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With Love As The Guide

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I’m dancing with my demons, I’m hanging off the edge (Nobody can save me – Linkin Park)

 

   Every morning, May got up, walked to the living room and turned on the TV, because every morning, on every channel, a list of missing people went on. And every day, Peter’s name was still on that list, and his aunt cried, because she was starting to lose every hope of ever seeing him again.

   One morning, just as May was about to turn on the TV, there was a knock on the door. Her eyes lit up with hope and she rushed to open it, but when she did, outside stood Tony alone, and she looked down sadly, before stepping aside to let him in. They sat on the couch and May sighed.

   “Sorry about this mess. I… wasn’t expecting a visitor,” she said, her voice hoarse and shaky.

   Tony only gestured dismissively to state he didn’t mind, and observing him, May knew instantly he wasn’t fine himself either. His clothes were ripped and he looked filthy, with sweat and dust covering him from head to toe. His eyes, swollen and red, with dark circles around them looked as if he, too, had been crying for days. Which he probably had, judging by her personal experience. Tony caught her observing him and grimaced.

   “Just arrived from space.”

   May only nodded, as if such was perfectly normal, and there was a long silence.

   “I’m sorry, May,” Tony finally managed to say, “At first, he didn’t even want to join, said he had homework, but I…”

   He was forced to stop to stifle a sob.

   “It was all my fault,” he eventually added, voice strained as if he was choking.

   May at first couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly furious at the billionaire in front of her, the man apparently responsible for her having lost her nephew that she loved like a son. But then she didn’t anymore, she couldn’t even feel angry, because the person in front of her wasn’t the arrogant-yet-charming genius she had previously met, he was just a broken man who also loved her nephew like a son and deserved a chance to explain himself.

   The two broken people on the couch looked into each other’s eyes and suddenly they felt like they couldn’t survive on their own, so May pulled Tony into a chaste hug. The man tensed up at first, but then relaxed, and they stood like that while Tony told her everything, from the first time he ever saw a video of spider-man to that last trip that would turn out fatal. He described the planet and the fight. And he didn’t want to talk about it, but May asked him about Peter’s death, and he couldn’t refuse her that wish, he was the only one who could tell her, and so he did, he told her how the kid hugged him and told him he didn’t wanna go, and he told her how his last words were I’m sorry

   “But he had nothing to be sorry for, he was always a hero from the beginning till…,” Tony stopped because he thought that, if he didn’t say anything, then maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be true, and Peter would come back and burst through the door asking what’s for dinner and what was Mr. Stark doing there. But the time passed, and no one burst through the door asking what was Tony doing there, and so the genius offered May a room in the Compound, a place where Peter’s scent couldn’t be felt in the air, simply because it felt like the right thing to do. Before they left though, they walked to the kid’s room, and tony took his first spider-man suit, and May took the science kit she and ben had once offered him and he had loved, and only then they walked outside.

   When they reached the street, Tony suddenly turned around and walked inside again. He took a pen and a paper, jotted something down and pinned it to the door. When he walked away, the door bore a small note, along with his last piece of hope.

 

   Hi, Peter.

   If you come back, your aunt is with me at the Compound. Don’t worry, she’s fine and will be thrilled to see you. Call me and I‘ll come to get you. Don’t you dare take any more unnecessary risks.

     Tony Stark

    P.S. That one was a hug.

   

   As they made their way to the Compound, Tony vaguely wondered what how weird he must have looked for outsiders, magically reappearing on the streets, clutching onto an old spider-man suit for dear life, after having been missing for months. Not that there were those many outsiders left it see it.

---------

   “Boss, it’s good to have you back home,” Friday chirped happily as soon as Tony opened the door, and May looked around, puzzled.

   Tony almost snorted. The Compound wasn’t home, it hadn’t been home for more than two years now. It was just the place where he happened to live. Home is where the heart is, such a cliché but it had never felt truer, and his heart had been broken and stepped on way too many times. If anything was home, it was Pepper. But this was his little girl talking, and he wouldn’t lash out on her. A beat later, he realised Friday was also home.

   “Thank you, Fri. Pepper and Rhodey?”

   “Ms. Potts is at a friend’s house, and Colonel Rhodes is upstairs.”

   “Warn Rhodey I’m here, please.”

   “Already have, Boss.”

   Tony smiled slightly at his AI and then turned to May.

   “I’ll give you a guest room in the West Wing. I’m sure you’ll like it. Friday can take you there. Actually, where are our manners, Friday, say hello to our guest.”

   “Good afternoon, Mrs. Parker.”

   May immediately looked around again, trying to locate the source of the voice.

   “She’s nowhere. She’s also everywhere. Allow me to introduce you to Friday. She is a self-aware, learning, artificial intelligence. She monitors the whole Compound and the Avengers. Occasionally she also pesters me to eat or sleep, or do whatever you people do to keep yourselves alive.”

   Tony’s voice wasn’t shaking anymore, it was business-like, sarcastic even, but May knew a dismissal when she heard one, and she also knew Stark wasn’t fine, no matter how hard he tried to hide it, and how well he did it, and decided it wasn’t a good time for questions.

   “Please follow the illuminated stripes on the floor. They will lead you to your room,” the Irish said with kindness lacing her voice, Can an AI be kind? What kind of computer is this?, at the same time some parts of the floor lit up.

   Peter’s aunt shot a sad smile of thanks in Tony’ direction and disappeared around the corner. When she was out of sight, a shadow detached itself from the wall.

   “Mr. Stark?”

   The man in question spun around, startled, but then smiled slightly.

   “Nebula. I’m glad you stayed. I was starting to wonder where the hell had you gone. I can get you a room too, if you’d like.”

   “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

     “Try to get some sleep.”

   “Thank you.”

   At a motion from Tony, Friday illuminated the floor again, asking the Guardian to follow the light.

   The genius was finally alone. He dialled Pepper’s number as he walked to the living room and leant against the doorframe.

   “Boss, I believe I should warn you…”

   “Not now, Friday. Pepper?”

   “Tony? Tony, are you okay?”

   “I’m fine, Pepper.”

   He tried to make it sound believable, he really tried. He wasn’t so sure if he had managed. His fiancée didn’t seem to notice, though.

   “Where are you? This has been crazy, you went with that… magician? and then you were missing, and half the people I know disappeared, and it’s been months and I don’t know what’s happening?”

   “I’m back at the Compound now, thought I’d find you here. It was Thanos, he got the Infinity Stones. Peter… Peter’s gone.”

   Tony’s voice shook and almost broke in that last sentence. After offering her condolences, Pepper proceeded to scold Tony for having left when he had promised there would be no more surprises. Tony kept quiet and, sighing, walked to the sofa, where he found an unexpected surprise. Sitting perfectly still, eyes fixed on the wall in front of her, there was Natasha. Tony almost let the phone fall.

   “Pepper? I gotta go, now. Can you come over tomorrow?”

   The line was silent for a minute, during which Tony and Natasha simply stared at each other.

   “This is important, Tony, you can’t keep doing this to me, disappearing like this, we’ve already been through this. In fact—"

   “Not. Now. I have a situation here. Come over tomorrow?”

   Pepper’s FINE was cold, but Tony was too stunned to notice. He hung up, and turned back to the spy, one eyebrow raised.

   “Why the hell are you in my Compound?”

   “It’s my home too. And I’ve been waiting for you, for days, actually. I was starting to think you were dead.”

   She stretched and yawned.

   “My back hurts.”

   “My whole body hurts. But it’s fine, that tends to happen when you’re fighting the most powerful bastard in the universe,” he snapped.

   “You fought Thanos.”

   “Nope,” Tony answered, popping the p, “I took a vacation on space.”

   “I see you’re still your ironic self.”

   “And isn’t it good to know some things never change,” he replied without missing a beat, before turning around and walking away, “Now that you know I’m not dead, can you leave my house?”

   “No.”

   Tony stopped walking and turned to face her.

   “Of course not. ‘Cause that’s not why you came. Bold of me to think you just wanted to check if your former teammate was still alive after the disappearance of half the universe, huh?”

   “No, Tony, it’s not like that, of course I wanted to—”

   “Cut the bullshit, Nat!”

   Perhaps it was the sharpness in Tony’s voice, or perhaps it was the flash of hurt in his eyes, not hidden well enough for a spy not to notice, but something made Natasha shut up and look away.

   “How is she even here, Friday?”

   “You didn’t update any of the protocols related to Ms. Romanoff, Boss, only to the others. I had no authority to prevent her from entering.”

   It was clear by the AI’s tone she wasn’t in the least happy with the presence of the girl.

   “See, Tony, you actually wanted me to come.”

   “That’s definitely not what happened.”

   Of course that was exactly what had happened. He had hoped that, if someone would apologise and come back, that one would be Natasha. She had always seemed to understand him better, she had even started by siding up with him in all the Accords situation, and only now he started to see it had all been an act.

