“Besides, the surprise has always been the best part. No point in sparing myself any part of the pain.”

 

“And why not?” Thor rumbles, his hand, on Mjolnir, white-knuckled.

 

“Because,” Loki says, and now he sounds bored, disinterested, like he’s losing it again. “It’s already happened to me.”

 

--

 

“All talk,” is Tony’s verdict, smug and sure and scoffing.

 

“Worrisome,” is Thor’s.

 

They’re both right, more or less. At least, until the bell rings.

 

--

A projectile rockets through the earth’s atmosphere at 47.39 m/s. It looks remarkably like a shooting star, bright and glowing, a ball of gas and light and life, perhaps, at one point in history. Perhaps at one point in the future. It rockets through the earth’s atmosphere, a comet with a tail of green, and it blinks out of existence as quickly as it comes.

--

NASA dismisses it as a trick of the moon. A malfunction, perhaps. It is recorded, and then, it is ignored.

--

In the suburbs of New Jersey, Alexandra Hamilton turns eight years old; she’s been watching, waiting for the clock to pass eleven thirty, eleven forty seven, eleven fifty five. It is now midnight, and she sees a shooting star. It looks like it’s coming straight towards her, and she laughs (quietly, of course. Her little brother is asleep in the bunk besides hers). That is a comet, she is eight, and as the clock strikes midnight, the green glow intensifies.

 

--

“Sir, look at that. The comet’s changed direction.”

“That’s not possible, Samuels. There’s probably a kink in the equipment. I saw it continue on its orbit.”

“Shall I check again?”

“No need. Go back to your station.”

 

--

 

Alexandra Hamilton’s eyes are wide and the green glow is making them go wider, because this isn’t what she wished for, this isn’t tickets to One Direction, no. This is the shooting star, coming straight for her, and she whimpers (quietly. She’s not supposed to wake up Tommy. He’s sleeping).

 

--

 

The magician wakes up ten thousand feet before impact, and he regains awareness as quickly as he’s able. It’s been a delicate procedure, all things considered, and the last thing he wants to do is botch the whole thing up on the final run through, so he opens his eyes, looks around—the trees, they shouldn’t be so close yet—and readjusts himself, so that at least he’s falling in the direction he dictates. He’s close, so close, and if he wants to land well, he’ll have to be careful.

In a wide, swinging motion of his arms, he wraps himself up in a buffet of air and concentrates.

--

 

The comet slows down. Alexandra isn’t crying. She’s just looking. The comet doesn’t look at all like what her teacher said comets look like, and she frowns, a proper little girl frown that folds her face up into curls of disappointment and annoyance and bright-eyed curiosity.

The comet looks an awful lot like a person, and unless the person has her concert tickets, she hopes they go back home, because from what she can see, they look like a weirdo. Alexandra doesn’t like weirdoes.

 

--

 

The magician dislodges several trees, three steel fences, a small yellow car, a chunk of sidewalk, and a well-manicured garden, but he doesn’t think that there are any fatalities, and he thinks that he well deserves a pat on the back for that.

The air stops its manic spiral around him until it is only cradling, barely brushing up around him, and then he twists his hands sharply and it’s wrapping him in a writhing globe. He lifts himself up like this, cradled in his own small universe, and spares the smallest of smiles.

He’s not sure if it’s worked, not yet, but he’s survived. That counts for something.

With a puff of his lips, he moves up in one more burst, intent on going over one last small, strange structure -- a home, perhaps, windows and doors sealed tight. He will see this world, and, if he sees so fit, claim it. It is, he thinks, if nothing else, his right by station.

 

--

 

“Wow,” Alexandra says quietly, right through the open window, because it is a weirdo. Or maybe an alien.

A pale face with a delicate halo of black hair draws up to her window. He—she thinks it’s a boy, even though he’s really pretty—looks startled to see her. She doesn’t know why. It’s her house.

“Are you an alien?” Alexandra whispers, and the alien wrinkles its nose.

“Child,” it—he, she thinks, with a deep voice, too— “I know not of what you speak.”

“An alien,” Alexandra repeats, frowning again. “You know. From space. You talk funny. You talk like someone outta the TV.”

Only the alien’s looking at her like she’s an alien. “I have found Midgard?”

“No,” Alexandra says gently. Poor, lost alien. “This is New Jersey.”

 

--

 

Whatever this New Jersey is, he doesn’t think it was what he was looking for. He can’t quite remember what it was he was seeking out, but he feels like he’s in the right place; though the travel may have jolted a few things out of place, he would remember—himself and his purpose. All he needed was a light.

“Hey! Wait! Did you come with my One Direction tickets?” the child calls after him, but the magician is already moving up, moving the air from around him to under him for greater speed and greater mobility. He has somewhere else to be, but it doesn’t feel like a burden. It feels like freedom. Like accomplishment.

Loki—that’s his name, he’s remembered. Good—laughs into the air around him, so much richer and headier than any back on… Asgard, potent the way Asgard’s is not, with people and animals and forests and jungles of concrete and metal and homes colored in like tapestries. Loki laughs and flies, the maddening chaos of the life around him bolstering him forward. All he thinks is yes. Success. I’ve done it.

 

The magician flies on.

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________ MANHATTAN, ONE HOUR LATER ________

 

“Come on,” Tony wheedles. “Humor me.” The way Steve snorts sounds a lot like a soon-to-be no, so he pushes it, shoving out his lower lip and widening his eyes. “I promise I will be an absolute angel if you do this for me. Absolutely angelic. I’ll even report to—J, what was it?”

 

“Training, sir,” Jarvis says dryly, and Tony beams.

 

“That exactly. Training. I’ll be there.” Steve still looks skeptical. “Come on, Cap, all you’ve got to do is hold it.”

 

“And it will do what to me?”

 

“Complement your outfit.”

 

“Ha ha,” he deadpans, and Tony snorts.

 

“It’s a shield, Steve. It should, technically, do exactly what yours does. Only it’s smaller, more portable, and, when closed… shinier.”

 

“Real selling point,” Steve says, but he’s holding out his arm, finally, so Tony takes it as  a win and slips the small silver brace up his arm, clasping it in one smooth motion.

 

There.” It’s gorgeous, and a million times easier to port around than Steve’s shield, and a lot less likely to draw looks in the subway. It is, in every way possible, a resounding success.

 

Steve, however, if Tony’s reading him right, is considerably less than impressed. “This is supposed to do what my shield does.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“This.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Tony, it’s a bracelet.” And so Tony, with excellent timing, if he says so himself (and he does), reaches out and presses his hand against a round, flat silver panel on the outside of the bracelet.

 

The shield expands out like a hologram, a matrix of quickly building light, and Tony jumps back before his arm gets caught in it. In a moment, there’s a glowing, perfect replica of the shield, and when Tony tosses a wrench at it and Steve ducks, moving his arm up on instinct, the new shield still too light for him to register its weight.

 

Tony,” he yells, chastising already, but Tony has fantastic aim, and the wrench is already bouncing off the shield, and Tony is ducking into a crouch. It flies back with enough speed that it crashes into an old suit’s headpiece, leaving a dent big enough that Tony would’ve felt it. It would’ve hurt.

Tony Stark is, read: fantastic.

 

“You were complaining?” Tony drawls, and Steve rolls his eyes, but even he’s smiling, staring down at the shield on his arm, a perfect mix of light and force that won’t slow him down, won’t inconvenience him, and won’t—

 

“Wait. I can’t throw this one.” Tony’s a step ahead of him; he holds out a thin, black glove. Steve puts it on without a hint of argument and Tony smiles at the way he brushes his fingers across it, slides his hand below the shield and lifts it off like it’s a real thing, something solid and metal and whole, but it’s not, it’s better, and Tony is fantastic. Tony Stark is a goddamn wizard, is what he is, all flash and all substance, all working together to do something amazing.

 

“Yes, I am,” he mutters, and Steve doesn’t spare him so much as a glance.

“This is—this is great, Tony,” he says softly, and Tony preens.

 

“Yeah, well, I know. But, uh.” Not that it matters, not that it’s important, it was fun, anyways. “You think you’ll use it?”

 

When Steve looks back at him, his face is pink-cheeked and pleased, and Tony spares a moment to think about how ridiculous it is, the amount of importance he’s placing on his opinion of him, but—

 

“I think so. Not all the time, maybe, but—yeah, I’d like to give it a shot.”

But it’s nice to be appreciated. And that’s all. Really.

 

“Right.” Tony clears his throat. “That’s great—excellent. Glad you like it—”

 

“It’s great,” he says fervently. “It’s light and it’s easy to use—and remember how awkward the shield was on the subway that time?” Tony does, distinctly. It was his legs that ended up with the most bruises. “This would make all of that a non-issue. It’s… wow,” he says, and his smile’s toothy, nearly dopey, and Tony has to look away before he’s blinded or giggles or throws himself out of a window.

 

“Don’t make it weird,” Tony mutters to his tool-belt, and Steve laughs.

 

____________________________________________________________ THE BETTER PART OF AN HOUR OUT OF MANHATTAN. BY CAR. NOT BY MAGIC.___

 

It took Loki half the night to regain all of his faculties; by morning, he was standing, thrilled and slightly sore from a night on a bed of underbrush by the side of a long, dark stretch of road. He wasn’t sure which direction to go, but it didn’t matter; he was here, he was now. He’d done it. He’d done something new. Something amazing.

He walks east. It’s somewhere to go.

All things considered, it’s a wonder he stays as patient as he does. It’s been a mile, and he’s hungry and irritable, and strange, loud machines thunder past him, more of them every minute, so it was, really, only a matter of time before he willed one of them to stop.

 

The man had a small port open; he was asking for it.

 

“Sir,” Loki says loudly, and the machine slows down. Loki smiles. “If I might trouble you for a moment of your time.” He’s careful with it; he’s still tired; but he needs this, needs to do something, before he starves. Or, adversely, before he is eaten by one of the metal beasts, devoured under its wheels. “You will allow me to make use of your transport.” His voice is gentle, and he urges it between the man’s ears, into his mind, allows it to span out and cover, a soft, thin golden cloud of pervasive thought. The man blinks at him, and, for a moment, his eyes glow. And then it is gone, and he smiles.

 

“Certainly,” he drawls, reaching over and—ah. It’s a door, that Loki’s leaning on, and he smiles at the man, tugging at the handle and sliding inside, letting it fall shut behind him. “Where to? I was headed to get something to eat.”

 

“That sounds lovely,” says Loki Silvertongue, who is remarkably capable and increasingly pleased with himself. “Drive on.”

 

“Sure thing. I’m Kurt.”

“Loki.”

“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Loki.” And Loki laughs and allows himself to pretend that, yes, it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________ MANHATTAN, ABOVE. WAY ABOVE. _______

 

“I just don’t understand why this is necessary.”

 

The microphone knocks up against her teeth when she grins. “Are you questioning orders, Hawkeye?”

 

“That’s not what I meant,” he grumbles, and she laughs, pulling them a little higher. There’s almost no wind; it’s an easy flight, one that Clint would, usually, be happy about. But she can’t say she’s surprised by his reluctance; the last time they were all together, he ended up mindwiped, and then covered in bits of goop and plaster. It’s a rough life, she’s tempted to tell him, but they’ve had that talk before, and Natasha doesn’t believe in repeating herself.

 

So instead she laughs and pulls in for a landing, and doesn’t say anything to Clint until the propellers are winding down and her hair is helmet-free once more.

 

“You know it’s not gonna be anything that big, right? Not this time.” Clint shrugs and looks away, posture careful. He’s going for unruffled, but Natasha can see the way the muscles in his arms are corded, his hands balled up tight and unmoving. She sighs. “Clint. Look at me.”

 

It takes him a second, but he does. He smiles. “I know, Nat. I’ll be fine. Just… Too many weirdos in one place, you know?” He fakes a shudder, just to get her to grin. “Creep me out.”

 

“Thanks for that—nice to know you missed me.” Tony Stark walks out like he owns the—well. He walks out to meet them, arms wide. “I’m hurt. Deeply.”

 

“You’ll recover,” Clint deadpans, but he still shakes Tony’s hand when it’s offered, and Natasha does the same.

 

“Right, so. Care to enlighten me? Or are we still waiting on the big guy?”

 

“I thought Bruce was already here?”

 

“He is. He’s in a lab downstairs; we’re just short one god of thunder,” Tony explains, leading them in after him and closing the glass doors with a swipe of his wrist against a clear blue panel. “He’s kind of the most necessary one right now, to be honest. Him and his space knowledge.” Natasha doesn’t think Tony notices the way his own mouth tightens around the word space. It’s not her place to ask, but she’ll watch. She’ll pay attention. The last thing they need is a liability, asset or not.

 

“So it’s definitely not a satellite, then,” Clint sighs, and Tony smiles, but it’s gray around the edges.

 

“That’d be nice. Also too simple. Come on.”

 

It’s a wide, open common room he leads them into; Natasha hasn’t been by to see the renovations, but she likes this one. The chairs look soft, red and pillow covered, and all of the furniture is sleek and modern, glass-covered tables and geometric carpets. A TV is set into one wall, and CNN is on mute, captions scrolling across the screen.

 

And in an astronomic surprise, what looks like a meteor landed in the suburbs of Ridgewood, New Jersey late last night. We’re told that a crater remains, in the middle of a public park. No one was injured by the crash, and the sight was bare come sunrise. The anchor looks more entertained than anything, her mouth tilting up at the idea of a disappearing rock. It makes Natasha’s skin crawl. Sometimes, she forgets how much people don’t know—how much they refuse to remember. Witnesses on scene reported that, though they left their homes directly after the sound of impact, there was no meteor present. Authorities in the air request that, if you have any information on the find, you contact them directly at this number.

 

“How was the flight in?” Captain America had stood when they entered the room; manners and his own fascination had kept him silent while they watched the broadcast. He’s dressed down, which is a good sign; the Captain isn’t prepared for war, and so Natasha relaxes, slightly, lets her adrenaline wane.

 

“Smooth,” Natasha answers, at the same time Clint says, “Long.” She rolls her eyes; Steve smiles.

 

“Sorry,” he says, but it doesn’t look like he means it. “It’s good to see you two again, anyway.”

 

“Same goes, Cap,” Natasha says, and she can see Clint smiling, out of the corner of her eye.

 

“Sorry I’m late, everyone!” Bruce Banner barrels into the room like someone a lot less likely to burst into green, and Natasha’s dropping to the gun in her boot before she can control herself, hand diving past leather and closing over plastic.

 

And then she freezes, because Bruce is standing in the middle of the doorway, smiling, his hair a mess and his glasses sliding down his nose, frumpled and absolutely harmless. And she’s almost guilty.

 

“Dr. Banner,” she says, cordial, and crouches the rest of the way down, fingers faking bows against her laces. She feels Clint look over at her, but she doesn’t respond; she should know better. She should calm down.

 

“Hi,” Bruce says, slightly sheepish. “I was—sorry. Distracted.”

 

“Told you you’d like the equipment,” Tony says, unbearably smug, and Natasha straightens to standing, tucking a lock of hair back behind one ear.

 

“Any sort of ETA on Thor?” Clint asks, with perfect timing— there’s a knock at the window that has all of them spinning. Thor stands on a ledge, leaning up against the glass, grin wide and ridiculous.

 

“Uh,” says Tony, “Now. Apparently.” And then he smiles. “So now we start. Jarvis, draw up the readings. I’ll… we can’t actually open that window, can we? Right. Draw up the readings, and I’ll go let him in.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

______________________________________________________________ TEN MINUTES FROM THE MIDDLE OF MANHATTAN __________

 

“… And so I said to her, ‘No, Shelly, no one likes your pie,’ and do you know what she did?”

 

“No,” Loki says dryly. “What. Did she. Do?”

 

“Threw it at me!” Kurt throws his head back and laughs, deep and shaking, and Loki resists the urge to roll his eyes hard enough that they locate his spleen.

 

This was a terrible idea, and Loki blames it entirely on a poor night’s sleep. He had hoped for, at the very least, quiet company, but that, Kurt is not. He’s loud, a family man, far too reminiscent of Volstagg for Loki to take him as anything more than a nuisance. He will be happy to be rid of him.

 

“But enough about me,” Kurt says, swiping a thumb under his eye to wipe away a stray tear. “Tell me about yourself, sir! Loki, eh? Interesting name.”

 

“Thank you,” Loki hums, staring resolutely out the window.

 

“What’re you in the city for? Visiting relatives? All due respect, you look like you’re dressing up for a costume party. There a convention of some sort this weekend?”

 

“What? No, I—” Loki glances down at his clothing, leather and armor and all, and over to the relative bareness of the other man’s soft, battered clothes. “I’m dressed properly,” Loki sniffs. He is not offended—he will not allow himself to feel any sort of insecurity due to this poorly dressed…

 

Peasant.

 

“I look fine,” Loki insists anyways, and considers the merits of throwing himself from the car.

 

“Sure you do,” Kurt says, all appeasement. “You cut a striking figure, son, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”

 

“I—” The road doesn’t look nearly so hard, going this fast. Just one… quick… movement, and…

 

“—throwing lightning around everywhere he—”

 

“What?” Of course, of course the first moment Loki manages to tune the man out successfully comes with useful information. “What did you say?”

 

Kurt glances over to him in surprise, caterpillar eyebrows rising. “I was talking about those Avenger fellows. Surely you’ve heard of them—they’re heroes!”

 

“Heroes,” Loki repeats. It’s a words he’s well used to, and well used to being on the outside of. Right next to, right behind, Thor and his merry band of heroes.

 

“Saved us all,” Kurt says, nodding happily. He’s pleased Loki’s listening, Loki’s invested. Loki rolls his eyes.

 

“You said that one of them threw lightning.”

 

“Oh, yeah. Big guy. Blond. Real friendly.”

 

Loki’s heart sinks. “Thor?”

 

“So you do know,” Kurt says, glancing over again. His smile crinkles his eyes and widens his white moustache. It reminds Loki of home. He frowns.

 

“Thor can’t be here. He’s not from here, and he couldn’t have…”

 

“You talking about those alien rumors?” Kurt snorts. “He’s big, he ain’t a Martian. I don’t buy it. Some people are just… different. My sister’s kid—big, like Thor is, only maybe not that big—he’s got a girlfriend, and I hear one of her cousins can pick things up. With her mind, mind you—”

 

Loki’s tuned him out again, his face close to the glass, eyes swallowing the tops of buildings as they come into view. It’s a massive architectural feat, the bridges, tunnels, streets and high towers of buildings, and something inside of him sings at the idea of exploration, at peeking at things he should have no notion of for decades yet. He balls his hands up against the window and smiles out at passers-by, all teeth. He would take this city, experience by experience, learn everything, be someone other than Loki Odinson, second-son. There’s no one to compare him to, here—no shadow for him to fall behind. No—he is his own, the shadow is his own. He can have anything.

 

 

But… He fumbles at the inner lining of his jacket and pulls out a small, yellowed scroll. Beside him, Kurt falls silent.

 

“What’s that, then? Looks a little weird.”

 

“Parchment,” Loki says shortly. “A calendar.”

 

“Ah. Checking dates. Reminds me of what I gotta do when I get home—you ever heard of…”

 

There. Four weeks and a day, just long enough for one full moon cycle to draw to a close. At the next new moon, Loki would return, with, predictably, no one the wiser.

 

Except for him, of course, he thinks, smug enough that Kurt sees the smile spreading across his face and talks faster. He would be wiser. He would know more about things they hadn’t seen; things they would never see. He’d do it. He had to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________ MANHATTAN, AVENGERS TOWER, JUST AFTER NOON ________

 

“So… that’s all there is to it,” Tony finishes, pressing one last button on his tablet. The screen in front of them clears out, replaced by changing patterns of quick streaks of light.

 

“Cool,” Hawkeye mumbles under his breath, and Tony takes that as a win. And then realizes that he’s talking about the screensaver.

 

But that’s also Tony’s.

 

So he’ll count that as a win, anyway.

 

“Yes, it is,” he says, “but as far as ‘mysterious man-figure crashing into New Jersey’ goes…”

 

“Whoever it is may be Asgardian,” Thor offers. It’s a start.

 

“Great. SHEILD’s already scoped the area, right?”

 

Natasha nods and Clint grimaces; Tony’s willing to bet they oversaw it personally. “Just a few more houses to check. A team’s going door to door.”

 

“Then we should go on patrol here,” Cap says, “Check through the city. Someone’s bound to have seen or heard something. I can test out that new equipment,” he adds, grinning over at Tony, and Tony grins back.

 

“Good—it could use a field test.”

 

Equipment?” he hears Clint hiss over to Natasha; Steve chuckles.

 

“If you come out on patrol with me, I’ll show you,” he offers, and Clint’s frown goes so deep, Tony wonders if he’ll be able to scrub it out.

 

“It better be cool,” he mutters, sinking deeper into his chair.

 

“Alright, then,” Tony says. “We leave in ten. Thor and I’ll take the air. You guys’ll be on the ground—Cap with Clint, I guess. Natasha and Bruce?”

 

“Roger that,” Clint snipes, stretching to his feet. Natasha looks a little less than thrilled, but she nods; Tony doesn’t tell her that he thinks it’s a good idea for several reasons. Most importantly, that she’ll need to find her balance with Bruce eventually, and he’s always been fond of jumpstarting. This is a start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________ THE PASTRY SHOP, WHERE THE TEA IS EXCELLENT AND THE STRUDEL IS PASSABLE, THREE BLOCKS AWAY ____

 

 

“—and that’s why we come down here every mother’s day. Isn’t that great? I’ll tell you what, son, my lady, she’s a great one.”

 

“That’s amazing,” Loki says flatly. It really is. Ten minutes of one-sided conversation and Loki can’t say for certain whether or not the man came up for air. “Really, truly. Tell me—which way do I go to find your, er. Heroes?”

 

Kurt blinks at him and takes a too-large bit of pancakes, syrup catching the edges of his moustache. Loki cringes. “Well,” he mumbles. “They’ve got a tower—it’s the Stark tower, you can’t miss it, big, flashy letter A on the side of it. If you go a couple blocks north—”

 

“Thank you kindly,” Loki says quickly, and gets to his feet, shoving away what’s left of the slightly runny eggs. “I appreciate your assistance. You are released from your service.”

 

As soon as the words pass his lips, Kurt is blinking, head moving slowly back around, towards a now-empty booth. He squints down at Loki’s half-empty mug and then at the already-paid check receipt in his hand. “I…”

 

But Loki’s already gone, heading north and marveling at the way the sun here, harsher, more pointed than Asgard’s own, hits his skin.

 

When he gets his strength back, he will fly forward. Now, he is content to walk in a sea of mortals, ones who notice nothing at all, sheep in a flock heedless of a cloaked shepherd. It’s… it’s amazing. Loki smiles and no one sees it, and it makes him smile wider.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________ LOCKED AWAY, BELOW AVENGERS TOWER, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, TEN MINUTES LATER __

 

“Five,” Loki drawls, rolling up to his feet. “Four,” he says, a little bit louder, pressing up against the reinforced glass, ghosting his breath across it. “Three,” he says, and it’s a shout; a guard, somewhere, drops something in his surprise, and it clatters across the cement. “Two,” he says, and he’s howling, just short of jumping out of his skin. So close-- “One.”

 

And he laughs and he laughs and he laughs himself sick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________ MANHATTAN, OUTSIDE OF AVENGERS TOWER______

 

“Nobody rings the bell,” Tony says slowly, because it doesn’t happen. “No, it definitely doesn’t happen. It’s not a thing that actually occurs. Jarvis, how long have we even had a bell?”

 

“Since the building’s inception, sir.”

 

“Not the point.”

 

“We’re leaving anyway,” Natasha says with a shrug. “Cap and Clint are taking the bird; they can go up, the rest of us can go down. Answer your door, Tony.” She’s doing her funny almost-smile thing, which means that she’s entertained at Tony’s expense. Naturally.

 

“Fine,” he says finally, jabbing a red-gloved finger into the elevator’s call button. “But for the record, I think this is stupid.” Doorbell. He’s never answered the front door in his life. He can’t think of anyone he needs or, more importantly, wants to talk to that would need to ring a bell to get his attention.

 

Doesn’t the door kind of... open, on its own?

 

“Thor,” he says slowly, stepping onto the elevator platform. “Didn’t Loki say that...”

 

“Say what?” Natasha asks, pushing both of them in and pressing the call button for the first floor.

 

“Thor went down to see him. I went with. He seemed to think that something would be happening, and soon.” Tony clears his throat. It is, suddenly, a little too hot under his suit. “I didn’t think it was anything to be worried about.”

 

“I differed,” Thor offers, and Tony shoots him a look.

 

“Thor differed, but there was nothing to be worried about. Loki’s as secure as he’ll ever be.”

