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The guards made their third circuit of the narrow hallway outside of his prison in as many minutes. Their eyes, unsavory and lecherous, increasingly lingered on his huddled form as the days, weeks, and months passed without an appearance from his purported family. Despite Thor’s recurrent proclamations of eternal brotherhood during Loki’s farce of an invasion, he had yet to sully himself with a single visit to the dungeons beneath Asgard. The Allfather had refused to allow him a true trial, had ordered that Loki remain muzzled and voiceless. And his mother…

Frigga had kowtowed to the authority of the Allfather at every point. She had stood beside the throne, silently sanctioning Odin’s pronouncement that Loki should proceed directly to eternal imprisonment. Despite the austere tightness in her expression, he had nurtured a shred of hope. Her perpetual reticence notwithstanding, she had always been the one person who would listen to his side. Surely, she would see the myriad of hurts physically bowing his body and wonder at their origins. Surely his mother, a renowned sorceress in her own right, would perceive the lingering influence of the Mad Titan. She should be able to delve past the illusions that concealed the layers of damage, to divine the weeping sores both physical and mental that were screaming for discovery.

But she spoke not a word in his defense, had barely deigned him with a meager ounce of attention before she fled the hall. And so, he had been cast into the depths of the dungeon without being permitted to speak even a word in his own defense. After months and months of planning, it was all reduced to naught in nary an instant. While he had learned of his glorious purpose within the Void, he had devoted the curdling dregs of his sanity to planning the words that would assure his pardon. He had fantasized endlessly of how he would fold the truth within the lies, how he would assuage the heavy warding that had poisoned his mind while revealing to his mother the nefarious destiny of the universe.

He would stop it.

Everything.

And finally, perhaps the Allfather might pronounce him worthy.

Instead, he languished in his cell, unable to speak about the horrors that he had endured, unable to scream as the Mad Titan deduced his location, and unable to whimper as the Other began to press hooks anew into Loki’s shriveled mind. The constant bombardment meant that present consciousness was fleeting, but in the last few weeks, he had sporadically managed attention to his physical body.

In the past, despite his proclivity for mischief, there had rarely been proof of his misdeeds. Therefore, the majority of his punishments had been less formal, clandestine, and violent. His infrequent jaunts to the dungeons had been brief while his status as a prince had been intact. No one had dared touch him when that would risk retribution from the royal family. In addition, the threat of his seiðr had also contributed to maintaining some level of deferential uneasiness from the guards.

But now, their covert whispers about his suspected preferences had become overt. And as the weeks passed without any consequences, they began to gain confidence.

Muttered jeering transitioned into outright mockery. They discussed openly their plans for him and began to test the constraints of cultural taboos. When consequences remained nonexistent despite Heimdall’s famed limitless gaze, they began to toe the line of perversion. Their touches began to linger, first along his jaw when they removed his muzzle during mealtimes, and then glancing across other parts of his body when he endured in silence, only occasionally aware of the liberties that they were taking. They insisted on accompanying him at all times—when he bathed, when he relieved himself, when he changed clothes.

Yesterday, they had removed the muzzle and had never replaced it.

He knew that it was a matter of time. He had always been different—too thin, too pale, and too shrewd. It was a simple transition from freak to curiosity to conquest. Either the guards would make a move on him or the Mad Titan would come for him. He could not afford to dither and discover which would materialize first.

He had a single hope: in his seiðr lay both desecration and salivation.

Thor had locked shackles upon Loki’s wrists that were intended to keep his seiðr completely inert. A gift from the Allfather, their presence assured Odin that his authority over Loki’s magic was absolute, so absolute that the Allfather had never uncovered the negligible reservoir that Loki had warded within his body. Even as the manacles constantly burned through the dredges of seiðr that his body obstinately produced, seemingly trivial dregs seeped into his hidden cache. After months of constant torment, he thought that he might have accumulated just enough for his escape.

Today was his chance.

He hadn’t felt so present since before his tumble through the Void. Several days of effortful concentration had allowed him to glean the guards’ schedules. The shift change was coming, and typically, they were distracted for a few moments with conversation. It would provide him with his opportunity for flight. He needed to cast a spell to shield himself first, so that they wouldn’t see the bracers alight with the use of his seiðr, so that Heimdall could not track him, and so that he could break the hooks that were driving ever further into his mind. His remaining threads of seiðr would have to be enough to launch him away, to propel him anywhere else.

His ears strained from where he hunched upon his thin mattress, intent on discerning the sound of the heavy doors opening and the subsequent portentousness of armored footsteps. He felt dizzy, wondered idly if the sensation was due to a lack of nutrients, anticipation of what was to come, or fear of his failure.

After what seemed like hours but was perhaps mere minutes, the hinges creaked, and the thud of the double doors hammering against the wall thundered within the confines of the otherwise silent floor. Footsteps followed the straight path past his cell. There were two sets, more than he had anticipated, but not enough to derail his plans.

He shut his eyes tightly, endeavored to exaggerate the exhausted curves of his body and conceal the coiled tautness of his trembling muscles. Words reached him, his name among them, but he registered only the jeering tones. He concentrated on gathering his seiðr into his palms. His window of opportunity would be so very small.

He counted the seconds—twenty—before they moved away. It was another ten before the whispers that he had expected reached him from across the hall. Furtively, he recited the words in his head. Silent spellcasting was a rare skill, one that neither the Allfather nor the Allmother knew that he had learned. The shroud that descended in response stuttered at first, seiðr slipping past his shackles initially as a trickle and finally as a cascade. At long last, the voices in his head were silent and he could no longer feel the weight of Heimdall’s infinite gaze.

He pulled in a sharp breath through his nose, dizziness progressing rapidly enough that the possibility of impending collapse became a certainty. He desired fervently for a few moments of rest before he gathered himself for the next step. But Heimdall would have already noticed that he had faded from his sight, would surely be running by now to inform the Allfather. Time was a commodity that he did not possess.

And yet, when he collected himself for flight, his remaining seiðr wasn’t nearly enough. Mere drops remained, and they could not transport him across the room, let alone to safety. He had but one option left: blood magic. It was a tainted practice, and he had utilized it only one time—to seal away the core of himself from the Mad Titan in a last ditch bid to maintain his sanity. It was dangerous and unpredictable. It could easily backfire on the castor and render one inert.

He hunkered to better shield his face from the guards, prayed to the incessantly cruel Norns for elusive good fortune, and pressed his mouth against the soft underside of his arm. Blunt teeth tore into his flesh. His casting required an abundance of blood fast, but his freedom was worth the curse that would undoubtably ensue. Blood magic was corruption itself, power at the price of life, the path toward madness, the final ingredient in his devolution.

It was his only hope.

A surreptitious glance at the guards revealed that they remained distracted, heads bowed together, laughing enthusiastically at a joke that one of their indistinguishable number had shared. He ducked his head for his other arm. The result was carnage, could be easily mistaken as the rendering of a rabid animal. Yet it was tame compared to what lay beneath the glamour that he had managed to cast before Thor had locked him behind his bindings.

He watched as blood seeped from his skin. It was nearly enough.

The guards noticed at last. Distantly, he heard their shouts and the resonant ringing of their boots as they rushed for his cell. The dissolution of the barrier was the final ingredient that he had required.

It was finally enough.

He smiled the same mocking smile that he had worn when he arrived on Midgard as the guards faded from sight. He was away.

Colors whizzed by at a dizzying pace, jagged edges of realms tearing at his broken body as he passed. He had walked the paths between worlds countless times, but never like this—rudderless, powerless, and desperate above all else. He hurtled past a dozen exits, portals to various locations in Asgard. But it wasn’t far enough. Asgard was too small, and he would be defenseless at the completion of his casting. They would discover him within the hour.

And yet, he could not endure for much longer. Even with the augment of blood magic, transportation between worlds required a profusion of power that he could not sustain. Failure was a familiar outcome for him, and the flood of desolate despair a frequent accompaniment. Months of planning, all for naught. They would find him, capture him, imprison him again, and the torment that they had been promising for so long would finally come to pass.

But then he saw it. A fleeting yet familiar expanse of towering steel that gleamed enticingly in the sunlight. A cacophony of noises, the bustling of movement in all directions, the symphony of vehicles blasting displeasure, a multitude of languages overlapping. It wasn’t what he had hoped, but it was better than he had feared.

The site of his most covert success and paramount failure. A place that would never welcome him with anything other than a death sentence. Home of Stark Tower and the Avengers. Loki tumbled into New York City.   

Chapter Text

As was his routine on Wednesdays, Loki stood in line for a sandwich on his lunch break. The patrons in front of him were impatient, focused unerringly on their phones unless they were craning their heads to see if the queue had moved. He violated the norm with his well-worn copy of Hamlet in front of his nose. In Asgard, he would have been berated for neglecting his surroundings, for pursuing knowledge rather than brawn. But no one cared enough about him in this little deli to shoot him even a second glance.

He liked it that way.

He had been living in New York for nearly two years now. The first year had been characterized by prolonged expanses of waiting. His very recognizable face had prevented extensive movement during the day, leaving him to scrounge for scraps during the nighttime hours. Due to his enforced downtime, he had focused primarily on storing his seiðr reserves for months at a time, first to create the illusion of Thomas Walker, and then to build his cover.

The new identity had taken time to craft. The manacles on his wrists prevented his natural shapeshifting abilities, necessitating the expansion of the glamour that hid his wounds from common sight. It was weaker magic, prone to complications and failures, but it still required an extensive segment of his power. After months, he had only accumulated enough energy for a single attempt.

At first, he had considered changing everything about himself—his skin color, his sex, his height—but that was a recipe for failure. He required an identity that could become a second skin, one that he could maintain for a prolonged period of time without excessive concentration. While a part of him welcomed the absolute safety of disappearing from even himself, he desired desperately for some aspect of him to remain Loki. Granted, underneath the many layers of glamour, he harbored hideous sapphire skin and flaming red eyes, but his body had maintained his pale, green-eyed visage even through the onslaught of the Mad Titan. He couldn’t bear to relinquish himself entirely.

So, he had compromised. He maintained his primordial build minus the layers of scar tissue that blanketed his true flesh. He softened some of his facial features, tanned his skin to a rosy gold, cropped his hair into short, auburn curls. The eyes were more difficult. He had envisioned bright blue irises, but one look in the mirror had terrified him. His eyes had been a ghastly blue during the invasion, but Thor had met his gaze and not even questioned their color. In this, too, he forced himself to compromise. He settled on a teal color, not quite green, but not precisely blue. In the right lighting, he could deceive himself into seeing the emerald specks, could convince himself that he remained in control.

And so, Thomas Walker was born. Thomas Walker loved books, could speak in five different languages fluently and could read in ten. He was the opposite of Loki in most ways. Where Loki had been sharp words and harsh insults, Thomas Walker was passive to the extreme. He murmured the majority of his words, spoke only when addressed, and even then, his reserved tone would promptly lose the interest of whomever approached him. He worked as a translator for a small book publisher, converting the paltry works of novice authors so that they could sell copies across the world. He kept his head down, met his deadlines, clocked in on schedule, and left on time every day. Thomas Walker was unremarkable and utterly alone, and Loki basked in it.

“Whatcha reading?” came a voice behind him.

Loki forced himself not to startle. The person to whom the voice belonged was very close to him. He could feel the exhale of breath on his cheek as the man behind him looked over his shoulder.

“Hamlet,” Loki murmured as he endeavored to quell the stiffening of his spine.

“Say again?”

Loki closed his eyes, fighting against the urge to take off his glasses so that he could rub his temples. He’d carefully crafted this identity to maintain a sense of oddness, to keep others distant. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work on strangers immediately.

“Hamlet,” Loki said again, this time shutting the book so that he could hold the cover up for the person behind him to see.

“Ah.”

Good. Polite disinterest. He could feign reabsorption in his book until he was able to escape from the breathing on the back of his neck.

A few more moments passed during which two of the four people in front of him received their orders. He could hear the person behind him shifting his weight from foot to foot, fiddling with his phone, sighing heavily. He stared fixedly down at his book and turned the page after what seemed to be an appropriate period of time.

“Are you an English teacher or something?”

This time, Loki couldn’t keep the frown from tugging down his thin lips. “No,” he said, louder now so that he could be heard over the din of the deli.

A few precious seconds of silence passed, and then, “you gonna make me guess? You can’t actually be reading that book for fun.”

The man behind him sidled an inch or so closer, apparently jostled by the press of bodies intent on squeezing together in the limited indoor space. Loki closed him eyes and focused on deep, even breaths. The shop was becoming more crowded. He always sought to arrive before the lunch crowd, but he had been later than usual when his employer had stopped by for an update on the crime novel that Loki was translating into French.

“Perhaps I simply enjoy Hamlet,” Loki answered, striving with his last iota of restraint to keep his voice smooth.

The heat of the body behind him was taking over his thoughts. He felt defenseless, trapped. He desired strongly to bolt, but he couldn’t flee from here without drawing more attention to himself. Besides, he knew that his reflexive response was an overreaction. The man behind him was simply genial and prying. Perhaps he was bored. Loki hadn’t been found. He was safe.

“I didn’t think that anybody read that stuff unless they were forced to.”

He bristled despite his best efforts, more of Thomas’ calm slipping away in favor of Loki’s sharp tongue.

“Perhaps you are simply too obtuse to enjoy it,” he muttered before he could stem the vitriolic words.

Sweat dotted his brow despite the brisk March air. One more person stood between him and his order. Today, he would retreat to his cubicle rather than indulging on a walk through the nearby park. Maybe his employer would permit him to listen to his music while he was working, allowing him to bask in the soothing tones of Debussy for the rest of the day.

“You think so?” the man asked, tone surprisingly indulgent, almost amused. “You could be right. I didn’t go to high school. Too busy skipping grades and moving on to MIT. I do have two master’s degrees in engineering and physics, though, so someone thought that I was smart enough for that.”

Evidently, the man behind him enjoyed the sound of his own voice. Loki was familiar with the type. During his dance with insanity, he had surrendered to the impulse often. The ability to express himself, even when pronouncing words that did not belong to him, had equated to actual luxury after his lips had formed screams for so long.

“So, seriously, what do you do for work? Judging by the tweed suit and the classic lit torture fest, I’m guessing librarian. Am I close?”

It wasn’t that Loki was incapable of maintaining their mostly one-sided conversation, but he was mostly out of practice. The deli represented a sort of sanctuary for him. It was his one splurge every week, a break from the tedium that would characterize his existence for eternity. This prying stranger was impinging on his main source of solace.

Loki hugged Hamlet to his chest, back ramrod straight, and focused on the person in front of him in line. They were paying. It was his turn now. He could escape without fielding any more questions.

“A turkey sandwich on wheat with everything on it,” he said as soon as the worker behind the counter turned to him expectantly.

He reached into his pocket to produce the few crumpled bills that he had carefully allotted for this occasion, only to be elbowed aside. He reeled from the contact for just a second, long enough for the person behind him to tuck what appeared to be a one-hundred-dollar bill into the cashier’s hand. “Make that two with white bread on one. Keep the change.”

Loki jerked around to face the interloper, a protest on his lips, only for the words to die in his throat. He knew that smirk, that odd facial hair, the fine wrinkles around the eyes. He could feel the hum of power radiating from the man now that he was attuning all of his senses. He recognized the penetrating brown eyes, brown eyes that had narrowed in loathing during their last meeting.

The man behind him was Anthony Stark. This was the man whom he had desperately flung out the window. This was the man who had seemed to savor Loki’s pain when the Avengers had found him within the penthouse, spine horribly mangled, scrapes littering his skin in spite of his illusions. This was the man who had stared perhaps a bit too intently at the muzzle that stemmed Loki’s speech. Out of all of the Avengers, this was man whom he most dreaded.

Loki hadn’t thought that it was feasible for his body to tense further, but his entire frame had begun to vibrate in preparation. His initial instinct was immediate flight. As much as he coveted his quiet routine here, starting over was a viable option. He had enough seiðr stored away to craft a fresh glamour, although the process of creating a new identity would be tedious.

However, even as he gathered his seiðr, his honed sense of preservation protested. Fleeing would call attention to himself. He had no doubt that the rest of the Avengers and dozens of S.H.I.E.L.D agents were awaiting his next move. A rapid exit was too predictable and would guarantee a thrashing from the Beast. His too mortal body couldn’t withstand another assault like that. Perhaps he should bide his time until he was presented with a more favorable opportunity.

He couldn’t decide on a course of action, not with Anthony Stark so proximal that he could feel the heat emanating from the other man’s body.

“Thank you,” Loki forced from his lips at last. He glanced furtively around the busy shop, endeavoring to catalogue the exits without making his consternation obvious.

“Sure thing.” Stark offered him a lopsided grin so beguiling that it must be feigned. “So, last week was pretty epic,” the man prompted.

“Last week?” Loki repeated faintly.

“When that teenager was hitting on you,” Stark said, eyes crinkling at the corners. “He kept asking you questions. You answered him in, like, four different languages?”

“Ah,” the fallen god murmured noncommittally.

He recalled the face, pimpled and oily, of the young man who had inquired persistently about the time, and then the schedule for the nearby bus stop, and finally whether Loki had a cell phone. He did not recollect Stark’s presence in the deli at the time. Had he truly been so oblivious as to overlook the appearance of one of his most minacious enemies? His panic cranked all the higher.

“It was quality lunch entertainment,” Stark continued. “I’ve seen you around a few times, but you’ve always given off serious ‘fuck off’ vibes. I don’t know where that little twerp found the balls to flirt with you.” Stark laughed now, the sound bright yet wavering. “You’re pretty quiet. Can you hear me? I know that it’s loud in here.”

Loki swallowed as he considered his answer. Stark’s eyes flitted to his throat before turning back to the glass partition at the counter. “I am not deaf. You project rather well,” he said at length.

“Excellent!” Stark's fingers yanked through his untidy hair, gaze focused on a point near Loki’s shoulder. “So, not to be a hypocrite, but what do you think about lunch?”

“They serve excellent sandwiches here,” Loki answered cautiously, daring to take his attention from Stark for an instant to check on the status of his sandwich. Only the condiments were left.

“Well, you’re not wrong.” Another laugh, this one pitched higher than the one previous. “Not exactly what I meant, though.”

Loki huffed despite himself. “Perhaps you can simply say exactly what you mean then.”

He pressed his lips together to stem the tide of the sharp words that sought to follow. He couldn’t do anything at this exact instant. It was too public. Even if he managed to evade the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., the likelihood of attracting Heimdall’s attention was too great. But his fingers itched to draw his daggers, to slash the throat of the man who was so shamelessly stealing his peace.

“I was hoping that we could eat the sandwiches together. Maybe outside? You seem pretty interesting, and, trust me, I don’t think that about just anyone.”

Loki blinked at him slowly and then again when the words continued to lack sense. He knew from the countless romance novels that he had translated that this was a common start. They called it a “meet cute.” For Stark, such interest must be a plot to isolate Loki. Every magazine headline that Loki had read in the grocery store had emphasized the man’s interest in women, and this body was decidedly male.

At that moment, the cashier called their order. Stark was fast. He grabbed both sandwiches before Loki could even ease his grip on Hamlet.

“Look, I can promise you that puberty ended for me decades ago and that I will definitely not ask you to tell me the time. Just give me a chance?”

Loki felt faint. He couldn’t understand Stark’s game. Why would he try to lure Loki into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody under the pretense of a romantic outing? Did he think that Loki wouldn’t recognize him? Furthermore, regardless of the increasing acceptance of variation in human culture, it still wasn’t common for a man to pursue another man in most public places, certainly not so blatantly. None of this made sense.

“I have to return to work soon,” Loki dithered.

Stark nodded solemnly even as a smile played at his lips. “Of course. We can just eat and talk for a little while.”

Loki considered forlornly. He could refuse, but perhaps then they would entrap him elsewhere, somewhere that was truly a haven for him, such as his place of employment or his apartment. At least he was somewhat prepared now.

“Excellent!” Stark beamed when Loki bowed his head in surrender. He reached toward the fallen god, clearly intending to ensnare Loki’s hand or his wrist. Gratifying, he retreated the moment that Loki recoiled, although his brows furrowed slightly. “Sorry. It’s just crowded in here. Stay close, okay?”

Loki followed helplessly, his eyes darting feverishly from person to person. No one seemed to be watching them yet, but perhaps the S.H.I.E.L.D agents had improved in reconnaissance enough to avoid conspicuous plants. The Widow was certainly skilled at subterfuge. She had to be nearby.

Stark was studying him out of the corner of his eye when they stepped outside, hands still clutching their sandwiches. “Okay, so it’s a little chilly out today, but we could find a spot in the park, if you want. I’d suggest my car, but I know that’s a creepy thing to do with a stranger.” Loki was only half-listening. Either option represented a rather transparent trap. More concerning was the elderly man staring at them from across the street. He imagined that most spies were young and virile, but employing older agents would be a clever tactic. Usually, he wouldn’t suspect them of duplicity.

“I vote for the park,” Stark said. “There’ll be some benches somewhere, and it shouldn’t be as popular this time of the year.”

Well, the park was a preferable choice for defending himself. He had never preferred hurting innocents, and the park would be less congested than the streets. Beyond that, his seiðr would be buffed by the natural sources of power in such a place.

“Lead the way,” Loki said, earning a brilliant grin from Stark.

However, once their walk toward the park commenced, Stark appeared determined to walk alongside rather than in front of him. He maintained such close propinquity that their elbows occasionally knocked together. Loki wasn’t surprised to discover that the man didn’t seem to have any difficulty in perpetuating a one-sided conversation. His commentary included anecdotes about various shops along the street, which restaurants he recommended for take-out, and scathing analyses of passing vehicles.

There were a number of empty benches in the park, and Stark selected one nearest to an intricate fountain. Tiny droplets of water permeated the air aggravatingly, but Loki did not protest. The water would give him a channel for ice, and those spells were less draining than most. There were more people in this section of the park than Loki had hoped, but it was preferable to a direct confrontation at the deli.

Stark was almost bouncing on his feet as he passed Loki his sandwich. “Okay, so, I have to admit that I haven’t done this in a long time,” the inventor said as they settled on opposite sides of the bench. He glanced at Loki expectantly, evidently anticipating him to comment.

“This?” Loki reflected dispassionately after a moment.

“The whole ‘getting to know you’ thing. I guess we start with introductions?” When Loki merely studied him, bemused despite himself, the man continued. “So, I’m Tony Stark, billionaire extraordinaire. You probably knew that, though, right?”

Loki snorted unwillingly. His shoulders, which were hunched around his shoulders, relaxed a fraction.

A tiny smile curled at Stark’s lips. “I enjoy all the loud music. ACDC, Black Sabbath, Rolling Stones, you name it. I also like whiskey. And tequila. And, well, just about any alcohol that doesn’t taste like watered down juice…I kind of sound like an alcoholic, don’t I?” Stark scratched at the back of his head, a grimace on his lips. “Anyway, some know me as Iron Man. Saving the world a few times should give me some points, right?” He took a giant bite of his sandwich and flopped back into the bench. “Now you.”

Loki’s efforts to conserve his seiðr in case of attack meant that he could only assess surface reactions, but he did not register any blatantly sinister intent within the inventor. In fact, the primary emotion that Loki could discern was eagerness. He had expected rage after their previous encounter, perhaps hints of fear. Falling was horrifying, and he had been the cause of that experience for Stark—the man should harbor only hostile feelings toward him. And yet the closest approximation to those expected emotions was a shrouded variant of nervousness. Loki could not understand it.

It was enough for him to unclench his fists and unwrap his sandwich. “My name is Thomas. I make enough money to pay rent. I enjoy instrumental music and literature that is evidently favored by educators and librarians. I am not a superhero.”

“Excellent start,” Stark said, nodding with enough force to resemble one of those bobblehead figures that Loki’s coworker collected on her desk. “Tommy, huh? Tommy what?”

“Thomas,” Loki repeated, enunciating each syllable. He didn’t savor relinquishing the last name of his identity, but Stark probably already knew everything anyway. Likely, the man was merely humoring him in order to evaluate how aptly he could maintain his façade. “Thomas Walker.”

“Tommy Walker, then.” Loki opened his mouth to protest, but Stark was barging on. “So, Tommy, what sort of work requires the fashion statement you’ve got going on there?”

Loki wrinkled his nose automatically. Granted, his clothes were secondhand, but his jacket was warm and without holes. “I am a translator,” he acquiesced reluctantly, taking a small bite out of his sandwich.

“A translator, huh? Ah man, thrashing that kid in all of those languages makes so much sense now.” As Stark spoke, lettuce spilled from his mouth. A drip of mayonnaise had gathered at the corner of his lips. He dragged his arm across his mouth, smearing the condiment on his sleeve. “So, what do you translate? Are you like one of those foreign press translators?”

“I translate books.” Stark was edging from his side of the bench, although they were still separated by several feet. “Primarily fiction that my employer believes will sell moderately well overseas,” he found himself saying as he peered furtively at a pair of joggers passing by. “Unfortunately, that stipulation often entails translating a plethora of crime novels and bodice rippers.”

“‘Unfortunately,’ huh? Not your thing?”

Loki shrugged. The joggers passed out of sight, leaving only a woman with a stroller and a cyclist within earshot. “It is simply not my preference.”

“That sounds frustrating.” Stark leaned forward, a frown on his face.

“I enjoy enough aspects of my job to desire not to lose it.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a few seconds to gather himself. Stark did not seem particularly threatening right now. Perhaps he would accept a bribe. “I would sacrifice a great deal to stay,” he hinted grudgingly.

Stark cocked his head to the side. “Even though you’re translating literally the antithesis of you?”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “What are you implying?

The man’s answering smile was enigmatic and infuriating. “Nothing at all, but, out of curiosity, what would you prefer to translate?”

A soft snort escaped him. “You want something more specific than absolutely anything else?”

Stark chuckled. The sound was more natural than his previous efforts. “Maybe a little more specific than that.”

Loki sat back and ran his fingers through Thomas’ curls. His eyes drifted to the fountain as he considered. “A challenge, I suppose. There is only so much variation that one can devote to describing the intricates of sex organs.”

Stark’s shoulders lurched in time with his laugh. “Oh god! That sounds like an actual nightmare!” He wiped at his eyes. “What’s the worst thing that you’ve ever had to translate?”

That answer required little thought. “A certain author for whom I regularly translate enjoys equating penises to certain types of candy. Her last description of the hero’s anatomy was over five-hundred words in length.”

The inventor’s eyes widened comically. “She described a dick for five-hundred words?”

Loki nodded solemnly, although his face felt as though it was twitching. “I suggested cutting it from the novel entirely. My employer demanded that I expand the passage by at least another paragraph.”

“Oh. My. God.” Stark’s body bent in two as he chortled. “That’s actually awful. And so, so awesome.”

Some of the coiled churning in Loki’s belly loosened the slightest bit. “As you say.” He nibbled on another bite of his sandwich. “And you?”

“Me?”

“Yes,” Loki said, curious in spite of everything. “Do you enjoy what you do?”

“What? Do I enjoy being Iron Man?”

Loki shrugged. “I’m more interested in your inventions.”

Stark straightened, his eyes taking on a mystifying shine. “You are?”

“Certainly. Iron Man is simply a symbol. I am speaking with Anthony Stark, am I not?”

Bizarrely, Stark’s lips spread into a soft smile. “Right! Well, where to start.” He paused in evident thought, wiping his fingers absently on a napkin. “Well, have you ever heard of artificial intelligence?”

“Smart machines?” Loki guessed based on the name. He had never familiarized himself with mortal scientific terms.

“Exactly! I might have created the most advanced A.I. in existence. He’s installed in my suit, runs my Tower, and buys me groceries.”

“Your remarkably advanced A.I. purchases your groceries?” Loki queried skeptically.

Stark stuffed the remainder of his sandwich in his mouth. “He also helps me sleep through the meetings I want to avoid and divert my CEO when she’s angry.”

“Your CEO girlfriend?” Loki asked, remembering a headline from a magazine at the grocery counter several months previous.

Stark froze, and as Loki watched, his jaw flexed perilously. “We broke up a few months ago.”

Loki allowed his hands, still clutching his sandwich, to drop to his lap. “Ah. I believe that the media was speculating on whether you had separated. Something about you being pictured with an overabundance of younger women.”

Stark crumpled the wrapping of his sandwich into a compact ball. His knuckles were white. “You can’t believe everything you read.”

“The pictures were counterfeit?”

Stark kneaded the paper into an even denser ball. “No, but they don’t tell the whole story.”

Loki scrutinized him for a moment. The conversation felt dangerous, but not in the way that he had expected. He had battled Stark with words before, and so he was familiar with the man’s ploys for time. This felt different. Could it be possible that Stark truly hadn’t tracked him down and simply happened to be attracted to the unassuming man whom Loki had crafted precisely for invisibility?

“You appear to care overly much about my opinion,” Loki observed scrupulously.

Stark’s fingers rose to his breast and rubbed at the fabric there. “Pepper and I have been broken up for months now. I confess that I’ve made some questionable decisions since then, but, like I said, you’re interesting. I’d like to get to know you.”

Loki hummed noncommittally and feigned intent intrigue with his own wrapper. Stark was presenting himself as a potential suitor then. Granted, he had never been pursued openly by a male, but he was familiar enough with deterring the interest of unwanted admirers in search of power. Lack of acknowledgement was usually an efficacious deterrent, and yet, his absence of reaction seemed to encourage Stark to keep speaking. The man even inched closer.

“Look, I can admit that I’ve been planning to ask you out for weeks now. I don’t usually date guys, but you’re my type. You’re exactly my type.”

Loki felt his brows wrinkle together. His hands burrowed deep crevices into the bread of his sandwich. “You don’t know anything about me.”

Stark craned even further forward, fingers twisting into the fabric above his heart. Loki could feel his breath on his lips when the other man exhaled. “You’re Tommy Walker. You know at least four languages. You’re a translator of dick fics who likes classic literature enough to sit through Hamlet more than once. And you haven’t asked for my autograph once.”

Loki forced himself to roll his eyes in a show of dismissiveness. “Those facts are hardly cause for intrigue.”

Stark chuckled. This time it sounded normal in pitch. “So, tell me more about you. Consider me your captive audience.”

The darkness in Stark’s eyes was unquestionably simmering desire. Loki’s stomach started to twist in reaction, his fingers to tremble. Stark wanted him, and, in Loki’s experience, lust was an unequivocal path to pain. But he could scheme even in the midst of panic. He could extricate himself from this situation without sparking Stark’s ire overmuch. He would reclaim his unassuming little subsistence living under the Avenger’s noses.

“I apologize, but my lunch break is over.”

Stark started to protest, but Loki persisted. He dug into his pocket and pulled out more than enough cash to cover his sandwich. It was beyond what he could afford, but escape was his priority.

“Thank you for the company, but I must return to work.”

He forced himself not to look at Stark or acknowledge the radiating hurt that he could sense even without the use of seiðr. He turned on his heel, intent on escape—

Fingers closed tightly around his wrist, directly on one of the bracers that burned away his seiðr even now. He hissed involuntarily.

“Don’t go,” Stark pleaded, free hand kneading bizarrely at his chest. “I know that I fucked up somewhere. Let me make it right.”

“Stark, release me,” Loki warned, voice wavering beyond his control.

“Just give me one more chance. Please?”

Loki wrenched free. It was onerous to flee briskly without broadcasting the true depths of his panic. His legs began to shudder until they refused to bear his weight, and the panic came upon him so abruptly that he almost didn’t conceal himself in time. He vaguely heard Stark pass by the alley in which he had taken refuge, was certain that he discerned his alias’s name, but breathing was his sole focus as he waited for his body to cease its abominable weakness.

Some time later, he managed to call his employer on his seldom used flip phone. The initial surge of anger quickly transitioned into reluctant concern. Thomas was a productive employee at the man’s company. Evidently, he sounded ill enough for his usually tetchy employer to suggest that he dip into his accumulated sick leave hours. However, Thomas’ deadline, the man insisted, would not be modified regardless of his status. He was expected to return to work in the morning.

Loki walked home, intent on avoiding the crush of bodies on the bus and unable to afford a taxi after wasting all of his surplus cash on Stark. The journey home, excruciatingly prolonged and rife with expected treachery around every corner, lasted nearly an hour. For the duration of that time, he peered continuously over his shoulder, straining his ears for the rumble of thunder, the whistle of an arrow, or the hum of a spinning shield.

He stumbled into the bathroom of his tiny studio apartment, flicked on the light, stared desperately into Thomas’ eyes.

“Green,” he whispered in relief, finding the flecks of jade mixed in with the blue. “Still green.”

Chapter Text

A week had passed since his encounter with Stark. Loki assembled his own sandwiches now. They were soggy little things, topped with a single slice of tomato and a limp piece or two of lettuce, but they meant that he did not have to return to the deli. He could further justify his new strategy due to the fact that it was saving him money. The sandwich shop had been his weekly splurge, one that he was stretching his limited funds to afford. Still, a part of him missed the break from the tedium of his week. Wednesdays had been special—a chance at filling food and a leisurely stroll through what passed as nature in the city. Now Wednesdays were another day to sit at his desk and simply exist.

Stark had managed to stay out of the news since their contact. Not that Loki had gone looking for information, but usually Stark’s latest trysts were splattered across the magazine and newspaper stands that he passed on the way home from work. The lack of activity was vaguely concerning, but he was forcing himself not to worry. Surely Thomas Walker was merely a drop in the bucket for Anthony Stark.

It was early afternoon on Thursday, and he was working diligently on translating an admittedly mortifying sex scene in a vampire romance novel into French. The author had a familiar obsession with describing the vampire’s penis in gratuitous detail on every other page, and Loki was running out of creative ways to improve the uninspired diction.

The ringing of the phone on his desk startled him out of finding another way to relate human anatomy to phallic shaped candy. Not even one of his coworkers bothered to look up as he groped through the stacks of paper in his space in search of the phone. As always, they barely registered the existence of the inobtrusive, unfashionable, acquiescent Thomas Walker.

He failed to recover the receiver before it ceased ringing. The numbers flashing at him meant nothing, and the caller’s identity appeared to be blocked. It had likely been a telemarketer. Indifferent, he returned to the manuscript and its cringeworthy dialogue.

The phone started ringing again mere seconds later. It was the same number.

Frowning, he stared down at it. Something was amiss. He could count on one hand the number of times that his phone had rung since he had started working here just over a year ago, and no one was so persistent in attempting to connect with him. According to every method of record keeping in the United States, Thomas Walker barely existed.

“Walker.” In the absolute silence of the office, his employer’s voice directly behind him seemed overwhelmingly raucous.

“Sir?” he offered in the shaky murmur that Thomas favored.

Theodore Glade, his employer, had seldom noticed him. On the day that Loki had interviewed for his current position, the man had forgotten his name three time over the course of an hour. It had suited Loki. He relished his daily abscondence in an office full of people. Therefore, the fact that Glade was currently towering over his desk was somewhat disquieting. Eyes that had consistently disregarded him were starting to lift surreptitiously in his direction from all sides.

“Answer the phone,” Glade ordered.

The man was trying for insouciance, but reading people was a skill that Loki had long ago cultivated out of necessity. There was a sheen of sweat on Glade’s upper lip, and the man’s knuckles were white where he gripped the divider of Loki’s cubicle. He was practically quivering by the time Loki had fished out the corded landline.

“This is Walker.”

“Thomas Walker?” came a sharp voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes?”

There was a pause and then a sigh. The voice sounded decidedly friendlier when she spoke again. “Good afternoon. My name is Pepper Potts. You may be aware that I am the CEO of Stark Industries.”

Loki froze. The telephone cord balled up in his clenched fist.

Potts was still speaking. “Mr. Stark has requested your services in translating some materials in his personal collection. Mr. Glade assured me that we can come to an arrangement.”

Glade was in his face, a murderous expression taking up most of Loki’s vision. Loki was suddenly certain that his response could cost him more than enduring another meeting with Stark. All thin lips and jiggling jowls, Glade’s entire demeanor screamed that his very employment was at stake. Loki closed his eyes, provoking an agitated grunt.

“Perhaps you could explain your offer to me, Ms. Potts. I haven’t been apprised of your conversation with my employer.”

Glade made a strange sound in between a huff and a choke. When Loki cast him a cursory glance, the man’s spindly fingers were actually twitching, as though simulating wrapping around Loki’s neck. Loki shut his eyes again and bodily turned away.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t much that I can explain over the phone, Mr. Walker. We have already discussed the basic terms with Mr. Glade. We are prepared to offer your company a substantial sum for loaning you to us. You will, of course, receive a significant raise as well. All that is left is for us to arrange your transportation to Avengers Tower so that you can sign the paperwork.”

His glasses slid to the end of his nose as he considered his next move. The few seconds of silence must have tested Glade’s endurance because Loki became abruptly aware that Glade had taken the final steps needed to press an unyielding leg against the armrest of Loki’s chair. The man’s hand came to rest on his shoulder and squeezed. Like clockwork, Loki’s seiðr bubbled on his fingertips. His vision tunneled, chaffing at the physical manifestation of imposed constraint.

“Mr. Walker? I hope that those terms are acceptable to you.”

“Pardon?” he asked, scarcely able to refocus as searing breath blanketed his ear.

Potts’ voice was austere now. “There’s a car waiting for you outside of your building. We would like to meet with you as soon as possible to complete the necessary arrangements.”

Glade was so close that Loki could smell the putrid remainder of his lunch—some sort of egg dish. “Perhaps you could allow me some time to consider—”

Glade yanked the phone from his hand, and this time Loki couldn’t stop the dagger from sliding into his palm. He would not be complacent in this ambush. Stark had to be targeting him for some reason. Baseless attraction did not warrant the kind of attention that the inventor was paying him. He had no desire to spring the actual trap regardless of his employer’s power over him.

“He’ll be there,” Glade growled into the receiver. “I’ll come with him to make sure of it.”

Loki thought that he heard the beginning of protests on the other end, but Glade was already hanging up. His almost manic eyes were in Loki’s face yet again. Long had he fostered neutral feelings toward this man who seemed to delight in assigning him the brand of literature that he despised. It seemed that he had been blinded for too long, too busy feeling grateful that his paperwork looked real enough, too compliant simply because he now possessed the means to survive on a paltry amount of barely affordable food. Never had he categorized Glade as a threat until this very moment, but his employer had just been expedited to a spot on the very long list of people that he loathed.

“Come along, Tom,” Glade ordered. He tapped his foot impatiently when Loki failed to surge to him feet. “Now, Tom.”

He rose to a deluge of eyes that made him hunch into himself. His strategy had been flawless. Countless days of invisibility, contenting himself to being perfectly average so that he could blend in, managing the barest minimum of cordiality with his coworkers, and it was all ruined with a single phone call from Potts…because of Stark.

Loki’s blunt nails jabbed into his palms as he rode the elevator down to the ground floor of the office building in which he worked, holding his breath so that he couldn’t smell the repugnant sweat emanating from Glade. The man was humming to himself now. He’d steepled his hands together so that the tips of his fingers could tap out a pattern in some twisted caricature of prayer. He had yet to take his eyes off of Loki, squinty gaze intrusive and calculating. Even if he managed to escape this job offer with his cover intact, Loki suspected that he would never again be able to evade Glade’s scrutiny.

They had reached the lobby now. Glade nodded to himself, as though he had expected the luxurious black limousine that was parked in front of the building, but Loki caught the exhilaration sluicing from the man’s very pores. The inside of the vehicle was unsurprisingly ostentatious with mirrored ceilings, gratuitous amounts of alcohol, and a set of giant television screens. Glade managed to pour a glass of champagne before the engine even cranked, still without taking his eyes off of Loki. It didn’t matter how many times Loki slid to a new seat. After a minute or so, their knees were knocking together again.

Glade seemed content with his staring for the first part of their journey, so Loki focused his attention on controlling his mostly mortal body. Since the bracers had been sealed around his wrists, he had noticed an increased susceptibility to mortal habits and concerns. Despite his Jötunn blood, he felt the cold more sharply than he was accustomed. He was more liable to fidgeting such that even now he had to concentrate in order to stem the desperate tapping of narrow fingers and the jittering of rickety legs. Most of his coping methods were too visible, would give too much away to the man scrutinizing his every breath, so he focused on the world outside of the tinted window. From the top of the Tower so very long ago, the humans below had seemed like puny insects, their problems insignificant in the wake of his fraught bid to outwit the Mad Titan, Midgard, and Asgard simultaneously. Now, as one of them, he despised the amount of effort that it took simply to survive in this world.

“You’re going to say yes,” Glade said suddenly, interrupting Loki’s musings.

Loki fought for the mildness of Thomas even as he floundered for an out. While Thomas would normally do precisely what he was told, perhaps he could compromise. “I would respectfully prefer not to work for Stark, sir,” he said, allowing Thomas to push up his glasses as a nervous tick. 

“Does it look like I give a shit about what you prefer? Whatever they offer you, you’re going to say yes to it. We need this kind of exposure. God knows why they’re asking for you, but you’re going to give them whatever they want.”

“My other contracts—”

“Can easily be translated by anyone else in the company. Don’t get me wrong, Tom. You do good work, but you’re going to accept this agreement. If you don’t, I’ll fire you, and I’ll make sure that you’re blacklisted if you try to find another job in the field.”

Loki seethed silently as he watched more of the trap’s foundations bracket him in. He understood why Glade would force him to take this deal—greed was a puissant motivator. But Stark’s persistence didn’t make sense. Surely Stark was accustomed to easy conquests. Why would he be so enthralled with a bespectacled man who wore secondhand tweed?

They arrived at Avenger’s Tower—formerly Stark Tower. The name had allegedly changed when the Avengers had claimed various floors as living quarters. Perhaps Thor was here even now, mourning the memory of the inculpable little brother that he had lost. Cringing inwardly, Loki forced his mind away from that train of thought in favor of reacting as Thomas Walker should. Thomas Walker would marvel at the marble flooring as they made their way through the lobby. Thomas Walker did not have a brother. Thomas Walker did not have a family. Officially, Thomas Walker had lived in a foster home until he had aged out of the system. Thomas Walker would be unaccustomed to such luxury.

They used a private elevator tucked away in a locked room off of the lobby. Mirrors yet again blanketed every surface. Was that a sign of affluence in the mortal world or was it merely a tangible mark of Stark’s unique conceitedness? Glade’s intractable hand girded his neck, bringing the blue of Loki’s reflected eyes into even sharper focus as he was compelled to turn towards the overhead lights.

“Remember what I said,” Glade said, giving him one last shake before the elevator doors opened with a cheerful trill.

Pepper Potts was waiting for them when they stepped out, a polite smile doing little to soften her features. “Mr. Glade, I presume?” she asked. Her expression tightened when Glade elbowed Loki to the side so that he could shake her hand a little too vigorously. “How nice of you to join us.” She looked past his employer to Thomas, her head cocking slightly to the side. “And this must be the infamous Mr. Walker.” Potts stepped smoothly past Glade to grasp his hand, her smile warming into something a little more genuine. “I have heard so much about you these last few weeks. We’re eager to have you on board.”

Loki examined her silently, mustering all of his control to keep his expression inscrutable. His seiðr was registering the same wisps of kindness that had bathed Frigga when he was a child.

She released him promptly and pivoted fluidly to remain in between him and Glade as his employer attempted to regain his position beside Loki. “Now, Mr. Glade, how about we take the elevator to my office so that we can talk business? Mr. Walker can stay here and wait.”

Of course, Glade accepted eagerly. How easily she outmaneuvered him, played to his avarice, left him oblivious to the coiled nerves that Loki detected just beyond the double doors behind Potts. She was, of course, playing Loki too, and there was nothing that he could do about it.

As soon as the elevator closed behind them, Anthony Stark rushed through the double doors. He radiated stupid puppy excitement and distressing fretfulness all at once. Loki’s reckless side desired to reveal transparently his irritation, but Thomas Walker would be deferential in a professional setting.

“Hello, Mr. Stark,” he said, ducking his head respectfully.

Stark’s swallowed thickly, brow furrowing the slightest bit. “Heya, Tommy,” he said quietly. “How’ve you been?”

“I am well.” Cordial. He needed to be cordial. “And you?”

“I’m good now. I’m glad to see you.” Stark’s thumbs began to twiddle together. “I thought that you might decide not to come after how we ended things last time.”

He fought back his instinctive sneer at the implication that his presence was a choice. More exacting to conceal was his exasperation at the inexplicable intimacy of this conversation. Stark was conversing with him as though they were at the very least close acquaintances rather than virtual strangers. Yet again, Loki considered whether this was the ultimate trick. Had Stark played the long game, embroiled him so tightly in his net that he would simply step into the noose without a fight?

He closed his eyes and focused on maintaining even breaths. “Ms. Potts mentioned some sort of contract?” he prompted once he managed a passable amount of control.

The shreds of vulnerability that Stark had displayed disappeared behind a solemn veil as he nodded. “That’s right. Why don’t you follow me into the conference room?”

The conference room was just as pretentious as the rest of Stark’s domain. The table was gleaming and wooden, made of what Loki guessed was luxurious material for Midgard. Every chair was oversized, optimized for dramatic effect rather than comfort. Simple abstract paintings added to the extravagant feel of his surroundings. It appeared as though Stark was aiming to impress him with overwhelming affluence this time.

They sat side-by-side, Stark at the head of the table and Loki positioned directly to his right. There was a folder of papers between them, presumably the contract that he was required to sign, but Stark pushed it away from them.

“You didn’t come back,” Stark said softly, gaze focused on the pattern that he was tracing on the table with his index finger.

“Come back?” Loki repeated when the man failed to elaborate, ensuring that his voice remained impassive.

“To the deli. I know that I came on a little strong, maybe borderline creepy. I wanted to apologize.”

Loki eyes narrowed, voice sharpening despite his efforts. “How do you know that I haven’t been back?”

Stark grimaced. “I might have gone back every day hoping that you would be there?”

Loki’s nostrils flared. “And so, when I didn’t return, you decided to track down my place of employment?”

“No, when you didn’t go back, I decided to offer you a chance at what we talked about.” Stark paused, obviously anticipating Loki’s curiosity. The fallen god held his silence doggedly. “Remember? You said that you wanted a challenge and to translate something besides soft-core porn?”

Hidden in his lap, Loki allowed his fingers to tap out a rhythm on his thigh where no one could see. “I am certain that your intentions in offering me such an opportunity are entirely virtuous.”

Stark’s eyes brightened, hand fumbling for his breast. “Well, I wouldn’t say no to a date.” He must have seen Loki’s features hardening, because he rushed to continue. “Shit, sorry. Pepper would kill me for saying that. I know that’s workplace harassment…or it will be once you sign the contract.”

Loki crossed his arms in front of his body and strove to reignite Thomas’ neutrality. “I am disinclined to enter any sort of business arrangement with you, Mr. Stark. I would prefer to maintain my current position at Glade Translations.”

“Aww, c’mon. At least hear me out! You can’t want to stay there. Even Pepper thinks that your boss is an asshole.”

Stark turned to shuffle through the folder of papers, giving Loki time to reach out on a different plane. The man’s reactions to him were incomprehensible, bordering on obsessive. The dampening effect of the hidden shackles on his wrists meant that his efforts at investigation would leave him little seiðr to work with if he had to escape quickly, but he had to know.

It took only a moment to find it—a seed that he had inadvertently left behind those years ago. Magicless, Stark’s body (or rather the device buried in his chest) had apparently treated the scepter’s influence as something to protect even as it had redirected its intent. Rather than corrupting Stark outright, the scepter’s magic had evidently embedded itself in the man. Diminutive though it was, this spore had tied itself intimately to Stark. Its purpose didn’t appear to be harmful despite its origins, but neither was it particularly hospitable. Intrigued, Loki prodded at it.

It responded immediately at his touch, unfurling slightly in recognition. Whereas it had sought to repel upon initial detection, now the spore was viscous. It acted as a sort of adhesive, leaving a hint of residue on his seiðr even when he attempted to withdraw. Worse, his reconnaissance manifested physically with Stark. Even though he couldn’t sense what Loki was doing, not without access to or understanding of seiðr, something in Stark reacted. The shorter man’s body turned more fully in his direction, and Loki could sense a solicitude toward him that should not be present, at least not to this extent.

The scepter hadn’t managed to brainwash Stark, but it had left a mark of some kind, some sort of affection for Loki that managed to recognize its originator despite the glamour enshrouding his true features.

“You okay, Tommy?” Stark asked.

“Yes. I am well,” Loki said distractedly.

Unthreading such a connection would have required a generous portion of his seiðr had he been at full power. Crippled as he was, he would only be able to pick at the seed a little at a time, like a thread hopelessly tangled at hundreds of interlocking points. It was too draining to fathom in his current state. He sank back in his chair, disconcerted but determined to hide his discovery from Stark.

“The contract?” Loki prompted when Stark continued to study him inscrutably after a moment or two.

“Right,” Stark said, thumbing the papers within the folder so that they tumbled in a sort of cascade. “Maybe we can talk for a little bit first, though?”

“I fail to see the purpose,” Loki said, tugging at a particularly threadbare part of his sleeve. “I would prefer to settle this as soon as possible.”

Stark’s lips pressed together. His hand fluttered to his chest again, pressed directly over where the spore pulsed. “I would like to explain those magazines covers before we start.”

“There is no need—”

“There is, though.” Start tilted forward, eyes taking on an almost wild glaze. “Look, those women didn’t mean anything. I just do stupid shit sometimes, and I don’t handle rejection well. Breaking up with Pepper sucked.”

“I do not require any sort of explanation,” Loki insisted.

Stark shook his head obstinately. “You do, though, because I don’t want you to think that I’m not interested in you.”

This again. “I thought that you were concerned about a lawsuit,” Loki reminded him.

“You’re not a Stark Industries employee yet, though, and I have to say this.” Stark sucked in a breath, and the spore churned fiercely within his chest. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for weeks, okay? It’s not like I visit that deli infrequently, but it’s across town, so it’s not exactly convenient. I’ve kind of been going on the off chance that you would be there.” Stark leaned further into his space, eyes earnest. “I saw you for the first time a couple of months ago. You were all gorgeous with your sharp cheekbones and those adorable glasses. I got interested, but it was too soon after Pepper. I wasn’t ready to make a move, so I distracted myself with those women. They didn’t mean anything.”

“Stark, I do not care about the women—”

“Anyway, I kind of made a game out of guessing what book you would bring while we waited in line. Usually, it was something straight off the top ten most dreaded pieces of literature from high school. I mean, god, one time, you were reading Wuthering Heights. I’m pretty sure that book still haunts my nightmares.”

“It’s an excellent novel,” Loki muttered petulantly, arms crossing all the tighter.

“I decided to make my move after you shot down that kid,” Stark continued as though Loki hadn’t spoken, fingers making his way into his artfully messy hair, mussing the strands even further. “Honestly, when you started ranting at him in German, that was it. I had to talk to you. It was probably the sexist thing that I’ve seen in my entire life. Unfortunately, you practically sprinted out of the deli as soon as you had your food. I couldn’t catch up.”

Loki shifted uneasily. “I never saw you.”

Stark shrugged. “I’m pretty good at the whole incognito thing, and you always had your nose in a book.”

Loki took off Thomas’ glasses so that he could pinch the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “I was under the impression that you were interested exclusively in women,” he settled on saying.

“I usually do prefer women.” He gnawed at his bottom lip and studied Loki out of the corner of his eye. “There’s something about you, though. I don’t want to sound creepy, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.”

Loki grimaced, all but convinced that the spore was the culprit now. His options were limited. To stay would mean potentially strengthening this bond that the spore had fostered between them, but it was also the only choice that could mitigate Stark’s preoccupation with him. To abscond meant starting all over—a new identity, likely a new city. Thomas Walker’s trivial existence wasn’t exactly displeasing. He would prefer not to invest the time and energy that it would take to become someone else just yet. Denying Stark but maintaining this identity wasn’t a possibility—he had no doubt that Stark would further intrude into his life, willingly or not, while under the influence of this working.

His freedom essentially depended on him removing the spore, but that would take time, and even considering the effort involved was enervating. But perhaps he owed Stark. Not because of anything as frivolous as throwing the man out the window—that was a fair move in the wake of Stark’s own efforts at deception. No, he owed Stark because he knew what it meant to be a fractional thrall, to control only a portion of the actions and responses of his own body. As the immediate wielder of the scepter, Stark’s unknowing subjugation was ultimately Loki’s responsibility.   

“If I am even to consider employment here, I will have to request that you abstain from such sentiment,” Loki said at last. “I have no interest in a romantic entanglement with you.”

Stark’s expression stuttered before a small, pained smile overtook his features. “I’ll try to respect that, but I gotta warn you that I’m an incorrigible flirt. I’m not sure that I can promise to control that entirely.”

“You can certainly try,” Loki said dryly.

“Sure can!” Stark said, voice infused with false cheer. His fingers had clenched into a fist at his breast. “But you’ll do it? You’ll take the job?”

“I’ll remind you that you haven’t spoken a word about the contract that I came here to sign.”

“Oh, right. Well, I do have a personal erotica collection. How’s your Japanese?”

Loki’s lips twitched despite himself. “You’re joking.”

Stark leaned forward, eyes sparkling. “Maybe, but you secretly find it irresistibly endearing, right?”

“I pray that you will become tolerable at a certain point.” They stared at each other for a moment, the tension between them a strange mixture of levity and wariness. “The contract, Stark?” Loki prompted again.

Finally, Stark slid the contract his way and allowed him to peruse its contents. It wasn’t overly long or complex, although there were aspects that he imagined Glade would manipulate, particularly concerning his pay. More troubling was the required setting and the lack of detail regarding the nature of the work that he would be doing. There also didn’t appear to be a termination date.

“You’re frowning,” Stark said, interrupting his musings. “I don’t like the frowning.”

Loki looked up, unable to hide his perturbation. “It says that I have to be on site to work on your translations.”

Stark scratched the back of his head, suddenly focused on avoiding eye contact. “The documents that you’ll be translating are…sensitive. They can’t leave the building.”

Loki breathed out slowly. Even if he did owe Stark, regular trips to Avengers Tower were entirely too dangerous. He was certain that the Widow resided here in some capacity, and even a small chance of encountering Thor was too much of a risk. He would not acquiesce even to contemplating what would happen if he ran into the Beast.

“It really is necessary,” Stark said, raising his hands, palms up, the picture of honesty. “I have a lot of enemies, and I wouldn’t put it past them to steal these documents. I can’t risk them leaving the Tower.”

Loki tapped the sheets of paper with the pen that he had been provided, considering. “And you cannot tell me what they are?”

“Not until you sign the contract. Pepper would kill me.” Stark rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. “It’s way better than transcribing dick lit, though. And it’ll be a hell of a challenge.”

Loki kneaded his temples. Usually, he only succumbed to headaches after a particularly taxing use of his seiðr, but he could feel one developing. There were too many factors, a plethora of complications. Aside from the inherent risk to his safety, the commute here was easily double—maybe triple—the distance and expense of his current travel route.

“Commuting here every day would be quite the investment,” he admitted reluctantly.

“Oh.” A pause as the other man searched his face. “I could send a car to pick you up?”

That solution did not provide even an iota of comfort. “I greatly value my privacy.”

“I get that. Trust me, I really do. Look, Tommy—”

“Thomas,” Loki insisted, allowing his body to slump back into his chair.

“Tommy,” Stark repeated, a smile playing at his lips, “did I look for a translation project so that I could get to know you better? Absolutely, I did, but this really is an awesome opportunity. Your boss is a jerk, and you hate your job. Why would you say no?”

Loki sighed heavily. “You are certain that these translations do not involve horrendously obvious criminal exploits or soft-core pornography disguised as literature?”

Stark’s smile widened. “Let’s call them historical fact and add in the possibility of uncovering Stark family secrets.”

Despite himself, Loki felt a spark of interest in the rolling turmoil that was his stomach. It sounded as though Stark might actually be offering work on something important, and Loki valued knowledge above all else. Even with his current limitations, gleaning intelligence on his enemies could be worthwhile with the proper precautions. And whenever he did assume a new identity, he would use that knowledge to make himself absolutely undiscoverable. Surely, he could withstand the occasional intrusion of Stark’s company until he satisfied his own curiosity and unwound the invasive force that he had inadvertently inserted into the man’s life.

“I’ll sign it,” he said at last.

“You will?” Stark started squirming in his seat. “You’ll accept the job?”

“Yes, Stark,” Loki said, rolling his eyes once again. “I do dislike repeating myself.”

“I never had any doubt that you would say yes,” the man crowed. Stark pushed five pens in Loki’s direction, casting the papers into disarray. “Let’s make it official, then.”

Loki signed the contract with little flourish and immediately pushed back his chair to stand. “Will that be all for today, Mr. Stark?” he asked, striving for the last surviving threads of Thomas’ calm.

Stark stood with the same speed, albeit less gracefully. “What? You’re leaving already?”

“I believe that the workday is nearly over,” Loki said, exiting the room. “I would appreciate it if you could direct me to the nearest bus stop.” He could hear Stark rush to follow behind him.

“You don’t have to leave yet, you know. We could have a tv marathon. Have you ever seen Game of Thrones?”

“I do not watch television.” Loki mashed the button for the elevator, and then again when he could detect no resulting movement from beyond the doors. For a private elevator, it was certainly slow.

“You don’t watch…Tommy, that’s absolutely tragic.”

“As you say.”

“Do you even have a favorite movie?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Favorite television show?”

“No, Stark.”

“But…but you have to have watched cartoons as a kid! What did you like?”

“We had no television then.” He didn’t have one now either, but he was certain that Stark would latch onto that next if he mentioned it.

Stark was staring at him, brows furrowed, mouth gaping slightly in a rather transparent display of shock. “But what do you do for fun?”

“I read.”

“And?”

“I enjoy music.”

“Classical music? I bet it’s classical.”

“What’s wrong with classical music?” He gave into pressing his heated forehead against the cool elevator doors. He still couldn’t hear the elevator moving. What was taking so long?

“Nothing is ‘wrong’ exactly! Nothing except that it’s, you know, old people music.”

“Stark,” he growled, closing his eyes in exasperation. The pain in his head was beginning to coagulate behind his eye.

“Right, right! Okay, well, I’m going to make a to-watch list for you. Honestly, I don’t know how you can even claim to be human if you haven’t seen Star Wars.”

They waited for another few seconds in silence. Seething inwardly as the time dragged on, Loki reached out grudgingly with his residual seiðr and discovered that the elevator remained a few floors above them. It didn’t appear to have budged from its position.

“Stark, why isn’t the elevator here?” Loki asked after waiting another handful of seconds.

He despised it. The feeling of being trapped. Could this have been a ruse all along? He didn’t sense the Iron Man suit nearby, but being surrounded by all of this technology made his seiðr even less sensitive than usual. He couldn’t be certain.

Stark frowned. “It is taking a long time. Hey, JARVIS?”

“Sir?”

Loki jumped. The voice, distinctively British, seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. He probed the confines of the corridor surreptitiously, seiðr building in his fingertips.  

“Where’s the elevator?” Stark continued unwittingly.

“You requested that Mr. Walker stay here until you rescinded that order, Sir. Do you not recall?”

Loki felt boneless at the answer. His fists clenched slowly at his sides as his heart rate accelerated beyond his control.

“I did what?” Stark said, seemingly aghast. It was a stellar performance.

“Would you like to revoke the order, Sir?”

“Yes. God, yes. Send the elevator down here as quickly as possible,” Stark said, exhaling heavily. Loki’s seiðr registered the immediate cranking of the gears as the elevator began to descend at last. “Look, Tommy, I really don’t know why I did that. I’m so sorry—”

“You will never do it again,” Loki interrupted. His voice sounded flat in his efforts to conceal his terror.

“Of course, I won’t.” A pause. “That was seriously fucked up, Tommy. I don’t do things like that. Please believe me.”

“I want an addendum to the contract specifying that you cannot trap me here under any circumstances. I will sign it when I start.”

“Of course. Whatever you need.”

His seiðr vaguely registered the spore quaking and seething, and he was sure that Stark’s body language would reflect the man’s agitation. At this moment, he could not care.

The elevator doors opened at last, and Loki did not look back as he stepped in. He reached for the button for the lobby.

“I know that I fucked up,” Stark interrupted quietly, voice seemingly agonized, “but can I ask when you’ll start?”

“Isn’t two weeks the standard amount of time?” Loki asked dispassionately, staring fixedly at the array of buttons.

“Two weeks is so long from now,” Stark protested, still in those soft, defeated tones.

Loki blew out a gust of air that sent a wayward curl on his forehead spiraling. “When would you like me to start?”

“What about Monday? I can ask Pepper to convince Glade to give you the day off tomorrow, too.”

He pressed the button for the lobby decisively. “Very well. I will be here on Monday.”

The elevator doors began to shut, only to be intercepted by Stark’s sneakered foot.

“I really am sorry, Tommy,” the engineer whispered.

“Stark,” Loki said, teeth gritted, “I have reached my limit. Please allow me to return home.”

Stark’s face shuttered into blankness as the man backed away, and finally, Loki was free—relatively speaking. Presumably, his every movement was being monitored, so he waited, and the fire and ice that had building in the pit of his stomach began to fracture.

He allowed himself to be directed outside to the limousine, where a Happy Hogan offered to drive him directly to his apartment. Once they arrived, the jovial driver promised that he would be back to pick him up on Monday (apparently Stark had already cleared his day off with Glade) and tucked his phone number into Loki’s fist.

Loki grunted something that he hoped resembled thankfulness before he whirled on his heel to stalk into his apartment building. The entrance itself was filthy, the glass on the front door cracked in numerous places. The stairs creaked with decades of termite damage, and the elevator hadn’t worked since he had moved in a little over a year ago. The halls were barren, although he could always feel eyes following his progress upstairs. Loki had been left alone since he had moved in, presumably because his second-hand clothing and outdated technology made it fairly obvious that he owned nothing worth stealing. 

Hogan was still outside when Loki peeked around the threadbare curtain that covered the solitary window in his apartment. The man was looking up at the building, a phone to his ear, no doubt reporting on Loki’s whereabouts. The fallen god’s skin behind the glamour itched. Grinding his teeth for the umpteenth time that day, he sank onto the lumpy bed. Water stains greeted him when he eased onto his back, and he traced their shapes, watching them form grotesque characters, monsters. The war in his stomach, the fire and the ice, waged on.

It was ruined. The one thing that he could tolerate in his mortal existence—his job—was ruined, and it was Stark’s fault. He turned over, carefully pressed his face into a stained pillowcase and screamed.

Chapter Text

“Tommy! Tommy, you’re here! I thought that you might have second thoughts, but here you are! Isn’t that great, Pepper?”

Less than a minute in Stark’s presence, and Loki was already weary. Sleep had been elusive since he’d signed Stark’s contact, and his usual distraction methods hadn’t been effective. Over the weekend, he had taken a special trip to the library to check out more classic literature and had downloaded several music tracks onto his MP3 player. Usually, those diversions were enough of a deflection, but the trepidation of continued contact with one of his greatest enemies had proven difficult to overcome. He had subdued several impulsive attempts at fleeing and had devoted hours of time to quiet moments of dread where he questioned his sanity.

The fact that he hadn’t even been able to exit the elevator before being accosted by Stark didn’t portend a pleasant start to this farce either.

“It’s wonderful, Tony,” came Pepper’s dry response to Stark’s misplaced exuberance.

“You’re no fun,” Stark grumbled. “JARVIS?”

“It is indeed marvelous, Sir.”

It was that voice again, the one that reverberated throughout the room without any discernable source. Loki wasn’t stupid. He could deduce that this JARVIS was the Artificial Intelligence that Stark had mentioned upon their first meeting, but he still couldn’t rein in the instinctive darting of his eyes or the acceleration of his breathing.

“Tommy?” Stark’s face flooded his vision, forcing him to refocus on the engineer’s idiotic attempt at facial hair. “You’re freaking out. What’s—oh wait, I didn’t introduce you to JARVIS, did I?”

“You did not.” Loki took a pointed step back, which seemed to clue Stark in. He mirrored him with a stride in the opposite direction, a frown dampening his initial excitement.

“JARVIS,” Stark said, without diverting his gaze from Loki’s face. “Introduce yourself, buddy.”

“Good morning, Mr. Walker,” came the smooth, accented tones. “My name is JARVIS. I do hope that I did not startle you overly much.”

“I simply wasn’t expecting it,” Loki said, peering at the ceiling uncertainly. “It is a pleasure to meet you, JARVIS.”

“Likewise, Mr. Walker. We have all heard so much about you for these last weeks.”

Loki shot a glance at Stark, who had the grace to stare sheepishly at his sneakers. “Have you?” he prompted dubiously.

“Indeed. In fact, just last night, Sir was regaling us with a tale about a teenage admirer—”

“Mute!” Stark sputtered. “Mute. Mute. Mute. God, JARVIS.” Stark clapped his hands as though to dismiss the A.I.’s presence without even addressing the confirmation that Loki would presumably always be monitored over the course of this project. “Anyway, how’d you get here, Tommy? Last I heard, Happy was still waiting for you outside of your place.”

“I took the bus,” Loki offered reluctantly, indulging in what he hoped was an inconspicuous appraisal of his surroundings. There were no visible cameras or anything that he had learned signaled infiltrating technology.  

“The bus? But why? I told you that Happy would pick you up. The bus ride had to have taken forever!”

He wasn’t wrong. Loki had endured the commute for nearly two hours. He’d had to change routes several times to arrive at the tower and had encountered multiple instances of traffic and construction along the way. Suffice it to say, he was already exhausted and dreading the journey home.

Loki settled for a wry smile to placate Stark and stepped past him. “This was not the floor we were on last week,” he observed.

His surroundings appeared…relaxed in an affluent sort of way. The floor plan was prominently open, the furniture immaculate and expensive, the main room patterned in neutral tones. The most immediate space boasted an open bar, kitchen, and dining area, but beyond that he could see various doors. Loki swallowed hard as his fractured memories amalgamated. He knew this place, even if the crater where his body had broken had been concealed by a pristine leather couch.

“Well, this is my penthouse. I figured that you wouldn’t want to work in a stuffy boardroom all day.”

“I do not require this…environment,” Loki stated, unable to keep the revulsion from his voice. “I am here to complete an assignment. Nothing more.”

His pointed words did appear to have some effect—Stark’s face fell. “You’re always so suspicious, Tommy,” he said quietly. “My main reason for asking you to work here is because it’s the most secure floor in the Tower. I don’t have a…what’s a good SAT word? Nefarious? I don’t have a nefarious purpose.”

Loki bit the inside of his cheek so hard that he had to swallow blood. “As you say,” he managed, turning his attention to Potts. “Ms. Potts, if you would show me the materials that you would like me to translate, I would prefer to start as soon as possible.”

“Thank you for your professionalism, Mr. Walker,” Potts said. She shot an incisive look at Stark, earning a poor imitation of an innocent wide-eyed stare from the inventor. “I’m afraid that Tony will be in charge of your duties for your project. However, JARVIS did notify me of Tony’s misguided attempts at facilitating a…conversation last week. I wanted to assure you that you have permanent access to the elevator and can leave at any time you wish. JARVIS?”

“Ms. Potts has utilized her override, Mr. Walker. Mr. Stark does not have the authority to lock you in the Tower unless the entire building is to be locked down for an emergency.”

“I also have the addendum that you requested,” Potts continued. “Tony has already signed it. I hope that will be enough to assure you that what transpired last week will not happen again.”

Loki was, of course, completely unsatisfied. They were dangling the loophole that could guarantee his confinement quite obviously.

“Very well. Thank you, Ms. Potts,” he said stiffly, resigned to concealing his resentment.

Her answering smile was pleasant enough, but he was gradually becoming aware that behind the civility of her demeanor, she was studying him. He knew that she had dated and recently separated from Stark. He had read the speculation in the tabloids, ranging from Stark cheating on her to Potts blackmailing him for her position in the company. Stark wasn’t masking his interest in Thomas, and yet Potts appeared complicit in these attempts at forced contact. It was difficult to even begin to guess at her motivations for allowing this charade.

“Can I get you anything before Tony takes over?” Potts offered politely. “Maybe a cup of coffee?”

“No, thank you,” he said, matching her courteous tone. “I am afraid that I am rather impatient to begin.”

Stark distinguished his pointed hints at last. “Right. This way then, Tommy. I’ll show you what you’ll be doing.”

Stark kept up a constant stream of chatter as they moved through the penthouse, primarily platitudes of gratefulness and offers of transportation. Loki tuned it out and focused on an inspection of what he could glean of his surroundings. Stark’s penthouse was quite spacious, Loki found as Stark led him down the hall. He spied a room with a television and a vast wall of cases, presumably holding the discs that allowed films to play. A second commodious room appeared to boast a bed with rumpled covers. Stark’s bedroom? He couldn’t imagine that Stark typically allowed strangers such as unfiltered glimpse of his private life. The spore must be more effectual than he had suspected to push the man into allowing Loki into his inner sanctum.

“Here we are!” Stark announced, pushing open a door at the very end of the hall.

Unlike the sharp modernity of the rooms outside, this room was soft and warmly lit. It was cramped, with only enough free floor space for a blocky mahogany desk and a worn armchair tucked into the corner. Otherwise, the dominating sight was the books. Ornate bookcases reached to the top of cathedral ceilings crammed to the brim with books of various sizes, colors, and ages.

He took a few steps away from Stark and pulled in a deep breath. The smell in this room was musty and so familiar that, for an instant, he discounted his company. The public library that he visited weekly was different down to its very pores. It always smelled strongly of disinfectant, was defiled by carrying voices and sullying fingers. He could spend days, weeks even, embedded within this private collection without noticing the passage of time.

Stark cleared his throat. “Do you like it?” he asked, tentative hope shining in his dark eyes.

Loki bit back the serrated, impetuous words on the tip of his tongue and forced himself to nod. “It’s wonderful,” he admitted.

“It was my mother’s collection. I maintain it, but this isn’t my sort of thing,” Stark said, stepping past him to trace a well-loved book’s cracked spine.

“I see.” He sensed the wound there, knew that he could cut deep with a single trenchant remark, and managed to refrain. Strange how vulnerability from this man that he despised could invoke his restraint, at least for now. “It appears as though these books are already written in English,” he observed to change the subject.

Stark laughed and rubbed the back of his head. His reactions were so very easy to read. Loki could not imagine surviving with such a flimsy mask. “JARVIS? Can you show him?” Stark requested.

Immediately, some of the shelves toward the back of the room shifted, moving up and out to reveal a metal door. A metallic safe. There was no discernable key or code to enter, but a sort of monitor had been built into the wall beside it.

“I’ll need to scan your hand and your eyes,” Stark explained. “S.H.I.E.L.D’s been developing some advanced technology that lets them go undercover as other people. I won’t risk them getting into this stuff.”

Loki stiffened. “They can shapeshift?”

Stark shrugged nonchalantly. “Not exactly. What they have isn’t particularly convincing, but there’s no reason to take any risks.” He tapped a few buttons. “How about it? Ready to let me scan you?”

Luckily, his quest for a mortal identity meant that those scans wouldn’t trigger any red flags, but Loki wasn’t pleased with the further encroachment on his privacy.

“This is an awful lot of security,” he noted as Stark changed the permissions on the safe.

“Can’t be too careful. S.H.I.E.L.D doesn’t trust me, and I sure as hell don’t trust them. Did you know that they had one of their agents pose as my personal assistant just to get dirt on me? How fucked up is that?”

Loki’s eyes widened despite his best efforts. “I am certain that you are not supposed to tell me that.”

“Yeah, well, you signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of our contract. Besides,” he said, shooting Loki a lopsided grin over his shoulder, “you’re trustworthy. I’ve got a good feeling about you.”

It was all that Loki could do to refrain from rolling his eyes. He needed to begin addressing the spore soon. Stark wasn’t even exercising basic caution at this point. It could ultimately put Loki at risk, especially if one of Stark’s enemies recognized Thomas as a potential weakness of the inventor.

“Alright, so, I don’t know how much you know about my dad, but he fraternized with some unsavory characters in between working on the Manhattan Project and founding the company,” Stark said as the safe opened with Loki’s credentials. “Suffice it to say, my old man did some bad stuff without telling anyone, and he kept a bunch of documents that should provide some details about what he was up to.” Stark crossed the room to pile a stack of papers and books onto the antique looking desk tucked away in the corner. “I’m pretty sure that there’s a cipher protecting this stuff. JARVIS and I tried to crack it, but it’s too difficult without letting JARVIS scan the documents, and I don’t want to risk anyone hacking into my system and getting their grubby little S.H.I.E.L.D hands on my dad’s dirty laundry.”

Stark pushed the armchair closer to the desk and turned to look at Loki. “So, what do you think? Sound worth your time?”

“It sounds intriguing at the very least,” Loki allowed, stepping up beside the other man. “There is a sizable amount of material here.”

Stark looked pleased, although he did make an unconvincing effort to hide his smile. “It’ll take a while, you think?”

Loki reached past the man to pick up the topmost journal, revealing cramped German writing. He flipped through—every page was filled with the same handwriting. A cursory read of a few lines told him that Stark was correct. A direct translation made little sense.

“It’s difficult to say. I would speculate that it could take months at the very least.”

“I guess you’ll be coming here for the foreseeable future then.” Stark’s lips twitched. “Hey, can I see your phone?”

Loki straightened from his perusal of the journal’s contents, immediately suspicious. “Why?”

Stark frowned, fists clenching into trembling balls at his side. “I already told you, I won’t do anything nefarious. It’s security related. Can you please trust me a little?”

Grudgingly, he fished his phone out of his pocket and turned to hand it to Stark, only for the man to purse his lips.

“What is it now?” Loki asked, exasperated.

“I, uh…don’t like to be handed things.”

“Fine.” He placed his phone on the desk and nudged it heedlessly in Stark’s direction. He turned away to spread out the documents without waiting for the man to pick it up, endeavoring to discern where he should start.

Stark gasped.

Irritated, he elected not to waste his time with indulging the man.

“Tommy. This is a flip phone.”

The journals did at least appear to be labeled with perfectly decipherable dates. They seemed to begin in 1942.

“Can this thing even text?” Stark asked, his voice nearly quivering in apparent horror.

“Not that I am aware of,” Loki stated demurely. Stark made an odd choking noise in response that Loki pointedly ignored.

“Tommy, I need you to let me bring you a StarkPhone.”

“What? No, my phone is perfectly adequate.” Loki looked up from where he was flipping idly through the journals. “Why did you need it anyway?”

Swallowing thickly, Stark held the phone out to him with two fingers as though it were toxic. “I was going to tell you that you can’t have anything that can access the Internet or that has a camera, but I guess we don’t to worry about that.”

Loki smiled at him thinly and watched Stark’s leg jitter during a few precious seconds of silence.

“What’s in the bag?” Stark asked, nodding at the crumpled paper sack that Loki had brought with him.

“Lunch.”

“Ah.”

Another awkward pause.

“What’d you bring?”

Loki sighed and took off Thomas’ glasses so that he could rub at an imaginary blemish. “Must we continue the small talk, Mr. Stark? I won’t be able to work with you distracting me all day.”

“You’re right. I’m stalling.” Stark sighed and ran gnarled fingers through his hair. His face had taken on a pallid tenor. “I guess I just wanted to apologize again for last Thursday. I know that I did some shitty things—tracking you down, and involving your asshole of a boss in getting you transferred here, and…and locking you out of the elevator. God, that was fucked up. All of it was fucked up.”

Loki blinked at him slowly, silent and uncomprehending.

“I’m trying to say sorry, okay? I…I’m hoping that we can start over. Maybe try to be friends?”

Loki knew that the spore must be responsible for the engineer’s prior actions and even for his current apology, but no one had ever called the fallen god forgiving. “I look forward to our professional relationship, Mr. Stark,” he said carefully. “Will that be all?”

Stark’s shoulders slumped ever so slightly. “Yeah, that’s it,” the man said. He started toward the door, and then paused to address Loki without turning around. “If you need anything, just ask JARVIS to get me. I’ll be down in my workshop.”

“I will bear that in mind,” Loki said, pivoting back to the table. They both knew that he had no intention of asking JARVIS or Stark for anything.

***

Loki concentrated on simply examining and sorting out the materials for the first day. There did appear to be some sort of encryption…maybe multiple encryptions. They sparked something in him, a prickle of familiarity perhaps. He had no doubt that he could decode the cipher with some effort despite his certainty that he had never been formally acquainted with the system in question.

He settled on focusing on what appeared to be the earliest journal as his first effort. Stark’s contract had specified that he must keep a handwritten account of his activities for the day, so he scrawled some basic notes that hinted at his confidence that he would ultimately be able to break the code before placing the materials in the safe.

The hall was empty when he slipped back out. He tried to steal to the elevator inconspicuously despite the mechanical eyes that he knew followed him, praying fervently that he would reach freedom before Stark could remember him. Already he was dreading the press of bodies on the bus ride home, but perhaps this project would prove intriguing enough to justify the prolonged discomfort.

To his relief, the elevator doors opened immediately when he tried the button, and they closed gratifyingly once he pushed the button for the lobby. He forced his stiff back to remain straight even in the mirrored box. It would not do to advertise his weariness to Stark’s minion. He could wait until he arrived at his apartment.

Unfortunately, the intrusion that he had dreaded indeed manifested. “Mr. Walker? Sir has requested that you wait for him. He would like to speak with you before you leave for the day.”

“It is five o’clock, JARVIS,” Loki said, keeping his voice carefully mild. “The workday is over, and I would like to go home. Stark can speak with me tomorrow.”

“Very well, Mr. Walker.” A pause. “Sir is requesting that you wait for him in the lobby. He insists that he is right behind you and would like to talk with you today.”

A muscle in Loki’s jaw ticked. He closed his eyes to hide the resentment that he knew would burn there. “Very well. I will wait for two minutes.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Loki strode to the entrance as soon as the elevator doors opened to release him, counting in his head so that he could leave at the second he had indicated. The traffic was already backed up, he noticed with no little disdain. His back hurt from bending over the desk for the entire day, and he would find little relief with the forthcoming bus ride followed by another sleepless night on his spinous mattress.

Lamentably, Stark managed to enter the lobby before he could safely bolt. He was damp with sweat and perhaps a little green. Loki suspected that the elevator hadn’t been moving at a safe operating speed.

“Tommy!” Stark panted, sneakers creating garish squeaks as he jogged to Loki’s side. “I should have known that you’d be a punctual sort of guy. You don’t have to leave right on the dot, you know.”

“JARVIS said that you wanted to speak with me,” Loki said pointedly, ducking his head as a multitude of eyes that never would have looked his way scrutinized their interaction.

“Look,” Stark said, focusing on a point near Loki’s ear, “I know that I haven’t done this right. I was hoping that you might give me one more chance. Maybe I can drive you home?”

Passerby on the sidewalk outside were starting to gather as they realized that Stark was standing just beyond the glass. Loki directed a seething glare at his worn loafers.

“I fail to see the point. I left my notes behind as the contract directs. We can discuss specifics tomorrow.”

“C’mon, Tommy. You can’t want to waste your time taking the bus. I looked it up. There isn’t a direct line between your place and here. It’ll take hours!” He stepped a little closer, drawing Loki’s reluctant gaze. “You won’t regret it. Just give me this one chance.”

This morning, an older man who smelled strongly of sweat and urine had squished himself into the seat beside Loki on the bus. After the god transferred to another route, he had been forced to give up his seat to an elderly woman and had spent the rest of the ride wincing at every stop as a teenager listening to some screeching semblance of music stepped on his toes. Stark’s presence could be marginally preferable to enduring a repeat performance. Besides, he had neglected to make any sort of headway on untangling Stark’s spore. This opportunity could ultimately be advantageous.

“One chance,” he allowed at last.

They ended up in some sort of sleek vehicle that was presumably supposed to impress him, but he had never had the inclination to pay attention to Midgardian transportation. The heated seats were interesting, though.

They pulled out into bumper to bumper traffic that made Loki sigh and Stark groan.

“Looks like we’re going to be stuck together for a while, huh?” Despite his outward demeanor, Loki could sense that the other man wasn’t exactly put out by extended time together.

“Joy,” Loki muttered.

Resigned, he rested his temple against the passenger window and shut his eyes, fully intending to spend the time conducting a more thorough assessment of the duplicitous seed that had bonded Stark to him.

“So, do you want to play a game?” Stark offered before he could begin. Loki could hear him tapping his fingers in time to a guitar riff on the radio.

“Not particularly.”

“Twenty-one questions?” Stark persisted.

Loki only grunted.

“C’mon, Tommy. It’ll be fun! We each get two passes. I learn about you. You learn about me. It’s a win-win!”

He said nothing.

“Tommy? You there? Come on, Tommy. Give me something to do.” A pause. “If you don’t, I’ll start singing along with the radio.”

Loki allowed himself to snort his displeasure.

“Fine then.”

Stark turned up the radio until it was so obnoxiously loud that the car basically shook with the volume. Loki could just barely make out Stark’s voice underneath the cacophony of discordant instruments. His pitch was…jarring to say the least.

“Twenty-one questions!” Loki acquiesced after enduring three minutes’ worth, groping for the dial that controlled the volume. “How are you so horrible?”

“Sweet!” Stark crowed. “Okay, I’ll start off with a soft ball. How old are you?”

“I am fairly certain that age is typically considered a taboo topic,” Loki grumbled. Stark merely shot him a brilliant grin that made Loki sigh in exasperation. “Thirty-one,” he said, recalling the arbitrary birthdate that he had chosen for his fake birth certificate.

“Huh.” Stark actually looked a bit downtrodden.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just feeling a little like a cradle robber.”

Loki propped his chin on his hand. “You’re what? A decade older than me?”

“I’m forty-four.”

“Remarkable. You’re practically senile.”

Stark burst out laughing, his usual effervescence returning. “You’re such a snarky little shit.” He shot Loki a fond grin. “Your turn.”

Loki considered it for a moment. The better strategy seemed to be to maintain the lightheartedness that Stark had established with his first question. “What is your birthday?” he asked at last.

“May 29th.” Stark tapped the armrest between them when Loki didn’t offer a comment. “This is when you answer the same question without me asking so I don’t have to waste my turn,” he prodded.

Loki rolled his eyes for what felt like the umpteenth time that day. “February 9th.”

“I just missed it!” The other man appeared genuinely displeased.

“I don’t celebrate it,” Loki said without quite knowing why he was placating the man.

Stark turned to him, aghast. “Why not?”

“I simply never have. It’s not important.”

“Never? Not even when you were a kid?”

“Not even then,” Loki said with a shrug.

“Huh.” A familiar frown was pulling down Stark’s features. “Okay. My turn again. Favorite food?”

“Fruit, I suppose. I have always been especially partial to strawberries.” He just couldn’t afford them consistently on his current salary.

Stark nodded. “Don’t judge me, but mine’s probably alcohol. Well, scotch, I guess. It should really be its own food group.”

Well, that wasn’t surprising. He had gone straight for the bar at the Tower on the day of Loki’s carefully orchestrated failure.

The next few questions were innocuous enough. Loki asked about Stark’s favorite animal—a tiger, apparently—and Stark wanted to know his favorite color—telling him that it was green couldn’t be too risky. When Loki asked about pets, Stark spoke at length about his robots, but they sounded more like children based on the way he recounted their more humorous exploits.

“What’s your biggest fear?” Stark asked next.

Loki stiffened. He supposed that he could pass or lie, but he’d learned over time that human fears could sound strange. A limited version of the truth shouldn’t cause any harm. Besides, it might be assuaging to tell someone even a fraction of what he had survived, even if it was an enemy with no conceptualization of true torment.

“Nothingness,” he admitted, staring down at his clenched fists. “Falling into a hole from which there is no escape and no end.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Stark jerk around to stare at him. “Damn. I haven’t heard that one before.”

“Phobias can be irrational,” he defended, wondering if he had made a mistake.

It was quiet for a few moments. They had finally made it to a red light, but a constant stream of pedestrians was making it difficult to achieve any more progress. Loki tried to focus on that rather than on his rising panic. Perhaps Thor had told Stark a version of what had happened to him. If Stark even suspected that Thomas could be more than he seemed—

“I get it. Space is kind of like what you’re describing. It’s completely silent, sort of like a void.” Stark inhaled deeply and held it for a few seconds, his jaw so tense that Loki could see a muscle pulse. “I don’t know if you were around during the invasion a couple of years back, but I went through that portal in the sky with a freakin’ nuke. I did it knowing that I was going to die. Sometimes, I wake up, and I still think that I’m there, that the portal will close before I can get back.” Stark offered him a wry smile. “So, yeah, nothingness. Totally a legit fear.”

Loki licked his lips and looked away. There was a foreign feeling bubbling in his stomach that he was failing to ignore.

“It’s my turn, yes?” At Stark’s nod, Loki pretended to think before shooting an impish smirk at the inventor. “What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you?”

After listening to the other man sputter for a few minutes, he was rewarded with Stark’s first pass, which made him gloat inwardly in delight despite the stupidity of the game. They exchanged more insipid questions—Stark declared that Loki couldn’t select a composer as his favorite musical artist and that Beethoven was “cliché as fuck.” Loki unwisely used his passes, first on a question about whether he had any siblings and then on his favorite movie when Stark wouldn’t accept that he didn’t have one.

“What’s your proudest accomplishment?” Stark asked as his last query sometime later.

Loki’s jaw clenched. “That is a difficult question,” he murmured haltingly, watching as his hands opened and closed, knuckles standing out as a stark white against the light tan that he had given Thomas.

“Really? Huh.”

Stark’s tone grated at him. He seemed perplexed.

“What?” he asked suspiciously when the silence stretched on.

“It’s nothing bad! It’s just…I guess I thought that would be easy? Hell, Tommy, how many languages can you understand? And those translations I’m asking you to do, I couldn’t do that.” Stark turned, craning his head until he caught Loki’s gaze. “I think you’re pretty fucking amazing.”

Loki looked down again at Thomas’ hands. They so closely resembled his own, all long, slender fingers, built for writing rather than fighting. Time and time again, they had been the focal point of jeering on behalf of Thor’s friends.

“My scholarly pursuits have never been valued,” Loki admitted at last.

“It sounds like you’ve been associating with some major dicks then,” Stark said, vehemently enough that Loki had to stop himself from flinching. The man was quiet for a moment, and when Loki snuck a peek at his face, he found a deep frown pulling down his lips. “I get it, you know,” Stark said at last. “What do you know about Obadiah Stane?”

Loki considered the knowledge that he had gleaned from Barton those years ago. “He was like a father to you, but he tried to kill you. He wanted control of your company.”

“That’s what the public knows. The truth is even more fucked up than that.” Stark’s knuckles matched his—distinctly white where he gripped the steering wheel. “Obadiah really was like a father to me. More so than my own fuck-up of a dad. I never would have thought that he wanted me dead. I guess he was tired of babysitting me. Or maybe he just wanted the power or the money. Regardless, he arranged for my assassination when I flew to Afghanistan.” Stark’s lips twitched into a grimace. “Unfortunately for him, the killers that he hired took me prisoner instead, tried to force me to build weapons, and, in the process, showed me what my technology was being used to do. It was, well, life changing doesn’t quite seem strong enough to describe it.”

Stark still wasn’t looking at him. His face was pinched, his skin sallow, and his posture increasingly stiffening. “So, when I escaped, I decided to take the company in a whole new direction. I thought that I had found my calling in true, clean energy. I was sure that Obadiah would support me, but, of course, he despised my plans. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but, in retrospect, I’m sure that he thought that my only value was in building weapons.”

Stark’s jaw was so tight now that a muscle in his cheek was ticking. “He never cared about JARVIS. Hell, no one really appreciates JARVIS even now. They think that he’s just lines of code that I tacked together when I was drunk. JARVIS may not be as flashy as Iron Man or the weapons that I used to produce, but he’s my greatest creation, hands down.”

Stark cleared his throat, trembling fingers mussing his dark strands of hair. “So, yeah, I get it. People don’t celebrate what I’m really proud of either.”

Loki swallowed hard, off put by the bizarre tightness in his chest. “Humans can be cruel,” he offered. It didn’t feel like enough.

“Yeah, they can be.” A smile pulled up the edges of Stark’s lips when he glanced in Loki’s direction, but his eyes were shrouded with specters past and present. “Hey, so I showed you mine. It’s your turn.” He paused. “But only if you want to, of course.”

It was an out. One that Loki should take. But Stark had been vulnerable, and Loki could identify with what he had shared. Enough of him desired to reciprocate, and there was no real endangerment aside from his own sense of exposure.

“I suppose that I am proud of living my life the way that I want to live it,” he said haltingly. “I’m proud that I am no longer living in the shadow of others.”

Stark’s eyes were soft when they made eye contact this time. “That’s pretty awesome.”

Loki found himself smiling back. No smirking. No deception. Just genuine contentment.

Stark cleared his throat and turned away first. “So, hey, looks like we’re almost at your place, right? Which one of these buildings is yours?”

They were indeed nearing his neglected building with its graffiti and broken windows and the eyes that were always watching from concealed burrows. Stark insisted on pulling in front of the entrance, filling Loki with urgency. He couldn’t be seen with someone like Stark, not in this neighborhood.

“Thank you for the ride home,” he flung over his shoulder, rushing to push open the car door.

“Wait, Tommy! What time should Happy pick you up tomorrow?”

“I’m perfectly capable of transporting myself,” he said, hyper aware now that Stark’s ostentatious vehicle was drawing unsavory attention. He hunched a bit, hoping that no one would track him to his apartment.

A touch on his shoulder, a warm hand wrapping around his own. He paused, stiff but not yet alarmed. The contact was distinctive in its intention merely to hold his attention, not to hurt, not to compel, not to force. It provoked discomfort but not complete panic, at least not yet.

When he looked back, Stark’s eyes were plaintive. “Please, Tommy. I don’t like the idea of you commuting hours to the Tower every day. Just let me do this for you.”

His eyes turned down to the hand atop his, to the skin streaked with oil. His seiðr found nothing disturbing when he reached. No deceit. No covetousness. He sensed concern, perhaps a shade of guilt. Both Stark and the spore, intertwined as closely as they were, pulsed with inexplicable sentiment. 

“I left at six today,” Loki offered at last.

“So, maybe seven? You won’t have to leave as early if you’re not taking the bus.”

Loki extracted his hand, perplexed when he felt the pang of loss from Stark reflected in himself. “Very well,” he allowed distractedly. He moved to shut the door, determined to escape before his body rebelled completely.

That didn’t stop Stark from rolling down the window to call after him. “See ya tomorrow, Tommy!”

Loki cringed but continued on to his room. It was only after he had completed his routine—showered, stared into the mirror until he could find Loki again, prepared a meal of microwaved noodles—that he allowed himself to ponder the sequence of events from the day, accompanied by the raging sounds of Mozart on his trusty MP3 player.

For the first time in the years since he had Fallen, he could identify an emotion besides monotonous neutrality or scathing fear. There was a novel lightness when he thought about Stark, a thirst for the challenge that the man represented. Yes, Stark’s feelings for him were artificial. He would strike Loki down the moment that he garnered any hint of subterfuge. But would it be so terrible to stop running for just a little while and bask in conversation where, for once, he felt heard, understood, and even wanted? Even if it wasn’t—could never be—real?

His mind drifted to dangerous territory for an instant, to the sound of alien laughter, the feeling of blades slicing delicate designs into his skin, the devastation of ripping and tearing deep within his body. No, he decided, wrenching his thoughts away from that Place with a growl. A pleasant conversation would never be enough to make him risk a return There, but he could be careful. He would abscond at the first hint of danger. His will to live was stronger than his thirst for companionship. Anthony Stark was simply a means to an end, a responsibility he needed to fix. He had to be.

Chapter Text

Anthony Stark was indeed very attentive, Loki discovered when he opened the door to the library the next morning. Several bowls of plain strawberries had been left on the desk along with a simple note reading “For Tommylicious” in a messy scrawl. Loki allowed himself to scowl for just a moment. His pride wanted him to rebuff the treat, but strawberries were a delicacy he could not often justify. The ragged twisting of his stomach could attest to that.

Appeased by this reasoning, Loki cleared an entire bowl of strawberries before he set about brainstorming solutions to the encryption on the first journal. He acquiesced to another sampling to accompany his sandwich at lunch, but he stopped at bringing the remaining fruit home with him. His dignity would not allow that.

He fully expected Stark to ambush him when he left the library for the elevator, but JARVIS informed him that the inventor was busy in his workshop and would not be able to provide him with personal transportation. Happy Hogan was waiting to take him home.

He gnawed at his bottom lip for a moment as he waited for the elevator to reach the lobby, cognizant that Stark could easily be watching him at this very moment. The desire he felt was…confusing to say the least. It was just that this effort didn’t feel as intrusive as the man’s previous ploys. Stark had kept his distance, had plied him with a thoughtful gift, and there were seemingly no strings attached. On Asgard, such a move would constitute the first formal step of courting, and nobody had ever attempted to woo Loki without an ulterior motive. Stark wasn’t in his right mind; Loki knew that. However, this attempt seemed to be truer to the man’s personality than the possessiveness he suspected (hoped) was attributable to the spore. 

“JARVIS?” he ventured at last, staring down at his palms.

“Yes, Mr. Walker.”

“Will you tell Stark thank you? For the strawberries?”

“Certainly.” A pause. “Sir has forbidden me from conveying his initial reaction to your statement. He has given me permission to tell you that he is glad that you liked them.”

Loki nodded sharply, damning that stupid fluttering in his chest all the while.

The next day, he was treated to a steaming pie that he indeed found to be filled with strawberries. He tried for stoicism but couldn’t help the breathless laugh that escaped his lips when he found a note underneath the dish. It looked as though a child had drawn a strawberry with legs and feet and then filled in the scribble with red crayon and little finesse.

“Do tell Stark that he should regret skipping kindergarten, JARVIS. His coloring skills are atrocious.”

“Sir has asked that I not share his response. It was quite juvenile.”

“Color me shocked,” Loki said, managing a dainty bite of the pie even as he ravenously warred with his desire to eat the whole thing in a single sitting.

“Oh,” JARVIS said, sounding as amused as Loki could imagine a computer program could be. “Very good, sir.”

On Thursday, a mini-freezer had been plugged into the wall. When Loki chanced a peek inside, he found several cartons of strawberry ice cream. Pinned to the door of the freezer was a piece of tracing paper with a meticulous drawing of two strawberries hugging. It was captioned, I like you BERRY much.

It was too much and satisfying all at once. Loki couldn’t keep the smile from his face, although he did his best to hide it from JARVIS by sticking his head in the freezer.

The day passed, again without an appearance from Stark. Once more, Loki vacillated, caught between the pull of safety and this novel feeling of being appreciated. Finally, with a determined grimace just before he left for the day, he scrawled a curt “thank you” on an extra sheet of paper. He cringed the whole drive to his apartment.

The next day, the note was absent from the table, and the freezer was missing as well. In their stead was a peculiar little one-armed robot that meandered its way in his direction as soon as Loki entered the library. It was carrying an envelope with a massive red bow attached to it. When he didn’t reach for the envelope immediately once the robot wheeled into range, it drooped pathetically, perking up only when Loki had the envelope in his grasp.

The note was predictably silly.

Hello, Tommy.

My name is Dum-E. My dad is Tony Stark. Will you please accept his invitation for dinner tonight? If you don’t, I’ll think I failed and mope for the entire day. My dad will be forced to allow me to douse him with a fire extinguisher so I can feel better.

Please check “yes” to indicate you will come or check “definitely” also to express that you will come.

Love,

Dum-E

Loki hated how much the note affected him. He had always been used, coerced, even taken. The experience of being wooed when it wasn’t for his position or for other nefarious purposes, he didn’t know what to make of it. The experience was endearing and new, and like an imbecile, Loki was entirely susceptible to the attention after so long alone. For a moment, he acquiesced to allowing his fingers to trail over the words. It was too dangerous, he knew. He should say no.

Movement to his left. The robot, Dum-E, slipped its hand—or was it its head—into his lap. He chuckled despite himself. Stark was a master at manipulation. But perhaps this could be an opportunity. He had been entirely too distracted on his ride home with Stark, too caught up in the novelty of having a conversation with someone who seemed so attentive, that he hadn’t attempted much beyond a cursory glance at the spore.

Yes, he checked before adding in parentheses, not a date.

“Will you take this back to him?” Loki asked, holding the note out to the robot.

Dum-E grasped it with surprising gentleness, wheeled toward the door, and then turned back around, cocking his head—or maybe it was an arm—to the side in a display of shockingly human inquisitiveness.

“I said yes,” Loki supplied after a moment or two of staring at each other.

Dum-E turned in a few slow, lurching circles in a simulacrum of celebration before exiting, leaving Loki to his excoriating thoughts. Stupid. He was so stupid. He knew he couldn’t become involved with Stark. One false move and he’d be a prisoner again, so easily locatable by the Mad Titan and his children, helpless to even evade the comparatively less creative torment of the Midgardian mortals. Stark was not worth the risk, even if he kept their interaction platonic, so why was he so susceptible to the man’s wiles?