   “So what do you really want?” – he raised one hand to stop her from answering – “Better yet, let me guess.”

   Iron Man: Yes

   Tony Stark: Not Recommended

   She obviously hadn’t changed one bit.

-----------

   “So, let me get this straight. Romanoff was here, and instead of kicking her ass out, you decided to offer a place to crash to all the other ex-Avengers?”

     “It wasn’t exactly like –”

   “Were you even thinking, Tony?”

   A few minutes before, Tony had looked up in the middle of Natasha’s effusive thanking to see Rhodey come down the stairs with a confused look.

   “Yes! Yes, I was thinking. It’s the only way to bring them back, can’t you see? We gotta work together, so we can get to Thanos and bring back those who died. We are stronger together.”

     “Are those your words, or Steve’s?”

     Tony didn’t answer and refused to meet Rhodey’s eyes. After a while in silence, the Coronel’s gaze softened and he walked closer to Tony, carefully placing one hand on his shoulder.

   “Tones, who did you lose?”

   The engineer finally looked up.

   “Peter.”

   The name hung in the air between them and Jim’s eyes widened in surprise, as Tony looked away again.

   “He was there with you, or did you find that out when you arrived?”

   “He was there, Rhodey, and I shouldn’t have involved him in the first place.”

   The Coronel shook his head, pulling Tony into a hug.

     “I was there, Tony. Thanos snapped and half the universe disappeared? How are you to blame?”

   He should have saved them. He should have stopped him. He should have tried harder. That’s how he was to blame. But that was not the answer his friend wanted to hear, and so he didn’t say it. Instead, he pulled himself together and forced an ironic smile.

   “Is it hug-Tony-Stark day and no-one warned me? Because it’s the second hug I’m getting today and it’s starting to be awkward.”

   “No, it’s I-got-my-best friend-back-when-I-thought-he-was-dead day. Now go and get some sleep, you look terrible.”

   “Thanks, you too. But yeah, sure, I’ll do that,” Tony answered while heading to the coffee machine in the kitchen.

   “Somehow I doubt it. Coffee, Tony Stark and sleep sounds like a dubious combination.”

   “I will. I will, right after I check something.”

   The Coronel shook his head, knowing too well what that meant, while Tony made his way out of the door, stopping for a moment in the doorway.

   “You were with Steve, right?”

   “I’m sorry.”

   “Hey, you’re alive. Nothing else matters.”

   “But just ‘cause I was with him, doesn’t mean I want the ones who hurt you to live here.”

   “I know you missed them, Rhodey. And that’s fine.”

   The rest of Tony’s path to the workshop was silent. Once inside, he stopped, taking in his surroundings. Everything was just as he had left it, but yet something felt different. He shook his head.

   Get a grip, Stark.

   He sat down in a stool, and, at a motion of his hand, a holographic screen with a plan of the Compound appeared in the air. Another swirl of the hand, and only the floor below the penthouse was visible.

   “Friday, assign this room to Rogers. Make sure he’s got everything he needs there and –”

   His voice had trailed out by the end of the sentence and he looked around.

   “Someone was here. Friday?”

   “Yes, Boss?”

   “Who entered this room since I’ve gone missing?”

   “Only miss Potts and Coronel Rhodes, twice”

   “Did they take anything? Move anything?”

   “No, Boss, none of that.”

   Tony got up and walked across the room, carefully looking at every table and shelf, occasionally picking up a few things and moving them around, muttering to himself.

   “Show me footage of the day before I left.”

   “Sure thing, Boss.”

   Images from the lab from months ago came up and Tony observed them carefully. Everything looked pretty much the same, but something was off, and yet Tony couldn’t quite pin-point what it was.

   It’s probably nothing, Stark, for fuck’s sake, Get. A. Grip.

   Tony shrugged, and he was about to ask Friday to take down the footage when he noticed some weird movement on it.

   “Friday, rewind ten seconds”

   The AI did as she was told, and Tony looked closely at the video.

   “There! Did you see it? Those... Those pieces of paper just moved as if someone had walked by them.”

   Tony started walking to the door, meaning to call Rhodey.

   “Boss, I fear you might be overreacti –”

   A flash of green aimed at the door interrupted the AI, and Tony jumped out of the way just in time.

   “Or apparently you are not. I can now detect some alien form of energy, although I’m still unable to register any heat signatures at all.”

   With a thoughtful nod, Tony turned around to where the flash had come from, but saw nothing. Just as he was about to touch the door again, another green flash, directed at the doorknob, made him stop and spin around.

   “Whoever is there, show yourself, or there’ll be consequences.”

   A dry laugh, but no-one appeared from the shadows.

   “And how will that work, if you don’t know where I am?”

   The voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time, as if its owner was in many places.

   Tony sighed. He knew that voice, and he wasn’t happy about that.

   “Loki. You’re supposed to be dead.”

   “So I’ve heard.”

   The god finally made an appearance, one of his clones in each corner of the room. Tony rolled his eyes tiredly and leaned against the door.

   “Of course. It wasn’t you, was it? It was only a clone of you. Well, according to Natasha, Pointbreak is mourning you. Again.”

   “My brother is a fool. I made it as clear as I could that it was nothing but an illusion, and yet he was deceived.”

   Tony shrugged and crossed his arms.

   “I’ll just hope there is an excellent reason for you being here, other than the wanting to conquer the world and kill us all usual shit.”

   The clones disappeared and the real Loki smirked, and, just like the first time Tony had seen that expression on him, the genius wondered how the god was able to look teasing in all the wrong occasions, only to quickly realise Tony himself was pretty much the same. And, also as in Tony’s, behind the smirk was a perfectly distinguishable hint of sadness.

   “Is defeating Thanos a good enough reason for you, Anthony?”

   “You realise I don’t trust you right? Not even a bit.”

   “I’d be disappointed if you did,” Loki replied without missing a beat.

   “How can I know you’re in my side, and not his?”

   “Thanos’s?” Loki shook his head slightly, “I know you don’t trust me, Anthony, I don’t need you to, and you shouldn’t, but I’d never fight for Thanos.”

   He sent Loki. The attack on New York. That’s him.

   Something told him that maybe, just this once, Loki could be trusted. So, nodding thoughtfully, he unfolded his arms and sat down on a chair, motioning for Loki to sit on another. Giving him a few minutes of his attention couldn’t hurt, and hopefully it would prevent him from getting thrown off the window, at least for now.

   “I’m listening.”

Chapter Text

Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you (Randy Pausch)

 

“I’m listening.”

Loki looked suspiciously from Tony to the chair he was being offered. From what he had heard of Stark, he had expected the man to be more stubborn, refusing to accept any help. And yet, there he was, sitting, waiting for him to explain himself. It almost looked like a trap, but all his senses told him it wasn’t. Stark didn’t look like himself, but he wasn’t doing it on purpose, as a trick. He sat in the edge of the chair, ready to jump to the ground at the first signs of danger. They glared at each other for a while, in a staring contest with no prize, until Tony shifted slightly in his chair and crossed his arms again.

“So?”

“What would you like me to say?”, Loki asked, not knowing what Stark was waiting for.

“You just said you’d never fight for Thanos. Bruce told me Thanos had sent you. Care to explain?”

Of course Stark would want to know all about it. Not going to happen. His time with Thanos wasn’t something he’d talk about.

“I do not wish to talk about that.”

“Oh, right. Sure. Then we’ll just forget that you destroyed half of New York while trying to take over our world, and be buddies, is that it?”

 

I want the Tesseract, and I want you to bring chaos to the Earth. Take down its defenders. Leave the planet unprotected. Bring me Stark. Do not dare to fail me.

 

“I had no interest whatsoever in taking over your world.”

“It certainly did not seem like that at the time. What are you going to tell me? That you were mind-controlled, or something.”

A flash of pain and fear crossed Loki’s eyes, as he remembered the abyss and the cold, but he hid both emotions quickly. Not quickly enough for Tony not to notice them, though.

“You were mind-controlled. Thanos–?”

Loki narrowed his eyes.

“I said I did not wish to talk about it.”

With a sigh, Tony unfolded his arms again, and scratched the back of his neck.

“That’s... Quite a lot to take in. I don’t know if I believe you, God of Lies.”

“Thanos killed off half the universe. I only destroyed half of New York. When you put it in perspective it doesn’t sound that bad, does it?” – the trickster said, observing Tony closely.

“We could use your magic. On the other hand, you could betray us and kill us all if you wanted to.”

Loki smirked. Tony knew what he was talking about, Loki could indeed betray them and kill them all, and it felt good not to be underestimated for a chance. But for the first time in centuries, he didn’t feel the need to.

“I also have no interest whatsoever in killing you all.”

“So, no throwing me out the window? ”

“Unless you annoy me too much.”