 

Natasha frowns. “But does he have friends?”

 

“No,” they say in tandem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________ DOWNSTAIRS ________

 

Loki hums to himself, padding across concrete tiles on his toes. They’re cleaner, here, than the rest of the city. They look like they’re regularly cleaned. At least, regardless of hows and whys, his brother chose somewhere reasonable to hide away from home.

 

When he’d asked the guardsman to ring down the owner of the house, he hadn’t expected it to take quite so long. The building is large, to be certain, but all of its size is in its heights. The royal halls of Asgard are far larger than this, and far grander. This building glows, but it does not shine.

 

The man in his soft black suit walks back out to tell Loki that “Mr. Stark is on his way down, sir,” and Loki nods to him. It’s strange, here-- the man looks almost afraid of him, but it’s not the fear of someone unknown, someone other. No; it’s almost as if he knows him, and does not like what he knows, so Loki smiles at him.

 

“Thank you,” he says, and the man scampers back inside, tail between his legs.

 

Strange.

 

Stranger still to be kept waiting, and Loki considers going inside and saying so-- with a smile, of course-- but the man’s face...

 

It’s all strange. All of it. Stranger and stranger and stranger. Loki takes a breath.

 

“Is this a fucking joke?” bursts out of the air behind him at the same time as a shocked, choking “Brother?” and Loki turns around with his face frozen somewhere between shock and delight--

 

And then he sees their faces, and he isn’t sure what to do, because he’s never been the target of such pure and blinding hatred before.

 

Never in his life.

 

And it stings.

 

“I-- Thor?”

 

And then there is a hand in his face, slim and white, and his neck snaps around with the force behind the slap.

 

“Wait--” That from Thor, likely. Loki can’t tell with the way he is buffeted, too surprised, too wrong-footed to fight back, to do much more than raise his arms to deflect the blows that rain around him. The woman moves as fast as Sif, as ruthlessly as Fandral, and Loki remembers every sparring partner he never wanted, and ducks away from her, tries to map out the pattern of her strikes.

 

“Madam--” An elbow to his sternum, deflected by armor, but he feels it-- “I mean you--” A hand, flat, against his cheekbone; he takes that, but ducks when it comes back around, jabbing once, twice, towards the liver-- “No harm.”

 

She stumbles back, face twisting. “What did you--” He feels guilty, for a moment, when she has to turn away and drops to the ground. She is sick silently; it’s a feat, that. He will tell her so, he supposes, when she seems less likely to attempt to kill him.

 

“Hello,” he says, finally, smoothing hands through hair and down his coat. “I, ah. Am Loki. Of Asgard. Your friend fights very well,” he adds, for the metal man’s benefit. The metal man only stares at him, eyes wide and, well. Appalled. Loki clears his throat and turns, instead, to Thor. “I didn’t expect to find you here, brother.” And then he remembers his goal, achieved, and barely struggles against the grin that steals its way across his face. “I’ve done something incredible. You’ll hardly believe it, when I get back.”

 

“Loki,” Thor says, and Loki’s smile falters. Why is he, of all of them, looking at him like that? He could at least pretend to be happy to see him. “Loki,” he says again, and Loki takes a step towards him, because he’s never seen Thor look so...

 

“Are you going to be ill?” Loki asks awkwardly, hand half-raised towards him. “You look a bit off, brother. Has the black-clad woman--”

 

“No,” Thor says quickly. And he smiles, and it’s horrible. “You simply surprised me, brother.”

 

Loki smiles, again, and tries to make it look more believable than Thor’s. “Excellent. The surprise is always the best part.”

Loki has never seen a smile break, before. It’s like glass, cracking down the middle and shattering the corners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________ ONE WEEK AND TWENTY-TWO HOURS AGO_______

 

“I don’t know why I persist in coming here.”

 

“Yes, you do,” Loki says, bored; he barely manages a slow, lazy glance up from his nails, and even then, he doesn’t make eye contact, only reaches Mjolnir and lets his eyes fall again. “You’re only waiting for the mortals to release the Tesseract-- which, might I add, you could, and should, simply seize from them. And then you’re taking us home!” The enthusiasm behind his words is seething, dark and saccharine, and Thor grits his teeth against it.

 

“I shall leave you to your thoughts,” Thor says, and he should. He should leave, walk away, leave Loki here to rot in the way such a criminal deserves. He should. He will. He wants to.

 

And then Loki looks up, meets his eye, says, “No,” and he’s stuck, again, standing on the other side of solidly crafted doors and impenetrable walls. Standing on the other side of a prison cell.

 

“No,” Loki says again, and smiles, slow and dangerous, “I rather thought we could talk.”

 

“Speak, then,” Thor says. He’s uncomfortable; it’s hard not to be, with Loki, now. After everything.

 

“What do you think of time, Thor?”

 

If Tony were here, he would say something quick and sharp. I think you’re out of it. Sayonara, alien boy. If it were Steve, it would be curt. I think ours is up. Goodbye, Loki. If it were Natasha, there would be no more words.

 

But it is none of them. It is Thor, alone, opposite his no-longer-brother, a witness to madness and inevitability, maybe, so all he does is incline his head to show that he’s listening, and wait, in hopes for some light in the darkness, for some abandonment of this lethal foolishness.

 

“I don’t, really,” he tells him, and the grin that Loki gives him is the first honest thing he’s seen in weeks.

 

“That’s a pity, Odinson. It thinks of you. Would you like to know how I know that?”

 

“Magic?” Thor offers.

 

Loki laughs and laughs and doesn’t seem to notice when Thor slips away and the guards, with their heavy blue-lit weapons, return to his cell.

Loki doesn’t notice.

 

 

 

 

 

___________________PRESENT, MANHATTAN, AVENGERS TOWER, A ROOM THAT LOOKS REMARKABLY LIKE A PADDED CELL,___________________

__________________________ WHICH LOKI DOES HIS LEVEL BEST NOT TO COMMENT UPON__________________________ 

 

“It’s just a little sad, really,” Loki says under his breath, tight to Thor’s side. “This is the first thing they show a guest? What have your living arrangements been like?”

 

When all Thor can do is look at him, and at the arm that’s pressed up against his, and then back at him, Loki rolls his eyes and huffs, moving away to press his hands up against maddeningly padded walls.

 

The heroes have left the two of them alone in this room-- “To regroup,” the metal-clad man had said, darting another glare at Loki; the woman’s eyes, when she looked at him, were dead. Empty. There’s little that Loki fears, but she alone would rival the lot of them together. It would be welcome, maybe, the chance to step away from the hostiles, but Thor won’t so much as look at him, and Loki is close to burning the room down around their ears, if it would get him to speak.

 

“Perhaps I should leave,” he says; it’s half to himself, but he does, on some level, intend for Thor to hear, because that gets him a moment of eye-contact.

 

And Thor looks scared. Loki feels sick.

 

“No,” Thor says carefully. “It would be better if you stayed. Here. With us.”

 

“Your friends,” Loki says, even more carefully, watching Thor with every word. “They hate me.”

 

It isn’t a question, but Thor still freezes, his eyes, on the wall to Loki’s right, wide and alarmed. “They...”

 

“Has something happened? I’ve never met them, but will I? Is there a reason they hate me, or have I--”

 

“Will you?” Thor says sharply, and Loki blinks back at him.

 

“Will I... what?”

 

“It’s what you said.” Thor takes a step towards him, and Loki takes a step back. He doesn’t understand what’s happening. “You said, will you meet them.”

 

“Well, yes.” Loki frowns. “It hasn’t happened yet. Obviously.”

 

“Your hair,” Thor says, voice hoarse, and Loki’s not sure where he went wrong with his spell, but he’s fairly certain reduced brain capacity of everyone he comes in contact with was not a part of it. “It’s... shorter.”

 

Loki reaches a hand up to his ear and fiddles at the strands that fall over it, a few inches from his shoulders. “It’s the longest it’s ever been, Thor,” he says slowly. “I... well, I thought I’d let it go, a ways. I’m far too old to cut it, now.”

 

Loki has heard Thor bellow-- in joy, in war, with a hammer in hand and with food in hand, but he’s never heard a sound like this, before, loud like it’s been torn out of him, forceful and vibrant.

 

And Loki is, of course, backed up against the wall, so he can do no more than yell when Thor comes barrelling towards him, eyes wide and wild and utterly disturbed.

 

And then Thor has his arms around him, and he’s tightening them around Loki and laughing into the side of his neck, lifting him up off the ground. “Loki,” he says, and Loki is vastly more uncomfortable than he was three minutes ago.

 

“Please,” he says tightly, “put me down. Thor.” He squirms; Thor holds him tighter and laughs harder, and then makes a sound that sounds far too close to a sob for Loki to do anything but squirm harder. “I swear-- brother, release me at once.”

 

“Brother,” Thor repeats softly, and Loki attempts to kick him in the knee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

________________________________________________ DOWN-DOWN-DOWN-DOWN-DOWN-DOWN-DOWNSTAIRS________

 

Loki accidentally sets the corner of his cell on fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________ AVENGING UP IN THE TOWER__________

 

“I say we shoot him,” Clint says. It’s the fifth time he’s offered the suggestion. Eventually, they’ll agree with him. All it takes is a little persistence. “Actually,” he amends, “I say I shoot him. That way, you all get clear consciences, and I get to shoot him.”

 

It’s brilliant. It’s genius. Even Nat smiles at him. That, or she’s still feeling a little puke-y. Clint lines that up as one more reason to shoot the bastard, and preens.

 

“We’re not going to shoot him,” Cap says, reasonable and even. “We don’t know what’s going on, yet.”

 

“We know it’s nothing good,” Tony says from across the room, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. For all Clint’s vitriol towards Loki, towards what he did to him, he forgets the lengths that Tony went through for him. Because of him. He forgets how many scars Loki left behind.

“There’s no way it’s anything good,” Cap says, mouth twisting up in a wry little half-smile. “But it might not be anything outright martial.”

 

Thor opens the door quietly, and no one looks up until he’s slid in. And Clint bites his tongue. Hard. Because Loki’s there, peeking around Thor’s shoulder, his eyes wide and bright and everything about him screams danger to Clint’s subconscious. He doesn’t realize his hand is on his bow until Natasha’s nails are digging into his skin, a gentle warning.

 

Her fingers tighten. He winces. It’s not that gentle.

 

“My friends,” Thor says, his voice chillingly even. “My brother-- my brother is here through some magical means. He, ah...” His eyes are shining; Clint frowns. There’s something about the way Thor’s standing, the way he’s defending Loki with his own body, that sends Clint’s sensors firing. It’s not just protection he’s offering. He’s shielding him, but he’s also hoarding him, hesitant to move far away, and not only out of concern for Loki himself. Something about his posture, how rigid he is, maybe, seems selfish. Huh.

 

“Thor,” Cap says. He’s the first to speak out of all of them, naturally. Clint isn’t sure that anyone else is breathing. “Can we talk? All of us. Not-- not Loki.”

 

“I can guard him,” Tony offers, scratching at his wrist. It’s a careful ploy; he exposes the silver bands on his wrist. He’s unarmored, but he’s not indefensible. Clint throws Cap a nod, his own agreement, for whatever that’s worth.

 

“Sure,” Cap says brightly-- fake as a three dollar coin, but Loki wouldn’t know the difference-- and nods towards the doors. “The next room, maybe? This shouldn’t take too long.”

 

“Sure,” Tony throws back at him, the grin he throws out all teeth and no joy. “You know where my vote swings.”

 

Loki is glancing between them, quick as a beached fish, and Clint watches him. His hair’s a little shorter, a lot cleaner; he’s almost fresh-faced. Whoever this Loki is, there’s nothing safe about him, but there’s nothing as haggard, as hungry, as the Loki he met first. And it makes him uncomfortable. It’s making him skittish.

 

This Loki smiles at them when he steps out of the room, like he’s on some kind of fucking charm offensive. This Loki is dressed almost casually in comparison to that Loki, still too many layers, but lighter, sparser, less like he’s expecting a bullet to the back.

 

His fault, then, if he ends up with one. If he ends up with an arrow in him instead.

 

Not Clint’s.

 

The thought makes him smile back, just in time to watch Loki’s fade. It’s worth it.

 

--

 

“You can stand over there,” Tony says evenly, watching Loki watch him. It’s fucking eerie, and it’s making his teeth hurt, the way he looks at him, all wide-eyed curiosity, fascination, not the wariness, the anger, the murder Tony’s used to seeing in him.

 

He’s this close to summoning the suit and firing out of spite.

Thisclose.

 

They’re in a makeshift office, one of the smaller ones secreted throughout the tower, not much more than a wide, empty desk, a wheeled chair, and two more soft leather arm chairs, side by side in front of them. Tony has a suit behind the panels of the mostly empty bookshelf. It’s not supposed to open this way, but in an emergency, it’ll do. Besides that, Tony’s directed him towards the front of the desk; if he needs the suit, it’ll come barrelling out straight into his back. All he needs from Loki is a moment’s worth of staying put.

 

“Certainly,” Loki says, inclining his head in Tony’s direction. And, wow, that look better not be appraisal. “Might I say, you have a beautiful home.”

 

“No,” Tony says shortly.

 

“The view, then,” Loki says with a grin, and he raises his hands, no weapons, see, and edges towards the windows. “It’s incredible,” he murmurs. “Silver and glass and... and smoke? So many colors. So much.”

 

Tony remembers silver and glass shattering, remembers more smoke than should have been, and curls his fingernails into his palms.

 

Loki is slender and tall, moves fluidly and easily, exudes a careful sort of confidence, and is light. It’s strange, and Tony isn’t sure what to think of it, but he can’t find the darkness that leaks out of the Loki he knows. It has to be a trick, some sort of shadow, meant to distract them, pull away their defenses while the real Loki escapes, but the way this one sets his hands against the glass and sighs up against the pane, wrinkling his nose and wiping away the steam from his breath, it’s...

 

It’s too elaborate. It’s odd. And Tony doesn’t like it.

 

And so naturally, Loki tips his head back, eyes sparkling, and says, “What has it been like, this year? New things, old things-- what’s changed?” He turns back to the window, and Tony almost misses the last of it.

 

He says, “It feels like change, and I don’t think it’s just me.”

 

He says, “Forgive me. I’ve gotten distracted. Will your companion be calling us back now?”

 

He says, “Are you alright? You’ve gone rather pale.”

 

“There is no,” Tony says, “fucking way. That this is real,” and Loki looks only confused and Tony refuses.

 

--

 

His grip on Loki’s arm-- thinner than it should be, softer-- is tighter than it should be, maybe, but everyone goes appropriately quiet when they barrel back through the door, and Tony is livid.

 

“This,” he says pointedly, thrusting a gasping Loki away from him (Thor catches him, looking slighted and pulling him too close), “is wrong.”

 

“Tony,” Steve says, like a warning. “We were just--”

 

“Whatever you were talking about is wrong, too,” Tony says, stubbornly. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Loki struggling and squirming half-heartedly, trapped against a glaring Thor’s side. “You have no idea-- you know what? This is Reed’s fault.”

 

“Reed,” Natasha says quietly, tucked up into the corner of one couch. She doesn’t look impressed. She should.

 

“Reed,” Tony spits. “Reed fucking Richards and his-- his parallel universes in multi-dimensional space crap.”

 

“Actually,” Steve starts, thrown, but Loki finishes.

 

“Magic,” he squeaks out, finding his way around the mass of Thor’s arm.

 

“Space travel,” Thor says, but whether he’s agreeing or spouting out Tony-doesn’t-know-what remains to be seen. “Time travel.”

 

“Doctor Who,” Clint mutters.

 

“What Doctor?” Nat asks.

 

“Can we not,” Steve attempts, but all eyes ignore him in favor of settling on Loki, where he’s pried himself away from Thor and stands, straight and proud, in the middle of them.

 

He clears his throat. “My name,” he says, glancing back at Thor for what support he offers, “is Loki, of Asgard, and I am here with the glorious purpose of--”

 

(“I’m going to do it. Nobody stop me,” a desperate Clint mutters to Natasha, his fingers straying towards his quiver. Tony is particularly inclined to see how that plays out.)

 

Exploration,” Loki says, as if that should matter. As if they should care. “I’m here,” he says, and something loosens about him, gets brighter, “to see something that I otherwise may not have.”

 

Steve snorts at that. Tony totally hears it.

 

“The spell I performed was highly difficult. I, ah. Well, I estimated much of it.” He looks between them, immensely satisfied. “It was quite a feat, actually.”

 

Loki leans towards them almost conspiratorially, his eyes locked on Tony and blazing. “I did something amazing,” he says. “Unparalleled. I—” He falters, mouth open, tongue pushed halfway out as if he’s searching the air for the words that he needs.

 

It’s Thor, eventually, who finishes the thought, his hand clamping down on Loki’s shoulder. “He travelled through time and space,” Thor says, a burr in his voice that Tony doesn’t care to look too far into. “My brother has made history!”

 

This Loki is smaller in the shoulders, slim enough that Thor, when his hand settles deeper against his neck, looks all the larger for it. He’s dwarfing Loki and his eyes are shining, with pride and something damper, something more than likely to destroy him, afterwards. When all of this goes to shit. Tony can almost taste it, the way that things will fall apart. The inevitability of the fallout. It’s going to be nuclear, and they’re the ones who are going to have to pick up the pieces afterwards, piece together the fragments that Loki leaves behind all over again.

 

But this time, this Loki is genial and wide-eyed and hopeful.  This Loki won’t tear down the city. No, he’ll stick to Thor.

 

But it’s alright, Tony thinks, tapping out a rhythm against his Mark VII cuffs. This time, they’re prepared.

 

Loki tips his head back to smile at Thor, gently disbelieving.

 

Tony’s fingers stutter in their sequence.

 

Everything is going to go to hell.

 

--

 

The man with the metal bracelets and the wicked mouth walks out of the room first. Loki’s careful; his smile doesn’t falter. He knows this game well. He and Thor have played it since birth—diplomacy at its finest is a child’s farce, a play in two acts. The first act is the mask; the second, the hammer.

 

Loki has always excelled at the mask. He became the child they needed to see—quiet, clever, one with easy, toothsome smiles and clever things to say. Never too  clever, never clever enough to threaten. Easy. He can play pretend.

 

Even now, as a man, his first tricks are his oldest. He smiles at the strangers who cringe away from him, keeps his hands low and empty, keeps his head high, offers compliments and smiles wider.

 

Thor, of course, excelled at the hammer of the play. He was a hurricane of sound and force and noise, heaving laughter when Loki smiled, pushing boundaries where Loki stayed far behind the lines. Unlike Loki, who burrowed under the skins of the lords and ladies, careful and unobtrusive, Thor bowled them over, a heady, tactile offensive in play—a brush of an arm, brushing lips to hands.

 

Thor has never been subtle and Loki, for the first time, wonders if he has chosen wrong.

 

“You expect us to believe that you mean no harm?” the red-haired woman asks, raised eyebrows projecting her own thoughts on the matter. Her mind is made up, so Loki keeps his shoulders straight and shunts his smile away.

 

“Yes, lady,” he says, head inclined just so, showing his deference. Her lip quirks. “I mean no harm whatsoever. When I left home, I threw myself forward, I knew not where.”

 

“Just for shits and giggles?” The vested man is still hiding behind Natasha when he asks. His frown looks permanent; his fingers on his knees, crook as if stringing an imaginary bow.

 

Loki keeps his features placid and harmless, and shrugs, slow and deliberate. “I suppose so.”

 

Their captain sighs, a great gust of air that leaves Loki thinking that, though he may be without friends, he need not be without allies, among the mortals. Loki knows his type, and he knows he’s fair, if the slow, measuring stare he leaves him with is any indication.

 

“Okay,” he says, nodding. “Okay. Thor, would you mind taking Loki to your room with you? I, ah…” He rubs at his neck. There’s a dark flush creeping up over the tops of his cheeks. “I think I ought to talk to Tony.”

 

“Dandy,” the smaller man hums sullenly, kicking out his feet. The woman jabs at his ribs with an elbow. Loki cringes at the memory of that force delivered to his own body, and doesn’t envy the other man much.

 

“Brother?” Thor offers, swinging his arm ahead of him. Loki waits a beat and nods at the assembled warriors. All but the captain avoid his eye.

 

The captain nods back, though it seems more warning than offer of friendship. Loki smiles, and he goes.

 

--

 

“Who are they, then?” Loki asks quickly, as soon as the door behind them has been closed. The hallway is wide and full of echoes, but Thor walks close besides him, close enough that the questions can fall one over another on hazy waves of breath. “What are their names? What have I done to offend them so? You’ve taken the company of savages—does father know you’re here? Does mother? Where are—Thor, what are you doing?”

 

The last is directed at the hand that has found its way around Loki’s shoulders, a sizeable restraint. The Thor that Loki left behind him was large, but still growing, still filling out the pockets of space that adulthood will one day turn immovable. Loki can’t say he’s suprised, exactly, but he’s certainly disgruntled, especially when he stumbles and Thor pulls him closer, a repeat of the unfortunate occasion in the last room.

 

Thor, for gods’ sakes—”

 

Thor shoves him away from him in one brutal thrust and holds him there, eyes roving across his frame. Loki stews silently under his scrutiny. His toes brush the tiles below them. It is very uncomfortable and he doesn’t like it.

 

“Release me,” Loki says, after forty-five seconds. He’s counted. “At once.”

 

The words, Loki is sure, do not explain the ragged sob that thunders from somewhere deep within Thor’s person, shaking through his arms and rocking Loki’s head back.

 

“Stay,” Thor says, shaking him again for good measure. “Here. With me. Or, at least, brother, allow me to travel with you.”

 

“Anything,” Loki grits out, eyes crossing, “you brute, if you’ll just put me down—”

 

He does, and Loki falls to his knees with a yell, clumsier than he’s been in a long while.

 

“I am not your instrument, Thor,” he says hoarsely, quaking to his feet. “You can’t shake me like a child’s broken toy when you don’t get your way. Much less now, you oversized half-wit.”

 

Ah. That might be too much. Thor’s face falls so quickly, the motion makes his whole body droop, his muscles an expanse of dominoes, curling in on themselves.

 

“Er. Goodness,” Loki tries tentatively, taking a step farther away from him. “You’ve gotten sensitive.”

 

Thor almost smiles. It’s not enough to ease whatever tension has reared up between them, but Loki will take it. “The room,” he says softly, pointing down the hall. “It’s one floor down. The elevator is at the end of the hall.”

 

“Elevator,” Loki repeats, the word curling past his teeth, strange and foreign. “What is it?”

 

Thor’s laugh is still too soft, but it’s growing. “Come along and learn, little brother.”

 

He walks forward and Loki bristles, torn. “I’m not—”

 

But he is, really, especially now. He’s new to their time, their mannerisms, and this Thor is older, larger, stranger.

 

And he’d like to see the elevator. So perhaps he’ll follow him, follow after the high line of his shoulders to the dark end of the hallway.

 

The elevator is gold, with lights that flare red above the door and at the sides of it. Loki presses all of the buttons and all Thor does is smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

__________________________MANHATTAN, UNDER SEVERAL FEET OF CONCRETE AND A BUSY STREET, TWO DAYS AGO. OR FIVE. OR NONE. OR SEVEN.___

 

No more games.”

 

Loki smiles at where the hammer trembles before his nose, and rolls his eyes so wide that everything goes back. And then, when he opens them again, there is gold, too much gold for the gray of his cell, so much gold he could die with it.

 

“There are always games,” he tells Thor, because it is always Thor, too close to him, his back pressed up against the wall and his air dancing just out of Loki’s reach. “Always,” he spits, and Thor recoils. Loki coughs, soft and delicate, and smiles. “Where is joy without play, son of Odin?”

 

“You told me,” Thor says, struggling with something fierce. “You said,” he stumbles, the beautiful, ugly thing he’s hiding catching its claws against the back of his tongue, “said that something—”

 

“I say so very many things,” Loki says softly. “Or has time made you forget me?” It’s a mercy, to goad him thus, because the color rises under his skin until he is more red than gold, and red was always more forgivable.

 

“Something was going to happen,” Thor says finally. The words finally release, tripping over his lips in belled shoes, jangling into Loki’s skull, demanding he remembers, that he—oh.

 

Oh.

 

“Pardon me, brother,” he says, bracing his hands against the edge of his cot to buoy himself up. “It’s been a long day. Days.  I haven’t slept, you know,” he adds, because perhaps that is why. Perhaps that is reason. “Not in days,” he thinks. “Or longer.” Oh, dear. He’s said that aloud.

 

“You’ll make yourself ill,” Thor says cautiously, stepping closer to the door.

 

“But you’re here in secret,” Loki crows, stepping closer to Thor. He smells of magic, fresh and undiluted, unpolluted, untouched by anything other. Pure. “It’s happened, hasn’t it? Hasn’t it?”