His stomach roiled, warring between anticipation and dread. Grimacing, he turned back to the journal for a distraction. He had nearly deciphered the codes, but the fact that he even could was moderately distressing. The person who had created this journal was exceedingly clever, and he didn’t believe for one second that this individual had been Howard Stark. He had spent years breaking ciphers of deceased sorcerers and mages. It was never this easy. It spoke of an interconnection he didn’t understand.

By the end of the day, he thought he had it unraveled. Come Monday, he would be ready to begin the transcription process. He skimmed the first page for a moment, knowing that he was just endeavoring to delay the inevitable time with Stark but indulging his curiosity, nonetheless. The cramped writing he deciphered after a few moments of perusal seemed to describe…human experiments, records of numerous failures. Even the first page, with its clinical description of pain, pain, pain was shattering. Revolted, Loki let the journal slide from his fingers, his own screams ringing in his ears, intrusive touches to his flesh, stroking his insides. Perhaps he was wrong to think he would glean useful information from Stark’s trove. He had no wish to bear witness to such pain, even second-hand.

Furiously, he shoved the files into the safe, keen to lock away the vile words with his own recollections. But even with that done, he found that he could not bring his body entirely upright. To his disgust, he found that his fingers were trembling. Mindful of the computer scrutinizing his every move, he shoved his hands under his legs and focused on breathing. In through his nose, out through his mouth. And again. And again. A steady, stable cadence. He had escaped. He was hidden. He would never go back. He had escaped. He was hidden. He would never go back. He had escaped. He was hidden. He would never go back.

“Mr. Walker? I believe your presence would be appreciated in the kitchen at your earliest convenience,” JARVIS interrupted. Loki didn’t think he was imagining the purposeful softness of the A.I.’s voice, a likely response to his very visible display of susceptibility. Perhaps the system would attribute his reaction to apprehension about the dinner…although that wasn’t exactly better.

One more breath, five seconds in, five seconds out. He was a prince. A god. He had entertained dignitaries, queens, kings from the Nine Realms for centuries. He could manage a few hours under Stark’s microscope.

Rigid but resolute, he opened the door to an immediate deluge of smells. Frowning, he followed his nose down the hall to the formally immaculate kitchen. Every flat surface had been covered with various food items. The cardboard boxes, he knew, held pizza, and there was a formidable stack of those. Other containers were smashed together in a smorgasbord of clutter. There were several bowls of Chinese food that he recognized from a late night at the office where Glade had treated him to dinner for meeting a tight deadline. He hadn’t saved enough money to be familiar with the other forms of take-out, but the smell wasn’t reprehensible. Curious, he inched forward for better look.

Stark straightened up from behind the counter. His back was to Loki, and the muted sound of rock music playing in his ears cemented that the other man was unaware of his presence. Loki vacillated for a moment, wondering whether he should warn the engineer in some way, but a burst of incredibly off pitch singing deterred him. A budding choral artist Stark was not.

An inconsiderable part of him felt somewhat remorseful when Stark turned around, a tray of Midgardian dessert in his hands, and shrieked. The dessert, Loki noticed with no little disappointment, clattered onto the floor.

“Holy fuck! You’re here!” Stark ripped the earbuds out of his ears. “Shit, JARVIS, you were supposed to warn me!”

“I am sorry, sir,” JARVIS said, tone remarkably unrepentant. “Mr. Walker has only been present for a short time.”

Stark straightened, a ruddy blush overtaking the beige of his cheeks. Hurriedly, he bent to recover the cookies before hunching his shoulders around his ears. He had oven mitts on his hands, Loki noted. The engineer yanked them off only to tug them back on. Stark seemed to be avoiding eye contact and holding his breath.

“Okay, so before you say anything,” Stark said at last in a steely voice. “I know this is too much. I was just going to order pizza, but then I realized that I don’t know what kind you like, so I ordered one of everything. Then I got to thinking that maybe you don’t like pizza, as crazy as that would be, so I decided to get Chinese too. But then I started worrying that you wouldn’t like my usual, so I ordered a bunch of different dishes. But then what if you don’t like Chinese? So, I thought maybe I would get Italian and Mexican too.”

Stark’s eyes turned to the ceiling, still pointedly avoiding Loki where he stood rooted on the other side of the counter. “Anyway, I made chocolate strawberries, which incidentally aren’t that difficult to make until the chocolate starts hardening because you’re going too slow. Then I thought that maybe you’re tired of strawberries since I’ve been plying you with them all week, so I got Happy to help me make chocolate chip cookies. But then after he left, I realized that you could be allergic to chocolate, so then I made oatmeal cookies too, which are completely gross, by the way. I’m not sorry that they ended up on the floor.”

Another deep breath as Stark gazed pointedly downward, presumably at his own feet. “Can you please say something? Are you mad? I know that it’s a lot, that I’m a lot. Please don’t leave.”

Loki blinked, trying to pick out the underlying meaning beneath the unfamiliar names of various foods. “You think I’m angry because there’s too much food?” he clarified.

Stark peeked up at him. “Aren’t you?”         

Loki tried to search the counter discretely in search of the strawberries Stark had mentioned. “Not particularly. I am in fact quite hungry. It’s nice to have options.” Loki paused, then cocked his head to the side in consideration. “Should I be mad?”

“Well, no, but everybody else—”

“Do you think I am everybody else, Stark?”

“No, Tommy,” Stark said, a smile playing at the edges of his lips. “I think you’re one of a kind.”

“Excellent. Then you can help me figure out where I should start. I cannot say that I am acquainted with all of these foods.”

For a moment, Stark only stared at him, his lips slightly parted, his eyes a little too wide. Could humans short-circuit like machines? Perhaps that was why Stark spent so much time in their company. After a long pause, Stark shook himself—rebooting, Loki knew, since his ancient MP3 player experienced it most nights—and opened a cabinet holding enormous plates. With another look at the various options, Loki pushed the plate that Stark offered him back into his hands.

“Just get me what you enjoy,” he requested, making a beeline for the chocolate-covered strawberries on top of the refrigerator.

Soon enough, they were both carrying heaping plates of food. Stark directed him to the room with the television he had seen at the beginning of the week. It too had somewhat transformed from his first glimpse. Now there were trays where they could presumably lay their plates along with a literal cocoon of blankets and pillows.

“I know. Too much again,” Stark said when Loki came to an abrupt halt. “It’s just, well, your hand was freezing on Monday when I dropped you off.” He paused, turned huge, hopeful eyes in Loki’s direction. “Is this okay?”

Well, he wasn’t wrong. The mortal and immortal traits he suffered as a result of the bracers often clashed. Rather than experiencing an immunity to cold, his Jötunn heritage often manifested as an extreme sensitivity to temperature without the full extent of his magic. Still, Loki could see how Stark’s persistence could be construed as overbearing by some, but he could also identify with the nurturer in the man. To have so much and be unable to share without being viewed as intrusive made for a lonely existence. As a prince, he had wanted for little when it came to material possessions. Despite his riches, he always felt poor in company, would shirk the opulence that surrounded him in an instant just to be seen as himself.

Later, as he grew as a scholar, he had possessed knowledge that few around him could understand or value. Their ridicule, their rejection, the quips, the slights, the insults delivered by those he had longed to impress, those had hurt more than many of the physical stones they had thrown his way.

“It’s fine, Stark,” he found himself saying. “It’s very…considerate of you.”

With just those few words, Stark relaxed. The difference was more than palpable. In a surge of clarity, Loki understood that Stark’s carefree visage was a persona he carefully curated. The man who laughed with sudden brightness, who grinned so widely that his gums showed, that was Tony Stark. Just a few years ago, Loki might have sought to use this glimpse underneath Stark’s armor for his own gain, so desperate was Loki to be seen. Now that he had his own armor made up of plates he could never shirk, he could appreciate how freeing it must feel for the mortal.

Loki hesitated for just a second as Stark settled on the couch, wondering at what a normal human would do in an atmosphere such as this.

He looked down at his loafers and his tweed jacket, secondhand both, considered that most mortals would likely find them uncomfortable in a more causal setting. Decided, he toed off his shoes and shrugged off his coat before he settled on the other end of the couch. Feet bare and chest protected by only a thin button-down shirt he had found on clearance, he burrowed into the blankets before pulling the rolling tray with his plate to his lap.

Stark was a bundle of nervous energy beside him, rushing to place his own plate down, then dashing to the wall of movies, then back to the tray to deposit his drink.

“Is everything alright?” Loki asked.

“Hmm?” the inventor returned, moving away again to the wall. “Sorry. I get the interns to reorganize my movies sometimes as a sort of hazing ritual. I can’t remember the categorization this time around.”

Placated, Loki settled back into the cushions, content to leave Stark to his search. He turned his attention to the unfamiliar foods on his plate. The spaghetti—strangely slippery but filling all the same—was messy. He couldn’t quite figure out the best way to gather the pasta on his fork. The pizza—a cheesy flatbread—was suitably intriguing but greasy. His favorite thus far was the chocolate chip cookies. They were maybe a little burnt and mishappen, but his naïve side treasured Stark’s attempt at pleasing him.

“Got ‘em,” Stark said, reappearing in front of him, nearly bouncing in apparent enthusiasm. “Sorry it took so long. I’ve never watched anything with a literal film virgin before. I’m kind of excited to see your reactions.”

Loki felt his brow wrinkle. “I’m not particularly inclined to become a spectacle for your entertainment.”

Stark’s eyes widened. “I didn’t mean anything bad. It’s just—okay, you know how classical music and books are your thing? Movies are mine. Well, that and workshop stuff.” He paused, considering. “And alcohol.”

“You want to share this with me,” Loki deduced.

“Yeah, exactly!” The jittery energy was back. “These are some of my favorites,” he said, dropping three of the cases in Loki’s lap. “Which one do you want to start with?”

“Toy Story, Up, or Wall-E,” Loki read, frowning at the pictures on the fronts. “I am not a child, Stark.”

“Children watch them. So what? That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate them.” He paused, leaned closer to Loki. “Trust me?”

Loki’s eyes narrowed, but his seiðr could find no hint of deceit, no amusement at his expense. Sighing, he turned the cases over. It seemed that much like books in this realm, the back covers of movies displayed a summary of the films.

“Wall-E,” he decided, depositing the cases on the cushion beside him so he could return to his dinner.

“That’s what I was hoping you would say,” Stark preened, grabbing the chosen film. “JARVIS, lights!”

At first, Loki froze, the darkness an old foe that signaled horrors after the nothingness of the void. His breath caught in his throat; his fingers gnarled into claws as he stared into the vacuum. Despite the waste of electricity, he never even slept in total darkness.

But Stark brought him back quickly, although Loki was certain that it was not deliberate. Stark was simply a vocal eater, all clanging utensils and slurping bites. And once Loki’s eyes adjusted and the movie started, he found that he enjoyed the anonymity, felt freer to sample the various foods he had never seen without feigning familiarity.

The film started as background noise. Uniquely human entertainment held little interest for him. He had always believed that visual media could never replace a beautifully woven work of literature or a well-executed play. And his hunger ensnared his attention fairly persistently in the face of the mostly silent beginning of the movie. After so many months, years even, of meager meals, his stomach was ravenous at the sight of so much food. Hidden underneath the glamour, he knew he would find a malnourished body, all sheer skin glued directly to frail bone. He found it difficult to stop eating when a normal human would. Like the Aesir, the Jötunn had notoriously voracious appetites.

However, once he started paying attention, he found himself engrossed in the tale. A love story between two robots had sounded perfectly nonsensical when he had chosen it, but he had selected it for Stark, suspecting that the inclusion of advanced technology might hold some appeal for at least one of them. Soon enough, Loki found himself invested, his stomach twisting with unease as time and time again, Wall-E’s luck barely held. Lost on a ship with a single unwilling anchor, Wall-E could never truly fit in, and his every appearance served only to highlight his deficiencies, no matter how endearing. Loki could identify with that sentiment, had grown accustomed to being only grudgingly accepted due to his connection to Thor, to being coveted not for his appearance or his knowledge but as an experiment where he could only end as a trophy or alone once more.

As the movie continued, Loki became both more and less aware of Stark at his side. Gradually, he ceased feeling alarmed by Stark’s every minute movement, learned that nothing would come of the restless adjustments of position or the occasional bursts of commentary as a scene became particularly comical. Part of Loki began to consider that Stark truly meant him no ill will, at least not today, at least not as long as he believed that Loki was actually Thomas. But the pragmatic part of him understood the artificiality of such a peace. The comfort was dangerous, and yet he was so tired of waiting for the inevitable betrayal. Would it be terrible to just be? Just for tonight?

The lights came back on at a low level once the credits started. Loki found himself tugging the many blankets more tightly around his shoulders. He wasn’t ready for the return to reality, had been caught up in the novel feeling of companionship. Yawning, Stark stretched out beside him, turning so his back faced the armrest and his feet tickled the side of Loki’s thigh. They both froze and turned to each other, Stark cocking his head to the side as if to ask, Is this okay?

Huffing, Loki turned back to the credits, determinedly ignoring the feeling of Stark’s heels pressing against him, feigning insensitivity to the slight increase in pressure as the other man grew more confident.

“So, what did you think?” Stark asked.

Loki shrugged. “It was fine.”

“Hey!” Stark said, a wide grin on his face when Loki peeked. “That’s cheating! If that’s all you’re going to give me, it won’t be any fun introducing you to all of the movies I wish I could re-watch for the first time!”

“How tragic for you,” Loki said dryly.

“C’mon, Tommy.” There was even more pressure against Loki’s thigh as Stark prodded him with his toe. “You liked it, didn’t you?”

Sighing, Loki tried to sort through his thoughts. “I did enjoy it, but it saddens me to think that Wall-E will always be too different, that he will always be…lesser than everyone around him. He is destined to attempt futilely to fulfill his directive for the rest of his existence, but he will never truly succeed. Soon enough, there will not be any spare parts left, and he will succumb to the inevitable.”

“Ouch,” Stark said, wincing. “That’s bleak.”

“You asked,” Loki said flatly.

“I did,” Stark acknowledged. “You’re not supposed to think like that, though. EVE’s there to help Wall-E. She’ll stick by him. You’re supposed to feel hopeful.”

“EVE can only shirk her own responsibilities for so long. She has her own directive.” Loki pulled a pillow into his lap and fluffed it up idly. “I am sure that you are correct, however. The filmmakers obviously intended for the underlying message to be positive. To dwell on the realistic conclusion defeats the purpose of the movie.”

“Well, I for one liked your perspective. Shows me that you were paying attention!” Stark said with another jab at Loki’s leg. “I doubt you would think that deeply about a movie unless a part of you enjoyed it, am I right?”

“It’s better than second-rate crime novels or cringe-worthy erotic literature,” Loki allowed.

“That’s high praise from you,” Stark said, laughing, the sound blithe and genuine. “Hey, do you want to watch another one?”

He…did, but when he eyed Stark’s sprawled position, he noticed the dark circles and heavy bags around the other’s eyes. “You seem tired.”

“Yeah, I haven’t slept in…how long, JARVIS?”

“Twenty-six hours, sir.”

“Twenty-six hours,” Stark said with a shrug. “But I’ve been looking forward to this all week. I want to watch another movie, and then we can get you set up with a guest room so you can stay the night.”

Loki rolled his eyes and settled back into the deep cushions of the couch, hugging a pillow to his chest absently. “I’m sure you meant to say that I will be returning home after the movie.”

“Aww, you’re no fun.” Stark wiggled lower, his feet edging into Loki’s lap now. “But fine, then I’ll drive you home.”

The movie that Stark chose this time did little to hold Loki’s interest. Toy Story was obviously designed to appeal to the nostalgia of adults for their childhoods and to coerce children to buy the featured toys. As a child, Loki’s chosen toys had been repeatedly forbidden, the puzzles and games he enjoyed banned in an attempt to interest him in the swordplay that Thor so favored. As he grew, the practices that he preferred became tools for survival and thus lost their appeal as methods of enjoyment.

Uneasy, he turned his attention to Stark, and more specifically to the spore. Too long had he allowed himself to shirk his true responsibility, first because of the energy strain, and then because extended interaction with Stark seemed reprehensible. Now, perhaps, the reminder that this newfound companionship wasn’t real would do him some good. The temptation simply to sink into Stark’s orbit when the other man wasn’t being openly forward was difficult to resist after a week of genuinely considerate gestures from the engineer.

It would be easier with physical contact, and Stark was offering that freely now. The inventor had fully stretched out on the couch, his feet planted squarely on top of Loki’s lap. It was simple enough to curl his willowy fingers around Stark’s ankles, and the sudden convulsion of the spore told him that that man was not opposed to his touch.

Loki pulled in a deep breath through his nose and closed his eyes. He focused inward first, centuries of practice facilitating the process of separating from the distractions in his environment. The movie faded into the background and the muted hum of power in Stark’s chest slid forward. He called his seiðr into his fingertips, neglecting the immediate unpleasantness of the smoldering in his veins. An experimental graze of his seiðr against the spore had it unfurling again.

It seemed…different. More luminous, somehow. It sparked where he touched, and his seiðr nearly felt as though it was melting at the contact. The thing was even more adherent than last time, clinging with surprising vigor at every point of connection. Rather than acting as a lubricant to ease the unthreading of the many tangles, his seiðr instinctively sought to snarl itself. Worse, extricating one knot revealed still more hidden behind the first, tightening as a result of his interference.

It would be so simple to lose himself here in this weaving of interlocking chaos. His very nature called for him to intertwine his own magic within the numerous strands. But for once, his own limitations acted to his benefit. He couldn’t sink too far in, not when conferring his seiðr like this, when he was already so drained, when it felt as though he was cauterizing a seeping wound repeatedly.

At a certain point, he succumbed to the repetition, or perhaps he simply depleted enough of his seiðr that he couldn’t continue. Regardless, eventually, he became aware of a distant voice calling for Thomas.

But his eyelids were so heavy. And his head was pounding.

“Tommy? Your neck is going to hate you in the morning if you stay like that.”

He groaned. The sound seemed to reverberate in the silence, barreling straight into his skull.

A weight left his lap. It made him feel cold.

And then, “Hey, Tommy? I cleared up a guest bedroom for you. I think we’re both too tired for you to go anywhere tonight.”

He knew that this solution was not acceptable, but he felt so drained. His seiðr, when he reached for it, felt so very distant. And he couldn’t think past this headache.

“I should go home,” he slurred without opening his eyes.

“No, you should stay here, and in the morning, we’ll get breakfast. Then I’ll take you home. Doesn’t that sound good?”

“Not safe here,” he insisted. There were no wards to protect him, and he couldn’t reach his magic. He was too vulnerable.

A snort. “We’ve both been to your apartment building. I think you’re far safer here than you are there.”

He straightened his spine with a groan—Stark was right about his neck—and attempted to blink open his eyes. He was having trouble focusing.

When Stark spoke again, his voice came from directly in front of him, even on his level. The man must be crouching. “Listen, Tommy, I’m really tired. It’s been…how many hours, J?”

“Twenty-eight, sir.”

“Twenty-eight hours since I’ve slept. Would you pretty please be an awesome friend and let me drive you back in the morning?”

“I should just call a cab,” he mumbled, lumbering to his feet, only to stagger against the armrest. The change in position, drew the pain to his temples and behind his eyes.

“Absolutely not!” came the indignant response. Then softer, “I have friends stay over all the time. You’re safe here. Just let me show you to your room, okay?”

“Hmm.” He swiped at his eyes until he could manage a squint. Soft lighting illuminated his surroundings enough for him to locate Stark directly in front of him, although the other man’s expression was indecipherable. “You will take me home in the morning?” he asked softly, needed to hear the affirmation again.

“Of course, I will,” Stark said breezily, teeth flashing white in the muted light. “Ready to follow me? I’m just about ready to collapse myself.”

Some part of Loki suspected that he was being humored here, but it was all he could do to stumble after Stark. Motion sensors, or perhaps Stark’s A.I., seemed to be tracking their progress because the dampened lighting followed them into the darkened hallway. Stark appeared to have selected the bedroom adjacent to his for Loki, but his headache, which was apparently worsening, kept him from dwelling on it.

The room, Loki found, was as immaculate as the rest of the penthouse. The king-size bed appeared designed for comfort. Even from the doorway, it lacked the lumpy irregularities that characterized his bed at his apartment. The decorations were tasteful and yet neutral in tones of gray, lacking any real personality. Not an inch of the room indicated that Stark had any influence.

“I got you some clothes,” Stark said, darting to the bed where he had indeed laid out Iron Man pajamas. “There’s a new toothbrush and toothpaste in the bathroom, and there’s some shampoo if you want to take a shower in the morning.” Stark started stroking his strange beard, teeth gnawing at his bottom lip. “Did I forget anything?”

Even without feeling the distress of the spore, Loki found himself giving into placating the inventor, to soothing the deep crease between the other man’s eyebrows. “I’m fine, Stark. You’re being very…thoughtful.”

Stark’s shoulders leveled a bit with the release of tension. “Okay, well, I’m right next door if you think of anything else, and JARVIS is always around, too.”

“Thank you,” Loki said, forcing himself to stay standing with the inventor still in the room despite his desire to collapse onto the mattress.

“Goodnight, then,” Stark said, edging toward the door with no little reluctance.

“Goodnight,” Loki repeated, careful to keep his face dispassionate.

The door eased shut at last, providing at least the semblance of solitude. Despite the fact that he knew he was still being monitored, he couldn’t resist sinking down onto the bed. The material resembled a sort of foam and morphed to cradle his body. He allowed himself just a moment to bury his nose in the smooth fabric of the comforter, breathing in a fresh scent rather than the moldy smell he could never completely expunge from his own covers. Still, the pressure of the belt around his waist convinced him to stand again long enough to don the themed pajamas Stark had left. They smelled faintly of the body spray that Stark used and didn’t quite fit correctly—too short on the arms and legs and too baggy in the chest—but they were softer than anything he had owned in a long time.

Too tired to attempt personal hygiene, he rolled under the heavy covers. Distantly, he was aware that the A.I., must be dimming the lights. They didn’t go out completely, which meant that his efforts at subterfuge hadn’t been entirely successful. The A.I. had somehow gleaned that he couldn’t tolerate the dark. At this moment, however, his head was throbbing, and the blood in his veins felt like acid without his seiðr, and he was so very weary. He wanted just a few minutes of rest before his turbulent thoughts stirred.

Chapter Text

Loki woke up to instant orientation. His back didn’t ache, and his feet weren’t hanging off of the edge of the mattress. It was simple to deduce that he wasn’t in his own bed. More difficult was the why. What could possibly have possessed him to show such abhorrent weakness in front of Stark? How could he have acquiesced to stay the night?

He sat up perhaps too hastily and found that while his head still pounded with traces of pain, it was more manageable than the previous night. More concerning was the fact that his seiðr had not recovered enough for him to determine Stark’s location. And yet, despite his powerlessness, he didn’t feel particularly unsafe. Defenseless in the den of one of his greatest enemies, presumably in close proximity to other members of the Avengers, and yet he felt only the smallest trace of trepidation. In fact, he felt rejuvenated.

“Good morning, Mr. Walker,” JARVIS greeted when he craned his neck in search of a clock. “The time is 9:37 in the morning. May I be of any assistance?”

Loki stared down at his palms, wary of the vulnerability but unable to hide his incredulity. “I slept for twelve hours?” he asked faintly.

“Indeed, sir.” Silence for a few seconds and then more hesitantly, “If I may, sir, I am concerned about your health. You often appear tired upon your arrival each morning, and I have noticed that you do not eat a nutritional meal at lunch.”

He rubbed his thumbs into his palms and squeezed his eyes closed. “Have you told Stark?”

“No, sir.”

His hands balled into fists. “Why not?”

“I hope I am not overstepping in saying that you strike me as a very private person. Sir very much enjoys your company. I would not give you any reason to reject him further.” Was that a sour note in the A.I.’s voice?

Loki couldn’t keep a frown from his face. “You don’t approve, I gather? Am I supposed to encourage Stark’s unfathomable obsession with me, then?”

The A.I.’s tone was definitely laced with displeasure now. “My pardon, Mr. Walker, but I would not characterize Sir’s desire to spend time with you as an obsession. You simply interest him. I will admit that his persistence with you has been out of character, but I do believe that he is making an effort to respect your boundaries and reign in his enthusiasm. Sir is, frankly, unaccustomed to pursuing his romantic interests. He rarely has to invest considerable effort.”

“Am I simply a challenge then?” Loki asked despite himself.

“I do not believe so, sir, but I am afraid that my programming does not extend to such matters.”

He was too discombobulated waking here in the dominion of his ignorant enemies to excogitate JARVIS’ meaning. With an abject sigh, Loki slipped out of bed and ran his fingers through Thomas’ snarled, gingery curls. After a moment of searching, he found his clothing crumpled on the floor, hopelessly wrinkled. It seemed that presentability would be futile.

“If I may interrupt again, Mr. Walker, Sir has prepared breakfast for you. He is wondering if you would join him in the kitchen.”

Loki froze, discomfited by the notion in light of his rumpled appearance. “I thought that I might freshen up first.”

A lull as JARVIS apparently relayed his message. “Sir has indicated that he thinks you will look presentable no matter what you do. He is quite insistent that you join him.” Another pause. “He does not often cook breakfast, sir. I believe that he is very much anticipating your assessment.”

Loki picked at the Iron Man helmet on his shirt with a grimace, but he was hungry. When he managed breakfast, it was usually a piece or two of bread, unbuttered and untoasted. Two filling meals in succession would be an exceptional luxury.

Compelled by his empty stomach, he slipped into the hall and endeavored anew to hide any reaction to the opulence of his surroundings. Sunlight filtered in through the extensive glass windows, illuminating the way. Beneath his feet, the floorboards were heated. Abstract paintings so very out of character for a man like Stark bedecked the walls. Now that he knew Stark, the man didn’t quite fit in here. It was too impersonal.

Even if he hadn’t been familiar with the penthouse, it wouldn’t be a challenge to pinpoint Stark’s location. Music primarily composed of screeching vocals and deafening guitar riffs presented an infallible guide to the kitchen.

He found Stark seated at the counter, a StarkPad sustaining the man’s attention. He seemed fully absorbed in the screen, fingers scrambling unremittingly in nimble sweeps and precise jabs. Loki had never seen the man like this, so ensconced in his own element. Lines that had appeared entrenched in the man’s skin disappeared when he was thus focused. A yearning warmth filled Loki’s chest. Right at this moment, he could conceive of Stark as a kindred spirit, one propelled by the driving need to know and to create.

Loki indulged himself for just a minute, forcing past centuries of messages that had instilled the lesson that he could not find beauty in another man. Yes, even before the Mad Titan had plucked him from the Void, Loki had not been a stranger to sex with males. He had even sought it out occasionally, never for physical pleasure, certainly not due to a desire to be intimate with another, but as a tool that he could wield. He was skilled at it, too, had practiced enough that he could perform every conceivable act with clinical efficiency.

Therefore, he knew that he did not find the act of sex with a male inherently repulsive, or at least he hadn’t at one point, but intimacy and attraction were different. Even the thought of true romantic dalliances with males brought revulsion and nausea.

But when he looked at Stark—truly looked at him as he was now—he did not find the man lacking.

There were dark circles under the inventor’s bloodshot eyes that he imagined rarely dissipated, a probable result of a prodigious sleep deficit. His face was somewhat weathered, a tangible sign of the mortality that kept humans aging rapidly. Still, Stark was attractive, Loki knew. Mortals would not throw themselves so persistently at the man if his one redeeming quality was his wealth.

Loki took an unconscious step forward, and a floorboard creaked. When Stark turned to look him, his face brightened with a gummy, earnest smile. For an instant, Loki allowed himself to wonder what it would be like if he could have this, if Stark’s feelings for him were real. No one had ever looked at him like Stark was now, like he was precious, as though simply his presence could be enough.

“Good morning, Tommy,” Stark said, voice infused with warmth that Loki could never deserve. He silenced the music with a sharp swipe of his hand. “How’d you sleep?”

“Quite well,” Loki admitted, tucking his hands awkwardly behind his back as he loitered at the entrance of the room. “I didn’t mean to impose on your time like this. I apologize.”

“Nonsense. You can stay as long as you like.” Stark gestured at an adjacent stool at the counter. “Now, sit. I want you to be my guinea pig.”

Despite the setting, the seating arrangement was somehow more intimate than the couch from the previous night. Whether by design or by accident, Stark had positioned their two stools close enough that Loki couldn’t reach for the silverware without knocking his elbow into the other man. Stark appeared not to notice as he set the StarkPad aside and focused on stuffing his face with a plate of scrambled eggs, carefully buttered toast, and mystery meat. Loki had been served an identical plate, although he noticed that his food had been piled noticeably higher.

“So, did you watch any of Toy Story before you nodded off?” Stark asked with his mouth full of a bit of everything on his plate.

Loki paused, a forkful of slightly burnt egg poised against his lips. “It was difficult for me to appreciate. My childhood was not typical. I don’t understand enough of the references.”

Stark pilfered a sip of Loki’s orange juice (he had served himself coffee) and eyed Loki in a manner that he probably thought was subtle. “Okay, so I’m not the best person for emotional conversations and all that junk, and it’s probably too early for this shit, but this isn’t the first time you’ve alluded to a crappy childhood. Can I ask about it?”

Loki pressed his lips together. “It’s not a subject I enjoy discussing.”

“Totally get that,” Stark said, nodding stiffly. He was trying for nonchalance, but Loki knew him well enough by now to recognize the sudden strain in the other man’s shoulders. He was feeling rejected.

“One question.”

Stark cocked his head, expression tight. “Huh?”

“I’ll answer one question about my family,” Loki clarified, stabbing at the thin slices of meat on his plate.

“Oh! Okay, give me a second to think.”

Loki took a bite of the flimsy mystery food—ham maybe?—and did his best not to berate himself in the interlude. But seriously, what the hell was he thinking?

“What was your father like?”

Loki felt his nostrils flare in response. “Which one? My biological father or my foster father?”

“Both?” Stark ventured. His eyes were soft when Loki turned to glower, making him huff in aggravation.

“My biological father abandoned me when I was an infant. He is essentially a sperm donor, so there is little worth mentioning about him,” Loki said dismissively. “My foster father…I spent my whole life trying to prove myself to him, to become something I’m not on the off chance that he might finally approve of me. Nothing I did was ever good enough.”

“He didn’t like your profession?” Stark guessed.

“Well, yes, but that isn’t what I mean.” He passed his fingers through his hair, wincing when Thomas’ curls raveled, and reached for his juice instead. “He could never accept me, not as I am. He thought me…perverse, and my every action confirmed that for him, intentional or not.”

“Perverse?” Stark repeated, brow wrinkling. “In what way?”

Because of his gift for magic. Because of his way with words. Because he was not his son. Because he was Jötunn. Because he was argr, argr, argr.

“He thought me aberrant because gender did not matter to me when it came to my bed partners,” he settled on revealing. “He ensured that I would regret sullying his reputation with my preferences.”

Distantly, he was aware that his glass was shaking in his hands. He released it, hopefully before Stark could see anything, and hid his fists in his lap.

“You know, my old man caught me with a guy once when I still came home for summer break. He didn’t really react at the time, so I didn’t think he actually cared. But when he caught me the second time a few weeks later, he made it clear that if that part of me ever became known to the public, I would be sorry.” Stark smiled, but the expression was wistful at best. “It kept me in the closet for a long time.”

Loki forced his fingers to loosen under the table. His blunt nails were in danger of breaking the skin of his palms. “How did he make it clear?”

“Oh, just yelled a lot. Threatened to cut me off. He usually ignored me, so when he paid enough attention to do something like that, it made an impression.” Stark paused, apparently inspecting Loki out of the corner of his eye. “How about you?

He couldn’t stop his hands from trembling. It was ridiculous. “My foster father was much more hands on.”

Stark swallowed noticeably. “Did he…hurt you?”

“He has always believed that pain is the best teacher. I was simply a poor student.” He let his eyes flit up to Stark, expecting to see pity or something similar, but instead there was inexplicable anger. “What is it?” he asked, wondering if the emotion was directed at him.

Stark’s fist pounded suddenly into the counter, making him jolt into alertness, poised for flight. “I just don’t understand people sometimes. I mean, you’re you!” He waved his hand haphazardly in Loki’s direction. “I don’t understand how anyone could possibly want to hurt you.”

A laugh, bitter, almost hysterical, burst out of Loki before he could stem it.

“That’s funny?”

He looked away, fighting for control of his expression. “My apologies. It’s just that I believe you would find yourself in a very small minority.” He took another sip of the juice to distract him from Stark’s study of his face. “Perhaps we could change the subject. I do not enjoy speaking of this.”

“Sure.” Stark’s fingers started tapping out a brisk tempo on the counter, drawing his attention once more. Loki’s eyes narrowed. Stark was anxious, and without access to his seiðr, it was impossible to tell whether the source of that emotion was malevolent. “We could talk about the weather? Or I’m sure there’s a sports thing that happened somewhere.”

Loki tried for nonchalance. “Ah, yes. The weather, I’m certain, will be as overcast as always. I am inclined to believe that neither of us are overly interested in the sports things.”

“Ha! Well, you’re not wrong.” More finger tapping, and now Stark’s other hand was fiddling with the zipper on his jacket. “Okay, I can’t do this. I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I can’t just unhear that.”

Sighing, Loki forced himself to lay down his fork and turned bodily to face the inventor.

“I mean, you just told me that your father fucking beat you because you’re bisexual.” He fluttered his hand carelessly, but the tendons were starting to stand out on his neck. “Or pansexual? I don’t know what label you prefer. Regardless, that was completely fucked up. I can’t just prattle on about stupid shit when you drop a bombshell like that.”

“It happened to me, Stark. There’s no reason for you to feel this way.”

“I know! I get that, okay? But…I don’t know how to explain it.” Stark was rubbing at his chest now, and if Loki had access to his seiðr, he was sure that he’d be able to sense the spore, twisting and churning beneath the man’s palm. “Even thinking about someone hurting you, it’s like I can’t control myself. I need to protect you, and I can’t, and I know that’s weird, but it’s how I feel.”

Stark was correct—to possess these feelings so intensely this soon would not make sense to a human. Only an experienced seiðr user would see this as anything but unhealthy obsession. Most would conclude what had been Loki’s first instinct: that Stark was akin to a child throwing a tantrum when he couldn’t have what he wanted. The reality was that this interference from the Mind Stone had heightened all of Stark’s urges, sparking an intense desire for closeness to Loki while at the same disguising its malicious intent as a romantic pursuit. As of yet, it did not appear as though Stark suspected outside interference, but the danger was present. Loki had to be careful. He needed to placate the man without arousing suspicion.

“I am fine,” Loki said cautiously. “Stark, I am right here. No one is hurting me.”

“I know, okay?” Stark stood, suddenly frantic. “I can see that, but I don’t feel that. God, I know this sounds fucking crazy.”

Could it be that the spore was even more sensitive than he had suspected? On some level was it—and by extension Stark—aware of the ever-present agony of the shackles burning through his seiðr? Or perhaps it was the emaciation that lay behind his glamour? Surely, the spore wasn’t influential enough to spark at the mere mention of past maltreatment.

Loki climbed wearily to his feet so he could better track Stark’s presence as the man paced the confines of the room. He decided to try again. “Stark? Won’t you sit back down?” he requested, gesturing at the couch that concealed the area where the Beast had splintered his spine.

“No, I can’t, Tommy, because I’m freaking you the fuck out, and I know it, okay? You don’t want to be with me. I know that. But I can’t fucking turn this off.”

“I am not ‘freaking out,’” Loki protested even as internally his heart was rabbiting into oblivion. How could he salvage this without exposing himself? “Why don’t we sit down? Evidently, we need to talk about this.”

Stark scoffed wordlessly and increased the pace of his long strides around the room. Loki sank ponderously into the leather cushions, wincing at the resulting squeak into the silence. He worried about what would happen if Stark grew more agitated. Would he begin to question the target of what he was feeling? Would he begin to suspect that Thomas was more than he seemed?

He sucked in a deep breath and tried to adopt an open and placid pose on the couch even though he felt anything but calm. “Please sit down, Anthony. We need to speak.”

Stark halted immediately and turned to Loki open-mouthed. “What did you call me?”

“Stark—”

“No, no, no. That’s not what you said.”

He couldn’t stop a frustrated sigh. “Anthony.”

The gummy smile was back as though Stark hadn’t just been working himself into a state of hysteria. “No one ever calls me that. But it works for you. It’s such a Tommy thing to call me.”

“Thomas,” he corrected tiredly.

“Sure thing, Tommy.” Stark traipsed to the couch at last. He meticulously seated himself as far away from Loki as possible. “Are you going to tell me that you’ll never be interested in me again? Because I gotta tell you that the message has sunk in. I know I’ve been bad at boundaries with you, and I swear I’m working on it, but I’ve never felt like this before. I don’t know…maybe there’s something wrong with me.”

Loki’s hands clenched around the thin fabric of his borrowed pajamas, forcing him to raise his knees to his chest as a barrier. “There isn’t anything wrong with you, Stark.”

“Anthony.”

“Anthony, then. As I understand it, human nature dictates some degree of intrigue when faced with a challenge.”

“Yeah, but you’re not just a challenge,” Stark exclaimed, clearly frustrated. “You made it clear that you're not interested in me, and I still can’t help but push your boundaries. I can’t control myself.”

Loki could barely breathe. “You’ve been more respectful these last few days.”

Groaning, Stark buried his face in his hands. “Well, yeah, but it doesn’t make sense. I want you to be here all the time, and that’s weird!”

Loki paused so he could choose his words precisely. He couldn’t indicate that he had more than even passing knowledge of this. “I imagine that wanting the people you care about close to you may be why you invited your fellow Avengers to live here,” he offered after a moment. There. Speculation on the Avengers’ living arrangements was at least within the sphere of public awareness.

“Yeah, but that’s different.”

“In what way?”

Stark peeked at him from behind his fingers. “They’re the Avengers. We saved the world together. You’re…well, no offense because you know that I think you’re awesome, but you’re just a normal guy. I can’t blame adrenaline or PTSD bonding on wanting to spend time with you.”

“You can blame hormones. It’s simple attraction,” Loki said, forcing himself to shrug.

Stark still wouldn’t acquiesce to the excuse. “I’ve been attracted to plenty of people before. It hasn’t felt like this. And even if you’re right, the point is that you’re not interested, and that means that I can’t have you.”

Loki twisted the fabric of the pajama bottoms until he feared they would rip. Stark seemed determined that he was experiencing some sort of deficiency. If he continued in this direction, it wouldn’t take too many leaps until he began to consider magic and then to land on the inexplicable target of his intrigue. Loki would have to make a sacrifice here, but then, he was the god of lies.

He focused his eyes on the window Stark had replaced after Loki had flung him through its predecessor. “I may not always be uninterested,” he heard his own voice say flatly.

Stark froze. His eyes slowly focused on Loki. “What do you mean?”

Loki continued to feel distant as he explained. “I do not feel attraction to other people, at least not right away. It takes time for me.”

It was mostly truth, aside from the fact that any attraction he had felt in the past had been fleeting and utterly destroyed after inevitable betrayal. However, he did need time to destroy the spore. Stark’s devotion to him would wane as the seed’s hold over him lessened, and romantic dalliances would cease to be an issue.

Stark was still staring at him. He barely appeared to be breathing. “You’re telling me that you want to be friends first?”

“Is that not what we were already doing?” Loki ventured.

“Well, yeah, but there’s a difference between friends forever and friends first. A big difference.” Stark stood and began to pace again, but the strides were less frenetic than before. “Why are saying this?” he asked. “You said you weren’t interested. Why change your mind?”

Loki licked his lips to buy himself time. He had to be so very careful now. “I am not changing my mind. You were a complete asshole when we first met. It isn’t unpleasant to spend time with you in other circumstances.”

He waited with bated breath as Stark considered his words. Bereft of his seiðr, he was utterly at the other man’s mercy. 

A slow smile spread at last on the other man’s face. “I won you over with my dazzling personality? I gotta say that that’s a first!”

“‘Won over’ would be an exaggeration,” Loki muttered, rolling his eyes even as his shoulders slumped in relief. “You are sometimes tolerable.”

Stark cackled and flung himself back onto the couch, landing much closer to Loki. His knee grazed Loki’s thigh. “Nah, you like me. Admit it!”

“Stark—”

“Nope. I don’t respond to that anymore.”

“Anthony,” Loki acceded grudgingly. “I wish to know you. There are no guarantees of anything else.”

To his surprise, his words appeared to have a calming effect. The other man nodded earnestly. “I’ll be on my best behavior. You’ll see.” The gummy smile reappeared. “Friends first.”

“We shall see,” Loki sighed, climbing wearily to his feet. “As your first friend act, I will allow you to drive me home.”

Stark’s expression contorted, no doubt a protest and pleas for him to stay longer on the tip of his tongue. But then the man shook his head as though to reset, a smaller but still authentic smile on his face. “I did promise. Although, you’re going to be missing out on some major zombie ass kicking if you leave now.”

“Tragic,” Loki snorted, heading toward the guest room.

A thumping noise once he rounded the corner made him halt and peek behind him. Stark’s back was to him, but it was evident that he was punching the air and kicking his legs in an apparent display of celebration. Loki rolled his eyes yet again and continued on his way, heedless of the diminutive answering smile curling upon his own lips.

Chapter Text

A weekend berating his foolish self for his weakness with Stark made for an exhausted trek to Avengers Tower come Monday. Now armed with a few wisps of seiðr, it was difficult to fathom what Loki had been thinking when he told Stark even a meager fragment of his history. And to give the man hope for the future, even if his attraction to Loki would dissipate along with the spore…surely, he could have conceived of a safer plan. He was the god of lies. Had some part of him desired what he had obtained—the sympathy, the pity? His feet dragged the whole way to the library. He dreaded seeing Stark with every fiber of his being.

Except for the part of him that had enjoyed Stark’s undivided attention, that craved the genuine display of concern that Stark had offered, that anticipated another evening of comradery and conversation and the opportunity to simply be Loki…well, Thomas as Loki. That part apparently had forgotten what the Other’s protracted company felt like, let alone the Mad Titan’s particular brand of hospitality.  

Upon his arrival at Stark’s library, he found a piece of Midgardian dessert—strawberry cheesecake according to the label—waiting on his table. Suspicious, he reached out with his limited seiðr but could find no living presence on the floor. He hadn’t even noticed the tension in his shoulders until it eased, buoyed by the return of the routine Stark had set last week.

“Mr. Walker?” JARVIS interjected as he took a bite of the cake. “I regret to inform you that Sir has been called away. He should return by Friday and requested that you keep your schedule clear for that evening.”  

Called away? For Avengers business or something more mundanely human?

“Is he in danger, JARVIS?” he asked, ensuring that his voice remained carefully mild.

“I am afraid that I am not at liberty to say, sir.”

He was on an Avengers mission then. Otherwise, JARVIS would have answered him.

“Sir will be fine, Mr. Walker.”

“I’m sure he will be,” Loki said breezily, cutting off another bite of the cake with perhaps more force than he had intended.

“If I may, it is understandable to be worried—”

“I am not worried,” Loki snapped.

“As you say, sir.”

He yanked out the journal he had been working on along with a notebook to record his work, scrupulous in keeping his eyes away from the ceiling.

“Mr. Walker, I assure you that I would tell you if Sir were to be injured.”

Loki paused, jaw flexing tightly. “Thank you, JARVIS,” he acquiesced.

As a distraction, he devoted his full attention to translation, the combination of breaking the cipher and finding the right words to turn the horrifying German into precise English requiring much of his concentration. His conjecture last week had unfortunately been accurate. The journal detailed human experimentation, attempts to turn man into some sort of super-human. Stronger. Faster. Obedient. Mindless. It was too familiar, brought forward too many fractured memories, recent and past. It was not possible to translate the passages without understanding them, but he worked with as much clinical precision and apathy as he was capable.

He detailed the trial of the man whose skin melted off over the course of several hours. Then another who had vomited until he began to bring up his own organs. A third ended with bones so brittle that they broke like twigs. He documented the ordeals of men who went mad, bombarded with hallucinations and delusions until they starved or found a way to kill themselves. Humans were fortunate in one regard, he realized idly. The constitution of their bodies meant that the torture couldn’t last forever. Based on the dates of the entries, it was apparent that the subjects of these experiments had died relatively quickly, whereas Loki had languished, healing again and again so his body could break anew.

The rest of the week passed in much the same fashion. He arrived to find a strawberry-themed dessert on his desk. He would translate increasingly gruesome entries. He returned home to eat and sleep, nightmares of his own ordeals haunting his dreams when he did manage a few hours of rest. More often than not, he passed the time staring at the ceiling and listening to the footsteps of his upstairs neighbors well into the night.

He started not feeling quite right as the days passed. By Wednesday, standing brought a wave of dizziness. He awoke on Thursday with a headache that persisted throughout the day. And he was tired all the time. Never had he experienced a Midgardian illness, but his symptoms certainly signaled the occurrence of some frustratingly mortal impediment. Perhaps the combination of wearing Thomas’ skin constantly along with the damnable bracers that locked away all but the weakest splinters of his seiðr was having some sort of effect on his natural immunity.

There was scant time or energy to agonize over his appointment with Stark on Friday, although JARVIS assured him when he arrived that morning that the inventor was looking forward to their time together. The passages today were markedly aberrant. The writer had developed a sort of obsession with one of his subjects. The lust that coated the unctuous words sickened him, and Loki had trouble expressing the content equivalently in English. Norns, even reading it was nauseating, and not just because the bright lights overhead were worsening the pounding in his head.

At five o’clock, he packed everything into orderly piles, anticipating Stark with a semblance of eagerness. The inventor’s brand of distraction, ambient as it tended to be, would be preferable to the nightmares Loki had exhumed. His concerns about Stark seemed almost unreasonable after a full week with no sign of the engineer. He vacillated, torn between remembering Stark as intrusive and brash or attentive and affable. As the week had passed, it had become hard to remember which assessment was truth and which was a product of his penchant to lie, to wheedle, to catastrophize—even to himself.

To Loki’s surprise, he found the kitchen vacant upon departing from the library. At first, discomfiture emerged as the prominent emotion. He had expected…what? The same enthusiasm after revealing his perversion to Stark? Well, yes. Maybe he had anticipated that. Still, Stark had a plethora of demands on his time, and Loki could be generous. He could wait.

Thirty minutes seemed like a long time to wait, though. This room didn’t hold particularly rapturous memories for him. Nor did he relish standing abeyant by the glass windows, staring out at the site of the failure that had led to his second imprisonment. It was raining today, he noticed idly, and Loki was not equipped for it. Normally, he was meticulous about procuring a newspaper so he could check the weather and dress accordingly. But he had been lax since beginning his contract with Stark. The convenient rides to and from his apartment had made him neglect his survival instincts, become too reliant on those who would hate him.

“JARVIS?” he asked at last. “Where is Stark?”

“I assure you, Mr. Walker, that Sir is looking forward to seeing you. He will be here soon.”

He turned back to the window, grimacing when the rain intensified, this time accompanied by distant rumbling. He had always disliked the sound, but since forsaking all ties to his former family, he had abhorred thunderstorms all the more. Could Thor be angry right now? Could he be here in the building? His seiðr was too weak to reach past a few floors to check.

Another fifteen minutes passed. “JARVIS?” he tried again. “How much longer?”

“Mr. Stark will arrive very soon, sir. He wants to see you.”

Loki was beginning to doubt that. He did not feel well. His head hurt more than he wanted to admit, and there was a scratchiness in his throat that he had never experienced before. More, he was so hungry. Stark’s treats every morning helped, but he still had to obey human limits. Mortals would eat a single piece of cake, maybe two, but he needed more. He had always had an appetite to rival Thor’s, and now he was limited to a sandwich at lunch, whatever Stark threw his way for the day, and a paltry dinner consisting of Midgardian peanut butter and jelly or ramen noodles. Behind the glamour, he was wasting away, and going so long without food, sparse and unappetizing though his meals were, proved onerous.

Still, he acquiesced to waiting another half hour before he succumbed to exasperation.

“Tell me, JARVIS,” he said as another burst of lightning blanched the darkening sky. “Does Stark know that I am waiting for him?”

“He recalled your appointment this morning, sir.” Now, that was interesting. He had been under the impression that JARVIS was incapable of lying, but evidently, the A.I. was able to do so by omission.

“Does he remember now?” Loki persisted, feigning an intent study of his fingernails.

A pause as JARVIS searched for more loopholes. “It appears that it has briefly slipped his mind, sir.”

“I would imagine that you are prone to reminding him of his commitments,” Loki observed neutrally.

“Yes, sir,” came the cautious agreement.

“But?” he prompted.

“But he has muted me, Mr. Walker,” JARVIS admitted at last.

“And why is that?”

“I regret that I am unable to share that information.”

“I see.”

Loki wrapped his arms around his waist for a moment, trying to think past the hollowness. His pride—already a delicate, tenuous thing before his fall—couldn’t stand for this, for waiting to be noticed, to being considered a second thought after a lifetime of the same. He was tired. He was hurting. He was imbued with memories. Perhaps solitude was what he needed.

Resolved, he rose and headed to the elevator, frowning at the few seconds of delay before the button lit up.

JARVIS was, of course, still pleading his master’s case. “I am certain that Sir will recall your appointment at any moment.”

Loki felt heavy—his eyes, his limbs, everything really. He focused his gaze on his shoes, resigned to endure the ride to the lobby silently.

“Mr. Walker, please, at least allow me to call Mr. Hogan,” JARVIS said when he only a few floors away from escape. “The weather is not fit for travel.”

“I’m sure Hogan is at home,” he said without looking up. “It’s better not to disturb him. I will be fine. Thank you for your concern.”

More protests, almost frantic now, or as close as the A.I. could come to it. Loki ignored them, focused on breathing as thunder shook the building. When he stepped out of the elevator, it was to another bright flash of lightning. It wasn’t just raining now. It was a deluge. The lobby was teeming with people trying to escape the storm.

Gritting his teeth, Loki pushed through them. He would not be stranded here. He was hungry. He was drained. His head was throbbing. He just wanted to be alone, and he wasn’t going to wait out the storm on the off chance that Stark would remember him.

He was soaked through only halfway to the nearest bus stop. Worse, the traffic from the weather meant that the bus was late, and others were already using nearby overhangs to escape the rain. He had no choice but to stand in the downpour to ensure that he would not miss the bus when it finally came. He could barely see, and he didn’t think it was just because of the weather. Aperiodic black spots obstructed his vision. This wasn’t normal, he knew that, but he was so exhausted that he couldn’t care. He could barely think past the pain drilling through his eyes.

He had hoped that leaving after rush hour would make for an alacritous journey home, but the pace was excruciatingly slow. It didn’t matter whether he was on the bus or waiting outside for his transfer. Everyone and everything were sodden and miserable. Tensions ran high, and he was jostled repeatedly as humans tried to force their bodies into the too small spaces around him. Squeezing his eyes shut, he focused on his breathing, dismayed to find that rather than conciliate him, his deep inhales occasionally produced sudden hacking coughs.

By the time he reached his apartment building—after walking a few more drenched blocks—he had relinquished any semblance of evenness when it came to breathing. He stumbled up the stairs, each flight punctuated by gasps and coughs that he could scarcely believe originated from him. He felt…cold. A trail of water marked the path to his apartment. His fingers were shaking with such force that he dropped his keys several times before he managed to open the apartment door.

Blinking blearily when the harsh overhead light of the tiny kitchen came on, he had just enough sense left to shirk off his soggy clothes at the door. Starving and weary and shivering and aching, all of those needs warred at once, but the siren call of his lumpy, undersized mattress won out. He burrowed under the scratchy sheets and threadbare comforter, both doing little to stem his trembling. He fell asleep almost immediately in spite of the gnawing emptiness in his stomach.

***

Loki awoke to a pounding at the door that jolted the wood with its force. He groaned, disoriented. His throat was so dry that it burned, and simply turning his head to the side had him muffling a cry in his stiff pillow. Coughing unproductively, he turned his feeble seiðr to his wards, noted that whoever was at his door held no malevolent intent, and closed his eyes once again.

The pummeling of his door intensified. “Tommy?” came a familiar voice. “Look, I know I’m an asshole. Let me make it up to you, okay?”

Nausea churned in his gut when he managed to sit up; dizziness spawned blackened spots in his vision; the throbbing in his head consolidated behind his eyes and at his temples. He lurched to his feet and decided to take the comforter with him when he realized idly that only ratty boxers maintained his modesty. He stumbled his way to the door.

“Tommy?” Stark was calling his name quieter now, presumably realizing the inherent danger in bringing attention to himself in a place like this. “Please answer the door. I’m sorry, okay?”

He disengaged the chain and then the lock with unsteady fingers to reveal the inventor. The man’s eyes were bloodshot, his skin sallow, his clothing rumpled. His hair was standing at a variety of angles and appeared unwashed. He looked marginally as terrible as Loki felt.

“Tommy?” Stark said again, eyes widening. “What happened to you?”

Loki pulled the comforter tighter around his shoulders. “Is it Monday?” he rasped, wondering if he had missed work.

“What? No, it’s Saturday.” Stark stepped closer, squinting to make him out in the dim lighting. “Are you sick?”

“No.” His body folded as he fought off a cough. It came out anyway, rattling and wet. “Maybe,” he amended.

Stark was swallowing thickly when Loki straightened. “Can I come in, please? I don’t think that it’s a good idea for us to talk out here.”

He was right, although Loki didn’t relish the idea of Stark seeing the state of his apartment. A cursory glance behind him showed that his soaked clothes were still heaped together at the threshold, and a trail of water led to his bed and its rumpled, stained sheets. More than that, he knew that his home was bare. He didn’t want Stark to see the empty shelves in his kitchen, the complete absence of personal belongings, the few articles of clothing he possessed. He was a god. He didn’t want the pity of a mortal. Especially not Stark.

“Only for a moment,” Loki said at last, rubbing at his throat.

He stumbled back to his bed, the sole seat in his apartment as he owned neither table nor chairs. Normally, he would choose to remain standing, wary already of the vulnerability he was exhibiting, but the dizziness was worsening, and standing appeared to exacerbate his nausea. He settled on the edge of the mattress and carefully wrapped the comforter around his shaking frame.

Stark, he found, had lingered by the entrance of his apartment, although the man had deigned to shut the door. He was looking around the dimly lit studio apartment, eyes wide as he inspected the numerous cracks in the walls, the peeling paint, the dearth of furniture. Loki gritted his teeth.

“What is it?” he asked even as he fought to keep his body from listing to the side.

“Well, I wanted to apologize,” the other man said, gaze dragging reluctantly back to Loki’s face. “There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why I didn’t show up last night, and I want to tell you all about it, but…okay, Tommy, I’m pretty sure that you’re, like, super sick.”

Loki shook his head to deny it, prompting a fresh round of coughing. Once he started, he found it was nearly impossible to stop. He bent double and drew the comforter over his mouth, tears forming at the corners of his eyes as he gasped for breath in between hacking coughs. When he managed a deep enough inhale to satisfy his straining lungs, he found Stark kneeling on the ground in front of him, hands fluttering but not quite touching him.

“Where’s your thermometer, Tommy?” Stark asked, laying shaking fists in his denim-covered lap.

Loki brought a trembling arm to wipe at his eyes. “Don’t have one,” he croaked.

“Medicine?”

“No.”

Stark’s eyes narrowed. “Do you at least have tissues?”

Loki licked his chapped lips as he forced his enervated mind to consider. “Under the bathroom sink.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back. Hang tight.”

 Loki squeezed his eyes shut, unwilling to watch Stark’s reaction to his bathroom. He knew what the man would find. A single tattered towel, stains on the tile that even hours of scrubbing hadn’t removed, a faucet that wouldn’t produce anything but lukewarm water. Grimacing, he scooted back until he could curl on his side and press his knees into his churning stomach. Soon enough, the creak of the floorboards told him that the engineer was returning.

“I’m assuming you meant the extra roll of toilet paper for the tissues?” Stark asked.

“Mm-hmm.” If he didn’t look, he wouldn’t have to see the sympathy on Stark’s face.

The next time the engineer spoke, his voice was level with Loki’s head. Presumably, he had stooped down once again. “Okay, Tommy, I have to admit that I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m sure I’m going to do something entirely wrong, just like always, so you’ve gotta help me a little, okay?”

That made Loki crack open an eye. “You don’t have to do anything. I’m fine. I’ll be back at work on Monday.”

Stark snorted and lifted a hand slowly to Loki’s forehead. Normally, he would balk—he hated anything near his face—but Stark telegraphed his movements so carefully that somehow his body didn’t register any perceived threat. The fingers, calloused and rough, were so gentle where they stroked Loki’s skin.

“Look, I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that you have a fever. We need to figure out a game plan because I’m sure as hell not leaving you like this.”

“It’s just a cold,” Loki protested.

“Maybe, but it’s a bad one. That cough of yours sounds wicked.”

Loki sighed. He recognized the obstinate tone Stark was using from too many years living with Thor.

“Look, Tommy, like it or not, you’re my friend. Remember? We agreed? I know we haven’t known each other for very long, but I don’t have too many of those. And I take care of my friends. Just let me help. Please?”

The effort of sustaining his attention on the other man was apparently too much. Another cough made Loki curl tighter, his skin released from Stark’s touch as he ground his knees into his chest. So consumed was he that he startled at the feeling of paper, yielding yet abrasive, pressing at his lips. A peek found Stark holding to his mouth a fistful of the cheap toilet paper Loki had filched out of a fast food bathroom.

“You’re a proud guy, and I totally admire that about you,” Stark said, once Loki managed to slouch back into the mattress. “But you know that I have money. Let me buy you a few things. A thermometer, some medicine, maybe a few blankets. That’s all I ask.”

Sometimes, Loki wondered if the bond that damnable spore had created between them went two ways. Something in him revolted at the sight of Stark like this—imploring, vulnerable. It was too pathetically mortal. Worse, it made Loki feel human in all its feeble splendor.

“Can you purchase tea?” Loki asked before he was entirely cognizant of his lips forming the request.

Stark’s voice was warm when he spoke. “Of course, I can. What kind?”

He turned away, disgusted with his unreserve. “Any kind,” he mumbled.

“Okay. I’ll have Happy buy an assortment.” Stark stood with a grunt, the audible cracking of his knees drawing Loki’s reluctant attention. “Do you mind if I take a look at your kitchen? If Happy’s going to the store, we might as well get you stocked.”

Loki picked at one of the many loose threads on the comforter. “I haven’t had the chance to go grocery shopping in a while,” he fumbled.

“Totally understandable,” Stark said with a sharp nod as he moved across the room. “We’ll save you a trip.”

Groaning, Loki turned onto his other side despite the pains in his body, loath to witness Stark uncovering the barren cabinets and empty refrigerator. He wasn’t certain that he had left the refrigerator plugged in, vacant as its shelves tended to be. To his surprise, Stark made no audible comment, and soon enough, he heard the man tapping away at his phone. Feeling somewhat ensconced, Loki drifted a bit, soothed by the drone of Stark’s voice as he presumably reached Hogan on the phone. The inventor’s steps provided a steady cadence across the creaky floor.

“Hey, Tommy,” Stark said an indeterminable among of time later. The full-size mattress dipped, jolting Loki into half-alertness. “Where do you do your laundry? Your clothes are still pretty wet.”

“I handwash them,” he mumbled without opening his eyes. Norns, it felt as though he was being stabbed through his temples, and the agony in his stomach was interminable.

Stark’s fingers pressed against his forehead again. Loki’s treacherous body leaned into the cool touch. “Happy’s on his way to the store. Is it okay if he takes your clothes when he stops by?”

He was hurting too much to think on it. “Fine.”

Stark’s fingers hadn’t left his skin. “Tommy?” the inventor whispered, voice tighter this time. “Before you go back to sleep, do you think you can open your eyes for a minute? I need to show you something.”

The ominous quality to Stark’s tone made him try. He managed to peel his eyelids apart, bringing the thin line of Stark’s lips into view. He forced his gaze to focus on the objects the man was holding. The first was Loki’s phone. The water damage was obvious. Moisture had collected behind the cheap screen. He couldn’t bring himself to care. Nobody called him anyway. He’d only bought it so he could apply for jobs and conduct phone interviews.

But the second object was his MP3 player, and the water had destroyed it utterly.

He spent hours and hours most weekends charging it and downloading music at the library. He had even splurged recently on cheap earbuds after witnessing how the sound cancelling feature allowed for complete withdrawal. Immersion in the brilliance of Mozart and Beethoven and Debussy had helped him piece his sanity back together when he had first arrived on Midgard, had allowed him to pretend even for just a little while that he was still that naïve boy who had looked forward to nothing more than to attending his secret magic lessons with Frigga.

To his absolute shame, he felt his chin start to wobble. His vision blurred. He reached out with shaking fingers to take it out of Stark’s hand.

“I can buy you a new one, Tommy. It’s okay.”

He traced the screen—now warped from water damage—with his index finger. “I don’t want another one.”

“Are you sure? Because I can get you something state of the art. Hell, a StarkPhone would make both of those pieces of junk redundant—”

“Stark, please.” He drew the MP3 player against his chest under the comforter and pulled his body into a tighter ball than before. “Can you get me some water?” he asked.

“Sure! I didn’t see a filter—”

“Tap water,” he specified tiredly.

The footsteps retreated, leaving him to a state of numbness. His body felt distant. Continuously during his time in the void, being able to dissociate had allowed him to survive as horrors ravaged his body. This persistent nausea was too similar to poisoning, the stabbing agony in his head too akin to the invasion of his mind and loss of his will, the ache in his throat too reminiscent of various sexual torments. Music had served as his tether since his flight to Midgard, but he’d lost that now. It would be impossible to calm down. He dug his nails into his palms anyway, stared up at the watermarks on his ceiling and traced the monstrous shapes, tried everything he could fathom in an effort to stay grounded. But it was growing harder to breathe, and he worried that another coughing spell could trigger something worse. Sweat had adhered the comforter to his body, and the heat was stifling.

“Tommy? Hey! Hey, Tommy. Look at me!” The mattress tilted dangerously. “Listen to my voice, okay? I need you to open your eyes. Just for a minute.”

“I can’t breathe,” he gasped.

His shaking hands found something—Stark’s arm—and clawed at it. He could barely hear past the pounding of his heart.

“You can. You can. Focus on me, alright? I’m right here. You’re safe. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

His nails dug into the other man’s skin. He was going to die. He couldn’t breathe, and his lungs were clogged, and he was going to die.

Distantly, he felt hands around his back forcing him up, felt fingers coil into his hair and guide his nose to flesh.

“Let me tell you the tale of how Fuckup Tony forgot about his not-date with this incredible guy named Thomas—usually it’s Tommy, but right now it’s Thomas.”

He sucked in another obstructed breath and curled his fingers into fabric. Coughs caught in his throat, blocking his airway.

“Fuckup Tony had been looking forward to his not-date with Thomas for days. He had grand plans of introducing him to Dying Light and absolutely kicking his ass at zombie survival. But Fuckup Tony got caught up on a work trip. One of his work friends was hurt on a training exercise turned mission, and it was Fuckup Tony’s fault. He didn’t listen. He charged in, saw the shiny thing, gave chase, and someone else paid the price.”

Loki gasped in another shuddering wheeze. The scent of motor oil, hazelnut, and a hint of alcohol seeped into his nose. It had a strangely calming effect. He found himself burrowing closer to the smell. Arms tightened around his middle and began to rock his body slowly.

“So, Fuckup Tony muted his trusty A.I. butler, JARVIS, and unthinkingly spent all of Friday tinkering in his workshop and drinking himself into oblivion like an absolute asshole. This morning, he realized his assholery and rushed all the way across the city, only to find out that Thomas got sick, which is also Fuckup Tony’s fault.” The pressure increased around his ribs. “I’m so, so sorry, Tommy. I can’t believe I forgot. It was all I could talk about for days. Hawkeye got so tired of me prattling on about you that he started practicing his aim by lobbing gum at the back of my head.”

Loki could hear the distress in the man’s voice and even vaguely feel it sending the spore writhing, but it was hard to think past the agony in his own body. “Water,” he rasped.

“Right, right, right.”

The glass pressed against his lips, tentatively at first, and then more firmly when Loki didn’t choke on the liquid flowing down his throat.

“Happy’s gonna be here with your medicine soon. You’ll feel better then.” Fingertips brushed at his forehead. “Your fever is definitely worse, and I don’t like that cough. I’m really worried about you, Tommy.”

Distantly, he was aware that Stark was adjusting their positions on the bed. He ended up with his ear against the device that had subverted the Mind Stone’s control. The hum was soothing, and the oleaginous touch of the spore as it reached for him wasn’t entirely disagreeable. For once, the pressure from the arms around his chest felt entirely benign. Stark was baldly worried about him, and he was apparently tactile when expressing it. Right now, his protection was to Loki’s advantage, and Loki had never been above using any tactic—no matter how demeaning or uncomfortable—when it came to his survival. He had to admit that now that Stark wasn’t openly overfriendly, his interest wasn’t necessarily objectionable. It might even be categorized as pleasant. No one had been so tender with him since Frigga, and she hadn’t been so familiar since he came of age.

“You like classical music, right? Let’s see if we can get a playlist going.”

The soothing notes of Claire de Lune were enough to allow him to drift. Just for a minute. He just needed to rest.

Chapter Text

Loki awoke with the indisputable knowledge that he was in trouble.

Stark’s phone was still playing music—Bach now. When Loki wrenched open his eyes, he could see that the device remained in Stark’s loose grasp, the screen still unlocked. He bit back a whimper and lifted his aching head to find that Stark had fallen asleep. He could vaguely feel the man’s other arm wrapped around his waist, and right at this moment, that arm felt impossibly heavy. Perhaps in another scenario, he would take the time to scrutinize his great enemy while he was so exposed, possibly investigate the contraption that had interfered so maddeningly with his plans, maybe even contemplate how he felt about his own body rising and falling to the tempo of the inventor’s breathing.

But he couldn’t delay.

“Stark,” he whispered, wincing at the arrant agony in his throat.

Stark hardly twitched. Based on the man’s account of the last week (admittedly, Loki had only half-listened), he knew that Stark had been on a mission, that he probably hadn’t slept in quite some time. Again, in a different situation, he might respectfully allow the inventor the rest that he so clearly needed.

“Stark!” he called again, the volume of his voice rising infinitesimally. His fist battered ineffectually on the man’s bony shoulder. “Anthony?” he tried now. “Anthony!”

Stark startled at last, eyes blinking open blearily. “Tommy?” he mumbled. A few precious seconds passed until the inventor focused on his face. “Shit, you’re looking pale,” he assessed.

“Bathroom,” Loki groaned, permitting his head to fall back onto the device in Stark’s chest.

The abrupt jolting of the bed made him moan. It was all he could do to press his lips together as Stark pushed them both up into a sitting position before wiggling out from under him. Tugging gently but obdurately, the other man propelled him to the edge of the bed before hoisting him clumsily to his feet. They stumbled into the bathroom just in time for Loki to land hard on his knees in front of the toilet and retch.

He was nominally aware of Stark in the background, murmuring something. The faucet started running and kept running, and Loki managed an iota of concern for his water bill.

“So, apparently, your water has one temperature setting,” Stark said from behind him. A lukewarm washcloth pressed against the back of his neck. “Does this help?”

It took Loki a moment to understand, absorbed as he was in dribbling over the cracked toilet seat. He groaned feebly in response. The only sensation that he could relate to the infernal churning in his stomach was poisoning.

“Tell me if this isn’t okay.”

A hesitant hand settled on the small of his back and began a slow circular path, tracing trembling shoulder blades and curved vertebrae. Loki didn’t know what to feel. Even with the comforter blocking his skin, the touch felt intimate in a way that he had never experienced. A part of him yearned to lean in just as much as he desired to jerk away.

Nonplussed, he settled for flushing the toilet before slumping until his forehead braced against the seat. It wasn’t precisely an invitation, but he didn’t demand that Stark withdraw either.

“Happy should be here any moment now. We’ll get you some meds and something to eat. I know you must be hungry.”

Norns, he was starving. Skipping meals was dangerous with the very meager amount he consumed.

“Do you want to go back to bed or stay here for a little bit?” Stark asked.

He tapped the porcelain in answer, unwilling to attempt verbalization with the way his throat was burning. Vomiting had only exacerbated its rawness.

“Okay. Do you want me to stay?”

He shook his head to decline and then grimaced when his temples throbbed in answer.

The soothing hand left his back. Its absence made him feel cold. “I’ll come in to check on you in a few minutes then.”

The floorboards creaked in the wake of Stark’s exit, making his footsteps effortless to follow. He knew that the man was endeavoring to respect Loki’s boundaries, and in other circumstances, he might appreciate it more genuinely. Right at this moment, though, Loki was hurting, and he was…scared—he had never experienced an ailment such as this without a definite, malevolent catalyst. The nonsensical, lonely part of him craved for Stark to impose his company further. And yet, he was also grateful for the space to regroup. The combination of his illness and at least two days of limited hygiene made him feel repulsive, and he could do little to remedy that.

He closed the toilet lid so he could rest his head more easily. The persistent heaviness of the humidity in the room weighed him down, but he couldn’t leave when his stomach was roiling so furiously.

“Tommy.” Stark was behind him again, and there was a whisper of a touch on his shoulder. He must have drifted if Stark had managed to startle him. “Happy’s on his way up here. You don’t want to see him, right?”

He shook his head almost imperceptibly, too exhausted even to contemplate lifting his cheek from the lid. The ceramic felt cool beneath his heated skin.

“Okay. I’ll close the bathroom door then.” There was a moment’s hesitation, and then, “I brought you some clothes. I thought it might make you more comfortable.”

Alone again. He didn’t feel particularly self-consciousness about his current state of dress, at least not with his admittedly sordid comforter shielding his near nudity, but perhaps clothing would rouse him. Stark had apparently located one of his ratty t-shirts and a pair of only slightly stained sweatpants. The implication that Stark had gone through his paltry collection of clothing wasn’t particularly heartening, but it did appear as though the man was legitimately endeavoring to help him.

He pulled on the shirt torpidly, aiming for laggard movements in an effort to avoid jostling his stomach or his head. The front door opened and closed with some regularity, presumably as Hogan made multiple trips up the stairs with his purchases. Although he detested the intrusion of yet another person into his home, his wards didn’t activate, so there was no intent of harm at the very least.

He managed to push to tremulous feet and stumble to the sink. A curt glance in the mirror showed a vivid flush high on his cheekbones and the sheen of sweat clinging to his skin. He shuddered at the grimy feeling but could do little to alleviate it besides splash his face with water. He lacked the energy even to brush the vomit out of his teeth.

“Hey, Tommy? Can I come in?”

He grunted his answer, which Stark apparently took as assent.

“Hey, so—hello, boxers.” When he looked up, Stark was blinking at the ceiling. “Do you, um…do you need help with your pants, Tommy?”

“Too hot,” he whispered, swaying until he braced his weight on the sink and locked his elbows to stay upright.

Stark’s socked feet padded against the cheap tile of the bathroom floor as he stepped closer. “Hand incoming,” the man warned. When Loki did nothing to protest, those calloused fingers pressed against his forehead once again. “I think your fever’s getting worse,” Stark noted with a frown. “Let’s get you set up on your bed again so I can unpack the stuff that Happy brought.” Stark must have seen the unspoken apprehension in his eyes because he continued. “I didn’t let him into your apartment, but that means that I gotta get everything put away, and, let me tell you, that’s not a part of my skillset.”

Stark’s arm wrapped around his shoulders, and yet again, the contact primarily felt soothing rather than smothering. After Stark helped prop him against the wall on the lumpy mattress, the inventor moved back into the kitchen, where there was a veritable sea of plastic bags. Thus began a gleeful perusal (with commentary) of the prizes Hogan had picked up.

“Look, Tommy! Four pounds of strawberries!”

“You like bananas, right?”

“Hey, Happy bought a couple kinds of bread. Do you want wheat, white, or rye?”

“Which tea do you want to start with? Peppermint sounds kind of festive.”

“Sweet! Chicken noodle soup is the best!”

“You’re not a vegetarian, right? Because there’s a lot of meat here. Hopefully, you have room in your freezer.”

And finally, “Not gonna lie. I think Happy bought out their pharmacy. Sorry, not sorry!”

Loki dozed as he listened to Stark’s rambling. His body was beginning to ache, and he kept transitioning from freezing cold to burning hot in the span of mere minutes. And yet, helpless as he was, he felt relatively safe. Feeling truly secure in his apartment—anywhere really—was such a rare occurrence. It was mystifying that he would experience it with Stark so close.

“Temperature time,” Stark announced. Something was poking against his lips insistently. “Open up, Tommy.”

He allowed a single eye to slit open and found Stark hovering over him. The concern on the man’s face belied his relatively jovial tone. When he saw that Loki was looking at him, Stark pushed a slender device in front of his nose.

“Did you want to take it under your arm instead?”

Loki stared at him for a moment, utterly befuddled. He was certain that this temperature check was something he should understand intrinsically as a human, so he hesitated to ask for clarification. Luckily, Stark appeared entertained by his lack of reaction rather than suspicious.

“Stubborn little shit,” the inventor commented with a wry smile. “Open wide.” And then, “hey, keep that under your tongue!” when Loki fumbled to take the instrument out of his mouth immediately.

Rigidity entered Stark’s stance when the thermometer beeped. “102.3. Not good. Really not good,” the man said, seemingly muttering to himself. Admittedly, Loki couldn’t even convene the energy to inquire about what the numbers connoted in mortal terms. “Hey, you with me, Tommy?”

Apparently, he’d closed his eyes again, but he peeled them apart with another groan.

“Definitely getting worse,” Stark murmured, evidently unaware again that Loki was actually alert enough to hear him. “Let’s get some medicine in you. I’m thinking Tylenol and some throat spray. You alright with that?”

In this state, Loki’s default was apparently to acquiesce to Stark’s whims. He swallowed the proffered pills and grimaced through the onslaught of said throat spray without complaint. He even allowed Stark to lever him until he was prone once they were done.

“You just rest, okay? I’ll take care of everything.”

It seemed as though that reassurance was enough for his treacherous, naïve side to succumb to exhaustion. He was faintly aware of Stark’s footsteps trampling across his apartment, poking into the bathroom, rifling through his closet, organizing his formerly empty pantry. Later, he would lament his devolution into insanity, but, for now, some part of him had deemed Stark safe. At least this farce was earning him a much-needed respite.

His next snatch of awareness after a few minutes—or perhaps hours—brought Stark bearing food.

“I made peppermint tea,” Stark was saying when he managed to focus past his headache. “Apparently it’s supposed to help when you’re sick.” A sudden touch on his ribs made him flinch. “Sorry! Just trying to help you sit up.”

The hands came back and hoisted him until he was propped up once more, head lolling until it rested against the wall.

“I also attempted chicken noodle soup. The can said that I just had to heat it up on your stove…by the way, did you know that your refrigerator was unplugged? Super weird. Anyway, sorry if I fucked up. I don’t cook ever, except, apparently, for you.”

For the umpteenth time, Loki struggled to open his eyes and found Stark hovering, hands twisting together anxiously.

“Hey, there you are! Did you know that your eyes are kind of green? I never noticed before since you were always wearing your glasses.”

Immediately, Loki wanted to slam his eyes shut again. But he supposed there was no real danger. Stark hadn’t heeded his eye color during or after the invasion, so he wouldn’t be likely to suspect anything now.

“You want to try to eat something?” Stark asked.

At his tentative nod, Stark handed Loki the bowl of soup before walking a few steps across the room to give him some semblance of privacy. For a few moments, Loki was too absorbed in quelling the gnawing emptiness in his stomach, but soon enough, he noticed that Stark was examining the front door. His yanks on the chain lock were almost fretful.

“What is it?” Loki croaked, wincing at the raspy quality of his voice.

Stark jumped, a guilty look on his face that Loki had to remember that he wasn’t supposed to be able to decipher without his glasses.

“Nothing! Just thinking about things.”

“What things?” he asked, wary now.

Stark kicked at the discolored carpet in the entryway and studiously avoided eye contact. “I don’t want you to be mad.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “Did you do something?”

“No, but I know that you don’t want me to interfere. I just…” Stark raked his fingers so roughly through his hair that a few strands must have come out. “I hate that you’re living here. I know that it’s none of my business, but this building should be condemned. It’s unsanitary. I’m pretty sure that I saw a roach scuttle across the floor a few minutes ago, and I’ve been hearing this scampering noise. I think you have mice.”

He forced his body to remain relaxed. But, oh, it was humiliating. Loki Silvertongue reduced to living in absolute squalor. If discovered, it would be the talk of the court for decades.

“Lots of people have pests, Stark,” he said, feigning impassivity. “It’s not important.”

Stark’s lips pressed together into a grim line. “What about safety? Happy had to turn on the defense systems in my car so it wouldn’t get stolen while he was bringing up groceries.”

Loki turned back to his soup. “You’re right. It’s none of your business,” he said dismissively.

For a moment, it seemed like Stark would yield to him. The man stalked past the bed and into the kitchen to grab a beer that Loki definitely had not purchased. He gulped down the entire can, crushed the aluminum in his hand, and then, “you know what? I’m not done. You’re my friend. I get to express concern when you’re not safe.”

“I’m safe,” Loki scoffed, feeling his hackles swell.

“I literally watched a drug deal happen across the street when Happy dropped me off this morning.”

“They don’t bother me.”

“Maybe they haven’t yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

Loki’s fingers clenched the spoon tightly enough that it was in danger of bending. “Stark,” he warned.

“I know I’m being pushy,” Stark acknowledged. He crossed the room and dropped to his knees beside the bed, chin propped up on a particularly pronounced lump on the mattress. “But I’m worried about you. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

Loki took another bite of soup to avoid the other man’s agitated gaze. “There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t afford anything else.”

“Why not? You got a bonus when you started at Stark Industries.”

“I apparently signed something when I was hired at Glade Translations,” he sighed, stirring his remaining soup idly. “I won’t get the bonus until I complete the job.”

When he peeked at Stark, a ruddy flush had stolen across his cheeks. “What? But it’ll take months before you’re done.”

“I know. It’s fine—”

“It’s not fine!” Stark burst out. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why would I?”

The inventor took in a great gulp of air and turned away. “You’re right. Sorry. I don’t know why I’m acting like this.”

The spore had to be influencing Stark to overreact. This infuriating mortal illness kept him from verifying that hypotheses, but Loki’s body still behaved as though a definite danger was present: the danger of suspicion and, further, of discovery. Still, Stark desired desperately to protect him. Perhaps he could use that.

“Anthony,” he said, encouraged by the engineer’s shudder at the word. “I appreciate your concern for me, but I am capable of protecting myself.”

Stark picked at the sheet that covered Loki’s legs. “I know you can. Trust me, I do. But why can’t I help? I have all of this money, and nobody lets me help. Everything I do is too much.”

Loki arched his back with a sigh, tiring of the unyielding wall grating against his spine. “What would you propose then?”

The engineer cleared his throat and reached toward him, telegraphing the movement so Loki could easily withdraw. Broad fingers enclosed his hand, delicately yet diligently preventing him from continuing his fixated soup stirring.

“A security system?”

“I don’t want JARVIS in my apartment.”

“Better locks on your door and a security system independent of JARVIS.”

“Locks on my door,” Loki acceded, “but I don’t want a security system.”

“Fine. We can raincheck that.” Stark squeezed his fingers. “Can I make one more request?”

The engineer’s eyes were glittering in apparent relief. It softened Loki. “I’ll allow it.”

“Can I please fix your bathroom sink? It has one fucking temperature setting.”

A chuckle burst out of Loki, although it quickly devolved into a wild bout of coughing that left him gasping. When he finally regained control over himself, he found Stark waiting with a box of actual tissues, apparently another purchase of Super Spender Hogan.

“Disgusting,” Loki groaned after he spat phlegm up into the proffered tissues.

“It’s part of being human,” Stark dismissed with a smile. “So, the sink?”

“Yes, fine,” Loki conceded.

“And maybe—”

“Don’t push it, Stark.”

The other man pouted even as his lips twitched with humor. “I thought I was Anthony now.”

“Anthony, then,” Loki acknowledged, tucking a furtive smile into his collarbone.

Loki dozed on and off for the rest of the day. The medicine that Stark had given him was working on some of the most vexatious symptoms, even as it instilled drowsiness. His body didn’t ache quite as fervently, and his coughing had weakened enough that he no longer feared breaking his ribs. Aside from that, his headache had yet to abate, but he thought that might be due to a major depletion of seiðr as his system attempted to fight off this illness.

Every time he woke, Stark was nearby. First, he was humming to himself in the kitchen, apparently absorbed with tinkering with the wiring of Loki’s stove. His next glimpse of lucidity found Stark working on his door, a veritable army of various locks newly bracketing the entrance. The next time, he couldn’t see Stark, but he heard the sound of tools in the bathroom. Other snatches of clarity found the man peeking through the curtains at the street below, then pacing the limited length of his living room.

This time, he found the inventor propped up against the wall next to the bed, a library book—it looked like 1984—open beside him. He had apparently fallen asleep only a few pages in, leaving the battered novel gaping obscenely.

Loki was no skilled judge of mortal appearance, but he would wager that Stark didn’t look particularly well. The fine lines around his eyes were deeper than usual, even in sleep. There was a gray pallor to his skin. He might even describe the man’s face as haggard looking.

Loki’s stomach twisted with the familiar but unnamable sentiment that always seemed hyperalert in Stark’s presence. He watched the inventor for a moment, considered that he was feeling more concern than resentment or revulsion.

Hesitantly, he levered himself up and reached for his bedraggled comforter and stiff pillow. Carefully, moving as slowly as he could for fear of stirring the man, he eased the pillow behind Stark’s back and draped the comforter over his lap. The angle of the inventor’s neck appeared rather painful, but there was little Loki could do about that without waking him. He suspected that Stark desperately needed the sleep despite the discomfort that prolonged time in this position would bring.

Satisfied, he dropped back onto the bed, wincing when the mattress refused to yield even an iota to his body. His stomach finally settled after a moment, allowing him to drift back into a hazy sleep.

Chapter Text

Stark insisted on staying until Sunday night, and even then, only a slew of increasingly threatening voicemails and text messages from Pepper Potts proved to be enough of an impetus for him to leave. Loki had to admit that despite his preference for solitude, Stark’s presence in his apartment had acted as a sort of balm for the duration of the weekend. He had never been a good patient in the past, had always been prone to escaping the humiliation of impotent recovery by prematurely absconding.

Stark hadn’t allowed that. Somehow, he had managed to anticipate Loki’s every conceivable need and provide it without imparting even a shred of degradation. When Frigga, or Thor, or even the palace healers had attempted the same, Loki had rejected their assistance as soon as he was able. But Stark was different. The man seemed to delight in being allowed to provide something as simple as a tissue or a mug of tea. If Loki hadn’t known that the spore was feeding his actions, he might have found the inventor’s attention endearing.

Therefore, he was careful to remind himself consistently of Stark’s unintentional ulterior motives. Stark would never be so gentle with Loki, would never sully himself with wiping Loki’s brow or supporting Loki to the bathroom. Stark would do more than stand witness if he knew who Thomas really was—he would undoubtedly be complicit in the ensuing agony.

But he couldn’t help but appreciate the product of the Mind Stone’s corruption just a little bit. It had been years since he’d so consistently enjoyed meals, even if Stark was insisting on limiting him to bland soups and plain toast. He had grown so accustomed to enduring cold showers that his body had at first objected to even the tepid water that newly flowed through the pipes. He found his library books carefully arranged in an orderly, alphabetical pile. A new blanket, thick and plush, concealed the uneven planes of his mattress. Somehow, Stark had managed to navigate the limits of Loki’s vulnerability without venturing a toe out of line.

Stark had left late Sunday night with a list of instructions detailing how Loki was to manage his remaining symptoms. He was to take a cocktail of drugs, sleep a copious amount, and under no circumstances come to work in the morning,

So, of course, early Monday morning found him awake, too warm, clogged with an excess of mucus, and gritting his teeth from a savage headache as he prepared for the workday. He had anticipated an arduous bus ride in light of Stark’s directions, but he found Hogan parked in his usual spot outside of the apartment building when he ventured downstairs. A nest of blankets, various bottles of medication, and a veritable army of prepared teas awaited him in the backseat.

“Boss wants you to take your temperature,” Hogan said, nodding to a thermometer in the cup holder.

“Why?” Loki croaked out. His throat was still irritated from all the coughing he had done over the last few days.

Hogan shrugged and sent him a wide smile through the rearview mirror. “Guess the boss just cares about you. I don’t think he means anything bad by it.”

His seiðr could find nothing treacherous in that response, so he tentatively positioned the device under his tongue.

“What’s it say?” Hogan asked, a jovial expression still plastered on his face.

“100.5,” Loki read out, wondering what the number meant in human terms.

“Still a fever then,” Hogan translated. “You get that, JARVIS?”

“Indeed,” the A.I. answered. Loki hadn’t been aware that the A.I. had been programmed into the vehicle, but he doubtless should have suspected it. “Sir would like to remind Mr. Walker that he is not supposed to be working today.”

“And yet, Mr. Hogan was here to pick me up,” Loki pointed out. The top blanket in the stack was so thick that it felt like a fleece. He burrowed underneath it gratefully.

“If I may have your pardon in advance, sir, but Mr. Stark has asked me to convey that he thinks that you are a self-sacrificing idiot and that you should stay in bed today,” JARVIS stated. The A.I. did sound somewhat contrite.

“That’s not his decision,” Loki murmured, pressing his heated cheek against the cool glass of the window with a sigh.

After a moment or two, “Mr. Stark would like to reiterate that you are a self-sacrificing idiot. He added several expletives, but I suspected that you might not appreciate hearing them, sir.”

“Excellent thinking, JARVIS. Thank you.”

He curled his legs beneath him, lamenting all the while that the cramped seating was somehow more comfortable than his own mattress. Despite Stark’s mulish protests, Hogan didn’t turn the vehicle around. The steady purr of the motor and the regular stop and go of the traffic eventually lured Loki into a light doze until they arrived at the private garage at Avengers Tower.

Loki was surprised to find Hogan fussing over him when he stumbled out of the car. Muttering about children masquerading as grown men, the driver tucked the soft blanket that Loki had favored around his shoulders and forced a mug of tea into the fallen god’s grasp. Loki began to grow wary when the man followed him to the elevator, hands hovering over his back. The influx of anxious shuffling as they waited for the elevator to arrive told Loki that a confrontation would ensue. Sighing, he took a sip of the tea—chamomile this time—and braced himself.

“Look, Tommy, I wanted to apologize,” Hogan said. The words came out so rapidly that they streamed together.

“Apologize?” Loki repeated, genuinely baffled when he read clear distress emanating from the man.

Hogan was wringing his hands together now. “I should have been there to drive you home on Friday.”

Loki licked his lips, feeling absolutely out of his depth. “That wasn’t your responsibility. I don’t blame you for anything.” He forced his finest princely smile onto his face. “Besides, I understand that you braved several stores for me over the weekend. If anything, I am in your debt.”

He had always been so good at this game, famed for his silver tongue, for his ability to persuade and beguile. The skill doesn’t fail him here either.

“Oh, that was no big deal! I run errands like that for Mr. Stark all the time,” Hogan said, a hint of a blush dusting his cheeks.

“I am grateful,” Loki said, straining to keep the demure smile on his face. “You have always been very kind to me.”

“It was really no trouble,” Hogan said, beaming now. “Let me know if you need to go home early, okay? I’ll stick around just in case.”

Loki backed into the elevator. “I will be working the full day today, Mr. Hogan, but thank you for the gesture.”

Hogan was still close enough to trigger the sensors that kept the elevator doors open. “You can call me Happy,” the man offered.

Loki allowed Thomas’ nose to wrinkle in disdain. “Is Happy actually your name?”

“Well, no. It’s Harold, but Mr. Stark decided that Happy was better.”

Loki wasn’t quite successful in keeping his eyes from rolling. “Then, if you are amenable, I will call you Harold.”

Hogan laughed as Loki punched the button for the penthouse floor decisively. “You must really hate that he calls you Tommy.”

Loki gritted his teeth even as he ducked Thomas’ head to hide his reaction. “Please call me Thomas.”

“Good deal. See you later, Thomas,” Hogan called as the elevator doors shut firmly between them.

He had been anticipating a reprieve once he reached the penthouse, but, for the first time in his employment, Stark was waiting for him at the elevator. His hands flapped rather comically in several aborted attempts to reach for Loki, even as the man stared fixedly at Loki’s ear. Bashful lack of eye contract and fidgeting appeared to be catching today.

“Hey there, Dawn of the Dead,” Stark said, a hint of nervousness belying the sing-song quality of his voice. “I thought that maybe we’d try something different today.”

“You know that I don’t understand that reference,” Loki grumbled.

“Walking Dead?”

“I really don’t—”

“Shawn of the Dead?”

“Stop, Stark.”

“What? They’re zombie references, and you look dead on your feet. Get it?

“Yes, you are extremely clever. I marvel at your wit,” Loki said. He watched silently as the inventor made to rest his palm against the small of Loki’s back, only to jerk back again before he made contact. “What’s different about today?” he prompted to redirect Stark’s attention.

Stark shot him a timorous smile and began to lead him toward the hallway. “So, you know how I told you to stay in bed today?”

“I recall.”

“And yet, you’re here. Curious, isn’t it?”

“Not particularly…are we not going to the library?”

Stark had stopped in front of the guest bedroom. He was shuffling from foot to foot now, and Loki could practically see his pulse fluttering in his neck. “Don’t be mad, okay?”

“Stark.”

“Fine. Fine.” He opened the door.

Loki had only spent a single night in the guest bedroom, but the change from then to now was profound. Gone were the tasteful yet neutral gray tones of the décor. A new chest of drawers and matching nightstand made of rich mahogany had been pushed against the walls. Judging by the smell, the walls had been freshly painted a mossy green color that contrasted well with the hickory brown of the new comforter on the bed. The drab blackout drapes had been replaced with sheer curtains embroidered with olive green and golden-brown accents.

“Anthony?” he asked, taking a tentative step into the room.

Stark slipped inside after him, but, Loki noticed, the man gave him a wide berth. “Anthony, huh? You can’t be that mad at me if you’re calling me Anthony.”

Loki carefully placed his tea on a coaster that had been conveniently positioned on the nightstand before pressing a faltering hand onto the comforter. It felt just as downy and silken as it looked. “Did you do this for me?”

“Well, it’s not done, obviously, because you weren’t supposed to be here today. It’s missing some furniture, and I haven’t filled the closet yet, but you said that your favorite color was green. I wasn’t sure what hue. We can change it if you want something different.”

The lampshade on the nightstand was patterned to resemble branches and leaves, and the base had been shaped like a tree truck. It was a design straight out of his most secret desires.

“Do you like it?” Stark asked, taking a careful step away from the wall opposite to Loki. “It’s not too much?”

“I do like it,” Loki said. He tracked Stark’s wary progress toward him out of the corner of his eye. “I just don’t understand why you did it.”

“I wanted you to have your own space,” Stark said, taking a final step toward Loki. He snaked tentative fingers into the blanket Hogan had wrapped around Loki’s shoulders and found Loki’s hand. Calloused fingertips traced pronounced knuckles before tentatively intertwining their fingers. “JARVIS doesn’t monitor this room anymore. You’ll have to do everything manually, but you’d prefer that, right?”

“I…well, yes.” Stark’s thumb began to trace soft circles into the back of his hand. “You really removed JARVIS?”

“Sure,” Stark replied easily. “I want you to like being here, Tommy.”

Loki refused to allow himself to be diverted, not even when Stark squeezed his hand gently. “You mean you want me to spend less time at my apartment.”

“The fact that you’re infinitely safer here is just a bonus,” Stark said with cheeky smile. “Do you like it enough to stay here for the day?”

Perhaps Stark’s touch was a bit more distracting than he wanted to admit. And yet, judging by the shiver running down his spine that he failed to contain, his body didn’t find it abhorrent. “What do you mean?” he managed despite his muddled thoughts.

“If you insisted on coming in today, I figured that you might be amenable to working in bed.” With a final desultory compression, the inventor released his hand and moved to the closet. “I had JARVIS buy a rolling desk that we can set up over the bed and a backrest pillow so you can sit up comfortably. I can bring the journals so you can work on the translations in here.”

Loki blinked at him. “I feel well enough to work in the library.”

“Sure, but this is infinitely more comfortable.” Stark started to back toward the door. “I’ll just go grab the journals. You get situated in here, okay?”

The inventor practically fled from the room, leaving Loki surrounded by the physical manifestation of whatever this room had turned into. Stark had to have done this because of guilt. Because of the spore. But Loki couldn’t help but trace the headboard of the mattress, patterned with a massive tree that could perhaps resemble Yggdrasill if he squinted, and indulge for just a minute at the feeling of being wanted so visibly and tenderly.

Apparently, he had lingered too long. “Hey! You’re not in bed yet!” Stark protested from behind him. He had the journal Loki had been working on and the accompanying translations in hand “Is something wrong?”

Loki worried at a patch he had sown into the elbow of his jacket. “No, I…it’s wonderful, Anthony. I am just unaccustomed to receiving such a gift without strings attached.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say no to moving from ‘tolerable’ to ‘preferred’ company,” Stark said with a playful smirk. And then, when Loki turned to look at him, fervently searching for some sign of deceit, “there’s no underlying motive, Tommy. I just want you safe and healthy and happy.”

Loki was famed for his silver tongue, and yet he found himself inexplicably lost for words. Bereft of any response save action, he sunk onto the bed and pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. Stark apparently took his reaction for permission, and perhaps it was considering Loki’s lack of protests when the man began fussing over him. However, after a few minutes of enduring the inventor fluffing up the backrest and minutely adjusting the positioning of the desk, Loki decided to defuse the man’s apparent anxiety.

“It’s perfect, Anthony.” He wet his lips before continuing. “I don’t understand why you did this, but I thank you for it.”

It was only when the man ceased his relentless fretting that Loki realized their propinquity. More accurately, in his efforts to situate the cushion behind Loki, Stark’s face had ended up mere inches from his own.

Stark swallowed hard but didn’t back away. “You’re sure that you don’t need anything else?”

Loki summoned his modest, princely smile to his face. “I am certain.”

At last, Stark seemed to recognize Loki’s proximity. He jerked back as if stung. “I have a project that I’ll be working on for the next few hours, and then Pep’s got me in meetings for the rest of the afternoon.”

“Sounds hectic,” Loki said as genially as he could.

“Not that hectic. If you need anything, just step out into the hallway and give JARVIS a shout. He can get me.”

“I’m certain that I will be fine.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Stark scratched at the back of his neck, causing the hair there to stick up at odd angles. “Did you eat breakfast?”

Loki considered his hazy morning for a moment. “No,” he decided.

“Is it okay if I send in Dum-E with some breakfast then?”

He rolled his eyes, unwillingly a little endeared by the man’s persistence. “Fine.”

“And then he can come back with your lunch?”

“Don’t push it, Stark.”

Stark’s laughter was sudden and bright and booming. “So, it’s Stark now, huh?”

Loki merely grunted and adjusted his posture until his neck was better supported.

Stark’s smile didn’t diminish one bit. If anything, it turned fond. “Well, I’ll be around. Is it okay if I check on you later?”

“I suppose,” Loki acquiesced, less bothered by the prospect than he wanted to acknowledge.

After the man left, Loki refused to expend energy analyzing Stark’s gifts, or his expressions, or his touches. He threw himself into the translations with a vigor that he promptly regretted.

The entry of the day detailed a potential success. The current subject of the author’s obsessive writings had displayed a degree of accelerated healing without dying. It had warranted increasingly gruesome tests. First, there had been the cutting. Simple at first, the merest slashes and shallowest stabs closed within minutes. Invigorated, the writer had moved onto burning. Hot metal and open flame—Loki was no stranger to those tortures either. Ultimately, heat had been what had broken his mind and sent him as an unwilling harbinger of death to Midgard those years ago.

The most wearisome part of this work was that he couldn’t simply skim over this victim’s pain. Instead, he had to consider the most accurate words to describe the prisoner’s every experience. It didn’t matter that the author had written in precisely clinical terms to depict his plans for live vivisection, for organ removal, for amputation. The act of translation sent Loki into spiral after spiral as he recalled similar threats, many of which had been carried out with the most creatively grotesque methods.

He was doing his best to stay present with the grounding techniques he had researched at the library. Over and over again, he counted five things he could see, four he could feel, three he could hear, two he could smell, and one he could taste. He pinched the back of his hand until it was covered in vivid welts to stay present. And still he could feel phantom fingers on his body, pushing in until he yielded. As though he were experiencing it afresh, he recalled the indescribable agony of his mind tore asunder and made new at his master’s pleasure.