Tony actually half-smiled at that, and Loki wondered if the man had any self-preservation instincts. Then the genius flicked his hand, and a holo-screen of the Compound appeared. Loki observed Tony while, with more motions of his hand, he travelled through the floors of the facility, muttering to himself all along, until he finally spoke out loud.

“There you go. You can have the right half of this floor. It’s right below my penthouse, if you need something, although I don’t think I’ll be spending much time there. Now, if you could go to your quarters and leave me alone, I’d appreciate it, I have a lot to do an –”

“Excuse me?”

Loki interrupted, a hint of the disbelief he was trying to hide present in his voice, and Tony stopped talking and raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

“You’re... Asking me to stay here?”

“Not quite asking. More like assuming you would. People usually do that.”

“Do what? Stay in your home when you didn’t invite them?”

“Pretty much. If you have somewhere else to stay, it’s fine, though, I’ll already have plenty of unwanted company.”

“I... Don’t have anywhere else to stay I guess? The plan was to teleport back and forth when needed.”

“Sounds like too much work. Besides, you’ll be needed here all the time, to the planning and stuff. It’s up to you. Friday will lead you there if you want.”

Loki hadn’t a very thorough knowledge of Midgardian culture, but he was pretty sure Tony wasn’t referring to the day of the week.

“Friday is... your servant?”

“I am no servant!” – Friday chimed in, indignantly – “I am Mr. Stark’s personal artificial intelligence.”

Loki looked up, trying to find the voice, but his eyes turned back to Tony when the latter sighed amused.

“Not in the ceiling. She doesn’t have a body, it’s of no use trying to find her.”

“An intelligent bodiless voice? Sounds like magic.”

“Not magic. Science of the most advanced kind. It’s hard to explain and I don’t have the time now, but she can help you with everything, if you need something just ask.”

Taking that as his cue to leave, the trickster got up and walked outside, where he looked up at the ceiling.

“Friday?” – he tentatively called.

“Yes, Mr. Laufeyson?”

Loki wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the name the AI gave him, so he decided to keep a neutral expression.

“Can you lead me to my room please? ”

“Of course, Mr. Laufeyson. Follow the illuminated stripe on the floor to the elevator.”

The trickster followed the stripe. It was hard to impress him after so many years, but this AI really had managed to. As he entered the elevator, Friday started speaking again.

“I will take you to the floor below the penthouse. As all the others with guesthouses, this floor is divided into two separate rooms. Yours is to be the one in the right. No-one is currently occupying the one in the left, although when the former Avengers arrive, it might be assigned to one of them.”

So the Captain and the others were coming back, huh? That was bound to be interesting to watch.

The elevator came to a halt and the door opened. In the corridor, there were two doors right next to one another. Loki walked to the one in the right and tried to open it, but it was locked.

“It opens by voice recognition. Mr. Stark has already entered you in the system, you must say your name to the door and it will open.”

“Loki Laufeyson,” the trickster said, trying the door again, but nothing happened.

“Loki”

Again, nothing.

“God of Mischief?”

Still nothing. Loki sighed and leaned against the opposite wall, wondering what name Stark might have given him. When he recalled the first time they had met, he shook his head, and smiled tiredly.

“Reindeer Games”

 

Make your moves, Reindeer Games.

 

The door unlocked with a pop and Loki pushed it open.

“Welcome to your new room, Mr. Laufeyson. Please do ask me if you need something.”

 

Chapter Text

There are many who don't wish to sleep for fear of nightmares. Sadly, there are many who don't wish to wake for the same fear. (Richelle Goodrich)

 

In the workshop, Tony leaned against the back of his chair, and ran his hands through his hair.

“Could my life get even more confusing?”

“You were the one who invited him to stay, Boss,” Friday answered, taking down the holo-screen that still had the footage on it, and Tony rubbed his eyes and wheeled the chair to the table.

“Don’t go all snarky on me, baby girl.”

“I learnt with the best.”

Tony rolled his eyes playfully.

“Pull up any information you can find about the energy in that green blast of Loki’s.”

The AI did as she was told, and soon one holographic screen in front of Tony was displaying all the information she had been able to find.

“Right, so, if we could break this kind of energy down into its particles, we should be able to develop a system that would be able to detect Loki even when he is invisible. Put on some music, Fri, fire this up.”

With AC/DC blasting in the speakers, Tony got to work. For an hour, he analysed the two blasts of energy, breaking them down as much as he could, singing along to the lyrics as he worked. After a while, Tony stopped singing, and everything was dead quiet for some minutes, after which some soft snores started to be heard. The months of lack of sleep had finally caught up with the resident genius. Friday saved all his work and turned down the lights. The billionaire was tired enough to sleep peacefully for a few hours.

 

Everything is dark. Everything is quiet. Everything looks peaceful. All around, the background is a mixture of dark blue and black, and that alone, is terrifying enough. Suddenly there is a loud bang, and there isn’t any black and blue anymore, everything is light. And then, there isn’t light anymore, he’s trapped in a building, and with another loud bang the building collapses, and Tony falls, he falls and falls, he falls more than the height of any building, without his suit assembling around him. He can see Mark L rushing to him, but somehow he knows the suit won’t make it to him on time. The ground comes closer and closer and just as Tony is hiding his head in his arms to protect his head, he jerks awake.

 

“Boss! Boss, wake up! Boss?”

Tony woke up with a jolt, sweat dripping down his face, the lights already on. He clutched at his chest, trying to breathe.

“Breathe on my count, Boss. In, one two three four and hold, five six, and out, seven eight nine and ten. In, one two three four, and hold five six, and out seven eight nine and ten.”

Following Friday’s lead, Tony eventually managed to slow his breathing, but his mind was still racing.

It was just a nightmare, just a nightmare, a nightmare, all is fine, he kept repeating to himself.

Eventually, he gave up trying to go back to sleep and got up, walking to the kitchen, but when he got there, he realised someone else had already had the same idea. In a corner, with a cup of tea and a book, Loki looked as if he had been there for ages.

“Can’t sleep?” – Tony asked.

“Didn’t try,” Loki replied shortly without turning away from the book.

“Neither did I...,” Tony replied with a sigh, making Loki look slightly up, only to quickly look back to the book before the other man noticed his movement.

The genius made his way to the coffee machine, starting it. While his coffee brewed, he glanced at the god who was still sitting at the table pretending not to notice the man’s presence. Taking his cup, and also a pack of coffee beans to fill his machine in the workshop, Tony left the kitchen quickly and without any other word. Loki’s presence still made him a little uncomfortable, and he hoped it had been a good idea to let him stay.

A few hours and even more cups of coffee after his little trip, Tony had finished his project, and was upgrading Friday to fit the program he had developed to detect Loki’s presence and lies.

“Call Loki to the workshop please, Fri,” Tony asked while he prepared another cup of coffee.

---------

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough of that already?”

Tony spun around to find Loki looking from the empty cups in the table to the one in Tony’s hand.

“First lesson about Midgard. You never have enough coffee.”

“I’m afraid that’s not a lesson about the Earth in general, Boss, but about you only.”

“Well, and what’s the difference?” – Tony joked – “I need you to stay invisible for a second. Do your best for Friday not to find you.”

With a slight nod, Loki concentrated for a moment and the moment after he was gone. Tony squinted at the place he had been at only seconds ago and sighed when he couldn’t see anything.

“I hate it when you do that. Fri?”

“I can see him, Boss. As clearly as I’m seeing you,” Friday chirped happily.

“Perfect. You can appear now, Loki. Now I need you to lie to me.”

Loki became visible again and snorted.

“Now, that’s something I’ve never heard.”

Tony smirked slightly – “Well, you have now, Wizard of Oz”, Loki wouldn’t even question what that was – and the god started creating an illusion. After a short while, Friday interrupted proudly.

“I can detect it as a lie, Boss!”

Tony whooped and punched the air.

“Good girl, Fri, good girl!”

“How?”

Tony stopped and glanced at him.

“What do you mean, how?”

“Not even Heimdall was able to detect my illusions most of the times.”

Tony shrugged, and could barely keep the smug tone out of his voice.

“I don’t know who that Heimdall guy is, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have an ultra-developed computer within his reach."

Loki rolled his eyes at that, and Tony almost grinned. Almost.

“Anyways, you can go now, I just needed to check this was working. Oh, just a heads-up, Rhodey should be awake by now and he’ll yell at you when he finds you.”

One raised eyebrow showed Tony that Loki had no idea who he was talking about.

“My best friend, Rhodey, Coronel Rhodes when he’s angry, is gonna yell at you when he finds you. Y’know, the whole taking over the city and throwing me out the window stuff didn’t go well with him when he found out.”

With a shrug, Loki turned away from the genius and started walking to the door.

“If it makes you feel better, he’s gonna yell at me too when he finds out you’re staying.”

The god turned around to glance at Tony, an almost playful smirk forming in his lips.

