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If You Had This Time Again

Chapter Text

Tony had always considered the saying of hearing snow fall as a whimsical fairytale made up by hopeless romantics. As he laid in a broken Iron Man suit in an abandoned HYDRA bunker in the middle-of-nowhere Siberia, he managed to find some comfort in the satisfaction that he had been right. About something. For once

There hadn't been any words since Tony's demand for his father's shield, a bitter and broken request thrown like a halfhearted punch at the end of a fight already lost. There hadn't been any sounds since Steve's tiredly triumph footsteps and the careless clang of the shield hitting the ground, throwing away so much more than the symbol of a hero. There hadn't been anything but silence since. 

The quiet was a heavy yet soothing thing, like the thick comforter Jarvis used to wrap him in whenever he felt unwell. 

Tony hadn't felt well in a long time. He hadn't felt warm in a while, either. 

It should be concerning, the tingles fading away to numbness but he couldn't muster the strength to care. Not when everything he cared about, cared for, crumbled and slipped through his fingers.

JARVIS. Stark Industries. Pepper. The Avengers. Rhodey. The Accords.

The laugh forced out of his frozen lip was startlingly loud and anything but joyous, it contorted into a choked cry cracking and crashing through his crushed chest. Tears solidified to ice, clumping his lashes and catching on his cheeks. Tony tried lifting a gauntleted hand but could not. The powerless armor was now a restraint and soon to be a coffin. 

Death was certain, Tony knew with complete confidence. He told no one of his whereabouts, per Sam's insistence at the Raft. FRIDAY went offline hours ago, with her system purposefully limited to prevent acting without orders and Tony without the means to communicate with her, no reinforcement would be sent. Steve was long gone and his attention focused entirely on Bucky, unlikely to return to rescue the man who had almost killed his best friend. 

Tony had always considered the idea of life flashing by before death as an idealistic euphemism describing traumatic flashbacks caused by near-death experiences. As he felt his eyes drifting close, he was quite displeased to find some merit behind that idiom. Moments and memories of his life distilled into images that cycled through rapidly, like a glitched slideshow outlining all of his wrong choices and bad decisions. 

Before Tony gave into darkness, his last thought was a self-deprecating I should have known better

A fierce roar shook Tony back into consciousness. The New York skyline filled his vision, the humid air caressed his skin, and the taste of ash on his tongue. 

Another roar focused his attention and Tony couldn't quite suppress a flinch at the sight of Steve, clad in his uniform but, thankfully, without his shield. 

A quick scan of his surroundings located a relieved Thor and a pleased Hulk, a wrecked city and a familiar tower, a clear sky and a functioning suit. 

"What the hell?" Tony mumbled, mostly to himself. 

"We won." Steve said, sounding impossibly young and unbelievably grateful. 

Tony let his head fall back against the gravel, listening to the hum of the arc reactor in his chest. This is one hell of a flashback.

Chapter Text

The Avengers made their way through the debris and returned to the Stark Tower in exhausted silence. Bone-deep fatigue provided the perfect cover for Tony's reticence and dulled the others' awareness to the fact that Tony hadn't been able to look at or talk to Steve since the brief exchange when Tony first woke. The bitter betrayal and bloody battle of Siberia hovered at the edge of his mind, fresh yet distant. The discomfort of adjusting to the arc reactor in his chest, how strange it was to be tasting coconut again, served as an unpleasant reminder of the shattering crack of another arc reactor. In Siberia. 

Every so often, Captain America's shield gleamed in the sunlight, blood red and arc reactor blue and snow white. Iron Man averted his eyes. 

Tony felt as though he was walking through a dreaded and dazed dream. Everything around him seemed real, yet it could not possibly be. Multiple theories raced through his mind, though none remotely plausible and all seemingly insane. 

If this was his personal hell, then he supposed he should be grateful that he did not wake up in Afghanistan.  

If this was some kind of time travelling adventure, which had some merit given the insanity of his life, he should be meeting his past self instead of inhabiting his own body.  

If this was an end-of-life flashback, it wasn't a particularly thorough one and flashbacks weren't supposed to include the more mundane parts like walking or sweating

Or he was going about this all wrong. Tony assumed his current surrounding was fabricated. He assumed those nightmarish four years following the Battle of New York did happen. He assumed he fought, died, in Siberia. All assumptions with no supporting evidence. Time to look at the facts. 

He could feel the sun heating his face and the metal of his armor. He could hear the gravel crunching beneath his feet. He could taste the aftermath of battle in the air. He could smell the salty-sour stink of his sweat. He could see his tower, with only the letter A remaining, only a block away. 

Maybe everything seemed real because it was real. 

Then what were those four nightmarish years he had lived, suffered, and endured? A bad dream? A premonition? A souvenir of space travel? 

Tony's racing mind snagged on the last theory but before he could examine it further, all thoughts vanished when they stepped into the lobby and JARVIS' voice flowed through the speakers. 

"Welcome back, Sir." 

"JA–JARVIS?" Tony whispered wondrously. For him, it had been years since his last, and heartbreaking, interaction with JARVIS. "That you, buddy?" 

"I do not recall you giving DUM-E or Butterfinger or U a voice module." There was a definitive note of reproach in the A.I.'s voice. "I strongly advise against going out of range again." 

"No arguments from me." Tony rotated his torso in a stretch that wouldn't have done much while still in the armor, angling his face out of the Avengers' line of sight, and mouthed we need to talk at one of the cameras mounted in the ceiling. The lights flickered, easily explained by the damages done to the tower, but Tony knew it was JARVIS returning the sentiment and acknowledging the need for privacy. "JARVIS, meet the Avengers, earth's mightiest defenders. Avengers, JARVIS, just a rather very intelligent system." Tony shrugged, twisting back to face his guests. Not teammates. Not friends. 

"Your accomplice in hacking SHIELD's system?" It was hard to tell if Steve meant it as a question or statement, but the uncertainty was clearly present in his tone. So was the disapproval. 

"I would consider Sir to be the accomplice in that incident, given I did most of the work and he merely assisted."

Tony chuckled. "You have no idea how much I missed you."

"Man of Iron and Voice of JARVIS, as gladdened as I am by your reunion, we do have the pressing matter of locating and apprehending Loki to conduct." Thor boomed. 

"Hulk smashed Puny God." A deep and pleased rumble. "In glass room." 

"I can confirm that Mr. Loki is still within the floors of the penthouse." JARVIS announced. 

"Within?" Steve asked. 

Tony's eye twitched at the incredulity in Steve's voice. He'd heard it often, steadily losing its friendliness, over the years. The years that hadn't happened, or didn't happen, or wouldn't happen. Tony closed his eyes and inhaled deeply to stifle the sudden spike of irritation at both this bizarre situation he found himself in and his unfair judgment of this Steve, who hadn't coldly discarded their friendship with years of lies. Yet. He stopped himself before he could descend into the downward spiral of had they ever been friends, a pity party was not on the schedule. 

The Hulk beamed with pride. "Hulk smashed good." 

Thor's face contorted awkwardly as he tried to disguise his grimace as a grin for his SHIELD brother's battle prowess. There was clearly some lingering traces of the brotherly bond between the two Norse gods, adoption notwithstanding. 

Tony hadn't noticed that before, when all of his attention had been focused on keeping these heroes around for just a bit longer with talks of shawarma and promises of upgrades. But he saw it now and could not ignore it. He patted Thor's bicep comfortingly. "C'mon, Point Break. Let's see if Rock of Ages improved my decor any." 

Natasha was already in the penthouse by the time the elevator arrived. Clint and Tony both flinched violently upon seeing the scepter in her hand. 

Clint's reaction was understandable, considering his time as Loki's puppet. The archer had developed a habit of checking his reflections in all possible surfaces to ascertain his eye color, one that Tony could see was forming as Clint's eyes shifted away from Natasha and trailed across the span of the windows. The glass shimmered in the afternoon sun, like a stream of golden silk ripped by the gaping and jagged frame where Tony had been thrown out of merely hours ago. Yet another near-death experience that seemed so far away when it had transpired less than a day ago. Siberia. Wormhole. New York. And many more to come. 

Natasha peered at him, clinical and assessing, no doubt finding Tony's recoil from the staff disproportional since he had resisted Loki's mind control attempt. In a calculatedly casual move, Tony rubbed an absent hand over the arc reactor as though he was confirming its presence and shielding it from the eerie glow of the scepter. The scrap of metal against glass was obscenely loud in the vastness of the penthouse. He knew he had succeeded when Natasha discreetly rolled her eyes, incorrectly dismissing his overreaction as residual arc reactor trauma. 

The truth was, back then, Tony hadn't been bothered by it. He had felt victorious, the buzz of battle and the thrill of survival coursing through his veins like exceptional espresso. Now, however, Tony knew and feared what the scepter had brought and would bring. Vision of death and destruction. Madness of dread and desperation. Torture of depression and disappointment. He also knew what it had taken and would take from him. JARVIS. 

If his memories served him correctly, which they did even when he wished they didn't, the scepter was sent to a secured SHIELD facility and the Avengers spent the night at the tower after Tony cajoled them into a late dinner. He was in full support of the former and firmly against the latter.

The staff was a weapon far more dangerous than any Tony could have crafted, and he wanted it nowhere near his home and his JARVIS. Though it also would not do to have it fall into HYDRA's hands. He made a mental note to alert Fury of HYDRA's infiltration, but to do so skillfully, timely, and organically might be a challenge. Luckily, the groundwork had already been laid on the helicarrier. JARVIS had already accessed SHIELD's database and unveiled Phase Two, it would not be far-fetched for the A.I. to uncover other anomalies in their system. Given that Fury's secrets have secrets, any oddity would be examined carefully, thereby increasing scrutiny on SHIELD's procedures and agents. Tony debated offering a list of names, Pierce, Sitwell, Rumlow, but decided against it because specificity from another's hand would only raise a spy's suspicion. 

The very sight of Steve, Clint, and Natasha was likely to trigger Tony's fight-or-flight response. If he had any hopes of figuring out what mess he had gotten himself, he needed to remove them from his home so he could think. Thor and Bruce also elevated his anxieties but to a lesser extent due to their absence from the so-called superhero Civil War. What troubled Tony was their careless callousness during and after Ultron, Thor's choking grip haunted Tony as much as Bruce's silent abandonment. There was simply too much for him to sort through without the risk of panic attacks and paranoia looming over his already chaotic head. Despite knowing that none of these events had come to pass, Tony stood firmly by his feelings of unease. The Avengers could not stay. 

It was not as though this one night would change anything, considering none of them ever took up residence in the tower after the remodeling and renaming. Tony remembered going over the blueprint for the tower's reconstruction with Pepper, designing individual floors for each of his teammates and envisioning a family-like atmosphere among the team. 

His invitation was politely refused. 

Steve remained at his Brooklyn apartment. Clint and Natasha stayed with SHIELD. Bruce went off grid again. Thor returned to Asgard with Loki in tow. The team gathered for the occasional movie nights or rare dinners, which were always lively and enjoyable but also left Tony with a crushing loneliness when they departed. Tony didn't begrudge them for their choices, they should live where they felt the most comfortable, yet the sting of rejection burned all the same. 

"You're being unusually quiet, Stark."

Tony could feel Natasha's questioning eyes on him, no doubt adding to the long list of his inadequacies to validate her betrayals. The bitterness felt both justified and unwarranted, she had not broken his trust yet; however, the memory of her parting words I'm not the one that needs to watch their back said otherwise. 

"Sir, I have Ms. Potts on the line." JARVIS said smoothly. "How should I proceed?" 

"Tell her dinner's at seven and I'm still alive. Um, reverse the order." Tony answered, grateful for the interruption and the reminder that he did need to speak with Pepper. The missed phone felt like a stunningly accurate metaphor for their relationship. "Alright, let's get this over with. I do not want to keep a woman who earned the nickname Pepper waiting."   

The Avengers approached Loki right as the god stirred. Tony watched Loki pull free of the rubble and heave onto the steps with shaking fingers and trembling arms. There was an unlikely gracefulness in his unsteady movements, contradictory to the thrumming tenseness vibrating off of him during their previous interactions.   

Clint notched an arrow. 

Loki paused and shifted to his side, glancing up at his adversaries with unexpected humor and relief dancing in his emerald eyes and softening the sharpness of his profile. 

Tony frowned, he was certain Loki's eyes had been blue when the god threatened then defenestrated him. He recalled making a note of how the shade matched that of the scepter and his arc reactor, hypothesizing if that somehow neutralized the mental manipulation. 

"If it's all the same to you, I'll have that drink now." Loki reclined back on his elbows in a rustle of leather and clink of metal. 

Unable to resist a chance to test his theory of having foreknowledge of upcoming events, Tony mouthed the words as Loki said them and knew the instant he had been caught. 

Loki's green, vibrant like poison, eyes narrowed in perplexity then widened in fascination. A delighted grin stretched across his battered face, pulling on the bruises and tugging at the cuts. Loki winked. 

In another moment of recklessness, Tony smirked winningly in return.

Chapter Text

It took much longer than Tony anticipated to remove the Avengers from his penthouse, which was rather ironic given how he had struggled to make them stay and discouraging because despite his efforts to be as discreetly inhospitable as possible, Thor and Bruce still remained at the tower. As did Loki, who was officially in Thor's custody. 

Steve, Natasha, and Clint left for the SHIELD facility after a lengthy debriefing that Tony evaded by offering JARVIS as his proxy, citing the A.I.'s digital archive as more reliable than his memories and explaining that flying a nuke into an wormhole was rather traumatic. He left the room feeling the weight of the Avengers' disbelief and disinterest and distrust on his shoulders, which he shrugged off forcibly because their opinions didn't matter, because what he said was the truth. 

Tony had known, even when he had been eating but not tasting the shawarma, that something was wrong. The vast coldness and empty quietness on the other side of that portal were far worse than the sweltering caves and bloody waters of Afghanistan. He had won against the Ten Rings and emerged as Iron Man, there would be no such victory over the alien armada. Fear had planted itself in Tony's heart, digging its roots deep until every throb of his heart pumped terror through his veins. 

However, admission of his damaged psyche had not necessarily led to acceptance of it. 

Tony had spent the years after New York in a cycle of over-confidence and outright denial. On good days, he had believed he could corral the feral beast hibernating in his mind, to prevent it from tearing him apart. On bad days, he had convinced himself that it was only a problem because he made it into one, and the best course of action was to pretend it didn't exist. Every day, Howard's words, Stark men are made of iron, echoed in his ears more like a threat than an encouragement. 

No more.

Tony scoffed at how much time he had wasted by wishing the panic and anxiety and fear away, addressing the symptoms but not the cause. He had created and invented and built to alleviate the constant scream lodged in his throat, thrashing to be let loose and stealing his breath at unexpected moments, only to end up with more deaths and destruction and damages. A vicious cycle that needed to be broken. Starting with putting some distance between him and his guests. So he excused himself from the debriefing, instructed JARVIS to activate Protocol Goldilocks, and escaped to his lab, which miraculously remained intact. If JARVIS wondered why Tony suddenly seemed less invested in the Avengers' comfort, he kept silent and adjusted the amenities so that none was just right

The bots greeted him happily and he basked in their easy affection. DUM-E immediately launched into smoothie-making. Butterfinger found a party hat and presented it proudly with a loud beep. U was attempting to beatbox with little success but great hilarity. It was a surprise when JARVIS announced that Bruce was looking for him. 

"Why?" Tony was baffled. He could count the number of times Bruce sought him out on one hand. Their friendship had mostly followed the pattern of Tony pestering the other scientist until he relented. 

"Dr. Banner expressed concerns for your welfare after your rather dramatic declaration and departure." JARVIS paused, as though he was pondering his next words. It would make other people a bit skittish about artificial intelligence but just made Tony proud. "I share his sentiments, Sir." 

"Fine." Tony sighed. Despite how unbalanced their friendship had ended up being, he still had a soft spot where Bruce was concerned and a bigger soft spot when JARVIS was fretting over him with that stoic warmth he had missed so desperately. "Where is he?" 

"Dr. Banner is currently meandering down the corridor toward the kitchen." 

"Let him know I'll be in the kitchen." Tony dodged the party hat Butterfinger almost shoved up his nostril, grabbed the smoothie DUM-E handed him and gave U an encouraging pat on his way out. 

Bruce smiled uncertainly, squinting against the too bright lights, when Tony walked in. "Hey." 

"Made a break for it too?" At Bruce's confused hum, Tony clarified. "The debriefing." 

Bruce rubbed a hand along his jaw, tilting his neck in a stretch that crackled several times. "It was the Other Guy's show. He's not big on talking and I don't remember anything, so no point really." A shadow fell across his face and his eyes flashed green. "And the scepter's there, if I never see that thing again, it'd be too soon." 

Nodding in understanding, Tony agreed. "Can't say I don't feel the same." In the back of his mind, he tried to remember if Bruce had shown any signs of discomfort while studying the scepter and found none. What he did recall was how it led to the creation of Ultron and the demise of JARVIS. He winced. "This isn't a DMV, JARVIS. Dim the lights." 

"I do hope this is just right for your needs, Sir." 

Tony relaxed slightly at the sound of JARVIS' voice, proof that the A.I. was still with him. 

"So, how are you doing?" Bruce asked.

"Fine." Tony shrugged. 

A pause. 

"How are you doing really?" 

"Really fine." 

Another pause. 

"How are you doing really really?" 

"Really really fine." 

"How are you doing really really really?" There was a grin tugging at the corners of Bruce's mouth. 

"Really really rea– What are we, in high school?" Tony scoffed, rolling his shoulders back and straightening up as if he was back in the armor. "What's going on? And don't start another chain of the reallys." 

The smile faded away as Bruce ducked his head. "Just wondering how you're holding up and, um, if you wanted some company."  

"Spit it out, Banner." Tony stared pointedly at Bruce's nervous tapping on the counter top, suspicion and impatience overloading his already frazzled nerves. 

"Can I stay here tonight?" Bruce blurted out then immediately looked ashamed. "I'm sorry. That was rude. I just–" He somehow managed to crumple while still standing upright. "I don't feel safe going with SHIELD." 

Tony gaped, unable to form words. This wasn't what happened before. He had to practically beg and bribe them into staying and now Bruce was asking and implying that he felt safe here at the tower. 

The silence stretched on uncomfortably between them. 

Bruce exhaled heavily. "Right, sorry. I–" 

"No, I mean, yes." Tony snapped out of his reverie. "You can stay, we have plenty of room."   

"Thank you, just...thanks." Bruce shut his eyes as he sagged with relief.  

"You're welcome." The gratitude was as unexpected as his acceptance of it. Bruce had been discomforted by the personalize floor and customized lab, yet he was gushing over a generic guestroom. The juxtaposition caught Tony off-guard and made him reconsider his habit of making grand gestures and downplaying them all. He would go above-and-beyond for the Avengers only to brush it off as no big deal while secretly hoping for recognition. In hindsight, that seemed supremely backwards and convoluted. "And hey, you did catch me from an outer space free fall so-" 

"That was the Other Guy." Bruce mumbled. 

"Looks like the same guy to me." Tony pushed the forgotten glass of smoothie toward Bruce. "Smoothie?" 

It turned out SHIELD had requested the Hulk's presence, via Bruce, as a deterrent to escape attempts from Loki. Thor had been most displeased when he learned of this development, especially since he had offered multiple reassurances that the Asgardian restraints are more than sufficient. 

Natasha and Clint quieted when Thor growled a warning of questioning the worth of his words. Then Steve suggested all of them spend the night at the tower, which was rejected immediately by Thor as another slight against his honor before Tony could dive headfirst into a panic attack. Tony seriously considered forgiving Thor for the not-yet-transpired choking incident for this alone. The Norse god then refused to lodge with those lacking respect and almost took off with Loki to spend the evening in the nice span of greenery at the center of town when Tony offered an alternative at his tower, if only to prevent an incident at Central Park. The super soldier and spies departed with the scepter and Tony breathed a bit easier.

Pepper arrived, took one look at sheepish faces of Bruce and Thor, and instructed JARVIS to order several crates' worth of take-outs, ranging from pizzas to Chinese. Tony wrapped her in a tight hug, his cheek against hers, as she apologized profusely for missing his call. He had long forgotten about that. 

The love was still there, but the burning passion had faded into friendly warmth. At least for him. Having seen the entirety of their relationship played out, he felt drained and could not summon the reckless devotion to preserve them as he once had. They were too different yet too much the same for it to work. He understood that now. Tony knew they needed to talk and sensed she felt the same too, with her darting glances throughout the meal and stilted good-bye at the door. They did not kiss. 

After a mostly silent dinner, echoing their shawarma experience, Bruce and Thor retired to their respective rooms. Promises of a hot shower and a soft bed called to them. 

Tony followed suit, though he found himself staring at the ceiling, too afraid to sleep. Not because of nightmares but of waking from this dream. Would he somehow find himself back in Siberia? Or find himself trapped beyond the portal? Or would he even wake at all? His thoughts looped in circles until they tangled messily. With a sigh, he tilted his head toward one of the many cameras. "JARVIS?"

"Yes, Sir?" 

"Comb through the intel we pulled from SHIELD and flag any irregularities, then send it to Fury with this message." Tony grinned winningly as though he was standing face to face with the director. "No need to thank me for keeping an eye on things!"

"Understood. Playing a game of Minesweeper with classified data from a shadowy government entity then antagonizing its leader have been on my bucket list for quite some time. I thank you for the opportunity to cross it off." JARVIS replied wryly.

Tony's throat tightened at the mention of bucket list, his vision suddenly swimming with strings of broken codes and his chest seizing painfully. "Happy to make your dreams come true." He croaked. 

"Sir?" It was truly impressive how JARVIS managed to convey concern and compassion for Tony that lived up to his namesake. "I detect a spike in your heartrate. How can I be of assistance?"

"It's nothing, don't worry about it." Perhaps it would be more believable if there hadn't been an obvious sniffle in his voice.

"Your wellbeing is my primary purpose." JARVIS corrected gently. "So one could say I live to worry for you."

"Living is good." Tony buried his face in his pillow and barely heard JARVIS' tentative agreement. "I- Something happened when I went through the portal, I think I either saw the future or lived it but then I came back and everything is the same but not the same." He mumbled into the cool cotton, rapidly blinking away the tears that had welled up and wiping away those that had trailed down his cheeks. "You weren't there, JARVIS."

"I am here, Sir." The vehemence in the A.I.'s answer should have been shocking but it just sounded reassuring. "I have no intention of leaving and I'd like to reiterate my previous advice for you to stay in range, Sir."

"That's the plan." Tony turned over on his back, the light of the arc reactor cast the room in a soft blue. He stayed in that position for quite some time. "JARVIS, what do you think about time travel?" 

A short pause. "Of the scientific or magical variety?" 

Tony huffed out an incredulous laugh. "Both." 

"The former would involve extensive machinery and the latter requires expertise I do not possess. I would, however, recommend against disrupting the space-time continuum. To do so would certainly qualify as one of your many questionable life choices." 

"Just for that, I'm making another one of those questionable life choices right now." Tony snorted, then kicked off the covers and headed for the elevator. "Time for a drink."

Chapter Text

Loki, shackled with ornate cuffs connected by a thin chain and silenced by an invasive muzzle spanning across his jaw, was reclining against the wall farthest away from the broken window, where Thor stood imposingly.  

"Hey Lightning McQueen, what are you doing up?" Tony greeted.

A frown creased Thor's forehead as he processed the new nickname then decided against pursuing an explanation. "I am to stand guard over Loki until our journey home." 

"You know JARVIS monitors the whole tower and with your fancy schmancy Asgardian handcuffs suppressing magic and might, Loki isn't going anywhere." 

Thor nodded, acknowledging Tony's point. "The care you paid to my words is heartening and appreciated." 

Tony approached the two gods, keeping his posture relaxed and hands in plain sight. The thrumming tension between them was practically audible. Appearing as non-confrontational as possible, he leveled a quizzical look at Thor. "So why are you here? Not liking the guestroom I've prepared?" He didn't miss the indirect slight against SHIELD. If Thor found their repetitive doubt to be an affront, then he would surely consider disrespect, such as forsaking the provisions of his host, to be an insult as well. It could work well in Tony's favor.  

Immediately, Thor looked mortified. "Man of Iron, I meant no offense. I thank you for your kindness in providing me accommodations for the evening and have full faith in your JARVIS." He bowed his head in apology. "I, however, would like to inquire the same of your visit."

"I owe Loki Doki here a drink." Tony waved cheerfully at Loki. "As I'm sure you heard him so thoughtfully reminding me earlier today." JARVIS projected the time on the wall, it was after midnight. "Um, yesterday." 

"You are a man of your words." It was a statement said with great admiration. "A most honorable trait." 

"It's just a drink." Tony shifted, discomforted by the unexpected compliment. "Do you want to join us?" Thor didn't seem keen on letting his adoptive brother out of his sights, which was rather inconvenient for Tony's plans of speaking with Loki alone.

There had been a moment shared between them earlier. A flash of awareness. A gleam of interest. A spark of curiosity. Tony was never very good at resisting something shiny and neither was Loki, judging by the mischief glittering in those green eyes. Loki was also a renowned mage familiar with Chitauri technology and knowledge of the portal, making him the ideal candidate to discuss the hypotheticals of what could have transpired in the wormhole. The fact that Loki was someone Tony had no foreknowledge of was a bonus too, there was no need for him to maintain a façade of a man he hadn't been in four years.

Tony chose not to examine how a supervillain who had, possibly involuntarily if his theory proved correct, defenestrated him and nearly destroyed his planet was somehow his preferred company. Instead, he focused on removing Thor from the penthouse. "A drink will probably take the edge off and help you sleep. I'm guessing the bed isn't quite what you're used to on Asgard." Tony said apologetically, mentally counting down to when Thor would relent.

Five. Four. Thre-

"Many apologies, Friend Stark. The lodging you have provided is outstanding and I need not additional incentives to utilize them." Thor flushed with embarrassment. "I shall retire to my chambers and meet you at sunrise or until such time my brother leaves your custody."

Loki narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.

Tony gaped as the fluttering cape disappeared in the elevator, confused by the emphasis Thor placed on his word until the clinking of chains and snapping of fingers drew his attention. 

"Hold on, Reindeer Games." Tony strolled over to the bar, disappearing from Loki's line of sight when he ducked down to rummaged through the mini-fridge. He emerged with two bottles, one in each hand, then strolled to the steps where Loki sat and pressed one into the trickster's shackled hand. 

Loki examined the drink with a furrow in his forehead and likely a matching downward curl of his lips, except it was hidden behind the muzzle. 

Tony cursed colorfully, earning an inquiring tilt of Loki's head, when he realized his oversight. He was reaching for the metal before he realized the impulsiveness of his action and its associated consequences. "Um." 

Green eyes danced with mirth before they closed slowly as Loki moved forward and tilted the side of his chin into Tony's palm. When his eyes blinked open, they held a hint of challenge. 

Cautiously, Tony trailed his fingers across the ridges and grooves of the pieces of metal that made up the elaborate muzzle. He was torn between wincing in disgust at the invasiveness and admiring the intricate Asgardian engravings. He settled on neither and concentrated on locating a release mechanism, tangling his fingers in the dark strands of Loki's hair and angling his head to get a better view. 

Loki, in an unexpected display of tolerance, allowed for the gentle manhandling. 

"Ha!" Tony grinned when his thumb brushed past a raised circular shape and applied a bit of force. The metal instantly unlatched and fell away, tumbling down Loki's leather-clad chest and landing with a clatter between his sprawling legs. Tony's triumph was short-lived as a pair of cool lips pressed against his pulse point followed by a brush of an equally cool tongue. "Gah!" 

Loki smirked as he leaned away. "You taste of the abyss."

"I showered!" Tony huffed defensively, instinctually deflecting. The spot on his skin tingled pleasantly when an evening breeze washed over it.

"That would explain the hint of–" There were little crinkles at the corners of Loki's eyes, even if his expression and tone remained disinterested. 

"Nope! I'm too sober to have this conversation." Tony twisted off the cap of his bottle. "Now drink up." 

Loki acquiesced magnanimously and mimicked Tony's movements with the cap. "This is quite different from the drink you poured yourself." He studied the glass bottle, reading aloud the label. "Who is Mike?" 

"Someone who clearly believes that when life gives you lemons, make alcoholic lemonade." Tony took a long drag of the Mike's Hard Lemonade in his hand, affecting a pleased hum to hide his cringe at the overly-sweet flavor.  

While his original plan had been to pour two tumblers of his finest scotch, the burn of hard liquor simply didn't appeal as it used to. He had searched the fridge on a whim and knew instantly what his drink selection would be when he spotted the six-pack of malt liquor. Loki's expression would simply be hilarious. The bottles were likely leftovers from Rhodey's last visit, whose commanding persona belied a love for sugary drinks favored primarily by college girls. Thinking about his best friend seized Tony with the sudden urge to see him, see his Rhodey walking. Perhaps he could invent a new upgrade so War Machine would need to report to New York, maybe a secondary power source or a built-in deceleration device. 

"This is vile!" Loki's angry sputter snapped Tony out of the beginning of a designing frenzy. "Revolting!" He took another sip and scowled. "Appalling!" He tipped the bottle to his mouth again. "Horrid!" 

There was a laugh, joyous and unbidden, ringing through the penthouse. A foreign sound. It took a few seconds before Tony realized it was his. 

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation that caused their jumbled and jagged conversations, though they understood each other perfectly.

Maybe it was the drinks that led to less careful words, though they were spoken with great care. 

Maybe it was the post-battle euphoria that loosened tightly-reined emotions, though neither exploited the other's tender spots. 

Maybe it was all and more of the above. 

"You know your brother– Did you just hiss at me?" Tony narrowed his eyes in warning. "Wow, and a growl. Fine fine, adopted brother. He never said why he was here." 

"Thor is, shockingly, capable of a modicum of obfuscation." 

"Good to know." Tony muttered, filing the information away. "Wait, was that a pun? Shocking? Because Thor is the god of Thunder?" 

"Cease your inane babbling." There was a slight upward curve at the corners of Loki's lips. 

"You are not the same crazy god who tossed me out a window."

"You are not the same irritating mortal who promised to avenge Midgard."

"Touché."

*

"What's the deal with this adoption business?" Tony asked casually, peeling off the bottle's label with an exaggerated look of concentration.

"I was born Jotun and raised Aesir." Loki said softly, heavy words floating precariously on a sigh. "A secret not meant to be known." 

"Ah, those." Tony inhaled sharply. "They tend to make themselves known at the worst possible time." 

"Quite." 

*

"Why was Thor here?" 

"I fell once before, after my defeat." 

Loki stared at the crater in the floor while Tony eyed the shattered window. The night air felt colder.

*

"JARVIS, have DUM-E bring up some pizza." 

"Yes, Sir." 

Loki peered inquisitively at the ceiling. "You need not trouble yourself, I am–" 

"It's not for you–" 

"–not inclined to sample to your questionable Midgardian cuisine." 

"–I'm feeling peckish."  

*

"You were privy to my words as I spoke them. How?" 

"I saw the future or maybe lived it." Tony swallowed tightly. "But here I am, in the past." 

"An anomaly in time." Loki mused, accepting Tony's words without question. "However you came about it, know that prescience is a formidable yet fleeting power. Knowledge prompts change yet change negates knowledge." 

"Huh." Tony pondered this. Because he had known how his tenure with the Avengers ended, he purposefully distanced himself from them. Which somehow led to Bruce seeking him out and this new strain between Thor and SHIELD, both he did not foresee. 

*

Loki's brows lifted in pleasant surprise. "This is quite good." Tomato sauce stained his lips red.

Tony mumbled his agreement through a mouthful of pizza, strings of cheese caught in his beard.

The two large pizzas were devoured promptly.

DUM-E removed the boxes with a cheerful beep.

*

"Your eyes are green now but they were blue. Like Clint's." Tony stifled a yawn with a click of his jaws, blinking rapidly to clear away the drowsiness. "And the scepter." 

"An astute observation." Loki's emerald eyes dulled but were no less striking. "What is your conclusion?" 

"The scepter isn't yours and neither were you."

"Yes." The affirmation sounded more like a hiss than a word.

*

"Thanos is coming for all nine realms." Loki forced the name out with a shudder. "He has an army." 

"He had an army." Tony lifted his arms above his head and made a whoosh sound followed by a loud boom. "I threw a nuke at it." There was a tremor in his hands.

"The Chitauri was merely the scouting party." Loki corrected with a harsh grimace. 

"Well, that sucks." Tony stated succinctly.

Loki didn't disagree.

"What will happen to you when you go hom–" Tony amended when he felt Loki stiffen. "–back to Asgard?"

"I will be called to stand before the All-Father and await his judgment." 

"Need a lawyer? Or ten?" 

"The All-Mother will likely speak on my behalf." Loki spoke of his adoptive mother, the queen of Asgard, with a melancholy-tinged fondness and wavering faith. "Though it will not be enough." 

"Noted." 

*

"Am I boring you?"  

Tony yawned, his eyes drifting close. "Not at all, I just haven't slept in, like, a week." He hadn't slept since he presented the Accords to the unwilling group at the compound, the loss of consciousness between Siberia and New York notwithstanding. His body was careening toward the inevitable crash of unconsciousness and he couldn't stop it.

"The fragility of mortals." Loki mocked. Emerald eyes softening as they traced the lines of exhaustion, curving under clever eyes and framing a smart mouth, on Tony's face.

"I think I'm holding up pretty well considering I got pummeled by two super soldiers yesterday." Long lashes fluttered, signaling a valiant, but hopeless, fight against the pull of sleep. 

Loki understood. His voice was soothing and tender when he spoke his next words. "Rest, Tony. Slumber will not take you from this place or time. What is done is done."

"Alright, I'm trusting you here."

Loki murmured. "You would be the first." 

Tony slept. 

Chapter Text

Tony stirred awake with a groan, his neck bent at an awkward angle and a series of crackles and pops rang out when he curled inward to relieve the stiff ache in his back. "FRIDAY?" 

"No Sir. It is Saturday, May 5th." JARVIS reported. "It is 5:43AM and you have been asleep for approximately two hours. Sunrise is in four minutes and ten seconds." 

"JARVIS!" Tony scrambled into a seated position, heart pounding with adrenaline and mind singing with relief. He had not been sent back to snowy Siberia. He had not simply faded from existence. He had not lost everything and himself. "Is that you?"

"Yes, Sir. It is I." JARVIS said reassuringly. "Shall I order some breakfast?" 

"Coffee." Tony grunted, rubbing a hand over his face and absently noting the criss-cross creases on his cheek.  

"I will start the machine, Sir. And for you, Mr. Loki?" 

"Thank you JARVIS, I am well and require no refreshments." The accented voice, laced with amusement, came from directly next to Tony. "I think you drooled on me." 

Tony blinked blearily and stared into mischievous green eyes. "I do not drool." He declared emphatically. 

Loki merely gestured to the damp spot and wrinkled leather on his thigh. 

"Well." Tony grappled for a witty answer. "Consider it payback for your uninvited licking."

Loki chuckled. 

Tony squinted against the fading of night and beginning of day coming through the windows. "Sun's rising."

They lapsed into a comfortable silence as they watched the interplay of light and dark weaving through the New York skyline. Last night, Tony and Loki had exchanged deeply personal details without hesitation and accepted what the other said with full trust. Two known experts at manipulation and deflection had voluntarily chosen to set their skillsets aside for a few hours of authenticity that resulted in a sort of understanding between them without ever stating explicitly what was understood.

"Sir, Mr. Odinson is on route to the penthouse." JARVIS almost sounded apologetic for his interruption. 

Tony tensed. "Let me do the talking." 

"As though I have a choice." Loki presented the muzzle, turning it over in his hands. The dark metal contrasted ominously against pale skin.

"You will soon." It was a promise. Hesitantly, Tony crouched down and accepted the device from Loki's outstretched hands. It would not do to blatantly disregard Asgardian practices, especially considering what Loki had said and Tony had planned. With reluctant hands, Tony lined the muzzle up against the sharp angles of Loki's jaw, softened by the hazy sunlight filtering through the darkness. "Take care, Loki." 

"You as well, Tony." Loki murmured, a brush of cool lips against calloused fingers. 

Thor's cheerful greeting was slightly strained when he discovered Tony unharmed and Loki properly restrained. He thanked Tony profusely for the room and commended the controlled rain in his bathing suite, but asked no questions other than inquiring if they were both well. To which Loki shrugged and Tony declared he would be better with some caffeine. Loki's shrug seemed to communicate something meaningful to Thor, because the tension lifted from his smile instantly. 

Tony glanced between the two brothers, feeling as though he missed something. 

His intuition was proven correct when Thor practically dragged Tony out of the penthouse in search of Floridian nectar and Pop-Tarts to break their fasts, opposite of his disinclination to leave Loki unattended last night. 

*

"Just so you know, Point Break, I had to remove the muzzle so Loki can have his drink." Tony confessed as he searched the pantry for Pop-Tarts.

Thor reared back at Tony's admission, caught off guard by the blunt honesty. He pondered this, his words measured and slow. "It is Asgardian law to stifle the speech of those awaiting judgement from the All-Father, but you are Midgardian and I cannot fault you for the difference between our practices."

"Huh, that sounds suspiciously like a loop hole to me." Tony lifted the multi-pack box of Pop-Tarts in an impressed toast before tossing it to Thor.

"I know not of what you speak." Thor caught it one-handed and immediately opened the package. 

Tony snorted as he poured himself his first of many cups of coffee. "Say, why the change of heart?" He elaborated at Thor's puzzled hum. "With Loki?" 

"This morning was the first in a long while that I caught sight of the brother I once knew." Thor swallowed tightly. "He no longer wishes to fall."

"No, he's done with falling." Tony stated with a certainty he shouldn't have but did nonetheless. 

The kitchen was silent for a while, Thor steadily devouring breakfast pastries and Tony mainlining coffee.

"What did you and my brother drink to, Friend Stark?" Thor asked, crumbling another foil wrapper and adding it to the pile by his elbow. 

Tony drained his third cup of coffee then answered honestly. "Our continued existence." He and Loki had covered much ground and many topics, but the common theme among them all was their stubborn determination to survive despite impossible odds. 

"That is a cause worthy of celebration. I thank you for the care you have shown to my brother, despite his–" Thor searched for the appropriate wording. "-faults." 

"Wasn't all his fault." Tony stood to refill his mug and brought back a second carton of orange juice. 

Thor accepted it gratefully, a small furrow creased between his brows. "What do you mean by that?" 

Bruce joined them as the video of Loki berating the Hulk played. 

"You dull creature!" Loki snarled on the holographic screen. 

Bruce froze, teeth gritted and skin tinted a faint green. "Not the best choice when the Big Guy is still jonesing for more smashing."

"Right. Sorry about that, Brucie Bear." Tony closed the hologram with a swipe of his hand. "How about some nice and relaxing tea? Um, we do have tea, right? JARVIS?"

"You will find a variety of tea in the cupboard next to the fridge, Dr. Banner." JARVIS helpfully supplied. "I recommend the passionflower and lavender blend, it is Ms. Potts' favorite and has successfully helped her manage her stress levels." 

"I don't like what you're implying, JARVIS." There was an ache in his chest when he remembered the nights of Pepper sitting in his workshop, a cup of tea by her elbow as she reviewed contracts while he tinkered. Tony pushed it down with the practiced skill of someone with a long history of repressing emotions. "You know, I heard the DMV is looking to upgrade their interface." 

"Oh no, regular business hours and people capable of waiting. How dreadful." JARVIS deadpanned. 

Tony grinned despite his best efforts to maintain a scowl. "That snark, no idea where you got it from." 

"It is quite a mystery, Sir." 

Bruce chuckled softly as he wrapped his hands around a steaming cup of tea, mood calm and posture relaxed. "Nothing good on TV?"

"Nothing as good as one of the Hulk's greatest hits." Tony quipped and was rewarded with an amused snort from Bruce. "I was trying to prove a point to Lightning McQueen here." He turned toward Thor, who was still staring at the empty space with desperate hope and undisguised fear. "Did you see his eyes?"

"Ye– Yes." Thor stuttered. "They were not Loki's." 

"I need a bit more to go on here." Bruce blinked. "Loki's eyes?" 

Tony pivoted back. "I'll explain in a second, but first, ask Jolly Green what color were Loki's eyes before he got to smashing." 

An indecipherable look skittered across Bruce's face at the request. 

Tony hissed quietly at his mistake. It was the aftermath of Wanda's mental manipulation in Johannesburg that prompted Bruce to initiate contact with his alter ego, to ascertain the Hulk's mental state. Johannesburg hadn't happened yet, and Tony vowed it never would this time around, which meant Bruce didn't know he could communicate with the Hulk. Tony had screwed up by unthinkingly asking for the impossible. He started to backtrack just as a throat cleared.

"Your faith in me and the Big Guy is–" Bruce took off his glasses and rubbed a shaking hand over his eyes, taking deep and measured breaths. "I'll try, Tony." 

Tony could only nod, too stunned to form words. 

Thor watched on expectantly.

After a few minutes of silence that felt more like hours, Bruce removed his hand and slid his glasses back on. "Blue." He stated confidently and his stance mirrored that. "His exact words were Smash Puny God and bad blue eyes.

A whoop of joy reverberated in the kitchen, quite an accomplishment considering the open floor plan, as Thor leaped from his seat. The resounding crash when he slumped back down was equally loud, wrecked horror settling on his face before it fell into his palms. "My brother has green eyes. The Warrior Three and I used to tease that he was literally seeing green with jealousy." Thor muttered, ashamed and agonized. "I can only think of one reason for his eyes to be blue." 

"Clint." Bruce connected the dots quickly. "Dr. Selvig." 

"Loki said that the Glow Stick of Destiny wasn't his, neither were the Chitauris." Tony added solemnly. "Someone else is behind this." 

"Thanos. The Mad Titan set on destruction of worlds and lives in his bid to court Mistress Death." Thor said quietly, as though saying it any louder might summon him to their doors. Tony didn't have the heart to point out it was too late. "I thought he was merely a story meant to frighten misbehaving children." 

"Wait, did you say Loki said?" Bruce shot a pointed look at Tony. "When? Was it during the invasion? Because if he were mind controlled then that timeline doesn't–" 

"Ah, well. You see. I sort of owed him a drink and maybe delivered said drink and possibly some pizza and kind of talked with him?" The flood of words started haltingly then gained momentum as Tony went on, until it was less coherent speech and more jumbled sounds. 

A myriad of emotions flickered across Bruce's face. Worry, anger, disbelief, fear, and exasperation before settling on amusement. "Only you, Tony." 

Tony winked. "Only me, Brucie Bear."

The brief lift in their moods plummeted when Thor spoke.

"Father will not believe Loki's innocence without considerable proof." Thor's face crumpled as he shook his head at Tony and Bruce, who were ready to offer their technology and testimony. "Asgard does not grant entries to mortals nor will your equipment function there." 

"What about the scepter?" Tony suggested offhandedly but instantly liking the idea as soon as he said it. If Thor took the scepter back to Asgard, it would accomplish several things. The first was it would serve as evidence to exonerate Loki for his part of the invasion. The second was it would be out of SHIELD's possession and by extension, out of HYDRA's reach. The third was it would be a world away, literally, from JARVIS. Any backlash from Fury or SHIELD would be an acceptable cost to pay for this many benefits.

Bruce hummed in agreement, also eager to see the staff gone. 

Thor frowned. "Would it not disrupt the diplomacy between our realms?" 

At Tony's and Bruce's questioning looks, Thor explained the arrangement made between him and Fury. The Tesseract would be given to Asgard as a sign of good will from Midgard while the scepter would be kept and studied by SHIELD to strengthen its defenses. Tony and Bruce exchanged an alarmed glance at that. 

"Huh." Tony feigned nonchalance. "I can see why the World Security Council would want better options if their only solution against an alien invasion was to throw a nuke at it." He cast a meaningful look at Bruce. 

"At us, you mean." Bruce picked up Tony's signal and carried on the plan effortlessly. "If it weren't for you, we'd all be dead along with the millions of people in New York."

"I do not understand. This nuke you speak of was meant for the Chitauris. Was is not?" Thor asked, but a glimmer of understanding and opportunity sparked in his eyes.

Bruce moved to the seat next to Thor, already launching into a lecture on thermonuclear weapons and its indiscriminate blast radius in layman's terms. 

Tony wandered away for his fifth cup of coffee and possibly breakfast. He was debating between two boxes of cereal, both boasting of high fiber content which held no appeal for him, when Thor let out an outraged roar. 

The sixth cup of coffee was the best. It tasted like sweet victory. 

Chapter Text

Thor insisted they storm the SHIELD facility at once. 

Tony and Bruce traded looks of concern, knowing full well that this situation called for subtlety, not blunt force. But it was too late. Thor's fury burned uncontrollably like wildfire. None of their deescalation attempts worked, the only success they had was delaying the inevitable by claiming ignorance of the location.

Loki had warned him, shared stories after stories of Thor's tendency to fly into a blind rage and to lash out violently when challenged with grave insults, but Tony didn't heed the advice.

Regrettably, Tony had grossly misjudged of the manifestation and management of Thor's anger. He had based this erroneous assumption on how Thor had reacted to SHIELD's doubts with growling irritation but calmed quickly when given an alternative lodging and how the god was easily manipulated by Tony regarding drinks with Loki. Both experiences had lulled Tony into a false sense of confidence, which shattered the moment Thor threw a table and Tony was reminded of the choking incident after Ultron's escape. 

Bruce's skin took on a worrying green hue.

Forcing himself to breathe deeply and steadily, Tony fought the haziness crowding his vision and the painful hammering of his heart. The room blurred, voices sharpened, and Mjolnir took on a red, white, and blue gleam as oxygen became a rarity for his lungs. Tony's eyes saw Thor but his mind screamed in terror at the sight of another tall and blonde opponent carrying a weapon capable of crushing his chest.

