A/N: I have this strange fascination of sorts with stories where Tony acts for a time like Loki's guardian/father. I don't know why. This story here was inspired by many fanfictions that I've read over the last few months, so I'm sorry in advance for any similarities between it and those fics - it's not really intentional (and I think it's only the begining that kind of reminds me of some other story).
Anyway, I hope you'll like it. I've just started chapter 2 and I guess I will be done with it tomorrow, because the Goddess of Inspiration has made my mind go crazy and I can't stop writing (please, sent help!).
Chapter 1: Expect the unexpected
When Loki came back almost a year after the whole alien invasion, it's without any sort of disturbing blue cubes, evil schemes for world domination or glowing sticks of eternal doom. In fact, he had just kind of appeared out of thin air one day without any warning from Thor or the rest of the Asgardian folk. The date wasn't more precise, because no one expected him to come back and SHIELD had just sort of missed the Bifrost-related Aurora Borealis this time around. Or Loki just came by some others means of transport. Not that Tony knew a thing about interdimensional travelling.
Anyhow, if it wasn't for Tony who had a habit of running away from every business meeting or conference he could run away from (mostly because sometimes there was no Pepper to keep him in place), they still wouldn't have known.
He was sent on one of those utterly boring and completely ridiculous charity events that Pepper insisted were important for the company and he couldn't care less about. Of course he wanted to help and giving away money for a good cause was okay with him, but he preferred to be the good guy as far away from press and boring-to-death parties as possible. He was out before the thing actually really started and five miles away in a McDonald's within the next fifteen minutes, because cheeseburgers in an almost empty restaurant were far better than any fancy dinner with those bureaucracy hyenas as company. He had ordered his four cheeseburgers and one large black coffee with an astounding amount of sugar before moving to the back of the store and then outside. The place smelled like burned oil and homeless people – the worst possible combination of scents known to mankind. He started eating and was half way through the second sandwich, when he spotted Loki.
At first he thought that his sleep-deprived and slightly over-caffeinated brain was playing tricks on him.
After all there was a possibility that it was one of those insane hipster kids, who got it to their heads that Loki was a pretty cool guy. Apparently destroying New York and killing hundreds of people in the process was okay as long as their favourite music stores and cafes remained unscratched. Some of them even got their hair cut and dyed to resemble the madman. Tony was quite sure he would never be able to understand it.
It took him a few more glances in the direction of the mysterious man before he was one hundred percent sure. Then again he was pretty damn exhausted. After almost dying in the space, he was no longer able to sleep through the night without waking up from a nightmare. The explosion of the Chitauri mother ship and then the seemingly endless fall still plagued him. As if it wasn't enough, the Mandarin happened and literally blew his life into pieces for a while. He was better now, but it was still too fresh in his memory to dismiss.
As he watched Loki, he thought about all the things the man had done – all the deaths, the unimaginable property damage, the people who became homeless afterwards, because the alien army had destroyed their homes – and he wanted to punch him. It was petty, he knew, because Thor told them shortly after returning from Asgard that Loki was under the same spell that Barton and Selvig were, but for much longer, and that he was himself again, thanks to their father (whatever that meant). It still didn't make it fair, through. Tony wanted to blame someone and Loki was the best option. Up until now, when he could actually see how sickly Loki looked, it was easy to pile it all up on the guy.
But Loki didn't look like someone hell bent on bringing Earth to its knees, but more like a guy who needed medical attention and some seriously long vacation.
As Tony observed him from afar, he could clearly see how thin Loki was. From what he could make out of his face, it looked pale and gaunt. The shadows under his eyes were the mean greenish purple shade, a telltale of many sleepless nights. His clothes were a mix of random colours and materials. He was eating his fries slowly, as if he wasn't particularly enjoying them, more like forcing them down his throat. To put it simple, he looked like he needed help. He seemed so small and broken that Tony, with all that hate bottled up inside and ready to explode, couldn't bring himself to hold him accountable for what had happened. It just didn't seem right. Tony knew how it felt to be reduced to something so insignificant that living literally hurt. He had been there a few times during the last few months. The gut-wrecking realization that he was nothing more than a speck of dust in the greater scheme of things and that he was still lonely, after all these years of trying and failing to built more or less normal relationships with people, had turned him into a shadow of his former self. He was definitely more subbed and less self-obsessed, because he had learnt the hard way that he was not a centre of the universe.