“I fell way better now”

At that, Tony actually grinned.

---------

“Boss, Coronel Rhodes is coming downstairs and he isn’t very happy.”

The warning came only a few minutes later, and Tony grimaced when it did, wondering if he shouldn’t just lock himself down in the workshop.

“You could, Boss, but you’d have to deal with him eventually when you get out for coffee.”

“Don’t read my mind, Fri, we’ve talked about this.”

“Then you should know I don’t actually read minds and am just excellent at reading your body language.”

Tony smiled slightly.

“Who even made you such a snarky bastard?”

“I’m afraid you did, Boss.”

Tony rolled his eyes and got back to his project, but just as he was getting started the door opened, and closed again with a loud bang. When Tony turned around again, he had a fuming Coronel glaring him down. Trying to make himself smaller, Tony looked down and pulled his knees up to his chest.

“What the fuck, Tony?”

“Rhodey, I...”

“No! Listen, I got it with the rogues, but Loki? Have you forgotten what he did?”

“No, Rhodey, I haven’t, just listen.”

James collapsed on the sofa with a deep sigh.

“Please tell me you’ve got an amazing excuse. I don’t know, like it not being him, but his evil twin pulling a Mr. Hyde.”

“Actually...”

“On second thought, I might not wanna hear that.”

Tony raised an eyebrow and glared at his best friend until he sighed again.

“Go on.”

“Actually, it might not have been him,” Tony started to explain, and held a hand up before Rhodey could say anything, “I mean, it was him, but then it wasn’t. He might have been mind-controlled. I’m not sure, he didn’t tell me much, but—”

Tony stopped mid-sentence, because even he could realise how weak his excuse seemed.

“Tony...”

They stayed in silence for almost a minute, which was a lot coming from Tony.

“His eyes look empty when he smiles,” the genius finally blurted out.

Rhodey shook his head with a sigh.

“God, Tony. You can’t fix everything.”

Tony knew he couldn’t fix everything. But he was an engineer, fixing was his job and his passion.

“I can try.”

“Not if it’s breaking you, you can’t.”

“I’m fine.”

Tony held Rhodes’s gaze steadily, until the latter’s expression softened.

“Stop adopting people and focus on yourself.”

“I didn’t adopt anyone!”

The Coronel muttered an unconvinced Right and sat down next to Tony.

“Is it any use telling you to kick him out?”

“No. Besides, we need him.”

His voice didn’t show how insecure he actually felt about these arrangements. It didn’t.

“Also, I’ve developed a system that tells me when he’s lying.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Rhodey got up, a hand on Tony’s shoulder.

“Just go to sleep.”

“I’ve slept.”

“Right.”

Rhodey opened the door and left, but came back in right after.

“Yours do too, you know?”

“My what, do what, exactly?”

“Your eyes. They look empty when you smile too.”

Before Tony could manage an answer, the door closed behind James and, shaking a feeling of uneasiness, Tony yawned and turned to his table, loosing himself in another project.

Chapter Text

 

So say goodbye and change the road, pack it up and disappear (Good Goodbye – Linkin Park)

 

A few days went by. Loki would wake up every day to Friday calling him at the time he had set, walk outside and prepare his breakfast, all alone in the giant common kitchen. Then he’d walk back to his room where a stack of books awaited him, and where he’d spend most of his day, if he didn’t travel somewhere else entirely. He hadn’t crossed paths with Tony after that day. Actually, he had seen him once, while the genius was walking downstairs, but Tony had looked so wrecked Loki had known better than to talk to him. A few minutes later, he had seen Pepper storming out of the Compound, so he found it wise not to meddle.

A week after he met Tony in the lab, when he left the elevator absorbed in his most recent readings, he stumbled upon a group of very confused, very pissed off Avengers. He rubbed his eyes and cursed himself under his breath for not having paid attention to Friday when she had told him the rogues had already arrived.

The superheroes were talking among themselves, and Loki seriously considered retreating back into the elevator before they noticed him. But, the second after, the conversation stopped, and all the rogues turned to stare at the god.

Oh shit, was the only thing he had time to mutter before Natasha Romanoff was running to him. Before she could reach him, there was a green flash, she was projected to the wall, and Friday spoke, ordering them all to stop before she had to intervene any further. With a furtive glare in his direction, Steve walked to Natasha, offering his hand, that she ignored by getting up on her own. Stifling a laugh, Loki turned to walk away, but a word from the Captain made him stop in his tracks.

“Out,” he said in a stern voice, no space to replies.

Loki could feel the magic already pooling at his fingertips, ready to lash out at any given moment.

“I beg your pardon?”

But before Steve could repeat his order, a voice from behind spoke in an even sterner tone.

“No, I beg your pardon?”

Loki glanced back to find Tony, his eyes fixed on Steve, his hands closed into fists.

“Tony!”

The Captain made to advance, with a gesture Loki didn’t recognise. Was he going to hug Tony? Shake his hand? Either one, it wasn’t completed, because Rogers was stopped dead by the glare the genius was sending in his direction.

“Please tell me I got it wrong, and you weren’t trying to expel someone from my house.”

“You knew he was here?”

Tony’s eye roll in response was positively hilarious.

“No. He is in my house, in my AC/DC shirt—wait, why are you wearing my AC/DC shirt?”

Loki turned a slight shade of crimson, not enough for anyone but Bruce, who was the one standing closer to him, to see.

“It was lost in one of the drawers of my room and it... looked comfortable? You haven’t left the workshop on days, I thought you wouldn’t see?”

Tony laughed, and Loki smiled a bit, feeling a tiny bit less unsure of where he stood.

“Anyways, he’s in my house, in my AC/DC shirt that even manages to make him look good, and you think I was unaware of that?”

“Tony, this is Loki were talking about here.”

“That was his name alright, last time I checked.”

Loki stifled another laugh in the back of his hand.

“Come on, Tony! You can’t be serious! Just make him go!”

Loki observed as Tony shook his head slightly.

“Who has a problem with Loki staying here?”

Steve and Natasha raised their hands, while Bruce just shrugged, and Loki couldn’t take his eyes off Tony while the genius, his face expressionless, pointed at the door.

“Out.”

Loki’s shoulders slumped, and he started walking to the door, forcing himself not to look at Steve’s smile.

“Not you, idiot.”

Tony’s voice made him stop and turn in his heels.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re obviously staying. You’re the one I invited, they’re the ones that all but forced themselves on here, I don’t want them.”

“Tony, you can’t be serious—,” Natasha started.

“Dead serious. Do I look like I’m in the mood for jokes?”

Looking, really looking, at Tony for the first time in days, Loki realised how different his eyes were. Not that they had ever been happy, not even as back as the time Loki – Thanos, unbelievable that after all this time he still had to keep reminding himself – had invaded the Earth. But if then they had been sad, now they were empty. Empty eyes were something Loki himself knew well, they were the clearest symptom of an empty soul, and, for the first time in his thousand-of-years-long life, the god felt compassion for a fellow being.

There was no answer to the question they all knew was a rhetorical one. If Tony wasn’t in the mood for jokes – and Tony was always in for a good joke – then no one was in the mood for an argument.

“That’s what I thought. Reindeer Games is staying for as long as he wants. You stay, or leave, I don’t care, you do you,” was Tony’s final statement, before he motioned for Loki to get in the elevator.

The god didn’t usually take orders, but perhaps this time could be the exception that makes the rule. Besides, fighting with the Rogues wasn’t Loki’s idea of a good time, now was it? The Rogues – Loki was definitely keeping that nickname for them. The last thing Loki saw before the doors closed, was Bruce walking to Tony, each collapsing in the other’s arms, while Tony whispered, in a voice so low Loki would bet not even the Captain’s enhanced hearing could pick up, Not you. You stay. I need you here, Bruciebear.

Later in his room, after eating the breakfast Friday somehow managed to bring upstairs, the main thought on Loki’s head wasn’t the Rogues, nor Tony, nor Bruce. It was Thor, who had been nowhere to be seen during the exchange. What was he up to? Had he died? Had he gone after Thanos all alone? Had he, too, turned to dust? Unlikely as it seemed, Loki had completely lost track of his brother after the ship they had been in had blown up.

------

Two weeks went by. Two weeks during which neither Loki, nor the Rogues had a glimpse at Tony. The god couldn’t say he was pleased by that situation. Not that he had any particular desire of seeing Tony, he hadn’t, nope, not at all, but without the genius to handle his former teammates, he couldn’t go anywhere without stumbling upon one of them bitching about something. Either it was the water that didn’t come out of the tap, or the fridge that didn’t open, or one of them was stuck inside an elevator that insisted to keep playing annoying Christmas tunes, even though they were barely in March. Loki didn’t really understand how that might be possible since all the devices seemed to be working perfectly well for him, but he suspected Friday might have something to do with it, and while he found it funny, he had early on decided he’d better keep himself out of that. Therefore, he never asked, and Friday never told him. If he had asked, though, the AI would probably have told him she was only doing what Tony would never be mean enough to do by himself. The god could’ve handled that, he enjoyed a good prank. After all, a whole lot of his life had been spent pranking his brother.