So focused was he that he didn’t notice the passage of time until he realized that Stark was attempting to catch his attention.

“Tommy? Hey, Tommy?” And then, more agitated, “Tommy, are you alright?”

When he recognized Stark’s presence, he couldn’t help the initial wash of abject fear. For an instant, his body more strongly recalled the pain it had associated with Stark during their first meetings. He remembered the intense hope he’d felt on the Quinjet in Germany as he realized that one of his S.H.I.E.L.D. captors had been Tony Stark himself, the man Barton had considered a loose cannon and unworthy of recruitment due to his absurd intelligence and misguided moral compass. Of all the mortals on Midgard, he had felt certain that Stark would be clever enough to recognize the absolute folly of Loki’s plan. Surely, someone would hear his screams behind the outwardly demented smile he had worn.

No one had.

“What’s wrong?” Stark was asking. He sat close enough that Loki could smell the motor oil that clung to his skin like semi-permanent cologne.

“Nothing,” Loki said dismissively, focusing on the vibrant brown of the comforter upon which he sat. “Is the workday over already?”

“Hey, no. Stop that.” Stark caught his hands. Loki was ashamed to find that they were trembling.

“Is this okay?” Stark verified, nodding down at their enjoined limbs. At Loki’s hesitant nod, Stark clutched his hands tighter and continued. “Something happened. Please tell me.”

“It’s nothing,” Loki tried again, but the protest was weak at best.

“It’s not.” Stark began to trace gentle circles on the backs of his hands, soothing the enflamed skin.

“I just don’t feel well.”

“I don’t doubt that.” A firm squeeze kept him present. “I also know that you’re not telling the whole truth.”

He scrunched his eyes shut when a fierce stab of self-loathing had him gritting his teeth resentfully. “The journal,” he said reluctantly. “It’s just…it’s horrific.”

“My dad’s journal?” Stark asked, the astonishment in his voice easy to discern.

“That is not your father’s journal,” Loki said, surprised by the level of vehemence he felt. “A monster wrote that thing, but it wasn’t your father.”

The resulting silence following his declaration was long enough for Loki to start to doubt. Perhaps he shouldn’t have defended a man that Stark so obviously reviled. Maybe Stark would dismiss his words as the trite horror of a naïve civilian.

“Can I see?” Stark asked at last.

“It’s what you’re paying me for, isn’t it?”

Stark didn’t appear to take offense to his irreverence, and instead released one of his hands to grasp the notebook he was using to record his translations. Loki noticed that the man was careful to keep one of his hands tethered; worse, Loki didn’t exactly mind. There were a few minutes of silence as Stark flipped through the pages, during which Loki did his best to stem the pusillanimous quivering of his limbs.

“Shit, Tommy,” Stark whispered. He skipped to the end and parsed through the last few paragraphs that Loki had translated, lips pressed into a white line. “Shit,” he said again, more emphatically than before. “This is fucking brutal. Holy shit.”

“I think that they were trying to replicate the Captain America serum,” Loki offered. He had to be careful. Most of his knowledge of Rogers’ transformation came from Barton. He wasn’t certain how much a civilian should know.

“Yeah. I think you’re right,” Stark said breathlessly. “A lot of the specifics are classified. I’ll have to ask JARVIS to do some digging.” He closed the notebook and snatched Loki’s free hand again after a moment of deliberation. “You don’t have to keep doing this job if it’s too much, you know? I can find something else for you to do.”

There it was—an out. Perhaps he should take it. Curiosity could only motivate him to go so far, and the memories these passages unearthed surely weren’t worth his position.

Stark’s thumb was trailing over his knuckles, stopping occasionally to press softly into the skin. When he looked up, he found Stark’s gaze focused unerringly on the task, giving him space while also being enough of a presence in the room to keep him focused.

Sighing, he scrunched his eyes shut and considered past the initial temptation. Despite Stark’s assurances, abdicating his responsibilities would cause something to change. The inventor couldn’t possibly find another justifiable reason for him to shirk his work at Glade Translations, and his access to the man would assuredly alter in some way. Quitting would complicate his responsibility to continue his work on the spore.

But, beyond that, he wanted to stay. He wanted more ostentatiously extravagant meals and thoughtful yet overly lavish gestures. He didn’t want to give up Stark. At least not yet.

“No, I should continue,” Loki said, finally returning Stark’s grip on his hands, albeit weakly. “This work is important. These men don’t deserve to be forgotten. Someone should know what happened to them.”

“I guess that’s true,” Stark conceded. “But will you tell me if it gets to be too much? Shit, I’m going to have nightmares, and I’m not the one sitting here trying to find the most accurate wording to describe actual torture.”

“Yes, of course,” Loki said with a dismissive approximation of a smile. He pulled slightly at their clasped hands, seeking to extract himself from the other man’s clutches before he could continue this deplorable show of weakness. “Is it five o’clock? I need to meet Harold—”

“Tommy,” Stark interrupted. Loki didn’t know how to feel when those fingers transferred to his chin, encouraging him to meet the inventor’s gaze. “You just lied to me.”

Loki felt Thomas’ skin blanch. “I didn’t,” he tried to insist.

Stark’s eyes were crinkling at the corners with a somber smile. “Yes, you did. Or at least, you didn’t tell me the whole truth. You do that a lot.”

Loki tensed, prepared to…attempt to use his famed silver tongue and lie further? Flee on foot? Teleport away?

“It’s okay.” Stark’s fingers were still moving along his jaw, and the touch was delicate rather than harsh. “A lot of shitty stuff has happened to you. I’m not going to force you to talk about anything, but I’m not a mind reader. You have to tell me if you need a break.” He nodded at the journal without looking away from Loki’s face. “This shit is heavy, but it’s a burden that we share, okay?”

Loki gripped Stark’s wrists, undecided on whether he welcomed this type of contact. “People can’t usually tell when I’m lying,” Loki said hesitantly.

“Yeah? Well, I’d share your tell, but then you’d make doubly sure to hide it, so…yeah, gonna keep that to myself.” Stark grinned at him slyly. “Besides, it was only a little fib. No harm done.”

Loki stared at him in utter consternation.

“So, you’ll talk to me, right? Fair warning, I’ll keep pestering you until you say yes. I’m really good at that.”

“You are very strange,” Loki said evenly.

“Yeah. I get that a lot.” A pause, and then, “so, you’ll tell me?”

“Oh, very well,” Loki sighed. “I will speak with you should I become overwhelmed.”

The inventor nodded in acceptance. For a moment, there was quiet. It was so silent that Loki could nearly hear the whisper of Stark’s skin on his own.

“Hey, is this okay?” Stark murmured, punctuating his question with another gentle swipe of his thumbs along Loki’s cheekbones.

“I…think so,” Loki answered tentatively. His body had not reacted with the panic that he had expected, and the touch wasn’t unpleasant. Discomfort came primarily from the novelty of the sensation. Nobody had touched him like this before.

Stark smiled his gummy smile at Loki’s response but dropped his hands anyway. After another moment of too close scrutiny of Loki’s expression, the man withdrew entirely and stood, groaning at the audible creaking of his knees. “So, I was thinking that you might want to help me with a project?” Stark offered as a clear diversion. “We can have dinner and you can take your next dose of drugs while we work on it?”

More time with Stark? They had seen plenty of each other for the last few days, and yet, Loki had to admit that the thought of spending the evening together wasn’t entirely abhorrent. If anything, the distraction would be a welcome indulgence. Plus, his efforts today had been absolutely exhausting. He could justify a bit of a delay before committing to at least an hour of travel time.

“I don’t know, Anthony,” he settled for hedging out loud.

“Anthony and not Stark? Sounds like a yes to me!”

Stark led him to the couch in the main part of the penthouse. In addition, to a collection of various soups covering the glass table in front of the couch, Loki spied multiple stacks of cardboard boxes on the floor.

“So, I bought literally every type of soup that Panera carries,” Stark explained. “If you don’t like anything, I’m pretty sure that I employ several chefs in this building.”

“It’s fine, Anthony. Perfect. Stop worrying,” Loki assured him as he sunk onto the couch. Stark

was right about the medication. He was beginning to feel too warm again.

Stark dished out what was apparently his favorite soup—broccoli cheddar— for them both before taking a seat on the floor rather than the couch. Loki couldn’t help but notice that the man’s side was pressed against Loki’s leg in this position.

“Alright, so let’s talk about our project,” Stark said after he had ensured that Loki had swallowed a handful of pills. “You need to choose a bookcase.”

“A bookcase,” Loki repeated flatly.

“Yeah! For your room.” Stark grabbed his StarkPad from the cushion next to Loki and started pulling up various bookcase designs. “Now, I figured that you were probably a traditional sort of guy. The main difference is the size. Do you want a four-shelf or five-shelf bookcase?”

“A four or five…Stark, I don’t own books.”

“No, no, no. Don’t Stark me!” Stark tugged on his pantleg with playful fretfulness. “We’re just trying to fill up your room. Don’t focus on semantics.”

Loki huffed. “I suppose five shelves has a sort of flair to it.”

“Excellent! After we finish eating, you can help me put it together.”

Loki quickly found after the first hour of building said bookcase that furniture assembly was an exciting adventure in anxiety-inducing frustration.

“Why are there so many fucking screws?” Stark complained halfway through organizing all of the pieces into their own piles.

“As I understand it,” Loki said, looking up from his perusal of the reviews on Stark’s StarkPad, “this is a common Ikea gripe.”

“Well, yeah, but I’m a fucking engineer. I literally own every conceivable tool on the planet, and I’m one-hundred percent sure that there is nothing that fits into this screw.”

And then later, “Tommy, if you tell me that tab A goes into slot B one more fucking time, I will steal your blanket and throw it out the window.”

“That’s literally what the directions say. The screw that looks like a bolt, aka screw A, goes into the wooden panel labeled B. You’re trying to substitute in D, and it’s going to come out crooked.”

“I’m a motherfucking engineer. I know what I’m doing.”

Then after two hours, “Holy shit. It’s fucking crooked.”

“I am certain that this process has led to several divorces, if not outright murders,” Loki said from his spot flat on his back where he had succumbed to using the crumpled directions as a sort of visor to block the overhead light from worsening his headache.

Finally, after nearly four hours had passed, “we did it!” Stark crowed. “Tommy, look what we created together!”

“I want to burn it with all of the fire,” Loki said as he contemplated doing just that. He was the god of fire. He could definitely manage enough of a flame to burn it down to cinders and then the smallest of ashes.   

“Aww, don’t be grumpy. Look at it! It’s freaking awesome, and we made it together.”

“It does look like the picture,” Loki allowed as he decisively tore the directions into tiny pieces.

Stark laughed brightly and threw himself onto the couch, apparently heedless of resting almost his full body weight on Loki’s outstretched legs. Loki kicked him savagely in the ribs in retaliation.

A squirming Stark adjusted his position obligingly until Loki’s socked feet rested upon his lap. “Hey, so I have one—well, I guess two—more surprises.”

“Haven’t there been enough today?” Loki asked, teetering on the edge of discomfort. “This friendship is starting to feel somewhat skewed.”

“But this is just fixing what I broke.” Stark reached under the couch and pulled out two lumpy packages. The wrapping paper appeared festive, reminiscent of what the morals called Christmas. Absurdly large bows covered actual wads of tape holding the uneven corners closed. “Open the big one first,” Stark requested.

Loki acquiesced, albeit after enduring commentary about how he was apparently opening the present wrong. (“You would be one of those assholes who pick at the tape rather than tearing the wrapping paper. C’mon, Tommy, rip it up!”) He found a gleaming green StarkPhone within the various layers of paper.

“Because yours broke,” Stark offered when he saw Loki’s confusion. “The water damage was my fault, and no one should be without a phone.”

“The one that I had was perfectly adequate,” Loki protested, hesitant to even touch something that was undoubtedly worth more money than he made with several month’s salary.

“I know! I know, it was. But this is what I had lying around the workshop. I customized it for you.” Stark scooted closer so he could pluck the phone out of Loki’s lap. “See? I disabled all the frilly things so you don’t have to worry about Big Brother—aka JARVIS—listening in or tracking your location. And I downloaded the StarkBooks app and gave you my permissions so you can read anything you want. And this is YouTube. Have you ever used YouTube? Oh my God, Tommy, let me show you YouTube.”

Loki had to admit that the phone could do a ridiculous number of convenient things, and it was certainly faster than the sluggish Internet connection at the library. He suspected that Stark was leaving out certain details, such as the presumably monthly cost that the man insisted was free. However, he’d realized that Stark wanted desperately to provide, and as long as his aim wasn’t to draw attention to Loki’s shortcomings, he was willing to oblige within reason. 

Once he’d convinced Loki of the StarkPhone’s usefulness, Stark urged him to open the second gift. Weak though he remained in light of his illness, the spore’s surge of excitement drew the attention of his seiðr unerringly.

“What is it?” he asked suspiciously as he picked at the corner.

Stark merely shook his head, his entire body practically vibrating with anticipation. Loki submitted to shredding through the wrapping paper.

It was an MP3 player.

And it wasn’t just any MP3 player. It was his MP3 player.

He recognized the scratches on the back from where he’d dropped it on the pavement following a hurried dash after the bus one morning several months ago. Breathless, he turned it on to find his music restored—Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Bach, Chopin, they were all back.

He had been wronged so many times and hadn’t shed a single tear since the first time that the All-father had struck him. And yet, his eyes were welling with moisture now. He dragged his arm across his face brusquely, praying ardently that Stark hadn’t seen.

“Do you like it?” Stark asked. The man was very carefully holding his body away from Loki. He could practically hear Stark’s heart pounding in his chest.

“Anthony,” he whispered, abruptly overcome with an unnamable urge. “You fixed it.”

His favorite gummy smile lit up Stark’s face. “Sure did. I wish I could take all of the credit and say it was hard, but it was easy. I’m sort of a genius, you know?”

“You are,” Loki agreed, gratified when the nerves left Stark’s countenance in favorite of warm pride. Timidly, he reached forward and wrapped Stark’s hand in both of his own. “Thank you, Anthony.”

Stark’s smile inexplicably dimmed. “Well, it was sort of my fault in the first place—”

“It wasn’t,” Loki interrupted, wanting his gummy smile back. “There was a string of unfortunate events, but my illness is not your fault. I hadn’t been feeling well for days. The weather perhaps exacerbated my symptoms, but my sickness was ultimately unavoidable.”

“I guess,” Stark allowed, but he was still frowning.

Loki extracted his hands and pushed Stark hard enough that the man flopped down onto the opposite armrest. “Hey!” Stark protested.

“You’re pissing me off with all this moping. Didn’t you say that you just wanted me happy this morning?”

Stark propped himself up on his elbows, lips quirking with reluctant humor. “That is what I want.”

“Good.” Loki pointedly ignored Stark sitting up and edging closer to him. “Now, let me educate you on real music.”

Stark’s eyes were practically glimmering now. “You mean old people music, right?”

“Hush, heathen,” Loki admonished as he extracted a new pair of earbuds from the bottom of the wrapping paper—more evidence of Stark’s unerring thoughtfulness—and slipped one of the speakers into the man’s ear.

There were a few moments of reverent stillness as they both listened to the orchestration.

Then, “holy shit, is that a harp? Are you actually having me listen to a harp?”

“I will choke you with this cord,” Loki threatened. Stark, idiot that he was, only grinned. “Now, be quiet. I’m listening.”

Stark humored him for the rest of the night until they both fell asleep, pressed close together despite the wealth of space on the couch. And when Loki awoke the next morning, limbs hopelessly entangled, Stark’s head pillowed on his shoulder, he found that he didn’t regret anything. Not even a single moment.

Chapter Text

It seemed like no time had passed at all, and yet, one morning, Loki realized that he had been employed by Stark—no, that he had been friends with Stark—for almost two months. Change had been gradual yet marked since his illness.

First, with Loki’s permission, Stark had sicced Potts on Glade for violating the terms of their contract. Loki had agonized over the confrontation at first, worried that Glade would elect to terminate Loki from his position, but Stark’s assurances that he would hire him outright and sue the man into oblivion had placated him. It had ended with Loki finally receiving his stipulatory ten-thousand-dollar advance. Despite Stark’s pleas that he devote the funds to moving to another location, he’d secreted the bulk of the money away in his pocket dimension. It was a relief to know that if things went south, he wouldn’t have to start from scratch. Plus, he could admit that Potts’ description of Glade—sputtering and backpedaling his way into a groveling hole until the man had nearly been at the point of tears—had engendered in Loki a hearty sense of exultation that had lasted for days.

Aside from that development, his time spent with Stark had accelerated steadily. Whenever Stark hadn’t been enlisted on an Avengers mission, trapped in endless corporate meetings, or lost to the world in his workshop constructing his latest project, they ate dinner together. Most Fridays found Loki spending the night, sometimes submitting to an evening of movie education, other times becoming—in Stark’s words—frighteningly proficient at murdering the inventor’s in-game avatars in cold blood.

Loki’s favorite nights were when Stark needed to complete his more mundane responsibilities—answering emails or creating instructions for duplication of his technology for mass production. On those nights, they would sit side-by-side on the couch, Loki engrossed in one of the books that were sneakily finding a home in his bookcase, and Stark clacking away on his StarkPad or swiping at holograms in the air. Stark, as a fairly tactile person, was prone to reaching out when they had remained still for too long. Sometimes, that meant an absentminded foot rub or hand massage. Once, Stark’s fingers had snuck their way into Thomas’ hair, and Loki, admittedly, hadn’t found the resulting scratches across his scalp particularly repulsive.

And yet, aside from his propensity to invade Loki’s personal space while distracted, Stark hadn’t attempted to progress their bond beyond friendship. Loki could privately admit that he was enjoying Stark’s undivided attention, that he liked Stark’s unabashed attempts to earn his affection, but it was difficult to fathom desiring anything further when he was still adjusting to the current expansion of their contact.

Part of what held him back was the fact that he had managed to make scant progress with the spore. Granted, his attempts at loosening its hold were sporadic and perfunctory at best since the idea of returning to his tedious existence pre-Stark wasn’t a salubrious prospect. Still, every time he did endeavor to unwind the spore’s grip, he found that the existing bonds had tightened, and more roots had crystallized and become entrenched. He quite simply did not have enough seiðr to make a substantial enough dent.

And so, Loki tried to convince himself that his dereliction was inconsequential. Stark’s more fanatical early attempts to forcibly pervade his life had abated. The inventor appeared content with their bordering on more than platonic friendship. Would it be so wrong to covet the one pleasant aspect of his life?

Perhaps Loki had been lulled into a false sense of complacency because he had to admit that he hadn’t foreseen the latest development in his relationship—friendship, they were not in a relationship—with Stark.

It was Friday night, and Loki was planning to spend the night at the Tower. Stark had agreed to devote their evening to listening to Loki’s “decrepit, old people music,” although he had insisted that he be permitted to insert some orchestration tracks of his own into their playlist. It had resulted in a night listening to a mixture of traditionally classical music and the epic sounds of Star Wars and Skyrim. Loki had to admit—after a great deal of nagging from Stark—that his selections weren’t entirely lamentable. Since this admission, Stark had been working on convincing him to try The Elder Scrolls, and Loki had to concede that the Nordic-inspired gameplay that the man had brought up in surround sound was fairly persuasive.

Several hours later, soon after agreeing to undertake a playthrough during their next gaming session, Loki found his attention drawn to the spore. It had begun to crackle and writhe within Stark’s chest. Outwardly, the man had even begun to mirror its inner turmoil with his fidgeting hands and the spreading sheen of sweat on his brow.

“It’s my birthday next Thursday,” Stark blurted.

Loki sat up slowly. He had been lying prone on his back with his legs in Stark’s lap for the duration of the man’s gaming monologue. “Alright,” he offered noncommittally.

Stark’s hands dropped to Loki’s shins. “I’m going to be on a mission next week, but I’ll be back by that Saturday.”

“Alright,” Loki said again. His body progressively tensed as he waited.

An almost undetectable tremor had entered Stark’s voice when he spoke again. “There’s going to be a party on Saturday night. It would mean a lot to me if you came.”

“A party,” he echoed dully.

Stark’s grip tightened around Loki’s legs. “It’s not the kind of party that you’re thinking! It’ll only be my closest friends. We’ll probably spend the whole night drinking. We might end up playing some board games or watching a movie or something.” Then fainter but more fervently, “It’ll be quiet. It’s a Tommy type of party.”

Loki had barely listened beyond the first part of his statement. “Your closest friends are going to be there,” he repeated flatly.

“Yeah,” Stark said, voice subdued with caution.

“And who counts amongst that number?”

“Well, you, obviously,” Stark said evasively.

“Stark,” he warned.

“Pep and Happy. Rhodey if he can get the night off.” Stark swallowed hard and turned his gaze to the ceiling. “And then my work friends.”

“Your work friends.”

“Uh-huh.”

Stark must have been able to feel the tension thrumming through Loki’s body. The fallen god was doing a shoddy job of hiding it. “By work friends do you mean the Avengers?”

Stark’s jaw clenched. He couldn’t make eye contact with Loki. “Maybe?”

“Stark. Are you actually trying to convince me to attend a party with the Avengers?”

“Hey!” Stark protested, actually sounding somewhat disconcerted. “I’m an Avenger. Why does that have to be a bad thing?”

“That’s different,” Loki said. He flopped down onto his back and threw an arm over his eyes. “I like you.”

“Aww. Shucks, Tommy, you say the gosh darn sweetest things.”

“Shut up, Stark.”

And Stark did for a minute, during which he ran his hands up and down Loki’s calves.

“You don’t like the Avengers,” Stark noted at last, making Loki stiffen anew. “How come?”

Sometimes, Stark was too sharp, but Loki had been careless. “I…I don’t do well with people. Being in the same room with professionally trained killers, a green rage monster, a geriatric body builder, and a…a literal god doesn’t sound like a good time to me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re a little prickly, sure, but that’s part of your charm.” His fingers started kneading Loki’s skin through the thin material of his borrowed pajamas. “I think you’ll get along well with them, especially Bruce. Maybe not so much Thor, but he’s been off planet for the last few weeks. There was some sort of attack back home or something.”

For just a moment, Loki desired desperately to inquire about this incursion. He had been Asgard’s chief strategist for centuries, and his absence would have left the realm decidedly vulnerable to Asgard’s enemies. But expressing any amount of interest when he had already exhibited an inexplicable aversion toward the Avengers would be too suspicious.

“I don’t know, Anthony,” Loki said instead.

Stark seemed to recognize that badgering him would backfire because he simply gave Loki’s calves a firm squeeze. “Just think about it. No need to make a decision now.”

And Loki did think about it. Obsessively. For the rest of the night. And then for the entire next week. He vacillated ceaselessly. He knew that Stark would be disappointed if he didn’t attend, and the man had done so much for him. The thought of distressing Stark was surprisingly shattering.

And yet, the notion of facing the Avengers, even if they didn’t recognize him as Loki, was paralyzing. Confined in the same room with the beast that had smashed his body into pieces? Sharing drinks with the woman who believed that she had so cleverly played him? Feigning pleasantries with the man he had been forced to enslave and turn against his friends? How could he possibly function adequately enough to sustain Thomas’ façade in those circumstances?

To distract himself, he brainstormed prospective gifts for Stark. Regardless of whether he attended the party, he could give Stark a present the next time he saw him. However, he had quickly encountered a familiar conundrum. Much like when Loki had been considered royalty, Stark could buy any material item on a whim. For Loki, the fact that he had formerly wanted for nothing had often compelled gifts befitting his status, vain but ultimately dispensable. He wanted to give Stark something meaningful, and that was inordinately challenging without using his magic or rousing suspicion. He settled with some trepidation on carving Stark something personal.

Woodcarving was a skill that he had honed as a child and abandoned after a ruinous incident with Thor and his friends. Before their interference, woodworking had met the stipulation that his chosen forms of recreation involve the use of a blade. After the intervention of Sif and the Warriors Three, he had applied his skills only to carve meticulous runes in the hilts of his daggers, and so his abilities had eroded tremendously. But perhaps his deteriorated prowess would make his efforts more believable. Humans didn’t have centuries to hone such crafts.

Over the course of the week, Stark had communicated with him during his mission using several visual messages, which he called “memes.” Historically, Loki had refused to answer text messages, but he had acquiesced to sending a short message on the man’s actual birthday on Thursday. The wealth of exclamation points that he had obtained in reply told him that the message had been well-received.

However, as Saturday night approached, he had received three increasingly insistent texts from Harold inquiring about his whereabouts and offering to drive him to the party. On the other hand, Stark had been reticent since early Saturday morning save for an abbreviated message informing Loki that he had arrived home safely. Loki knew that Stark was trying to give him space, and, damn him, that choice was pushing Loki into actually disputing his rational disinclination for attending the party.

The party started at seven o’clock, and seven o’clock found Loki still wavering at home despite having dressed suitably for the occasion. He had splurged on a mint green button-down shirt that brought out the flecks of emerald in his eyes, and he had purchased and donned his first pair of jeans. He just couldn’t muster enough fortitude to sentence himself to an evening feigning civility with his unwitting enemies.

Until Harold sent him the fourth text of the day.

It was a photo of Stark, and the man looked positively forlorn at his own party. Someone, Barton perhaps, had slung their arm over Stark’s shoulders, but nothing could hide the haggard expression on the man’s face or his apparent absorption with the alcohol in his hand.

Loki cursed in several dead languages even as he scrambled for his keys. He snatched his gift—painstakingly wrapped in emerald green wrapping paper straight from the clearance bin—on his way out. Taxis refused to serve his neighborhood, so he to jog several blocks before he managed to flag one down. Unfortunately, he was unlucky with the cab driver. After several near-death experiences via taxi as a pedestrian, he had been convinced that all cab drivers shared an unwritten code of recklessness. His current driver had evidently not received such a directive and insisted on obeying all of the rules of the road to the letter. The thirty-minute drive turned into nearly an hour-long exercise in restraint. He arrived at the Tower just after eight o’clock.

“Good evening, Mr. Walker,” JARVIS intoned before the elevator doors had even begun to close. “Sir will be ecstatic when he sees that you have arrived. Shall we keep it a surprise?” Was that a hint of relief hidden amongst the A.I.’s typical monotone?

“Whatever you think is best, JARVIS,” Loki said. “I apologize for my tardiness.”

“Sir’s happiness is one of my prime directives,” JARVIS responded, “and Sir appears to enjoy your company above most others. I trust that you will work to relieve his discontent.”

“I will endeavor to do my best,” Loki found himself assuring the A.I.

“Very well. Then do remind him that he promised to limit his drinking tonight. A repeat of his 2011 birthday would be undesirable.”

The elevator released him into an atmosphere that he instantly loathed. Firstly, it was loud. One of Stark’s favorite songs, Highway to Hell, was playing at maximum volume. Secondly, from the instant he stepped off of the elevator, he knew that he would be treated as the curiosity of the night. Despite the extreme volume of the music, all inane chatter ceased in favor of blatant staring in his direction. Thirdly, Stark was bordering on drunk, and Loki had learned long ago that inebriation was a surefire recipe for disaster.

Stark had been standing in the corner with Potts and an unfamiliar man that Loki assumed to be Colonel Rhodes. His shoulders were obviously slumped, and he had been guzzling a bottle of some type of whisky when he noticed Loki walk in. The instant change in his expression—the sudden blossoming to full brightness, the sparkling eyes, and the gummy smile that was meant only for Thomas—it almost made the unpalatable attention worth it.

“Tommy! Tommy, you’re here!” Stark yelled from across the room. The inventor thrust his drink into Colonel Rhodes’ chest, heedlessly spilling half of it onto the man’s shirt, before rushing the elevator. Usually, Stark eased Loki into physical contact, but today, he nearly collided with the fallen god. The arms that wrapped around Loki’s middle were so tight that his ribs creaked with strain.

“Happy birthday, Anthony,” Loki murmured, hiding a sincere smile in the engineer’s hair as he tentatively returned the embrace.   

Stark threw back his head with an answering boisterous laugh. “I can’t believe you actually came.”

“I’m sorry that I’m late,” Loki offered.

“That’s okay. You’re here now.” Stark’s nose pressed into his throat. “I’m pretty sure everyone was starting to think that I made you up.”

Loki couldn’t help but stiffen. “You told them about me?”

“Well, duh. You’re my…Tommy.” The smell of alcohol was sour on Stark's breath. “Barton had a bet going that you weren’t real.”

“Ah,” Loki said dispassionately. He wasn’t supposed to know what Barton looked like, let alone that the man was Hawkeye. The identities of the spies weren’t public knowledge.

Interestingly enough, Stark seemed to pick up on his uncertainty, even though it was half-feigned. “Barton’s the asshole crouched on top of the table for absolutely no discernible reason. He’s Hawkeye, by the way. And he’s an idiot.”

Tony,” Potts hissed.

Stark continued on heedlessly. “The not-Pepper redhead is Romanoff, and she’s really Black Widow. She’s probably either giving me a super scary glare right now or emotionlessly promising me death with her eyes.”

Loki peeked over Stark’s head and caught a glimpse of a pale, flat gaze. “Empty stare,” he informed the inventor.

“Thought so!” Stark craned his neck so that he could look over his shoulder without releasing his hold on Loki. “It’s my birthday, and Tommy already knew that the Avengers were going to be here,” he said, raising his voice so it would carry. “Relax.”

Loki could vaguely hear Potts approach the spies and start explaining that Thomas was bound by a non-disclosure agreement. Stark gave absolutely no shits and couched his head on Loki’s shoulder.

“So, would you be comfortable meeting one of the actual cool people here?”

No, he would absolutely not be comfortable with that. “If that’s what you wish.”

“I already got my wish.” For a fleeting moment, Loki thought that he felt the press of soft lips against his collarbone. “C’mon, let me introduce you to Bruce.”

Stark’s clasped his hand in a surprisingly gentle grip and tugged him forward before he could even begin to formulate a protest. He knew that Stark was trying to ease Loki into meeting his friends by starting with the most innocuous, but it was ludicrous for him to view the Beast as anything but the most potent threat in the room. He would have preferred to start with anyone else, even self-righteous Captain Rogers.

The Beast’s unassuming alter-ego had sequestered himself against the wall beside the windows. He straightened when he saw a beaming Stark leading a contrastingly reluctant Thomas in his direction. He seemed…twitchy. Even his smile was more grimace than grin.

“Tommy, this is Bruce.” Loki couldn’t help but notice that Stark had yet to relinquish his hand. “We’re science bros. He’s got his own lab in the Tower, but sometimes I can bribe him to hang out with me in my workshop. He’s got a weakness for blueberries.”

Banner aimed a jerky nod in his direction, eyes lingering on their intertwined fingers. “It’s nice to meet you, Tommy.”

Stark was still shining with sincere elation, and he appeared oblivious to the implication of holding Loki’s hand. Loki didn’t want to be the one to blemish his mood, so he attempted to make conversation and ignore the very public message that Stark was sending.

“Actually, I prefer Thomas,” Loki corrected, earning a playful scowl from Stark and a hesitant lip twitch from the scientist.

“Ah, he’s started in on the nicknames,” Banner said knowingly.

“No, I haven’t,” Stark protested. “Tommy is his name. No one actually wants to be called Thomas. It’s like being named Alexander and not going by Alex. Who does that?”

Loki forced himself to relax enough to roll his eyes. “I imagine that some people prefer the respectability of their full names,” Loki said dryly.

Stark’s smile turned fond. “I think it’s a Tommy thing.”

Banner had returned to sipping at his drink. “Tommy is better than ‘Brucey Bear,’” he offered.

Stark rounded on him. “How can you say that? You love ‘Brucey Bear.’”

Banner grimaced, making Stark sputter indignantly.

Stark’s reactions were the slightest bit dramatized, noticeable only because Loki had spent so much time with the man. Loki knew that Stark was creating a sort of spectacle in an effort to bridge the gap between the fallen god and his friend. Just this once, for Stark’s birthday, Loki would make an effort to indulge him.

“It’s not very creative,” Loki interjected cautiously.

Stark, of course, roused to the challenge. “Oh? You think you can do better, Tommy?”

Loki’s knowledge of popular Midgardian culture was limited at best, but he did have some ideas. He just wasn’t keen on potentially perturbing the Beast. And yet, Banner was gazing at him amiably enough.

“Shrek?” he offered tentatively, remembering the movie that Stark had snickered through a few weeks ago. Apparently, Loki hadn’t been familiar enough with fairy tales to appreciate it properly.

Stark barked out an immediate laugh, but it was Banner’s reaction that held Loki’s attention. The scientist’s face was like stone. Loki braced himself as best he could with Stark’s grip on his hand anchoring him to this accursed corner of the room.

Then, Banner raised his glass to his lips and took a careful sip. “I always thought that I was more of a Beast Boy myself.”

Loki cocked an eyebrow, simulating skepticism even though he definitely didn’t understand that reference. “Yoda might be more apt.”

“Slimer.”

“Greedo.”

“The Mask.”

Stark’s sudden chortling refocused Loki’s attention immediately. He worried for a second that he had pushed his luck too far, but Stark appeared more delighted than anything else.

“Cool it, Mike Wazowski,” Stark said, still sniggering. “This one’s a movie virgin. You’re pretty much exhausting his pop culture reserves here.” His thumb began to trace Loki’s knuckles.

“I think we did better than ‘Brucey Bear,’” Banner murmured. His smile as he looked between them had moved beyond mere politeness and into sincere approval. Loki couldn’t help but feel a little thrill of victory.

“Hey! I told you that ‘Brucey Bear’ is a term of endearment!”

Stark was still speaking, but Loki found his attention promptly diverted by movement behind them. Loki had been tracking her surreptitiously, so, of course, he noticed when the Widow, who had been watching him more overtly in turn, separated from Barton to approach them. He managed to hide the majority of the tension that began to stiffen his spine, but Stark, plastered to Loki’s side, seemed to notice his perturbation nearly instantly.  

Acting seemingly instinctively, the inventor maneuvered them until he stood between Loki and the Widow, leaving the fallen god mere inches away from Banner. Loki immediately focused on controlling the paralyzing panic that sought to bleed into his face, although he could do nothing about the thrumming strain in his limbs. His body remembered how it had broken, even if, at the time, he had hidden the agony behind several layers of glamor. He clutched at Stark’s hand with both of his own, desperate for an anchor.

“You’re hogging the new guy, Stark,” the Widow said. Her gaze washed over them leisurely, surely discerning Loki’s white-knuckled grasp. “The rest of us want to meet him.”

Stark yanked Loki flush against his back, although the shielding effect was somewhat spoiled by Loki’s height. The spore roiled within Stark’s chest, presumably reacting to Loki’s concealed dread. He had to stop this. She would see.

“Peace, Anthony,” Loki whispered into the inventor’s ear, provoking a more characteristic shudder. He brushed his hand over Stark’s heart and felt the spore pulse in answer as it subsided.

A calloused thumb smoothing across his knuckles told him that Stark had calmed along with the spore. “Why don’t we all sit down and play a game?” Stark suggested evenly. “You can all interrogate him together then.”

The Widow’s eyes narrowed. “What an excellent idea. We can play poker.”

“No. You always win that, and it’s my birthday. I want to at least enjoy my defeat,” Stark retorted, a devious grin overtaking his lips. “We’re playing Cards Against Humanity.”

Loki had never even heard of the game, and yet, it played to his strengths. It was all about reading people, and that was one of his most refined abilities, even without his seiðr. Once he understood the very loose rules, it only took a few rounds for him to figure out each person’s sense of humor. Banner enjoyed clever, intellectual wit. Similarly, Potts was most entertained by a good wordplay or answers that seemed to mock her former relationship with Stark. Barton and Harold favored bodily humor, and more precisely anything that involved gastrointestinal distress or other bodily functions. Colonel Rhodes apparently fostered a dark side and preferred morbid jokes, especially those involving extreme misfortune or death. Captain Rogers, surprisingly, preferred dirty humor—a good sex joke went a long way with him. Prevailing to Stark’s ego often won the round if it was his turn to decide the winner. The Widow was the only wildcard. Her idea of humor seemed transient at best. Sometimes, she went for crafty wit and other times for the most immature fart joke imaginable.

The first time that Loki had won had been the third round.

Potts had drawn: “Honey, I have a new role-play I want to try tonight! You can be ________, and I’ll be _________.”

Loki had played: “Shutting the fuck up” and “Not having sex.”

Potts had smiled at him with apparently genuine benevolence when he revealed his victory, and it had earned him Stark’s arm slung around his shoulders as an apparent reward for attempting harmony with his friends.

His next victim had been Barton.

After the archer drew, “Coming to Broadway this season, _____________: The Musical,” Loki had played a poop joke with little thought (“Dying of dysentery”).

When Barton picked his card as the winner, Loki had faced several scrutinizing appraisals. Perhaps because of Thomas’ bespectacled, refined appearance and his well-spoken but soft voice, Stark’s friends seemed to believe that he would share Potts’ more dignified sense of humor. They, apparently, had no sense of strategy.

When he’d won the next round (Rogers had drawn a card about the elderly that made Stark chortle and the Captain glare) with the lewdest of sex acts, the Avengers plus Harold, Potts, and Rhodes finally started to recognize Loki as a threat. They made a show of trying to guess which card had been played by him out loud before selecting the winner, but seldom did they choose correctly. As Stark pointed out helpfully to the rest of the group once Loki had earned a sizable lead of four, the fallen god’s one predictable pattern was that he didn’t understand the majority of the pop culture references. The inventor’s attentiveness and show of cooperation with Loki’s opponents earned the man a hard jab to the ribs.

Unfortunately, Stark was correct. His lack of knowledge about movies, in particular, set him back on several rounds. Those were the hands that the Widow tended to win.  

They had decided that the first person to win ten points would be declared the winner. After two hours, Loki and the Widow were tied with nine, and the person with the closest score was Potts with five. Stark would decide the winner of this round, and Loki had been saving the perfect card.

The question: “What gets better with age?”

Most of the answers (“Not wearing pants” and “Aged red wine”) earned polite but not heartfelt laughs from the inventor.

The second to last card was “How awesome I am.” It was a good answer. Stark had belly laughed for twenty seconds. It appropriately appealed to his ego.

But Loki’s answer was better.

Stark read the final card.

The answer: “Tony Stark.” 

Stark roared. It was utterly gratifying. But Loki was a master at controlling his expression. He continued to sit next to the inventor with his best disinterested guise.

Stark couldn’t regain control. Every time he began to calm down, he’d glimpse Loki’s card once again and collapse into deeply satisfying guffaws.

“Should we assume that you’ve picked the winner?” the Widow asked. Loki didn’t think he was imagining the barest hint of irritation in her tone. 

Wordlessly, Stark pushed Loki’s card forward. Tears were spilling from his eyes now. Only then did Loki allow the tiniest twitch of his lips. He reached for the card to confirm his victory, earning a deluge of groans and a few stares of disbelief.

“You beat Nat,” Barton stated into the ensuing silence, broken only by Stark’s dying laughter.

The astonishment in that statement had Loki wondering if he’d miscalculated. Perhaps he should have played the role of meek, timid Thomas rather than the hybrid that infused bits of Loki. The Widow was certainly suspicious; she was making a show of focusing on boxing up the cards even as she studied him through her eyelashes. Barton appeared more bewildered than anything else, and Colonel Rhodes was blatantly frowning.

But then Stark’s arm snacked around his chair to wrap around his shoulders. “That’s my Tommy,” Stark announced gleefully. “I told you guys that he’s amazing.”

Loki couldn’t help but relax a fraction. Stark had a knack for making him feel safe even when he should be poised for flight. He noticed that Rhodes mirrored the release of tension. The man’s gaze softened from assessing to some semblance of geniality.   

“I want to see you play poker against Natasha,” the Colonel said, learning back in his chair. “You might actually give her some competition.”

“Competition?” Stark scoffed. “Tommy would win.”

Loki licked Thomas’ lips. “I am certain that my victory was merely beginner’s luck,” he offered.

“I think that you’re just good with people,” Rogers noted softly.

“What did you say you do again?” the Widow asked with contrived insouciance. “Something with translations?”

He hadn’t said, but it was possible that Stark had shared that information. “Yes, I am a translator,” he said carefully. “I primarily translate novels into other languages.”

“What languages?” Colonel Rhodes asked curiously.

Loki thought back to the resume he’d given Glade. “French, German, Russian, Swedish, and Spanish. I’m semi-fluent in Japanese, Norwegian, and Portuguese, and I know a passable amount of Arabic and Hindi.”

“Damn,” Harold said. “I took Spanish in high school for, like, two years.”

Most of Stark’s friends looked at least faintly impressed. It was baffling. He’d always been ridiculed for attempting to learn about the cultures of other societies within the Nine Realms. Speaking native languages had been viewed as purposeless when All-Speak existed.

The Widow was the only one who remained visibly unaffected by his admission. “How did you meet Stark then?” she pressed even as she feigned studying her nails impassively.

“I…” He cast a plaintive glance at Stark, unsure of how much he was allowed to say. “I was hired to do some translation work here.”

He caught the slightest narrowing of her eyes. “What kind of translation work?”

“He’s translating some of my dad’s old journals,” Stark interjected cheerfully, seemingly oblivious to the rising undercurrent of suspicion in the Widow’s voice.

“You need a translator for that?” the Widow pressed, widening her eyes in simulated confusion. “Wouldn’t JARVIS be able to do it?”

“There’s a cipher on the journals that JARVIS can’t break.” Stark’s bared his teeth in a suddenly frosty smile. “And doing it this way keeps your boss from trying to hack JARVIS and access my stuff. Not that he’s been anywhere near successful, but you should tell him that if he doesn’t knock it off, I’ll get JARVIS to hack him and play the most annoying songs imaginable over S.H.I.E.L.D’s speakers for weeks.”

“I have prepared the playlist called ‘The Horribly Objectionable Music Adored by my Squeeze’ for such an occasion, Sir,” JARVIS added.

Stark had the grace to blanch as he very pointedly stared at the floor.

Barton, on the other hand, looked inordinately gleeful. “You have what playlist prepared, JARVIS?” the archer asked.

“‘The Horribly Objectionable Music Adored by my Squeeze’ playlist, Mr. Barton,” JARVIS answered breezily. “The ‘T.H.O.M.A.S’ playlist for short.”

Stark’s fingers twisted into the fabric of Loki’s shirt, wrinkling it horribly. Loki opted for the emptiest expression he could muster and pinched the back of Stark’s hand until the engineer yelped and relocated his palm to the top of Loki’s spine.

“I see,” Barton hummed. “Can we hear some of that playlist?”

Stark laughed nervously, thumb pressing pacifying circles into Loki’s back. “I don’t think we need to torture ourselves with—ouch!”

“My apologies,” Loki said neutrally. “I didn’t see your foot there. It’s a shame that you aren’t wearing shoes.”

“And you are,” Stark whined.

“Ah, yes. How unfortunate.”

Barton was practically vibrating now. “I would really like to listen to this playlist. Any chance you can send it to me, JARVIS?”

“Certainly, sir—”

“No! No, no, no. JARVIS, don’t you dare.” Stark’s fingers had gnarled into claws. “Hey, so what are we doing next? Cake? Let’s start on the cake.”

The cake actually comprised several individual cakes. One appeared store-bought and featured Iron Man depicted in too-sweet icing. Another, covered in plain chocolate frosting, had apparently been baked and iced by Captain Rogers. Evidently, he and Banner were the resident chefs in the room. The last cake was droopy and lopsided and unevenly covered in pink frosting. The Widow, who had been recruited to cut and dole out the various pieces, looked at it with outright bafflement.

“Oh, that one’s strawberry,” Stark explained without actually explaining anything. “Careful. Pep’s allergic.”

A few seconds passed wherein the occupants of the table digested his statement, and then, “where did the strawberry cake come from?” Rhodes asked.

“And why does it look like someone sat on it?” Barton added.

Stark’s shoulders slumped the tiniest bit, prompting Loki to press his weight more firmly into the inventor’s side. It earned him his gummy smile.

“Well, I made it,” Stark explained, straightening his spine.

You made it?” Colonel Rhodes echoed.

Harold, who had been poised to receive the first piece of chocolate cake, was next. “On your birthday?” he clarified.

“You don’t bake,” Rogers protested.

Even Potts was frowning in confusion. “You don’t even cook.”

“It’s Tommy’s favorite,” Stark defended. “And I can so cook. I’ve been practicing.”

The resulting silence was strained with disbelief, and, although Stark was accustomed to being the center of attention, Loki could tell that the man found this precise instance of it to be unpleasant.

“It is my favorite,” Loki chimed in smoothly. “And I would like a very large piece. However, I believe that it is customary to sing the birthday song before cake is served?”

Thankfully, Potts was quick to adjust back to decorum. “We need candles, too! Do we have any?”

The rendition, rousing yet dissonant, was so utterly mortal that Loki could not help but feel a bit separate. Birthdays were not celebrated on Asgard. Achievements were what counted, and, as the milestones that mattered always concerned physical prowess and triumphs in battle, Loki had never received such recognition. Asgard would scoff at celebrating such a pitiable accomplishment as aging.

He felt Stark nudge his side as they started eating their cake. Sometimes, the man was too attentive. “You okay?” the inventor whispered.

“Of course,” Loki assured him, forcing a smile onto his face.

“Are you tired?” Stark asked, making no effort to hide the fact that he was searching Loki’s expression.

“A little,” Loki said. It wasn’t untrue. The night had been draining, and it appeared far from over.

Stark looked concerned at his response but was swiftly drawn into a conversation with Colonel Rhodes, allowing Loki a reprieve. Loki ducked his head and focused on his food, praying fervently that Stark’s distraction would go unnoticed.

Of course, Loki could never be so blessed. Sensing unshielded curiosity with his seiðr, he raised his gaze to find Captain Rogers blatantly staring at him from across the table. The man did possess enough grace to bow his head when he was caught, but Loki could still feel the soldier’s tenacious interest.

“Is everything alright, Captain?” he asked reluctantly, ignoring the qualmy twisting of his gut.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to stare,” Rogers admitted just as softly. “I just…you and Tony, huh?”

Loki felt his spine stiffen for the umpteenth time but forced an anodyne expression to remain on face. “My pardon, Captain, but I’m not sure what you mean.”

In answer, Rogers’ eyes traced Stark’s arm where it rested on the back of Loki’s chair. After their lack of reaction to Stark’s tactile habits with Loki, he’d thought that such interaction was considered normal or at least accepted amongst Stark’s circle of friends. It seemed that he was wrong.

“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” Rogers said, frowning. “People just weren’t allowed to be public like that where I’m from. I’m still not used to seeing it.”

“I…see.” Loki hadn’t considered how this specific contact might look to an outsider. He’d merely been content with the grounding quality of the inventor’s touch, grateful for the semblance of security deep in this nest of enemies.  

“It’s not a bad thing,” Rogers was quick to assure him, presumably catching a hint of his unease.

“I know,” he murmured coolly and attempted to dismiss the conversation by returning to his perusal of his plate.

“No, I…hey, Bruce, can you scoot down?”

Banner, who had been seated next to Loki, slid wordlessly down the table, maintaining his conversation with Harold all the while. Loki narrowly succeeded in quelling his flinch when the Captain rounded the table to sit next to him. He hated the way that Rogers was studying him. It felt an awful lot like a pity, or maybe it was disgust. He didn’t care to look closely.

Rogers hunkered down, eyes darting around the table with evident wariness, but they seemed to warm when they caught the absent movement of Stark’s thumb caressing Loki’s shoulder. Swallowing thickly, the soldier reached into his pocket for a wallet, the leather burnished and pristine. The photograph that he extracted was in the opposite condition. Faded and yellowed with age, deep creases showed that it had been folded and refolded countless times. The edges were raggedy.

“This was my best guy,” Rogers murmured. There was a tremor to his voice that only Loki’s sharp hearing could detect.

At the soldier’s silent urging, Loki delicately plucked the picture from his grasp, careful to shield it under the table from prying eyes.

“He was very handsome,” Loki observed, noting the strong, square jaw and the crinkling laugh lines surrounding the uniformed man’s eyes. “What was his name?”

Rogers looked a little startled by the question, but he smiled tenderly, nonetheless. “James, but everyone called him Bucky.”

Loki licked his lips, hesitant to push too far, unsure of why he was even indulging the Captain. “And you loved him.”

Rogers’ chin wobbled so minutely that it would be imperceptible to normal human eyes. “I did.”

“And he loved you,” Loki stated.

“I think so. You couldn’t show it back then like you can now, but I knew that he would give up everything for me.” The Captain’s vivid blue eyes were welling enough that it might be noticeable to a sharp-eyed observer now. “He did give up everything for me.”

Silently, without knowing quite why he was doing it, Loki cast a spell that would encourage potential onlookers to avoid their section of the table. It wouldn’t prevent someone who was truly determined from locating them, but it should cause a causal glance to pass over them and find nothing amiss. Unfortunately, it cost almost all of the seiðr that Loki had been slowly accumulating for his next spore disintegration attempt.

“I hear that talking about loved ones can help,” Loki ventured. “Have you spoken with anyone about him?”

“Well, I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?” Rogers’ smile was watery but held tinges of humor. “Maybe we can talk more? Not here,” Rogers corrected hurriedly when Loki cocked a pointed eyebrow at the bevy of people sitting at the table. “I’ve been living in D.C. for the last few months, but I decided to stay at the Tower for a couple of days for Tony’s birthday. We could get lunch or something before I leave?”

Loki gnawed at his lip uncertainly, prompting further explanation.

“I just don’t know a ton of people, and everyone I’ve met in this century knows more about me than me. You seem like you’re different.”

Loki couldn’t help but be a bit charmed by this man so out of his depth and so desperate for connection. He could identify with the desire after a lifetime of being alone.

“I believe that there was a compliment in there somewhere,” Loki stated, prompting a sunny laugh from the soldier. “I suppose I wouldn’t be opposed to lunch.”

“Excellent!” Rogers pulled out a StarkPhone patterned in red, white, and blue. Loki had no doubt that it had been a gift from Stark. “What’s your number?”

“I must tell you that I detest texting,” Loki warned after he had given the Captain his contact information.

“Me too. Everyone says I do it wrong.” Rogers tucked the phone back into his pocket and shot Loki a radiant smile. “I’ll call you tomorrow so we can set something up before I leave.”

The conversations around them had started to ebb as well, prompting Stark to speak up perhaps a bit too boisterously after finishing the red wine that had been served with the cake.

“Present time?” Stark boomed, staring beseechingly at Potts.

The woman stood with a long-suffering sigh and left the room, Harold in tow. When they returned, their arms were full of elaborately wrapped gifts. Loki’s offering, undersized and spartan, seemed paltry in comparison to the ostentatious efforts of the rest of Stark’s guests.

The spies and the Captain had pooled their funds together to buy an expensive bottle of whiskey that made Stark laugh in delight. Stark’s non-Avenger friends had gifted him with an electric guitar bearing the signatures of the members of AC/DC. Stark had been so pleased that he tore one of those abstract paintings that were so uncharacteristic of him off the wall and attempted to hang up the instrument before Potts stopped him. Finally, Banner had purchased two matching lab coats embellished with the words, “Science Bros.” Stark had immediately insisted that they pose for a picture together.

At last, they had arrived at Loki’s gift, and he couldn’t help but feel apprehensive. He didn’t think that he could bear it if Stark or his friends were to laugh—or worse—at his efforts. And yet, he knew that he should prepare himself for disappointment. Lady Sif and the Warriors Three had outright ridiculed his every talent. Thor, when he had noticed Loki, had inadvertently managed to insult him to his very core with regularity. He could not expect this situation to end differently.

And so, he braced himself as Stark turned his blazing grin in Loki’s direction before ripping through the wrapping paper.

His carving was initially met with utter silence.

He’d meticulously worked to whittle the Iron Man armor as he remembered it, with a beam preparing to fire from its right gauntlet, a missile ready on the left, and others armed on its shoulders. The acrylic paint he had found at the local craft store had been cheap, so he had used his seiðr to enhance the colors. The finished product, a six-inch tall, three-dimensional figurine, looked authentic enough, save for the dullness of the arc reactor in the center of the suit. He hadn’t been able to duplicate its vibrancy without making his use of magic obvious.

As he had feared, Stark’s enthusiasm appeared muted at best. Perhaps he had noticed the minute errors that Loki had made. They stuck out to him, but he’d hoped that they would be negligible enough to the unversed eye.

“This is freaking awesome, Tommy,” Stark said with a taut smile, “but you didn’t have to buy me something like this. I know how expensive these things are.”

Loki felt his brow wrinkle. Yes, the paint had been a bit outside of his budget, but he’d felt justified in using some of the advance money he’d hidden away for such a purpose.

“Shit, Tommy, with this kind of detail, you must have paid hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.”

The implication being that he could not afford that price, which was true, but he didn’t appreciate such a comment being made in front of the Avengers.

He swallowed down the hurt, acrimonious retort that wanted to escape. “I didn’t.”

“Tommy,” Stark said gently. “It’s handmade.”

“Yes, I know,” Loki said through gritted teeth. “I made it.”

Stark froze, eyes widening. “You what?”

Loki lifted his hands from where they’d been fidgeting, hidden in his lap. His fingers were still faintly stained with paint. “I carved it,” he repeated, frustration making his words sedate and carefully enunciated. “I painted it.”

Stark’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

“You made that, man?” Colonel Rhodes interjected from Stark’s right. “Damn.”

“It’s amazing,” Stark breathed. His arm hooked around Loki’s neck and drew him in so that he could whisper in Loki’s ear. “Fuck, Tommy, I’m sorry. I’m an asshole.”

He swallowed hard and compelled to his face the fake smile he’d perfected after centuries of being shirked. “It’s fine.”

“How do you make something like that?” Banner asked, peering at the carving through his glasses. “The detail is incredible.”

Despite his conviction that he was merely being humored, he explained the process of whittling in the simplest terms possible. He knew that speaking at length would provoke the glazed eyes to which he had become accustomed. And after his time in Asgard, he understood that using unfamiliar terminology could unintentionally frustrate or insult his audience, so he kept his explanation abbreviated and perhaps minimized the challenges inherent in learning the skill.

“Do you ever make bows?” Barton asked after he had completed his explanation. “I would totally pay you to make me a bow.”

He had crafted a few bows as a boy, but he wasn’t sure about revealing that fact to the Avengers. He was fairly certain that Thomas was unlikely to have realistically had such an experience.

“Hey, now,” Stark interrupted. “It’s my birthday. If anybody is going to request commissions from my guy, it’s going to be me.”

Barton’s face contorted into a mischievous smirk, only for him to squeal, his foot apparently finding the pointy end of Potts’ heel.

“Maybe you could teach me,” Rogers interjected in his quietly commanding voice. “We used to do a bit of carving to pass the time. It’d be nice to get some tips from an expert.”

He would be hard-pressed to doubt the man’s sincerity. He ducked his head to hide his blush, unable to recall even the faintest praise for his skills before today. “I would hardly call myself an expert,” he murmured.

“Is there a level beyond expert?” Stark asked. “Because you’re definitely there if there is.” He could feel the spore quaking, no doubt agonizing over the discomposure that Loki was only able to hide outwardly.

“You’re exaggerating,” Loki said, “but I’m glad that you like it.”

He didn’t doubt that inventor appreciated his effort, and a part of him truly was thrilled by the compliments, but the combination of constantly maintaining such a tedious façade in front of his many enemies and the reminders of his past had pushed him past drained. If the party hadn’t begun to wind down soon after that, he may have had to desert Stark prematurely. Luckily, half of the partygoers were early risers, and those who remained claimed exhaustion from the Avengers mission. Relieved, Loki prepared to depart as well, only for Stark to catch his hand in the entryway.

“Stay?” the inventor requested.

Loki licked his lips uncertainly, all too aware of the curious glances that the others were casting at them as they boarded the elevator.

“I am very tired, Anthony,” he said, even as he allowed the man to lead him away from the exit. The chattering of Stark’s guests ceased as the elevator doors closed behind them.

“Me too. Why don’t we get ready for bed?”

There was something behind that request. The spore was practically throbbing in Stark’s chest. But he was too fatigued to puzzle out why Stark would be so insistent on him staying simply to sleep. Instead, he concentrated on brushing his teeth and changing into a set of the Iron Man pajamas that had populated one of the drawers in his room. He was preparing to turn off the light, resigned to a night of rumination and nightmares, when a soft knock came at the door.

It was Stark, of course. But the man looked terribly nervous. His jaw was rigid with tension, and he’d clasped his hands tightly behind his back to hide the fidgeting that Loki could still easily discern via the rippling of various tendons.

“Before I ask you this, I want you to know that you can say no,” Stark said as he pursued an avid study of his socked feet.

Loki held his silence, which seemed to amplify Stark’s discomfort.

Stark finally deigned to raise his eyes to meet his gaze. The spore was practically pounding now. “Can I stay here tonight?” he whispered.

Loki sucked in a sharp, audible breath.

“To sleep,” Stark clarified hurriedly.

It was certainly a step, and, on its face, it was an innocuous request. They had fallen asleep on the couch together multiple times. And yet, there was something different about sleeping together in a bed and, further, in a place that had become a sort of sanctuary to Loki. It invited a sense of vulnerability that Loki reviled. But he was too tired to agonize over such a decision. Besides, it seemed important to Stark despite his assurances.

“Just to sleep,” he allowed before shutting the bedroom door behind the inventor.

Stark’s eyes, Loki noticed as he led the way to the bed, had dilated, and the spore continued to dance in the man’s chest. Still, outwardly, the man followed him at a sedate enough pace. He slipped under the covers on the opposite side of the mattress without comment before Loki turned out the light.

The ensuing silence was incredibly awkward. Despite the engineer’s best efforts at nonchalance, he couldn’t settle. Repeatedly, the sheets rustled as the man adjusted his position. His heartbeat was thunderous and elevated in the silence, and his breaths were interminably loud. When Loki glanced over, he found Stark’s hands folded tightly behind his head. It was evident that he was making a respectful effort not to touch Loki, but the rigidity of his stance was grating. 

Exasperated, Loki rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in the pillow. “If you want to say something, can you just go ahead and say it? I know it’s your birthday, but I’m tired.”

Stark startled and turned immediately onto his side to face Loki. He could feel the man’s eyes scrutinizing his form despite the fact that the darkness relegated his body to a vague shape.

“I was an asshole,” Stark whispered at last.

“Yes, you were,” Loki acknowledged neutrally.

“I should have given you the chance to explain.”

“Yes, you should have.”

One of Thomas’ curls found its way around a tentative finger. “I was just worried. I don’t want you to waste money on me.”

Sighing, he turned his head so that he could face the inventor. He could easily perceive the man’s frown in the blackness. “Isn’t that my decision?” he asked.

“Yeah, of course,” Stark said sincerely. “I really do love it, you know. You’re just…” Stark sighed. “You’re so amazing, Tommy.”

Loki had no idea how to reply to such sentiment save to avoid, so he simply exhaled and burrowed more snugly under the covers.

A beat passed, and then, “hey, so, am I forgiven?”

“I didn’t realize that I was angry,” Loki murmured.

“You’re not. You’re hurt, and that’s worse.”

Well…he wasn’t wrong. “I know that you didn’t mean anything by it,” he said with only half-feigned gentility. He gnawed at his lip, warring with a sudden desire to confide. “I just don’t want anyone else to know about my financial situation,” he admitted at last. “I hate that you and Harold know.”

Stark’s touch moved from his hair to his brow. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he said.

“Perhaps not,” Loki granted, “but I feel shame, nonetheless. And I…I don’t want anyone to think that I’m using you.”

“Using me?” Stark repeated, fingers stilling on Loki’s skin.

Loki forced himself to shrug. “I’m certain that it looks like that. You’re the richest man in the world, and here I am, barely able to afford food.”

“Hey, hey, no,” Stark burst out. “Anyone who takes even a minute to get to know you would never think that. Happy goes all mother-hen whenever your name comes up, and JARVIS asks me about you at least five times a day because it worries him that he can’t see you in here. They don’t trust just anyone.”

“Perhaps they are exceptions,” Loki suggested obstinately.

“Except they’re not.” Stark’s fingers moved to cup his exposed cheek. “They think you’re awesome. I know you’re awesome. No one thinks that you’re some kind of gold-digger, I guarantee that, but even if they did, who the fuck cares? The people who matter know the truth.”

“You don’t understand,” Loki groaned, closing his eyes. He noticed that his hands had begun shaking and hid them beneath his pillow.

“Then help me,” Stark insisted. “What am I missing?”

He sucked in a sharp breath and held it for a moment in an effort to stem the words that sought to surge free. They came out anyway. “Nobody likes me, Anthony.”

“Now, that’s ridiculous. Did you not just hear me say that you’re awesome?”

“But I’m not!” he hissed. “I’m really not.”

Stark scoffed wordlessly. His other hand wedged under Loki’s face until he was cupping both of the fallen god’s cheeks, thumbs tracing his cheekbones tenderly.

“Anthony,” he said urgently, desperate for the inventor to understand. “I am a monster. I hurt people no matter what I do. I’ll denigrate you if you let me stay.”

Stark’s fingers tightened on his face, but they served only to tether rather than to hurt. “Tell me who told you that bullshit,” he growled.

“No one had to,” he whispered.

The spore had begun to roil in Stark’s chest. “Was it your foster father?” Stark demanded. “Tell me that little fuckwit’s name. I’ll destroy him.”

 “Anthony,” he admonished.

“What? I’m the motherfucking Merchant of Death. Nobody messes with my stuff, and you’re my…my Tommy.”

Stark’s hands had started trembling where they framed his face. Hesitantly, Loki gripped the man’s wrists. “Be calm, Anthony,” he implored. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Something about his tone must have gotten through because Stark’s jaw began to loosen. “I’m sorry, Tommy,” Stark whispered.

“I know,” Loki murmured. “It’s not your fault.”

“I’m not mad at you,” Stark stressed, eyes wide. “I just…the thought of someone saying that shit to you…I can’t stand it.” Even that statement was enough to rouse the spore once more.

“I understand,” Loki said. “It’s alright.”

Slowly, he eased closer until he could press his face against Stark’s chest. From this position, he could hear the man’s heart beating steadily beneath his ear, could feel the spore simmering in rage.

“I will never understand how anybody could hurt you,” Stark whispered.

Loki hummed noncommittally, focused on slowing his own heartrate so that the spore would continue to subside. He reached with his already weary seiðr to ease the newly forming knots in its boughs. Usually, the spore unfurled at his merest touch, but now it pulsed, nearly quaking with constrained energy. Loosening even a single bond was depleting.

“Hey, are you actually falling asleep?”

He was too drained in light of his efforts to respond. Besides, at this very moment, wrapped in the other man’s arms, with their legs tangled together and clever fingers mapping the expanse of his skull as they drifted through his hair, he almost felt safe.

“Goodnight, baby,” he thought he heard Stark whisper.

Chapter Text

Consciousness returned gradually the next morning. His limbs felt ineffably heavy, and a familiar headache was wreaking havoc behind his eyes. He must have depleted his seiðr again. It was becoming an increasingly familiar occurrence. Groaning, he ground his forehead into his pillow, surprised when it jolted beneath his face.

“Well, good morning,” came a familiar voice, mirthful and airy, a stark contrast to the dismal start of the morning.

He must have managed to grumble something back because an ebullient laugh quaked his headrest.

“Not a morning person?” Stark asked. “I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.”

Soothing fingers brushed into his hair, snagging on a few wayward snarls. Despite his centuries of existence, such a feeling was unprecedented, limited to his quiet moments with Stark. Those who had sought to seduce him for their own ends in the past had never touched him quite like this, as though he was precious and deserving of only the gentlest of caresses. He found himself arching into the contact as it slid sinuously down his back, tracing the contours of his spine.

“You going back to sleep?” Stark whispered after a few moments of alternating sweeps and pressure along his shoulder blades.

“No,” Loki mumbled. And then, before he could quell the impulse, “don’t stop.”

“As my Tommy commands,” Stark said with another dulcet laugh.

The hands moved down his back more confidently than before, fingers molding around vertebrae and mapping the valleys between his ribs. They lingered at his neck, pressing with just enough vigor into the sore muscles there before meandering into his hair. The faintest of sighs escaped his lips before he could suppress it.

“You like that?” Stark asked. His voice had a breathy quality to it that Loki had never heard.

Loki merely hummed in response, focused on the relief that those dexterous fingers provided as they kneaded at his temples. After a few moments, during which Loki monitored the gradual crescendo of Stark’s heart, the man seemed to build up enough courage to make a new request.  

“Can we try something?” Stark asked.

He opened his eyes reluctantly and was promptly met with a view of a swathe of fabric. The inventor’s chest, covered by a shirt with a dozen heroically posed Iron Men, was rising and falling beneath his cheek. A slight pressure at Loki’s waist gave way to deceptively sturdy arms that had bracketed him in. He craned his neck and found Stark’s teeth worrying at a chapped lip.

“Try what?” Loki asked. He did his best to extirpate the immediate wariness that was blazing through the last vestiges of his rest, but Stark’s anxiety was difficult to ignore.  

Stark’s fingers began to fuss with the bottom hem of Loki’s loose t-shirt, revealing a sliver of Thomas’ slightly tanned skin. “Trust me?” he requested.

“I…do,” Loki said, and it was mostly true. As long as Stark didn’t suspect that it was Loki beneath the guise of Thomas Walker, he didn’t think that the man would actively endeavor to harm him. “What do you want me to do?” he whispered, trying and failing to keep his shoulders from tensing. Of course, Stark, reverential as he tended to be to Thomas’ every breath, noticed the change.

“Hey, I don’t want you do to something you’re uncomfortable with—”

“I’m not uncomfortable,” Loki said, sneering at the word. “I just don’t know what you want to try.”

Stark cocked his head to the side but made no move to challenge outwardly his transparent bluff. Instead, he levered them both up to a seated position.

“You can tell me no,” Stark warned, making Loki scoff impatiently. “Take off your shirt?” he blurted.

Loki froze, feeling irresolute and strangely vulnerable. “Why?”

“Because I would like to give you a real massage.” Stark studied him for a moment and started to frown. “Look, you don’t have to—”

“Would you kindly shut the fuck up?” Loki snapped.

He tore off his shirt and flopped back down on the bed, doing his best to feign insouciance. In truth, he could feel the myriad of scars beneath his glamour pull, suddenly sensitive underneath Stark’s unknowing scrutiny. Even though he had been content with Stark’s maneuvering only moments before, something about this position erected a sense of exposure that made him shudder as he awaited the man’s touch.

“Are you just going to stare at me?” Loki asked when Stark remained inert at his side. He could barely hear the man breathing.

Finally, finally came the caress that he had been expecting on his shoulder blade. Despite his anticipation, his entire body jerked at the contact. Stark retreated immediately.

“Again,” Loki demanded, disgusted with himself.

“Tommy—” Stark began, tone making it clear that he intended to protest.

Again,” Loki insisted.

Stark sucked in a sharp breath but ghosted his fingertips over the small of Loki’s back this time. Still, Loki jolted, body anticipating the searing pain or unwanted pleasure that had always followed.

“Easy,” Stark whispered, but he didn’t withdraw. Instead, he increased the pressure the tiniest amount. “You know I won’t hurt you.”

“I know,” Loki said, but his body wouldn’t stop shaking. He buried his face in a pillow, willing his treacherous outer shell back under his control.

Stark’s weight shifted without his fingers leaving Loki’s skin. The soft sounds of Litvinovsky soon filled the room, grounding him. “Better?”

“Yes,” Loki whispered. At least his involuntary movements no longer resembled a seizure.

For the first few moments, Stark limited his touches to delicate paths along Thomas’ skin, tracing the planes and dips that mirrored Loki’s body as the fallen god remembered it before his fall. Gingerly and so gradually that Loki hardly noticed even with all of his senses straining to track the man’s course, the pressure increased. Little by little, Loki’s breathing evened out, and the rigidity locking his muscles eased.

After an indeterminable amount of time, Stark shifted his stance, which, of course, reinvigorated his body’s perturbation, but the adjustment had merely been intended to adapt Stark’s position so that he could use both hands on Loki’s back. Still, Loki couldn’t bring himself to relax wholly, and he knew that the paramount purpose of this sort of touch was the release of tension. He kept expecting blades to slide into the spaces between his ribs, a scalpel to sever his spine, whips to tear his skin to shreds.

Stark started humming.

He started humming along to Loki’s music, specifically Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

He was awful.

But he actually knew the song.

A rush of wild laughter burst out of Loki before he could stem it.

“What? What?” Stark asked, freezing with his hands flat on Loki’s lower back. At this very moment, Loki couldn’t bring himself to care.

“You’re been listening to my playlist,” he managed in between giggles that he would deny to his dying breath.

Stark’s fingers twitched. “What? No. I definitely haven’t been doing that.”

Loki kicked out his legs and settled back onto the mattress, eyes at half-mast. “What was it called? The T.H.O.M.A.S playlist?”

An actual blush began to dust Stark’s cheeks. “Shut up.”

“You like my music.”

“Shut up, Tommy.”

Loki peered up at him, concerned for a second that he had managed to offend the man, but those chocolate brown eyes were twinkling despite his obvious mortification. Mollified, Loki subsided and allowed Stark to return to his ministrations.

After a few moments, the massage actually began to feel pleasant. Stark was skilled at identifying the knots that apparently littered Loki’s back, and he used just enough pressure to loosen them without instilling pain. Loki’s eyes fluttered shut without him realizing it. He began to feel boneless.

“Can I try a different position?” Stark asked, voice low enough that Loki could barely hear him over the music.

Loki fluttered his hand carelessly in permission.

A weight settled on top of him, half on his lower back and half on the swell of his ass. Hands gripped his shoulders. Legs bracketed his flanks.

He could feel phantom breath, putrid and dripping, sopping into his neck. He knew what would come next, awaited the slash of claws seeping into his captive skin, slicing it into ribbons. After that would come the teeth clamping down on the back of his neck, threatening to separate his spine from his body were he to resist. There would be no preparation, but the ripping, tearing, and burning would soon ease the way.

“Tommy? Baby, what’s wrong?”

The weight was gone. Why was it gone?

“Hey! Hey, can you hear me?”

Trembling fingers traced his cheekbones, his brow. Strange. Usually, they left most of his face alone.

“Baby, I can’t understand you. You’re not speaking in English.”

Thumbs followed along his eyelashes. He cried out against his will, anticipating that they would press in and steal away his sight.

“Please, please, please,” he heard distantly. “What do I do? Please tell me what to do.”

He knew that voice. It didn’t belong here. Blindly, he reached out, found a collar. Stark. Here? Why would he be here? And was that music?

He forced his eyes open, which prompted a sort of sobbing gasp out of Stark. A hand cupped the back of his head and pulled him in until his nose pressed against the man’s pulse. He breathed in once, and then again more deeply, soothed by the familiar scent of motor oil and hazelnut.

“You’re okay. Just breathe, baby.”

“Anthony?” he murmured, perplexed.

“Shh. You’re fine. You’re in the Tower, and you’re with me.”

He blinked down at the bed. His shirt was gone. Why was—

“Oh,” he whispered.

“What is it?” Stark asked, voice bordering on frantic as his grip tightened. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” His body started shuddering harder than ever as he understood what had happened, recognized the damnable fragility that he had allowed Stark to witness. His fingers twisted further into Stark’s collar, most likely warping the fabric. “I didn’t think that would happen,” he admitted miserably.

The fingers in his hair began to move, hesitantly at first, and then feverishly when he didn’t object. “Was it a flashback?”

“Yes,” Loki managed through gritted teeth.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Loki squeezed his eyes shut. Stark’s collar was practically unrecognizable now. “No.”

Those steady fingers continued to slide through Loki’s hair as lips moved against his ear. “I get flashbacks sometimes. Of the Battle of New York. And before that of Afghanistan.”

“How do you stop them?” he asked, curious in spite of his ignominy.

“Well, my thing with Afghanistan was water. They waterboarded me, you know? When I got home, I couldn’t even take a shower without a flashback or a panic attack. Pep used to complain about my smell.”

Growling weakly, Loki managed a sharp pinch at Stark’s back, prompting a playful yelp.

“Right. It’s probably not a good idea to mention my ex when I’m cuddling with my current squeeze.”

“Do not call me that.”

“Snookums?”

“No.”

“Honey-bunny?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Sweetie-pie?”

“Stark.”

He laughed, but the sound lacked its usual boisterousness. “Anyway, I did my own brand of exposure therapy. I started small, just locked myself in the bathroom, filled up the sink, and sat there until the panic attack ended. Eventually, I was able to be in the same room when the shower was on. A few weeks later, I was actually able to take a shower without hyperventilating.” Stark sighed. “It’s been years, but I still can’t take a bath. That’s okay, though. Showers are fine.”

Loki frowned at the wall behind Stark’s ear, hearing the silent inducement. “I don’t want to talk about mine.”

“I get that.” A tentative hand rose from where it had been supporting Loki’s lower back and skimmed across his shoulders. “Just…can you tell me what triggered it? I don’t want that to happen again.”

Loki sighed and pressed his cheek against Stark’s collarbone. He already felt exhausted, and it was still early morning. “The weight,” he said reluctantly. “It felt like I was being held down.”

Stark’s grip tightened minutely, but, outwardly, the man hummed in an attempt at impassivity. “When you do want to talk about it, I’m here, okay?”

“I know, Anthony.” He allowed the man one more moment of caressing his back before he extracted himself. “Breakfast?” he asked hopefully, pulling together the closest he could come to a smile.

Stark chuckled in spite of the lingering worry lining his face. “Isn’t it my birthday?”

“Not anymore,” Loki pointed out. “I want French toast.”

“Sure thing, your majesty,” Stark snorted. “You want bacon, too?”

Loki managed to summon a suitably keen expression to Thomas’ face. “There’s bacon?”

When Stark laughed this time, the sound was a bit more buoyant. “Fine. Go take a shower or whatever. Just don’t complain when breakfast is burnt this time.”

“If you don’t burn it, I won’t complain.”

***

Loki’s shower had taken an inordinate amount of time, but Stark hadn’t mentioned it when he emerged from his room. After the first twenty minutes berating himself under the showerhead, Loki had decided that he would pretend that their morning activities had never happened. It took another twenty before he could stop shaking and summon an acceptable enough mask to hide the last remnants of his distress.

Stark defied his patented obliviousness and chattered inanely to fill the silence. To Loki’s relief, the fallen god’s exhibition of weakness hadn’t disturbed Stark’s tactile nature. The man’s fingers still absently slid across his knuckles and smoothed across his shoulders as he spoke. Feeling generous, Loki said nothing about the burned bits on his toast.

They had piled onto the couch after they finished eating. Stark had displayed his birthday carving proudly on the coffee table, and he was clearly trying to be covert about checking to see if Loki had noticed. Loki feigned ignorance until Stark’s increasingly obvious attempts at drawing his attention proved impossible to overlook and he surrendered to laughter. Stark sat on him pointedly in retaliation, complaining that Loki was entirely too bony all the while, before setting to work on an assortment of blueprints.

With a little prompting, Stark had begun explaining what he was doing—something about his arc reactor technology. Loki focused on feigning polite interest despite being wholeheartedly fascinated. About twenty minutes into a rant about the rarity and expense of certain necessary materials, Loki’s pocket erupted with Vivaldi. A blocked caller ID notification had overtaken the usual wallpaper on his phone (a picture of Stark making a face with a grotesque abundance of tongue that Loki hadn’t yet puzzled out how to remove).

“Your phone is supposed to be telemarketer proof,” Stark grumbled, extending his palm. “Gimme. I’ll get rid of them.”

Bemused, Loki handed over his phone and settled back into the cushions as Stark cracked his neck in a show of preparation.

“Psychic Ted,” Stark said, voice so deep that it hit another register. “Would you like to come in for a palm reading?”

Stark listened politely for a moment before his eyes widened. “Hang on. Is that you, Cap? Yeah, no, this is Tony. Sorry. Has anyone explained telemarketers to you?”

A wayward arm found its way around Loki’s neck, blocking his contrived reading of a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that had found its way into his bookcase. Persistent pressure had Loki buckling grudgingly until Stark had them both prone with Loki tucked under his chin. It was oddly comfortable.

“What? Yeah, this is Tommy’s phone. He’s just not a big fan of acknowledging its existence.” Idle fingers began to card through Loki’s hair. “Hey, since when do you have Tommy’s number?”

A pause, and then Stark began abruptly tugging on one of Thomas’ curls. “Tommy promised that he would go to lunch with you?”

Snarling, Loki slapped at Stark’s hand, only to have his own limb captured and fingers locked between his own. “I don’t know,” Stark was saying. “Let me put you on hold and ask him.”

Stark tapped the screen and turned expectant eyes Loki’s way. “So…do you want to get lunch with Capsicle?”

“I said I would before he left,” Loki admitted.

“Well, apparently, he was assigned a new mission, so he’s leaving tomorrow. He wants to know if you’ll go today.”

Loki groaned and squeezed his eyes shut.

“Socialed out?” Stark asked knowingly.

“I hate everyone,” Loki acknowledged quietly. A finger jabbed pointedly into his ribs. “You’re tolerable when you’re not doing that,” Loki allowed.

Stark shot him a glimpse of his favorite gummy smile. “So, do you want me to tell him you’ll raincheck?”

He removed Thomas’ glasses and rubbed at his eyes, fervently desiring to answer in the affirmative. “No, I suppose that I’ll go.”

Stark’s grin was wide and genuine. “Awesome. Hang tight.” The phone was at his ear again. “Capsicle? Tommy’s free today. Why don’t you bring him to that diner you like?”

Sighing, Loki liberated his hand from Stark’s grip and carefully placed the inventor’s hand on top of his head. The fingers began to knead at his scalp immediately, just as Loki had wanted. His headache had started to ebb with the man’s ministrations, but it wasn’t gone.

“Noon?” Stark jostled him until he met the man’s gaze and nodded apathetically. “Yeah, that works. I’ll send Tommy down to meet you then. See ya, Capsicle.”

Stark sighed and squirmed around on the couch for a moment, evidently looking for a more comfortable position. His free arm wrapped lightly around Loki’s ribs. He could feel the inventor smiling against his hair.

“Why are you so happy?” Loki grumbled. He wasn’t particularly worried about this lunch with Rogers, but he certainly wasn’t anticipating it with anything resembling eagerness. Stark, on the other hand, was practically emanating delight.

“Am I?”

“Yes,” Loki hissed, the word elongating when Stark’s clever fingers found his aching temples.

“I just like seeing you getting along with my friends. That’s all.” The pressure around his chest from Stark’s arm increased slightly until he was more being embraced than held. “Do you think I can ever meet yours?”

“My what?”

“Your friends.”

Loki tensed immediately, cursing his distraction for not seeing the trap. He should lie. He knew that he should. The truth was too dubious. But he didn’t want to live up to the namesake that had been forced upon him as a child, not when there was no one to twist his words and actions into fitting that narrative. So far, he had mostly lied by omission. He didn’t want to change that.

“I…don’t have any,” Loki admitted.

Even without access to his seiðr, he could sense Stark’s bewilderment. “No friends at all?”

“Not anymore.” His nails were digging so deeply into his palms that they left crescent indents in the skin. “I would appreciate it if you don’t ask me why.”

“You know that I won’t push, but I’m also here whenever you want to talk.” A nose brushed against his temple. “And, just so you know, that’s not true. You have friends. You have me and Happy and JARVIS.”

Loki scoffed wordlessly and turned his head so that his ear pressed against the device in Stark’s chest. There was something soothing about the hum.

“Hey, JARVIS, you consider Tommy to be a friend, right?”

“I am quite fond of him, Sir,” came the serene reply.

“See? That’s three friends.” Stark’s arm tightened around his waist in a surreptitious hug. Loki was beginning to suspect that he had been tricked into engaging in what mortals called cuddling.  “And I bet you that you’ll be able to add Cap to that list by the end of today, too,” the inventor continued.

A laugh, reckless and self-deprecating, burst out of Loki before he could stop it. Two of the Avengers wanted to be friends with Loki. Tony Stark was snuggling with Loki in his own penthouse. A little over two months ago, and Loki would have been convinced that he’d finally tumbled off the edge into insanity. Still, spore or not, Stark appeared to enjoy interacting with Thomas, and Thomas was essentially Loki in all but the subtlest of details these days. The spore couldn’t be responsible for everything, could it? It certainly didn’t explain Rogers’ invitation.

Already exhausted despite the early hour, Loki burrowed into Stark’s arms and willed himself not to think until noon.

***

At noon, following a successful elicitation by Stark that ensured that Loki would return to the penthouse after lunch, he rode the elevator down to Rogers’ private floor. Considering his relative success at assimilation last night, he didn’t feel particularly perturbed about meeting up with the Captain. Still, perhaps he would have felt a bit more prepared if he’d possessed even an iota of his seiðr.

His first impression of Rogers’ floor was that it was the manifestation of Stark’s more jocular influence. The color of every piece of furniture or art matched the exact shade of red, white, and blue on the American flag. And yet, despite Stark’s farcical brand of personalization (ironic in light of the absolute neutrality on Stark’s own floor), Roger’s rooms lacked the soldier’s touch. The ornamentation that he could see from the landing celebrated Captain America rather than Steven Rogers.

“Captain?” he called hesitantly, loath to leave the elevator and trespass without his seiðr as a guide.

“Captain Rogers is in the sunroom, Mr. Walker,” JARVIS intervened.

“I see.” Loki gnawed at his lip uncertainly. “Can you tell him that I’m waiting?”

“He is unable to hear me over the sound of his music, sir. It is rather loud.”

“You can’t turn it off?”

“No, sir. The device that he uses is not compatible with my systems.”

“Hmm.” Loki was hungry already. As Stark had become enmeshed in his life, he had become accustomed to more filling and regular meals. “What do you suggest, JARVIS?”

“I do not believe that Captain Rogers would be opposed to you interrupting him. He was very much looking forward to your appointment.”

Loki sighed. The answer didn’t fit with his understanding of human etiquette, but he was very hungry, and patience wasn’t necessarily his forte. “Very well, JARVIS. Please direct me.”

As he passed through the various rooms, few signs insinuated that these lodgings were even occupied. He spied an idle StarkPad resting on the couch, a cereal bowl in the sink, a bottle of water on the table, but, otherwise, every room appeared immaculate. Despite his acute hearing, he could hear no signs of life either.

JARVIS assured him that he had arrived at the sunroom, but his tentative knocks went answered, and he could hear no sounds from within. Diffidently, he eased the door open a crack and found that JARVIS was absolutely correct. Rogers had set the volume of his music to a deafening level, even by human standards. In spite of the extreme volume, the music choice itself wasn’t necessarily unpleasant. Unlike the cacophony of dissonant noise that Stark favored, Rogers’ music at least carried a tune. Unfortunately, prolonged exposure would most likely provoke permanent hearing loss.

“Captain Rogers?” he called again, fighting the urge to cover his throbbing eardrums. 

After another minute with no response, he grudgingly pushed open the door further and slipped inside, wincing all the while.

Once he adjusted as much as possible to the near obliteration of his eardrums, he noticed the cascades of color in the room. A sheet blanketed the floor beneath his feet, blighted with a maelstrom of shades. Canvases occupied nearly every surface, piled high in teetering stacks, hung crookedly on the walls, drying on a lonely couch that was barely distinguishable in the corner of the room. Most of the paintings featured the same man, square jaw with a dimple in the chin, hickory hair prone to falling in waves onto a heavy brow, and bright eyes shining robin egg blue. A few others featured the Avengers—the Widow twirling a switchblade through her fingers, the Hawk poised to loose an arrow, Stark repairing his armor. There was a woman, lips bathed in scarlet, poised to dance. Loki even spied a splash of green and a visage of golden horns, an apparent depiction of his last appearance in New York.

Loki found the Captain in the center of the chaos, the tight circle in which he stood the one oasis from the clutter. He appeared immersed in his work, scrupulously rendering the man showcased in most of his paintings, train tracks and a cliff on the periphery.

Loki picked his way sedulously to Rogers, heedful of inadvertently disturbing the man’s finished works.

“Captain?” he tried again as he neared, and then, when there was still no response, he laid a hesitant hand on the soldier’s shoulder.

Rogers flinched and pivoted, sheepish and self-conscious and startled all at once. Eyes wide, he reached to pull up the crank on a machine beside him, abruptly terminating the blaring music.

“Tommy,” Rogers spoke into the overwrought silence. “Is it noon already?”

“It is, Captain,” Loki said. He ducked his head and folded his arms behind back. “I apologize. I did not mean to interrupt.”

“No, it’s my fault. I got caught up.” Rogers studied him out of the corner of his eye. “I’ve never actually let anyone in here before.”

“Ah,” Loki said, searching futilely for an unobstructed path back out. “I apologize all the more for the intrusion then.”

“It’s alright,” Rogers said. “Actually, I guess I’m sort of curious about what you think?”

Loki felt his brow furrow. “What I think?” he repeated.

Rogers gestured at the paintings that surrounded them. “Not many people know about the art thing. It doesn’t really fit into the Captain America image that the government was trying to sell.”

Loki felt himself softening, identifying with the wistfulness in the man’s tone and the sentiment in the words. He stepped to stand beside the Captain so that he could better scrutinize his latest painting.

“Was this your James?” Loki asked quietly.

Rogers smile was small and doleful. “Yeah. This is Bucky.” He reached out with his oversized fingers to trace the man’s face, smudging a bit of the wet paint in the process. 

“He was quite striking.”

“Yeah,” Rogers choked out. “Sorry,” he said, lips trembling minutely.

“For what, Captain?” Loki asked.

Rogers managed another tremulous smile. “We’re supposed to be going out to lunch, and here I am wallowing in the memory of someone who died decades ago.”

“My understanding is that it hasn’t been decades for you, Captain,” Loki stated carefully.

Rogers turned back to the painting. “No, it hasn’t.”

“It doesn’t appear as though you have allowed yourself the space to mourn.”

A bitter laugh broke past the Captain’s lips. “I crashed into the Artic days after he died, and I woke up to an alien invasion. There hasn’t been time.”

Loki could identify with the sentiment. Just today, he had seen the consequences of avoiding his time in the Void. He knew what it was to feel alone, to be convinced that no one could possibly understand—let alone accept—his differences. He found himself harboring…compassion for the Captain, for this man who seemed just as hopelessly alien to this realm as he.

Loki reached out with a surprisingly steady hand to touch Rogers’ arm. “Then let’s make time, Captain. Come to lunch with me. Tell me about him.”

“Only if you call me Steve,” Rogers requested with a watery but genuine smile.

Loki made a face at that. “Steven?” he compromised.

The smile dimmed marginally. “No one’s called me that since Dr. Erskine died.”

“Ah,” Loki said uncertainly.

“No. It, um…it suits you somehow.” Rogers’ eyes brightened again. “I bet you hate Tommy.”

“Please call me Thomas,” Loki said dryly.

***

Roger’s chosen diner was located only a few blocks away from the Tower. The walk there had been pleasant enough. Despite the vulnerability that Rogers had exhibited at the Tower, he seemed determined to avoid reminiscing about Barnes so publicly. For the most part, they had managed to remain unnoticed. Rogers had donned a baseball cap and sunglasses, which, to Loki’s amusement, appeared to be sufficient to divert identification from most common Midgardians.

However, despite the Captain’s efforts, they had picked up two tails upon exiting the lobby of the Tower. They were dressed like the interns to whom Stark enjoyed assigning pointless tasks. All overlarge glasses and strategically concealing facial hair, they were proficient enough at blending in that Rogers didn’t appear to recognize their presence. The interlopers had loitered outside of the diner until Rogers and Loki had been seated. When they entered a few moments later, a less observant man would have declared their appearance coincidental. However, Loki was eons more proficient at unobtrusive observation. Their tails didn’t appear to have noticed that they had been made.

As for the diner itself, aside from its proximity, Loki wasn’t particularly impressed, although he kept that opinion to himself. The prices were surprisingly fair for the city, but the table was sticky, and the music that was playing lacked any discernable tune despite the absence of jarring vocals. Many of the food items on the menu were unfamiliar or unappetizing.

Fortunately, Stark had been flooding his phone with a stream of messages since he had left, including a request that he purchase a cheeseburger to take back to the inventor (Loki suspected that it was a gesture to show that Stark wasn’t concerned about his financial situation). The combination of Stark’s endorsement and the fact that a cheeseburger numbered amongst the least expensive items on the menu spiked Loki’s curiosity.

Rogers ordered an assortment of items on the menu, including a few breakfast dishes. Idly, Loki wished that Thomas could have a suitable excuse to justify requesting the same amount.

“So, are you sure that you and Tony aren’t together?” Rogers asked as soon as the waitress had left with their orders. “You sounded pretty chummy this morning.”

Despite his irritation at the question, the Captain’s expression was entertaining. Squirming eagerly in his seat, the man resembled a teenager keen on gossip. “I am certain that you asked me this question last night, Steven,” Loki reminded him.

“A lot can happen overnight.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Loki allowed, “but Anthony and I remain unchanged.”

But that wasn’t quite accurate, was it? Friends probably didn’t touch quite as intimately or as regularly as he and Stark. Despite the complications this morning, there had been some degree of progression with whatever it was that they were doing.

“I don’t want to interfere,” Rogers said, leaning back into his seat, “but I haven’t seen Tony like that in a long time. He adores you.”

Outwardly, Loki scoffed, but, inwardly, something in him preened to hear someone else make such an assessment.

Rogers’ gaze, as he searched Thomas’ features, was knowing. “I’d give you the shovel speech, but it’s obvious that you feel the same about him.”

Loki felt his cheeks heat despite the absolute control that he should be able to exercise over his glamour. He picked at the button on his sleeve and resolutely avoided eye contact.

Rogers’ hand engulfed his own delicately, putting an end to his fiddling. “Hey, we don’t just have to talk about Buck, you know?” he heard the man say gently. “I’d like to hear about you, too. You look kind of upset.”

“It’s nothing,” Loki attempted to dismiss. He reached for his water as a diversion, but he had underestimated the Captain’s tenacity.

“It’s not,” Rogers contradicted. “Look, you don’t have to talk to me, but I sort of get the feeling that you don’t have a whole lot of options either?” Rogers propped his elbows on the table and leaned forward, a tentative smile on his lips. “I’m really good at keeping secrets.”

Loki looked away, smoothed out his napkin, picked up his fork and placed it back down again, turned over his menu despite the fact that they had already ordered. He yearned to trust Rogers, craved perilously to assuage the loneliness that ebbed only when Stark was around. But Rogers didn’t have a spore. Rogers would hurt him without equivocation if he knew. And yet, the man’s current expression was guileless, and so hopeful, and, for just a moment, Loki wanted to pretend that he had a friend.

“Does everyone think that Anthony and I are together?” Loki asked at last, eyes focused on tracing a powerless rune into the perspiration on his glass.

“Tony was very careful to emphasize that you aren’t a couple,” Rogers said earnestly, “but, I mean, we all have eyes. He’s never acted the way he did last night with anyone else, not even with Pepper.”

Loki frowned. It had to be the spore’s influence twisting Stark into a different person. “What do you mean?” he asked unwillingly.

“Look,” Rogers said, “when Tony was with Pepper, he was always self-conscious, always trying to say the right thing or act a certain way. It wasn’t what Pepper wanted or Tony’s fault, but he’d second-guess himself constantly. But with you, he doesn’t try to be anyone other than his best self. He knows that you like him.”

Loki was already shaking his head in denial. It was a fantasy come true, and he knew that he couldn’t have it. “You can’t know that,” he protested.

Rogers’ fingers started tapping out a rhythm on the table. “Tony shoulders a lot of weight. He blames himself for New York, for the people who died because of his weapons, even for Pepper breaking up with him. He expects everyone to betray him, and that makes him keep everybody, even us, at a distance.”

Rogers licked his lips, eyes blazing with sincerity. “I have never seen him act the way he did last night. All he wanted was for his friends to get along with the guy he likes, and, trust me, he’s never cared about that sort of thing before.” Rogers laughed humorlessly. “He would probably be very upset with me for telling you that, but the point is that you’re important to him. You gotta know that.”

“I see,” Loki whispered, heart twisting with an ineffable emotion. “I’m not quite sure what to say.”

Rogers’ smiled, lopsided and forthright. “If it helps, I think that you’re really good for him.”

A bark of a laugh burst out of Loki. “That’s a first for me,” he admitted, bringing his glass of water to his lips. “Anyway, enough about my worries. I was under the impression that you wanted to talk about James.”

Rogers was magnanimous enough to allow the obvious deflection—or perhaps he was just desperate to share his grief.

“Yeah, okay.” Powerful fingers flowed through sandy blond hair, somehow hardly mussing the strands. “How much do you already know?”

Loki was careful to keep Thomas’ expression ingenuous. “Regardless of my grasp on history, I doubt that public knowledge is wholly consistent with the truth. Consider me a blank slate.”

Swallowing noticeably, Rogers pulled a creased notebook out of the inside pocket of his jacket. “Do you mind? It helps if I draw as I explain,” he clarified.

At Loki’s nod, Rogers began to speak, at first haltingly, and then more avidly as Loki listened without interrupting. He sketched out quick snapshots as he talked.

First, there was a small blond boy, scrawny but with his fists raised, facing down a group of brawny bullies. He was flanked by a shadow, taller, darker, but still lean, knuckles scabbed over. Barnes, Loki learned, had been Rogers’ first rescuer, ally, and brother. As children, they were rarely found apart.

Barnes had insisted on remaining by Rogers’ side, even when the blond had shivered with fever or been repeatedly given mere days to live. The dark-haired boy, jaw squarer now, had always shown up with something unobtainable—an apple, an extra blanket, or a bottle of medicine. Rogers had never dared ask how he had managed to procure such treasures.

And then, as two young men, they had stood side-by-side at a gravestone, heads bowed. A vow sworn. Together. Until the end of the line. Rogers had known that he would reach the end first, and he had been grateful for it. He couldn’t envision a life without Barnes.

Together. Until the end of the line. It was a promise that they had toiled ineffectually to keep. Barnes had been drafted in the war, and Rogers couldn’t follow despite his increasingly desperate efforts. Rogers remembered their last night together, Barnes dressed in his dapper uniform, relief furtively flooding his face when Rogers’ efforts at enlistment had stalled yet again. Beautifully woven fictions had fallen from his lips, promising Rogers the world upon his return.

When Rogers had next seen Barnes, he’d worried that the man wouldn’t recognize him. Captain America towered over the sergeant, but the dark-haired soldier, skin clammy and gaze bleary, had stared up at him from the metal table and had seen Steve Rogers. Rogers had always loved Barnes, but, at that moment, he had fallen so helplessly in love that he had been sure that his heart would burst from within the formidable confines of his new body.

Rogers sketched out snatches of missions and nights of whispered promises and stolen touches. Unnamed desires fueled evenings pressed together and lingering glances in the showers. They had wanted what could never be, not at that time, not for the very recognizable Captain American and the most famous of the Howling Commandos. But they had both known—Barnes had to have known—that someday they would have more. After the war was over, when they were finally permitted to rest, they would have it all.

But then, there was a train. A shield. Barnes fell. It was the end of the line, but for the wrong one.

“Steven,” Loki said when Rogers’ voice trailed off and the man bowed his head, food undisturbed in his many plates, “I know that recounting your history is difficult. Thank you for sharing your story.”

The Captain nodded without looking up. Loki couldn’t see his face, but his shoulders were trembling minutely.

“Will you tell me more about James?” Loki continued gently. “He must have been an extraordinary man for you to fall in love with him.”

Rogers’ voice took on a hint of an accent. “He was. He was the best.”

Loki nodded, silently encouraging him to continue.

Rogers sucked in a deep breath, eyes far away. “Buck could charm anyone. He had this way of talking that made you want to listen, even if he was just running his mouth. People’d look at him and think he was a…a fat-head, but Buck was smart. He’d rather talk his way out of a fight than throw a punch. Every scrap he ever got in, he was trying to protect me.

“Those stupid comics they made of us during the war got him all wrong,” Rogers continued, suddenly furious. “They make it seem like he was going fishing for dames all the time, but he wasn’t. He was with me. We never talked about it, but he showed me clear enough. He chose me over all of them.”

“Naturally,” Loki said soothingly. “I imagine your James went out of his way to care for you, even once you grew bigger.”

“He did,” Rogers said, voice strained now, accent heavy. “He never stopped, even when I didn’t need him to anymore.”

“And you didn’t stop him from trying either. Because you knew it was the only way he could say the words you could never hear.”

Rogers pressed his fist to his mouth, eyes shining as he drank in Loki’s musings.

“He loved you, Steven,” Loki said simply. “He lived for you.”

“And died for me,” Rogers whispered, body shrinking into itself until it was nearly the ghost of pre-serum Rogers staring up at Loki from the other side of the booth. “It should have been me that fell from that train.”