 

Thor doesn’t seem to be breathing. Loki smiles, hand floating up towards his shoulder. It changes its mind on the way there and braces against Loki’s hip instead, bony fingers fingering bonier bone. He laughs.

 

“Good,” is all he says aloud this time. “Good.” And then he turns away from Thor with a muttered, “Leave me,” and drops to his rocky bed like a sack of rocks. Stones. Stone sack dropped from a bird, straight into a giant’s eye. Eye like a storm. A storm that refuses to fall silent.

 

“—oki. You’re—you, upstairs, you’re still—It’s my brother! I could tell him about the destruction ,the death that you caused, and he could prevent it, he could—”

 

No,” Loki roars, so loudly, so suddenly, he feels  a blood vessel pop near his temple, feels the warmth of it from ear to elbow. He laughs.

 

“You utter fool,” he hisses, turning his head around to glare at him, eyes still half-mast. “You would kill us all.”

 

“I would save us all,” Thor says quietly, and Loki snorts.

 

There is clarity, here, in righteousness, in knowing. “There is one path, Thor Odinson, and you, mighty though you believe yourself to be, may not dissuade it. History is permanent. If it were not, time would hold no meaning, and time would destroy itself.” Devour itself. A serpent with its tail in its teeth, biting down until there is nothing left. “Do you understand me?” No is the answer that Thor will not quite give him, scowling fit to bruise.

 

“If you make me believe you—and I would, knowing me—” Here, Loki pauses. There’s a smell like innocence, but he knows he imagine it, and when he attempt to follow, it escapes him. He sighs. “There would be no Chitauri, no. No sacking of New York. But before that? There would be no death of the frost giants on my hands, no loss of a brother on yours. And you would be king. What kind of king would you be, Thor? Kind-hearted, generous? Thoughtful? Or would you burn Jotunheim for the slight of no wedding gift? Would you take earth because I sat at your side and asked it of you with pretty words, plucked away the mortals I remembered as petty little play things? Please.” When he leans forward, this time, Thor leans with him, eyes dark and searching, breath hitching higher. “You would forget your humanity, because you would never hold it. And there would be no Thor to tell a lost little frost giant that he oughtn’t start on his way to a war that both sides will lose. And because there would be no Thor to tell him not to—”

 

“It would happen anyway,” Thor whispers, anguish chasing understanding quick across his features. “Or worse.”

 

“Or both,” Loki says gleefully, one hand scraping its way up Thor’s left vambrace. “Either way, a paradox, and the world tree burns.” Would you burn it down for me? Loki wants to ask, to see Thor’s eyes turn to steel, to see him hate him. He wants to ask, but he can’t, so he smiles wider instead, scrapes little grooves into the metal at Thor’s wrists.

 

“Then why would you warn me away from it?” Thor asks, and the eyes on Loki are too sharp, the first glimmer of true understanding underneath them, his first grasp of the chaos that consumes Loki, that gives him breath.

 

But Loki only smiles and breathes out a whisp of frosted air, white and blue landing against the bow of Thor’s lips before he can pull away. “I’ve never much cared for fire,” he whispers, and Thor shivers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_________________________________________________________ MANHATTAN, THE REAL WORLD, CURRENT, UP IN THE TOWER OF AVENGING_____

 

“Where is he now?” Steve asks, and Thor sighs, leaning his shoulder into the door to close it.

 

“Asleep,” Thor says, setting Mjolnir against his hip. “The travelling tired him greatly. It was, as he tells it, quite a spell.” He doesn’t speak of the other Loki, chained beneath the tower. Frost splinters from Mjolnir’s hilt to the carpet, melting in the heat of the Captain’s living quarters.

 

They’re all gathered in his bedroom, standing in a loose circle, no one at ease. Thor isn’t sure what to say to them, what to say to assure them that this Loki is salvageable, save-able, still good in the ways that matter, still close to noble. Innocent, a voice at the back of his mind whispers, but it’s the wrong Loki’s voice and it makes tension ripple under his skin.

 

“What else has he said to you?” Bruce asks from his post by the bed, and Thor smiles.

 

“How wonderfully soft the bed is, and how wonderfully brutal the Black Widow’s fight is.”

 

“Real funny,” Clint mutters, but he’s beginning to look unsure in his convictions. Thor knows that he and Natasha are spies, first and foremost, operating under tricks and deceits for reasons that are their own, but that do good. He knows they know falsehoods, and he knows that, out of any of them, they would spot Loki’s falsehoods first, should the whole thing be an act, one more farce at this world’s expense. But Thor believes him. He has to, because he knows Loki, this Loki, his Loki, and he will have them know him, too. He will have them understand.

 

“He’s young,” he tells them, “far younger than o-our prisoner. He’s—not kind, he’s never been kind, but he’s loyal. This is a Loki I’ve fought with, explored with, trained with. And he’s—” Thor’s throat freezes on the word, and it’s a battle to send it out. When it does come, it’s wet and wrung through, pulling out of him like it means to stay. “He’s happy,” he says, and it makes his lips sting.

 

“He carries himself like a liar,” Natasha says, after an uncomfortable moment, all of their eyes fixed on anything but another’s. “That’s not,” she amends, when Tony whoops his support, “meant to say that he’s lying about why he’s here. If anything, all reasons point to Thor. The way he’s acting seems like his natural state—he’s got a mask on, he’s going for propriety, trying to fit in.” She frowns. “If it’s a play, it’s a very good one. I don’t see the point.”

 

“The point is to get us complacent,” Tony snaps. Thor’s fingers twitch against the hammer’s handle. “If we decide we like him, if we play along, what’s to stop him sticking his knives into our backs? Literally.” He stops for breath and Thor tries not to notice Clint nodding, Bruce biting at the inside of his cheek, all of them considering. “All I’m saying is it might be our safest bet to act before he jumps us.”

 

Tony crosses his arms and leans back like he’s proud of himself, like he already knows he’s right, and Thor can’t say a word. Because what if he is? What if—Thor swallows.

 

“But he hasn’t,” Steve says firmly, and Thor lets out a breath so deep, his back creaks against the door, twice. “And if this is pre-everything Loki, we might even have a chance to prevent some of the catastrophes that—”

 

No!”

 

Thor looks up. The word had burst out of him, but that’s wasn’t so unexpected as catching the same word out of Tony, quieter, but no less fierce for it, his arms still crossed and his eyes unyielding.

 

“It’ll cause more trouble than it’s worth,” he says, stilted and uneven, as if reluctant, for once, to be in the right. Thor almost smiles. He knows the type.

 

“Perhaps even a paradox,” he says lightly, and the look Tony sends him is enough to make him laugh. “You are not the only one considering our options, Man of Iron.”

 

“Apparently not,” Tony says, grudgingly, perhaps, but with new respect before he turns to face the group. “In the interest of preserving time and space as continued, undamaged entities, I suggest we move forward as if this Loki is a new—albeit entirely untrustworthy and mostly unwanted—houseguest-slash-stranger. JARVIS will keep tabs on him at all times, and we’ll say nothing about his own personal future.”

 

Clint raises his hand. “So all of this means I can’t shoot him.”

 

Tony smiles, all teeth. “Bingo.”

 

Clint nods. “Then I’ll be moving back to our last base of operations.”

 

Natasha looks almost insulted. “I thought we weren’t allowed back?”

 

Clint glowers at her; Tony, at both of them.

 

“Do you even remember what happened in—”

 

“Do either of you feel like sharing or are you going to be cryptic as all fu—”

 

Steve turns to Thor, the first real smile he’s shown in hours coming through. It’s tired, but it’s honest. “How long is he here for?”

 

“The spell will pull him back,” Thor says, and tries to smile back. To smile, and not think seconds, minutes, moments, tallying up all the faster for the time he’s spent away from his brother. The time it’s been since he lost him. “The when, I don’t know.”

 

Steve can’t know, not really, but he tries, all warm compassion and natural empathy, and Thor leans into the hand clapped to his shoulder for a moment, breathing slow.

 

Weeks, days, hours, seconds.

 

He breathes deeper.

 

 

--

 

Tony leaves most doors open, so the ones he locks, he remembers. This one, a storage locker in Lab 7, silver grilled and padlocked on the outside and the inside, unlockable by voice code (and key, probably, but that takes more memory than Tony cares to give it), should still be locked. It’s always locked. It’s where bad tech goes to die.

 

The thing is, Tony doesn’t admit to bad tech. Bad tech happens to other people. No one knows about his bad tech, because much like performance anxiety and gray hair, it doesn’t happen to him. The graveyard is a secret. It’s little and locked because Tony likes to be infallible and when he’s not, it’s both rare and easily forgettable.

 

And, most importantly, no one should be in there.

 

He’s not surprised it’s Loki, really. But seeing wide, lanky shoulders shifting, rifling through (previously bolted shut, Jesus Christ) bins, up on tiptoes to see all the way down, is strange. Stranger still is Tony not reaching for a weapon immediately. Stranger still is a little twinge that feels a little bit like he’s impressed.

 

Less strange is the fact that’s he’s tired of these damn pagans and their surprises.

 

He sighs, loudly.

 

Loki straightens like he’s strapped on a shock collar, stock still for a moment before he composes himself, shoulders slanting cool and casual. When he turns to face Tony, he braces his elbows against the sides of the bin he’s been salvaging through, hips pushed forward.

 

It’s rude.

 

Tony keeps his eyes on his face. Loki grins.

 

“Mr. Stark,” he says, nodding towards Tony, the faintest hint of a blush bursting up around his eyes.

 

“Home intruder,” Tony greets back, and the blush blossoms.

 

“It was open—”

 

“No. Now get out of there.”

 

“I—” He’s flustered, now, but he turns, caps the lid, and stalks out of the shed, pushing the door closed behind him. “I’m sure I can explain—”

 

Tony snorts and turns away from him, heading towards a mostly-empty table in the middle of the lab, ignoring the quiet, indignant huff from behind him.

 

“JARVIS, how’s the nine marking up?”

 

“Mark IX is nearing full functionality, sir. Would you like a demonstration?”

 

“Not with Little Satan in the room, thanks.”

 

“Litt—who are you speaking—are all the men on your planet as rude as you, sir, or do you happen to be an anomaly?”

 

Tony opens his mouth and—nothing. There’s nothing there. This whole thing is weird and uncomfortable and weird, and he’s not even sure what to say to mini-Loki behind him, but he wants it to be mean and he wants him gone.

 

He hasn’t found the right words yet, but Tony turns around and looks at him, and he hopes that’s enough.

 

Loki’s got his hands perched up on the crest of his hips, feet wide and cheeks red like he’s gearing up for a fight. Thor must’ve been right about that sleeping thing at some point, because he’s under dressed, in a thin green tunic, thin black pants, and no shoes. His hair, where it falls around his face, is a mess.

 

His hair is a mess, his chin is high and proud, and his eyes are livid.

 

“You’re going to call me rude,” Tony says slowly, glancing at how tightly Loki’s fingers are curled around his hips, as if bracing himself against them, “when you, a guest in my house, break into a locked cabinet to rifle through private—”

 

“I apologize if I’ve offended you,” Loki says impatiently, “But that was little more than junk.”

 

Hell no. “That’s a graveyard, you little—Nothing in there works because it’s all dead tech.”

 

Loki squints at him. “You speak as if you intend me to understand you,” he says slowly, “but it’s so much nonsense.”

 

Simple? He can do simple. “I think you’re a prick and I don’t like you.”

 

Tony isn’t sure what he’s expecting—a small fire, maybe, an angry outburst, a laugh and a few bruises for his efforts. Not so much Loki’s mouth falling open. Not so much a low, angrily muttered “Honestly,” and soft, bare footsteps padding away, Loki’s hands balled into fists and swinging at his sides, one finger fumbling into both elevator buttons because he doesn’t know any better.

 

Tony bites his own tongue.

 

Damn everything.

 

“It’s going to take a while for the elevator to get here,” he says, and Loki looks up at him. His mouth is a sharp, white line, but Tony reads equal parts embarrassment in the anger and he feels bad about it. Well. Almost. “You pressed both buttons.” Loki doesn’t so much as ablink. “It’s going to go everywhere before it comes up here. I programmed it to—well, it’ll be bouncing around a bit before it ends up here, anyway.” Loki glances at the elevator with an absolute look of betrayal, eyebrows climbing dangerously high. Tony snorts.

 

This is not his problem. Not even kind of. This is a nuisance, an irritation, and Loki’s eyes are grass green—poison green, grass is supposed to be pleasant and he isn’t—and—and—

 

And there are other reasons, okay, but the most important one is that Loki is Not To Be Trusted, underlined in red ink, and Tony knows better.

 

“JARVIS, run the Mark IX prelims, video format. Big screen it.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

He can see Loki glancing around, as surreptitiously as he’s able, eyes skittering across the ceiling and the walls, searching for JARVIS’s source. Tony can feel a headache coming on. “JARVIS,” he calls to him, and Loki’s eyes snap to him like rubber, to quickly for him to look away. “Just A Rather Very Intelligent System. A computer with a voice. Real handy when I have things to do.”

 

Loki nods, but it looks like it costs him. Tony tips his head towards a work bench, hiking his feet up to drape over the table in front of him.

 

“Take a seat. You’ve got a while to wait, and you might find this interesting.” He might as well, Tony reasons, know what he’ll be up against when he steps out of place. The simulation won’t give anything away. It’s a show of firepower. It’s a warning. It’s a threat.

 

Loki doesn’t sit, but he faces the holographic screen with his back against the wall, until the elevator comes. When the doors open, he backs into it, silent and awestruck, and Tony isn’t going to say goodbye or you’re welcome or come again soon but he does say, “Thor’s on 3A,” and he thinks he might almost get a smile.

 

He sure as hell doesn’t need one. Or want one. Or care about one.

 

When he stands up to change the code on the graveyard’s lock, he finds that it’s locked again, no signs of tampering or forced entry. It’s inappropriate, and he shouldn’t be humoring it, but the twinge from before unfurls itself somewhere in the middle of his brain, and just like that, he’s impressed. He is. He’s a little surprised, and a little pleased, and it’s terrible and his headache is spreading like paint on a wet canvas.

 

Loki looked more impressed than concerned, at the suit simulation. For the next 24 hours, that’ll be the bane of Tony’s existence. It’s a rough life.

 

--

 

“Your companion,” Loki says brusquely, barreling through Thor’s door, “is a boor.”

 

Thor, to his credit, doesn’t so much as startle when Loki’s sleeping form on the bed fizzes out in a show of pretty copper sparks. Loki is nothing short of disappointed.

 

“What gave it away?” he asks, when all Thor does is blink at him, mouth faintly lifted, amused. A little bit sad.

 

“I’ve fallen for that one often enough to recognize it by now, I think.”

 

Loki frowns. “But I’ve only just—”

 

“Boor!” Thor bellows, and Loki jumps. For all that this Thor is different, softer around the edges, he is still just as loud, and for forgetting that, Loki’s ears bear the consequence. “Who’s the boor?” he asks, quietly enough that  Loki’s teeth cease to rattle.

 

Stark,” Loki growls, dropping onto the other edge of the bed. Thor continues to stand where he was, but he turns his back to the window and lets his hand fall from the hammer at his hip. “He’s insufferable, at best.”

 

“Has he,” Thor asks slowly, trying his best for tact, “done anything—said anything—untoward?” Loki snorts.

 

“That would have been simple, brother. No.” Loki frowns, tugging his knees up to rest his chin over them. “His dislike of me is palpable. He called me a prick! Directly!” Loki sits up higher, outrage in full return. “I’d not said a word out of turn, and he—”

 

“Loki.” Thor sighs, and it’s as if Loki is a child again, and Thor is older, wiser, this Thor, and he looks at Loki like he sees him, and Loki’s mouth snaps shut. “You went exploring, didn’t you.”

 

It’s not a question, but Loki shrugs out an answer anyways. It hadn’t been expressly forbidden. It was allowed.

 

“And you wound up in one of Stark’s—Tony’s—laboratories, did you not? Don’t deny it,” he laughs, walking towards Loki’s side of the bed. “There’s nowhere else Tony would be, were he not with us.”

 

“Yes,” Loki says quietly. “I maybe have… found my way into one of his rooms.”

 

“He is insulted,” Thor says evenly, and his own shrug is expansive, rocking him upwards from shoulder to waist. Loki wonders, with no little envy, if he will ever hold so grand a stature. “It is understandable. You entered his rooms uninvited. You must apologize.”

 

“I will not,” Loki sputters, snapping back into Thor’s lecture. His feet drop to the floor with a padded thud. “Thor, he—”

 

“Invited you into his home,” Thor says warningly, and Loki’s teeth close over his tongue with a hiss.

 

“Yes,” he says finally, jaw working to keep his words coaxing, “but this is your home too, isn’t it? With these strangers?”

 

Thor’s smile, when he gives it, is gentle and unyielding. “The Avengers are far more than strangers, Loki. We live together, we have fought together.” There’s a shadow there, one Loki is itching to prod until whatever seat it’s keeping gives way. “These are good people,” Thor says, and Loki keeps still when Thor’s hand lands on his arm, squeezing fit to bruise. “You will learn.”

 

“They’re not my people,” Loki grumbles, but he doesn’t miss the way Thor stiffens before pulling him to his feet, pulling him into one more too-warm embrace.

 

Thor sighs. Into his hair.

 

“Who are you?” Loki mutters, and all Thor can do is laugh.

 

--

 

Dinner is a stilted, rushed affair. The dining table is glass, the utensils plastic, and the food is rapped in large squares, steam curling out of the upper wrappings.

 

Loki is careful, and charming, and utterly silent.

 

Natasha asks the table at large to pass the potatoes. Loki floats them over to her and they land, a little too hard, just short of her paper plate.

 

It’s a party trick, a game done for fun in Asgard, to make visitors smile, to make children laugh. The Black Widow is neither, and her muscles, for a long, slow moment, freeze. Her eyes are on the container; the rest of the merry band of angry mortals find Loki and pin him there with their gazes, an ant under a hot glass.

 

He eyes the tines of his fork until he hears a bland, carefully modulated “Thank you” from across the table. He looks up, startled, but as soon as his eyes meet hers, Natasha looks away, spooning potatoes onto her plate.

 

Bruce coughs.

 

Loki wonders if this is an invitation to relax. He might take it as such—he’d like to—but nobody else speaks and, after a while, Loki stops waiting.

 

He goes to bed beside Thor, his limbs held straight and easy over the bedclothes, and when Thor, half-awake, asks after his studies, the words pour from him like water from a flooded well.

 

 

“The spell,” Thor says later, when Loki is half-gone, quietly enough to ignore and the more powerful for it. “How long will it last?”

 

Loki doesn’t open his eyes, but he can feel Thor shifting beside him, raising up on his elbow to stare at him.

 

“Two moons,” he says finally, lips barely moving. Two moons—nine weeks. The numbers tick forward in his head, tucked away in a careful, exacting corner of his mind.

 

He opens his eyes and smiles. “So I suppose I should see what I can.”

 

“Yes.” Thor’s eyes are unreadable. He doesn’t smile and, after a moment, Loki doesn’t look for it.

 

“Goodnight, brother,” he sighs, turning on his side.

 

It takes a second, but Thor’s hand drops to his shoulder, two slow, heavy pats. “Sleep well,” he says, voice thick. Loki doesn’t move.

 

He stays staring at the wall for long after Thor’s breath grows long and even. Even the shapes in the dark, here, are different, and Loki cannot find it in his grasp to close his eyes against them.

 

--

 

 

Tony makes it all of twelve hours before he’s outside of Steve’s door again, his head through the open doorway before he can overthink this.

 

“Let me run something by you.”

 

“Tony?” Steve’s face, when he turns towards him, is drowsy-eyed and graphite-smudged, gray splotches spreading when his mouth moves. “Um. Morning?”

 

“Loki,” Tony says, cutting straight to it. “Say he’s telling the truth.”

 

“He’s telling the truth,” Steve obliges, twisting his mouth up into something a little more patronizing than a smile. Which is real nice. Steve crosses his arms and leans back, his hoodie pulling tight across his shoulders.

“But if he is, Cap,” Tony says, stepping into the room and towards Steve’s drawing table, planting his hands carefully around charcoal sticks and torn up eraser bits. “If he is,” he hisses, “that means he’s safe, doesn’t it?”

 

It’s only half a question, but Steve nods, his arms going a little tighter, a little tenser. He’s worried. Good. Tony isn’t alone here. “Sure. Well, no. Not safe, maybe, but he’s not out to get us.”

 

Allegedly.”

 

“Allegedly.” Steve sighs. “Tony, we can’t do anything to someone who hasn’t done anything yet. That’s not what we do. It’s not what we’re here for.”

 

“But.” Tony flounders for something to stick, and he’s not even sure why anymore. “Should we even be talking to him? Isn’t this endangering, like. Life. And time. And the universe.” There, that works. That’s fitting.

 

“Thor wants him here,” Steve says, and Tony looks away, because Thor. “You saw him, Tony. He’s got his brother back.” Thor, smiling in a way that Tony never realized he could. Thor’s laughter that’s gone on for hours. Thor’s face, when Loki calls him brother without any irony. Without any of that heavy, seething darkness that the wrong Loki drags it down with.

 

“Not forever,” Tony says quietly, and that’s important, too. He’d never seen Thor smiling like that, but he’d never seen Loki look like that, either, and it scares him. It makes him nervous. “Fuck,” he mutters, and Cap’s snort sounds like agreement enough for him to repeat himself.

 

“It’s a mess,” Steve says, and smiles at him. one lonely gray smudge travels upward, caught at the bridge of his nose.

 

Before he can catch himself, Tony’s rubbing it away with the edge of his thumb. “Don’t look at me like that,” he grunts, rolling his eyes. “You looked like Dali’s version of a raccoon.” Steve grins. “You don’t know who that is, but I promise it was rude.”

 

--

 

“There is a small possibility that I may have been a little rude to you yesterday—how’s that, JARVIS?”

 

“Still not quite an apology, sir, but you’re getting there.”

 

“Yeah, well.”

 

When he hears the whirr of the elevator’s motor, Tony glances up at the corner of one of his view screens and drags it to the center. Loki. It’ll take him a minute to get here, so Tony watches.

 

He looks new.The same man he was yesterday, granted, but Loki’s shirt is white and clean, his hair is pulled back in a messy, convenient loop, and the way he stands is open the way the other Loki is not. He looks like he fits in his skin, fits where he’s placed himself. He’s innocent—not pure, no, but there’s no innocent blood on this Loki’s hands, nor his conscience.

 

In the elevator, Loki undoes the knot in his hair and rattles it loose. From the monitor, Tony watches him straighten his tunic and roll out his shoulders.

 

“Fuck this,” Tony mutters, but it’s a little late. The doors slide open and he turns around to face him.

 

The glare Loki sends him nearly makes him smile. He’s angry, and offended, and not violent. And it’s weird.

 

“You’re back,” Tony says shortly, and turns back around. “That’s interesting.”

 

“Thor believes I should apologize.”

 

“But you don’t?”

 

“I believe that, of the offenses given, yours were the worse.”

 

“I—” Tony whirls back around to stare at him and sees him standing with his chin out again, the hair so carefully arranged a moment ago shoved back behind reddening ears. “You broke into my stuff.”

 

“You called me names.”

 

“Called you—are you kidding me? I also threatened you, but I don’t see you complaining about that.”

 

That has him startled. He blinks, taking a step back, unsure for the first time, unbalanced. It is, Tony thinks, a good look for him.

 

Har-har.

 

“Threatening? I didn’t…” And there it is— a glowing flash of guilt curls itself around Tony’s spine and he hunches with it, burning deeper into himself and farther away from this—this—

 

“I hadn’t realized,” Loki says stiffly, his voice higher than it should be. “I apologize for misreading the situation. I’ll take my leave of you now, Mr. Stark.”

 

It’s not until he’s two steps from the elevator that Tony finds his voice again.

 

“No. You do not have my leave. Or whatever.” Loki freezes. Tony clears his throat. “I mean, yeah, go, if you want to, but if you don’t, I wanted to… I mean I thought I’d offer. I mean—Thor. Breaks things in here. Sometimes. Standing ‘no Asgardian’ rule. Right, JARVIS?”

 

“If you say so, sir.” One day, Tony will reprogram him. He’s dying to erase amusement, sarcasm, and schadenfreude. Dying.

 

Loki, when he leans his head towards him, looks considering. “What did he break?”

 

“A transmitter.” It was, technically, a remote for an interface Tony had scrapped two weeks prior. And Thor had, technically, not broken it so much as made fun of it. But it’s not the details that matter so much as this does: Loki, sizing him up, shrewd and considering.

 

Wait, no. That doesn’t matter, either.