The venomous glances he was thrown whenever he entered a room were something he had grown used to throughout his life. Tony’s friend who had yelled at him on his first day at the Tower, had left only a few days after. From what Friday had told him, he was gone for a meeting regarding the standing of the Avengers and the Rogues in this world-shattering situation. The god couldn’t help but laugh while he watched the footage that the AI pulled up for him of the Coronel saying goodbye to Tony before leaving. The genius had, with a surprised look, stated that he “does not understand why someone will hold a meeting where half the participants are currently prisoners of the vacuum cleaner,” his words, not Loki’s, to which his friend had answered “It’ll be a quick meeting, I’ll be back before there’s any dust on the shelf”, both once again proving that humour was the most effective way to deal with pain. Rhodey’s absence wouldn’t have bothered the trickster if it hadn’t been the excuse the Rogues needed to bring Barton into the Compound. If Loki wasn’t comfortable with the others hanging around next to him, he certainly wasn’t around the archer. The god would even have apologised, but seeing as Clint’s first reaction had been to immediately launch at him trying to punch him, causing his magic to once again lash out, and Friday to once again threaten them all, Loki thought it would be best not to approach him anymore. He was certain Tony was aware of the presence of the newcomer, but he had obviously chosen not to comment on it. One week in, and the god couldn’t take it, anymore. Barton was driving him crazy, what with his furtive looks and never-ending threats. Loki knew hatred, he knew hostility, but he had never known guilt, and that was exactly the feeling the archer brought up on him. Even though the trickster knew that wasn’t all on him, he had still done to Clint what had been inflicted upon himself.

And that was how, one day, he found himself getting ready to teleport into the workshop, only to try doing it and ending up right outside the door, to find he couldn’t get inside no matter how much he tried.

“Mr. Laufeyson, you are not allowed to enter without explicit authorisation from Mr. Stark.”

“Very well, and can he let me in?”

“Boss is in full lockdown mode.”

“I have food,” Loki blurted out before he realised what he was saying.

But Friday had gone silent and Loki turned to walk away. In his way up, he went to the kitchen to put down the tray and next to the fridge stood the archer, looking for food. With a sigh, Loki slammed the tray on the table and Clint jumped to turn to him, hands raised to defend himself, looking suspiciously from the trickster to the plate, and with another sigh, Loki turned to leave.

“Just eat it. It is not poisoned,” he spat, walking through the door.

And there was absolutely no reason for Loki to keep trying to enter the workshop. But yet he still went to the door, with a tray of food, day after day after day again.

He was not prepared him for the day Tony finally let him in.

Chapter Text

If I cannot break your fall, I’ll pick you up right off the ground (Invisible – Linkin Park)

 

It had been eight days. Eight fucking days, and Loki was still trying to go downstairs every day. Why hadn’t he just given up yet? The god was determined, Tony had to give him that. And he brought food. Food was good, Tony liked food, especially when he had gone for eight days on coffee and little snacks. That eighth day, when Friday informed him Loki was once again at the door, this time with a dish of pasta, Tony silently asked for permission of the two other people in the room and, with it granted, he asked Friday to open the door, huffing when Loki, who had already turned to leave, spun back around to face the opening door, with the most confused look Tony had ever seen. A smile plastered in his face, the genius welcomed the god. He let the smile fall when he noticed Loki’s eyes weren’t confused anymore. They were just angry.

“Sorry. Terribly sorry. I’m the worst. I knew there was a reason why I didn’t do people anymore.”

Without letting Loki interrupt him, Tony launched into an endless apology, only interrupted when Loki barked an Anthony that had a definitive tone to it, that was an order, and not a request. Tony shut up, and the god told him about how things always seemed to be broken when the Rogues needed them and how annoying it was that they all hated him without letting him explain what happened, not that he would explain, but it would still have been kind of them to ask – and yes, Antony, I know you hate me too, but at least you are giving me a chance,

“and Barton’s been giving me death glares all week, so if you could eat your goddamned pasta and get your ass upstairs, it’d be great,” Loki finished, green sparks lighting his fingertips.

“The Rogues?” – Tony asked with a tiny smile.

“That’s what I call them but was that seriously the only thing you thought relevant?”

“Of course not. Friday, what can you tell me about the Rogues’ situation?”

“Well, Boss, everything seems to be perfectly functional in the Compound at the moment. Perhaps our guests do not know how to use the facili–”

Friday,” Tony interrupted sharply.

“Sorry, Boss…”

Tony sighed and rubbed his eyes. He really didn’t want to deal with this, not in as little sleep as he was getting.

“Fri, I need you to stop. Please. This – I know I’m not that good of a role model – but this is no way to solve a problem, these petty fights, they are no good.”

“I’m sorry, Boss. I was only doing it, because I knew you’d never and they deserve it.”

Loki couldn’t help but agree. Friday had filled him in the details of the superhero’s fight, and she had done so with a (not so) healthy amount of spite, which was why the god had been pretty certain the AI was behind the malfunctions.

“The question isn’t whether people deserve something or not. It’s whether we should do it or not. And this kind of thing, Friday, we’re better than that, especially you, you are better than that. Now go and apologise.”

“Yes, Boss,” Friday sounded chastised but with a tinge of sarcasm, and Tony wondered when the hell had his daughter become so similar to him. Right after, he also wondered when the hell had he started referring to Friday as his daughter in his head.

He stifled a yawn and looked around with a tired smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I have to go upstairs and...” another yawn “…we should start training, make a plan, team work, all those things I’m so bad at. May, Nebula, are you coming?”

No answer, but both the girls got up and joined them. May held out one hand for Loki to shake.

“My name is May Parker, and you must be Mr. Laufeyson. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

At first, Loki wanted to believe she was lying. Of course it’s not a pleasure, why should it be? But when he looked in her eyes, he didnt’t see any deception in there. Either the woman was a better trickster than he was – unlikely – or she was actually telling the truth – also unlikely but maybe, just maybe, slightly less so.

With a graceful little bow, the god took her hand and, instead of shaking it, placed a feather-light kiss on her knuckles.

“Call me Loki, Lady Parker. The pleasure is all mine.”

Curiously enough, Loki was actually telling the truth.

“Call me May, then,” she answered equally gracefully, a slight blush spreading in her cheeks.

Tony glanced at them and then at Nebula and they both raised their eyebrows. The corners of Nebula’s mouth quirked up and Tony chuckled.

“Come on, lovebirds, let’s get going, I’d hate to be late for the party.”

May pulled her hand free, and smoothed some non-existent wrinkles of her shirt, blushing harder, and Tony would have bet that, under the hair, Loki’s ears had turned pink too.

-------

In the ride up in the elevator, the conversation flowed smoothly. Tony was a natural at keeping a press smile on and casual talk going, Loki was quite an interesting person when he wasn’t breaking windows, May always made for a pleasant company and even Nebula, who didn’t usually talk much, seemed to be getting better at the whole socialising thing. So much so, that by the time they reached the end of the corridor, deeply involved in a – totally serious – conversation about whether AC/DC was, or not, better than Blue Swede, Tony was actually glad he had left the workshop.

That was, of course, until he had to face everyone he didn’t want to see.

“There is no song in the world better than Shoot to Thrill. There simply isn’t,” Tony opened the door and Nebula, who was opening her mouth to answer, closed it again in face of all the others and retreated into the shadows in the corner of the room.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Tony stepped inside followed closely by Loki. His press smile on, he sat down next to Bruce.

“Hey, Big Guy, what’s up? Had a lot of work downstairs, built a couple of things for the tea… for you all and now I’m ready to start planning things, so maybe Loki should start explaining and…” he realised he was babbling and sighed, “yeah, Loki.”

Steve rose to his feet, his eyes piercing Tony’s. He claimed he didn’t need that crazy man to explain anything, there were fine – better – without him and that Tony had to be crazy too to even entertain the thought of joining such a man.

Tony was going to get up to face the Captain, but Bruce beat him to it, raising to his feet, hands on the table and angry eyes.

“Thanos is the villain here, Captain. Can you concentrate on that, and let go of your personal rivalries for a moment?” he was now on the receiving end of a Captain America – is – disappointed – in – you stare, but was completely unfazed by it.

“Loki is a madman, Bruce! Even you are defending him now? I wasn’t expecting anything else from Stark, but you’ve always been reasonable.”

“Oh, please do continue talking about me as if I was not present!” Loki raised his voice and felt hand take his own. He looked down and saw Tony rubbing soothing circles in his palm where only a few seconds before his magic had been pooling. It was oddly comforting, but the man had to have the self-preservation instincts of a moth.