“And that’s why you tried to follow him,” Loki said, connecting the dots. “Surely there was another way to redirect the aircraft you mentioned without sacrificing yourself.”

“There might have been, but I didn’t look for it,” Rogers admitted. “I didn’t want to live without him.”

“And now you’re here,” Loki noted. “You’re alone in a world where you could have been together the way you wanted to be, and you can’t share it with him.”

Rogers’ face contorted with anguish, bringing their surroundings into stark focus. They had miscalculated in choosing a public place. The waitress had been considerate during their meal, had interrupted only to convey their food, meaning that their glasses had long since run dry. But privacy hadn’t been similarly procurable from the agents who had followed them into the diner. They’d been seated on the opposite side of the restaurant, but their frequent selfies just happened to use Loki and Rogers’ booth as a backdrop. The sporadic movement of their lips told him that they were primarily straining to overhear Rogers’ whispered stories.

Loki slid his steak knife under the table as unobtrusively as he could and gritted his teeth, already regretting his unbidden desire to protect this man on the verge of crumbling across from him. The risk was too great. He was already being watched, and Rogers could shift from wreck to suspicious in an instant.

But he’d been where Rogers was now, forlorn and alone, for entire life. He’d faced the same desires, met the same barriers, and reached the same conclusion. Rogers had connected with him, had sensed the same essence of kindred spirits that Loki saw so plainly now. He wouldn’t permit Rogers to regret it.

And so, silently, he slipped the knife under his sleeve and made a shallow cut once, twice, thrice. The spell to disguise and divert was simple, but Loki had not a drop of seiðr to his name at present. Using blood magic, even for something as paltry as a concealment charm, was inordinately depleting, but that was a hurdle for the future.

Spell cast, he slid into Rogers’ side of the booth, careful to keep his bleeding arm in his lap in case his emerald green shirt wasn’t enough to obscure the evidence. Warily, he rested his hand on a trembling shoulder.

Rogers stiffened. “Everyone will see,” the Captain said, voice strangled.

“No one’s watching,” Loki assured him.

The man must have been holding on by a thread because that simple affirmation was enough for him to turn bodily and embed his damp face in Loki’s neck, shoulders heaving. Loki froze, but Rogers didn’t appear to notice. Instead, the Captain’s arms came up to confine him.

Loki closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, endeavoring to curb his inborn proclivity to flee.

“I hate it here,” Rogers whispered unwittingly. “We thought we were fighting the war to end all wars. Bucky died for that, and it didn’t fucking matter. We just built better ways to kill each other.”

Loki hummed ineptly, out of words, and resolved that his mere presence would have to suffice. He had no idea what to do with his hands in this position, but his stance soon became inconsequential. Rogers’ arms squeezed tighter around his ribs, nearly too tight for a normal mortal to endure, but Loki ground his molars together and waited with as much ostensible patience as he could muster. And, presently, the Captain did begin to calm. The grip around Loki’s chest lost some of its constriction, although the neck of his shirt felt rather damp.

At last, Rogers lifted his head and rubbed at his cheeks self-consciously. His eyes were red, but Loki ventured that the irritation would fade within moments, a fortuitous benefit of his enhancement.

“I didn’t mean to be so familiar,” the Captain said without quite meeting his eyes.

“You’ve been dealt a shit hand,” Loki said with a shrug. “Listening is no hardship.”

Rogers smiled at him, crooked and wobbly. “You’re a real pal, you know that?”

“Thank you,” Loki said, shifting uneasily in his seat. “Your company is also…pleasant,” he admitted. For want of a distraction, he snagged one of the so-called onion rings that Rogers hadn’t touched. It had an interesting texture—crunchy yet slimy.

One of Rogers’ large hands moved to rest lightly atop Loki’s uninjured arm, stopping him from reaching for another bite of food. “Maybe we can do this again when I’m back in town?”

“I’d like that, Steven,” Loki confessed as the corners of his lips turned up beyond his control.

He checked his phone idly and was surprised to find that he had been with Rogers for over two hours. Curiously, he had no messages from Stark inquiring about his whereabouts or whining about his stomach. Still, patience was not necessarily one of Stark’s strengths. He should return to the Tower.

“Do keep me apprised of your schedule,” Loki said, tucking his phone back into his pocket. “Would you be terribly upset with me if I took my leave?” At Roger’s puzzled expression, Loki explained, “Anthony has requested that I bring him back a cheeseburger, and I am afraid that he was been waiting for quite some time.”

Rogers’ expression turned fond, and he too seemed keen for some solitude after their conversation. “You’d better get back to him then. I might stick around here for a bit. I didn’t eat much of my lunch.”

After bidding the Captain goodbye, Loki headed to the cash register to pay for the two burger dishes. Fortunately, cheeseburgers were frequently requested at the restaurant, and it took only a moment’s wait for Stark’s order to be boxed and ready.

Loki noticed with no little relief that the agents appeared unaware of his exit and seemingly remained ensnared by his spell. The reprieve was welcome, as his arm was throbbing, and the thrum of artificial energy from the blood magic was rapidly draining. Weariness made his steps drag and his thoughts drift. Thus, at first, he detected nothing abnormal when he boarded the elevator at the Tower.

It was only when he was nearing the penthouse that he realized what was missing.

“JARVIS?” he asked tentatively, accustomed to the A.I.’s greetings upon his arrival and his pointed reviews of the weather forecast for the day.

No response.

“JARVIS?” he called again. “Where’s Anthony?”

Still nothing. Loki vacillated for an instant, allowed himself to entertain the notion of absconding after such a taxing day.

But JARVIS was his friend. And Stark was his…something. He couldn’t abandon them.   

Resolved, he stopped the elevator before it could reach the penthouse. If someone had attempted to infiltrate Stark’s personal floor, the elevator would all but announce his presence. He wasn’t certain which floor contained Stark’s workshop, couldn’t even be sure that Stark had relocated there after his departure. A glance at his phone showed that something was interfering with the reception. He was on his own.

The floor below the penthouse appeared to be a sort of storage area for various materials and discarded items. As he crept toward the stairway that would lead him upstairs, he noticed a box of tools and stopped to search it. Amongst the odd assortment of scrapped hardware was a rusted screwdriver. It wouldn’t be much if he ran into trouble, but he couldn’t access his own daggers without his seiðr.

He stole onto the stairs and slunk up to the penthouse, careful to ensure that the door eased shut soundlessly behind him. At the onset, the floor appeared exactly as they had left it before lunch. The dishes from breakfast remained in the sink, and Stark’s personal technology laid unaltered on the coffee table. Surely, if someone had sought to infiltrate the Tower, they would have tampered with the inventor’s StarkPad in search of information. Perhaps Loki had fretted needlessly. Stark must simply be rebooting JARVIS or performing some sort of maintenance.

For just a moment, Loki allowed his tense shoulders to relax, giving way to granulating fatigue. He’d been a fool to use blood magic and leave himself so utterly defenseless. Yes, Rogers had charmed him, and he had spotted a hint of symmetry in their efforts to hide their more perverse natures, but using blood magic was forbidden for a reason. He barely had the strength to maintain Thomas’ form, let alone consciousness. He was looking forward to collapsing in his bed.

He set the box with Stark’s meal on the coffee table next to his carving and straightened to head to his room.

That’s when he noticed it.

The detail that he had missed.

His door was open.

He always, always closed the door and locked it behind him, accustomed to using every conceivable tool at his disposal to maintain his privacy.

It was open only a crack, but Loki hadn’t left it that way.

Someone was in his room.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t hear anything definitive from the living area, but he was certain that there was someone lurking in his room. While it was possible that they had already absconded and had simply forgotten to close the door, the ability to block JARVIS suggested sophistication. Professionals would not be so negligent as to depart without verifying that everything had been left precisely as they had found it. The infiltrator was likely still here.

His fingers tightened around the screwdriver. Even in his undernourished, magicless state, Loki could defend himself capably enough, but such maneuvering wasn’t realistic for Thomas. If there was a hostile force in his room, he would have to play the part of the frail, sniveling translator, incapable of protecting himself. He loathed the idea of subjecting himself to such vulnerability, but the alternative was submitting to starting over now, and that would require an inordinate amount of effort. It would also mean no more jovial, one-sided conversations with Harold and an end to JARVIS’ placid interference. More importantly, it would mean losing stolen caresses and grandiose gestures and his favorite gummy smile.

So, he could reveal himself only as a last resort, limiting his defense to the constrained capabilities of a normal human.

He crept toward his room, and, as he neared, he could discern the quiet rustling of papers. Nothing about Thomas’ background inhibited him from being stealthy, so he eased the door open noiselessly until the space was wide enough for him to peek inside.

Once Loki had been accorded his own room, Stark had gradually begun to relax security over the journals, eventually permitting him to store his translations in the locked cabinets of his nightstand. After an antique mahogany desk and a plush rolling chair had mysteriously materialized in an empty corner, Loki had seldom elected to use the library for his work. Despite Stark’s assurances, working in the library felt intrusive considering its history.

According to the inventor, the locks on his nightstand were both unpickable and unbreakable. Beyond that, Stark had insisted that JARVIS monitored the floor too closely for a break-in to be feasible, and he had guaranteed that everyone with access to the penthouse could be trusted.

And yet, the person in Loki’s room was the Widow.

Hair blazing vibrant red in the light filtering through the sheer curtains, she flipped to a new page of his precise translations. In her hand, she held a device that resembled a pen. As he watched, she pointed the contraption at the page and clicked, presumably documenting every word.

White noise roared in Loki’s ears as he watched her carefully turn another page with gloved fingers. His own fingers flexed around the screwdriver in his fist as he fought back the impulsive urge to strike. Grinding his molars together, he worked to temper his stance and sweep the rage from his face. He could do this. He could outwit her. He could beat her. For Stark. 

“Agent Romanoff,” he greeted after regaining his composure, heedful of maintaining a mild tone.

The sudden tension in her shoulders was more gratifying than he wanted to admit—it certainly appeared that she hadn’t known that he was there. She unhurriedly released the corner of the page that she had been preparing to turn, evidently exaggerating the movement to distract him from the sleight of hand that saw a newly shorn page of his notebook slipped up her sleeve.

“Hello, Thomas,” she said, voice sickly sweet with feigned friendliness. She had yet to turn around.

Wordlessly, Loki pushed open the door. It creaked in a slow arc until the knob rested against the wall.

She endeavored to match him. Leisurely, she straightened and turned toward him, the demure smile on her lips belying the incisive suspicion in her eyes. He couldn’t help but scoff inwardly at the intentional jutting of her chest, devised to divert him from the way she cocked her arm to send the page that she had stolen further down her sleeve.

Face a blank mask, Loki positioned himself with clearly simulated casualness in the doorway, thankful that he had modeled Thomas after his own build—he took up most of the space.

She cocked a perfectly coifed brow at him.

He settled more comfortably in the doorway, shoulder leaning against the frame.

He couldn’t deny that he felt a little burst of triumph when she spoke first. “It seems that we’re at an impasse, Thomas,” she observed.

He allowed a hum to escape his throat and held her gaze.

“I’m going to leave here with the files,” she said. That eerie smile was still on her face, but Loki had centuries of reading tells. Her weight had shifted the tiniest bit as she assessed him.

Still, he said nothing. His body language blatantly showed that simply leaving wasn’t an option, unless she elected to use force. As both a civilian and, well, whatever he was to Stark, hurting Thomas would be a last resort for her. Despite that, there was breezy confidence about her that was unnerving. Her bluff could have some bite.

She continued after a moment of seemingly serene scrutiny of his face. “Move out of the way,” she said, “or I’ll tell Stark that you’re not who you say you are.”

He felt his eyes widen imperceptibly before he could stop it. And, of course, she caught it. Her lips pulled into a predatory smirk.

“It was almost a perfect cover,” she purred, slinking toward him. “Your story checks out on the surface. Glade Translations is real, and you’re actually employed by the company. Your records lead back to a legitimate orphanage, which conveniently burned down, along with all of their files. The group homes that you supposedly lived in are authentic. No one remembers you, but that’s normal. Children slip through the cracks all the time.” She was close now, words a low hiss that he nearly had to hold his breath to hear. “It’s just too many coincidences,” she said, staring at him with those flat, emotionless eyes. “You’re not who you say.”

He struggled to think past the ringing in his ears, to read between the lines, and to winnow out the inconsistencies. But his blood had chilled in his veins, and his thoughts were staggering, and he didn’t have his seiðr. If he blundered here, there would be no escape. Silently, he counted to five and clenched his fist. The flash of pain from the tendons flexing in his damaged arm grounded him.

“Why would you not already have told him?” Loki pondered aloud, endeavoring to appear sanguine in spite of his racing heart. “Despite your current actions, you care about Anthony. It doesn’t make sense that you wouldn’t have spoken with him if you suspect something.”

A sharp blink—he was on the right track. Her baleful smile had ebbed slightly.

“You have told him,” Loki realized. “And he didn’t care.”

Her jaw flexed the faintest bit, the smile all but gone.

“No, that’s not quite right,” he said, eyes narrow as he gauged the minuscule traces of authentic expression in her posture. “He already knew, didn’t he?”

Her face melted into detachment as she returned to assessing him. “You’re very good,” she noted. Her voice had taken on a new, dangerous edge. “Who are you working for? What do you want with Stark?”          

“I work for Glade Translations,” he stated evenly. “As for what I want with Anthony, I quite simply enjoy his company.”

Her frustration was actually beginning to show, which indicated that her transparency was a ploy. She wanted him to talk.

“You’re perfect for him. Someone employed you to seduce him,” she insisted.

Her hand settled on her hip, where he caught the gleam of a knife handle. Her weight hadn’t shifted in anticipation of a strike, meaning that it was all a ruse, but he made a show of fiddling with his screwdriver so that he could play along with the posturing.

“I’m sure that an ample pair of breasts and a vagina would have been better suited for such a task,” he said mildly, still studying his screwdriver. “Incidentally, weren’t you employed as Anthony’s personal assistant at a certain point?” Loki asked, remembering the offhand comment that Stark had made those months ago. “It’s curious that a S.H.I.E.L.D operative would pursue such a position.”

Her indignation appeared at least partly genuine. Her balled fist trembled. “It was a job.”

“It isn’t for me,” he countered, allowing the screwdriver to drop back to his side. “Are you finished trying to wheedle information from me?”

This time, she did legitimately appear at a loss for words. Rather than the overdramatized, openmouthed horror that had seemingly swindled him on the Helicarrier, real disconcertion took the form of a slight sheen of sweat on her brow and a flexing bicep. Cautiously emboldened, he pushed away from the doorframe and took a sweeping step forward until they were standing chest to chest.

“You will give me your recording device and the page that you tore out of my notebook. You will restore JARVIS. And then, you will leave,” he dictated. “If you’re feeling particularly repentant, you might consider apologizing to Anthony before I speak with him.”

The Widow stared at him silently for a moment. This close, it was apparent that she was wearing contacts.

“You won’t tell him,” she said, lifting her chin defiantly.

“Won’t I?”

“If you tell him about me, I’ll tell him about you.”

“We have established that you already told him about me,” Loki pointed out.

A glint had returned to her eyes. “I have, but don’t you think that it would be suspicious if you leave out parts of the story? What will Stark think if you snitch on me but neglect to mention the rest of our conversation? Don’t you think that he might wonder about your intentions when I tell him that you know that your cover is blown?”

“If he asks, perhaps I will simply tell him the truth,” he said, feigning nonchalance with all that he was worth. “The items, please?”

Even now, he was sure that her show of seething was part of some sort of strategy, but she did relinquish her pilfered effects. He studied her intently for a moment, wondering what he was missing.

“Your contacts,” he realized. “I’ll be needing them as well.”

Her voice, sliding back into that sugary sweetness, told him that he had homed in correctly. “Now, Thomas, you wouldn’t make me walk home blind, would you?”

“I’m sure that you’ll be able to navigate to the elevator successfully, but I would be happy to accompany you,” he offered, matching her tone to the letter. “Your contacts?”

For a moment, he was certain that she was going to refuse him. Violently. He was staring into her eyes, specifically at the barely perceptible gleam that her contacts were emanating, so he caught the instant when her expression turned austere and her gaze wavered to gauge Thomas’ body for weaknesses. He braced himself inwardly, even as, outwardly, Thomas had to remain vulnerable and ignorant.

Her teeth flashed as they bared. “When you betray Stark, I will personally handle your termination,” she promised.

Ah, so he was meeting the true Black Widow at last. Not Nat, or Natasha, or even Agent Romanoff, but the assassin who had flourished in the shadows before Barton’s intervention. He should probably show at the least some consternation at her words. He had no doubt that she meant them.

But instead, he laughed in her face.

Wildly.

And with abandon.

He couldn’t help it. The idea that she could possibly do anything that hadn’t already been done to him was laughable.

His genuine amusement apparently had not been a reaction that she had anticipated. Her assessing stare had turned rather wide as she marveled at him. Rolling his eyes, he held out his hand expectantly.

Her gaze narrowed, but they both knew that he had prevailed. Her skin-tight outfit didn’t allow for any other toys, and she had failed at intimidating him into submission. With a soundless snarl, she ripped the contacts from her eyes before stalking past him, a wave of straight red hair glancing against his shoulder in her wake. He made a show of poking his head through the doorway and adjusting Thomas’ glasses on his face as they waited for the elevator to arrive.

“Don’t forget to restore JARVIS,” he reminded her just before the closing doors obscured her rigid back from view.

Every ounce of poise melted away as soon as he was alone. Groaning, he flung himself on the bed and gathered the comforter around his frame—he was too exhausted even to crawl under the covers. He hurt. Badly. His arm, throbbing and pulsing, ached in time to the blood poisoning that was leeching away his seiðr. Even with rest, expelling the contamination could take hours, if not days. He burrowed into the comforter and labored to quell his trembling along with his racing thoughts.   

Although he had triumphed over the Widow, it didn’t feel quite like victory. How could it when his one sanctuary had been threatened in a myriad of ways? She’d demonstrated that Stark’s security could not thwart her, that there were weaknesses within JARVIS that she and others could exploit, and that her status as an Avenger and as one of Stark’s friends would not prevent her from completing a mission.

But ultimately, the Widow had threatened his relationship with Stark. More accurately, she had shown him cracks that he hadn’t even fathomed. Stark had been so understanding about his desire for privacy. Loki had thought Thomas’ identity airtight when the man had never questioned his documentation.

So, what did Stark’s avoidance of the holes in his story mean? Could the spore be so influential that it had convinced Stark to eschew basic safety? He hoped not, but he could not divine another answer. Stark shouldn’t trust Thomas as wholly as he appeared to, not if he possessed the same information that the Widow had revealed.

In one way, Loki’s use of blood magic was a boon. He was too bone-weary even to attempt consciousness once he settled on the mattress, meaning that his panic could only reach certain curtailed heights. Had he required more power, he might have slept for days, but the paltry amount of magic that he had needed to cast the redirection spell for the Captain allowed a degree of awareness after a few hours. Even then, he only stirred when a splash of light hit his face and the sound of banging from the kitchen reached him. Dread curdled through his body. Stark was here.

His arm still twinged uncomfortably, and a faint burning sensation lingered in his veins, eating every drop of seiðr that he managed to accumulate. Briefly, he considered delaying until he had access to his magic in case he needed to flee. But no, regardless of what the Widow had told Stark, he didn’t believe that he was in any physical danger. The risk laid with being cast out, and no amount of seiðr could protect him from that.

After a brief detour to the bathroom to splash his face with water, he stumbled into the hall and was baffled to see through the windows that the sky outside was dark. Had he really slept for so long?

When he entered the dining area, Stark had his back to him and was microwaving something that smelled like burnt cardboard. He noted with some trepidation that the man’s shoulders were tense where he braced himself against the counter. Head bowed, Stark’s hands were clenched into taut, palpitating fists. The box with Stark’s cheeseburger and fries had been moved to the kitchen counter, but it appeared unopened.

“Anthony?” he asked hesitantly, taking a step into the room.

Bafflingly, Stark actually flinched bodily and pivoted, mouth gaping. “Tommy?” he asked, eyes wide. “I…I didn’t know that you were still here.”

“I thought that you wanted me to come back after lunch with Steven,” Loki ventured. Had his invitation already been rescinded?

“I did! I do!” Stark was suddenly a whirlwind of motion, opening various cabinets. “You weren’t in the living room when I came in, and your light was off, and I got caught up in the workshop. I guess I thought that you’d left.”

Loki dared to creep closer, disconcerted by the jolts and lurches of Stark’s movement.

“I was just going to have a tv dinner, but I can fix something, maybe. JARVIS usually keeps the pantry stocked.”

“You should have the ingredients to make turkey sandwiches, Sir,” JARVIS interjected smoothly.

“Right, right. Sandwiches. I can do sandwiches.” Stark rushed to the refrigerator and started perusing the contents.

As Loki neared, he could hear the near frantic way that Stark was breathing, and, despite his own unease, he couldn’t bear seeing the man in such a state. Wordlessly, he stepped up behind the inventor and wrapped his arms around his waist. Stark froze, back to Loki’s chest, stiff in his grasp.

“Anthony, breathe,” he murmured into Stark’s ear, making the other man shudder. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

Laggardly but gratifyingly, the man relaxed within the circle of Loki’s arms. A calloused hand rested lightly atop his, blunt fingers trailing lightly over his knuckles.

“Something happened to JARVIS,” the inventor confided softly. “He was due for some upgrades today, so I decided to do it while you were gone. The reboot was only supposed to last for a minute, but he was offline for nearly an hour. It has to be sabotage, but I can’t figure out how they could have gotten in or what they were trying to take.”

Loki concealed his face on Stark’s shoulder as he considered. Unless the inventor was actively attempting to deceive him, which Loki doubted based on the tangible frustration in Stark’s words, then the Widow hadn’t confessed to her duplicity. She was calling Loki’s bluff, and, for a moment, he was tempted to accept the out. He was comfortable with his current relationship with the engineer. He could be content enough if nothing changed.

But he would also second-guess Stark’s every reaction now that he knew the truth. What’s more, it would be conferring the Widow leverage. She would know that he had hidden her treachery to conceal his own deception, and it would cement in her mind that he held nefarious intentions. She would find a way to manipulate their altercation and, ultimately, to use it against him.

The threat in the short-term was negligible. If he was truly intending to abscond after his translation work was complete, maintaining a low profile made sense. He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed in deeply, mollified by the scent of motor oil and hazelnut seeping into his nose.

He could admit that he didn’t want to return to his mundane life as another faceless man at Glade Translations. Neither did he desire to start over and pursue a likely even more banal existence under a new identity. Stark made his life interesting. He valued the man’s unpredictability, his cunning, his clandestine kindness.

No, that was an excuse.

In truth, he liked Stark.

He liked Stark a lot.

And he wanted desperately to believe that Stark cared about him above and beyond the influence of the spore.

He thought that maybe a part of him did believe that.

But if he refused to lose Stark later by pacifying the Widow now, he had to take a risk right here.

His grip around Stark’s chest tightened involuntarily, stemming the jumble of words streaming out of the inventor’s mouth.

“Are you mad at me?” Stark asked suddenly, turning his nose into the crook of Loki’s jaw. It made the fallen god squirm and loosen his hold slightly, permitting Stark to spin and enfold Loki’s waist in his own arms.

“You always think me angry,” Loki pointed out wearily, allowing himself one last moment to relish the intimacy between them.

“Well, yeah, but that’s because I have a history of being an asshole, remember? And you spent your money on this cheeseburger that I didn’t eat. I wouldn’t blame you for being pissed.” Stark’s nose skimmed over Loki’s ear this time, making him shiver.

“That would be rather childish considering what happened to JARVIS,” Loki said, trying to focus past Stark’s breath on his skin.

“It’s just what I think happened to JARVIS,” Stark sighed. “I can’t prove anything yet.”

Loki squeezed his eyes shut. “What if I can?” he whispered.

He heard the refrigerator close, but, otherwise, only the sound of the man’s breathing colored the sudden stillness between them. Stark’s grip around his waist slowly tightened until it was nearly bruising.

“What do you mean, Tommy?” Stark asked at last, voice seemingly reverberating in the silence.

Loki’s stomach twisted at the blandness of the man’s tone, and, abruptly, he couldn’t tolerate the restraints on his skin. He broke out of Stark’s embrace with some effort and took a guarded step toward the counter. “I came back while JARVIS was off,” he said, addressing his socked feet. “I knew that something was wrong. JARVIS always speaks with me when I enter the Tower.”

Stark shifted toward him, and he turned automatically, back hunching in anticipation. “Hey, hey, easy.” The fingers that traced his spine were as gentle as always, making him shudder. “What’s wrong?”

There it was again—Stark inexplicably excusing his weakness rather than pressing him for information. Nevertheless, the man’s concern fueled him to continue.

“Anthony,” he whispered, “there was someone in the penthouse when I returned. Someone was searching my room.”

Stark’s fingers on his back gnarled into claws. “What?” he hissed.

Loki hesitated, taken aback by the sudden display of vehemence. “Anthony, it’s alright—”

“Did they hurt you?” Stark’s hands flew into rapid motion, fluttering across his ribs, his back. “Why is there blood on your sleeve?”

“It’s not from that,” Loki protested, clutching his arm to his chest protectively. “No one hurt me, Anthony. She was after information.”

When he peeked behind him, Stark’s gaze was still focused on the dried blood dotting his shirt. “What kind of information?”

“The journal. I suppose that my involvement made her curious.”

“‘Her.’ You keep saying ‘her.’ Who are we talking about here?”

Stark’s voice had adopted a vicious edge that made Loki’s belly roil ferociously. “The Widow,” he murmured. “It was the Widow in my room.”

The immediate onslaught of quiet made Loki shiver. Stark stepped closer to him, and although Loki didn’t truly think that the man would hurt him, the palpable tension between them made him cringe. After a moment, Stark broke away with a snarl. The sound of cabinets slamming forcibly shut provoked a hurried retreat. A tentative glance back found the inventor briskly pacing the confines of the kitchen.

“Anthony?” he ventured quietly, unable to hide a slight tremor in his voice.

“Just give me a second, Tommy,” Stark growled.

Licking his lips, Loki continued to back out of Stark’s vicinity, body reacting instinctively to the show of rage. His calves hit the arm of the couch, halting his withdrawal, and he sank into the cushions, relieved to have some semblance of defense at his back. Legs pressed against his ribs protectively, he watched as Stark prowled the boundaries of the room and awaited the inevitable fallout.

Finally, after several circuits, Stark beelined for the couch.

“You said that you have evidence,” he said, voice dangerously low.

“Yes. I stopped her,” Loki said, keeping his eyes focused on the coffee table and his Iron Man figure. “She was taking pictures and recording video. I left everything on my nightstand.”

Stark whirled, and then paused, shoulders tight. “Do you mind if I go into your room?”

Loki blinked at him. “Why would I mind? It’s your home.”

“Yeah, but it’s your home, too. Your room belongs to you.”

“It is not my home, Anthony,” Loki scoffed.

“Of course, it is!” Stark was back in front of him and kneeling in an instant. “Hey, what’s going on?”

“Nothing.” Loki shut his eyes to block out the man’s plaintive concern. “I give you permission to enter my room. Does that suffice?”

“Well, yeah, but you’re kind of freaking out.” Stark’s fingers traced his knuckles, coaxing him into loosening his grip on his knees. “You don’t think that I’m angry at you, do you?” When Loki didn’t answer, the man leaned forward and wrapped gentle fingers around the fallen god’s ankles. “Baby, no. I’m not mad at you. I just…damn it, Tommy, I thought that you were safe here.” A peek up at Stark found him rubbing at his heart, near the location of the spore.

Loki frowned down at his lap. “I’m fine, Anthony,” he said after a moment. “Someone entered your…our home without your knowledge or permission. But no one hurt me. I am safe.” He lifted his head, his teeth bared in a caricature of a smile. “Besides, I’m more capable of protecting myself than you seem to think.”

Stark’s answering smile—more of grimace, really—matched his own expression well. “I don’t doubt that,” the inventor said. “But you shouldn’t feel like you have to defend yourself, not here.

Loki cocked his head to the side, trying to piece apart the meaning behind the man’s rough tone. “It’s not your fault, Anthony,” he said at last

“Yeah, I know,” Stark said with a flippant wave of his hand. “Listen, I’ll be right back. I want to see these pictures.”

With a final squeeze to Loki’s ankles, the inventor strode toward the dark hallway, steps still noticeably heavier than usual. Loki heard him flip the light switch in his room. And then came the silence, thick and foreboding. After several perilous minutes, the man returned, contacts, pen, and the shorn page of Loki’s notebook in hand. Stark’s expression had reached thunderous heights.

“JARVIS, can you analyze this?” The man’s voice was surprisingly steady considering his white knuckled hands.

“Certainly, Sir.”

Diagrams populated the space in front of the couch, a collage of pictures and silent videos. Loki recognized shots of his room, his bathroom, the view of the outside from his windows. And then close-ups of his furniture, focused on the touches of personalization that characterized the various pieces of decor. A photo of his nightstand was followed by a catalogue of images capturing pages of Loki’s translations and the accompanying journal entries. Other streams showcased videos, clips of his confrontation with the Widow, zoomed in on Thomas’ face.

“The timestamps for the images and video match the period during which I was offline, Sir,” JARVIS reported.

Loki hugged his legs and watched Stark out of the corner of his eye. The man’s face was downright murderous now, the loose positioning of his legs belying the severe straightening of his spine.

“I don’t want you to take this wrong because I don’t blame you, but why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?” Stark asked at last, breaking the taut silence. “This happened hours ago, Tommy.”

Loki desperately wished not to lie, but he couldn’t tell the entire truth, couldn’t reveal that his use of blood magic had essentially enforced a healing coma. He rested his chin on his knees, eyes clenched shut as he agonized over an answer.

“I suppose that I was scared,” he admitted quietly.

“Scared?” Stark repeated in that flat voice that made Loki’s body languish on the edge of flight. “Of Romanoff? Did she fucking threaten you?” A trembling fist pounded into the armrest on the opposite side of the couch, making Loki flinch. “I’ll fucking kill her,” Stark hissed.

“I…” Loki licked his lips uncertainly, disconcerted by the spore-fueled show of aggression. “No, Anthony, the Widow doesn’t frighten me. She simply told me unfortunate truths.”

“What truths? Romanoff lies, Tommy. You can’t believe a word she says.” Stark’s fingers tangled into his messy hair, yanking at the chocolate brown strands viciously. “I thought she’d changed, but she’s still a goddamn snake. I can’t believe that I trusted her with you.”

“She wasn’t lying,” Loki disputed softly, “at least not about this.”

“What?” Stark asked, voice taking on a tinge of desperation. “What did she say to you?”

Loki focused his gaze on his carving on the table. When he spoke, his voice sounded so very distant, even to him. “She said that you know. About me. You know that my records are a lie. That my past is a lie.”

Stark sucked in a sharp breath, stance rigid beside him.

“I’ve always been very good at identifying lies, you see. It’s a sort of specialty of mine.” He inhaled a gust of air through his nose and propped his cheek upon his knees so that he could observe Stark unimpeded. “But I had no idea that you had seen through me. I was so convinced that you trusted me, and that, perhaps in this life, I could be deserving of your confidence.” He smiled at Stark, the expression hollow on his face. “I was doomed from the start, though, wasn’t I? You would have conducted a background check on me at the beginning of our acquaintance. You must have known about me for months.”

“Tommy,” Stark protested, hand making an aborted attempt at bridging the expanse between them. He swallowed hard, all traces of aggravation gone and anguish taking its place. “It wasn’t like that, okay? I wasn’t acting. I do trust you. Implicitly.”

“Then why not tell me?” Loki asked, hurt seeping into his voice despite his effort at impassivity.

“Because I know you. I don’t give a shit about the details of your past unless you want to share them with me. You’ve told me about your past with your actions. I don’t need more than that until you’re ready.”

“How can you say that?” Loki whispered.

“How could I not?” When Loki simply stared at him, Stark edged closer, eyes shining with an indistinguishable emotion. “Remember that guy who you met a couple of months ago in that sandwich shop? The guy who tricked you into working for him? I think we both know that he wasn’t Tony Stark. I can’t say that I regret everything because I’m pretty sure that you wouldn’t have given me the time of day without a push. But the way I went about inserting myself into your life, that was pretty fucked up. I honestly can’t explain what happened back then.”

Loki searched the other man’s gaze for duplicity and found none. It was baffling. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Because once you started getting to know the real me, you gave me a chance. Why wouldn’t I do the same for someone as amazing as you?”

“It’s not the same, Anthony,” he hissed. Loki jerked Thomas’ glasses from his face and flung them onto the table. “I told you. I’m a monster. I’m not worthy of all of this.”

“See, saying things like that tells me all I need to know. Someone in your past was the real monster, and they told you that shit until you believed it.” Stark’s hands twitched again, evidently fighting reaching for Loki’s skin. “They better hope that they never meet me. I will destroy them.”

Loki buried his face in his lap, scoffing wordlessly.

“I also think that you fabricating your records has nothing to do with me.” The cushions on the couch creaked as Stark adjusted his position. “I think that you’re running away from the bastard who hurt you.” Then softer, almost too gentle, “am I right?”

Loki’s body had become so compact that he could feel own heart pounding. “Yes,” he whispered.

“I thought so,” Stark said.

When Loki lifted his head, he found that Stark had shifted to sit with his back to the opposing armrest, providing Loki with more space. “That’s all you’re going to say?” Loki asked incredulously.

“I mean, yeah. It’s not because of me, so I have no right to know more. Trust me, I’m all ears whenever you want to talk to me, but that’s because I care about you. I don’t get to dictate when and how you share anything.”

“What if I want to tell you now?” he challenged.

“Do you?” Stark asked bluntly.

Loki closed his eyes as he considered. On the one hand, he was indisputably exhausted. The sequence of events over the last twenty-four hours felt like more than enough stress for a lifetime, let alone a day.

But if he didn’t disclose something to Stark now, he doubted that he would ever deliberately broach the subject again. And without some assurance that Stark would accept Loki, even if he crafted an amended, Midgardian version of his history, how could he possibly justify this dalliance as anything but a farce?

Beyond that, though, he had never trusted anyone with a narrative of his life, certain that any would-be ally would side against him. Regardless of Stark’s words, Loki’s past was part of him. It had shaped him. It had defined him. How could Stark align with him without knowing how he came to be?

“I want to tell you,” Loki whispered. “I just don’t know how to start.”

“Well, how about this first?” Stark said with an amiable smile. “Do you want me to stay over here or can I touch you?”

Loki would deny to his dying breath the rush of relief that he felt at the overture. Still, he lurched almost immediately across the couch to press his ear against the device in Stark’s chest. Chuckling, Stark pulled at the resulting tangle of limbs until Loki was sprawled comfortably atop the other man. For a moment, they lay in silence as the inventor’s clever fingers found Thomas’ curls. Loki contemplated dozens of cover stories, only to reject them as they were either too far from or too close to the truth. 

“Can I guess before you start?” Stark asked.

Loki squinted at him. “What do you mean?”

“I have a theory about you,” Stark admitted, pillowing his head on his free arm. “I’m, like, seventy percent sure that I’m right.” The man cocked his head, a mischievous grin on his face. “Maybe seventy-five percent.”

Loki rolled his eyes, although he was privately grateful for the reprieve. “Fine. Tell me your theory.”

“Runaway mobster,” Stark said immediately.

“A…mobster?” Loki repeated, dumbfounded.

“Yeah. I mean, you’re a brilliant one, obviously, but it totally makes sense. Do you want to hear why?” Stark paused, peeked at Loki’s skeptical expression, and continued on. “Okay, so, first, you’ve totally been around people who have money. You don’t blink at anything I have, even when I’m trying to impress you. That’s not normal, Tommy! People care when they see a Lamborghini limousine! Do you have any idea how awesome that car is? Happy is so protective of it that he barely lets me look at it.”

“Or maybe,” Loki said dryly, “I just don’t give a shit about cars.”

“Yeah, maybe, but then we have the next piece of evidence. Second—”

“Anthony, this is ridiculous—”

Second, you don’t like the Avengers. Only criminals—well, former criminals, in your case—don’t like the Avengers.”

“Plenty of people don’t like the Avengers,” Loki scoffed.

“Name one non-criminal.”

Loki…couldn’t.

“See!” Stark crowed. “And then we have our third point.”

“Can’t wait,” Loki groused.

Third,” Stark continued, undeterred. “You’ve outwitted Romanoff twice. Not only at cards but also when she was doing her actual spy thing. No one can outwit Romanoff.”

“She’s not a god, Anthony,” Loki grumbled. “And she was threatening you and JARVIS.”

“Aww,” Stark cooed, hugging Loki to his chest. “My hero.”

“Your evidence is purely circumstantial,” Loki said, voice muffled by Stark’s shirt pressed against his face. “That’s being generous.”

“Nun-uh. I’m totally right.”

And, well, despite Loki’s protests, he could work with such a cover. He settled more comfortably on his Stark-shaped pillow, considered how to render his story in a comparable Midgardian format, and opened his mouth to speak.

“I was raised in a world that valued violence above all else,” he began carefully. “My first toys were weapons, my first memories of bloodshed. I was taught that these things were normal and that if I wanted to survive, I had to conform. As the second son of our leader, I was expected both to rule and to follow, but, ultimately, I was to defer to my brother in all things, regardless of the destruction that his decisions caused.”

Loki chuckled bitterly, fingers tracing an invisible rune into Stark’s bicep. “I hated following. My brother was a fool. He would choose the path destined to cause the utmost devastation despite my council. It was infuriating.”

Stark’s arm wound around his waist and squeezed tightly. When Loki craned his neck, he found the man’s eyes guileless, simply listening. It was…heartening.

“Anyway,” Loki continued, “I grew up knowing that there was something different about me, a wrongness that separated me from the rest of the children who were training. Our every lesson revolved around the art of annihilation. From an early age, we learned how to wield every weapon in my father’s arsenal, catalogued the best ways to cause pain and the most proficient methods of killing.

“I was good at some things. I was proficient enough with daggers, and I was a skilled manipulator even then. I would find loopholes in my instructors’ directives so that I could engage in the activities that I actually enjoyed. That’s how I learned woodcarving,” he remembered with a surge of fondness. “They told me that I needed to practice my knifework, and carving involved knives. I thought that I was so very clever…until my brother and his friends found my hiding place. Seeing my creations utterly destroyed dissuaded me from continuing that particular hobby.”

The arm around his waist constricted. A glance at Stark’s face found a turbulent sort of haze tightening the skin around the man’s eyes. “Anthony?” he asked hesitantly.

“I’m fine, Tommy,” Stark said, voice surprisingly steady. He pushed a wayward ginger curl off of Thomas’ forehead. “Keep going.”

Frowning, Loki considered the man, but all hints of wrath had dissolved from Stark’s expression, leaving unobtrusive expectancy in its place.

“If they neglected to give me a direct order,” Loki resumed after a moment, “I would steal away to my family’s library. Most of the books described war tactics or accounts of our ancestors, but I enjoyed fantasizing about adventuring to distant lands. When I ran out of texts, I tried talking to the adult recruits. Some of them were foreigners, and it only took a little wheedling for them to talk to me in their native tongues. I could sit for hours listening to them.

“Perhaps my father could have accepted that I was different from the rest if the extent had been a love for books, knowledge, and a bit of rebelliousness. He could have warped my skills to suit his needs easily enough, even if he found my methods to be unworthy. But I had another perversion.”

Loki flattened his palm over Stark’s heart and felt it pulse evenly against his skin. It grounded him.

“The first time that he found me with another boy, I thought that he would kill me. I had witnessed the force of my father’s wrath enough times to fear him. He would never suffer anyone tarnishing his reputation, not even me.”

Loki shut his eyes against the memories, ears ringing with the echo of stolen laughter and elegiac screams. “After my father’s…intervention, I endeavored with all of my might to make sure that I never did anything to infuriate him like that again. I protected my brother, put up with his insufferable friends, slept only with women. But I suppose that I grew more careless as it became clear that I would never inherit true leadership. Rumors started to spread about my dalliances with men. Those relationships were nothing serious, at least not to my partners. Ultimately, they all wanted to gain my favor, obtain access to my family, or experiment themselves. Nothing concrete reached my father’s ears, which was enough to keep him from punishing me outright most of the time, but it also kept me from his favor.”

A calloused finger brushed against the soft skin underneath Loki’s eyes, making him flinch and focus on Stark’s face. The inventor’s jaw was clenched so tightly that tendons protruded on his neck. Wordlessly, Stark gathered him close and hugged him to his chest, and Loki allowed himself to cling to the man, in turn, for just a moment.

“You don’t have to keep going if you don’t want to,” Stark whispered.

Loki felt his brow furrow. “What do you mean? I’m fine.”

Stark took his hand gingerly between both of his own. “Tommy, you’re shaking.”

He…was. He hadn’t realized.

“You can stop,” Stark offered again.

Loki knew that if he took the out, he would never recommence sharing his story. And then, he would never be able to trust that Stark could value his company for any reason but to placate the spore. He needed Stark to accept him as close to wholly as he could come without exposing the entire truth. He wanted desperately to stop, but he had to persist.  

After another minute to gather himself, Loki took a deep breath and continued. “My brother was obviously preferred as my father’s successor despite being so headstrong. He was more muscle than strategist. His every plan relied on brute force, and he refused to acknowledge when my resources saved him. It was maddening, but I endured because I loved my brother, and I thought that he might love me enough to let me be myself. I thought that maybe under his leadership, I would be allowed more freedoms, and so I pacified him as best I could.

“But when the time came for him to inherit my father’s helm, it was too soon. Too much blood would have been spilled at his behest. So, I conspired with a rival group to delay his ascension. I believed that he might mellow with just a little more time.”

Loki’s fingers threaded into Stark’s collar as he recalled demeaning himself with luring the jötnar into his father’s vault. He’d simply desired a delay, not to humiliate Thor or to arouse his father’s ire. He’d felt certain that Thor’s bloodlust would ebb with just another century or two, and that perhaps his brother would soften toward Loki’s sexual inclinations. He’d erred. Massively.

“I miscalculated,” he admitted out loud. “My brother’s reaction to his deferral was beyond anything that I had ever feared. He dragged me with him to demand fealty from this rival group. It was…violent. He wouldn’t listen to my attempts at mollifying him. And their leader…he looked like me, so much like me.”

Stark’s grip on his hand had become more insistent, thumb soothing over a convulsing fist. Loki ignored the grounding touch, too immersed in recalling his stunned horror and then the rush of numbing rage. 

“Afterwards, I confronted my father and convinced him to tell me the truth. I learned that he had stolen me as a baby. I was intended to be a mere tool, meant to enforce my biological father’s fealty and, ultimately, for installation as a puppet. And my biological father, whipped and weak as he was, left me there as a hostage. It wasn’t fear for me that kept him from stepping out of line but, rather, lack of opportunity. He didn’t give a fuck about me. No one gave a fuck about me.”

Loki watched the path of Stark’s thumb as it traced over his knuckles. The pattern was rhythmic, soothing, but he could barely feel it.

“It broke me. I had always known that I was second-best, but I had at least believed that I had a place with my family as long as I followed their rules.” A laugh, embittered and mirthless, left his lips before he could stop it. “I think that I went a little insane in the fallout. I…I did things that completely contradict everything that I believe.”

In the wake of Thor’s victory over the Destroyer and then Laufey’s death at Loki’s hands, Loki had felt overcome, helpless to suspend his downfall. The desperation that had been building since Jotunheim had finally crushed what remained of his cunning and all rational attempts at self-preservation. For his entire life, the fact that he was somebody, the son of Odin Allfather, had been enough for him to ignore the snubs and snide remarks. His inclinations had always been labeled monstrous, but the physical manifestation of that reality, the fact that he truly was nothing but a monster, proved impossible to surmount. He had to demonstrate that he was loyal to the Allfather above all else. No one could doubt his loyalty if he erased all ties to his origins at the root.

“When that failed, I tried to leave. I intended to end everything. I just wanted it to be over,” Loki continued out loud. His body had moved beyond trembling and into shuddering that must have been unpleasant for Stark beneath him. “I didn’t get far before I was caught by another of my father’s enemies. They were a covert group, beaten long ago, but they took me, and for some reason, I was confident that my family would rescue me. I resisted my captors for as long as I could, certain that my brother would arrive at any moment to bring me back. I knew that my father’s punishment would be severe, but nothing could compare to that prison.”

Abruptly, he couldn’t bear the feeling of Stark’s body pressed against him. He wrenched away until his back found the opposite armrest, and, when that wasn’t far enough, he surged to his feet. The cool glass of the ceiling-high windows soothed the burning heat of his cheek.

“Tommy—” Stark began, unmistakable worry in just that single word. Loki didn’t deserve it.

“I’d had sex before,” he interrupted, voice a strangled croak. “With men and women. I preferred men, but those liaisons had always had to be secret, splashes of halfhearted pleasure in the dark.” Idly, he traced a smudged rune into the clear glass, one that should numb the pain if he had any power. It had never worked in the Other’s dungeons either. “The things that they did to me, I didn’t know that such things were possible. I was simply a toy to them, one that arrived already broken. If they broke me again, they thought that they could shape me into whatever they wanted.”

“Tommy,” Stark said again. It was only the single word. Choked. Horrified.

“So, I bided my time,” Loki continued flatly. “I let them believe me theirs, degraded myself until I could scarcely bear to exist, but eventually they trusted me. They weren’t expecting that enough of me was left to betray them, but I managed it. Spectacularly.”

He laughed indignantly, the sound reverberating strangely in the silent room. “And that’s when my brother made his grand entrance to take me back. Not for sanctuary, but for my father to pass judgment. I was the very definition of perversion, you see, and my father wanted me locked away where I could never sully his standing again. He thought that I was still the weak, sniveling creature who had so desperately catered to him for even a morsel of attention.”

Loki studied Stark’s reflection through the glass. Somehow, the man had ended up mirroring Loki’s position from the beginning of the night, legs pulled up to his chest, face half-hidden by his knees.

“I escaped, and I created a new identity under their noses using the talents that they thought so useless.” The smile that overtook Loki’s face was far from false, and the curl of elation in his gut was entirely genuine. “I escaped,” he whispered again, “and they are never going to find me again. I will die first.”

Behind him, he could hear Stark breathing in ragged gasps, but, otherwise, it was completely quiet. He rested his forehead against the glass and studied the city below. If he squinted, he could almost believe that the twinkling lights beneath them were stars.

“I don’t know what to say,” Stark said at last. The cushions squeaked as the man labored to his feet. “I don’t want to make it worse, but I…shit, Tommy. Of course, you’re never going back to them. I can help you, if you let me.”

“I didn’t tell you so that you could help me or so that you could pity me.” The impassivity in his voice perfectly reflected the rising detachment spreading throughout his body. “I just want you to know that the person that you consider a friend is a monster. I’m filthy, and perverse, and you shouldn’t associate with me.” He forced himself to shrug insouciantly. “Now that you know, maybe you won’t.”

“Fuck no,” Stark said. Where Loki’s voice was empty, Stark’s was fervent, brimming with earnest ferocity. “I don’t want to hear that bullshit. You are amazing, the most amazing person that I have ever met.” The man was behind him now, breath ghosting across Loki’s neck. “You survived something horrible. Hell, you survived a lifetime of horrors. I admire you, Tommy.”

Loki scoffed mutely. “I am not a good person, Anthony. And you are an Avenger. I won’t blame you if you want nothing to do with me.”

“I was also the Merchant of Death once upon a time.” Stark stepped up beside him, fingers tracing the image of a missile into the glass beside Loki’s rune. “I rebranded myself, and that’s exactly what you’re trying to do, isn’t it? You just want to start over?”

“I’m not as noble as all that,” Loki sighed. “I just don’t want to hurt anymore.”

“Fine. Same difference. You’re not about that life anymore. Now you’ve got crappy classical music, a collection of the most tedious books imaginable, and me. Can’t forget about me.” When Loki’s exasperated gaze found Stark in the window, the inventor was smiling, and the expression was only partially strained. “I’m not going to reject you or whatever else you were expecting. I like you. A lot.” The engineer’s smile transitioned into a sly grin. “I think that maybe you like me, too.”

Loki couldn’t help it. An answering smile broke through the crushing numbness, making him roll his eyes to play it off. “Shut up, Stark.”

“Stark, huh?” The other man held up his hands in playful surrender. “Touched a nerve there, didn’t I?”

Stark.”

“You do like me,” Stark crowed. “Tommy, you really like me!”

He knew that Stark was being utterly ridiculous simply to fill the space and ease the tension. It was a kindness in the man’s own absolutely obnoxious way.

“I don’t have to listen to this,” Loki grumbled, stepping past him toward the kitchen. He had been promised a sandwich.

They worked together to make their dinner, Stark relegated to spreading mayonnaise on the bread. The inventor made not a sound, and Loki could not relax. The man was likely contemplating Loki’s story, potentially second-guessing his promises.

“Can I just say one more thing?” Ah, here it was.

“Fine,” Loki spat, focusing on slicing a tomato with an overly large steak knife.

“I called it,” Stark said gleefully. “You’re totally running from the mob.”

Loki rolled his eyes again. Hard. “I am not a member of any crime syndicate, Anthony.”

“Well, yeah, not anymore, but you totally were.”

Loki sniffed delicately and returned to his food preparation. He couldn’t help but feel lighter when Stark bumped their hips together with a salacious wink. Perhaps nothing had to change.

Chapter Text

Everything changed in the following weeks.

First, security at the Tower had tightened exponentially. Harold had recruited a new security team composed entirely of personally recommended hires from Colonel Rhodes. He had also attempted to assign Loki a personal guard, which the fallen god had vehemently declined. The private elevator now required handprint and retinal scans to enter, and the penthouse was accessible only to Loki, Potts, and Stark without special permission.

The Widow had been strongly encouraged to relocate from the Tower. JARVIS, who had manifestly warmed to Loki since his confrontation with her, surreptitiously provided Loki with the surveillance video of her attempt to sunder his relationship with Stark. The inventor had taken great pleasure in cackling obnoxiously in her face when she had voiced her speculation that Loki was an enemy operative. And JARVIS had immortalized her affronted reaction to Stark’s enthusiastic amusement—complete with a stamping foot and obstinately crossed arms—from several angles on the refrigerator. The A.I. had also requested Loki’s input in changing the spy’s phone wallpaper to rotating scenes from Joking Hazard. Loki had not heard of the game and had been suitably horrified when JARVIS had provided visual examples of the cards.

Unfortunately, despite Stark’s efforts at protection from within the Tower, Loki had acquired a series of tails whenever he left. Granted, he seldom ventured outside of his apartment, but he had begun to observe the same faces following him doggedly around the grocery store. They stared just a bit too fixedly at the magazine rack selection or selected bananas slightly too laggardly to be anything other than plants. He had toyed with the idea of informing Stark, but their efforts thus far had appeared perfunctory at best, and independence was too important for him to abdicate without a legitimate concern. Stark would panic, of course he would while under the influence of the spore. There was no need to worry him without any real provocation.

He had reached the same tentative conclusion about his progress with the journals. After he had completed decrypting the first journal, a dilemma had presented itself.

Loki believed that the prisoner with whom the writer of the journals was so enthralled was James Barnes.

The final entry had recounted a confrontation that had concluded with the writer’s capture and the suspected death of his subject. The setting had sounded eerily familiar—a train, a shield, death by falling. It was too similar to the story that Rogers had shared those weeks ago.  

If the extent of his suspicion had been about the identity of the prisoner, he would have documented it and informed Stark immediately. He may even have requested permission to speak with Rogers about his findings. But the implications of the previous journal entries effectuated a more sinister supposition.

Barnes might actually have survived his plummet down the mountain.

If the writer’s experiment worked as described, there was the slightest chance that Barnes might have lived, and that prospect was devastating. Rogers, who already wrestled with tremendous guilt over the sergeant’s death, would be shattered by such knowledge. Even if Barnes had survived, he had likely succumbed to the elements, so there was no need to incite such contrition just yet. Loki hoped that the next journal might hold more answers, but, unfortunately, it was locked by a new cipher which he had yet to decode.

The most profound change over the last few weeks concerned his relationship with Stark.

While the inventor’s touches came at a similar frequency, the meaning behind them appeared to have morphed. If Loki and Stark were in the same room, Loki could practically guarantee that the man’s hand would promptly find his skin. Stark still touched him as though he was inordinately delicate, but now there was a deliberate tenderness to each stroke that made him feel coveted. During their quiet moments together, he caught glimpses of a new expression on the man’s face. It smoldered like lust, but it didn’t manifest into sexual advances. Mostly, Stark just seemed to want to be near him as much as possible.  

Loki could privately admit that he wanted that, too.

And so, he assented to Stark’s touches and braved initiating some of his own. He said nothing when he noticed that Stark’s gaze found him more often, followed him nearly unerringly whether he was near or far. He accepted the man’s increasingly frequent invitations until he was spending more nights at the penthouse than his own apartment.

Importantly, Stark appeared to desire Loki’s company despite his progression with the spore. After several weeks of working until depletion, the stubborn seed had definitively decreased in mass. And as it declined, it responded less intensely and less often, until Loki began to believe that it may not be responsible for Stark’s every reaction to him. Sometimes, it failed to activate at all when Stark and he were together.  

Despite the spore’s weakening influence, Stark remained interested in Loki. In fact, he seemed to be more interested than ever.

And Loki continued to like Stark.

A lot.

He just wished that Stark could truly value Loki, not Loki as Thomas. Furtively, he began to relinquish all but the most essential aspects of his guise. First, he permanently disposed of his glamour’s glasses. Stark had reacted by gawking in Loki’s direction when he thought that the fallen god was distracted. Next, he ceased hiding the extent of his intelligence and began to engage in more advanced conversations with the inventor, even making a suggestion or two when he recognized miniscule flaws in the man’s designs. Several nights had ended in genial debates, wherein Stark’s eyes had shone, and his face had flushed, and his pulse had quickened, all because Loki could match him.

As the weeks passed, Stark stared at him more avidly, talked with him more frequently, and sought him out more consistently. And Loki craved the acceptance and accompanying intimacy more fervently than every drug that he had discovered on any of the Nine Realms.

It was currently late afternoon near the end of June, and Loki was close to deciphering the code that locked the second journal. The decryption process, while tedious, was still suspiciously straightforward. The solutions came too readily to his mind, making him suspect a nefarious connection that he endeavored not to consider further. He predicted that he would be ready to begin translating the second journal by the end of the week.

Hours of bending over the cramped writing wreaked havoc on his spine, and so he left his room with the intention of locating Stark and wheedling a massage out of the man. In his previous dalliances with partners, he’d learned never to ask for what he wanted lest his desires be used against him. But Stark always seemed willing to oblige him with no strings attached.

His search ended up being abbreviated as he found Stark sleeping just outside on the couch. When Loki was present, the man tended to attempt more conventional hours. However, JARVIS had covertly reported that Stark’s sleeping schedule remained erratic when Loki spent the night at his own apartment. Even when the god remained within the Tower, finding Stark dozing in random locations around the penthouse wasn’t exactly unusual. However, he’d noticed that the couch was increasingly becoming a favored spot.

Loki crept to Stark’s side and considered him for a moment. For once, the circles under the man’s eyes weren’t overly pronounced, but perhaps he should let him sleep.

“Sir was hoping that you might stay for dinner, Mr. Walker,” JARVIS said. The A.I.’s voice was quieter than usual.

Loki hummed in acknowledgment and knelt beside the couch. When Stark didn’t so much as twitch at his presence, he reached to run his fingers through the man’s dark hair. The silken locks felt so soft to the touch.

Stark stirred, and Loki froze, but the man seemed to settle again without waking. Cautiously, Loki returned to his perusal. Stark’s facial hair felt completely different. Wiry and stiff, it scratched against his fingertips. Loki had never been able to grow facial hair, which had been yet another divergence between himself and his family. Stark’s beard was particularly unusual in its precise shape.

Curious, Loki trailed his fingers up Stark’s face. The man’s brows were satiny smooth, just like Loki’s own. He traced the slope to the fine wrinkles that bracketed the man’s eyes, the only tangible sign of Stark’s age aside from the wisps of white that dotted his temples.

That’s when Stark’s eyelid spasmed.

“You’re awake, aren’t you?” Loki realized, thumb still caught on the man’s skin.

“Maybe,” Stark admitted softly. “You don’t have to stop.”

Stark’s eyes fluttered open and crinkled in time with that bright, gummy smile that Loki craved. Before he could reconsider, Loki’s hand moved to frame the inventor’s stubbled cheek.

“I could get used to this,” Stark murmured, nuzzling into Loki’s palm.

Loki licked his lips uncertainly, still unaccustomed to being accepted so unconditionally. “Are you tired?” he asked. “I can ask Harold to drive me home.”

“No,” Stark whined. “Stay.”

Loki laughed breathlessly. “That’s what you said yesterday. And the day before that.”

Stark snatched Loki’s hand and held on tightly. “But I have an activity planned. It’ll be fun.”

“Is it another dinner experiment?” Loki asked suspiciously.

No, and you loved my lasagna, asshole.” Stark was manipulating his hand oddly, thumb pressing circles over his palm and the pads of his fingers. “Hey, what are the callouses on your hand from?”

Loki struggled not to tense. He had to remind himself that Stark knew most of his history, that this wasn’t something that he needed to hide or excuse away. “I worked extensively with daggers for most of my life,” he explained with feigned breeziness.

“That’s what I thought,” Stark said, sounding genuinely pleased. “Were you any good?”

“My instructors thought so,” Loki admitted. “I preferred it over most other forms of weaponry.”

Stark hummed under his breath, fingers continuing to explore the thick skin on Loki’s palm. “Did you enjoy it?”

Loki shifted on his knees and fought against the instincts that urged him to remain reticent. “I suppose that aspects of it were invigorating.”

Another few seconds of contemplative silence. “Do you think that I can see?”

Loki frowned. “What do you mean?”

Stark sprung off the couch as lithely as a Midgardian teenager. Monologued diatribes about the man’s aching back and creaking knees weren’t uncommon, so his sudden enthusiasm was suspect.

“It’s a surprise,” Stark said, a tentative smile curling on his lips. “I promise that you’ll like it.”

And so, Loki found himself ensconced in the elevator with a fidgeting Stark, who was gazing down at his own feet and pretending not to scrutinize the fallen god. Loki stared straight ahead, teeth gritted together, learned apprehension tensing his limbs. He despised surprises.

“Are you mad?” Stark asked into the strained silence.

“No, Anthony,” Loki sighed. “I am simply averse to reminders of my past, and I imagine that your surprise may involve some things that I would rather forget.”

“Oh,” Stark said. He reached for Loki’s hand and threaded their fingers together firmly. “I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. If this is too much, just tell me, okay? You know that I can get carried away.”

“You haven’t told me what ‘this’ is yet,” Loki reminded him.

“Right, right. Well, you’re about to see.” The elevator doors pinged as they opened.

Loki found himself in a rather intricate training facility. An indoor obstacle course, complete with walls, ropes, and bridges, took up a large corner of the space. A roped arena had been erected for sparing, and punching bags littered several open areas. Free weights and bench presses had been set up with numbers that he knew a normal mortal could not budge. Other areas had been clearly designed with certain Avengers in mind. He glimpsed bullseye targets for the Hawk and a contraption intended to fire drones for the Widow. Various weapons ranging from simple blades to elaborate lasers blanketed the walls.

“What do you think?” Stark asked, running his thumb across Loki’s knuckles.

Loki swiveled his head in a slow circle. “Is this where the Avengers train?”

“Yeah. I mean, they don’t come here too often now. Bruce doesn’t really do the whole gym thing, and the only other person who still uses the building is Barton. He hasn’t spoken to me since I kicked out Romanoff, though.”

Stark tugged him toward the weapon’s rack where Loki noticed a set of gleaming daggers. His fingers twitched. Spending more time with Stark had necessitated more permanently storing his own daggers in his pocket dimension. They were made of uru, a material that could not be found on Midgard. Stark would definitely notice the difference, and so they had to stay hidden.

“Do you like them?” Stark asked as they neared.

The hilts of the daggers were carved to appear serpentine, while the curved blades themselves had been patterned with an intricate cascade of vines. When he reached tentatively to test their weight, he found that they were featherlight and perfectly balanced. They felt more natural in his hands than most other weapons that he had handled.

“They’re well-made,” Loki noted as he traced a thumb over one of the handles.

“How about the design?” Stark pressed. “Would you prefer something else?”

Loki eyes narrowed as he caught on. “Anthony,” he warned. “We’ve talked about you buying me extravagant things.”

Stark nodded solemnly. “We did, and I totally listened. But then I realized that I didn’t have a good set of daggers in my collection.”

“And you just happened to select a set designed with my preferences in mind?”

“I mean, that’s definitely a bonus.” Stark shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Does that mean you like them?”

Loki rolled his eyes even as a grudging smile pulled at the corners of his lips. “Yes, Anthony. I very much like them.”

“They’re made out of Damascus steel,” Stark explained as Loki tested their weight again. “It’s supposed to be one of the most durable materials for blades.”

Loki twirled them in his hands, and, when the balance indeed proved to be impeccable, he capitulated to a flourishing movement or two meant only for show. His instructors would have berated him for succumbing to his impulse toward flair. They had always favored straightforward strength over his inclination toward colorful misdirection. Regardless, the daggers felt akin to extensions of his arms.

Stark had trailed off, and when Loki turned to him, he found that a ruddy flush had colored the man’s cheeks.

“Anthony?” he asked uncertainly.

Stark swallowed noticeably, gaze focused slightly off-center from Loki’s eyes. “You’re really good with those,” he said, voice raspier than normal.

Loki snorted. “It’s nothing remarkable. A dagger isn’t an honorable weapon, and most of what I can do just makes knifework look fancier.”

Stark frowned. “You’re quoting some idiot in your past again. What you just did looked freaking awesome. You see shit like that in movies.”

Loki couldn’t help but smile. “It’s really not that impressive—”

“You can bet your ass that it’s impressive as fuck.”

Loki bowed his head to hide his pleased grin. “As you say,” he said. He cast a glance at the wall behind them. “Which weapons do you usually practice with?”

“Me?” Stark scratched at the back of his head. “I don’t really need to train. Iron Man has the suit. It’s not like I need to carry a gun or something.”

“What if your suit was disabled?” Loki reproached. “You should be able to defend yourself.”

The inventor laughed gamely. “You sound like Capsicle.” Abruptly, Stark’s laughter cut off, and he eyed Loki contemplatively. “Although, if you want to train with me, I’m totally down.”

Loki snorted at the man’s enthusiasm. “I’m no expert in hand-to-hand combat.”

“The way that you’re holding those daggers looks pretty expert-ish to me.”

He gritted his teeth and stared down at the blades in his hands. “I would never want to use a weapon on you, Anthony. Not even for training.”

Stark would not be deterred. “How about a spar without weapons, then? Tony Stark sans Iron Man armor versus former mobster Tommy Walker. Sounds like an epic face down to me.”

Loki elected to focus on the familiar gripe while he considered how to divert the inventor. “How many times have I told you that I’m not a mobster?”

“So many. That’s why I’m saying that you’re a former mobster!”

Rolling his eyes, Loki moved away to return the daggers to their place on the wall. He hoped that Stark would desist, but the inventor followed him doggedly.

“Seriously, Tommy,” Stark persisted. “Do you want to spar? I’ve sparred a few times with Cap and Romanoff, and they absolutely trounced me, but it’s usually pretty fun.”

Loki kept his face carefully turned to the wall so that Stark wouldn’t discern the uneasiness in his expression. “Perhaps another time,” he said, attempting flippancy.

His shoulders stiffened beyond his control when Stark stepped up behind him, but, as always, his instincts mislead him.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” Stark asked, clear concern wavering his tone. The man’s arms looped loosely around his waist as his nose pressed between Loki’s shoulder blades. “Did I do something?”

“No, Anthony. I just…” He buried his face away in his hands and loathed himself to his very core. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he admitted.

“Baby, I’m Iron Man,” Stark said, pulling him closer. “You’re not going to hurt me.”

“I have hurt a great many people in my life,” Loki contradicted softly.

His statement sobered Stark instantly. His arms were almost too tight around Loki’s ribs. “Not by choice,” Stark insisted fervently. “You’re not that kind of person.”

“I am, Anthony,” Loki refuted miserably.

“Stop it,” Stark said, shaking him sharply. “You’re not some assassin or thug or whatever it is that they tried to make you into. You are a scholar. You love learning. Don’t think that I haven’t noticed that my science textbooks—my super advanced science textbooks—have made their way onto your bookshelf. I know that you understand them, too. I’ve been using your ideas in my designs.”

“My personal preferences do not matter. I have hurt people. A lot of people,” Loki maintained. “And the way that I have been taught to spar ends in pain. I never want to hurt you.”

“So, I’ll wear a ton of padding,” Stark said glibly. “You’re not going to hurt me.”

“Anthony, please hear me,” Loki pleaded, bowing his head. “I will hurt you. You…you know what I am. I can’t help it.”

“Okay, I’m doing my best to be sensitive and shit here, but if you go off on that spiel about you being some sort of fucking monster, I’m not responsible for what I do. You are the best person I know. You’re my…my Tommy.” Now, Stark’s nose pressed against the top of his spine. “Besides,” he said, voice muffled by the fabric of Loki’s shirt, “I feel like you’re seriously underestimating me. Not cool.”

Loki was close enough to breathe in Stark’s distinctive scent. Motor oil and hazelnut had never struck him as a calming combination, but it had become a sort of balm.

Stark’s fingers twisted into the hem of Loki’s t-shirt. “Look, if you seriously don’t want to spar, then we won’t. But if the only reason that you don’t want to spar is because you think that you would ever hurt me, then give me the chance to prove you wrong.”

Hesitantly, Loki allowed his hand to settle on top of Stark’s clenched fist. “Will you promise to stop me before I hurt you?” Loki hedged.

“Duh.” Stark squeezed him so hard that his ribs creaked in protest. “But you won’t.”

Loki soon found himself in the boxing ring. At the fallen god’s insistence, Stark had donned protective headgear, guards on all of his limbs, and even a stiff chest piece that provoked a steady stream of complaints. If Loki wasn’t so worried about exercising too much strength or succumbing to his damnable frost giant instincts, he might have found the man’s turtle-like appearance humorous. Loki was clad in simple sweats despite Stark’s gripes about fairness.

Stark waddled toward the center of the ring. “So, you’re actually decent at this, right? Because I usually just try to hit Cap and Romanoff, and they stop me.”

Evading blows had been his primary survival strategy with Thor and his friends during spars. “That will be fine, Anthony,” Loki said distractedly.

His palms were clammy, and his heartrate was accelerated. Despite all of the padding, Stark looked so very fragile. Even with the close to mortal limitations engendered by the bracers, he could so very easily scrape the delicate skin or snap a brittle bone.

“I’m serious, Tommy. I don’t want to hurt you either. Don’t actually let me hit you, okay?”

Loki managed to turn his focus outward for an instant. “You won’t touch me, Anthony,” he promised.

With that assurance, Stark lunged.

Or maybe flailed was a better descriptor.

Loki dodged it easily.

The next attempt was perhaps marginally more controlled, but he still ducked to avoid it with relative effortlessness.

After a few more simply evaded blows, he recognized that Stark was testing his reflexes. With time, the man’s attempts incrementally became more sophisticated until Loki had to redirect rather than elude some of his jabs. To his relief, the bloodthirst that he had feared never materialized, and he found that his body naturally sought to insulate rather than damage the inventor.

Once he relaxed enough to acknowledge it, he realized that sparring with Stark was decidedly thrilling. He was accustomed to terror as he awaited the inevitable devasting blow to crush his ribs or disable his legs. Usually, he had merely exercised the limits of his endurance in the hopes that he would be allowed to forfeit before he lost consciousness. But Stark wasn’t trying to hurt him. It meant that brawling was almost fun.

Especially once the inventor grasped that Loki was humoring him and actually started trying.

Stark lunged at him for the umpteenth time and hit the ropes of the boxing ring ribs first once again. Panting, he turned to Loki, a playful scowl on his face.

“You’re a wily little shit,” Stark grumbled. “You didn’t say that you fought like Romanoff.”

“That sounds like a favorable comparison,” Loki observed mildly.

“No,” Stark whined. There was a muted thump as he smashed his gloves together. It was probably supposed to be intimidating. “We hates Romanoff, remember? We hates her!”

“Are you trying to be Gollum?” Loki asked uncertainly.

“Yes!” Despite the additional weight from all of the padding that Stark was wearing, he managed a funny little dance. “Tommy, you finally got one of my references.”

“I liked those films,” Loki said with a shrug. “By the way, I’m going to take you down now. Don’t tense up.”

“Don’t…wha—?”

With a sweep of his leg, Loki sent Stark to the floor, the mat quaking in the man’s wake. Feeling jocose, Loki draped his body over the inventor, hands restraining wrists, legs hooked over ankles, effectively pinning him down.

“Do I win?” Loki asked with a flash of teeth.

He’d never won without magic before, not when his sparring partners were Thor, Sif, or the Warriors Three. Their strength had been too much for him to overcome with mere evasion.

“Actually, I’m pretty sure that I win,” Stark said breathlessly. “This feels a lot like victory.”

Stark offered an exaggerated eyebrow wiggle when Loki peered down at him in confusion. Belatedly, Loki understood.

“You would like this,” Loki groaned, suddenly aware of the positioning of his legs bracketing Stark’s waist on both sides.

“I mean, yeah. You’re fucking gorgeous, and it’s pretty obvious that I’m crazy attracted to you. I don’t see the downside here.”

Loki stared down at him uncertainly, disconcerted by the sudden heat in the man’s voice. Stark was typically affectionate with him, perhaps overly so for two men who were simply friends. But he hadn’t commented on Thomas’ appearance since their first meetings, when the man was more ensnared by the spore.

“Hey, Tommy,” Stark said huskily. “Can I ask you something?”

Nonplussed, Loki released Stark’s wrists and sat back, consequently settling more of his weight on the inventor’s waist. A curdling sensation more intense than simple nausea assailed his stomach. “Anthony, don’t,” he whispered.

Stark propped himself up on his elbows carefully, that strange heat that Loki had been seeing glimpses of these last few weeks building in his gaze.

“Why not?” Stark asked obstinately. “Why can’t I ask?”

“Isn’t what we have now good enough?” Loki asked plaintively. “Why does it have to change?”

The inventor’s expression was pinched, his lips pressed into a thin line. “Nothing is wrong with it. I just…” Stark sucked in a sharp breath. “Aren’t we practically dating already?”

Loki couldn’t completely understand what he was experiencing, but the roiling in his stomach, the pounding of his heart, and the clamminess of his skin felt a lot like panic. “Anthony,” he said, tone pleading.

Stark’s expression hardened. His jaw set. “Tommy,” he said evenly, “I want to be able to touch you without wondering what it means. I want to talk about you to my friends without wondering what we are. I just want to ask you out on a date.”

Stark was very intentionally keeping his hands to himself. Loki should abdicate his vulnerable position on the man’s lap, but he knew that his legs would reveal his damnable enervation if he even attempted to stand. He closed his eyes and endeavored desperately to breathe.

“I thought that you’d say yes,” Stark whispered. His tone was agonized now. “I really thought…I thought that you felt the same way.”

Loki’s every muscle and tendon clenched. “I very much enjoy your company, Anthony, but it’s…it’s not fair to you,” he said miserably.

Stark froze. After a second or two, his hands reached for Loki’s waist with sudden ferocity. “Tell me that you’re not saying no out of some ridiculous desire to protect me.”

They both listened to Loki breathe for a moment, frantic snatches of air setting an accelerated tempo in and out.

“Tommy, you are not a monster. Dating me is not a goddamn perversion.” Trembling fingers dug into Loki’s hips with bruising force. “Please, baby, you can’t let your family win. If that’s why you’re saying no, then just say yes! Let’s prove them wrong!”

Loki licked at his lips and stared up at the ceiling. “I can’t, Anthony.”

“Why not? I like you. You like me. Why not try?”

Because it was the spore choosing him, not Stark. He could justify a friendship with the man, but pursuing more than that when Stark could not consent was unconscionable, even for a monster like Loki.

“You shouldn’t have to settle for me,” he said aloud.

“Settle?” Stark repeated. “No offense, but you’re so completely out of my league. You would be the one settling for me.”

Loki shook his head desolately, weight shifting as he sought the strength to stand.

“Hear me out!” Stark said, near hysterical now. “Look at you, Tommy. You’re so freaking smart, and brave, and fucking stunning, and you can clearly kick my ass with your little finger. I’m just an old geezer who happened to be born into money. And, okay, I’m kind of brilliant, and I wouldn’t call myself un-sexy.” Stark let out a tense chuckle. “So, maybe we’re pretty similar. What if we have our own league composed of just us?”

They were beautiful words, words that he had longed to hear for his entire life, but Loki couldn’t believe them. Only the spore could be responsible for such sentiment. Stark could never actually want…

But the spore was calm.

As he had spent increasing amounts of time with Stark, he had become more attuned to the various dispositions of the spore. After more extended periods of separation from Loki, the thing could writhe for hours before it settled, and the inventor would physically cling to the fallen god, in turn. When the spore perceived that Loki had been threatened, it would roil, and Stark would outwardly rage in reaction.

But Loki had noticed that the spore seemed to react less readily as long as Loki was nearby and unharmed. Right now, he could perceive only the faintest of hums despite Stark’s apparent distress. Perplexed, he pressed his palms to the inventor’s chest. The spore roused only when he allowed a wisp of his seiðr to graze its outer shell. When he withdrew, it seemed to settle into latency once more.

“Tommy?” Stark asked uncertainly.

“Say it again,” Loki requested breathlessly.

“Which part?”

“Any of it.”

Stark’s brow furrowed, but he was ever indulgent. “Umm. I like you a lot?”

The spore didn’t even quiver.

“Again,” Loki insisted.

A soft smile pulled at Stark’s lips, allaying the apprehension that had darkened his features. “Tommy,” he said quietly, “I like you.”

There was no reaction from the spore beneath his fingertips. A laugh burst past Loki’s lips, marveling and buoyant and incredulous all at once.

“Again, Anthony,” Loki demanded.

Stark’s eyes had begun to crinkle around the corners. “My Tommy,” he said, “I adore you more than you know.” The inventor’s heartbeat began to surge beneath his palms. “Does this mean that you’ll go on the date?”

The smile that had overtaken Loki’s face begin to dim. “Anthony,” he sighed.

“No, no, no! Bring the happy back!” Stark’s hands flew to Loki’s shoulders and pulled him down, smashing Loki’s nose against the top of his head as the man embraced him tightly. “Baby, please. You gotta clue me in on what’s happening here.”

“I realized that you meant it,” Loki whispered into Stark’s hair. “You want to be with me.”

“Okay,” Stark said slowly. “That doesn’t sound like a bad thing?”

Loki’s eyes clenched shut. “I never get to keep anything good,” he confessed.

“So it’s better not to try?”

“I don’t know,” Loki mumbled. “It might hurt less when….when…”

Stark’s fingers found Thomas’ hair and threaded through the thick curls. “When I inevitably break up with you?” he asked with surprising gentleness.

Loki’s spine curled as he nodded resignedly.

Stark’s fingers traced the contours of Loki’s skull. “I can’t see the future,” he said after a moment, “but I can promise you that I’m not like anybody in your past. I’ll take anything you’re willing to give me, but please, just let me have one chance. Let me prove that this is right for us.”

Loki wanted to agree so desperately, even though he knew that something would inevitably go wrong. The Norns had woven him a tapestry imbued with ceaseless rejection. He knew that his anguish could only persist, but how he longed for this to be real.

“One date,” Loki stipulated reluctantly.

“One date,” Stark repeated. Loki could hear the smile in his voice.

“And it can’t be anything extravagant.”

“Nothing extravagant,” Stark agreed readily.

“And no gifts.”

Stark’s fingers stuttered in his hair. “Only inexpensive gifts?”

Stark.”

“I’ll spend less than one-thousand dollars?” And then, when Loki growled, “less than one-hundred dollars?”

“Fine,” Loki grunted.

Stark’s arms constricted uncomfortably around his ribs, pulling him snugly against the excessive padding on the man’s chest. “You won’t regret it, Tommy,” the engineer whispered into his ear. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

Loki was waiting for his phone to ring. He had been sitting cross-legged in the center of his lumpy mattress for the last hour, but aside from notifying him about the weather forecast for the day (sunny and seasonably warm), his phone had remained stubbornly silent. He was endeavoring to meditate, but his stomach, coiled into knots upon knots, was hindering his admittedly desultory efforts.

Today was his date with Stark, and Loki was unequivocally certain that something would go wrong. His every effort at happiness had been fleeting, and Stark made him happy like no other. He would never be permitted to keep the man, no matter how fervently he desired it. That incontrovertible knowledge made it impossible for him to anticipate the call that would herald Stark’s arrival with any emotion other than dread.

Unable to sit still, he trekked to the bathroom for the umpteenth time to check Thomas’ appearance. Stark had been remarkably reticent about the location of their date, but he had recommended wearing a t-shirt, recreational pants, and comfortable shoes. Loki hadn’t owned anything that he had deemed suitable, and so he had dipped into his emergency funds yet again. He’d splurged on a simple V-neck t-shirt that highlighted the green in his eyes, a basic pair of black tennis shoes, and skinny jeans that, according to the attendant, made his ass worthy of a Twitter account.

Thomas’ reflection looked closer to Loki’s naturally pale skin than normal, he decided. Frowning, he returned the color to Thomas’ cheeks with a tendril of seiðr and raked a hand through his glamour’s scrupulously slicked back curls. He thought that Thomas looked presentable enough, perhaps slightly more analogous to Loki than usual with this hairstyle, but his appearance should be pleasing.

He was contemplating brushing his teeth again when Stark’s version of music—some sort of shouting match by a group called Black Sabbath—began to play from the bedroom, propelling Loki into a flurry of motion. Stark’s contact photo, which featured a candid shot of the inventor abysmally failing to flip a pancake, had lit up the screen. He closed his eyes for a moment, thumb poised to answer, and did his best to camouflage his anxiety.

“Hello, Anthony,” Loki said. To his relief, his tone was surprisingly steady.

“Hey! I’m downstairs.” Stark’s voice, infused with unambiguous fondness, functioned as a sort of balm, easing the rising crescendo of Loki’s pulse. “I drove a shitty car so that we can travel incognito, but it’s still a new car, and your neighborhood sucks, so can you meet me down here?”

“I’ll be down in a moment,” Loki promised and hung up.

With a final grounding breath, he smoothed the nonexistent wrinkles in his shirt one last time and grabbed his keys. Unlocking the veritable army of padlocks and deadbolts on his door usually felt as though it took hours, but it seemed as though he blinked, and he was on the staircase.

Stark’s bright grin was evident as soon as he exited the building. He scowled despite his inward amusement when the man waved at him frantically, as if Stark wasn’t the only person on the entire street driving a scintillating, cherry-red, unmistakably brand-new vehicle. The inventor had also dressed casually, Loki noticed as he rounded the side of the car. Clad in a band t-shirt and faded jeans that had been designed to appear frayed, Stark could have blended in anywhere if not for his very recognizable face.

Stark didn’t speak when he entered the car, and the radio wasn’t playing, and Loki could hear his own expedited breathing filling the silence. He focused on his seatbelt as a distraction from the thick tension, but when the engine failed to crank after several minutes, he turned to investigate.

Stark was staring at him.

No, Stark was gaping at him.

“Anthony?” he asked, raising a self-conscious hand to his hair.

Stark’s eyes continued to rove Thomas’ frame. “You look really good, Tommy,” he said gruffly.

Loki, who had always retained absolute control over his glamour, felt a blush rise on Thomas’ cheeks.

“Thank you,” Loki whispered to the white-knuckled hands that he had tucked in his lap. When the excruciating silence continued, he offered, “the suntan lotion on your nose is an interesting fashion statement?”

What?” Stark whipped down the sun visor immediately and stared at his reflection. After angling his face this way and that, “there’s nothing there!”

“Is there not?” Loki asked mildly. “Strange. I definitely smell suntan lotion. It must have been a trick of the light.”

“Oh my god,” Stark groaned and flipped the sun visor back up. “You’re such an asshole.”

And just like that, the tension was broken. Stark was grinning at him, and Loki smiled back automatically, as captivated by the inventor’s open expressiveness as ever.

But Stark still didn’t start the car. “Okay, so you gotta promise me that you won’t be mad.”

“What have you done this time?” Loki groaned, already relaxing further at the familiar refrain.

Stark reached into the backseat, grunted as his questing arm stretched, and thrust a bouquet of flowers into Loki’s hands. Startled, Loki juggled the flowers for a moment—the bouquet was immense—and attempted to decipher the meaning of the gesture.

“Flowers?” he asked at last. A rich, honeyed fragrance permeated from the pale petals.

“Casablanca lilies, actually,” Stark said with feigned flippancy. “Apparently, they’re meant to symbolize celebration.” The inventor pretended to adjust the rear-view mirror between them while studying Loki out of the corner of his eye. “I thought that they were beautiful and sophisticated, just like you.”

“Oh,” Loki said, peering down at the flowers. They were rather lovely and yet refined in their simplicity…and was Stark calling him beautiful now? “Thank you,” he murmured. “No one has given me flowers before.”

“Yeah? Well, you better be prepared for all the cliché first date things!” Stark shot him his favorite gummy smile. “First on the list is a road trip!”

Finally, Stark directed the car into the Saturday morning traffic. The early hour meant that there were less cars on the road than usual.

“I thought that we said no trips,” Loki said absently. He took a furtive whiff of the flowers and hugged them surreptitiously to his chest.

“No, you said no extravagant trips, nothing overly expensive, and no getting recognized. My plan totally meets those criteria.”

“But you won’t tell me where we’re going?”

“Nope, it’s a surprise.”

“I don’t like surprises, Anthony,” Loki reminded him, curling his fingers tightly around the stems of the bouquet.

“I know, but haven’t you always enjoyed mine?” Stark’s hand groped blindly before finding Loki’s elbow and following it until he could extricate one of the fallen god’s hands from the flowers. He intertwined their fingers gingerly, and then more decisively when Loki hesitantly returned the pressure. “I promise that you’ll like it, okay? Just trust me.”

“You know that I do,” Loki whispered, and he meant it.

“Great! So, how about you reach into that compartment in front of you?”

Loki carefully balanced the bouquet in his lap and followed the man’s instructions. Inside the glove compartment was a single disc decorated with a doodle of two grinning strawberries holding hands in a car.  

“That’s our road trip playlist,” Stark explained. “I had to special order a car with a CD player, but a CD playlist is a staple of a classic road trip date.”

Stark had tugged their entwined limbs until they rested together on the center console, so Loki only had one free hand to use to open the case and slide the CD into the dash. Soon enough, the soft tones of Moonlight Sonata began to play over the speakers.

“Oh,” Loki said again. Loki, famed wordsmith, had no words. His heart, palpitating madly in his chest, was the only part of him capable of expression.

“You like it?” Stark asked, punctuating his statement with a soft squeeze to Loki’s hand.

“Yes, Anthony,” Loki professed, wishing that English contained words that could sufficiently chronicle the flurry of adoration that was ballooning his heart. “It’s wonderful,” he settled on saying. Inadequate but true.

They sat through track after track, all selections from their many nights spent listening to music together. Stark had been paying attention. Every piece was one that Loki revered, a mixture of classical music and favored soundtracks from movies that they had seen together. For a moment, Loki allowed himself simply to be. He basked in the sensation of Stark’s hand clutching his so tenderly, in the man humming along to certain melodies under his breath, and in the too full feeling in his heart.

“So, what do you think about the car?” Stark asked. He was doing that thing where his thumb rubbed persistently across Loki’s knuckles. It never failed to drive Loki to distraction.

“It appears to run in a decent car-like fashion,” Loki offered. “And the seats are rather comfortable.”

“All excellent points,” Stark agreed eagerly, “but you’re forgetting the main one!”

“Oh?” Loki said, cocking a blithe eyebrow.

“Yeah! It’s a normal people car! I got it especially for my Tommy dates.”

Loki graciously elected to ignore the plural use of “dates.” “I suppose that it is less extravagant than your other cars.”

Only Stark’s transparent enthusiasm kept him from pointing out that the cars in Loki’s neighborhood were typically rusted and at least a decade or two older than this one.

“I tried to get a green one,” Stark said, “but the only green shade that they had was lime, and that has to be the ugliest color in existence. Plus, the sales guy said that it might be a bit ostentatious, and the whole point is that we’re trying to go incognito.”

“So, you chose red instead,” Loki said dryly. 

“Well, yeah. Plenty of cars are red. We won’t stick out. Plus, red is objectively the best color.”

“I see,” Loki hummed. “No one could argue with that logic.”

“Hey! You’re saying that like you’re being sarcastic.” Stark was pouting now, and Loki would not admit that any part of him found it endearing.

“Of course not,” Loki soothed. “It takes a degree of acuity to appreciate the appeal and complexity of the color green. I understand why you favor red.”

Stark squeezed his hand. “I feel like you just called me dumb in a really roundabout way.”

“I would never question your intelligence in most areas,” Loki said serenely.

Thus began an impassioned argument about the merits of the color green versus red. Loki, admittedly, cared very little about the topic, but he could argue ardently about anything. Plus, Stark’s spirited yet progressively puerile points proved to be more entertaining than the few times he had witnessed Thor lose a brawl.

“And,” Stark continued, in the middle of what had become a five-minute monologue regarding his latest point, “red universally signifies badassery. Twenty percent of Iron Man’s success is the red intimidation factor. Nine times out of ten, the bad guys see me coming and haul ass to get away from me. So, red is the most superior color by far, bar none, period.”

“Well, you are correct in that your enemies certainly see you coming,” Loki agreed distractedly, peering through the window.

They had entered a more rural area, and the contrast from the city atmosphere was marked. He had seen an actual bale of hay, and there had been a cow grazing on grass near the side of the road. They hadn’t passed a gas station or restaurant for fifteen minutes, and idyllic barns and meticulously maintained fields were gradually replacing the isolated houses.  

“Are we nearly there, Anthony?” he asked.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, I think so.” Stark’s phone, presumably providing directions, had been deliberately angled away from Loki on the dashboard. “Looks like we’re three minutes out.”

Their destination appeared to be popular because, despite the relative remoteness of the location, several cars had verged into a line in front of them, and there was a van with an out-of-state license plate behind them. Momentarily, they turned onto a dirt road and encountered a neglected hand carved sign.

Maple Farms, Gardens, and Labyrinth

“Huh,” Loki said, unimpressed but loathe to dishearten Stark.

“Hey, now. Give it a chance. You don’t even know what we’re here for yet.”

Loki needn’t have worried as his lackluster initial reaction did absolutely nothing to dampen Stark’s enthusiasm. In fact, the hand that clutched Loki’s own had started quivering in evident anticipation. So, the fallen god subsided into his seat and labored to remember that even being here with Stark was more than he had ever envisioned.

However, he did struggle to preserve his impartial expression when they parked. In a field. A very crowded field. Crammed with parents and children. The children were actively screeching.

“Don’t worry,” Stark said when he cut the ignition and turned to dig in the back seat. “Everybody else is probably here for the petting zoo.”

“The petting zoo,” Loki repeated, unable to conceal the dubiety from his voice.

“Yuh-huh.” Grunting, Stark released his hand so that he could twist fully and rummage around behind them. “There it is! Hey, what do you think?”

Stark had donned a floppy hat that shielded half of his face and reflective sunglasses that essentially obscured the rest. He looked utterly ridiculous, and completely unrecognizable, and, at that moment, Loki would have done anything for him.

Except look at him with a straight face.

That was impossible.

Loki threw back his head and laughed, wildly, boisterously, so forcibly that he clutched at his ribs. He couldn’t stop.

Until he heard a click.

When he managed to open his damp eyes, he spotted Stark’s phone pointed in his direction. The man was smiling, sentimental and affectionate, from behind the screen.

“I’ve never seen you laugh like that,” Stark said, voice hushed.

“I don’t often,” Loki said. He couldn’t seem to will away the wide smile that prevailed in the aftermath. It made his face feel too tight. “Did you take a picture of me?”

Stark tucked the phone into his pocket hurriedly. “Maybe?”

“Anthony,” Loki warned.

“I won’t share it with anyone. Please let me keep it.”

Baffled by the fervor in the man’s tone, Loki swallowed his instinctive denial and scrutinized the inventor more closely.

“I don’t have any pictures of you,” Stark persisted. “Please?”

That wasn’t precisely true as Loki was certain that he’d been captured on the Tower’s surveillance footage regularly, and Stark still possessed the Widow’s recordings of him. Still, Loki could understand the sentiment behind the request, and he wasn’t necessarily opposed. However, Thomas would be apprehensive about his family locating him. Beyond that, there was a slight possibility that Thor would overcome his oafishness and extricate some trifling miscalculation that identified Loki as Thomas. Creating a guise entirely from scratch was onerous at best, and Thomas’ features weren’t profoundly removed from Loki’s own appearance.

“You won’t show it to anyone?” Loki verified.

“Not even JARVIS,” Stark promised.

“Very well, Anthony,” Loki conceded, clasping his hands together in his lap. “Just…it can mean life or death for me. Please keep it safe.”

“Tommy, look at me.” Stark pushed his sunglasses down his nose so that Loki could see his vibrant, chocolate brown eyes. “I will guard it with my life, okay? You’re safe with me. Always.”

“I know, Anthony,” he acknowledged softly.

Stark’s brilliant grin rivaled every star in luminance.

After Stark had retrieved a small, stuffed backpack from the back seat, they submitted to navigating through the crowds of bedraggled parents and squealing children. Stark and Loki headed toward a less populated area of the attraction. Immense hedges, dense and expertly shorn, rose behind a bubblegum popping teen. She began to recite a set of directions once they halted before her.

“Welcome to Maple Labyrinth,” the woman said in a deadpan tone. “It can take up to three hours to solve our maze. If you experience discomfort at any point along your journey, please notify us immediately. We have voyagers walking the perimeter in case you require assistance. Would you like to purchase any drinks for your adventure?”

“Already prepared,” Stark declared proudly, patting his backpack.

“Excellent,” the teen said, plainly indifferent. “You will find ten checkpoints along the way marked by numbered totems. The clues that we give you will help you choose the correct path out, so you should select your adventure theme wisely.” She gestured tepidly at a list hanging above their heads. “Which set of clues would you like?”

“What do you think, Tommy?” Stark asked, nose wrinkled thoughtfully as he studied their options. “The Disney one might be fun. You could probably get some of those by now. Or maybe the history theme? You’ve been reading those World War II books lately.”

Stark was clearly avoiding the obvious choice. Banking on the attendant’s absolute apathy, Loki placed a delicate hand on the small of Stark’s back. He had never touched another man like this in a public place, and the prospect of doing it here both thrilled and terrified him. Gratifyingly, Stark shuddered and subsided beneath the contact.

“We’ll take the Avengers theme, please,” Loki requested, prompting a startled laugh out of Stark.

“Okay,” the teen said with a shrug. “I gotta warn you that the Avengers clues are pretty obscure, though. You’ll probably get lost.”

Even though Loki could only see half of Stark’s face, it was evident that the man was about to spout something both impudent and hubristic. He stomped sharply on the man’s foot to keep him quiet.

“We like a challenge,” Loki said mildly, ignoring the influx of yanking on the back of his shirt. “Thank you for your help.”

They entered the maze at Loki’s silent insistence and despite Stark’s hissed protests, not that the attendant was paying them any actual attention now that her job was done. She appeared to be very involved with trying to blow a bubble as big as her face.

“I thought that you didn’t like the Avengers,” Stark protested as soon as they were out of earshot. “You didn’t have to choose that for me.”

“You clearly think me more magnanimous than I actually am,” Loki said calmly, tucking the creased and stained set of clues into his pocket. “I am a reformed criminal, Anthony. I would wager that I know more about the Avengers than you do.”

Stark’s laugh, high and faltering, made it clear that he wasn’t sure whether he should find Loki’s admission amusing. “I guess that there’s probably something to that whole know your enemy saying, huh?” When Loki merely smiled placidly at him, he straightened, lips quirking with mirth. “Tommy, if you think that you know more about the Avengers than an actual Avenger, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“I suppose that we shall see,” Loki hummed as they reached the first fork in their path.

“How the fuck are we supposed to know what S.H.I.E.L.D stands for?” Stark was griping roughly ten minutes later once they’d located the first totem. “The first two words should clearly be ‘scumbag halfwits,’ but that’s not on there as an answer.”

“It’s the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division,” Loki said without having to look at the potential answers. “That means we go right.”

“It can’t be that one,” Stark objected.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s extra stupid.” Stark crowded closer, floppy hat knocking against the side of Loki’s head. “Are you sure that it’s not the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Division? That at least sounds kind of impressive, and it’s more accurate.”

“It’s definitely not that one,” Loki said, stepping to the right in spite of Stark’s protests. “I thought that you were the expert on the Avengers, Anthony?”

“I am! You just watch. We’re going to get lost.”

After various twists and turns, “oh, look,” Loki said evenly. “It’s the second totem. How fortunate that we went this way.”

“Shut up, Tommy. Next clue.”

And then, “you can’t be serious,” Stark said, face contorting either with exceptional merriment or acute despair. “It does not say that.”

“It does,” Loki said. He was trying so hard to maintain an inscrutable expression that his cheeks hurt. “What does Tony Stark wear when he’s in the Iron Man suit? The answer choices are regular clothes, boxers, briefs, or nothing.”

Stark snatched the paper from Loki’s grasp and stared down at the words. “I have no memory of this.”

“Shouldn’t you know the answer anyway?” Loki asked.

“Well, yeah.” Stark reached to scratch at the back of his neck, jostling his oversized hat. “But when interviewers ask me really stupid questions, I tend to maybe retaliate?”

Loki cocked an incredulous eyebrow in the man’s direction. “You think that you may have lied about your choice of undergarments?”

“I mean…yeah? Probably. Honestly, what sort of asshole asks a question like that? They can’t expect a real answer.”

Loki pressed his lips very tightly together. “So, if you were attempting to evoke some…mischief,” Loki said, speaking slowly in an effort to conceal his wavering voice, “what would you have answered?”

“I probably went for the greatest shock value and said nude,” Stark admitted grudgingly.

Loki’s eyes widened involuntarily. He could feel his rib cage vibrating. “I imagine that such a choice would chafe awfully?” he managed.

Stark grunted his assent.

“If the correct answer is that you wear nothing under the suit, then I suppose we will be taking a sharp left.”

They started left, Stark leading the way determinedly. Loki was grateful, as it gave him the opportunity to double up with the noiseless laughter that had been seeking to burst out since he’d read the clue. His ribs burned.

Stark spoke again after a turn or two of absolute silence, during which Loki had victoriously reigned in his amusement with a substantial measure of effort. “Fully clothed.”

“Pardon?” Loki asked.

“Under the suit, I’m fully clothed.” Stark aimed a mischievous smile his way. “But beneath that, I go for boxer briefs, just in case you were wondering.”

“One of life’s greatest mysteries solved,” Loki said dryly. “Whatever will I live for now?”

They didn’t exactly make record time during their adventure through the maze. Stark had insisted on actually calling Rogers when they reached a question about how much the captain could bench press.

“There is no way he can lift a ton,” Stark had complained. “Absolutely no way.”

“Actually, it appears as though the correct answer is twelve-hundred pounds,” Loki said helpfully. “A mere ton would also take us right, and that was a dead-end.”

Stark had silenced him with an upraised finger, which Loki had found to be rather discourteous, but his ensuing levity had prompted him to forgive the man rather easily.

“Steve, buddy! How much can you bench press?” And then, “you’re lying! No. I don’t believe it.” Another pause, and then, “I hate you. I want you to know that.”

Stark hung up decisively.

“So, are we heading left?” Loki asked.

Stark had wordlessly grabbed Loki’s hand and dragged him toward the left-hand path.

The next question inquired about the Widow’s mastery of languages.

“Alright, Tommy. That’s a ‘you’ question,” Stark had said, plopping his backpack on the ground so that he could guzzle from a water bottle.

“Me?” Loki repeated, snatching away the bottle when Stark gave every indication that he would drink until the container ran dry. Loki was thirsty as well. “How would I know?”

“Duh. You’re a translator.” Stark wiped the excess moisture off of his mouth and sent the god a dopey looking grin. “You’re just able to look at her and know, right? Kindred spirits and all that.”

Loki blinked at him. “You’re an actual idiot.”

“And yet, you like me!” Stark chortled. “Who’s the bigger idiot, then, huh?”

“That’s a fair point,” Loki said with a decisive nod. “I’ll have to rethink that choice.”

“No, no, no, Tommy,” Stark cooed. Solid arms wrapped around Loki’s waist as a prickly face pressed against the crook of Loki’s neck. “I’ll help! I know that she speaks Latin. Does that narrow it down?”

