In which Loki is lost in the Bifrost and emerges on Earth as a child, with no apparent memory of the events in New York... or anything else.
And the Avengers adopt him. Because what could possibly go wrong?
Notes: See Part 1
Betaed by artemisiabrisol.
Apparently SHIELD has a child psychologist on staff. Tony can’t imagine what situation might have arisen to precipitate that hiring decision. Apparently the guy has a half a dozen degrees, and this is only one of them, which makes sense. It seems like everybody on staff at SHIELD has about nine secondary fields, from dentistry to taxidermy to basket weaving.
Dr. Halston is a tall, rumpled, elbow-patched academic who exudes confidence and competence and absolutely zero threat-vibes, which Tony figures is what you want in someone whose job it is to get people to answer questions they don’t really want to answer.
Halston, flanked discreetly (or as discreetly as you can flank someone while holding large-calibre rifles) by two SHIELD agents at all times, is the first person apart from Coulson or Steve to really talk to their tiny guest.
“Do you know how you got here?”
“Does anything hurt?”
“Is your name Loki?”
Hesitation, and then a nod.
“Are you scared?”
Thor hovers anxiously outside of the interview room but generally declines the invitation to enter. He seems worried about Loki but disinclined to interfere directly with the process. He seems to feel responsible for what’s happening, though Tony can’t see why. If Loki’s gone off and gotten himself shrunk then from his previous track record, it’s probably his own damned fault.
Sometimes Steve sits in on the interviews and these are the only times the kid loosens up at all, sometimes even smiling at Dr. Halston’s lame jokes. For the first time, Tony wishes he had more contact with kids, because he has no frame of reference for whether or not this is normal behaviour - if this is just to be expected from a shy child surrounded by strange adults, or if it might be a ploy, or if it’s trauma, or...
...Tony tries not to think about it too much, because it’s Loki, or at least that’s what he keeps reminding himself. It’s Loki, and no matter how small and quiet he is, no matter how much time Steve is spending with him, he can’t start thinking about their guest as a lost little kid. (Can’t start remembering being small and the centre of attention and at the same time totally adrift in other people’s expectations, because priorities.)
After the first day passes with no explosions or agents turning into Tesseract-zombies or tantrums, people start to relax a little. On the second day, Tony overhears a few agents talking about their own kids, and how the kid looks so unhappy to be stuck in an infirmary bed all day. Tony stops listening in on other people’s conversations and thinks that he needs to stop spending so much goddamned time at SHIELD when he doesn’t have to be there.
Steve comes bearing crayons. He isn’t really sure if a de-aged alien supervillain will like crayons, but he hasn’t got any better ideas. It turns out he needn’t have worried, though, because the kid is curled up on his side, facing the door, sucking his thumb. He looks tiny in the adult-sized infirmary bed. He opens his eyes when Steve walks in, though, and looks at him curiously.
“Hey,” Steve says, quietly. He’s probably not really supposed to be here, but the guards don’t really know how to say no to Captain America.
Tony would be delighted.
The kid doesn’t take his thumb out of his mouth, but he cautiously wiggles the other four fingers in Steve’s direction.
Steve glances back over his shoulder before sitting down on the edge of the bed. The kid watches him, warily. Silently. Steve wonders if he even can talk. Phil said he didn’t say a word the three hours he was with him; answered questions by nodding or shaking his head.
“So, they say they’re done with tests and stuff for now,” Steve says. “Um, so they’re going to get you a better room. Nicer bed. Some toys. Would you like that?”
The kid doesn’t react, not even with a nod. He’s looking at Steve’s hands.
“Oh! Yeah, I brought you some crayons.”
The kid meets his eyes, curiously.
“Oh. They’re -- for drawing. You make...” Showing is easier than telling. “Here.”
He pulls the tray table closer, lays out the stack of paper and opens the box of crayons. He takes a green one and looks around, not sure what to draw. It’s been ages since he did this on a regular basis, but he’s not being judged on technique. He glances at -- Loki, might as well start thinking of him that way -- and decides.
It’s a rough sketch, so it only takes him a minute or so. The curve of a cheek. Small nose. Eyes with long dark lashes. Hair in a dark tumble of waves.
Loki knee-walks over to him, puts his elbows on the table, and studies it. He looks up at Steve, thumb still in his mouth. He points at his own chest.
Steve grins. “Yeah. It’s you.”
The kid smiles.