“I spent a lot of time with Thor and Loki while you were busy almost killing Tony for no fucking reason at all. Loki is a good man.”

“And a valuable ally,” Tony added, his voice even, as if that was the only reason why he wanted him to stay. The calming pressure the god could still feel in his hand told Loki otherwise.

“It’s my best friend’s life that’s at stake, and I don’t trust him to cherish it.”

“My son is there to!” Tony snapped, and everyone fell quiet as Tony realised what he had said.

From a corner came the sound of a choked sob, easy to hear in the death-like silence of the room, and May walked to the table, where she collapsed half on the floor and half on Tony’s lap.

“Oh, Tony,” she kept saying while the genius petted her hair.

“Shhh, it’ll be okay, May, I’ll bring him back. I’ll bring our little one back.”

“You have a –” Steve started asking, his eyes widening, but was rudely interrupted by Loki.

“Oh, don’t be an idiot, Rogers!” Loki snapped, and brought his hand up to Tony’s shoulder, squeezing it gently (the man flinched, but then relaxed, so Loki assumed it was fine), “You of all people should know what it feels like to care about someone so much they become family.”

A flash of hurt crossed Steve’s eyes and he sat down. The room fell silent again, a heavy silence broken only by May’s little sobs and Tony’ quiet words of comfort.

“Hush, May, don’t cry, you know he freaks out when you’re sad, he’ll be fine, he’s with…” he looks around the room, eyes focusing on Steve for a split second before returning to May, “he’s with Bucky, the one with the metal arm he was so impressed with? He’ll be fine.”

With a pained smile, Steve moved to kneel next to May.

“Bucky has… a lot of experience taking care of stubborn kids who like to fight evil. I assure you he’ll take care of your son.”

The aunt raised her watery eyes and muttered a soft thank you, directed at both Steve and Tony and for just a tiny second the two Avengers shared a look of complicity. The moment was broken when Rhodey cleared his throat. Maybe they should get started, God knew what Thanos was doing with all the infinity stones in his possession.

“If I might interject…”

“As long as it goes better than the last time you interjected,” Bruce interrupted with a sound that was a funny-yet-weird mix of a chuckle and a growl.

Loki graced him with a glare before going on.

“If I might interject,” he glared again at Bruce for good measure, “Thanos does not have all the infinity stones.”

Loki opened his hand, and a blue cube appeared, only to disappear again when the god closed his hand in reaction to the riot that started in the room. A confusion that only got worse when a portal opened in the room and a small man stumbled into the room.

“Wong! What are you doing here? Very useful, we could use another wizard, come on, join the reunion, make yourself at home.”

The way Wong ignored Tony would have hurt him if Tony himself wasn’t talking only to cover his surprise.

“The Tesseract. You have the Tesseract,” the recently-arrived sorcerer pointed at Loki, “Are you with Thanos?”

(“Looks like someone is finally asking the important questions”, Clint muttered under his breath.)

“I am not with Thanos. I am here to stand with you against the titan. The Tesseract is our biggest weapon. Thanos has a fake, a very good fake that I did myself, it does almost everything the original one does, with a couple very important exception: the first is that, when I activate this one, the fake will automatically disappear.”

Steve wasn’t listening anymore. He had stopped listening when Loki had said The Tesseract is our biggest weapon, and he had started talking before he could stop himself. Loki had had the space stone all that time. The space stone, no less. He could have brought Bucky back already, couldn’t he?

“No, I could not.”

“He needs someone to go get them,” Wong informed, observing Loki, “Someone to bring them from the soul world where the fake stone sent them. Am I right?”

“That’s correct. The soul stone is self-aware and its power is too great for one object alone to wield, and as so it needs the other stones to operate. When it interacted with the one I created, it realised it could not send the dead to their rightful place and therefore imprisoned them inside itself. Only if the real space stone joins the gauntlet will it be able to finish its mission.”

“Rule number 1, for those who can’t keep up: do not let the space stone fall in Thanos’s hand,” Tony interrupted, “Please go on,” he winked at Loki with a smile.

Loki rolled his eyes playfully, “Thank you for this so necessary interruption. If, as indeed is the plan, the Tesseract stays with us, your friends will stay in the soul world unless we free them, which we shall. Except that to do so, we must, as always with the soul stone, pay a price. Someone has got to go get them. It is possible for that person to come out, but I have never heard of anyone who has managed to,” he looked at Wong for confirmation.

“I have heard of one person. He… went crazy from the experience and died not long after.”

-------

The superheroes looked around the room. One of them would have to sacrifice himself to save the others.

What else is new? Tony thought warily as the others started whispering.

“We don’t trade lives, Captain. Remember?” Tony was startled from his thoughts by Natasha’s question.

“Yes, yes we do,” Tony answered in a harsh tone, and then continued a bit louder to be heard over the angry answers, “That’s all we’ve been doing since we started this: Jarvis, Pietro, Coulson, the people in that building in Sokovia, those who turned to dust, we’ve traded all their lives. We just don’t trade the lives of those who are useful.”

It was a polemic statement, that of Tony’s, but not entirely false, if a bit exaggerated, Natasha claimed, while Steve protested that Tony did not know what he was talking about, that there was no reason for him to make that kind of accusation because, while people had certainly died, their deaths had never been intentional.

“I never said they had, Rogers. But we did it, that’s on us. And if we can make even a bit of it right, then it’s our duty to do so.”

“Tony–” Steve started, but the man in question cut him off.

“That’s Stark for you.”

That was when Clint decided to intervene with what was, possibly, the worst interpretation of someone’s words of the century, maybe even worse than when Trump said America First and the Americans took that as a good thing.

“Look, Stark. Great speech and all, but Cap isn’t going to sacrifice himself just because you suddenly grew a moral centre.”

Tony’s surprised expression said everything his words couldn’t, “Cap? Who said anything about Rogers?”

Loki’s hand tightened on his shoulder – had his hand been there all that time? – and Rhodey jumped from his seat in the opposite corner of the room to stand closer to Tony, looking sternly at him.

“Don’t you dare, Tones. Please don’t.”

The world needed Captain America. They branded him a criminal and then what did they do? Used him as an example in schools. And while that had been an idiot move it just showed how dependant America was on its Captain. Not that they weren’t happy with the Avengers #2, as the Internet had taken to call the group Tony and Rhodey had created, along with Vision (sometimes), Peter (unofficially of course, and only for the small missions, after all, Tony was a huge apologist of the saying let kids be kids – unless it was being used to support bullies, in which case Tony would be more than happy to state exactly how he felt about the issue) and a few ex-SHIELD agents. No, the Avengers #2 were going just fine, the public loved them, there was even a #TeamIronMan standing in the Top3 of the trends in Instagram and Twitter most months. But now that the original members were back… They wouldn’t need Tony. Tony was getting old, he was bound to become useless in a few years. If his last gesture was to bring Peter – and the others – back from the soul world, it would at least be a good way to leave this world. Tony looked up and forced a grin.

“What can I say, I like to flirt with death, Honey Bear,” he said in a teasing tone.

“You flirt with the coffee machine, Tones.”

“Well, that’s part of my charm.”

Shaking his head fondly, Rhodes turned to Loki again.

“Anything else we should know?”

“I think I’ve gone over the most important bits of information. He’ll probably try to control you all, don’t let him touch you with the gauntlet. I can use the power of my stone to help you. Your mission is not letting Thanos get to me, since I’ll be trying to hinder the other stones or make them work for us–”

Tony wasn’t listening anymore.

If it comes to saving you, or the kid, or the Time Stone, I will not hesitate to let either of you die.  

Tony... there was no other way.

“God…,” he looked over at Loki and glared at him until he looked back, mouthing “I need to talk to you. Later.”

There was no other way.

Strange had done everything to lead them to this moment. It wouldn’t be fair if they left all his effort to waste.

There was no other way.

Tony wouldn’t let him down.

-------

A loud “Would you please shut the fuck up?!” shook Tony back to reality and, after a hardly dignifying yelp, he grinned at the girl who now stood by the door as the people in the room, who had been all but shouting at each other, slowly stopped speaking to gape at the newcomer. Tony almost skipped to the door, enveloping the youngster in a strong hug.

“Lyra, sweetheart, you’re finally back, how were the politicians? Boring, I presume? As you can see everyone’s back and isn’t that just awesome?” the sarcasm was practically dripping from his words, but by the pleased – disgusting, Lyra would say – smile in the Captain’s pretty face he hadn’t understood that, “But I’m sure Fri has already told you all about that so–”

“Hush…” Lyra interrupted Tony’s ramblings by pushing him slightly away and touching her finger to his lips, “I did it. He’s gone.” She laughed when Tony went from confused to surprised to ecstatic in 0.5 seconds and turned to Rhodey with a delighted smile.