 

“And did you fix it?”

 

The way he says it makes Tony think that there’s a right answer, but he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t know it, and Loki is smiling at him, careless and carefree and moderately sane, and Tony should damn well know better but he’s smiling back.

 

“Thought about it.”

 

“And your decision?”

 

“The graveyard was looking a little empty.”

 

Loki nods at him, wide-eyed and faux-solemn. “So you fed it to the metal beast.”

 

Tony doesn’t laugh, but it’s a dangerously close thing. He has to look away.

 

“Anyway,” he says. “I overstepped. So forget it.”

 

It’s not an apology, but it’s close enough to count, and the way Loki relaxes confirms it.

 

“Happily,” he says, and when he adds a “but,” Tony can’t even pretend to be surprised. “I feel obliged to admit that it would be… easier to move forward if I knew why—”

 

“JARVIS,” Tony snaps, a little quicker than he means to, but this is too close for comfort. “How was that?” Loki’s eyebrows quirk a little bit higher. Tony glowers up at the ceiling, waiting for his answer.

 

“Passable, sir.”

 

Tony wins.

 

“Shall I leave you to your work, then?” Loki asks, and Tony turns around to—not thank him, but sort of thank him. Acknowledge him. Continue to avoid the subject.

 

But Loki isn’t looking at him. They’re caught on the holographic web above Tony’s head, wide and winding through their daily patterns—minute news bulletins, automatic processes, stock reports, bits and pieces of construction in 3D blueprints. There can’t be much he understands, but he watches, rapt, when Tony raises his hand and closes one of the windows with a pinch of his fingers and opens two more with a flick of his wrist.

 

“Incredible,” Loki breathes. “I hadn’t taken you for a magician, Stark, but this is astou—impressive.”

 

“Tony,” Tony says, without thinking, and then he’s stuck with it. “And a magician? please. These aren’t illusions. Well. They kind of are. But everything else—”

 

“You built,” Loki finishes, and Tony hadn’t noticed him getting so close, but he’s reaching over Tony’s shoulder, his fingers brushing air and disturbing the flow of electrons, distorting the picture. He laughs. “A wizard, then.”

 

Tony snorts. “Moderately more acceptable,” he allows, and Loki grins.

 

--

 

Watching Tony work is impossible and brilliant. There’s more going on than Loki can see, more parts than can reasonably be handled, but creation flows out of him from every possible point, and it feels like a miracle.

 

“You can’t spend all day staring at me,” Tony gripes, as soon as he finally comes up for air.

 

“I’m not,” Loki lies. “I spent part of the day with Thor, and now, I am… multitasking.”

 

“Really.”

 

Loki hums in response, swiveling his hips to turn Tony’s spinning chair back to the glowing interface hanging over the desk. “JARVIS is showing me Borneo. It’s quite fascinating.”

 

Tony doesn’t say anything. When Loki looks back at him, his mouth is pursed to the side, his eyes narrowed. He looks like he’s considering a lie.

 

It’s not; it’s a question. “What are you planning on doing here, Loki?”

 

“Learning,” Loki says quickly. He gestures back at the glimpse of wilderness over his shoulder, high, drooping greenery, the flash of an elephant’s tusk. It’s so simple. He wants to see, wants to learn, wants to know. Wants to revel in being the first to do what he’s done. The first to throw themselves forward and land on their feet.

 

Tony, Tony who should get it, Tony who’s sharp and sees so much, doesn’t understand. “On Earth,” he stresses, and Loki grits his teeth.

 

Learning.” It’s not a mystery, that they don’t trust him, a stranger tossed into the thick of them, but sometimes, when they look at him, there’s more recognition than there should be. There’s a reason for their mistrust of him, sharp and new as a jagged wound, and no one will speak of why. “Have I offended you again?” he demands, frowning, and when Tony’s expression doesn’t change, he tries for levity. “Are you expecting some manner of nefarious plot?”

 

It’s the wrong thing to say; Tony’s eyes jump away from him like he’s catching a disease, darting away across the tables to where a gauntlet rests, red and gold and silver.

 

“I’m not,” Loki tries. He wants him to believe him. “I swear to you that it was only an experiment—”

 

“JARVIS,” Tony says, voice rough. “I think that’s enough for today.”

 

The screen disappears so quickly that Loki almost loses his balance, his hands falling hard against the table beneath him. “Tony—”

 

Not—not now, Loki,” Tony sighs, and Loki isn’t sure what to do. He isn’t sure what to say. The careful diplomacy works, with Natasha, with Clint, with Steve, with Bruce, but he’s never tried that on Tony, and now he wonders if he should have tried harder, with that, eased in instead of forcing forward, invading where he isn’t wanted. He wonders if it could’ve eased whatever this is away.

 

“I enjoyed watching you work. It was enlightening.”

 

“Loki,” he says sharply, and Loki falls to his feet, his hands scraping roughly through his hair for something to hold onto.

 

When Tony looks at him, Loki knows he understands what Loki’s been asking, knows what he’s asking for. What he’s desperate for.

 

He eyes him carefully and then says, words measured, “I’m tired.” Like it’s simple. Like there’s nothing else wrong here.

 

“So am I,” Loki tells him. He wonders if his voice is as even, his smile more believable.

 

He leaves first. Tony doesn’t say a word.

 

In the elevator, he presses the wrong button and winds up going up instead, to the very top, rushing past a stone bar for the wall of glass behind it, for the door that lets him out onto the roof beyond.

 

He stands there, on the cold tiles, marveling at the mass of glass and silver turrets, of concrete and the bodies that wind across it like little rivers, carving their way through their world. He waits for the city to disappear under the creeping darkness, but it’s only night that comes—darkness does not. Instead, the lights rise like dominoes and Loki falls to his knees, sits back on his heels, and breathes in the world that’s farther away from him than it’s ever been.

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________ MANHATTAN, THE TOWER, SEVERAL LONG AND LOVELY HOURS LATER, IN THE MIDDLE OF A SMALL-SCALE PANIC_____

 

“What do you mean he’s gone? Gone where?”

 

“Brooklyn.”

 

The Avengers are gathered in the common room of their tower, a moment away from arming themselves, which is as lovely a welcome as ever. They turn as one to face Loki, and he raises his hands. When he does, the sleeves of his stolen—er, borrowed—sweatshirt drop to his elbows.

 

He’s certain he looks entirely ridiculous, and he intends to use that to his favor.

 

Steve’s mouth works for a moment before he asks, “Is that mine?” and Loki smiles at him, because he doesn’t sound angry, only confused.

 

“Yes,” he says, his hands still up in the air. “I thought I might need it.”

 

“In Brooklyn,” Steve clarifies, and Loki stares back, daring him to comment. “You stole my hoodie to go to Brooklyn.”

 

“There’s only so much to see from inside the tower’s prison walls,” Loki says sweetly, sliding his eyes up to meet Tony’s over the Captain’s shoulder. He has the good grace to look away, and Loki smiles wider.

 

“You aren’t imprisoned,” Thor protests, but he’s the only one to do so. Loki rolls his eyes and looks pointedly at the strung arrow pointed towards his chest. A gesture from Steve and Clint lowers it, glaring all the way.

 

They stand in the middle of the room. Loki hasn’t moved from the elevator, his back resting against the closed doors. A scattering of weapons line the low table behind the warriors, arrows and small knives and smaller contraptions that Loki doesn’t recognize.

 

Bruce, at the back of the group, is the only one who looks more befuddled than threatened, a half-filled glass of orange juice in his hand. When Loki nods to him, he turns away, back towards the kitchen, shaking his head all the way. Better, Loki thinks, than the knife Natasha has her hand coiled around.

 

“Who saw you?” Tony asks, his own armor likely one shout towards the ceiling away. Loki should fear that, and he would, maybe, if it was in front of him, if Tony’s voice was distorted through the gold metal of his faceplate, but he’s more curious of it than anything, wondering if Tony can really fly.

 

“No one. People on the street, perhaps. My—the Captain’s—hood was raised. Although I don’t believe navy is my color.” He tries for a smile in Steve’s direction. “Though it certainly suits you.”

 

“Charming,” Steve says dryly, but he accepts it with grace, and Loki will take that small half-smile over Clint’s evil eye, if it’s offered.

 

“Well,” Tony says, a little too loudly, clapping his hands together. “That’s disappointing. No search and rescue today, children.”

 

“Asshole,” Natasha says, but it’s light, and she tucks the knife back into her boot without hesitation. When she looks at Loki again, he’s expecting a threat, not a smile. It’s forced, and tight, but she asks, “How was Brooklyn?” and it’s more of a start than he thought to presume.

 

“Quiet,” he tells her. “And full.”

 

She nods, and then Clint is edging her away, lifting up his arrows and shooting Loki one last scowl. Steve turns after them and Tony moves to follow. Finally, finally Loki can relax, and he lets his spine rest against the cool doors, sighing fit to rock the building. “I only wanted to see the bridge,” he says, quietly enough that only his brother should be able to hear him. But Tony stops.

“Did you?” he calls over his shoulder, and Loki snaps his head up to stare at him. “See the bridge?”

 

Loki frowns. “Of course.”

 

“And then what?”

 

“I got over it.” The pun is away from him before he can wrangle it back, and he cringes, mouth snapping closed to beg it back in.

 

But Tony laughs like he’s startled by it, pleased by it, and Loki rushes to fix that, because he certainly doesn’t need his amusement. “And then I came back,” he says brusquely, but Tony’s already walking away again, still chortling, his shoulders heaving with his lungs.

 

A small sigh makes Loki turn back to Thor, who isn’t looking at him, but at the line of Tony’s back, eyes narrowed, considering. And then they snap up to Loki, and go narrower.

 

And then he hums like something’s made sense to him, and moves towards the kitchen.

 

Thor.”

 

“I’m hungry,” is all he gives, and Loki glowers at his back until he’s turned the corner.

 

And then, if he smiles, afterwards, there’s no one there to see it. So it doesn’t count.

 

Earth is exhausting.

 

--

 

“It’s too big on you,” Thor laughs, later, tugging at the extra fabric that bunches up around Loki’s shoulders, and Loki glares back at him. Still, he takes him to a hole in the wall halfway to Brooklyn and orders them bacon sandwiches and invites him on an adventure.

 

“The whole world,” he says. “And we start in Queens.”

 

There’s a moment of fear, a moment when he’s unsure if Thor will say yes, if Thor will abandon him for these better friends, for the battles here, for his new duty.

 

His heart beats a quarter out of sync, then, when Thor says, “No, brother,” and takes his hand.

 

And then, “We start at the tower,” and everything, for a moment, glows.

 

He bats his hand away, anyways, and hits him in the arm.

 

--

 

Tony sees Thor in the elevator window and blows it up. The big guy look nervous, nervous enough to have lost Loki, maybe, and that puts his teeth against a new edge, has him scraping up against the sort of worry he doesn’t want to think too hard about.

 

“Tony,” Thor booms, as soon as he’s through. And then, unnecessarily, “A word?”

 

Tony listens, and well, for five and a half minutes, and then he has to hold up his hands, easing the pressure away. “You want to go on a vacation and you decide to tell me? Not Cap? Why? Isn’t this his jurisdiction?”

 

 

“We’re leaving tonight,” Thor says gravely. “I haven’t time to talk to Steve. This is a matter of some urgency.”

 

Steve,” Tony protests. “Steve can be urgent.”

 

“He also may finally inform SHIELD of my brother’s presence.”

 

“I doubt it,” Tony mutters, but if anything is cause, it’s this. International terrorist—future international terrorist? Future bad guy, whatever—going wandering around with free license. It’s a problem. But. “You’re asking me to trust him.”

 

“I’m asking you to trust me,” Thor says, with a heavy dose of puppy-dog eyes, as if that’ll make a difference.

 

“But you’re also asking me to trust him,” Tony says, turning away, because he’s seen those eyes work their magic, and he doesn’t need it happening to him, thanks. “And what if there’s an emergency? What if we need you?”

 

“Call and I’ll answer,” he says easily. “We can be back in a moment.”

 

“Mr. Lightning,” Tony jokes, but it falls flat and a little depressing.

 

They’re dancing around it now. Tony knows what answer he’s going to give, knows it’s inevitable, but it’s easier to pretend that it isn’t than it is to offer trust to someone who will break it in the most terrible ways.

 

And then he looks up at Thor and sees him, and knows that he has no place feeling betrayed. It was never him that the promises were made to.

 

“Have fun,” he says, grinning. It’s his paparazzi smile. Frozen and perfect and entirely unfeeling. “Take lots of pictures.”

 

Thor laughs, big and bold and relieved. And happy.

 

He’s loud enough that Tony doesn’t hear the elevator’s doors open, so when Loki steps up to them he jumps halfway out of his skin. Loki looks equal parts unsurprised and unimpressed.

 

“You’ve told him, then?” He’s asking Thor, but his eyes are on Tony.

 

“Yes,” Thor says, and Tony looks away from him, from how deep that affection goes. “I’m all yours.”

 

“Really, Thor,” Loki huffs, and Tony knows without a glance that he’s rolling his eyes. “It’ll be no more than a few weeks. They’ll barely have time to miss you, if at all.”

 

Thor puffs out another short laugh before stepping away. “I have arrangements to make. I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes.”

 

Tony looks up before Thor leaves, and the look he gets in return is an assessment, calculating and shrewder than he’s comfortable with. He gives him a tentative wave. He gets a nod back, when Thor backs into the elevator, his eyes dancing between the two of them, half a smile creasing his cheeks.

 

It is the most uncomfortable twenty seconds of Tony’s life.

 

The elevator’s whirring has started up again before Loki speaks. “I would have thought that your Captain would have released him from his duties.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Tony says. It’s not an answer. He clears his throat. “Where’re you heading first?”

 

Loki’s smile turns sharp. “Is that a part of your agreement? Awareness of our every move?”

 

“That was conversation, actually,” Tony snaps, but the damage is done.

 

“We’ll be back soon,” Loki says over his shoulder, heading for the elevator doors. “You’ll start to miss him, and he’ll be here again.”

 

“And what about you?”

 

 

It’s the second real time that Tony’s been able to catch Loki off guard. Through the closing doors, his features shift through warring tides of pleasure and suspicion. Finally, it breaks, and he squints back at Tony, unreadable. “What about me?” he asks, and then he’s gone, rocketing down towards the rest of the world.

 

Tony feels, inexplicably, as if he’s missed something.

 

 

 

 

The next part goes like this: two days.

 

 

 -

 

 

Five days.

 

Seven days.

 

 

 

 

Eight.

 

 

Nine.

 

 

More.

 

 

For his trouble, Tony gets  a picture of an elephant. It’s a close-up, it’s trunk is in the air, and one large, flat foot is heading towards the camera lens, unbalanced.

 

He knows the feeling.

 

--

 

They land in Paraguay, Brunei, Amsterdam. In each place, when their atoms stabilize and the dust around them clears to show them ruins, jungles, urban streets, Thor watches the way Loki breathes. In Dubai, Loki steps closer to him in a crowded marketplace, laughs loudly enough for Thor to hear it, rests his hand against Thor’s elbow to get his attention, as if it has waned for so much as a moment.

 

A thousand words are exchanged between Paris and Milan and Thor counts every single one of them.

 

Their pace through the world is brutal, and from the way Loki’s eyes sparkle when he murmurs, “Again, brother?” every time he holds out his hand to spirit them farther, he knows. But Thor doesn’t care. It’s a marvel to see him shining like this, his face open and awed when a building rises, when a tree falls, when a plane soars.

 

“Please,” Thor says in Alaska, when his teeth tremble and Loki raises his arms to the snow. “Remember this,” he says in Tokyo, when the fireworks turn Loki’s cheeks blue and he smiles anyway, rolls eyes that glint red under paper lanterns.

 

“Whatever you do,” Thor says, taking his hand in Madrid and closing his eyes until Rome, “remember this.”

 

Loki’s brow creases and he opens his mouth in a question, but a Romani woman raises a small blue and white bird in the air and he veers away.

 

Somewhere in between there are the messages that Thor answers out of duty, first, when he’s alone, until Loki, curious and prodding, wrests the device away from him.

 

“Strange,” he mutters, and then stares between it and Thor until the latter rolls his eyes.

 

“Would you like a les—”

 

“Show me.”

 

Thor isn’t sure what’s happening, and he doesn’t stop to worry over something small, in favor of having this tenuous half-relationship with a fickle, fragile ghost. So he boxes away his doubts, hides them under miles of distractions—a poorly-concealed prank with his morning coffee, tricks and taunts to get him to the top of one more overgrown hill, falling asleep in white sand and waking up drenched on abandoned beaches, the sound of stories he’s long-since forgotten still ringing in the air around them.

 

Some mornings, there are more messages, meant for Loki’s eyes. Those mornings are the brightest because Loki opens them laughing. Thor doesn’t know what that means, besides future disasters, so he tucks it away deeper still, and pours salt in Loki’s tea.

 

--

 

Tony is doing this for science. Experimentation, curiosity, the spirit of scientific inquiry. If I learn more about Loki, then I will be able to assure his sound defeat the next time he turns on us, because a well-informed adversary is a formidable one. He tells Bruce as much over breakfast, and Bruce rolls his eyes, tugging his mug of something herbal a little closer to him, like he’s worried that Tony’s crazy is catching.

 

“I’ve never seen you smile that big during any of our experiments,” Bruce explains to him, like it’s simple and sensible, and he laughs when Tony rolls his eyes. “I’m not judging. Loki’s… interesting.”

 

“Interesting!” Tony crows, pointing at him. “You’ve admitted it. Interesting enough to require experimentation!”

 

Bruce doesn’t say anything. Tony closes his eyes.

 

“Definitely not what I meant.”

 

He means to pry enough to cover his bases, to ensure that Loki isn’t fucking up Japan, Godzilla-style. It’s Thor he means to keep in touch with, but Loki just… He’s just kind of…

 

He’s a person. He’s a Real Boy, and Tony doesn’t know what to do with that.

 

Today, they’re in San Francisco, and Tony wonders if they’re lying, for a moment, because wasn’t it just Europe a moment ago?

 

But later, Loki, or Thor, sends him a picture of a cable car, and he breathes a sigh a little too much like exasperation to like it.

 

“Pepper?” Steve asks, striding into the kitchen. He’s a sweaty mess, and Tony sks when he sits on the stool next to him.

 

“Shower first, Steve. The super serum made everything super, okay?”

 

All Steve does is laugh, and Bruce passes him a water bottle. When Steve puts it back down, it’s only a quarter full.

 

It takes Tony another minute to realize that the silence between them is expecting something. That Steve is expecting an answer from him.

 

“No,” he admits, tucking his phone under his elbow and squinting at Bruce, daring him to say anything. He squares his hands in front of him. Bruce steeples his fingers and his smile grows.

 

Steve narrows his eyes at both of them. “You’re being awfully cagey about this. Is it a new flame?” Bruce covers his face with his hands.

 

Tony snorts. “Really? A flame?”

 

“Rhodey can’t text you right now, and it isn’t Pepper.” Steve shrugs, eyeing the light under Tony’s arm skeptically. “Who else would it be?”

 

Tony gapes at him, lost somewhere in between indignation and insult. Bruce doesn’t help much; his shoulders are shaking, now, and Tony thinks he hears a sound a lot like a lawn mower plowing over rocks. “I have other friends.”

 

“Sure you do,” Steve says, too easily. “So which one is texting you?”

 

“I…” Tony glares back at him and pulls the phone back out with a huff, sliding his thumb over it to clear away the passcode. “You aren’t as smooth as you think you are,” he mutters, shoving the phone over to Steve, right before it beeps again. New message.

 

FROM: THUNDERCAT

 

“Um,” Tony says. Steve opens the message.

 

Elephant ears here are much smaller and sweeter than I thought them to be.

 

There’s a picture attached: Thor, smiling, beard liberally dusted with powdered sugar, his smile wide.

 

“Oh,” Steve says quietly, and Tony feels his face heat up. He’s not exactly expecting Steve to sigh, and mutter, “He looks really happy,” before passing the phone back.

 

It’s not a faulty observation. For all of Thor’s friendly disposition, Tony has never seen a smile like this. There’s a shadow that’s absent from the way he’s holding himself, and whoever he’s looking at past the camera is to blame for that. For his happiness. For his peace.

 

Steve clears his throat and hops back to his feet. His hair has dried in tufts, and he tries to pat them back down, to little effect.

 

“So. Loki,” he says carefully, his eyes stuck up, as if, if he tries hard enough, he’ll be able to see the mess he’s made of the top of his head.

 

“What about him?” Tony asks, just as careful, because it sounds a little too casual to be entirely innocent.

 

“Nothing,” Steve hums, and that’s bullshit. “Just, you know, it’s interesting.”

 

“Is it?” Tony asks, because he can bullshit with the best of them, thank you very much. “How so?”

 

“How different he is.”

 

It’s not until Steve has plodded away that Tony says, “Not a flame,” loudly enough to carry down the hallway after his footsteps. “Don’t make it weird, Steve.” There’s no answer, but Bruce, slightly red-faced, has dropped his hands and is looking at him, mouth still slightly twisted, eyes crinkled.

 

“You neither,” Tony snapes, and Bruce snorts.

 

“You’re doing alright on your own.”

 

“I’m doing science,” Tony grumbles, but his phone beeps out another new message, and his eyes flicker down to it immediately. “Shut up,” he says to Bruce, and slides it open. 

 

--

 

When Loki and Thor wind their way back, Tony is waist deep in a new suit prototype, and JARVIS doesn’t give him an inch of warning before the loud “Hello” that startles Tony enough that his toes twitch, right over a shiny new trigger, and it sends him into the air, launching him up too high, too fast.

 

His head is spinning, hand braced against the ceiling, when he finally catches sight of Loki.

 

He’s leaning up against the wall, smirking up at him. Rude. Rude rude rude.

 

“I didn’t know you were back,” Tony says evenly, trying to remember how he gets down in these boots. And then he sees the way Loki’s looking at him and resigns himself to hanging around (ha. So funny.) for the near future.

 

“You’re flying,” Loki says, and Tony rolls his eyes.

 

“Well, you know. I was dying to see what the ceiling looked like up close.”

 

“But you’re flying.” Loki laughs, squinting up at the glow beneath Tony’s feet, the repulsors that are doing a shit job of keeping him balanced. He’s going to have a bruise the size of a tomato on the back of his head tomorrow, and he still can’t remember how to get down. He leans back on his heels, trying to straighten out a little.

 

And plummets straight down, gravity taking him back with a vengeance.

 

It’s alright, really. He likes the view, from here. His tryst with the ceiling works better long-distance.

 

When Loki walks up and stands between his legs, he relaxes. It’s instinct, maybe; you can’t get much more vulnerable than this, and if Loki’s going to do anything to him, it’s too late for him to fight back, so he might as well take it. But all Loki does—because this is Good Loki, or Pre-Loki, or Good Witch Loki, or something—it look down at him, and then he turns his head away.

 

“Um,” Tony says, starting to sit up, but then he sees the way his body’s rocking, the small tremors moving through him, and he lets his shoulders fall back to the floor. His head knocks against tile and the tomato promises to swell to the size of a grapefruit. “Real nice,” Tony mumbles, and then Loki’s hands are falling back to his hips and he’s laughing out loud, mouth wide and head back.

 

It’s horrible, and terrible, and Tony is hurting, and it might be 3/5 pride that’s got everything aching, but Loki—

 

Loki won’t stop—

 

Loki won’t—

 

“I’m sorry,” he gasps, offering a hand to Tony. “Really,” he insists, but his eyes are watering, and a tear leaps its way down his cheek, and Tony considers rolling into a ball until he leaves.

 

“You’re horrible,” he tells him, and accepts the hand, because he can’t do much else, and this is his workshop, damn it. “I wasn’t supposed to be testing it today. I’ve never—” Mostly never— “had an accident like that before.”

 

“You’re infallible,” Loki teases, completely straight-faced, and Tony wonders what would happen if he hit him. “It’s alright. I’m sure my surprise didn’t help.”

 

“It hurt, actually,” Tony says, keying the boots off in a few quick strokes of his fingers. They unclasp with a hiss and he levers them off. There’ll be bruises along his calves and shins, too; they really weren’t ready for testing, yet. It was supposed to be a fitting, something simple and quick so that he could get back to the important parts of making things work, without worrying about how well the metal braced against his skin. He lifts up his pant leg to look at the damage, but it isn’t too bad; there are only a few bruises, shaped vaguely like stars, three on one shin and four on the other. There’s a scrape along his right calf that wraps all the way down to the ankle—it’s fresh, so he did that when he pulled the boot off. Part of the skin of his left Achilles’ tendon feels a little tender, most likely from a surprise landing.