Most of all, he knew how it felt to lose the sight of what made him his own person. He just knew.
Without much ado, he rose from his sit and marched to Loki's table. He stood in front of the God of Mischief for a moment before sitting down in front of him, putting his two remaining cheeseburgers on the table.
Loki didn't acknowledge him. He seemed removed, in a way, as if he was running on his instincts and habits alone. It was sad, really, to see someone who had almost brought America to her knees in such a state. Tony really wasn't going to ponder about this sudden burst of compassion for the guy, because he valued his mental health. Or whatever remained of it.
After long minutes of rather uncomfortable silence (at least on his part), Tony shrugged his shoulders and started to eat, glancing at Loki only once in a while. When he was done with his meal, he just slowly sipped his still warm coffee. His eyes were trained on Loki's form as the guy finished his fries and then proceeded to fold the empty cardboard container. He didn't seem to know that he was not alone anymore. It's quite clear in the way he moved. Or maybe he just didn't care. There was little difference to Tony.
"Hello, kid," he said in a quiet voice, as if he was scared that the man before him would run for it otherwise, and only them Loki looked up, but he didn't look at Tony. His gaze fell somewhere behind Tony's head. Whatever. At least he seemed to pay attention to him, which was an improvement in and on itself.
"Who is there?" Loki's question was soft, barely above a whisper. He blinked a few times, then extended his left arm and cautiously reached ahead, as if trying to touch Tony. And Tony finally realized why the God of Mischief hadn't acknowledged him yet.
Loki gasped air for a while, before Tony decided to let his self-preservation instincts go to hell and slowly took the slightly shaking hand in his own. The first thing he noticed was how cold Loki's skin truly was and how bony were his fingers. Loki froze in place, his body stiff with tension and his eyes going unbelievably wide in shock. He sure as hell wasn't expecting that, which Tony noted with badly concealed amusement.
"Man of Iron, as your brother insist on calling me," he answered eventually, lowering his hand to the table and then lightly squeezing Loki's fingers. It was a gesture of reassurance. He would be damned before letting Loki flee after finding him. Especially since the guy appeared so helpless in this state, as if this whole situation was entirely foreign to him, which probably was the case. "I personally prefer Iron Man, through it's still technically a mistake, because the suit is not actually made out of iron. That would have been just plain stupid. Anyway, you can call be Tony."
There was a pause before some sort of recognition passed over Loki's face. Tony could see it now – how clouded and pale were his also didn't dilate or constrict with the ever changing light. They stayed the same size even when a particularly large van passed them by, its reflectors at full blast, making Tony's eyes tear up abruptly. It was kind of disturbing, really. He had never encountered a blind person in his life. He did some awesome prototypes of improved white canes a few years ago, but that was pretty much it. He was grateful for his memory, because the research he had done before starting that project was the single thing that really kept him from freaking out.
"Tony." Loki bowed his head in what, Tony guessed, was a general direction of his voice. He pulled his hand away from Tony's, flexing his fingers, before putting it onto his lap. "You are one of Thor's Midgard companions, one of the Avengers."
It wasn't a question. His voice was still soft and quiet, almost tentative. Tony wasn't sure what to make of it, because to his ears it sounded awfully like Loki was afraid. It shouldn't have been a surprise, given the fact that Thor's little brother always stuck Tony as someone a bit paranoid. His time on Asgard apparently didn't help in that department, only adding up to it.
"Yeah, one and the same." He grinned before catching himself. Well, that was even harder than he expected, to be honest. Through if Loki was completely healthy, Tony would have probably just called Thor to deal with this. He couldn't quite understand why he didn't do it despite everything, to be honest, but it had something to do with the fact that it was pretty damn obvious that Loki fled from Asgard. After all, neither Thor nor his parents seemed aware that the younger prince was on Earth. Or they didn't thought it was important to inform puny mortals about that. He was inclined to grant the guy his right to explain himself before taking him anywhere or calling anyone. It was only fair.