A week passes. Director Fury seems to have calmed down enough to agree that Loki - which everyone seems to have accepted as his identity for the moment - does not plan to kill them all, at least not in the near future. He’s moved from the SHIELD infirmary to a small adjacent room that is surrounded by windows and mirrored on the inside. Someone brings in a bed and some books and a few toys and a brightly-coloured plastic table and chairs set that is sized down for a little kid. Steve visits him and tries to work out his feelings on the matter.
Loki is a criminal. He hurt a lot of people and he did a massive and lasting amount of damage to the city of New York. He led an alien invasion of the planet Earth that might have resulted in the downfall of the human race. He deserves to pay for his crimes, which is of course why SHIELD grudgingly consented - under extreme diplomatic pressure - to allow him to be extradited to Asgard, with the admission that Earth authorities were neither equipped nor qualified to punish or contain someone of Loki’s... unique status. Loki is a liar and a killer and should not be trusted.
The problem, Steve is realizing, is that Loki is also now a child. Apparently helpless, and from what the many and repeated scans have said, unaware of his own history.
It’s troubling. Especially since from the moment he saw him through the smoke Steve has wanted nothing but to protect him.
Steve knows that he should be more cautious. And he’s trying. But if the best scientific minds in the world are growing convinced that not only is this Loki, but he is truly what he appears, an innocent child... well, what else can he do?
As if on cue, Bruce coughs from the door, and Steve turns. Bruce is clutching a computer tablet. He stares beyond Steve, to where the window shows Loki as a sleeping shape, curled up on his side with his thumb in his mouth. There’s always at least one Avenger in there with him or in the observation room, and it’s Steve’s turn. He takes more turns than anyone else.
“So?” asks Steve, and Bruce drops into the chair beside him.
“They’re processing DNA now, but I think they’re running out of tests to run,” Bruce says, showing him the screen of the tablet. It shows a grid filled with fingerprints and green lines pointing to phrases like “likelihood of subject identity match” and “percentage match,” and all of the numbers are high.
Bruce nods. “I asked Thor, and while he wasn’t familiar with the process, he let me run some comparisons between his fingerprints now and the ones taken when SHIELD arrested him last year. They were a match, so we ran prints on, uh, Loki in there.” He jerked his head towards the window.
“Well, they were a match. To the ones taken when we arrested Loki before... well. You know.” He grimaces.
“They were a match?”
“Yes. And I mean, obviously there are plenty of ways fingerprints can be faked, but why would anyone bother, in this case?”
“I can’t think of a reason,” Steve agrees, looking through the window again. Loki hasn’t stirred; is sleeping peacefully.
“How do you feel about all of this, Bruce?” Steve asks. He should have been asking from the start. Tony’s made his feelings pretty obvious, and Thor mostly seems wracked with guilt. Natasha, and then Clint, were last on the roster, but Clint just shrugged and declared himself “fine,” and Natasha said that it was Clint’s grudge to hold. Which... warrants further conversation, really, but for the moment he trusts his team. Most of them keep their watch from the observation room, and Tony hasn’t taken a watch yet. He’s been “too busy.”
Bruce runs a hand through his hair. “I wasn’t sure at first. I mean... “ The way he waves his hand is pretty eloquent, and Steve nods. “But I’ve spent kind of a lot of time with him. And he’s... Thor said it. He’s different.”
“I guess Thor would know.”
“Yeah.” Bruce pauses, then continues. “If he were Loki without his memory, but the way we knew him before, it would be easier. But this is pretty dramatic. It’s really hard to keep it straight in my head, that biologically, that kid is the same person who... did all those things.”
But is he? Steve wonders. Because he knows better than anyone that biology is not what makes a person. Maybe it isn’t even most of it.
Tony’s on a roll. Better yet, he’s on a roll after only one night without sleep, which is a rarity for him when nobody is around to enforce a schedule. That used to be Pepper’s job; these days, more often, it’s Steve. Lately, though, Steve has been otherwise occupied. Tony has not mentioned this to anyone because he gets a lot more done when he doesn’t have to adhere to other people’s ridiculous, arbitrary notions what is and is not an appropriate rest/activity cycle
And he’s pretty sure it would sound like he was jealous of a three-year-old.
That he’s managed to produce actual results on his current tests to improve the efficiency of the helicarrier’s engines and gotten more than four hours sleep in the past two days is... possibly a record? He’ll have to ask Pepper. He’s not sure, but he thinks she used to keep track of Tony’s sleepless-night-to-usable-data ratio.
Riding the high of triumph, he reaches for his coffee... and it’s not there. Steve is there, holding the cup and looking annoyed.
“Uh. Steve.” Steve’s wearing an impatient expression, one that probably means he’s been standing there for a while and has probably said Tony’s name a few times.