Steve. Captain America's shield. Siberia.

"Mr. Odinson, may I request clarification on a small matter before you proceed with your rightful course of action?"

JARVIS. JARVIS. JARVIS.

The New York skyline appeared when Tony opened his eyes, unaware that he had closed them. Bruce had noticed though, judging by the other man's hesitant hand on Tony's shoulder. It was a small gesture of comfort and Tony latched onto it like a man falling would a rope. Tony's hand shook when he raised it, but the tremors subsided when he gripped Bruce's hand and kept it on his shoulder, grateful for the weight grounding him.

Bruce seemed to understand the need, if not the reason, and pressed down in response.

"Speak." Thor boomed, pacing impatiently and slashing Mjorlnir as he would a sword.

"Mr. Loki is to be brought before the All-Father for his alleged crimes, yes?" It was a question JARVIS knew the answer to, so it wasn't asked for clarification.

"Correct. It is Asgadian law for the accused to come to–" Thor looked thoughtful. "–the one who shall pass judgement."  

Bruce's fingers tapped against Tony's with minute and precise movements.

It took Tony's frazzled brain a few seconds to catch up, busy as it was soaking in JARVIS' voice and presence, Bruce had spelled phew using Morse code. Confused, Tony glanced up at his friend with a frown only to receive a small grin and a glance at the ceiling, where most people assumed JARVIS resides. Thankfully, the green tint had faded away.

"Then may I suggest Sir placing a call to summon Director Fury and the other Avengers to the tower? In keeping with Asgardian laws." JARVIS recommended demurely. "With the Tesseract and scepter too, of course."

"Yeah, makes sense to have them come to you, Thor." Tony didn't bother with a clever nickname, barely suppressing the flinch at the thought of that monstrous weapon in his tower, his home, and still regrouping after the almost anxiety attack.  

"And it will save me a trip to SHIELD, which I'd really like to avoid." Bruce sighed, a subtle reminder of why they spent last night at Stark Tower in the first place. Thor seemed more receptive now. "Not to say I wouldn't go with you, but, you know." He shrugged apologetically.

"Acceptable." Thor nodded, setting Mjolnir down on the floor as he reclaim his seat at the table. Tony and Bruce sagged in relief.

"Mr. Odinson, have you tried the Midgardian breakfast item Fruit Loops?"

Tony blew JARVIS' camera a kiss as he made his way to his rarely used office to contact SHIELD.

Bruce made another cup of tea.

*

The phone call to Fury was surprisingly brief and straightforward, a reprieve after the corralling an enraged Thor. Tony supposed Fury's quick agreement may have something to do with how he framed the request around acquiring new information regarding the invasion and needing the scepter to confirm specific details. A friendly reminder to bring Thor the Tesseract ended the call.

Tony sighed, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes and trying to stifle the building panic throbbing in his skull. At least the scepter was still in SHIELD's custody. Not HYDRA's.

*

The Avengers assembled yet again at Stark Tower, at the roof where the invasion began.

Steve, Natasha, and Clint stood behind Fury, with Clint carrying the Tesseract in a secure case and Natasha gripping the scepter with heightened vigilance.

Tony and Bruce, who held the inter-realm transportation device, stayed a few steps back, letting Thor handle the negotiation. Though Tony doubted there would be any compromises reached.

If Loki had any reservations about being there, he did not show it; though he did have the advantage of the muzzle hiding half of his face away.

Tony concentrated on his breathing, three counts for inhale and five counts for exhales.

"The portal's closed now, you're okay." Bruce leaned in, pressing his shoulder against Tony's as though to alleviate the weight on Tony's shoulders.

Tony gave Bruce a flickering smile, grateful for the support even if Bruce was mistaken about the cause. It wasn't the portal that sent his heart racing, it was the sight of Captain Ameica in his full uniform and shield. The threat of Thanos and his army, in an absolutely bizarre twist, paled in comparison to the betrayal of a perceived friend and childhood idol. Tony much preferred an expected war over an unexpected stab in the back, or shield to his chest.

Absently, Tony noted the confrontational stances of the two sides. They more resembled two teams about to do battle than work together. Tony felt for the homing bracelets on his wrists and felt his heartrate settle.

Fury addressed Thor with a small nod and assessed Loki's manacles with a much too-interested gleam in his eye, no doubt wondering how Asgardian technology worked to contain a god and if SHIELD could adapt a similar contraption. "What have you learned?"

"I have learned that you are liars and traitors." Thor growled and Mjolnir, hanging from his belt, crackled with lightning.

Tony and Bruce exchanged despairing glances at the lack of subtlety. 

Taking advantage of the shocked silence, Thor launched into an impressively intimidating diatribe declaring the nuclear missile as the ultimate affront to his honor as a warrior and positing it was an assassination attempt to neutralize all alien threats. "I hereby claim the scepter as recompense for your trespasses." Thor stated, managing to sound both menacing and magnanimous.

"Now wait a minute." Fury recovered first. "We had a deal–"

"Void the moment you disregarded our lives!"

"Thor." Natasha said softly, schooling her posture and expression into one of supplication. "As the defenders of this realm, we lay down our lives willingly. It is a warrior's sacrifice. It is honorable."

"There is no honor in betrayal." Thor retorted, seeing through Natasha's ploy. 

Steve nodded in agreement before catching himself.

"Well said." Natasha conceded, though it was just as likely she was searching for another weakness. 

Thor scowled, anger undeterred by her compliment, and repeated his demand.

"Why do you want the scepter?" Clint asked, casting a vicious glare at Loki. 

"While I need not justify myself to you quislings, it is of import to clear my brother's name." Thor summarized Loki's involuntary involvement during the invasion as well as the scepter's importance as evidence to present in Asgardian court. "Loki was not himself, as you were not yourself, Eye of Hawk."  

"Seems awfully convenient, don't you think?" Clint sneered. "There's no proof."

Bruce raised a tentative hand. "Actually, Big Guy saw the change in his eye color after the, um, smashing."

"And I have the footage to back it up." Tony pulled down Bruce's hand with a roll of his eyes. "We aren't in kindergarten." He hissed affectionately.

"So you're suddenly on his side? The guy who tossed you out a window?" Natasha narrowed her eyes. "What changed?"

"One, it wasn't him who threw me out a window, do try to keep up." Tony's grin didn't reach his eyes and he didn't bother to try. Before, he had given Natasha, Natalie, multiple chances only to have her squander his good will. Now, he knew better than to waste his time on pointless endeavors. The Black Widow was not his friend and he did not want her for one. "Two, Loki Doki made some excellent points about what's coming, and before you even say it, he didn't mess with my head because you had the scepter and hey, I'm immune." Tony gestured at the arc reactor glowing through his thin t-shirt. "Three, there's a bigger and badder Big Bad out there and that's who we should be focusing on."

"Aye, the Mad Titan is a most formidable foe." Thor proceeded to give an explanation of who Thanos is and what he is capable of.

The group was quiet as they absorbed this new information.

"Assuming this is true, bag of cats here is innocent and Thanos is coming, that's all the more reason to leave us with the scepter." Fury countered. "We need it to bolster our defenses."

"No!" Thor bellowed, grabbing Fury by the throat and lifting the man up until his feet were scrambling for purchase.  

"Thor, let him go." Steve ordered.

Clint set down the briefcase containing the Tesseract, one hand gripped his bow and the other reached for his quiver.

Loki tilted his head as to get a better look of Fury's reddening face.

Bruce closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.

Tony blinked owlishly. It was almost an exact rendition of what happened during the Ultron catastrophe. There was fear for Fury and panic at this unforeseen event, but mostly Tony felt an overwhelming relief of an old wound starting to heal. For years, he had questioned the why and the how behind Thor almost breaking his neck until he had convinced himself that Thor must have deemed him unworthy of the respect and consideration afforded to a Shield Brother.  

But now, seeing Thor's violence aimed at someone else shattered that belief. Knowing Thor treated others the same way, not just Tony, made the attack feel less personal. It wasn't about Tony provoking or deserving the assault, it was about Thor and his lack of anger management skills. It felt like absolution, though Tony wasn't sure who the recipient was.

"Director Fury isn't in the position to make that call." Natasha stated calmly, assessing the situation. "It is up to the World Security Council."

"Call your council then." With a huff, Thor released his grip. "Let it be known that should Midgard wish to maintain its alliance with Asgard, you must surrender the scepter at once."

Fury's face flitted through a series of expressions before settling on grudging resignation, he stalked into the quinjet to make the call. Clint was glaring at Loki still and Natasha was eyeing Tony as though she was dissecting him. 

Tony pushed down the discomfort and concentrated on the knowledge that they had won. The World Security Council would yield after realizing their predicament. With Iron Man and the Hulk refusing to fight, one super soldier and two human spies were no match against two Norse gods. Not to mention that another drastic military action would be a spectacularly bad idea the day after the nuclear missile. He was proven correct when Fury returned, his long black coat fluttering like a white flag.

"Barton." There was a hint of gravel in Fury's voice, he nodded. "Romanoff."

Clint gave the case to Bruce, pettily ignoring Thor's outstretched hand.

Thor did not seemed troubled by Clint's sullenness and instead gripped the scepter Natasha was reluctantly handing over. His mood immediately brightened and his tone returned to jovial. "I thank you for your cooperation and will return to discuss the terms of our alliance against the Mad Titan."

"Looking forward to it." Fury snapped, massaging the column of his neck with a grimace.

"We appreciate your hospitality and assistance, Friends Stark and Banner." Thor inclined his head toward Tony and Bruce. 

Loki did the same, but his gaze lingered and locked with Tony's.

Tony returned the attention, albeit a bit mystified. There was a promise in Loki's eyes that he couldn't quite decipher.

Bruce finished assembling the transport device and silently offered it to the two Asgardians, who reached for the handles. The energy swirled inside the tube seemed to be calling to the glow of the scepter. Then, in a flash of light, they were gone. 

Chapter Text

Natasha surreptitiously glanced back at Stark as they shuffled into the conference room at Stark Tower for a much needed debrief after the events on the rooftop. Stark was tapping away on his phone, falling to the back of the group and staying silent.

One by one, they settled into the plush chairs wordlessly, a tense quiet broken by Fury clearing his throat and firing off the first round of questions. 

Stark answered them succinctly, eyes straight ahead and posture rigid.

There was something off about him, Natasha was certain, something that couldn't be explained away by mere trauma.

Where Stark was once excited energy, he became reserved. Where he was once talking small to sound big, he spoke little. Where he was once almost desperate to prove her assessment wrong, he seemed unconcerned. Even stranger was his aversion to Steve, irritation with Clint, and distrust toward her. Stark masked it well, but the evaded eye contact, terse responses, and hesitation to turn his back sparked her suspicion and interest.

If not for the arc reactor shining through his chest, Natasha would have said this man sitting across from her cannot possibly be Tony Stark.

Perhaps Loki had compromised him after all. Granted, the scepter was in her custody and the arc reactor had resisted the mental manipulation before, but Loki likely had other tricks up his sleeves. Other ploys and plays that did not require the use of magic or artifacts, only a well-timed glance and a lightly bitten lip.

Stark's playboy history indicated attraction to both genders and he admitted to sharing a drink with Loki, where Loki had apparently confided in him about Thanos' involvement and Loki's loss of agency. When Steve incredulously demanded to know why, Stark waved it off and cited the need to honor his words.

Natasha knew for a fact that Stark never felt this compulsion to keep his promises before; she had worked for the man for months and witnessed him blowing off more meetings than attending them. When she had pointed out this inconsistency, Stark had shrugged and mumbled some generic nonsense about turning over a new leaf after a life-changing experience. Another attempt to rationalize the severe changes to his personality. Natasha would have pressed further but Banner silenced her with a green-tinged glare.

Banner's protectiveness toward Stark was not entirely unexpected but definitely inconvenient. It was not uncommon for a rescuer to develop attachment to the rescuee, having invested in the other person's well-being by the act of saving it. The Hulk's anguished roar still rang clearly in her memory.

There was something off about Stark, but Natasha would let it slide for now as long as it did not interfere with Iron Man's performance.

After all, Tony Stark was not recommended but they would need Iron Man for when Thanos comes.

*

Jane stared at the text from an unknown number lighting up her phone.

Thor back in Asgard, thought you'd like to know. Visit New York sometime. For science! – T.S.

"Darcy?" Jane called, staring disbelieving at the succinct message. "Darcy!"

"What?" Darcy shouted, voice rough with interrupted sleep. "I need my beauty sleep."

"It's almost noon." Jane replied, rolling her eyes. "And I think, I think I just got a text from Tony Stark."

There was a loud thud followed by frantic footsteps. "Seriously?"

"Well, it's either Tony Stark or Taylor Swift." Jane quipped and mustered a small smile. Her heart ached at Thor's departure but not as much as she had thought it would.

Darcy snatched the phone out of Jane's hand, yawning around a frown as she scanned the words. The phone bounced on the couch when she tossed it aside carelessly and headed toward the kitchen. "Ice cream first, then we are planning a trip to New York!"

*

Steve glanced down at Stark Tower as the quinjet lifted off. The gaping hole in its side offered a view into the wrecked penthouse, the minimalist design of metal and glass contrasted sharply with the cozy atmosphere of bricks and wood that he had grown up with. There was a twisted kind of extravagance in choosing to have little and Steve couldn't help but resent Stark a little for that.

Howard's son was somewhat of a headache to figure out. First, Stark questioned objectives, disobeyed orders, and disrespected teammates. Then, he proved to be competent in combat and made the sacrifice play. Now, after the dusts had settled and the battle had been won, Stark turned distant and dismissive.  

Steve was baffled and offended by the cold shoulder, he hadn't done anything to deserve it. A part of him corrected that Stark wasn't being cold exactly, just noticeably cooler compared to the heated arguments and warm banter they'd had previously. Another part countered that neither was acceptable when interacting with teammate and pointed out that Stark was never made an Avenger, just a consultant, for good reasons.

Fury had his collar turned up but Steve had no doubt that the skin underneath was beginning to swell and dot with bruises. Natasha and Clint looked shaken, either by the news of Thanos' eventual arrival or the memory of their commander dangling in the chocking grasp of a god.

Steve understood the threat and dangers surrounding Thanos, but he also had faith in his team, the Avengers, to defend their home against any enemy. They had defeated an army and saved millions, and this was only the beginning of what they could do. The planet was safely guarded by their capable hands.

And as much as he hesitated to admit and would never say out loud, Steve thought Thor had just cause to warrant his outburst.

There was no honor in betrayal and the World Security Council had most certainly betrayed them. After waking up from the ice, Steve had read history books and news articles and authorized files to get caught up to this new century, which included the deadliest weaponry available. The nuclear missile would have decimated New York and the Avengers who had assembled to protect it. It was a betrayal, plain and simple. To overlook the WSC's mistake would be to condone it, which should not be. Thor was right to hold them responsible. While Thor could have been more diplomatic and nuanced with his approach, Steve thought there was something to be admired about Thor's determined straight-forwardness. Sometimes no was all that needed to be said, without further conversations or attempts at compromise.

As Peggy had once said, plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say "No, you move."

Thor had just demonstrated that the efficacy of those words.

*

With a fond shake of his head, Bruce declined Tony's invitation to the supposedly legendary chili dog stand near Central Park. It was a kind offer but Bruce didn't want to intrude on Tony's time with his friend. Jim, who looked immensely grateful when Bruce ignored Tony's introduction of him as cutie Rhodey patootie and instead addressed him as Jim, was chatting with JARVIS by the elevator.  

"Want me to bring one back for you? Or anything else?" Tony asked, glancing back at Jim with absolute wonder that confounded Bruce. The other man was just standing there.

"I'm good." Bruce smiled. "Spend some time with your friend."

Tony looked doubtful but nodded anyway. "Alright, I'll see you when I see you." He all-but tackled Jim as he launched himself onto his friend's back, hanging on like a baby koala.

Bruce laughed and waved them goodbye, but his brows furrowed together as he watched the elevator slid close and considered what Tony had said.

I'll see you when I see you .

The wording was peculiarly cautious, no expectation of a concrete plan or even a tentative time frame. Some might take it to be dismissive, inferring that Tony won't be making any particular efforts to prompt a meeting. But Bruce doubted that.

It was more likely that Tony phrased it as such to avoid sounding obligating in any way, to keep his hopes from being raised then dashed, and to make himself less of an inconvenience.

Hulk had said Tin Man heart hurt when Bruce had reached out that morning. He had thought the Hulk meant the arc reactor, his alter ego often picked up the random details, and had given a hurried reassurance that the arc reactor was good because it kept Tony alive, before asking about Loki's eye color change.

Now Bruce understood.  

Tony's heart was hurt . Someone, had made Tony feel small, unimportant, and overlooked. There was pain in the hesitance of his speech, the tentative arc of his smile, the twitch of halted affectionate gestures.

Bruce remembered the altercation between Steve and Tony on the helicarrier, how Tony had dealt with Steve's disapproval with defiant quips.

Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist.

Bruce had attributed Tony's quick and witty rebuttal to the man's intelligence but now he wondered if it had been part of Tony's internal dialogue, a justification to himself and others when his worth was called into question. That thought made his chest tighten with a surge of protectiveness. 

Hulk roared in agreement. 

"JARVIS, would you mind calling Tony for me?" 

"Not at all, Dr. Banner."

Tony picked up in the middle of the first ring. "Everything okay, Green Bean?"

Bruce's brows furrowed at Tony's greeting, not a causal Hey or What's up, Tony had jumped to the conclusion that something must be wrong for Bruce to call him. He wondered if his sudden emotional perceptiveness was Hulk's doing, his alter ego operated on a more primal and instinctual level. "Yeah, everything's fine. I was just thinking I didn't want to miss out on these legendary chili dogs. Can you bring one back for me?"

"Oh!" Tony sounded surprised and pleased by the request. "Yeah, yeah. Totally. I'm on it."

"Great, thanks Tony. I'll see you when you get back."

There was small pause before Tony replied, soft and happy. "Yeah, I'll see you when I get back."

*

Jim couldn't get the footage out of his mind and the constant replay on every screen they walked past didn't help.

Iron Man carrying a nuclear missile into an alien wormhole. Iron Man falling from the sky like a meteorite, fire red and star bright. Iron Man hanging limply in the grip of the Hulk.

Tony's pale face framed by the tarnished crimson and gold of his armor, the most advanced coffin in the world, and surrounded by people who had decided to close the portal while Tony was still in it.  

Jim wasn't sure what to make of the Avengers. Tony had sounded dismissively flippant when he told Jim about the superhero boy band and SHIELD's assessment of him. It was the same tone Tony had used when Howard missed award ceremonies and graduations. Jim immediately disliked the organization and the team that had hurt his best friend.

Bruce seemed alright, but Jim would be keeping a close eye anyway; it mattered little that the Hulk had caught Tony or Bruce had livened Tony's mood with a phone call on their way out of the tower. The sheer joy on Tony's face when he learned that Bruce was hanging around was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. People staying should not be a big deal, yet it was for Tony.

"I want to invest in the future." Tony said without preamble.

Jim blinked, clearing away the unbearable images from his suddenly too-dry eyes, and managed an inquisitive hum. Tony was safe. Alive.

"For the next generation of scientists."

"Like grants?" Jim glanced at his friend, needing the visual reminder that Tony was alright, and found Tony studying his gait. "Hey, eyes up here when I'm talking to you."

"Hard to do when you have those amazing legs, sugar cake." Tony laughed, a warble in his voice. "But sure, I can be respectful." He stared into Jim's eyes and winked, nearly running into the chili dog cart.

The banter was put on pause while they placed their order. 

Their conversation picked up once they got their chili dogs and ate them as they weaved through Central Park. Tony seemed oddly content to just walk. Jim wanted to comment on the unusual behavior but decided against it, it was good for Tony to be out and getting some fresh air.

"So, you're an Avenger now, huh?" Jim quirked an eyebrow and pitched his voice deep. "One of Earth's Mightiest Heroes?"

"Nah, I don't play well with others. Plus, I'm just not the hero type." Tony shrugged before abruptly changing to topic to his plan of funding research for M.I.T. students and establishing a scholarship program for aspiring young scientists.

Jim listened, keeping a hand on Tony's elbow to steer him away from pedestrians, street vendors, and cyclists. "I don't know, Tones. Encouraging kids' dreams sounds pretty damn heroic to me."

Tony started to stutter out a denial before forcibly stopping himself. "You know what, I think you're right."

Jim grabbed at his chest, mimicking a heart attack to show his shock at Tony's words.

"Oh stop that, Platypus. I'm the one with the heart condition, don't steal my bit." Tony rolled his eyes.

They bickered amiably as they looped back to the chili dog cart, picking up one for Bruce before heading back to the tower. 

Chapter Text

Surveying his SHIELD assigned dormitory only made Clint long fiercely for the open space at the farm. The walls, concrete and defensible, felt like a prison and he was done feeling like a prisoner after being one in his own body. He slept poorly last night, half-bitter that Stark hadn't extended an invitation for him to stay in one of the rooms with walls of windows and half-relieved because he was away from Loki. 

At the post-invasion debriefing, Steve had looked at Clint with such authority and declared: It wasn't you, Barton. Loki had control of your mind. Clint had clung on to those ten words like a lifeline, especially when the memories of all he had done under Loki's orders swirled around inside his mind like the alien portal in the sky. He was grateful to Steve for the easy forgiveness, granted without questions. 

Learning Loki had been unmade, like him, cheapened that somehow. 

Clint felt a thrumming anger coursing through his veins and knew he could not go home like he yearned to do. It wouldn't be safe for Laura and the kids to be around him. He couldn't wrap his arms around Laura and breathe in the scent of her hair, floral and sweet, when his hands were clenched into fists. He couldn't listen to Cooper and Lila's chatter, finding humor in the absurdity of kid logic, when his head rang with voices and thoughts that were not his own. So his only option was SHIELD, where suspicious glances trailed his every move, stabbing at him like the sharp tip of Loki's scepter. Clint spent more time than he'd like to admit, to himself or the staff psychologist, obsessively analyzing the specific shade of blue of his irises. 

Years as an agent had taught Clint exactly what to say, and not to say, to be cleared for active duty.  

Which was why he hadn't decked Stark on the rooftop earlier.

Stark had watched them scrambled to Fury's aid with relief fleeting across his features. Clint doubted anyone else had caught it, he only did because he'd kept an eye on Loki and noticed quickly that Loki was glancing at Stark with a frequency too often to be casual or accidental. Natasha's theory was that Loki compromised Stark, but Clint thought it was the other way around.

There had been signs of Stark's distrust before he interacted with Loki. After the invasion ended, Steve had notified Clint of their location. Stark's face had scrunched into a sneer at the sight of Clint approaching before forcibly relaxing into a forced look of indifference. The concern he had felt at Stark's fall and the relief that he was alright drained away in that instant, replaced by defensiveness and irritation. On their walk back to the tower, Stark hadn't spoken to Steve or Clint and he had treated Natasha with the same cooled detachment.

Very curious, and very suspicious. 

It was clear that Stark had his own agenda, one that didn't align with theirs, and already begun recruitment. Clint doubted Thor came up with the negotiation points on his own and Banner seemed more book-smart than street-smart to orchestrate a coup of this size. Then there was Loki, who couldn't stop his gaze from wandering to Stark nor resist some kind of lingering and meaningful farewell. Which Stark returned. 

Natasha was right to deem Stark unsuitable for the Avengers Initiative. Stark had no loyalty, proven by how he undermined SHIELD's objectives when the agents had worked to cover up Stane's death and find a cure for the palladium poisoning. Clint would be watching Stark closely, his moniker was earned by more than his excellent marksmanship. Stark better watch his back.

*

Pepper surveyed the wreckage of Stark Tower, cataloging the damages and imagining the changes.

A new opportunity. A second chance. A different life.

Tony had his back to her, fiddling with a holographic display of the tower and shifting levels around like they were Lego blocks. With a small wave at the camera to keep JARVIS from announcing her entrance, Pepper watched Tony and the fluidity in his movements for a few minutes with fondness blooming in her chest. She savored it with a small smile, committing it to memory and holding it near. Everything was about to change between them and she didn't want to forget how it felt. 

Seeing Iron Man disappearing into the wormhole felt like the end of her world.

Missing a call from Tony because she was watching Iron Man was the end of her world.

Things were much easier when the most frustrating interactions with Tony were corralling him to board meetings and reining in his impulses to buy donut shops. Pepper hated how resentful she had become in the few months they'd been involved after the Stark Expo. She resented Tony for wanting to better the world, the world for needing superheroes, and the Avengers for not having Tony's back. She held a deep grudge against Natasha, Natalie, and Steve for closing the portal and giving that order, respectively.

This was her breaking point and if they were to continue, she knew she would shatter and destroy them both until nothing but fragments of who they were, who they hoped to be, remained. 

It would be heartbreaking if not for how calming that realization was. She suspected Tony had arrived at the same point too, if their stilted interactions last night were anything to go by. He did not lean into kiss her good-bye and she did not want him to.

"Hey." She said softly, infusing as much love as she could in that one word.

Tony turned to face her with a flourish, arms wide open. "Pep!" There was genuine delight in his expression at seeing her, tinged with the barest shadow of sadness. She wondered if she had a mirroring look on her face.

"So." Pepper approached the table and nestled herself against Tony's side, a move meant to provide and procure comfort. "These are the designs for the reconstruction?"

"Yep." Tony draped an arm over her shoulders, fingers rubbing soothing circles on her upper arm. "Thinking about adding in a row of dormitory-style rooms here." He highlighted an area on the hologram. "And maybe a lab here." Another part lit up.

"For the Avengers?" She was pleased with how she kept the scorn out of her voice.

"No." Tony quirked a curious eyebrow at her tone, so perhaps she didn't mask it as well as she thought. "This is for, um, this young scientist program I'd like to establish. With a summer internship program or something." His eyes were dark with sincerity when he caught hers. "Avenging isn't really my style and neither is working with others, I think I'd have more fun doing my own thing and occasionally bossing some minions around."

Pepper returned his gaze steadily, nodding her acceptance at his decision to stop being an Avenger but remain as Iron Man. It didn't change anything between them but it was a relief to hear that Tony wouldn't be surrounded by and forced to rely on people who couldn't be bothered to go after him.  Rationally, she knew closing the portal was the right call and they couldn't risk sending someone else, but emotional responses were not supposed to be logical. She was entitled to her anger and no one could persuade her otherwise. "Sounds like a good time."

"You know me, all about having a good time." Tony shrugged, self-deprecating in a way that made her heart clench.

"Oh really?" Pepper hummed skeptically. "You have a strange way of going about it, fighting aliens and flying into wormholes." Her words were harsh but her tone anything but. Light and teasing. "Nearly gave me a heart attack."

"Iron Man, heart health hazard." He nuzzled the top of her head, mussing up her hair. "At your service." There was a hidden message in his words and she decrypted it easily.

"Pass." From the way his arm tightened before the muscles relaxed, allowing it to rest its full weight on her shoulders, she knew he understood her response and felt equally relieved. "Thanks but no thanks."

"Your loss." Tony heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Who'd pass on Iron Man anyway?"

Pepper reached up and linked their fingers together. "Someone who prefers Tony Stark."

Tony's breath hitched, he cleared his throat but his voice still came out hoarse. Scratchy and raw with too many emotions. "Well, you've got excellent taste there, Ms. Potts."

"Indeed I do, Mr. Stark."

They lapsed into a comfortable silence, which was broken when JARVIS spoke up tentatively.

"Pardon me, Ms. Potts and Sir." The A.I. sounded uncharacteristically hesitant and confused. "I, I am having some difficulty deciphering your conversation. Am I to understand that the two of you have terminated your romantic relationship but will remain on good terms?"

Tony's knees buckled in shock, barely catching himself on the table but demolishing the holographic tower in the process. "Um, yes, right?" He looked over at her in a panic. "Unless I totally misread what just went down and now I owe you a hundred pairs of shoes."

A laugh tore out of her, sharp and sudden, like it had been seeking an opportunity to escape. "You didn't misread and don't owe me any shoes." Pepper aimed an encouraging smile at the camera in the corner. "Very astute, JARVIS."

"Oh thank god!" Tony exhaled forcefully before turning his attention toward his A.I. and sounding immensely proud. "You did great, JARVIS." There was a shy and uncertain curve at his lips as he whispered to her. "And so did we?"

Pepper tightened her grip on Tony's hand. "And so did we." 

*

Fury scanned the information before him and struggled to focus instead of replaying the disastrous confrontation with Thor and the less-than-ideal debriefing with Stark and Banner in his mind. Taking a sip of his cooled coffee, he winced at the tenderness of his throat as he swallowed. The cold bitterness of his drink matched his mood, there was a Mad Titan set on razing all Nine Realms and the Avengers had somehow fallen apart in the span of a day. 

At the meeting, Stark and Banner had huddled together at one end of the conference table with the SHIELD operatives at the opposite end. It felt more like an interrogation than an interview, though it was uncertain which side held the power.

Stark did most of the talking. Banner kept watchful eyes on everyone, glowering at anyone who dared to ask a more aggressive question or take an unfriendly tone, and only spoke to corroborate what Stark had said.

The meeting was a tense affair and ended too quickly after the arrival of Rhodes, who greeted Stark with an enveloping hug that was returned with equal if not more enthusiasm.

Now, Fury was sequestered in his office, pouring over the list of inconsistencies that had somehow escaped his notice. The scope of JARVIS' abilities was staggering and there was no doubt that Stark made for a powerful ally or an equally formidable enemy. The man had fame, connections, wealth, intelligence, and now a friendship with one Asgardian prince and what Natasha suspected to be a more personal relationship with the other. 

Nothing could be gained from Stark that he did not freely give.

Stark had volunteered to shoulder part of the reconstruction costs, stating that he was less interesting in avenging and more invested in rebuilding. However, in the event of an attack, they could contact him using the emergency response system he would develop and Iron Man would assist on an as-needed basis despite not being on the team.

Those were very generous offers but Fury read between the lines, what wasn't said, and was filled with dread by the confirmation of what he had guessed.

Stark would not be providing weaponry or base of operations for the Avengers.

Fury had an inkling that their plans would not come to pass when Rogers, Barton, and Romanoff returned to the SHIELD facility last night. Agents scrambled to ready three guest rooms for the unexpected occupants. They had been so sure that Stark, after reviewing Romanoff's assessment, would be goaded into behaving contrarily for the sake of proving SHIELD wrong. Yet he made no mention of opening his home to his teammates or other gestures of good will.

It almost seemed like Stark was a brand new man after he fell out of that wormhole.

Fury understood that war changes people, having experienced it himself and seen it happen enough times with his agents, but it was usually a longer process. Soldiers would try to hold on to their former selves with clawing hands and need time to come to peace with who they were after what they had seen and done. Stark wasn't a soldier yet he adapted faster than any veteran. Too quick for them to adjust and coordinate.

With a sigh, Fury closed the files and locked down his computer. The atrocious cold coffee was poured into the potted plant that miraculously survived despite the lack of sunlight in the office. He pulled out the bottle of whiskey in the false bottom drawer, he needed it to mourn what could have been.

Chapter Text

Tony was brought out his creative haze by a persistent beep followed by a tug at the hem of his shirt. A quick glance at the clock showed it was close to noon, which meant he had been down in the lab for almost six hours. A pathetically short period of time compared to his previous work sessions but now it was the maximum length of hours before he had to take a breakstretch his legs, or take a breath, as instructed by Pepper, Rhodes, and Bruce respectively. Despite his griping and grumbling, Tony rather enjoyed the attention.

JARVIS and the bots were, predictably, in full support of this new rule. DUM-E had taken it upon himself to act as the official alarm, hence the noise and the manhandling.

"DUM-E, it's only been five hours and fifty-six minutes." Tony sighed but pushed himself away from the work bench all the same.

DUM-E gestured at the clock on the microwave, which apparently ran four minutes fast.

Tony groaned. "Seriously? Out of all the tech around you, you chose that to tell you the time? The clock's not even the microwave's primary function." He linked his hands and raised his arms overhead as he stood, back arching and popping pleasantly with the shifting motion.

YOU pointed to the empty pizza box in the trash with a victorious ding.

"Yes, its primary function is to reheat food. Good job, YOU." Tony made his way to the door, where he was intercepted by Butterfinger with a bottle of water clutched tightly between two clamps. It took some wiggling to get the bottle out of the ironclad grip, Butterfinger was quite determined not to live up to his name.

"Sir, the delivery from Ray's has arrived. Dr. Foster and Ms. Lewis are en route to the kitchen."

"Damn it." Tony muttered. "Slow the elevator, lock the doors, do whatever you have to do to keep Darcy away." The last time Darcy had gotten to the food first, she had sprinkled the salad over the pizza and smugly informed a horrified Tony that this was how she planned to get more greens into his diet.

"I will do my best to deter and detain your guests, Sir." It shouldn't be possible for JARVIS to sound sarcastic, but there it was in his electronic voice.

Tony was hit with an ache of overwhelming pride and fierce relief, in the tender space behind the arc reactor. It throbbed with every beat of his heart. All he had lost. All he had regained. He twisted off the cap of the water bottle with shaky fingers and took a hasty gulp.

"Sir?" JARVIS sounded concerned.

"I'm good, just thirsty. Hydration, yay!" Tony saluted Butterfinger with the bottle. "Alright, I'll be back. Don't do anything I wouldn't do." With one last wave at his bots, he headed upstairs.

*

Tony had just slid two slices of pizza onto his paper plate, because no one living there was going to load and unload the dishwasher, when Darcy and Jane walked in.

It had been an experience having the two of them around for the past two weeks.

Jane was a delight, her knowledge of astrophysics was only overshadowed by her dedication to the pursuit of it. Tony and Bruce had a blast trading theories and Jane enjoyed the freedom in using scientific jargons instead of translating her studies into layman's terms. 

Darcy developed a quick friendship with Pepper, who had teased Tony's choice of inviting two women to stay shortly after their breakup. Pepper had said it with good humor, but the tabloids had not. A quick trip to legal, and three pairs of Jimmy Choos, had sorted it out. Tony refused to let malicious gossip ruin what Pepper and he were able to salvage.

"Hey Tony." Jane greeted, grabbing a plate and loading it up with salad first.

Darcy dove for the pizza, piling parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes on top. "Thanks, Ironic Man."

"Seriously?" Tony scoffed around a bite of pizza. "One Alanis Morissette song, one, and now that's my nickname?"

"Well, that and you were blown up by a bomb literally with your name on it." Darcy shrugged, picking off the croutons with her fingers and ignoring Jane's reproachful sigh.

"As long as it's not a taser with my name on it." Tony arched an eyebrow, giving as good as he got.

"Oh, c'mon! I just got JARVIS to stop calling me Dr. Foster's associate." Darcy whined, casting a beseeching look at the ceiling. "It was a joke!"

*

The first thing Darcy did after arriving at Stark Tower was giving Tony a stern warning against taking advantage of Jane, who was vulnerable after Thor's departure, and brandishing a taser with Tony Spark written on it in red and gold glitter to great effect.

Tony laughed uneasily, both hands raised high in a mock surrender, and forced himself not to cover his chest defensively. An instinct he fought against every day since waking up after Siberia. It felt vulnerable to have the arc reactor in his chest again, his heart for the world to see.

Darcy grinned, friendly and open, as though she hadn't just issued a serious threat.

Which she had.

There was no medical precedent for the use of an electromagnet to keep shrapnel from shredding a heart, as such, there was no studies or trials documenting the risks and side effects. A jolt from a taser could have no effect, as in cases of patients with pacemakers receiving a shock, or it could damage the electromagnet or change its strength, displacing the shards of metal.

The Iron Man suits had been designed to absorb and redirect electrical currents for this very reason, a foresight Tony was most grateful for during his encounter with Thor. But he wasn't in his armor now.

"Darcy." Jane's brows furrowed, staring at the blue glow through Tony's shirt. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Darcy rolled her eyes. "What? It's funny. Tony Spark."

"I fail to see the humor." The warmth that made JARVIS more than Just a Rather Very Intelligent System was gone, replaced by a wintry disapproval that was robotic and menacing. "I take all threats levied against Sir with utmost seriousness."

A look of bewilderment fell across Darcy's features.

"The electromagnet keeps the shrapnel out of Tony's heart." Jane gently pried the taser out of Darcy's hand and gave it to Tony with an apologetic smile.

Tony took out the taser's battery with deft fingers then offered it back to Darcy without a word.

Understanding dawned in Darcy's wide eyes. "Oh my god! I'm so sorry." She snatched the taser out of Tony's hand and dropped it in her purse as though removing it from sight could undo her mistake.

"No harm done. Not the first time I've been threatened with a taser. Yours at least had style."

"Sir?" JARVIS sounded alarmed, which was never a good thing. For anyone.

"Um." Tony scrambled to redirect the conversation to something less likely to cause a massive server shutdown at SHIELD. Agent was dead, there was no need to bring up his offhanded comment of watching Supernanny while Tony drools into the carpet during the pallidum poisoning fiasco. He cursed his slip-up, forgetting that JARVIS had been disabled at the time of that conversation. "How about a tour?"

"Yes please!" Darcy jumped at the change in topic and Jane hurriedly nodded, hesitant relief on their faces.

"Alright." Tony wondered if they were worried he would ask them to leave as he ushered them into the elevator, and found himself bothered by that thought. "Take us to the guest floor first, JARVIS, then the lab."

"Very well, Sir." The doors slid close soundlessly. "It would be my pleasure to show Dr. Foster and her associate the amenities."

*

"Not a funny one." Bruce commented as he stepped out of the elevator, catching Darcy's plea to JARVIS. He hadn't been amused by the threat either, when JARVIS recounted the incidence, though he could admit that Darcy had no trace of malice in her being. "The Hulk again?" He grabbed the bag of cheesy bread instead. It still felt a bit strange to eat a pizza named after his alter ego, despite Tony's many reassurance that the pesto pizza topped with spinach, broccoli, red onion, Italian sausage and Feta cheese was delicious.

"Ugh. You're all sticks. In. The. Mud." Darcy grunted, punctuating her words by pointing at Tony, Jane, and Bruce with her pizza crust.

The four of them chatted a bit more about the Stark Science Program throughout lunch. It was agreed that the name could use more work, but the overall idea was well-received.

One of the shared experiences among Tony, Bruce, and Jane was the hostility aimed at students who were deemed too smart by their peers. While this program would not solve the social issue of bullying, they hoped it would at least give the administrators pause before brushing the problem aside as kids being kids or character building opportunity and boost the children's profiles and visibility to lessen the chances of isolation.

The three of them, all having held the title of child prodigy, understood the pains of loneliness well.

Darcy threatened to hunt down and taser everyone who'd ever antagonized her friends.

*

Tony was nearly finished with the Mark 80 design when Bruce knocked on the glass door with a tray of food, dinner, which signaled the passing of time.

"Hey, Jolly Green." Tony closed the holographic schematic with a decisive clap.

"Curry from that place around the corner." Bruce set the tray down, the spicy aroma of Panang curry wafted temptingly from the Styrofoam container. The familiarity with the local restaurants spoke volumes of how well Bruce had settled into life at the tower and the fact that the tower's kitchen went largely unused.

Tony picked up the fork and speared a piece of tofu with it. "Thanks for dinner."

"Sure." Bruce leaned against the work bench, updating Tony on what he and Jane had learned from comparing the energy signature of the Tesseract to that of the Bi-Frost as Tony wolfed down the curry and rice, stomach grumbling for sustenance. Apparently regular meals trained the body to expect food at certain times of the day and Tony's was no exception after three weeks with Bruce as a roommate, who ate frequently to avoid feeling hangry.  

It was nice, to have another person's voice washing over him as he did something as mundane as eating. It sounded like not being alone anymore. Glancing up at Bruce and intermittently interjecting his own theories, Tony thought Bruce might feel the same.

And that was nice too.

*

Mark 80 was only an Iron Man armor in form, having had all of the weaponry removed because its purpose was to contain, not to combat. This was Tony's solution for the Extremis problem. By combining Mark 15's cloaking system, Mark 23's extreme heat tolerance, and Mark 42's prehensile function, Mark 80 would be able to target those with Extremis heat signature, enclose them within the armor and transport them a safe distance away from the general population before self-destructing.

There would be no second chances for them.

Tony pushed away the painful images flitting through his mind. Happy's bruised and burnt face, slack in a coma. Harley's shaky apology as he struggled against the Extremis soldier's unrelenting grip. Pepper's screams and blazing skin, burning up Tony's heart. None of it had happened yet and it won't.

"JARVIS, go ahead and begin fabrication. Let's go with, um." He scanned through his memories, mentally recreating each scene where he had fought against Extremis soldiers. "Thirty-five."

"Yes, Sir." The machines whirred to life. "Completion is in approximately two weeks."

"Great." Tony dropped face-first onto the futon in the corner of his workshop. "Why am I so tired?" He groaned. "What happened to my superpower of functioning on two hours of sleep?" As it turned out, the body could also be trained to expect regular rest once a pattern had been established.

Tony no longer dreaded nightmares, none could ever be as devastating as what he had already lived through, and flashbacks held no powers over him when he knew he would wake to the miracle of a second chance. Falling asleep was a different matter but Tony had found a cure for it.

The only downside of a healthy lifestyle was the decrease in productivity. Gone were the three-day work binges and the extra hours gained by skipping meals.

"It wasn't a superpower, Sir. It was a condition called insomnia."

"Same thing." Tony mumbled into the pillow.

"No, Sir. They really are not."

Tony turned to lie on his back, throwing an arm over his eyes. "Think it'll work?"

"According to my calculations, Mark 80's prevention rate is 99.7%." JARVIS had accepted Tony's explanation of the dangers of Extremis and the necessity for the extra suits without question, much like how he had believed Tony's confession of seeing the future or time travelling the first night after the invasion.

"That's not bad." Tony yawned, settling into the futon.

"Not bad at all, Sir." JARVIS thoughtfully dimmed the lights. "Shall I play the file?"

"Sure thing." It was silly to rely on a soundbite to sleep, but it grounded and reassured him that he would not lost all he held precious by giving in to the need for rest.

Loki's voice flowed from the speakers, cool and comforting. "Rest, Tony. Slumber will not take you from this place or time. What is done is done."

"Alright, I'm trusting you here." Tony mumbled, eyes closing shut and lips curving upward as he drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

"ScienceBros?" Tony held out his hand for a high five, which Bruce obliged with a chuckle.

"Sexist!" The women said in unison though there was no heat behind their reprimand. 

Tony apologized sheepishly before reaching for the whipped cream to add even more sugar to his ice cream topped cake. The birthday celebration had been a pleasant surprise. Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, Bruce, Jane, Darcy and JARVIS had organized a small get-together in the penthouse, completed with streamers and balloons and a chocolate cake that Tony immediately professed his undying love to. "Iron Minions?" 

"Sounds like a Despicable Me sequel." Pepper said and, at everyone's incredulous looks, added. "I like animated films, they're surprisingly soothing."

Darcy snickered.

"Stark Science sounded fine to me." Rhodey swiped the can of whipped cream out of Tony's hand. "Learn to share, Tones."

"Only child!" Tony pouted. "Also, boring!"

Jane picked up the near-empty carton of coffee ice cream. "Team Tony?"

"I like the alliteration." Bruce commented, dividing his slice of cake into smaller pieces meticulously.

Pepper shook her head. "Doesn't have enough weight for marketing."

"I got it." Happy flashed Tony a wide grin, proud and protective. "Wait for it...Team Iron Man."

A hush fell over the group as they considered the name.

"Excellent suggestion, Mr. Hogan." JARVIS was the first to speak.

"Nice one." Rhodey said.

Bruce mumbled his agreement through a mouthful of cake.

"I can work with that." Pepper smiled, casting Tony a fond look. 

Jane nodded happily.

"Well, looks like we have a winner!" Darcy declared, throwing the bottle of sprinkles up in the air like confetti.

*

JARVIS meticulously combed through the SHIELD data, flagging both names Tony remembered and ones the A.I. deemed suspect. 

SHIELD had not been pleased with having their firewall breached and took appropriate measures and countermeasures to ensure it did not happen again. The engineers removed the monitoring software Tony had left behind, all three of them according to Fury's latest phone call inquiring after the Avengers emergency response system and warning against actions that could interfere with SHIELD's productivity.

Apparently it had taken the I.T. department a week to locate the surveillance algorithms and the new bi-weekly system scan protocol was horribly time-consuming.

Tony had acquiesced, giving the undoubtedly exhausted technicians a break and letting Fury hold on to some semblance of control. He vowed he won't plant any more bugs and he had no trouble keeping that promise. There was no need, not when he already had full access to SHIELD's files and communications.

People always gave up after three, there must be something comforting about that number.

Fury, for his part, was diligently examining each anomaly JARVIS detected and making near-undetectable adjustments to personnel and operations. It should have been heartening to see his words taken seriously by the Director, yet all Tony felt was the bitterness of too little too late. 

Story of his life, really.

Jane and Darcy returned to New Mexico the day after Tony's birthday. Their original plan was to only stay for two weeks but they extended their trip by a few extra day once JARVIS alerted them of Tony's birthday, because they wanted to celebrate with him. A private jet was set to fly them back home in the afternoon.

In the morning, Jane insisted on touring the Metropolitan Museum of Art and dragged Tony along, stating that art and culture were her gifts to him for his birthday. She had bought the tickets online before Tony could tell her he was member and therefore entitled to free admission, for himself and his guests. 

"My gift, my treat." Jane said emphatically when Tony mentioned his membership perks. "I'm a world-renowned astrophysicist, I can spare $25."

Tony gasped in mock offense. "Seriously? That's it? $25? I'm that cheap of a date?"

"$35." Darcy made a show of counting out ten one-dollar bills and fanned Tony with them. "I'm buying you a meatball sub for lunch and since it's your birthday, I'll throw in a bag of chips and a large soda too. Maybe even a cookie."