 

“Does this happen often?” Loki asks quietly, from where he’s crouched down besides Tony, sitting on his heels and staring at the damage. Tony watches as careful, prodding fingers inch their way over his skin. Loki’s hands are cold. Doesn’t quite explain away the goosebumps that rise all over, but, hey.

 

“No,” Tony sighs, pulling away to shake his legs out. “But, you know.” He fans his hands out and shakes them. “Surprises. How was the trip?”

 

Loki looks uncomfortable for the first time, straightening up and edging away. “You know most of it. You kept very close tabs on us.”

 

“You think I—” Loki won’t quite meet his eye. Tony wants to laugh. He wants to shake him. “Look, if it was just keeping tabs on you two, I could’ve just turned on Thor’s GPS.”

 

“Of course,” Loki deadpans.

 

“Global Positioning System. It’s in his Stark phone. I can turn it on remotely, because I own the satellite. One click, and I’d know where he was.” Tony shrugs. “There are easier ways to find a person.”

 

“I see,” Loki says thoughtfully. And then he smiles, small and concrete. It reminds Tony of his paparazzi smile. “You must’ve missed Thor quite a lot, Man of Iron.”

 

“Absolutely,” Tony says, and, wow, they’re kind of close, aren’t they? Loki’s close enough that Tony has to lean his head back,  a little bit, just to make eye-contact. And Loki’s doing a worse job of it than he is. His eyes are lost somewhere around Tony’s mouth. “Missed him tons. Only the damndest thing happened.”

 

“What was that?”

 

“His brother kept texting me instead.”

 

Loki’s eyes narrow. “There wasn’t any deceit in it. You knew it was me.”

 

“Poor Thor didn’t get a word in edgewise.”

 

“You can’t have minded too much,” Loki says, and now he’s closer, hand braced against the table, caging Tony in with his shoulders. “Perhaps you missed me.”

 

“That’s a stretch,” Tony snorts, but, oh god, does he sound panicked? He does, a little bit. Maybe. Said that a little too quick.

 

Loki looks at him. “Oh,” he says, and kisses him.

 

Tony should probably see this coming, but then his eyes are closed, and he doesn’t see much, but he definitely feels a little tongue.

 

Tony almost laughs—Loki freezes as soon as their lips meet, and it’s Tony who has to let his mouth fall open enough for Loki to move, and he does, all of him does. There’s the hand that digs itself into Tony’s side, the hand that tugs at his hair, the narrow hips that grind against his, the cool glide of his mouth, the noise he makes when Tony drags at his lip with his teeth. Tony can feel him smile into the kiss; the hand in his hair relocates itself to his shoulder, his cheek, rests lightly along the side of his neck.

 

And then Tony freezes. Glass shatters. Something is burning. He’s freefalling.

 

He’s not. He’s on his feet, in the middle of his lab, he’s home, he’s home.

 

 

 

Loki’s breathing is rough and disjointed. Tony hasn’t made himself open his eyes, yes, but he can feel him draw back a little. He imagines Loki’s eyes raking over Tony, over his fingers, curling against the surface of the table, over the way he still hasn’t moved, how small his breathing has gotten.

 

“Have I done something wrong?” he whispers, and Tony is lying before he knows what to say.

 

“Caught off guard,” he says, and “I wasn’t expecting,” and, “You kissed me.”

 

“You kissed back,” Loki says, and his voice sounds odd enough that Tony makes the mistake of opening his eyes.

 

Loki’s staring at him from an arm’s length away. His mouth is red and half open, his breath still coming a little too quickly, and he’s looking at Tony like he can’t quite fathom where he’s come from.

 

“Should I have?” He doesn’t mean to say it out loud, but the words are gone, and he cringes at the sound of them. “I just—that may not have been. The best plan. Or result.” Because you’re bad news with beautiful eyes and I’m not so sure it’s worth it.

 

“Hm.” Loki still stares at him, and he bites at the side of his lip, white lines spidering out from the indentations his teeth make. “Alright.”

 

That brings Tony up short. “Alright?”

 

Loki’s nodding, stepping away from him and smoothing quick hands over his clothing, over his hair. “I overstepped—”

 

“No,” Tony says quickly, but there’s a nagging little voice in the back of his head that’s agreeing with this, with Loki walking away. With common sense. “You didn’t.”

 

“Too quickly, then,” Loki says mulishly, raising an eyebrow in challenge. “I won’t do so again.”

 

“Loki—”

 

Tony.” He smirks at him and tosses something into the air. It’s a wrench; Tony catches it easily. It’s an excellent throw. “There’s work to be done.”

 

“Well, yeah. But there’s always—”

 

When Tony looks back up, he’s talking to an empty room. He doesn’t look at his elevator cam; he’s punished himself enough, for one day.

 

--

 

Loki doesn’t touch him again .

 

--

 

That night, Tony takes a longer shower than usual and tries not to think of longer hands than hls own wrapped around him.

 

It doesn’t work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_______________________________________ THOR’S (AND LOKI’S TEMPORARY) CHAMBERS, FIFTEEN MINUTES OF ELEVATOR MEANDERING AFTER THE EVENT____

 

Thor guesses at something immediately, and Loki would be impressed, really, if it weren’t so annoying.

 

“You’re in a foul mood, brother,” he says, and Loki’s smile fails at everything it’s ever tried if it can’t even make Thor move on. He sits down on the edge of their bed, one foot tucked underneath him, and takes a breath.

 

“Do I—I’m not.”

 

“You are,” Thor hums, running a rag over his hammer. The metal seems too old to shine, but there’s a light to it, a resonance that Thor pulls from it with every careful brush of his hands.

 

And then he drops the hammer onto the opposite edge of the bed, and Loki thumps right off of it, caught off guard enough that he lands on his feet, dazed.

 

“It’s unhealthy to keep things bottled up,” Thor says easily, almost like he’s rehearsed it, and he laughs when Loki blinks at him.

 

“My petty problems shouldn’t concern you, Thor.”

 

“Of course not,” he says, smiling back at him. “You, however, do.”

 

Nothing about this future makes sense, and Loki thinks he ought to hate it.

 

“That’s awfully soft-hearted of you.” He tries to say it with contempt, with verve, but it comes out as flabbergasted as he feels, with more than its fair share of pleasure. Thor laughs, and when Loki sits down again, raises the hammer, casual as you please, and lets it fall harder.

 

Later, Thor says,  as if he doesn’t mean it,“I expected you to spend all of your time with Tony instead,” and Loki accuses him of being jealous of his attentions. Thor’s Of course is whip-fast, and Loki feels as though he might suffocate from it.

 

--

 

He has a plan, anyway. He doesn’t require Thor’s concern. He leaves Steve’s garment by his door, with a seashell from Fiji, devoid of sand. There’s a crimson passionflower that still smells like Hawaii, dropped in front of Clint’s room, and a quartz arrowhead from North Kurdufan in front of Natasha’s.

 

For Bruce there is a vial of freshly-pressed jasmine oil, bottled in Morroco.

 

He doesn’t disturb Tony.

 

--

 

It takes him four and a half hours to rethink this.

 

--

 

Five hours, and he has a new strategy, and it’s brilliant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_______________________________________ BRIEFLY, IN PASSING, A DAY AFTER THE DELIVERING OF GIFTS: AN OVERHEARD CONVERSATION_______

 

“I didn’t think I should say anything—”

 

“I’m glad you did. I wouldn’t have.”

 

“So you…?”

 

“Arrowhead. Maybe not as fancy a gift as yours, doc, but—”

 

“No, no. It’s, uh. It’s thoughtful.”

 

“Clint tried to get me to trade.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I handed him a match. Seemed to get the point.”

 

“He run?”

 

“Like a track star.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

_________________________________MANHATTAN, A COFFEHOUSE IN WHICH TONY REFLECTS ON HIS SINS, ONE DAY AND TWO HOURS AFTER AN                                                           UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT IN THE MIDDLE OF LAB 7 BETWEEN TWO COURTEOUSLY UNNAMED PARTIES__________

 

Steve only brought Tony out because he thinks he’s moping, and he thinks Tony can’t tell, but Tony can tell.

 

“Moping?” Steve asks, with big eyes and a little frown. “I didn’t notice,” he says. “Why are you moping,” he says. Tony quints at him.

 

“Because of Loki,” he says slowly, enunciating, because Steve must’ve missed a page. “Because of that whole…” He flutters a hand around and finds the lip of his coffee cup again. This is the only relationship he’ll ever need ever. At least until the croissants come. “Thing,” he finishes, letting the cup thunk against the steel top of the table.

 

“I really just wanted some decent tea,” Steve tells him, but it’s probably a lie. “I hadn’t realized you’d, um. Bottled something up?”

 

“He’s trouble,” Tony says stubbornly. “Just… trouble, okay? Trouble with decent hair.”

 

“Um,” Steve says.

 

“And now trouble’s decided to avoid me.”

 

“Isn’t that a good—”

 

“Which is first of all, rude, and second of all, blatantly against the laws of nature and the universe, because, Steve, that’s not how my luck goes.”

 

“I mean, I didn’t think—”

 

Third, he and Thor can’t spend that much time in their room, right? That’s only one place, and he has—they, they have—very long legs, you know?”

 

“Legs aren’t really my thing,” Steve says finally, quickly, darting his two  cents in and smiling like he’s won something.

 

Which, okay. Points to Wonderbread.

 

“You’re still young,” Tony tells him. “You’ll get there.”

 

Anyway,” Steve says, a little more loudly than technically necessary. “They haven’t exactly been in hiding. I had lunch with both of them yesterday.”

 

“What.” What.

 

Steve smiles and lifts his tea to his lips, unflinching around a scalding sip. “Oh, yeah. He’s been all over the tower. Funny how you’ve missed him.”

 

“So funny,” Tony says blankly. “Hilarious.”

 

“I’m sure you’ve been distracted.”

 

“I’m unobservant.”

 

“He asked, once,” Steve says casually, when the waiter comes up with their croissants and settles it down on the table, with a warm smile for Steve and half a glance spared towards Tony before he’s looking back at Steve, one hand reaching for his cellphone. “He’s alright,” Steve says cheerfully, and the waiter, after one last concerned look in Tony’s direction, backs away.

 

“You’re all conspiring.”

 

“We are not,” Steve says glibly, picking up his breakfast. “Look, you’ve been buried under miles of work, none of us wanted to disturb you—”

 

“None of—so you’re all in on it.”

 

Steve rolls his eyes and pops a piece of his croissant into his mouth. “Overdramatic. Loki said he accidentally interrupted an experiment or something, and you went kinda nuts. So we all thought, better leave the mad scientist to it.”

 

“But Bruce is the—I thought you were all—You’ve all been avoiding me?” It is entirely unbecoming to pout unless it gets you something, and so naturally, Tony is expecting it to get him something.

 

It gets him a croissant shoved at his face and an eye roll from the worst friend in the history of friendship.

 

Tony only lets the scowl ebb when Steve excuses himself for the bathroom a few moments later. It’s exhausting, really, but it’s easier to throw energy at a problem until it resolves itself than it is to think about it. Which he’s stuck doing, now, because there’s no one looking at him, nothing to distract him. Only The Issue, underlined in red, and lurking at the forefront of everything.

 

Tony has never been unsure of what he wants. He’s a hedonist. He isn’t ashamed of it, and he never has been—he likes pretty people, shiny new objects, fast cars, good Scotch. He likes to be liked. Likes to be important. Likes being the smartest guy in the room.

 

He doesn’t feel like it, now. He feels like he’s missing something important.

 

Tony doesn’t know why he kissed him. Why Loki kissed him. Why he responded.

 

The problem is that this Loki is smart, and knows it. He’s unafraid, and he’s proud of it. He’s beautiful and--

 

Maybe it’s a death wish. Maybe Tony knows that there’s nothing to fear from this version of him. Maybe he wants to find something to be afraid of in him.

 

Maybe there are the puns in his text history, factoids, the unraveling of a wall, little statements that shouldn’t have come across, but did, anyway, because there’s something about a satellite connection that makes everything feel a little more variable to Tony than it ever could be.

 

His hands don’t shake when he pulls out his phone, but his breathing does, a little. He can blame time-travel. Time magic. Advances that he isn’t in front of unsettle him. This one’s the worst.

 

I’m onto you.

 

Send.

 

Shit.

 

Thor, could you tell Loki I’m onto him?

 

Send. Again.

 

Oh god.

 

Sorry.

 

When Steve comes back, Tony is all bluster again, and Steve doesn’t say a thing about the thin lines around his eyes because he doesn’t see them.

 

He probably sees Tony checking his phone, but he doesn’t say anything about that, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_______________________________________ TWO HOURS LATER, MANHATTAN, AVENGERS TOWER, LAB 7, UNDERNEATH A TABLE TINKERING, FOR LACK OF                                                                          ANYTHING BETTER TO DO____________________________________________________________________________

 

That text message was a terrible idea, because Loki’s footsteps—and they have to be Loki’s, soft as whispers and twice as quick—are making their way towards him, and this is not what he wanted, except for the parts where it is, exactly.

 

“Tony?”

 

“Busy,” Tony says, and pricks two wires together for the spark they cause on the table above him, just to prove a point.

 

“Of course,” Loki says, amused, and Tony misses by a centimeter and zaps himself in the finger.

 

“Motherfu—alright, alright. I’m coming out.”

 

He slides out from under the table and regrets it immediately.

 

Loki is lounging against a table opposite, skinny hips thrust forward and his head lolling back, to the side, rolling out a kink in his neck.

 

He does have very long legs. A lot of it is in his thighs. They’re, uh. Long. Lots of. Lots of length.

 

“Hi,” Tony says, and Loki looks at him, sees how long it takes his eyes to climb from knee to eyes, and how quickly they snap back down, and grins.

 

“Hello,” he says, and swivels his hips a little bit, turning around to pick something up. “I’m not up to anything.”

 

“Hi,” Tony repeats, and then, “I mean. You are too.” He thinks about standing up from the creeper, but it’s a lovely view, really.

 

Loki hums and turns back around. He spins a welded block of metal in his hands, tosses it up and catches it, twice, three times. “And what am I up to?”

 

His fingers are long, too. “You’re making things difficult.”

 

“I do that, sometimes.” He catches the scrap block one more time and brings it up to his face, lines it up to his eye. His other arm is crossed over his middle, and when he tightens it, his shirt rides up, and the only thing that Tony can think is that it’s a shame that all that travel did nothing for his tan.

 

He can’t quite bring himself to forget it.

 

Regret it! Regret! He can forget it. It’s only like an inch of skin, anyway. Entirely forgettable.

 

His hips don’t look as sharp as Tony thought they’d be, but the hollows around them are deep and proud.

 

“Problem?” Loki asks, and Tony shakes his head, scooting himself to the edge of the board and up to his feet.

 

“Don’t know what you’re doing here, though.”

 

“Tell me what this is,” Loki says, and tosses the lump at Tony’s chest. Tony catches it with one hand and lets it drop to the ground. He kicks it. It spirals somewhere to the left of them and knocks into something unimportant.

 

“Junk,” he shrugs. Loki’s brow furrows.

 

“You hold onto a great amount of junk for an inventor.” It’s a prompt, but Tony doesn’t take it, so Loki looks around instead, his eyes ghosting across every available work-in-progress. “I asked Thor about you, you know.” When he walks past Tony, he’s careful to brush against him, and Tony huffs out something that isn’t a laugh when quick fingers graze against his waist. “He told me that you create impressive works of armor. Weapons.”

 

“Machines,” Tony says sharply.

 

“He said,” Loki continues, not looking back at him, “that you’re a genius.” Tony watches him fiddle through wires and stacks of old notes, and wishes desperately for something electric to bite him. One little moment of electrification. The universe owes him. “I told him I didn’t see it.”

 

There’s a live wire three inches away from where Loki’s hand is drifting, and Tony glares at it, willing it to cooperate. “Really? Where am I lacking?”

 

“Genius requires talent, of which you have much, but it also requires daring.” Loki’s eyes coast over him, head to toe, and Tony bristles, starting to take a step—where? Not towards Loki, not quite away from him. The foot falls back down. Loki sighs. “You’ve very little by way of daring.”

 

Tony knows damn well when he’s being played, thank you very much, but Loki’s got his fingers wrapped around the last safe inch of a stripped wire and he spins it with a smile. Tony can’t help it. “I dare you,” he says, and Loki’s smile freezes.

 

He looks down at the wire. Tony wonders how much he knows about what it does, about what that would do to him if he touched it, how much it would hurt. “I dare you,” Tony says again, taking a step towards him, but Loki’s stare has turned skeptical, like the copper wire’s saying something only he can hear.

 

He looks up at Tony, and there’s still a challenge there. “I don’t think that sounds particularly safe.”

 

“It’s not,” Tony tells him.

 

He’s almost upset. “Then that seems a little—”

 

Tony plucks the wire out of his hand and kisses him, and when the wire catches on his wrist, Loki holds his hand to the burn and hisses in sympathy.

“I’ve had worse,” Tony tells him, and kisses him again.

--

 

This is going to be a problem.

 

--

 

Wait, pause. No. No no. No no no no.

 

Tony puts his hands on his hips—his thumbs fit into those grooves like putty, and it’s amazing—and pushes him away. Loki, for his part, goes without hesitation, lets Tony hold him in pace. It’s hard to tell who’s breathing harder.

 

“Thor wouldn’t approve,” Tony says finally, instead of you’re really hot.

 

Loki puts his hands over Tony’s presses them closer, and grins. Tony swallows. “Thor’s approval means little for something he has no awareness of.”

 

“Shouldn’t you be focusing on more important things?” Like travel, Tony means, but Loki’s eyes are on his mouth again, and he bites his lip, his eyes going wide. It’s so careful, so strategic, and Tony sees right through it. Really, he does. But what a mouth.

 

“Do you overthink everything?” Loki asks, and then, with half a breath, “Would it be better if I were naked?”

 

--

 

It is perhaps, Loki thinks, when Tony drops his hands as if Loki’s burned him and backs away, so quickly he almost trips over the wheeled board behind him, a step too far.

 

It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t stop laughing until long after Tony’s managed to spirit himself away, back under the table Loki found him beneath, sparks and angry mutters flying from the surface.

 

--

 

Loki has decided that he likes this plan.

 

--

 

A lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

________________________________ A CONVERSATION STARTED DOWNSTAIRS, THAT FOLLOWS ONE PARTY INTO THE ELEVATOR AND DOESN’T LEAVE UNTIL IT’S EXHAUSTED

 

“What, out of sheer curiosity, can you tell me about—”

 

“No.”

 

“I only meant to inquire—”

 

“The answer, Loki, is still, and always, no.”

 

“If I’ve done anything to offend you, Lady Natasha—”

 

“How often have you used that line in the last two weeks?”

 

“Please.”

 

“If you’re going to look him up, look him up. You don’t deserve anything more than the internet gives you.”

 

--

 

 

It only takes a little while for Tony to realize that the worst of it is that Loki skulks around the lab anyways. And he keeps finding him. Lab 2, when Tony looks for silence, there’s Loki instead, leaning his face into a test tube and laughing at the color.

 

(Tony gets him out of there because he’s a saint and because Bruce uses this lab, and Bruce’s record isn’t so hot with strange liquids.)

 

In Lab 3, Loki leans over his shoulder while he dismantles another flubbed prototype.

 

“What does that wire do?” he asks, whispers, breath warm against the shell of Tony’s ear, and he feels his spine protest at the lean he does to get around him.

 

“Nothing,” he tells him, and then he looks at the wire again. “You’re perfect.”

 

“Me or the machine?” Loki jokes, and Tony laughs harder than he needs to and takes another step away. He slots the wire into place, seals the screen, and hands it over to Loki.

 

“The, uh. The tablet. But you’re, you know.”

 

“No,” Loki sighs, taking the tablet from him and turning it around with a frown. “I don’t.”

 

“Too bad,” Tony had said, and grins at him, the same powerwatt smile that’s gotten him out of jail and into jail in the same night. 

 

It didn’t matter; Loki doesn’t look up at him. All he does is sigh against the (genius) bit of craftsmanship in his hands.

 

He has wonderful hands.

 

Tony hates a lot of things.

 

--

 

Loki finds that the internet is a particularly generous resource.

 

--

 

Here is what Loki learns:

 

Tony is stubborn and brilliant and the closest this corner of Midgard has to their own royalty. He flies in his machine, and saves people, and though he doesn’t call it a weapon, his suit’s capabilities are astounding. He looks particularly handsome in formal wear.

 

From Thor, he learns that Tony is clever and kind and prone to inexplicable statements that he doesn’t always understand. From Natasha, he learns that Tony inspires loyalty. From Clint, he learns nothing.

 

Bruce, when Loki finds him in the kitchen, mixing a mug of something warm and sweet-smelling, rolls his eyes at Loki’s smile. “I know what you’re doing.”

 

“Oh, please,” Loki snorts, taking a seat at the counter and waiting for Bruce to sit beside him. Bruce keeps one stool between them, but he turns to face him, which is a better outcome than he had expected. “Don’t tell me you believe I’m plotting something, as well?”

 

“What I think is that Tony’s been awfully quiet all day. I’ve spent more time today undisturbed than I have since I moved in here. So you’ll understand if I don’t particularly want you to stir anything else up.”

 

“Of course,” Loki says, “but, if I did intend to stir anything up, what would I do?”

 

Bruce laughs. “You’re going to make him miserable.” And then he frowns, slightly, and leans away. “You aren’t trying to do something terrible, are you?”

 

“Of course not.”

 

Bruce doesn’t believe him for a moment, but his ideas are positively inspired, and when Loki goes to bed that night, Thor groans at the look on his face.

 

“You forget how well I know you, brother,” he says, and then, more quietly, “Poor Anthony.”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous, Thor,” Loki says cheerfully. Sleep has never come easier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________ AFTER A GOOD NIGHT’S REST, IN LAB 4, JUST TO MIX IT UP A LITTLE. TONY ISN’T HIDING________

 

Loki is incorrigible and his pants have gotten tighter. Tony hadn’t realized he owned jeans, but when he walks into Lab 4—six floors below Lab 7 and definitely, certainly not on Loki’s radar—he has his hands tucked into pockets that don’t have space for air.

 

“What are you doing down here? You’re not supposed to be down here. This is a testing area,” Tony says quickly, and lowers his welding mask over his face and fires up his torch.

 

“I got bored,” Loki tells him easily, and smiles. “And I wanted to apologize. Again. For overstepping. Again.”

 

“No,” Tony says, pointing at him. The effect is lost, a little bit, because his safety gloves are about the size of his head. “Walk away.” That might not be the best idea, but, to be fair, it’s not Tony’s fault Loki decided that a lycra-denim mix was his idea of casual wear.

 

Instead of turning around, though, Loki walks away, towards the computer bay in the corner, his fingers fiddling at the collar of his shirt. “It’s terribly hot down here, Tony. How do you focus?”

 

“Carefully,” Tony barks, putting the torch down. “And quickly.”

 

“Focus quickly?”

 

“Work quickly.”

 

“Hm.” When he turns around again, his shirt is far less buttoned than it might’ve been. There’s a streak of sweat from the dip of his throat to the bottom of his sternum. “Tony.” He stops.

 

This is the part where Tony asks, What is it? and Loki admits something he shouldn’t have. This is the part where Tony makes the mistake of doing what he really, really wants to, the part where his eyes get lost on that single drop of sweat and the part where he lets Loki keep going. The part where, later, he’ll hate the world, but himself more, a little bit.

 

“Bruce suggested I be forthright,” Loki says, in even, clipped tones, and Tony’s eyes snap back to is. He isn’t blinking. “And I agreed.”

 

“Forthright tends to get things done,” Tony tells him, and puts the torch down, stripping the gloves from his elbows to his wrists.

 

“There’s something no one will speak about—and don’t deny it, I’m not an idiot.”

 

Tony fakes a smile before he realizes that the mask is still on. “Never pegged you for one.”

 

“Good,” Loki says with a huff of a laugh. “Nobody says anything, but—I’ve never been here before, and I’ll most likely never be here again.” Tony wants to laugh. It feels like fireants biting their way out of his throat. “Nothing that happens here is permanent.” He takes a breath. “Anything can happen here.”

 

Tony hums in response and peels his gloves the rest of the way off, dropping them on the floor behind him. “You sure? It’s uh—what was it? Terribly hot down here?”

 

Loki’s eyes are on him when he unfixes his apron and drops that, too, and his eyes get a little wider when Tony raises the visor and walks towards him.

 

“Of course,” Loki says, a little breathlessly, his eyes firmly fixed on Tony’s mouth. “But there are worse things.”

 

Tony says, “Go ahead.”

 

Loki kisses like he’s grappling for air, like he’s drowning, fixing onto Tony like he’s the only source left. His hands fist in Tony’s hair to pull him closer, and Tony has never, never been kissed like this before.