“You heard that, Rhodey Bear? He’s gone! Brucie,” he rushed to Bruce with a carefree touch to his step, his hands settling in Banner’s shoulder, “Ross is out of the way. He’s going to jail.”

Loki wasn’t sure as to the relationship between Bruce and Ross, hell, he wasn’t even sure who that Ross person was but the way Bruce’s eyes lit up warmed his chest in an unfamiliar way. If he didn’t know better, the god would have called it sympathy, but Loki did know better.

“Jail? When? How?” Bruce stuttered, “I mean he wasn’t when we left to Wakanda, I… I saw him, the hologram, when–” He stopped when he realised the change in Tony’s demeanour. At the mention of Wakanda, Tony’s hands on his shoulders tensed and his shoulders slumped, just a bit, but enough for Bruce, who was standing close, to see. With another light squeeze, Tony lifted his hands and, turning to look at Lyra again, he gave her a tight-lipped smile and a small nod.

“I am sure Miss Vinkel will explain everything. I still have a couple things to do in the lab before we’re ready to start the trainings and I’m not needed for this particular part of the conversation. Rogers, SuperSpy, Birdbrain, Brucie Bear, this is Lyra Vinkel, an ex-SHIELD agent. These are Captain America, the Black Widow, Hawkeye and Dr. Banner, but I’m sure you knew that already. I’ll see you all later, I’ll arrange time for all of you to come downstairs to the ‘shop,” he stopped himself when he realised he was babbling, “Yeah, bye. May, Nebula, Loki, you coming?”

“See you later, Tones.”

“Sure thing, Platypus.”

Chapter Text

 

When I look into your eyes there’s nothing there to see, nothing but my own mistakes staring back at me (P5hng Me A*wy – Linkin Park, feat. Mike Shinoda, Stephen Richards)

 

All the eyes in the room turned to Lyra as Tony left, Natasha’s gaze being the most intense – unsurprisingly, really, since they knew each other from… before. Lyra couldn’t help but wonder how the hell had they ended up in such different situations. She sighed and glanced around the room, her eyes settling for a few seconds on each person. She could hardly contain the hatred when she noticed the smug look in both Natasha and Steve’s faces. Her self-control was barely enough but she knew she couldn’t antagonize the two idiots; Mr. Stark had trusted her not to.

Lyra Vinkel was an impressive woman. Having been born in Russia, she had been closely linked to Natasha even before SHIELD. That wasn’t really a time she liked to talk about. She had eventually managed to escape to the States, where she, as many other girls, Natasha included, had taken the second chance they were offered and rebuilt their life. She had been working with the agency for a few years when shit hit the proverbial fan. Hydra’s infiltration, Fury’s death, the Captain and the Widow taking it upon themselves to unmask Hydra, which would have been great, really, it would, if only they had known what they were doing, which they apparently didn’t. Lyra remembered the sleepless nights she had spent watching Tony go through all the information and protecting most of it. Surprisingly, Hydra hadn’t kept detailed track records of their agents on their enemies’ files. Therefore, what had been spilled was no less than every single top secret SHIELD information, including those about the agents on the field. Every criminal organisation with even a scrap of knowledge about the…uh…Internet, from drug cartels to the KGB itself, had access to the information and, of course, used it. She was about to leave for a mission when she got the call.

 

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The phone rang and Lyra rolled her eyes. What was it with her superiors that always deemed it necessary to call in the most inopportune moments? She scrambled in the bag she had already discarded to get the mobile. For fuck’s sake, couldn’t they have called a moment earlier? When Lyra grabbed the offending object, she narrowed her eyes at it. A private ID caller? A number she had never seen? It sure didn’t sound promising. With a deep sigh, Lyra swiped right and brought the phone to her ear. Lyra’s innocence had been taken away from her when she was just a little girl but the conversation that followed wrecked whatever was left of her confidence in the goodness of the world.

“Miss Vinkel? My name’s Tony Stark. I need to talk to you.”

Everyone knew who Tony Stark was. Most SHIELD agents had read the report Natalia – Natasha, her name was Natasha now – had written on the man. Mr. Stark displays compulsive behaviour. Prone to self-destructive tendencies. Textbook narcissism. And this was the man who was wasting her time before a mission?

“I’m not interested. I am interested, however, in how you got my number.”

“You’d better be interested, if you plan on staying alive,” Tony’s voice was rushed, as if he was in a hurry, “Listen, I don’t have much time,” so he was in a hurry then, “but I need you not to leave for your mission and stay right where you are and I will have someone go get you,” he was talking so fast Lyra could barely make out his words, “SHIELD’s been compromised and you’re in danger. Your files say you got crazy computer skills. That true?”

What the hell?

“How did you access my file?”

“Everyone with half a brain cell can access your file at the moment. Computer skills?” he asked more insistently.

“Yes.”

“Perfect. My driver will be with you shortly. He will ask you if you are the new KGB recruit. You are to answer I was supposed to be, but do you have any better ideas? If anyone comes to you and doesn’t ask you that question, don’t go with them anywhere. I repeat, don’t go with anyone that doesn’t have the passcode. Gotta go, see you soon.”

“Roger that.”

The line went silent.

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The next few weeks had been crazy. It was all a bit of a blur, but she clearly remembered screaming (on her part) and heartfelt apologies (on Tony’s part) and, god, it wasn´t even his fault, but Lyra hadn’t known what had happened back then, Tony, that reckless selfless idiot, hadn’t told her the Captain and Natalia were behind the data dump and she had assumed it had been Stark’s fault, but it hadn’t, of course it hadn’t. Whenever the news of the deaths of more of her friends arrived she’d retreat into herself, and work silently through her grief but the rest of the time was a one-sided screaming match. Tony had been a saint, really, putting up with her, asking for her help and, finally, when the data was all protected, when he had already saved the most people he could, offering her a place to stay at the Compound. At the time, she had said no, she had left to grieve on her own. Now, however, she wished she had stayed. Stayed to tell Tony the data dump wasn’t his fault, stayed to tell Tony he was right about the Accords, stayed to tell Tony the end of the Avengers wasn’t his fault. Because now, as she watched him leave the room, shoulders slightly slumped, the weight of the world on his shoulders, she felt a pang of guilt for not having been there for him since the beginning. But she was there now, and if what Tony wanted her to do was play nice with their resident jerks, then that’s what she would do. She forced herself to tear her gaze away from the Captain and his friend and settled on Rhodes instead; he was talking to her after all, and he was always a calming presence.

“So you and Tony really did it, huh? Managed to stick with Ross in jail?”

“Yeah. Took us long enough, but it’s done. Tony got the intel, I took it to the politicians, they thought it reasonable – which it was, the guy has a goddamn laundry list of crimes. The actual trial won’t take place until after we solve this mess but he is in pre-trial detention, I made sure of it.”

Rhodey beamed at her and she grinned back. For a moment they had a silent back and forth, and then Lyra turned to the others, her grin dimming.

“As Mr. Stark said, my name’s Lyra Vinkel, and I’m one of the newest members of the Avengers. Along with the Coronel, I’m also responsible for dealing with the politicians, and that’s what I’ve been doing lately, so listen carefully. As for now, you are not full members of the Avengers, and therefore have no authority nor decision-making power. The current head of the Avengers is Coronel Rhodes and, since you’re under our protection,” it almost pained her to say so, “you must answer to him. As for now, you don’t have to sign the Accords; however, if you ever want to fully join us, you’ll not only have to sign them but also perform a couple of tests,” she held one hand high when they started interrupting her, “It is standard procedure for anyone wishing to join and you are not above the law anymore, so don’t give me shit about it.”

If she hadn’t paused to breathe in that exact moment, everyone would have missed Steve’s quiet Language, but Rhodey heard it and snorted.

“And don’t give us shit about that too, everybody knows you swear almost as much as Barton.”

“Anyways,” she pressed, “to get back to the point: you don’t have to sign the Accords at the moment, and I would advise you not to sign them at all for now. Mr. Stark, Coronel Rhodes and I are working with the Avenger’s legal team and the governments of 117 countries,” she sent a pointed look in the Captain’s general direction, “to create a new, fairer version of the document. You can sign the New Accords once they’re finished. Without Ross to hinder the process, it shouldn’t take us more than a few months.”

Lyra glanced around at them all and sighed quietly. These were going to be some tiring times…

“If I may,” Friday interrupted in her teenage-like manner, “Boss has asked me to relay a message. He has already arranged a schedule and is asking each of you to go down to his lab at the time you have been assigned.”

Another silent conversation with Rhodes and Lyra was saluting him, all order and discipline in front of the strays, but the soft smile tugging at her lips clued whoever was paying attention on the friendship between the two of them.

Then, she left. She still had a lot to do and she had to get it done quickly, otherwise Tony would probably do it all by himself. And she wouldn’t want that, now would she? Not anymore. She didn’t look back as she stepped outside; she didn’t need to, she could feel Natalia staring at her all the same.