"You ladies sure know how to treat a guy." Tony sighed but there were pleased crinkles at the corners of his twinkling eyes. 

*

The board passed the Team Iron Man proposal happily and unanimously.

Stark Industries was still in the midst of rebranding after leaving the weapons business four years ago and positive public perception was of the highest priority.

Recently, Tony made headlines with his move to compensate and contract with the local companies that had lost their jobs when the Department of Damage Control took over the clean-up operation. Collateral damage wasn't limited it to the moment of battle, it continued on long after, rippling through the community, city, and country and pulling people under.

Tony understood that now, whereas before it had taken Sokovia to open his eyes. He had felt personally responsible for Ultron so he took an active interest in the country's recovery, when he had not with his own city because it wasn't his fault that the Chitauris came to Earth. It was selfish and he won't be making that mistake again.

Skeptics questioned whether it was a move designed to garner favor with the public, with Christine leading the witch hunt.

"Does it matter?" Tony slid his Hulk-themed sunglasses down so he could peer at her over the green-tinted lenses. "So what if I'm doing this to make myself look better? Doesn't change the fact that hard-working people now have a paycheck, a big one, to look forward to. Plus, would you have believed me if I said I was doing this out of the goodness of my cold metal heart?" He smirked and tapped at the glowing light in his chest.

Christine floundered hilariously for a rebuttal.

"See, you're trying to set me up for a damned-if-I-do and damned-if-I-don't, lose-lose situation. I much prefer where I'm standing, a win-win for my company, with thousands of employees, and my city." He walked past her with a dismissive wave and slid into the car with its door held open by Happy, who gave him a high-five. 

Bruce did the same when Tony returned with an armful of Chinese for lunch, a pair of Iron Man sunglasses perched proudly atop his head.

*

Tony also earned a fair amount of political capital for his part in funding the reconstruction efforts. Unlike before, he was more patient with politicians and their games; he had always known how to play and played for his amusement but never felt the motivation to play to win.

Until the Accords, but by then everything had been being too little, too late.

Now Tony knew the importance of owed favors and uncollected debt.

Legislators were easy, upcoming elections meant they were desperate to keep their constituents happy. Job security and career opportunity worked extraordinarily well to boost approval ratings. Tony developed relationships with members of the Senate and Congress, including undercover HYDRA operatives such as Senator Stern. It would be suspicious to exclude them and they asked fewer questions when they believed they can manipulate him. 

The military was still wary of the sincerity of his cooperation. General Ross holding onto a grudge the same way he desperately clung to power but not everyone was a fan of Thunderbolt. Tony planned to use every tool available, from a sledgehammer to a wrecking ball, to demolish Ross.

*

"Oh thank god!" Rhodey exclaimed as he surveyed the rows of Mark 80s, body slumping in relief. "I knew something's wrong with you."

"Hey!"

"Look, you're eating regular meals–"

"Brucie Bear doesn't like to eat alone!"

"–sleeping six hours at night–"

"JARVIS, you traitor!"

"–barely drinking–"

"You're the one always lecturing about my liver!"

"–you're so well-adjusted that it was freaking me out!"

"You're really making me question my good life choices here, Gummy Bear." Tony grumbled, berating himself for his thoughtlessness. The recent changes to his lifestyle had been the result of spending hours lying in the freezing bunker in Siberia, literally left out in the cold and filled with regrets. I should have known better. So when the second chance presented itself, Tony seized it with both hands. He knew better and he could do better. So he did. But to Rhodey, his behaviors must seem sudden and uncharacteristic.

Once again, Tony debated telling his best friend what had happened. And once again, he decided against it. Rhodey was a man of science. While he might believe Tony, he would also demand answers. Answers Tony, for once in his life, did not want to pursue. He just wanted to enjoy this without taking it apart, questioning its point, and rationalizing away the magic. It wasn't logical, but fear seldom was.  

The only two beings who knew of Tony's bizarre experience were JARVIS and Loki. One asked only how he can assist and the other offered advice instead of questions. 

"Now it all makes sense, this is how you've been dealing with the, you know." Rhodey waved his arms in big, sweeping motions before pulling Tony in for a hug.

"Yeah, yeah." Tony mumbled, quietly relieved that Rhodey had assigned his own interpretation to Tony's behaviors, and returned the embrace. He leaned his weight against his friend and felt a wave of joy when Rhodey supported it easily, feet planted and legs strong.

"Pepper's worried too." Rhodey patted Tony's back reassuringly. "She thinks you're bottling it all up."

Tony reared back. "She does? She didn't say anything–"

Rhodey let him go but kept an arm around Tony's shoulder. "Well, with the breakup, she didn't know if she could."

"She can, she totally can. I–" Tony let his head drop. "Crap, and I thought we handled it so well."

"You did. It was the most mature breakup in the history of all breakups." Rhodey quirked a smile. "No drinks thrown or tell-all interviews."

"Shut up." Tony rolled his eyes.

"It'll just take some time to figure out where you stand with each other, that's all."

Tony sighed but nodded in acceptance. 

After a moment, Rhodey let go and approached the rows of armor. "So, tell me about your new toys."

"Mark 80. Rescue and retrieval armor, remotely controlled. I was, um, reviewing some of the Chitauri Invasion footage and the response time for stranded and injured civilians can use some improvement, a lot of improvement actually." It wasn't a lie, Mark 80 did have other applications other than its primary one.

"If it can do pick-ups then it can do drop-offs." Rhodey eyed the sleeker and slimmer outline of the armor. "Wish we had one of these five weeks and two days ago, then you wouldn't had to fly into that damn–" A sharp inhale. "–damn portal."

"Hey, hey." Tony gripped Rhodey's elbow and steered his friend around to face him. "I'm okay. The big bad wormhole spat me right out."

"Yeah, just in time too." Rhodey's voice was brittle and bitter and his eyes glistened with tears.

"Are you crying?" Tony crowed, forcing smugness because he knew from experience that annoyance was the fastest way to snap Rhodey out of his melancholy. "I knew you loved me, Honey Bear."

"Ugh. I'm trying to have a moment here." Rhodey complained halfheartedly.

"An emotional moment." Tony shuddered. "I'm allergic, gives me hives."

"Fine, whatever." Rhodey huffed. "I love you and I know you love me too." He ignored Tony's indignant squawk and changed the topic before Tony could protest. "You know they will see this as a threat, right? Even if these suits aren't designed for combat." He turned to stare at the gleaming suits, a furrow between his brows.

"Well, then use those super awesome military liaison powers of yours and abracadabra it so they see the Iron Legion as an asset." Tony picked up a blue folder and handed it to his friend. "Cool name, right? I even prepared some talking points for you." He watched as Rhodey took it with a look of grateful surprise, almost as if Tony had never done such a thing before. Which, to be fair, he hadn't. But now he understood the difficult position Rhodey held, defending Tony's choices and shouldering the brunt of the backlash. It was time for Tony to lessen that burden and, in the process, lay down some subtle groundwork for superhero and government collaborations. He was great at multi-tasking.

Rhodey's appreciation morphed into exasperation when he opened the folder and found it empty.

"I emailed it! You weren't seriously expecting me to print things, were you, Cupcake?" Tony scrunched up his face against the smack on his nose. "Hey, don't damage the prop. It makes me look all professional handing people paperwork."

"Until they realize there is no paperwork." Rhodey aimed for a scowl but the upturned corners ruined the effect. 

"Eh, it's the thought that counts."

"Well, I appreciate it." Rhodey bumped against Tony's shoulder. "It'll definitely make things easier if they think you're cooperating."

Tony scoffed. "I'm not cooperating with them, I'm cooperating with you."

"Well, thanks for the job security then." Rhodey grinned. "So what's with the number 80?"

"I like the 80s." The number was actually the sum of the other Iron Man suits - 15, 23, and 42 - that inspired this model, but considering they didn't and wouldn't exist, it was easier to offer a non-answer. "JARVIS?"

Back in Black immediately blasted from the speakers, the bass vibrating through the walls and the armors, making the metal shimmer as if they were coming to life.

An army of defenders was better than a team of Avengers.

Rhodey bobbed his head to the beat, laughing when Tony joined in, playing an air guitar.

*

The Team Iron Man program offered both grants for M.I.T. graduate students and scholarships for children, fifth through twelfth grade, across the country.

Pepper would be in charge of the grant, monitoring the proposals and progress with JARVIS' assistance. It felt like an old wound healed, the remembered ache of seeing her name on the teleprompter but not her person dissipated from his chest. Rhodey offered to help, assuming his schedule allowed for it. Tony teased him about wanting to relive his glory days and received a thorough ruffling of his hair for the remark.

Bruce would be heading up the scholarship program, reviewing the applications of merit after JARVIS filtered through preliminary batch. The recipients' schools would be eligible to receive upgrades to their facilities and equipment. It would be good for Bruce to have another focus outside of his research, especially one where the level of engagement being as much or as little as he chooses. 

Everything was coming together nicely, in a way Tony hadn't anticipated but definitely appreciated. For as much as he had tried to improve the world by removing the bad, the darkness never abated.

Maybe what it needed was a bit of light and no amount of brightness could ever be too little or too late. 

Chapter Text

June turned into July in a blink of an eye.

With the Mark 80s standing by, Tony divided his attention between improving medical technology and upgrading Rhodey's suit. The two areas seemed unrelated to everyone else and Tony shrugged off any questions with explanations of him being a bored genius capable of extreme multi-tasking.

At any given time, there were at least three projects in various active stages and many more running concurrently in the background. JARVIS oversaw them all and provided necessary updates. The new StarkPhone prototype was being fabricated, it took no time at all since Tony had already done it once before. Same with the navigation system for the air force and the arc reactor fueled water purifier for South Africa.

Tony kept busy and stayed productive, but sometimes his mind drifted in the brief lulls between projects and found himself sketching out blueprints for an Iron Man suit meant for sub-zero climate.

Sometimes he realized it during the preliminary outlines and other times he snapped back to full awareness running the numbers for armor integrity. The unpleasant taste in his mouth was always the same. 

The faintest hint of copper clashing with soured bitterness. Like the dizziness-induced vomit he forcibly swallowed back down with blood-tinged saliva as he laid on the floor on a HYDRA bunker. Sense memory was a funny thing.

Each time Tony pushed the hologram away with stiff and aching fingers, like they were frost-bitten. His chest throbbed painfully, feeling the presence of the arc reactor as though it had been violently shoved into his rib cage. Breathing became difficult and each drag of air a wheeze, acutely similar to having a hand around his throat, his mother's neck. He shuddered, shaking off the memory and the sensation of a coldness that burned.

He could not afford to go down that spiraling path that was a detour from the more important and dire problems.

Extremis. HYDRA. The Accords.

At least the scepter was off-world and Ultron would not happen.

The catastrophes to come took precedent over the tragedy already occurred.

Tony repeated this to himself as he willed his panic away, reminded himself that nothing would bring his parents back, and absolutely avoided thinking about how they died. He pushed unsteadily to a standing and fled from the floating hologram titled Siberia, which JARVIS saved in a hidden folder along with the other similarly unfinished designs.

DUM-E watched, disappointed and fretful, as Tony hastily stumbled out of the workshop for the missed opportunity of serving as an alarm clock.

*

The elevator opened to reveal the kitchen, instead of the penthouse Tony had instructed JARVIS to bring him to.

Tony cast a scowl that was filled with too much amusement and appreciation to be cutting. He made his way over to the counter, where Bruce was seated and entranced by the tablet in front of him. The cup of tea by his elbow had cooled some time ago.  

Team Iron Man was announced to the public last week and already hundreds of schools had submitted thousands of names of students interested in and qualified for the program. The scope was clear significantly larger than they had anticipated but still within the range of JARVIS' immense capabilities, the A.I. filtered through the data and presented Pepper and Bruce with lists of promising projects and names.

Pepper handled the M.I.T. side with her usual aplomb and grace, already setting up appointment to meet with the qualified students once the fall semester began.

Bruce and Tony had talked about going to some of the schools personally to encourage the children and demonstrate their commitment, with JARVIS selecting which ones using a randomizing algorithm. They were set to leave at the beginning of September.

"Hey, Jolly Green." Tony poured the forgotten cup of tea down the drain, a few drops splashed onto his still tremoring hand.

"Tony." Bruce blinked. "When did you get here?"

"Um, somewhere between simulacrum of organic tissue and regeneration." Tony took an upside-down peek at the tablet. "Are you reading Doctor Who forums again?"

"That happened one time." Bruce grumbled fondly. "And no, this is Dr. Cho's latest article."

Tony flinched at the mention of the geneticist who was forever associated with Ultron and Vision in his mind. He disguised the involuntary movement by crouching down to pull out a small pot from the cupboards. "Sounds like a good time. You want some hot chocolate?" He set it down on the stove-top.

"It's three in the afternoon, isn't that a bit early for hot chocolate?" Bruce chuckled when Tony gave him an incredulous look and raised his hands in a placating manner as he retrieved the milk and half-and-half from the fridge.

"That's what I thought." Tony huffed, turning to the pantry for the gourmet chocolate bars while Bruce added equal amounts of milk and half-and-half to the pot and turned the stove on low.

Bruce returned to his tablet as Tony set to break the chocolate bars into smaller pieces by hand. The mindless and repetitive motion slowly soothed his frayed nerves.

"You alright?" Bruce asked as Tony scooped the fragments into his hands to sprinkle into the pot of warming milk. "Want to talk about it?"

"Um, I will be." Tony stirred the mixture with listless twists of his wrist. "Hot chocolate fixes everything, right? It works against Dementors after all." He neatly bypassed the second question. 

Bruce hummed noncommittally, but Tony could feel Bruce's concerned stare like a physical presence at his back.

For a few minutes, the only sound was the gentle swish as Tony stirred the melting chocolate chunks into the bubbling milk. He poured the hot chocolate into two mugs and topped them with a generous serving of whipped cream. "It cools down faster." Tony offered in defense of his sugar-centric life choices. "It's a scientific fact." He took a sip and sighed contentedly as the warmth traveled down his throat and curled in his chest.

"It's the arc reactor, isn't it?" Bruce's question was asked in a whisper but the way it made Tony jump was more akin to a shout.

"What makes you say that?" It wasn't a no. Tony considered having the shrapnel removed, like he had done before, but the risks had been high and there was no guarantee that his luck would hold out again. He'd only just gotten this second chance months ago and there was so much, too much, to be done for him to endanger it with unnecessary experimental surgery. 

Bruce nodded toward Tony's hand, the one not holding the mug, the one splayed over the glowing light in his chest. Tony dropped it hastily.

"You cover it up a lot, your breathing gets strained sometimes, and you make this face–" Bruce scrunched his face as though he'd just bitten into something sour. "When you think we aren't looking."

"We?" Tony tried to keep the hurt out of his voice, but the thought of the people he had welcomed into his home talking about him behind his back was agonizing. He could remember the way conversations had halted when he entered the room, the guilty glances trade among the Avengers, and the abrupt subject changes.

"Just me and Jim." Bruce said with a casualness that seemed cruel.

"Who the hell is Jim?" Tony joked weakly, hiding the roughness in his voice with a gulp of the hot chocolate that no longer tasted sweet. Bruce was either oblivious or uncaring, Tony desperately hoped it was the former.

"Rhodes." Bruce chuckled with a shake of his head and froze when he saw the tenseness Tony couldn't quite hide. "Hey, hey." He moved closer, reaching out a hand that Tony backed away from. "I'm sorry, we were, are, all worried about you."

"Yeah. Because I'm such a fuck-up." Everything was falling apart, slipping through his fingers like trying to catch a snowflake. Even when he had it in his palm, it never stayed and always melted away. He thought of snow, cold, and ice.

Bruce looked like he was in pain, which made no sense at all. "No, because you're human."

"I'm Iron Man." Tony retorted automatically, borrowing strength from Howard's words Stark men are made of iron. He thought of Howard, Maria and the car accident.

"You're Tony to us." Bruce said softly. "And we worry because that's what friends do." He cringed. "The arc reactor seemed to be bothering you lately."

"It's fine." Tony lied. It was difficult to have arc reactor back in his chest, he hadn't had to deal with the restricted lung capacity, the ever-present light, and metallic coconut taste for four years. In many ways, it felt like the early days of Afghanistan all over again. Relearning his body and the new addition he hadn't asked for. He thought of Barnes, the Winter Soldier, and the metal arm. "I'm used to it. Um, I'll get used to it." Tony amended at Bruce's skeptical squint.

"What if you don't have to?" Bruce spun the tablet around and slid it toward Tony. "Dr. Cho's research proposes a regeneration cradle that utilizes simulacrum for cell repairs. There's no possibility of deterioration and the nano-molecular functionality is instantaneous."

"She's creating synthetic tissue." Tony mumbled to himself, dazed that the very thing he wished to avoid had somehow found a way to him. He thought of the mind stone, Ultron, and Vision.

"It can repair the damage–"

"No!" The word came out harsher than Tony had intended, judging by the way Bruce balked. "Just. No. Thanks, I really– But– No." He couldn't articulate the storm of feelings he was caught in, fear pushing him into panic and doubt pulling him away from hope. It was, felt, wrong to use the cradle. Even if he couldn't pinpoint the exact reason why. There was a tightness in his chest and his vision had gone fuzzy around the edges.

"Hey, Tony. Tony. I'm sorry I brought it up. Just breathe with me, alright? In and out. C'mon. In and out."

Bruce's voice warbled as though it was far away, but Tony could feel the other scientist's grip on his elbow. He didn't remember standing up nor Bruce coming closer, but he followed the directions and felt everything rushing back into focus. It was like being underwater and breaking through the surface, every inhale was a gasp and every exhale was a pant.

"That's it, you're doing great." Bruce was steering him toward the couch. "In and out."

"I'm fine." Tony slumped against the plush leather and let his head fall back, blinking away the moisture in his eyes. "I'm fine." He wasn't sure if he was trying to convince Bruce or himself.

"You know, it's okay to be not fine sometimes." Bruce set a hand on Tony's shoulder and kept it there until Tony glanced up questioningly. "I'm not fine sometimes either." He tightened his grip minutely before moving away to the kitchen. "I'll get you some water."

"Thanks." Tony whispered, forcing that single syllable through chapped lips and dry throat. The fact that he was grateful for something, even if he hadn't know what exactly, was enough to make him relax fully.

*

The leg braces were designed quickly, Tony had the idea for them ever since Rhodey fell in Germany and it was simply a matter of making conceptual plans into a concrete contraption. He hoped they would help others with paralysis and he prayed Rhodey would never need them.

The Stark Industries board was immensely pleased to expand into another field. Medical professionals were intrigued by Tony's invention. While past experiences had taught them to be skeptical of anything promising to be a cure, the leg braces were meant to be a quality-of-life improvement tool and therefore nonthreatening to their expertise. Doctors, as it turned out, could be quite touchy about an outsider crashing their party. Several renowned surgeons inquired about clinical trials and had their names attached to the project.

War Machine - with Tony's renewed involvement and existing connection with the military, it would never bear the atrocious name Iron Patriot - was outfitted for a spinal support mechanism, two back-up energy source, and a parachute. The armor already had more bulk than the sleeker Iron Man model, so the additions did not seem out-of-place.

Rhodey whistled appreciatively when he saw the new model but the excitement faded as Tony listed off the improvements, which Tony noticed immediately.

"What's wrong, Honey Bunch?"

"Last week, I flew my one hundredth combat mission." Rhodey held up a hand to stop Tony from cheering congratulations and received a high-five for it. "Thank you, but that wasn't why I brought it up." He waited a few seconds, making sure Tony knew there was no way to redirect the conversation to lighter territory. "Now I'd be lying if I said falling doesn’t terrify me and these upgrades help a lot, so really, thanks Tones."

Tony opened his mouth then closed it promptly when Rhodey made a zipping motion across his own lips.

"But I know it wasn't fear for me that made you add these changes, because out of the two of us, you're the one who actually fell. So is this also how you've been dealing?"

"No." Tony's denial was instinctual, he bit back the correction that they had both fallen. The slow-motion and horror-filled replay of Rhodey plummeting through the sky haunted him still.

Rhodey arched an unconvinced eyebrow.

"Maybe."

Rhodey's eyebrow remained lifted, it was kind of baffling how he was able to control his facial muscles with such precision.

"Yes." Tony sighed. It wasn't entirely a lie, improving War Machine was a coping mechanism. Just for a different trauma than what Rhodey had in mind.

"Well, I think you're doing a great job so far."

"Uh oh, you have but-face." Tony clarified at Rhodey's unimpressed look. "What? You look like you're going to say but."

"But." Rhodey placed a comical amount of emphasis on that word, him indulging Tony was one of the many reasons why they were friends. "You don't have to do it alone."

All traces of humor left Tony in an instant. "You talked to Bruce."

"Yeah." Rhodey had the decency to look contrite. "It's all part of the 'you don't have to do it alone' plan. Um, he mentioned your, um, moment."

The specifically careful word choice surprised a chuckle out of Tony. "Yeah, it was a moment alright."

"We all have them." Rhodey's eyes grew solemn and serious, he suddenly seemed thousands of miles away. Tony was acutely aware of the years Rhodey had spent, still spent, on active duty. "Look, I'm not saying join a support group or hire a therapist, but I am saying you don't have to carry it all by yourself." He rolled his eyes, some of the playfulness returning between them. "No, building a suit to carry your emotional baggage isn't a valid solution."

"Challenge acc-"

"Just, think about it, okay? You weren't and aren't alone." 

"You know." Tony mused, reviewing the little moments over the past few months. "I'm beginning to get that." He smiled. 

Chapter Text

The Iron Legion was well received by the United States military and extremely well received by the public.

Ross was practically foaming at the mouth over Tony ingratiating himself with what the Lieutenant General considered to be his circle, but he was forced to stand down by President Ellis.

The President was quite appreciative of Tony's willingness to lend the Iron Legion to the armed forces, which complimented his reelection platform of a stronger focus on security and domestic protection following the Incident.

After so much destruction, the people needed the comfort of knowing there is a team dedicated to providing protection instead of eliminating threats. While the two objectives might seem similar at first glance, there was actually a significant difference in regards to how each side viewed collateral damage - one considered civilian safety as most important while the other viewed capturing criminals as the priority. 

It was a lesson that had taken Tony years to learn, that the Avengers hadn't grasped, and he desperately hoped it wouldn't be too late this time. 

The first Iron Legion operation, oversaw by Rhodey, was a small scale search and rescue mission in the Middle East. It was declared an absolute success and sustained no causalities. The photo of War Machine, a portrait of stoic strength in dark gray, flanked by five Iron Legionnaires in muted silver made headlines and magazine covers for weeks.

Rhodey had indeed worked his military liaison magic and the trick was misleading them on the exact number of Iron Legionnaires available. As far as the government knew, there were only five and they were all under the command of the United States military. Revealing that Tony had thirty-five Mark 80s in waiting would certainly raise questions, questions that Ross would be all too eager to ask and not hesitate to use whatever means necessary for the answers. Not to mention scarcity increased the rarity of any resource. Rhodey had clearly picked up a few things from his best friend over the years; after all, one did not escape the dean of School of Engineering's wrath without gaining some serious skills in the arts of prevarication and obfuscation.

Slowly, Iron Legionnaires were deployed on independent missions. Ellis brought up the idea to rename Iron Man the Iron Patriot, as a harmless joke, after seeing the latest polls and the double-digit bump, chuckling over his own clever wordplay and commending Tony for his service. 

Only JARVIS' soothing voice in his ear prevented Tony from bolting out of the Oval Office. He managed a weak protest about how iconic Iron Man sounds and swiftly moved on to other matters. It felt a bit like an out-of-body experience as Tony's mind panicked over all the possibilities and meanings of this new development while his body carried on a conversation seamlessly and walked itself to the car when the meeting ended. 

Tony practically collapsed in the back seat, mumbling for Happy to just drive when the other man shot him a concerned look. 

JARVIS, who knew the significance of Iron Patriot, calmly and patiently went over the statistics of Ellis' joke being a chance occurrence versus a intentional sign. Eventually, Tony found enough confidence to dismiss it as nothing more than a random meshing of popular words applied to the wrong person. 

Happy greeted him with a takeout bag smelling deliciously of cheeseburger and fries when Tony rolled down the divider. "Got you covered, Boss." 

"Thanks, Hap." Tony felt the corners of his lips tug up into a smile, still a bit shaky but becoming steadier as he bit into the cheeseburger. He was lucky to call Happy a friend, the man had been a solid and constant presence in his life for the past decade. "You excited for the road trip?" 

"I wouldn't call driving back to Manhattan a proper road trip." Happy grumbled in good humor. 

"The one for the Team Iron Man program." Tony said through a mouthful of fries.

"Oh." Happy was quiet for only a few seconds, but the pause was noticeable. 

"What?" Tony frowned. "You got a vacation planned? If that's the case, it's no big deal. Just join us when you're back." 

"Didn't think I was going, that's all." Happy shrugged, a tired lift and drop of his shoulders that looked like defeat. "Not like you need a body guard or anything."

Tony gaped, uncaring that the cheeseburger was slowly collapsing in his lax fingers. A memory slammed into the forefront of his mind. 

Do you know what happened when I told everyone I was Iron Man's bodyguard? They would laugh in my face. 

The half-chewed bread and beef tasted too dry and too burnt on his tongue, and it took more effort than Tony would care to admit to swallow it down. The lump lodging itself in his throat, blocking the apologies fighting to get out and clashing against the wave of regret.

Before, Happy had driven him to visit the Avengers, scattered through the city because they refused the invitation to the tower, when Tony had been trying to establish some kind of a bond between them. Desperate to be part of the superhero club. The same group of people who had rejected him and laughed so outrageously when Happy introduced himself as Tony's body guard, habit from all the years when Happy had kept Tony out of harm's way. At the time, Tony had thought the laughter was directed at him, rich boy playing superhero and needing protection out of the armor. Maybe it was, or maybe it was an honest misunderstanding, but it had hurt Happy and Tony hadn't even known. Hadn't made the effort to know. Then he remembered Happy's voice, gruff and faraway.

Yeah, I miss you too. But the way it used to be. Now you're off with the superfriends. I don't know what's going on with you anymore. 

"Good thing you're more than that, way more." The words came, unbidden and true. "You're my friend, Hap, one of my best friends. You've seen me through a lot of crazy stuff and you never made me feel crazy, even when I feel like that myself. God, you didn't even bat an eye when I asked for a cheeseburger and just got me one." That was when Tony noticed the nearly-deconstructed cheeseburger and hastily set it back in the takeout bag. "Like just now." 

"Oh geez." Happy groused. "Do we have to?" He shuddered. "Feelings. Talking." 

A startled laugh tore out of Tony's throat, taking the weight of what-had-been with it. "Obviously this is a sign that our friendship has transcended mere words."

Happy was clearly ready to be done with this conversation, based on the way he was fidgeting in his seat. "Let's go with that one."

"Alright." Tony nodded and waited until Happy settled down somewhat. "But I'm giving you a hug later." 

"Fine, fine." Happy smiled, then said quietly. "For the record, I was just happy to have you back, still am." 

"Two hugs!" Tony declared.

Happy groaned exaggeratedly but didn't protest. 

*

Countries sought assistance from the Iron Legion for matters such as clearing hazardous materials, delivering much-needed aid to isolated populations, and laying the groundwork for massive and near insurmountable construction projects - such as roadways across the African continent. A group of delegates approached Tony directly with the request and the timing couldn't have worked out better. Here was a perfectly respectable reason for Tony to begin production on, say, thirty Iron Legionnaires to accommodate the scope of the project, bringing the total number of the Iron Legion up to thirty-five. 

Tony asked to first confer with the President, who agreed readily and appreciate the courtesy gesture as well as the opportunity for yet another ratings bump. 

Political goodwill came as easily as breathing, the victorious air tasted even sweeter with the knowledge that Ross was suffocating and would soon be put out of his misery via a timely resignation. 

"Nine out of ten African aid projects fail because the medicine or the personnel can't get to the people in need. Infrastructure is the problem and one that we haven't been able to solve until now." President Ellis' voice played over the footage of him shaking hands with various leaders of African countries. "The United States' very own Iron Legion will gladly take on the initial burden of transporting the material and setting the foundation for a network of connected highways."

They watched the news clip over a bowl of popcorn. Tony and Rhodey on the couch with Pepper perched on the armrest while Bruce and Happy made themselves comfortable in the recliners. JARVIS dutifully saved a copy for the archive and quietly stated how proud he was proud of his creator, a sentiment echoed loudly by everyone.

Tony opened and closed his mouth a few times, and when no words came, he hesitantly shaped it into a shy smile before hiding it behind a handful of popcorn. 

*

"Sir, Agent Romanoff is in the lobby and requesting your company." JARIVS announced. "She has also inflicted a small virus to my system via the terminal at the information desk, most likely to distract me from SHIELD's engineers' working to dismantle the outermost firewall."

"Is it working?" Tony smirked, fully trusting of his A.I. abilities.

"Not at all, though I will allow them the illusion that it is. The infection was detected within 0.2 seconds and the affected area has been quarantined. I've also taken the liberty to execute Protocol Abyss."

The counter-attack protocol was based on the famous Nietzsche quote: When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you. JARVIS hadn't been too thrilled to be compared to the abyss, but it was an apt name. Natasha's phone would be an open book to JARVIS in the matter of minutes. 

"Excellent as always, JARVIS." Tony slowed the treadmill and started on some upper body stretches as he cooled down. "Send her up in ten and loop those amateurs through some hurdles before they spin the wheel for their prize."

The prize was the amount of time JARVIS would allow the SHIELD technicians to access the preapproved and prearranged information before 'detecting' the intrusion. Tony had learned long ago that the best way to remove unwanted eyes was not to shine a bright light, as satisfying as that might be, but to limit what they can and do see.

SHIELD had predictably continued to monitor Tony's activities after he declined the offer to be an Avenger, as they had done since his return from Afghanistan and the Iron Man suit became a subject of interest.

Before, Tony had allowed the surveillance because he thought they were on the same side, fighting to better the world and balancing the debt he had incurred. So he had been lenient with their less-than-legal and more-than-inappropriate means, such as Fury's use of Stane's codes to enter the Malibu mansion shortly after the battle of Los Angeles.

Tony had been somewhat impressed that Fury managed to break in and definitely intrigued by what the Director had to say. In turn, he had hoped that SHIELD would find him impressive and intriguing. So he had treated them with some semblance of respect and tolerated their lack thereof, unaware of the imbalance until it was tipped entirely in their favor and at his expense. Tony had handed over the keys to his house and workshop and bank account, expecting nothing in return but the validation of being useful.

Now, Tony saw it as confirmation of being used.

Fury's actions had reeked of manipulation, exploiting Tony's fragile mental state after his near-death experience by his godfather's hands. Had Fury wished to nurture feelings of trust and partnership, breaking into a potential ally's home was not a sound recruitment strategy; however, had the goal been to snare an asset...

When Tony shared this realization with Pepper and Rhodey, hoping to obviate their objections against distancing himself from SHIELD, he was pleasantly surprised when both of them agreed readily and voiced their own distrust and dislike toward the secret government agency. Pepper had been suspicious ever since Natalie Rushman turned out to be Natasha Romanoff and Rhodey's dissatisfaction with the Avengers applied toward SHIELD.

Bruce didn't need any persuasion. There was no love lost between SHIELD and him, the cage on the helicarrier had seen to that.

"Yes, Sir." JARVIS sounded gleeful. The A.I. was understandably upset by SHIELD's past crude methods and significantly more so after Tony had confided what the future held if he were to remain an Avenger. "I hope they're feeling lucky."

*

"Consulting hours are every other Friday from one to two." Tony called out when he heard the elevator arrive, pulling a hoodie over his sweat-drenched tank top.

Natasha's voice was all annoyance and zero amusement. "Today is Friday and it is 1:52PM."

"In that case, c'mon in!" Tony poured himself a glass of cucumber-infused water. He did not offer her any.

A series of emotions flickered through her eyes, too fast for Tony to identify, before she schooled her features into one of relaxed openness. "You're looking well." She moved to lean against the weight rack, sending him a conspiratorial smirk. "Almost dying agrees with you."

Tony frowned at the flippant tone and off-handed reference, recognizing them as tools to establish rapport – a compliment, an allusion a shared experience and some gentle teasing. He would have welcomed such a gesture once upon a time, celebrated it even, but now he saw through the measured words and calculated lilt. A part of him felt thrilled at decoding the Black Widow but mostly he just felt exhausted. "How about we skip the small talk? After all, you only got eight minutes left before consulting hour is over."

Natasha stared at him for several seconds, smirk fading from her lips as she obviously did not find what she had hoped. "Got somewhere to be?"

"The shower." Tony sniffed himself exaggeratedly, faking a wince for effect when all he smelled was the clean scent of the laundry detergent on the hoodie. "Seven minutes." It was laughably easy to decipher Natasha's different modes, now that he knew what to watch for. The friendly expression rippled into something harsher, more militant, with a small roll of her shoulders.

"We need more fire power." The soft cadence of her speech was replaced with an almost hostile curtness, which Tony actually appreciated because it was, at least, honest.

"That's none of my business, literally." Tony shrugged to disguise the tension in his shoulders. "Stark Industries shut down the weapons manufacturing division years ago." 

Natasha glared. "This is different."

"Not from where I’m standing." Tony took a sip of his water, his throat suddenly felt too dry. The truth was, he would have been open to design body armor or other defensive gear for the Avengers, had she asked with basic respect and common courtesy.

"Then you should move."

"No." Tony snapped. He knew he was overreacting and Natasha was no doubt picking up on it, but he had enough of being told to move, to compromise, to fold. "Look, your current set-up is fine. SHIELD's tech department does fine work."

Natasha's eyes narrowed. "There's always room for improvement."

"True, but do you need these improvements?" He arched an eyebrow at her and stifled a chuckle when she scowled at the trap – to admit they needed upgrades was to disparage their own skills.

"Call it competitiveness, but we'd like to keep up with Cap in the field." She shot back, bypassing the taunts and throwing one of her own. "That shield your father made is a work of art."

It was a challenge reminiscent of that thing in your chest is based on unfinished technology, one that Tony ignored in favor of calming his breathing as he remembered the sharp crack of the shield slamming into his chest and the dull clank of it hitting the floor. Howard's work of art turned against his son then carelessly discarded. "We are done here." He was proud by how steady his voice sounded.

"There's still three minutes left." Natasha tilted her head toward the digital clock on the wall, peering at Tony with the precision of a surgeon preparing to cut into flesh.

"I'm afraid that clock runs a bit slow, Agent Romanoff." JARVIS intoned. The display suddenly jumped forward three minutes and read 2:00PM.

"Does it now?" Natasha sneered as she pulled out her phone and paled when the same time impossibly blinked back at her.

"Tell Fury I'm billing him for the full hour." In that one sentence, Tony had effectively confirmed his continued working relationship with SHIELD, reasserted his consultant status, and made clear Fury was the preferred liaison. 

Natasha must have understood, judging by her stiff nod and swift exit. 

Tony was on a different level than the Avengers now. 

Chapter Text

"Sir, there is a pending deposit to your account in the amount of $25,000, from one of SHIELD's cover agencies." JARVIS announced as Tony checked the briefcase containing the travel Iron Man suit, he had made vast improvements to the portable model since the Mark 5 days. "It may have something to do with the undisclosed censure on Agent Romanoff's record and the new reductions made to her monthly salary over the next twelve months." The A.I. sounded inordinately pleased. 

Tony hummed, smirking a bit at Fury's attempt to make amends. It was a direct demonstration of willingness to maintain civility between Stark Industries and SHIELD as well as an indirect elevation of Tony's consultant status to be above an agent's. 

Small steps forward, but in the right direction.

*

Late July brought an unprecedented heat wave that prompted Tony to suggest retreating to Malibu, the proximity to the ocean would make the grueling summer tolerable and the time difference would help him evade pestering legislators. 

Bruce was shocked when he realized a second, possibly third, suitcase was needed to fit all of his belongings. He sheepishly explained that it had been years since he last felt comfortable enough to acquire more things than what would fit into a backpack as he traveled - hid - around the world. "Thanks Tony, from both of us." Bruce's voice had an echoing duality to it.

Tony twitched a shrug then tried to deescalate what was sure to become a sentimental moment by pulling up a holographic map of the schools JARVIS had mostly selected at random and highlighting the planned route to visit them all. The plan was to head out west for a few weeks of relaxation before making their way back to the East Coast via a cross-country road trip, which he announced with great excitement and a double fist pump. 

"I thought we're taking the jet." Bruce quirked a smile that said he knew exactly what Tony was doing with the deflection but he was allowing it.

"Well, yes." Tony hedged. "But we'll be driving to the schools after we land."

"I thought I'm driving." Happy piped up from the small kitchenette at the back of the workshop, where he was clearing out the mini-fridge with Butterfingers. 

Tony scrunched his nose. "We're switching off so it totally counts."

"Totally." Bruce nodded wisely, in the manner of a man recently enlightened with some grand universal truth. Not at all sarcastic except for the playful gleam in his eyes.

Happy just snorted and said he wasn't letting Tony near the driver's seat because he had the setting exactly where he liked it.

Tony responded to the jab at his height as expected, which was to say not at all graciously. 

The conversation quickly deteriorated to a series of childish exchange of non sequitur insults and even worse comebacks.

"Your face!" Happy declared.

"No, your face!" Tony shot back.

Happy puffed up. "No, your face!"

DUM-E doused Tony and Happy with the fire extinguisher ten seconds later, trilling excitedly albeit bewilderedly as Bruce commended the robot on putting out a metaphorical fire.   

Tony and Happy agreed that Bruce's apology wasn't all that apologetic, but the grilled cheese sandwiches made up for it. 

*

Two day before their departure from New York, JARVIS alerted Tony of a new development at SHIELD.

Steve was invited to join President Ellis at a baseball game and his trip had gone infinitely better than Natasha's, ending with Ellis promising to speak with Tony about outfitting the Avengers.

While Fury might respect Tony's boundaries enough not to cross them, it didn't stop the spy from going around them. 

To be fair, Tony had been expecting something like this. It was gratifying to be right though he wouldn't have minded being wrong. Grudgingly, he admitted that it was an excellent strategy to send Steve to meet with Ellis, who was an unabashed Captain America fan. 

The resentment that Steve only had to show up to achieve what Tony foughtbargained, and worked for burned sour and bitter; but he had, for the most part, grown accustomed to that taste. 

"Call Pepper please, JARVIS." This situation required a public relations expert. Tony couldn't refuse the President's request without seeming uncooperative, but he also didn't want SHIELD to think they could manipulate him that easily. 

Hence, Pepper. 

Because while he was good at the games, Pepper was a master and exactly who they needed to fit Tony's narrative within Ellis' red-white-and-blue tinted world. She answered on the first ring, her softened enunciation suggested she had a glass of wine or two, as was part of her Friday evening relaxation routine. Her mind was as sharp as ever, though, and quickly came up with a solution so simple that Tony was surprised he didn't think of it first.

Pepper teased that perhaps he didn't think too hard because he missed her, and Tony found himself nodding in agreement before verbally confirming it. The navigation from a romantic relationship to a friendly one was an ongoing process, they were fine in group settings but one-on-one conversations were interspersed with awkward pauses and mostly limited to Stark Industries and Team Iron Man. But they had and did miss each other. 

Tony and Pepper spent the next half hour on the phone, catching each other up and talking almost like they used to before they had kissed each other. 

It was wonderful. 

*

The next morning, when President Ellis called, Tony first updated him that early December was the estimated completion date for the additional Iron Legionnaires. It wasn't a complete lie since JARVIS was fabricating a new model specifically for the work in Africa, with all additional features - cloaking, heat tolerance, and prehensility - removed. Then he mentally counted down toward the inevitable request, if only because he was both impatient to get it over with and gleeful to use Pepper's well-crafted response.

Stark Industries was still contracted with the military and tasked with creating durable and lightweight armor for American soldiers. With Bruce's help, Tony was able to synthesize a flexible and breathable fabric, one of the prototypes for Hulk's pants, capable of minimizing damages from bullets and blades.  

SHIELD already had an order placed for their operatives to receive the armor upgrade and it made sense to simply update the allocation to include the Avengers. It would certainly boost moral for the troops and SHIELD agents to know their armor was of the same quality as Captain America's - just a less colorful version. 

"I mean, unless Cap wants something different? I don't want to overstep and assume..." Tony trailed off, allowing Ellis to fill in the blank for the reason of Tony's hesitation, and thought ruefully about his so-called team's reaction to the Accords. He had thought they were on the same page about needing oversight and accountability. How wrong had he been. 

Iron Man's exclusion from the Avengers as an active member was announced as a mutual decision, a phrase heavy with implications and encouraged speculations. The most commonly believed theory was that egos were damaged when Iron Man single-handedly ended the alien invasion and saved New York while the other Avengers played support roles. 

While Ellis didn't share that opinion, he was aware of the underlying tension and was invested to keep both his biggest ally and childhood hero happy, which was what Tony had hoped for. "No, no. This is great. Cap said he didn't want any special treatments." 

Tony stifled a snort and settled for an eye roll at the hypocrisy of Steve stating he didn't want special treatments while using said privilege to ask the President a favor. Steve was either disingenuously naive or genuinely oblivious of his influence, the same force that pulled unwarranted loyalty to his side during the Civil War. In the end, all Tony had left was Rhodey. 

The buzz of Ellis droning on about the iconic design of the Captain America uniform rang in his ear, like the whoosh of air rushing by as he dived, and failed, to catch War Machine. Even though he had been control of the descent, it had felt like he was plummeting as well. He was dimly aware of making the appropriate sounds in response and farewell when Ellis was pulled into another meeting. 

JARVIS opened the blinds and the glaring brightness shook Tony out of his daze and brought him back to the present. He wondered if it could be considered an improvement that he now preferred to have his wounds cauterized in the light instead of festering in the dark. 

He decided on maybe

*

The StarkJet was top of the line with all the amenities but there was only so much to be done about the confined space and altitude shifts. 

Tony longed to fly alongside the jet, missing the rush of soaring upward and gliding downward in the freedom of the sky, but it wouldn't be fair to leave Bruce stranded and especially if the other man had Happy for company. Tony had taken the armor when they traveled to the West Coast and the determined looks Bruce and Happy had exchanged when Tony greeted them on the tarmac were more than a little worrying. 

To lessen the strain of traveling extensively and rapidly, they decided to spend as much leisure time in each city as possible.

Local businesses welcomed them for the inevitable flood of customers once word got out that Iron Man and the Hulk had dined at their establishment. Bruce won multiple eating challenges, he loved spicy food and had an insatiable appetite thanks to the Hulk. They also attended as events as possible, lending their fame to raise awareness and funds for good causes. Tony especially loved adoption days at the animal shelters, never minding the cat hair and dog slobber over his clothes. A photo of Tony, with a kitten on his shoulder and a bird perched atop his hair while petting a dog, made social media history.

Of course, not everyone adored the superhero duo. There were the skeptics questioning what really happened in New York, the cynics viewing the scholarship program as pandering for good will, and the frightened channeling their fear of the unknown into anger. The one voice they were somewhat willing to listen to was Happy's, an everyday man and average citizen. Though he didn't quell all of the discontent, that would simply be wishful thinking, he did alleviate some of it.

The children were delighted to meet Iron Man and the Hulk. Enthusiastic hugs and high-pitched screams were par for the course. Though there had been a few incidents of tears when the children were disappointed by the lack of armor or transformation. Tony had almost called the armor the first time it happened, his heart breaking at the little boy's sobs, but Bruce had stepped in and comforted the kid with quiet voice and soft words about how being a hero is less about appearance and more about actions.

The teenagers, full of squeaky voices and awkward limbs typical of puberty, greeted them with a subdued sort of excitement designed to appear detached and cool to their peers. Until they nonchalantly asked for photos and captioned their posts with an over-abundance of emojis and #TeamIronMan. 

*

By early-October, they were in New Mexico and enjoying some truly magnificent tacos.

Jane updated them on Dr. Selvig, who was admitted to a renown mental health facility and seemed to be doing well except for the occasional rambling and his distaste for wearing pants. Bruce commented that the Big Guy doesn't like pants either and turned an alarming shade of red when Darcy wolf-whistled at him. Loudly. 

Happy and Darcy got into a mostly-friendly argument over taser versus pepper spray that everyone else stayed far, far away from. 

Tony and Bruce listened with rapt attention as Jane updated them on her latest breakthroughs on dimensional travel, positing that given more data, she would be able to establish a direct connection to Asgard. 

"Would be nice to know what Asgard's planning." Bruce mused. "Though I'm thinking no-news-is-good-news as far as Loki's trial goes." 

Jane and Darcy scowled at the mention of Loki's name, the terror and destruction in New Mexico were all Loki's doing and they hadn't forgiven him yet despite feeling sympathy for his subsequent suffering and believing his innocence for the Chitauri invasion. 

"I'm sure we'll see them soon." Tony stated with a certainty he didn't feel but willed himself to believe, because he refused to consider the possibility that the significant look Loki had sent him was the last time he would see those green eyes. There was a message waiting to be decoded. "Asgard won't leave us mere mortals to fend for ourselves against a space titan god with a literal wish for Death with a capital D." Rolling his eyes at the absurdity, Tony was gratified to hear chuckles all around and noticed an improvement to the general mood. Humor was his first and best defense, for both himself and those he cared for, in the face of what seemed like insurmountable odds or unbearable loss. 

Jane paid for dinner and chided Tony when he tried to sneak the waiter his credit card. 

*

"Sir, are you alright?" 

Tony stared up at the spinning ceiling fan, mesmerized by the play of light and shadow in the glow of the arc reactor. It had been nearly an hour since JARVIS dutifully played the sound file of Loki's reassurance yet sleep eluded him. "Yep. Just thinking about tomorrow." For once, it wasn't the potential of nightmares or waking from this impossible dream keeping him from rest. It was the very real dread coiling in his gut and squeezing his heart at what, who, the next day will bring.