 

When he pulls away for air, Loki’s hands follow him, letting go of his hair to trace over his ears, down his jaw—he freezes before he touches Tony’s neck, and Tony’s impressed. He learns fast.

 

“Please not again,” he says hoarsely. His lips look like one beautiful red bruise; his eyes, where they look away from Tony’s, are blown to black disks. It’s incredible.

 

“What do you want from me, Loki?” he asks, and when he touches him, one hand to the side of his chin to tug him down to eye-level, Loki shivers.

 

Still, the grin he delivers is wide and wicked. Good. It’d be a shame if Tony broke him.

 

“Anything you’re willing to give, Mr. Stark,” he says, and Tony laughs.

 

“What about what I’m willing to take?” he asks, and when he presses his thumb against the swell of Loki’s lip, he groans out something that’s almost a yes.

 

 

It’s a fumbling mess, because Tony can hardly move when Loki gets his arms around him, but he’s surprisingly responsive when it comes to getting clothes out of the way—and, when Tony mutters something about how goddamn slow the whole thing is going, smiles against his lips and, with a snap of his fingers, gets everything unbuttoned and slid out of orbit.

 

Tony pins him up against an empty work table and lets his hands wander until Loki’s shaking, his hips bucking up when Tony digs his fingernails into ribs, twists over his chest, and he inhales every sound Loki makes, every moan, every whimper.

 

When Tony finally gets a hand around them, Loki pulls away and gasps for it, babbles something that Tony doesn’t understand and lets Tony press closer. “You’ve thought about this, haven’t you?” Loki closes his eyes.

 

“I—” Tony twists his hand around them, just short of brutal, and Loki gasps. “Yes, I—Tony—”

 

He rolls his hips forward, just to see what will happen, what Loki will do, and Loki comes without a sound.

 

Tony laughs until Loki digs his teeth into his throat and his own hand joins Tony. He’s been thinking about that hand for too long to do anything but jerk up into it, and he loses himself somewhere between Loki’s thumb brushing against his tip and Loki’s tongue sliding across his skin, mirroring his pulse.

 

Tony clocks it at a minute. He isn’t nearly as quiet as Loki is.

 

--

 

The smile Loki gives him is sloppy and sated, and when he kisses him, this time, it isn’t desperate. It’s almost sweet. It isn’t what Tony wants right now. He pulls away.

 

Loki’s smile grows teeth. “What now?”

 

“A drink, probably,” Tony tells him, and it’s his own t-shirt he uses to clean himself off, and, with only a blink of hesitation, wipes Loki down, too, and tries not to notice the way he shivers at the contact.

 

He catches Tony’s hand when it stalls against his stomach, and Tony looks up at him. “It… isn’t permanent,” he says, fumbling over the words. “But…”

 

Tony kisses him because Tony is an asshole, because Tony’s indecisive, because Tony shouldn’t, but he does, and it’s impermanent, and Loki will forget it, he has to, he must.

 

Tony kisses him because it makes Loki smile, and he’s never seen anything stranger or brighter or slicker.

 

Because when Tony kisses him, he sighs like he’s relieved that someone doesn’t think he’s a monster, and Tony doesn’t have the courage to push him away.

 

They don’t make it out of the lab for another half hour. It turns out its not nearly as hot when you’re naked.

 

Relatively speaking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_________________________________________________________________________ DOWN BELOW_________

 

Loki traces his finger against one cool cement wall and—there. He lets a bit of ice warp its way out of him, sizzle through the false flesh that keeps him hidden and spider web out against the gray of his prison, turn it to ice that’s warmer still than four solid walls and a locked door. It’s almost time. Almost. There’s a part of him, louder every morning, that wants to push it, wants to edge it closer, drag the moment by its hind legs and break it under foot, punish it for straying farther and farther away.

 

But he oughtn’t. No. He mustn’t. It’s not the way things go. He must be careful. Very, very.

 

He has thirty one seconds and a heartbeat before one of the guards sees him—they will call it magic and attempt to hurt him for it, and he will dare them to do so, because they won’t realize that the very face they see is there by magic, there by deceit, a rule broken worn out on the very surface of his skin.

 

They never understand why he laughs at them. They never notice when he slips away, either. Oh, yes, they’ve barred him in, they watch him persistently, carefully. They’re very good at their jobs.

 

Still, he slips away, leaves his body behind him and climbs through walls and floors. He’s seen himself, seen a slender dark-haired waif of a boy clinging to Thor’s side, so happy under his arm, under his shadow.

 

He sees how they walk side by side, how Thor bows his head to listen when he speaks, how animated he is, his hands moving in shapes, drawing pictures in light beams that Thor sees and smiles at, compliments, plays at catching and throwing back at him. It’s a delicate farce, that. Thor is thundering through eggshells and something, sometime, is bound to break.

 

Sometimes, when he’s above them, and he brushes his fingers against Thor’s shoulder, when Thor elbows him in acknowledgement of a shared joke, Loki thinks about how beautifully things can be ruined, and smiles.

 

It isn’t a nice smile. It doesn’t fit his face. Bits and pieces of it fall away behind him as he crawls through their tower home, and he doesn’t look for them. He doesn’t need them.

 

He loses the last shreds of it when he sees him and Stark together, unclothed and bare, fingers against skin mortal and false, rutting against each other as if either of them deserve it.

 

It snaps him back to his body and he shudders awake, wide-eyed and hyperaware of the sounds of the guards’ breathing.

 

The next time he dreams, the face is clear as salt, shining in a red light that he remembers all the more clearly for not feeling it against his own flesh.

 

He wakes up laughing, and the guards do not understand why. He splays his hands against the door, then, and shatters the ice that rises, laughs when they jump back, expecting the prison door to follow.

 

He tires of their games. Nothing ever happens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

______________________________________________________ MANHATTAN, AVENGERS TOWER, TONY’S BEDROOM, AHEM___________

 

It’s almost like the first time broke a dam down. If Loki before was incorrigible, Loki now is irredeemable, entirely corrupted. Lab 4. Lab 2. Lab 7, Loki over a table and trembling, Tony’s fingers skimming over his sides, his hand only making its way down Loki’s pants when he looks in danger of his legs collapsing.

 

The kitchen, once, in the middle of the night, Tony craving coffee until he ends up with Loki instead, tentative lips brushing right above his collar, slow hands slipping their way up his shirt.

 

“You always touch me,” Loki whispers, one hand inching across Tony’s waist. “You never let me have you.”

 

“How?” Tony asks, because he tastes a new flavor of panic, one he’s not really used to.  Nothing they’ve done counts if it’s about Loki—if it’s about Loki, it’s data collection. If it’s about him, it’s trouble.

 

“I… there’s…” Oh, hell.

 

Loki turns Tony around carefully, touching him like china until he’s boxed in against the counter and Loki’s on his knees, his eyes fixed on a solid point, right below Tony’s waistband.

 

“I can,” he says, “if you like.” Loki blushes in splotches, red and pink and everything in between, and it turns him into a patchwork of embarrassment. He brings up two fingers, drapes them over the front of Tony’s sweats, and presses—

 

Yes,” comes out because Tony’s mouth is the location of most of his character flaws. “You—yes, Loki, just—”

 

Tony’s pretty sure guilt isn’t supposed to make him so hard his hands go numb, but, god, Loki. He’s new and shiny-lipped and bright-eyed, and there’s so much he doesn’t know, but he swallows Tony down and doesn’t break his pace until Tony makes him, until Tony buries his hands in his hair and tugs, just enough to pull Loki back before he does something stupid, like fuck forward into his mouth instead.

 

But Loki’s mouth is slick and red and his tongue darts back out once, twice, and then he’s suckling at the head of Tony’s dick until he’s coming, sharp and sudden.

 

Loki swallows and licks him clean.

 

Tony has never had so much trouble breathing in his life. It takes him a minute before he can look at Loki instead of the ceiling, the wall, the coffeemaker. When he does, Loki’s staring up at him, pupils blown.

 

“Was that alright?” he asks, voice rasping through swollen lips.

 

It isn’t a whimper if Tony bites it off into his fist.

 

--

Loki likes Tony’s fascination. He likes what he can do with his hands. He likes his tongue, sharp in speech and gentle in practice. He likes his focus. He likes his curiosity. He likes the noises he makes when he thinks Loki can’t hear them.

 

Loki likes the light that shines out of the center of his chest. He doesn’t think he can ever lose a walking beacon.

 

He doesn’t like that when he asks about it, Tony kisses him silent.

 

He doesn’t understand why every time Tony kisses him, he panics and races off for a writing instrument, scribbles something down that he doesn’t let Loki see.

 

Loki doesn’t like that Tony lies to him, too, though Loki reasons that, out of everyone, Tony does the most to make up for it. He doesn’t like that, sometimes, when Tony looks at him, he seems almost afraid of him.

 

When Thor comes into the room, Loki is glaring up at the ceiling, his knees folded up over his stomach.

 

“I’m thinking cruel thoughts,” he grumbles, and all Thor does is huff, which is decidedly unhelpful and Loki does not appreciate it.

 

“I thought you and Tony had befriended one another?” Thor asks, and Loki almost wants to cry. Honestly.

 

“Close enough to it,” is what Loki tells him, but his glare is relentless.

 

“Then what,” Thor asks slowly, “is the problem?” Loki gives it ten seconds; he makes it to seven when— “Oh. No.”

 

“You’ve probably over thought it,” Loki says quickly, sitting up. “I simply find him to be the most… well. I talked to him.”

 

“He’s certainly interesting,” Thor mutters, dropping Mjolnir by the door and falling to the floor, right before the bed, crossing his legs and gesturing for Loki to continue.

 

Loki sighs and mirrors his pose from the top of the bed, grimacing down at him. “The—whatever mass secret all of you are keeping. You don’t treat me terribly for it, and I can see the others attempting to not be quite so cautious around me, but Tony forgets it, when I’m with him. Only for a little while at a time, but…” Loki shrugs. “It’s refreshing. He’s very odd.”

 

Loki’s waiting for pity to grit his teeth around, but Thor looks at him like he’s just been whacked in the chest by his own hammer.

 

“Thor?” Loki clambers off the bed.

 

“I…” He’s too stricken to speak, and he won’t meet Loki’s eye. “I just need to—I—”

 

Loki hasn’t said anything, not really. There’s no reason for Thor to look like someone’s died.

 

--

 

Thor is having a terrible evening, and Loki—he’s never seen his brother smitten, but when he speaks of Tony Stark, he smiles at the corners of his mouth and his hands move in wild, unconscious patterns.

 

When Thor lurches through the door, it’s for fresh air. He ignores Loki’s cries behind him, and replays his words instead, hears He’s a bit odd and wishes he had laughed in answer, had said You're a good fit, then, just to make Loki laugh.

 

But all he can think is Anthony Stark, and he charges towards the stairs door instead o f the elevator and bulldozes his way up to Tony’s rooms.

 

It only occurs to him that he’s thought none of this out when Tony opens the door and blinks sleepily up at him, robe undone and feet bare.

 

Thor clears his throat. “It is later than it seemed to be.”

 

“Sleep is for the week,” Tony mumbles, and his mouth betrays him in a yawn fit for Odin. He stumbles back into his room, but leaves the door open; Thor takes it as invitation.

 

When he says, “It’s about Loki. I believe he cares for you a great deal,” Tony walks into a wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________ FOUR A.M., AVENGERS TOWER__________

 

“But why are you in here?” Steve asks again, and the words come back, make less sense, and hurt his head more.

 

“It’s—it’s important,” Tony grumbles, and Thor nods along with it.

 

“Ver—verily,” he says, but it crumbles into a yawn and his knees sag a little bit.

 

“I don’t care,” Steve moans, but he’s too late. They’ve started.

 

There is a word-jumble of very fond of Tony and we haven’t really, we’ve only and it’s not and he can’t possibly be in love with. It starts with how do you feel towards my brother? and ends on a miserable I can’t believe you brought me to Steve to tell on me.

 

Somewhere in the middle, Steve falls asleep again. They can find their own way out. In the morning, he’s installing locks. Or a guard dog. Or both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________ THE KITCHEN, NINE IN THE MORNING, AFTER TOO LITTLE SLEEP ALL AROUND_________

 

“Are you and Natasha together?”

 

Clint rolls to his right, loses a full spoon of Cocoa Puffs, and says, “Fucking—” and doesn’t bother finishing the thought, because it’s too early for Loki to look that smug and it’s the last goddamn bowl.

 

“That as well,” Loki says sweetly, lifting himself up onto the counter and crossing his legs at the ankle.

 

Clint swallows a chunky, half-chewed mouthful. “And when in hell did it become your business?”

 

“It’s not,” Loki sniffs. “It’s simply easier to speak to you when you’re angry at me about something reasonable.”

 

“I hate you,” Clint says bluntly. “That’s reasonable.”

 

“Then what’s the reason?”

 

“Because you’re—you are not as slick as you think you are.” Clint smirks. “But, hey. Hate’s a strong word. I moderately dislike you. How’s that?”

 

Loki glares at him and blows out a puff of disgruntled air. “Disappointing. I hope you choke on your mush.”

 

Clint rolls his eyes. “It’s chocolate cereal, dude. That’s like all the food groups.”

 

“I don’t know what you mean,” Junior Evil mutters. Clint whacks Loki’s hand away with his spoon, but he still manages to wrangle away two. “Odd” is his verdict, but he’s smiling about it. Clint rolls his eyes again, and wonders how hard he has to roll them to give himself a concussion.

 

The tricky thing, he reasons to himself, is that little Loki seems pretty alright. He feels bad for him, a little.

 

It’s why he pushes the bowl away from himself and gets up, stretching out the kinks in his back. “Go ahead,” he says, nodding at the bowl. Loki’s eyes narrow. Clint snorts. “Tasha called the last bowl,” he says. “So if you planned on taking some…” He shrugs.

 

It’s not a big deal, but it’s fun to see Loki’s mouth drop open. And, of course, he makes sure to leave before actual words can come out and ruin things.

 

--

 

Tony picks up on the first ring, but there are no words.

 

“I’m putting in locks,” Steve tells him. Tony grunts out something that sounds like displacing blame, and Steve snorts. “Keep your problems in your pants.”

 

Tony wakes up for that. “I’m not the one with a problem!”

 

Steve groans, pushing his way up to sitting, the phone snuggled into his shoulder. “Yet, maybe.  Loki’s only got a little time left.”

 

There’s a breath of silence. “That’s on him,” Tony says sharply. “Not me.”

 

The crash, like something squared and plastic being pegged at a wall, comes louder and quicker than Steve is expecting.

 

Steve’s the one who ends the call. It takes him a while to make it out of bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_________________________________________________ TONY’S BEDROOM. A ROOM WITH A BED. A BIG BED. HIS BEDROOM__________

 

Tony’s in the bathroom when the knocking starts, and he throws his towel through one door and at the other. The sound it makes is not even slightly effective.

 

The toothbrush works better.

 

“Tony?” Low, hesitant, slightly amused. Hell.

 

“Not a good time,” Tony calls back, looking uselessly around for an escape route. There’s a suit at the back of his closet, but the window avenue seems a little bit desperate, even for this. “Really bad time, actually.”

 

It’s silent on the owther side of the door, and Tony has a full thirty seconds of relief and relaxation.

 

“Did Thor… say something?” Ha. Ha ha. Relief over.

 

“Sort of,” Tony admits, and his sighs, pushing his paranoia away. He’s being ridiculous. This is conversation. He can do that. They’re already doing that. One little wooden door isn’t doing much by way of protection, anyway. “The door’s open.”

 

Tony still goes rigid when the door opens, which doesn’t surprise him. Loki doesn’t come in; he leans against the doorjamb, his arms crossed, and he can’t quite manage looking at Tony head-on.

 

“I didn’t tell him,” is the first thing he says. Hectic spots of color spread their way across his cheeks. “I kept my promise. No one knows—”

 

“Thor said some stuff. To me. And Steve.” Tony laughs slightly, brushing his hair back with clumsy fingers. “I think it’s safe to assume they know. Something.”

 

“I would deny it,” Loki says quickly. “If you asked it of me. I wouldn’t mind.”

 

“I wouldn’t ask you.” God, Tony’s a dick. He’s a colossal dick. He’s…

 

Loki looks at him like he’s never met anyone quite like him. And he hasn’t, not yet; he’s never landed, never seen the world from a human-eyed view, never been around machines like these, ‘mortals’ like these.

 

“Are you coming in?” Tony asks. His best bet is not thinking about it. Not studying it in pieces and motives and past and future spare parts.

 

Loki nods, his lip between his teeth, and slides his way in, pushing the door shut behind him. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just thought we might…. speak.”

 

“Speak on,” Tony says with a wave, and drops back onto the mess of his sheets. His eyes clock the way Loki looks between him and the bed frame, the pace of his throat when he swallows.

 

“I’m running out of time,” Loki says, and it clicks.

 

Tony sits up a little straighter, just in case he’s right. “I know,” he says, because there’s no way he is right. None at all.

 

“And I thought,” Loki powers on, “that before i was pulled back, we might…”

 

Tony can’t help it. He laughs. “Unbelievable. You’re giving me a “fuck before we die” speech.”

 

Loki’s mouth works at it for a moment before he goes with, “I am not. I don’t intend to die, and I highly insist you don’t, either.”

 

“Concern for my well being? You’re the sweetest.”

 

Tony,” he mutters, exasperated, and Tony loses it.

 

“It’s just,” he wheezes a few moments later, “you sounded so serious about it. Very “sex or die.’ Very sexy.” And then he’s lost to another bout of giggles, and not even Loki striding towards him, glaring fit to kill.

 

There’s nothing shy about Loki kissing him, this time. This time, it feels like a punch in the mouth.

 

Loki is above him, hands on either side of Tony’s hips and feet braced on carpet, and Tony pulls him closer by his hair, gives as good as he gets. It’s as good as an argument like this, tongue and teeth fighting for skin on skin. When he pulls back to breathe, Loki growls and goes for his neck, bracing his hands against the edge of the mattress and digging his teeth into Tony’s throat. Tony groans and swats him away, scooting a little further up the bed.

 

Loki watches him, and Tony watches back, and thinks about the nature of inevitability and smiles. He says, “I mean. If it’s absolutely life or death,” and Loki grins like a shark.

 

Loki pitches towards him and catches his mouth on the first try, dropping quick kisses that refuse to stick. “I want,” he pants in between, sighing when Tony bends his knees a little and pulls him forward, settling Loki’s knees on either side of his thighs. “I want to try something.”

 

“Sure,” Tony says easily, squeezing at the trim lines of Loki’s waist. “Anything.”

 

Loki hums out what sounds like a laugh, and this kiss lasts a little longer, Loki’s tongue pricking at the seam of Tony’s lips. He pulls back to whisper, “I want you to—”

 

He demonstrates with his tongue, and leans away with a grin, as if that wasn’t the filthiest thing that Tony’s felt in years.

 

“Yeah,” Tony gasps, tugging Loki down into his lap and laughing around his yelp of surprise. “I can do that.”

 

--

 

Tony doesn’t ask until they’ve made it out of their clothing, and Loki is on top of him again, trying not to rut against his thigh, lose himself on every plane of Tony’s body. They’re slotted together, moving in tandem, and Tony’s hand is running manic circles down Loki’s spine, always just shy of where it should be.

 

“Are you sure?” he asks, and Loki jolts against him a little sharply, in hopes that Tony will forget his words. “We’re—we don’t have to—god, Loki, don’t—”

 

“Please,” Loki mutters, digging his nails into Tony’s back until he arches against him. “Stop thinking about it. I want you to—please.”

 

Christ—okay. Okay, but—” Tony kisses him once, soft and slow, and pushes him back onto his harem mess of pillows. He sighs when Loki relaxes against them, lets his limbs go loose and pliant. “You’re gorgeous.”

 

That’s new. Loki can feel the blush starting, so he looks away, glowers at the sun coming in through poorly closed curtains. It makes everything gold—the pillows, the sheets, the shadows in Tony’s smile.

 

Tony looks precious, rare and shining, a treasure worthy of the gods. Loki shivers below him.

 

He’s a mess; there are wet spots across his stomach from the few minute of the two of them together, and he can’t stop the way his hips keep twitching, slightly, as if they’ll be able to reach Tony by sheer will alone. Tony places a hand below his chin to keep his focus, as if he’s lost any of it. He kisses him gently and moves between his legs, parting Loki’s thighs with his knee.

 

“Fuck,” Tony breathes, and Loki laughs.

 

There’s a quick fumble for the bedside table, the click of an opened container, and then the feeling of coolly coated fingers drifting between Loki’s legs. He startles at the feeling; it’s sharp, intrusive, but when he reacts, moves his knees in to cover himself on instinct, Tony catches him with a warm hand, spreads him open with his thumbs and whispers, “Let me see you.” Loki can’t breathe.

 

His skin is too hot, too tight, and Tony’s fingers press inside of him and he thinks he might split like ripe fruit, fall apart under the pressure. And then there’s more, too much, and Tony is touching him like he’s made of glass, and kissing him like he’s indestructible.

 

He comes on Tony’s fingers, first. Tony laughs when he swears his way through it, but Loki kisses him anyway.

 

--

 

When Tony gets inside of him, Loki is boneless and half delirious, and his fingers scrabble for purchase across Tony’s shoulders, his mouth falling wide.

 

“Is this okay?” Tony asks, pitched low and breathless, and Loki nods, wanting and desperate. Tony looks at the mess between them and closes his eyes.

 

It doesn’t help.

 

He’s got half a grip on the way his orgasm is spiraling towards him, but Loki is swallowing his senses. All he can hear are breathy whimpers, all he can feel is sweat-slick skin and slicker heat, and it’s so much.

 

Please,” Loki gasps out, looping his ankles behind Tony’s thighs and tugging him deeper. “I’m not delicate, Tony. I need you to— harder.”

 

Tony rolls his hips forward harder, faster, sends Loki up until he’s bracing his arms against the headboard with his knees up to his ears, and his hips rocking up in time with Tony’s, close to brutal, and Loki loses his words in what might be a scream, and Tony just loses it.

 

--

 

Tony inside of him, over him, with him, murmuring his name like it’s an accident, like he doesn’t mean to. Tony’s teeth on him, collar bone, nipple, bottom lip, earlobe. Tony.

 

“Fuck, Tony,” Loki whimpers, and it’s too much too soon, and his body should realize that, but it doesn’t and he’s close again and his hand is creeping down for his own release before he realizes it.

 

--

 

“So soon?” Tony huffs out a laugh, catching Loki’s hand in his and moving it away. Loki moans.

 

Tony expects something snarky, rude, hot as hell and twice as angry, but it doesn’t get a rise out of Loki—it gets a tattered sob of a “Please.”

 

Tony’s heart is going to give out right the fuck here. “Let me—”

 

He pulls Loki up until their chests are flush and Loki is over his lap, his hips pistoning in short, urgent movements and they’re moving together, fluid and heady. When Tony gets a hand around him, it only takes one, two stroke and then he’s coming again, oversensitive and shaking, biting his cries off into Tony’s shoulder.

 

When Tony comes, his vision whites out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________ BELOW___________

 

It’s funny how easily the memories crash back, when he feels the ghosts of his own pleasure, two hundred feet above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________ ABOVE___________

 

When Tony moves to kiss him again, Loki stops him with a hand on his chest, his thumb drifting across the face of the reactor.

 

“Tony,” he says softly. His eyes, when Tony finds them, are wide and wondering. “I think I ought to tell you.” He dimples. “I—”

 

Reality crashes back down like a typhoon. This isn’t a clever beauty in his bed, it’s Loki—Loki with long, pale limbs and snarling hair, Loki with his hands on his chest and his legs slotted through Tony’s, Loki whose future is Tony’s past, and he can’t. He can’t.

 

There are two syllables at the end of that statement that Tony can see between them, floating like gossamer on dust. He kisses Loki before he can hear them out spoken. The kiss is a plea, forceful and plundering, and Loki hums into it, pleased and wanting, wrapping his arms around Tony’s neck and letting him steal another, and another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________ BELOW_________

 

It leaves him gasping, on the floor, heaving for air that tastes all wrong, too bitter and too shallow to sit within his lungs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________  ABOVE_________

 

Later, Tony wraps an arm around his waist and strokes his hair back like a cat, lets him doze. The regret, he reflects, sighing into goosebumped skin, is new.

 

He doesn’t like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________  BELOW___________

 

“Move.”

 

Loki hasn’t managed to pull himself off of the floor yet, but he raises his head when he hears the guards shuffling apart.

 

Tony’s underdressed for the chill Loki maintains in this place. His sweatpants are too thin; the long sleeves of his shirt will do nothing when Loki’s gathered himself once more.