"I assume nobody knows you're here, right?" After a brief moment of hesitation, Loki nodded. "Okay, so you run away and are hiding here. And it's clear you have absolutely no idea what you are doing, correct?" Another nod. "Well, isn't it just great?"
Tony laughed mirthlessly, rubbing at his temples and wishing for more coffee to clear his mind. The situation was so over his head. He was sitting with a (most probably) physically and (clearly) mentally unstable god in the McDonald's backyard in bumfucknowhere. If it wasn't ridiculous then he didn't know what was.
"Okay, right." He took a few steady breaths. Loki was still looking over his shoulder, but his head was slightly bend. It was a strange sight, but at the same time Tony had never seen Loki look so boyish before and for the first time he wondered just how old the guy was, because he sure as hell didn't look a year older than twenty.
Tony sighed. He was so going to regret this.
"First of all, are you hungry?" As he expected, Loki shook his head. "You sure? The fries were pretty small and you look... Well." He cleared his throat. He decided to let the topic drop for the time being. "Do you trust me?"
Loki stiffed again, as if the question was not as simple as it was. As if he was looking for a trap and Tony wasn't really surprised. Loki's paranoia apparently reached far deeper than he thought.
"Yes," Loki replied after some time of what looked like careful consideration. Tony blinked. He didn't actually expect that answer, but he could surely work with that.
"That's good, I guess," he remarked, the bewilderment clear in his voice. "Do you want to come back to Asgard?"
Well, wasn't it a surprise?
"Okay, no Asgard." So the family issues were still very much there, it seemed. Thor had said that it had been dealt with when the enchantment was lifted from his brother's mind, but there was probably more wishful thinking than actual truth in his declaration. "And New York? I would have proposed Malibu, but I kind of lost the house. Well, it was blown up, but we're so not going into semantics right now. Anyway. Thor and the rest of the team are there, in NY, in my tower. Or in our tower if you think about it. You know, the building you used the last time to... No, we're not going there either."
He was babbling like an idiot. Loki's face, devoid of any emotion, was making him incredibly nervous. Somehow it seemed easier to talk to the man when he was acting like a lunatic. Pepper would have probably stated that it was because Tony himself wasn't completely sane. Tony disagreed.
"So. New York?"
Loki did this strange motion between shaking and nodding his head, clearly unsure of what to do. In the end, he whispered a scarcely audible 'yes'. Tony didn't know what to make out of this decision. New York, where people would sooner walk around naked than admit that Loki was innocent of his crimes, was apparently a better hideout than Asgard, where the guy was a fucking prince. There was something amiss in this picture, not that Tony had time or any inclination to think about it right now.
He fished out his phone and dialled Happy's number.
"What's up, boss?" Came the rough voice from the other side of the line. "Anything interesting going on?"
"Yeah, you could say that." He glanced briefly at Loki. "Listen, how long will it take for the jet to be ready?"
"I dunno, probably two hours, if I tell Finn to start now." There was a pause. "You ran away from that dinner, didn't you?"
"Oh, you know me so well!" He could hear Happy's exasperated sigh.
"Ms Potts won't like it, you know that, right?"
" Luckily, I'm quite used to it. She will come around. Besides if I didn't I wouldn't have found something that apparently went missing."
"Nothing. I'll fill you in when I get there. Or later. Just tell Finn to start, I'll try to make it fast." His eyes fell once again on Loki. The clothes he wore were old, ragged and smelled. From up close he could see that they were also a few sizes too big. "And if you are at that, go somewhere and buy me some clothes."
"Clothes?" Happy parroted as if he wasn't sure he heard him right.
"Yes, clothes. Man clothes. Like a pair of trousers, socks, undies, a T-shirt and maybe a jumper or a sweater, whatever you can get will be okay, I guess. Full service. Make it small or medium. Or something in-between. "
"Shoes?" Happy asked, apparently deciding to go with the madness.
"Yeah, that too."
"Anything else, boss?"
"No, that's all. Just try to hurry up."
Tony hung up and looked at Loki, who gave the impression of someone deeply confused for some reason. He didn't have to consider it for long, because a woman stepped out of the store at that very moment. She was wearing the custom McDonald's uniform, a look of concern on her face.