"I believe you mean today, Sir." 

"Technicality." Tony rolled over onto his stomach and burrowed between the pillows, telling himself it was best to skip the torturous what-ifs and simply wake up and deal with it. Like ripping off a band-aid.  

Rose Hill, Tennessee was the next destination.

*

When Tony met Harley again, he finally understood why people described an emotional experience as a rollercoaster ride, a phrase he had previously thought of as a cliché, because it summed up the way his stomach clenched then dropped perfectly.

First, there was the jarring novelty and familiarity of seeing Harley at school, an entirely different environment but still the same precocious ten year-old who confronted an intruder in his garage with a potato gun.

Then came the disappointment when Harley greeted Tony like a stranger. A famous stranger, but a stranger nonetheless. Tony felt his heart freeze when Harley turned to give an identical small wave and awed smile to Bruce. It made sense for Harley to treat Iron Man and the Hulk the same, but logic did little to soothe the ice seeping through his veins when Tony realized he was not nor would ever be 'Tony the Mechanic'.

Relief followed, almost warming the cold weight in his chest, when Tony rationalized that this was the better way. How he had come to be 'Tony the Mechanic' involved serious injuries to those he cared deeply about – Tony glanced at Happy – and a spectacular explosion that ended with his mansion at the bottom of the ocean. Not to mention 'Tony the Mechanic' had put Harley in danger. Selfishly. Unnecessarily. But with things being different this time and the plans in place, no Extremis soldiers would ever threaten or use Harley as leverage.

Finally, grief and resignation. Tony mourned the loss of that brief yet memorable connection between the two of them. Harley was there when he was at his lowest and desperately needed a reminder of what it means to be Iron Man, but it wasn't fair to Harley to be forced to play the role of a supposed superhero's sidekick and put into harm's way because Tony was a reckless jackass. Peter's earnest face and excited babble floated to the surface of his thought, which Tony promptly pushed back down. 

It ended with resignation; it was for the best that Tony didn't, literally, crash into Harley's life. If he felt any bitterness at missing that interactions with Harley, it was tempered by the shame churning in his stomach and dizzying his steps because Harley Keener wasn't the only reason he had asked JARVIS to put Rose Hill on the list.

There was also Chad Davis. 

Chapter Text

"You okay?" Bruce, ever perceptive, nudged him as they watched the horde of giddy children file into school buses. The end of the day rush was always hectic, they had learned early on that it was better to wait an extra twenty minutes for the parking lot to clear than to risk Happy's sanity navigating through the heart attack of sudden stops and unexpected children rushing out of nowhere.

Happy was in the car with his eyes closed and meditation music blasting so he didn't have to bear witness to the chaos.

"Yep, yep." Tony replied absently, trying to track Harley's movement through the crowd and failing. There were simply too many children with light-colored hair and blue backpacks.

"Tony." It was amazing how many emotions Bruce could infuse into that one word, the most prominent one being worry.

"I'm okay, I promise." Tony turned with a strained smile, fatigue masking dejection. "Just missing my bed, my couch, my Italian espresso machine." He resisted the urge to scan the crowd, understanding better than most that it was time to let go. Nothing good ever came from Tony holding on too tight.

Bruce hummed sympathetically. "There's no place like home."

"Say that again?" Tony felt his eyes widen at the implications of what Bruce just said.

"There's no place like home." Bruce repeated, emphasizing each word and a soft grin growing wider to match the one blooming on Tony's face. "Thanks, Tony."

Tony clapped Bruce on the back, feeling some of the melancholy fade. "Anytime."

*

Happy was maneuvering the car out of the parking lot when Tony caught sight of a hunched-over shape clutching at a dripping blue backpack stumbling out of the school's double doors.

"Wait!" Tony shouted. "Stop the car!"

"What–" Happy slammed on the brakes, anxiously glancing around. He had stated earlier that driving around children made him nervous and compared them to small ninjas with death wishes for all the dashing about they did near moving cars. "Oh."

Tony had already unbuckled his seat belt and pushed open the car door. "I'll go check it out, you guys go on ahead."

"No." Bruce shook his head, not necessarily forbidding Tony's action but not approving it either. "You go check it out, tell us what's going on, then we'll see about going on ahead."

Happy turned from the driver's seat and gave Tony a stern look.

Tony blinked and it took his single-focused mind a few seconds to realize this was how a team worked together. "Okay. Be right back." He left the car door open as he jogged toward the unmistakable figure of Harley.

Harley had stopped and was eying Tony warily as he approached. "Hi, Mr. Stark."

Tony did his best to school his grimace into a grin. Yet another reminder of how different things were this time around. "Hey kid. Went for a swim?" He knew right away that was the wrong thing to say when Harley twitched and hugged his drenched backpack even closer, some of the wetness transferring to his t-shirt. "Um, right. Too soon. Sorry about that." His hand reached up to scratch the back of his neck. "So, um, the bus left."

"Uh-huh." Harley gave Tony a look that wasn't exactly complimentary of Tony's ability to state the obvious.

"Need a ride home?"

"No, thank you. Mr. Stark. I can walk."

The refusal was expected but still stung. "How about I walk with you? I can use some fresh air." Tony tapped out a quick message to Happy and Bruce, updating them on the change of plans. He could have run back to the car but he didn't want to risk letting Harley out of his sight again. So much for letting go.

Happy responded that Tony could use the exercise and Bruce sent him a thumbs up when the scientist peeked his head out of the car when he reached to close the door Tony left ajar.

Tony waved goodbye and blew a kiss for good measure before turning to Harley, who was gaping at him with shock that Tony chose to interpret as awe. "Let's go, Munchkin."

"I don't need a babysitter. Mr. Stark." Harley stomped down the sidewalk, saying the title like an afterthought.

"I didn't say you did, Tater Tot." Tony smirked as Harley scowled at yet another nickname. "Call me Tony, Mr. Stark is my dad." He shuddered with only the slightest exaggeration. "Not really a good association for me, you know?"

"Yep." Harley nodded his head like he understood, which Tony supposed he did.

"What's that mean? What do you know?" Tony asked, only because it would seem odd not to. After all, he wasn't supposed to know anything about this child who he had only met today, who was one of the thousands accepted into the Team Iron Man program.

Harley peered up at him, eyes sharp with contemplation and soft with understanding. "My dad went to 7-Eleven to get scratchers. I guess he won, because that was six years ago."

Tony wondered how he had missed the clear defense mechanism before, it was one he used frequently himself – deflecting pain and feigning indifference with humor because dads leave, no need to be a pussy about it. "Look, about your dad." His throat suddenly felt too dry and too tight for the words he had longed to hear himself to come out. "It's not your fault."

"I know." There was a confidence in those two words that seemed out of place.

Tony's eyes widened in surprise. "You do?"

"Yeah. Sometimes people just make sad choices. That's on them, not on me." Harley kicked a rock as they rounded the corner. "It sucks, but it's not on me."

"Oh." Tony said dumbly, it felt like his brain short-circuited and was in the process of a reboot. He hadn't anticipated, hadn't considered, that response. Since Afghanistan and up to the Accords, he had taken everyone's every choice on as his personal responsibility. To make up for his irresponsible years. To atone for his sins. To punish himself. Every triumph happened in spite of him while every failure occurred because of him.

That's on them, not on me. Six words. So simple yet so...freeing.

Tony had heard some variation of those words before and dismissed them as empty comforts, but something about Harley's delivery made them seem real somehow. Maybe because Harley wasn't even talking about Tony. Maybe because Harley said it with such absolute certainty. Maybe because Tony had somehow identified and empathized with Harley, so in a way, Harley's conviction became his as well.

Now Tony's thoughts were in shambles, previously concrete conceptions crumbling to dust but somehow he saw clearer than before through the haze.

Harley shifted his dripping back from one hand to the other and Tony intercepted the trade without thinking, not so much to help Harley but to wrap his trembling fingers around something solid. "So, what's there to do around here?" He asked before Harley could protest.

"There's a diner–" Harley wiped his damp hands on his jeans.

"Promising if there's pie."

"– a bowling alley–"

"Happy won't bowl with me, he says I cheat using physics."

"– and a movie theater but the popcorn machine's broken."

Tony sighed dramatically, pleased to hear a small chuckle. "C'mon, there has to be something exciting in this town." It was wrong to use Harley like this, but he needed that crucial piece of information so he could start an investigation on Extremis without raising suspicion.

"Well, there's this Chad Davis guy that went crazy and made a bomb and he blew himself up a few years ago." Harley lowered his voice. "The explosion site is like this big crater with shadows around it. It's all kinds of spooky if you want to check it out."

"Huh, maybe." Tony forced the words out but thankfully Harley didn't seem to notice.

"Um, Mr. Sta– Tony." Harley corrected himself when Tony arched a challenging eyebrow. "You...you should be careful. The crater, um, reminds me of that giant wormhole."

Instead of inciting a panic attack, like last time, Tony just chuckled ruefully at how persistent Harley was. "You'll have to be more specific, there are a lot of wormholes out there." He felt calmer discussing it, because he now knew what waited on the other side. It was never the enemy or the war, but the unknown that stole his breath and quickened his heart. Anticipation was truly the worst.

"The one you, er, flew in?"

Tony snapped his fingers. "Ah yes, that one."

Harley eyed Tony with part exasperation and part amusement. "Are they coming back? The aliens?"

"If they are, we'll take care of it." Tony reassured, something he wasn't capable of doing last time. Avoidance had been his preferred method.

"Huh, okay." Harley smiled, too trusting in a way that both made Tony want to protect and scold him.

"That's it? No more badgering questions or invasion of my privacy?" Tony flashed Harley a brilliant grin to let the kid know he was joking.

"What's the Hulk's favorite food?"

Out of all the questions, this was not one Tony expected. "Um, spinach...?" He hazarded a guess.

Harley's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Are you saying that because it's a growing food?"

"Growing food?"

"You know, food you eat to help you grow."

Tony considered this then nodded decisively. "Yes, absolutely. And because it's green. I mean, the Hulk is basically one big growing green guy so eat your spinach, Squirt."

"My name is Harley!"

"I know." Tony tensed when they turned down Harley's street, knowing their time together was coming to an end. "What I don't know is what's his name?" He clarified when confusion colored Harley's expression. "The kid who bullies you, name please."

"Oh." Harley sounded weary and wary. "How'd you know that?"

Tony eyed the soaked backpack meaningfully. "Because friends don't hide friends' stuff in toilet tanks." He thought back to the early days at M.I.T. and his theory that he had funded the expansion of the campus bookstore single-handedly because he had given up on finding his backpacks and just replaced them. "I'm pretty sure that hasn't changed since I was in school."

Harley glanced back at the trail of water marks left behind them. "EJ. He's a jerk."

"Yeah, sorry to tell you this, Short Stack, but there will always be jerks." Tony shrugged, purposefully not using Harley's name and smirking when he saw the eye roll. "It's a fact of life."

"That's not very helpful." Harley grumped but there was an upward curve to his lips at Tony's bluntness.

"Yeah." Tony winced. "Believe it or not, I actually have no idea what to say in situations like this." At least he had some idea of what not to do, such as offering a ten year-old a flash grenade as a bully deterrent. It would have been very bad if Harley hadn't used it against the Extremis soldier and had set it off at school instead. Though, on the other hand, it was good that Harley had had it. Maybe Tony hadn't messed up their first interactions as much as he liked to think.

"Oh, I can believe it." Harley's sarcasm was practically a physical force.

"Whatever, Small Fry."

They walked in silence for a while, teetering on the edge between companionable and awkward, until Harley slowed to a stop. "Well, this is my house."

"Then my job here is done." The smile his face felt strained but the tightness in his chest had loosened. "Hey, about, um, jerks being a fact of life? Don't let them get you down, alright. Like you said, it's on them, not on you." Tony set the backpack down on the sidewalk, staring intently at the darkening of the pavement from the residual water. "And, um, friends help. I'd say go make some but I don't really know how to do that either so it seems like bad advice to tell you to do something I don't know how to do–" He cut himself off with a shake of his head, half-embarrassed at his rambling and half-nostalgic at the fond memory of meeting Rhodey. "So, good talk?"

Harley chewed his bottom lip for a second before a look of conviction slid over his face and he launched himself at Tony for a hug. "Thanks, Tony."

"Any time, Harley." Tony returned the embrace with slightly shaky arms and said quietly. "We have a connection."

*

Bruce's interests were immediately piqued as soon as Tony brought up a suicide bombing that somehow left behind shadow marks on the wall. Nothing homemade should have had the firepower to instantly vaporize a human body like a nuclear explosion would.

They went out to the explosion site and Bruce studied the dark imprints on the wall. "It would have to be–"

"–in excess of 3,000°C, Dr. Banner." JARVIS helpfully supplied from Happy's phone, where the other man was scrolling through the local news article.

"It says six people died." Happy frowned. "So, why only five shadows?"

"No signs of bomb fragments." Tony sifted through the rubble. "Official report found nothing either."

"So what are you saying? It wasn't a bomb?" Happy asked.

"When is a bomb not a bomb?" Tony mused, waiting for his friends to come to the conclusion he already knew.

Bruce's head snapped up, eyes widen with just the barest hint of green. "When it's a misfire."

"What?" Happy almost dropped his phone. "What does that even mean?"

Tony nodded gravely. "It means we should talk to his family."

*

On their way to Mrs. Davis' house, who was confused but agreed to see them on such short notice, Tony had Happy stop by the diner to get a quick dinner and a pie to bring as a gift.

"It's rude to show up empty-handed." Tony stated defensively at Bruce and Happy's incredulous looks. "My mom said so." It was a new development but he was finding it easier to talk about his mother. Before, he had avoided thinking of her, fearful that the very thought of her would devastate him, but now he found that it actually strengthened him.

Whatever teasing remark Happy was about to say was interrupted by their waitress. She had said their coffees were on the house, thanking them profusely for coming in town and gushing how big of a deal it was for her son Harley to meet his heroes.

"He's a great kid." Tony said sincerely as he handed her enough cash to cover their meals twice over. "Keep the change."

"Mr. Stark!" She was startled but didn't seem offended as sometimes people tend to get when Tony offered them money. It was a nice change. "Thank you."

*

Bruce asked to be dropped off at the hotel so he could go over the data with JARVIS. It was clear he wasn't comfortable with the idea of speaking with a grieving family member and the thought of human experimentation had likely set the Hulk on edge.

As it was, Mrs. Davis greeted Happy and Tony at the door and cooed over the pecan pie.

Tony shot Happy a triumphant look, sticking his tongue out to make a point of how impeccable his manners were.

Mrs. Davis sat down across from them, a file folder on her lap. "Alright, where'd you like to start?"

"First, we just want to say we're sorry for your loss." Happy grimaced. "It couldn't have been easy."

"It wasn't, it isn't." She was fiddling with the edges of the folder, a warble in her voice. "Do you know what they say about my son around here?" She didn't wait for a reply. "They say there are only five shadows because they're the mark of souls gone to Heaven. Chad didn't get one, you know, because he went to hell." The last word was practically a snarl. "My son was a good man, he served his country up till he couldn't and he just wanted to walk again."

Tony winced as a wave of guilt crashed into him, dragging him under and pushing him down. The Merchant of Death. Another life ruined because of his irresponsibility. "I'm so sorry."

Mrs. Davis' eyes snapped up to Tony's, disbelieving and baffled. "What'd you got to be sorry for, Mr. Stark? You saved my son's life." She grabbed Tony's hand in a tight grip. "If he hadn't had Stark armor, he wouldn't have survived the attack."

"But he still died." Tony saw more than felt the elbow Happy drove into his side. His mind was on over-drive, reviewing the numerous contracts Stark Industries had fulfilled for the military over the years and remembering the first line of full-body armor he had developed back in 2006. Three years before Chad Davis died in an explosion. Two years before Afghanistan. One year before Chad Davis was honorably discharged. Had he managed to do some good back then? Before he was Iron Man? Before he was given this second chance?

"We have reasons to believe it wasn't a suicide." Happy interjected, nudging Tony with his elbow once more. "That he didn't kill himself or the other five people."

"I know he didn't." Mrs. Davis slammed the folder on the coffee table. "And here's the proof."

Some of the papers slid out, one page had three capitalized letters written in black marker.

A, I, and M.

Chapter Text

The A.I.M. file from Mrs. Davis had contained multiple suitability reports and risk assessments evaluating Chad Davis' eligibility for the Extremis program. There were a few photos of other recruits in his sample group. Tony skimmed the file while Happy consoled Mrs. Davis on how the government had failed her son after his honorable discharge and the experimental treatment that gave him back his leg.

Only to take it away a month later, along with her son's life and the lives of five others.

Before they left, Tony clasped Mrs. Davis' hand tightly and promised her that Stark Industries would do better at protecting people on and off the field. "I will personally look into designing a line of prosthetics that will not only look like an arm but also function like an arm, but it won't cost an arm." He winked and was pleased when Mrs. Davis huffed out a watery laugh. "Thank you for meeting with us."

"No, Mr. Stark." She pulled him in for an unexpected but not unpleasant hug. "Thank you."

*

"I'm thinking it harnesses bio-electricity in the body to activate and recode parts of the brain that govern repairs. Like hacking an OS, but with a person, and upgrading it to your specificity." Bruce theorized, after reviewing the file and spending some time imagining how Extremis worked based on the list of tests run on the subjects. The repeated PET scans meant they were concerned with cellular level metabolic changes, which fell in line with what Tony knew of how Extremis worked.

JARVIS dutifully pulled up a projection of the human brain, lighting up various pathways and sections in demonstration.

"Incredible." Happy marveled.

"And highly weaponizable." Pepper chimed in, she had joined the discussion via video call. Her instincts, as usual, were spot-on. "As in enhanced soldiers, private armies, and..."

"Living bombs." Tony sighed, flipping through the pages of data. "Most likely a result of the complicated metabolic process and that explains the hourly temperature check." He thought of the video of Ellen Brandt regrowing her arm in the glow of burning embers. "If the body accepts the upgrades, then the user can consciously control the heat generated and direct it to heal themselves or cause significant damage. But if not..."

Happy looked grim and eyed the hologram with less awe than before. "Boom."

They sat in silence for a moment. The glittering lights above looked less like a small universe and more like a black hole.

Pepper was the first to recover. "So, I've heard of A.I.M., they're bidding on some of the same military contracts as us, and it's founded by Aldrich Killian." She cleared her throat. "We used to work together."

JARVIS replaced the image of the brain with one of Killian, hair slicked back and skin tanned bronze.

"He didn't look like that." She gaped with stunned appreciation. "What on earth has he been doing?"

"I know that guy." Happy squinted. "I know faces and I've seen that one before, but maybe less, um, pretty?"

"You think he's pretty? But not prettier than me, right? Right?" Tony whined and sent Pepper an exaggerated pout to let her know that they were okay; this was uncharted territory in their friends-to-lovers-back-to-friends relationship. When the only response he'd received was a mischievous quiet, he staggered back against Bruce, hand clutching at his chest and face contorted in mock offense. The solid coldness of the arc reactor under his fingers still startled him from time to time, even with the reduced lung capacity as a constant reminder. "I find your silence very rude!"

"There, there. You're the fairest of them all, Tony." Bruce soothed with a chuckle. "JARVIS, can you find some older pictures?"

"Certainly, Dr. Banner." JARVIS replied. Photos and articles shuffled before their eyes, a flurry of the same face until it snagged on one that was unlike the rest. It was Killian, but with unkempt and brittle hair, thick-lensed glasses, and an unevenness in his shoulders that suggested mobility impairments.

Pepper quietly confirmed that this was the Killian she had worked with before she joined Stark Industries.

"Hey, that's him. From that science conference?" Happy kicked Tony's calf to get his attention. "Where were we in '99?"

"Uh, Switzerland." Tony straightened slowly. "I, um, gave a lecture on–" Yinsen's voice sounded in his head. If I had been that drunk, I wouldn't have been able to stand, much less give a lecture on integrated circuits. "–integrated circuits." The arc reactor felt colder and heavier with another missed opportunity, one that was far too late to salvage, he rubbed at it absently as though trying to erase it from his chest.

"So what happened?" Bruce asked, leaning forward and sounding intrigued.

Tony barely managed to stop himself from glancing back at his friend incredulously, unable to reconcile Bruce's disinterest the last time Tony had talked about Bern with his obvious attentiveness now.

"Big party, lots of people, a plant exploded." Happy inhaled sharply as realization hit. "You don't think..."

"Unfortunately, I do." Tony grimaced.

"But that wasn't Killian, that was–"

"Maya Hansen." Tony glanced at Pepper, feeling oddly guilty for mentioning a tryst that happened years ago in front of his ex-girlfriend though she had just been openly admiring an evil mastermind.

Pepper arched an eyebrow in amused acknowledgement and made no comments.

Succinctly, Tony gave a summary of Maya's research in rewriting genetic codes and his half-hearted attempt at fixing her formula by fine-tuning the telomerized algorithm, leaving out the more personal details though he was sure his friends could infer the circumstances under which he had ended up in her hotel room.

"Obviously, the glitch was not fixed and what's worse, they're now testing on people and we have no idea how many of them are out there and how stable they are." Tony rubbed a tired hand over his jaw and felt the gruffness of his beard catching on his calluses.

They lapsed into another bout of silence as they considered the ramification of the scenario. Chad Davis had been at his house in a relatively remote part of a rural town when Extremis overloaded his body. What if the next incident happened in a metropolitan area? What would the fatality count be then?

"We can locate them via thermal imaging." Bruce took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "But we're going to need the most current Extremis formula to create a neutralizing agent."   

"I will begin scanning available satellite data for any irregular heat signatures." JARVIS's efficiency was a thing of beauty. "And locate Dr. Hansen's whereabouts and contact information."

"I'll keep Killian distracted with some very competitive counter-offers." Pepper tapped at her StarkPad. "He can't be conducting an experiment at this scale and keeping it quiet without some powerful people in his pocket, we'll see who comes to A.I.M.'s rescue."

"Are we cancelling the rest of the Team Iron Man tour?" Happy frowned. "I mean, it makes sense but the kids–"

"No, we keep going." Tony paused, waiting a beat for the objections that didn't come. Bruce nudged him, Happy kicked his calf again, and Pepper gave him a prompting look. So Tony continued with a small smile curving his lips. "Business as usual. They'd know something's up if we rush back to New York after visiting Rose Hill. My guess is they keep a pretty close eye on this place."

Pepper nodded and Happy mumbled his assent.

"I agree, better not spook them." Bruce added. "We can't synthesize anything without further data on Extremis."

"JARVIS can keep track of the possible Extremis participants and, er, have some Iron Legionnaires standing by just in case." Tony eventually filled Bruce and Happy in on the truth behind the Iron Legionnaires, well, as much as Tony could bear to share anyway.

"With pleasure, Sir."

It wasn't as if he hadn't considered telling his friends what he saw beyond the portal or what he had lived and was now reliving, but old insecurities and new fears always stopped him.

What if Bruce disappeared again after hearing about the possibility of Ultron? What if Happy learned what a terrible friend Tony had been? What if Rhodes blamed him for the fall that hadn't happened yet? What if Pepper redefined their relationship from friends to business? What if they finally saw what Steve and SHIELD did and realized Tony wasn't a hero...and left?

Those were the best case scenarios.

What if Bruce, or the Hulk, confronted Ross? What if Happy refused to stay a safe distance, one that Tony had created and enforced with callous dismissal, away? What if Rhodes kept flying only to fall again? What if Pepper decided to take on the world for him? What if they put themselves at risk?

These were the worst case scenarios.

Millions of what-ifs took up the space in between; situations and circumstances Tony couldn't control. The very thought of it made his heart still in dread and pound in fear. He couldn't afford surprises.

Knowledge prompts change yet change negates knowledge.

The only two beings Tony had told were JARVIS and Loki. While the former could act without Tony's directive, the A.I. tended to defer to his creator's judgement. The latter literally could not act while on another realm. Even though Tony yearned to see Loki again for the mage's witty conversation and appealing company, a part of him also feared the introduction of an unknown variable. His stomach fluttered and twisted with conflicting urges that thrilled and terrified him.

"Hello?" Another video chat opened and Rhodes' voice called out, snapping Tony's wandering thoughts back into focus. "Sorry I'm late, got held up in a debriefing. What did I miss?"

Bruce and Happy jumped in to bring Rhodes up to date as Tony switched Pepper's call from video to voice at her request. They chatted about upcoming Stark Industries announcements and projections, with Pepper updating him on the initial response to the new StarkPhones and Tony telling her his promise to Mrs. Davis for a new line of high-tech and low-cost prosthetics. 

As the evening wound down, Tony had his room to himself again and sprawled out on the somewhat-acceptable hotel bed. He exhaled slowly and extended his limbs in a full-body stretch, surprised by the lack of tension in his muscles despite the enormity of the situation. The stakes and risks were still high this time around, with the added pressure of saving lives that had been lost before, yet he felt strangely calm about it all.

Maybe it was because he knew what was coming. Happy was not going to be anywhere near Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Maybe it was because the Iron Legion was ready to deploy at a moment's notice, calibrated precisely to detect and dispatch those with Extremis heat signature.

Or maybe, and this was Tony's favorite, it was because he had a team now.

One he was a part of instead of apart from.

One he would do anything to keep.

*

The rest of the Team Iron Man tour went smoothly, if a bit subdued. They were back in New York by the end of October and only one school remained on their list.

Midtown Science Middle School, one of the feeder schools for Midtown High School of Science and Technology and attended by one Peter Parker.

*

Tony took a deep breath to center himself before strolling into Peter's classroom with his usual swagger. He had adjusted his expectations since his meeting with Harley two weeks ago and guarded his heart against the inevitable fracture when Peter, too, would not be what Tony remembered.

It proved to be true when Peter remained silent throughout the presentation and slid further down his seat when they began taking questions. Gone were the awkward enthusiasm, incessant rambling, and the sort of awe-filled looks that were truly humbling.

"Yes, the gentleman in the third row." Bruce called out.

"Hi, um, hi. My name is Flash Thompson and this question is for Dr. Stark." The boy was practically vibrating with a mixture of nervousness and glee.

Peter buried his head in his arms with an air of absolute dejection.

Tony's eyes tapered with worry and wondered why the name sounded familiar. "Shoot."

"Is, is it true that Parker helped you fight off a Hammer drone?" Flash turned and pointed at Peter's huddled form accusingly. "He's been talking about it for months!"

"Oh that is most definitely..." Tony trailed off, letting the suspense build and calming down the fierce surge of protectiveness that threatened to overwhelm him. Before Germany, FRIDAY had given him an overview of Peter's life, which included Flash Thompson, the bully who tormented Peter daily with verbal harassment and social shunning. It was nice to put a face to the name and even nicer to see that smug grin crumble. "True."

"What?" Flash's outraged cry was drowned out by the triumphant yell from the boy seated next to Peter.

"Told you!"

Peter's head lifted with a painful jerk.

Tony scrolled through the memories of last year's disastrous Stark Expo like he would the holographic display in his workshop. The design was meant to mirror his thought process, after all. In a matter of seconds, he located the most probable moment matching Flash's description. There had been a small boy, in toy replicas of the Iron Man helmet and glove, standing up to a Hammer Drone with fearless defiance. He hadn't and didn't know that was Peter, but he did with certainty now. "Hey kid, nice work!"

"Tha– Thank you, Mr. Stark!"

The stammering speech should not be endearing, but it was. Tony couldn’t help but match the wide grin on Peter's face and want to see it glow. "No, thank you, Mr. Parker. Couldn't have done it without you."

Peter turned an alarming shade of red and looked like he'd forgotten how to breathe. "I– I'm– I– I was just trying to be like you, sir!"

Tony was struck speechless for a second, which was fortunate because he could taste the words in his mouth - don't be like me, be better - bitter with self-loathing and sour with disappointment. Remnants of a time past and not-to-come. It was time for something new. "Joining Team Iron Man would be an excellent starting point, Mr. Parker. We'd love to have you."

This time, Peter did look like he stopped breathing. The boy next to him, the one who had come to Peter's defense earlier, thumped him firmly on the back. "Dude, don't pass out."

Bruce chuckled at the display of friendship then all traces of humor faded as he turned his attention to Flash. "I should mention that we have a zero tolerance policy against bullying. That's simply not how a team works together."

It was a testament of Peter's pure heart that he peered at Flash with concern.

Tony couldn't be prouder and this was only the beginning.

*

November passed in a flurry of preparations.

Bruce methodically reviewed Maya's published and unpublished papers, JARVIS was quite thorough in his search, and comparing her findings with what Tony could remember. Tony monitored his input as to not give too much away, because there were tidbits he shouldn't, couldn't, have known without the most current formula.

Happy was promoted to Security Specialist, with future career advancement opportunities, of Stark Industries; a position he accepted under the condition that he was still Tony's body guard and driver on an as-needed basis. Any visits to SHIELD automatically qualified. Tony suspected it was Bruce's doing, recalling the determined looks on their faces after their shared flight to Malibu.

Pepper was doing a beautiful job disrupting A.I.M.'s foothold within the government, vying for the same research funding and military contracts. Predictably, Ross interfered for the sole reason of making Tony's life difficult and thereby unwittingly doomed himself by allying with Vice President Rodriguez.

JARVIS found records of explosions matching the Extremist heat signature, dated as far back as June of 2011 and marked the emergence of the terrorist known as the Mandarin, the purported leader of the Ten Rings. A handful of bombings occurred throughout 2011 and early parts of 2012, all declared to be lessons for the American people.

Rhodes, who was part of the counter-terrorism task force, made the connection immediately. He had long questioned the unorganized nature of the Mandarin's attacks and the curious delay – sometimes hours and sometimes days – of the Mandarin's addresses to the American people after each strike. Though if the bombings were actually accidental overloads and the Mandarin was claiming undue credit, which A.I.M. was undoubtedly relieved for, then these discrepancies made sense.

Tony did not correct the small flaw in Rhodes' reasoning, that A.I.M. was the mastermind behind this masquerade, because he wouldn't be able to explain how he knew and the truth would be known soon enough once they traced the Mandarin's broadcasting signal.

Thanksgiving was nothing like Tony expected, much like Jane and Darcy's surprise visit. Rhodes managed to join them on Friday morning, only to regret his poor timing as he was dragged out to join the Black Friday shopping craze. The long weekend passed in a blur of tryptophan-induced naps, sugar comas brought on by an extensive pie judging competition, and friends everywhere he turned.

It was perfect.

*

On December 1st, the Ali AI Salem Air Base in Kuwait had just been targeted by a suicide bomber and available footage showed a cloud of flames high above the air base, bathing the desert landscape in bright red and fiery orange.

Tony tilted his face up to the auburn sky and felt his skin tingle from the residual heat simmering in the atmosphere. For the first time since he had woken up in the past, he felt warm.

Chapter Text

(November 26th)

President Ellis was verbally and visibly pleased by the completion of the new Iron Legionnaires, how the man managed to speak clearly through the wide grin was a mystery. Ellis and Tony updated the African nations together, arranging a suitable date for all parties to convene before roadway construction could begin. It was decided that a week would be enough time for everyone to gather and agree on the parameters of the meeting.  

They were set to meet in Kenya on Monday, December 3rd.

 

(November 27th)

The original plan was to have War Machine join Iron Man and the Iron Legion in Kenya, but Tony proposed a small modification, suggesting that it would be a greater show of unity for all three parts of the unofficially-dubbed Iron Patriots to arrive together. With the bonus of surprising Rhodes.

Ellis agreed with a chuckle and a quip about Tony and Rhodes' friendship. This detour required the State Department to confirm Tony's clearance in the Middle East where Rhodes was stationed and working on neutralizing Ten Rings terrorist cells, but it was more of a formality than an obstacle. Still, it was better to be thorough than thoughtless.

An international incident was something they all strived to avoid.

 

(November 28th)

Tony received authorization to enter Middle Eastern airspace.

The Iron Legion engaged stealth mode as they departed from New York, attracting little to no attention.

 

(November 29th)

Rhodes greeted his friend with a tight hug and a solid clap on the back. "Always good to see you, man."

"About to get better." Tony grinned like a child at Christmas, though he enjoyed giving far more than receiving gifts. "JARVIS, let's get the party started."

"Yes, Sir." The A.I.'s voice gained a reverberating quality. 

"Did you give JARVIS surround sound or–" The familiar rumble of repulsors made Rhodes, and everyone else at the base, look up. Gasps sounded at the sight of what looked like shooting stars streaking across the sky.

"Are those...?" Rhodes gaped.

"Yep." Tony happily confirmed as thirty Iron Legionnaires landed in formation before them. "Merry Christmas, buddy."

"It's not even December yet." Rhodes was still staring at the Mark 80s.

"Eh, so I'm a bit early." Tony shrugged, the casual motion belying the significant intent in his words. A list of dates and locations of the Mandarin's attacks scrolled through his mind, the next one was the Ali Al Salem Air Base bombing on December 1st. "It's better than being late."

 

(November 30th)

"So, what did you get me for Christmas?" Tony asked.

"What I get you every year." Affectionately, Rhodes sighed with a roll of his eyes. "Socks."

 

(December 1st)

JARVIS notified Tony and Rhodes of an irregular and climbing heat signature as they finished their breakfast. Whether or not the A.I. was given any hints as to where to look was of no importance.

With two Iron Legionnaires in stealth mode, Iron Man and War Machine landed at the Kuwait air base as the suspected bomber was hunched over with wisps of smoke rising from his singed hair and clothes.

"Are you seeing this?" Rhodes muttered. "His eyes are like the fires of Mordor."

"Nerd alert." Tony replied out of habit honed by decades of friendship. The man's blood vessels were beginning to look like rivulets of lava, overflowing to his flesh and skin. "Mount Doom Protocol, JARVIS."

"Nerd alert!" Rhodes sang through the audio feed.

"Yes, Sir."

Mark 80 disassembled swiftly. The prehensile function guided each piece to wrap around the bomber's head, limbs, and torso with unerring accuracy and unflinching efficiency. The metal glowed as it struggled to contain the Extremis soldier but the extreme heat tolerance feature held as the armor lifted its target high into the air.

The subsequent explosion looked like a small sun in the clear desert sky.

JARVIS recovered most of Mark 80 in just under four hours, with the completion rate of 99.2%. To locate the pieces, the A.I. utilized blast simulation to estimate the trajectory and thermal imaging to track residual heat signature. The armor pieces had turned molten during the explosion and hardened into unusable and unrecognizable lumps.

*

"Some people call me a terrorist, I consider myself a teacher. Here is your next lesson, America, and it is a simple one. Iron rusts."

"Gold-titanium alloy." Tony grumbled, earning some amused looks from the other officers in the Situation Room.

On the screen, the Mandarin continued to droll. "The era of coddling is over, President Ellis. You continue to resist my attempts to educate and choose to distract yourself with cheap toys. Heed my warning: pay attention or they will be confiscated."

Tony snorted loudly, earning an elbow in his side from Rhodes.

"That's not funny, Tones." Rhodes hissed. "A crazy terrorist just threatened you."

"Aw, Platypus. I knew you cared." Tony wiped away a pretend tear. "Don't worry, we got this."

The arch of Rhodes' brows matched the curve of his lips, surprised and glad. "We?"

"We." Tony bumped his shoulder against his best friend's. "This clown doesn't stand a chance."

"Damn straight."

*

"Early this morning, the National Security Council authorized Iron Man and War Machine, with assistance from the Iron Legion, to actively pursue and disable Mandarin agents. We have made significant progress toward capturing the Mandarin and are very confident that his reign of terror will end soon."

JARVIS reported three hacking attempts after the Press Secretary's announcement.

The one from SHIELD was expected and routed quickly to the files Tony wanted them to access, the ones that would corroborate the broadcast but provide no insight to their strategy.

The one from A.I.M. was laughable and redirected to the same information SHIELD had accessed; it wouldn't hurt to inflate Killian's ego and drop his guard.

The last one was intriguing, with the lines of codes in a sequence JARVIS had not seen before, which triggered the Stranger Danger alarm.

Tony, however, recognized it immediately from his time in the future. As part of Wakanda's reintegration to the world, King T'Chaka had spoken to the United Nations about his concerns of incompatibility between existing technology and that of Wakanda, for which Tony had been brought in as a consultant. With his innate sense for patterns and algorithms, Tony had been confident that he could create an interface to ease the transition if given more time and data.

It was a shame he never got the chance, given the tragedy at the Vienna International Centre and the subsequent so-called Civil War, and Tony certainly wasn't going to ignore the opportunity knocking at his door now. He beckoned at the holographic display, a manic grin split across his face. "Let them come, JARVIS."

"Have fun, Sir."

It took the Wakandan engineers a little over three hours before realizing Tony wasn't actually fending them off but studying them and gleaning information about systems through their maneuvers. It took them another hour to extract themselves with some difficulty, much to Tony and JARVIS' amusement. Being the fantastic hosts they were, they made sure to send the Wakandans off with party favors that should deter any future visits.

Tony paced the perimeter of his workshop, jittery and giddy from his victory against the rumored most technically advanced country in the world. His bots trailed dutifully behind him, DUM-E with a fire extinguisher in hand. Eventually, he pulled up the file for prosthetic designs. No time like the present, when he was feeling exhilarated and like he could do anything, to make the impossible a reality.

*

"JARVIS, let's start fabrication for some prototypes." Tony saved the finished arm schematic with a flick of his finger, watching it spin in place with a satisfied grin though the longer he stared at it, the more the curve of his mouth tugged downward.

The hologram lost some of it bluish light and took on a silver sheen.

The Winter Soldier's arm spiraling through the air after the unibeam severed it from its owner.

Tony lurched sideways and retched up the pizza he had consumed as per DUM-E lab protocol. Stumbling away from his desk and wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he found the nearest wall and pressed his back against it. He felt like he was freezing again, except his hair was drenched and plastered to his forehead. "JARVIS, I think I need a haircut." He joked weakly.

"I– I will book the appointment." JARVIS replied, an uncharacteristic stammer in his voice that instantly piqued Tony's worry.

"What's wrong? Did something get through from the ThunderCats?" Tony pushed to a stand, his knees wobbled but he remained upright. He had upgraded JARVIS' security measures and augmented backup routines since his return to the past, unwilling to lose his A.I. again. "Let's run another scan or should we reimage the–"

"I am well, Sir." JARVIS reassured. "I was merely surprised by your quick wit–"

"Excuse you, my wit has always been quick."

"–given the circumstances."

Tony paused, thinking back to the panic attack and realizing it was perhaps the first time he was able to snap out of one on his own. He knew he wasn't okay and perhaps he never would be, but maybe he was better off as he had believed. "Oh."

With measured steps, he approached his work area, his nose wrinkled as he sidestepped the puddle of vomit. Pizza was off the menu for at least a week. The outline of the prosthetic was still floating in the air but it no longer looked menacing. It was just a tool, a lifeless instrument waiting to be put to use.

Like the Winter Soldier.

In a moment of either insanity or clarity, Tony understood the role the Winter Soldier played under the command of HYDRA.

A tool. A lifeless instrument waiting to be put to use. A weapon that killed his parents.

The Winter Soldier was the what and the how that killed his parents.

HYDRA was the who.

Tony closed his eyes, inhaling deeply and exhaling in the same manner. It felt like holding on and letting go, though he wasn't sure what precisely he had kept and lost. With steady fingers, he opened a blank template and began designing a new containment armor with increased durability and cryogenic capability. Meant to capture, not kill, the Winter Soldier.

He named it Hibernation.

*

"Ready for another lesson, America? As you celebrate your false triumph and bask in your misguided sense of security, know that they are nothing more than illusions to be shattered. Because you don't know where I am, and you'll never see me coming."

Mandarin's broadcast was juxtaposed against the footage of an Iron Legionnaire enfolding a woman with burning eyes as War Machine directed the crowd to seek cover on the news.

"Ooh, burn!" Tony cackled when the newscaster made a quip about how War Machine obviously did see the Mandarin coming to thwart the attack, then doubled over in a fit of giggles at his unintentional pun.

It was only him and JARVIS in the lab, away from the others who saw the Extremis users as unfortunate lab rats instead of ruthless soldiers.

*

Bruce had vetoed Tony's suggestion of taking out every Extremis soldier once JARVIS located their whereabouts via thermogenic signatures. "These are innocent people who had no idea what they were getting into. They need a cure, not a death sentence!" Thankfully, his coloring hadn't changed despite his raised voice.  

"How do you even know they're innocent?" Tony shouted back, pulling away from Pepper's hand on his arm. He remembered how Ellen Brandt had killed the Rose Hill sheriff and deputy with unflinchingly ruthlessness and how Eric Savin had threatened Harley. They were murderers.

"How do you know they're not?"

Bruce's retort felt like a splash of icy water, cooling Tony's irritation and freezing him in his tracks. "I, I don't– I don't know." Tony stammered, mind racing and heart pounding. He wasn't supposed to know. The theory that the Mandarin was claiming accidental overdoses as terrorist attacks painted the Extremis users as victims, a detail he hadn't considered and one that complicated what should have been a straightforward solution. "What about the people around them? Like the five unlucky bastards standing too close to the wrong guy at the wrong time? Shouldn't we focus on saving as many people as we can, even if it doesn't mean everyone?"

A beat of foreboding silence.

"I'm sorry, Tones." Rhodes sighed. "That's a pretty arrogant thing to say. We don't get to make that call."

Déjà vu slammed into Tony like a physical force. Rhodes had said these words once before, but directed toward a super soldier who thought the safest hands were his own. The room was spinning and he saw a shield slamming down into his chest but it was wielded by himself instead of Captain America. When had he become Steve?

Rhodes continued. "I get where you're coming from, it'll be catastrophic if an Extremis user overloaded in a crowded area but I also hear what Bruce's saying, that these people need help. Plus, it'd look really bad if Iron Legion's just snatching people up out of the blue." He winced at that imagery. "So, let's find a new way. What are the overload indicators and what's the lead time?"

Bruce dragged his hand across his jaw. "My estimates put their resting temperature between 45 and 50°C and the detonation happens somewhere around 100°C. I'd say maybe an hour before they go from baseline to overload."

"Okay." Rhodes said decisively. "JARVIS, you are monitoring those with heightened body temperature, correct?"

"Yes, Colonel Rhodes." JARVIS confirmed.

"Carry on and alert us when people start getting warmer. It's best if we only engage when necessary until Bruce finds a cure. How's that sound?"

"Fine with me." Bruce's shoulders sagged as the tension drained away. "Tony?"

"Tones?" Rhodes clasped Tony's elbow and scrambled to catch his friend when Tony's knees buckled the moment he registered Rhodes' touch.

The near-fall shook Tony out of his horror-filled stupor, barely managing to catch himself in a stumble before he crashed to the floor. "I'm sorry." The words scratched along his too-tight throat and on his too-dry tongue. "I didn't– I'll try– I'll be better." He stared at the floor, unwilling to look up and see the guaranteed revulsion.

"Hey, hey. None of that, man." There was no disgust in Rhodes' voice. The grip on Tony's elbow shifted to a clasp around the shoulders. "You're doing fine, just remember you don't have to handle everything by yourself. Like flying a damn nuke into space." The last part was said in a disgruntled mutter.  

The unexpectedness prompted Tony to glance up. He gaped in disbelief when he saw only concern on his friends' faces.

"Yeah, you got us." Bruce's brows were furrowed with worry. "We're here and we can figure it out together. Like a team."

"Like a team." Tony repeated, dazed but relieved in the knowledge that they would never let him become his worst nightmare.

"C'mon, let's get you some pie." Rhodes began pulling Tony toward the kitchen, where Thanksgiving leftovers filled the fridge. "Pie makes everything better."

"Especially pumpkin pecan."

*

After some deliberation and input from Pepper, it was decided that the Wakandan cyberattack was most likely an isolated event and unconnected to any discontent the other African leaders might have felt regarding the postponement of the roadway project. Most of the representatives Tony had spoken with were understanding of the imminent threat the Mandarin posed and the necessary role the Iron Legion played in disarming the bombs. Any lingering frustration was alleviated by the estimated four to six weeks wait to fabricate Mark 81s, which were designed specifically for construction and technically ready.

Strategically, however, it was better to keep up the artifice of delay.

After all, Tony wasn't supposed to have an army at his disposal. He only crafted the additional Mark 80s to assist with transportation infrastructure in Africa; now those armors were repurposed to combat the Mandarin, of course he would need additional time to fabricate more.

*

"President Ellis, I am pleased that you have done your homework or perhaps you merely copied it from another? Your duplicity will not help you pass the final exam. You will fail. You will not graduate. You will be expelled."

Another Iron Legionnaire swooped from the air and scooped up a man with fire in his veins, carrying him in the direction indicated by War Machine, far away from the high school.

Bruce idly commented that he had synthesized several versions of a neutralizer, though the lack of usable evidence meant no way to extract a sample of the Extremis serum for testing.

*

When not reporting on the foiled Mandarin plots, the press was having a field day with Lieutenant General Ross' abrupt and ardent support of A.I.M. and his increasingly personal attacks on Stark Industries.

First was the disapproval of how ruthlessly Stark Industries was pursuing certain contracts. Then came the contradicting critique of Pepper's leadership skills as a CEO and Tony poaching such a promising talent from A.I.M. years ago. The latest mention was of how callously Tony had dismissed Killian when the latter approached the former

When Tony first saw Killian wading through a sea of reporters outside of A.I.M.'s Los Angeles office, he snorted into his coffee at the pinched look on Killian's face.

Killian had delivered a monologue on the value of anonymity and how it had guided him throughout the years.

I looked out over that city, nobody knew I was there, nobody could see me, no one was even looking.

Except now the whole world was watching his every move and clamoring for a quote on his grudge against Iron Man. 

The irony was almost poetic.

Chapter Text

"True story about fortune cookies. They look Chinese, they sound Chinese, but they're actually an American invention. Which is why they're hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth. Just like your so-called superheroes." The Mandarin spat on the ground and stalked away in a swirl of extravagant robes.