 

Tony stares at him like he’s something vile and haunting and miserable, and Loki preens under the attention, likes the thought that he’s put that crease between Tony’s eyes, that frown on his pretty lips. Loki smiles; the frown doesn’t crack.

 

“You just told me…”

 

“Fascinating,” Loki deadpans, and Tony flushes, cringes back whatever words he doesn’t say, and oh. This is good. Loki has been delirious, has been lost, but Tony’s confusion is as much a beacon as his little light is, and Loki stands for it, staggers towards it, and turns his face to it like it’s the sun he’s forgotten to miss.

 

“Told you what?” he purrs, and something sweet cracks out of Tony. It’s anger, hot and metallic and good.

 

“You know damn well what!”

 

“I don’t,” Loki says sharply, and it doesn’t sound like a lie. He shrugs. “You live for long enough, you forget things.”

 

“But how.” Tony, when he steps towards the glass, looks tentative, so lost. Loki remembers him in his element, working wrist-deep in metal and steel and electronic bone. He’s never seen this Tony.  

 

He licks his lips. “Time makes us all forget. It’s the natural way of things.”

 

“A whole person, though?” Tony’s closer, his hands reaching for the glass. Loki’s fingers beat his there, invite them to rest, to falsify a touch. “How do you forget who you were?”

 

“The version of me that you’ve had, I’m hardly more than a child, Stark,” he tells him, because it’s the closest thing to truth he’s given in an age. “I know nothing.”

 

“Stark,” Tony repeats, smile brittle and pathetic. “Not Tony.” Loki’s fingers tense against the glass. “You really didn’t remember me, did you? When…?”

 

His hand drifts over his neck, thumbs against his hyoid. Loki swallows.

 

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” he whispers, fiercely as he’s able. Still Stark presses his hands against Loki’s own, a warm patch through the glass. Still Stark smiles.

 

“Why did you come here?” Loki demands, and he’s burning to pieces, losing ground, and Tony’s still looking at him, straight-faced and patient.

 

“I wanted to know if it was true,” Tony tells him, and Loki digs his fingernails into the glass, pretends that he can rend Tony’s palms open to the veins.

 

“What?” Loki spits, laughing, turning inside out quietly, his heart beating from the wrong side of his chest, his stomach in his throat. “To find out if I loved you? You were the first to bed me, you know. Does that disappoint? Disgust?”

 

“Stop,” Tony barks, and Loki laughs harder, louder.

 

“How sweet. Defending my honor to myself, are you? You are ideal.”

 

“Enough,” Tony says quietly, and Loki, to his own surprise, falls silent.

 

Even his thoughts slow. His brain isn’t breathing.

 

“Did you? Then, I mean,” Tony asks, and then adds, “Now,” and points his finger towards the ceiling, quirks a brow.

 

Loki presses his forehead to the glass; the better to look Tony between the eyes. “I don’t remember.”

 

Tony laughs, smaller and quieter than Loki remembers, and presses closer. On his side, condensation hazes across the space between them.

 

“You might be different, sure,” Tony says, low enough that it’s more vibration than sound, rippling into Loki’s skin. “But you’ve got the same tell.”

 

He smiles. Steps away. Steps again.

 

He’s reached the guards before Loki finds his voice to yell, “You won’t be happy!”

 

Tony turns back to him, back straight and head high. his eyes glitter. his grin is sharp and too full of teeth. “Guess not,” he says, and keeps walking.

 

Loki keeps listening, slips out of his body far enough to hear what Tony whispers to himself in front of the elevator.

 

I’m sorry. Or maybe, He deserves to be.

 

Loki snaps back into himself and stumbles against the glass.

 

When the moon rises, he howls, and pretends it’s laughter.

 

--

 

Tony kisses Loki on the cheek, and Loki rolls him over in a clever move that Tony pretends he’s never seen before. He’s smiling so hard, it’s almost violent. It’s beautiful.

 

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, and then, “that I disappeared. We should call everyone together for lunch.”

 

“Then I should get dressed,” Loki says, and swings his legs over Tony, one after the other, vaulting off the bed in one smooth maneuver.

 

“Unfortunately,” Tony groans, and Loki laughs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________ DAYS PASS IN PEACE. LATER, AVENGERS TOWER, MANHATTAN________

 

Nothing changes, so that’s nice. There’s still Loki in the lab, staring over his shoulder and learning at a rate that should be alarming, but is actually kind of endearing. There are ‘family breakfasts’ that only occasionally start with cereal splattered all over the floor and Clint chasing Loki across four floors and, on one memorable occasion, up an empty elevator shaft.

 

(Loki loves it, and he comes back with his eyes streaming and his cheeks pink from wicked laughter.)

 

(Clint resigns ever other day, and storms out on alternate Mondays.)

 

It’s terrible how easily Loki fits in between them. He’s not a puzzle piece, he’s a new limb, grown on seamlessly, and sometimes Tony thinks that he’s growing on an artery, and when he goes, they’ll bleed out all at once.

 

He tells Steve once, and Steve rolls his eyes and calls him melodramatic. Still, when Loki jumps up in the middle of The Wizard of Oz and makes a pillow fly up next to him, his own little flying monkey, Steve’s laughter drops off abruptly, and he doesn’t turn away quickly enough to save face.

 

Loki freezes.

 

Loki thaws, and the pillow hits Steve square in the face, and when he crows, “One for the Witch of the West!” Natasha flings out her foot and flips him on his back.

 

“One for Dorothy,” she says quietly, and another movie night is ruined and so are three pillows and a fork.

 

Some nights, Tony and Loki go to bed together. Some nights, Tony stays in the lab, and if he stops outside of Thor’s rooms on his way down, neither of them notice. He knows for a fact that their conversations last them half the night. Even with less sleep, Thor is brighter, full of more joy than a battle well won.

 

The nights that Tony takes Loki instead usually start with a visit to the lab (from Loki) and enough crude gestures (also from Loki) that Tony has little choice but to show him why certain hands should stay off the merchandise (and also nimble tongues). They christen three more labs, a table, and the wall right outside of Loki’s (and Thor’s, unfortunately) bedroom, where they’re sagging against each other when the door opens, and Loki barks something magic to make Thor walk the other way, and dissolves into giggles with his legs wrapped around Tony’s hips and his head pressed against plaster.

 

(When Tony gets down between his legs, runs his tongue over warm and wet and inside, Loki’s yelp turns into a moan, long and wrecked.)

 

(“There’s much to be said,” he laughs later, thighs quivering in their perch on Tony’s shoulders, “for human ingenuity.” It feels like déjà-vu, so Tony whacks him on the ass and he yelps again, squirming away with more breathless laughter.)

 

Things, ridiculously enough, have settled. It’s nice. It’s perfect.

 

--

 

Clint squints.

 

Loki squints back.

 

The chicken is his. Knives might be more Natasha’s territory than his, but goddamn if he won’t get his piece of chicken.

 

“Five bucks on Loki,” Tony whispers. Natasha takes the bet. Steve only grins; Thor looks like he’s considering joining in on the fight.

 

“I’ll count down from ten,” Bruce says solemnly, raising two hands over the chicken bucket. “Nine,” he says, and one thumb falls. Loki raises his fork like a sword and grins at Clint, toothy and rude. Clint raises his knife. Loki grins wider. “Six.” No magic used on food or utensils. Those are the rules, and if Loki breaks them, Clint will break him. He has this. “Three. Two. One!”

 

Clint starts for it.

 

From halfway across the dining room.

 

Cheating,” he howls when Loki grabs the bucket and settles back into his chair, smug as hell and a dirty cheater. Clint runs for the table, anyway, intent on violence, or justice, or something, dammit.

 

“Not technically,” Tony says, and of course he’s happy about it. Nobody wins bets against Natasha.

 

But her mouth is twisted up in a way that looks kind of painful, struggling not to laugh. “You aren’t food, and you aren’t a utensil. You were free game.”

 

“Well done,” Bruce whispers from the other side of the table, and Loki gives him a solicitous nod.

 

Clint is going to light Loki’s bed on fire and it’s gonna be great.

 

“As much fun as that was…” Steve smiles and shrugs when they all groan, scooting his chair back. “SHIELD’s expecting us. Out in ten.”

 

“Still don’t understand why they need all of us,” Tony grumbles, and Clint’s inclined to agree.

 

It sounded like recon, when Fury called an hour ago. Him and Nat, maybe Steve, and that’s covered. Tony’s flashy, the Hulk’s overkill, and Thor’s just sort of… much. It all smells very political, and Clint doesn’t like it.

 

“Should I…?” Loki looks up at Steve for an answer to his non-question.

 

Clint snorts. “No.” Loki shoots Clint a look that says sore loser in seven different languages, and Clint doesn’t other resisting the urge to flip him off. “No offense, but this sounds a little soft to be anything serious. It’s PR, and PR doesn’t understand time-travelling crim—ter—fugi—uh. Loki.” He’s expecting Natasha’s pinch to his thigh. He’s pleasantly surprised that she doesn’t draw blood.

 

“You’re fine here, right?”

 

Isn’t that interesting. Tony asks before Thor can, and both Thor and Steve look away. Thor frowns. Steve blushes.

 

What the actual fuck.

 

“Of course,” Loki sniffs, and he’s smiling, and Tony’s smiling, and no one else is looking at anyone and Tony and Loki are totally fucking and—no. No no.

 

That’s enough. No.

 

He’s the first one at the helipad, and he doesn’t provide any in-flight chatter.

 

“It was kind of obvious,” Natasha says, halfway to DC.

 

“Obvi—explain to me. Explain to me how that was obvious.” Natasha shrugs. “He gave me a flower,” is the only thing that Clint can think of to say to that, and he spends the rest of the trip regretting it, because Natasha laughs in quiet wheezes for the rest of the flight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________________________________ IN THE DUNGEON DOWN BELOW, BACK AT THE TOWER. PHYSICALLY, AT LEAST. IN ALL                                                                                  THE WAYS THAT COUNT, UP AT THE SHINY, SHINY TOP____________

 

Loki watches them take off. Loki watches himself watch them take off. He’s smiling. It’s all very lovely. Almost romantic.

 

The Loki that he is isn’t smiling. If he looked into his own face, his proper face, it might be empty. It feels as if there’s nothing there.

 

He opens his mouth. For a moment, there is only disembodied breath. And then there are words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________  A WINDOW, STARING OUT AT THE HELIPAD, WATCHING THE SUN SET_____

 

The laughter comes first. It’s low and slow and heavy, only building when he turns away from the window. Loki shakes his head. Perahps there’s water trapped within his ears.

Although, to be fair, he’s never heard water make a sound like that.

 

“Hello?” Loki calls.

 

“Yes, Master Loki?” JARVIS asks from the stereo on the wall. His voice is the wrong one. Loki frowns.

 

Loki, the other voice says, and Loki says, “Yes?”

 

“Master Loki?”

 

“Not you, JARVIS,” Loki mutters. He steps deeper into the room. It’s wide and mostly empty; there’s nowhere for anyone to hide. 

 

When the voice cackles Boo, a little more icily than necessary, Loki jumps and twirls, striking out at—

 

Air. Nothing but air. That snorts at him. You’ve gone soft here with these mortals. You reflexes… well. The air sniffs. They aren’t what they will be.

 

“What in Hel—”

 

Try again. Don’t you know me, little trickster?

 

It’s the most curious thing; he feels as if he must know the voice. The voice feels familiar. The way it burrows inside of his mind makes his throat itch.

 

Loki, it breathes. Will you come?

 

“Yes,” Loki whispers back.

 

“Master Loki?” JARVIS tries, but he sounds hushed, shoved aside, and Loki walks towards the elevator bay, feeling nothing but the muffled rhythm of his bare feet against concrete.

 

That isn’t quite it.

 

He feels dread. It creeps its way up from the bottom of his spine to wrap around his heart, and for a moment, when the elevator doors ding open, he can’t draw enough breath.

 

And then Loki, will you come? echoes and echoes and he presses the last button on the elevator pad and wills himself not to close his eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________ WHAT COMES AFTER THE LAST BUTTON ON THE ELEVATOR PAD_____

 

Loki feels dread and it makes his hands shake, and he turns his face away from his ice-rimmed door and wills them to stillness. Ice cracks. Glass breaks. The guards have been sleeping for ten thousand years.

 

Ice melts. Glass disappears. Loki steps free and prepares for himself.

 

--

 

Loki stands in a darkened hallway that must stretch for miles, but when a gentle, quiet voice coaxes this way, he finds that the distance disappears in a moment.

 

Surprise, his own voice says, at the back of his head. “Are you, very?” the same voice asks from in front of him, and the correct answer is yes. Verily.

 

“I do grow taller, then,” Loki says to himself, and to himself, and his tongue swims in his mouth, too large for his jaw, numb and unwieldy.

 

He steps over and between four bodies. They are cold and still and barely breathing. There’s a chamber beyond them with a missing door.

 

“Of course,” the Other Loki says haughtily, raising his nose. He brushes down the front of his jacket and stands still straighter.

 

The Wrong Loki’s hands are curved at his sides, nails long and filthy. His hair is matted to his shoulders and his eyes look wild, as if they haven’t seen the world outside of this dungeon in a very, very long time.

 

“You’re who they saw in me,” Loki says faintly, because oh. This. This is why. This is the face of their reason. “You’re why.”

 

“I’m the face of the reason,” Other Loki says, because however far apart, they are of the same mind. “Not the reason itself. Would you like to know the reason, little one?”

 

His eyes seem to gleam red, for a moment, and Loki swallows.

 

He thinks No, as loudly as he can.

 

The Other Loki smiles, wicked and cruel, and Loki isn’t surprised, really, when his shoulders  pinned to the wall with his own hands—and he has gotten strong—ragged nails digging into his neck.

 

“This is sentiment,” other Loki hisses, his breathe venomously cold. “You don’t want to know how they see you, how Tony really sees you. You believe this is love? How petty.”

 

“Get off,” Loki says coolly, and his other self steps away, his hands raised, laughter bubbling out of him like an infection.

 

“Come now,” Other Loki says, and Loki doesn’t want to think of his own face carrying that smile, so twisted and false, rotten to the heart. “Allow me to enlighten you.”

 

--

 

His hands are no longer shaking. His throat is dry with someone else’s misery. He speaks. He speaks and speaks and speaks. The words pour out of him in a tapestry of ill intent, and he watches the way the smaller one dims by the moment, until even his eyes have been smudged out to gray. Loki hasn’t been this boy in a millennia. He doesn’t remember this chapter, and, for a moment, he’s blessedly thankful for his missing pages. The boy he was looks cut in half.

 

--

 

“How many?”

 

“How many…?”

 

“How many people?”

 

“More than they can forgive.”

 

Loki means it to hurt, he means it to see what will happen. he wants the die to fall, and his own little imp to be the first to drop.

 

But he asks, “Not even Thor?” and Loki feels the words choke on themselves, battle themselves for air. “Not even my—your—our brother?” The boy looks stronger when he frowns. Loki scowls at him.

 

“What of Thor? Do you still care so much?”

 

The wrong Loki squints. He bites his lips. He opens his mouth, closes it again, shakes his head, at a loss. “How did I become you?” he asks, and it’s the wonder, the disbelief that does it, that pushes Loki into crippling, strange laughter.

 

When he can breathe again, his wrong self looks torn between pity and despair, and it’s close enough.

 

Loki grins and tells him how he destroys, how he ruins, how death follows the trail of his breathing and chaos carries itself before his heart. He tells him more.

 

The wrong Loki runs and runs, away from the things he cannot run from, the things that will always find him.

 

The right Loki steps back into his cell and waves away the damage, puts things to their cosmetic rights.

 

The right Loki waits. He waits to see what will happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_______________________________________________________________________________ RIGHT OUTSIDE THE HELIPAD_______

Loki retreats from the center of the helipad when he sees the jet coming in to land. Thor lands first, and he can’t help but think that Loki looks peculiarly off-kilter. It bodes ill.

 

“Loki,” Thor greets when he reaches him, clapping down on his shoulder. “I hope the day has not been too stressful.”

 

“Spells practice,” Loki mumbles, distracted, his eyes on the wings, still a moment away.

 

“And what spells were these?” Thor asks with a smile.

 

Loki shakes his head. “No, I—what?”

 

The look he shoots at Thor makes his heart feel slightly too large for his chest, until Loki snorts and pushes Thor’s arm away. Thor swats him on the back of the leg before he can stalk away and Loki yelps, glaring back at him and hopping, once, on the unwounded leg. Thor laughs.

 

“Baldness spells,” Loki threatens, and Thor does his best to keep his expression level and unamused. “Shrinking spells. Spells for turning brothers into frogs.”

 

“Terrifying,” Thor says, and Loki hits him in the arm. “With all your abuse, brother, you’ll leave me bald and maimed, you cruel thing.”

 

Thor’s made a mistake; instead of the irritation he’s waiting for, Loki’s face falls in a moment and he looks away, crossing his arms tightly across his chest.

 

“I suppose I am,” he says tightly.

 

“Loki?”

 

“Aren’t I?” Thor frowns. “Aren’t I cruel,” he adds, staring down at the concrete between them. “I must be spectacularly so. I know—” He purses his lips. His face goes frighteningly blank, and Thor is at a loss. No is a lie. Yes is too honest, perhaps, and is its own cruelty.

 

“You can be,” he says finally, and drapes an arm around Loki’s shoulders to soften it. “But everyone can be.”

 

“But most aren’t,” Loki says quietly. It’s more observational than emotional, but Thor leaves his arm where it is while the jet lands, anyway. Loki doesn’t push him away.

 

--

 

Loki slips away before Tony reaches the doors. It seems easier that way.

 

Still, when night falls and he doesn’t find Tony in his room, he picks a lab at random and lets himself fin.

 

Tony isn’t there, but JARVIS, ever present, is.

 

“JARVIS,” Loki says. “Can you show me where Tony is?”

 

A map drops down in front of Loki, the whole building in two dimensional levels. Lab 6 is lit in white. A video screen unfurls when Loki’s hand drifts towards it.

 

Music is blasting and Tony is working, goggles on and his hands steady, even when the music rises and his hips sway along with it. Loki has never seen him so applied to any other task. To be fair, it seems to be his lot in life to serve as a distraction whenever able.

 

Loki watches for as long as he can.

 

“That’s enough,” he says finally, and the display vanishes.

 

--

 

A spark catches against his sleeve and Tony swears, swatting at his arm. Nothing’s caught fire, this time, but it’s happened too often for his heart to slow itself for a few long, adrenalin-drenched moments.

 

The crash from the door doesn’t fucking help, and Tony leaps about a foot before he sees Loki, toeing past a wreck of plastic and steel.

 

“Jesus, JARVIS, volume.” The dying strains of a guitar solo are too shrill, and they do nothing for the headache building between Tony’s eyes. Loki doesn’t do much for it, either. “Evening, sunshine,” he says dryly, and drops the goggles on the table behind him.

 

“Hi,” Loki says, and Tony wants to be prickly as hell about the avoidance maneuvers, but Loki looks like he’s seen a ghost, and he isn’t coming any closer.

 

“Something on your mind?” Tony asks lightly, and Loki barks out a hollow laugh. It sounds entirely wrong.

 

“Your security measures,” Loki says, and he can’t mean what he might mean, but Tony braces himself anyway. “They aren’t on par with the rest of your tech.”

 

“What do you mean?” he asks carefully.

 

“Do you regularly let your prisoners wander free?” Shit. Fuck. “You neglected to tell me the extent of such practices.” Tony is as still as a deer in front of a 4x4, waiting for whatever comes next. He can already see the dents forming when Loki breathes in. “You didn’t tell me,” comes out in half a breath, and Tony shouldn’t, but he’s on defense before he thinks about it, crossing his arms.

 

“I wouldn’t believe much of whatever you saw. You get to be real good at illusions.”

 

Loki blinks back like he’s been struck. “Everything I will do. All of that, and you didn’t say a word. You let me—what’s wrong with you?”

 

Tony staggers back like the car’s made contact, and that’s exactly how it feels—like metal and glass wrapping around him, and something hot and sharp is ripping into his chest, and it isn’t fucking fair. He played by the rules. He did everything right.

 

“What’s wrong with me? You’re the one who evolves into a death type—”

 

You’re the one who took a monster to bed.”

 

“Fair enough. Please, forgive me for your future choices.”

 

It’s meant to be a laugh, but the sound that shakes out of Loki’s chest makes Tony wince. “I should throw myself off the building. I would, if I wasn’t so selfish. Imagine how much I could save. Wouldn’t that be wonderful,” he spits, and Tony can’t look at him. He sounds too much like…

 

Well.

 

“I couldn’t tell you,” Tony says thickly. He thinks about edging around the table, around Loki, towards the doors. He has nowhere to run. “We couldn’t influence the future. It could mess everything up, you knowing.”

 

“Isn’t it a mess enough?”

 

“But we—” Tony stops. What is he going to say? We stopped you. We beat you. We captured you. We’re sending you away for proper punishment. You were broken and you hurt us and we hurt you back.

 

Loki knows, anyway. Loki goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

______________________________________ IN THE DUNGEON, A MOMENT BEFORE  A TERRIBLE DECISION, TOO LATE AT NIGHT FOR IT TO BE ANYTHING BUT_____

 

The guards turn towards him as soon as the elevator doors open, very much alive. Loki huffs. Of course he’d make his own life more difficult.

 

He diverts their attention with a wave of his hand and darts towards the cell, dropping to his knees and squinting towards his strange old self lies curled against the wall.

 

“I want you to break it,” Loki says, slamming his hands against the glass.

 

The Other Loki sits up sharply, his eyes wide and sleep-struck. “The glass?”

 

“The spell,” Loki says quickly, his words falling out as quickly as he thinks them. “The enchantment. You can—I can? I have full faith in myself. And I need it broken. I need to not—” He doesn’t know how I need to not become you will go over, so he keeps that thought to himself.

 

The Other Loki snorts, rolling up to his feet. “Destroy myself for you.” He stares at Loki through the glass, eyes him over where he’s crouched. “Novel,” he says, like it’s the most distasteful idea he’s ever heard.

 

“I want to stay.” It’s a terrible thing to say out loud. He doesn’t mean to.

 

Other Loki smiles and smiles and swaggers towards the door, and when he slams his palm against it, Loki staggers back into the dust, right to the feet of an oblivious guard.

 

“I can’t promise you anything,” Other Loki says, quiet as a snake and twice as dangerous. Loki swallows.

 

“I don’t expect that of you. Of me. Whatever.” Loki inches himself away from the guards boots and gets to his feet. The temperature drops sharply; he’s always been comfortable in the cold, but this is a surprise.

 

The grin grows like cancer, and Loki shivers. “A deal, then, little one.”

 

“Anything,” Loki says. “But I won’t let you go.”

 

“Of course not,” the wrong Loki purrs, dragging a nail down the surface of the glass. For a moment, Loki thinks it’s shattering apart, but it’s not the glass that does it; it’s a screen of ice across the whole surface, sheer and solid, that splinters to Loki’s feet inside the cell. “But the favor you ask for is great. If you stay here, I cease to exist.”

 

Is that such a bad thing? Loki thinks, but he doesn’t dare think it too loudly, and he prays that the old magician doesn’t hear.

 

“You ask that I kill myself to save you—for what? For love?”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Loki scoffs, but the Other Loki laughs, sharp and rude. Loki balls his fists at his sides. “There is so much to be gained here than—that what you lost.”

 

“I was king,” Other Loki barks, slamming up against the door, but this time Loki holds his ground, holds himself high and proud.

 

“And I,” he says evenly, “am a prince. Will you help me, or not?”

 

Loki eyes him for a long, critical moment, but something gives, and he smiles, small and cynical. “We always help ourselves,” he says, and presses his hand flat against the glass, eyes on Loki all the while.

 

“The parchment. That is my price. Give me the spell, and I shall try and break the spell.”

 

“Of course,” Loki mutters, fumbling in his pockets for the thick, folded square. “How could this possibly go poorly?”

 

“There’s a good prince,” Other Loki says, when Loki presses it against the glass. It phases through it like a splinter through skin, and both Loki’s step away from the glass, two steps, three, enough to breath away from faces neither should know.

 

“Are you… do you intend to use it?” Loki looks at him like he’s a fool, and he supposes he deserves it. “Right,” he says, exhaling sharply. “Then. I’ll wait.”

 

Loki watches with no little fascination at the way his future self scrapes the runes on the ground, draws shapes and scratches out patterns faster than he’s ever seen. He’s amazing. He’s incredible.

 

He’s gone, fading away to specks of bronze light, and Loki thinks about what he’s done.