Chapter Text

 

“It’s the moment of truth and the moment to lie and the moment to live and the moment to die” (This Is War – Thirty Seconds to Mars)

 

The day of the fight came sooner than Tony expected it to. Or else, the day came exactly when Tony expected it to, he had been the one setting the date after all, but the time to prepare for it had seemed to go by way too fast, between the negotiations with old and new Avengers, the physical training and all the other stuff Tony and his team had had to go through that last month. But now, all the Avengers were on the field, just like the old days, with Steve running in front to lead, except that, unlike the old days, Rhodey also walked at the front, one step ahead of Steve at all times, making his position as a leader clear as water. Tony right behind him; he would never leave his best friend’s back uncovered again. The other Avengers were clearly a bit lost: they knew they had to follow Rhodey, but Captain America’s pull was still strong, even after the guy had been branded a criminal. No one wanted to be on the receiving end of a Captain America Is Disappointed In You stare. For real, Steve should patent that stare. To be truthful, not all the heroes were confused, Barton at least seemed pretty content with following Steve and not giving a shit about what Rhodey had to say.

Tony was sure that when they got to the field they had chosen to the battle it would be different, though. Although Steve had been the leader there too, none of the Avengers were keen on following orders once they were actually facing a threat. They just did their own thing, and hoped that the end result was the expected. Mostly, it worked well enough, but Tony could see why Bruce had called them a ticking time bomb: they had been on countdown, and then it had all blown up on their faces. This strategy of not having a strategy only worked because in the end they all trusted each other enough to have their backs, and with that trust gone, at least on Tony’s part… If not sure, Tony was really damn hopeful it would be all fine in the battlefield, okay? Trainings hadn’t been that bad, although he had refused to spar against Steve, and Tony would follow Rhodey’s orders rather than Steve’s any day, so it was a good temporary arrangement. In general, Tony wasn’t big on following orders, though, especially not if they went against The Plan™.

But it wasn’t only the leadership that was different. For one, there wasn’t usually a criminal mastermind on the field with them, unless it was the one they were fighting against (or if they were counting Wanda Maximoff as one, but Tony really wasn’t gonna go there again, especially not when the poor girl had lost her boyfriend – Jarvis, a small part of his heart that he promptly shut off supplied – twice and then died). For another, the aforementioned criminal mastermind wasn’t usually trailing behind Tony like a lost puppy – not that the genius would ever mention that comparison to Loki, he liked his windows as they were, thank you very much. Tony directed to the god what he hoped was a comforting expression, and his smile almost turned into a genuine one when the god sent another back. He let himself mull over Loki for a while. If he was thinking about Loki, he wasn’t thinking about The Plan™, and honestly, he had been the one developing it, knew it by heart, and didn’t want to be reminded of it again until it was time for it to be set on motion. So, Loki. He didn’t trust the guy, not really, but he had allowed him to stay at the Compound, and had trusted him with a big chunk of The Plan™. If Loki were to betray them all now, they’d be as good as dead. Or worse. So maybe Tony trusted him a little, on a subconscious level? Learning about the brainwashing that wasn’t really brainwashing but more like playing with all of his worst fears, which shouldn’t be as bad, but hit Tony a little too close to home thing that Loki told him about on a night when none of them could sleep had certainly helped. The fact that Tony had followed that by recounting Afghanistan, and that both men had ended up crying over a jar of orange juice and two glasses (Tony didn’t do the drinking thing anymore and Loki couldn’t get drunk with those little petty mortal drinks anyway) had probably had a hand on that too. It hadn’t been a pretty night, and both the genius and the god would deny it ever happened, but the regular visits to the lab to go over The Plan™ had started after that. So, yeah. Maybe – definitely – there was the blossoming of the beginnings of trust.

Tony shook his head and let go of Loki for the moment. He’d worry about that after the fight. If he ever got the chance to worry at all. He let his eyes drift over the other people in the field. There was a group of them Tony was specifically fond of. His little pet project, the Red Foxes. Five girls, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but with a common goal: right their wrongs and quench their guilt. Tony could relate to that, and that was why, one more time, he found himself invested in their training, making them weapons, then having meals with them, and had ended up becoming their friend. Their leader was, of course, Lyra Vinkel. That girl had been one of their best catches, with all of Romanoff’s training, but a bit less of the twisted morals and a lot less of the arrogance. She was one of their best workers back at the Compound, and, along with the group she had created and trained, she was one of their best assets on the field. The Red Foxes were promising young girls and Tony was sure they’d go far in whatever they chose to do. The fact that, when he needed them, they had all come to his help, even after SHIELD’s fiasco, never failed to surprise him. The genius took in the girls, winked at the only one who was looking back at him – Agent Carter, Tony would never forget her name again after the scene she had made when she had seen Steve was back, he should have sent her a gift just for the slap – and smiled: they all looked more than ready. His smile dimmed when his gaze left them and lingered on the Captain, who was looking right back at him.

“Enjoying what you see, Rogers?” Tony asked with a smirk.

“Were you?” the soldier asked back, and Tony sighed. He swore if the Captain tried to lecture him on how to properly treat the Red Foxes again, Tony was gonna lose it. Fortunately, Bruce called them before Steve had the time to open his mouth, so Tony supposed he’d have to leave all of his rage for Thanos.

“Yes, Brucie Bear?”

“It’s all set, Tony. We can start anytime now,” Tony acknowledged it with a curt nod and turned to Loki.

“We’re ready when you’re ready.”

“I’m ready. As soon as I activate this stone, Thanos will be here, and he won’t be any less powerful just because he doesn’t have the space stone. Be careful and stick to The Plan™.”

To any of the others, it might have looked as if Loki was speaking to all of them, but Tony knew his words were exclusively for him. It was time to set The Plan™ in motion.

“You too,” he tapped the auricular twice, “Everybody copy? We’re gonna get started.”

Everyone expressed their confirmation, the last being the Colonel, his deep Copy followed by an, “All agents in position, we’re pulling in the target.”

Tony rolled his eyes at Clint, who had rolled his eyes at the military tone Rhodey had imprinted and then glanced at Thor, who was looking curiously from Rogers to Rhodes. His eyes settled on Loki and he nodded.

“Do it.”

Two seconds later, the blue gem was glowing in the god’s hands, a portal was opening, and Thanos was stepping outside of it, both hands curled into fists. Rhodey and Tony exchanged a glance, and Tony gave Loki a curt nod. The gem disappeared and so did the portal. The genius too a step in the titan’s direction.

“Thanos, hi. Missed me? I just couldn’t wait to have more moons thrown at me, so I absolutely had to bring you here. You no longer have all the stones or, to be more accurate, you never did, so that’s my excuse to call you. Just don’t tell anyone that the real reason was that I couldn’t wait to see you again.”

Fists still curled at his side, Thanos stepped front himself, until he was standing directly in front of him, like a tower at his side.

“You are braver than even I supposed. And you, Odinson, are more powerful than I could ever have known. But I see you have brought some support with you this time, Stark. Are you not afraid they will turn on you when you’re not looking?”

Tony’s joyful façade faltered for a bit but was quickly recovered, “I don’t plan on staying here enough time to let them do so.”

“Leaving already, Stark? What, came here just to say hi and fuck off to somewhere else?”

Because of course Barton had to intervene. Tony sucked in a breath and kept his eyes fixed on Thanos.

“Now, there are two ways we can do this. You can bring everyone you killed back, destroy the stones and we each go our merry ways, hopefully without ever seeing the other again. Or you refuse to do so, we fight, we win, you die. The ball is in your court, what do you say?”

The laugh the titan let out couldn’t possibly be mistaken for one of joy, “You think it will be that easy,” it was not a question, but purely a statement. Thanos obviously did not believe it would be easy at all.

One of the corners of the genius’s mouth quirked up, “I mean, you are one stone down, and who knows what other tricks we have up our sleeve?”

Thanos’ eyes might have widened for a second, but Tony wasn’t sure if they had, or if it was just wistful thinking.

“Or maybe we’re bluffing, and just want you to give up. Who knows?” he added while looking around at the others. They were all in the positions that had previously been discussed. He tapped twice on his earpiece and could immediately see Rhodey’s head snapping up, one eyebrow raised, as he tried to figure out why he had suddenly stopped listening to Tony’s quips on the comms.

“Loki. Nebula. Copy that?”

“Copy,” both the voices answered.

“Ready? Set. Go,” Tony would have to apologise to Rhodey later for the little tampering in the comms.

He tapped twice on his arc reactor and twice on the comms again as a portal opened up high in the sky. His suit had assembled around him and he had taken off in seconds.

“Tony!”

The genius cringed at the tone of panic in his best friend’s voice.

“You better have this won when I come back, honeybear.”

Next thing Tony knew, Nebula was launching herself at her father and the portal was closing behind him. Again.