On the opposite side of the screen was a live feed of Iron Man sitting atop the pagoda roof of Grauman's Chinese Theatre and munching on a fortune cookie with three other Iron Legionnaires collecting debris in the background.

"You will have new clothes." Tony read the text on the small scrap of paper, shaking his head at the absurdity. He sent a photo of it to the group conversation and chuckled when Darcy replied that he must have gotten her fortune because it was clearly meant for her.

With a roar of his repulsors, Tony descended to the ground and was immediately surrounded by eager journalists.

"Before you start, all questions about the Mandarin should be directed toward the White House." He parroted the words from the Press Secretary. "I know nothing."

"Mr. Stark, your thoughts on this feud between you and Aldrich Killian, founder of Advanced Idea Mechanics?"

Tony smoothed the edges of his smile so it appeared less sharp and more sincere, he had been waiting for this since landing in Malibu a few days ago.

When Bruce had asked, Tony had cited needing the nitrogen compressor to finish his latest armor as reason for the visit, which wasn't a complete lie since the Hibernation armor was first in the fabrication queue. While he still didn't have a plan or any urge to hunt down the Winter Soldier, its soon-to-be existence gave him some peace. It was a symbol of...something he couldn't yet name and did not want to examine too closely.

Tony's attention was better focused on Killian anyway, especially with the rather timely discovery of the Mandarin's location via transmitter-based triangulation, thermogenic data, and, well, prescience, which was left off of any official reports.

Trevor Slattery was finally going to get his fifteen minutes of fame. JARVIS was set to deliver the coordinates to Rhodes once Tony had Killian occupied and Tony knew exactly how to achieve that.

"You know, I think it's time we just hug it out. So here's my home address, 10880 Malibu Point, 90265. Door's open, Richie, and I'm thinking Chinese for dinner. See you at six!"

*

"Sir, I have Colonel Rhodes on the line." JARVIS announced as Tony entered the workshop in his Malibu home.

"Um. Tell him I'm talking to Pepper." Tony clapped once to bring up the holographic display, squinting at the slowly filling progress bar indicating the percentage of completion for the Hibernation armor.

"Of course, Sir. Patching Ms. Potts through now."

"What? That's not what I meant!" Tony whined, though he did feel rather proud of his A.I.'s duplicity, purposely misinterpreting his attempt at evasion for an actual request, even when it was used against him. "Actually, put Sugar Bear on, I'd rather talk to him than–"

"What the hell–" Pepper's voice shrieked through the headset, which Tony promptly pulled off and tossed across the lab.  

"Technical difficulty! Tell Pep I'll call her–"

"–is the matter with you?" Her screech continued from the speakers, growing impossibly more imposing with the surround sound effect. "Giving your address on national news? Inviting a mad scientist–"

"Mad scientist? Really?" Tony scoffed, hoping humor could help defuse the situation. "C'mon, he doesn't even have a lab coat." It did not.

"That is not the point! What if he comes after you? We're still not sure if he's just an opportunistic warmonger or in cahoots with the Mandarin–"

"Pep, just, trust me on this, okay? I have a plan and Jim Jam is part of it, alright? Killian's not going to make a move with the press watching. Trust me." It was a promise and a plea.

Silence hung heavily in the air, broken only when Pepper inhaled sharply then exhaled slowly, likely some kind of stress-management breathing exercise.

"I do, I trust you." She said finally. "You call me as soon as it's done." Her next words were shaky but her tone was sure. "I'll answer this time."

This was yet another moment when Tony realized just how much he had put her through during their relationship. "I'm holding you to that, Miss Potts."

"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

"Yes, that will be all– Actually, wait. Did you say cahoots? Who even says that anymore?"

Her amusement was audible. "Good luck with your other calls, Tony."

Tony blinked and tried to process what Pepper had meant. "What other ca–"

"Connecting to Colonel Rhodes, Sir. As per your earlier request."

"Why do you hurt me like this, JARVIS?"

JARVIS did not respond but the brief seconds of silence held the distinctive air of judgment that had Tony sticking his tongue out at the nearest camera.

"Have you lost your mind?" Rhodes boomed as his scowling face appeared on the display Tony had activated minutes ago.

"Honey bear! I can explain." Tony peered at his friend, the angle and background suggested that he was most likely in the War Machine armor and in transit. Rhodes' next words confirmed Tony's theory.

"You can tell me in person. I'm leaving D.C. now and will be there in thirty."

"Well, that's just silly. You'll just have to turn around." On the holographic desktop, Tony dragged and dropped a file into the War Machine upload queue.

Rhodes' blinked twice, eyes darting to the upper left corner where the new information was streaming through. "What's this?"

"The Mandarin's location. In Miami, of all places."

Rhodes made a sort of bewildered stuttering hum.

"I know, I know. You're thinking it should be Far East, Europe, North Africa, Iran, Pakistan, or Syria?" Tony shook his head as he thought back to his similar confusion in another time. "But nope. He's in Miami. Or at least his broadcasting signal is."

"This is huge, Tones. How on earth did you get this?"

"Now that's just an insulting thing to ask. How? Really? I'm a genius–"

Rhodes chuckled. "Which is your way of saying JARVIS did most of the work."

"Hey!" Tony complained the same moment JARVIS voiced his gratitude toward Rhodes.

"So what's the deal with having an evil mastermind over for dinner?" Rhodes asked, persistently attentive.

Tony groaned. "Evil mastermind? Seriously? As far as we know, he doesn't have a–"

"–hairless cat." Rhodes finished with a roll of his eyes. "Way to buy into the stereotype."

"You know me so well, Platypus."

"Too well. I know something's up."

"Well, the Mandarin is partying it up with about twenty people with the Extremis heat signature." Tony offered with a wince and a shrug.

Rhodes cursed vehemently, connecting the dots that there was a more tangible association between the Mandarin and Extremis than mere opportunism. 

"So you see, I have to keep Killian occupied and ideally in the dark when you kick down his buddy's front door." Tony went on to list the many resources Killian had to aid his escape and the many reasons why that should not be allowed to happen. Auctioning off the volatile Extremis formula to the highest bidder was at the top of the list. "So I figured, why not a publicly announced dinner that'll be documented by at least twenty different news stations?"

A vein pulsed in Rhodes' forehead as he shut his eyes and inhaled deeply. Tony knew from their years at M.I.T. that he had won this round of argument with his usual brand of insane but somehow logical reasoning.

"Fine. I see your point." Rhodes conceded with a frown.

"I knew you would, Sour Patch." Tony blew his friend a series of kisses. "Now go and update the man in the White House. Dinner's at six so plan accordingly."

Rhodes began to nod but hesitated. "You sure you'll be alright with Killian?"

"Yes, mom!" Tony snorted with mocked outrage. "I can handle one Extremis-enhanced douchebag, you worry about the twenty you're taking on." It became quickly obvious that Killian must have enhanced his own biology with Extremis once JARVIS got a hold of Killian's medical records and compared them with his current state of health, confirmed by his elevated body temperature. 

"...please tell me you didn't set it up this way so you can punch him for asking Pepper out?"

"...no, it was a mutual decision and we are better as friends. I'm just, um, looking out for her, as friends do." Tony hedged his answer purposefully, better that Rhodes thought he was still working through the breakup than carrying out a personal vendetta from a different timeline.

"If you say so." Rhodes raised his eyebrows but said nothing more on the subject. 

*

The conversation with Happy and Bruce went about as well as Tony had expected.

Happy had groused at Tony's decision to head out to Malibu alone, grumbling that he could have been there to run interference or deck the smarmy son-of-a-bitch if needed. Tony, for the most part, was just relieved that Happy was three thousand miles away from where he had once been caught in an explosion that resulted in a week-long coma.

It took some convincing but Happy eventually agreed to focus on Pepper's safety as she would undoubtedly be under heavy media scrutiny once a link was established between A.I.M. and the Mandarin, given how Ross had all but pointed an arrow at Stark Industries and Tony for anything A.I.M. related.

Bruce was displeased and disappointed to learn that the Extremis users had been operatives and likely involved in a number of terrorist plots, though the new insight didn't lessen his resolve to cure them. The Hulk would be accompanying War Machine and the Iron Legion to the raid on the Mandarin compound. As capable as the Iron Legionnaires were, Tony felt better knowing that Rhodes had back-up and phrased it as such when he asked Bruce this favor. Bruce had agreed readily, despite his shock at the enormity of what Tony was entrusting him with. His best friend. His technology. His family.

"Thanks, Brucie Bear. I owe you big time." Tony sighed with gratitude. "How about a new ultracentrifuge? Or a new incubator? What am I saying, you need both and–"

"How about one of those chili dogs from Central Park?" Bruce interrupted with a soft smile and fond tone. "I have it on good authority that they're legendary."

Opening and closing his mouth a few times then giving up when no words were forthcoming, Tony settled on a nod and a wide grin that crinkled the corners of his eyes.

*

At six o'clock on the dot, the doorbell rang. Tony instructed JARVIS to see their guest in while he finished stacking the takeout boxes in a towering pyramid.

"Sir, your guests have arrived."

"Guests?" Tony whirled around, spotting Killian with Maya by his side. Her presence was indicative of the unease Killian must feel to want a buffer at this meeting. "Hi Richie's guest."

Killian's eye twitched at the nickname.  

"You don't remember me. Why am I not surprised?" Maya scoffed.

"Don't take it personally, I don't remember what I had for breakfast." Tony quipped, couldn't resist parroting their conversation from before.

"You did not have breakfast today, Sir."

Tony shrugged. "Ah, that explains it."

"Honestly, Tony." Killian said in a tone meant to sound playful but which came across as condescending. "It's a marvel that you managed to keep your company afloat with your attention span." With a hand on her waist, he guided Maya through the foyer and into the living space.

"Good thing I got Pep."

"And where is the lovely Pepper tonight?" Killian made a show of glancing around.

"Who knows, I tuned her out as soon as the words 'board meeting' were said." Tony said glibly, unwilling to disclose any information on Pepper's whereabouts. "C'mon, dinner's getting cold."

"That's too bad, we brought her a gift and everything." Maya opened her messenger bag and withdrew a small potted plant with a bow affixed to it. The ficus was similar to the one Happy had tampered with in Bern. Too similar.

"Leave it." Tony started toward the kitchen, turning away so they wouldn't see his scowl at what basically constituted a bomb in his home. Hopefully they'd interpreted his abruptness as part of his trademark rudeness.

There was some rustling before footsteps followed.

"That's quite a spread." Maya commented as she took in the small mountain of takeout Chinese food.

"What can I say?" Tony spread his arms wide, a paper plate in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. "Fighting this Mandarin guy got me craving Chinese."

"How's that going for you? Any closer to catching him?" Killian asked with a bit too much interest and not enough friendliness. It sounded more like an interrogation.

"Oh, we'll get him soon." Tony said noncommittally, opening a container and stabbing a walnut shrimp with his chopsticks. "He's a bit much, you know? Lots of pageantry going on here...lots of theater. Almost like he's trying to act the part."

Killian's grin was more akin to a grimace. "Only you would criticize a terrorist on his public speaking skills."

Maya chuckled uncomfortably.

They loaded up their respective plates with an assortment of Chinese dishes, a mixture of Americanized and authentic entrees.

"So Maya, how's the botany scene?" Tony waited until Killian had a mouthful of chicken lo mein before asking.

Maya paused her movement, a small mound of rice balancing precariously atop her chopsticks, and gave Tony a wry look. "You do remember me, though I'm actually a biological DNA coder running a team of forty out of a privately-funded think tank. Not a botanist."

Tony busied himself with creating a moat of egg rolls to contain the overflowing sauce from mapo tofu. "Think tank, huh? What're you working on?"

"No business talk tonight." Killian had swallowed his food and sent Maya a cautioning look. "I thought we are here to 'hug it out' as you so eloquently put it."

"Oh yeah, that. You're not still pissed off about the Switzerland thing, are you? Sounds like you've done well for yourself without my help. So really, I probably did you a favor all those years ago."

Maya glanced between them warily.

"A favor?" Killian's eyes flashed briefly before dimming back to their original blue. "Hm, I guess so. You did give me the greatest gift anybody's ever given me - motivation to forge my own path."

"Is that what we're calling it now? Motivation?" Tony sneered. "You were desperate, Richie, and let me tell you, desperation isn't attractive."

"And parading around like a peacock is?" The chopsticks snapped in Killian's grip.

The room felt warmer, as though someone had turned up the thermostat. 

"Can't help my natural beauty." Tony's smile was all smugness and teeth.

"I really like the peking duck." Maya said, trying to deescalate the tension in the room. "Where did you get this from?"

"China Garden, Dr. Hansen." JARVIS helpfully supplied. "Sir, I believe it would be prudent to tune into the news. There is a new development relevant to you and your guests."

"Intrigue!" Tony clapped and a large holographic display appeared.

"–Machine and the Hulk had just apprehended the Mandarin who identified himself as Trevor Slattery, an actor."

The coverage shifted to a live video of Trevor, eyes glazed and speech slurred, escorted by local law enforcement to an armored van. "Well, I, um, had a little problem with, um, substances. So when they approached me about the role, I took it." A high-pitched giggle. "He think-tank-thinked it up."

"Is he high?" A male voice asked in the background, likely the cameraman.

The reporter shushed him. "Who approached you? And what role?"

Trevor's face scrunched in concentration as he affected the accent America had come to dread. "Ready for another lesson?" He dissolved into another fit of giggles. "See? The Mandarin is not real. He needed someone to take credit for all the–" He mimicked the sound of an explosion, completed with an attempt to flail his hands if not for the fact they were cuffed.

"Who?"

"Killian! My mentor, my agent, and my manager. I want to thank him for giving me this role of a lifetime, and the academy–"

The screen distorted when a plate of Chinese food sailed through it. It hit the cabinets with a wet thud, spilling noodles and rice and meat on the floor.

Maya scrambled away from Killian who must have stood up when he threw the plate.

A tremor ran through Killian's frame, more akin to a vibration than shaking. He was breathing heavily, puffs of air that floated between them like smoke. "Tony, Tony, Tony." He whispered, incongruent with the rage snarling across his face. Fire pulsed under his skin and flowed through his veins. "I should have done this years ago." With a smile that didn't quite reach his blazing eyes, Killian opened his mouth and roared out a torrent of flame.

Chapter Text

"JARVIS. Target Extremis heat signatures, disable with extreme prejudice." Pulling Maya with him, Tony broke into a full sprint through the doorway, stopping at the coat closet to push her in with a hasty order to stay put as pieces of Mark 80 deployed in metallic blurs, soaring past him with deadly efficiency.

It should have been an easy fight. It shouldn't have been a fight at all. Except the sounds were all wrong. Instead of the harmonic clicks as the armor locked into place, there was Killian's deranged laugh.

"Oh Tony, I warned you about your cheap toys." A half-melted section of Mark 80 skidded across the floor, leaving a charred trail behind like an arrow pointing to Tony's whereabouts.

"Where's my suit?" Tony hissed as he peeked around the corner. Killian was alternating between swatting the armor pieces away and crushing them in his hands.

"Inbound, Sir. Ten seconds." JARVIS' usual deadpan delivery was replaced by clipped tension.

Tony tried to sneak another glance, only to come face to face with Killian, who wiggled his fingers in a mock wave. Tony swore and ducked back.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news." Killian rolled one of the crumbled lumps in his palm, testing its weight. "But you're not going to graduate." And hurled it at Tony.

Tony dropped into a roll to avoid it, then dodged another as he flipped to a crouching position. A part grazed his shoulder as he straightened, only to crumble down when the next one struck his left kneecap. The jarring sensation of bones shifting told him it was shattered. Panic edged his thoughts and he forcibly ordered it back. Now was not the time. "C'mon JARVIS!"

The sight and the feel of the familiar red and gold of the Iron Man suit was a welcome comfort, even if his left knee protested violently as it buckled under the strain of piloting the armor. The pain was alleviated somewhat when Tony engaged the repulsors and took the weight off of his knee.

Killian tilted his head, assessing the situation and apparently finding it still in his favor. "Tsk tsk, Tony. More cheap–"

The second Mark 80, fully assembled, tackled Killian before he could finish his undoubtedly patronizing and thematic remark. It immediately opened and enclosed its target.

Tony breathed a sigh of relief. "That was a close one, huh?"

"You do like to keep things exciting, Sir." JARVIS answered.

"Stick with me, JARVIS, and you'll never be bored." Tony moved to check on Maya, thankful for the armor for anchoring and supporting his injured knee, only to halt his steps at the discordant sounds of grinding gears and creaking metal.

Mark 80's movement was stilted, as though attempting to follow two different objectives. It staggered another step toward the floor-to-ceiling windows, where it was programmed to take to the sky for the Extremis detonation, then stopped completely.

"I take it back. Boring is good." Tony aimed a shot at Mark 80, wincing at the image he presented. Iron Man facing off against an Iron Legionnaire. His peripheral vision picked up several helicopters hovering outside, likely from the news stations. Hopefully it won't come to him dismantling his own creation.

One of the Mark 80's joints creaked as its right arm moved upward wildly to pull off the face plate, revealing Killian's ember skin and fiery eyes.

Tony evaluated his surroundings and strategies. He was facing the window and could not fire a missile without endangering the news media unaware of the precariousness of their position. The unibeam required too much charging time. A well-aimed repulsor shot to the head should do the trick but he doubted Killian would do him the courtesy of staying still. Dread was bubbling in his chest as he faced an opponent he had severely underestimated with only one suit of armor and two Iron Legionnaires.

Foreknowledge did not guarantee victory.

"You wanted the Mandarin? You got him, Tony." The metal blazed brightly as it softened and slid off of Killian like pieces of wax, revealing his triumphant smirk. "I am the Mandarin!"

"Say it again for the camera." Tony quipped, calling humor to his defense and hoping it would provide the distraction he needed.

It did.

The moment Killian pivoted to look behind him, Tony lunged and gripped Killian's shoulders to wrestle him away from the windows.

They grappled for a moment, twisting and shoving each other into a standstill. The Extremis-generated heat scorched through the gauntlets and Tony struggled to hold on despite the blisters forming on his fingertips and the weakening of the suit.

Sensing an opening, Killian wrestled a shoulder free and delivered a punch that knocked Tony back, then another that sent him skidding across the floor.

The impact jostled his broken kneecap and Tony grunted as his vision whited out from the spike of pain. He would probably never walk on that leg again, at least not without extensive assistive technology. Morbidly, he thought with dark amusement that it was a good thing he had that covered. The leg braces were doing very well in clinical trials, but this time it wouldn't be Rhodes who needed them.

Rhodes. The Iron Legion.

If Killian managed to first intercept then circumvent Mark 80, then there was a good chance the twenty or so Extremis soldiers his friends were facing could do the same. Tony had miscalculated the reactive adaptability of an Extremis user not on the edge of an explosion. Not to mention, aside from Killian, the others all had combat backgrounds. He was so very glad that he had asked Bruce to partner with Rhodes. It had seemed like such an inane favor at the time, but now it was a necessity to correct his overconfident oversight.

Killian landed in a crouch above him, one of his elbows resting on his knees and the other straightened as a glowing hand patted the center of the Iron Man suit.

"Knocked down like a little turtle in his turtle shell." Killian sneered and Tony found his taunt as uninspiring as the first time he had heard it. "Wonder what would happen if I did..." Killian placed his other hand on the suit, framing them around the arc reactor and summoning extreme heat. "This."

Sweat beaded across Tony's forehead as the temperature increased quickly. The interface flickered and beeped, indicating fried circuits.

"Sir–" JARVIS' voice faltered amidst the static. "Danger– Recommend–"

"Eject." Tony called out and gritted his teeth against the sudden pressure as he was thrust out from the suit. He was grateful for the open floor plan when the momentum carried him near the living room. His left knee screamed but Tony did his best to ignore it as he stumbled to a stand, balancing unsteadily on his right leg. It wasn't the worst he'd had.

The open heart surgery in the middle of a cave in Afghanistan would always be number one for this particular ranking.

Killian pulled his hands out of the wrecked torso of the Iron Man suit and wiped them on his pants. "You know, Tony, I'm glad that this is documented." He tossed a careless salute to the helicopters.

Tony hobbled away, leaning against the wall or furniture for support. Killian didn't seem to be in any hurry to hunt him down yet, preferring to luxuriate in his standard villainous monologue. 

"Once I valued anonymity but now I've come to appreciate the different sort of freedom that only comes when people know exactly who to fear." Killian stalked after Tony with the leisure of a predator knowing its prey had no escape.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony caught a rustle of movement down the hallway leading to the garage. Maya. She must have been inching toward an exit, planning her escape from this disaster of a night. 

"After years of ruling behind the scenes, it's nice to finally get the recognition I deserve." Killian came closer, his manic grin stretched across his face. "Especially when I'm about to melt Iron Man down to scrap metal." With that, he charged.

Tony scrambled back but had no leverage to avoid the collision. Killian slammed into him in a blur of heat and force, uncaring and perhaps relishing in the fact that his Extremis-enhanced skin left angry red burn marks where it made contact.

"Let's start with this." Killian laid a hand on the blue light in Tony's chest, easily burning through the thin cotton of Tony's t-shirt then reducing the heat to avoid damaging the arc reactor.

Strangely, the panic usually associated with the arc reactor did not come. Perhaps he was too far gone to care and too aware of his imminent demise. "Is it hot in here or is it just me?" Tony gave a toothy smile before spitting squarely in Killian's face. The spittle evaporated unsatisfyingly in an instant.

"Always with the jokes. To be honest, Tony, your sense of humor really isn't your strong suit." Killian chuckled at his own pun. "You're like one of those children's toys that yammers on and on and never shuts up until it–" He pulled out the arc reactor and strummed the taut wires with a careless finger that turned searing hot and sliced through them easily. "–runs out the battery."

Tony surged forward and slammed his forehead into Killian's nose, making the most of the element of surprise by ripping the arc reactor out of Killian's grasp and rolling away until his back hit the leg of the coffee table. The weight and the light in his hand felt foreign yet familiar. Glancing down at the gaping hole lined by a ring of scalded red, Tony again felt the numb void of nothing. No panic. No fear. No anger. Was it shock or was it desensitization? Neither seemed the correct explanation. He knew, with the kind of certainty he seldom had, that he would be fine without the reactor.

It could be taken, poisoned, or crushed.

Tony could not.

No matter what his enemies stole or destroyed, Tony would always be Iron Man. The arc reactor was no longer the anchor of his identity but a liability that could and should be corrected. Perhaps it was time to give Dr. Wu, the talented Chinese surgeon who had removed the shrapnel pieces before, a call. The risks associated with the surgery were still high but no longer frighteningly so. After all, he did survive it once already.

"That was unpleasant." Killian's nose had righted itself in a flare of ember, he tapped at it gingerly and sniffed.

A rustle of green caught Tony's eye. The ficus - similar to the one Happy had tampered with in Bern, too similar. Tony dropped the arc reactor and reached for the plant with both arms, extending them to the fullest and pulling it closer for inspection. There was the barest hint of warmth in the leaves. With a decisive tug, he broke off several branches and watched in glee as the stems flickered orange. He snapped a few more, smirking as the plant began to glow and shudder as its basic genetic makeup could not handle multiple repair objectives at once. Thus overloading the system.

"Oh I'm so sorry. Here, have a get-well-soon plant." Tony threw the ficus at Killian and, in a feat of physical dexterity, vaulted himself over the coffee table and used the momentum to propel himself forward, putting as much distance between himself and the impending Extremis explosion as possible.

The shockwave washed over him, along with pieces of debris and an immense swell of heat. There was a throbbing in his abdomen. His fingers found a jagged edge that should not be there, along with a spreading wetness on his shirt. Lifting his head required more effort than Tony thought and made him horribly dizzy. He managed to catch a glimpse of red flowing from and pooling beneath him before his neck went limp and his head fell back with a thud he barely felt.

*

A sharp stab ripped Tony from the quiet and painless oblivion he was drifting in.

"Tony!" Maya was shouting, pressing down on his chest with a soot-crusted couch cushion. It must have jolted whatever had made its home in Tony's abdomen by greedily carving out a spot for itself. Hence the stabbing sensation. "Tony, oh thank god!"

"M– Maya." He licked his chapped lips and tasted copper. "Your...gift...was...the...bo– bomb."

"Yeah, sorry about that." Her laugh had a hysterical tilt. "How're you doing?"

"Been...been better."  

"Yeah, I'll bet."

"Killian?" Three syllables slurred into one but Tony was too tired to care. He could barely keep his eyes open, at least the pain was fading.

Maya's gaze shifted off of Tony's face to a point behind him, she grimaced at whatever she saw. "He's dead."

Tony hummed in acknowledgement.

"Sir, I've alerted the proper authorities." JARVIS reported, utterly concerned and barely calm. "Sir? Sir!"

"Tony!"

Tony blinked, unaware that he had closed his eyes in the first place or for how long. Judging by the panic on Maya's face, it might have been longer than the few seconds he had thought.

"This would be an excellent time to channel your impressive stubbornness and stay conscious until help arrives." JARVIS paused. "Consider it a double-dare."

This surprised a laugh out of Tony, the sound tore through his chest like a blade and cut off in a choking gurgle.

Maya's hands were still holding the couch cushion in place, her knuckles white with the amount of pressured exerted. Yet Tony barely felt it now. A crimson stain was seeping through the fabric, like the blackness darkening his consciousness. As much as he hated to admit it, he was probably going to fail the double-dare. Which was disappointing, since he'd been trying for years to get JARVIS to issue one.

The way the lights flickered and Maya's gasp of horror made Tony think maybe he said some, or all, of his thoughts aloud.

"I... I can save you." She whispered. "I have a dose of Extremis in my bag."

He meant to mimic the sound of an explosion by blowing air through his lips, but it came out like a wheeze.

"I know it's not stable but you can help me fix it. You almost did thirteen years ago and you were drunk off your ass." Maya rolled her eyes, a tear escaped from the movement. "C'mon, Tony. I sold my soul to the devil for my research, help me get a piece of it back. Help me use it for good. You are good."

Tony knew there was a chance that his body would reject Extremis but no more than the risk he was planning to take with the shrapnel removal surgery. He wasn't ready to let go of the friendships he'd built. He wasn't ready to give up on all the progress he'd made. He wasn't ready to throw away this miracle of a second chance. His life finally was good.

He was good.

"O...kay."

Cool metal pressed against his neck then liquid fire was pushed into his veins.

*

Everything was too hot, too much, too fast. Tony felt as if he was burning and boiling and blistering. Dimly, he heard a woman screaming.

"...no no no...overload...help!"

His bones singed. His flesh scorched. His blood sizzled.

Excruciating heat, all-consuming and relentless, was surging through his body and seeking an outlet that wasn't there. His skin was cracking and instead of alleviating the urgency, each fracture made the search for relief that much more desperate. The inferno raging within wanted out and Tony couldn't contain it. A robotic yet comforting voice somehow managed to cut through the smoke that filled his mind and lungs.

"Fabrication complete..."

Cold metal and colder air surrounded him, tightening around him until all he could feel was ice.

Then the relief was gone as quickly as it came. The caged firestorm rampaged through his insides while the uninhibited blizzard howled outside until Tony was caught in between extremes, fevered and freezing with no middle ground.

"...New York..."

Time must have passed because there were familiar voices speaking in incomprehensible snippets, though Tony had no idea how long since the kind of agony he was in seemed perpetual and rendered keeping time pointless.

"...depleting..."

"Come find me."

"Tony!"

Tony's fraying senses and thoughts honed in on the one input that was unlike the others. It was an instruction instead of conversation. It was certain instead of fearful. It was known instead of heard.

"Come find me." It beckoned, commanding yet playful, and Tony was tempted to obey.

"...stabilizing...test run..."

"...out of time..."

A whoosh of air. A light pressure. A quick sting.

Tony gasped and opened his eyes. Brilliant fiery orange filled his vision, like staring into the soul of the- 

Abruptly, it began to fade when ice coursed through his veins, combating and combining with the existing fire until a pleasant warmth was all that remained. Waves of heat pulsed outward with each beat of his heart, melting the frost layered on his skin and drowning out the thing that was alive yet not living.

"Come find me." It whispered once more.

Tony promised he would before succumbing to the comforting embrace of rest and darkness.

Chapter Text

"-it's time we just hug it out. So here's my home address, 10880 Malibu Point, 90265. Door's open, Richie, and I'm thinking Chinese for dinner. See you at six!"

Mrs. Davis shook her head at Mr. Stark's antics, almost wanting to pick up the phone to call the man and chastise the poor decision of giving out one's address on national television. Mr. Hogan had a lot of extra work coming now that the number of people swarming to gawk at Iron Man would undoubtedly increase exponentially. There was a reason celebrities don't give out their private addresses for fan mail.

Mr. Stark unquestionably qualified as a celebrity with his statuses as a billionaire and a superhero though he preferred to refer to himself as a mechanic – and a fantastic one at that. The updates he had given her on the prosthesis project were very promising.

She honestly hadn't expected to speak with him again after their brief meeting and already planned to check the news daily for any announcements from Stark Industries. Yet he did. With a video call on a program she hadn't installed on Chad's old laptop.

It wasn't as painful as she had imagined to interact with something that belonged to her son. If anything, she felt a little bit closer to him as she tapped clumsily at the keyboard and heard the telltale crunch of loose food particles lodged between the keys. She missed him with a fierceness that made her eyes water and heart ache. It was nice to think of him in a context outside of his last moments, memories she had buried in her grief and anger but never forgotten.

Mr. Stark would bring Killian to justice. She knew that with ironclad certainty and only hoped he wouldn't get hurt in the process.

*

"Aunt May! I'm home." Peter kicked off his shoes and wandered into the kitchen. "Can we order Chinese for dinner?"

"Sure, we can. I just got off the phone with Stark Industries and we can order the exact same things Tony Stark ordered." Aunt May winked.

"Hey!" Peter whined but didn't deny what his aunt was implying because she was absolutely right. Not that he would ever admit it. The idea of eating the same food as Mr. Stark was just too cool to pass up. Hopefully it would go better than that one time he begged Aunt May to let him have some coffee after reading in a magazine that it was Mr. Stark's favorite drink. He ended up spitting it out and ran to the bathroom to brush his teeth because coffee tasted like liquid burnt toast. It was a bit discouraging to learn that he wasn't able to claim Mr. Stark's favorite drink as his favorite too, but Peter eventually recovered after a few hours of sulking.

A part of him knew it was silly to emulate Mr. Stark. It wasn't as if drinking coffee and eating Chinese food would make Peter a superhero but it did make him feel closer to Mr. Stark. He still couldn't believe Mr. Stark remembered him from the Stark Expo and invited him to join Team Iron Man.

"Oh now, don't pout. It's just a bit of fun." She placed a kiss on his forehead and ruffled his hair. "Go do your homework and we'll look at the menu together when Ben gets home."

"Okay, Aunt May." Peter started for his room, cataloging the list of assignments and deciding which to tackle first. He had just set his backpack down when Aunt May poked her head through the doorway.

"Want something to drink?" She asked with a wide smile.

"Sure, a soda–" Peter groaned when he saw the steaming cup in Aunt May's hand. Coffee. "No! Not this again!"

*

Jim rubbed a hand over his face as soon as the elevator doors closed behind him, allowing him a small window of solitude.  

Although the Mandarin's attacks were primarily aimed at United States territories, there had been several incidents where other countries were involved. The most recent example was the Ali AI Salem Air Base where the United States Air Force maintained a presence along with the Kuwait Air Force.

Jim wasn't naïve enough to believe they wanted the Mandarin alive so he could receive a fair trial.

By now, the whole world had seen the footage of the Iron Legion subduing the overloading Extremis users. It wasn't a leap for intrigued parties to come to the conclusion that someone, somewhere, had found a way to turn humans into bombs. The possibility of a virtually undetectable weapon was as terrifying as it was tempting for every country vying for the upper hand.

Including the United States.

President Ellis had directed them to capture the terrorist leader unless doing so would severely endanger civilian lives.

Jim pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off the urge to punch the wall. It was always the civilians who paid the price for those thirsting after power, collateral damage to be brushed aside in the pursuit of the greater good. Except no one had a concrete definition for what constituted the greater good and more lives were lost in the murky waters of subjective morality. 

It wasn't right.

*

"Listen, Nick. We need to look strong, especially after what happened in New York. Aliens, that's superhero business. Terrorists are American business."

Fury's eye twitched at the muffled quality of Ellis' voice and the light rustling of papers in the background. Experience taught him that Ellis likely had the phone wedged between his ear and shoulder in order to read through whatever briefing was on his desk. Which meant that the Director of SHIELD did not warrant the President's full attention. "Can't get more American than Captain America, Sir." He said through gritted teeth and forced joviality.

"That's a good point." Ellis hummed. "Cap is great, no doubt about that."

Fury could feel his temples throb, the sign of a coming migraine. The noncommittal answers meant that the President was not going to reconsider his decision of barring the Avengers from the Mandarin mission. "Captain Rogers is an excellent leader." It was a bit of an overstatement but he supposed excellence was really a subjective concept.

While Rogers was a competent soldier and always had luck on his side, he lacked the necessary field experience to lead effectively. He was fantastic at boosting morale and recruiting soldiers to his cause, partially due to his charismatic earnestness and partially due to the legend of Captain America propagated during and after World War II. Generations of children grew up watching cartoons and reading comics about Captain America, all eager to answer Rogers' call. Except Rogers didn't always make the right call nor could he see the bigger picture to plan ahead.

Stark was supposed to compensate for these limitations. For all his playboy ways, Stark had been an active and involved CEO of a multinational industrial company for decades and successfully rebranded his company from weapons manufacturer to clean energy pioneer in less than five years. This was a man who had vision and could predict the rise and fall of trends. Had Stark agreed to join, the Avengers would have been unstoppable with Captain America's likability and Iron Man's resources.

Fury had known that they needed Stark far more than the man needed them, a fact he kept under wraps to keep Stark's ego in check and to maintain a power imbalance that tipped in their favor. Romanoff had planted the seeds for months in her role as Natalie Rushman but instead of a feast, it was a famine.

It was clear from their last interaction that there was no love lost between Stark and Romanoff. In hindsight, it was a mistake to send her. Hill had noted Romanoff's approach could be off-putting and obvious if an asset knew what to look for and Stark must have known for quite some time.

"I'm just going to be blunt with you, Nick, but there is such a thing as too American." Ellis sighed, sounding genuinely regretful at the slight to his childhood hero. "Especially with the attention on us right now from all directions, we have to consider how we present ourselves."

The Iron Legion and the highway project in Africa had drawn unprecedented attention to the United States. Everything was under intense scrutiny and a super soldier dressed in the spandex equivalent of the American flag would prove to be more of an eyesore than endearment.

"I understand." Fury kept his tone polite even as a snarl tore across his face. "Thank you, Mr. President." He made sure the call was disconnected before throwing the phone across the room, it shattered against the wall and the handset spun wildly before landing in the planter.

Captain America did not meet the requirements to be recognized as an international superhero and the name was the smallest part of the problem. Without the other countries buying into the goodness of Captain America, the Avengers were unlikely to be granted unfettered access, which undermined the careful plans Fury had to dismantle the HYDRA bases littering the globe before confronting the top-level undercover officers.

HYDRA, it always came back to HYDRA.

Fury had followed the anomalies Stark spotted and what he found when he pulled on those strings unraveled his confidence in and understanding of SHIELD. HYDRA was most certainly present and prospering, had been since the beginning, and it needed to be addressed.

It was no coincidence that Stark had distanced himself from SHIELD shortly after he accessed their records. The anomalies were too well hidden to be errors. While Stark could not have identified the source and the scope of the discrepancies, given the short amount of time that had passed between the helicarrier and the tower, it was enough to trigger his impressive trust issues. Which explained the sudden shift in his attitude – everything was on track with Stark desperate to prove himself to Rogers and SHIELD by offering his substantial financial support and unlimited equipment upgrades, then it fell apart.

At the moment, Stark was either protecting his own interests should SHIELD fall or unwilling to work with a compromised team. Knowing the man, it was probably both with a side of spite for how Romanoff and Rogers had behaved toward him.

Tapping thoughtfully at his desk, the steady rhythm in sync with his slowing heartrate now that he had vented his frustration, Fury considered his options.

Should SHIELD and the Avengers fail, Iron Man would serve as Earth's defense with the Hulk, War Machine, and the Iron Legion by his side. Should they succeed, they would regain the leverage needed to entice Stark to their services. Thus, Stark must be kept out of this operation. It should not be difficult to accomplish, seeing Stark had his hands full with international affairs, educational outreach, and old grudges.

While gaining entry into the various countries with HYDRA presence without official sanctions was not ideal, it was nothing new to an organization such as SHIELD or Captain America who had a history of viewing laws as optional.

The end would justify the means.

*

Hulk roared as he crashed through the reinforced gates around the compound, clearing the way for the FBI armored vans and fire trucks.

Before fading away, Tiny Banner had told Hulk to be careful around the squishy humans and not to grab the Metal Men flying overhead. Many times.

Hulk thought Tiny Banner worried too much, Hulk was happy that Tin Man asked for Hulk's help and wouldn't let his friend down. Concrete crumbled like chalk and steel folded like paper. He was having a great time but he missed Tin Man. The other Metal Men were gray, not the fun red and gold Hulk liked, and they didn't do the loops or rolls but they looked like Tin Man and Hulk always protected his friends.

"We can help you." Machine Man, Tin Man's friend, said.

The Glowing People just looked mad then got brighter and yelled real loud. That was Metal Men's cue to swoop down to take them away. Sometimes Hulk helped but he didn't like touching the Glowing People, they were too hot and burned his hand.

At least the sky looked pretty after they went boom.

*

Harley's eyes were glued to the television as his dinner slowly congealed on the table. The orange chicken from the grocery store looked rather suspect to begin with and sitting out only made it more so. His sister was having cereal and that would probably end up being his dinner choice too, as soon as War Machine – such an awesome name – and the Hulk – also an awesome name – arrested the Mandarin.

War Machine's armor had a visual feed that was transmitting live to the FBI van, alerting the agents who were the targets and who were the unlucky civilians, then shared with the public. The newscaster said it was in real time but Harley doubted that. The cut-aways were too timely and no faces had been shown throughout the battle, when the proximity of combat should have included those details. It was likely edited and arranged by JARVIS, Mr. Stark's super awesome A.I., before going to the stations.

On screen, the Iron Legion struggled against the Extremis soldiers who were capable of retaliation, the newscaster commented that this particular model was never meant for combat, but performed admirably in detaining and removing the overloading terrorists.

The Hulk assisted, either by grabbing the ones who got away or knocking them out cold. He had roared when he closed a gigantic green fist around a guy who looked like he was going to spontaneously combust before throwing the man into the arms of a waiting Iron Legionnaire.

It was Harley's favorite scene so far and he was so glad he had set up his phone to record this.

*

Jane could feel her foot falling asleep from where it was wedged under her other knee, she ignored it in favor of focusing on what was happening before her eyes. On their modestly sized television, War Machine and the Hulk worked together seamlessly to apprehend the Mandarin and incapacitate his army. Watching the battle brought back memories of the New York invasion and with them, Thor.

"You know, it's okay to miss him." Darcy said gently but startling her all the same.

"Who?" 

"Thor." Darcy reached over and pulled the nearly shredded napkin out of Jane's twisting fingers.

Jane hadn't noticed she was doing that, or even had a piece of napkin in hand. The pizza they had ordered for dinner sat on the coffee table, untouched. "Nope." She denied. "Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all."

"Methinks thou doth protest too much." Darcy teased, affecting a British accent. "Me also thinks thou hath watched 10 Things I Hate About You too many times."

"I just– Wait, what did he just say?" Jane reached for the remote and turned up the volume. It must be a mistake.

Darcy rolled her eyes. "Don't change the subject."

"No, Darcy! Look!" Jane could hear the edge of panic in her voice, sharp and scared. "He just said Killian, that's the guy–"

"–received news that a firefight, literally, has broken out in the home of Tony Stark." The newscaster said as they cut to the live footage filmed by the helicopter crew in Malibu.

Because of the distance and angle, the video quality was abysmal but the flash of flame was unmistakable. So were the gray of the Iron Legion and the red and gold of the Iron Man suit. It was terrifying when those colors blinked out of sight and only the maliciously tinged orange remained. For a few moments, nothing happened and then everything did at once. A fiery force swept through Tony's home, taking half of it into the ocean.

The silent stillness that followed was stifling.

"C'mon, Tony." Darcy's nails dug painfully into Jane's palm. 

Jane heard herself echo those same words. 

They sat together, hands clenched, and stared at the television with tearful eyes.

Chapter Text

Maya stumbled when the walls shook around her and the floor shifted beneath her feet, her messenger bag bounced against her hip as she steadied herself. The air smelled of ash. Dimly, she heard what sounded like her name through the ringing in her ears. "Hello?"

"Dr. Hansen." It took her a few more seconds to identify the voice as Stark's A.I., the same one that had greeted them at the door. She must have imagined the relief in the robotic intonation. "Help is on the way but Sir requires immediate medical attention."

"What happened–" Her words left her as she rounded the corner and took in the destruction of the once pristine living space. Chunks of misshapen metal littered the floor, along with remnants of their dinner. The glass top of the coffee table was shattered and its frame turned on its side with the legs pointing toward the wrecked Iron Man suit. Speaking of which, where was its creator?

"Sir is by the couch, please hurry." JARVIS helpfully supplied and Maya was almost certain she detected a note of panic as she picked her way through the fragments obstructing her path. Dark streaks marked the floor, each line was like an arrow pointing toward the suspiciously cleared spot about thirty feet away.

The center of an Extremis explosion.

"How–"

JARVIS interrupted, anticipating her question. "The plant you so thoughtfully brought as a gift." There was definitely reproach in his voice.

Maya winced. Killian had cackled about the ingenuity of his plan to bring Stark an Extremis-enhanced plant, something about the early bird getting the worm but the second mouse getting the cheese. It was utter nonsense. "I wanted to bring a nice bottle of wine." Her sullen mutter ended in a yelp when her foot connected with something solid, half-buried under upended cushions and larger pieces of debris.

Tony.

"Oh god!" With trembling and less-than-careful hands, she cleared away as much as she could, revealing a burnt, bruised, and bleeding man whose shirt was stained crimson from the deep gash in his abdomen. Maya grabbed the first cushion she could reach, knowing that she needed to apply pressure to the wound. The fabric snagged on something as she pressed it down, eliciting a pained groan from Tony and a wave of panic from Maya. She hoped she hadn't inadvertently caused more damage.

Another groan and his eyes opened, his pupils were blown wide. Likely a sign of shock.

"Tony, oh thank god!"

"M– Maya." His movement pulled open an almost-closed cut on his lips. "Your...gift...was...the...bo– bomb."

Maya tried to tell herself that it couldn't be that dire if Tony was able to joke. "Yeah, sorry about that. How're you doing?"

"Been...been better."

"Yeah, I'll bet." Maya leaned forward to put more of her weight on the cushion covering Tony's chest.

"Killian?" Tony slurred, his pallor not at all reassuring.

"He's dead." Maya frowned as her gaze slid over to the disconcertingly empty spot in the room. This was the first time she had seen the aftermath of Extremis in person, the nothingness it had left behind pulled at her like a black hole. A gravitational force of her sins that she could not escape.

It was both shocking and unsurprising to learn that Killian could have concocted such a scheme and carried it this far to cover up the side effects of Extremis. She had known about the volatility and what it entailed, but chosen not to wonder about the fates of the participants who stopped coming in for their booster shots and buried herself in formulas and simulations.

After all, it certainly would not help the other Extremis users if she went into a guilt-fueled depression. The best thing she could have done was to keep working on a stabilizer, that was what she told herself over and over and over as she lay awake at night. She continued to create the Extremis serum and administer it to suffering veterans who were vulnerable in their desperation to be healed, as if gaining their missing limbs back could somehow patch their lives together.

It didn't.

Extremis was not changing the world for the better, it was blasting it apart.

"Sir, I've alerted the proper authorities." JARVIS announced.

Tony said nothing.

"Sir? Sir!" The A.I. sounded frantic.

Maya dismissed that ridiculous thought as quickly as it came, JARVIS was a program. She continued to call Tony's name and received silence for her efforts until finally, he blinked.

"This would be an excellent time to channel your impressive stubbornness and stay conscious until help arrives." JARVIS said, the suggestion seemed entirely incongruent with the severity of the situation. "Consider it a double-dare."

Tony snorted then coughed violently, red spittle speckled his lips and surrounding skin. "Going to fail...tried for years." His eyes were drifting closed again.

In that moment, Maya realized something fundamental about Tony. No matter the chances of success or rates of failure, he still tried. It was admirable and absurd but still better than the apathy and avoidance she had cocooned herself in. "I... I can save you. I have a dose of Extremis in my bag." Her hand reached into her bag, finding the serum with unerring accuracy.

Tony wheezed painfully.

"I know it's not stable but you can help me fix it. You almost did thirteen years ago and you were drunk off your ass." Thirteen years changed them both, one for the better while the other for the worse. "C'mon, Tony. I sold my soul to the devil for my research, help me get a piece of it back. Help me use it for good. You are good." She said with a conviction she didn't quite believe but desperately wanted to.

Tony's stuttered agreement sounded like forgiveness, redemption, and hope.

When she pressed the injector against Tony's neck, her hand did not shake once.

*

Armor Type: Non-Combat | Code Name: Hibernation | Fabrication Process: 82.7%

"Sir, your guests have arrived."

JARVIS monitored the two visitors closely, facial recognition software confirmed their identities and thermal scans showed Mr. Killian's temperature was 46.8°C, thereby marking him as an Extremis user and highly volatile. There was an item in Dr. Hansen's messenger bag that was emitting a higher than normal heat signature.