Tony mutes the music with a gesture. “JARVIS, why didn’t you tell me Steve was here?”
“You asked me not to interrupt you for anything short of a dire global emergency, Sir.”
“Oh.” Tony leans back from the workbench, wondering why, again, he’d thought it was a good idea to give the rest of the team lab access codes, thereby totally defeating the purpose of having his workshop in the tower’s sub-basement to begin with (Pepper, of course, would have argued that they’d done this because of the expense of transporting Tony’s equipment up thirty-three stories as well as his tendency to blast metal when he was working were somewhat less than considerate of the other people who had to share the building with him). Something about his history of heart problems, probably.
Steve looks like he isn’t going to give up the coffee cup without a fight. Tony slumps a little in his chair. “Fine,” he says, a little moodily. “It’s probably cold anyway.”
“It’s your turn, Tony.”
Tony immediately regrets muting the music.
Steve crosses his arms. Apparently not bothering to try the earnest route first, then. He must have been standing there for a while.
“Clint’s in New Mexico.”
“Neither has Thor.”
“Yes, he has. And he’s got much better reasons than the rest of us.”
Tony turns back to the workbench and reaches for a circuit probe. The truth is, he’s been down there to see the kid a few times, usually during Steve’s daytime shifts. He’s seen his teammates - even Thor, though Thor keeps his visits brief. Bruce sometimes goes into the room and sometimes doesn’t. Natasha always does. So does Steve. Steve’s partiality is obvious, and it makes Tony uncomfortable for reasons he can’t quite name.
“What exactly are you still worried about?” asks Steve, voice turning oddly gentle, and Tony drums his fingers on the worktop for a second before turning what he hopes is a suitably incredulous look on Steve.
“You’re kidding, right?”
Steve sighs his most long-suffering sigh. “Tony, it’s been three days.”
“He could just be lulling us into a false sense of security!”
The disappointed look Steve turns on him is completely unfair. As is the fact that Captain America’s disappointment seems to have this much influence on him. Tony tries to rally.
“I don’t see why I need to be on the roster, anyway,” he complains. “If the kid’s harmless, what does he need super-powered babysitters for?”
“Because he spends all his time with doctors and nurses, and he’s a kid, and he needs human interaction.”
Tony rounds on him, filled with something - anger? - that he can’t quite name. There’s just a lot of it. “Why are you so stuck on this, Rogers?”
Steve regards him steadily. “Everyone else is taking a turn.”
“So I’ll be an exception! I’m good at being exceptional!”
Steve closes the distance between them, leaning in in the way he does when he wants to emphasize that what he’s saying is important. Tony is not a huge fan of having his personal space invaded without invitation, but in Steve’s case it’s uncomfortable for a whole host of more embarrassing reasons that Steve needs to never, ever find out about. “Tony, this is important.”
Tony squints at Steve. Steve is a firm believer in team bonding. He instituted weekly activities to further this goal while the reconstructed tower still had new-paint smell; keeps at it with grim determination even though it’s early days yet and they’re still feeling their way. As far as Steve is concerned, saving the world together made them all friends, and the many and varied personality conflicts that made things bumpy in the beginning apparently don’t count anymore. That could be why he’s so insistent on everyone spending time with the kid, but Tony doesn’t think it’s everything, and he’s an expert in ulterior motives.
Steve was a lot easier to deal with when they hated each other.
Tony’s seen every piece of data on SHIELD’s little houseguest. Moreover, he’s watched the security footage of his team members with the kid; watching him from behind mirrored glass, talking to him (more at him, since as far as Tony knows, the kid still hasn’t said a word), and in Steve’s case, hunched over colouring books. But the more time passes the more determined he feels to avoid getting within arm’s reach of the kid. It makes no sense, because he’s capable of analyzing data - he’s not really worried the kid’s going to turn on them... anymore. If nothing else, Steve’s an impeccable judge of character (with the possible exception of Tony, who he seems to have decided to befriend out of some sense of... duty? obligation? masochism?), and if Steve says the kid is safe, the kid is probably safe.
He can’t explain it, and he’d really rather not think about it. Which is why he came back to the tower two days ago while everybody else was hanging around at SHIELD - so that it wouldn’t become an issue.
Trust Steve to make it an issue.
“As a favour to me,” Steve says finally, putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder. Tony glares at him, because damn it, Steve never asks for favours, for anything, and for all his bad-boy nonchalance Tony is apparently just as much of a sucker for Steve’s earnest, genuine Face as everybody else in the world.
Tony throws down his tools and goes.