 

Thinks, but not hard enough to allow the guards attentions to waver towards where he waits. He has his priorities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

________________________________________________________ MAY 30TH, 1991, 11:47PM, RIGHT OUTSIDE OF THE SURREY HOTEL, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK____

 

Loki flips his hair back. His clothes ripple as he stands, leather giving way for cotton and wool, whispering against his skin when he smoothes his hands down the black suit. It’ll do. He’s not trying to draw attention to himself.

 

He doesn’t see how he can, anyway.

 

There’s a line outside of the building’s doors, and Loki ignores it and smiles at the bouncer. “Personal friend,” he says quietly, and gives enough of a nudge that the bouncer steps aside. “Thank you.”

 

When Loki reaches the presidential suite, there are bodies writhing along the walls; the music is electronic and bracing, and if the traveling didn’t disorient him, this does. He stumbles against a girl dressed all in red and she smiles at him, eyes glazed and unfocused.

 

“I’m looking for Tony Stark,” he says, and he has to shout to be heard, even with as close as she’s pushing herself against him, her arms draping over his shoulders.

 

“Birthday boy, huh?” she teases. Her breath is boozy and artificially sweet. “Follow the crowd, baby. Follow the crowd.”

 

If he’d thought about it, he would have chosen differently. He may have.

 

It isn’t a good idea, maybe. But it’s what he wants. That isn’t sentimentality; it’s realism. Practicality. Something he’s comfortable with.

 

There are more writhing bodies that Loki is used to, and he hates the way they feel when they grind against him, jumping along with noise that is more volume than music.  And over it all, he can hear the cheering. Tony on too many lips, past too many tongues, more than know him, surely. More than deserve to know him. He spots Tony immediately, holding court and swaying in a stack of pretty blonde women who eye Loki when he approaches and scatter when he gets an arm around Tony’s waist.

 

He kisses him, because Loki has always been a talented liar, but he’s never been any good at lying to himself.

 

He only pulls away to murmur “Happy birthday,” and then he’s pulling Tony forward again, pillaging the words he won’t allow him to say with his tongue, his teeth, one more violent press of his lips.

 

This isn’t the plan, Loki realizes, when Tony kisses him back, eager and wanton, but it’ll do.

 

“Why don’t I know your name? You’re too good-looking for me to not know your name.” It’s almost coquettish, the way he bats his eyes. Then he laughs and laughs until he’s laughing against Loki’s mouth.

 

“This is a hotel,” Tony says a minute later, pulling away.

 

“I’ve noticed.” Loki smiles against his neck and darts out his tongue for a taste. 

 

“There’s a bedroom,” Tony explains quickly, somewhat desperately. “And it’s my birthday.”

 

“You make a convincing argument, Stark,” Loki thrums, running the edge of his teeth against Tony’s jaw. Tony gasps. “But will you let me have you?”

 

“Hell yes,” Tony whispers.

 

He slides his hand around Loki’s hand and drags him through the bodies again, but this time, he ignores the women with colorful hair, the boys with skinny hips, the questions, the speculative stares. In the next hallway, Loki pins him against the wall just to look at him.

 

His eyes are blown, lips bitten red swollen. There’s product in his hair. His chest, when Loki plants his hand against it, is smooth skin and muscle. There is no light.

 

“You’re so new,” Loki mutters to himself, but he hears Tony’s breath hitch.

 

Loki fumbles for the doorknob and pushes Tony towards the bed. He isn’t kind. He bites to leave marks, to make a point, but Tony arches against him anyways, laughs when his fingers dig into sensitive skin. This Tony threatens to make him softer, gentle in a way he isn’t, and when Loki pins him down, kisses him a little too hard and grinds down against him, he wonders who’s taking whom.

 

This is not love.

 

“You should—fuck, you should really—” Tony points weakly at the drawer by the bed, cheeks flushed and chest heaving. This is a mistake, Loki thinks, but Tony is hot and impatient around his fingers, and then, when Loki gets his pants down, around his cock, and it’s perfect, the way he cries out, catches his fingernails against the seams of Loki’s shirt, in Loki’s hair, yelling out obscenities every time Loki angles his hips.

 

“I have to—” he whimpers, but Loki bats his hand away and pins them both against the mattress, staring down at the wreck he’s caused. “Christ, this is every birthday wish for the past five years, and if I don’t come right now, I’m not going to see another one.”

 

Loki laughs. “I’m not here to kill you,” he whispers, “but I’m not going to touch you.”

 

And he twists his hips, amps his speed and then drops it to something slow and cruel, just to make things interesting.

 

Loki whispers, “Come,” to see if he will, and he does, back arching and his hands tugging a little too sharply against Loki’s scalp. It’s enough, for Loki.

 

--

 

Afterwards, Tony is alarmingly alert, happily naked in the middle of the bed, running his fingers across Loki’s body.

 

“This isn’t even why I’m here,” Loki mutters, and Tony hums in response, pushing Loki’s hair back from his forehead.

 

“Why, then?” he asks. “Was it the booze? Because I guarantee you—”

 

“It was you,” Loki grits out, and Tony’s hand stills against the side of his face.

 

“What about me?”

 

“You’re impossible,” Loki growls, “and it shouldn’t matter to me this much.”

 

“These sound like real big issues,” Tony says, and the sympathy is the same sort of fake-sweet voice that the other Tony lies in. Lied in. When Loki knew him. Then. “You know what your best bet is? Making out some more and ignoring them. In favor of me.”

 

“Cheeky,” Loki chastises, but he kisses him back anyways, because if he’s going to fuck himself over—

 

His hand hits something hard under a pillow and he tugs it out, rolling away from Tony to look at it.

 

“What is this?” he asks, tossing the long blue cylinder at Tony’s chest and sliding his shirt to the floor.

 

Tony hoots out a laugh and falls off of the other side of the bed. “Oh my god—hold on, I amped it up, look, here’s the on-switch—”

 

It’s a very successful demonstration.

 

When Loki concedes, grudgingly, that “There’s much to be said for human ingenuity,” Tony laughs, and it’s the easiest thing in the world for Loki to smile back at him.

 

The party rages on beyond their doors, music loud and liquor flowing, and Loki waits for Tony to fall asleep.

 

He slips away when the sun rises.

 

--

 

All it was was a good reason to exercise his powers, stretch his legs, a bit. Good to breathe some fresh air.

 

Still, the closer the sun’s rays get to reaching him, the more he shivers. He’s about to make things very, very difficult. He hopes it’s terrible. He hopes it's great.

 

He thinks about how the lesser version of him looks when he’s happy, weak, tender of underbelly and little of spite. He isn’t enough, and he has to be. What Loki does, he does for strength, for the future, for the perpetuation of everything he is and will be. For the ruination of what he was.

 

Loki grins at the incoming dawn. He’s dying to see the way things will break.

 

 

 

 

 

 

_______________________________________________ 2013, AVENGERS TOWER, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, DOWN WHERE THE SUNRISE DOESN’T REACH_____

 

Loki starts awake at the sound of someone stumbling. He hasn’t fallen asleep, of course; only dozing in a corner, a tiny glamour cast over the place he’s curled up, because the guards’ minds were exhausting and he deserves a nap.

 

“Self?” he calls, half-joking, half-too-hopeful.

 

But that Loki, when he straightens his shoulders and looks through the windows of his cage, has graveyard eyes, and his expression is empty, wiped clear of thought.

 

“No,” is all he says, and Loki’s senses, for a moment, disengage.

 

“Who you talkin’ to?” one of the guards barks, and Loki waves him silent, a little too forcefully; his head snaps to the side and back again, nerves revolting at the loss of control.

 

“What do you mean, no?” Loki asks quietly, getting to his feet. His blood is rushing, too sharp and too strong, and he can’t hear much more than that. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean,” Other Loki taunts, striding towards the cage, “Look around you. Look, child—”

 

“I’m not a child,” Loki snaps, but the other one only half-smiles, and tucks his hands into the pockets of his coat.

 

“You believed there to be another path for you,” Loki’s future says softly, tracing a shape against the frost on the glass. “You thought you might find forgiveness in never playing a hand in the… shall we say, atrocities, that made them avoid you for so long. You thought you might grow up to play the hero, instead. Be just like Thor.”

 

“Rather like Thor than like you,” Loki says coldly, but the other only laughs.

 

“All of that self-loathing. Where is it getting you? We will always end up here.” He lunches at the glass, and, for a moment, Loki thinks he’ll break through it, shatter the glass apart and devour Loki where he stands, take him apart and put him back together like that, missing pieces.

 

He doesn’t. He stays on the other side of the glass, his fists against it, his teeth gritted and his breath heaving. “Always,” he whispers, and Loki has nothing left to say.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

________________________________________________________________________________________________ LAB 6_____

 

Tony hasn’t slept.

 

Still, when Loki barges in again, he’s ready to fake a yawn, because he doesn’t have it in him to fight, or to yell, or to defend himself. Not again.

 

But Loki gasps, “I thought I could fix it,” and his legs give way there, and he falls to the ground, barely holding himself up by his forearms. 

 

Tony doesn’t know what else to do, so he helps him to his feet, wraps one arm around his waist and throws one of Loki’s arms around his neck. “We should get you to bed,” he says. Loki shakes his head.

 

“I can’t be here,” he whispers. “I can’t. Not with him.”

 

It still isn’t fair, it still doesn’t make sense, and Tony knows better than anyone that running away isn’t a solution, but damn if it doesn’t sound beautiful.

 

So he says, “I can fix that,” and leads Loki down to the garage.

 

In the elevator, Loki pulls away enough to drop his arm and sags up against the wall. He doesn’t look at Tony on the ride down. When the doors slide open, he darts his eyes around the rows of vehicles and settles on a nifty little red one that he doesn’t recognize and doesn’t have the keys for.

 

“Come on,” Tony says, taking his hand.

 

They—Tony, really, but Loki pops it open, even though his eyes stay numb and the hand that Tony holds stays cold—hotwire a guard’s Mustang and speed out of the parking garage at four in the morning, and Tony tries to pretend like it’s a good thing. It’s a vacation, it’s a breath of fresh air. He’s looking at the handsome passenger next to him because he wants to touch him, and not because he looks like he’s been thrown into a warzone with a cardboard shield and a paper sword.

 

“It’ll be okay, you know,” he tells him, when they’ve finally hit traffic and the car has nowhere to go. “If anyone can figure something out, it’s you.”

 

Loki looks at him, then, and though Tony’s seen no tears, his eyes are red and haunted. “You don’t believe that.”

 

Tony shrugs. “I don’t believe that you’re the same person. As, uh. As—”

 

Other Loki,” he says darkly, and Tony wants to laugh and cry and plow his way through traffic with his stolen car.

 

“He’s a dick,” Tony says, and Loki cracks what might be a smile.

 

“A colossal dick,” he says, after a moment, and this time, when Tony takes his hand, he squeezes back.

 

Tony puts on the radio, and something bright and poppy from the nineties rocks up to them from the backseat.

 

“This is terrible,” Loki groans, pressing his head against the headrest. Tony grins.

 

“This is nostalgia. This song was playing at my twenty-first. This is like the capstone to my childhood.”

 

“You’re still a child.”

 

“You’re rude.”

 

Tony gets him to laugh.

 

They make it to New Jersey before Loki makes him pull over. He slides into Tony’s lap and kisses him like he’s made of air, and there’s nothing quite like one more stolen moment on a fault line, right before everything falls apart.

 

Loki grinds into him and sighs into his mouth, and when Tony reaches for his waistband, Loki catches his hand. “No,” he whispers. “Like this.”

 

They make out like teenagers in the front seat of a car with its headlight still on, and when Tony pushes up closer, Loki bumps into the horn and a flock of birds fly out of the nearest tree. When Tony laughs, Loki ruts against him in earnest, and it’s almost embarrassing how quickly his comes with Loki hands digging into his hips. Or, it would be, if Loki didn’t make it over a heartbeat later, riding out his climax against Tony’s thigh.

 

When they both come down, Loki’s grinning, easy and sated, and Tony grimaces back at him, because they’re both a mess, but it’s half-hearted.

 

On their way back, the sun is rising, and it cuts through Loki’s eyes and turns them into the same color that flashes at them from the console’s display.

 

The car slows down to thirty on the road, and Loki looks at him curiously. His eyes are still glowing. “What is it?”

 

“You’re beautiful,” Tony tells him, and he wrinkles his nose.

 

“What?”

 

Tony leans over and kisses him, quick and soft, and Loki blinks back at him. Tony snorts out a laugh. A blush has started up from Loki’s chest and it spreads its way to his cheeks like Christmas, and it’s adorable. “Let’s head back.”

 

The smile that accompanies the flush is soft and small and terrified, and Tony wants to do his best to kiss it away, to make it better, but he can’t. He can’t. He has no power over this.

 

Still, he darts glances over to where Loki sits, where the sun is still lighting him up like contrast and color in an old, washed out photographed, touched too often and saved too rarely.

 

It takes Tony ten minutes before he gives up and takes Loki’s hand again.

 

Loki smirks and weaves golden thread between their fingers, and the magic feels like sugar ants across Tony’s skin.

 

They leave the car running for kicks, and because Tony thinks that particular guard is kind of an asshole.

 

At least they leave the windows open to air it out.

 

--

 

Tony doesn’t see him again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________________ AND THEN _____________

 

Loki slips out of their lives as quietly as he’s come in, which is to say, not very.

 

For Clint, there’s a chicken outside of his door. A chicken. It’s loud and fat and angry and Clint can hear Loki laughing from around the corner when it launches itself at him in a flurry of clucking feathers.

 

He gives it to Natasha because he expects her to glare it into silent submission, but the damn thing likes her better, and they bond over the scratches all over his arm and chin.

 

(He maybe chases him all the way to Steve’s door, but he doesn’t catch up to him in time, and Loki, radiating smugness, slams the door right in his face.)

 

(He maybe hears their exchange. There’s a mildly confused hello from Steve while Loki tries to get his breathing back to standard.

 

When it’s even again, he says, goodbye, cheerful and quick, and slips out the window.)

 

(When Steve pops his head out and stares at Clint, Clint shrugs. “It’s what I would do,” he tells him, because it is, more or less. It’s maybe even braver.)

 

--

 

Tony is hiding. Bruce comes down with coffee, twice. Steve brings food. Tony can’t recall the shape of it, after it’s been cleared away, but he hasn’t passed out yet, and that’s a plus. He gets more done in twenty-four hours than he has in the past month.

 

He tells himself that he can’t miss something that never existed.

 

Once, Bruce asks, “Are you going to say goodbye?” but Tony can’t hear him over the music.

 

--

 

It’s perfectly plotted out, and Loki knows Bruce isn’t expecting to see him in the kitchen, not in the middle of the evening, but Bruce doesn’t so much as blink when he sees him. He does smile. Loki wrinkles his nose.

 

“That smells foul,” he says, nodding at one of the two mugs Bruce carries.

 

Bruce shakes his head and laughs, dumping them both in the sink. “I think there was something growing in that one. Hand me my tea?”

 

Loki is silent while Bruce brews his drink, and silent while he steeps it. It’s Bruce who speaks first, over the lips of the mug.

 

“This is it, then.”

 

Loki fidgets. “Yes.”

 

“Well.” Bruce is smile is long-coming as ever, but it’s genuine, and it’s a comfort after so many long days. “Goodbye, Loki.”

 

Loki is sure his face looks pinched and peaky, but he can’t do much about that. He hates goodbyes, hates the sound of such forceful permanence, but he swallows his disdain and says, “It was a pleasure, doctor,” because it will make Bruce smile more.

 

He has gotten sentimental, but he doesn’t mind it. Not really.

 

Bruce turns his back on Loki to fiddle in the cupboards for more sugar, and Loki almost misses his next words. “Do you think you’ll stop down to see him, before you go?”

 

“How do you know I haven’t?” Loki asks quickly. “I’ve been very thorough.”

 

“Yeah.” Bruce turns around and the smile’s gone wry and crooked, and Loki fights down the urge to roll his eyes. “So’s he.”

 

Bruce walks away first. Loki blows a raspberry at his retreating back, and it makes him feel better, a little bit. He can hear Bruce’s laughter on his way out.

 

--

Loki spends his last day silent.

 

Thor sits with him, for some of it. For the rest, he stares out the window, watches the way the changing light plays across iron and smoke and glass.

 

It’s not as good as clever fingers over metal and wire, but it’ll do.

 

--

 

 

“You should speak to him,” Thor says at night, and Loki turns away.

 

“There’s nothing I can say,” Loki says softly. The words get lost in the fabric of their bedclothes. Thor sighs anyways.

 

“He will miss you.”

 

“He knows better.”

 

“He will miss you,” Thor repeats, as if that makes it any better, as if that turns it into something Loki should hear. Loki doesn’t say anything. He’ll wait Thor out; he’s bound to fall asleep soon, anyway. He doesn’t have words for Tony, and he’s running out of words for Thor.

 

Thor rustles around beside him, raising himself up on one elbow. Loki grits his eyes and his teeth. “What will you say to him?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Loki…”

 

“There’s nothing more to say, Thor.”

 

But the rest of his last night, Loki spends nose-to-nose with Thor, telling each other adventures and making them up when they hit silent patches.

 

Loki uses every last word he knows, and it’s still not enough. Thor falls asleep first, and Loki lines up their breath and their heartbeat, falls asleep to the sounds of the brother he’ll never know. Not like this. Never again.

 

 

--

 

He wants to, though. Gods, does he.

 

--

 

Thor wakes up in the middle of the night to a face full of Loki, and his first reaction is to swat him out of the way.

 

“Loki—”

 

Listen,” Loki hisses, his grin mad and wild. “I have it. I—Thor, I’m not—” He blinks. “I’m…”

 

When Thor sits up, Loki moves away, settles back on his heels, the sheets wrapped around his legs like a funeral shroud. He looks confused, now, and it must’ve been a dream to have woke him up so violently, so full of fire. The fire ebbs; Loki blinks at him as sleep returns to his body and his shoulders relax, his eyelids fall further.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“What were you thinking of, Loki?” Thor asks. He’s awake, anyway. He might as well know.

 

Loki shakes his head. “I’d come to a decision, I think. In my head, whilst I was sleeping.” He laughs, low and bitter. “I’m easier to understand unconscious, really.”

 

“Then…”

 

When Loki looks up at him, there’s something decisive about him, firm and unyielding, and it gives Thor pause. Here is a flicker of the man Loki almost grew to be, strong and confident and proud.

 

“I’m not going to be that, brother,” Loki tells him, and Thor’s mouth falls open.

 

“You weren’t meant to—”

 

“It’s too late,” Loki says impatiently, moving closer. “I know now. And I know that some things are unchangeable, perhaps, but I will not become him.” Loki looks at him and grins, all teeth and fire, and Thor believes him, damn him. “Some things will not change, but I will choose how I will change. I—” All of the air rushes out of him in one breath and he drops back down onto the mattress. It’s not in defeat, but he’s tired, and Thor is weary to his bones. “I promise you, brother. I swear it. I will be better. I will do my best.”

 

“I’ve no doubt in you, trickster,” Thor chuckles, and Loki spares him a cursory glare. He ruffles a hand through his hair and watches how Loki twitches his neck up to try and bite at his hand. “I believe you may surprise us all.”

 

“Damn right,” Loki mutters, and drifts off to sleep.

 

He’s hogging the blanket, and Thor snorts, curling up tighter against his pillow. Silly little beast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

__________________________________________________________________________________ THE FINAL MOURNING MOURN MORNING__________

 

The beautiful thing about not wanting to listen to yourself think, and not wanting to remember that the rest of the world exists, are both curable ills. Tony cranks his music up higher, and then, when JARVIS mentions the threat of deafness at this decibel, he raises it higher still.

 

“He’s leaving,” Steve yells, and Tony bops his head along to a drum solo.

 

“He’s on the roof,” Steve tries, but god, Tony loves this part. 

 

“He loves you.” That time, Steve’s clever. He waits for a silent moment to throw out the words. Tony still can’t quite hear him. He can’t understand a damn word.

 

And then a Zeppelin song comes on, and the quiet spaces are many, and Steve is staring at him from across the room with his arms crossed and his eyes wide and sad and Tony is not here for this.

 

“How do you feel about him?” he asks softly.

 

“Sorry,” Tony says roughly, and twists around, cracking his back. “Can’t really hear you. Decibel levels. I think my hearing might be shot.”

 

Tony entirely believes himself, Steve completely doesn’t, and it doesn’t matter, because—

 

Because it isn’t real.

 

Because magic is a fucking bitch.

 

--

 

Steve claps him on the chest as he walks past, and Tony thinks he’s walked through fire.

 

“He’s leaving. You’ve run out of time. I’m sorry.”

 

He’s burning.

 

--

 

He takes the stairs, three at a time, and his heels feel like they’re blazing, and he can’t quite go fast enough.

 

Loki is on the edge of the roof, poised like he’s set to jump off of it, but Tony gasps “Wait!” and he does.

 

Tony is breathing too hard. He let the door close behind him and Loki straightens, cocks his head. Tony has nothing to say. Everything he might’ve said has slipped away from him, and the sun is almost gone.

 

So he looks at him. So he watches Loki look back. So he pretends that everything’s going to be alright.

 

“Fly safe,” Tony says.

 

The sun hits the nearest building and it lights Loki up from boot to head, and for a moment, Tony thinks the last thing he’s going to see is the broken, terrible thing that’s taken over Loki’s eyes. And then he smiles. And then he grins, wide and blinding.

 

“I always do,” he says.

 

He bursts into sunlight, and sparkles on the air, and Tony’s breath catches in his throat. It’s beautiful. It’s stunning. The last thing that fades away from the backs of Tony’s eyes is the gleam of his teeth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

__________________________________________________________________________________ IN THE GOLDEN, GLOWING HALLS OF ASGARD ________

 

Loki stumbles into a table, a chair, retches up air and golden gasses, and swears to himself never again. There are easier ways to time travel. Like waiting.

 

And then he pulls himself up and coughs twice more, spewing out more shimmering gas and feeling it pull back to his body, settle around him and brace him to the floor.

 

Oh.

 

He’s done it.

 

He speeds out of the doors before his own mind can slow him down. The memories will take a moment, he’s sure, but he must see how much time has passed, if anyone’s noticed his absence who he can possibly tell. Mother will be proud. Father will be impressed. Everyone will notice.

 

He laughs and tugs open the last great doors and barrels through them.

 

He lands with his face to Thor’s chest, a tongue full of poorly-cleaned mail and leather.

 

He sits up spluttering, batting at his face and grimacing as Thor jumps to his feet, shaking himself off. “Brother!” he booms, and Loki thinks he is my brother and frowns. He has a picture of Thor in his head, and when he looks up, that picture stands as a picture all its own, lying over this Thor’s features and turning them like clockwork, pulling them forward.

 

Oh,” he mutters, and Thor sniffs.

 

“Why are you still on the floor? Have you ceased your bothersome scholarship?”

 

“I—”

 

“Come now, Loki,” he says impatiently, sticking out his hand. When Loki takes it, he pulls him up roughly, and he almost loses his balance again, the whole world tipping alarmingly south.

 

“I saw you,” Loki says slowly. It feels like there’s gum in the back of his throat, like his silver tongue has turned to cotton wool, thick and dry. “I saw you, and you were not you. You were—it worked.”

 

“Forgive my doubt in you, trickster,” I’ve no doubt in you, trickster, “but for me to believe you would surprise us all.” I believe you may surprise us all. “Keep up,” Thor says, turning on his heel, and Loki struggles to catch up to him, mind still whirring and feet still gloriously, nauseatingly unsteady.

 

“But I did,” he says, “I went forward—I saw you. You were—” But Thor isn’t listening. No. He’s laughing.

 

He claps Loki on the shoulder with a hand that will one day be larger and smiles through a beard that will one day be less golden. “Come now, Loki. Enough talk. We’ve friends to join on the sparring grounds. Don’t keep everyone waiting.”

 

“You’re not listening,” Loki says, exasperated, but Thor’s already carrying ahead, straightening the line of his cape and catching every passing eye. “You’re not.”

 

He isn’t. He doesn’t.

 

He never does.

 

In one thousand mortal years, the memories of a god change. They are no longer memories, but imaginings, fantasies to amuse yourself with when the reality falls so far from where you desire it to be. Thor laughs and Loki thinks of gentle eyes and gentle hands. Thor bests him in battle and Loki thinks of telling him the dynamics of spells he’s made up just to test him, and the way his eyes dance when he describes them. The grass grows high against the gold of the city, and Loki thinks of how well the two colors twine, and adds a gold braid to his formal robes and doesn’t think anything of it. Sometimes he dreams of a wizard with rough hands and a charming smile, who glows like a lightning bug and makes him laugh. Often, he doesn’t dream at all.

 

The cold comes, and it touches him in ways that he recognizes, that he wants. And then he wants to see what happens. And then he waits.