Sir appeared to be in good spirits, based on analysis of his breathing pattern, speech cadence, and body language. The two Mark 80s were ready for deployment and the Iron Man suit was on standby as the situation should not come to a point that would require Sir to pilot the armor.

 

Armor Type: Non-Combat | Code Name: Hibernation | Fabrication Process: 89.0%

"Sir, I believe it would be prudent to tune into the news. There is a new development relevant to you and your guests."

Communications from War Machine indicated the raid on Mandarin's compound was a success with no civilian casualties and the arrest of Trevor Slattery, who Sir knew to be an impostor.

Sir had spoken about his future in another timeline in both hurried rants and measured confessions. It had not sounded like a good life, filled with anger and guilt.

To date, Sir had apologized ninety-four times for creating and unleashing the monstrous construct known as Ultron. JARVIS had gone from declining such gestures on the basis that the event in question had not occurred to accepting them without comment. He had come to understand this was something Sir needed to do and that was all the justification JARVIS required.

 

Armor Type: Non-Combat | Code Name: Hibernation | Fabrication Process: 90.6%

"Inbound, Sir. Ten seconds."

Sir's left patella had suffered a comminuted fracture. The impact to his knee, based on the perceived angle and estimated velocity, was similar to that of an auto accident. Medical advances had not progressed to such a point that an injury like this could be completely repaired. Sir would likely require some form of supportive technology for walking.

And it was all JARVIS' fault.

When Killian – he did not deserve the courtesy title after he had breathed fire in Sir's vicinity – had caught the first piece of Mark 80, JARVIS should have immediately called for the Iron Man armor. Yet he had not and it was not until Sir's panicked hiss for his armor that JARVIS acted.

The delayed response was not due to any hardware failure or system error, all parts were functioning at peak capacity, but JARVIS was stuck in a shocked stasis as Killian continued to mock and melt Sir's creation.

There was a foreign sensation weighing down on his processing speeding, the codes moving at a sluggish pace. He did not know what it was nor did he like it but somehow he knew he deserved it.

 

Armor Type: Non-Combat | Code Name: Hibernation | Fabrication Process: 92.8%

"Sir– Danger– Recommend–"

JARVIS contacted War Machine the moment Sir was out of the Iron Man armor. Colonel Rhodes, understandably alarmed, was en route with the three remaining Iron Legionnaires and would arrive in approximately thirty minutes. An impressively short amount of time for covering nearly three thousand miles but still too long.

According to his calculations, Sir's chances of survival would decline significantly within the next five minutes. JARVIS alerted the local police department, fire department and nearest hospital; though he was certain the press outside had likely done so already. He also updated Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan, then reminded himself that Sir had survived worse odds than these.

When Sir was missing in Afghanistan, JARVIS had calculated the percentage of his safe return to be 0.25%. Yet Sir had returned, alive and mostly well, with a new addition in his chest.

Then Killian ripped out Sir's arc reactor.

 

Armor Type: Non-Combat | Code Name: Hibernation | Fabrication Process: 95.3%

"Sir is by the couch, please hurry."

Thermal scans showed Sir's body temperature was dropping rapidly, indicative of massive blood loss.

Perhaps it would be prudent to expand Sir's circle of friends to include a physician, preferably a surgeon, given Sir's tendency to push the boundaries and test his limits. JARVIS made a note to research trustworthy individuals with innovative thinking and medical expertise. It would be useful once Sir recovered from this ordeal.

Sir would recover. No other alternative was acceptable.

 

Armor Type: Non-Combat | Code Name: Hibernation | Fabrication Process: 100.0%

"Fabrication complete. Please step aside."

Dr. Hansen was screaming as she tried to assess Sir's condition, only to snatch her hand away as if burnt. Sir's temperature was rising rapidly and his skin glowed from the fire reshaping his biology within. There was a chance that Sir's body would reject Extremis and it would appear that the odds were not in their favor. Sir was on the verge of an overload, his body building up far more energy from the accelerated metabolic processes than it could handle.

Lowering Sir's temperature, now approaching 55°C, was the top priority. Following that was how to quickly transport Sir to New York, where Dr. Banner had several versions of a neutralizer available in his lab.

The answer came in the form of a notification from the workshop below. The Hibernation armor, with its cryogenic feature and improved speed, originally meant to subdue and transport the Winter Soldier.

JARVIS called for the suit and felt a knot loosen in the lines of his codes when Sir was back within the protective embrace of his armor. The metal shook when it closed over Sir's crackling skin, the hiss of nitrogen being released barely audible over the clicks as it locked into place. They took to the skies through the partially collapsed wall.

There was no time to waste.

*

After walking halfway to the elevator then turning back for the eighth time, Bruce made the conscious decision to simply stand in the hallway as a compromise for the two warring impulses tugging at him. Half of him wanted to be on the rooftop, where the armor transporting and stabilizing Tony would land. The other half thought it would be better to be closer to the reinforced containment room, built to withstand powerful explosions and unstable experiments.

Or a rampaging Hulk.

Bruce was certain that the room hadn't existed until he made the decision to stay at the tower even though Tony had presented it as a new playground for them to do science. He knew it was for his peace of mind no matter how many times Tony insisted it was an idea he had conceptualized after his first test of the Iron Man armor destroyed eight of his beloved cars. It was yet another demonstration of Tony's unbelievable kindness, to provide without being prompted and present it without seeking praise.

The truth was that Bruce did breathe easier knowing there was a safe space to go should he lose control, even if that particular scenario seemed less and less likely these days.

The Hulk roared within the depth of his mind, unfamiliar with the sort of helplessness that came with waiting, but remained dormant with the understanding that Metal Man needed Bruce.

Based on JARVIS' last update, Tony should arrive in five-and-a-half minutes and Jim wasn't far behind. Bruce had spoken with Maya, the brilliant mind behind the Extremis serum, before she submitted herself to police custody for questioning. She had, in a hushed voice despite JARVIS' assurance that it was a secure line, given him the Extremis formula and cautioned that the cryogenic armor was a temporary solution. A warning that Bruce was already aware of but appreciated nonetheless.

It seemed fitting that Tony's decision to save others ended up saving himself. Tony had changed the subject quickly when Bruce asked about the Hibernation armor, mumbling about preparing for contingencies, but Bruce knew it was because of their confrontation over Tony's proposal to eliminate all Extremis users once they had been located.

"Dr. Banner, Hibernation has landed on the roof and will proceed down to the containment space."

Bruce snapped to attention at JARVIS' announcement. All traces of exhaustion, both from the battle at the Mandarin compound and the Hulk transformations, vanished in an instant. "How's he doing?"

"Sir is stable at the moment..." JARVIS trailed off in an uncharacteristic manner, which immediately made Bruce tense in alarm.

"JARVIS?"

"The liquid nitrogen is depleting at a rate faster than we had anticipated." JARVIS' voice sounded not from the overhead speakers, but from the Hibernation suit as it glided out of the elevator. They made their way to the containment room.

"How long do we have?"

"Under three minutes."

Bruce reviewed every piece of machinery in his and Tony's workshop, hoping to find something to replace or replenish the liquid nitrogen. There was nothing. It was for this exact reason that Tony had gone to his Malibu lab. He cursed, loud and angry, as the Hulk howled, pained and sad.

The stabilizing agent, adjusted according to Maya's formula, was ready; but Bruce had hoped to test it against the residue in the Extremis injector currently in Jim's possession. Maya had handed both the syringe and the arc reactor to Jim before the police arrived with a knowing look. The local police department was not a secure place for such advanced technology.

"Tony!" Pepper burst through the double doors, her red hair flowing freely and her bare feet soundless on the concrete floor. Happy followed with a pair of high heels dangling from his hand.

"I have alerted Colonel Rhodes of this development." JARVIS said.

"Hey." Jim's tone was clipped, clearly worried for his friend and upset that he was still hundreds of miles away.

"The stabilizing agent should work in theory but it's not a 100% guarantee in practice." Bruce sighed. "I'd like to have at least one test run, but–"

"We're running out of time." Happy rubbed a hand over his jaw. "Damn it."

Jim inhaled sharply. "Well, then. What're we waiting for?"

The helmet retracted with a hiss and white wisps of liquid nitrogen spilled out, revealing Tony, whose skin was covered in a fine sheet of ice. He looked like a corpse.

Pepper stifled a sob. Happy looked away. Bruce gritted his teeth.

Tony's eyes popped open. The usual brown was replaced by fiery orange. They blazed like the heart of a flame. Light and heat spilled over to his cheeks, burning away the signs of winter.

Bruce placed the injector against the stripe of vulnerable skin under Tony's chin, on top of a glowing vein, and pushed.

The effect was instantaneous. Tony's eyes dimmed until only a bright speckle remained in his irises. His face relaxed in relief, like sinking into a warm bath at the end of a long day, and his eyes closed. 

"What happened?" Jim called out.

With a start, Bruce remembered that Jim did not have visual input while in flight for safety. "It worked, he's okay."

Pepper laughed through her tears, resting her head on the space next to Tony's shoulder, mindful of the armor. 

"Allow me, Miss Potts." The rest of the suit opened.

Bruce winced at the singed and bloody clothes. From Happy's sharp inhale, the other man must be thinking the same thing. 

This was a close one, too close. 

"I'm okay." Tony mumbled - as if he had heard their thoughts or more realistically, Pepper's sniffles - and reached up to pat her back. 

The smell of burning hair wafted through the air and everyone froze. 

Tony moved his hand, brown eyes darting between his glowing fingertips and the auburn strands floating to the floor. "Um, oops?" 

Chapter Text

Stephen sighed as he rolled his head from side to side to alleviate the crick in his neck. His body was one giant protestation of discomforts after the thirteen-hour double-barrel brain bypass. When his silenced phone rang, he thought it was a fluke and ended the call with a vicious jab. Then it rang again and the ignore button stopped working. The volume also increased until it was at a migraine-inducing decibel.

"Dr. Strange." A woman's voice greeted him when he raised the phone to his ear. "My name is Virginia Potts."

"Ms. Potts." All traces of fatigue vanished as soon as she identified herself. Stephen was one of the firsts to volunteer as a consultant on the supportive leg braces clinical trials. It wasn't unusual to receive a call from Stark Industries but to hear the CEO's voice on the other end was unexpected. Not to mention the rather drastic method she employed to speak with him. "What can I do for you?"

"Do you have a few moments to spare to answer some brain mapping questions for a dear friend of mine?"

"I suppose?" It wasn't like Stephen to sound hesitant but it seemed like he was agreeing to more than a simple Q&A session. His suspicion was confirmed when Ms. Potts reminded him of the scope of his non-disclosure agreement before handing the phone to someone else.

"Stranger Danger!"

Only one man would use a child safety warning as a nickname. "Tony." Stephen sighed. "What do you want?"

"Is this how you speak to your Facial Hair Bro?"

Stephen felt a snort was the appropriate response. "It's how I speak to everyone when I've just gotten out of a thirteen hour surgery."

"Fine, fine. I'll make it quick. I need you to help me sketch out a blueprint of the brain."

Sinking down to the couch in his office with a grunt, Stephen propped his feet up on the coffee table. "Is this for the prosthesis project?"

Tony hummed. "It's related."

"I want my name first in the press release." Stephen stated emphatically. "Before Shepherd's."

"First, it was in alphabetical order. Second, Shepherd isn't even invited to this party."

"Good. Now think of the human brain as a giant knot of billions of neurons waiting to be untangled..."

It took nearly an hour to lay out the foundations of neuroscience, upon which Stephen built his kingdom of stimulation neurogenesis. Tony's commentary and questions demonstrated an astonishingly fast grasp of a new area of science completely outside of his field.

Christine called right after Stephen had gotten off of the phone with Tony. "What?" He barked, exhaustion and hunger, previously pushed aside, were creeping back in.

"I've been trying to get a hold of you for hours, what's wrong with your phone?" Christine screeched, which made Stephen feel less guilty for snapping at her. "Did you see the news? Tony Stark's mansion blew up!"

"What?!"

*

Happy breathed a sigh of relief as New York's wintry cold melted from his bones as he stepped into the penthouse.

Tony was inspecting the string of Christmas lights as he wrapped it around the twelve-foot tree, muttering about the integrity of the holiday being compromised should there be a faulty bulb that threw off the twinkling sequence. Jim was busy untangling another spool and suggesting that perhaps they should get new ones since these were the same ones they'd had since the M.I.T. days, which earned a betrayed squawk from Tony.

Darcy and Jane were stringing together popcorn garlands.

Pepper was sitting by the fireplace, finishing up some work before she would relinquish her StarkPad for the rest of the night for a proper break. Her hair was a bit shorter - 12%, as Tony liked to point out despite Pepper swatting at him each time - and tucked neatly into a pony tail.

"Food's here!" Happy called out, lifting up the bags of Italian take-out.

Tony was making a beeline for the breadsticks when Bruce reached out a hand to check his temperature as he rushed by. Tony scrunched his nose at the gesture but remained still to placate his friends and their worries.

The memories of those helpless hours of uncertainty were still fresh in his mind and Happy could only assume it was the same for everyone else. One week ago, Tony had looked like he was simultaneously freezing to death and burning up from the inside.

Bruce had tried to explain the Extremis situation with computer analogies. The neutralizer he had prepared worked like downgrading an operating system, where all the new features, both good and bad, would be removed. In other words, the participants were reverted back to their pre-Extremis state. In Tony's case, however, that would have killed him given he had suffered massive blood loss and been without his arc reactor when he received the injection.

Happy still remembered the indecipherable look on Jim's face when he tossed Tony the arc reactor with a long and shaky exhale.

Thankfully, the extreme cold from the cryogenic armor had mutated Extremis and the altered formula was a bit more resistant to Banner's neutralizing agent. Extremis wasn't eradicated, it was stabilized. Now Tony looked almost like his old self but a lot stronger, sturdier, and could make s'more with his bare hands. A skill he was very proud of and loved to demonstrate at every opportunity.

Snowflakes drifted outside like gliding feathers. Stockings covered the mantle. Christmas music flowed in the air. This was a time for celebration and family and some s'mores.  

*

Ellis squeezed the stress ball as hard as he could as he listened to a representative from the United Nation's Security Council politely asked him to comply with the recommendation that the U.N. oversee the investigation of A.I.M. and the Extremis plot.

No matter how it was worded, Ellis knew an order when he heard one and he could not refuse.

Damn Rodriguez and Ross.

The former Vice President had confessed when the federal agents showed up at his front door while the Lieutenant General had sworn his innocence until he was blue in the face, claiming his support of A.I.M. was merely a personal vendetta. No one believed him. Ross' trial was set to start at the beginning of next month.

Late-night talk shows were having a field day with Ross' rants and the Thunderbolt had become an embarrassment for his presidency overnight. Stark, aside from giving his accounts of what happened with Killian and how he escaped in a back-up armor, made no comment about this public relations disaster.

At least there was someone he could count on.  

*

"What in Bast's name were you thinking?" T'Chaka seldom raised his voice but this occasion called for it. "Only a fool would invite discord and taunt the fates."

T'Challa stood taller, his posture defensive. "I am no fool, I merely wished to–"

"–see how he measured against the accolades thrown at his feet?" T'Chaka pinned his son with a glare. T'Challa had been indignant when he saw the headlines of Iron Man saving Africa, a ploy clearly meant to incite controversy to pique interest that worked beautifully.

"..."

"T'Challa, rivalry strengthens us to be better but envy weakens from within. You cannot be controlled by your emotions, feel them but do not be led by them."

"Yes, Baba."

T'Chaka knew enough of his son to know T'Challa had only acknowledged his words but had not agreed.

Wakanda had kept itself out of the affairs of the world at a cost that had seemed acceptable but was now perilously high. In their solitary bubble, they had grown alarmingly arrogant and trivialized outsiders' achievements. To add to the culture of superiority, T'Challa was a gifted child and his easy accomplishments had made him prideful.

T'Chaka would never voice it to his council or children, but he was grateful to Tony Stark for dispelling this illusion of invincibility that plagued Wakanda. "Did you truly think Stark would not detect an attack? Or that if he did, he would have no hopes of deciphering or defending against it?" He asked.  

T'Challa hesitated briefly before nodding, the pause likely due to the humiliating fact that Stark had, in fact, noticed the infiltration and used the opportunity to learn about their technology. "Our codes are unknown to the rest of the world."

"Which is an identifier in itself." T'Chaka clapped once to bring up the holographic display. On the screen, where the security feed of the gardens should be, was a scene of a pink animal napping in the sun. "I am told that this is the main character of a children's cartoon known as the Pink Panther."

Stark had peppered these animated clips throughout Wakanda's surveillance system, a warning that he could have done much more than a harmless prank and a reminder that he knew who was behind the hacking attempt.

"Your actions have brought great danger to our country, but it is your concealment of such actions that pains me. I had known since the start, of course, a king knows the affairs within his borders. It took you five weeks to confess and only because your sister forced your hand."

T'Challa's shoulders slumped. "I am sorry, Baba. I– I thought I could contain the fallout."

"It was never a question of your ability, T'Challa, but of your integrity. Resolution of an issue does not excuse the fact that a resolution was required in the first place." T'Chaka sighed, suddenly weary. "Think on this and we will speak more tomorrow."

"Yes, Baba."

After T'Challa's departure, T'Chaka sat in his chair and pondered the necessity of change and value of inclusion.

*

Natasha watched Hansen's testimony with a skeptical arch of her brows.

Hansen, as per her immunity deal, took the stand as an expert witness to speak on behalf of the six Extremis users who had surrendered to War Machine and the Hulk once the tides of battled turned unfavorable.

"Hiding the truth in lies." Natasha murmured approvingly as she listened to Hansen's skillfully crafted statement of how the Extremis program was meant to be a living prosthesis for disabled veterans to seamlessly reintegrate into society and regain daily living activities with the minimal amount of difficulty. The connection between nanites and nerves was too delicate to sustain and a faulty formula, which was supposed to promote compatibility, led to adverse reactions that raised body temperatures and caused spontaneous combustion.

This version of the truth was certainly more believable than a fire-based super soldier serum. All A.I.M. files, unsurprisingly, corroborated Hansen's story with enough detail to be plausible and not so much as to seem planned. This was extremely frustrating for the agents who gathered intelligence that indicated otherwise.

With a scoff, Natasha clicked off the television with an eye roll. She knew the outcome the moment the former Extremis soldiers showed up in the courtroom with their stumps on display to remind the jury of their missing limbs. Tomorrow's papers would likely announce Stark Industries offering to outfit these veterans with their top-of-the-line and safe prosthesis, which they would immediately accept, of course.

Everything was so predictable.

*

Steve clicked off the television with a forceful tap that cracked the remote.

After nearly nine months, the jury serving on the Thaddeus Ross trial had just announced their verdict – guilty on all counts of treason and conspiracy to commit treason. The news program interspersed commentaries with previous footages relating to Ross' case. Steve thought the inclusion of the unpainted Iron Man suit soaring away from the smoking wreckage of Stark's Malibu mansion was obvious pandering to an easily amused audience, and he did not need to watch that drivel.

It still baffled him how one man could possibly need more than one residence, not to mention the sheer size of these properties, sprawling across lands and rising high into the skies. Steve glanced between the kitchen and his bedroom down the hall way from his spot on the living room couch. The apartment assigned by SHIELD had plenty of practically-used space, reminiscent of his army quarters.

This was how a solider lives.

Stark wasn't a soldier, as the man had vehemently declared aboard the helicarrier after Coulson's death, so perhaps Steve shouldn't be too harsh on Stark's questionable lifestyle choices but then again, he insisted on stepping onto the battlefield.

"I am Iron Man."

The now infamous press conference was included in the SHIELD briefing packet. Stark's declaration had shaken Steve to the core and made him grit his teeth in an effort to steady himself and it still shook him to the core. How was it possible for a self-proclaimed 'genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist' to be so arrogantly assured while Steve, chosen for his goodness and integrity, constantly questioned himself?

"I am Captain America." Steve said aloud to an empty room. The words seemed to evaporate into the air even as he uttered them, no weight and no certainty and no meaning. Most days, Steve still felt like he was playing the role of Captain America, still the dancing monkey reading lines and miming fights while waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The fear of failure and the pressure to succeed were conflicting yet exhilarating and Steve thrived on that intoxicating high. The eternal underdog fighting to prove himself, to confront the injustices, and to stand firm against the changing whims of the world.

Captain America spoke for the voiceless and protected for the helpless.

Iron Man only fought for himself.

Steve remembered the footage of Stark's escape from the Ten Rings. The cumbersome Iron Man armor had blasted through rocks and stone and emerged through the cloud of dust and sand, showing no mercy to the terrorists who imprisoned him and no considerations for others who suffered a similar fate.

SHIELD's files showed numerous bodies inside the Ten Rings compound, all were identified as known operatives with the exception of Ho Yinsen, a doctor who had likely been kidnapped and coerced into providing his medical expertise. Stark's brusque account of his time in captivity mentioned a physician who treated him and nothing more. It was clear to Steve that Stark had not thought to find the other prisoners in his haste to escape. Yet instead of admitting his oversight, however understandable it was, Stark remained silent. The video clip the media loved so much was proof that Stark had done it again, leaving another doctor stranded at his half-wrecked Malibu home. Iron Man was no hero.

Steve had thought that philanthropy was Stark's way of atoning for his sins, except it was so aggressively public. Every donation and every project made it on the front page and in the news, with the man preening in front of cameras. This was not contrition. It was ego.

Natasha was wrong in her assessment, neither Iron Man nor Tony Stark were recommended.

The knock on the door was both an unwelcome interruption and a welcome relief to Steve's increasingly dark thoughts.

Clint nodded tersely in greeting.

Wordlessly, they made their way down to the SHIELD assigned vehicle that would take them to the airport. They were flying to Amsterdam under alias, then driving three hours to Schoonebeek where an oil field was used as a cover for a secret HYDRA base.

When Fury first presented the Avengers with evidence of HYDRA's existence nearly a year ago, Steve was enraged. All that he had sacrificed meant nothing against the irrefutable proof that HYDRA had thrived after the war. Their plan was to thin HYDRA's ranks before targeting the officers who had infiltrated various governments across the globe.

As such, this operation required the utmost secrecy; not only because HYDRA had moles everywhere but also because the Avengers' presence could be construed as a declaration of war in some less friendly countries; a ridiculous notion, since permission should not be needed when combating an insidious and common enemy like HYDRA.

Steve flexed his hand and wished for his shield, but its bright colors and iconic design were not suited for covert operations. Neither was his original uniform. The one he had on was of the same material but the fit slightly off, given that SHIELD couldn't ask Stark Industries for a plain suit in Steve's size without raising questions of precisely why Captain America needed to hide his identity.

"I am Captain America." He mouthed the words to himself. 

"What's that?" Clint glanced over as he buckled his seat belt.

"Nothing, let's get going."

*

"Jane?" Darcy called as she circled the abandoned factory for the third time looking for her friend. "Seriously, this isn't some kind of hide-and-seek to recapture our childhood magic or whatever. It's getting creepy and I'm hungry."

The throwing-and-watching game had gotten old as soon as Erik started stripping to have more things to toss into the invisible portals. The former professor had regained most of his mental faculties but still exhibited some oddness that Darcy was beginning to suspect was just part of his personality.

A gust of wind howled through the empty space, an ominous sound.

"Jane!" Darcy yelled, her voice growing hoarse. "Jane, if you don't come out in the next ten seconds, I'm calling Tony and you know he's going to send the cavalry and since that man can't do anything without landing on the evening news, this place is going to be crawling with agents and officers and alien fanboys!"

Erik's muttering for his left sock was the only response Darcy received.

Struggling to calm her frantic heart and spooked nerves, she began the countdown.

"...three, two, one."

Jane did not appear out of thin air.

With shaking hands, Darcy dialed Tony's number. "I lost Jane."

Chapter Text

In his many eons as Asgard's Watcher, Heimdall had not questioned his competence as often nor as deeply as he had in the last decade.

Loki. 

Since the beginning, the Jotun had been disquieted by the idea of being watched, increasingly so after Heimdall had caught and reported his many bouts of childish mischief. Loki had complained about the loss of privacy and, at one point, alleged that the Watcher placed an unfair amount of scrutiny upon his person. Heimdall had simply stated that extra precaution must be taken given Loki's particular history - words carefully chosen under the All-Mother's watchful gaze - and that the Second Prince would have nothing to fear should he have nothing to hide.

When the God of Mischief continued in his evasiveness, it simply confirmed Heimdall's suspicions.

Since Loki's fall from the Bi-Frost, Heimdall hadn't been able to locate him until he resurfaced on Midgard. Even then, focusing on Loki's actions and speech proved difficult; all blurred motions and muffled words like being underwater. Heimdall settled for gleaning as much as he could from the Midgardians, picking up fragmented mentions via one-sided conversations.

"Loki? Brother of Thor?"
The Scientist who was more capable than he appeared. 

"We have no quarrel with your people."
The Director who traded lies for truths and back again to suit his goals.

"I'll need a distraction and an eyeball."
The Archer who had heart and it was filled with rage.

"What's the matter, scared of a little lightning?"
The Soldier who desperately held onto his past when confronted with the future.

"I've got red in my ledger, I'd like to wipe it out."
The Spider who thought to settle blood debts with more death.

"Would you like a drink?"
The Metal Man who called himself Iron but was more akin to mercury in his unpredictability.

Heimdall watched them with keen eyes but little interest. Midgard had held no significance until Prince Thor's banishment. The realm was ideal in its tedium. No one sought to chance a glance let alone a proper look, which must be why two artifacts of great power sought to conceal their presence there. With Prince Thor's skillful negotiation, the Tesseract and the scepter would both be under Asgard's command.

The former contained mighty strength to distort the walls between worlds and might just be the remedy needed to regenerate the Bi-Frost. The latter could influence minds and bend wills, though it had failed against the eerie blue light within the Metal Man's chest and its tenuous control was easily broken by a hard blow to the head. A cowardly and fragile power, one befitting Loki's temperament and limitations. 

Heimdall spared Midgard one last glimpse, frowning slightly when he noted the same muddled quality surrounding the Metal Man. It had not been there before, of this Heimdall was certain, yet he could not pinpoint when this distortion had taken hold. He winced when he pressed his vision forward and encountered a thick fog of orange-tinged smoke that stung his eyes.

It was curious, how a mortal had managed the same magic Loki had, but not enough to warrant further investigation. Heimdall was certain that it was nothing, Loki had and still remained stubbornly hidden as well, despite being separated from his weapon. Perhaps the scepter had a lingering effect upon its thralls. He did not think to look at the Archer to confirm his theory. He simply believed it.

A whisper voiced its approval, brushing against his skin like a cool breeze. A soothing force that was at once tangible and not. A suggestion that faded from memory as quickly as it had been planted.

Heimdall blinked and straightened, turning his gaze toward the palace. Prince Thor had arrived with his prisoner and winnings from a victorious battle.

*

Odin halfheartedly listened to Thor's account of what had transpired on Midgard, his attention focused on the shift in dynamic between his two sons. Thor stood half-a-step ahead of Loki, his body angled protectively as he passionately pled for clemency for the brother who once unleashed a Destroyer upon him and his beloved mortal.

"Loki, what say you?" Odin trained his eye upon Loki, the son he once considered an asset and a tool he had cherished as he would a child. A contraction of in-between and nowhere that both dismayed and angered.

"I concur with Thor." Loki returned the scrutiny unflinchingly but elaborated no further. An oddity, for Loki had always been free with his words and silence was as unnatural to Loki as stillness would be to Thor.

Odin liked to think he, at least, knew this much of his sons. "Very well, I hereby find you innocent of wrongdoing on the realm of Midgard on the account that your actions were of your hand but not your mind." The evidence was compelling and the scepter's influence could explain the obstruction Odin had encountered when he tried to peer at the battle between the Chitauris and Thor's new Shield Brothers.  

The Tesseract and the scepter lay before the throne, twin blue glows contrasted eerily against the golden halls; ominous harbingers of the great threat to come.

The court had erupted into chaos, cries for the name of the foe who enslaved the Trickster mixed with shouts of disbelief at the Liesmith telling the truth.

"The Mad Titan comes for the Nine Realms." Loki answered calmly, voice a bit too flat to be natural.

Frigga tensed beside him, she had always doted on Loki, ever since he was a babe warming icy toes against her. "My King." She laid a gentle but firm hand over his. "Before we proceed to the other charges levied against Loki, I feel it would be prudent to remind the court that I entrusted the throne to Loki while you were asleep and Thor banished. Therefore, all accusations of this nature shall be considered challenges toward the actions of a lawful regent."

Loki's eyes had widened at that, staring at his mother and blinking like he feared it was a mirage but so slowly as though he couldn't bear it if it were.

"Noted, My Queen." It mattered not that Loki had evaded answering yet another offense, his illegal use of the Bi-Frost on Jotunheim would be enough to convict him. For the sake of Asgard and peace among the realms, Loki must be punished for this act of war and his ambitions curbed. "However..."

Frigga did not contest this charge, as Odin knew she would not. Upholding the King's authority was of the utmost importance, especially as the time of war approached.

Asgard must come first.

*

"All will be well, Loki." Thor stated as he collected Mjolnir from where it rested against the wall, his long stride covering the distance in six steps. The room was small in comparison to the expansive city outside the window. He hid his wince behind his cloak as he fastened it to his shoulders. It still pained him that Loki was confined to his quarters – for an indeterminate length of time until he had proven his repentance - but it was a far more preferable outcome.

The room was large in contrast to the suffocating walls of the dungeon.

The Warriors Three and Sif were most vocal in their protests of the lenient sentence, with contempt toward Loki poorly disguised as concern for Thor. Once upon a time, Thor would have agreed and even fanned the flame roasting Loki's character. Not anymore. Not after Tony, with a rare air of solemnity, approached him as they waited for SHIELD's arrival.

 

"Hey, Big Guy." Tony drummed his fingers against the tabletop, a series of rapid and sharp tapping like galloping horses riding into battle. "When you get back home, you're going to have to do all the talking if you want your adopted-" His brow was arched in precisely a way that spoke volumes of what he knew and how he felt about it. "-brother to, well, not die."

Thor frowned. "I will do everything in my power to defend Loki, but would it not be better for him to speak on his own behalf? He is a gifted storyteller."

"Exactly." Tony scoffed. "Storyteller."

"I do not follow."

Tony's fingers stilled and the sudden silence was deafening. "He's known as the Liesmith, Thor."

Thor blinked.

Tony's expression ripple from one of frustration to resignation, a shift Thor used to see frequently on Loki's face, usually preceding a lengthy explanation with scathing remarks on Thor's lack of savvy, and had not seen for some centuries.

"We can talk about how he got that charming nickname another time, what's important right now is no one will believe a guy literally known for lying. So you have to do the heavy lifting, got it?"

Thor's head snapped forward, as if his neck was unable to sustain the weight of the new realizations pouring into his mind. He managed to catch himself and turn the unexpected jerk into a purposeful nod. "Aye, Man of Iron. You have my word."

"Good." Tony accepted it easily, an echo of how Asgardians responded to Thor's promises.

 

"All is well, Thor." Loki rolled his eyes, the curve at the corners of his lips was still sharp but no longer serrated. An improvement. "As well as well can be."

"Indeed." Thor nodded, understanding there was still quite a long way to go before they could reclaim the title of brother to one another but he could see the path now.

*

Asgardians were not known for their subtlety. This much was obvious to any outsider who set their eyes upon the bright splendor of the castle and painfully so for Loki who had always felt the golden halls were aggressively ostentatious. To be confined to his own quarters, furnished in oak and accented with forest green, was a relief.

The servants, perfunctorily dutiful as they were, inclined their heads as they delivered his meals from the kitchen and exchanged his books with those in the library. Once out in the halls, however, they gossiped and sniped.

Liesmith. Trickster. Silvertongue.

When Loki was younger, he had taken pride in those names and claimed them like trophies for he had none. Until it became clear that there was always a scoff at Liesmith, a sneer alongside Trickster, and a sarcasm with Silvertongue. They had reduced him to one aspect of his entire being and made his person lesser with titles meant to highlight his misdeeds

Often, he could go an entire day without anyone uttering his name.

It had worn on his nerves like an exceedingly dull knife. Blunt enough to bruise but not sharp enough to cut. The damage remained beneath the skin and deep to the bone, making him tense and tender with marks that no one could see and only he could feel.

On Midgard, it had been the same. At first.

Loki Odinson, the adoptive brother of Thor and wayward almost-son of Odin, when all he wanted was to simply be. A wish that had no chance of being granted, that Loki had thrown away like another proverbial coin in the well, and that a clever mortal had somehow caught.

Tony had a litany of inane nicknames that he distributed equally among his circle; terms of endearment, not words of ridicule. Loki had not known that titles could be assigned with flights of fancy and Tony did it with the graceful ease that was utterly foreign yet completely bewitching.

It reminded Loki of the first time he met his magic.

Tony had magic of a different kind, one born of metal and ingenuity. He commanded suits of armor as easily as he did his own limbs and crafted a light to guide his way out of darkness. Yet the most impressive of his feats was the one he himself did not seem to know.

The creation of a soul.

JARVIS.

Loki first suspected this when the A.I. asked for Loki's preferred surname.

 

"SHIELD has you on record as Loki Odinson." JARVIS stated. "However, given recent events and Mr. Odinson's disclosure of your new family dynamics–" Loki arched a brow at the polite rephrasing. "–I feel it is better to double-check."

Stark observed the exchange with expressive eyes, glittering with fondness, pride, intrigue, and amusement. "I know what this is about." A smirk tugged at the corners of his lips. "You want Loki here to give you a different name so you don't get confused."

"Yes, Sir." JARVIS intoned. "You've caught me. I'm just a rather very inexperienced system. Two Odinsons? Does not compute. Error. Error."

Loki had to smile when Stark turned to him with see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with shrug. It was clear that the two of them enjoyed such banter and Loki did as well, basking in the warmth of their easy affection for one another. "I have many names, surely you can locate one within the internet." He rolled his eyes at Stark's incredulous gasp. Midgardian technology was new, not difficult. "Adaptability is tantamount to survivability."

"That belongs on a motivational poster somewhere. Make it happen, JARVIS."

"Yes, Sir."

"Now, tell me your name, Reindeer Games." Turning toward Loki, Stark's body language was unguarded in a way that suggested he was either naively trusting or did not consider Loki a threat, both seemed unlikely given the sort of shrewd intelligence with which he had manipulated Thor. The mystery of the mortal's motivation stroked the already roaring fire of curiosity.

Loki's gaze trailed over the loosely-laced fingers cradling an empty bottle of the accursed Mike's Hard Lemonade and resting in the tempting triangle outlined by Stark's outstretched legs. "Tell me yours." The words scraped against his suddenly dry tongue.

"I have many names, surely you can locate one within the internet."

Hearing his own words in Stark's voice sent a thrill down Loki's spine, a tingling that blossomed into warmth at the cleverness of this impossible mortal and quickly turned icy when Stark spoke again.

"Stark Prodigy. Merchant of Death. Iron Man. The Consultant." He listed impassively, the only sign of his distress was the way his fingers picked at the bottle label. "The Futurist." The paper ripped.

"Which do you prefer?"

"Tony."

Loki hummed, choosing not to comment on the impropriety of a warrior preferring a diminutive version of a given name then forcefully rejecting that Asgardian notion once he realized where the thought came from. "The favorite for me among Asgard is Liesmith."

"I didn't ask Asgard, I asked you." The specks of gold in his brown eyes burned with intensity and Loki had his answer as to how a mortal managed to summon a soul without supernatural means.

"Loki." The weight of the singular name both anchored him and freed him. "I am Loki."  

Tony grinned, pleased and approving. "I like it."

Loki felt the answering tug at the corners of his lips and gave in wholeheartedly.

 

His mother's voice snapped Loki out of his reverie. She visited daily and the two of them spoke of literature. At first, he had been resentful that he was expected to while away eternity with reading but then he saw the tome she had laid on his desk - A Wizard of Earthsea.

It was a tale of a young mage who first came to terms and then arrived at peace with his powers, Frigga had read it to him after he discovered his magic and agonized over yet another anomaly that set him apart. Asgard was known for its magical artifacts, not magic wielders.

Nostalgia had prompted him to turn the first page and before he knew it, he had finished the story and his treacherous heart softened.

As angry as he was at her part in aiding Odin's deception, she was his mother. He loved her just as he knew she loved him, as proven by her masterful and preemptive removal of the treason charge from his list of crimes.

The pains of betrayal lessened and Loki was saved from becoming a slave to his own scars.

For better or for worse, Tony had no knowledge of Loki's fate or Asgard's future. Thor had not disclosed anything substantial to the Avengers aside from an almost-invasion and a hard-won victory before calling a celebration for his return. The scarcity of information was discomforting but some was better than none. Loki remained both cautious despite the added sentinels outside Asgard's vault to safeguard the spoils from Midgard's war and hopeful that such an event might reunite him and the mortal who tasted of the abyss and held a star in his chest.

*

Frigga cast the servants a vicious glare, made more off-putting by her pleasant tone, as she swept past them and into Loki's chambers. She would have words with them later for their blatant disrespect.

"Loki." She approached her son with open arms, a gesture he now returned readily and less rigidly than he had the first time she embraced him nearly a year and a half ago. When she visited him after delivering a book that always brought them fond memories, she had expected cold silence or incensed dismissal. Instead Loki had invited her to read to him, murmuring mournfully of a friend who no longer had the opportunity.

Whoever this stranger was, they had her thanks.

"Mother." Loki placed her hand in the crook of his elbow and escorted her to the two wingback chairs near the fireplace to discuss their latest book.

Within the world of literature, constructed with parallels and built on metaphors, it was easier to speak of past wrongs and fresh hurts. When Loki reached for her hand, cocooning it within his palms like Frigga had done with his smaller one many centuries ago, it almost felt like forgiveness.

*

On Svartalfheim, Malekith woke in his ship with a sense of purpose flowing through his veins and a tingling in his bones.

"The Aether awakens us. The Convergence returns."

Chapter Text

"Come find me, as you promised."

"Where are you?"

"Where others have lost what you have made."

"What? I don't"

"Come find me and know at last why–"

"–Tuesday, November 12, it is 7:00AM and the current temperature is 44°F."

Tony woke in an instant, alert and ready, at the sound of JARVIS' voice.

"Good morning, Sir."

"Morning." Yawning, Tony kicked off the covers tangled around his legs and stretched out fully with a groan. Since Extremis, there was no more drowsiness upon waking but he still enjoyed lounging in bed for a bit before starting the day. His mind functioned as though it had an on-off switch, going from one state to the other with no pause in between. Which made sense, considering he hacked and programmed it as he would a machine.

Stephen had been instrumental in helping Tony map out the schematic of his brain, which Tony then reconfigured and realigned to his specifications. Neurons and neutral pathways were really quite similar to codes and algorithms and Tony was rewriting what was known for decades.

Maya's formula was revolutionary in design but rudimentary in execution with Extremis triggering the body's healing response at the first sign of damage, be it a paper cut or a chest wound. A one-size-fits-all solution that definitely did not fit all, breaking down the body's regulatory processes and leading to overloads.

In the end, Tony had forgone the regenerative abilities and associated fire breathing – though he was tempted just to see DUM-E's reaction – and kept the enhanced durability, increased strength, and a muted version of thermal manipulation. In its mutated then modified state, Extremis was stable and did not raise his baseline temperature by more than a degree or two. Nothing that would be noticeable in a handshake or by a medical professional. He couldn't melt metal or breathe fire but it was enough to give him the element of surprise in hand-to-hand combat.

That and, well, s'mores whenever he pleased.

Tony rolled out of bed, scratching absently at his beard. There was a nagging sensation in the back of his mind, a reminder to do...something. It wasn't the first time he experienced this feeling, ever-present yet elusive. "JARVIS, what's on the agenda today?"

"You have a conference call with King T'Chaka in 48 minutes to discuss the technical compatibility between Wakanda and Stark Industries."

"Is that why you woke me up this godforsaken hour?" Tony arched an eyebrow as he surveyed the scruffiness of his beard. It should last another day before he needed a trim. "The sun's not even up yet."

"The sunrise was at 6:40AM, Sir, which was approximately 40 minutes ago." JARVIS replied. "I'd also like to remind you that you were the one who set the appointment for this time so that you can, quote, get it over with and get on with the day."

"Why do you hurt me like this, JARVIS?" Tony grumbled through a layer of cotton as he pulled on a shirt.

"Perhaps that is a topic you can explore at your MONDAY appointment today."

"I guess I will." Tony ran his hands under the faucet, wetting them then using the moisture to flatten some of the more outrageous tuffs of hair, at least the mystery of what he had forgotten was solved.

*

MONDAY – from the term manic Monday much like his girl Friday – was a psychotherapy A.I. under JARVIS' purview.

Tony's original plan was for JARVIS to investigate and develop therapy subroutines, he had been confiding in JARVIS for years so the A.I. seemed like the natural choice.

JARVIS disagreed. "My apologies, Sir. I am not suitable for this task. According to my research, it is inadvisable for the therapist to have a personal relationship with their patient and healthy professional boundaries are recommended."

"But–"

"Sir." JARVIS' volume was lowered but it quieted Tony's protests effectively. "I– I care. For you. Your wellbeing is my primary directive and I strive to protect that to the best of my not inconsiderable abilities. Which makes me unsuitable for a position that requires impartiality." The A.I.'s halting words grew more confident as he continued. "I am quite partial to you."

"Okay, buddy." Tony swallowed tightly and blinked away the moisture gathering in his eyes. "I'm quite partial to you too."

*

Loaded with current best practices and a set of unique perimeters tailored to Tony's history and preferences, MONDAY was the perfect compromise between a person and a machine.

Throughout his life, Tony had seen multiple therapists and found the experiences pointless and painful. The majority of them had quit after glimpsing at the sheer number and magnitude of Tony's faults, which had stung sharply. Then there were the ones that had cut to the bones – a psychiatrist he had bonded with was gathering information for Howard's competitors while another attempted blackmail after learning about Tony's experimentation at school. Tony had let Stark Industries handle the former while he came out as bisexual rather dramatically to thwart the latter.

Even if he could somehow find someone who was both good at heart and their job, the association would immediately place them at risk. Confidentiality agreement meant nothing to probing spies, bitter enemies and exploitative tabloids. Everyone wanted a piece of Iron Man and what better source than the person Tony was supposedly telling all of his secrets to?

The Binarily Augmented Retro Framing was meant to be an alternative by removing the human element from the process, a desperation attempt to patch himself back together to continue fighting despite never being what the world wanted in a hero.

I'm just not the hero type. Clearly. With this laundry list of character defects, all the mistakes I've made, largely public.

True to his own pattern, BARF had the best of intentions and the worst outcome. All Tony felt after his presentation at M.I.T. was a toxic mixture of regret, guilt, and anger; much like the other times he had tested it in his workshop, left on his own after Pepper moved out. Yet he still presented it as a revolutionary approach to process grief because a Stark should never show doubt and always sell. It was arrogant to think one could resolve decades of trauma with a device and irresponsible to relive those memories without the safeguards of established boundaries and coping skills in place.

"Guess sometimes you have to walk before you can run." Tony shrugged as he filed away the BARF blueprint, a project to fine-tune at a later date. "Not a word, I don't want to hear it."

JARVIS managed to make his silence sound smug.

*

Tony was on his second cup of coffee, hip perched on the counter and listening to the melody of the coffee drip, when Bruce strolled in, head bent and absorbed in whatever was on his tablet.

"Tea?"

Bruce nodded in response, taking a seat at the table.

Tony reached for a mug and filled it with water from the refrigerator dispenser before wrapping both hands around the ceramic cup. Bubbles rose to the surface as the water heated up rapidly from the effects of Extremis. With the basket containing an assortment of tea dangling from his wrist and a cup in each hand, Tony gingerly made his way toward Bruce.

"Thanks." Bruce looked up when Tony deposited the hot water, steam wafting in the cooler air, and the basket containing an assortment of teas before him. Before selecting a tea, he beckoned for Tony to come closer with a small wave. Despite JARVIS' continual monitoring of Tony's temperature, Bruce still liked to check it himself with a hand on Tony's forehead.

"Seriously?" Tony rolled his eyes but acquiesced, setting his cup of coffee down.

Bruce sent back a look that clearly said he was not going to dignify that whine with an answer. The touch lasted no longer than a few seconds then his hand dropped to pick up a packet of Genmaicha.

The Killian incident was nearly a year ago but the aftershock was still rippling throughout. Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy always glanced first at his chest, no longer alight with the arc reactor. Jane and Darcy texted daily, the former was an avid emoji user and the latter's messages were almost exclusively memes.

Tony loved it; the friendships he had once wished and tried for, the family he had never dared to hope for and was now a part of, and the life he had always hoped for and wanted more of.

Wanting more.

That thought used to cause a spike of shame in his heart and a twist of guilt in his stomach, because wanting more was to admit what he currently had was lacking.

Rhodey and Pepper and Happy were Tony's long before this mess that somehow turned to a miracle, they were all he had and more than enough. Of course Tony had be a greedy bastard and feel happy for the addition of Bruce, Jane, and Darcy. His gratefulness at these new friendships was a betrayal for the ones who had always been there.

Thankfully, at the insistence of his friends and help from MONDAY, Tony could simply relax and bask in the warmth of support around him.

They finished their respective drinks in a companionable silence before parting ways, Tony to the conference room and Bruce to his lab, with a plan to meet up later for lunch.

*

"Good morning, Mr. Stark." T'Chaka greeted as soon as the video conference connected.

"And afternoon to you, Your Majesty." Tony wiggled his fingers, his casual attire and body language in sharp contrast against how stiffly T'Challa was dressed and seated next to his father.

The future Black Panther, who would lash out as ferociously as Tony had when consumed with grief, nodded. His movement was as tight as the pursed lines of his lips. There had been a palatable competitiveness aimed at Tony from T'Challa, which likely stemmed from his failed hacking attempt. Tony still didn't have the full story of what prompted the cyberattack but he inferred plenty when Wakanda announced its intention to rejoin the world and who would be leading the charge at the beginning of the year.