"Are you a cop?" She asked him, fidgeting with her hands anxiously. He shook his head. "O-Okay. You are not going to hurt him, right? He hasn't done anything, I swear. He just sits there or inside and... Just don't hurt him, please?"
He looked between Loki and the woman, and then it drew on him. She was the one who gave Loki those fries. She was also the one who kept him remotely safe while he has been there. It was obvious, the way she glanced at him every few seconds. She was worried.
"He is my friend's brother. We were looking for him for quite some time," he lied smoothly and the woman visibly relaxed. "I'll be taking him home."
"That's nice," she said with a small smile on her own. Then she turned around and was almost inside, when she made up her mind. She walked to them and laid her hand on Loki's bone thin shoulder, squeezing it lightly. "Good luck, Loki."
Her voice was sincere, as much as Tony could tell, and Loki apparently could feel it too, because he bowed his head to her with what could probably pass for a smile.
When she finally left, Tony explained to Loki where they were going and then helped the god to his feet. As they made their way towards the car, it occurred to him that Loki was not only thinner, but also much shorter. He wasn't sure what to make out of it, but it wasn't anything good, he was quite certain about that.
They were at the airport in twenty minutes flat. Tony expected some sort of struggle, anything, when he opened the door and asked Loki to get into the car, but it didn't happen. The god was apathetic, mostly unresponsive and frighteningly weak, if the ease with which Tony was able to move him around was any indication. It was worrisome and it certainly wasn't normal. What was more, Loki had behaved, back in that backyard, as if he was almost expecting that no one would be looking for him. For some unfathomable reason it made Tony swallow thickly. That just wasn't right, this kind of believe that nobody cared enough.
As much, as he wanted to deny it, he was afraid. He was out of his element, he didn't know a thing about medicine or how alien princes were supposed to act and, quite frankly, he really wanted to run away from it. Only it was already way too late for that.
He glanced at Loki and smiled against himself. The guy had fallen asleep a few minutes after they entered the car and didn't wake even when they pulled up into the city. He must have been completely drained to allow it, an accident of sorts, because Tony wouldn't believe for a second that with this level of paranoia, anyone could sleep so peacefully.
Tony shook his head in slight disbelief before exiting the car. Happy was standing near the airport entrance and, if Tony wasn't mistaken, freaking out a bit. He was holding a big paper bag with Marshalls written on it in bold dark blue letters. Tony waved and didn't have to do much else, because Happy crossed the distance between them in a few long strides.
"You got everything?"
"Yes, boss." Happy handed him the bag. "Finn said that we should be on our way in an hour or so. Apparently, Ms Potts knew you wouldn't stick with the plan."
Ah, his dear Pepper and her almost legendary foresight.
"Good," he murmured. "That's good."
He heard a bang and turned around in time to witness Loki's frantic attempts to free himself from the seatbelt. He was obviously having a full-on panic attack.
"Hey, kid! Calm down!" He opened the door on the passenger's side and squatted down, catching Loki's hands. He shook him lightly to bring him out of his haze. "It's me. It's Tony. Everything is fine. Just calm down."
Loki stilled. His chest was still rising and falling in rapid, uneven breaths, but at least he wasn't trying to fight, which was a welcomed surprise. It took some time, but he eventually managed to calm himself down, the same blank expression from before taking over his features. Well, if that wasn't weird, Tony didn't know what was. He glanced at Happy over his shoulder and grimaced. He squeezed Loki's hands one more time, before letting them go and standing up.
"This isn't as weird as it looks like," he said and then laughed, because it sure as hell was even weirder. "Okay, maybe not."
Happy gave him a look, the same one Pepper used when she was absolutely done with him or wanted some explanation. The problem was, Tony truly was at the lost for words. The whole ordeal – taking Loki with him, calming him down, this strange need to protect him – were unexpected. He didn't understand the many whys and hows that were bothering him from the very beginning, if he was being completely honest. Not for the first time in his life, he didn't have any answers. The fact that he couldn't figure it out, even with his undeniably clever mind, was kind of scary, as much as he loathed to admit it.
"I need to take him to Thor," he stated finally, looking Happy in the eye with all the seriousness he could muster. "There's something wrong – very, very wrong – with him and I... Man, I just can't leave him there. I would like to, yes, but I can't. No one deserves to be left alone, you know? Not even this guy."