“Only one choice has Latin,” Loki confirmed. “I suppose that we’re going straight.”

The final question involved Loki himself. Of course, it did.

Loki, Thor’s supervillain brother, is the god of _____?

“Lies, right?” Stark asked.

“Yes,” Loki said, striving desperately for nonchalance, “but it’s not an option.”

“Huh, well, tricks seems a little too on the nose, and I don’t think that death is right.”

“It’s chaos,” Loki said, mouth dry. “Loki is the god of chaos.”

Loki endeavored to reorient back to the present, but the sight of his name had jarred him out of his own ruse. With it came the reminder that Thomas was a lie, that this date was based on a lie, that Loki was lying to himself. Stark could never and would never fall for him—

“Huh, I guess that kind of fits him.”

“What?” Loki asked, startled.

“Well, he seemed to be most in his element when he was pitting us against each other. Otherwise, the decisions that he made were illogical rather than strategic. I’ve always found it hard to believe that a god who supposedly rivals me in smarts would allow Selvig to build a failsafe into the wormhole machine or would so overtly attempt to take over the Earth. But if he was looking for chaos, he definitely got that. It makes sense.”

“Does it?” Loki murmured.

Thomas wasn’t privy to the details of the invasion, so it wasn’t as though he could object or elucidate his own motivations without rousing suspicion. And Loki was guilty of relishing chaos. The absolute bedlam that he had incited during his farce of an invasion had ultimately effectuated the rejuvenation of his will.

“Sorry. An alien god attempting to destroy the world isn’t the best conversation topic for a first date, is it?”

“Perhaps not.” After the more genuine grins of the day, his usual coy, princely smile felt disquieting on his face, but it was all that he could muster.

Stark seemed to sense the sudden downturn in Loki’s mood because he pulled Thomas flush against his side, fingers carefully enveloping his glamour’s hip. “Can we take a picture when we get to the end?” Stark asked with partly contrived avidity.

“You really desire to immortalize your current look?” Loki managed.

“Sure! I make this look good, don’t I?”

“I’m not sure that anyone could pull off that particular hat.”

He was distracted, and he knew that Stark could tell, but he was struggling to shake the crushing oppression of reality. How could he return to posing as buoyant Thomas when Loki was the one with feelings for Stark?

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

Stark pivoted, hands reaching for Loki’s face. The instinctive flinch that slipped past his control was too suspicious. How could he be making these mistakes now? Stark would never hurt Thomas, and Loki’s involuntary reaction would just make the man even more wary. But Loki was apparently a master at sabotaging himself.

“Do you hate him?” Loki blurted, fists balled at his sides, willfully spurning the spore as it stirred, churning and grasping for him.

“Who? Loki?” At Loki’s diffident nod, the inventor shifted his weight conspicuously. He appeared to be making a discernable effort at respecting the distance between them. “I’m not sure. I mean, I hate the things that he did, but there was something off about him. I don’t know…I guess I think that there was something more to his story than being pissed that big brother got the throne. He was almost too batshit crazy.”

Loki swallowed hard. He knew that he should stop. Stark wanted Thomas’ smiles, not Loki’s wiles. But he needed the man to know, even if it put him at risk. He needed to be Loki.

“When I was taken,” he said, staring down at his wrists where the undetectable bracers were leeching his seiðr, “I reached a point where there wasn’t a thing that I wouldn’t do to make them stop forcing me. I hurt people. I hurt a lot of people because at least if it was them, then it wasn’t me.”

Loki’s shoulders hunched. “Maybe what I did wasn’t justifiable, but I could only bear it for so long. Eventually, when I was given the out, I took it, and other people suffered because of me. I don’t regret it. I’ve never regretted what I did because I had to do it to survive.”

Loki chanced a glance at Stark. The man’s eyes were unreadable, but the knuckles of his trembling fists were white. “People will do a lot to escape pain,” Loki whispered.

“You’re not wrong, but Loki isn’t anything like you, Tommy,” Stark protested softly. “You were tortured. Shit, Tommy, you were…you were…”

“I was violated,” Loki said, staring up at the sparse clouds in the sky so that he could remember that he was out, that he was never going back. “Until I was beyond desperate for it to end.” Loki closed his eyes again, basking for just a moment at the feeling of the sun warming his cheeks. “Being alone and in pain like that can make you capable of actions that you have never even fathomed.”

The spore was screaming for Loki now. He wasn’t sure how Stark was managing to maintain the distance between them.

“And you think that Loki might have gone through something like that,” Stark said, tone indecipherable.

“I don’t know,” Loki said miserably. “Perhaps I am reacting without grounds.” He had to cease speaking, but he needed Stark to understand more. “However, I simply do not believe that most people commit evil purely for the sake of it. If Loki’s actions do not make sense, then there must be another explanation.”

“Barton did mention that when Loki first came through the portal to steal the Tesseract, he looked like he was sick,” Stark said slowly. “I’ll have to dig a little deeper into it, but if I find something, maybe I can convince Thor to give me an audience with the guy. Alldaddy apparently sentenced him to the equivalent of life in prison.”

Ah, so Thor hadn’t notified them about Loki’s escape. He supposed that Asgard wouldn’t desire to appear as anything other than omnipotent to its former subjects, and there was every reason to surmise that Loki would never seek to return to the site of his greatest ignominy. They had no real inducement to keep the Midgardians apprised.

“Can I be honest for a second?” Stark asked.

Loki, of course, froze, certain that he had revealed too much.

“So, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about what you went through,” Stark confessed, wringing his hands together. “I know that space can be good when you’re talking about what happened, but if you think that you can stomach me touching you, I’m right here, okay?”

They stared at each other silently for a moment, Loki completely uncomprehending and Stark blatantly worried. Then, Loki’s shoulders slumped in relief as he pitched forward, practically melting within Stark’s embrace. The man’s grip was so fierce, perhaps bordering on too fierce as he sought to engulf as much of Loki’s skin as possible, but this feeling of safety that the fallen god associated only with Anthony Stark denied all reason.

“I’m glad that you feel like you can tell me about what happened to you,” Stark murmured. “I don’t care what you had to do to escape. I’m just so happy that you’re here now.”

Loki could scarcely believe that the man could bear to touch him, let alone enfold him so protectively. He had essentially admitted to being himself in all but name, and yet, Stark still seemingly accepted him. How could this be real? For just a moment, he convinced himself not to care and simply burrowed into the other man’s hold.

And then, “so, this is probably a completely inappropriate time to ask if you want to go steady, right?” Stark asked.

A bewildered laugh burst out of Loki in spite of everything. He pulled back to catch a glimpse of Stark’s abashed face. “What?” he blurted out.

Despite Stark’s sheepish expression, the man doggedly retained his grip on Loki’s waist. “Do you want to go steady?” he repeated. “You know, boyfriend and boyfriend. Romantically exclusive? Partners in crime…except not literally.”

Loki squinted at the inventor, incredulous and wary. “Anthony, you know what I am. Why would you want to be with me? You could have anyone.”

“What I know is that you are the strongest, most amazing person that I have ever met, and I would like to be yours.” Stark paused and smiled at him tremulously. “If you’ll have me.”

When Loki continued to stare at him, utterly baffled, Stark continued. “You’re not the only one who has had to do fucked up things to survive, you know. I threw a nuke at an entire alien race and probably wiped them out of existence. My weapons have killed thousands of people, a lot of them innocents. I think that I might win the ‘I’m the shittiest person in the room’ contest.”

Loki blinked at him…and then blinked again. “I don’t know,” he said slowly, feigning insouciance. “I’m fairly competitive, but I might settle for a draw.”

Stark snorted and reached gingerly to tuck a wayward curl away from the fallen god’s forehead. This time, Loki felt no desire to flinch away. “So, how about it? Can I be yours?”

Loki gnawed at his lower lip, considering. “Is our date over already?”

Stark’s expression turned indignant. “Of course not! I’ve got all-day epic plans for us.”

“Then I shall give you my answer once our date is complete.” The smile that Loki summoned to his face felt authentic enough. “And if the next item on our agenda is the petting zoo, I am afraid that you will be finding your own way home.”

“What? No, it’s definitely not the petting zoo,” Stark said, laughing nervously.

Next, they had explored the gardens, which Stark treated as a conglomerate of photo ops. Loki had never taken a selfie in his life and could have gone for his entire existence without knowing that a such thing as a selfie stick existed. Stark’s version of selfies apparently involved gratuitous smashing of their faces together, leaving only the smallest portion of the background in the frame, but Loki had resolved not to question the man’s motives. He even graciously elected not to mention the various candid pictures that Stark captured of him staring at the fish in the pond, reading an engraving on a bridge, or snacking on a bag of chips.

Still, the prolonged period of time that they spent in the gardens made Loki suspect that Stark had indeed intended the petting zoo as their next destination.

Following their excursion through the gardens, Stark drove them to a local Italian bistro with all-you-can-eat pasta. For the first time in so long, Loki ate until he was full and then lounged in the booth until Stark could manage the faculties to move. Dark brought them to a drive-in theater where they watched a man stuck in an alien time loop die repeatedly, much to Stark’s apparent glee.

“Everybody loves to hate Tom Cruise,” Stark had explained, slinging an arm around Loki’s shoulders. “Watching him die over and over is honestly the most satisfying thing that I’ve seen in a while.”

Even with no understanding of the enmity toward Thomas Cruise, Loki had to admit that he had enjoyed the movie’s intricate story.

The drive home consisted of a detailed analysis of the plot, the effects, and the acting. Essentially every aspect of the film that Stark could derive was scrutinized to its very foundation.

Because Stark was nervous about the end of their date.

Loki let the man ramble because he was, too.

Stark insisted on parking several blocks away for the car’s security. He wanted to walk Loki to his apartment. Loki was certain that neither of them knew what they discussed on the way. They were both waiting for what would come next.

Finally, they were climbing the flight of stairs that would bring them to Loki’s apartment door, and the conversation had teetered off into hushed whispers for fear of disturbing his neighbors. Loki thought that they were debating the merits of cheese versus butter on popcorn, and he had to admit that he had no idea for which side he was arguing. He was only vaguely certain that he was still speaking in English. His body thrummed with the knowledge that it was coming.

“So, is this the part where I ask again?” Stark wondered as they came to a stop in front of the door, fingers fiddling with the hem of his own shirt. “We’ve finally reached the end of our first date.”

Loki sucked in a sharp breath and prayed to the Norns for elusive good fortune.

“I’m not sure how I’m supposed to make such a decision,” Loki murmured, back to the door, hands full of his bouquet, “when you haven’t even kissed me yet.”

Stark stared at him, open-mouthed. After a few seconds, coils of heat began to curdle in Stark’s suddenly hooded gaze. “Well, we should remedy that, shouldn’t we?” Stark murmured, inching closer.

“I should hope so,” Loki replied with a tenuous confidence that could collapse with the most placid of breezes.

Gentle hands settled on Loki’s hips, reeling him in slowly. Stark was nearing, and Loki had suddenly forgotten how to do this, even though he had kissed dozens of partners throughout his life. Then Stark’s lips were upon his, and it didn’t matter because Loki forgot how to do everything except feel.

Stark’s lips were soft and moist, perhaps a little chapped, and definitely flavored with traces of butter from the popcorn that they had shared. Loki had never been kissed so delicately, as though he could break with a single arrant ounce of pressure. Their kiss was short and chaste, hardly enough for him to register the warmth of Stark’s skin and inhale the man’s breath before Stark began to retreat.

Loki wanted more.

Growling, Loki groped for Stark’s face and pulled him back, fingers knocking aside the man’s ridiculous hat so that he could embed his fingers in the chocolate brown locks. A strangled sound escaped Stark’s throat in response, providing Loki with access past the man’s parted teeth to the moist space within. The bristles of Stark’s beard scratched against Loki’s heated skin as the inventor kissed him back just as hungrily, breath mingling in the limited space between them.

They both lost track of time, immersed as they were in each other, until the slamming of a door above them broke them apart. Stark chuckled under his breath, cheeks darkly flushed as he rested his forehead against Loki’s temple.

“I’m crazy about you, Tommy,” Stark admitted, fingers flexing on Loki’s waist. “Please say we can do this again.”

“I’d like that,” Loki confessed. He indulged in pressing his palm against the arc reactor and gathered himself. “The answer is yes, by the way.”

Stark pulled back slightly, brow furrowed in evident confusion.

“I want you to be mine,” Loki clarified, clenching a fist behind his back to ease the ensuing rush of vulnerability. “And I’ll be yours. If you still want me.”

“If I still…of course, I do.” Stark’s fingers wandered to Loki’s face, tracing his heated skin, the sharp jaw, his slightly swollen lips. “My Tommy.”

Stark’s lips found his mouth again, but the man had barely applied any pressure before he started laughing, the sound heavy with relief.

“I’m sorry,” Stark said, endeavoring in vain to stem his chuckles. “I’ve just been waiting for this for so long. I was convinced that something would go wrong today.”

“Me too,” Loki admitted, mustering a pleased smile. He scrutinized Stark uncertainly. “Would you like to come in?” he offered.

Stark’s nose crinkled as he considered, palm still cupping Loki’s cheek. “Better not,” he decided. “I want to do this right.”

Loki could admit that he felt relieved. He dearly desired to draw a hot bath and daydream about actual reality.

“Very well,” he said aloud. “I suppose that I shall see you on Monday?”

“You bet! I’ll bring you a strawberry danish for breakfast.”

“Alright,” Loki chuckled. His cheeks were dually hurting from the constant stretching of his lips and the burning from the heat on his face. “Goodnight, then.”

Soft lips pressed against his forehead. “Goodnight, baby,” Stark whispered against his skin, the endearment almost too low for Loki to discern, even with his advanced hearing.

Stark retreated with obvious reluctance, backed toward the stairs, hobbled down the first flight without breaking eye contact, stopped, stared some more, and then flew back up the steps.

“Just one more,” Stark pleaded, pressing their lips together despite Loki’s startled laugh. “I need it.”

This kiss was almost frantic, more a clash of teeth than suction. Stark’s hands scampered up and down Loki’s back as though desperate to reach his skin. Loki was nearly as bad—the man’s collar was little more than a gaping hole around his neck at this point.

This time, when Stark broke away, he rushed down several flights of stairs before he turned back, eyes clearly dilated even from a distance. “Monday,” he mouthed, drawing out a smile from Loki before he disappeared down another flight.

Loki picked up his bouquet from where it had tumbled to the floor and burst through the door to his apartment. He hurried through the various locks that Stark had installed those months ago before practically sprinting to the curtains. When he peeked through the gap, he could just see Stark walking down the street in the moonlight. He was fist pumping rhythmically and attempting to moonwalk his way along the sidewalk.

Loki’s smile was so wide that he wondered if there was any merit to the mortal saying about facial expressions freezing in place over time. He flopped down on the stiff mattress and stared up at the water marks on the ceiling, detecting innocuous rather than monstrous shapes for once. He closed his eyes and breathed in. Motor oil and hazelnut, both secondhand, still clung to his skin.

His heart had never felt so full.

Chapter Text

Loki felt happy.

He couldn’t remember feeling so completely exultant in his millennium of existence. He had never dared even to fantasize that anyone could look at him and see someone worthy. Over and over again, he had been shown that he was too contrarious, too shrewd, and too perverse to attract a suitable partner. It had been ingrained in him that one day he would be required to capitulate to a loveless union. He had hoped for an indifferent partner, expected acrimony, dreaded the inevitable hostility.

He had never anticipated Anthony Stark.

There were no adequate words to describe his feelings for Anthony following their date. He spent all of Sunday lounging around his apartment, thoughts lost in a series of fatuous daydreams. His heart alternated between periods of breakneck acceleration and concentrated efforts at bursting out of ribcage. He couldn’t focus on the books that he had uploaded onto his StarkPhone, and his attempts at listening to music served only to return his mind to Anthony.

Late Sunday night found a single text message from the man.

I miss you.

Loki’s injudicious heart contorted into a medley of convoluted shapes. Normally, he would forgo responding, but Anthony had sent him a complete sentence rather than the infuriating “text speak” or “gifs” that Loki had always considered so inane.

Admittedly, he also shared in the sentiment of the message.

So, he acquiesced to a text conversation that continued well into the night and awoke the next morning curled around his phone, a slew of messages heralding his renewed consciousness. His typically quiet morning routine was punctuated by a series of pictures as Anthony sent a steady volley of updates. In the past, he might have found the inventor’s enthusiasm daunting, but now he couldn’t help but smile at every chime.

Still, he had feared discomfort upon his arrival at the Tower, had envisioned a discernable change in their dynamic and a thorny navigation of boundaries.

He needn’t have worried. Somehow, Anthony continued to confound and captivate him by simply engaging in the unexpected.

Perhaps Anthony was around a bit more during the day, but his presence remained unobtrusive, regulated to quiet anecdotes only when Loki paused his translative work. The thoughtful gestures, already plentiful, may have turned a touch more doting. For example, lunch found Dum-E bearing a sandwich cut meticulously in the shape of a heart. A peek into the garbage can found several failed attempts, apparently too oblong in shape to be acceptable.

After work, Anthony sought him out physically. They had always touched more than typical platonic friends, but now, Anthony appeared determined to hold him whenever Loki would tolerate it, and Loki had deigned himself willing to tolerate it often. Perhaps Anthony held him a bit more intimately than before, hands mapping the expanse of his back with an intentionality that had been missing from their prior contact, bodies pressed close without any pretense save for a straightforward desire for closeness.

The major difference was that Anthony kissed him. His kisses were primarily innocent those first few days after their date. In fact, Anthony’s initial attempts were so fleeting that only Loki’s hyper-focus on the other man allowed him to catch the brush of lips against his temple and later across his knuckles.

When the engineer finally did kiss him openly, it was like no kiss that Loki had ever experienced. Anthony’s every movement was languid yet poignant, as though a mere kiss could be enough for him forever. Ironically, his efforts compelled Loki to desire more than simple kisses. By Tuesday evening, Loki was half-convinced that the combined allure of motor oil and hazelnut resulted in some sort of secret libido elixir.

Alas, on Wednesday, Potts had coerced Anthony into attending a long-delayed business trip to Malibu. Loki had been invited. More accurately, Anthony had attempted to bribe him into attending with strawberry pancakes, but the Widow’s infiltration had made Loki wary. He could not compromise the safety of the journals by convoying them outside of the penthouse.

Unfortunately, he was also too dedicated to his position as a translator to justify traveling with Anthony during work hours. Admittedly, Loki believed that Glade was too terrified of Potts to terminate his employment or remove him from the Tower if he skipped a day of work, but he would not risk it. The chances of discovery would be higher if he accompanied Anthony on an official trip, and he had no desire to be noticed by his employer or the media.

So, Loki remained in New York, worked diligently on translating the second journal, and prepared for his next date with Anthony.

By the end of the week, Loki was certain of three things.

First, after hours of investigation and supplemental assistance from JARVIS in hacking S.H.I.E.L.D’s servers, Loki was convinced that the author of the journals was Arnim Zola. S.H.I.E.L.D’s classified records revealed that the scientist had been recruited into the organization during Operation Paperclip. Apparently, Zola had worked alongside Howard Stark for decades, had even personally handled the recovered Tesseract. Somehow, he had slithered into the most trusted ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D, and nothing that Loki could find indicated that his true nature had ever been discovered. The ciphers on his journals had seemingly gone unbroken.

The latest entries were the most disconcerting yet. Evidently, Barnes had survived his fall and had been summarily recovered from the snow by the enemy. Zola had begun to tender plans for amputation of the sergeant’s mangled arm and had devised the beginnings of some sort of mechanical replacement. The passages on Barnes’ transformation from human to weapon were remarkably technical, painting the man as an instrument to be shaped in the most precise yet impersonal language possible. It read as a sort of manual filled with trial and error.  

Somehow more disturbing, a very specific word had begun to appear in the scientist’s musings too often to be mere coincidence. Insight. Zola seemed obsessed with the concept, wrote often about a sort of algorithm that would provide “insight.” As Loki translated more passages, the word transformed from a vague abstraction to fervid invocation. The entries, increasingly garrulous in nature, discussed a future sustained by order, a need for sacrifice to achieve progress.

His initial inclination had been to exact Anthony’s attention immediately. However, a phone call to Malibu had culminated in hours of listening to the inventor bewail the various meetings that he had been obligated to attend. Evidently, several of these encounters had been thinly veiled pretexts organized to pressure Anthony into returning to the weapons manufacturing business.

Loki had indulged in consolation instead. The entries were decades past, and Zola was dead. There wasn’t any real urgency, he decided. He could provide a report of his findings to Anthony upon the man’s return.

Aside from his theory about the journals’ author, the second thing that Loki was certain of was that he had no idea how to make tacos.

His third point of conviction was that Anthony was even more lost than he.

“It’s just meat and sauce, right?” Anthony was saying over the speakers of the phone that Loki had pressed to his ear. “It can’t be that hard.”

“I think that you are drastically underestimating the number of choices in this aisle,” Loki groused as he examined yet another purchasable alternative. “Why do so many tortilla brands exist?”

“Oh, well, I’m not picky.” Loki could hear the sound of papers rustling in the background. “Why don’t you just get the cheapest option?”

“Because I’ve budgeted enough money to make a quality dinner, Anthony, and purchasing something that cheap will guarantee that it tastes like rubber,” Loki grumbled.

He knew that the inventor was only being mindful of Loki’s financial limitations, but the fallen god refused to permit Anthony to pay for everything. When the man had initiated a discussion of their second date before his departure, Loki had insisted on planning their entertainment. Cooking dinner at home was already a relatively inexpensive proposal. He would not compromise on the quality of the ingredients.

“Soft or hard tacos?” Loki asked after an exasperated perusal of his innumerable choices.

“Hard,” Anthony decided, punctuating his decision with a deluge of key tapping. “I think that you should know that I valiantly resisted making a very obvious dick joke there.”

Loki rolled his eyes despite the fact that the man could not see his unimpressed visage. “How fortunate for us all.”

After Loki had settled on cooking for their second date, Anthony had requested that he be allowed to come with Loki virtually to the grocery store. Ensconced in Malibu until Saturday morning, he had insisted through a deluge of gifs and memes that he could not go another day without hearing Loki’s voice (Loki had spoken with him that morning). Despite his outward apathy, Loki could privately admit that he did not mind the company. The two days that he had endured sans the man’s presence had felt decidedly desolate.

Loki moved on to selecting a suitable bottle of wine. He was trying to determine most basically whether Anthony would prefer red or white when he felt one of the runes that he had taken to painting on the soles of his feet activate.

Someone was watching him.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a rare occurrence at this point.

Loki suspected that either the Widow or Barton had reported him as romantically involved with Anthony. Since the inventor’s birthday party, the people who followed Loki had become progressively more persistent and numerous. Today was no different, although his current tail stood out more obviously than usual. The regular agents posed as harmless nurses or broke college students. This one sported slicked back hair, dark clothing, and heavy boots. He held himself stiffly, stance suggestive of a military background. His muscled stature ensured that he could not adequately emulate guileless absorption with selecting a gallon of milk in the adjacent aisle, let alone spy on Loki unobtrusively.

“You okay, Tommy? You went quiet.”

“My apologizes. I was distracted by the wine selection,” Loki murmured.

The rune that had triggered indicated that he was being watched. There was no malicious intent at this moment and therefore no reason to alert Anthony. He worried that the man would do something drastic to protect him if he knew that Loki was being monitored, something stupidly noble like breaking up with him for his own safety or irritatingly intrusive like asking him to move into the Tower permanently.

Still, this agent was bolder than the others. The man slipped into line directly behind him at the cash register, but Loki’s rune told him that there was still no immediate intent to cause harm. He strove to focus on Anthony’s ramblings about his meeting that morning. This latest potential investor had desired access to stockpiles of Stark Industries weaponry that had been long since destroyed. Anthony was understandably disquieted by the encounter, and Loki was endeavoring to comfort him nonverbally, mindful of the eavesdropper behind him.

Loki trekked in the direction of his apartment as swiftly as possible upon exiting the store, but his tail caught up within a block, the milk and eggs from the checkout counter suspiciously absent, hands blatantly empty. Loki sped up, managed a second block, his own arms laden with groceries, phone pressed against his ear with his shoulder. Anthony had moved on to imitating the investor’s very distinctive drawl.  

He was so focused on tracking the presence of the agent behind him that he nearly overlooked the abrupt inundation of quiet upon turning onto the next street. Usually, the sidewalk here was packed with people, but now only a few men, all dressed in carefully nondescript grays, blues, and blacks, loitered in the alleyways. They were so fixedly avoiding looking in his direction that it only further piqued his paranoia.

His other rune, the one that warned him about harmful intent, activated.

He dropped the bags that he was carrying to dodge in time. Bruised tomatoes and a head of lettuce spilled upon the street, and the wine bottle shattered, creating a dark wave on his jeans. A fleeting glance over his shoulder found a quivering dart embedded in the brick, marking the former location of his shoulder. He blinked at it dumbly for an instant, then craned his neck, located the glimmer of a scope on the roof of the building opposite him. In the next second, he was running.

“Tommy?” he heard Anthony say.

Loki couldn’t answer. As he rounded the corner from which he came, he nearly collided with the agent who had initially been tailing him. The man’s hands were occupied now. He was brandishing a knife.

Loki evaded the swipe and whirled, foot sluicing out to knock the man’s feet out from under him. But even as the agent tumbled down, he could vaguely sense the others on the street converging. He spun wildly, dodged another wide body blocking his way to a nearby alley.

“Anthony,” he said, voice strangled despite his best efforts at calm. “Someone is after me.”

“What?” Anthony’s tone was completely uncomprehending.

“They’re chasing me!” Loki said, panic making his voice waver.

He reached the end of the alley, only to find that one of his would-be captors was lying in wait. A heavy weight crashed into his side, knocking the air from his lungs and jamming his shoulder harshly into the pavement. A blade pressed against the back of his neck when he began to struggle.

Hold still,” the man hissed.

Loki paused for a single instant, considered that the man was fumbling in his pocket and was thus distracted, and rammed the back of his head into his nose. Blood gushed, saturating Loki’s hair as his attempted abductor screamed. He lurched to his feet, pausing only to grope for his phone, before he raced away.

Anthony’s fraught pleas reached him when he pressed the phone back to his ear. “Tommy! Tommy, can you hear me? What’s happening? Tommy!”

“Anthony,” he wheezed. “I…I think that someone is trying to capture me.”

Silence for a second, and then there was a sudden rush of air on the other end of the line. He could hear JARVIS murmuring something in the background. “Tommy,” Anthony said, voice taking on an eerie sort of timbre, “I need you to find somewhere safe to wait for me, okay? I’ll be there in a little over an hour.”

Loki ducked behind a parked car and into another alley. This one ended with a barrier, but he scaled the fence that blocked his way deftly enough and dropped to the other side, panting now. The ward on the underside of his foot was scalding his skin, overwhelmed by the deluge of malefic intent, but it still managed to warn him of the incoming projectile. Another dart blew past his face, this time skimming his cheekbone. He felt a warm line of blood begin to trickle along his jaw.

Gritting his teeth, he threw his body into running down the next block. His pursuers were close. He’d only gone half a block before he heard the crash of bodies hitting the fence behind him.

“There’s nowhere to hide, Anthony,” he wheezed as he rounded the corner. “They have a sniper on the roofs, and they’ve cleared out the streets.”

“Then break in somewhere!” Anthony growled. Then softer, “please, just try. Happy’s on his way to you, and JARVIS already called in the rest of the Avengers. We’re all coming for you. You just need to keep yourself safe until we get there.”

Loki tried to think past the frantic thrumming of his heart. His first instinct was simply to teleport away. But he wouldn’t be able to explain such an escape to Anthony, and if anybody was currently tracking him, the use of seiðr would essentially broadcast his true identity. He couldn’t sacrifice his secret so easily, not to evade mere mortals, not when it would mean losing Anthony.

So, if he could only use magic as a last resort, he had to limit his attempts at evasion to mortal standards. As Loki, he could perhaps outlast his pursuers in a fight, even if he curtailed his use of magic. But even with the proper training, Thomas couldn’t possibly defeat so many. Thomas had no chance without access to weapons, meaning that he needed to hide.

If his only viable strategy was to conceal himself while he awaited rescue, a nearby abandoned warehouse represented his best chance. The fence was high and spiked, but if he succeeded in breaching it, he could likely disappear long enough for Anthony to arrive.

“I need to focus,” he said at last, attempting to pinpoint his location after the chaotic myriad of twists and turns that he had already taken.

“Just don’t hang up,” Anthony pleaded.

He stuffed the phone in his pocket and sprinted. He could try for stealth once he’d escaped the open air, but, for now, distance was most important. His breaths were coming in wretched gasps by the time he had reached the warehouse. While the mortal limitations of his current body were typically vexatious, the sharp ache in his side made him wonder if something had damaged his ribs when he had crashed into the pavement. But he didn’t have time to linger.

Conscious of his pursuers, he rounded the fence in search of the most covert location for his purposive infiltration. The top of the fence was indeed spiked, but the poor quality of the material indicated that the barbs were intended as a deterrent for less determined trespassers. He would bleed, but perhaps his pursuers wouldn’t track him inside if he was careful enough.

Grunting, he scaled the fence. As he had expected, the coiled rolls of spikes at the top sliced through his palms, but he managed only a soundless gasp for Anthony’s sake. Upon tumbling to the other side, he was dismayed to discern a few wayward drops of blood staining the rusted metal. He could only pray that his efforts at losing his pursuers and his choice of a less direct route would be enough to subvert them.

The warehouse itself was filled with broken glass, an assortment of junk, and corroded equipment. It was dark inside, the only snatches of light filtering in through gaps in the boarded windows. His slightly enhanced vision allowed him to notice the vague outline of stairs. There were multiple levels in which he could hide. Loki began to hope that he might evade his would-be captors long enough for Anthony to arrive.

He tugged the phone out of his pocket, ignoring the resulting sting from his hands. Anthony’s breathing was heavy and accelerated in his ear.

“I think I lost them,” Loki whispered as he picked carefully through the jagged glass and decomposing trash in search of a spot to hide.

Anthony sighed deeply. His voice sounded loud in the silence, as though he was pressing his lips directly against the speaker. “Were they from your father? Did your family find you?”

“I don’t believe so,” Loki said as he crept up the stairs. “I would have recognized them.” He paused, considered entering an office filled with musty boxes and serrated metal, and decided against it. “I’ve noticed people following me for weeks, but this was different. They were barely even attempting to blend in.”

Weeks?” Anthony repeated. He sucked in an audible breath through the phone. “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about sharing important information once you’re safe, because, fuck, Tommy, you should have told me!” Anthony was panting directly into the receiver, and Loki winced, flooded with unbidden regret. “For now, just focus on hiding, okay? I want to be able to yell at you later.”

“There’s something else,” Loki admitted. “I have new theories about the journals.” He gnawed on his lip reproachfully as he peeked into another room. “I should have told you, but I…I didn’t want you to worry.”

“Tommy, I’m Iron Man. Worrying is part of my job description.”

“You’re not just Iron Man,” Loki said, his words sharper and more vehement than he had intended. He closed his eyes for a moment to rein in his instinctive reaction. “I was concerned that you might distance yourself from me for my protection,” he confessed truthfully.

“What? Like, break up with you?” When Loki remained silent, Anthony’s tone turned ardent. “There is absolutely no way that I’m going to break up with you. How could you even think that?”

“It’s not so farfetched,” Loki muttered distractedly as he poked around a supply closet.

The earnestness in Anthony’s voice was more conciliating than Loki would ever admit. “Okay, one, I am way too selfish to break up with you for your own fucking protection. Where did you even come up with that?” There was an onerous sigh, and then, “Two, we are definitely going to have a talk about new security measures, but you can kick my ass in a fair fight, and we both know it. There will be no coddling or whatever else you’re worried about.” Anthony paused again, and then said softer, “just promise me that you’ll keep yourself safe until I can get there and hassle you about this in person.”

Loki had opened his mouth to reply, likely to reassure the man and soothe the evident tremor in his tone, when he heard it. The creaking of a door downstairs. Then there was the lightest of shuffles, audible only because Loki’s hearing was sharper than that of a normal mortal.

“Someone’s here,” Loki hissed.

The door to a nearby office was already open. A pursuer wouldn’t be able to tell that he’d disturbed anything with a cursory glance. To his immense regret, there was a clear indentation in the dust on the floor from where he had opened the supply closet, but he couldn’t change it now. He slipped inside and picked through the stacks of furniture in the room until he managed to wedge under a desk.

“Did you hide?” Anthony whispered. “I’m only thirty minutes away.”

“Yes,” Loki murmured back. He focused on keeping his breathing even, striving to maintain an equanimous façade for Anthony’s benefit. He didn’t think that his pursuers had climbed the stairs yet. “Anthony, I need you to promise me something.”

“Anything, just don’t get caught, okay?”

“Anthony,” Loki continued, ears straining in the silence, “if they take me, swear to me that you’ll find me.”

“No,” Anthony hissed, voice suddenly thunderous. “Shut the fuck up, Tommy. No one is taking you anywhere. Don’t even think that.”

“Anthony, please,” Loki pleaded. “If they do catch me, if they manage to take me, I can only survive this again if I know that it won’t be for forever. I need to know that you’ll look for me, that you’ll come for me.”

Dead silence. When Anthony finally spoke again, his voice was shaky but impassioned. “Tommy, I will turn the world over to find you, and I will tear apart every single person who hurts you. You have my word on that.”  

The softest of footfalls sounded on the stairs.

“They’re coming,” Loki whispered.

“Please be safe,” Anthony whispered back before he too fell silent.

Judging by the footfalls, only one of his pursuers had tracked him to the warehouse. The footsteps paused just outside of his chosen room, apparently to investigate the supply closet across the hall that Loki had unthinkingly disturbed. He could just discern the man’s back, broad and darkly swathed, through a narrow gap between the panels of the wooden desk. Upon his shoulder rested some sort of rifle.

He watched as the man opened the door of the supply closet and peered inside. His stance was loose and relaxed, as though he had known that Loki wouldn’t be within. Heavy combat boots turned, treading across the hall with nearly silent footfalls. The door to the room inched open.   

Splashes of sunlight illuminated select snatches of the cluttered area, although it was dimmest where Loki had secreted himself. When his pursuer stepped inside, a patch of light from a broken window managed to glance off of his arm. The sunbeam reflected strangely, creating a splash of refracted light on the opposite wall. Was his arm coated in some sort of metal? Loki squinted, but beyond a mop of scraggly, dark hair, the man’s features were indistinguishable.

His pursuer surveyed the room like a predator, every movement deliberate and measured, designed to coil his body covertly and conceal his anticipation. Loki could hear the man’s heartbeat accelerating and his breathing hastening, could feel the man’s eyes catch on his hiding spot. The sole of his foot was flaring in warning, signaling the inevitable incursion of violence. And yet, physically, the man had moved away and was seemingly fixated on examining a stack of cardboard boxes on the opposite side of the room.

Slowly, soundlessly, Loki tucked the phone into his pocket so that his hands would be free. Feigning obliviousness, the man was inching closer. An involuntary shudder wracked the length of Loki’s spine. Even with his seiðr suppressed, he could vaguely recognize the absolute desolation within the man’s body. He intended Loki harm, yes, but there was no fervor alongside that imperative. He was empty, blank, a living Void.

As he neared, Loki was able to differentiate more of the man’s physical features. Even his appearance was wrong. The way that he held himself was too stiff, his breathing perfectly even—exactly five seconds in and five seconds out. Aside from the metallic gleam of his arm, there was an apparatus of some sort on his face.

It resembled a muzzle.

Loki knew what a muzzle effectuated, how it could drive the last drops of sanity from a person’s very marrow, how it could reduce a man to less than an animal. When the tracker rounded on him at last, Loki could see not even a hint of humanity in his pale blue eyes.

His pursuer’s first blow tore the desk in half. Even with his advance warning, Loki barely rolled out of the way in time. The next came an instant later, before the man should have been able to recover, before a normal mortal could feasibly have reached the god’s side. Loki’s luck held; he managed to jerk back and knock another column of boxes between them.

Loki scrambled to his feet, tried to feint right to create an opening toward the door, but the arm whirred and embedded itself in the wall where Loki’s head had been a mere second before. The fallen god attempted to lash out, kicked the back of the man’s knee with every ounce of strength that Thomas could feasibly wield, but his pursuer didn’t even grunt. Instead, that metal arm struck yet again.

It found Loki’s neck.

Loki was no stranger to being choked, but the experience was different without his seiðr to clear his head, to begin the healing process even in the midst of strangulation. Somehow, he was in the air, his feet were kicking without finding any purchase, and this man’s eyes—no, this creature’s eyes—were soulless.

Mouth gaping desperately for air that wouldn’t come, he griped the slick metal crushing his throat, somehow mustered the strength to brace himself, and slung his legs around this creature’s shoulders in a move that would have made the Widow proud. It was just enough to throw the thing off balance and send them both crashing to the ground.

Coughing frantically, Loki’s fingers danced across his swelling throat. The skin there felt too tight. He still couldn’t breathe properly. He managed to rise to his knees, tried to propel his body up, but the floor felt porous beneath his bleeding palms. He reached for the wall, but it too felt rickety rather than sturdy.

Distantly, he could hear Anthony shouting for him. He needed to move. He needed to hide so that Anthony could get him. Why couldn’t he stand?

The blow hit him solidly in his lower back, crushing him to the ground and filling his mouth with sawdust and blood. The pain didn’t rear immediately. Before that came the panic. A heavy weight blanketed him, draping across his back, pinning down his hips. For an instant, Loki forgot where he was, forgot when he was, could only cry out in terror. He flailed, tore at the creature’s face, broke something off before his arm was yanked savagely behind his back. Something tore in his shoulder. He couldn’t help but scream. Another voice, small and distant, echoed him.

It was Anthony whom he could vaguely hear, but he couldn’t sense him nearby. Where was he? He jerked from side to side despite the absolute agony in his shoulder. He could endure any pain if it meant dislodging the mass that had settled on his lower back. Kicking out with his legs only earned him more pressure and a tug on his shoulder that made his vision dot with black spots. He didn’t care. He kept struggling.

More footsteps approached. His foot was burning. He lurched, tried to bury his teeth in the creature’s arm, but it was metal. Nothing gave.

“Hold him still, a new voice said. The words were in German.

His foot was going to melt off. A gloved hand drove his face into the wooden floor, forcing him to expose his neck. He felt a prick. Poison slid into his veins.

The poison wasn’t made for him, so it couldn’t steal his consciousness as rapidly as it would for a normal mortal. He could feel it creeping through his veins, and he resisted as long as he could, but this body was damnably weak.

The pain seemed to go first. After a few more moments, he couldn’t feel the jagged wrongness in his shoulder, the tightness collaring his throat, the tenderness of his ribs and back. His vision began to blur. His limbs stopped responding despite his best efforts.

The weight on his back shifted as his body unwillingly relaxed. Fingers found his chin, tilted his head up. An unfamiliar face flooded what was left of his vision. Loki could just discern what appeared to be a monocle.

“Now, what’s this?” the new voice asked, seemingly amused.

He blinked, and his phone was in the man’s hand. He could vaguely hear Anthony screaming for him. The man fiddled with his phone, and suddenly, Anthony was audible to the room.

“Tommy? Tommy—Thomas, say something! Thomas!”

The inventor sounded terrified, but Loki could only manage a whimper in response.

The newcomer chuckled. “Mr. Stark. I do believe that I have something that belongs to you,” the man said in English, strangely without a trace of a German accent.

Anthony’s intake of breath was audible and horrified. “Don’t you dare touch him,” he hissed. “I will fucking end you.”

“Now, now. No need for threats. As long as you and S.H.I.E.L.D cooperate, nothing else needs to happen to…Tommy, was it?”

“Haven’t you heard that I don’t play well with kidnappers?” Anthony blustered. “Trust me, you don’t want to make Iron Man your enemy. Just give Tommy back. We can forget about this.”

“Hmm, I think not.” He felt fingers tracing the cut on his cheek, smearing the blood on his skin. He couldn’t recoil. “You should be more careful with how you speak, Mr. Stark. I wouldn’t want poor Tommy to pay the price for your pointless bluffs. He’s already a bit banged up, you see.”

It was the wrong thing to say, but, perhaps, it was exactly what the man intended. Anthony roared, began to spit out obscenities, swore the most sadistic of threats.

Loki’s captor only chuckled.

“We will be in contact tomorrow at two o’clock. Do make sure that Director Fury is present. I don’t like to waste my time.”

Anthony’s voice died along with Loki’s phone. The grip on Loki’s face turned bruising, fingers pressing into the delicate bones. He fought to stay awake, gathered enough strength to spit in the man’s face.

"Give him another dose.

Loki succumbed.

Chapter Text

Loki was intimately familiar with the experience of returning to consciousness after being drugged or knocked out. His body instinctively remained relaxed and quiet, allowing him to catalogue his hurts and take stock of his surroundings before he determined his next move.

He focused on his glamour first and was relieved to find it inviolate despite his brush with insensibility. Long ago, he had inculcated within his seiðr the gravity of maintaining concealment. It was the first lesson that the Allfather had inadvertently taught his magic so very long ago, and he had never faltered, not even as a chattel of the Mad Titan. He would not shirk his disguise, not due to the meddling of mere mortals.

It felt as though jagged glass had replaced his left shoulder; likely, it was dislocated. At the very least, his ribs were bruised, perhaps some were cracked or broken. His palms throbbed, and he could taste blood in his mouth. Comparatively, he’d endured much worse countless times, but that had been with a body imbued with advanced healing and durability. His mortal form felt every wound with reprehensible acuteness. Past the pain was lingering nausea and the beginnings of a savage headache, both, he suspected, side effects of the poison that they had used to knock him out.

Now that he had awakened, his seiðr surged, seeking to accelerate the healing process past mortal limitations. He barely managed to quell its thrashing. It was laborious to recall his reasons for remaining here when his foot was pulsing, alerting him to malevolent intent on all sides, when his body ached with familiar hurts, and when he had enough seiðr not only to ease his suffering but to abscond entirely.

Despite the months that he had spent with Anthony, learning what it was to be happy, what it meant to trust another implicitly, and how it felt to cherish and be cherished in return, everything in him railed against the notion of submitting to captivity. He would endure anything to return to Anthony, knew immutably that he could not falter from mortal frailty for even an instant, but for just a moment, he allowed himself to despair. He knew unequivocally that Anthony would search for him. After everything, even the most disconsolate part of him believed that Anthony cared enough to look for him.

But he knew that it would take time, and he was so very tired. He could not do this again.

He counted to five in his head. Five seconds during which he allowed the weariness to overtake his body. Five seconds during which he allowed himself to acknowledge just how much he hurt. Five seconds during which he resigned himself to hopelessness.

He had to do this again.

Resigned, he expanded his awareness past his beaten body. Occasional jostling despite his prone position suggested a vehicular mode of transportation. The stink of foul body odor and various brands of cologne surrounded him. Snatches of laughter and jeering filtered through his ears. The voices, primarily male, were discussing expected topics—their lives outside of this job, Thomas’ efforts at escape, Anthony’s expected reaction to his capture. Curiously, the space immediately to his right appeared empty. He could smell nothing malodorous, hear nothing malicious, sense nothing malevolent.

Surreptitiously, he cracked his eyes open and peeked through his eyelashes. Heavy combat boots, scuffed and stained, rested mere inches from his nose. He recognized their tread and therefore was unsurprised when the metal arm came into focus next. Loki was not so arrogant that he could not acknowledge the surge of dread that traveled the length of his spine.

His other captors were turned bodily away from this puppet that had tracked him down so adroitly. They excluded its presence with seeming deliberation. Even the seats directly to the left and right of it remained brazenly empty.

Loki craned his neck minutely and found that the thing’s face was exposed—he must have dislodged the muzzle in his efforts to escape.

The hair was ragged and shoulder-length, framing a chiseled face and a furrowed brow. The jaw was square and punctuated by a dimple in the chin. The eyes were a brilliant, cerulean blue, and those eyes were expressionless. The Midgardian phrase, “the lights are on, but nobody is home,” was created to describe this vessel.

Still, the face and the eye color were familiar. Intimately familiar, in fact. Weeks ago, he had spent a good part of an afternoon scrutinizing them.

He was staring at the face of Steven’s James.

But it wasn’t James, not really. The James that Steven had described had been effervescent and ebullient with laugh lines around his eyes and a ready grin playing at his lips. He had been Steven’s perennial confidant, his most trusted soldier, and his beloved sweetheart.

All that appeared left was the Soldier.

The body that had once belonged to James Barnes was seated directly to Loki’s right. Loose-limbed, it did not stray from its fixated appraisal of an undifferentiated segment of paneling.

Admittedly, Loki was intrigued in a macabre sort of way. Even the Chitauri, with their hive minds and immanent worship of the Other, had possessed enough individuality to express a facsimile of independent drives and thoughts. Loki himself had managed to retain remnants of his will during his enslavement. The Other had twisted his most recondite desires until Loki truly believed that he desired a throne, but the Loki that had emerged had still been a shade of himself. Barton and Selvig, both of whom were mortal and possessed limited mental defenses, had maintained their personalities despite the ascendancy of the Mind Stone.

James was different; the man himself had been erased.

A surface perusal of James’ body revealed neither wants nor desires. There were no emotions to guide him and no thoughts to distract him. Discomfort and even pain were recognized as mere data to catalogue.

Trifling curiosity wasn’t enough for Loki to justify further investigation. Loyalty, however, was a different story.

His interactions with Steven had been rather limited, but following their association, he had come to consider the man as a sort of kindred spirit. Like Anthony was becoming for Loki, James had been Steven’s everything. He could potentially use his seiðr to delve into what remained of James’ mind and revitalize any traces of his essence that had endured.

However, it was more likely that such an excursion would only confirm that James’ body had been truncated to a mere shell. Furthermore, Loki’s seiðr reserves were limited. The amount of magic required for such a venture into another’s mind would exhaust his cache and leave him defenseless in this nest of enemies. It would put him at risk.

In the past, Loki would scarcely have considered the selfless option. He had long lived solely for his own survival, although he had occasionally acquiesced to bolstering Thor when cornered. But of all of the mortals whom Loki had encountered, Steven numbered among those he held in the highest esteem. He suspected that the man would endanger himself for Thomas’ sake if presented with the opportunity. Perhaps Loki could be noble just this once, for this man who had called him friend.

Furtively, Loki gathered his seiðr for an attempt. Skin contact would channel his energy more expeditiously, but the shell of James Barnes would likely react to physical touch, and his captors would no doubt notice him shift. He would have to settle for mere close proximity.

Fortunately, James’ body possessed no mental defenses whatsoever. There should have been some measure of resistance, even with no understanding of seiðr or the metaphysical plane. Loki himself had never displayed an aptitude for purely incorporeal magic, but even with Loki’s amateurish abilities, he was able to delve into the most intimate crevices of James’ mind.  

The metaphysical landscape of an individual’s mind often conformed to the conceptualization of physical thought shared by their species. Humanity, Loki had learned from his first excursion to Midgard, manifested their thoughts via levels and doorways. The outer levels often held basic feelings and drives, and the deeper that one scoured, the more sensitive the memories became. Reaching an individual’s innermost thoughts could be arduous, particularly when the host belonged to a species with a more advanced understanding of seiðr.

There were a negligible number of layers to bypass in James’ mind because it was a ruin.

Every level was demolished and every doorway reduced to rubble. The outer barrier that was to hold his most fundamental drives had been condensed to a single reverberating phrase, an order to capture Thomas Walker. Nothing suggested that the man possessed any independent directives aside from his imperative to obey. He had believed this remainder of James to be a creature before he had glimpsed his face, but such an assessment would be generous. Creatures possessed instincts, were at least driven by rudimentary desires.

James had been relegated to a mere weapon.

Loki probed deeper, past the towers of ashes, scouring in search of anything beyond a mere husk. Everything that had made James Buchanan Barnes himself had been burnt out.

Until, he reached the man’s very core.

There, dilapidated and crumbling, was a doorway, the only one to have survived this evident culling. Loki approached warily, heedful of defenses that could be protecting this one lasting remnant of Steven’s love. He could sense danger—the air crackled, the ground quaked, and he felt a presence, spinose and minacious, brush against his seiðr.

But it let him pass.

He pressed a cautious hand against the worn frame. It pulsed feebly beneath his fingertips, neither welcoming nor repelling. His seiðr had been reduced to dregs due to the effort involved in delving this far, but he drew a few beads into his fingers, enough to fortify the cracked foundations and copious crevices. The emblematic wood seemed to warm beneath his fingers, the thrumming beneath his palm to consolidate.

Conferring another dribble of seiðr into the doorway produced a hint of luminance that shone through the endless mire and detritus. The doorknob took on a diminished gleam. He could hear the whisper of Steven’s voice when he reached to trace the cool brass.  

He daren’t open the door, not with his relative fragility and not without explicit consent. At full strength, he could have combed through the rubble, perhaps located other shards of James buried within the ruins. But with both power and time waning, he could only commit to bolstering James’ defenses and making this ailing remnant of him a little easier for Steven to reach.

Loki amassed his residual seiðr into his palms. He focused primarily on preventing further degradation by reinforcing the foundations and strengthening the frame where it was most weakened. This fragment of James was so ravenous. He absorbed every drop of energy that Loki presented, would have leeched at the fallen god’s very essence if Loki had not repulsed him.

Loki retreated only when his reserves were utterly depleted. Consciousness waned. He could relinquish no more.

***

When Loki next awoke, it was to the force of an open-handed blow to his face. His cheek twinged with a blossoming bruise, and he could taste fresh blood.

“Are you awake now, Mr. Walker?”

An involuntary shudder wracked Loki’s spine. Searing breath ghosted against his closed eyelids, and sharp nails traced his tender cheekbone. Unconsciousness, he determined immediately, was preferable to this reality. The parody of a caress was gaining pressure, and he could hear the floorboards behind him creak as a second person shifted their weight. When Loki forced his eyes open, the harsh glare of spotlights above him made him squint.

Eyes watering, he blinked rapidly until the monocle that he recalled from his capture swam into focus mere inches from his nose. The demure smile on the man’s face belied the voracity that he could see in the man’s gaze as he scrutinized Loki’s glamour. Loki tried to wrench away from the man’s fingers, but he could only move his limbs scant centimeters in either direction. A fleeting glance down found tight shackles locked around his wrists and ankles, binding him to some sort of examination chair.  

“We were beginning to become concerned,” the man said, words tinged with hints of a German accent that had been absent during his exchange with Anthony. “You should have woken several hours ago. We were worried that the second injection was too much for you.”

Loki ignored the man’s faux solicitude and focused on taking stock of his aching body. In his restrained position, the strain on his shoulder was agonizing, and his stomach felt hollow with hunger. His chest hurt; a rattling sound accompanied each breath. With some relief, he noted that he was still wearing his own clothing, although the fabric was filthy and stained with blood. He was weaker than he would have preferred without both seiðr and sustenance to accelerate his recovery, but he had enough strength to scheme.

First, he needed to determine which character would be most efficacious in gleaning information from his captors. He had awakened bound, which signaled that they were wary of him, most likely due to his relative success at evasion. The man with the monocle, presumably their leader, had manufactured a perceptible power differential by exhibiting physically how little control Loki retained over his own body. He could use that arrogance.

“Where am I?” Loki asked, lacing his voice with an intentional tremor. “Who are you?” He devoted a little effort into tugging at his restraints fretfully and then allowed a cry to escape when the movement pulled at his shoulder.

“Now, now, Mr. Walker. Don’t hurt yourself.”

The man crouched before him. Idly, Loki considered what Anthony would dub him and settled on Mr. Peanut, an eponym for the snack of which the inventor was fond. Mr. Peanut removed his hand from Loki’s face in favor of bracing his weight on the fallen god’s knees. Scared, meek Thomas flinched at the blatantly intrusive contact.

“You’re perfectly safe,” Mr. Peanut said. “Do try to stay calm.”

“I don’t understand. What do you want with me?” Loki asked, yanking again on his bonds.

“Shh, shh, shh,” Mr. Peanut soothed. “We just want some information and your cooperation.”

“Information?” Loki sniffed. He made sure to lick at Thomas’ dry lips to add to his impotent façade. “I don’t know anything! I’m just a translator!”

Mr. Peanut leaned closer, eyes wide with false earnestness. “Tony Stark hired you a few months ago to translate some documents. We just want to know what they say.”

Loki mirrored the man’s expression with his own much more convincing contrivance of shock. “This is about Mr. Stark’s journals?”

Mr. Peanut hummed and reached yet again to cup Thomas’ jaw. He was studying Thomas closely; Loki wasn’t certain whether his scrutiny indicated reservation or conviction about the fallen god’s act. Still, he ensured that Mr. Peanut would feel Thomas trembling minutely, even as, inwardly, Loki seethed. 

“What can you tell me about those journals?” Mr. Peanut asked as his fingers traced the delicate skin underneath his glamour’s eye. Thomas shuddered in fear.

“I…well, I’m not supposed to talk about them.” He heard a throat clear behind him, judged that spineless Thomas should find that sound intimidating, and rushed to continue. “But I’ll tell you! I will! If I tell you, will you let me go?” Thomas’ breaths were coming rapid and abbreviated, as though he were on the verge of a panic attack. It made Loki’s ribs ache.

“We will certainly take your assistance into consideration,” Mr. Peanut assured him, a suitably empty promise.

“What do you want to know?” Loki asked, making sure to gnaw apprehensively on Thomas’ lip. “Honestly, most of the writing is gibberish. There’s some kind of coding system, and I’m a translator, not a cryptographer. I think that Mr. Stark’s father was doing experiments, but there are a lot of technical terms that I don’t understand.” Thomas laughed nervously. “Mr. Stark hasn’t been too interested in them. I think he’s just using the job as an excuse to get into my pants.”

Mr. Peanut tipped Thomas’ chin up, evidently searching his face for indications of duplicity. Despite the repugnant touch, Loki remained impeccably still, save for Thomas’ continued shivering.

“Stark seemed distraught when we took you,” the man said at last, frowning deeply.

“What can I say? I guess I’m a pretty good lay?” Thomas laughed self-deprecatingly and shifted in clear discomfort.

“Hmm.” Mr. Peanut appeared visibly displeased. “That’s all you can tell me about the journals?”

Loki considered for a moment. The line between expendable and threatening was very fine. “I mean, I’m reasonably sure that Mr. Stark’s father was experimenting on human beings,” he settled for revealing, lowering Thomas’ voice as though he was divulging an egregious secret. “That’s pretty sick for a supposed American hero. I bet Mr. Stark wouldn’t want that to be made public if you’re looking for blackmail or whatever.”

“Interesting,” Mr. Peanut said. His tone signaled the obverse sentiment. “Well, let us hope for your sake that Stark is willing to make some concessions to free you.”

The false geniality had disappeared with the revelation of Thomas’ absolute cluelessness and his status as a mere sexual exploit. Of course, his cover would unravel the moment that they contacted Anthony, but Loki had been able to derive enough of the puzzle pieces. It was evident that his capture wasn’t solely linked to his amorous connection to Anthony. The combination of Mr. Peanut’s line of inquiry and James’ involvement in Loki’s capture suggested that Zola’s journals contained valuable HYDRA secrets. Less apparent was why Mr. Peanut’s group would be so interested in the secrets of an obsolete organization.

Unless HYDRA was still functioning.

Zola had labored under S.H.I.E.L.D’s authority for decades until his death. Could it be that the scientist had spearheaded the growth of HYDRA within S.H.I.E.L.D? The more that Loki considered the possibility, the more sense it made. The Widow had likely managed to glean some information about Loki’s translations before he had confronted her, and she would have reported her findings to S.H.I.E.L.D. If HYDRA was truly camouflaged within the organization, Thomas would have been identified as a threat. His ancillary reputation as Anthony’s partner had essentially ensured his abduction.

“Now, Mr. Walker,” Mr. Peanut said, voice returning to manufactured sweetness. “You must listen to me very carefully. If you follow my directions, there will be no need to hurt you further. Do you understand?”

Thomas nodded frantically. “Please,” he whispered, closing his eyes as though overcome with terror, “what do you want me to do?”

“We just have a script that we want you to read. All you have to do is read it exactly as it is written. No deviations. No embellishments. No deductions.” Mr. Peanut smiled enigmatically. “Can you do that, Mr. Walker?”

“Yes,” Thomas murmured, fingers flexing agitatedly in his bonds. “And, if I read it, you’ll let me go?”

“As long as Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D cooperate, you shall have your freedom,” Mr. Peanut said, patting Thomas’ sore cheek in a mockery of affection.

His statement was absolutely untruthful. Loki had seen Mr. Peanut’s very distinctive face and heard the German elocution that tinged his true voice. Even if they did not suspect that he had identified James, they could reasonably speculate that he had observed the metal arm. Thomas was not meant to survive this encounter, but Loki was confident that he was safe for the time being. His captors would ascertain quickly enough that Thomas was important to Anthony. Once they recognized the value of their hostage, they would likely ask for something that the inventor could not relinquish. And when they realized that Loki had misrepresented his relationship with Anthony, they would doubtlessly question the rest of his portrayal, namely, his characterization of the journals. Presumably, the ensuing interrogation would move beyond a mere conversation. But it would allow time for Anthony to find him.

“Now, as an incentive, my associate will stand behind you for the duration of our message. I trust that you will give him no reason to intervene.”

The person behind him paced around to loom over him. Loki noticed with some furtive amusement that this man—his tail from the grocery store—was currently sporting a black eye. The feigned casualness as the man pretended to pick at his nails with a Bowie knife was almost enough for Loki to break character. But he remembered a beat later that Thomas would be cowed and petrified at such a display and indulged in a shameless cringe.

“Please,” Thomas whimpered, “I’ll do whatever you want. I swear.”

Mr. Peanut clapped his hands. “Excellent! Don’t worry, Mr. Walker. This will all be over soon.”

Loki bowed his head and pretended to focus on breathing, even as he conducted a surreptitious perusal of the room. There were a handful of mortals engaging in various tasks behind Mr. Peanut. Most were typing rapidly on computers or crowded around several monitors. Another was fussing with a camera in front of Loki, and a second was positioning a teleprompter to the fallen god’s left. There were no windows and only a single door. Every person in the room was visibly armed. There was no sign of James.

His tail, now wearing a black ski mask, stepped behind him. A hefty hand settled on Loki’s misshapen shoulder, provoking a wounded whine from Thomas.

“Just give me a reason,” the man taunted.

Thomas shuddered, and Loki feigned a sigh when the man’s grip eased.

Mr. Peanut stepped behind the camera, that eerie smile still on his lips. “Are you ready, Mr. Walker?”

Thomas took a deep, fortifying breath and lifted his chin towards the lens. “I am.”

The monitors blinked to life.

“Tommy!”

Anthony’s voice was frantic and pitched much higher than normal. His hair was uncombed, his shirt was wrinkled and stained, and there were dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. Wayward stubble covered his usually meticulously groomed jaw. He looked absolutely awful, and Loki missed him so very fiercely.  

Every Avenger was present save for Thor, and he spotted Nicholas Fury seated in the corner of the screen. The presence of so many of his former enemies was a testament to their caring of Anthony, not concern for him, but a part of Loki was touched all the same. Steven, in particular, was sporting a radically murderous glare.

Anthony sprung to unsteady feet and ignored an attempt by Banner at his left to pull him back down along with a hissed admonishment from Steven at his right.

“Tommy, are you okay? Did those bastards hurt you?”

Loki, of course, could not answer, but Anthony did not appear to expect that he would reply.

“I’m coming for you, alright? And when I find you, I’ll destroy the fuckers who took you so utterly that no one will even be able to find their ashes.”

With that, Loki’s ruse was shattered. Anthony wasn’t exactly hiding his attachment to him. Mr. Peanut seemed to realize his subterfuge, too. He turned and started whispering frenetically to one of the men manning the various computers behind the camera. Loki could not inveigle an ounce of worry. He was focused on committing Anthony’s every feature to memory.

Words appeared on the teleprompter to the left of the camera, drawing Loki’s antipathetic attention. He saw no purpose in continuing his anxious façade. Instead, he squinted theatrically at the screen and cleared his throat exaggeratedly.

“The Avengers have operated unchecked for too long, and we, The People, demand justice,” Loki read in a steady monotone, making the man behind him shift uneasily and Mr. Peanut grit his teeth. “Hundreds of us were injured or worse during the Battle of New York, and yet the individuals responsible, the Avengers, remain free.”

Loki sighed and leaned forward overdramatically, as though he couldn’t read the words on the screen from such a distance. A show of resistance—even if he could only manage a tacit degree of reluctance—was the only tactic that he could use right now to answer Anthony’s question, to show him that he was relatively hale and unafraid.

“They sought to silence us with nuclear weaponry,” Loki said, nearly drawling now. “They have recruited monsters, murderers, and aliens into their ranks. We will not stand for this, not anymore.”

But when his next lines appeared, he outright refused to say them, held his silence despite a heavy weight settling on his shoulder. As those thick fingers began to squeeze, he bowed his head, bit down on his lips until he could taste blood, and contemplated just how much this mortal form could endure before he was forced to comply—

“It’s okay, baby.” Anthony’s voice inexorably drew his attention. “Just say whatever it is that they’re making you say,” the inventor pleaded. “It’s okay.”

He caught the white-knuckled grip on Steven’s arm that belied Anthony’s words, but Loki was helpless to resist. Now was not the time for overt defiance, not if he wanted to survive long enough for the engineer to recover him.

Resigned, Loki began to read again. “We will start with Tony Stark,” he said tersely, “the Merchant of Death, the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents. You are not a hero. You are a villain, and you must be stopped. You have ensnared the governments of the world with your money and your power, but we remember who you really are. That is why we have stolen what is most precious to you. If you want your Tommy back, you must meet our demands.”

For a moment, there were no further lines for him to read, presumably to underscore Anthony’s reaction. The inventor’s skin was ashen through the lens. Loki knew that the man viewed his past with shame, that, despite his frequent flippancy, he viewed Iron Man as penance for the lives that he had indirectly extirpated. The confirmation that Thomas had been abducted because of him would be shattering.

On screen, Steven leaned toward the engineer, started to whisper something, but Anthony shook him off, eyes laser-focused on Loki’s face.

“What is it that you want?” Anthony demanded. “Money? Tech?”

The teleprompter remained blank. A harsh grip descended on his shoulder, ensuring that Loki maintained his silence. 

“What? Do you want me to quit the Avengers, is that it?” Anthony’s fingers clawed into his hair, yanking savagely at the strands as a hysterical laugh bubbled in his throat. “Whatever it is, you can have it, okay? Just give Tommy back.”

Loki bared his teeth in silent protest, prompting further pressure on his shoulder. Mr. Peanut smiling widely, inordinately gleeful. The body language of the various assembled Avengers had become rather strained.

When words finally did form on the screen, Loki could not hold back a snort despite the retaliatory crushing sensation that threatened permanent separation of his shoulder from his body. Evidently, his captors were delusional and vastly overestimating Thomas’ value. Otherwise, they must not actually desire Anthony to agree to an exchange. There was no possibility that the man would be willing to part with their asking price.

“We demand that Tony Stark relinquish the Iron Man suit to The People. We demand blueprints so that we can produce duplicates of the suit and protect ourselves. And we demand access to the materials required to create those suits.”

Nicholas Fury, who had thus far kept to the corner of the screen with the spies, spoke up now.

“Unfortunately, that is something that we cannot agree to, not even to save a civilian,” the man said gravely. Loki barely kept his eyes from rolling. He was certain that the director was absolutely heartbroken over delivering such a verdict.

Anthony had remained silent. Loki wasn’t confident that he was even breathing currently. He appeared to be focused on staring at Thomas, eyes lachrymose and lips pressed together. “It’s not your decision, Fury,” he murmured at last, tone inflectionless.

Fury jerked toward him, startled. “Stark, you can’t—” the director began, voice harsh.

“My tech. My call,” Anthony snapped. He turned back to the screen dismissively, sought Loki’s widening eyes once more.

“Stark, no,” Fury insisted. “In the wrong hands, that suit could kill thousands of people, and they’re talking about creating an army.”

Anthony wrapped his arms around himself and stared unerringly at Loki. “Don’t care,” he mumbled.

Steven placed a gentle hand on Anthony’s shoulder. “Tony, you know that Tommy and I are pals, but we have got to at least talk about this.”

“No. I don’t want to hear it.” Anthony turned to Steven, gaze imploring. “Steve, they’ve got Tommy. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to get him back. Surely you of all people can understand that.”

Steven face crumpled; he was no doubt thinking of James. “I get it, Tony. Trust me, I do, but we still need to discuss this. We’re a team, aren’t we?”

Loki watched through his compelled silence, utterly baffled. The idea that Anthony might be prepared to relinquish his suits for Loki was unfathomable. No one had ever been willing to lose so much, not for him. He did not inspire loyalty like the Allfather, or solicitude like Frigga, or devotion like Thor, so what could possibly compel Anthony to even consider surrendering one of his most treasured creations? Surely, the spore could not be so influential, but simple infatuation with Loki or enjoyment of his company should not equate to such a sacrifice. Loki could not understand it.

Mr. Peanut had been conferring with the man in control of the teleprompter. Loki hadn’t been harboring any real expectation of release, but every semblance of hope was lost when he read the new supplement to his captors’ requirements.

“We also demand concessions from S.H.I.E.L.D,” Loki said bleakly. “We demand that S.H.I.E.L.D relinquish to The People all stockpiles of Stark Industries weaponry.”

Absolute silence reigned. Mr. Peanut had steepled his fingers together, smugness coagulating in every pore. The spies stiffened discernably. Steven’s brow furrowed. Banner turned to Anthony with wide eyes. And Anthony…

What?” Anthony whispered, expression frozen in vacant incomprehension.

“Bullshit,” Fury declared. “All Stark Industries weapons were destroyed. I supervised the decommissioning myself.”

New words appeared, devastating, fragmenting. He could not say them. He would not. HYDRA sought to turn Anthony against his allies, to provoke him into waging a war from within. Loki refused to serve as the catalyst.

The fingers returned to his shoulder and dug into the skin when simple pressure wasn’t enough of a provocation. A genuine cry burst past Loki’s lips. He curled away as best he could, but escape was impossible.

“Hey, no! Stop!” Anthony shouted. There was a banging sound from the speakers. Loki’s body was too focused on writhing within his captor’s grasp to investigate.

“Speak,” his captor demanded.

Loki shook his head wordlessly, lips parted in a soundless scream.

“Don’t hurt him!” Anthony pleaded. He could hear Steven, Banner, and even Barton shouting the same.

His captor growled. Unyielding fingers twisted into his hair, yanking his head back to reveal his throat. A sharp blade nicked the exposed skin.

“Baby! Baby, it’s okay. Just do what they want. Please. ”

Loki grimaced. The knife pressed in a little deeper. Blood wept down his neck and soaked into his shirt. He knew that it would happen regardless of his cooperation.

“On your screen, you will find the known locations of S.H.I.E.L.D’s weapon stashes,” he said through gritted teeth. “This list is not exhaustive. Our intelligence suggests that more stockpiles likely exist at covert locations across the globe.”

Anthony’s chair, which was apparently already on its back, slammed against the wall. “Fuck,” Anthony growled. He braced himself against the table with trembling arms. “Fuck,” Anthony whispered again.

Fury raised his hands placatingly. “I have no knowledge of this, Stark.”

Anthony’s lips contorted into a snarl. “Fuck you. Of course, you do.”

“Stark—”

“Stop fucking talking.” The inventor turned back to the screen, focused desolate eyes on Loki once more.

“Tony,” Steven said, voice low but still audible, “you can’t possibly be considering giving your weapons to these people.”

“I’m thinking,” Anthony muttered contumaciously.

Fury’s eye narrowed. “We are not surrendering that kind of weaponry to a terrorist organization. Period.”

Anthony’s jaw clenched. “They’re my weapons. I get to decide what happens to them.”

“Not when you’re compromising the safety of the world for your fling of the week.”

It was a misstep. A horrible misstep. Anthony was too fragile, too volatile. He could only rouse to such a slight, particularly one against Thomas.

“Don’t you fucking dare talk about him that way,” Anthony growled, voice strangled. He whirled, seized a mug off the table, and hurled it against the wall. It left a wash of steaming russet in its wake. “Do you really want Iron Man as your enemy, Fury?”

HYDRA had played this so perfectly. Through the Widow, they had set the stage for Anthony to perceive S.H.I.E.L.D as a threat to Thomas. Ostensibly, Fury could be telling the truth; if HYDRA had truly infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D, they could have arranged for the retention of Anthony’s weapons without the director’s knowledge. But with the spore roiling in his chest and Thomas so callously threatened, Anthony would be blind to the truth.

Fury and Anthony were squaring off now. The director was flanked by the spies, while Banner and Steven remained closer to the engineer. The tide would undoubtedly turn quickly. Anthony’s allies could never justify relinquishing such technology, not for banal Thomas. Their inevitable abandonment would leave Anthony isolated and unprotected. He had to prevent it, but the knife was pressing persistently against his throat. Loki closed his eyes miserably, wondered what his captors would do if he intervened once more, but he could see no alternative.

Loki had been so focused on Anthony that he had neglected Banner, but the scientist had evidently been paying attention to him. When the man roared, every person on the screen froze. His skin was taking on a greenish hue. Growling, not quite Beast and not quite man, Banner pointed toward the camera, toward Loki. Thomas was losing strands of hair by the dozen at this point, and the knife was dangerously close to slitting deep enough to sever something essential.

Anthony plunged back into his chair immediately, chest heaving. The Widow sidled to his side as he struggled visibly for composure, leaned down to whisper in his ear. Anthony grimaced, but he nodded, and Loki’s heart began to sink. Her involvement could never bode well for him.

The Widow sank delicately into the seat that Banner had occupied. “We would appreciate some time to think over your proposal,” she stated evenly.

Loki licked his lips as he waited for the teleprompter to populate. Mr. Peanut was staring at him. He had seen the same delight on Glade’s face on the day that he had signed Anthony’s contract. It promised pain.

“We understand that you will need time to make arrangements, and we are willing to accommodate your request,” Loki read.

She bowed her head in acknowledgment. Anthony’s shoulders slumped.

But more lines appeared. Loki’s stomach lurched. He endeavored inconspicuously to steel himself.

“While, we do understand that you will need time to make arrangements,” Loki said, striving desperately for impassivity, “we are also weary of exercising such patience. So, we have prepared our own incentive to expedite your decision. For every week that you make us wait, your Tommy will suffer.” Loki closed his eyes, unable to bear the dawning horror in Anthony’s expression. “Starting with today,” he whispered.

He heard the chair topple to the floor once more. “You can’t!” Anthony protested.

Meanwhile, his captor finally released him, and Loki allowed his chin to drop onto his collarbones. He was no stranger to pain, had endured so much more than these mortals could ever hope to dispense, but he was also so very tired of being on the receiving end of barbarity. He could hear the clanking of tools somewhere behind him but daren’t look. His body had begun to shake surreptitiously.

“Please,” Anthony was saying, “you don’t have to hurt him. Just give me a few days to figure things out.”

His captor’s fingers settled on the top of his spine, palm engulfing the back of his neck.

“Tommy, baby. Tommy, please, just look at me.”

Anthony was attempting to comfort him, Loki knew, but he needed to be Loki, not Thomas, for just a moment. He needed to muster the fortitude that had allowed him to endure lifetimes of horror in the Void, and, right at this moment, Anthony could only divert him. He squeezed shut his eyes as tightly as possible, struggled to control his breathing and stave off the panic. 

The examination chair on which Loki was seated tilted back until he was reclining. Something soft—a cloth—was draped over his head, blocking the blanched white of the ceiling. He could hear the sound of running water, not quite a cascade but more than a trickle. It flowed over his face, and, for a blessed moment, Loki did not understand. What purpose could the cloth serve? Forcing his head into a bucket of still water would more effectively drown him.

Seconds later, everything became clear.

The cloth kept him from expelling the water that flooded into his nose and his mouth, directed the liquid into his lungs. His body behaved as though it was drowning. He gagged. He sputtered. His mouth gaped as he fruitlessly sought air. His limbs strained, fighting the restraints that kept him prone and the awful grip that forced his head back. His shoulder was in agony, but he could not stop struggling.

He was going to die. He was drowning. And he was going to die.

But then the water stopped. The cloth peeled back from his face, and the grip anchoring his head released. He jerked up, chest heaving as he labored to breathe. His lungs burned.

“Stop!” Anthony was screaming. “Please, don’t hurt him.”

Loki panted mindlessly, desperately. His captor’s fingers were scratching across his scalp in a caricature of reassurance. He could not draw in enough air.

And then the fingers twisted, wrenched his head back. It happened all over again. His body thrashed wildly. His wrists began to bleed from the combined pressure of his visible restraints and the fetters that lay hidden beneath his glamour. His mouth gaped obscenely, inviting still more water into his lungs.

Time dragged. After seconds, or maybe minutes, perhaps even hours, the cloth drew back. He jolted upright, sputtering, tugging futilely at his bonds. Distantly, he could hear Anthony babbling, a litany of pleading. He could not survive that again.

But he did. And again. And again.

By the fifth time, his body had lost the energy to flail within his bonds and had settled for fruitless twisting. Blood coated his wrists. He could not catch his breath, even when the cloth was removed. 

He could vaguely feel the chair move until he was sitting upright again. Someone was smoothing his dripping hair back from his forehead. He endeavored to breathe; it was all consuming.

Tugs at his hair. Pressure at his throat. A force slammed into his cheek. He tasted blood again. His eyelids parted reluctantly, and he squinted at the man in the ski mask. His face was directed to the teleprompter, to words, more lines to read, but his vision was swimming. He could not focus.

After a time, his chin was allowed to slip back down. His eyes closed without his permission. He was so very tired.

He could vaguely hear Anthony. Then, there was cheering, but it was as though Loki was lost back in the Void. Everything seemed peripheral in comparison to his constricted lungs. His limbs, aching and taut, were released at last, but he had not the strength to move them. Fingers traced his face, lingering on his jaw, but the touch felt distant, as though it were happening to someone else. 

His body was being dragged. He hurt, and he was so terribly fatigued. Eventually, he was allowed to settle into a slump, could vaguely acknowledge pressure beneath his cheek and the grating agony of his shoulder languishing underneath his weight. He labored to roll over, managed it after several attempts and curled into the tightest ball that he could muster. Jeering, vitriolic voices faded away. He prayed for oblivion.

“Tommy?”

Please. He was so tired. He just wanted to sleep.

“Baby?” 

Soft fingers fluttered against his skin, carefully skirting around the sore tenderness of his cheek. Distantly, he acknowledged the levering of his body. Arms molded around his frame, heralded an imitation of warmth. His ear settled against the hastened pounding of a frantic heart.

Loki stiffened. His unseeing eyes flew open. Questing fingers found the shape of the arc reactor humming and pulsating comfort.

“Anthony?” he croaked.

“Hey, baby.” The grip around his chest tightened minutely. “Don’t try to talk, okay? Just rest.”

He was dreaming. Or perhaps he was hallucinating. In the Void, both had happened often. He had seen his family hurl veridical barbs and feared slurs. He had lived through forlorn rescues countless times during his period There, and he had endured the crushing disappointment upon awakening to the reality where he was forever captive, forever alone, forever broken.

Now that he was imprisoned once more, a fantasy version of Anthony was the most exquisite torture that he could imagine.

His fingers twisted into Anthony’s notional collar. His muscles kept spasming beyond his control. His lungs could not seem to expand far enough for him to breathe properly. He was wet, and he was hurting, and he was so, so cold.

“Come get me,” he begged. “Please come get me.”

“I’m looking,” his vision of Anthony choked out. “I’ll find you soon.”

Anthony’s hand slipped into his hair, caressed his abused scalp so very gently. A whimper built in Loki’s chest. He craved the real thing so desperately.

“Shh,” said his fantasy. “You’re okay. I’m right here, Tommy. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

Anthony shifted him until his long body somehow curled compactly in the engineer’s lap. He had never felt so small and so safe. He could feel Anthony everywhere, encompassing him on all sides. When he pressed his nose into the man’s throat, he could even smell the motor oil that clung beneath the slightly sour scent of dried sweat.

The spore reached out to embrace him.

The spore.

The spore was here.

How could it be here?

Loki’s eyes shot open.

His immediate surroundings shifted slowly into a focus. He was in the Tower, in the penthouse, but it was not the penthouse that he had come to cherish. Gone was the couch, the site of so many treasured memories. In its place was a familiar crater. The Mad Titan’s scepter pulsed on the floor nearby, and the spore within Anthony’s chest was beating in time.

The spore was reaching out to him, adhering to him. He was too weak to resist.

Anthony’s palm traversed the length of Loki’s spine. “You feel so real,” the inventor sighed. His nose pressed into his dripping hair. “You even smell real.”

The cogs in Loki’s brain jumpstarted into lackadaisical motion. The spore. Somehow, it had connected him with Anthony. The real Anthony. His Anthony.

Desperation overtook reason for just a moment. “Please come get me,” he pleaded. “Please come get me. Please, please come get me.” A litany. A prayer. He would say it until it became truth.

Anthony began to rock his weary body. “I am. I won’t leave you, Tommy. I swear it.”

Loki wiggled closer in spite of his many hurts. His eyes closed. His body relaxed. Anthony would keep him safe.

As he basked in the warmth of the arc reactor underneath his cheek, he wondered idly about the spore. Long had he considered it a malicious force, but now its intent did not necessarily feel nefarious in nature. It pulsated beneath his skin, latched onto the empty well where his seiðr normally pooled. When it found that not a drop of seiðr remained, it writhed in evident distress.

“I know you’re my subconscious and all,” Anthony whispered into his hair, “but if you could give me a hint about where to find you, I’m all ears.”

It would be so very easy to share his suppositions about HYDRA and to reveal James’ role in his capture. But to pique Anthony’s suspicions, even to aid his recovery, would ultimately be detrimental. The Thomas that Anthony believed to be a dream could not reveal truths that the inventor could never begin to guess. That was the path to permanent exile and the rendering of his sacrifice for naught.

“I can’t watch them hurt you like that again,” Anthony said. “Please help me, baby.”

He could not share his newly gleaned verities, but Thomas had named a sizable clue in the midst of flight. Anthony was so very clever. He may not have as many pieces as Loki now possessed, but a simple push could uncloak the same answers.

“The journals,” Loki said. His voice grated within the confines of his throat. Speaking was agony, even in this dreamscape that the spore had created. “My translations.”

“They’re safe,” Anthony assured him. “Don’t worry about them.”

His convulsing hand twisted into Anthony’s shirt, warping the fabric. “Read them,” he managed.

“I gotta admit that reading those things isn’t exactly high on my priority list right now,” Anthony said. His hand smoothed a calming circle between Loki’s shoulder blades. “Unless…is this my hint?”

Loki subsided and allowed his body to resettle. The spore and the arc reactor pulsed in tandem, seemingly working together to console him.

“Okay. I hear you. I’ll take a look.”

The engineer’s thumb began to trace his closed eyelids. Loki’s body seemed to know instinctively the difference between Anthony’s affectionate touch and the malevolent ministrations of his captors. He tilted his head, hoped that Anthony’s fingers would return to his enflamed scalp.

“Tommy,” Anthony whispered, so low that Loki could barely hear it in the absolute silence, “this is all my fault. I am so, so sorry. You must hate me.” He hugged Loki closer, tight enough that the fallen god’s sore ribs twinged in protest. “I hate me,” the man admitted.

Groaning, Loki groped upward, found Anthony’s mouth surrounded by prickly hair and hints of stubble where he normally shaved, and covered it resolutely. Anthony laughed beneath his palm and gripped his arm gingerly, carefully avoiding his raw wrist. His lips pressed a kiss into the center of Loki’s hand.

“I miss you so much,” Anthony whispered, leaning his forehead against Loki’s. “I’ve been thinking more about our second date. What if I treated you to a private concert after our taco dinner? I know you don’t like it when I spend too much money on you, but I think that you deserve a little spoiling after all this, don’t you?”

Loki sank down again and rested his cheek against the man’s shoulder. He allowed his eyes to flutter shut.

“I was thinking a piano concerto. Is that what it’s called?” Anthony’s fingers found Loki’s hair at last. “There’s this guy, Gershwin, I think. He combined classical music with jazz, and I found a group that plays his work. It’s not your usual style, but I think you really might like it.”

“Is there screaming?” Loki mumbled into Anthony’s shirt.

“Not a single screech,” Anthony promised.

“I’ll consider it,” Loki murmured. “After you come get me.”

Anthony’s lips found Loki’s temple. “I’ll find you soon. I promise,” he vowed. His arms tightened around Loki’s middle. “Just wait for me.”

Chapter Text

Loki had long loathed Anthony’s music. He had believed the vocals to be utterly uninspired and the beats little more than loud noise. Continued exposure had convinced him that hard rock and heavy metal represented the pinnacle of dissonance, and no amount of badgering on Anthony’s part had swayed him from this conviction.

Of course, before now, he had never been exposed to black metal.

Every single lyric was a snarl or a shriek or a scream. Every chord was disharmonious and jarring, unquestionably intended to burst the eardrums of even the most pertinacious auditor. If he had to listen to one more discordant guitar riff or atonal howl, he might have to test whether he had the chops to engage in a duet.

The combination of the constant cacophony of instrumentation and the varying intensity of the strobe lights in his cell prevented more than curbed naps, and Loki was profoundly tired. His body, bound by mortal limits, ached so fiercely.

He just wanted to go home. He longed for the penthouse, and he would give anything for one more glimpse of the nature-themed décor in his bedroom, the bed that conformed to every curve of his body, and the immense bathtub in which he had soaked for hours. He missed Harold’s cheerful chatter and the steadily multiplying stack of downy blankets in the back seat of his car. He yearned for JARVIS’ pointed reviews of the weather and his painfully unsubtle efforts at monitoring Loki’s health.

But, mostly, he missed Anthony’s gummy smiles, nonsensical rambling, and gentle caresses so very dearly. He had languished without true sleep for days, meaning that he had not been permitted to dream. As time passed without even a glimpse of the inventor, desperation began to beset his endless waking hours.

He worried. He worried about the sprouting seeds of doubt that HYDRA had planted in Anthony’s mind concerning the loyalties of S.H.I.E.L.D and his allies. He worried about Anthony, alone in the Tower, presumably obsessing over locating him. He worried that Anthony would be too consumed to care for himself. He worried that Anthony would condemn himself for Loki’s abduction and, worse, that he would think that Loki blamed him. Finally, he worried about what the spore could perpetrate in his absence.

The spore’s actions in their shared dreamscape had not appeared particularly deleterious, but he had yet to discern its primary directive. More concerning was the fact that his seiðr continued to be so slow to build following his contact with Anthony. Granted, sleep deprivation and starvation were likely contributing to his enervation, but the spore had clung to him soundly in his dream. Even now, he could feel its residue adhering to what little seiðr he had managed to accumulate.

Regardless of the impact on him, his primary concern was the spore’s influence on Anthony. He remembered how the man had tested his boundaries during their first meetings, how he had acted contrary to his very nature in a desperate bid to impose closeness. What would the spore drive Anthony to do with enforced distance?

The blaring caricature of music ceased so suddenly that Loki’s ears rung in the aftermath. He forced his eyes open and stared up at the ceiling from his spot in the corner. Spots were slow to recede from his vision, and he was loath to move and incur the onset of dizziness that had become a frequent companion.

“Good morning, Mr. Walker.”

Loki blinked and Mr. Peanut polished shoes were in his eyeline. A cursory glance found the monocle reflecting the too bright overhead lights. The man’s bare eye was crinkling at the corner in time to the slight curvature of his lips.

“I trust that you are feeling well this morning?” Mr. Peanut continued. “I do so enjoy our conversations.”

The scuff of boots against the linoleum floor announced the arrival of his tail from the grocery store. After lengthy consideration, Loki had dubbed the man Vader. He seemed to derive great enjoyment in breathing heavily in the fallen god’s ear in the intervals between threatening him with a knife and yanking on his misshapen shoulder. Unfortunately, these last few days, Vader’s behavior had taken a more sinister turn that prompted in Loki a quiet sense of foreboding.

Sighing, Loki levered his frame up with his good arm. His ribs protested every movement, and his head spun with dizziness, but he allowed none of that to penetrate his expression. Instead, he focused on staring up at his captors impassively and denying the temptation of licking at his chapped lips. His body had learned to associate interrogations with a brief alleviation of thirst.

Mr. Peanut, who had grown to expect his taciturn resistance, crouched in front of him. “Do you know what today is, Mr. Walker?”

Loki allowed his head to rest against the wall at his back as he continued his display of silent apathy. They had offered sparse meals of cheese, crackers, and water since he had arrived. Weariness weighed down his limbs.  

“Today,” Mr. Peanut continued with the enigmatic smile that Loki despised, “is the day that you see Stark again. I know that you must be looking forward to that.”

Loki continued to gaze at him dully. Unfortunately, his lethargy appeared to invigorate rather than dissuade his captor. Deceptively gentle fingers curled around his chin, imposing continued eye contact.

“If you recall, Stark was adamant that you cooperate with us.” He paused as though awaiting Loki’s reply. “He would doubtless find your current behavior most distressing. Answering a few simple questions would earn you much more congenial accommodations.”

“I have already told you everything that I know,” Loki said expressionlessly.

“You told me that you and Stark were little more than a fling. And yet, the man is clearly enamored with you.”

Loki rolled his eyes. He tired of this farce. “His concern is merely guilt driven.”

“I hear that he is despondent without you,” Mr. Peanut taunted, although his tone remained light and conversational. “My people say that he has been drinking himself into a stupor every night and that he isn’t eating or sleeping.”

Loki blinked up at him lazily. “Your people have access to Anthony right now?”

Mr. Peanut’s jaw clenched minutely. Loki wondered if it was the truth, if the HYDRA agents within S.H.I.E.L.D were shadowing Anthony even now. He wanted to believe that it was simply a bluff and that Mr. Peanut had thought him too disoriented to pick up on the nuance of his statement. Anthony’s inimical coping methods were well-publicized. It was logical to posit that the man might have remitted under stress.

But if they did have access to him, if they could hurt him—no, he could not think about that right now.

Mr. Peanut elected to try a different tactic. “Come now, Mr. Walker. Let’s be honest here, shall we? Tony Stark has had hundreds of partners. By all accounts, he prefers women. What is it about you that has enthralled him so?”

“I already told you,” Loki said serenely, “I have a magic cock.”

Mr. Peanut and Vader stared down at him.

“He likes to fuck me,” Loki stated, careful to enunciate his words. While he was far from his most lucid at the moment, he was mostly confident that he was speaking English.

Mr. Peanut’s expression settled into a sneer. “Do you think that this is a game, Mr. Walker?”

Loki successfully wrenched his jaw away from man and craned his head as far back as he could. “I think that you are hoping that my answers will change without sufficient food or sleep. I think that you know that Anthony cannot acquiesce to your demands regardless of how much he cares for me. I think that you are going to kill me regardless of whether Anthony or I comply.” He fought his overwhelming weariness for long enough to summon a smirk to his lips. “You can see how I might be less than motivated to cooperate with you.”

Mr. Peanut rocked back on his heels, an agitated frown diminishing his incessant smile at last. “You are more than a simple translator, aren’t you, Mr. Walker?” he asked softly.

Loki continued to gaze up at him without comment. His statement was simple fact. The typical mortal, unused to pain and easily cowed, would have broken long ago. The fact that Loki was not only enduring but laconically resisting would be enough to surmise that his official past was a sham.

“It seems that today will be no different, then,” Mr. Peanut said, voice laced with simulated sorrow. He straightened and smoothed non-existent wrinkles in his shirt. “Are you certain that you do not wish to cooperate?”

Loki allowed his head to loll back and closed his eyes in wordless dismissal.

“In that case, I shall leave you with my associate. He so values the time that you spend together.”

He fought to conceal the instinctive shudder that wracked his spine. Strange how he would dread the heavy tread of Mr. Peanut’s steps away from him, towards the door. His ears strained for the rustle of clothing that heralded Vader’s increasing nearness, and his body cringed as a heavy weight pressed against his bad arm. He bit his cheek to quell an aggrieved cry even as his fingers gnarled into claws against his thighs.

“Looks like it’s cheese and crackers again today,” Vader said. His attempt at amiability sounded unnatural on his coarse tongue.

Loki turned his face away and waited.

“Things would go a whole lot better for you if you just did what we ask, you know?”

A cracker pressed against his mouth. His good fist clenched in his lap as he forced his lips to part and accept the food. He kept his face turned carefully away and focused on chewing slowly.

“Have you thought more about my proposal?”

Loki held his silence and opened his mouth for another cracker, endeavoring to defy the roiling in his stomach.

“I could make it good for you.”

This time, the fingers lingered on his face even as he chewed. It was different from Mr. Peanut’s touch. The man with the monocle prodded his skin as an exercise of power, simply to demonstrate that Loki maintained no control over his own body. Vader’s every stroke was bathed in lust. At some point soon, the man would grow tired of waiting.

“You whored yourself out to Stark,” Vader said, leaning forward until his hot breath soaked Loki’s ear. “Why not sleep with me? I’ll make it worth your while.” Vader’s fingers traced Loki’s cheekbone when he stayed quiet. “Let me fuck you, and I’ll bring you real food and all the water you want. How does that sound?”

Vader’s palm seized Loki’s jaw, forcing him to turn his face toward the man. His captor’s breath, overbearingly minty and strikingly foul underneath, blanketed the god’s nose. Loki inhaled once and resolved to hold his own breath for as long as possible.

Vader’s face was mere inches away. “Let me,” the man whispered as he neared. His thumb traced the seam of his lips.

“I have told you repeatedly that I am uninterested,” Loki said with insouciance that he did not feel. His heart was pounding, his skin crawling. He barely had enough energy to remain upright.

Vader chuckled, but the sound had taken on a hard edge. The pressure on Loki’s face increased until he was certain that the man would leave crescent shaped bruises on his skin. “How about this incentive then? Show me your ‘magic cock’ and I’ll go easy on you today. You don’t want me to have to hurt you, do you?”

Loki found the strength to open his eyes and glare at the man. He was so close, and staring at Loki’s lips hungrily, and the few crackers that the god had consumed churned in his stomach.

“I daresay that you’ll hurt me no matter what I do,” he said with his best attempt at bravado.

“That will be Stark’s failure, not mine,” Vader hummed. The man’s nose pressed against Loki’s temple and inhaled deeply. “How much I hurt you is my decision. Don’t you want to be on my good side?”

Loki licked his lips, which, blessedly, caused his captor to pull back so that he could stare at Loki’s mouth. “I think,” Loki said evenly, “that yours would not be the first dick that I have bitten off. Release me.”

Vader’s lips pressed together tightly. His grasp moved to gird Loki neck, thumb raking roughly at the scabbed line at Loki’s throat. “I’ll have you either way eventually.”

“If that were true,” Loki contradicted, even as the man’s grip tightened, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Once Tony Stark is dead, it won’t matter,” Vader growled. “Insight is coming. No one will stop me after that.”

Loki froze for only an instant. He knew that word from his translations. He had interpreted “Insight” as a promise of salivation for HYDRA, a blueprint for a world characterized by order. Of course, back when he had believed HYDRA dead, there had been no sense of urgency to investigate the implications of the concept. But Vader’s ardency indicated imminency. And the threat to Anthony had provoked an innate and visible reaction.

“Ah, so ‘Insight’ does mean something to you,” the man observed. “You understand more of those old journals than you let on.”

Loki closed his eyes and focused on shrouding the distress from his features. Anthony would find him soon. He would be able to warn him before there was any danger. 

“Release me,” he repeated through clenched teeth.

Vader finally did, albeit with a harsh laugh. “You actually care about him, don’t you?” the man chortled. “You’re in love with Stark.”

Loki would not deign to respond to such a brazen untruth. Instead, he exploited the man’s distraction and snatched the wretched plate of offerings and the lone bottle of water from his lap. Usually, he savored each bite despite Vader’s execrable attention. Now, he crammed the food down his throat, concerned that his captor would pilfer what little sustenance he was allowed. His stomach gurgled in protest, unaccustomed to ingesting so much so quickly after a week of equally meager meals.

He could feel Vader’s gaze boring into him when he finished. “Do you think that Stark loves you, too?” he asked.

Loki gave into the impulse to snort at such an absurd supposition. “I already told you—”

“Yes, yes, your fabled magic cock.” A peculiar, almost feverish light had sparked in Vader’s eyes. “Why don’t we test just how much he cares for you?”

Loki squinted at him dubiously. There was an edge to the man’s tone that was somehow more unnerving than his intrusive touches or flagrant threats.

Vader smiled a bestial, toothy grin. “I’ll leave you to your music until we’re ready for you,” he said as he backed out of the room.

The wailing restarted with a vengeance, somehow even more clamorous than ever, and the lights flickered before intensifying to a blinding brightness. Loki sank onto his back with a groan, cradled his arm to his chest, and endeavored to think of nothing at all. It was a simple goal to achieve when he could scarcely hear his own thoughts.

***

They had strapped him into the examination chair again, but Loki was not going to panic. His shoulder throbbed in agony, but Loki was not going to panic. They had plugged in a device at the corner of the room that emanated heat, but Loki was absolutely not going to panic.

Mr. Peanut appeared inordinately concerned with Loki’s appearance. However, his efforts at smoothing away the wrinkles in Loki’s clothes and raking the hair back from his face likely did little to soften the effect of days with no sleep and no opportunity to bathe.

“There will be no script today, Mr. Walker,” the man said as he tucked a wayward curl behind Loki’s ear. “Within reason, you may speak with Stark freely. Obviously, you are not permitted to discuss specifics of your stay with us. Do you understand?”

Loki swallowed hard and steadfastly ignored the Thing in the corner. “I understand,” he said curtly.

Mr. Peanut clapped his hands together. “Excellent! We are almost ready to start.”

He moved away, toward the array of monitors and drones setting up equipment, and Loki kept his eyes carefully averted from the device that was beginning to glow an ominous red. He almost missed the music from his cell. His thoughts, increasingly catastrophizing and verging on hysterical, were nearly impossible to subdue.

“What do you think about my new toy?” Vader asked.

Loki barely stemmed a flinch, only returned to the present due to the moist lips that pressed against his ear. After a moment, the fallen god clenched his jaw and stared straight ahead. He would not think about it. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t.

“Last chance,” the man taunted. “Are you sure that you don’t want to take my deal?”

His hand slid across Loki’s chest, and, from the outside, it might have appeared that his intent was the same as Mr. Peanut’s—to conceal their treatment of him over this last week. But he could feel the way Vader’s fingers lingered at his breast and the particular attention he paid to his lower abdomen.

“When I kill you,” Loki said through gritted teeth, “I will ensure that you suffer.” 

Vader threw back his head and released a boisterous, imperious laugh. “Just remember that I gave you a chance.”

Mr. Peanut stepped behind the camera and nodded, prompting Vader to slip his ski-mask in place. He rested his hand on Loki’s decimated shoulder, but Loki could barely feel it. Something horrible was going to happen, but first, he would be allowed to see Anthony. He would devote all of his focus to Anthony.

The screen in front of him blinked to life.

“Tommy? Tommy, can you see me?”

Loki stared. “You look awful,” he blurted.

The monitor was too far and the quality too poor for him to discern Anthony’s every feature, but even so, the inventor appeared obviously disheveled. His hair had never looked so greasy, and a collection of multicolored stains dominated his clothing. Purple coated the puffy skin under his eyes, clashing with the webs of red that ringed his chocolate irises. His skin looked ashen and oily, and he sported the beginnings of a thick beard. His hands were shaking where they clutched the armrests of his chair.

“You look worse,” Anthony shot back, smiling tremulously.

Privately, Loki would wager that the margin between them was quite narrow. Anthony appeared ill. Disquieted, Loki subsided back into his chair to ease the strain on his lacerated wrists.

As he withdrew, Anthony craned forward, eyes plaintive. “Okay, so, obviously, we both look like shit, but how are you feeling? Are you eating enough?”

Vader’s fingers constricted around his shoulder as a warning. “I ate this morning,” Loki said carefully.

Loki recognized the stubborn set of Anthony’s jaw. “Are they hurting you?” he pressed.

The grip tightened. “I am well, Anthony,” he said steadily.

Anthony’s expression crumpled, and Loki could not understand. “Baby, you don’t look well,” the inventor whispered. “You look so tired.”

More pressure. Loki fought against his body’s instinctive urge to flinch and mustered a smile at the screen. “I am well, Anthony,” he said firmly. “Don’t worry.”

“Okay, baby. I hear you,” Anthony said, but a noticeable tremor had overtaken his voice, and his hands had formed quivering fists. His eyes flitted to Vader behind Loki once, twice, and then, “hey, Jason Voorhees. Take your goddamn hands off of him.”