Because he knows that Tony will duck out of it if given half a chance, Steve shadows him all the way into the shiny black car that pulls up at the curb outside the Tower. Tony is uncharacteristically silent on the ride to SHIELD headquarters, splitting his time between staring sullenly out the window and shooting Steve suspicious looks. Steve wonders at both the resistance and the quick capitulation, but he knows better than to poke Tony when he’s in this state; it just leads to blow-ups.
Not for the first time, Steve finds himself thinking about Howard. He tries very hard not to compare the two men, because in many ways they’re so very different, but occasionally there are similarities that are too pronounced to be ignored. The sulking, for instance. The arrogance, while generally well-deserved, is almost a pitch-perfect imitation of Howard.
He doesn't tell Tony this, of course.
There are some good things, too; the charm is... well, charming, if sometimes a little grating when Tony thinks it means he can get away with anything. Tony’s jubilation, all-encompassing, when he figures something out and wants to tell you about it in intricate, sometimes baffling detail. The way his mind works and the way he seems to fill up every room he’s in.
Howard didn’t have Tony’s sore spots and he wasn’t nearly as easy to rile, but Steve is starting to think that maybe the former is directly responsible for the latter. Howard could certainly be startlingly careless, or at least it was startling to Steve, but even back then he knew he maybe wasn’t the best standard for measurement when it came to that kind of thing.
He doesn’t pretend to understand Tony’s reluctance here, either. He doesn’t believe it’s all suspicion of Loki’s intentions. Tony’s a smart man, and surely he’s been clandestinely keeping track of every test result that’s been recorded in SHIELD’s computers. Even Fury stopped insisting that the guards on Loki’s room stand with arms drawn, and though they’re still there, and still armed, the atmosphere in the infirmary section has grown noticeably less tense.
Steve wonders what’s going to happen when they finally get through to Asgard.
It’s a thought that comes almost from nowhere, but now he realizes he’s been thinking about it for a few days. The boy can’t stay in a mirrored room forever. Soon they’re going to have to decide what to do with him on a long-term basis, and Steve already knows what’s not going to happen... what he’s not going to allow. He hasn’t figured out an alternative yet, which is why he hasn’t spoken to anyone about it. That, and the person he most wants to talk to about it - the person he feels like he should be talking to about it - is Tony...
...who for the last few days has been avoiding him like the plague.
Six months of fighting evil together and five of what Steve thinks might even be friendship, and half the time, Steve still has no idea what Tony will do or say or think on any given day.
Tony follows him down to the infirmary level, hesitates at the edge of the observation room, hands in his pockets.
“Uh, look. On second thought - actually no, on first thought - I don’t think this is such a good idea.”
Steve shakes his head and reaches out for Tony’s arm, but Tony, to his surprise, scuttles back.
Steve looks through the glass. Loki is sitting at his little table, playing with blocks. On the floor next to his sneakered feet is the stuffed... well, Steve doesn’t know what it is. It has a lot of legs, and what seem to be horns, and big, brown eyes; Steve’s pretty sure Thor gave it to him, but kids’ toys are so weird these days that he has no way of being sure. Loki seems perfectly calm and content, or at least what passes for content when you’re a prisoner in all but name. He looks back at Tony, planning to rib him a little - afraid of a kid? - but he’s surprised at what he actually sees in Tony’s face.
It’s only visible for a second - maybe more like half a second, while Tony stares through the glass - and then it’s gone, wiped away and replaced with an irritated frown. And Steve doesn’t know what’s going on here, but he knows it isn’t about Loki. At least, not the way Tony wants him to think it is.
He opens the door and holds it open. “Come on,” he says, firmly.
Tony opens his mouth, as if to voice another protest, but after a few seconds of Steve staring at him expectantly, he shuts it again, and his shoulders hunch up, and he precedes Steve through the door.
Loki is playing with blocks. It’s the most initiative he’s shown so far; most of the toys they brought into the room he played with first with an adult demonstrating. The blocks he picked up on his own, which is apparently significant in some way that means a lot more to Dr. Halston than to the rest of them.
He looks up when they enter, and his eyes light on Steve first. He shyly wiggles his fingers at Steve in greeting, and then ducks down behind the wall he’s building, looking at Tony from behind it, eyes wide. Steve raises his eyebrows in Tony’s direction, and Tony grudgingly takes one hand out of his pocket and waves.
“Hey, kid,” Tony says, and his voice is strange - gruff and brisk at the same time, like he doesn’t know whether he wants to be nice or not.
And then Loki says, “Hi,” and shyly wiggles his fingers again.
It takes Steve a second to realize what just happened, and when he looks at Tony, he sees his surprise reflected in Tony’s face.
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