"I was going to ask, who he is, but... Well, yeah." Happy clear his throat and Tony felt like facepalming himself with a chair, because really? How stupid was that? Instead he turned around and helped Loki out of the car. He was trying to pretend that he was too busy to say anything and really, was it him or did Loki shrink another couple of inches?
They made their way into the building and then separated, when Tony took Loki to the bathroom to change into the fresh set of clothes and Happy went to check up on the jet. The trousers and the T-shirt were slightly too big, but Loki didn't seem to mind. Tony could feel a headache forming, when he was forced to bend down and tie the guy's shoe laces, because it was apparently impossible to do that without your eyesight intact. It was awkward for the both of them, which made him feel a little bit better. Gods help him, Tony was seriously going to murder Thor, when they got to the Tower, because dealing with the God of Mischief at his lowest was not his idea for a good evening, thank you very much.
When they were done, they sat down in a small cafe and Tony bought himself a cup of extra strong coffee, because he was sure his mind was going to shut down otherwise. They spent the reminder of time there in complete silence. Unconsciously or not, Loki was holding onto Tony's elbow the entire time, as if he was afraid that he would leave him there. If it wasn't so terribly dramatic, he would have laughed at the sheer impossibility of this situation.
Happy picked them up, when it was well past midnight, almost two hours later, but Tony was beyond caring at this point. They got into the jet a few minutes later. It instantly made him feel better, because, with JARVIS's calm and collected voice there, it was almost as good as home. Loki had another minor panic attack, when the AI greeted them. It took all of Tony's willpower not to laugh at his wide-eyed expression.
Loki fell asleep pretty fast, in the first half an hour of their flight. He ended up curled into a tight ball in one of the seats, the hood of his jumper pulled over his head. It was kind of cute.
In the meantime, Tony got JARVIS to do some basic scans and the medical evaluation. Then he asked him to send the results to both Coulson and Bruce. After he was done with it, he tried calling Pepper a few times – an apology before she learnt of this mess was a precaution, really – but she didn't pick up. Without anything better to do, he decided that a short nap would do him good.
He was out within minutes.
He woke up three hours later. He was a bit giddy at first, because he couldn't remember the last time he actually slept and oh, did it feel good! He stretched and cringed, when he heard his spine pop loudly. Sleep was maybe healthy, but those seats seriously murdered his back and neck. It kind of hurt to move. He looked around, still a bit out of it, and his eyes widen when they landed on Loki. Or the lack of him.
He got to his feet so fast, his vision filled with black dots. Thor was going to kill him, if he lost his little brother, Tony was sure of that. And then Coulson would resurrect him and kill him again. He ran around the cabin like a madman, but there was no sign of the Mischief God. Only a pile of clothes.
"Fuck," he mumbled under his breath. There was no better way to put it.
When he had half a mind to ask JARVIS for help and maybe call Coulson, he heard something. He stood stock-still for a moment, before he was able to locate the source of the strange noise. It was coming out of the heap of Loki's clothes. With a growing confusion, Tony indentified it as a childish sob. He pinched himself on the arm, just to be sure that he wasn't imagining things, but the sound was still there, slowly getting louder.
He approached the seat and then gently lifted the jumper to revile a small child. A gasp left his mouth before he was able to stop it, because holy fucking shit, it was Loki and Tony couldn't wrap him mind around this. And here he thought that he was done with the impossible for the day.
Apparently, Fate hated him more than he realized.
Loki was trembling and his sobs were horrible, heart wrecking and just plain wrong. His face was red from the strain of crying and wet with tears. Tony was also pretty sure that the boy was still blind and that was the main reason behind his distress.
He bent down and picked him up, the too big T-shirt and polka dot undies( that looked more like trousers now) intact. Loki's breath hitched in his throat and his whole body had gone rigid at the contact, but there was no other way to help him calm down, because Tony was too shocked to say anything at the moment. He rubbed Loki's back in circles, as his mother would often do to him when he had been a child, and rocked him, as he walked back and forth, trying to think, which was easier said than done.
When he thought that this day couldn't get any worse, he sure as hell didn't mean it as a challenge.