Vader startled, but, after a moment, Loki heard a barely audible chuckle behind him. And then his hand was crushing Loki’s shoulder. Hissing through his teeth, Loki hunkered away as best he could. “Anthony,” he admonished under his breath.

Despite the impediment of the screen, inexplicable rage was both evident and building in the inventor’s expression. “Stop fucking hurting him, dickwad,” the engineer growled. “I will fucking eviscerate you.”

There was a muted snarl—Vader had taken Anthony’s words as a challenge. Still more pressure was applied to his shoulder until Loki cried out.

“Anthony, they haven’t been hurting me. I am well. I am. I am,” Loki reiterated helplessly as he endeavored to endure Vader’s maltreatment. “I just want to go home.” 

Finally, the inventor focused on him again. “I know, baby. You’ll be home soon.” He pulled in a shuddering breath, and then another, and finally a third in quick succession. “I can’t,” Anthony whispered piteously. “Clint?”

“We would like to negotiate the terms of your release, Tommy,” Barton interjected, voice benign yet subdued, a complete contrast to his quotidian personality. “Would it be possible for us to speak with someone who can make decisions?”

The role of the negotiator seemed like it would better suit the Widow than Barton. Loki had been wholly engrossed with Anthony, and so he had not noticed that only the archer and Banner were present alongside the inventor. He could understand the Widow’s absence. Thomas was a threat to her; facilitating his rescue offered her no benefit. However, he had believed that Steven at the very least viewed him with a degree of comradery. The Captain’s absence stung more than he would admit.

Mostly, however, he was concerned for Anthony. He seemed increasingly volatile. Every iota of confidence had waned in favor of watery eyes, pasty skin, and trembling limbs. As he watched, the engineer slumped and shielded his eyes with a quivering hand. Banner, brow furrowed saliently, rested a pacifying hand on his back.

A pointed yank on his hair returned his attention to Mr. Peanut, who was shaking his head in rejection of the Hawk’s solicitation.

“They are unwilling to negotiate,” Loki relayed.

Vader’s hand cupped the back of his neck, and his meaty thumb kneaded at the top of the god’s spine in a parody of a caress. Loki concentrated on concealing an impulsive grimace.

“Their asking price is too high, Tommy. Tony is willing to make concessions”—Anthony grunted without looking up—“He’s willing to make a lot of concessions, but we can’t endanger the world either.”

The eye that wasn’t obstructed by the monocle was glimmering now. Mr. Peanut’s customary thin-lipped smile had given way to a ghastly baring of teeth. The man shook his head in refusal without changing his exultant expression.

“They are averse to altering the terms,” Loki reiterated. Vader’s nails pinched into his skin, prompting him to continue. “Are you…” Loki sucked in a deep, bolstering breath. “Are you saying that you are unwilling to comply with their demands?”

Anthony released a strangled sound, but it was Barton who answered.

“Tony is willing to pay a monetary ransom. He will provide materials, and he’ll build any non-weapon that they request.” Anthony cleared his throat pointedly. “With some conditions, he is even willing to concede an Iron Man suit. But S.H.I.E.L.D cannot justify relinquishing weapons that can kill hundreds of thousands for a single civilian.” The spy paused, a contrite expression crossing his usually jovial face. “I’m sorry, Tommy.”

Loki had known that they would not agree. Rationally, he understood that even if they capitulated to HYDRA’s demands, his captors would either stipulate further concessions or kill him outright. But, for a moment, he returned to the mindset of the old Loki, the Loki imprisoned within the Void. That Loki could only envision a future of pain, pain, pain. That Loki had embraced his monstrous destiny in exchange for a brief respite from agony. That Loki would never entrust Anthony Stark with anything, let alone his life.

For that single instant, he felt betrayed and angry and so very frightened. Anthony had promised to protect him, and, right now, the man refused even to look at him.

The Hawk must have construed something from the non-expression on his face because he cast a concerned look at Anthony, who had yet even to peek from behind his hands. “Tommy, you have to understand—”

“I do understand,” he said tersely.

He did. He did. Intellectually, he understood that witnessing such torment must be wearisome. He could even understand that the inventor bore some sort of metaphorical burden whenever Loki suffered. But after an entire week of isolation and manipulation, his dearest desire was to be seen by the man for whom he had sacrificed himself. It would all be worth it if Anthony would just fucking look at him.

Vader skulked out of the frame. Loki tracked him to the right, to the corner where the Thing that exuded heat was drawing power. Even without actively exercising his seiðr, he could detect his captor’s jouissance, odious and malevolent. He allowed his body a single concentrated tremor before he straightened and clamped his jaw.

His captor lingered off camera until Loki chanced a second peek. He had intended to steel himself, but…

It was a branding iron.

It was flames, and heat, and burning.

It was what had broken him in the Void.

His eyes widened—he couldn’t control it. A whimper built in his throat—he couldn’t quench it. His body yanked fervently at the restraints that bound him—he couldn’t stop it. He could feel his chest heaving with great gulps of air that strained his battered ribs. The wounds beneath his restraints reopened and began to weep.

Please not this. Anything but this.

Vader stepped back before the camera lens. His serrated nails raked through Loki hair and held fast to the ends, forcing his head back, exposing his throat. Loki’s thoughts stuttered. The heat was so damnably close now. He could feel it skimming his naked cheek. 

“Tell Stark what you see,” the man whispered—no, panted—against Loki’s ear. “Tell him or I’ll make this so much worse for you.”

Loki stared up at the ceiling and willed himself away. The wisps of seiðr that he had managed to accumulate barely stirred. He didn’t have enough.

The heat licked at his arm, singeing the fine hairs there.

“It’s an iron,” Loki informed the flecks of peeling paint on the ceiling.

Vader backhanded him an instant later. Blood flooded his mouth, but the forced upward angle of his face prevented him from expelling it.

“Be more specific,” Vader demanded.

Loki blinked with watering eyes and returned to his hopeless search for a pattern in the flayed paint. “It’s a branding iron,” Loki informed his audience vacantly.

“Louder,” his captor growled with a twist of Loki’s curls.

“It’s a branding iron,” Loki repeated emptily.

Vader shoved his head down, compelling him to face the screen. Barton, he noticed absently, had adopted a stoic expression, but there were hints of tension in the clenched fists crossed against his chest. Banner’s reaction was more perceptible. The scientist appeared decidedly green, and he had half-risen out of his chair as though he intended to bolt. And Anthony…

Anthony was finally looking at him.

Sitting with his legs pressed against his chest and his arms wrapped around his knees, the inventor’s body rocked erratically as he stared at Loki with bleary eyes. There was an air of despair about him that made Loki’s own frame wither in anticipation of ruin.

Vader held the iron before his eyes and seized Loki’s jaw to constrain his attention. “What’s the shape?” Vader murmured, a breathy sound that made the present part of Loki quail all the harder.

Loki worked to focus past the influx of heat so near his face. It took a moment to understand.

“Don’t do this,” he whispered. Of course, it was futile. The tempo of Vader’s breathing accelerated with every exhale, and his fingers around Loki’s chin were quivering.

The instrument was a scant inch from Loki’s eye now. “Tell him what’s going on your skin,” Vader demanded.

Loki had resisted for what had felt like decades in the Void. Until the very end, he had withstood every coercion devised to make him complicit in his own degradation. Of course, by the completion of his debasement, he hadn’t been lucid enough to care. But in the Void, he had not been imbued with a mortal body primed to experience pain tenfold. He had cherished no one, and so only his own body and mind could be threatened. His pride had been the final piece to break.

But he couldn’t resist so completely now, not when they were threatening a mortal Frost Giant with fire, not when his every act of defiance affected Anthony.

“It’s an arc reactor,” Loki submitted through gritted teeth.

Vader’s grasp slackened the slightest bit, and Loki wrenched face away, recoiled as best he could from the sweltering heat. His brow was soaked with sweat.

“No,” Anthony croaked suddenly. “You can’t.”

Vader cackled loudly enough for the virtual audience to hear. His free hand was trailing a scalding path down Loki’s throat and along his clavicle.

Anthony lurched out of his chair and stumbled towards the camera lens. Close-up, the man appeared even more discomposed. His dilated pupils hinted at drug-induced consciousness. His hair was several shades darker and coated with oil and filth. Some of the strands clung together, lying flat against his scalp or in disheveled spikes. Blaming Anthony’s appearance on mere indolence or inebriation would be a misnomer. The inventor looked horribly sick.  

“Please,” Anthony begged. “Please, just punish me. Hurt me.”

“Tony—” someone—Barton, probably—began to admonish.

“I’ll give you anything. Just please. Don’t hurt Tommy.”

Vader’s odious fingers ensnared the collar of Loki’s sordid t-shirt. One vigorous yank tore the thin material apart, leaving Loki’s heaving chest bare. Anthony gasped; Loki cringed. He’d sacrificed some elements of his glamour in favor of building seiðr faster. That meant that in addition to the mottled bruises engulfing his ribs and the deformation that characterized his mangled shoulder, his frame was closer than it had ever been to the gaunt form that was hidden beneath Thomas’ visage.

Vader heedlessly trailed a meandering path down Loki’s chest. “What do you think, Tommy?” he breathed in Loki’s ear. “Should we go for the poetic spot?” His fingers loitered at Loki’s sternum.

“Please,” Anthony said again, more anguished than ever. He’d moved closer to the camera, completely blocking Banner and Barton behind him. “Tommy is innocent. You want to hurt me. I’ll do whatever you want if you just stop.”

Vader started humming a discordant tune that sounded suspiciously like an emulation of the black metal that tormented him. The jagged nail of his index finger traced a red circle into Loki’s clammy skin. Loki ground his cheek into the faux leather of the chair and closed his eyes. His taut body rebelled against his efforts to relax.

“Just tell me what you want,” Anthony pleaded. “Please, don’t do this. Please.

The heated metal pressed into his skin. For an instant, Loki wondered if he had misremembered the pain. He could feel the pressure but not the torrid agony that he had been expecting.

In the next instant, his nerves registered the inferno, and Loki screamed. Molten flame seared into his glamour’s skin, found Loki shrouded underneath, and seeped past his fortifications to decimate the ice monster inside. Loki could not stop screaming.

Once he’d discovered his true origins, he’d finally understood why he detested hot drinks, why the blistering Asgardian summers always left him lethargic and feverish, and why burns always took thrice longer than any other wound to heal. Heat was a Frost Giant’s greatest weakness.

Considering his mortal limitations, he wondered if this might kill him. 

The combination of the restraints on his limbs and Vader’s grasp on his neck kept him in place despite the conflagration desolating his every defense. He could feel the blaze permeating through his veins, melting through the ice, searing eternal marks on his flesh. Loki screamed and screamed and screamed.

He lost track of time. It barely registered when the branding iron lifted away, leaving scorched skin in its wake. It felt as though embers remained below the surface of his enflamed skin, continuing to simmer and smolder and seethe. He smelled cooked meat. When Loki’s stagnant brain understood that he was smelling himself, he barely managed to turn his head in time to retch his meager meal onto the floor. He sagged into his bonds in the aftermath, struggled to hold his breath, endeavored not to look down at his torched flesh.

Presently, he became aware of Anthony’s voice. He was babbling a litany of empty phrases, promises that he was here, that he would free him, that he only had to endure for a little while longer. Loki was faintly surprised that they were permitting him the comfort.

Vader crouched down in front on him. The man’s eyes were dilated nearly to the same extent as Anthony’s. Loki stared at him dimly, couldn’t even summon the wherewithal to flinch when his tormentor leaned in and angled his lips against the fallen god’s ear.  

“Are you ready to test my theory?”

Loki licked at his parched lips, completely uncomprehending, unable to think past the hellfire on his chest. Vader was still grinning, and he was so close that Loki could see gold fillings crowning his molars. His fingers pressed against Loki’s slack mouth, tilted his lolling head until the god stared up at him blearily. Surely, it was over for today. It had to be.  

Vader’s fingers prodded into Loki’s cheeks. When the god failed to respond, he slunk away. Loki’s chin slipped down again. His own breath prickled his raw skin. After a moment, Vader’s boots reentered his blurry sight.

Anthony started bellowing.

There was a second branding iron.

Loki could not breathe.

Vader stepped closer and knelt next to him. His body quailed and cowered and heaved, but his restraints gave not an inch. Brutish fingers stroked the irritated lines on his sternum, provoking a labored groan.

“Stop!” Anthony shouted. “Just stop hurting him. God, what do you want?”

“We want to see you suffer, Tony Stark,” Vader said, addressing the camera for the first time. His fingers continued to nudge at the brand, drawing a string of feeble whimpers.

“Then let’s arrange an exchange! Give Tommy back and you can have me. You can hurt me!”

Vader chuckled over the background protests of the other Avengers. His nails had meandered to scrape across Loki’s pounding heart. “You know, your boyfriend had us all but convinced that he was just a booty call when we first grabbed him. Of course, when we saw your reaction, we knew that he had to be more than that.” Vader paused, and Loki could hear the conniving smile in his voice when he spoke again. “You love him, don’t you, Stark?”

Anthony hesitated, and Loki could not blame him. He knew that the inventor couldn’t feel that way for him, not now, not ever. But, as Vader’s fingers twisted painfully into his hair and dragged his head back, he prayed that Anthony would lie just this once.

“Don’t you?” Vader snarled. Loki couldn’t alleviate the pressure on his scalp. He stretched up to ease the pain, but that pulled on his burnt skin.

“Yes! Yes, I love him!” Anthony whispered fervently. “Please. Don’t hurt him.”

Vader’s grip eased marginally. “See, Tommy,” he stage-whispered. “Stark loves you. You were wrong.”

Loki closed his eyes and focused on breathing. He could hear the rising tension in Vader’s voice, the anger left over from this morning.

“You’ve got me cornered,” Anthony said. His voice was quavering. “You stole the man I love. You have the perfect bargaining chip. Just stop. I will fucking give you anything.”

Vader released his hair. His palm was drifting once again. “I brought a special surprise,” he said, “so Tommy will never forget that you are responsible for all of this.” He flaunted the new design at the camera. “What do you think? I had it custom made.”

The branding iron, bent in the shape of the Iron Man helmet, was burning a vibrant, pernicious red in preparation for immortalization in his flesh.

When Anthony spoke now, his tone was utterly disconsolate. “It doesn’t matter what I do, does it? You’ll never ask for anything that I can give. You just want to hurt him to punish me.”

“Now, that’s not true, Stark,” Vader said, feigning consternation. “If S.H.I.E.L.D won’t cooperate, you just have to get what we want another way. Clearly, we haven’t found the proper incentive yet.”

For a moment, only the sound of Anthony’s hastening breathing permeated the silence. Vader’s nails gouged crescent grooves into the skin at Loki’s heart.  

“Anything to add, Tommy?” his tormenter gloated.

Loki hadn’t the energy to lift his head. “It’s okay, Anthony,” he croaked. “I’m okay.”

“It’s not okay, sweetheart,” Anthony whispered back after a moment of tremulous gasping. “But I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“See, Tommy?” Vader crowed again. “See?”

Vader hefted the device.

The iron plunged into the flesh that covered his heart. Loki’s body strained, thrashed the inch or two that his restraints allowed. It hurt so much, somehow more than before. As he was consumed, a familiar desire emerged, a fervent longing for the ultimate end.  

He screamed louder and louder and louder.

He screamed until he couldn’t hear the Avengers, or Vader, or Anthony.

He screamed until he blacked out.

***

He woke up still screaming.

His hands scrambled for his chest, for the twin balls of agony burning him to his very core.

Human fetters bracketed his arms immediately, pinned his wrists against his sides and pressed his back against a heaving yet yielding surface. Something touched his face, featherlight, skimming over his clenched eyelids. He cried out and craned his head desperately away.

“Baby, it’s me! It’s your Anthony.”

He whimpered before he could stem the sound. He managed to free one of his hands and tore at the arm retraining him.

Lips brushed against his temple. “Tommy, it’s me. It’s me.” His body began to rock. “Shh. You’re safe here. I’ll protect you.”

He knew that voice, of course he did, but with rising lucidity came so much—too much—pain. Despite his best efforts, his muscles would not unclench, and his chest was ablaze with agony. He heard himself whining wordlessly, piteously, but he couldn’t quench the sound. Desperately, he turned his nose into Anthony’s neck, inhaled the hazelnut and motor oil, and prayed that he would be allowed oblivion once more.

“I know. It’s okay, baby. I’m right here.” The grip around his body morphed from constraining to supporting, levered his cheek against an angular shoulder.

Loki bit the inside of his cheek to staunch his pathetic appeals and burrowed closer. Anthony’s hands began to move along his body, soothing the length of his spine, lingering on his shuddering ribcage with the lightest of caresses. He could feel the spore reach out in tandem and begin to prod at his seiðr.

“Can you open your eyes?” Anthony pleaded.

Groaning, Loki tried. He managed a squint that provided him with a view of Anthony’s neck and the long bristles of hair that the man hadn’t maintained shaving. They were back in the penthouse from the past; he knew because the couch was suspiciously absent and the scepter tangibly present. Still, he basked in a precious moment of simply listening to Anthony’s erratic heart pulse against his ear. But even as his body began to relax, he could distantly feel the spore welding to him, adhering to the gaping holes in his seiðr with impunity. He had not the strength to resist.

“There’s my Tommy,” Anthony whispered. His lips fluttered against the tip of Loki’s nose. “Keep looking at me, sweetheart.”

He tried, but the smell of his own charred skin was beginning to dominate his senses. His flesh throbbed as though it was still smoldering.

“Hey, no. Don’t think about that.” Clammy palms framed his face, forced him to meet bloodshot, chocolate brown eyes. “Stay focused on me, okay?”

Loki’s trembling fingers found the investor’s wrists and latched on desperately. “I hate fire,” he admitted in a reprehensible whisper.  

Anthony’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry,” he murmured wretchedly. “S.H.I.E.L.D won’t surrender the missiles, even though they were supposed to be destroyed, even though they’re mine. Not even Pepper can convince them.” The inventor pulled in a sharp breath. “Everybody’s against me, Tommy. They think I’m going crazy.”

Loki’s grip tightened. HYDRA was winning. They were successfully isolating Anthony. “Just find me,” he croaked. “How much longer until you come?”

Anthony thumbs found the dark bags that had become entrenched beneath Loki’s eyes. “Not long. Don’t worry.”

There was something artificial in the tone that clued him in. “You have no idea where I am,” Loki realized miserably.

The inventor’s entire body sagged. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Loki’s own. His hot breath, stale and tinged with the thick scent of whiskey, wafted against the god’s face.

“There’s absolutely no trace of you, Tommy. JARVIS has hacked everyone, and there’s no record of ‘The People’ anywhere. The factory where those bastards grabbed you was completely wiped, and all the surveillance footage has mysteriously gone missing. A ragtag group of terrorists shouldn’t be so sophisticated. It doesn’t fucking make sense!”

Loki could feel Anthony’s pulse thrumming frantically beneath his fingers. “You’ll find me,” he ventured tentatively.

The engineer twisted one of Thomas’ wilting curls around his finger, eyes unfocused. “Bruce says that I’m lucid dreaming. He says I’m driving myself insane, that seeing you like this isn’t healthy.”

Loki’s heart lurched at the engineer’s agonized tone. “Anthony—”

“I keep seeing you with that bastard from today, Tommy,” Anthony continued heedlessly. “He sounded exactly like he does in my dreams.”

Loki’s thoughts stuttered. This line of conversation felt dangerous. “They’re only dreams, Anthony,” he whispered.

“In my nightmares, you’re lying in a cell. The lights are so bright, and the music is deafening. You can’t sleep. They barely give you anything to eat.” Anthony hugged him close, and Loki bit down on his tongue to stave off his body’s protests. “And that monster is watching you, Tommy. He’s closing in, and I’m going to be too late.”

Unfortunately, his description sounded fairly accurate. But the implications behind his inexplicable knowledge were too horrifying to contemplate right now. Loki needed to focus on guiding Anthony toward answers, not exploring the conniving machinations of the spore.

“You won’t be too late,” Loki insisted, “because you’re going to figure out where I am.” His fingers curled into the man’s stretched collar. “Tell me about the journals.”

Anthony sighed in exasperation but indulged him. “I heard enough about faultless Captain America and his sidekick while I was growing up to put together that Barnes survived the fall.” The inventor paused in thought. “I haven’t told Steve yet. He’s almost as worried about you as I am. Plus, that fucker, Fury, sent him and Romanoff on a mission. Something about a hijacked ship and pirates.”

Loki nodded against Anthony’s breast. So far, the man had gleaned more than he had hoped. He couldn’t expect that Anthony would guess that Barnes was still alive or involved in his capture.

“What else?” he prompted.

Another exhale, tinged more discernably with frustration this time. “JARVIS told me that you identified Zola as the writer. I guess I’m not surprised that he was a two-timing bastard. Dear old dad was never a good judge of character.” Anthony’s face pressed against the crown of his head. “I should never have asked you to translate that shit, Tommy. Why didn’t you just talk to me? I could have found something else for you to do.”

“Anthony—”

“This is my fault. It’s all my fucking fault—”

“Anthony, please,” Loki interrupted. “We don’t have much time, and you have to find me.”

Loki pressed a hand against his sore ribs and ground his forehead into the jutting bone in the inventor’s shoulder. Staying present was growing laborious, and the agony of his chest was becoming harder to ignore. He noticed sluggishly that the spore had managed to ensnare a few wisps of his seiðr and was drawing them steadily to his core.

“I’m trying, baby. I am.” Anthony’s hand soothed his scalp. “I just don’t get how the recollections of some sick fuck who died decades ago is supposed to help me find you now.”

Loki considered his options as carefully as he was able with the spore maneuvering his seiðr  beyond his control and his body throbbing with its many hurts. A misstep could be disastrous, but Insight was coming, and he wanted dearly to go home, and he missed Anthony so terribly.

“Tell me more about Zola,” he requested cautiously.

Anthony’s fingers continued to stroke through his hair as he considered. “Well, he was the lead scientist for HYDRA, right? The files that JARVIS found seemed to indicate that he worked with the Tesseract for S.H.I.E.L.D. I guess he was doing human experiments for Red Skull based on what you translated, but S.H.I.E.L.D’s records don’t discuss that.”

Loki endeavored to focus. Distantly, he thought that he could hear the beginnings of a jarring electric guitar and the booming thumps of drums. “Who was Red Skull?” he persisted.

Anthony’s laugh was embittered and disconsolate. “He was the head of HYDRA until Cap took him down.” He tucked a curl behind Loki’s ear. “Baby, I know you’re my subconscious and all, but I really don’t see how this is going to help me find you.”

Loki struggled to dredge enough cognizance to consider his next move. “What’s the HYDRA maxim, Anthony?”

Despite his efforts at placidity, impatience was beginning to seep into his tone. The music was growing ever louder, everything hurt, and the spore was encroaching on the incorporeal self that he had hidden away.

The inventor pressed his forehead against Loki’s temple. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Their slogan, Anthony,” Loki repeated after a deep, fortifying breath. “Cut off one head?”

“And two more shall take its place,” Anthony finished. “Okay, yeah, I remember that from my dad’s wars stories, but when Red Skull died, HYDRA was obliterated. Everyone knows that.”

Loki rested his cheek against the muted whirring of the arc reactor and waited. Anthony was so very smart. Surely, even in his ravaged state, he could put it together.

“But Zola lived,” Anthony said slowly. “Your translations are proof that he was dirty, that he was still HYDRA, and he lived.” The engineer’s fingers curved around his forearm. “Shit, Tommy, he was HYDRA, and he infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D!”

Loki hummed and allowed his eyes to flutter closed. The spore had found the still burning embers in his Jötunn core, and it was forcing the infused dregs of his seiðr into the raw wounds. It didn’t hurt necessarily, but the foreign magic melding so primitively with his own felt unnatural.

Anthony tugged at his arm. “Okay, Tommy, bear with me. This is going to sound crazy, but what if HYDRA is S.H.I.E.L.D?”

He paused as though to allow his admittedly poignant realization to register. Loki managed to grunt his acknowledgment.

“It would explain everything,” Anthony continued. “How they knew about you, why JARVIS can’t find any record of ‘The People,’ why I can’t find you fucking anywhere. And if HYDRA is part of S.H.I.E.L.D, they would know what you were translating. They’d see you as a threat.”

A curious numbness began to spread across Loki’s chest. He was so, so tired.

Anthony laughed again. This time, the sound was ebullient, and jovial, and relieved above all else. “I can work with this, Tommy. They probably have you at a secret S.H.I.E.L.D base. JARVIS will be able to find you.”

A kaleidoscope of patterned light began to twist and spiral into existence behind his closed eyelids. Loki groped for Anthony, found his collar, and clung to him. The spore was scrambling for him, too, forcing sharp hooks into his seiðr that shattered almost immediately.

“Fuck, no one’s going to believe me,” Anthony was saying, still with that newly optimistic tone. “Everyone thinks I’ve gone mad searching for you.”

“Anthony,” Loki whispered. He tried and tried and tried, but he couldn’t stay present.

The inventor hugged his fading body close. “I’m coming. Just wait for me a little longer, okay?”

“Please, Anthony,” Loki whispered as he succumbed. “Please hurry.”

Chapter Text

“This may very well be our last conversation, Mr. Walker. Would you like to commemorate this very special occasion by cooperating?”

Fatigue plagued Loki ceaselessly. His every breath ended in a wheeze that rattled his battered rib cage, and his shoulder absolutely refused his efforts at maneuvering. Every inch of his skin, save for his bafflingly numb chest, ached with scrapes and bruises. No longer could he muster even a hint of guileless Thomas. It was Loki who endured in taciturn silence, Loki who stared at his captors with baleful eyes vowing reprisal, Loki who pined desperately for Anthony every waking moment.

It had been a handful of days since he had spoken with Anthony in their shared dreamscape, and, since then, his captors had increasingly neglected him. The deafening music and blinding lights that had haunted his enforced waking hours had abruptly ceased, and his visits from Mr. Peanut and Vader had dwindled into brief, wordless glimpses during rare mealtimes. He’d managed to discern snatches of whispers outside of his cell, rumblings about Iron Man and decimated HYDRA strongholds.

No one had ever come for him before, but a paltry, callow part of Loki began to hope that Anthony might defy history. His ears strained in anticipation of the repulsors that would herald Anthony’s arrival, and his heart rabbited with every tread that approached the door of his cell. Whenever his thoughts degenerated into despair, he would remind himself that the inventor was coming for him. He had repeated that mantra so often that sometimes he truly did believe it.

Unfortunately, Anthony currently had yet to liberate him, and his primary tormenters had recalled his existence. They had collected Loki from his cell, locked shackles around his wrists, and marched him down a dimly lit corridor. Typically, he was blindfolded while transported, but they seemed not to care that he was memorizing their route, and the hordes of soldiers that they passed paid them no heed.

Despite his flagging strength, Loki felt alert. The demeanor of his captors wasn’t necessarily anomalous—Vader was practically vibrating behind him, and Mr. Peanut was smiling that demure little smirk that promised pain. More daunting was the unfamiliar room to which they led him. Every surface was concrete, and there was a drain on the floor. A single ominous hook hung from the ceiling.

And Mr. Peanut was gazing at him expectantly.

“I have been cooperating,” he murmured in answer to Mr. Peanut’s question. “I have told you everything that I know.”

“You told me some lovely lies,” Mr. Peanut said. His spindly fingers found Loki’s jaw once more to wangle his attention. “I would have the truth from you at last.”

Loki licked his desiccated lips as he considered. His seiðr, which was still restricted to absolute dregs and speckled with lingering fragments of the spore, could sense repugnant anticipation behind him. He would delay its enactment for as long as possible.

“Answer one of my questions first,” Loki wheedled.

Mr. Peanut’s eyes crinkled around the corners. “I do so enjoy you, Mr. Walker.” His palm moved to frame Loki’s face, a reminder of his absolute control over the fallen god’s body. “Very well. You may ask me one question, and I might even answer.”

Loki tipped his chin up and out of the man’s grasp. Standing, he was actually several inches taller than his captor. “Tell me about Insight,” he demanded.

All hint of joviality wiped from Mr. Peanut’s face as his eyes, both behind and beyond the monocle, narrowed. “You know about Insight?”

“I know enough.”

Mr. Peanut’s face cocked to the side in consideration. “From your translations, I imagine.”

Loki allowed his eyes to roll. “Primarily from your chatty henchman.”

Mr. Peanut’s gaze found Vader behind him, and Loki’s seiðr registered the infusion of fury in his burly tormentor.

“Very well, Mr. Walker,” Mr. Peanut said, expression inscrutable. “Insight is the future. It is what we have been working toward for many long decades.” His fingers tangled into Loki’s curls and yanked him down. “Insight will wipe out our enemies and instill order. And Insight will terminate your precious Anthony.” Mr. Peanut twisted his greasy locks cruelly, making Loki grit his teeth. “Insight is at hand, Mr. Walker. It begins today. Tragically, the genesis of our future is the expiration of your own.”

“You intend to kill me now then,” Loki concluded aloud.

He had built a sufficient amount of seiðr to teleport outside, but he lacked enough to guarantee continued consciousness after the attempt. He could detect no recording devices in this particular room, but they would surely be monitoring the perimeter of their fortress. Using his magic so fruitlessly would guarantee exploitation. If they recorded him using his seiðr, they would possess enough leverage to bend him to their will.

More importantly, all of this—his capture, these weeks of torment—would be for naught if he squandered his opportunity to protect Anthony. To waste his seiðr now would mean that he would have nothing to ensure Anthony’s safety later. He needed to bide his time and concurrently stave off Vader’s attention until a superior opportunity presented itself.

“Not just yet,” Mr. Peanut said with apparently genuine candor. “I am afraid that I promised dear Mr. Rollins a reward for his loyalty. He has requested some private time with you.”

He heard Vader step closer, felt the man’s hot breath wash across the back of his neck. He was suddenly acutely aware of the forfeiture of his shirt and of his naked skin prickling in the cold air. 

Mr. Peanut’s palm framed his cheek, a thoughtful frown on his face. “However, I must admit that I have grown quite fond of you. If you would prefer it, I would offer you a place as one of my test subjects.”

Despite the ominous stature and overt threats of the man behind him, Loki could understand simple brutality, could survive it, could potentially even manipulate it. The way that Mr. Peanut was looking at him now, with keen fascination and fastidious avarice, represented a more horrifying option by far.

“Tempting,” Loki murmured, craning his neck so that he might reclaim his own skin, “but I must decline.”

Mr. Peanut’s eyes narrowed infinitesimally as his hand fell away. “How disappointing,” he said coolly. “You might have been one of the rare few to have survived the procedure.”

The man stepped away and reached into his pocket for a handkerchief, which he used to carefully wipe the fingers that had contacted Loki’s flesh. He pivoted toward the door and then paused thoughtfully. “Before I depart, I do believe that you promised me an answer, Mr. Walker.”

Vader’s hand descended to bracket his spine. “So, I did,” Loki agreed.

“The journals,” the leader pressed. “Tell me what you know.”

Loki blinked. Perhaps it was the foreboding presence behind him and the portentous promise of pain, but he couldn’t quite throttle his laugh in time. “Why, everything,” Loki said in between chortles. “I know everything.”

Mr. Peanut said nothing, but his incrementally clenching fists encouraged Loki to continue. Because, really, what did it matter now?

Loki straightened as best he could despite the human fetter collaring his neck. “I know that Arnim Zola is the author of the journals. I know that he used his formula on Steven’s James.”

Vader’s fingers slid to his shoulder and tightened until Loki cried out, but Mr. Peanut’s hand sliced through the air, silently ordering that the pressure cease.

For a moment, Loki focused on breathing. His shoulder had been mangled so many times that his nerves could scarcely tolerate further agony. “You sent James to abduct me,” he continued when he managed the strength to uncoil. “Somehow, you’ve stopped him from aging. You brainwashed him into serving you.”

Save for the hiss of the air conditioner from a vent in the ceiling, the sound of Vader’s molars grinding behind him was the only noise to break the silence. His captor’s impending retribution would likely be particularly excruciating now, but Loki could not help but relish employing his fabled silver tongue at last. For too long, he had allowed himself to be cowed by these mortals, for Anthony’s sake and to deflect further suffering. He had nothing to lose now.

“You are HYDRA,” Loki declared.

Mr. Peanut had yet to face him again, but his shoulders had pulled taut.

“You infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D,” Loki continued.

Vader growled lowly behind him.

“And Anthony will destroy you so utterly this time that none of your heads shall ever grow back.”

Even from this distance, he could hear Mr. Peanut drag in breaths that were far too measured. Loki allowed the sinister grin that he had worn upon his entrance to Midgard to contort his face.

“You should never have taken me,” Loki taunted. “Regardless of what happens to me now, Anthony will never stop until you are all eradicated.”

Mr. Peanut whirled and stalked toward him. For the first time, he appeared wholly bereft of composure. “Your Anthony will die in mere moments,” Mr. Peanut snarled.

Loki scoffed despite the hand that found his jaw and squeezed his cheeks until his own teeth cut through his lips.

“S.H.I.E.L.D relies on Anthony’s technology,” he managed gleefully, “and Anthony always installs a failsafe. Insight has failed before it has even begun.”

Was he bluffing? Absolutely. And yet, Mr. Peanut’s skin had adopted a pallid tint.

“I find that I have underestimated you until the end, Mr. Walker,” the man said through clenched teeth. “Even I cannot fully divine which are your lies and which are your truths.” He inhaled deeply, visibly attempting and failing to regain his former poise. “I trust that you will take care of this, Mr. Rollins?” he directed at Loki’s tormentor.

“With pleasure,” Vader said. His arm encircled Loki’s damaged ribs and constricted pointedly.

“I’m afraid that I must leave you now, Mr. Walker,” Mr. Peanut said. “I understand that Mr. Rollins has important plans for your time together.” He looked past Loki once more, his expression solemn. “Hail HYDRA.”

“Hail HYDRA,” Vader acknowledged, equally somber.

Mr. Peanut strode out of the room. For a moment after he left, only the sound of Vader’s harsh breathing blending with Loki’s shallow exhales disturbed the stillness.

And then Vader started chuckling. “Well, Tommy,” he said, girding Loki’s throat with his hand, “alone at last.”

Cognizance was nearly impossible in the wake of Mr. Peanut’s departure. Not because Loki was in pain. Not because he was worried about experiencing more pain. But because he knew that his captors had not made an idle threat against Anthony. His partner was in imminent danger.

For his entire life, Loki had prioritized his own existence because no one else would. He had acted only for his personal benefit. He had trusted no one with his secrets and suffered when they were inevitably discovered. He had endured alone because it had always been safer that way.

But Anthony had changed everything.

Loki could not return to his solitary existence, not when he had found such fleeting yet absolute delectation in another person. Even if it meant revealing himself, he needed to warn Anthony before it was too late. He just had to wait for the right opportunity.

Leathery fingers clamped on his jaw and yanked his face toward the blinding overhead lights. “I told you that I would have you once Insight arrived,” Vader said. A thumb pressed against the seam of Loki’s lips.

“And I told you that I will ensure that you suffer before I kill you,” Loki replied evenly.

Despite the liberties that Vader was already taking, Loki felt a strange sense of calm. His body hardly acknowledged the lustful strokes to his face or the constraining grip on his shoulder. He was waiting. He was ready. His moment would come soon.

“Big words for a man who is entirely at my mercy,” Vader mused.

In spite of the calculated coolness of his captor’s tone, Loki could detect the slightest stutter in his movements as he trailed his fingers along the god’s cheekbones. Loki held himself perfectly still and met the man’s hungry eyes. He forced his expression into impassive stone.

“I have so many ideas,” Vader said. “I almost don’t know where to start.”

Despite his confident words, Loki’s continued stolidity was enough for the man to lash out physically. He wrenched Loki’s bad arm behind the god’s back, and when Loki released only a grudging hiss, he began to drag him toward the center of the room.

“I have looked forward to breaking you in since I was assigned this detail,” Vader explained conversationally as he jerked Loki along behind him.

Predictably, their destination was the hook hanging in the middle of the room. Vader forced Loki’s arms above his head and secured the short chain that attached his cuffs together onto the hook. Only the tips of Loki’s toes touched the ground once he was done, straining his contorted shoulder to the limit. He closed his eyes and breathed in, five seconds in and five seconds out. His opportunity would come soon. He simply needed to endure until then.

“You know,” Vader said as he watched Loki struggle to redistribute his weight, “when we first got word that Stark had a boyfriend, we suspected that it was a hoax. Who would have thought that the world’s most famous playboy would go for cock?” Fingers found his chest, traced the reddened brand at his sternum. “But once I saw you, I got it. You’re pretty for a guy. I can’t really blame Stark for turning gay for you.”

The fingers trailed down his torso, lingered on his stomach, traced the mottled bruises that blanketed his ribs. Through sheer force of will, Loki kept his mind blank, stemmed the rising tide of panic that sought desperately to repulse the fingers that were touching him so familiarly. After a moment, he opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. There was a faint splatter of red marring the otherwise stark white of the concrete. 

“I’m going to kill you,” Loki promised expressionlessly.

Vader threw back his head in an exuberant laugh. “When I’m done, you’ll be begging me to end you,” he promised once he had curbed his mirth.

His captor moved away, back to the table where Loki could see a collection of instruments that promised a future that he had sworn never to suffer again. He allowed his eyes to flutter shut once more and collected himself. The time had arrived. He could do this.

Silently, he cast a muffling spell so that Vader would not hear the clinking of the chain as he gripped it in his trembling fingers. His mangled shoulder scarcely responded as he braced himself and began to swing his body in ever widening arcs. With a wisp of magical influence to help him ignore the pain, he managed enough momentum to draw the chain to the very edge of the hook. For a second, he hung on the precipice, threatened to slide back to where he had started.

And then he crashed—soundlessly thanks to his spell—to the floor.

He landed on his bad shoulder, heard a pop. His vision whited out for a single precious instant, and he tasted blood as his teeth bit down on his bottom lip to squelch his whimper—the spell would not block his voice. He allowed himself a single instant to cradle his arm and breathe through the agony. And then, he forced his eyes open and squinted through the receding spots in his vision at his tormentor. Vader was still bent over the table, was musing aloud about his various plans for Loki’s body.

Loki pushed his weary frame up, cast a final spell with his last dregs of seiðr so that he could ignore the pulsating feeling of wrong in his shoulder. He crept toward Vader, prayed to the Norns for just this one moment of kindness.

Blessedly, the man continued to sift through his tools and mutter to himself.

Loki paused as he neared. Dragged in a deep, grounding breath.

In the next instant, he lunged forward and wrapped his shackled hands around Vader’s throat.  

He had never deliberately exercised the abilities that derived from his Jötunn self. The blue skin, the ridged face, the vermillion eyes—they haunted his own nightmares. While he had no choice but to be a monster on the inside, he could decide whether he would embrace his heritage on the outside. Even though the Æsir had never wanted him, he had always chosen to appear as one of them. For his entire life, he had dreaded discovery, first of his perversion and then of his demonic legacy. But protecting Anthony took precedence over every iota of fear.   

For the first time, he consciously succumbed to his true nature.

First Thomas and then Loki the Æsir faded away from his fingers; a sapphire tint washed across his hands. His breath became visible as the temperature plummeted, and the perspiration that had gathered on his skin began to coagulate into ice. Instinctively, he focused on drawing the gelid sensation into his fingertips, but lack of practice protracted his progress.

Vader fought back, flung an elbow into Loki’s ribs, stomped on his bare feet. He was nearly as strong as Loki due to the god’s many days of sparse meals and his accumulation of hurts. Jagged nails scrabbled against his laboring arms, but Loki gritted his teeth, tightened his grip, and waited as his fingers transitioned from chilled to freezing to arctic. He released his captor only when the man collapsed, when the grunting ceased, when he could see frost encircling Vader’s neck.

Loki dropped to his knees and fumbled to turn his torturer onto his back. Vader wasn’t dead, at least not yet. His lips were blue and gaping, his eyes rolling within their sockets. Loki must have frozen something essential to breathing.

For just a moment, Loki indulged himself in staring at this man, his tormenter, who deserved the slowest of deaths. Asphyxiation was not amongst the most pleasant of ends, and Loki was content to watch.

Vader, however, would not so easily surrender. His hand groped for his pocket, dislodged first a cell phone, and then a dagger. He gripped the hilt in tremulous fingers, focused his weeping eyes, and swiped. Evasion was effortless, however, and Loki could not stanch an exasperated huff. Tsking, he caught his captor’s flailing wrist and pinned the man’s hand to the ground.

“You are fortunate that I am in a hurry,” Loki said conversationally, using his true voice for the first time in years. Ice began to build beneath his palm, and Vader’s mouth opened in a soundless scream. “On Asgard, I would be well within my rights to return every single harm you inflicted upon me thrice-fold.”

Loki withdrew after a moment and studied his handiwork. An ice fetter had melded around Vader’s wrist, securing him to the concrete. Loki’s control was improving.

When he glanced back up at the man’s face, his eyes were bulging, his other hand clutching at his throat. His captor’s skin was turning a bluish purple that nearly matched Loki’s hands.

The fallen god gazed down at him dispassionately and concentrated on creating an icicle between his palms. It took several attempts before he judged the tapered end sharp enough. Vader’s leaking gaze was locked on him when he looked back up.

“I do hope that you enjoy Niflheim,” Loki said dispassionately. “I hear that there are special accommodations for rapists and torturers.”

Centimeter by centimeter, he languidly slid his makeshift blade between Vader’s ribs, pleased when the man’s expression contorted in pain. Loki had rarely achieved vengeance on his many tormenters throughout the centuries. He had heard that emptiness characterized the aftermath, that revenge was never worth the labor involved.

Those accounts were wrong. For the first time in weeks, Loki felt ebullient. He could not stop laughing as the blue faded from his hands and his glamour returned.

Vader was not Thanos or the Other, dispassionately extracting scream after scream from Loki’s withered body. He was not Sif or the Warriors Three, maligning his every word or action with jeers and taunts. Neither was he Thor, proclaiming them brothers eternal and willfully betraying him in the next breath. He was not Frigga with her gentle touch and even gentler words, exploiting him with poisonous kindness to serve Odin’s will. And Vader was certainly not the Allfather, who had glared at him so callously from atop his golden throne, as though Loki was responsible for every grievance that had ever befallen the Nine Realms. Vader could never compare to any of them, but he had wronged Loki irrevocably, and Loki had finally made one of his torturers pay.

After a moment, he groped for the phone on the floor, an unfamiliar snarl, triumphant and relieved, still pulling up his lips.

He dialed the numbers to Anthony’s phone. Of course, he should have expected complications—he was sent directly to voicemail. The implications rallied to the forefront of his mind, horrible pictures of terror and blood and death threatening his momentary euphoria. He sucked in a fortifying breath and coughed harshly when his battered ribs protested. His spell was fading, and his many hurts were beginning to throb anew.

“JARVIS,” he murmured after Anthony’s recorded voice prompted him to leave a message, “please, if you’re monitoring this, I need to speak with Anthony.” Despite his best efforts, the tempo of his breathing began to accelerate. He coughed again. His lungs felt clogged. “Please, JARVIS. Please tell him to answer the phone.”

There was a sudden click on the line. “JARVIS, what the hell are you doing?” Anthony was growling. “I thought we agreed on no interruptions.”

“Anthony,” he whispered. His body sagged to the floor without his permission as devastating weariness overtook his limbs. “Anthony, you’re alive.”

He could hear Anthony’s breathing, the cadence expediting until it could very nearly match his own. Loki sank onto his side despite his protesting ribs and hugged his knees to his chest and simply listened to the glorious sound of Anthony living.

Tommy,” Anthony whispered back, voice reverential and tender. “Tommy, are you here? Are you at the base we’re attacking?”

Loki pressed the speaker flush against his ear and closed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he managed. “I don’t know where I am.”

Distantly, Loki thought that he could hear the Beast’s roar. Strange how it heartened rather than frightened him now.

“That’s okay, sweetheart. I’m coming to you. JARVIS, you’re tracking his location, right? Tell me that you know where he is.”

Loki’s mind was stuttering, distracted by the heady relief of hearing Anthony’s voice, but nothing could divert him from the purpose behind his call. He needed to warn Anthony. “Anthony, you have to listen to me,” Loki managed. For some reason, his eyes were growing blurry with moisture. He clutched the phone all the tighter. “Anthony, you’re in danger. Insight is coming.”

“Tommy, I’m fine,” the inventor said. His voice was calm, too calm. It roiled Loki all the more. “It’s you that I’m worried about. God, baby, I have been so fucking worried about you.”

“You’re not listening,” he groaned. “They said that you were going to die, Anthony.”

“I’m Iron Man, Tommy. Nobody can touch me.”

“Anthony—”

“You’re talking about the thing with the helicarriers up in D.C., right? Cap and Romanoff have that handled.” There was a disturbance on the other end of the line, a crackling that made Loki’s heart seize. “Listen, baby, JARVIS traced your location. I’m already in the suit and headed your way. I’m going to be there soon. Twenty minutes, tops.”

A rush of panic clenched his limbs. “No,” he blurted. “I can get myself out. You need to protect yourself.”

When he strained, he could hear JARVIS murmuring in the background, could discern the soft whirring of Anthony’s suit. They almost drowned out the precious sound of Anthony’s breathing.

“I can get myself out,” he whispered again. He could. He just needed to rest for a few minutes first. “You should help your friends.”

“Fuck that, I’m coming for you.”

“Stark—”

Thomas,” Anthony said, voice ardent and obstinate and indulgent all at once, “there is no version of this where I don’t choose you. I have been searching for you every moment of every day since you were taken. I would watch the rest of the world burn if it meant getting you back.”

Loki felt…shattered.

All of his life, he had thought that he was too wrong, too repulsive, too monstrous to ever experience love. He had endeavored always to keep himself apart because caring hurt so agonizingly when he was inevitably betrayed. Over the course of his life, he had read countless romantic sagas, had always scoffed at the meaningless self-sacrifices that seemed a hallmark of the genre.

Love, he had thought, could never be so selfless. Love was inherently weakness, fabrication, and manipulation. Love was an excuse to forgo all semblance of sense in favor of supreme madness.

Loki had always despised the very idea of love.

But right at this moment, he knew that he would do absolutely anything for Anthony Stark.

The feeling that started in his chest and spread throughout his exhausted limbs was utterly magnificent and laboriously ponderous and the singular most profound experience of his existence.

He wondered dreamily if this was love.

It wasn’t so bad.

Loki managed a shallow gulp of air and then a second. “You’re…you’re really coming for me?” His voice trembled in spite of his very best efforts.

Yes, sweetheart.” Anthony laughed. The sound was tremulous and watery. “I told you. I will tear the world apart to find you. A HYDRA outpost is nothing.”

Loki allowed his eyes to flutter closed. He curled protectively around the phone and listened assiduously to the quavering breathing on the other end of the line. Furtively, he began to allow himself to hope.

“How long until you’re here?” he asked.

“Fifteen minutes now,” Anthony promised.

“That’s not long,” Loki murmured.

The even rhythm of Anthony’s breathing assuaged his every hurt and fear, inducing a soporific effect. A single phrase turned round and round inside of his head, a familiar mantra that he now dared to believe.

Anthony was coming for him. Anthony was coming for him. Anthony was coming for him.

“Tommy,” Anthony said, breaking the smooth rhythm of the breaths that Loki was counting so diligently. “I know that you must be so tired, but I need you to keep talking, okay?”

“About what?” Loki mumbled.

He did feel groggy now that the adrenaline was wearing off. For the first time in weeks, he didn’t have to endure a thunderous musical accompaniment or a deluge of dread when attempting to rest. Even entrapped in the lair of his enemies, Anthony’s voice made him feel safe. His body was beyond ready for sleep.

“Anything. Just…please, I need to hear your voice.”

Loki sniffed and rubbed his good hand across his drooping eyelids. “I named their leader Mr. Peanut,” he offered.

Anthony’s bark of laughter almost sounded genuine. “Mr. Peanut? Like the snack mascot?”

“Yes. He wore a monocle,” Loki defended.

Anthony chortled on the other end of the line, and Loki endeavored to memorize the sound.

“Sounds like you were channeling me,” Anthony said, voice manifestly warm and fond, even through the limited window of technology.

“I thought to myself ‘What Would Anthony Do?’” Loki acknowledged gravely.

Another peel of bright laughter. For the first time in weeks, Loki felt a real smile tug at his parched lips.

“Any other nicknames?” Anthony inquired innocently.

The smile fell from Loki’s face as he steadfastly kept his eyes pointed away from the body crumpled only feet away.

“Vader,” he mumbled.

“Vader? As in Darth? You made a Star Wars reference?”

Anthony kept talking when Loki remained quiet. It was what Anthony did. He filled the silence. In person, he might have seen the way that Loki clutched his knees just a little tighter to his chest as the sickly sallowness of his skin paled still further. But over the phone, it was easy to misread Loki’s reticence as exhaustion and to attempt staunchly to keep him talking about a seemingly inane topic.

“Why Vader? Did he have a snazzy super villain schtick like Mr. Peanut?” 

Loki clenched the fingers of his good fist until blood pooled up from beneath his nails.

“No, Anthony. He merely breathed exceptionally loudly in my ear when…whenever he…” Loki’s breaths were starting to come more rapidly. He reached to rub at his hastening heart, and his bloodstained fingertips met raised skin that felt hot to the touch. “Can you talk now?” he requested weakly. “I…I can’t—”

“Let me catch you up on what’s been going on,” Anthony interrupted.

He began to chatter about Harold, who was apparently interviewing applicants for Loki’s new personal security detail. Evidently, the man continued to drive to Loki’s apartment multiple times a week to verify that no one had entered his home. His efforts had resulted only in the attempted theft of his own car.  

“I’m two minutes out,” Anthony said, after he had described the brawl that had ensued as Harold employed his boxing skills against the opportunistic thief, “just hang on until then, okay?”

“I am well, Anthony,” Loki whispered. “Do not worry.”

The inventor snorted humorlessly. “We’re going to have to talk about your definition of ‘well’ after I’ve finished never letting you out of my sight again.” A pause, and then a torrent of curses erupted over the other end of the line.

“Anthony?” Loki ventured tentatively.

“I’m alright,” Anthony said, voice suddenly brusque. “I just…shit.”

“What?” Loki asked, alarmed now. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t worry, I’m figuring it out.” Anthony’s breathing had turned harsh. He heard a muffled thump on the other end.

Slowly, Loki forced his enervated muscles to shift, endeavored to lever himself upright with his good arm. “I…I thought that you were almost here.”

“I am here.” More sounds, almost like hail. “I just hit a small snag.”

“They have defenses,” Loki guessed.

“It’s nothing big. I ran into a few complications, but there’s absolutely nothing to worry about.”

Loki had opened his mouth, another query on the tip of his tongue, when he heard it. There were footsteps approaching, and he was in no condition to fight. Hissing through his teeth, he lurched to his feet, frozen blade in hand. His legs shook with the effort of holding his weight, his flagging strength all but extinguished.

“Tommy?” Anthony asked.

Loki daren’t reply. The footsteps had halted just outside of the entryway, and, presently, he heard a soft knock.

“Rollins,” called an unfamiliar voice. “Stark’s here. You’re going to have to cut your fun short.”

Loki’s fingers tightened around his makeshift weapon. He stumbled toward the door, nearly fell against the entrance. He could hear at least two sets of breaths on the other side. A jingling sound signaled a search for keys.

“Tommy?” he heard Anthony say again, more insistently this time.

A lock turned, and Loki huddled against the wall, partially blocked from sight when the door swung all the way open. He clutched his ice dirk so firmly that it sliced through his palm.  

“Oh fuck, Rollins.”

A figure rushed toward the corpse on the ground, but the other lingered in the doorway, rightfully wary. Loki gathered himself, tucked the phone in his pocket.

He struck.

The cautious one saw him at the very last second, but not soon enough to thwart a slash to his throat. The other, crouched at Vader’s side, had time to scramble for his gun, managed to fire a single shot before Loki flung his weapon. The balance was off—the makeshift blade wasn’t designed for throwing—but he landed a glancing blow to the man’s arm that delayed the next bullet for a precious second.

Loki dove, fumbled for the pistol of the man that he had just killed, fired as a second shot skimmed past his check. His enemy dropped, but he pulled the trigger again and then once more, just to make sure.

He collapsed in the aftermath, all but spent. After a moment, he reached with trembling fingers into his pocket.

“Tommy!” Anthony was in the middle screaming. “Answer me right the fuck now, goddamn it.”

“They’re dead,” he reported.

“Those were gunshots.”

“They’re dead,” he repeated.

Another moment passed, and as the adrenaline calmed, his leg began to throb worrisomely. He glanced down and found a blossom of red beginning to spread on his thigh.

“Oh,” he breathed.

“Oh?” The walls shook with an explosion that the phone’s speakers echoed a second later. “What the fuck do you mean by ‘oh,’ Tommy?”

“Nothing, Anthony. I am well,” he murmured.

He attempted to stand, intending to purloin a cloth from the table to press against the wound, but his leg buckled under the weight. Hissing, he subsided back to the floor and contemplated biliously the ten feet of distance to the table.

“Tommy,” Anthony said, sounding so worried that it had to be distracting him, “are you hurt?”

For the first time that Loki could remember, he opened his mouth and intentionally lied to the engineer. Not a white lie or an omission of fact or a falsehood too obvious to be believed, but a conscious untruth. Because he could hear the sound of artillery through the phone, could feel it quake the walls, and he could not allow Anthony to be harmed because of him.

“No, Anthony,” Loki maintained. “They missed. I am unhurt.”

He dragged his body tediously along the ground until he reached the table. Grimacing, he groped above his head, fingers glancing across instruments that he refused to contemplate, until he found the cloth. The jostling had hurt terribly, but the bleeding wasn’t steady enough to indicate that the bullet had severed an artery. Rather, it seemed as though the bullet had passed straight through the periphery of his thigh.

Sedulously, he pressed the cloth against his wound and allowed his head to tip back against the wall. It sounded as though Anthony was still battling, and he didn’t want to divert him by speaking any further. He permitted his eyes to close for just a moment.

And then, “Tommy! Where the fuck are you?”

His eyelids were so very heavy, and he just wanted to sleep, and his chest, which had been curiously numb for so long, was beginning to throb. He felt so cold.

“Tommy! You answer me right fucking now! JARVIS says that this place is rigged to blow!”

He coughed weakly, managed a squint that told him nothing that he didn’t already know. He was surrounded by white concrete, and there were three spreading puddles of blood on the floor. The hook from which he had hung was swinging slightly in time to an ominous rumbling.

“Are you still coming for me?” he asked.

“Of course, I am, baby.” Anthony was wheezing directly into his ear. He could hear JARVIS in the background, seemingly speaking more rapidly than usual. “Can you hear any music?”

“No more music, please,” Loki mumbled absently.

His hand drifted down to his heart. The rest of his body was shivering, but the raised skin there was scalding under his fingers, more so than it had ever been.

“I think that we need to go left,” Anthony was saying. His voice sounded so very far away now, barely able to penetrate the looming wall of agony. “No, I know that down would take us deeper, JARVIS, but he’s to the left. I know it.”

Loki’s body convulsed despite his best efforts, frame contorting into a quivering ball. His skin warred, torn between an overwhelming feeling of cold and a burning sensation that permeated to his very core.

“Tommy? Tommy, can you hear any music?” Anthony asked again.

He labored to focus, could barely hear past the drumming in his ears. “I can’t hear anything,” he said. He forced his hand away from the blistering heat at his chest, pressed instead against the soaked cloth on his leg. The bleeding had mostly stopped. “Anthony,” he whispered. “I want to go home.”

“I know! I know, baby. Just a few more minutes, okay?”

“I’m so tired, Anthony.”

Anthony’s voice was shaky, too high, almost frantic. “Once I get you out, you can do all of the sleeping, and I’ll give you all of the massages, and I’ll cook you all of the meals until you get sick of them. But, baby, please listen. Can you hear any music?”

Loki’s hand was shaking too much now. He allowed it to drop to the floor. “Indiana Jones,” he mumbled.

“Yes! Yes, yes, yes! The Indiana Jones theme. You can hear it?”

“I liked those movies.”

“I know you did, Tommy, but is the music getting any louder?”

He considered through the fog that had overtaken his deteriorating thoughts. “I think so.”

“Oh, thank god. Okay. I’m coming. I’m almost there.”

Loki could hear him now. Underneath the distant sound of blaring trumpets were the blasts of the repulsors that propelled the Iron Man suit. He gritted his teeth and tried to arrange his body so that he didn’t appear quite so piteously feeble. Still, he imagined that he must make a lamentable sight with the vivid burns on his chest, the blood saturating the cloth on his leg, and the bruises that seemed to coat most free space on his skin.

Footsteps approached, ponderous, resonant, and distantly familiar. And then, “fuck, Tommy.”

There was an eerie reverberation to Anthony’s voice, and the hands that fluttered but didn’t quite touch his skin were plated with armor, but Loki drank in the sight of him ravenously. There was more gold to the suit than he’d remembered. The red had been more befitting.

“You lied,” the inventor said, and even the odd echo could not hide the poignant acrimony in his voice.

“I didn’t want you to worry.” He peered up at the suit with surreptitious trepidation. “Please don’t be angry with me.”

“I’m not fucking angry with you,” came the fervid growl. “I just didn’t know that I was dating an idiot.”

Loki allowed his eyes to flutter closed. “You flew into space with a nuclear weapon,” he mumbled.

“This isn’t a fucking competition.” The suit whirred as it presumably knelt in front of him. “Although, I would obviously win.”

“Yes, you would,” Loki agreed inattentively.

Scuffed metal wrapped around his ankle. It was the one unmarred bit of visible skin on his body. “Baby, I have to pick you up,” Anthony said. He was probably aiming for a gentle tone, but the suit magnified his voice, ruining the effect. “JARVIS says that this shithole is going to explode.”

“That’s fine, Anthony,” Loki said without opening his eyes. “I’ll be alright.”

The suit didn’t move. “It’ll hurt,” he warned.

“I know.”

The arms that lifted him were unyielding, ground into his ribs in all the wrong places, inflamed the nerves in his leg with a persistence that he couldn’t easily endure. When Anthony turned, Loki’s shin glanced against the table. In an instant, his skin turned clammy. He leaned over as best he could, but the few drops of bile in his stomach ended up coating Anthony’s boots.

“I’m sorry,” Anthony whispered.

They launched.

He could tell that Anthony was trying to ease the pressure on his body as they navigated the many halls, dodging several conglomerates of inscrutable bodies. Despite the inventor’s efforts, every inch of progress was absolute agony. His bad arm pressed against an uncompromising chest plate to keep it immobile, and he could find no purchase on Anthony’s suit with the hand that still worked. He closed his eyes and prayed furtively that the inventor wouldn’t be able to discern the shameful whimpers that rebuffed his restraint.

After several minutes, they burst outside. The feeling of the sun warming his skin was pure bliss, rapidly accelerating speed notwithstanding. But after a moment, the wind began to pummel his beaten frame, and he couldn’t help but cry out, fingers scabbling helplessly at the smooth metal of Anthony’s suit.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Anthony chanted. “Just a little farther.” They were reaching mortal limits in terms of flight speed, and Loki’s body could not tolerate it.

A roar began behind them, rumbling at first, and then intensifying until it was almost deafening. Heat licked at his limbs despite the suit blocking the harshest of it. Loki pressed his face into Anthony’s shoulder and willed himself to persevere.

He might have blacked out for a minute because, when he was next aware, he was in the process of emptying his already hollow stomach of more bile.

“JARVIS,” Anthony said from above him, “get me out of this fucking suit.” A pause, and then, “I don’t care, JARVIS. Get me out now.”

Loki’s breath caught in his throat as the mechanical whirring commenced. For an instant, he clenched his eyes shut and refused to look up. What if this wasn’t happening? What if it was another dream, or a trick of the Other, or his own mind concocting a hallucination of his dearest desire? Nobody had ever come for him. Why would a mere mortal be the exception after even those whom he had called family had discarded him?

The fingers that tilted his chin up were blessedly familiar, but Loki cringed anyway. If they were real, if by some chance they were more than just fantasy, he was ruined. He could feel the grime coating his skin, and the sick on his lips, and Vader had been the last person to touch him.

“I’m disgusting,” he mumbled. “You’ll get dirty.”

“Nonsense,” Anthony soothed. “I have never seen anyone more beautiful.” Delicate thumbs, calloused and gentle, traced his cheekbones worshipfully. “Is this okay?”

Blindly, Loki groped toward him with the few inches of mobility that the chained cuffs on his wrists allowed. His bad shoulder protested every movement. Luckily, Anthony seemed to understand and craned forward until Loki’s fingers could press against the humming arc reactor.

It certainly felt real. Even through the fabric of Anthony’s shirt, he could feel the device vibrating minutely, and artificial warmth bathed his fingertips.

He allowed his fingers to travel upwards, found smooth cheeks and the odd pattern of precise facial hair. And then, above that, there were the minute wrinkles that bracketed the eyes, the velvety brow, and the silken locks that flowed through his fingers.

Loki allowed his eyelids to peel apart, dreaded the sight of the penthouse, of the crater that had once cradled his broken body, of the scepter that had constrained his every move. Instead, he stared up at the sky, brilliantly azure without a cloud to be seen. Pines, maples, and oaks enclosed them on all sides, and craggily slopes of dirt and leaves crunched beneath his knees. A mockingbird was singing from a scraggily branch above his head.

And Anthony was kneeling in front of him, wan, exhausted, but staring at him just as fervently.

“You shaved,” Loki whispered.

A laugh burst out of Anthony’s throat as he reached out and gathered Loki’s trembling body carefully against his chest. “Someone told me that I looked awful.”

He refused to categorize the desperate sound that escaped the clutches of his throat and focused on burrowing into every curve of Anthony’s body. There were more bones and sharp angles than he remembered. “You came,” he whispered. “You came for me.”

The inventor’s hands settled carefully between his shoulder blades, urging him ever closer. “I always will.”

He pressed his nose into the crook of the inventor’s neck and allowed his body to slacken. Loki believed him.

“I found you,” Anthony whispered. “I can’t believe I finally found you.” And then there were lips on the crown of his head, trailing a blazing path to his hairline.

He turned his face into the contact. “Anthony?” he whispered.

“Tommy,” Anthony murmured huskily. “My Tommy.”

Kisses were peppered along his temple and then his eyelids, mapped every inch of space along his sunken cheeks. Loki held himself very still. It felt an awful lot like worship, but it was also unlike any worship that Loki had ever received. This was far more reverential.

But Loki angled his head away when Anthony began to tease the corner of his lips.

“I’m disgusting,” he tried to insist again.

“You are beautiful,” Anthony murmured against his skin. “So, so beautiful.”

“I literally just vomited, Anthony.”

The inventor scoffed but withdrew enough to squash his nose into Loki’s temple and inhale deeply. Loki couldn’t imagine that he smelled pleasant.

“I need to look at your leg,” Anthony said, even as he gathered Loki’s body still closer and began to rock his frame ever so gently.

“Oh, did you obtain a degree in medicine while I was gone?” Loki asked. Anthony’s arms felt impregnable. He could fall asleep in seconds.

“God, you’re still such an asshole,” Anthony growled, but Loki could hear the smile in his voice. “I know basic first aid. Steve made us take a course as a group bonding activity.”

“I like Steven,” Loki mumbled drowsily.

Anthony chuckled and stroked his fingers along the back of Loki’s neck. “I shouldn’t be getting jealous here, should I?”

Loki hummed under his breath and twisted his fingers into his partner’s shirt. The engineer was very warm. He wasn’t certain why he had ever considered the man’s shoulder bony. He was sure that he could pillow his head here for hours and never be uncomfortable.

“Hey, don’t go to sleep yet, okay? I really do need to take a look at your leg.” He grunted his dissent when Anthony extracted himself gently but persistently. “Bruce packed supplies,” the man explained as he lowered Loki to the ground. “Let me get you patched up, and then we can figure out what to do next.”

Anthony’s footsteps sounded rushed as he strode to where the suit was lying half dissembled across the clearing. A perfunctory glance down revealed fresh blood beginning to seep through Loki’s improvised bandage, so the god could somewhat understand his hurry. However, when another furtive look at Anthony found the man still rummaging through a hidden compartment in his suit, Loki allowed his body to lean back until he was prostrate on the soil. The ground was hard, and roots dug into his spine, but there was no raucous music, and branches blocked enough of the sunlight. He was certain that he could fall asleep within seconds.

“Tommy, stay awake for a little longer, okay?” Anthony said after what could have been minutes or hours. “I have some water. Are you thirsty?”

He was so very fatigued, but he couldn’t remember his last taste of water. Yesterday maybe? Perhaps the day before. His mouth felt shriveled.

Anthony propped his head up enough for him to drink. “Slowly,” he cautioned, but Loki could not go slow. He had been limited to only a handful of precious ounces at mealtimes for weeks, and so he suckled at the bottle frantically until it was empty, hand clutching insistently at the inventor’s wrist to keep it in place. His stomach felt bloated in the aftermath.

“I have more water,” Anthony promised. “You can have all you want after we take care of your leg.”

The inventor sank to his knees at Loki’s side and studied him for a moment. Under anyone else’s scrutiny, Loki might have felt apprehensive or self-conscious, but Anthony would never hurt him. The greatest danger lay in his too full heart bursting from within the confines of his chest.

After a moment, Anthony reached for the waistband of his jeans, unfastened the button, began to pull down the zipper. Loki fought against the instinctive rigidity of his spine, the clenching of his working hand into a trembling fist, the absolute inflexibility of his body. But his hips refused to lever upwards and ease the inventor’s efforts.

“It’s just me, Tommy,” Anthony whispered after a moment.

“I know.” He ground his cheek into a stone beside him. “Can you just…can you talk to me?”

A brief pause, and then, “I’m thinking about painting our car green.”

Blood, both old and new, caused the material of his jeans to stick to the edges of his wound. It took a sharp yank for Anthony to slide the fabric down his hips. Loki’s teeth gnashed into his forearm as he endured.

“Not lime green. That’s still one of the ugliest colors in existence. Emerald green might be okay, though. Isn’t that your favorite?”

Water trickled onto his leg before a cloth began to wash away the blood on his skin.

“I thought about red and green stripes, but that’s probably too Christmas-y. Plus, the whole point is being able to go incognito.”

A spray of a new liquid, one that smelled strongly of alcohol, had Loki breaking the skin on his arm with his teeth.

“I’m almost done. I promise,” Anthony said, carefully restraining Loki’s hip to keep him flat. He began to wind a thick roll of gauze around Loki’s leg. “So, I’m thinking that we should head to a local hospital and get you transferred to the Tower once you’re stable. How does that sound?”

Loki subsided as the more acute pain ebbed away. “Why wouldn’t we go to the Tower now?” he asked faintly.

Anthony finished with his leg and pulled Loki’s pants up with precise movements. “Well, there’s the fact that you were shot—by the way, we still need to talk about how uncool it was that you didn’t tell me about that.” He pulled in a deep inhale and held it for so long that Loki began to wonder if he should be concerned. “Your breathing sounds pretty rough, Tommy, and your shoulder actually looks like something out of a horror movie. The sooner you’re seen by a real medical professional, the better.”

Loki licked at his peeling lips “I’m alright, Anthony.”

“You’re not, sweetheart. You’re really not.”

The inventor sifted through his medical kit and pulled out a tube of ointment. “Is it okay if I put some of this on the…the burns? It’ll numb them.”

Loki couldn’t understand his tone, and the man was avoiding eye contact. “Whatever you think is best,” he said.

Anthony bent over his chest and appeared suitably absorbed with the task, but his fingers were trembling upon Loki’s skin, and he wouldn’t meet Loki’s eyes.

“Anthony,” Loki whispered. “I want to go home.”

The engineer’s jaw clenched, and he struggled to fit the cap back on the tube of medicine. “Look, Tommy, I know that you’re attached to your apartment, but you really can’t go back there yet. I get it if you don’t want me around, but your apartment isn’t safe.”

Loki blinked up at him. “To the Tower,” he clarified. “I want to go home to the Tower.”

Anthony breathed out, his expressing softening. When Loki peered up at him, his eyes were glistening strangely in the sunlight. “Oh. Well, that’s different then.” His palm cupped Loki’s cheek absently. The tenderness of the touch was so different from what the god was used to after these last few weeks. “Let me ask Bruce what he thinks.”

Banner, apparently, thought that Loki’s desire to be flown directly to the Tower was “brainless, nonsensical, and absolutely the most idiotic medical decision that has ever been made in the history of human life.” But Anthony was persuasive, and, for some reason, one glimpse of Loki through the camera on Anthony’s phone made the scientist relent. By the end of the call, he had agreed to prepare for their arrival at the Tower as long as they followed certain stipulations, including mummifying Loki’s torso and shoulder, administering the morphine in Anthony’s kit, and calling upon “an actual medical doctor” in Anthony’s employ for treatment.

Soon after Banner had hung up, Loki found himself swaddled in layer upon layer of blankets and cradled in the arms of Anthony’s suit. It wasn’t precisely comfortable, but the mortal poison flowing through his veins abated most of the pain. Loki himself was mostly unconcerned. He would endure anything if it meant going home with Anthony.

After a few minutes, he began to flirt with unconsciousness despite his best efforts at focusing on the arc reactor buzzing beneath his ear. Anthony was flying low to limit the chill from the atmosphere, and they were moving slow enough to negate the influx of wind wracking his frame. Somehow, the metal edges of the suit were comforting rather than constricting; he felt protected on all sides.

“Tommy?” Anthony asked in a hushed voice. “You still awake?”

Loki was but only just. Opening his eyes was beyond his power. He couldn’t muster the energy to respond beyond a contented sigh.

“JARVIS,” Anthony said when Loki failed to answer, “can you call Pepper?” And then, “Pepper, I found him. I finally found him.”

Loki drifted off to the lullaby of Anthony’s voice. He knew indisputably that he was safe.

Chapter Text

When Loki had plummeted from the depths of Asgard’s dungeons and landed amongst the gleaming skyscrapers and cacophonous noise of New York City those years ago, terror had seized his lungs and fueled his wilting limbs into motion. He had staggered from the scuttling crowds of mortals and technology with the dregs of his waning strength. Somehow, he had found an alley, wedged himself behind a foul-smelling receptacle that he now recognized as a dumpster, and crumpled in every sense of the word.

He had expected any number of savageries upon awakening from his defenseless slumber hours later. The sun, which had reflected so persistently off the copious windows of the towering buildings, had been replaced by a conglomerate of clouds and a blackened sky. Silence was nonexistent. Even in the dead of night, he could hear the pattering of legions of feet skirting past his alley and whispers from those who had sought similar shelter. Although he had no riches to his name, only a plain tunic and the manacles that blocked his seiðr, he had known with intimate certitude that material wealth was not the only thing that could be stolen from him.

His arms had pulsed with agony, and the lingering residue of the blood magic that he had utilized as a last resort blazed through his withered veins. Triumph, he had found, felt an awful lot like defeat. Despite his perturbation, his first instinct had been to curl up and return to insentience until the hurt had faded to something tolerable, dangers be damned.

Somehow, the sound of a musical instrument, hushed yet melodious, had penetrated past the allure of unconsciousness. Loki had traveled extensively throughout his life. He had visited various courts and spoken with every race that populated the Nine Realms. So, he had known that music could be unobtrusive and gentle. However, Asgard had favored the blaring trumpets and thunderous drums that heralded the influx of battle.

The dulcet tunes of the instrument emanating from just outside the alley had been jarringly elegant, the composition it bestowed both lively and solemn, in turns. Despite the weariness that plagued his every muscle, Loki had found himself intrigued. Rather than embrace the siren call of oblivion, he had lain awake for hours listening as the performer entertained with a mixture of lively jaunts and somber tragedies.

He had thought nothing of a future while he had plotted his escape for those many months, had simply desired to be anywhere else. But, as his body gradually uncoiled and his mind began to relax its involute discomposure, he began to wonder what he might do with his newest chance at life.

Music had kindled hope within him those years ago.

It was fitting that it was music that greeted him once he awoke now. Mercifully, it wasn’t the crashing dissonance of shrieks, and screams, and growls that welcomed him. Instead, he heard the honeyed notes of a violin, just like the one that had awakened in him a longing not only to survive but to live when he had first arrived on Midgard.

Beneath the lilting notes, someone was humming along, slightly off tempo, completely out of tune, but with no little enthusiasm. Barely audible above the disharmonious duet was the tinkering of tools upon metal, reminiscent of a metronome in keeping time.

Nothingness called to him as persistently as ever. The heaviness of his limbs as he lurked even on the edge of wakening promised profound unpleasantness should he embrace full awareness.

But the humming caused his heart to pulse with a familiar sense of fullness. Rather than evoking perturbation, the clatter of tools was strangely comforting. The combination of those sounds with the music that he so cherished was enough for him to heave his body into burgeoning consciousness.

Regrettably, with awareness, came the familiar lethargy of poison flowing through his veins. He could tell that this particular strain was designed to keep him asleep and without pain, but his body was already acclimating. Despite his torpid state, his bones were beginning to ache, and his leg thrummed on the edge of real agony. More pressing, however, was his thirst. His mouth felt desiccated.

He pried his eyes open, grimacing at the crusty sensation that agglutinated his eyelashes. Natural sunlight peeked through the sheer curtains, illuminating the mossy green of the walls and warm chocolate of the comforter. He blinked—found the chipping paint and scratched screen of his MP3 player on his nightstand, fraying earbuds dangling off the edge. Another blink—there was the copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on his desk, complete with increasingly derisive annotations.

There were more novels stacked on his bookcase than he remembered, and his formerly sparse closet now appeared to be packed, but he was certain that he was lying on his bed in his room in the penthouse.

Aside from those notable alterations, most everything appeared the same. Save for an aggregation of medical equipment and a plethora of mechanical parts in various stages of assembly—those were new.

A motorized whirring sound drew his attention to his right hand, and more specifically to where Anthony was cradling his fingers. Loki had never actually seen the inventor in his element before. The man was wearing a contraption on his head that appeared designed to magnify and illuminate his view of Loki’s hand. The framework of a sort of gauntlet was encompassing Loki’s skin from his wrist to the second joint of each of his fingers.

Anthony was the one humming along to the unfamiliar classical composition that was playing. As Loki watched, the man raised his screwdriver and engaged in an enthusiastic caricature of conducting as the music began to swell. The dark circles remained entrenched below the engineer’s eyes, and there was several days’ worth of stubble along his jaw, but the sallowness had diminished from his skin. He didn’t look precisely well, but neither did he look like he was the verge of keeling over.

Whatever Anthony was doing to Loki’s hand began to pinch irritably despite the dwindling haze of drugs pumping through his veins. After a moment, Loki cleared his throat, and when Anthony failed to notice, he attempted speech.

“Am I taking over as Iron Man?” he asked. He’d aimed to tease, but his throat protested every syllable, resulting in a deplorable croak.

Anthony froze, caught in the middle of manipulating Loki’s fingers into various gestures. His magnified eyes moved first, his face tipping in Loki’s direction almost as an afterthought, as he focused on Loki’s face. “Tommy,” Anthony breathed.

Loki’s lips were dry enough that the skin threatened to split, but he tried to smile for Anthony. He registered a twitching sensation at the edges of his mouth, but his body would not fully obey. Instead, his vision was beginning to blur, and he could tell that his chin was wobbling, and the feeling of his partner’s hand supporting his own was starting to feel so very distant.

Something was wrong with him.

“Tommy, are you alright?” he heard Anthony ask.

Loki’s body began to shake. He could not directly feel it, but he could hear the metal encasing his hand clinking in time to the vibrations of his limbs. Through bleary eyes, he watched as Anthony’s expression crumpled into desolation. The god lamented every centimeter of space between them as the inventor relinquished possession of Loki’s hand and backed away, but he was helpless to stop it. His vision lacked focus, and the only impression that managed to creep into his awareness was a pervasive feeling of revulsion. He felt unclean, befouled anew.  

“Anthony,” Loki whispered without quite knowing for what he was asking. “Anthony.”

A cough rose like jagged glass in his throat and streaked straight to his beleaguered ribs. When he managed to peel his eyelids apart again, it was to a deluge of sunlight refracting in a chaotic kaleidoscope of color on the walls. Anthony’s obscure shape was hovering mere inches from his face, and some sort of monitor appeared to be tracking his accelerating heartrate. Calloused fingers pressed against his exposed cheek, eerily reminiscent of the many caresses to his face over these last few weeks. He knew that those touches had intimated domination, that this was different. This was Anthony. Anthony would never hurt him. He could vaguely feel his body stiffening anyway.

“Are you in pain?” his partner asked. His palm cupped Loki’s sunken cheek, thumb sliding across the pronounced cheekbone. “Should I call up your doctor?”

Loki managed to shake his head. “Water?” he requested in a wavery rasp.

Anthony’s free hand found a lidded cup with a bent straw on the nightstand. “Only a little at first, okay? Bruce is worried that you’ll bring it up if you have too much.”

Loki was allowed a few ounces before Anthony tucked the drink back on the nightstand. He subsided back into the pillow and blinked up at the ceiling, but there were no patterns there that could help ground him. Anthony was still touching his face, and yet he could feel it only in a distant sort of way, as though it was happening to someone else. He knew that Anthony was safe. He wanted Anthony to touch him. Why did he feel so numb?

“Are you alright, Tommy?” his partner asked.

“I am well, Anthony,” Loki said absently. He tried to smile again. He thought that his lips curved into an upward trajectory.

Anthony’s guileless expression faltered the slightest bit. His answering smile was about as convincing as Loki’s attempt. It was tight and toothless, and nowhere near the gummy grin that Loki cherished above all else. Loki had erred, but he could not fathom where.

Anthony turned away, busied himself with triggering the releases on the gauntlet incasing Loki’s hand. He could feel the tugs on his fingers as Anthony worked, but he felt disconnected from it. After weeks of constant noise, the haunting notes of the violin accompanied by the tinkling of the tools induced an almost surreal quality to his surroundings. After countless hours of staring at bold expanses of white, the muted greens and browns of the furnishings seemed comparatively overwhelming.

“Is this real?” he blurted.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Anthony freeze from where he was bent over Loki’s hand. “What?” the man asked.

“Is this another dream?” Loki persisted. “I used to dream that my brother had come for me, but he never did. No one ever comes for me.”

Loki could hear the man’s every breath, more rapid than usual, punctuated by grinding teeth. The fallen god clenched his eyes shut and loathed himself to his very core.

With a sudden growl, Anthony wrenched off the rest of the armor on Loki’s hand and enclosed Loki’s lissome fingers within his own. “Can you feel this, Tommy?” he asked.

Loki opened his eyes in favor of an appraisal of the indistinguishable flecks of paint on the ceiling. “You’re holding my hand,” he murmured. He could vaguely register the pressure. Anthony’s fingers were shaking around his own.

Warm breath bathed his palm as Anthony guided Loki’s fingers into cupping his rough cheek. “How about this?” he asked.

Loki tried. He could appreciate the heat of Anthony’s skin and the rough stubble that blanketed his cheeks. He traced the shape of Anthony’s ever peculiar beard, tracked the hammering of the man’s pulse at the junction of his jaw, mapped the vulnerable swell of his throat. He could not shake the numbness that had pervaded his every sense.

“Tommy?” Anthony prompted, clearly expecting some sort of profound realization on Loki’s part.

Loki licked his lips, endeavored to consider past the fog weighing down his thoughts. “It’s your face,” he offered, hoping that it would be enough to earn him his gummy smile. Everything would be alright if Anthony would just smile at him.

Anthony was frowning instead. He must not have gotten the tone right.

He sucked in a breath, and to his chagrin, the sound was obviously tremulous. Frustration was beginning to consume him. He remembered the elation he had felt following his date with Anthony, the heady relief when he had heard Anthony’s voice answering his phone call, the bursting feeling that had taken residence in his chest when Anthony had come for him. Why was he reacting like this now?

Loki withdrew his arm and attempted to drag it surreptitiously across his face. His cheeks were wet.

“Tommy, it’s okay,” he heard Anthony say.

But it wasn’t. This was simply another instance of his body betraying him. He had experienced ephemeral moments of genuine rapture in Anthony’s presence, so he knew that his body was capable not only of accepting but treasuring his partner’s affections. Growling, he raked his hand viciously through his grimy, tangled hair, desperate to feel something. Anything.

“Hey! Hey, no. Don’t do that,” Anthony admonished. He pulled Loki’s hand toward his lips, dragged the god’s knuckles yet again along his bristly cheek. “I have one more idea, but you have to trust me. Can you do that?”

Loki stared at him. Trusting Anthony was a certainty.

“Don’t freak out, okay?”  

And then Anthony was kneeling beside the bed, hands folded around Loki’s own in a pantomime of supplication. As Loki watched, he began to yank at the hem of his shirt, a faded Led Zeppelin t-shirt that Loki could recall the man once describing as “vintage.”

“Anthony?” Loki asked uncertainly. He fought against his body’s instinctive reaction. It wanted to flinch, to recoil, to flee. Disrobing so often meant pain in Loki’s world.

“Trust me. Trust me. Trust me,” Anthony chanted.

The shirt was stuck around his neck, muffling his voice, and he could see Anthony’s hands quivering. A tearing sound heralded the revelation of the engineer’s bare chest and a new rip under the arm of his shirt. Loki focused unwaveringly on his partner’s face and endeavored not to indulge the fears that were beginning to harry his breathing.

Anthony’s fingers found Loki’s lacerated wrist, still shackled with intangible manacles. He began to pull god’s hand toward his chest, and Loki could not understand.

“Trust me,” Anthony pleaded again, eyes shining with perfervid anticipation.

Anthony pressed his antipathetic fingertips against the arc reactor. It hummed with a familiar warmth that he had never felt directly against his skin. Those years ago, he had heard but not understood the metallic clink as he attempted unsuccessfully to bend the inventor to his will. More recently, he had indulged in mapping what little he could discern of the device through Anthony’s shirt, but the fabric barrier between them had limited his perception.

Despite everything, he began to feel a burgeoning curiosity.

It was, well, beautiful seemed like an inadequate descriptor, but it came closest. Luminescent white-blue light emanated from a triangle-shaped core, illuminating any shadows that clung to Loki’s features. He had expected a smooth surface, but without the impediment of cloth to obstruct his investigation, he could discern shallow grooves forming intricate patterns. It rose and fell along with Anthony’s breathing, creating a guide that Loki could follow.

“This is real,” Anthony whispered. Tentative fingers found Loki’s jaw, framed his face. Familiar thumbs stroked delicately across the wet trails on his cheekbones. “Tommy, you’re home.”

He knew the calloused fingers that began to chart every line of his face. Those fingers belonged to the man who made a hopelessly callow part of him wonder not only if he could be worthy someday but if he perhaps he had been worthy all along. This was his Anthony, and Anthony had come for him.

Loki blinked up at him and loved this mortal who had once been his greatest enemy so fiercely that he wondered if his heart could swell outside of the confines of his chest. “You found me,” Loki choked out.

“I always will, remember?” Anthony said fiercely. Softly and so fleetingly that Loki scarcely registered the pressure, Anthony pressed his lips against the center of the god’s forehead. “My Tommy,” he murmured into Loki’s skin, “I have missed you so much.”

Loki lost track of time as he devoted his attention to tracing the geometric shapes on Anthony’s device. His body sought to shudder and cringe with Anthony’s every unexpected shift, but somehow the inventor could sense his exasperation. He talked quietly about everything that Loki had missed, caught him up on Dum-E’s inexplicable obsession with creating the perfect strawberry smoothie, filled him in on JARVIS’ unfruitful efforts to decipher the journals in the god’s absence. He spoke about all of the nothings that Loki somehow found enrapturing—the specifications of the cars that he was considering buying, reviews of various video games that had been advertised during his absence, praises about a selection of movies that he wanted Loki to see.

As time passed, Loki felt more and more present. Beyond that, though, direct skin contact with Anthony’s reactor ignited a peculiar reaction in his feeble seiðr. The dribbles of magic that he had managed to accumulate convened within his palm without his sanction, seemingly enraptured by this mortal equivalent of enchantment. It was oddly soothing, and Loki decided that he would bask in this ineffable tranquility for the rest of his eternity.

But eventually, Anthony pressed his nose into the junction of Loki’s jaw. “I’m not sure if my knees can handle this for much longer, sweetheart,” he said with a light laugh.

To Loki’s shame, his breath hitched. His fingers caught on the edges of the reactor but could find no real purchase. His seiðr fought to escape the confines of his fettered frame and ensnare Anthony’s mortal magic.

“You’re leaving?” he asked. He despised the wavering vulnerability in his voice, but the possibility of his partner departing was even more horrifying.

“Of course, I’m not leaving.” Anthony’s hand found Loki’s wrist. “I’m just going to sit in my chair. I’ll be right next to you, see?”

Loki’s seiðr writhed, and the fallen god worked to quell the inborn panic that was accelerating his breathing. Even as he inwardly lambasted his display of weakness, his nails scraped at the metal frame that encapsulated Anthony’s reactor.

The inventor’s expression was unfathomable as he peered at him. “Or we could share the bed?”

Loki’s straining limbs relaxed. “Yes, that. I would prefer that,” he admitted in an excruciating whisper.

Anthony labored to his feet, and Loki could indeed hear his knees creak audibly. He hovered for a moment, hands lingering on the negligible expanse of space between them, evidently searching for an unscathed place to grip.

“You’ll tell me if I hurt you, right?” the engineer asked. “I’m pretty sure that this is breaking, like, thirty of the rules I had to agree to before I was allowed to transfer you up here.”

Although Loki nodded his assent, he had no intention of speaking a word of discomfort. The poison flowing through his veins was ever weakening, so pain was all but a surety. More important than any transitory hurt was preserving his link to sanity.

Admittedly, he wouldn’t be opposed if Anthony wished to engage in the ignominious, mortal practice of cuddling.

And so, he ground his teeth together as his partner carefully shifted his body to create a Stark-sized space on Loki’s right. The foot of his bad leg caught in the layers of sheets that encased his body, but he made not a sound.

As soon as the man had slipped under the covers beside him, Loki squirmed closer. His shoulder, immobilized against his chest, protested his efforts, and his ribs throbbed as he shifted. But his ear found the purring arc reactor, and the worst of his pain began to slip away. He sighed audibly and curled the fingers of his good hand around Anthony’s bicep, an unconscious tether.

“I’m right here, Tommy,” Anthony whispered against his temple. “I won’t leave you.”

Loki’s eyes drooped. He had survived worse wounds, had endured unfathomable horrors, but never as a mortal. His body pined for rest, and yet he was afraid to close his eyes. Anthony felt so very solid beneath his hands but also so fathomlessly fragile.

“Are you certain that this is real?” Loki verified one more time.

Anthony’s arm wound loosely around his waist. “It’s real,” he said unwearyingly. “I’ll keep reminding you, though, okay? Why don’t you rest now?”

Anthony’s body had molded around his own. His skin was warm, and his grip was firm around the god’s hips. Loki was so very tired, and he was finally safe. The sound of Anthony’s heart pulsing in time with his own lulled him to sleep.

***

Some hours later, Loki found that he was drifting on the precipice of consciousness. He could feel the steady thrumming of Anthony’s heart beneath his cheek. The man’s arms acted as a sort of shield, bracketing him against his undulating chest. For the first time in weeks, he trusted that no harm would find him.

He had awoken to a distant pinging sound, but Anthony’s fingers stroking through his hair kept him somewhat alert. For once, his body had chosen to obey him, and the gentle ministrations along his scalp provoked no memories or disconnection. He endeavored simply to lie still and unlearn expectations of violence and exploitation. His seiðr, buzzing within his fingertips in a clandestine duet with Anthony’s reactor, helped stave off any momentary surges of instinct that urged him to tense.

He heard the footsteps approaching the door before Anthony did, judging by the inventor’s continued dissonant humming into his hair. The clicking tread along the hardwood floors portended the arrival of stiletto heels and a wave of flowery perfume.

“Tony, did you see the stack of papers that I left—hey, are you alright?”

He recognized the voice that pierced the stillness, endeavored to maintain his relaxed position, but his fingers twitched on Anthony’s chest beyond his control.

Anthony flinched with him. “Shh, Pep. Tommy’s sleeping,” he admonished. “You’ll wake him up.”

The clicking grew louder as she entered the room. Loki focused on maintaining his relaxed façade—the evenness of his breathing, the slow rhythm of his heart, the laxness of his muscles. He knew that Potts was one of Anthony’s most treasured friends, but his seiðr had identified only his partner as safe, and the businesswoman was at his defenseless back. She was too close, at the foot of the bed now, and she wasn’t Anthony.

“How’s he doing?” she asked.

Anthony smoothed a wayward curl back from Loki’s forehead. “He talked a little. He was…he seemed happy to see me.”

Potts’ voice came from directly next to the bed when she next spoke. “Of course, he was,” she said. Loki could hear the smile in her voice. “What did he say?”

A pause. When the inventor spoke, his voice sounded raw, agonized. “He didn’t think this was real. He didn’t believe I’d gotten him out.”

“He was disoriented,” Potts said, gentle now. “He just needs a little time to adjust.”

“I know,” Anthony whispered. His fingers flowed across Loki’s scalp, mapping every bump of the god’s skull with meticulous care. “But Pep, what if he hates me? This is all my fault. He should hate me.”

“Tony, you know that’s not true.”

Anthony’s other arm, which was wound loosely around Loki’s waist, constricted enough for Loki’s ribs to twinge in protest. “It is my fault. They took him because I asked him to translate those goddamn journals, and I only did that because I had a ridiculous crush on the only person in the world with absolutely no interest in me.” A wavering intake of breath, then, “I should have let him walk away. All he ever wanted was to be left alone.”

“Tony, stop—”

“Even if it hadn’t been for those stupid journals, he would still be a target because of Iron Man,” Anthony continued bleakly. “He’s always going to be in danger when he’s with me.”

“Tony—” Potts attempted to protest again.

“And if it gets out that he’s dating me, his family will find him, and this will happen all over again.”

“Tony, stop this now. Catastrophizing isn’t helpful,” Potts interrupted firmly. The mattress tilted perceptibly as she presumably sat on the edge. “Thomas fought for weeks to get back to you. Are you really going to take that away from him?”

Loki had never formulated a strong impression of Virginia “Pepper” Potts. Unlike Harold, who blatantly advertised his loyalty to Anthony with transparent ardency, Potts was more of an enigma. He had seen in her moments of warmth, most clearly in response to Anthony’s more childish antics. He had noticed masked exasperation in the tightening of her eyes and smile when the inventor stepped too far over the line. At Anthony’s birthday party, Loki had willfully ignored the hints of melancholy in her expression when his partner had been so publicly demonstrative with him.

The god had never quite viewed Potts as a threat, but neither had he considered her an ally. He might have to remedy that oversight.

“I don’t deserve him,” Anthony whispered.

A twin set of muted thumps preceded a momentary rocking of the bed as Potts seemingly shirked her heels and settled more comfortably on the mattress. “Thomas doesn’t strike me as the cuddling type,” she observed.

“You’d be surprised.” Anthony’s hand moved to cradle the back of Loki’s head. “He’s different when it’s just us.”

“You’ve never liked cuddling either, Tony.”

Anthony snorted and hugged Loki closer as though to belie her words. “That’s not true. That ridiculous test that you made me take said that touch was my love language, remember?”

“Yes, but you don’t cuddle, at least not since we got you back from Afghanistan.”

“C’mon, Pepper. That’s definitely not true.”

The businesswoman sniffed audibly. Somehow, she made the derisive noise sound delicate. “When’s the last time you took off your shirt in front of another person?”

“I don’t know,” Anthony said as his thumb rubbed soothingly along Loki’s skin. “The last time I had sex?”

“No. You keep your shirt on during sex, Tony,” Potts insisted. “The last time I saw you with your shirt off, you had conveniently forgotten to tell me that I could send you into cardiac arrest.”

“That can’t be true,” the inventor protested, indignant now. “We’ve had sex loads of times, right? We had to have done it with my shirt off at least once.”

“Never,” Potts said firmly. “We never have.”

“Huh.”

Anthony’s fingers drifted to the slope of his forehead. They lingered for a moment, his thumb pressed against a furrow between Loki’s brows that the god hadn’t consciously acknowledged, an involuntary reaction to the pain that persisted even now. He felt his expression smooth out like clockwork at the inventor’s caress.

“Tony, you’re letting Thomas touch your arc reactor,” Potts pointed out quietly.

“It’s a sort of twist on grounding that I was reading about,” Anthony said distractedly. “The trick is to give him a physical tether to the present. Something about the reactor calms him down.”

A pause. When Potts spoke again, her voice was both fond and exasperated at once. “I’m going to spell this out for you, Tony, because I know that feelings aren’t your strong suit. You love Thomas. It’s obvious at this point.”

Anthony’s featherlight ministrations on his face stuttered. “What? No, it isn’t.”

“We suspected it at your birthday party,” Potts continued, amused now. “You’ve never baked a cake before. Not in your entire life.”

“I don’t know where all these accusations are coming from. That’s absolutely untrue—”

“And the way you looked at him,” Potts interrupted heedlessly. “Tony, you were doting on him. No one ever gets your undivided attention like that. You’ve always had too many ideas spinning in your head.”

Anthony’s hand returned to blazing a path along Loki’s cheek. “I don’t know about ‘always,’” he grumbled.

“You were willing to give up your suits. You were willing to stop being Iron Man for Thomas.” Potts fell silent again, but, aside from a twitch of Anthony’s fingers, the engineer made no discernable response. “Tony Stark, you are in love with him,” she declared, clearly smiling now. “Please don’t insult my intelligence by trying to deny it.”

Loki could feel Anthony’s hot breath against the crown of his head. It felt as though the man’s lips were grazing his hair. “He’s amazing, Pepper,” Anthony whispered after a few excruciating seconds. “He’s the most amazing person I have ever met.”

“Tell me about him,” Potts coaxed, still using that sensitive, warm voice. “What made you fall for him?”

Anthony’s lips pressed more definitively against Loki’s hair. “Is everything a cop out?” he whispered.

Another pause, a wordless urge to continue. Loki could not think, could barely breathe. In this moment, he could feel absolutely no pain, only dumfounded anticipation.

“His nose scrunches up when he laughs. It’s like his face doesn’t know what it’s supposed to do, so it just hard commits every time he decides something is funny.”

Anthony’s index finger found his nose as though to illustrate his point, and Loki had to concentrate on keeping his face from screwing into a contradicting grimace.

“He gets these dimples in his cheeks when he smiles for real,” the man continued after a moment. “It makes him look like a little kid. I’ve only seen him really smile a handful of times.”

Anthony’s finger poked at his cheek now, and Loki endeavored with all of his strength to remain still.

“I don’t know, Pep! I could talk for hours about how he hogs any food that contains strawberries without even realizing it. Or how he insists that I rewind if I so much as clear my throat during a movie. Or how he still manages to sound like a walking dictionary when he’s trash talking me in Mario Kart. He’s just…he’s Tommy. You can’t not love Tommy.”

Potts held her silence for a moment and then sniffed daintily. “I’m wondering if I should be insulted that you’ve been monopolizing Thomas all this time. When are the rest of us going to get to know him?”

“I can bring him around more,” Anthony whispered into Loki’s hair. “If he sticks with me, that is.”

“And why wouldn’t he?” Potts challenged. “If Thomas is as amazing as you say, then he sees you for exactly who you are.”

“A billionaire, playboy, philanthropist with a disgustingly awesome goatee?” the inventor quipped with feigned indifference.

“I was thinking a fiercely loyal friend, an unapologetic genius, and, of course, a self-sacrificing idiot who quite desperately needs a shave,” Potts corrected warmly.

“Was that supposed to be a compliment? I’m pretty sure you meant that as a compliment, but there was an ‘idiot’ in there, so it’s hard to tell.”

Potts laughed, and the mattress tilted as she presumably shifted position. “He really does sound amazing, Tony. I’m glad that you found him.”

Loki’s limbs, which had seemed so burdensomely heavy upon awakening, now felt weightless. An odd, roiling sensation was consuming his stomach and threatening to overflow. His heart was fluttering and twisting and ballooning as it railed against the confines of his ribcage. Not a thought entered his head. Somehow, he managed to maintain his unaffected façade despite the very real possibility that he might float away.

“It seems like you have a new project,” Potts observed after a moment, during which Loki could feel two pairs of eyes studying him.

“Tommy needs to be able to defend himself,” Anthony murmured. His fingers found the god’s lax knuckles and began to trace along the joints in Loki’s hand. “Negotiation Tactics 101. If I bombard him with a bunch of options, he has to agree to one of them, right?”

“Why wouldn’t he?”