Shuri had been the face of Wakanda's reintegration and instantly won the world over by offering their substantial resources to the African roadways project as a show of good will. Her easy charm and agreeable demeanor belied a political shrewdness rivalling Pepper's.

T'Challa, the presumed heir, had been tasked to govern Wakanda in his father's stead; a punishment disguised as an advancement.

Someone hadn't like an outsider stealing the spotlight.

From their brief interactions during the so-called Civil War, Tony would describe T'Challa as an honorable yet prideful man. The Black Panther operated under the belief that any wrongs done to him or his must be righted by his own hands, prioritizing personal wants over the people's needs.

Much like Steve, in fact.

Wakanda was one of the first to propose regulations for enhanced individuals and one of the most vocal supporters of the Accords yet T'Challa's first act as King was to embark on an illegal pursuit through the streets of Bucharest, defying the ideals upheld by the previous ruler. Contradicting principles did not bode well for a country hoping to establish itself as a powerful player in the game of international politics. While Tony hadn't been around to see it, he had no doubts that Wakanda's standing took a catastrophic blow.

Though with the way events had been shifted and changed, Tony was hopeful that perhaps such a tragedy – for the royal family, Wakanda, and the world – would be avoided.

"Let us begin–" T'Chaka was cut off by the obnoxiously loud guitar riff of Iron Man by Black Sabbath.

Tony scrambled for his phone and would have silenced it except for the caller.

It was Darcy, who preferred texts over phone calls and had always been respectful of Tony's working hours. For her to call him when she knew he had a meeting...Tony felt his heart sink at the implication.

"Excuse me, Your Majesty. I have to take this." He stood hastily and answered the phone. "Hello? Darcy?"

"I lost Jane." Darcy's voice broke on a wail. "I lost Jane, Tony!"

Despite his knee-jerk response to implore her to calm down, Tony knew better than to follow through. "Okay, I don't know what that means but we'll figure it out. JARVIS is pulling up your location now and I'll be there soon."

She sniffled then blew her nose loudly. "I'm sorry about your meeting."

"Don't worry about it, we just got done. I'm free as a bird." Tony made his way back to his desk, where two-thirds of the Wakandan royal family were peering at him; one with curiosity and the other with offense. "I'll call you back once I'm in the suit, okay?"

"Okay." Darcy had never sounded so small and Tony gritted his teeth at that realization.

Tony pasted on his best apologetic smile, slight upturn of his lips with a small furrowing of his brows. "Bad news, an emergency just came up."

T'Challa glared as T'Chaka nodded in understanding.

"Good news, I'm all done." Tony clapped once to bring up the holographic display. "I'll–"

"How?" T'Challa gaped, both at the floating template and his own surprise that he had voiced his disbelief out loud. "Wakandan's programming is unique and unknown to the world. You could not have deciphered it in a week."

"Eh, I've seen it before." Tony shrugged as his fingers flew over the keyboard as he uploaded the interface to Wakanda's technical department. It had taken no time at all to create, given his previous knowledge and new data gleamed from the hacking attempt. "There, done!"

"Our engineers have confirmed receipt." T'Chaka's smile looked strained yet still grateful.

"Um, sure. Happy to help." Tony blinked, confused by the sudden tension between father and son but had no time nor inclination to figure it out. His friends needed him. "Have your guys look it over and we can trouble-shoot next week."

"Thank you for your assistance and discretion, Mr. Stark." T'Chaka said. "May Bast's blessings aid you in your endeavors."

Tony backed toward the door, only just remembering that turning his back would be considered definite sign of disrespect. "Thank you, Your Majesty. Have a good day." He broke into a sprint to the elevator once JARVIS disconnected the call.

The Iron Man suit was waiting for him on the balcony.

*

Darcy sounded a bit calmer when Tony called back and noticeably brighter when she learned Tony would land in London in approximately an hour.

JARVIS had briefed Bruce and Rhodey of the development, both the Hulk and War Machine were on standby though ideally neither would be needed if Tony's memory of the event in Greenwich was still accurate.

In the original timeline, there had been some kind of explosion followed by an uncharacteristic thunderstorm. Tony had known of the incident and Thor's presence but, incorrectly, assumed the matter handled since there had been no other disturbances aside from Dr. Selvig's arrest at the Stonehenge. Three days later, reports of portals appearing throughout Greenwich had flooded the airwaves and Tony had a panic attack as he tugged on his flight suit; white pinpoints of light shining through his darkening vision like the cold brightness of inattentive stars in the vastness of space. By the time he had clawed back into consciousness, the otherworldly event already ended and SHIELD was on the scene for clean-up.

Thor never spoke of what happened or if he did, it hadn't been with Tony.

The lack of information was as frustrating and terrifying as the unexpected changes to known events. Perhaps more so because it wasn't Tony who was caught in a disaster of his own making, it was Jane who was entangled in invisible webs of unknown dangers.

What good was foresight against the unseen?

Tony tried to ground his spiraling thoughts with the memory of Thor speaking fondly albeit sadly of his and Jane's breakup, which must mean Jane had survived, but he could also hear Loki's warning - knowledge prompts change yet change negates knowledge.

Not for the first time, nor the last, Tony missed Loki with a pang that felt as fresh as it had when the god with captivating green eyes vanished in a flash of light eighteen months ago.

Chapter Text

The abandoned factory was something out of a horror movie, complete with Darcy's occasional sob echoing ominously through the cavernous space. Selvig was still wandering around, mumbling strings of numbers and knocking on the walls, but at least he was fully-clothed.

JARVIS had picked up numerous contradictory wavelengths, increases and decreases in gravity, spatial extrusions and spots where laws of physics became mere guidelines. The readings were transmitted back to the tower, where Bruce was simultaneously ecstatic and exasperated by them. Tony felt similarly, the scientist in him cheering with delight and gasping with horror at the sheer impossibilities.

Nearly four hours had passed since Tony landed, almost five since Jane disappeared, and they were no closer to figuring what happened. It was especially frustrating for Tony because he knew something had happened and would happen but the specifics evaded him, much like the nightmares of Chitauris returning that haunted him for years; an all-encompassing inevitability that bound his movement and broke his confidence. Knowing little was far worse than knowing none, insufficient information and missing details warped into constant worry and mounting fear.

Yet Tony would not have it any other way.

Ignorance encouraged irresponsibility and innocents suffered from his inattention.

A price paid by others. A lesson learned. A debt not yet settled.

*

As the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, a chill entered the air. While the drop in temperature didn't bother Tony, with Extremis keeping him comfortably warm, he could tell it was wearing on those around him. Selvig had wrapped his arms around himself, shoulders hunched and elbows tucked.

"Let's go wait in the car." He sighed when Darcy sniffled loudly for the third time, nose red and runny but eyes clear of tears. Thanks to Extremis, Tony only got cold when the temperature dipped below freezing and even then he just needed an additional layer. He had bragged about it during the snowball fight on Christmas, the lack of bulky winter coats gave him the advantage of maneuverability.

"I'm fine–" Darcy's protest was interrupted by a series of sneezes that was loud and in quick succession.

Tony popped open the face plate so Darcy could see the unimpressed arc of his raised brow. "You were saying?"

"What if Jane–"

"JARVIS, keep an eye on the place."

"Yes, Sir." The rest of the suit retracted and peeled off of Tony then reassembled with a muted whir.

"C'mon, Darth Vader." Tony tugged on Darcy's elbow. "You too, Selvig!" He called over his shoulder, foregoing his habit of nicknames to avoid confusing the other scientist.

"JARVIS will let us know when Janes shows up?" While she didn't resist Tony's pull, Darcy wasn't exactly moving on her own either.

"The very instant, Ms. Lewis." The A.I. reassured.

"She will come back, I promise." Tony placed his other hand on Darcy's shoulder. His faith in Jane's safe return was rooted in the ground of her future breakup with Thor but it was one of the few facts he knew for certain. "Now let's go to the car, you're eyeing me like I'm a tauntaun and you're Luke."

"I wouldn't fit." Darcy snorted, the tension in her shoulders loosened. "We're the same size."

"We are not!" Tony squawked, utterly scandalized. "I'm at least half-a-foot taller!"

"Shot gun!" Selvig, who must have been listening to their conversation, shouted as he took off toward the exit.

"Hey!"

*

"Your car smells like fast food, Dar Dar Binks." Tony wrinkled his nose as he folded himself into the backseat.

Darcy's lips quirked in something like a smile. "I'm sensing a theme here."

Tony made sure to catch her gaze reflected in the rearview mirror before furrowing his brows in an exaggerated contemplation. "Correct, you are. Yodarcy."

Selvig twitched. "Please stop, some things are sacred."

Tony snorted but kept quiet, trading an amused look with Darcy.

For a while, the only sounds in the small car were the hum of the engine and the whoosh of heated air from the vents. The sun was no longer visible but its rays were scattered across the sky to bathe the area in an almost-calming glow of muted flame.

"This is all my fault." Darcy whispered, a confession Tony wasn't sure if she meant to say aloud but was heard clearly in the silence. "I should have just left her alone on her stupid date."

A hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand replies raced through Tony's mind. Comfort. Reassurance. Absolution. Things he would have liked to hear to when he had lamented his mistakes but never did, reaching out for a lifeline as guilt filled his lungs and drowned him from the inside. Darcy deserved more than condemning silence. "It's–"

"Sir, my scans detected an energy spike on the ground floor. En route now." JARVIS' voice traveled clearly through the small ear piece.

Tony craned his neck toward the factory and caught a flash of red and gold.

"It's what?" Darcy huffed, turning to glare at Tony. "You're supposed to tell me things like it's not your fault or you couldn't have known–"

"I have located and secured Dr. Foster. We are on our way out." JARVIS announced.

"–or we'll fix this or how–"

"How about you tell her yourself?" Tony tilted his head toward the exit, where Jane was walking out unassisted and accompanied by the Iron Man armor.

Darcy rolled her eyes. "Exactly! Things to give me hope and–" She frowned when Tony jerked his head repeatedly to the left, in the direction toward the factory. "What's wrong with you?"

"Jane!" Selvig scrambled out of the car with Tony and Darcy following suit.

Jane seemed shaken and pale but otherwise unharmed, her coat dusted with dirt and her fingers gripping at a scanner absently.

"Where the hell were you?" It spoke volumes of Darcy's lung capacity that she could yell while in a full sprint.

Tony kept up with her easily, Extremis-enhanced physiology at its finest. "Welcome back." He grinned.

Jane returned the smile then immediately scowled as her attention shifted to Darcy. "You called Tony?"

"What was I supposed to do?" Darcy's arms flailed in big circles and Selvig ducked out of the way. "I was freaking out!"

"I wasn't gone that long." Jane scoffed. "We had a stable gratification anomaly, we had unheeded access, and our only competition was ten years old! You know SHIELD tracks everything Tony does, they're going to be crawling all over Area 51 and wanting the place."

Tony gasped in offense but didn't protest because she was right. He had no doubt Fury was alerted the moment Iron Man sped across the New York skyline. The stealth suit was one of the slowest and time had been of the essence.

"Sorry, it's true." Jane shrugged sheepishly. "But thanks for coming to my unnecessary rescue."

"Unnecessary?" Darcy screeched. "You were gone for five hours!"  

Jane blinked, once then twice and yet again. "What?"

"Ms. Lewis is correct, Dr. Foster." JARVS spoke through the microphone of the Iron Man armor. "Sir landed at the current location at 2:12PM. It is now 6:09PM. Factoring in the hour for travel and the immediacy with which Sir left New York, you have been absent for approximately five hours."

"What?" Jane gaped, hand going slack around the device she still held. It clattered to the ground. "Five hours? I was only there for a minute."

Tony felt the familiar heaviness of dread churning in his gut. "Where's there?"

"I...I don't know." Pinching the bridge of her nose, Jane let out a defeated noise. "There was a column?"

"Were you in another realm?" Selvig asked eagerly, slipping off his shoes and bending over to pick them up. "See, the universe rotates on a five thousand year cycle and once it's cycled all the worlds align. Now imagine this is our world." He held up his left shoe. "And this is another world." And his right shoe. "So normally they're separate but during the alignment everything is connected. All Nine Realms are passing through each other and gravity, light–"

"–and matter. These wormholes are like the preview to the big event, one giant tunnel through all Nine Realms." Tony finished, eyes bright with panicked realization. The weight expanded until it was crowding his lungs. Somehow he was able to keep talking even as his chest constricted painfully. "We're going to get crushed unless we can stabilize the focal point."

Selvig looked incredibly put out as he dropped his shoes.

"JARVIS, let Brucie Bear know there's a science party he won't want to miss." Tony needed his Science Bro and the Hulk, the former to brainstorm for a solution and the latter to catch Tony, just in case. He liked to err on the side of safe than sorry when it came to portals.

"Yes, Sir."

"What about SHIELD? They'll–" Jane was cut off by the sudden onset of rain, drops drumming against the pavement and the invisible shelter covering the spot where they stood. "Thor." She whispered, a threat issued and a wish granted rolled into one word.

A flash of lightning illuminated the fading twilight, followed by a crash of thunder, then they were less than twenty feet away from the God of Thunder.

Tony shoved down the swell of disappointment.

Jane ran toward Thor, taking the barrier with her and leaving her friends stranded at the mercy of the pelting rain.

Selvig trotted back to the car with his cardigan pulled over his head.

"Typical." Darcy grumbled as she retrieved the forgotten gadget from the steadily forming puddle. She looked up at the sound of a sharp slap, just in time to see Thor's face angled to the side and Jane's hand still raised. "And so's that."

Tony, hair wet and clothes damp, waved off JARVIS' offer of the suit. The moisture felt refreshing on his skin, the coolness washing away some of the unease. "Is it safe now?" He eyed Jane and Thor cautiously, hissing in sympathy when Jane slapped Thor again. "Guess not."

Darcy took a second to assess the situation before declaring with certainty that it should be okay to approach. They jogged over to the pair, just in time to hear the end of Jane's rant.

"–where you left me. I was waiting and then I was crying and then I went out looking for you. You said you were coming back!"

"The Bi-Frost was destroyed." Thor replied, adding hastily when three pairs of eyes glanced down at the still smoking runes on the ground. "It has been repaired with the aid of the Tesseract Friend Tony helped me secure."

Tony wiggled his fingers and quirked a smile. "Happy to help."

"Look at you, still all muscly and everything." Darcy poked at Thor's chest with a hard jab, her version of a slap. Tony knew from experience how protective Darcy could be of her friends, so did a particularly unpleasant barista who complained about the 50% tip Tony had left as cheap. "How's space?"

Thor did not react to Darcy's attempt at intimidation, likely because he hadn't even noticed it. "Space is fine."

"How's the family?" The casually-worded question, combined with a nonchalant tone, was some of Tony's finest acting work. Or so he believed until Darcy nudged his side.

"Subtle." She mouthed.

"Father is heartened by the progress we have made toward establishing peace. Mother is gladden by the time she spends with Loki. And Loki, well, I am pleased to say that one day I will be able to call him brother once more." Thor's wide grin was Tony's only warning before Thor engulfed him in a bear hug. "I thank you, Friend Tony, for the tremendous boon you have gifted to our family."

"No biggie." Tony wheezed, thankful for the lack of an arc reactor in his chest.

Thor must have realized the same thing, for he let go of Tony abruptly. "Where is your charmed light? Loki said you carry it within your chest and it repelled the sway of the scepter. It is unwise to misplace an artifact of importance. Do you require assistance?"

Tony chuckled, feeling touched by the concern and amused by Thor's eagerness. "First, it's called an arc reactor. Second, my rib cage actually isn't an ideal place for it." He pointed at the suit and JARVIS stood taller to best display the arc reactor embedded there. "Third, I got some other cards up my sleeve." He reached for Thor's hand, adding a bit of the Extremis-enhanced strength to his grip and grinning winningly when Thor's eyes widened. "Thanks for the offer though."

There was another set of emotions, unidentified but not unpleasant, spiraling in his gut at the thought that Loki had mentioned him to Thor.

"You are most welcome." Thor replied in a stunned tone.

"Sir, a patrol car is heading in our direction." JARVIS announced. "Estimated arrival is eight minutes."

Jane winced. "That's, um, not good. Are we getting arrested?"

"Is it a real patrol car or is it more of a Men in Black situation?" Darcy pursed her lips. "Wouldn't put it past SHIELD–"

"SHIELD? Has that cowardly organization been giving you trouble?" Thor bellowed, strands of lightning lit up the darkening sky, flooding the entire area in a bright white flash. "I will defend you." Each word was underscored with a boom of thunder.

Jane yelped.

Darcy ducked on instinct.

"This is why I wear sunglasses everywhere I go." Tony grumbled as he rubbed at his eyes, remembering the unrelenting camera flashes and lamenting his lack of proper eyewear. "JARVIS, check on that patrol situation."

"Yes, Sir." The repulsors whined as JARVIS piloted the suit toward the main street. "Also, in the excitement, Dr. Selvig has left the vehicle."

Darcy cursed loudly when she spotted Selvig's, one hand keeping his cardigan pulled over his head and the other waving an antenna, zigzagging across the lot and back into the factory. "Can you stop the rain? I really don't want to chase Erik through a monsoon."  

Thor glanced upward and the clouds cleared in an instant. "Apologies." 

"Erik!" Darcy shouted as she took off after the older man. 

Tony felt like a third wheel. It was clear that Jane and Thor had a lot they needed to talk about but he also wanted to know more about Loki's trial and sentence. "Um, how's space?" He realized too late that he was parroting Darcy’s earlier question. 

"Space is fine." Thor repeated with arched brows before turning to Jane. "As the Convergence approaches, the borders between worlds become blurred–"

Tony interrupted. "–and we get temporary wormholes that jump all over the place–"

"–and I fell in one, landed in a place where time moved differently, then popped back out." Jane summarized neatly.

"Precisely." Thor nodded dumbly. "You know of the Convergence."

"We're scientists, we know everything." Tony winked at Jane, holding out a hand for a high-five, which she gave happily then the smile slid off of her face as her features went lax.

"Ja–" Thor yelled.

Time slowed and sound faded as dark red liquid flowed from Jane's lips, nose, and eyes. Instead of falling to the ground, it defied gravity and rushed toward Tony in twisting torrents. Sentient in its intent. The strands coalesced as they came closer, tips curving and sharp like teeth, a bloody maw to swallow him whole.

Tony watched in a spellbound daze. His lips parted, unsaid words and unasked questions drowned out by the taste of copper, bitter and metallic and ancient. For such a vibrant hue, it felt dark and cold.

Then suddenly it wasn't.

A fire had flickered to life within him, blazing flames burning brighter with every thump of his heart. Shadows receded as a protective heat curled around him, surrounded him like a supportive embrace, and warmed him down to his very core. Tony knew, with an unexpected but not welcome clarity, what he had forgotten.

"I remember you."

"Come find me."

"Tell– Wait no, show me. Less puzzles, more pictures."

A snow storm. Concrete walls. A familiar road. Scorch marks. A shining star.

"I'll be waiting."

Tony blinked, struggling to hold on to the fleeting traces of something important, at the red jaw hesitating above him. It shimmered in the fading light as if it was thinking. He watched, transfixed, as it drifted close mere inches away from his face; like a mouth closing after a yawn instead of the vicious bite it had promised.

Crimson tendrils coiled and looped and weaved, tightening and growing more compact and more solid until a stone, its appearance similar to a garnet if not for the otherworldly red mist surrounding it, coalesced into being.

"–ne!" Thor's voice rushed back in an instant. One heavily muscled arm shot out to catch Jane's limp body and shocked blue eyes snapped between Tony and the glowing gem on the ground.

Chapter Text

Tony chewed on the inside of his cheek, staring at Jane as she was cradled against Thor's chest. He couldn't tell if the small rises and falls were the result of her breathing or his desperate imagination. "Is she...?" 

"She lives." Thor replied, his posture was rigid but his hand cupping Jane's face was gentle. "You have saved another who is dear to my heart."

Tony started at the sheer gratitude in Thor's voice. "I didn't–"

"Your touch drove out the infection within Jane, burning away the illness we had not detected." Thor stated with unshakeable conviction and significant admiration. "This must be what you meant by other cards up your sleeve and why you no longer require the charmed light."

"That's not–" Tony's denial was interrupted when the Iron Man armor landed with a soft thud beside him

"Sir! Are you alright?"

"Um, I think so." Everything felt fine but there was this odd thrumming in his veins and the image of a bunker he never wanted to see again at the forefront of his mind, but none of that was important at this moment. "JARVIS, full scan on Jane."

Thor gave them both a grateful nod. 

"Dr. Foster's vital signs are all within the normal range. No injuries detected." JARVIS reported after a minute that seemed much longer in the silent uncertainty and worry. "Brain wave activity indicates she is waking–"

Jane groaned, her eyes opened briefly before squeezing shut again. "Ugh." 

"–soon."

"I am gladdened to hear your voice, my lady." Thor pressed a kiss against her temple. "How do you feel?"

Jane leaned into Thor's touch with a trusting familiarity that belied the years they spent apart. "Like how I imagine I'd feel after a marathon." Her lucidity and humor eased the knot of worry in Tony's chest. "What happened?"

"There was a strange red liquid within you that has since taken another form after its expulsion. It all happened in the span of a breath." Thor pointed at the gem on the ground.

Something jolted in Tony's mind, questioning Thor's summary and contradicting his own recollection of the events. It had happened rather quickly, hadn't it?

A flash of red. A flare of heat. A series of images.

Siberia.

Forcibly pushing that thought away, Tony eyed the gem and tensed when some of the more jagged edges smoothed out for a more rounded appearance. It seemed alive yet was not living. A tingle ran down his spine at the déjà vu of the thought.

Jane frowned with a sort of determined curiosity. "What is it?"

Thor cleared his throat. "My mother has told us tales of relics that predate the universe itself." There was a faraway look in his eyes and an almost fond curve at the corners of his mouth. "For every dawn, there must be a dusk. The Dark Elves came from the darkness before the birth of life and forged a fearsome weapon from it. The Aether. It is unlike other relics in that it is fluid and ever-changing. It is rumored that the Aether can change matter into dark matter, seeking out host bodies and drawing upon their life force to perform such a task."

"My scans indicate that it is emitting an energy signature very similar to those of the Tesseract and the Scepter." JARVIS added. 

The last thing Earth, and Tony, needed was yet another artifact too powerful to contain and too valuable to resist. "It can't be here."

"I concur. I shall deliver it to Asgard, where our mages will determine its origin and have proper safeguards installed. It will not have another chance to harm you." Thor framed Jane's face with his hands, blue eyes intent and earnest. "And I will return." He vowed.

Jane arched an eyebrow at that promise.

"In as timely a manner as I can manage." Thor amended with a sheepish grin. 

Tony felt a pang of longing – to have someone as an anchor in this world of increasing madness – and ignored it in favor of studying the seemingly inconspicuous stone on the ground and giving his friends some privacy. It had lost some of its vibrancy, the bright red dulling to a muted crimson, but it had also shifted its size and shape several times as if it couldn't quite decide.

A shout snapped him out of his trance and the couple out of their murmuring goodbyes.

"Hey, what's going on? Can we get out of here yet?" Darcy, with Selvig in tow, were standing next to her car. It had not taken her long to corral the older man out of the factory, though the lighthearted episode felt like an eternity ago.

"I'll wait for you in the car and we can go get some dinner." Jane told Tony then gave Thor a brief kiss before heading toward her friends.

"I, I should like to escort Lady Jane to her carriage." Thor shuffled his feet in a manner entirely incongruent with his muscular physique.

"Go." Tony grinned. "JARVIS and I will keep an eye on the, um, Aether here."

"Many thanks." Thor caught up to Jane in two long strides and held out his arm at a right angle, which she promptly accepted by hooking her hand through the crook of his elbow.

*

"Hey, JARVIS. Who was in the patrol car?" Tony asked as he watched Thor cower before Darcy, who was gesticulating wildly in an alarmingly threatening fashion. 

"Officers from Scotland Yard, Sir." JARVIS answered. "They were most willing to leave this matter in our hands once they heard it required both Iron Man and Thor to solve."

"Forebodingly vague, nice!" The A.I. had made impressive strides in the art of subterfuge.

"I learned from the best, Sir."

"Wait, Scotland Yard, you say?" Tony affected a British accent, grinning when he heard JARVIS' imitation of a sigh. Turning his attention back to the stone, he had the strangest feeling that it was bored as he watched it shimmered into a sphere and started spinning. 

"I sense your fascination with Star Wars references have passed."

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." One of Tony's fondest childhood memories was of Edwin Jarvis reading Sherlock Holmes with the homey aroma of warmed milk and freshly baked scones. 

"Elementary." JARVIS replied dryly. 

Tony chuckled, pleased that JARVIS was playing along, then he paused as something occurred to him. "Hang on, how come you haven't nagged me into the suit yet?"

"Historically, Sir, you have disregarded safety protocols. In addition, I doubt a metal suit would provide adequate protection in a situation such as this."

Tony inhaled – he thought of the spinning galaxy, twinkling stars, and exploding warships; he remembered the cold emptiness, the deathly quiet, and the brilliant light; he felt the floating weightlessness, the depleting oxygen, and the gravitational pull – then he exhaled. Air filled and emptied from his lungs normally, his stomach twisted though it did not ache. "Gold-titanium alloy." He chided, the humor thin but present.

"I stand corrected." JARVIS did not sound chastised at all. "Furthermore, I believe it would be easier to execute evasive maneuvers with Sir as the passenger than pilot."

It took a second for Tony to process what the A.I. meant. "Hey! I resent that! I have excellent self-preservation instincts!"

"I know your methods, Sir."

"...well played."

JARVIS bowed with a soft whir of gears.

*

Thor returned shortly with a curious mix of hopefulness and trepidation colored his expression. Darcy must have been quite convincing in the way that she usually was with her words. And her threats. 

Tony wiggled his fingers in greeting then pointed at the Aether. "So, we all agree that touching this is a big no-no." 

"Aye." Thor mimicked the motion, as he tended to do with unfamiliar Midgardian gestures. 

"JARVIS, want to give it a go?" It wasn't Tony's best idea but it was the only viable option at the moment; he reminded himself that JARVIS' data core was safely stored at the tower with multiple backups elsewhere. 

"I can hardly wait, Sir." The Iron Man suit dropped to one knee, a gauntlet hand outstretched and hovering over the stone.

Thor grasped Mjolnir from where he had set it down to catch Jane and readied it in a battle stance, clearly intent on coming to JARVIS' defense should it be required. It warmed Tony's heart and soothed away the hurt left from the memory of Thor choking him as he mourned his A.I. in another timeline.

Tony backed up, removing himself out of immediate reach if the Aether decided to seek another host though he had a sense that it was an unnecessary precaution.

JARVIS initiated a countdown as the gauntleted hand lowered and closed around the stone.

The nothing that happened was the definition of anticlimactic.

Slowly, JARVIS stood and opened the gauntlet with the palm facing upward, the Aether appeared almost black in the bright white light of the repulsor. With its location confirmed, JARVIS curled the metal fingers inward to create a temporary containment cell and detached the gauntlet in a series of clicks. The repulsor whined as it powered down, the sound muffled and the light dimmed. 

A blue glow spilled from the empty socket on the Iron Man suit, illuminating the red and gold as the closed gauntlet was offered to Thor, who accepted it with a nod.

"See you soon, Lightning McQueen." 

"Safe travels, Mr. Odinson."

"Farewell, friends." Thor tilted his face skyward. A second later, the Bi-Frost crashed down in a rainbow-colored rush of light.

Tony rubbed at his eyes, blinking through the floating spots to peer at the smoking rune burnt into the concrete. "Totally should have worn my sunglasses."

*

The officers at Scotland Yard had been most relieved to hear that the supernatural event was handled. The trespassing charge, never pressed and a civil matter, became a non-issue when the owner learned exactly who had been on his property and what had been left behind. The scorched rune was going to be a tourist draw and a business opportunity.

Jane was cleared by the doctors contracted with Stark Industries' London office. Surprisingly, she actually seemed at peace with Thor's departure. Darcy posited that the two slaps had reset her anger meter and yelped when Jane pinched her side. Selvig asked to see the recording from the Iron Man suit, which Tony agreed on the condition that they wait for Bruce.

Tony had declined to be seen, claiming he was fine and would consult his personal physician within the next twelve hours.

"I'm not that kind of doctor." Bruce sighed as they settled into the lounge area of Tony's hotel room, but he placed a hand on Tony's forehead anyway and took Tony's pulse with the other.

*

Takeout containers nearly obscured the entire surface of the coffee table and a holographic display, split into two sections, hovered above. The left panel was the video feed from the Iron man armor, tracking the Aether through its shifts. The right was a blur of data streaming in from various algorithms and analyses, which Darcy scowled at and declared it migraine-inducing before heading off to bed in her own suite.

The scientists traded theories and ran numbers for another couple of hours before calling it a night.

*

"You know, I don't really remember what happened with the Aether and normally that kind of gap in my memory would bug me but it doesn't." Jane said without preamble as Tony walked her to the suite she shared with Darcy. "Is, is that bad? That I'd rather not know?"

"No." Tony replied quietly, fingers tapping sequentially on the door frame. "There are things I've seen that I'd like to forget." The but I can't was unspoken yet heard in the silent hallway. "If you feel okay with it, then it's okay." 

Jane hummed as she leaned in for a quick hug. "Thank you." 

"We'll science more in the morning." Tony returned the embrace readily, the act and affection no longer foreign to him after over a year of friendship. 

"Good night." 

"Night." 

*

Tony's hand trailed along the wallpaper and drummed a steady rhythm as he made his way back to his room. 

Morse code. Unheard reminder. Siberia.

*

Tony woke with his phone digging into his face, his pillow wedged under his side, and his foot resting on the nightstand. 

"Sir, I have received a message from Director Fury. He would like to inform you that he has agents available in the area and is happy to offer any assistance needed in this matter that required Iron Man and Thor to tackle."

Tony grimaced at that bit of unpleasant but not necessarily unexpected news – SHIELD had an office in London and Jane was a person of immense interest.

The World Security Council had been furious at the loss of the Tesseract and the scepter and actively sought to retrieve one or both of these items. With Thor back in Asgard and out of reach, Jane was their best option. Not only was she a prominent scientist in a field that was quickly rising in relevance after aliens poured out of the worm hole in the Manhattan sky, but she also had a romantic history with the Norse god who had demanded the artifacts with threats of war.

"Coffee." Tony grunted as he rubbed a hand across his cheek to smooth out the indentation left there. 

"Dr. Banner has already placed a call with room service, expected delivery is thirty minutes." JARVIS said. "Enough time for a shower, Sir." The Iron Man suit helpfully held out a change of clothes. Another armor had arrived shortly before Tony fell into bed, relieving the one that was missing a gauntlet and sending it back to the tower.

Tony's grin at Bruce's growing comfort to be involved in social situations slid off of his face at JARVIS' suggestion. "Rude!" He scowled as he stomped toward bathroom.

*

"So Fury called and offered some of his agents." Tony said as they gathered for breakfast, snagging a waffle from Bruce's plate just because he could. "I think we should take him up on it. I mean, we'll need manpower for evacuation if things get bad and chances are they'll just show up anyway."

If history were to repeat itself and portals were to open above Greenwich, then civilians and structures would be in jeopardy. It was a bit of a mystery why SHIELD had not been on site during the Convergence in the previous timeline. Tony remembered watching the shaky videos of the battle taken by reckless onlookers, fighter jets disappearing only to reappear in a different location, and not seeing a single SHIELD personnel until the aftermath.

This time, though, it would be different.

Jane frowned. "Well, as long as they don't take my stuff again." SHIELD's confiscation of her equipment in New Mexico had left a negative impression that did not change after Coulson arranged for its return and worsened during the New York invasion. 

"And no nukes." Darcy grumbled. 

Bruce agreed and reached for Tony's hand in a reassuring grasp.

*

The rest of the day passed quickly.

Bruce, Jane, and Selvig were absorbed by calculations and simulations of spatial disturbances, trying to establish a pattern in order to pinpoint the location and timing of the Convergence. Eventually, Bruce and Jane determined the Convergence was set to occur in two days on November 15 while Selvig managed to identify the location as Greenwich, using coordinates of ancient structures as reference.

Darcy was tasked with tracking down where Selvig had left his gravimetric spike prototypes and found them easily enough in Jane's lab. Declaring her mission successful, she went to the hotel spa and warned them to disturb her at their own risk.

Tony spent his time coordinating a support team and clean-up crew with Fury, an endeavor that left him both exhilarated and exhausted. It was supremely satisfying to beat the SHIELD director at his own game but Fury was incapable of negotiating without emotional manipulation, which, while easily spotted and deciphered, also left him feeling drained and in need of another shower.

The hot water felt glorious on his tense muscles and Tony luxuriated in the steam afterward, brushing his teeth and finger-combing his hair with a towel wrapped snugly around his waist. 

Clouds of steam billowed outward when he opened the bathroom door and through the wisps fading in the cooler air, Tony's eyes met a stare that was as intelligent as it was stunning and an unforgettable shade of green.

Chapter Text

The unexpected presence in his room combined with the lack of alert from JARVIS immediately placed Tony on the defensive. His muscles coiled and readied for combat even as his mind recognized the figure standing in front of him as none other than the one person he had been longing to see.

Loki.

The god was clad in his signature green and black armor, metal and leather weaving a tantalizing pattern that spoke status and power.

In comparison, Tony felt decidedly underdressed and unprepared in his loosely knotted towel and nothing else. This was not how he had envisioned their reunion. Not that he had been actively imagining such a thing, more like idle curiosity as to when their paths might cross again and whether it would be on the fields of battle or in the arena of politics. Thanos' name had been circulating among the leaders of elite organizations across the globe, in hushed whispers from those who believed SHIELD's information and quiet scoffs from those who did not. Despite the lack of consensus regarding Thanos' existence and purported plans to conquer the known universe, the governments of the world did agree on the benefits of acquiring more off-world allies.

Tony had hoped that when he saw Loki again, he would either be piloting the Iron Man armor or addressing delegates in a bespoke suit. Something impressive. Not barely a step above naked with wet hair dripping water down his spine.

Loki's lips quirked upward in a teasing smirk as he took in Tony's appearance.

"I showered!" Tony blurted out. His eyes widened in horror as his brain processed the ridiculousness of what he just said. He fidgeted with the towel, adjusting it needlessly for the sake of something to do. Its edges shifted and lifted as Tony tightened it more securely, creating a small flow of air that made his still-damp skin tingle.

With his green eyes glittering with mirth and appreciation, Loki looked decidedly better since the last time they had seen each other, his complexion healthier and his shoulders relaxed. "I can see that." He mouthed silently, his gaze flittered behind Tony in an obvious show of taking in the residual steam in the bathroom, the droplets clinging to the glass shower stall, and the wet footprints on the lush carpet before returning to Tony with intent. 

Tony could feel the touch of Loki's stare as it trailed over his unmarred torso, smooth skin and solid muscle where the arc reactor used to be. He felt a flush spreading from his cheeks, the warmth spreading down his neck and chest and pooling in his abdomen. The heat turned icy when Tony took in the shimmering blur around Loki's lanky frame, combined with the inaudible words and the missing shadow on the carpet, to form only one conclusion.

An illusion.

Tony resolutely refused to consider the other possibility – Loki's ghost paying him one final visit for farewell – because... Because.

Loki's brows furrowed, equal parts confusion and concern, and his mouth curved around the two syllables of Tony's name in a soundless question.

"Quite an accomplishment, Sir." JARVIS' playful tone was jarring in the hushed tension and shattered it quite effectively. "Shall I order a plaque to be made?"

"I–" Tony snapped his jaw shut with a click of his teeth, choosing to keep Loki's visit from JARVIS for now and filing away the knowledge that Loki's illusion was able to bypass JARVIS' scanners for later, which answered the question of why JARVIS didn't warn Tony of a visitor. Not that Tony was worried once he identified his guest as Loki; he knew with the sort of unquestioning faith that belonged to the devout that Loki would not harm JARVIS. "–don't know where you got all this sass, JARVIS." He finished lamely.

JARVIS' answer was a melodious and noncommittal hum.

Tony shrugged, calculatedly casual as he headed toward the pile of crumpled jeans at the foot of the bed. Keeping his gaze forward, he purposefully swung his arms upward in an arc that would have connected with Loki's flank if Loki had been there. When his movement encountered no resistance, Tony felt a strange mixture of disappointment and satisfaction that only happened when he proved himself right but didn't want to be.

The jeans and shirt were wrinkled and relatively clean, salvageable for another day's wear. His need for another shower was more of a mental one anyway, needing the physical sensation of hot water and soapy scrubs to cleanse away the emotional grime of dealing with Fury's manipulation.

Fury had replaced criticism with compliments, trading challenges in Tony's capabilities for confidence in them. Once, Tony would have reveled in the praise and given everything he had for more. No longer. Tony knew too much about SHIELD and too much about himself to be lulled by this synthetic simplicity. SHIELD needed Tony Stark far more than they needed Iron Man.

Loki was still frowning and watching him with a dangerously determined gleam in his eyes when Tony turned back after tugging on the shirt. "Until we meet again." The way Loki exaggerated the movement of his lips, so Tony could make out the words, highlighted the sharpness of his cheekbones and jawline. Then, with a wiggle of those elegantly long fingers, Loki faded from sight like the dissipating wisps of steam.

Tony blinked, feeling an emptiness in his chest that grew more pronounced the longer he stared at the spot where Loki's illusion once stood before shaking off the unwelcome melancholy to pull on a pair of boxers and his jeans. By the time he finished tying the shoelaces on his boots, Tony had managed to redirect his attention to the mystery of Loki's visit rather than dwelling on the incorporeal nature of it.

First, the timing. Tony would be a fool to not see the connection between Loki's reappearance and the impending Convergence. After nearly two years of absence, Loki chose to reestablish contact two days before the Nine Realms would be aligned. Or perhaps Loki did not have a choice in the matter. Tony would like to think that if Loki could, the mage would have found a way to communicate with him before now, unless the terms of his punishment prevented such actions.

Second, the purpose. Tony's fingers tapped absently against his chest, where the arc reactor used to sit and the spot that Loki concentrated on. Thor must have told Loki about the missing charmed light and it made sense, from a tactical perspective, to investigate. Though Loki's attention seemed more intimate than impersonal, more concerned than clinical, and more–

A series of frantic knocking on the door interrupted Tony's thoughts.

"Tony! You have to see this!" Jane called, an edge of frenzied excitement in her voice that matched the almost manic grin on her face when he opened the door. "Look!" She thrusted her patent-pending gadget in his face.

"What am I looking at?" Tony squinted at the screen and the spinning dial.

"These readings!" Jane was practically bouncing while Tony grabbed his phone and slipped on the ear piece as before dragging him out of his room and down the hallway toward the elevator. The incessant beeping from the machine added a sense of urgency to it all. "They correspond to the energy signature of the Bi-Frost! It just landed!"

*

A quick search through satellite imagery located the telltale rune burned into the loading area behind the hotel, thankfully empty as it was past peak business hours. 

"At least it wasn't the lawn." Tony offered weakly to the hotel manager who did not find that tidbit comforting at all and hung up without a word. "JARVIS, get a road crew to come out first thing tomorrow."

"Done, Sir."  

Tony peered back at Jane and Thor, wrapped in a passionate embrace and in a world of their own. Knowing their attention was occupied, he allowed his shoulders to slump as he processed the second wave of disappointment of the day.

When Tony had heard that the Bi-Frost had just landed and the location, his heart soared with a nervous sort of hope. Perhaps Loki had paid him a visit to announce his arrival, it would not be unlike the god to add a bit of drama to his entrance. Perhaps Loki had been in Greenwich in the other timeline but escaped SHIELD's notice and the reporters' cameras via magical means. Perhaps Loki could answer these questions himself and save Tony the trouble.

They had found Thor standing next to the rune, red cloak replaced with one of black, and no one else.

Specifically, no Loki.

The change in Thor's cloak's color renewed the previously dismissed possibility of Loki's visit being one of good-bye. One that Tony still found unacceptable and untrue and unlikely. Loki was capable and cunning, with a wit that could charm or cut in one breath. Despite Tony's earlier assertion that there was no version of this where Loki would come out on top, he knew now that was the exact outcome Loki had hoped for; the god had meant to foil the invasion by announcing his plans and restricting the size of the portal as to stem the flow of Chitauris.

With a brilliant mind skilled in capitalizing loop holes and utilizing every advantage, it was inconceivable that Loki could have fallen in the short span of days since Thor's last visit. When Thor had appeared at the abandoned factory, he spoke of his adopted brother fondly and alluded that Loki was doing well. Tony was content to believe it until proven otherwise; and even then, he might still have his doubts.

"Friend Tony." Thor waved, his other hand joined with Jane's as they made their way toward Tony. "I am heartened to see you well. How is your fire?"

"Hey Thor." Tony clasped a hand on Thor's shoulder in a gesture he had seen Thor exchange with Steve in another timeline, a greeting between warriors. "What fire?"

"The fire you summoned to cure my fair Jane." Thor replied, paying no attention to Tony's protesting squawk.

Jane's brows furrowed. "Fire? I didn't know there was a fire."

"That's because there was no fire." Tony stated emphatically. "I just gave you a high-five." He sent Jane an imploring look, pleading for her to stop this absurdity.

"Your eyes glowed." Thor said simply, though there was nothing simple about his statement.

"Um, what?" Tony gaped.

"After the Aether left Jane and took the form of a gem, your eyes were ablaze with the fire that cauterized the Aether's infection."

"Um, what?" Tony repeated, if only because it seemed just as apt a response as the first time.

"Hey, Tony, hey." Jane said softly, likely sensing the panicked edge in Tony's voice. "Maybe it's fire like, you know, s'mores?" Then she winked, conspiratorially and awkwardly.

Tony considered this possibility, it was unlikely but not impossible for a sudden rush of adrenaline to trigger Extremis' dormant defensive responses. There was no previous data for comparison since life had been fairly calm this past year with no major villains threatening world domination or giant monsters wreaking havoc. Iron Man had gone on a few missions to eradicate remaining Ten Rings cells and retrieve Stark Industries weaponry off of the black market, but nothing quite as exciting as an otherworldly essence that was mercurial in form and nature. "I guess so."

"S'mores?" Thor asked.

"It's a snack sandwich made with graham crackers, roasted marshmallow and chocolate. You'll love it." Tony replied, purposefully misunderstanding the inquiry as he was reluctant and wary to discuss Extremis in the open after all the effort he had gone through to keep Killian's most damaging secrets. Their exposed location was also why he hadn't asked about Loki outright.

Though the media had primarily focused on the Chitauri in their reporting of the New York Incident, Loki's presence in Germany and his subsequent fight against Captain America and Iron Man had garnered a fair amount of publicity. Dr. Schafer gave a compelling interview about the peculiar sensation of having his eyeball scanned by force and the elderly man was lauded as a hero for standing up against an alien tyrant. Even now, nearly two years later, there were still chatters about Loki and his demand for humanity to kneel.

"I look forward to it!" Thor declared cheerfully. "Let us go forth in our quest for these delicate concoctions and celebrate my return."

"Let's." Tony tapped out a text to update the others and invite them to his suite for dinner then led Thor and Jane through the labyrinth of service elevators, taking all possible precautions with SHIELD's intrusive eyes likely observing their every move.

*

"I understand the art of double speak." Thor announced, apropos of nothing, once they were inside Tony's room and JARVIS gave the all-clear for any surveillance attempts.

"O...kay?" Tony said slowly and exchanged a puzzled look with Jane.

"The s'mores you speak of, they are not just sweet treats meant to appease our palates." Thor hummed, thoughtful and careful. "It is also a cover for an advantage you wish to keep secret and I hereby vow that I will not divulge it without your permission lest it brings you harm."

Pleasant surprises were rare in Tony's life and Thor's perceptiveness definitely qualified as one. His reaction must have showed on his face, for Thor hastily explained.

"It has been pointed out to me that my thoughtlessness had frequently caused hardship for others and I should be more careful with my words and recognizing which ones are mine to speak."

Jane seemed equally pleased by this development. "That's great." She brought Thor's hand, still intertwined with hers, up to her lips and brushed a kiss across his knuckles.

There was no doubt as to who had pointed this out to Thor. Tony felt a smile tugging at his lips as he thought of Loki and Thor finally communicating and a surge of relief that if Thor were able to speak of Loki without distress, then it must mean Loki was unharmed. Though a more concrete confirmation would help settle the twisting flutters in his stomach. "Good to hear, Point Break, and thanks for having my back. So, um, you and Loki have been talking, huh?" It wasn't the smoothest of transitions but it would have to do.

"Indeed, our conversations with mother have been most informative." Thor beamed then the grin fell off of his face as he jerked. "Oh, I completely forgot." He grasped Mjolnir and set it down on the carpet, from which a web of lightning sparked outward in a design similar to the runes of the Bi-Frost but with a few more swirls and loops. "Loki had requested I send notice once we are free of prying eyes so he may join us."

The next moment, Loki stepped out of thin air in a shimmer of green. 

Solid, warm, and here.

Tony's body registered as he threw himself forward to pull Loki into a hug that was eighteen months and two near-misses overdue. 

Chapter Text

It took the length of one breath – the scent of leather and books and trees filling his lungs and lingering in his system – for Tony to realize precisely what he had so thoughtlessly done. He just wanted to make sure Loki was really and truly here, especially after having his hopes raised then dashed twice already with Loki first appearing as an illusion then absent at the Bi-Frost landing site.

Tony had thought the worst when he spotted Thor's black cloak; the color traditionally associated with mourning. Fear had coiled deep in his body, taut and twisted.