Anthony sighed. His fingers molded Loki’s hand into a fist. “I don’t know. Tommy’s private. He won’t like any of this.”

When Potts spoke again, her voice was carefully pitched to be slow and gentle. “If you explain to him what it’s been like for you these last few weeks, I’m sure he’ll understand why this is so important to you.”

Anthony’s other hand leapt to loosely cup Loki’s ear, as though to block Potts’ words. “Absolutely not,” he hissed.

“You were under immense stress. You still are—”

“I don’t want to talk about this, Pepper,” Anthony insisted. The emotion was beginning to drain from his voice. “Tommy’s back. It’s over now.”

Potts edged closed. Her knee brushed against Loki’s foot. “Bruce says you still aren’t sleeping. He says that you barely eat or drink.”

“Bruce can shove it,” the inventor said tonelessly. “I’m fine. I haven’t had any visions since I found Tommy.”

“Tony—”

“I’m fine. Tommy isn’t. Actually, he’s the dictionary definition of not fine.”

“You’re both recovering—” Potts tried to insist.

“I’m done talking about this, Pep. I mean it.”

The engineer’s voice remained markedly inflectionless, but his body betrayed him. The thudding of his heart intensified beneath Loki’s cheek, and his chest had slickened with perspiration. Loki could feel the man’s fingers trembling ever so slightly where they framed his head.

“Very well, Mr. Stark,” Potts said primly. The mattress shifted again, presumably as she moved to stand. “I left a stack of urgent papers on the coffee table for you to sign. I’ll stop by for them tomorrow.”

Anthony’s frame was shaking even more fervently, but his tone remained steadily impassive. “Thank you.”

Potts’ heels began to click along in the floor in the direction of the door, but they lingered at the entrance of the room. “I may not know Thomas well, but it’s obvious that cares for you. He would want to know about what happened while he was gone, Tony. He would want to help.”

“Duly noted. Goodnight, Ms. Potts.”

Potts’ tread most closely resembled a stomp as she departed from the room. And Anthony’s façade crumpled in her wake. The man’s chest heaved, leaving Loki to rise and fall precariously in time. One hand gnarled into Loki’s tangled curls, and the other found a tether around the god’s upper arm. His private despondency ignited Loki into action at last.

It was the spore. It had to be. His seiðr hadn’t registered its activation, but the spore was the only plausible culprit for Anthony’s tangible distress. Undoubtedly, it must also be the perpetrator behind the inexplicable amplification of the man’s amorous feelings toward him. After it had connected him with Anthony in their shared dreamscape, Loki had begun to speculate that its primary directive might actually be benevolent, or at the very least innocuous. That didn’t matter now. Regardless of its intent, he should have known that its involvement could only foreshadow harm.

The spore had convinced Anthony that he loved a monster. The spore had carved a window into Loki’s living nightmare that had evidently caused Anthony to suffer. There was no time to lament the demise of his brief flirtation with love requited. Even in his current state, he could unravel a knot or two and provide Anthony with some relief. It was his responsibility. He could mourn later.  

He tore his seiðr away from its entanglement with Anthony’s reactor and propelled his resources along the very familiar path to Anthony’s heart, to where the spore had taken root. He braced himself for the intrusive sensation of lecherous adhesion as it inevitably sought to ensnare his seiðr. In the past, the spore has always seemed so vibrantly luminous, a pulsating mass that was impossible to overlook.

But there was only cavernous emptiness in the space that the spore had so staunchly inhabited.

Loki delved deeper. The spore’s many branches appeared not only uprooted but disintegrated.

The deterioration seemed recent as he could still follow along the anomalous paths where its outermost roots had dwelled. However, even at its core, where he had expected an impenetrable barrier—unctuous, vitriolic, a mimic of the scepter that had enslaved him—he found marked dereliction.

The spore’s core, which should have repelled him brutally, was conspicuously hollow. He found only a shell, an empty receptacle. It failed to stir, even when Loki dared to extend a wisp of his seiðr. The allure of his magic would have galvanized the seed if it yet harbored even an iota of power.

It was dead, or nearly so.

Outwardly, he was aware of an orchestral version of a vaguely familiar tune beginning to play through the speakers. Carefully, ever so gently, Anthony threaded their fingers together. His lips brushed against Loki’s temple as he began to sing along quietly, murmuring off-pitch promises of flight, of adventure, of a future together.

But the spore had been all but annihilated.

Loki could easily discern how it had happened. Connecting them at such a distance and so regularly must have depleted the stores of energy that had once seemed so insurmountably vast. The spore must have burnt itself out until it was all but a dormant husk.

More baffling was why Anthony had described their relationship so intimately after escaping its influence. Without the spore, Loki had expected lingering feelings of good will. Based on their interactions prior to his abduction, he had even dared to believe that Anthony might genuinely enjoy Thomas’ company once the spore’s power had waned.

But Anthony had essentially told Potts that he loved Thomas.

Even now, as Anthony continued to sing under his breath whilst smoothing his fingers through Thomas’ curls, the man’s every action embodied fervid yet tender affection.

And yet, the spore was powerless.

Anthony couldn’t actually love him.

Could he?

Chapter Text

Loki focused on feigning sleep as he waited for the rise and fall of Anthony’s chest to level out. He could see that his partner was fighting exhaustion. Furtive peeks through his eyelashes revealed increasingly ashen skin and entrenched purple blotches underneath the man’s eyes. Despite the inventor’s drooping eyelids, nodding head, and jaw breaking yawns, he lasted for several hours. Every time Anthony had verged on dozing off, he had abruptly jerked awake, and his fingers had found Loki’s skin as though to reassure himself that the god remained present.

At last, Anthony’s arm around Loki’s waist loosened, and his fingers, threaded through Loki’s own, slackened. Loki waited for several minutes in case the man startled awake once more, but fatigue appeared to plunge him straight into a deep sleep. Each whistling breath edged closer and closer to a rumbling snore.

Loki allowed a groan to fall from his lips as he levered his weary body up. When Anthony failed even to twitch at the admission of pain, the god succumbed to just a moment of simple indulgence. He allowed his thumbs—tainted, soiled, disgusting—to trail over his partner’s stubbled cheeks. Even in sleep, Anthony nestled closer at the first hint of skin contact.

Anthony loved him.

This man who had claimed so many of Loki’s paltry firsts loved him.

Various tubes pulled as Loki pushed his body fully upright. He found a line attached to the inside of his elbow, and there was one another one collecting urine that he refused to contemplate. A sensor appeared to be clipped to the index finger of his bad hand, the source of various vital signs on the monitor beside the bed. He cast a cursory glance to his left and found several bags of liquids hanging from a pole.

Loki sighed. Already, his next move was daunting. Despite the lack of obvious constrictions, he was familiar enough with primitive mortal healing to know that he could not simply detach himself from the monitoring devices without inviting alarm. His body throbbed with its many hurts, and true agony lurked on the edges of his awareness.

And Anthony loved him. How could Anthony possibly love him?

Perhaps it was Thomas that Anthony loved. Thomas was reticent to a fault, articulate when probed, and clever enough to spark the inventor’s interest. Yes, Thomas’ identity had been designed to repel attention, but perhaps Anthony had been attracted to their apparent incompatibilities. Conceivably, something about Thomas’ appearance—the passé clothing, the unruly nest of curly hair, the dimpled cheeks—may have charmed the man. Loki had often been accused of beguiling others unintentionally when he took other forms.

But even as he considered it, he knew that interest in his glamour could not fully explain Anthony’s feelings. It had been months since he had acted as reserved Thomas in Anthony’s presence. Rather, Loki had grown to converse as himself—acerbic and amiable in turns, prone to derisive wit and reprehensible vulnerability. By all appearances, Anthony appeared to favor Loki over Thomas.

Thomas’ backstory had also evolved to resemble his own, even the parts that revealed him as a monstrosity. Before HYDRA had taken him, Loki had never doubted that Anthony enjoyed his company despite the fact that he was unclean and repulsive, a walking perversion. In fact, he had begun to entertain the possibility that Anthony might not care. Even now, with his skin crawling with residue from Vader’s lecherous touch, he knew that Anthony would accept him, contaminated flesh and all.

He could believe that Anthony cared for him. No, he knew that Anthony cared for him.

But love?

Love, Loki now knew, was too utterly profound of an emotion to be directed toward him by anyone, let alone by someone like Anthony Stark. Love was the righteous fury that tensed Loki’s limbs when he merely contemplated anyone threatening his partner. Love was the grudging twisting of his stomach whenever Anthony called him “Tommy.” Love was the incontrovertible knowledge that he would sacrifice everything—his identity, his liberty, his life—if it meant that Anthony could be safe.

Anthony could not possibly feel that way for him. The inventor had his flaws—he was egotistic to the highest order, and he rambled unfailingly, and his default mode was officious. But Anthony was also affectionate, selfless, and, above all, wonderful. He was as close to perfect as Loki could imagine, and Anthony deserved someone equally magnificent to love.

Loki could never deserve him.

But Loki was also selfish, so monstrously selfish. Even now, his body longed to stretch out beside Anthony once more and sully him with his fouled flesh. His seiðr gnashed at his fingertips, grasping for its partner in Anthony’s reactor. Even his mind rebelled from any course of action that could lead to separation from this man, more evidence of his own treachery.

He cast another furtive glance at Anthony but could find nothing amiss. The inventor’s eyelids were twitching, a definitive sign that he was dreaming. Loki leaned over despite the strain on his battered frame and pressed his lips to Anthony’s forehead.

All of his life, he had striven to be worthy of his title, of his family, of the throne. Even then, barriers both implicit and explicit had impeded his every effort. How could he even begin to be worthy of a man such as Anthony Stark? In all likelihood, he could never truly be worthy, but perhaps he could try.

Because Anthony loved him.

Harrowing scenarios pummeled his every thought, and his mind contorted into catastrophizing circles, and Loki could not focus. He desired desperately to voice his doubts aloud to a trusted confidant. It defied his nature to entrust another with anything, let alone about something this intimate, but a trustworthy sounding board was within reach.

He gathered a careful sliver of seiðr and summoned Anthony’s phone from the nightstand. It was protected with layers of safeguards—fingerprints, and retinal scans, and passwords—but somehow, it opened at Loki’s touch. Unlike Loki’s comparatively straightforward phone, this device was loaded with various applications that complicated the user interface almost beyond the god’s very basic abilities. He fumbled for several moments until he found the program that he needed. 

“Sir?” came the familiar accented voice. “Do you require assistance? Is Mr. Walker well?”

Somehow, an artificial voice was making him feel reassured and contrite simultaneously. He coughed into his arm to clear his throat and tucked the phone tightly against his ear. “I am well, JARVIS. I didn’t intend to worry you.”

A second or two of silence, and then, “It is a relief to hear your voice, Mr. Walker. I have been monitoring your vital signs since your transfer, but I admit that it unnerves me when I cannot see you or Sir.”

He hadn’t anticipated such a reaction from JARVIS. Usually, the A.I. relied on precise questioning and pointed commentary to demonstrate the artificial equivalent of caring. But now, Loki could hear hints of actual concern in JARVIS’ tone. Although his knowledge of Midgardian technology remained grounded in his understanding of the parallels with his own magic, he knew that programs should not be capable of genuine emotion. Perhaps this simulation of solicitude was a learned response to being unable to monitor Anthony.

He turned on the camera with a few taps of the screen. “Is that better, JARVIS?”

Another pause. “I must say that I am pleased to see some color in your cheeks, sir.”

Loki barely managed to refrain from snorting. He could feel the filth coating his flesh and the tangles in his hair. He had no doubt that Thomas’ skin color was verging on the sickly, pale white that characterized his own Æsir form.

Uncomfortable with the attention, he angled the camera toward where Anthony continued to slumber beside him. “Anthony is fine. He is resting.”

“Sir found your absence most distressing,” the A.I. said. “I must ask that you avoid encounters with those who intend you harm in the future.”

“My preference would certainly be to evade capture and torture,” he said facetiously. When the A.I. failed to respond to his words—in fact, the silence felt strangely reproachful—he sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I apologize, JARVIS. I will endeavor to be more vigilant in the future.”

“I have streamlined many of my peripheral functions to monitor your health more closely, and I have written several new protocols to enhance security at the Tower,” JARVIS said, and Loki was certain that he was not imagining the faltering brusqueness in the A.I.’s voice. “However, these measures will not be satisfactory if I cannot adequately monitor Sir or yourself. I understand that privacy is important to you, Mr. Walker, but I would like to request that you allow the reinstallation of surveillance equipment in your room.”

Loki felt his nose wrinkle. “JARVIS, I understand that Anthony was concerned, but I will be careful—”

“Mr. Walker, your safety is evidently imperative to Sir’s health, and I cannot allow either of you to be in peril.” When Loki did not immediately respond, JARVIS pressed on contentiously, “I would add that Sir was not the only one to experience distress during your absence.”

The screen of Anthony’s phone was blank as JARVIS had no face or body. He had only a voice, one that Loki had previously considered stoic and unflappable. Somehow, JARVIS was managing to sound plaintive. For a moment, Loki wondered where he had learned it, but then, JARVIS was Anthony’s spawn, and the inventor had always been so very skilled at cajoling Loki into acquiescing.

“I have become quite fond of you, Mr. Walker,” JARVIS continued, tone suitably doleful. “Please allow me the tools to protect you to the best of my capabilities.”

Loki’s working shoulder began to hunch despite his best efforts at remaining resolute. “I understand your concerns, JARVIS, but I do not wish for my every move to be scrutinized while I am here.”

The A.I. was silent for a moment, and then, “some of Sir’s surveillance prototypes can be manually switched on and off. Would that be an acceptable alternative?”

Loki could feel the trap beginning to ensnare him, and he was grudgingly impressed. “I don’t know,” he hedged. “I suppose that would be preferable, but—”

“I will neither share nor store any of the footage, sir. My only wish is to protect both my creator and my friend.”

JARVIS had somehow happened upon a weakness that Loki had never divined. Long ago, Anthony had declared JARVIS Loki’s friend, but hearing the A.I. name him thus evoked a susceptibility that the god would deny to his dying breath. While JARVIS’ timing was a transparent maneuver, even Loki could not doubt the veracity of his divulgence.

“That was a masterful bit of manipulation,” Loki muttered. He focused his gaze on the ceiling so that the camera couldn’t distinguish the upturn of his lips.

“Thank you, sir. I have found that my efforts at persuasion tend to be more effective when the sentiment is genuine.”

Loki’s covert smile widened. He ensured that he had effaced all hints of mirth from his expression before he turned back to the phone screen. Although no sound evinced JARVIS’ continued presence on the line, the twinkling camera light reassured him that the A.I. remained. Before he had met Anthony, he had always felt so alone, even whilst in company. Anthony had changed so many things.

And Anthony loved him.

He balanced the phone on his knee and wrapped his good arm loosely around his aching ribs. Customarily, he would not so plainly broadcast his discomfort, but JARVIS was apparently his friend, and it was his understanding that friends did not judge.

“JARVIS, may I ask you something?” Loki asked at last, squaring his working shoulder.

“Certainly, sir.” The A.I. sounded as forthright as ever, but Loki’s heart quailed, nonetheless.

He sucked in as deep of a breath as his beleaguered lungs allowed and closed his eyes to stave off his instinctive mortification. It still took several attempts before he managed to find his voice.

“Do you approve of my relationship with Anthony, JARVIS?” he ventured, so quietly that the nearly inaudible air vent threatened to drown him out.

JARVIS was silent for a moment, but his tone was noticeably cagey when he replied. “I feel that it might be more prudent to speak with Sir. I am afraid that my exposure to romance has been limited to 80s sitcoms and Sir’s more short-lived amorous escapades.”

Loki hand dropped to pick at a loose thread on his comforter. He desired so avidly to subside, but the rapacious part of him persisted, hungry for elusive validation. “I want to know what you think, JARVIS. Anthony trusts you above anyone else, and…and we’re friends, aren’t we?”

“I see that I am not the only one skilled at manipulation, Mr. Walker,” JARVIS observed. Despite his words, the A.I. sounded amiable enough.

Loki continued to unravel the loose string as he waited. His heart was rattling his rib cage, and he found that he had unconsciously begun to hold his breath. He could only pray that JARVIS allowed him his veneer of nonchalance.

“Once, when Sir was younger and quite intoxicated, he created a virus designed to expunge every composition of classical music from the Internet,” JARVIS began. “Fortunately, he overindulged that night, and I was successful in erasing his efforts before he awoke.”

“I know that Anthony doesn’t enjoy classical music, JARVIS,” Loki interrupted. The thread in his hand was lengthening.

“More accurately, Mr. Walker, Sir loathes classical music,” the A.I. clarified. “And yet, over the course of his association with you, he has come to own thousands of classical recordings. Before you were stolen from us, Sir had taken to listening to classical compositions in his workshop and even while showering.”

“JARVIS—”

“In the five months since Sir met you,” JARVIS continued, “I have recorded him smiling four-thousand three-hundred and twenty-two times. In the five months prior to that, Sir smiled two-thousand one-hundred and five times.”

“JARVIS—” Loki tried again.

“I have also compiled statistics on the frequency of his laughter and the number of times he has mentioned you in conversation. Would such data be helpful?”

“No. I…I understand your point.” Loki began to twist the frayed ends of the thread within his fingers. An ugly feeling was surging within his chest. “But I don’t deserve him, JARVIS. He could have anyone. Why would he settle for me?”

Perhaps he had managed to enthrall Anthony all along. He could not fathom another explanation for why Anthony, who deserved only the best, would settle for Loki, indisputably an execrable choice for amity, let alone love.

“Pardon me, sir, but I should think that the answer is obvious. It is evident that you make him happy.”

Surely such a simple explanation could not be sufficient to elicit love in mortals. His own reasons for loving Anthony were comparatively profound. Loki trusted Anthony more wholly than anyone he had ever met. The man was the one being in the universe for whom Loki would sacrifice himself to protect. And Anthony had come for him when no one else had ever looked. That alone had earned Anthony Loki’s eternal devotion.

But Loki also loved Anthony for more mundane reasons. The smiles that the engineer provoked were actually genuine, and Loki had never laughed so uproariously in his life. He found the inventor’s rambling endearing, and he had grown to adore the obstinance that characterized every facet of Anthony’s existence.

“Mr. Walker, I know that it is not my place,” JARVIS said, and his tone was inexplicably gentle, “but Sir has been researching reactions to traumatic events. It is normal to desire space—”

“I have no wish to separate from Anthony,” Loki scoffed even as he shuddered. “I am merely trying to understand. I had thought love more onerous to earn.”

JARVIS was quiet for another long handful of seconds. Loki wondered idly if he had been programmed to engage in poignant silences or if it was another learned behavior.

“Do you not feel the same way about Sir, Mr. Walker?” JARVIS inquired at last.

The thread, tattered and distressed, snapped from within his grasp. “I fail to see how that’s relevant,” Loki murmured with feigned insouciance. Despite his faith in JARVIS, every instinct that he possessed urged that he conceal his feelings lest Anthony be snatched away.

“My apologizes, sir.” And now the contrition in the A.I.’s voice sounded distinctly manufactured. “I fear that I must have misphrased the question as it is obvious that you care about Sir a great deal. I am afraid that the intricacies behind hiding one’s affections are as lost on me as ever.”

Loki’s teeth gnashed together. He kneaded the severed thread between his fingers, turning the strand into knots upon knots. “I will ruin him, JARVIS,” Loki whispered, voice wavering conspicuously. “I ruin everything.”

“I believe that I am beginning to understand the anger that Sir feels when the topic of your family is broached,” JARVIS said after a moment.

Loki buried an embittered laugh in his trembling palm and allowed his gaze to fall upon Anthony, still slumbering beside him. The spore may have essentially burned itself out, but the cost was a manifest, physical toll on his partner. Some of the effects were subtle, such as the enhanced angularity of the bones in the inventor’s face, and others—the loss of his meticulous grooming habits, the pronounced shadows beneath his eyes, the restless way he was now groping for Loki’s hand in his sleep—were more tangible.

Perhaps if he felt more like himself, he could ease some of his partner’s concern for him. His body ached, not only with wounds and breaks, but with weeks of sweat and filth. Beyond that, he could still feel Vader’s phantom strokes pressing against the seam of his lips, capturing the edges of his jaw, exploring the curves of his body. He desired desperately to feel clean.

“JARVIS,” he said firmly, already anticipating the A.I.’s protests, “I wish to bathe. Is there someone besides you monitoring me?”

As predicted, JARVIS’ voice was perceptibly reproving. “Yes, sir. Dr. Banner has expressed concern for your wellbeing. He has requested that your vital signs be projected to his lab.”

“Banner? Why would he be so worried about me?” Loki wondered.

Throughout his captivity, he had managed to maintain his glamour and rein in his seiðr. Even now, he could feel Thomas’ façade obscuring his real features. Aside from its increasingly insistent attempts at enmeshing with Anthony’s reactor, his seiðr felt relatively stable. Unless Banner had somehow developed a sophisticated enough device to distinguish the hidden reservoir of magic in his body, he should have escaped exposure.

“Dr. Banner has asked me not to disclose his actions,” JARVIS said. “However, I believe that to withhold such information represents a breach of your privacy.”

There was one unknown element. He had never tested the detectability of his Jötunn form nor bothered to discern differences in Jötunn physiology. Odin’s initial sealing of his Æsir visage had proven to be a formidable bit of magic, but the Allfather had always dismissed Midgardian ways of knowing. It was possible that in his omnipotent preeminence, Odin might have neglected to ward Loki’s inner monster against trifling mortal technology.

“Mr. Walker, please know that I informed Dr. Banner that you would not consent to testing, but he was insistent on running several scans on you while you were being prepped for surgery.”

Loki’s heart was seizing, and, of course, now he knew that JARVIS and Banner were tracking even his outwardly veiled reactions.

“What did he find?” Loki asked as he willed his fingers to cease quivering.

“He found evidence of multiple healed fractures in your bones, Mr. Walker,” JARVIS said in a supremely gentle tone that made Loki long futilely to disappear. “While I am not a medical professional, I must admit that the extent of the damage was quite alarming.”

Loki’s eyes found the blank expanse of mossy green on the ceiling. The color was meant to be calming, but he found himself yearning for the water spots from his own apartment. “Did he find anything else?”

“There were several irregularities in your blood, but those deficiencies could be attributed to a lack of nutrition,” JARVIS reported. “In addition, your resting body temperature is markedly cool. Dr. Banner and Dr. Cho were initially concerned that you were hypothermic.”

Five seconds in, five seconds out. His heartrate continued to surge, and he could not draw in enough air despite his best efforts.

“Does Anthony know?” Loki managed to ask.

“No, Mr. Walker. I believe that Dr. Banner is rightfully fearful of the impact that his discoveries could have on Sir’s mental health.”

Loki blew out the breath that he had been holding for far past the five second threshold. Surely, if there were true inconsistencies—extra organs, an anomalous blood type, accelerated healing—JARVIS would have informed him. While he was incensed by Banner’s intrusion, the outcome could have been far more devastating. And yet, his body continued to quake covertly.

JARVIS must have been able to read his persisting distress because he continued to talk in that same gentle tone that made Loki’s eyes itch and his working shoulder stoop.

“If I may, sir, I imagine that it was not Dr. Banner’s intent to cause you discomfort. The Hulk has made several appearances since your capture. I believe that we may all be feeling somewhat protective of you.”

Loki could not even begin to process that revelation. He could certainly understand that Anthony’s friends might be worried about Thomas due to the apparently detrimental impact of his absence on the inventor’s health. He might even entertain the possibility that those whom he called friend—JARVIS, Harold, and Steven—might have felt personally affected by his plight. But the other Avengers had no personal stake in his wellbeing; there was no logical reason for them to feel concerned. He would waste no more time considering it.

“JARVIS, I wish to bathe,” Loki said again, clenching his tremulous fingers into an equally wobbly fist. “Will you help me?”

Loki had not thought JARVIS capable of compunction, but the thoroughness with which he assisted the fallen god belied the disapproving tenor to his directions. He did not blame JARVIS in the slightest Dr. Banner’s actions, but he was not above using sentiment—even artificial sentiment—to achieve his needs. He needed to wash the lingering crust of Vader’s touch from his skin, to cleanse his face from the innumerable touches bathed in dominance and lust, to feel like himself, or as close to himself as he could be while wearing another’s skin.

However, once JARVIS had duplicated a copy of his vital signs to broadcast into Banner’s lab and instructed him on how to remove the various instances of tubing from his body, he reached his first real hurtle.

His leg protested supporting even negligible fractions of his weight. After only a few steps, a cold sweat began to pepper across his skin and trickle down his flesh. He teetered on the edge of collapse, persevered because perhaps if he felt clean, he could deceive himself into believing that he could be a creature worthy of Anthony Stark’s love.

But when he saw the state of his glamour within the mirror, he wondered how Anthony could even stand to look at him. Thomas’ ginger curls had always been unruly, but now they resembled a nest of greasy, oily tangles. His body wasn’t quite emaciated, but the loose hospital gown that he wore swallowed his undernourished frame. His skin appeared lymphatic in the warm light, and his eyes—green, perhaps a bit too green—were ringed with a medley of reds and purples.

Thomas’ features had always verged on too closely resembling his own, meaning that desirability had never been his intent, but neither did he wish for his glamour to appear quite so haggard.

He sank—he did not crumple—onto the closed toilet seat and focused on forcing air past his clogged lungs. He had dropped Anthony’s phone somewhere along the way, so there was no one to witness the shameful whimpers that escaped his lips as his ribs grated within his chest or the hiss that heralded the slow straightening of his leg.

JARVIS had indicated that there were supplies under the sink that he could use to keep his wounds from getting wet and rolls of bandages in case he needed to reapply any of his wrappings. All he wanted was to feel clean, to achieve the barest semblance of worthiness for Anthony’s love. But he could not muster the strength to bend his body to reach into the cabinets, let alone lower himself into the bathtub, where the sides were so insurmountably high and every discernable surface so outrageously slick. 

For some reason, his vision was blurring, and when he swiped at his eyes, he found that moisture clung to his forearm. It was all more evidence of the appalling weakness that plagued not only this too mortal form but his entire existence. To his shame, a strangled sound escaped his throat before he pressed his knuckles against his lips. He bowed his head, surrendered for just a moment to the surge of hopelessness, melancholia, and acrimony that always lurked below the surface.

“Tommy?”

His breath caught—he shut his eyes tighter, clenched his fist firmer, gritted his teeth harder. Anthony’s voice was coming from right outside the door.

“I’m here,” he called despite the fact that his ribs protested his every word. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Silence. He could imagine Anthony shuffling beyond the flimsy barrier, agonizing over his absence, panicking because Loki was so useless.

“Can I come in?” Anthony asked after a moment.

“I am well,” he said to the blackness behind his eyelids. “I don’t need help.”

“I know, Tommy, but I’m going to come in, okay?”

Despite the questioning note to the inventor’s tone, the door inched open only an instant later. Loki kept his eyes closed, hardly bothered to rearrange the haphazard sprawl of his limbs. He waited for the deluge of sympathy, the empty reassurances, the meaningless entreaties.

“JARVIS says we’re taking a bath,” Anthony said. His tone was intentionally blasé, and his footsteps passed by with hardly a stutter. “You want warm water, right?”

Loki peeked through his damp eyelashes as a rush of water began to stream from the faucet. “What are you doing?”

Anthony’s back was turned to him, and he was stooping as he presumably adjusted the temperature of the water. Every muscle was pulled taut. He could see the man’s fingers trembling where his left hand gripped the rim of the tub.

“I’m making an executive decision. Cold baths suck just as hard as cold showers.” His tone was still remarkably nonchalant, but Loki could see his chest expanding and contracting much too quickly.

Loki roused as best he could, bit back a groan as his ribs objected to every inch of progress that he made. “You don’t take baths.”

“It’s a good day to start, then.” Anthony straightened. His knuckles were white, and sweat was beginning to dot the back of his neck. “Were you wanting anything super fancy? I’m pretty sure there’s a bubble bath option on this thing.”

Loki managed to lever his body until he was sitting up of his own accord. “Anthony, you don’t have to do this,” he said as the tendons of the engineer’s arms began to stand out against his skin. “I can bathe myself.”

Anthony laughed, and somehow the sound resembled genuine buoyance. When he turned, his eyes were gleaming, and his expression was fond despite the excessive paleness of his face. “I know you can, sweetheart,” he said as he dropped to his knees at Loki’s side. “You’re the strongest person I know.”

“Anthony—”

Anthony found his hand. His fingers were damp and wobbling so frenetically that they couldn’t quite thread through his own. “Tommy, I would face a hundred bathtubs for you, okay?

Loki’s heart was running away again, fluttering and quaking and throbbing with just how very much he cherished this man.

“Anthony—”

The inventor pressed his lips against the center of Loki’s palm. “I would throw myself into the fucking ocean if it meant that I could save you.”

Anthony—”

He planted a delicate kiss on each of Loki’s fingertips before he tugged the god’s hand so that it framed his own stubbled face. “I would brave a…a submarine in the middle of a hurricane—”

Stop,” Loki pleaded even as lips tugged up and up and up until his teeth were flashing. “How are you so ridiculous?” he grumbled, but his cheeks had stretched so widely that his face hurt.

“It makes you smile,” Anthony said. He leaned forward, touched his nose to the corner of Loki’s mouth. “I love your smile.”

Loki swallowed. His expression turned solemn as he studied Anthony steadily. “Even when I’m disgusting?” he whispered.

“Always. I love it always,” Anthony assured him as the bath continued to fill behind him. “And sure, you smell a little ripe, but ‘disgusting’ is going a little far.”

There were few axioms in the universe that Loki considered to be truly absolute. One was that whether the channels of Yggsrasil flowed with “seiðr” or “matter” or “energy,” the World Tree engendered and nurtured all life within the cosmos. The second was that the dwarves of Nidavellir were masters of blacksmithing, but they could not wordsmith worth a damn.

The third was that Anthony Stark loved him.

Anthony loved him.

As Anthony removed the gown that concealed his battered ribs and tarnished skin, Loki marveled at how safe he felt in the face of his own vulnerability. As Anthony unclipped the sling that held his left arm immobile and unwound the extensive bandaging below, Loki quivered with how tender every caress felt against his skin. As Anthony wrapped a plastic covering around his leg to repel the moisture, Loki found himself praying furtively to the Norns to show him favor just once. Surely, after all of these centuries of betrayal, and loss, and pain, he was allowed to be selfish once.

“Is it okay if I lift you?” Anthony asked as he pushed a wayward curl out of Loki’s eyes.

“Yes,” Loki whispered.

He was nude, but somehow, his body did not balk when Anthony hooked his arm beneath his legs and cradled him ever so gently against his equally bare chest. The inventor’s throat vibrated beneath his ear as he began to hum an unfamiliar lullaby. Loki’s fingers found the arc reactor whirring and purring between them; he could feel no fear.

The water was perfectly warm and smelled faintly of citrus. For Loki, the influx of water was calming, but he could hear Anthony’s efforts at holding a tune falter the moment the man’s hands disappeared beneath the surface. His palm found Anthony’s heart hammering to the right of the reactor. 

“You don’t have to stay,” Loki murmured despite the fact that it was only Anthony’s stabilizing hand on his spine that kept him upright.

“If you think I’m passing up the chance to help you wash your back, you are very wrong.” His leer was desultory at best and aimed at the crown of Loki’s head.

“Anthony, truly, I am we—”

Thomas, you are not ‘well,’ and I am not fucking leaving you again, okay? Not ever.”

The inventor yanked a bottle of shampoo that smelled strongly of pomegranates from the shelf. Despite his resolve, Anthony’s breathing was only increasing in tempo, and his hairline was damp with sweat. Loki had no reactor with which to ground his partner, only his famed silver tongue and centuries of defamation. He tried anyway.

“My brother and I used to swim in a spring that was near our rooms when we were very young,” Loki offered as he pretended not to notice the man struggle to open the shampoo. A distinctive rattling sound suggested that Anthony could not manage a tight enough grip on the bottle. “He learned how to float and some basic strokes, but he could never manage the same speed in the water as he could on land.”

Anthony tipped back Loki’s head. Despite the erratic trembling of his fingers, he was careful to ensure that no water seeped into the fallen god’s eyes. “I bet you swam circles around him,” the man murmured as he poured another cupful of water on Loki’s head to dampen the tangled curls.

“I did. I learned every stroke, and once I mastered those, I focused on tricks. I practiced diving and tumbling and somersaulting. By the end of that summer, he could never catch me no matter how hard he tried.”

The shampoo smelled strongly enough for his eyes to water, but Anthony’s hands were so gentle along his scalp. They traced every bump and knob of his skull, kneaded behind his ears and along the back of his neck until Loki was absolute putty in his hands. A soft moan escaped him before he could quench it.

“Am I hurting you?” Anthony asked, freezing instantaneously. Loki could not hear him breathing.

“Don’t stop,” Loki demanded despite the fact that it felt as though every strand of his hair was lathered with essence of pomegranate.

“As my Tommy commands,” Anthony said, perceptibly relieved. He laughed, and it even sounded somewhat genuine. “So, what happened? Tell me that you used your swimming skills for evil.”

Loki allowed his eyes to flutter shut. “I sometimes stole my brother’s clothes and hid them within the water or along the banks,” he recalled with a fond smile. “He would search for hours, complaining of his pruning fingers all the while. It was incessantly amusing.”

A controlled stream of water over his head blackened the tub with grot and grunge. Anthony poured another palmful of shampoo onto Loki’s head without comment.

“You were a little shit when you were a kid, weren’t you?”  

“I freely admit that I was rather enamored with mischief as a child,” Loki murmured as he watched the speckles of mire swirl around his body.

For a moment, only the rhythmic sloshing of the water broke the silence. Anthony’s clever fingers mapped the topography of Loki’s scalp, finding even the most minute dips and protrusions.

“Yeah? Any memorable pranks?” Anthony’s thumb located his jaw and swiped across the sharp bone. His hand shook with only the slightest of tremors.

“Too many. My brother was endlessly gullible, and he had an odd penchant for snakes. He was an easy target.”

Anthony washed the newest layer of shampoo and grime from his hair and reached for a tube of conditioner—green tea and apple blossom. “I thought you hated your family,” the inventor ventured softly.

Loki’s could feel his spine stiffening beyond his control. “I do hate them,” he whispered, “but I loved them, too. It’s hard to stop, even when I know I should.”

Anthony was quiet for a moment, such that only his shaky breathing was audible over the gentle lapping of the water. And then, he cleared his throat, rose from his kneeling position beside the bathtub to the accompaniment of cracking bones and audible groans. As Loki watched, mutely uncomprehending, the man rolled up the ends of his sweatpants and moved to sit on the edge of the tub behind the fallen god. His bare feet settled carefully on either side of the god’s waist, and Loki found that his own body fit seamlessly between the man’s jittering knees.

“What was your brother like?” Anthony asked, too quickly, apparently endeavoring to appear unaffected.

Loki stared down at the ripples in the water that slowly spread in Anthony’s wake. “He is a fool,” the fallen god forced himself to whisper, committed to distracting his partner despite his own profound discomfort with the content of their conversation. “He makes the same mistakes without fail, and he is always righteously shocked when the outcome does not change.” He sighed and hugged his bad arm to his chest. “There was a time when I would have gladly followed him to my death.”

Anthony’s shaking hands paused deep within the cluster of knots atop Loki’s head. “It sounds like you miss him.”

Loki blew out another heavy breath and allowed his weary spine to unbend until he was resting the bulk of his weight against Anthony behind him. “I miss the brother who insisted that I have a place at his side. I miss his trust, however naïve. I suppose I miss the person I thought he was.”

Anthony’s toes were grazing his flank within the increasingly murky water. Desiring a distraction, Loki allowed his fingers to curl around the man’s ankle in response. Bizarrely, Anthony’s foot jerked beneath his fingertips, and he felt his partner’s chest jolt behind his shoulders.

“I do not miss the endless jests or outright mockeries of all of the things that define me, and I could never miss living ceaselessly in his shadow,” Loki continued as he ran his thumb absently along the arch of Anthony’s foot. “I find that I am far happier without him than I ever was with him.”

Anthony’s toes crept sneakily under his thigh, trapping Loki’s questing fingers between their legs. “I don’t care how oblivious your brother was,” the man said as he rinsed the conditioner from Loki’s hair. “If I ever meet him—no, if I ever meet anyone in your family, they’ll be leaving in coffins.”

Loki found that his lips were curling into a definite upward arc. “Coffins?” he repeated. “My, my, and here I thought that superheroes were paragons of morality.”

“That’s Steve you’re thinking about, not me,” Anthony said. He produced a bright pink loofah from some hidden cranny. “I’ve always been partial to shades of gray.” He paused in his effort to carefully lather Loki’s chest with soap and pressed his face suddenly into Loki’s wet hair. “There isn’t anything that I wouldn’t do if it meant saving you, Tommy. You…you matter to me. A lot. You matter to me a whole lot.”

Loki’s heart quaked.

Anthony really did love him.

He cleared his throat and allowed his body to slump until his head was pillowed on Anthony’s belly. To his relief, the man’s breathing appeared to be calming, and the sweat on his skin was cooling. “Do I matter enough for a foot rub?” he quipped, pulling his lips into an approximation of a grin.

“All of the foot rubs,” Anthony said gruffly. He leaned down and pressed a lingering kiss to the center of Loki’s forehead as his soapy fingers stroked along the fallen god’s cheek. “You can have anything you want, just name it.”

Sometimes, in his loneliest of moments, while he was an impressionable child, Loki had envisioned the person for whom he would fall. At his most naïve, he had imagined an elf from Álfheim, indescribably beautiful and brimming with cleverness. As time passed, and his reputation for mischief and tricky and lies began to spread, he resigned himself to an alliance with one of the Vanir, loveless and likely characterized by covert animosity.  

He had never thought to consider a Midgardian as his partner. Short years—even months—ago, and he might have considered the prospect an insult. Midgardians were inferior in all ways—strength, intelligence, life span. Sexual dalliances, while shameful, could be forgiven, but no Æsir had ever brokered a true partnership with a Midgardian.

For so long, Loki had thought himself undesirable. He had never imagined that anyone—even a Midgardian—could look at him so fondly, as though gazing at his face was enough to quench an insatiable thirst, while still appearing so utterly guileless. If by some twist of fate, the Norns wove Anthony into the tapestry of Loki’s heretofore miserable existence, he would consider himself wholly blessed for the rest of his days.

Because Anthony loved him. Anthony truly, truly loved him.

And Loki did not deserve him, could never deserve him because he was a mendacious, soiled monster, but he loved Anthony back so wholly that his body ached with it.

“The only thing I want is you,” Loki admitted quietly as he leaned into the inventor’s palm.

“You already have me,” Anthony assured him.

The words weren’t flippant, but it was evident that he did not grasp quite how profoundly Loki treasured him. Declarations of love were commonplace in the many paperback novels that Loki had translated, but every romantic overture within those pages had struck him as trite and shallow. Anthony had proven his love repeatedly through action—by orchestrating the most magical day of Loki’s existence those weeks ago, by demonstrating willingness to sacrifice everything if it meant keeping Loki safe, by coming for him when no one else ever had. Even now, as Anthony cleansed Loki’s skin of taints both tangible and imperceptible, he was showing the god the boundless depths of his devotion.

Words were Loki’s strength, but no words could be enough to show Anthony just how much he meant to him.  

“Do you feel any better?” Anthony asked as he continued to blanket Loki’s skin in suds. “I can use something else, if you want. JARVIS went crazy and bought practically every shampoo and body wash known to man, so if you’d rather smell like ‘wood’ or a ‘tea tree’—”

“No, Anthony. This is perfect,” Loki said as his fingers curled unconsciously around the inventor’s shin.

Anthony trusted him. He could feel it in every stroke of his fingers against his skin, in the slowing thrum of Anthony’s heart against his back, in the absent kisses the man planted on his scalp, his temple, his cheek.

But Anthony was also hurting. Even now, when he peered up at the inventor’s face, he could see exhaustion lining his every feature and guilt weighing heavily in his bloodshot eyes. Loki was responsible for those shadows. In effect, he had been complicit with the spore, had favored his secrets over the wellbeing of this man that he loved. 

Perhaps it was time for him to return Anthony’s confidence.

A treacherous desire was beginning to take shape in Loki’s head. It was ludicrous and terrifying and absolutely the most impolitic idea of his existence, and really, he was entirely too cynical to believe in any outcome but absolute disaster.

But he hoped. Oh, how he hoped.

Chapter Text

The blackened, sudsy water began to swirl down the drain, a physical marker of the dwindling seconds before Loki risked detection. He had jeopardized his life repeatedly during the invasion of Midgard, implementing the most asinine of plans, outright flaunting his whereabouts when all seemed lost for the realm’s fledgling heroes. More recently, he had endangered his safety and freedom for the opportunity to maintain the identity of Thomas Walker, for the possibility of being allowed to keep Anthony.

He would do anything to keep Anthony.

And yet, to sustain his relationship with his partner, he must flirt with disaster.

Anthony deserved so much more than Loki. He deserved someone who wielded power for altruistic rather than egotistical desires. He deserved someone who balanced rather than enhanced his flaws. He deserved someone who could dispel the shadows that lined his face rather than augment them.

Anthony deserved someone with a heart that burned with the same passion for knowledge, heroics, and virtue that he so unabashedly personified. Loki, on the other hand, was a monster. He was driven by a proclivity for mischief, chaos, and destruction to the roots of his frozen core. He could never be worthy of someone like Anthony.

But a callow, selfish part of him prayed that Anthony would choose him, nonetheless.

“I’m going to lift you now,” the inventor warned.

Anthony was so open, so trusting, and Loki might ruin him now. Loki might ruin everything.

He could tell that his partner was endeavoring to be gentle. After a few seconds of deliberation, Anthony slipped his arm beneath Loki’s knees and cradled the god against his chest. Everything was sore or bruised or broken, and Loki felt every wobbly step that the man took toward the sink. But this could be the last time that Anthony held him or rambled fatuous nothings to distract him. He pressed his nose against the crook of the engineer’s stubbled jaw and breathed in as deeply as his ribs would allow.

Anthony set him down on the closed toilet lid, and somehow, Loki’s nudity continued to be a nonissue. His partner was still chattering—something about Barton’s latest venture through the air vents—as he located a collection of thick, fluffy towels with which he swaddled the god.

“I asked JARVIS to order food,” Anthony offered next, as he carefully rubbed a towel through Loki’s dripping hair. “Bruce said to steer clear of solids, but you should be able to stomach some soup—”

“What happened while I was gone, Anthony?”

The man’s hands froze in his hair. He was standing, and Loki was seated at the wrong angle to track his face, but he could hear the sharp intake of breath.

“Huh?” the inventor said at last.

Loki’s heart was seizing, and his fingers were twisting within the folds of the towel draped around his shoulders, but he persisted. “What happened while I was gone?”

Anthony stalled for another moment—carded his hand through Loki’s curls, studied the wastebasket beside the god’s feet, fidgeted with the edges of the towel draped across his lap. “I was looking for you. Every waking moment, I was searching for you.”

Loki’s bare toes were poking out from the depths of his towel. He began to trace a powerless rune into the glossy tiles beneath his feet, a desperate plea for luck, a fruitless prayer for good fortune.

“I have no doubt that you were,” he said, and somehow, he managed to emulate an insouciance that he did not feel. “But you appear unwell, Anthony. Something happened to you.”

Loki found the strength to gaze up at the underside of the engineer’s chin, watched his jaw flex with evident tension.

“Well, I read through your translations,” the engineer offered now. “After that, JARVIS and I figured out that HYDRA had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D and that they had taken you. The Avengers mounted a rescue mission. That’s pretty much it.”

Anthony’s voice was beginning to take on the same deadened tone that Loki recognized from the man’s confrontation with Potts. The strokes of the towel that he was using to tousle the god’s hair were starting to edge on rough. And the inventor would not meet his eyes. In fact, he appeared to be tilting his face intentionally away.

“A rescue mission,” Loki repeated, matching the cadence of the man’s voice with his own version of coldness.

“Yeah. Romanoff and Steve were called on some sort of pirate operation, so they couldn’t help us, but they managed to sneak us a message confirming that S.H.I.E.L.D was dirty. After that, Bruce, Clint, and I started to attack likely HYDRA bases. The one that you were actually in was the next outpost on our list—”

“Anthony, look at me.” The man’s jaw was clenching. Loki gained a brief view of fluttering nostrils but still could not glimpse his eyes. “I am not asking you to verify that you were searching for me while I was gone. I never doubted that you would find me.”

“Yeah, well, I was almost too late,” the engineer ground out with false flippancy. The towel was bunched around Loki’s neck now, and his bad shoulder was beginning to throb, but he refused to allow his gaze to waver from Anthony’s face. “You almost died because I couldn’t figure out where you were fast enough.”

“But you came for me in time,” Loki insisted. “I am grateful, Anthony. No one…” He sucked in a breath, forced his eyes to keep staring upward despite the instinctive quailing of his body. “No one has ever cared enough even to look for me.”

For an instant, Anthony remained posed in rigid repudiation. His face persisted in its deliberate fixation with anything but Loki, and the impersonal pats of the towel against the god’s chest roused tense waves of gooseflesh in their wake. In the next second, as Loki continued to stare up at him fiercely, Anthony crumpled. With a wordless whine, he plunged to his knees, wedged his shoulders between Loki’s legs, pressed his face forcefully against the god’s unscathed thigh.

“I almost lost you,” he whispered as his arms wound around Loki’s calf. “Tommy, I almost lost you.”

“I’m alright, Anthony,” Loki whispered. He allowed his nails to trail lightly along the man’s spine. “I am we—”

“Don’t you dare say that,” Anthony growled, but his voice was wavering so markedly that he sounded anything but stern. “I swear to god, Tommy, you better strike that phrase from your vocabulary. I will throw the world’s most expensive tantrum if I ever have to hear that again.”

“That seems like an overreaction,” Loki murmured. “This is hardly the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

Anthony’s shoulder blades stiffened beneath his palm. “Sweetheart, your shoulder was so badly torn that they had to operate on it,” he said, voice distinctly raw. “Your chest looks like actual carnage, and did I mention that you were shot? I’m still fucking furious at you for lying to me about that, you know.”

“Consider me properly chagrined,” Loki said dryly. “I will dutifully inform you of my condition should I ever again find myself on the receiving end of a bullet.”

The inventor peeked up at him at last, bloodshot eyes wide and focusing immediately on the vibrant discoloration above Loki’s heart. “Tommy, this is serious.”

Loki sighed and allowed his head to fall back on the mirror behind him. His ribs ached with the effort of remaining upright for so long. “What would you have me say? You evidently want me to be angry with you, but I am not. You appear to think that I should blame you, but I do not. I fail to see the purpose of feigning resentment toward you.”

The inventor’s fingers flexed upon his skin. “How can you say that? They took you because of me, because I couldn’t leave you alone, because I made up an excuse for you to work for me—”

“Oh, I see,” Loki interrupted. “You believe that I would have preferred to translate fictional romances rather than experience one myself.”

“That’s not what I’m saying. You’re twisting my words,” Anthony protested.

Loki fell silent, reminded of the last time he had heard such a phrase, a turning point where he had descended kicking and screaming into madness. He felt as he did while standing within the Allfather’s vault, an unwitting pawn, a powerless passenger, helpless to thwart the climacteric crossroads of change. His body was beginning to tremble, and he no doubt that Anthony could feel it.

“I know why most people date me,” Anthony whispered after a moment. The man pressed his forehead against Loki’s knee, every tense muscle and burdened bone promulgating agony. “They want my money, or access to my tech, or the status that comes with dating Iron Man. But you saw me for me. You wanted Tony—Anthony Stark. I have so loved being your Anthony.”

“You’re using past tense,” Loki managed after a moment.

Despite his best efforts at concealing the misery twisting his innards, he could hear his voice quivering. This was everything that he had feared, but perhaps it was what he deserved for daring to risk his one fleeting moment of happiness for the unattainable possibility of enduring paradise.

Loki could not still his vibrating leg, and he could feel Anthony shaking now, too. When the inventor spoke again, his voice was slow, filling with anguish. “You are so fucking important to me, Tommy. But I…I fight robots and aliens and gods, and I call that a typical Sunday afternoon. I count amongst my friends the most skilled assassins in the world, an enhanced war hero, and an invulnerable rage monster.”

He hugged Loki’s leg so tightly against his chest that the god could feel the edges of the arc reactor pressing against his flesh. “Dating you is the most selfish thing that I’ve ever done. Don’t get me wrong. You know that I think that you’re amazing. You’re the most amazingly awesome person I have ever met.” He sucked a breath, pressed his nose against Loki’s kneecap. “But you’re only human, Tommy,” the engineer whispered. “I can’t guarantee your safety if you stay with me, and I won’t blame you if you want to leave.”

Loki stared down at the crown of his bowed head for a long moment. From this perspective, he was able to discern a wisp or two of graying hair at the man’s temples. He could hear the inventor’s breath rattling through his lungs, could feel each inhale ghost across his skin. A pervasive sense of numbness was beginning to spread from the tips of Loki’s fingers. The prophecies were true. No matter what he chose, his destiny would always be to bring ruin.

He began to laugh. His ribs burned, and he clutched at them with his working hand, but he could not stop.

“Tommy?”

Loki was cackling now. He could feel tears gathering at the corner of his eyes.

“Tommy, hey! Hey, look at me!”

Anthony’s hands were framing his face, thumbs pressing against his lips as though to stem the admittedly hysterical litany of madness. With some effort, Loki shut his mouth even as his shattered chest continued to quake with mirth.

“What the fuck, Tommy! What was that?”

Loki swiped his arm across his eyes, frustrated with the wet trails that were gathering along his jaw. “My apologies, Anthony. It’s only that I hadn’t realized that I had erred so thoroughly.”

Anthony’s fingers were gliding along his cheekbones, smearing salty moisture along his skin. “Huh?” came the eloquent response.

“I have invested an inordinate amount of effort in abiding by mortal limitations since I met you,” Loki explained patiently. He was smiling. It felt wide, too wide. And somehow, it was broadening further. “I thought that concealing myself was the only way that I could keep you. If I had possessed the slightest inkling that you preferred something other, perhaps I could have saved myself a great deal of pain.”

Anthony’s face was close now, mere inches away. Deepening furrows were creasing the corners of his lips and eyes. “Baby, I’m going to need you to walk me through this one, okay?” He tugged Loki forward until their breaths began to mingle together. “Pretend that I’m ten, and explain everything to me as simply as possible.”

Loki straightened his curved, aching spine in response. All facets of mirth were draining away, leaving only weary anguish in their place. He disentangled his fingers from their flirtation with Anthony’s clammy skin, extracted his screeching seiðr until it was sealed within the reservoir at his core, subdued the tremulous baring of his teeth.

“It’s already over, isn’t it?” he whispered. Unfortunately, his efforts at quelling his ersatz revelry had swung the pendulum from jocular to somber. “Right now, you don’t want me because you think that I’m a fragile little mortal. But once you know what I truly am, you won’t want me either. You’ll hate me or you’ll fear me, just like everyone else.”

Anthony’s lips pressed so tightly together that they matched the chalky pallor of his skin. “Okay, sweetheart, pretend that I’m five now, and use really small words. I’m still not following.”

Loki blew out an exasperated breath that sent a damp curl tumbling into his eyes. “I am a monster.”

The inventor scoffed audibly. He groped within the confines of Loki’s towel and extracted the god’s slack fingers. “Tommy, you know that I can’t stand hearing you talk about yourself like…like you’re some kind of creature.”

“A monster,” Loki corrected indolently.

The inventor pressed his dry lips against Loki’s pendulous knuckles. “Fine. A monster, then. You know that’s your family talking.”

Loki closed his eyes. He could not bear to watch the fiery wrath that was burning so fervently in Anthony’s eyes flare out once the man realized that he was defending a thing. “No, Anthony,” Loki murmured. “Quite literally, I am a monster.”

“Tommy, come on now—” Anthony began to protest again.

“I suppose that I cannot blame you for not believing me,” Loki mused aloud. “I have always been told that I am an excellent liar.”

Anthony tugged on his hand, tried to compel him into curling his body against the inventor’s own. “I didn’t mean what I said, okay? Why don’t we talk about this more when we’re both feeling better?”

The man’s voice was gaining a desperate edge that matched the inner deluge of despondency roiling within Loki’s gut. Perhaps Anthony could also sense the hypothetical line in the sand that they were toeing, the crossroads that they had no choice now but to traverse. Despite the escalating feeling of detachment that was propelling him toward the inevitable, Loki paused for one selfish instant to memorize the feeling of Anthony’s skin brushing against his flesh so frivolously.

Then, he pulled his hand from the inventor’s grasp. “I’ll show you what I am,” he heard himself say. “I ask only that you allow me to leave before you alert S.H.I.E.L.D to my existence. I will not be an experiment again.”

“What are you talking about?” Anthony asked, discernably frantic now. He fumbled for Loki’s hand again, settled for his elbow instead when the god tucked his fingers into a fist against his chest.   

A disconnected part of him wondered at Anthony’s impending initial reaction. While Loki himself had eschewed all opportunities at surveying his true grisly reflection, his glimpses of his own kind those years ago had solidified the veracity of the claim that the Jötunn were inherently grotesque. Likely, the best that he could hope for was revulsion, but he expected terror or violence as well.

“I won’t hurt you,” Loki vowed, strokes of fervency slipping past his outward apathy. “I could never hurt you.”

“I know you won’t,” Anthony replied despite his efforts to pluck at Loki’s arm. “You’re my Tommy, remember?”

Guileless. Anthony’s expression was affectionate and baffled and utterly guileless above all else. Loki indulged himself with one last lingering scan of the man’s features. He wanted to remember what it looked like to love and be loved in return, as fleeting as this experience had been. Anthony loved him—he believed it now. But his knowledge of Midgardian literature meant that he understood that mortals could just as easily fall out of love. He would not begrudge Anthony when he spurned a monster.

He extended his hand between them. There was something about his pale, lissome fingers that evoked a sense of vulnerability despite the surprising steadiness of his palm. Anthony’s brow was wrinkling, an indignant expression beginning to tighten the fine grooves around his eyes. His throat was starting to lurch, a catalogue of protests likely lurking on the end of his tongue.

Loki closed his eyes.

He refused to watch as the sapphire tones began to sweep across his skin, emerging at his fingertips and creeping to his wrist as a sort of malformed glove. He knew that his nails would be sharpening, thickening, blackening. Ridges would begin to form intricate channels in his flesh, the meaning behind which he had never known.

He could feel the temperature plummeting, even as he endeavored to limit the transformation to his hand. Soon, their exhales, intermingling since Anthony was still so very close, would be visible in the air.

He waited.

He waited and waited and waited.

He could hear Anthony breathing, unhurried, markedly even. There were no words, no whispers of clothing, not a single indication of what the man was thinking. He had been prepared for sneering or cursing or screaming. But silence? Anthony was never silent. Despite the sanctuary of his manufactured indifference, Loki’s mind was beginning to splutter with likely and increasingly catastrophic scenarios.

And then…a featherlight touch ghosted across his index finger.

He jerked back instinctively, even as he knew that he was too late.

Loki was not a normal Jötunn. With Vader, it had taken time and concentration to build the temperature of his skin to brumal heights. Despite his apparent limitations, he was also fully aware of the damage that Jötnar skin could inflict. Even if his flesh would not immediately destroy, it could certainly hurt.

And Anthony had touched him.

He stretched his façade back onto his flesh as he floundered for the man’s hand. “Why did you do that?” he hissed as he wrenched the pink, pruned fingers into the light.

“What’s wrong?” Anthony asked. He sounded bewildered.

“My skin freezes, Anthony,” he growled as he turned the man’s fingers this way and that. “You can’t touch me.”

“It didn’t feel that cold,” the engineer protested. His body was draped across Loki’s lap now to accommodate the god’s frenetic inspection of his skin. “It kind of felt like a popsicle, actually.”

Loki gnashed his teeth together. “I would thank you not to compare me to frozen desserts,” he snapped before he could quell the sharp retort.

Anthony smirked up at him, and Loki found himself scrutinizing the expression for the hints of inquietude that he had been anticipating. “Are Smurf jokes out, too?”

“I don’t know what that is.”.

He tucked his hand back within the depths of his towel and focused for a moment on clasping his bad arm against his chest. Pain appeared to be returning tenfold now that the numbness was beginning to ebb away. Beneath the pain, he could recognize the initiation of panic. His heart had never galloped quite so fast, and he could feel a layer of sweat coating the skin that Anthony had so methodically cleansed. A ruddy flush was rising on his ghostly cheeks.

“So, this ‘monster’ thing. You really did mean that literally.” Anthony’s expression was still undeniably ingenuous, and Loki could not understand. “I guess this explains why that one guy was frozen to the floor when I found you.”

Loki’s stomach seized. “He deserved it,” the god managed despite the feeling of his throat closing over.

“Of that I have no doubt,” the inventor assured him too quickly. “I’m guessing that was Vader?”

His fingers were beginning to shake beneath his towel. “He was a monster in mortal skin,” Loki whispered. “He deserved a slower death than I gave him.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, sweetheart.” The inventor shifted to his rear with a groan and crossed his creaking legs. He had settled directly on the smudged collection of runes that Loki had traced onto the tiles. “Actually, I gotta be honest. I was really hoping that I would be that one to fuck that bastard up, but I bet he shit himself when he figured out who he was messing with. Am I right?”

Loki bowed his head. Despite his efforts to hide it, he knew that his struggle with breathing was becoming more apparent. “I don’t understand,” he admitted in a reprehensive croak.

“Don’t understand what?” Anthony was tugging at his feet now, guiding them into his lap. The touch of his fingers against Loki’s skin felt as tender as ever.

And Loki still could not understand.

“I am a monster. I showed you exactly what that means.” He tucked his chin into his collarbones and wrenched his eyes shut. “Why are you acting as though everything is the same?”

“Well, if you really want to be literal, you showed me your blueberry hand for about twenty seconds.”

The joke fell flat on Loki’s ears. He could feel his back bending inward, a grimace contorting his face despite his efforts at expressionlessness. Anthony rushed to continue, a serious edge overtaking his formerly droll voice.

“Tommy, you turn blue. That doesn’t make you a monster.”

The barest semblance of irritation was beginning to skirt past Loki’s panic. “Oh, and I suppose that you’re some sort of expert on the subject?” he snapped.

“Well, my best friend does have a green alter ego with major anger issues. Compared to the rest of the world, I think I’m pretty decently qualified, actually.”

Anthony was smiling at him so confidently, as though his innate glibness could cure a lifetime of self-loathing. His reaction was nothing that Loki could understand, but then, he knew little about the mortal conundrum of shock. Perhaps this inexplicable facetiousness was a coping mechanism that preceded rage or fright.

“It’s actually kind of awesome,” Anthony continued as he traced the soles of Loki’s feet. “I bet those HYDRA fuckers weren’t ready for the Arctic Tommy Offensive.”

Anthony was actually starting to giggle, and his eyes were still so soft as he stared up at Loki’s face, and he was beginning to press his thumbs into the god’s heel in search of pressure points. Loki wasn’t certain whether he was blinking any more as he stared.  

“So, I have all of the questions, but what would make you most comfortable first? Clothes, obviously, but would turning the thermostat down help, too? I’m a warm-blooded kind of guy anyway, so—”

“Why aren’t you angry?” Loki interrupted.

Anthony paused. The perplexed expression on his face did not appear feigned. “Why would I be angry?”

Loki wanted to stand so that he could pace the cramped confines of this room that had been so precisely decorated with his preferences in mind. He wanted to rage to the heavens over having to hide so many secrets in the first place. He wanted to drop to his knees and plead for Anthony not to leave him.

He settled for speaking blunt fact.

“Because I am a monster, Anthony,” he said slowly, ensuring that he enunciated each world clearly so that there could be no misunderstandings. “I am literally the monster that parents tell their children about at night. If my father’s people had known the truth about what I am, they would have slain me on sight.”

Anthony’s fingers tightened around his ankles. “Tommy, you turn blue. You’re enhanced. That makes you different, sure, but it doesn’t mean you’re a monster.”

“It does mean that,” Loki said without inflection. His eyes found the wet footprints that Anthony had left leading from the bathtub. “It means exactly that.”

“That’s bullshit,” Anthony growled with sudden ferocity. “You have to know that that’s utter bullshit.”

“I know that I lied to you,” Loki said as his voice began to waver inexplicably. “I have lied to you every second of every day about what I am. I…I tricked you into pursuing me.”

Anthony snorted. His arms circled Loki’s calves, where he clung staunchly. “Yes, you are the ultimate villain, Tommy.” His voice was strangely fond despite the hints of mockery in his tone. “You seduced me by being your amazing self. For shame.”

“Do not satirize me,” Loki whispered.

“Can you blame me? You seem to be expecting me to reach some sort of profound realization that I hate you or that I should be scared of you or…or I don’t know how you think that I should react. But it isn’t going to happen, Tommy. Do you want to know why?”

Loki did not respond; he could not. He thought that he knew what would happen next, but he felt entirely unprepared as Anthony squared his shoulders, tipped his chin, sharpened voice. The man’s eyes, tumultuous and vociferous and utterly sincere, made Loki quake, and he was not ready, but he was starving all the same.

“It’s because I love you, Tommy,” the inventor declared. “And there isn’t a damn thing you can say that will ever change that.”

A different sort of numbness was beginning to overtake Loki’s body. He could feel an efflux of turbulent feeling lurking below the surface, clamoring for impending release, but he knew that Anthony was wrong. There was one last secret that would absolutely change everything.

“You can’t keep a promise like that,” he whispered. “I am an aberration. You cannot fathom the things that I have done—”

“Nope. No takebacks.” The engineer rose until he was at face level, wiggled his way forward until he’d carved out a place between Loki’s knees. “I love you, Thomas Walker. I have been gone on you ever since I spent that weekend holding back your hair while you puked your guts out. And I have loved you from the moment you stepped out of the elevator at my birthday party. Seeing you all Avataresque isn’t going to change shit.”

Anthony paused. Loki wasn’t sure what his face was doing, but it made Anthony’s determined smirk fade into an uncertain grimace.

“You know, I haven’t really done this before, but I’m pretty sure that this is where you say something to me.”

Loki swallowed. His vision was blurring, and he could resist the surge of rapture no longer.

“I was simply marveling at the romantic setting that you have chosen for your pronouncement,” he managed to aim at the indistinct face in front of him. “I cannot imagine a more opportune moment than when your partner is sitting stark naked on a toilet.”

Anthony’s grin returned thrice-fold until he was radiating with that gummy smile that Loki adored. He was so close now that Loki could feel his hot breath on his nose. “Clearly, I have a thing for toilets.”

“The more I learn about you, the more I question the decisions that have led us to this point,” Loki grumbled even as he felt his face split into a helpless answering smile.

Anthony’s face was encompassing his vision now. “No, you don’t,” the man breathed.

“No, I don’t,” Loki allowed.

Mortals were often physical after declarations of love, but Loki’s body still felt as though it belonged to a stranger, and it quailed with learned expectations of abhorrence and imposed exile. He both longed and feared the impending closeness as Anthony leaned in.

“Anything else you want to tell me before I grab you some clothes and tuck you back into bed?” Anthony asked. His lips pressed ever so softly against Loki’s nose before he leaned back to beam at the fallen god hopefully. 

Loki blew out a breath, simultaneously relieved and disappointed. “If you expect me to declare my feelings in a bathroom, Anthony, you are so very wrong. I have translated hundreds of erotic novels, remember? Do you know how many of the protagonists pronounced their eternal love in a bathroom?”

The inventor was glowing now; his grin could pull even the most tenacious resistor into orbit. “Judging purely by the absolute revulsion in your tone, I’m going to guess not many?”

“Perhaps a quarter of them,” Loki corrected grudgingly. “Bathtubs and showers are rather popular locations for this sort of thing.” He mustered a glare that lacked all semblance of acrimony. “None, however, occurred even in proximity to a toilet.”

Anthony pulled him into a gentle embrace that should have tweaked all of his many hurts. Loki simply felt warm. “I guess I’ll just have to tell you everywhere, then,” the man whispered into his ear.

A few minutes later found Loki seated on his bed, swathed once again in an assortment of bandages as Anthony dug through his newly packed closet. Loki couldn’t help but notice that the man was searching very pointedly through the limited number of blue garments amongst the overwhelming collection of green.

“So, you can turn into a much cooler Dr. Manhattan,” Anthony said as he continued his perusal. “And you have the power of Mr. Freeze. Anything else I should know?”

Loki should tell him everything now—about the Void, the looming threat of the Mad Titan, the meaning of the Infinity Stones. Loki should tell him that he was the psychopath who had threatened the world and subsequently united that strongest defensive force in the Nine Realms. He should tell Anthony that he hadn’t desired to invade, that he had never pined for a nonexistent throne. He should explain that he had sabotaged his own efforts at every opportunity.

He should tell him here and now that he was Loki, and that he loved Anthony wholly and irrevocably regardless.  

However, there were as many reasons to wait as to speak. It was one thing to accept Loki’s Jötunn self without context and without witnessing the full extent of his monstrous form. It was understandable that Anthony should continue to love him when it was Thomas writhing from his many hurts, Thomas who had endured so much to return to him. But Loki could not fathom receiving the same acceptance once the extent of his duplicity came to light.

Anthony could not be so forgiving of Loki.

Still, it appeared that Anthony genuinely loved Loki as Thomas, even though he knew that his partner was quite literally a monster. Perhaps it was selfish, but surely, Loki had suffered enough for a few days of good will. He would see if Anthony’s inexplicable regard for him persisted as the spore continued its dormancy. He would wait in case this show of tolerance revealed itself as a justifiable coping mechanism, a veil to conceal inward shock. Meanwhile, Loki would focus on his physical recovery and accumulate enough seiðr to flee far and without a trace when—if, there was the slightest possibility that it could be an if—the worst came to pass.

He would tell Anthony once everything was in place. It would be soon. Just, not yet. Surely, there was no real rush. Surely, he could experience requited love for just a little while.

But there was one last thing that he could still do for Anthony, one lingering misconception that he could break without risking everything. He hoped…no, he dared to believe that Anthony would accept this one final secret without resenting him.

“What really happened while I was gone?” Loki asked.

Anthony froze deep within the confines of the formerly sparse walk-in closet, and Loki wondering if the man would seek to divert him once again. “I maybe went a little crazy without you,” he admitted after enduring a few seconds of Loki’s forthright staring.

Loki remained silent, fidgeted with the blanket that Anthony had provided him, pulled it tighter around his shoulders as he flexed his bare toes against the heated flooring. After a moment, the inventor continued.

“I had…well, I called them visions. Bruce said they were ‘hallucinations.’” Anthony sighed, and his shoulders slumped. “I saw you all the time,” he whispered tremulously. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I knew that it wasn’t real, but it felt real. I hated seeing you like that.”

Loki studied his feet. All semblance of color had disappeared in favor of the milky white that his Æsir form had favored. He felt no desire to change it back.

“What are your thoughts on black metal music?” he asked, feigning nonchalance despite the rickety pounding of his heart.

A poignant second of silence, and then Anthony whirled, a loose tank top, sky blue in color, clutched in his hands. “What?”

“Black metal music,” Loki repeated. “Personally, I am of the opinion that you should employ that virus that you were coding and destroy every album ever recorded.”

Anthony stared at him wordlessly for an instant, throat bobbing, mouth slack. Even from across the room, Loki could discern the whites of his knuckles knotting the fabric in his hands. The engineer was before him in the next second, gazing at his face with perfervid, bloodshot eyes.

“Tommy,” Anthony said, voice hushed, almost imperceptible even in the relative silence. “I’m going to ask you something, and I need you to answer me seriously, okay?”

“That seems like somewhat of a double standard considering your reaction to my heritage,” Loki muttered.

Tommy,” Anthony warned, but his lips were twitching despite the grave expression on his face, just as Loki had intended.

Loki cocked his eyebrow, hoped that he appeared confident rather than strained.

“Tell me how you know that I was hearing that,” Anthony requested softly, even as the tone of his voice edged toward desperate.

The god licked at his peeling lips and steeled himself. “Because it’s what I could hear,” he said, and somehow, he managed to sound nonplussed. “You told me that you were seeing me when we were in our dreamscape, remember?”

The mattress dipped slightly as Anthony sank down beside him. His twisting hands were creating wrinkles in the freshly laundered clothing. “I think you missed a few steps in your explanation, sweetheart,” the engineer said after a moment.

Loki sighed. He could feel his body shivering in spite of the blanket around his shoulders, and he was tired of it. “On the rare occasions where they allowed me to sleep, I would see you. You would find me here, in the penthouse.” Loki bowed his head, focused on the fidgeting of his hand beneath the folds of the blanket. “You gave me hope,” he admitted.

He felt Anthony’s elbow brush against his arm and then the slide of a sturdy hand against his back. “That was real?” Anthony asked. His voice had taken on an unrecognizable edge. “You were there with me?”

Loki’s fought against his body’s instinctive rigidity and forced himself to meet Anthony’s eyes. They were as guileless as ever. “I admit that I was not entirely cognizant during those periods, but I recall being here with you.”

“And you helped me figure out where you were,” Anthony said. Loki thought that he sounded…awed. “Tommy, you clever little shit, you helped me find you.”

Loki despised how familiar he was becoming with bafflement at Anthony’s reactions. “You’re not angry with me?”

“That’s my fucking line, asshole.” Anthony was laughing now, riotously, exuberantly, as though he would never stop. Somehow, he managed to tuck Loki’s head beneath his chin despite their height difference. “And no, I’m relieved, Tommy. You knew that I was coming for you. You knew that you weren’t alone.” Anthony’s laughter subsided as he hugged Loki’s tense frame close. “I just wish I’d have known, too. I could have found you so much faster if I’d known that I wasn’t taking a crash course in Crazy 101.”

Loki allowed his rigid spine to slacken. He could hear no recrimination in the man’s tone, only genuine regret. “It was an involuntary reaction to my confinement,” the god allowed himself to concede. “I couldn’t control it in the state that I was in, but I can assure you that I will prevent it from happening again.”

“Wait, why? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could talk to each other like that?” Anthony’s fingers found his damp hair and tucked a curling lock behind his ear. “Honestly, if we could harness it properly, I think it could be kind of cool. We could talk shit about Barton when he’s in the same room, and if I…lost you again, I’d know exactly how to find you.”

“I don’t like having anyone in my head,” he admitted. He could probably categorize his voice as a croak if he were feeling generous.

Anthony’s breath audibly caught in his throat. “This isn’t the first time this has happened to you, is it?”

Loki allowed his forehead to drop onto Anthony’s macilent shoulder. “No.”

“Someone messed with your head to hurt you, didn’t they, Tommy?” His tone was inscrutable, but his palm, shifting to frame the back of his neck, was ineffably delicate.

“I just need to be certain that my thoughts are my own,” Loki said evasively. His hand slipped out of the blanket to stretch across the grooved surface of the reactor. It whirred and hummed and pulsed beneath his fingertips, and he knew indubitably that he was safe.

“Sure, I get that.” Anthony’s hand flexed, nails scraping soothingly across his scalp. “Incidentally, I’m kind of in the mood for a murder spree. Want to be my Clyde?”

Loki barked out a startled laugh, although he only understood half of the man’s words. “What? No, Anthony. I am we—fine. I am fine. No one knows where I am. Homicidal urges are entirely unnecessary.”

“Yeah, okay.” The inventor’s face creased with an actual pout. “Tangential question. Absolutely no connection with what I just asked you. But is ‘Walker’ actually your last name?”

Loki had not the energy even to tense at this point. He simply allowed more of his weight to settle against his partner’s chest. “Why?”

“Oh, no reason.” Anthony’s fingers were stroking through his hair once again, likely to incentivize his complacency. Loki found that he did not mind the transparent effort at maneuvering. It felt too nice. “I just can’t find any mob bosses with that last name. Blah, blah, blah.” Chapped lips brushed against his temple. “So, is it?”

“My fath—my adopted father never attempted to corrupt my mind, Anthony. He does not deserve your ire, not for this, at least.” He turned his face into Anthony’s throat in the hopes that the man’s skin might muffle his words. “And no, my given surname is not ‘Walker.’”

Anthony was quiet for a moment, but he could hear the man’s pulse drumming beneath his ear steadily. He could not muster even an ounce of concern.

“What about ‘Thomas’?” the inventor asked eventually. “Is that really your first name?”

“Thomas was not the name that I was born with,” Loki sighed. Somewhere, he managed to summon a modicum of ferocity. “But Thomas is mine. I chose it. I want to keep it.”

Another bout of silence, during which his partner began to worry at the edges of his blanket. “Is that what I should call you?” Anthony asked at last. “I know you correct me sometimes, and I haven’t taken it seriously—”

“I like being your Tommy,” Loki interrupted before the man could convince himself that he had committed some reprehensible atrocity.

He could feel the flash of Anthony’s teeth against his scalp as the man smiled. “Well, good. I’m pretty partial to ‘Tommy’ myself.”

At long last, Loki allowed his body to sag. Another devasting sequence of truths shared and accepted without conditions. Whenever he thought that his heart had expanded to its very limits, he found that it could soar to new heights.

Anthony’s fingers were still plucking at his blanket. “Not to be awkward, but we just had, like, three completely adult conversations while you were totally naked, and I didn’t peek once.”

Loki felt his lips jerk upwards against Anthony’s throat. “Really? Not even once?”

No! I swear, Tommy, I didn’t…oh my god, you are such an asshole.”

Loki had begun to laugh in the midst of what would likely have been a rambling, incoherent, apology. But he found that once he had started, he could not stop. He felt raw, like a nerve left exposed. He suspected that he had experienced every cogitable emotion in existence, and exhaustion was all that was left.

“Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up,” Anthony grumbled as he helped Loki shrug the blanket from his shoulders. The tank top that he pulled over the god’s head was so oversized that it hung off his shoulder.

Loki’s laughter died at the sight of the Iron Man shorts that emerged next. “Is there nothing else that I can wear?” he sniffed.

“Nope, this is absolutely all you have,” Anthony declared with a toothy grin as he assisted Loki in pulling the clothing over his encapsulated leg. “Just so you know, I plan to order five more exactly like it because you’re being an actual shit right now.”

“Forgive me for my lack of enthusiasm. It’s merely that I would find Captain America clothing more agreeable—”

Anthony smothered his mouth with a sticky palm. “I think it’s pretty obvious that you’re slipping into delirium at this point. We should get you back to bed.”

JARVIS cleared his artificial throat with tactful daintiness, but they both flinched anyway. Anthony’s presence very much reminded him of the Allfather at times. Not because the man’s personality was similar to Odin’s in any way but because he managed to rivet Loki’s attention absolutely. Even now, when Loki was fully aware that JARVIS was observing from the nightstand, he could hardly tear his eyes away from Anthony’s unburdened face.

“Sir, you might recall that Mr. Walker’s surprise is waiting outside the door.”

Anthony’s hands fluttered against Loki’s ears but in no way prevented him from hearing a hissed, “JARVIS!”

“My apologies, Sir. Mr. Walker’s S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E is outside the door,” the A.I. said dryly, spelling out the word this time. “Would you like me to send it in?”

And then the rollicking little one-armed robot that had sporadically played matchmaker was towing in a cart that was absolutely overflowing with steaming food. Loki’s stomach gurgled, and Anthony was sputtering, and Dum-E was laboring to pull the cart through the door without spilling the collection of various soups on the shelves.

Once Dum-E had traversed the threshold with only a moderate amount of spillage, the robot approached the bed with a pink drink held precariously in his claw. His unwieldly frame bounced off the mattress before he could roll close enough, spattering a few drops of his offering on the floor.

“I think you’re supposed to try the smoothie first,” Anthony explained when Loki simply stared.

“Mr. Walker,” JARVIS interjected again, “I supervised Dum-E. While he used hazardous ingredients for his first few attempts, I am confident that his latest effort is edible. It could also possibly taste appetizing. He is eager for you to try it.”

“I…” Loki’s voice would not respond with anything other than a croak, and his vision was blurry again, and there was a wetness on his cheeks that was becoming all too common. “Anthony,” he whispered helplessly.

“I know,” Anthony said as he squeezed past the robot and framed Loki’s damp cheeks with his unfaltering fingers. “It’s a lot. We’re a lot. But we—JARVIS, Dum-E, and I—we love you, Tommy. We are so glad that you’re home.”

Loki could not speak. He reached wordlessly for the smoothie and took a reckless sip. It was chunkier than he had anticipated, but the robot’s excited whirring made him smile. Nothing could wipe the expression away, not even when Dum-E neglected to secure the top of his blender before endeavoring to mix him a second drink. Luckily, Anthony blocked the majority of the backlash with his own body.

This, Loki realized as he watched Anthony scold the drooping robot and listened to JARVIS provide instructions on how to wash smoothie residue out of the comforter, truly did feel like home.

Chapter Text

“Why are my only choices these particular films, Anthony?” Loki asked from his position reclining on the couch.

It was the following morning, and Loki had managed to convince Anthony that he felt recovered enough to leave his room. It was only a partial untruth. The inventor had insisted on changing his bandages and engaging in some relatively basic wound care before he had agreed to help him to the living room. Loki’s body was aching in the aftermath, and the pain-relieving pills that Anthony had coaxed him into swallowing had only the paltriest of effects. Normally, the influx of agony and vulnerability might have left Loki in a foul mood.

But Anthony loved him.

Apparently, that fact equated to Loki smiling unendingly at nothing. Anthony kept peeking at his cheeks and beaming in what he likely thought was a clandestine manner. Loki suspected that Thomas’ supposed dimples were showing.

“Because they’re on theme, sweetheart,” Anthony answered from kitchen, where he was watching a tutorial on how to make chicken noodle soup from scratch, courtesy of JARVIS.

Loki took a closer look at the covers of the five movies from which he was supposed to choose. “Does the theme involve blue monsters, Anthony?” Loki asked dryly.

“Nope. The theme is that blue people are awesome.” He turned his back to Loki as he dug through the well-stocked pantry. “Which one do you want to watch first?”

Loki flipped over the case on the top. “This one is literally called Monsters, Inc., Anthony.”

“And it’ll make you cry, Tommy. I promise you that.”

Loki rolled his eyes at the enormous Iron Man helmet on Anthony’s ass—the man had decided to wear the exact same shorts as the god, supposedly as a sign of solidarity. Loki suspected that the inventor was primarily entertained by just how formfitting this particular article of clothing appeared to be on them both. Privately, Loki found that he was enjoying the view of Anthony’s legs—usually the engineer’s garments covered the bulk of his skin.

“Aladdin?” Loki continued as he picked through the remaining movies. “Is this about a magic, blue genie?”

“Hey, Genie is awesome, okay? He’s a smart ass just like you, and he’s got literal magic powers. You’d like that one.”

Loki scoffed wordlessly. “And Frozen? There appear to be no blue creatures on its case.”

Anthony paused, arms laden with an array of raw vegetables. “You know, on second thought, we should probably save that one for later. It might be a little too on the nose for now.”

Loki had opened his mouth to probe—he knew that “on the nose” was a Midgardian saying rather than a statement to take literally, and he was grudgingly curious about what was so felicitous about the film. JARVIS interjected before he could inquire further.

“Sirs, Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff are requesting admittance to this floor. They are adamant that they must speak with you immediately.”

Anthony dumped his armload of vegetables on the counter and began to rifle through the drawers, presumably in search of a knife.

“Tell them that we’re not taking visitors right now, JARVIS.”

It quickly became apparent that Anthony’s efforts at hunting for a suitable blade would end unfruitfully. The man was allowing only a second or two for a cursory check of the contents of each drawer before slamming them shut with exaggerated force. Even from this distance, Loki could discern the rising tension in his partner’s shoulders.

Loki was affected, too. Despite his best efforts, Loki’s body flinched in time to every jarring crash, hypersensitive even to benign clamors after his extended experience with cacophonous noise. He gripped a handful of the layers of blankets that Anthony had swaddled him within and endeavored to conceal the worst of his perturbation behind genuine concern.

“Anthony?” Loki ventured. “You seem troubled.”

“I’m fine, babe.” Anthony ducked his head, but not before Loki caught the inventor’s jaw flexing excessively in tandem with his words. “It’s just that Romanoff and Steve were pretty adamant about having me committed while you were gone. I still don’t know why Pepper didn’t listen to them.”

“HYDRA likely had a hand in their efforts,” Loki pointed out tentatively. An all too recognizable feeling was beginning to well in his stomach, displacing the idyllic rapture that had sojourned there.

“Yeah, I know that now.” Anthony braced himself against the counter. “But things got pretty dicey for a while. I was seeing you all the time and hearing that goddamn music everywhere. Whenever we were in our—what did you call it? Our dreamscape? Whenever I saw you there, I would literally just pass out in midsentence in real life.”

The familiar feeling in his gut unfurled into definitive guilt. “I am sorry, Anthony.”

“What? Oh, hey, I’m not sorry. I’m glad that you were able to reach me.” Anthony strode to the couch too swiftly, prompting Loki recoil into the veritable army of pillows behind him. The man slowed noticeably as he neared. “Yeah, them treating me with kid gloves is gonna suck, but I’m a big boy. I can handle it.”

Compared to yesterday, Anthony appeared incrementally healthier in the morning light. He had acquiesced to taking an actual shower upon awakening that had discernably rejuvenated him. The dark circles under his eyes had lightened, and the lines that had furrowed his face had perceptibly smoothed. No longer were his eyes bloodshot, and the tremors that had occasionally pervaded his limbs had eased.

Physically, Anthony looked stronger, but Loki could detect hints of the tribulations that the man had suffered when he hesitated to smile or rushed to soothe. The distress in the engineer’s voice at the thought of his friends believing him unstable was something that Loki could fix.

“You can tell them,” Loki whispered after a moment.

Anthony smiled down at him quizzically. “Tell them what?”

Loki could feel his throat swelling up and swallowed past it. “You can tell your friends,” he said, enunciating carefully. “About me. About what I am.” Thankfully, the blankets hid the pusillanimous quivering of his limbs. “I don’t mind.”

Anthony was quiet for a long moment during which Loki inwardly cowered and railed, but he did not regret his overture. There were few limits on what he would forfeit when it came to Anthony Stark.

“Tommy,” his partner said after a moment, “I love you, but you are the worst liar.”

Loki blinked.

He blinked again.

“I am an excellent liar,” he retorted after a moment, indignant despite the involuntary fluttering of his heart.

“No, sweetheart, you have the most obvious tell.” Anthony pressed his lips chastely against the center of Loki’s forehead. “I appreciate you offering, but there’s no way I’m telling anyone about you. You have my word on that.”

A frown began to downturn Loki’s mouth. “It’s my fault that your allies believe you unbalanced. My secrets are not worth that.”

Anthony stared down at him. “Remember when I said that if I ever met your family they’d be leaving in coffins? Well, scratch that because there won’t be enough of them left to warrant even a single coffin.”

A frustrated huff leaked past Loki’s lips. “My adopted family has no influence on what I am proposing.”

The engineer snorted obnoxiously. “Oh yeah? You don’t think that a secret that obviously terrified you to share with me is worth keeping?”

“I think that I would give a great deal to make you happy.” Loki had meant to match the derisiveness in his partner’s voice, but somehow, his tone came out revoltingly plaintive.

All touches of sardonicism seeped from Anthony’s face as Loki’s favorite gummy smile began to materialize. “Aww, Tommy,” came the awed response.

Loki Silvertongue, famed wordsmith of the Nine Realms, knew exactly what he should say next. Three little words would brighten the inventor’s expression until it potentially surpassed his preferred smile in luminance. Three deceptively simple words that were entirely true would erase every trace of distress from his partner’s visage for at least a little while.

Surely, it should not be so difficult to express out loud the eternal fullness within his heart. Anthony had already articulated the same phrase six times since their awakening a mere hour before. It had seemed to come to the man more naturally with each pronouncement. Loki wanted the engineer to experience the same helpless jubilance that he felt every time Anthony fulfilled his promise to convey his devotion often and in every space.

Loki had resolved to speak, had even opened his mouth in the hopes that more than empty air would escape, when JARVIS interjected once more. “Sirs, my apologies, but Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff are insistent that they must speak with you immediately. They have threatened to involve Ms. Potts if they are not granted an audience.”

Anthony groaned, blessedly unaware that Loki had been on the cusp of making such a profound declaration. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to the corner of Loki’s mouth. “Feeling up to company, babe?”

“Not particularly,” Loki groused, simultaneously relieved and disappointed by the interruption.  

“Yeah, me neither.” The inventor straightened with a weary sigh. “Fine, JARVIS. Let them up, but I reserve the right to mix bleach in Romanoff’s shampoo if I suspect her of even looking at Tommy funny.”

Despite his derisory words, the tension was returning to Anthony’s body, starting with the stiff setting of his shoulders around his ears. Loki pondered a way to distract the man from his assiduous study of the elevator.

“Anthony, what is my tell?”

His partner’s eyelashes fluttered. “Huh?”

“My tell,” Loki repeated. “You claim to know when I am lying.”

A single corner of the man’s mouth lilted upward. “It’s obvious once you know what to look for,” he said, “and I am most definitely not sharing.”

Loki arranged his features into a pout. “That seems rather uncharitable. What if one of my enemies takes advantage of my imposed ignorance?”

Anthony crossed his arms in front of his chest and cocked a challenging eyebrow in Loki’s direction. “Nope, I’m not saying. I am an impenetrable fortress, Tommy.”

Anthony had turned bodily to banter with him, and Loki could not deny the resulting rush of exultation. He had succeeded. Anthony appeared suitably diverted, and it was because of Loki being, well, Loki.

“I can imagine several scenarios where we might test that theory,” the god said with a lascivious—and only half-feigned—leer.

Anthony gaped and flushed and gaped some more, and Loki preened inwardly.

That, of course, was when the elevator dinged to announce that their company had arrived.

“Hey, Tony,” came the affable voice of one Steven Rogers. “You’re looking better.” Their visitors would only be able to see the back of the couch and Anthony beyond it from the elevator. For the moment, they were unaware of Loki’s presence.

“What? Oh, yeah, I feel peachy keen, Cap.”

In spite of his earlier trepidation, Anthony continued to stare down at Loki, absolutely wide-eyed. The god felt a very Loki-like smirk begin to curl upon his lips.

“How’s Thomas doing?”

Loki had yet to hear any footsteps, signifying that Steven and the Widow were lingering in the threshold.

“He’s fine,” the inventor managed in a voice pitched a fraction too high. “Definitely fine and absolutely an actual asshole.”

Loki laughed silently, even though it made his ribs throb. He hadn’t realized that Anthony was so susceptible to his wiles.

“That’s good?” Steven ventured. Judging by the distinctively disapproving edge in his tone, something had sparked his ire. “Is he feeling up to visitors? I’d like to see him.”

Anthony turned to Loki, still hidden by the oversized couch cushions, and the god could only sigh. The prospect of entertaining anyone other than Anthony and his spawn sounded completely unappealing.

“I can receive visitors, Steven,” Loki allowed reluctantly.

The heavy tread of durable boots squeaked across the hardwood floors almost immediately, and Loki hadn’t anticipated his body’s innate reaction. His every muscle tensed; his seiðr surged; his spine curved; his heart lurched. The blatant concern on Steven’s face and the immediate gentling of his footsteps as he rounded the couch barely registered, not when his build so favored Vader.

“Hey there, Thomas,” Steven said.

His already soft voice was markedly quiet, as though Loki was some sort of fragile creature. He lowered his center of gravity by hunching his shoulders and bowing his head as he approached the god’s side. Once he neared, he rested his hand very carefully on the arm rest, well away from any possibility of skin contact.

“We just got done visiting Bruce. He thought that you were still asleep,” the soldier continued.

“Is that so?” Loki hummed. JARVIS was still covering for him, then. Perhaps he would leave the newly installed surveillance device in his room on for a few hours tonight.

“I don’t think he was expecting you to be out of bed for a few more days,” Steven explained, and for some reason, he directed a reproving glance at Anthony.

A fluid movement at the Captain’s elbow announced the presence of the Widow, percipient eyes alight with dubiety. Loki’s seiðr balked even more pertinaciously at the visible confirmation of her presence.

“I am feeling much improved,” he managed through gritted teeth as he forcibly refocused on his friend. “You, however, appear rather battered, Steven.” The soldier’s face was coated in flaking scabs and yellowing bruises.

Steven’s lips twitched with humor that did not reach his lugubrious eyes. “I ran into an old friend up in D.C. We had a difference in opinion.”

The man’s solemn bearing was only amplifying, and Loki suspected that he could identify the source of his melancholy. In a different setting with a smaller audience, he might have probed, but the Widow was uncharacteristically flaunting her interest. It made him wary of revealing his genuine predilection for the Captain.

Fortunately, Anthony continued to demonstrate his uncanny ability to interpret Loki’s every shrouded tick and furtive expression. “JARVIS seemed to think that you had a specific purpose in stopping by,” his partner interjected. “Please feel free to take offence when I say that I’m not at all keen on sharing my boyfriend with S.H.I.E.L.D agents at present.”

Steven’s jaw clenched. “S.H.I.E.L.D is dead, Tony.”

“Really? Because I’m pretty sure that one of their snakes is standing right behind you.”

The Widow’s expression snapped into inscrutability. “I had no idea that HYDRA had access to my reports, Tony. Hurting Thomas was never my intention. I was just doing my job.”

“Yeah, well, your intentions don’t actually change shit. They knew about him because of you. They took him from me because you told them—”

Anthony,” Loki hissed.

He loathed the Widow beyond all other Midgardians, but her impassive expression was so clearly a façade. The flatness of her pale eyes belied the twitching of her fingers and the increasing rigidity of her stance. She cared about Tony’s opinion of her. She cared a lot. And Loki could identify.

Anthony’s nostrils were flaring as he slipped more squarely in between Loki and their guests, but he ceased his diatribe. “What do you want?”

“We want to brief you on several emerging threats,” the Widow said, still managing to appear largely unaffected despite the minute tightening of her jaw. “We also need to debrief you regarding the circumstances of Thomas’ rescue.”

The inventor’s distress was comparatively obvious. His nails were digging into his palms, and his fists were noticeably trembling. “Has the government decided to return my missiles?”

“You know that there hasn’t been any word on that, Tony,” Romanoff said, a hint of aggravation filtering into her tone.

“Then we don’t really have anything to discuss, do we? I already told your bosses, but I’ll tell you, too. I’m not doing any more Avengers missions until they deliver my property to me.”

The Widow brandished a stack of files. “I think you’ll be interested in what we have to say.”

The tendons were protruding on Anthony’s neck as he very plainly broadcast his intention to malign the Widow once more. Loki could understand his instinct to lambast her. Consumed by misplaced guilt directed at himself, displacing some of the blame on someone else might momentarily ease Anthony’s own sense of culpability.

Still, Loki could not tolerate his partner’s continued estrangement from his allies. Years ago, during the Invasion, he had been compelled to orchestrate various schisms in the fledgling Avengers, divisions that had nearly allowed the Chitauri to succeed. Together, the Avengers were one of the mightiest fighting forces that Loki had ever seen. Apart, they were vulnerable. Loki could not allow Anthony to be at odds with them.

He reached with his good arm to run his fingertips along the engineer’s whitened knuckles. “Anthony,” he murmured.  

The inventor turned toward him, eyes wild, expression quickly morphing from enraged to frantic. Steven and the Widow were staring, and every iota of self-preservation that Loki possessed directed him to conceal his perversion. Physical affection with his preferred partners was dangerous behind closed doors, let alone in a public forum.

But Anthony needed him.

“Come sit with me,” Loki coaxed, tugging insistently on the inventor’s wrist. “I’m cold.”

“Tommy,” his partner protested halfheartedly even as he allowed Loki to compel him ever closer.

“I’m cold, Anthony,” Loki repeated. He could feel the Widow scrutinizing him, and his body sought to cower, but he tightened his grip doggedly.

What little resistance Anthony had exerted began to diminish. The man’s knees converged on the edge of the couch, and Loki continued to yank until his partner acquiesced to maneuvering the god’s torso into his lap.

“You are a manipulative little shit,” Anthony whispered into his ear.

“I’m cold, Anthony,” Loki retorted, determinedly ignoring the engineer’s successive snort.

Anthony focused on folding the layers of blankets more securely around Loki’s body. “You have thirty minutes,” he informed Romanoff. “JARVIS, start a timer.”

Steven settled into one of the armchairs across the coffee table without prompting, but the Widow dithered. On the surface, she was wearing one of her patented, enigmatic expressions, but her eyes lingered on Anthony’s thumb smoothing across Loki’s skin.

“Tony, this is classified information,” she said. There was a grave quality to her outwardly wooden tone that drew Loki’s attention. “Thomas is a civilian—”

“Tommy stays,” Anthony insisted. “He’s my partner. I’d tell him everything anyway.”

Loki shivered before he could quell it, and he knew that the Widow saw. He was proud to have Anthony, but after a lifetime of stolen affection and virulent betrayals, so blatantly proclaiming his deviancy could only evoke dread. Still, Anthony would not understand his reaction, would likely perceive any reluctance as rejection. He ground his molars together and endeavored to expunge every hint of trepidation from his face.

“Fine,” she said after another moment of abstruse observation. “We’ve collected information on confirmed and suspected members of HYDRA who remain at large. Maybe you’ll recognize someone.”

The Widow spread her various files across the coffee table, but she appeared to be speaking primarily to Loki despite her initial objections to his presence. She was trying to convey something to him, but he could not fathom what.

“We suspect that the entire STRIKE team was dirty,” Steven added as the Widow flipped open one of the folders. “Rumlow is in the hospital, and the rest have been confirmed dead. The only one we can’t track is Rollins. He disappeared before everything went down in D.C. We think that he might have some information that we need.”

Loki recognized him in an instant—the pale, piercing eyes, the hefty build, the slicked hair. He felt his fingers gnarl into claws within the depths of his blanket, and the negligible weight around his shoulders began to feel suffocating. There was a hand stroking through his hair and another securing his waist. He was vaguely aware of air catching within his throat and a layer of sweat washing across his skin.

“I know him,” Loki heard himself say.

He could see Steven straightening out of the corner of his eye, and he felt Anthony’s grip on his body constrict. The Widow’s nonreaction was most telling. Granted, impassivity was one of her specialties, but he was certain that she was unsurprised by his divulgence.

“Vader?” Anthony asked quietly enough that only Loki could hear.

Loki inclined his head as he did not trust himself to speak. His body was beginning to shake surreptitiously beyond his control. Somehow, Anthony recognized the signs of his distress despite Loki’s best efforts at concealing his reactions. He hefted Loki’s frame up instantly, pressed Loki’s ear against his arc reactor. His arms wrapped around Loki’s abdomen, delicate but tenacious, keeping him tethered both physically and cognitively.

“He’s dead,” Anthony announced, tone decidedly brusque. “Show us the rest.”

Loki drifted. Their placid voices faded into the background of his awareness, and the muted humming of the arc reactor beneath Anthony’s shirt sharpened into focus. He could barely abide when Anthony privately witnessed him break, and this was worse, so much worse—the Widow could see. Even so, his body was dwelling on the edge of disconnection, and he was grateful for his anchor.

Soft piano chords began to play from the speakers, and Anthony’s thumb was tracing the length of his shoulder blade. The scent of hazelnut pervaded his scenes, and although Loki wasn’t attending to the meaning of the words, the rumbling of the inventor’s chest as he spoke constituted a sort of lullaby in itself.

Time passed, and Loki continued to meander, not quite disengaged but not exactly concentrating on their conversation either.

Until a single word jolted him back into awareness.

The Widow had just spoken his name, his true name.

“Loki’s scepter has gone missing. We think that this man, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, appropriated it, but his current whereabouts are unknown.”

Loki turned his head from its coquetry with the reactor and moved to focus on the files. Anthony’s hand thwarted him immediately, cradling his cheek, compelling his ear back against the man’s chest.

“Tommy,” the inventor said, voice pinched, “Strucker has a monocle.”

“I know,” Loki said carefully. “I want to see.”

Anthony’s fingers slipped to his neck, no longer directing his gaze but assuring him of his continued presence all the same. Loki swiveled around, glimpsed the shaved head and single glass lens of Mr. Peanut’s face, but it was the image of the scepter that stole his attention. Tucked beneath the picture of his former captor, the Mind Stone gleamed portentously. Loki stared, torpefied by the sight of the instrument that had so diligently maintained his enslavement and forced him to subjugate others, in turn. He had hoped never to see it again.

“We think that Strucker is attempting to use the scepter to create enhanced beings,” the Widow was explaining, seemingly directly to him. There was a discernable emotion in her voice, but he could not tear his eyes away from the table to investigate its meaning. “Do you know anything about that, Thomas?”

“He invited me to be one of his test subjects,” Loki responded reluctantly. “He thought that I might survive the procedure.”

Anthony’s arms tightened. His partner’s forehead pressed against his scalp, and his lips grazed Loki’s cheek, but even a still image of the scepter appeared sufficient to enthrall the god. He could not look away.

“Did Strucker mention anything about his base of operations?” the Widow asked. “Intelligence indicates that he fled overseas, but we haven’t been able to narrow down his location.”

“I did not ask,” Loki murmured. “I was concerned with other matters at the time.”

“What about—”

“Of course, he doesn’t know,” Anthony snapped, making Loki flinch. “Why the hell are you questioning him like he did something wrong?”

“Tony, Nat is following procedure—” Steven attempted to interject.

No, she’s interrogating a torture survivor like he’s the fucking enemy.” Anthony’s hand found Loki’s face and tore him away from his perusal of the pictures at last.

“I’m alright, Anthony,” Loki interposed. “If Mr. Pe…if Strucker is using the scepter to create monsters, then he needs to be stopped.”

A strangled noise escaped Anthony’s lips, followed by a rumbling growl that somehow soothed Loki’s deadened core. The inventor’s steady hand began to smooth down the length of Loki’s back.

Loki turned back to the Widow and the strange gleaming in her eyes as she observed Anthony’s reaction. “As I am certain you can imagine, their interrogations tended to be distinctly one-sided. I can tell you that he spoke with a German accent in private and that the rest of my captors appeared to defer to him, but I was not privy to his plots. Until the very end, they were careful in controlling what I could hear.”

“And the scepter wasn’t at the facility where they were keeping you?” the Widow verified.

Loki shuddered before he could squelch it. “Not to my knowledge, although I saw little of the premises. Strucker indicated that he was moving to another location prior to my liberation. My guess would be that his experiments were conducted there.”

“How about—”

“That’s enough,” Anthony interrupted again. Loki had been caught within the sensations of his own body, focused on concealing any signs of weakness that sought to break free. But now, he could hear the anguish in his partner’s voice and feel the fervent way he clutched Loki’s frame against his own. “Has it been thirty minutes yet? I’m sure that it’s been thirty minutes by now.”

“Tony—” Steven began.

“If you locate Strucker and the scepter, call me,” the inventor continued. “I’m not helping with the rest of the clean-up, and I have no interest in joining your HYDRA crusade. But that fucker is mine, got it?”

“Alright, Tony,” Steven said, a little too gently. His tone would only further provoke Anthony. “We’ll dial you in once we’ve located the scepter.”

“Great,” Anthony said with obviously feigned flippancy. “So glad we’re on the same page. If that’s all, Tommy and I were planning a brunch before you barged in.”

The Widow sighed. Traces of fatigue were beginning to peek through her façade. “We still need to conduct the debriefing.”

Anthony very delicately extracted himself from the couch and turned his back to their visitors. He seemed to be focused on nothing in particular as he fussed with fluffing Loki’s pillows and rearranging the quilt around the god’s shoulders. “Nope. We’re done.”

“Tony, we have no nefarious intentions,” the Widow said, all vestiges of indifference giving way to axiomatic exasperation. “If it’s not us, then the government will get involved, and I know you don’t want them to have access to Thomas.”

The inventor stiffened. “The government doesn’t know about Tommy.”

The Widow set her jaw. “I submitted several reports on Thomas to S.H.I.E.L.D, Tony. HYDRA likely documented aspects of his captivity as well. You know that all of S.H.I.E.L.D’s files are public now. It’s only a matter of time before someone finds out about him.”

Anthony’s fingers tangled within the many layers of fabric engulfing Loki’s body. The god could see the man’s composure slipping and fragments of guilt escalating into abject terror.

“If I may interrupt,” JARVIS interjected, “no information on Mr. Walker has been publicly released. I was closely monitoring the events at the Triskelion and managed to intercept all files that contained mention of Mr. Walker. They are currently on Sir’s private servers awaiting deletion.”

“You would only have had seconds to extract those files,” the Widow protested, frowning up at the ceiling.

“My pardon, Agent Romanoff,” JARVIS said, distinctly smug now, “but I am capable of a great many things that may surprise you, and Mr. Walker is my friend.”

Loki felt his heart, frozen in the wake of horror after horror in such quick succession, begin to thaw. Before Anthony, he had counted not a single friend to his name. Somehow, he had stumbled upon the most loyal of companions in JARVIS Stark, and one day, he would find a way to repay the A.I. for his repeated and profound kindnesses.

Anthony appeared to be thinking similarly. “JARVIS, you are absolutely the best. Put some thought into what you want for your next upgrade. The sky’s the limit, buddy.” He considered for a moment and then mustered a pout past the waning panic in his eyes. “Although, it would have been nice if you’d grabbed that report that Romanoff wrote about me, too. You know, the one that calls me a ‘textbook narcissist?’ I really could have done without waking up to that story on the five o’clock news.”

“My apologizes, Sir,” JARVIS said primly. “S.H.I.E.L.D’s files on you were quite extensive. In the limited time that I had, I suspected that you would prefer that I prioritize Mr. Walker.”

“You were right, JARV. No sweat.”

“Regardless, we have a few questions for you, Tony. It won’t take long, but it’s important,” the Widow insisted.

Anthony’s jaw set, his fists clenched, and this time Loki intervened.

“I have so cherished being discussed as though I am not present whilst in the same room,” Loki said. The hints of disdain in his tone appeared to comfort rather than agitate his partner judging by the incremental relaxation of the man’s shoulders. “Anthony,” he said, gentling his voice, “I have not seen Steven for several months now. Perhaps he can keep me company while you engage in this debriefing.”

Anthony’s hand slipped through the blankets and found Loki’s palm. The look in his dark eyes was decidedly feral. “I told you that I’m not going to leave you ever again,” he insisted in a vehement whisper.

“And you’re not,” Loki assured him, squeezing the fingers that had threaded through his own. “Steven will be here, and JARVIS is watching me.” He marshalled the will to send the corner of his lips in an upward trajectory. “You know that I can take care of myself, Anthony.”

“I know,” Anthony agreed in spite of his tightening grip beneath the covers. “Fine. Ten minutes, Romanoff. Ten.”

Despite Loki’s efforts at aplomb, echoes of consternation surged in the aftermath of their departure. Somehow, whilst Anthony was nearby, even being encapsulated in a room with one of Loki’s most perspicacious enemies had felt only peripherally concerning. Now, he was alone with Steven. While the soldier was his friend, his build so resembled Vader’s, and Loki’s most trusted protector was unwillingly elsewhere. He could only hope that Steven’s enhanced senses did not allow him to discern the increasingly frantic thrumming of Loki’s heart.

“I’d ask you how you were feeling,” Steven said after a moment, chuckling weakly, “but I just got out of the hospital myself, and I’ve come to despise that question.”

Loki grunted and did his best to draw his eyes away from the elevator through which his partner had disappeared. “Anthony says that you prevented Insight,” he managed through taut lips. “I must thank you. I understand that he was one of their targets.”

Steven’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know that.”

Loki sighed and turned his attention to the nearly indecipherable brushstrokes on the ceiling. Steven may be his friend, but without Anthony to ease the instinctive perturbation of his body, some caution seemed prudent.

“So, you guys aren’t still doing the whole denial thing, are you?”

Loki turned his head to find Steven sitting on the edge of his chair across the coffee table, eyes flooded with childlike ingenuousness. “I am certain that I don’t know your meaning,” the god murmured petulantly.

Steven appeared heartened rather than discouraged by his efforts. “I’m no expert, but you seemed pretty comfortable with each other back there.”

“I suppose that we were being rather obvious,” Loki muttered. He picked at a nugatory hole in one of his blankets where the Captain could not see and endeavored to repulse his impulse to deflect such questioning.

“Thomas?” Steven was frowning when Loki refocused his attention on him. “Not to be a hypocrite, but are you okay?”

“Yes, I am fine.” Steven was his friend, and he knew from his experience with JARVIS that friendship meant something on Midgard. “We are together, Anthony and I,” he said, scrutinizing the soldier out of the corner of his eye. “I am very happy to be with him.”

“But you’re used to hiding it,” Steven determined, nodding decisively.

Loki’s good shoulder slumped. “I do want him to be with him. Openly,” he whispered.

“But your skin crawls anyway,” Steven sighed. “I get it, Thomas. Trust me, I do.”

While flaunting his intentions in Germany, Loki’s initial impression of Captain America had been that the man was a relentless combatant, and he had dared to hope that his surreptitious strategy for failure might actually succeed. Years later, he still considered the soldier fierce, but he had come to understand that, at his core, Steven Rogers was a man of judicious devotion.

There were burgeoning shadows in the Captain’s expression, and his shoulders were stooped even now in covert pain. More telling was the man’s bright, simulated smile, all perfectly straight teeth without a single furrow at the corners of his eyes. Steven was the kind of friend that the god had never deserved; he was prioritizing Loki’s trifling need for comfort over his own, and Loki suspected that he understood the source of his friend’s distress.

“So, what’s Tony cooking?” Steven was asking. “I fixed all of our meals while we were kids, so I can pass on some tips if you want.”

“Steven, I saw your James,” Loki said bluntly.

It took several seconds for the man to respond, but when he did, he froze in every sense of the word. He ceased moving or breathing or even blinking. His eyes locked on Loki’s face.

“Steven?” Loki ventured, willfully defying the instincts that screamed at him to subside. “Are you alright?”

The Captain managed a throttled inhale. “Did he hurt you? Did he do this to you?”

Loki’s brow furrowed. “You think that James harmed me?”

Steven’s features were contorting, morphing into the anguish that he had seen glimpses of since the soldier had stepped off of the elevator. “I think that there is a stranger wearing Bucky’s body. I think that stranger wants to hurt the people I care about. I think that the man I loved died a long time ago. I know that it’s my fault because I gave up on him without even looking for him.”

Loki staved off the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose as a visible sign of his frustration. From the outside, it was so clear that Steven’s self-blame was misplaced, but Loki understood how enticing it was to condemn oneself for unwitting sins.

“You are very far away,” he said instead, intentionally inducing a waver in his voice to play on the Captain’s susceptibility for assisting the weak. “Perhaps you can come a bit closer?”

Steven stumbled to his feet immediately, head hung low, self-reproach in every step, self-condemnation in every miniscule gesticulation.

“Excellent,” Loki said, “now if you would kindly lean down so that I may strike you with one of these pillows that Anthony has so graciously provided, I would consider myself in your debt.”

Steven’s head jerked up so that he could stare at Loki, apparently righteously shocked. “Pardon?” the man asked, polite as ever.

“I lack the desire to break my knuckles upon your face,” Loki explained patiently, “but you appear to share my partner’s penchant for self-sacrifice and unmerited guilt.”

More slow blinking. Last time Loki had spoken with Steven, he had still been so very unsure of how his true personality would be received. He had favored diplomatic courtesies and vestiges of honesty over his own acerbic tongue. However, as he understood it, friends were required to engage in “tough love” in the face of idiocy.

“Your James is not dead,” Loki said. “Yes, he was involved in my capture. Yes, he injured me enough to subdue me. Yes, he has been coerced into serving your enemies. But I do not hold him responsible for his actions. Neither should you.”

Steven sank onto the floor. “How can you not?” he whispered.

Loki contemplated his options for only an instant. It would be simple to wax poetic about a tangential line of reasoning. He could speak at length about absolution or devotion and satisfy the Captain’s desperation for explanations. But Steven was his friend. He deserved the truth, and Loki desired to provide it. He had never been afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that he could be a good friend, too.

“I know intimately what it is to be twisted into an instrument of destruction,” Loki said at last, tearing his eyes away from the Captain. “I have lived through the agony of having every memory of joy or hope torn away until only a carapace remains. I understand the despair that comes with watching oneself slip away until there is nothing redeemable left.” He dug his blunt nails subconsciously into his palm, a reminder that he was out, that he was home, and that he was never going back. “I have been where James is now. He is capable of not only surviving but thriving given time.”

He forced his eyes back on his friend, found everything from his expression to his stance slackened.

“Your James is not dead, Steven,” Loki insisted. “He is merely lost. You need to let him find his own way back.”

Steven’s eyes were incredibly wide. Guilelessness, Loki discovered, looked different on this man. For Anthony, ingenuousness denoted unadulterated ardor, but Steven’s version equated to pure probity.

“You really believe that? You think that he can be saved?”

“I think that he can save himself,” Loki said, “and that he’ll find you when he’s ready.”

“But how?” Steven asked, raw desperation filling his voice. “How can he find me when he doesn’t remember me?”

James’ mind had been a scrambled ruin in every sense. Every level had been demolished, nearly every doorway disintegrated into fragments of dust. Still, Loki could recall the singular dilapidated entryway left standing and the whispered words that had sustained the final abiding remnant of James Barnes. Divulging his knowledge was perilous, and before Anthony’s acceptance of him he would have staunchly held his silence. But he appreciated Steven’s yearning for hope, and he refused to withhold it from one of the few whom he called friend.

“I’m with you to the end of the line,” he quoted, carefully enunciating each word.

Steven’s every bone, muscle, and tendon locked. “What?”

“That’s what he remembers,” Loki clarified. “He might not recall the context or names or faces, but that should be enough of a foundation.”

“He told you about that?” Steven breathed.

“He did,” the god confirmed. The sentiment was true, at least.

Steven reached with shaking fingers for Loki’s hand, and the fallen god allowed it. Where Anthony’s skin was calloused and rough, Steven’s was smooth, presumably a result of constant, accelerated healing. He didn’t particularly relish the feeling of another’s flesh upon his own, but blessedly, neither did his body balk.

“Bucky fought me when we were bringing down the helicarriers,” Steven explained. “I tried to get through to him, but he kept going no matter what I did. That phrase, ‘to the end of the line,’ it was our promise to each other when my mother died. The helicarrier was falling from the sky, and Bucky didn’t know me, and that was the last thing I said to him. I fell, and when I woke up, I was on the riverbank alone.” He sucked in a tremulous breath. “There were footprints on the ground. I hoped that it was him.”

“While I understand that your serum enhanced several of your attributes, I rather doubt that it afforded the ability to swim while unconscious,” Loki offered. “It would not surprise me if James had pulled you out.”

Steven was beaming at him now, and Loki could not help but smile back. The Captain’s enthusiasm was as infectious as ever.

“Hearing your perspective, it helps Thomas. You can’t imagine how much.” Steven squeezed his hand. “Actually, there’s something else that I wanted to speak with you about. Something big. Are you feeling up to talking for a little longer?”

Loki was exhausted, but perhaps he could manage a few more minutes. “Certainly, Steven. How might I be of service?”

***

When Anthony and the Widow returned, the Captain was waiting for them by the elevator, shuffling, fidgeting, but resolute. Loki observed from his place on the couch, craning his neck despite the strain on his shoulder. Anthony did not appear particularly perturbed despite spending nearly half an hour alone with the Widow, but he did attempt to circumvent Steven immediately.

“Hey, it was good seeing you, Steve. You’re sort of blocking my way here—”

“I need to talk to you,” Steven said. He was speaking so briskly that his words were slurring together. “Right now. Please?”

Anthony blinked and then sidestepped in an effort to look past Steven’s shoulder. “But Tommy—”

“I am fine, Anthony,” Loki called, wincing at the ensuing strain on his ribs.

“Okay, but I—” Steven was crowding the inventor, corralling him back into the elevator despite a litany of protests. “Don’t try anything, Romanoff,” Anthony managed before the doors closed. “JARVIS is watching. I’ll know.”

In the aftermath, Loki could not tear his eyes away from the elevator. He longed so fervently for the safety of his partner’s arms, desired furtively to cajole the man into stroking his hair until his racing thoughts calmed. But he understood that love was about sacrifice, and he had known that the counsel that he had given Steven would delay the inventor’s return. He simply missed his Anthony.

“I thought that Steve had decided not to tell him about Barnes,” the Widow said.

Somehow, she had slipped into Steven’s chair without him tracking her. Loki managed to conceal the worst of his shock—he prevented his body from jolting, controlled the hiss that sought liberation from his lips—but he was sure that she saw the widening of his eyes and the acceleration of his breathing.

She settled back in the chair languidly, appearing perfectly at ease in spite of the fact that they had teetered on the edge of real violence during their last meeting alone. She was making no effort to conceal the fact that she was studying him. Her eyes ran along his frame, bundled as it was beneath multiple layers of quilts and afghans. Presumably, she was cataloguing his many vulnerabilities. He endeavored surreptitiously to shield his bad shoulder from her reach.

“Why would you tell Steve to do that?” the Widow pressed. “He pushes Tony’s buttons on a good day.”

Loki resisted rolling his eyes solely because it would mean that he could not attend to her latest façade, which was evidently righteous condemnation. “Anthony deserves to know. The real question is why you would counsel Steven to conceal it.”

Her brow furrowed almost imperceptibly. “I want us to stay together,” she said with traces of seemingly genuine vehemence. “Tony is a loose cannon even at his most rational. Telling him can only tear us apart.”

His lips curled into a sneer that he had no desire to suppress. “I had believed that you were a master of insight, Agent Romanoff. How is that you have managed to misread one of your teammates so profoundly?”

The Widow scrutinized him for one more excruciating moment, every pore oozing with vacant, supercilious suspicion. But then she sighed and bent down to slip the heeled boots from her dainty feet. Her socks were covered in a sequence of gray kittens.

“I think we need to talk, Thomas,” she said.

Now, she was picking at the hem of her tight jeans, and her tone contained evident signs of uneasiness. This act was new.

“I was under the impression that we were already talking,” he replied carefully.

“No, we were posturing.” Her stance loosened into an unequivocal slump, and she rested her chin upon her hand with seeming casualness. “You evidently believe that I want to hurt Tony. Until recently, I was convinced that you were sent to turn Tony against the Avengers. I think that we need to clear the air.”

He mustered his best unimpressed stare. “In most respects, Anthony has shunned the Avengers. You should be more suspicious of me than ever.”

“True,” she acknowledged, “but the fact that you’re absolutely in love with him helps alleviate any reservations that I might still have about you.”

He scoffed audibly, which provoked an apparently ludic smile to the Widow’s speciously youthful face.

“Why, Thomas, I had believed that you were a master of deception,” she said sweetly, “but the way you love him is something that even you cannot fake. It’s adorable.”

Loki subsided into absolute stillness, but, oh, how he loathed her.

She pretended to inspect her immaculate manicure. “That undeniable fact along with your abduction were enough to convince me. Few operatives would be willing to endure prolonged torture for a mark. A true plant wouldn’t have resisted quite so stoically.”

He gritted his teeth. “If you’re trying to entrap me—”

“I’m not,” she hissed abruptly, craning forward. “I know that you are not a civilian, Thomas. I know that your records are fake. I know because you can resist interrogations that would break a normal person and because you can nearly outwit me.”

“And yet you no longer suspect me of being a spy?” he verified dubiously.

“I know that you’re not a spy,” she insisted. “Maybe you were trained as one, but that’s not why you’re here.”

He regarded her for a moment.

“Why this sudden change of heart?” he demanded. “Every facet of your reasoning should persuade you not to trust me.”

She shrugged, but the motion was too quick, and her expression was too earnest. “We want the same things. Why work against each other when we can be on the same side?”

He watched her, but, of course, she was incapable of true discomposure. Instead, she gazed back with assiduous sangfroid. Loki’s position—reclining on the couch, bundled in a mélange of flamboyant blankets—did little to cow her.

“Tell me the real reason,” he stipulated after they had finished staring unblinkingly at each other.

Her eyelashes fluttered obnoxiously. “I just told you—”

“We are both rather proficient at divining untruths, Agent Romanoff. Let us be honest with each other, shall we?”

She swallowed noticeably, an expression of contrition that harkened back to their confrontation on the helicarrier just before his invasion. Back then, with the scepter screaming for him and his brother’s accusations ringing in his ears, he had not been vigilant enough to catch the signs of subterfuge. In retrospect, his distraction had been a blessing in disguise. He had allowed her crocodile tears to lure him in, and then had somehow found the wherewithal to twist his negligence into an opportunity to reveal another piece of his foolhardy plan.

But from that experience, he knew that when the Widow faked emotions, she verged on the theatric. She blubbered and flirted, scheming at every turn. Now, however, her every minute expression signaled preparation, from the hidden balling of her fists in her lap to the subtle straightening of her spine. She was bracing herself, and he thought that it might be real.

“I saw the scans in Bruce’s lab,” the Widow said levelly.

Loki blinked. He stared. He blinked again.

“It wasn’t intentional,” she continued, and now she was looking just to the left of his face. “Bruce was acting suspicious, and I decided to dig. It’s what I do.”

Loki knew that it would divulge his weakness, but he allowed his eyes to drift to the ceiling. His stomach was twisting with an amalgam of emotions that he feared to unpack.

“I wasn’t looking for information on you.” Her voice contained undertones of ardency that sounded entirely authentic. “Thomas, I swear to you—”

“What are you going to do?” he heard himself ask. Somehow, he had managed to infuse a hint of stoniness into his tone.

Silence. He could hear her breathing, expedited and heavy, as though she felt true mortification. She was very good. 

“What I have done is delete every virtual file and shred every physical copy in Bruce’s possession.”

His chin jerked reluctantly back in her direction. She was sitting with her legs pulled against her chest and her arms wrapped around her knees. Her ridiculous kitten socks were on full display, and she was peering at him from behind her legs as though anticipating a wrathful reaction. He had no doubt that she had carefully arranged her limbs to appear repentant, but, somehow, neither did he question the sentiment.

“Why would you do that?” he asked at last. “You are not stupid. You know that a normal mortal could not survive something like that.”

“I don’t know anything of the sort,” she said, eyes glimmering strangely. “In fact, I believe that we have a lot in common, Thomas.”

“Agent Romanoff—”

“Natalia,” she interrupted. “Natalia Alianovna Romanova to be precise.” When he shot her the most scathing scoff in his repertoire, her lips curled into a playful, befuddling smirk. “I know that you prefer proper names. Natalia was the first name that I remember claiming.”

“Agent Romanoff,” he repeated. “I fail to see the point of this farce. You have me. What do you want?”

Her smile waned. Every streak of momentary affability faded into stern resolve. She craned forward, propped her elbows on her now crossed legs and cradled her own chin once more.

“Have you heard of the Red Room, Thomas?” she asked.

Briefly. From Barton those years ago. He had learned just enough to believe that he could manipulate her, which had obviously backfired. He saw no point in pretending now.

“Yes,” he said simply.

The Widow nodded sharply and sucked in a deep breath. One of her arms wrapped around her ribs. “Then you know that it’s where I was trained. To be the way I am.”

He watched her wordlessly. Her gaze kept focusing on his forehead or jaw before drifting away again.

“We were taught to be ruthless. We learned to kill without question because anyone who refused became the next mark. Feelings were forbidden. Attachments were forbidden. Admitting pain was forbidden.”

A shudder traveled the length of her spine. She hadn’t met his gaze for several minutes.

“I excelled in all of my studies. I became proficient with every weapon. I murdered without a shred of remorse. I could make men fall in love with me with a single flirtation.” She closed her turbulent eyes and bowed her head until a curtain of straight, scarlet hair framed her face. “But I hated pain,” she whispered.

When she finally looked up, her eyes were as deadened as Loki’s frozen core. “So, they ensured that I felt a lot of pain,” she said evenly. “They tore, and they fractured, and they raped until I couldn’t feel anything at all.”

He studied her for a moment. She was staring back, expression apathetic as ever even as she allowed both arms to wrap around her own waist. He thought that maybe this was the real Black Widow, strong and vulnerable in turns, beautiful and deadly at once. Under different circumstances, he might have been able to like her.

“I felt everything,” he offered at last. “I felt every tear and fracture and rape with the utmost clarity. I can still feel them now.”

Her head bobbled into an unsteady nod. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Absolutely not.” He pulled in a breath that strained his overburdened lungs. “Do you want to talk more about yours?”

“Absolutely not,” she parroted, lips tight but eyes wide.

His nod was equally wobbly. “Would you like to watch a film until Anthony returns?”

She straightened a fraction and jutted her bottom lip into a pout so exaggerated that he could not help but roll his eyes. “Can we watch Aladdin?”

Anthony found them sitting together nearly half an hour later. The Widow had slipped onto the opposite end of the couch, and they were both seemingly enthralled with the projection of the animated movie that JARVIS was broadcasting. In reality, they had carefully arranged themselves so that there was no possibility of physical contact, and they were observing each other just as attentively as the actual film.

The Widow was silent. She did not abase herself with singing along to the innumerable musical numbers or interrupt with contrived semblances of laughter at the various instances of humor. In all respects, she was an ideal movie viewing companion. If she weren’t so awful, Loki might actually enjoy her company.

Anthony had apparently taken the stairs as neither Loki nor the Widow were initially aware of his presence. Normally, the slightest sound might have alerted either of them, but they were so hyperaware of each other that it took Anthony clearing his throat directly behind them to acquire their attention.

“I leave for an hour, and when I come back you guys are best friends?” Anthony asked. He was aiming for a jovial tone, but Loki could hear a subtle wavering in his voice. There was desperation there, a wordless plea for diversion.

“Hush, Anthony,” Loki scolded with manufactured nonchalance. “Aladdin is making his grand entrance. I don’t want to have to rewind it.”

“Sorry,” Anthony stage whispered.

He smartly elected to take the path around the couch that blocked the Widow’s view before settling into the barren expanse of space between the assassin and the god. After a moment, he pulled Loki’s legs into his lap, placed his hands on the fallen god’s shins, and seemingly commenced his typical obstructive viewing habits.

Normally, Anthony enjoyed pushing Loki’s buttons when they viewed films together. He liked to entertain himself by testing how loudly he could breathe until Loki snapped or how many times he could clear his throat in an hour before Loki insisted on restarting the entire film. Sometimes, he adjusted the closed captioning of their chosen movies until the obnoxiously large letters blocked the actual scenes. Once, he had spliced two films together purely to see if Loki would notice (he had…eventually).

On the surface, today was no different. The volume of Anthony’s breathing caused Loki to lose every other word of what was happening on screen. The inventor squirmed incessantly, engendering the leather cushions to squeak in time with his movements. Any other day, Loki would have succumbed to instinctive irritation, which was usually exactly the reaction that the engineer desired.

But today, there were also marked differences. After a few minutes of watching Aladdin fumble through emulating a princely persona, Anthony’s grip began to constrict around Loki’s legs until bruising was a real possibility. When Loki peeked, he spied the unfocused nature of the man’s gaze, how he stared at the picture without truly seeing. His eyes were red rimmed.

Loki peered around Anthony’s shoulder, found the Widow studying his partner out of the corner of her eye just as surreptitiously. Once she noticed his attention, she cocked her head in silent question and then murmured a baseless excuse that no one truly heeded. Her departure was decidedly discreet. Loki wished idly that she weren’t so terrible. Part of him wanted to like her.

Anthony scarcely seemed to notice her absence. He continued to stare straight ahead, even when Loki signaled JARVIS to mute the movie. The god waited for several minutes, but his partner was hardly blinking, and his every breath was strikingly shaky.

“Anthony,” he whispered at last.

His voice, splicing through the wired stillness, made him wince. But Anthony displayed no discernable reaction.

“Anthony,” he tried again, louder now.

When the man still failed to acknowledge him, Loki found the strength to push himself upright until he could reach his partner’s freshly shaven cheek.

“Anthony,” he said once more, tracing the fuzzy patterns along the engineer’s jaw. “Anthony, look at me.”

It took several moments for Anthony to blink, for him to turn slowly within Loki’s grasp, for him to focus on the god’s face. His eyes were hazy.

“Is the movie over?” he croaked.

Loki allowed his fingers to trail along Anthony’s clammy brow. “It is.”

Somehow, the man managed a tremulous smile. “Did you like it?”

“I would have to watch it again to form a true opinion.” The skin directly beneath Anthony’s eyes was subtly swollen.

“Ah.”

Anthony turned away again, seemed to concentrate on Aladdin and Jasmine seated upon the peculiar carpet character. He appeared not to recognize that the film continued to play without any sound.

Loki considered for just a moment whether he had erred in steering Steven toward divulgence. The Allfather’s deliberate concealment of Loki’s monstrous origins combined with Anthony’s easy acceptance of his every disclosure had incited in him a desire for truth. Although there was no denying that he had been born a savage beast, he was far enough removed from the revelation to realize that the true damage had come from the shattering of trust. Perhaps his advice to Steven had been hypocritical considering the continued obfuscation of his true identity, but he suspected that the fallout from premeditated secrecy would be much worse than precipitate truth.   

“Tommy?” Anthony whispered after a moment. His quivering fingers found Loki’s forearm and gripped tight. “Tommy, Bucky Barnes murdered my mom.”

Loki had endured horrors that he had never imagined. He had survived atrocities that should have killed him a hundred times over. He had experienced the slow erosion of his will. He had suffered conscious enslavement.

The pain that girded his insides in response to the evident anguish in Anthony’s voice was more intense than anything that he had ever experienced.

“I know, käreste,” he murmured helplessly.

Anthony craned forward until he could press his nose into Loki’s throat. “I want to kill him,” he continued, but his tone verged closer to sorrow then ire. “I want to hunt him down and destroy him.”

Loki’s cheek grazed against the inventor’s ear. “I know, käreste,” he said again.

Anthony strained to close all distance between them. The wound on Loki’s thigh stretched uncomfortably, and his shoulder quaked with strain, but Loki’s good hand knotted into the back of the man’s shirt, urging his partner ever closer.

“It wasn’t my dad’s fault.” Loki’s neck felt damp. “All this time, I thought that he had to have been drunk, or that he wasn’t paying attention to the road, or…or that they were arguing about me. I blamed him for everything.”

Loki’s heart buckled. His lips found Anthony’s hair.

“He didn’t kill her, Tommy. My dad didn’t kill her.”

A curious dichotomy had overtaken his body. His heart was churning with the most excruciating pain that he had ever felt. He was desperate to ease Anthony’s suffering, but he was also impotent in every sense of the word. His seiðr crackled at every point of contact with his partner’s skin, verging perilously on the edge of release. At the same time, his contorting heart was swelling—dilating and ballooning with exquisite misery at every beat. In his fantasies, love had been uncomplicated, a path to enduring rapture. Reality evinced that love was the opposite in every respect, but he treasured every second of it, nonetheless.

“Tommy,” his partner pleaded as he maneuvered impossibly closer. “Tommy.”

“I am right here, Anthony. I’m not going anywhere,” he vowed.

Loki hoped that it was true.

Chapter Text

On Asgard, strength and vigor in battle were hallmarks of a true warrior. Men were taught to feed and fight and fuck ceaselessly until entrance into Valhalla, whereupon they would continue to dine and brawl and fornicate until Ragnarok. To languish in bed, even to heal, was regarded as one of the greatest failings imaginable. 

Loki had never been one of Asgard’s esteemed combatants, but neither could he shirk centuries of ingrained conditioning. For two weeks, Anthony had attended assiduously to his every need—diligently providing regular meals, dutifully denying entrance to an assortment of healthcare professionals, and faithfully accompanying him to the bathroom. Loki appreciated his efforts; he did.

But he was also the most powerful mage in the Nine Realms, and pissing standing up was a point of pride.

So, Loki had cheated, as was his wont. At first, he had only marginally accelerated the healing process so that he could stand unaided for a few minutes at a time. But when Anthony appeared oblivious to his headway, he progressed to sealing the fissures in his ribs, strengthening the range of motion of his shoulder, and hastening the scarring of his burns. He had taken to stealing away from their shared bed while Anthony slept and pacing the lengths of the living room to increase his endurance.

This was one such morning. He had woken from the perfect fantasy, a fantasy where his hair had been wild and dark, his voice lilting and crisp, his seiðr crackling and iridescent. He had dreamt that he was Loki and that Anthony, laughing boisterously at something that his dream duplicate had said, had not cared in the slightest. The manifestation of his most fervent desire combined with the immanent knowledge that it was unattainable spurred a desire to move.   

But he allowed himself a moment of indulgence upon awakening. Anthony’s stalwart heart was droning against his cheek, and when he blinked open his grungy eyes, it was to a view of the arc reactor, humming and coruscating mere inches from his nose. He craned his head up, found his partner’s dozing face irradiated by the morning light. The entrenched shadows that had clung so steadfastly to the inventor’s features were waning at long last.

As was becoming routine, Loki’s heart was testing the limits of his ribcage, and his skin was flushed where it pressed against Anthony’s bare chest, and he needed to move now before he embarked on a course that he would surely regret. It took several minutes to extract himself from Anthony’s grip as the man’s hand had found a forever home in Loki’s hair. His leg throbbed as he limped his way to the living area, but the ache was bearable.

He paused for a moment at the threshold of the hallway to test the stability of his leg. It balked at supporting his full weight, but he should be able to manage a few hobbling circuits around the perimeter of the room. Besides, pain was a welcome diversion.

“Mr. Walker, might I suggest that you abstain from engaging in your exercises this morning?” JARVIS interjected after Loki had taken only a few steps.

“I won’t overexert myself,” Loki assured his friend as he rounded the expanse of windows through which he had flung an irksome Anthony those years ago.

“As you say, sir.” JARVIS subsided, but the A.I. sounded distinctly displeased.

Despite his efforts at distraction, Loki was considering confessing to his cardinal sin for the umpteenth time. He had delayed for weeks in anticipation of Anthony’s apparent shock to fade into inevitable horror. And yet, he could discern no deleterious differences in Anthony’s estimation of him. If anything, his partner was becoming more affectionate, prone to demonstrative caresses and tender endearments. The inventor’s hints that he would welcome another glimpse of Loki’s Jötunn skin were anything but subtle.

Loki could not understand it, but neither could he deny reality.

Anthony did not care that he was monster.

More accurately, Anthony did not believe that he was a monster.

In fact, by all appearances Anthony loved the monster.

Anthony was also seemingly capable of accepting devastating personal truths. While his partner had initially been ravaged by the revelation of his parents’ murder, lately Anthony had taken to reminiscing about his early life during their quiet moments together. Before Steven’s disclosure, any mention of Anthony’s father had been disparaging at best, execrating at worst. But now the engineer was just as likely to recall quiet moments of solicitude. A few times, Loki had woken to his partner raptly watching dated publicity videos of his parents in the dead of night.

Initially, Anthony’s wrath had been fierce. He had raged and plotted and schemed with various plans of vengeance. But after his initial bout of ferocity, rationality had set in. He had found files detailing James’ erasure hidden within the depths of HYDRA’s vaults which had seemingly terminated his desire for reprisal.  

It made Loki wonder—if Anthony could accept, and perhaps even one day forgive, James Buchanan Barnes for the deaths of his parents, surely, he could forgive Loki for his part in an invasion that he had never desired.

And yet, he continued to hesitate. It was such a novel experience to want and be wanted, to need and be needed, to love and be loved. He was loath to lose this. To lose his Anthony.

So, weeks later, Loki continue to find any excuse to dally, but truly absorbing diversions were limited when confined to a bed. Thus, his engagement with his current determination to covertly build his endurance. With every step around the perimeter of the room, the dull thrum of his leg persisted. While the sensation was only mildly aggravating, it was consuming enough. At full strength, he might have considered his wounds trivial, but his more mortal form had broken into a deplorable sweat after only a single lap of the living room. He was so tired of feeling weak.

“Mr. Walker, I really must insist that you rest. Sir will not be pleased if you exhaust yourself today.”

There was something about JARVIS’ tone, about the way that he emphasized Anthony’s title, that piqued Loki’s suspicion. He paused at the back of the couch and pretended to be examining his bandaged thigh. “What do you know, JARVIS?” he asked, camouflaging his skepticism with a pleasant lilt to his words.

“Why, nothing, sir.” The god was quite familiar with the seemingly guileless innocuity that JARVIS was now feigning considering that the A.I. was emulating Loki nearly perfectly.

“JARVIS, are you lying to me?” Loki asked, staring up at the ceiling incredulously.

“Of course not, sir. Such an action would clearly violate my programming.”

Even as he mustered a glare, Loki found that his lips were twitching upward. It seemed that he had collected a new patron.

“Incidentally, Mr. Walker, I feel that I should warn you that Sir will be joining you in approximately three seconds.”

As had clearly been his friend’s intention, the timing of the warning allowed Loki only enough time to brace a portion of his weight on the back of the couch. In the next instant, Anthony was strolling into the kitchen, decidedly rumpled, noticeably unshaven, and evidently unsurprised to see Loki standing unaided. The inventor made a beeline for the complicated coffee machine on the kitchen counter that Loki had never attempted to operate. He opened the cabinet that held his collection of coffee beans—yes, he had an entire cabinet dedicated to his favorite brews and blends—while carefully averting his eyes from where Loki was standing.

Loki fought against the compulsion to cower and strode to the kitchen bar with the evenest strides that he could manage. Long ago, he had been taught that any indication of remorse was a sign of failure, and a member of the royal family was not permitted to have any shortcomings. So, he lowered his body into the polished stool with nary a wince, and if Anthony had spared even a glance at him, he’d have found Loki’s prized haughty stare. 

Outwardly, the inventor appeared entirely uninterested in Loki’s progress. And yet months of experience in discerning Anthony’s inward emotions meant that Loki could detect the slightest of clues—the inventor’s shoulders were surreptitiously tense and the frazzled grunts that he was aiming at the gurgling coffee machine notably theatrical. Most concerning was the fact that his partner had yet to look at him. The man appeared absorbed with riffling through the cupboards, seemingly in search of a clean coffee mug.

The mixture of emotions roiling in Loki’s gut as he watched his mortal intently scour the shelves was familiar despite centuries of pretenses. There was a fear—of exposure and persecution and rejection. There was anger—directed primarily at himself, but antipathetic shades were aimed at Anthony for the violation of his few moments of privacy.

But mostly, Loki truly did feel contrite. He was the reason for the oblivious façade that Anthony could not quite affect convincingly. He was responsible for the strain that entangled Anthony’s spine and the thunderous hammering of the cabinet doors slamming shut in the inventor’s wake. He was at fault for his partner’s deliberate concentration on anything but Loki.

“It’s sunny today,” Anthony said as he searched. He sounded upbeat, but his tone was too fixedly sanguine. “I thought that it would rain forever.”

Loki hummed noncommittally. Anthony’s back was increasingly stiffening, and Loki’s body was reacting with inveterate wariness. Cognitively, the god knew that Anthony would never harm Thomas, but he was practiced in identifying the subtle signs that hinted at impending violence. While he could prevent an instinctive retreat, convincing his body to relax its efforts at appearing as small as possible was beyond his facilities.

Anthony’s chosen coffee mug clinked against the surrounding ceramic much too forcefully as he yanked it from the shelf. “It’s supposed to be pretty warm today, too. I think I saw that it’s going to be in the seventies by the afternoon.”

Loki pulled in a fortifying breath and braced himself as inconspicuously as he could with only a flimsy counter for cover. “Anthony, do you really wish to speak about the weather?”

His partner froze, rigid back still facing Loki. “Huh?”

Loki hid his clenched fists in his lap. “You are clearly angry with me. Perhaps we can dispense with the posturing.”

A rattling sound heralded the slight trembling of Anthony’s fingers before he set aside his mug. “I’m not ‘angry,’ Tommy.”

He persisted in spite of his every instinct clamoring at him to desist. “I would prefer not to debate semantics with you.”

“I’m not angry,” Anthony repeated, this time in a fierce whisper. “I know that you’ve survived by concealing yourself. I don’t blame you for keeping your secrets.”

Loki could hear the ominous conditional, unspoken yet inevitable, in his words.

“I just wish that you could trust me,” his partner continued, shoulders pulled so high that they nearly brushed his shoulders. “Jesus, Tommy, I actually thought that you had an enhanced bladder when you stopped asking me to take you to the bathroom.”

Loki stared. He stared and stared and stared. After a moment, his face began to contort beyond his control.

Anthony must have sensed something because he whirled suddenly, brow furrowed. “Do not laugh, Tommy. I mean it.”

He could feel his entire frame buckling as he endeavored to suppress his mirth. A few chuckles escaped despite his efforts.

Tommy,” the inventor whined, but when the god peeked, his partner’s lips were twitching.

“My apologies.” Loki straightened in his stool. “I do urinate. I had not realized that it was in doubt.”

“Yeah, I know that now.” Anthony’s bare feet shuffled along the floor. “That’s not really the point, though.”

A millennium of subsisting at his brother’s side, a monster shrouded as one of the divine, encouraged him to divert with whispers of adulation and flattery. Centuries of diplomatic maneuvering in Odin’s courts urged him to cajole and deceive and refute. Years of hiding on Midgard spurred him to disappear posthaste.

Months of knowing and weeks of loving Anthony Stark implored him to trust.  

“What do you wish to know?” Loki whispered. The nails of his balled fists were just shy of cutting into his palms.

An innumerable number of appliances were whirring in the kitchen, and the coffee machine was burbling, but Loki could focus only on the sound of Anthony’s footsteps as the man slunk into his space.

What?” his mortal whispered.

Loki squared his shoulders even as his fists continued to shake in his lap. “I will answer your questions.” He managed to look up, found his partner gazing at him enigmatically. “All of them. You have only to ask.”

Nimble fingers found his waist and tugged until a sturdy body fit between his knees. Motor oil and hazelnut, redolent and dulcifying, flooded his nose, entreating his muscles to loosen. Anthony’s heart was beating beneath his forehead, surprisingly ponderous and markedly stable. Usually, Loki found that this combination of sensations was supremely calming, but now he could not relax.

“If I can really ask any question, then I think we should start with the most important one.”

Anthony’s lips were brushing the shell of his ear, prompting an incorrigible shudder. It almost but not quite distracted Loki from the fact that he could not draw even a dribble of air.  

“What do you want for breakfast?”

The tension in Loki’s limbs lasted for a single instant longer. “You’re ridiculous,” he sniffed as his weight slumped against Anthony’s chest. “You are the most ridiculous man that I have ever met.”

The inventor cackled and began to blanket the god’s scalp in a flood of dainty kisses. “Fruit? Toast? Bacon and eggs?”

Loki made a show of pondering his choices as he endured Anthony’s farcical affections. “Fruit and toast, I suppose. Bacon and eggs seem like a perilous prospect.”

Anthony’s arms tightened around his waist until his freshly healed ribs creaked. “Alright, asshole, you’re getting all of it, and you better eat every fucking bite.”

Nearly an hour later, Loki was seated at the table with a loaded plate. The scrambled eggs were runnier than he typically preferred, and the strips of bacon were crispier than most meat that he had consumed in his life. His toast was practically swimming in butter and jam. Nestled amongst a bed of sliced strawberries was an assortment of melons, meticulously carved into lopsided hearts. Loki savored each mouthful and endeavored to keep his lurching heart inside of his rib cage.

Gradually, he became cognizant of Anthony watching him at his elbow. The engineer had stabbed his own plainly sliced cuts of melon with his fork so many times that they were mush, and his lips were pressed so tightly together that the tendons in his neck were standing out. Eventually, Loki decided to relent despite his every reflex screaming at him to remain reticent.

Loki focused his gaze on where his own fork was scraping the bottom of his bowl and forced a word past his inelastic lips. “Ask.”

His partner visibly startled, and when he spoke, his voice was pitched artificially high. “Ask what?”

The god continued to trace the edges of his empty dish as he waited. Anthony could never abide silence for long, and he could not drive another syllable out of his own throat.

Anthony lasted another few seconds before he blurted it out. “So, super healing, huh?” Despite his rushed words, he appeared to be making an effort to gentle his voice.

“Not precisely,” Loki murmured. His could feel the fork crumpling in his grasp, but somehow, he persisted. “It’s more that I can choose to devote my resources to healing more quickly if I choose.”

He listened to Anthony’s unwavering breathing in the ensuing quiet. Repeatedly, he found himself bending for this man, this wonderful mortal for whom he had so wholly fallen. Every time, he expected to break. He anticipated the strictures, the mockery, and the inevitable ostracism. Invariably, Anthony dispelled his every fatalistic expectance. Today was apparently no exception.

“Your ‘resources,’” the engineer repeated. He craned so far across the table that he was in danger of toppling from his chair. “Does that mean that you can do other things?”

Loki set aside his cutlery, forced himself not to wince when Anthony’s sharp eyes followed the mangled metal. “I can do a great many things when I am at full power.” He turned his gaze down to his trembling hands, to where his seiðr was seething just beyond physical sight. “I am afraid that I have been restricted to parlor tricks now.”

“Like what?” The inventor was so near that Loki could feel Anthony’s breath on his cheek.

His seiðr pulsed in his fingertips, clamoring for liberation, demanding amalgamation with Anthony’s reactor, and Loki was tired of quashing its pining. He trusted Anthony more profoundly than any other, and his partner had yet to betray his faith. Perhaps it was time to exercise his conviction in this man who had so thoroughly ensnared his ruined heart.

“Holy shit,” his partner squeaked.

Loki’s minuscule horde of magic had seeped from his hands with little finesse, clinging with transparent appetency to Anthony’s chest. Viridescent tendrils were poking at the edges of today’s Iron Man shirt, unashamedly searching for a path to the man’s reactor. And Anthony had frozen so entirely that Loki could not even discern the rise and fall of his chest. Evidently, he was playing by the rules of the utterly inaccurate dinosaur movie that they had sat through before Loki’s capture.

“It won’t hurt you,” Loki assured him in a tremulous whisper.

“Of course, it won’t,” Anthony scoffed. But the high-pitched noise that he made as they watched Loki’s seiðr slip under the engineer’s sleeve might generously be called a grunt. His eyes were wider than Loki had ever seen, dilated pupils moving exaggeratedly within their sockets so that he could follow its progress. “It’s just…holy shit, Tommy.”

“Your arc reactor feels analogous to my seiðr,” Loki said, endeavoring for the appearance of insouciance. “It’s only curious.”

Anthony’s hand finally moved, stretching open the neck of his shirt so that he could uncover the edge of his reactor. Loki’s pulsating seiðr was clinging fixedly to the grooved surface. An expression was starting to steal across Anthony’s features, a distinctive crinkling of the eyes and upturn of the lips. It made the god’s stomach lurch and his throat balloon with a peculiar lump. It felt an awful lot like hope—perilous, treacherous hope.

“What did you call it? Seiðr?” Anthony asked, stumbling slightly over the unfamiliar word. A questing nail grazed the adhering, verdant wisps, enforcing a shiver down the length of Loki’s spine. As they watched, a single tentative coil twined around the inventor’s finger. “Tommy, this is amazing.”

“It is an aberration,” Loki whispered. He turned away, began to trace a rune into the table with his shaking fingers. Distantly, he could feel his seiðr quailing in time with his words. “I am an aberration.”

A steady hand encompassed his own, pulling until Loki’s cool skin brushed against chapped lips. “It is amazing, Tommy. Look at what you can do.”

“Hardly,” Loki insisted. “Using seiðr is shameful, Anthony.”

“It is awesome.” Anthony’s nose pressed against the center of his palm as his mouth stroked back and forth against his wrist. “You are awesome.”

Loki closed his eyes in wordless denial. He tugged against the grip on his arm, but Anthony would not relinquish his hold.

“I don’t care if you turn into a postpubescent werewolf on steroids or a sparkly, stalker vampire,” Anthony whispered. Loki could feel the man’s breath glancing across his jaw. “Whatever it is that you’re scared to tell me, I swear to you that it won’t matter. There is nothing that will make me stop loving you.”

Loki allowed Anthony to propel him forward until his nose was buried in the engineer’s shoulder. Anthony’s hands smoothed over the length of his back, and he could feel his partner’s breath on the crown of his head, and Loki’s seiðr continued to crackle and throb between them, tangible, ignoble, and somehow completely embraced.

That frothy feeling churning in stomach and flowing directly into his palpitating heart, it was hope. Treacherous, ascendant hope.

After a moment, Anthony brushed his lips against Loki’s temple. “Just to check, though, you don’t actually turn into a sparkly vampire, right? I may have been bluffing a little there because everything about that is just plain creepy.”

Somehow, Loki found the energy to snort. “I neither coruscate nor ingurgitate blood.”

“Uh-huh.” Anthony’s fingers began to chart the planes of his scalp. “You haven’t seen Twilight, have you?” 

“I gather that this is a film?”

“It’s a serendipitous comedy.” Anthony paused. “See? I can use sesquipedalian words, too.”

The rigidity began to drain from Loki’s body at last. “You have been preparing that counter for a while, haven’t you?”

“The thesaurus is a beautiful invention,” the engineer informed him smugly.

Once Loki had experienced love for the first time, he had assumed the sentiment to be potent yet static, a constant that he could eventually ignore most of the time. But, yet again, Anthony had accepted an integrant that distinguished him as Loki with no reservations, qualifications, or impositions. The resulting surging of that indefinable inflation of his insides made him wonder if there was any limit to how much he could love Anthony Stark.

He had a feeling that he already knew the answer.

“Pardon me for interrupting, Sir, but might I remind you that your contractors will be arriving in less than an hour?”

Anthony froze in an instant, fingers buried in Loki’s hair. Loki could feel his pulse rabbiting against his ear in a thready tempo. “Shit,” Anthony whispered vehemently. “Shit, shit, shit.” He stood so rapidly that his chair reared back precariously on two legs, just shy of toppling to the floor. “Hey, Tommy, do you feel up to going on an adventure today?”

Loki’s seiðr fled back to his palms as his partner began to gather their dishes together into a discordant pile. The jarring clink of earthenware battering together made him wince. “I am not sufficiently healed to stand for long,” he admitted.

The expression that crossed Anthony’s face before the man tipped his chin down could only be described as shifty. “Even with this?”

The object that his partner produced from under the table and thrust into Loki’s arms resembled a staff, but its sleek expanse clearly evinced wealth. The polished, ebony wood was engraved with sumptuous spirals of gold and green vines. The handle was a gleaming, gold Iron Man helmet that appeared to be at the perfect height for Loki to grip. He was unfamiliar with most Midgardian materials, but the quality of the workmanship made him suspect that this instrument had been handmade.

Before he had experienced love, Loki might have refused impetuously with little consideration for the thoughtfulness behind the gesture. Mere weeks ago, Anthony’s penchant for extravagant gestures had reminded him of how much he had lost in his fall from grace. The man’s many kindnesses had made him long for lavish celebrations and shades of comradery, while condemning his ineptitude in providing for himself.

But now, he understood that Anthony’s every action illustrated just how much Loki had gained. Even his most cherished moments as a prince could not compare to how much he treasured every second with Anthony Stark. He would sacrifice even the most congenial elements of his old life in a heartbeat to spend even one mortal lifetime with this man.

“You appear to believe that I prefer motifs of your face on my every possession,” Loki noted as he stood and pointedly tested whether the staff would hold his weight.

Anthony’s shoulders relaxed minutely. Bizarrely, Loki’s mordant comments always tended to reassure rather than provoke him. “You know that you love Iron Man, asshole.”

Loki rolled his eyes. Despite the evident frivolity of Anthony’s statement, there was little point in repudiating fact, but neither was it time to admit his true feelings aloud. He would not settle for glibly admitting his love for this man.

“But seriously, it’s better than crutches, right?” Anthony pressed. His hands began to fiddle with the hem of the Iron Man shirt that he was apparently wearing in a show of solidarity—Loki’s tight shorts were patterned with an assortment of Iron Men in flight.

Loki’s leg throbbed even with the aid of the staff, but the pain was nowhere near the persistent agony that had inhibited real movement during the first few days of his recovery. More, the staff was the perfect height for him to redistribute his weight without straining his limbs. And, admittedly, he privately treasured the idea of carrying this physical mark of his partner on his person.

“It works,” Loki assured his mortal, “and I suppose that it is…fashionable from a certain point of view.”

Anthony’s answering smile was soft and fond. “Don’t hurt yourself with the compliments, sweetheart.”

The inventor inched closer, and his hands found Loki’s waist. Anthony had touched him often since he had returned, but every stroke, platonic or familiar, had veered away from amatory intimacy in favor of chaste affection. At first, Loki had been grateful. His body reacted unpredictably, deriving threats from innocuous gesticulations and meaningless locutions. However, as time passed, Anthony continued to hesitate, and Loki loathed being treated as irrevocably fragile.

The god balanced carefully and bent down until he could press his forehead against the crown of his partner’s head. Anthony’s breath caught audibly in his throat, and his fingers flexed around Loki’s hips. His reaction appeared to be one of anticipation rather than a reflexive response to the prospect of intimacy with a monster. It was enough to prompt a moment of recklessness.

“It’s very thoughtful, Anthony,” he whispered into the man’s hair. “Thank you.”

Anthony’s tightening fingers compelled him closer. He could feel his partner’s every exhale against his collarbone as the inventor’s nose ghosted featherlight across his skin.

“Kiss me?” Loki had intended his proposition as a challenge, but it was too breathy to resemble anything but a plea.

Anthony’s lips brushed against his throat, but it was not where Loki wanted him. “If I kiss you now, I’ll never stop,” he whispered.

Loki blinked. With every word, the bristles of Anthony’s goatee scratched against his skin, driving him to distraction. “Did you intend that as a deterrent?” he managed a beat too late.

“More like an incentive.” Heated breath began to meander lethargically to his good shoulder. “I have plans for us today.”

“Oh?” He could feel the staff wobbling as he endeavored to remain upright. His legs felt boneless, and not from fatigue. “How nice to be informed.”

Anthony chuckled breathlessly. His thumb had found a sliver of bare skin above the waistband of Loki’s shorts. “Will you let me take you out on a date, Thomas?” he asked.

Loki’s heart had apparently taken residence in his ears. He could barely hear his mortal’s words over its pounding. “Nothing extravagant?” he managed after a moment.

Anthony’s thumb was rubbing back and forth against the gooseflesh at his hip. “Nothing extravagant by my standards.”

Anthony,” Loki groaned. His eyes found the unobtrusive surveillance device on the ceiling through which JARVIS was observing. He was certain that the red operating light shone brighter in a sort of commiseration.

“Okay, so I spent more than you probably want, but it’s the equivalent of pocket change to me.” His partner tugged until Loki was pressed flush against him. “I’ve been planning today for forever, Tommy. Please?”

Loki was considering saying them again, those three little words that he knew Anthony was equally desperate to hear. But after all this time—months of pining for Anthony Stark and centuries of craving love—he had convinced himself that such a profound proclamation deserved an equally momentous occasion. So, he elected to demonstrate his devotion through action yet again, this time by capitulating gracefully.

“Very well,” he acquiesced. “Do keep in mind that my expectations are very high, Anthony.”

He earned a beaming grin in response. “I might have planned a three-part epic date that will absolutely sweep you off your feet.” Loki was thankful that his seiðr had occluded the fissures in his ribs because Anthony’s grip was beginning to edge onto the side of too tight. “You’ll love it, Tommy. You’ll see.”

Perhaps an hour later, Loki found himself bundled in a collection of wooly blankets in the passenger seat of Anthony’s “normal person car.” The weather was still markedly warm, but Anthony refused to heed his reminders that his resting body temperature was naturally cool. Their road trip playlist was playing, and Anthony was humming along, and Loki had already surrendered to the compulsion to aim a covert smile out the passenger window.

Their first destination was a hole-in-the-wall bookstore tucked into one of the quietest corners of the city. The outside was unimpressive—the door was painted a garish orange, and the windows were notably smudged. He saw not a single person enter or exit while he waited for Anthony to pay the parking meter and don his goofy floppy hat.

Clutter was his initial impression upon their entrance. There was no discernable order to any of the shelving. Rather, books crammed every conceivable inch of space from the cavities between shelves to precarious stacks along the floors. Once the jingling door closed behind them, a musky smell—curiously reminiscent of chocolate and coffee—nearly overpowered his senses. The lighting was too dim, the paths between the shelves too narrow, and the sole proprietor grunted at them without looking up from a small television with an actual antenna.

Loki knew with absolute certainty that this place was a trove.

Anthony’s arms circled his waist from behind, and his chin hooked over Loki’s shoulder. Luckily, the brim of his hat was rather pliable—it knocked against the god’s temple as his partner stood on his tiptoes to whisper in Loki’s ear.

“Everything the light touches is yours.”

Loki shuddered and attempted to camouflage it by resting his free hand carefully atop the inventor’s own. “You know that I don’t understand that reference.”

The man’s nose found the curve of his neck. There was something about the risk of discovery—even though he knew that same-sex relationships were not as wholly condemned on Midgard—that filled him with a dual sense of exhilaration and foreboding. Loki found himself angling his face away to allow his mortal better access.

“Back home, I have contractors installing some new bookshelves in the living room.” Anthony’s hand flipped so that their fingers could thread together. “I want you to help me fill them.”

Loki was already shaking his head in denial, but Anthony’s free palm found his mouth, stemming the ineluctable refusal. “Seeing you happy, it’s a better high than any drug.” He thought that he could feel his mortal’s lips moving against the crook of his jaw. “You’re never happier than when you’re burying your nose in a book, Tommy. Please let me have this.”

Anthony’s fingers fell away from Loki’s face, but he still could not speak. His heart was so loud. Anthony, pressed so tightly against his back that the god could feel the arc reactor pulsing through their combined clothing, must hear it, too.

“I can have anything?” Loki managed to rasp after several misfires.

“Anything.” His partner squeezed his hand once last time and stepped back. Loki both pined for his return and rejoiced over the resurgence of his ability to breathe. “Go crazy, Tommy.”

Loki limped forward a few strides before he paused, and words—inadequate, paltry, covetous—spewed from his mouth. “You are mistaken, käreste. Literature isn’t what makes me happy.”

Anthony cleared his throat. Loki could hear his feet shuffling awkwardly. “Music, then? Should we go to a record store instead?”

Somehow, Loki managed to fling what he hoped was a cocky smile over his shoulder. “I thought that I was dating the most intelligent man alive,” he said, throwing all the aplomb that he would forever feign into his voice. “Surely, I don’t need to spell it out for you.”

Anthony’s bewilderment appeared genuine, and it wrung Loki’s torrid heart into jagged shards. All this time, Loki had been so focused on safeguarding himself, completely inconsiderate of Anthony’s own doubts. He would begin to remedy his failing now.

You make me happy, Anthony.” Somehow, he managed to meet his partner’s crinkling eyes. “It doesn’t matter what we do. It’s always you.”

 Anthony’s face broke out into the most radiant gummy smile that Loki had ever seen…and were his eyes glistening? The engineer turned too quickly for Loki to tell determinatively.

“I’m just gonna check out the other side of the store.” Anthony waved vaguely at a stack of paperback bodice rippers that he almost certainly had no interest in. “Make a pile of anything you find interesting, okay?”

At first, Loki was resolute in only selecting a scanty collection of novels from the many stacks and nooks and crannies. He could justify acquiescing to Anthony’s request, but there was a difference between indulging and outright splurging. So, initially, he set a mental limit of one-hundred American dollars and focused on the cheaper paperbacks. But after a few minutes, he strayed completely by accident and found a thick compilation of memoirs from some of his favorite composers.

He had to have it.

And then, he kept locating more. An anthology of Sherlock Holmes short stories. A primer of coding basics. An assortment of Old Norse poetry. Travelogues of Midgardian countries that he had never visited. The entire collection of Twilight novels. He added them all to his steadily expanding stack of books.

For the most part, Anthony conducted his own perusal and allowed Loki to roam. Admittedly, the god was so absorbed in unearthing the numerous gems obscured within the packed shelves that he spared only enough energy to verify his partner’s continued presence nearby. But occasionally, Anthony would approach him with his own discoveries.

His partner’s offerings were largely thoughtful. He presented biographies of various composers, a few tattered Shakespearian plays that Loki had previously borrowed from the library, and a series of graphic novels featuring giant, man-eating humanoids that the god suspected Anthony himself was interested in reading. Regrettably, the inventor also attempted to purloin the Twilight series in order to “protect his purity,” which Loki could not overlook. Anthony was subsequently relegated to creating his own pile on the opposite side of the store amidst pouts, huffs, and the occasional incursion onto Loki’s section.

By the time Loki was confident that he had exhausted the bookstore’s stockpile of treasures, the sun had passed its highest point in the sky, Loki’s leg was trembling, and Anthony had built himself a throne out of hardback novels on which he had promptly collapsed. When Loki hobbled over, he discovered that his mortal had fallen asleep mid-page. One of the graphic novels that he had chosen was open and forming a sort of tented visor over Anthony’s eyes.

Loki elected to take the relative high road and prodded the inventor with his staff. Anthony flinched anyway, and his makeshift throne wobbled precariously.

“Finished?” his partner managed once he had sprung, sputtering and disoriented, to his feet. His voice was perfectly even, but Loki could just discern the hopefulness in his almost flawlessly impassive expression.

“I suppose so,” Loki allowed. Despite his best efforts, uncertainty struck as he glanced back at his towering pile of books. “I might have chosen too many—”

“Nope. Don’t even start. I told you, it’s pocket change, Tommy.” Anthony’s hands framed his face, forcing his averted eyes forward. “Come on, let me see those dimples.”

“I do not have dimples,” Loki grumbled even as his lips pulled helplessly upwards.

“Fine then.” Anthony’s thumbs had found twin points on Loki’s cheeks. “You have the most adorable indentations in your cheeks when you smile.” The engineer offered his own winning grin. “Better?”

Loki suspected that his glare was less effective when he was unable to constrain the rest of his features. “Buy me my books,” he groused. 

Anthony’s answering boisterous laugh served only to deepen his absolutely nonexistent dimples.

Anthony refused to allow him to assist in loading the car, so Loki entertained himself with covertly employing his seiðr to sneak a few of the books into the back seat. The fascinated expression his partner aimed at the rearview mirror when he caught a selection of paperbacks floating through the car door awoke a heated sensation in his belly that Loki refused to contemplate.

“What next?” Loki asked once the inventor slipped back behind the wheel.

“This wasn’t enough?” Despite his best efforts at nonchalance, Loki could hear the smile that his partner was attempting to direct clandestinely out the window.

“Anthony Stark, you do nothing by halves,” Loki declared. “I am expecting a full day of revelry.”

Anthony turned his smile upon him—it was so damnably affectionate that Loki could feel his own ridiculous, notional dimples stabbing through his cheeks. “You know me so well,” his mortal laughed.

The street upon which they parked nearly half an hour later was interminably familiar. Loki had trekked along the sidewalk through sun and rain and snow once a week for over a year, risking life and limb at the crosswalk on innumerable occasions.

“It’s the deli where we first met,” Anthony explained, as though Loki didn’t precisely recall every second of every moment that they had spent together. “I was thinking that we could do it over.”

Loki snorted. “Evidently, you are a glutton for rejection.”

Anthony leaned forward until Loki could feel his breath caressing his own lips. “I think I might just sway you this time.”

“Oh?” Was that his voice pitching unsteadily when he was aiming for aloof and blasé?

His partner’s answering grin was downright mischievous. “I have some tricks up my sleeve.”

A few minutes later, Loki was standing in a familiar line. It was past lunch time, so the patrons loitering in front of him were more patient but no less focused on their handheld phones. Of course, this time he was very much cognizant of the heat of the body standing mere inches behind him. Despite Anthony’s outward confidence, he could hear the accelerated fluttering of the man’s heart.

Loki couldn’t understand it. Granted, he harbored a penchant for trenchancy, but Anthony must know that he was a sure thing this time around.

“Use the props,” Anthony prompted in a breathless whisper.

Loki rolled his eyes but donned his old glasses—apparently, Anthony had saved them from the garbage can those weeks ago—and brandished a pristine copy of Hamlet that his partner had evidently picked up at the bookstore. He made a show of perching the frames on the end of his nose and licking his thumb to turn to a random page of the book.

“Whatcha reading?” he heard behind him.

Loki could feel Anthony’s every exhale on his cheek as the man stood on his tiptoes to look over the god’s shoulder.

“Hamlet,” Loki enunciated clearly. He fought the urge to turn and held up the cover of the book instead.

Anthony sucked in a sharp breath. “Do you think that Hamlet was really crazy or just pretending?”

Loki blinked. He blinked again. “What?”

Anthony’s heart was thunderous behind him now. “I’m leaning toward pretending. I mean, Hamlet says it himself pretty blatantly.”

From there, Anthony launched into a detailed analysis of various scenes from multiple acts of the play, providing evidence for his theory while acknowledging the merits of the opposing view. It was very clear that he had not only read but analyzed the book, and Loki was bewildered.

Incidentally, the attraction that he felt for Anthony right here and right now was more intense than the few fleeting crushes that he had nursed throughout his centuries of existence.  

“You read it?” Loki asked when Anthony paused, evidently organizing his thoughts to launch into his secondary critique of whether the Ghost in Hamlet truly existed. Loki’s voice was patently reverential, but he saw no point in concealing the depths of his regard for this man who repeatedly stole his heart.

“Of course, I did.” At first, his tone was vehement with shades of deserved hubris. And then, quieter, perceptibly warm, “don’t get me wrong, sweetheart, Shakespeare’s never going to be my thing, but it’s important to you. And you are important to me.”

Loki could hardly bear it—the feeling of his heart palpitating so excruciatingly that it was in danger of bursting. While he wasn’t going to declare his feelings in a sandwich shop, he wanted to demonstrate how thoroughly Anthony had charmed him, nonetheless. 

“Will you buy my sandwich?” he managed.

“Hey!” Anthony protested. His fingers curled stealthily around Loki’s hip. “You’re stealing my lines. I had a plan and everything.”

“I see.” The person in front of Loki was paying, but the god barely noticed. “Well, are you going to ask me?”

Anthony’s sigh was exaggeratedly profound and completely negated by the luminous grin that he aimed at Loki’s face. “No, this was way better than what I was expecting.”

They approached the counter together. Privately, Loki marveled at the restraint of Midgardians—the cashier hardly seemed to register the overt intimacy of Anthony’s fingers bracketing his waist. She appeared to think nothing of the fact that they were ordering together or to notice when his partner pressed his lips absently against Loki’s clothed shoulder. Midgard was primitive in a conglomerate of ways, but in this, Loki decided, it was idyllic.

Unfortunately, after they purchased their sandwiches, their stroll to the park was notably protracted. Loki’s leg was stiff after weeks of limited mobility and hours of uncharacteristic standing. He more hobbled than strode despite some clandestine assistance from his seiðr, but Anthony was boundlessly patient and seemingly enthusiastic in implementing his normal chatter as a distraction.

As before, there were several empty park benches, and Anthony chose the one nearest the fountain. The water droplets that permeated the air were less aggravating than Loki had previously thought. They served to cool his heated skin as he sank down close to his partner.

Loki unwrapped his sandwich, but his stomach would not accept a single bite. He could feel Anthony watching him.

“I was thinking that we could do introductions again,” his mortal suggested. “I kind of think that I might not have made the best first impression.”

Loki widened his eyes in faux astonishment, determined to allay the shades of hesitancy that he could hear in the inventor’s tone. “You mean you aren’t a ‘billionaire extraordinaire’ who favors obnoxious music and tequila?”

Anthony’s gummy grin rivaled the shine of the sun reflecting off the water behind them. “You know, you didn’t seem like this much of an asshole when we first met either.”

Loki rolled his eyes and managed a dainty bite of his sandwich. “You go first.”

“Fine.” Anthony’s knees knocked against his own as he shifted to face him. “My name is To—Anthony Stark. Over the last few months, I’ve become a master chef and baking guru. I have a one-hundred percent win-loss ratio at Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, and I think that classical music is tolerable sometimes.” Anthony smirked, and Loki absolutely did not shiver in response. “Oh, and Iron Man is absolutely my boyfriend’s favorite Avenger because that’s me. I’m Iron Man.”

Loki’s sigh was long suffering and entirely insincere. “You’re ridiculous.”

Anthony grinned and took a bite that appeared to consist almost entirely of condiments. “You love it.”

He did.

It was his turn, and Loki was stalling because he was considering taking another grave risk. Except…he didn’t actually believe that it was much of a risk at all. In fact, he fully expected Anthony to accept this new part of him—another abominable truth—just as unreservedly as he had welcomed every other convoluted facet of Loki’s existence.

Because Anthony loved all of him, even the monster inside.

His faith in no way stymied the terrified coiling in his gut.

“I chose the name Thomas Walker when I fell here over two years ago to escape from my family and to hide from a mad intergalactic warlord,” he began. His hands had started to tremble, and it was causing the paper wrapping around his sandwich to crinkle noticeably. “I am…” Now, his fingers were mashing the bread of his sandwich beyond recognition, but Loki could not stop. “I am a Jötunn, born on Jotunheim, and all I desired when I sought out Midgard for sanctuary was to be left alone.” And then, in the quietest of whispers, “I am grateful every day that you did not allow me that.”

He had expected excoriating silence in the aftermath as Anthony absorbed and dissected the condemning omissions that were revealed with his latest truth, but his partner’s response was immediate.

“Well, no wonder I can’t find your bastard of a father if he’s an alien mob boss,” Anthony grumbled. The gentle hand that squeezed Loki’s knee belied his flippant words.

“I should have told you before,” Loki whispered. “I do trust you. Please believe that I do.”

“Hey! Hey, I know that you do.” Anthony scooted so that he was sitting flush against Loki’s side. “I’m not surprised, if that’s what you’re worried about. You called your blue— Jötunn, your Jötunn—form your ‘heritage’ a few weeks ago. I figured that there was either an underground society of sentient, superpowered beings or that you were from another planet.”

“Realm,” Loki corrected miserably. His sandwich was a managed mess of shredded bread and limp toppings. “I am from another realm.”

“And…there’s a difference?” Anthony ventured. Despite his outward sangfroid, he had yet to take another bite of his sandwich.

Loki nodded and turned his gaze to his loafers.

“Okay, so that sounds like a really interesting conversation that we should have later when we’re talking science things.” Anthony’s finger poked at the underside of Loki’s chin until the god acquiesced to meeting his welcoming, ever guileless eyes. “What does it mean to be from Jotunheim?”

Loki opened his mouth for the easy answer.

“And I don’t want to hear that monster nonsense, Tommy. I’ll sit on you if you even start.”

Loki’s lips twitched in spite of it all. “That’s a daunting prospect. You’ve been gaining weight lately.” Much needed weight, but still.

“God, you are such an asshole.”

It was exactly as Loki had expected and nothing like he had instinctively feared. Anthony was smiling that gummy grin that left no room for any other alternative except that everything would be alright. Loki was helpless to do anything but smile back, illusory dimples and all.

“Jotunheim is a barren, frozen hellscape. It is a dying realm, and its inhabitants are dying with it.” He allowed Anthony to extract his hand and smooth a thumb over his palm. It eased some of the trembling. “I say that I am a monster because that is what I am. Every other realm believes that we are little more than mindless beasts hungry for war and destined for slaughter.”

Anthony pondered that for a moment as his fingers traced the dips and furrows in Loki’s palm. “Is Asgard one of those realms?”

Loki’s limbs tensed anew. His hand jerked instinctively, but Anthony’s grip tightened, and he tugged until the god’s fingers found the arc reactor through his shirt. For once, neither Loki nor his seiðr derived any comfort from the hum of Midgardian magic beneath his fingertips.

“Why are you asking me that, Anthony?” Loki whispered.

“Because when I first met you, you were terrified of me, and I couldn’t figure out why.” Anthony pulled Loki’s hand until he could press his lips against the center of his palm. “Because Thor uses ‘Midgard’ instead of Earth and insists on calling planets ‘realms,’ too.” Loki’s hand spasmed again, but Anthony held fast. “And because the barest mention of Asgard or Thor reminds me of how you were back when we first met. You’re terrified all over again.”

“Anthony,” Loki pleaded hopelessly.

He wasn’t ready, not for this.

“You can tell me,” Anthony assured him. The hand in his grasp was the one that Loki had used to reveal his monstrous form those weeks ago. “I’m always on your side, Tommy.”

Of course, Anthony was on his Tommy’s side, but to choose Loki over Thor? Loki wanted desperately to believe that it was possible, but the very thought was unfathomable. Loki was to serve forever as the reviled villain, while Thor luxuriated ceaselessly as the beloved hero. The Norns had written their enmity into fate, and nothing could change it.

So, Loki settled for a portion of his truth.

“Thor has killed hundreds of Jötnar in the last few years alone.” His fist was clenched so tight that the nails of the hand still caught in Anthony’s grasp were close to slicing through his own skin. “A quick death would be the best that I could hope for if he discovered me here.”

When he peeked, Anthony was frowning indecipherably. “We’re talking about the same Thor, right? God of Thunder? Resident airhead? Hoarder of Pop-Tarts?”

In the past, Loki might have faltered at the hints of dubiety in Anthony’s tone. As a child, his truths had been labeled exaggerations, then fabrications, and finally outright deceptions until his entire identity had become defined by his supposed mendacity. He had heard so many times that he was a liar that he had begun to believe and even embrace it.

But he persisted because this was Anthony, and he wanted to trust that Anthony could not only accept him but choose him.

“I was there when Thor nearly began a war between Jotunheim and Asgard because a Jötunn called him ‘princess,’ Anthony. I have directly heard him name the Jötnar ‘monsters’ and ‘beasts’ and declare his intent to slay them all.”

His partner’s expression was quickly morphing from perplexed to incensed, and Loki dared to hope that his ire was directed elsewhere.

“If Thor finds out that I am here, if he discovers that I have beguiled you, it will be a fate worse than death,” he stated. Somehow, he managed to sound outwardly dispassionate despite the inward quailing of his seiðr.

“Then we’ll make sure that he never finds out,” Anthony declared. His voice was unwavering and vicious and furious above all else. “No one is taking you from me again, Thomas. You hear me?”

Anthony believed him.

Anthony actually believed him.

“I hear you, Anthony,” Loki whispered.

His mortal slumped against the back of the bench, but his jaw continued to flex and his nostrils to flare in evident deliberation. “Also, if anything, I was doing the beguiling, alright? You don’t get to claim the villain role in our love story.”

“You would make an alluring villain, käreste,” Loki offered. He tentatively threaded their fingers together. The fiery wrath in Anthony’s eyes dimmed the slightest bit.

“Yeah?” Despite his rapt attention on Loki’s face, the man’s tone was faltering, almost distracted.  

“Quite.” He squeezed the inventor’s hand and was gratified when the answering constriction returned the pressure tenfold. “Unfortunately, achieving success in your villainous ventures is less certain. It is likely that you would be defeated in the midst of monologuing about your plans for world domination.”

Anthony’s lips twitched, but the display of mirth was half-hearted at best. “That’s fair,” he murmured as he tucked a wayward curl behind Loki’s ear.

There was something strange in the way that he had begun regarding Loki, a grave quality to his words and even his insignificant gestures that was increasingly alarming. Furtively, Loki braced himself as Anthony sucked in a fortifying breath.

“Tommy, I need to talk with you about something serious. I was planning to ask you later, but I don’t think that it can wait.”

Loki fought his instinct to repulse and settled on genuine bewilderment. “I was under the impression that we have been talking about serious topics.”

“We have.” The engineer raked his fingers roughly through his own hair, tipping his floppy hat comically. “Look, I was going to work my way up to this, but I…I’m worried, Tommy. I’m worried that I won’t be able to keep you safe if things stay the same.”

Before, Loki might have outright dismissed Anthony’s concerns or at the very least have snapped at the unintentional dig at his fortitude. Now, he could discern the consuming anguish in Anthony’s entire demeanor, and he would do anything to ease it.

“I can take care of myself,” he assured him. “I have my seiðr, and I can use my Jötunn form if I face true danger. There is no need to worry, käreste. Truly.”

Both of Anthony’s hands were engulfing his own now. If anything, he appeared more worried. “You’re strong, Tommy. I know that you are…but you can’t beat Thor.”

“Likely not,” Loki admitted, another unconscious dig that would have incensed him if it had come from anyone else. “But he won’t recognize me when I look like one of you. I am safe from him.”

“But you’re not safe.” Anthony dragged Loki’s hand to his mouth and pressed his lips against the god’s knuckles. “Tommy, you were already abducted by humans. Normal, everyday humans who had a bone to pick with me. They were able to contain you, to hurt you. Jötunn or not, you’re not invincible.”

The haughty defensiveness that he had been deflecting reared despite his best efforts. “I will not allow that to happen again,” he insisted through gritted teeth.

Anthony’s fingers settled around his wrist, unknowingly circling the manacle that was working to drain him even now. “You can’t know that.”

“I was afraid of losing you, Anthony.” He straightened and endeavored to project the staunch yet fragile confidence that his partner’s many kindnesses had nurtured. “I am not anymore.” 

Anthony stared at him, blankly at first, and then with a surge of rising horror. His fingers gnarled into claws around Loki’s wrist.

“Tell me that you didn’t let those bastards capture you because you thought that I would reject you,” the man pleaded.

Loki’s body sought to cower, and this time he had not the will to stem it. “It was not the only reason.”

Tommy,” Anthony whispered, agonized now. He groped for him, found his shoulders and wrenched him close. “Did I…” He faltered, balled the fabric at the back of Loki’s shirt into twisted knots in his trembling fists. “Did I do something to make you think that?”

Normally, Loki would be expecting the incursion of penance. He might have railed within his imposed restraints or employed his silver tongue for any semblance of acquittal. But now, he chose to reveal his truth, a truth that he expected no one but his Anthony to believe.

“Everyone else has renounced me over less,” Loki whispered. He buried his nose in the crook of Anthony’s neck and allowed himself the privilege of simply breathing in the man’s distinctive scent. “I know now that you are different, käreste.”

Anthony was clutching at him so fervently now that Loki nearly toppled into his lap. “I hate your family,” the man whispered. “I hate what they’ve done to you.”

“They won’t find me,” Loki said, as uncertain as ever when his former family was denounced. Always, such inimical sentiment had been directed toward him. His family had been forever revered.

“Damn right,” Anthony growled. His arms constricted around Loki’s shoulders one last time before he reared back, every pore oozing pertinacious resolve. “Because now you’re going to have my tech to protect you.”

Anthony allowed no time for perplexity. He was already fumbling in his pocket, teeth gritted, expression markedly solemn. “I had this whole thing planned out. I was going to insist on implanting a tracker in your ass. Obviously, you’d say no, but I figured that it would give you a little perspective when I presented your other options.”

“I certainly would have refused a tracking implant,” Loki allowed cautiously. “In any part of my body.”

“See? So, just pretend that I did that, okay?”

The inventor extracted a watch from his pocket. The band was conspicuously thick, and when Anthony fastened it around Loki’s wrist, he discovered that it was noticeably heavy. On closer inspection, Loki found a blank screen where he had expected dials and hands.

“I call it the Iron Man Gauntlet,” Anthony explained. “I’d show you what it does, but even this hat wouldn’t be enough to keep people from recognizing me if we started using my tech in the middle of the park.”

Mere hours ago, Loki would have resigned himself to mortal limitations, but such a conundrum was something that he could easily address. “I can fix that,” he offered before he could talk himself out of it.

Anthony’s head cocked to the side. “How?”

Loki had often been called a showman, which wasn’t necessarily an inaccurate descriptor. His affinity for runes and spells and conjurations had been ridiculed since the moment he had instinctively changed his shape for the first time. At a certain point, he had elected to embrace his deficiencies, at least on the surface. It was natural for him to add a flourish or two to even the simplest of incantations, and the uncomplicated spell to conceal and divert was no exception. He allowed his seiðr to rise tangibly to his fingertips as he cast a shroud over them, solely because he hoped that Anthony might be impressed.

Anthony’s reaction—goggle-eyed and gaping—was everything that he had anticipated and nothing that he had ever obtained.

“What’d you do?” the man breathed.

“It’s a spell to hide and deflect,” Loki explained. “Only someone truly determined would notice us.” His stomach quaked, but it was less consuming than ever. He knew that Anthony would accept him. “It’s how I survived my first year on Midgard.” 

Anthony’s smile was all flashing teeth and squinty eyes. “Have I told you lately that you’re amazing? Because you totally are.”

Loki rolled his eyes, but Anthony could no doubt tell that he was pleased.

Anthony slipped off his hat with a relieved sigh and ran his fingers through his flattened hair. “So, I can show you what the Gauntlet does then?”

“No one should see,” Loki confirmed.

Much like Loki flaunting his own magic, Anthony was theatrical in the presentation of his technology. A tap on the screen of his device unleashed a miniature arc reactor, and a second sweeping motion unlocked a myriad of expanding parts that engulfed Loki’s hand in familiar red and gold.

Its name was apt. It was a gauntlet, evidently the completed version of the glove that Loki had awoken to Anthony constructing those weeks ago.

“It’s meant to be defensive,” Anthony explained as Loki stared down at the metal encapsulating his hand from second knuckles to wrist. “It has a flash beam and an ultrasonic pulse. Obviously, I can’t test it on an Asgardian, but it worked on me. The Gauntlet should disorient someone long enough for you to escape.” He reached gingerly to manipulate Loki’s hand into a fist, displaying its flexibility. “And it’s bulletproof, obviously. Not taking any chances there.”

Words clogged Loki’s throat. He wanted to express so much that he could say nothing at all. Unfortunately, Anthony appeared to take his silence as rejection.

“I know that it’s a lot,” the man continued, “and I get that you have this whole self-reliant deal going on, but I really need you to wear it, okay? You have to let me do what I can to protect you.”

Loki’s seiðr was congregating in his palm just below the surface of his skin in evident rapture, and the sensation was infinitely diverting. Still, he managed to muster a completely inadequate expression of the maelstrom of emotions clustering in his chest.

“This is amazing, Anthony,” Loki whispered reverently, hoping that Anthony would hear him if he used one of the man’s favored epithets. “Of course, I shall wear it.”

Anthony blinked. He blinked so relentlessly that his eyelashes appeared to be fluttering. “That’s it? No arguments?”

“Why would I protest the honor of your favor?” A faint churring noise sounded in response to the flexing of his fingers. “I must admit that the idea of carrying part of you with me is appealing.”

Anthony’s eyes were shining a touch too bright. His hand reached for Loki, faltering several times until it settled on the god’s knee. “That’s great, sweetheart, because that might have been part one.”

“Part one?” Loki echoed. Anthony’s subdued tone made the prospect sound ominous.

The inventor winced but reached into his pocket resolutely, nonetheless. “Part two is this bracelet.”

The object that he retrieved was indeed a bracelet, but only in the barest sense of the term. The band was plain and gray, the monotony of the sleek metal interrupted by a lone sensor that was evidently not powered by arc reactor technology. The bracelet fit snugly around Loki’s wrist, but even with proximity, he could discern nothing particularly potent about the device. He surreptitiously deployed his seiðr, only to arrive at the same conclusion.

“What does it do?” he asked as he twisted his wrist curiously in the light.

Anthony’s fingers tightened around Loki’s knee. “Will you promise to at least consider it before you say no?” the engineer pleaded.

Perhaps Loki should have felt wary, but Anthony’s evasive ploy was so transparent that it could barely be considered a manipulation. “I will fully consider it,” he promised instead.

His partner set his shoulders, evidently as a sort of buttress. “It’s a panic button,” he explained through taut lips. “If you’re in trouble, you activate the sensor and JARVIS sends help.”

Loki tilted his head consideringly. So far, its function sounded reasonable. “What sort of help?”

Anthony tucked his chin into his collarbones and mumbled a string of unintelligible syllables.

“I am well-versed in lipreading, käreste, but such a skill does require that I actually see your lips.”

Anthony grudgingly lifted his head while managing to evade eye contact. “I may have definitely built you an Iron Man suit, and if you’ll just agree to wear the bracelet, I’d be completely willing to teach you how to operate it. Hypothetically, of course.”

Loki realized that he was fully mirroring Anthony from a few moments ago. He could feel his jaw hanging agape, and his eyes were dry from lack of blinking.

“You would allow me to use one of your suits?” he managed.

Anthony peeked at him, evidently catching the awe in his tone. “No, I would give you your own suit. We can’t all be freakishly tall, you know. You wouldn’t fit in mine.”

His Anthony was generous, so selflessly generous, and so tenaciously expectant of repudiation. Someday, Loki would exact violent retribution on the Midgardians who had caused his precious love to doubt his worth so persistently.

Loki cleared his throat and endeavored to present an unaffected façade. “What color is this theoretical suit?”

His partner’s lips twitched. “Green and gold?”

The green, he could understand. Anthony had gleaned that green was Thomas’ favorite color at the beginning of their dalliance, but the choice of gold was inexplicable. The inventor had to know that those were Loki’s colors. Why would he dress Thomas in the colors of one of his greatest enemies?

Anthony evidently noticed his consternation. “I figured that green is yours and gold is mine?” His expression turned sheepish. “I tried green and red, but it looked like something out of a Freddy Kruger horror movie. Do you want something different?”

“No,” the god said hurriedly. “Green and gold is perfect.” He would not shirk an opportunity to embrace even the most trivial semblance of his real self.

He subsided back onto the bench and returned to his contemplation of his wrists. Granted, the wide shackles beneath his glamour blocked Anthony’s offerings from true skin contact, but he couldn’t help but admire his partner’s tokens and the faith that they emblemized. There could be no doubting the extent to which his Anthony trusted him, not when he had quite literally presented Loki with pieces of his own heart.

“I fail to see why you were so certain that I would refuse,” Loki mused.

Anthony ducked his head. He appeared engrossed in picking at a splinter on the bench. “The bracelet tracks your location. JARVIS can barely convince you to turn him on in our room at night. I figured that me knowing where you are all the time might kind of be a hang up?”

Loki could admit that he had not considered that complication, but neither was he entirely averse to the idea as long as only JARVIS and Anthony were able to access his whereabouts. To Loki’s knowledge, the A.I. never monitored him without his permission. And he knew Anthony well enough at this point to understand that the sole purpose of tracking his location would be for his protection.

“Do you wear one?” Loki asked at last.

Anthony nodded emphatically and held up his wrist where an identical bracelet was indeed latched. “Some of the smarter supervillains figured that they might have a better chance facing Tony Stark sans the suit.” He bared his teeth in a grim caricature of a smile. “They were wrong.”

The very thought of anyone targeting his Anthony—wonderful, thoughtful, fragile Anthony—was nearly more than Loki could bear. “Can I have access to yours?” Loki whispered. “I want to know that you’re safe, too.”

Anthony’s fingers smoothed carefully across his brow. “Of course, you can, sweetheart. I’ll get JARVIS to upload it to your phone when we get home.”

Anthony was smiling the silliest smile that Loki had ever seen. There was a sliver of lettuce caught between his front teeth, and a dab of mayonnaise at the corner of his lips, and anyone could see that the man was absolutely smitten. The god suspected that his own expression was equally dopey, minus the residual toppings.

“I think that we can count Part Two of our date as a success,” Anthony declared as Loki pressed a napkin into his hand. “Ready for Part Three?”

Chapter Text

Anthony had attacked his food in the wake of their conversation in the park. In a matter of minutes, he had devoured every bite of his overloaded sandwich while somehow managing to maintain a comprehensive commentary about the new applications on Loki’s replacement phone—the god’s original StarkPhone had been crushed underneath Mr. Peanut’s heel in the warehouse. The inventor seemed particularly eager to showcase the array of games that he had installed, which resulted in bulging cheeks and the loss of several pieces of lettuce on the ground.

Loki had to admit that he enjoyed the disgruntled expression on his partner’s face when he beat him in virtual Scrabble three times in a row whilst neatly consuming his own sandwich.

“We can’t all be walking thesauruses,” Anthony grumbled as they returned to the car. “If you’re from another plan—realm, how do you speak better English than me?”

“I have traveled the Nine Realms extensively,” Loki admitted. His leg was throbbing, but he hid his grimace as he slowly lowered his body into the passenger seat. “I have also been speaking English for centuries, so I imagine that experience may play a role.”

Once he buckled his seatbelt, he turned to find his mortal gawking at him. “Wait, all this time I thought that I was literally robbing the cradle, but you’re actually older than me by centuries?”

“A millennium, in fact,” the former prince corrected. He stretched out his leg as best he could in the relatively cramped car. Perhaps he could cajole a massage out of Anthony later.

“A millennium? My stupidly awesome boyfriend is a goddamn millennium older than me? Holy fuck.”

Loki eyed him stealthily. His partner’s tone was more theatrical than truly troubled, but mustering a modicum of wariness seemed prudent. “You accept that I am not of your realm and a Jötunn, but my age is what disturbs you?”

“You’re ancient,” Anthony whined as he pulled into the Saturday afternoon traffic. “I’m dating the equivalent of a great-great-great-great-great grandpa.”

The fallen god rolled his eyes without even attempting to disguise it. The man’s response was edging toward overly dramatic now. “If it helps, I age much slower than you. In truth, I am the equivalent of perhaps twenty-two of your years.”

The engineer blinked, face awash in histrionic horror. “Tommy, that makes it worse. Infinitely worse. I’m twice your age?”

Loki located the lever that allowed his seat to recline. It eased a bit of the pressure on his leg. “Perhaps we should simply adhere to my original age,” he suggested dismissively.

“Thirty-one,” Anthony breathed. “You’re thirty-one, and we’re absolutely sticking with that. God, I need to bleach my brain.”

Several wheeled carts were awaiting them in the elevator when they arrived home, evidently an effort of forethought on Anthony’s part to ease the transportation of their purchases. The man insisted that they had to convey everything upstairs at once, and Loki was no fool. His partner was obviously hiding something, likely his newest elaborate and considerate surprise.

In another life, Loki had been supremely vain. He had received innumerable gifts worthy of his status as a prince—the richest of wines, the rarest of tomes, the gaudiest of weapons—but never had anyone known him well enough to present him with anything truly thoughtful. Beyond anticipating another treasured offering, the god had not an inkling of what to expect.

The elevator was moving, and his mortal was ardently watching their progress on the display. His demeanor could only be described as febrile as he continuously shuffled his feet, and he appeared to be gnawing on his lip to stem his innate chattering. Loki decided to take pity on him. More accurately, he capitulated to the desire for intimacy that he had only experienced around Anthony Stark.

He reached to trail his index finger across his partner’s knuckles. It is was testament to Anthony’s distraction that the inventor jumped at his touch, but the smile that he turned upon the god was unreservedly fond. Loki had never been one to initiate physical affection without an ulterior motive, but he dared to thread their fingers together firmly when he heard no objections. 

“I will love whatever it is, käreste,” Loki assured him. “There is no need to worry.”

“I’m not worried,” the man blustered. If the former prince were less durable, Anthony’s grip might have been in danger of snapping his fingers. “Just…promise me that you won’t be mad?”

“Have I ever truly been angry with you?” the god asked mildly. They were nearing the penthouse floor now, and Anthony’s free hand had begun to fidget with a loose thread on his shirt.

“You get irritated sometimes.”

Loki rolled his eyes for the umpteenth time of the day. “Irritated is my natural state.”

Anthony’s smile was wavering but genuine. “That’s true.”

The elevator dinged.

The doors opened.

The first sign of change was the colossal rug that Loki stepped on directly in front of the elevator. It had been painstakingly cut into the shape of the Iron Man helmet and shaded in the vibrant hues that his partner favored. It was garish and tasteless and so inherently Anthony that Loki could not help but laugh.

But then he looked up, fully intending to nettle the inventor about this latest evidence of inordinate pomposity, and promptly gawked instead.

Gone were the neutral tones and abstract paintings. The walls had been painted a warm, harvest yellow color, and the trimmings around the doors were a vibrant chocolate brown. Billowy curtains had been installed to temper the weak rays of light from the setting sun, adding a homey feel to the formerly modern furnishings.

Loki stepped further into the living room. The walls were newly cluttered with an incongruous mixture of framed album covers, diplomas, and newspaper clippings of Iron Man’s various exploits. An entire section had been dedicated to a collection of mounted photographs of Anthony’s friends. There was a young Colonel Rhodes at one of his mortal’s academic graduations. Beside it was a flushed, presumably intoxicated Anthony linking arms with an exasperated Harold. Next was elegant Potts, guiding the inventor through dance steps at a black-tie event. The Avengers were featured as well, in groups and individually. Banner was shown more prominently than any of the others, but there were one or two of Thor nearly bulging out of his Midgardian clothing.

As Loki passed, he noticed that not all of the décor featured Anthony’s preferences. There was also a portion of the wall devoted to portraits of his favorite composers and writers. Several potted plants had been tucked into various nooks, and there was a cozy looking chair positioned beneath a leafy tree in the corner of the room. 

The prince delved deeper, craning his head this way and that to catch every alteration. Save for the familiar leather couch, every piece of sleek, impersonal furniture had been replaced with lively color and antique wood. Most striking was the expanse of bookshelves that brushed the cathedral ceilings. A sliding ladder had even been installed, evidently to reach the top of the empty shelves.

And then, there was the gleaming grand piano in the corner nearest the windows.

Once, when Loki had been very young, he had approached one of the trumpeters that lurked in the Allfather’s halls and asked to learn. For a single day, he had tried his hand at various scales and had even managed a simple tune or two. He had discovered a voracious appetite for music, even if his access was limited to the blaring instruments of Asgardian ceremonies.

But one of Odin’s advisors had seen him, and that night, his mother had quietly taken him aside and forbidden him from pursuing such a frivolous avocation. There was no use for the arts in battle, and his proclivity for using seiðr was already damning for a male member of the royal family.

He had not touched a single musical instrument since that day those centuries ago.

Loki reached with an inexplicably shaky finger to touch the middle key on the piano. The resulting timbre of the note was bright and clean, resonating pleasantly in the stillness. There was a stack of simple sheet music on the piano bench, and Loki longed to devote hours to exploring the production of scales and chords.

“Tommy?” Anthony spoke so quietly that the god could barely discern his voice. “Tommy, can you please say something?”

He pivoted and found the inventor lingering behind him, utterly still aside from his hands, which were balled into trembling fists. Just past Anthony was Loki’s Iron Man carving, featured in the center of the new oblong coffee table.

“I don’t understand,” Loki whispered after a moment. “Why did you do this?”

Everywhere he looked, there were differences, both subtle and overt. There was a picture of Dum-E with a pair of unfamiliar robots magnetized to the refrigerator. Lamps emanating soft light had been installed in various crannies, replacing the glaring ceiling fixtures that had, at times, verged on blinding. The curtains were embroidered with coiling branches and unfurling leaves.

“I told you, sweetheart, once you know what to look for, you have the worst poker face. I could tell that you hated it…and I realized that I hated it, too. I’ve never cared enough to decorate my own place because nowhere has ever really felt like home.” Anthony’s shoe scuffed across the hardwood floor. “I wanted the penthouse to feel like our home.”

There was a small, unobtrusive photograph of them on top of the piano, faces smushed together after having valiantly conquered the maze from their first date. Anthony was wearing the gummy grin that the god coveted, and Loki…Loki did have dimples.

“I can destroy that,” the engineer offered hurriedly. “I know how you feel about pictures. I shouldn’t have—”

“Am I awake?” Loki whispered. “Is this a dream?”

There was a second of unfiltered silence during which the former prince heard Anthony expel a single haggard breath, and then his partner was striding up behind him. The arms that girded Loki’s waist were insistent and unyielding and utterly assuaging.

“Of course, you’re awake,” Anthony growled. His face pressed against the back of the god’s neck. “Baby, what is it? Did I do something wrong?”

Deliberately slow, just in case it shattered this wonderful mirage, Loki allowed his hands to rest atop the mortal’s. “You do everything right, käreste,” he allowed. “You are perfect.”

“That definitely sounded like a compliment.” They were so close together that Loki could feel Anthony’s lips moving against his spine. “But you’re using that ominous tone I hate. Maybe we can skip the part where you call yourself names and make me want to commit a series of grisly murders?”

The Loki of a few months ago would have been horrified—horrified by his own evident transparency, horrified by his partner’s comprehension of his many reprehensible deficiencies, and terrified by the fact that Anthony’s insight into his innermost ignominy heartened rather than alarmed him.

“You are not a monster,” the engineer whispered into his skin. “You are not a perversion or an abomination or an aberration. You are my Tommy, and you always will be.”

Loki wished that he could simply choose to believe the man’s beguiling words. But for countless centuries, he had endured constant condemnatory opprobrium until he had believed that he deserved it. Shirking what he had always known to be indisputable fact could not be achieved so easily.

Still, he did what he could to embody the conviction that he wished he could actually possess. He straightened his spine and squared his shoulders and arranged his features into a winsome smile that was at least partially sincere. When he did speak, his voice managed to reflect authentic fervency.

“I love it, Anthony,” he whispered. “I love everything about it.”

The inventor’s grip around his ribs loosened slightly. “You do?” he asked, entirely unsuccessful in masking his avidity.

“Of course, I do.” He allowed Anthony to bear some of his weight so that could feign a pointed scrutiny of his staff. “Afterall, I have worn your countenance on my ass for weeks. I am pleased to see that you have found another outlet for your fixation.”

Anthony’s aggrieved sputtering was exactly what he had intended. “Have you ever considered not being an asshole?” the man demanded, but the contented sigh that he released against the small of Loki’s back belied his shrill words.

“Never,” Loki answered truthfully. With a bit of maneuvering, he managed to turn within the circle of Anthony’s arms and press his nose against the crown of his mortal