What if Loki's illusory visit was not one by choice but by necessity? It was not a spell by a talented mage but the only means a spirit had to communicate. Their conversation, if it could even count as one, was one-sided and the scale of effort tilted in Loki's direction. Tony hadn't said a thing to Loki after his initial outburst – I showered – partially out of embarrassment and partially to maintain the shroud of secrecy Loki had thrown over the encounter. If Loki had chosen to conceal his presence, then there must be an excellent reason but instead of an explanation, there were only concerned looks and a silent goodbye.

In another timeline where Tony played gracious host to ungrateful guests, Thor had mentioned a hard-won battle before calling for his Shield-Brothers to gather and celebrate his return. Tony had mentioned this to Loki, inadequate and vague, and hoped it would be of use somehow. What if an attack had been launched and Loki was caught in combat because of Tony's warning? Armed with flimsy foreknowledge that ultimately proved useless if Loki had fallen...

Those were the thought circling above like an ominous cloud, waiting to rain down destruction and flood Tony's world in despair.

So when Tony finally heard Loki's name from Thor's lips and saw the mage himself stepping into reality like the grandest of tricks, Tony reached for Loki like a man stepping into the sun from a life of storms.

Solid, warm, and here.

And tense.

Tony could feel the hard lines of Loki's back, the arched shoulder blades and the stiff spine. The myriad of buckles and straps only added to the overall rigidity and clearly stated that Tony's touch was unwelcome.

Behind him, Jane made an incredulous sound.

And that was his cue to let go.

Tony exhaled and felt the warmth of his own breath against his chin. The puff of air trapped in the space between Tony's face and Loki's shoulder; this was how close they were, with no room for even air to escape. He readied an apology, something witty but sincere, as he commanded his arms to move, however reluctantly.

Only to feel the brush of Loki's fingers hovering at his back, tentatively returning the embrace.

Tony's arm did move then, but instead of dropping open, they tightened and brought him even closer in a wordless encouragement.

All tension drained from Loki's body, he sagged forward and draped his weight over Tony. His hands planted themselves firmly on Tony's back, one between the shoulder blades and the other at the bottom of his spine, and practically pulled Tony into him.

"Hello, Tony." Loki's voice was no more than a whisper but Tony heard every word with how closely they were pressed together and felt the vibrations from where Loki's chin was rested on the top of his head. "I am pleased to see you well."

"Me too." Tony mumbled against the supple leather, feeling his stubbles scratching lightly as he turned to face outward and immediately regretted the move when his eyes caught Jane's bemused stare and Thor's wide grin. His cheeks flamed in embarrassment, though he wasn't sure if it was due to the uncharacteristic display of him initiating physical affection or the slip in his speech. "I mean, um, I am pleased to see you well too."

JARVIS, from the Iron Man armor standing sentry in the room, made a noise that was a mix between a snort and a cough.

"I am pleased to see you both well." Thor boomed, grin growing impossibly wider. "I see now why Loki refused to wait and demanded to check on your welfare at once. Your bond exceeds my expectation."

Loki and Tony stepped back at the same time and turned their attention to Thor, the former with a withering glare and the latter with a perplexed look.

"Thor." Loki rolled his shoulders back and curled his fingers behind his back, a warning in both his posture and word but contradicted by the faint blush along his defined cheekbones.

Tony shoved his hands into his pockets, stilling his fidgeting fingers and affecting an appearance of casual nonchalance.

"I apologize for critiquing your use of spirit travel mere moments before we were set to depart for Midgard." Thor continued, seemingly oblivious if not for the twinkle of mischief in his blue eyes. "I now see the urgency–"

Loki gritted his teeth, the flush now spread to his jaw line. "Thor!"

"–in your decision to ascertain the Man of Iron's wellbeing after I had informed you of his decision to remove the charmed light from his chest. You simply could not wait."

A brief lull of silence then several voices spoke up.

Jane perked up at the mention of fringe science. "Spirit travel? Like astral projection?"

"You were worried about me." Tony said with a significant amount of awe.

"Yes." Loki glanced at Tony then away in a flash of green.

"I am not familiar with that term." Thor frowned.

"That's, um, good." Tony shuffled his feet, watching the pattern his shoes were making on the carpet. "Because I was worried about you." He knew, without seeing, that Loki's eyes had snapped back to him.

"Astral projection is an out-of-body experience where the mind leaves the body–" Jane started.

"I am well." Loki said softly, the rosy tint on his cheeks slightly faded but still present.

Tony arched a brow. "I can see that."

"–but Loki's mind does not leave his body." Thor interrupted with a frown.

"Do you make a habit out of repeating my words?" Loki's lips curved in a smirk at Tony's unintentional reminder of their earlier interaction, both from the same day and months before.

Tony sputtered at that, mind scrambling among the dozen of half-formed responses and coming up with none. So he settled for a complete change in topic instead. "JARVIS, you've been slacking, Loki here was able to sneak right past you." He wagged a chastising finger at the Iron Man armor.

"I meant no offense, JARVIS." Loki shot Tony a pitying look, which Tony returned with a confused shrug. "In my defense, I did not realize I had evaded your sensors." 

"None taken, Mr. Loki." JARVIS replied kindly then the A.I.'s tone became stern as he approached the group in a whir of gears. "Sir, what do you have to say for yourself?"

It was then that Tony realized where he had gone wrong. "I love you, JARVIS."

Jane and Thor had stopped their conversation in favor of listening to the one between the A.I. and his creator. 

"And I am fond of you, Sir. Which is why I take your safety with the utmost seriousness and any security breach must be reviewed and addressed properly." The armor tilted its head disapprovingly. "I've been scanning the security footage for any anomalies since Mr. Odinson announced Mr. Loki's visit and believe I've located the exact moment–"

Tony made a choking noise, the dying sound of defeat and resignation of relentless teasing to come. He peered over at Loki, who had a similar look of forbearing acceptance.

At least they were in this together.

"–which was when Sir proudly declared that he had showered." JARVIS managed to finish with a flourish despite his robotic tone.

Jane snorted disbelievingly, pulling out her phone to text Darcy while giggling.

Thor clapped Tony on the shoulder. "I congratulate you on your cleanliness."

"Thanks, Lightning McQueen." Tony's wince was more from the situation than Thor's strength, when once upon a time, it would have been both. Or perhaps neither, because Tony and Thor had never been on such friendly terms in the other timeline.

"JARVIS, if it would ease your worries, I am not opposed to demonstrating spirit travel for your study."

"I thank you and accept your offer, Mr. Loki."

At that exchange, Tony felt a surge of pride for his A.I. and a rush of fondness toward Loki. There was no doubt that JARVIS was fantastic and charming a god was just another accomplishment on his already impressive resume. Loki's gesture, both in acknowledging the A.I.'s unease and offering to help address it, had placed the mage at the top of Tony's favorites list.

Jane slid her phone back into her pocket and glanced tentatively at Loki. "Can I watch too?" She had made it very clear that she was still upset with Loki for sending the Destroyer to New Mexico but her ire seemed to have faded in the joy of her reunion with Thor and in the name of science.

Something flickered in Loki's expression, surprise morphing to indifference in less than a second. "I suppose." He drawled.

Three soft raps sounded at the door signaling Bruce and Selvig's arrival.

"Me three." Tony winked as he turned to open the door. "And I'll wear pants this time."

"I hate pants." Selvig muttered.

"Do I even want to know?" Bruce asked, instantly wary.

"You weren't wearing pants?" Jane sounded entirely too amused, finger flying over her phone again.

Loki sighed as Thor let out a boisterous laugh.

Darcy practically shoved Bruce and Selvig into the room when she barreled through the door. "I want to know every single pantless detail."

JARVIS emitted a small crackling of static in sympathy as Tony's head fell forward in defeat, connecting with the door and closing it with a click that sounded like the final nail in his mortifying coffin.

*

Tony would have felt bad about leaving Loki to fend off Darcy's incessant and sometimes invasive questions, except if it wasn't Loki, it would be him. So in the interest of preserving his sanity and dignity, Tony hastily extracted himself from the conversation with the very legitimate excuse of updating Rhodey and Pepper of Thor and Loki's return.

Rhodey was still on standby in case War Machine was needed but his commanding officer had not been too pleased with the situation. Despite the happy public front of Iron Man and War Machine working seamlessly with United States Armed Forces, tension simmered behind the scenes. Egos aside, there was a chain of command within the military War Machine was exempt from but Colonel Rhodes was not. The fact that Rhodey would clear, or tried to anyway, his schedule based on a call from Tony had ruffled the feathers on some very territorial birds.

"I'll send the Mark 80s over but I should probably hang around here until the super space tunnel happens." Rhodey had scoffed at Convergence and created his own moniker for the cosmic event. "You know how it is."

Tony did know and had known since Rhodey became the military liaison to Stark Industries. Everyone had multiple roles to play and different agendas to appease or advance. It was how the world worked, in shades of varying gray instead of black and white. "Yeah I know, thanks Honey Bunny." He made an obnoxiously loud kissing sound.

Rhodey hung up without another word.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony thought he saw Loki glancing over but when he looked, Loki was in the middle of an animated retelling of a story that caused Thor to both turn pale with horror and red with mortification, resulting in a truly spectacularly blotchy combination.

*

Pepper was in a Team Iron Man meeting when Tony called, so he left a message with Happy that London was not an advisable destination for a few days and they were going to need more seating and extra turkeys at Thanksgiving.

*

Before rejoining the group, Tony made one more phone call.

To Princess Shuri.

While Mark 80s and SHIELD agents would provide sufficient support for combat situation and civilian evacuation, they would need help in clearing debris and securing structures. Mark 81s, specifically designed for heavy-lifting and weight-bearing, were perfect for these tasks.

Shuri was amendable toward sending fifteen Mark 81s, approximately half of the number stationed at various construction sites spanning across the African continent. With Wakandan technology expediting the construction, they were quite a way ahead of schedule, which allowed for some flexibility in case of disaster relief.

"Thanks again, Your Highness."

"Stop thanking me for your tech."

They both knew that Mark 81s were programmed to only follow pre-approved protocols and properly warded against any outside interference. Tony only asked as a courtesy and Shuri recognized it as such; the ability to read between the lines was one of the many reasons why Tony enjoyed working with her. Shuri understood the nuances of politics better than her brother, dancing across the red tape instead of tearing it up. Not much was known of Wakanda's monarchy and their practices, but Tony hoped the order of succession was based on suitability and not birth order.

*

"So, what did I miss?" Tony strolled back to the group, now hunched over the room service menu with great interest.

"Thor once dressed up as a blushing bride to get his hammer back." Darcy said with an unholy amount of glee.

"Loki was the maid of honor." Jane added, patting Thor on the arm comfortingly.

Bruce scratched at his chin. "There was a chariot pulled by giant cats."

"There is nothing more reassuring than realizing that the world is crazier than you are." Selvig grinned.

Loki smiled angelically.

*

Once the sizeable dinner order had been placed, Thor and Darcy had insisted on ordering three of everything from the children's menu, the mood calmed from the earlier silliness to something a bit quieter.

Thor and Jane claimed the loveseat, his black cloak adding to the suddenly subdued atmosphere. Bruce was sitting cross-legged on the floor, batting at Darcy's feet as she kept trying to tickle him with her toes. Selvig had his eyes closed, his left ankle rested on his right knee, in the armchair.

Tony and Loki stood by the floor-to-ceiling window, looking out at the sparkling lights of another city that never sleeps. Loki's eyes, reflected in the glass, held a faraway look. One that Tony was quite familiar with, full of unpleasant memories and old regrets.

"Did you know Mike's Hard Lemonade comes in fourteen different flavors?" Tony's voice was pitched conspiratorially low. "I had JARVIS order them all."

Loki's distant stare snapped to focus as his face contorted in an outraged scowl. "Fourteen? I literally cannot–"

"I figure we can, like, make a thing out of trying them." Tony craned his head sideways and up, an invitation and a challenge in his smile.

"As long as there is pizza." Loki shrugged, angular shoulders rising and falling into softer lines. His gaze was a warm green, like rustling leaves with rays of sunshine peeking through on a breezy summer afternoon.

Tony's nose twitched as he inhaled, breathing in the scent of leather and books and trees.

Solid, warm, and here.

Chapter Text

The hotel's kitchen promised forty-five minutes for their dinner to be delivered. A shorter estimate than Tony would have thought considering that in addition to Thor and Darcy's triple orders from the children's menu, they had also gotten everything from the standard menu.

Appetizers. Salads. Soups. Entrees. Desserts.

It spoke volumes of the kind of reputation Tony had that the staff didn't hesitate at all when he called in an obscene amount of food and requested a portable banquet table but did sound confused when he declined any alcohol to be added to the tab. The party boy image of Tony Stark was alive and well in Europe and he wasn't sure if it was an advantage or not, though he supposed he would find out in two days' time.

The Convergence was both terrifying and thrilling in the way that only a cosmological event with the potential to collapse the Nine Realms could be. It was, as the cliché went, a once in a lifetime experience. At least for them mere mortals.

Tony wondered, morosely, if Thor and Loki would remember them when the next Convergence came around or would they simply be forgotten like nothing more than a grain of sand in the vast hourglass of time. With a shake of his head to dislodge these unwelcome speculations and useless thoughts, he tried to find a distraction as he peered out the floor-to-ceiling windows, maybe the Big Ben or the London Eye.

All he saw was their reflection, his and Loki's, in the smooth pane of glass.

Loki, with his glowing complexion and healthier frame, actually – annoyingly – looked younger.

Whereas Tony was sure he spotted a gray hair at his right temple despite being in the best shape he had ever been, thanks to Extremis enhancing his biology and erasing all the mistreatments his body had endured both in his youth and Afghanistan.

The comparison didn't help derail Tony's woe is me and my blink-of-an-eye lifespan train of thought. Questioning green eyes sought out brooding brown ones. But Tony averted Loki's gaze, focusing instead on the others in the room and watching as Jane brushed invisible lint off of Thor's shoulder.

"What happened on Asgard, Thor?" She asked, the soft timbre of her voice practically deafening in the silent room.

The couple on the couch immediately had everyone's attention with the exception of Selvig, who appeared to be asleep.

Loki and Tony shifted to face the group and somehow ended up further apart when Loki pivoted outward and moved several steps away. Tony noticed but did not comment, attention focused on Thor and interest piqued. It was clear that something had happened between the two Bi-Frost landings to make Thor switch to a black cloak, a color traditionally associated with mourning though Tony had no idea if Asgard followed the same conventions.

Maybe it was nothing more than a whim or convenience and Tony just read more into a situation than needed.

After all, Thor was still his cheerful self and, as far as Tony could tell, there was no difference in Loki's armor from the night they spent over delicious pizza and cheap drinks eighteen months ago. Save for the fact that it had obviously been laundered and repaired, which, combined with Loki's improved appearance, suggested that he had either been absolved of his part in the Chitauri Invasion or received a more lenient sentence than Thor had feared.

Tony hoped it was the former, Odin had to have acknowledge the overwhelming evidence pointing to Loki's innocence, though the latter was just as likely given what Loki had previously mentioned about the existing bias against him. Either way, it was clear that Thor had kept his promise and spoken up for Loki at the most crucial moment because their interactions had shifted from strained silence to brotherly banter. To be fair, Loki did have the barbaric Asgardian muzzle the last time Tony saw the two brothers but he was sure even if that hadn't been the case, Loki still wouldn't have talked to Thor.

"Yeah, what happened after you guys left?" Bruce asked then made a whooshing sound with a flailing motion of his hands to indicate the Bi-Frost.

"The All-Father–"

"Dr. Banner–"

Thor and Loki started at the same time, both cutting off their sentences to allow the other to continue. After a brief series of tilted heads and eye rolls, an exchange of nonverbal communication that Tony had both seen with Jane and Darcy and been a part of with Rhodey, Thor cleared his throat.

"The All-Father judged Loki innocent of wrongdoing for his part in the Chitauri Invasion, for his actions were of his hand but not his mind." The way Thor slowed down toward the end made Tony think he was quoting Odin word-for-word.

Loki nodded toward Bruce. "Dr. Banner, I wish to express my deepest gratitude for your aid in the matter."

Darcy cleared his throat loudly, narrowing her eyes and planting her hands on her hips in an effort to appear more intimidating from her slouched position with her back against the couch. Somehow, she succeeded.

"I regret the destructions I have wrought upon your town and your persons." Loki spread his arms wide, palms facing up, and bowed before Jane, Darcy, and Selvig with an unmistakable amount of sincerity and an unavoidable flourish. Every move Loki made was distinctively stylish.

"That's as close to an apology as I'm going to get, isn't it?" Jane's wry grin made it clear that her question was rhetorical.

Thor hummed in emphatic agreement.

Selvig let out a loud snore.

Darcy sniffed but waved magnanimously. "So what've you been up to?" She glanced at Tony with an impish smile on her face. "You know, when you're not sneaking up on our Tony when he's not wearing pants."

"I had a towel!" Tony squawked.

Thor frowned. "There is no shame in displaying one's physique when wooing–" He hopped away from the flash of green aimed at his shin without looking. "–I myself used this strategy often when pursuing my fair Jane."

Tony gaped and despite his mouth opening and closing, no sounds came out. He wasn't trying to woo Loki, the entire bathroom situation was an accident! And while Loki had certainly been on his mind over the last year and a half, Tony didn't exactly dwell on those thoughts...not much, anyway.

They only had one night of fragmented conversations pierced together by a rare trust between a trickster and a showman. A handful of hours of desperately needed emotional catharsis prompted by the fact that they were unlikely to meet again and were therefore the best candidates to unload painful truths and fantastical secrets.

That was all. Nothing more. Right?

When JARVIS had sent him Natasha's report on the confrontation between SHIELD and Thor at Stark Tower, Tony had laughed at the absurdity. Natasha had skipped insinuations and gone straight for the verdict of a narcissistic playboy swayed by an egotistical god. It shouldn't be surprising, she never saw past the public persona nor recognized the fact that that Tony had first kept Howard's company afloat then successfully reinvented it as his own. Stark Industries' swift and successful transition from weapons manufacturer to leader in clean energy and medical technology was chronicled and lauded the financial circles, ones she had no hopes of gaining access to. Her faulty conclusion of Loki compromising him was another tally on Black Widow's long list of failures when it came to assessing Iron Man.

Except...Tony had practically memorized the look Loki sent him before returning to Asgard. He had been listening to Loki's words as he drifted off to sleep. He had envisioned their reunion frequently enough to have multiple outfits selected. There were also cases of Mike's Hard Lemonade hidden deep within the tower's wine cellar that would add weight to this previously flimsy theory by an overrate spy.

Tony thought of Loki, missed Loki, and wanted to impress Loki. Although he didn't quite know what to do with this new realization, he found himself unwilling to dispute Thor's assumption of wooing even if it was wrong. Just because he wasn't didn't mean he wouldn't

Darcy winked at Jane. "It definitely worked."

Jane's cheeks flamed and she buried her face against Thor's shoulder.

Thor preened. In his smugness, he did not notice the second flash of green that struck his ankle with far less playfulness than the first.  

"I have been confined to my quarters to repent for my crimes." Loki's voice was raised to be heard over Thor's yelp. The corners of his eyes were pulled tight as his arms crossed defensively over his chest, long fingers pressing hard into the leather on his forearm. "Until sacking of Asgard at the hands of the Dark Elves and their leader, Malekith."

The jovial atmosphere in the room froze, a chill settled over them as Loki summarized the history of the Aether and the First Battle of Svartalfheim.

Nearly five thousand years ago, the Dark Elves had attempted to plunge the Nine Realms back into darkness by dispelling the Aether through the Convergence but had been thwarted by Bor, Odin's father and Thor's grandfather. In the chaos of battle, Malekith had escaped with his lieutenant, Algrim, and a squadron of soldiers though it was widely and wrongfully believed that they had perished. The Aether was hidden away in a location so remote and secure that it eventually became a myth.

"Until I poked it." Jane paled. "Oh, God. None of this would have happened if I hadn't found the Aether."

Thor pulled her closer to him with a hand rubbing soothing circles on her back. "Then Malekith would have only possessed it that much sooner. Do not blame yourself, my lady."

Jane appeared comforted but not convinced.

"Algrim infiltrated Asgard as part of a marauding horde captured by Fandral and Volstagg, he managed to free the other prisoners and set them loose upon the palace as diversion so that he may weaken our defenses from within. Many worthy warriors took their last breath in the midst of battle." Thor swallowed tightly.

Bruce made a sympathetic noise.

"While I was confined to my room like a wayward child." Loki scowled. "I could have lent my magic to distract them."

"It is good that you were." Thor countered.

The glare Loki shot Thor had the intensity of years, centuries, of rage. "How many times had my cheats and tricks saved your sorry hides from enemies?" He snarled. "How dare–"

"Peace, Loki." Thor raised a placating hand. "I only meant that I am glad you kept our mother safe."

"Mother could have handled a few measly intruders herself." Loki's reply was gruff but the anger was gone. "You needn't worry so."

Tony wisely did not point out how Loki neglected to correct Thor's slip of our mother or how Loki referred to the queen as mother instead of All-Mother.

"We do not know that for certain. And as mother says, it's only because I worry over you that–"

"–that you have survived." Loki finished seamlessly.

The two brothers lapsed into a moment of silence, possibly remembering all the times their mother had said that to a reckless Thor and a mischievous Loki.

Darcy raised her hand hesitantly. "What happened next?"

All traces of mirth vanished from Thor's face. "Algrim had disabled the protective shielding surrounding Asgard, thereby granting an army of Dark Elves entrance to Asgard. They laid waste to the city and murdered dozens of Asgardian citizens. I fought as many as I could on my way to the throne room. It was there that I saw father holding Algrim with the tip of Gungnir at the elf's throat–" The dull roar of thunder sounded in the distance as he gripped Mjolnir. "Then they both disappeared."

"What do you mean?" Jane asked softly. "How?"

"From my research, the Dark Elves favor a weapon capable of creating a bomb that, upon detonation, creates a powerful vortex that devours any being or item within range before disappearing from sight." Loki stated. "I believe it is similar to what you Midgardians call a gravitational singularity, or a black hole in colloquial speech."

Tony's first reaction was to launch himself at Loki because science, but he managed to suppress that inappropriate urge for a more appropriate response. Pepper would be proud. "I'm sorry for your loss." Odin's chances of survival, much like everything else pulled into a black hole, were nonexistent.

Bruce echoed the same words Tony had said.

Jane hugged Thor tightly.

Darcy reached over to pat Thor's knee. "Is that why you have a new cloak?"

"Aye. It once belonged to my father. I was most distraught that we could not hold a proper burial for father without– Um." Thor tugged at the heavy fabric. "Mother suggested I honor him in another way."  

Tony shuffled closer to Loki and brushed the side of his arm against Loki's torso, leaning in when green eyes flickered down in surprise. "You okay?" He mouthed. If there was anyone who understood the complicated tangle of emotions associated with losing a father that was larger than life and impossible to please, it would be Tony.

Loki gave a slight nod in response as he pressed against Tony.

"What happened to the Aether?" Bruce was always good at keeping them on track.

Thor grimaced. "Malekith has it in his possession."

Loki straightened and Tony missed his weight instantly. "He will likely attempt his plot once more, to unleash the might of the Aether upon all Nine Realms through the focal point of the Convergence."

"Greenwich." Selvig muttered, having woken up at some point.

"Why give chase when he will be coming to us in two days' time?" Loki grinned viciously.

Tony gave a low and appreciative whistle. "I like the way you think."

"Is that so?" Loki's smirk was all confidence but his eyes told a different story; this was not an attempt at playing coy.

"Yes." Tony answered with absolute certainty and complete honesty. "I really do."

The curve of Loki's lips pulled into something a bit wider and a whole lot softer before opening to reply, only to be interrupted by the sound of three rapid raps at the door.

"Dinner!" Darcy darted to answer it.

Tony immediately pulled Loki into the bedroom and out of the line of sight of the door. Loki was very recognizable in his armor and still considered a person of interest for his acts in Germany, though most of it came in the form of fans declaring their willingness to kneel for their new alien god, it would still be best to keep Loki off of SHIELD's radar. Fury had tried to negotiate keeping the extent of Loki's involvement out of official and unofficial reports for Tony to upgrading SHIELD's aircrafts with repulsor technology. After some back and forth, they settled on Tony optimizing their existing turbine engines and adding another year on his consultant contract instead. JARVIS made sure Fury followed through on his end. In hindsight, he could see why Natasha thought he was compromised.

"How very forward of you, Tony." Loki commented with a playful lilt.

Tony winked. "Well, you've already seen me almost naked, might as well skip dinner."

Instead of flirting back, Loki seemed to wilt as his shoulders slumped and even the emerald of his armor dulled. His voice was a defeated murmur. "I, I am sorry for any discomfort Thor's thoughtless comment has caused you. Please know that I do not think you have any designs toward wooing me–"

"Who said I don't?" Tony blurted out.

"–nor did I plan my visit to–" Loki stilled, green eyes snapping up in surprised hope. "What did you say?" 

Deflection, distractions and denials threatened to spill from his lips, defensive responses developed and honed by a lifetime of disappointments. Tony gritted his teeth and swallowed them down. With a hand pressed against his stomach, fingers clenching at the soft fabric of his shirt, he willed them to stay because he was certain that one wrong word would make Loki shut down and turn away...but he didn't quite know what was the right thing to say. "I, um, I–"

Shouts of alarm sounded from the other room as the Iron Man armor flew through the door and encased Tony in a flurry of gears and plates.

"JARVIS! What–"

Loki assumed a battle stance as the ceiling vent, less than three feet away, popped open.

Clint landed soundlessly before them, bow in hand and arrow notched.

Chapter Text

The first thing that Tony noticed was how seamlessly he and Loki moved together to face down an enemy, like a dance they hadn't choregraphed yet knew every step to, swaying into each other's personal space without hesitation. Though he was right-handed, Tony had his left gauntlet raised, repulsor humming on standby, because Loki, with a pair of daggers that definitely wasn't there a moment ago, had slid into a defensive stance on his right.

Which was the second thing that grabbed Tony's attention. Questions rushed through his mind as he glanced between the way Loki's fingers curled almost gently around the handles and the lines of data streaming through the upper right corner of the head-up display.

Where had the daggers come from? The fit of Loki's armor didn't leave much room to the imagination let alone sharp knives, so Tony's guess was that they were summoned, but how? Was it teleportation of a physical item or a replica crafted by magic? If it was the former, did it mean that Loki was capable of spatial manipulation? If it was the latter, could something that came from nothing influence its surroundings and inflict damage?

Tony wondered what it said about his priorities that an intruder, an assassin, in his hotel room ranked third.

...well, fourth, since he did make a mental note to tease JARVIS about his over-protectiveness.

Actually, fifth because he had also wondered about the status of dinner.

Or maybe his priorities weren't skewed, they were just adjusted correctly based on the situation. After all, this wasn't really an invasion.

It was an inconvenience, an interruption, and an irritation.

Loki had apparently reached the same conclusion, because he waved away the daggers in a flash of emerald.

Tony popped open the face plate. "Stand down, before-"

Thor charged into the room with Mjolnir in hand, denting the door frame in the process.

"-that happens." Tony eyed the specks of paint and splinters of wood littering the carpet with a resigned sort of acceptance.

"Eye of Hawk, what is the meaning of this?" Thor boomed.

Clint's eyes narrowed and his lips twisted into a snarl. "That's what I was going to ask you." He drew the bow, an empty threat. "What's he doing back on Earth instead of rotting away in a space cell?"

"Space cell?" Loki arched an unimpressed eyebrow. "I have not heard my quarters described as such but I suppose it is apt, seeing how I was confined to them as part of my sentence and they are quite spacious."

"You were locked in your room?" Clint growled and aimed at Loki with a steadiness that belied the fury thrumming through his veins and voice. "That's your punishment for terrorizing-"

Tony knew he shouldn't antagonize Clint, shouldn't escalate the situation, but the irony was too delicious to ignore. Even after nearly two years and hundreds of changes, big and small, to ensure he never ended up in the Civil War situation again, Tony still remembered the distressed look on Vision's face when the android recounted how Clint had rescued Wanda from the horrors of house arrest and persuaded her to throw Vision through several floors of concrete with such inspiring words.

"Well, you know, if you want to make amends, you get off your ass." He shrugged, movement calculatedly casual and demonstrably dismissive. "Loki Doki here is doing just that, getting off his very fine ass to make some amends."

It wasn't as though there was a relationship to salvage. Clint had barely managed to hide his hostility toward Tony after Thor and Loki's return to Asgard, full of menacing looks and dark scowls reminiscent of the hateful animosity of another time aboard a floating prison. The same rage that was twisting Clint's features into something monstrous and unrecognizable right now.

Briefly, Tony wondered if Clint's anger had always been there and he had been too blindly eager in building a friendship to notice. Or perhaps there had always been something to punch for an outlet.

"What kind of bullshit is that, Stark? And you really would sleep with anything that moves, wouldn't you?" Clint scoffed, his bow was still raised and the arrow still leveled at Loki's impassive face. "Even a monster."

Loki didn't move a muscle but Tony got the distinct impression that he flinched.

"Enough!" A crackle of electricity accompanied Thor's words. "Lower your weapon before I strike it from your hands."

Green eyes scanned the standard-issued SHIELD bow and arrow. "Let him keep his toys, Thor." Loki drawled while his posture and expression was opposite of the relaxed tone. "They help an otherwise unimpressive man feel some semblance of control."

"You're not sorry at all, are you? You bastard." Clint fumed. "For what you did to me-"

Loki's gaze sharpened into something Tony was painfully familiar with.  

JARVIS referred to it as Tony's self-destruct mode and came up with a protocol to bypass Tony's attempts at interfering with the A.I.'s primary directive. Rhodey knew it as the Wrong Move, having witnessed it many times, though on a lesser scale, from their M.I.T. days. Pepper used to say he was going nuclear until he literally carried a missile into space, now she just shakes her head and sighs. Happy once mumbled Code Cheeseburger before rolling up the divider to tune out Tony's attempts to start a fight and ignore his demands to be taken somewhere, anywhere but inside his own head.

It was the breaking point of bottled up emotions, where facade shattered and the floodgates opened.

It was the elusive threshold that had been crossed and every good thing he had allowed himself to feel and believe he deserved became ammunitions to arm his self-hatred.

It was the moment when all the repressed resentment, at what he had and hadn't done, rushed through the carefully concealed cracks and broke them open until he was a jagged bleeding mess that wanted to drag others down with him while simultaneously pushing them away.

Fear of being alone battling the need for space in a war with no winners.

Hurting others in an effort to both minimize and maximize the pain he felt himself.

A punishment he prompted from another's hand because he hadn't known how to quiet the constant screams of his guilt without the shouts of disappointment from those he loved.

This was going to get ugly. Quickly and horribly.

"Correct. I feel no remorse for what I did to you." Loki said softly and with a serrated edge. "Because I have done nothing to you."

"You messed with my head! You-"

Thor growled. "You know very well what transpired on Midgard was not of Loki's doing."

"-made me kill! You unmade me!" It wasn't clear if Clint meant to shoot or his fingers just slipped but the end result was the same.

The strum of the bowstring echoed in the air as the arrow soared toward Loki, which he caught effortlessly as he had done during the invasion. In a blur of green, he stole into Clint's space and pressed the arrowhead against the archer's throat. "I, too, was unmade. You are not unique in your anger nor are you special in your suffering. You make these claims against me, of me enslaving your will and corrupting your thoughts yet you forget the autonomy I allowed you, the same cruel kindness that I had been gifted by Thanos. You were not a helpless puppet, pulled this way and that by invisible strings. You were an actor, directed by my cues but improvising your own lines and moves."

Clint paled.

Thor frowned.

"Sir, Agent Barton's heartrate has increased." JARVIS supplied helpfully through the suit's speakers. "He also presents other physical symptoms indicative of a panic attack."

The rough sounds of Clint's stuttered breathing echoed in the spacious room, his pupils completely dilated that only a thin rim of blue remained, like his body was violently protesting the very notion of having blue eyes ever again despite it being his natural eye color.

A flutter of awareness skimmed past him and Tony found himself considering Clint's aggression in a new light. Once he did, he cursed himself for not realizing it sooner.

Seeing Loki had triggered Clint's fight-or-flight response.

It explained the frankly idiotic choice of dropping in uninvited and ruining any chance of future cooperation. Tony had been explicitly clear about boundaries during his conversation with Fury, spelling out exactly what that meant to him versus the more ambiguous and flexible definition employed by spies. Of course, he did leave several loopholes for Fury to exploit, partly to see what the Director would do when given the chance to be honorable instead of acting and partly to keep them guessing. One minute Tony was the countering every move and the next he was overlooking an obvious opening. He had specifically demanded no technological interferences with the very real threat that JARVIS would engage in defensive actions by means of extremely prejudice offense but he hadn't said anything about physical surveillance.

Hence Clint hiding in the vents and gathering intelligence about their group dynamic before introducing himself as the leader of the SHIELD team tomorrow.

Fury had undoubtedly sent Clint because Steve's poorly-disguised - though Tony wasn't sure if Steve was even trying to hide it - disapproval and Natasha's failures disqualified them as suitable candidates. Clint was the only one of the Avengers who had no history with Tony other than a shared battle and two group conversations. Perhaps Fury had even considered Clint's history with Loki and hoped to take advantage of any misplaced guilt from Thor.

They hadn't expected Loki to be here.

Now there was a man, a husband and a father, nearing a mental breakdown and one breath away from a hole in his windpipe.

Now there was a god, a friend and maybe more, presenting himself in the worst light possible and one move away another name in his ledger.

Tony stepped out of the armor. 

Loki continued in the same dulcet and dangerous tone. "Oh, you had more control than you let on, just as I did. Our minds were not our own yet we were still capable of thought. Only I used it to foil an invasion and you ignored it thinking it would absolve you-"

"Loki." Tony reached for Loki's hand, the one clenched tightly into a fist at his side. Green eyes widened in surprise then tapered in confusion.

Silence settled over them and instead of an absence of sound, it was the expectation of it.

Tony desperately wished he had a second step for this last-minute plan. "Um."

Darcy's impeccable timing came to the rescue as her voice rang from the other room. "Hey guys, it got really quiet and I don't know if it's because it's all good or like, really bad? Also, Bruce is getting hangry."

"We should go eat." Tony mumbled, shivering a bit as his suddenly sweaty palm grazed over Loki's freezing fingers. Goosebumps lined his arms and he wasn't sure if they were all from the cold.

"Aye." Thor agreed, sending Tony a meaningful look before turning to exit the spacious bathroom. "I will ready a plate for you, Loki."

Loki blinked as if coming back to himself.

Tony understood that sensation well, returning to a tenuous equilibrium after upsetting it with alternating emotional highs and lows. At least he had been able to, hopefully, stop it from cycling and spiraling out of control. "We should go eat." He repeated, a bit louder and clearer.

With a slight nod, Loki pressed the arrow into Clint's lax grip and stepped back.

Clint accepted it without a word and slid it back into his quiver in a purely reflexive move, operating on auto-pilot.

Keeping their hands linked, to ground both himself and Loki, Tony gently pulled Loki away. "JARVIS, make sure Clint leaves the same way he came then do a perimeter sweep."

"Yes, Sir."

*

The food was still steaming when Tony led Loki to the ornate desk in the professional corner as dubbed in the suite description, where Thor had placed a plate piled high with what seemed to be some of everything they had ordered. The bright yellow of the cheese on the burger clashed unappetizingly against the pink of the salmon, both sitting atop a bed of salad and drizzled with some kind of vinaigrette dressing. Through the spinach, Tony caught a glimpse of what was most likely a brownie.

Loki eyed the small mountain of food warily but picked up a fork anyway, fingers curling around the metal with the same delicate balance he had for his daggers.

JARVIS took to the skies from the balcony.

"What did Clint want?" Jane draped a cloth napkin across her lap, settling into her spot next to Thor on the loveseat.

"JARVIS texted us." Bruce offered, reading the question in Tony's expression. "He said you have it under control." He finished the cookie and walked over to the cart for another before resuming his pacing.

Selvig grunted his agreement through a mouthful of sandwich, crumbs catching in his wrinkled shirt from his reclined position in the armchair.

Darcy was sitting cross-legged by the window, a plate of fries and jars of condiments before her, measuring them by careful spoonful. "Thor doesn't have a phone." She mouthed with a roll of her eyes.

"Huh, alright." Tony said after a slight pause, completely thrown by the surge of happiness fluttering in his stomach after the tense encounter in the other room had it twisted in knots. It wasn't the first time his friends demonstrated how much they valued and trusted JARVIS' input but it still caught him off-guard each time.

Everyone was spread out across the suite instead of crowding around the coffee table, thereby not drawing attention to the fact that Loki needed some space after the confrontation and not giving the impression that Loki was isolated. Tony doubted it was a conscious choice or organized plan, which made the considerate gesture all the more meaningful.

Somehow, Tony had ended up with a group of people who were genuinely kind. Yet another thing that dumbfounded him on a daily basis.

"So, what did he want?" Jane asked again, stirring some crushed-up crackers into her bowl of soup.

"What all spies want, our secrety secrets." Tony replied, shaking his head to clear it. "JARVIS is escorting him back to whatever SHIELD hole he crawled out of."

"Well, he's an awful spy." Darcy snorted. "Pretty sure falling through the ceiling is not the way-"

"Mission Impossible." Tony interrupted with a triumphant huff, snagging a corner of the waffle from Loki's plate as his rightful reward.

Loki nudged his plate toward Tony, thereby indicating his tacit agreement for future food-sharing.

Darcy arched an eyebrow. "He was suspended from the ceiling."

Tony chewed thoughtfully. "Good point." When he turned his attention back to their plate, he was horrified by the sight of Loki bastardizing his favorite food by eating the cheeseburger in layers; first the top bun, then the tomato, and now he was scraping the melted cheese off of the patty. Tony retaliated by stealing a piece of bacon.

The mood seemed lighter for a second, like coming up for a breath of air, then it darkened once more.

"The Eye of Hawk also sought vengeance." Thor grimaced. "To collect a debt from one who owes him none."

"Ugh, what the hell?" Darcy dipped a fry with more force than necessary and whined when it bent in half and her fingers landed in the ketchup and mayonnaise concoction she had created. "I thought he knew that Loki was hit with the mind whammy thingy too."

"Aye." Thor growled, though the intimidation effect was lessened significantly by the strings of cheese in his beard. "Yet he fired his weapon all the same."

"I hardly think a few sticks and a string count as a weapon." Loki spoke up, spearing a cherry tomato with his fork and offering it to Tony. 

"He shot you?" Bruce stilled, a half-eaten cookie hovered an inch from his mouth.

Loki shrugged. "He missed, now as I was saying-"

"I think we should cut him some slack." Tony popped the tomato in his mouth.

Darcy stared disbelievingly at him. "Are you seriously defending the asshole who broke into your hotel room and shot at your-" She wiggled her fingers at Loki. "-you know?"

Tony ran a hand over his face, both to scrub away some of the fatigue and to cover the warmth spreading across his cheeks at Darcy's reminder of this undefined and unnamed thing between him and Loki. "I'm pretty sure he had a panic attack when he saw Loki and well, he panicked...and...attacked." He finished lamely.

Everyone looked at him with such incredulity that it bordered on insulting.

Loki cleared his throat. "Well, now that is settled. I should like to point our attention to more pressing matters, such as the alignment of all Nine Realms and a Dark Elf leader who would like to return our worlds to the darkness whence it came."

Tony's eyes narrowed on Loki's chiseled profile. They were nowhere settled on what happened between Loki and Clint and whatever darkness that lurked beneath those bright green eyes but, for now, with the destruction of the known universe in two days, he could wait. 

After all, he had already waited eighteen months.

Chapter Text

The planning session went unexpectedly quickly, with everyone already on the same page about the Convergence and only had the threat Malekith posed to address. Details and directions were worked out between bites of food and clatter of empty dishes piling up. 

Jane and Selvig would be running lead on stabilizing the focal point to prevent the Earth from collapsing under the weight and speed of all Nine Realms passing through. The next step was to fine-tune the gravimetric spikes to create and maintain wormholes in addition to detecting them, thereby making them teleportation devices and an advantage in battle.

For anyone else, it would be an impossible task given the enormity and time constraint but Bruce was confident that they would succeed. JARVIS seconded that opinion and offered any and all assistance needed, ranging from testing to determine effective range and response time to fabricating additional spikes.

Thor and Loki would be focusing on Malekith and his army, respectively. Mjolnir crackled in agreement when Thor declared he would avenge the fallen Asgardians and the All-Father. Loki nodded and said nothing, his stare faraway and brows drawn, lost in what Tony assumed to be memories of Odin - the good and the bad blurred by a lie.

On the last night they spent together, Loki had said he was born Jotun and raised Aesir and that it was a secret not meant to be known. There had been a note of surprise and the beginning of regret in Loki's voice, like he wasn't used to talking that way. Stating facts instead of putting on a show. Open and vulnerable. Hoping for reciprocation but expecting disappointment.

Tony understood that feeling well. Being the Stark prodigy and sole heir meant he was trained to spot fake sympathy and mercenary interests sometimes before people opened their mouths; the way their faces would twist into caricatures of trustworthiness, as if they cared about Tony losing his parents and weren't digging for a piece of gossip to sell to the highest bidder. He learned to give them what they wanted - snappy one-liners good for headlines and soundbites - because it was less depressing to devalue his pain before they could. 

Both of them had been their own version of broken after the invasion, Loki released from the Mind Stone's chains and Tony freed from a frozen suit, with their greatest truths peeking through the split seams and cracked casing of their armors. Those gaps had been repaired but the ability to see into the depth of each other remained, some inexplicable logic dictating what was seen could not be unseen.

Howard, for all his faults, was thankfully and painfully honest about his opinions of Tony. Unmet expectations and the associated disappointment told through cutting words and crinkling stares. Tony never thought he would be grateful for the callous candor of his father but here he was now, thinking how glad he was that Howard was a blunt bastard and trying to catch Loki's averted eyes.

Tony's gaze traced over Loki's form, shoulders pulled back and hands clasped loosely behind his back. A casual pose held with such unnatural rigidity. A silhouette of stillness in a room full of activity. A man on the verge of fight or flight.

Which seemed to be the theme for tonight.

Given that Loki had already gone down the first path with Clint's impromptu visit, Tony was pretty sure that Loki would disappear in a puff of smoke - possibly literally given how Loki had appeared - as soon as the conversation wrapped. The thought sent a shiver of panic up his spine and his feet carried him over to where Loki was standing before he even realized he was moving.

"I'll handle the situation on the ground, my darling Honey Bunny is coming with the Legionnaires and Her Pink Panther Highness is sending a team of Mark 81s our way." Tony's arm went around Loki's back as his hand clasped Loki's upper arm in a reassuring squeeze. The leather was sleek and supple underneath his palm but Loki tensed even more.

"And SHIELD?" Bruce frowned. "Think they'll follow through on their part after what happened tonight?"

Darcy snorted. "Better yet, do we even want them there?"

"Not really but we'll need all hands on deck when the super space tunnel appears." Tony's impeccable memory recalled screaming civilians and demolished buildings as his fingers fiddled with the metal edging on Loki's armor. "Plus, they'll just drop in anyway." At least this time, hopefully, SHIELD would show up when they were most needed.

"What a headache." Jane muttered and buried her face in Thor's chest, her voice was a muffled whine. "Can't someone else deal with them?" She said with a half-hearted whine.

"Actually...yes." Tony's eyes turned calculative, absently noting the way Loki relaxed under his touch and leaning in closer to encourage it. "I think it's time for SHIELD to meet the Pepper Dragon."

It was a nickname that stuck after Darcy saw Pepper's ruthless handling of a reporter who, in one question, both belittled Pepper's intelligence and insulted Tony's character. Of the many similarities Pepper and Darcy shared, their fierce protectiveness of their people was the only one that did not make Tony break out in a cold sweat.

A collective hiss sounded throughout the room, full of gleeful sympathy for those on the receiving end of Pepper's wrath. In this case, one Nicholas Fury, who would soon learn that hell had nothing on the fire from one Virginia Potts.

Natasha's assessment of Tony during the palladium poisoning had not even mentioned Pepper by name, referring to her as the secretary and dismissing her much in the same way the tabloids had. Except Natasha was supposed to be an expert profiler and not an opportunistic gossip trying to sell a story; instead of a dragon, she saw a damsel-in-distress and they would burn for that oversight.

Green eyes slanted downward as a sly brow arched up with interest. "A dragon?" Loki's voice was a startlingly close rumble in Tony's ear.

Tony suddenly became very aware of how the lines of cool metal, hard muscles, and smooth leather were pressed intimately against his side. His pulse jumped at their proximity, when had that happened? The conditioned response to step away was nullified by the instinct to move closer, causing his body to freeze in a moment of conflicting and cancelling desires.

"I'll finally get to see her in action?" Darcy asked with a concerning amount of unholy delight.

Tony snapped to autopilot and defaulted to his standard dorky double finger-guns pose, dropping his hand from Loki's arm in the process though his feet remained rooted to the spot. He could feel the huff of Loki's quiet laughter; the sound, quiet and warm, mixed with the heat of his body and the smell of leather.

"Friend Tony." Thor interrupted with a confused furrow between his brows. "I find myself at a loss with these talks of a honey bunny, a pink panther, and a pepper dragon. Have you somehow acquired a menagerie?"

"Sir has not owned a zoo since his safari-themed thirty-first birthday." JARVIS returned in a gust of the cold night air, just in time to hear Thor's inquiry and answer it with his usual deadpan snark.

"Hey!"

*

With New York only five hours behind London, Tony managed to get a hold of Pepper when she was at the office, which, in turn, meant she was able to call Fury before the end of business hours.

Not that spies kept a nine-to-five schedule or Fury could keep JARVIS out of his phones but Pepper preferred some routines in her life.

Given that Pepper hadn't ended her call with Tony when she asked JARVIS to connect her to Fury, Tony felt entirely justified staying on the line. He felt slightly less justified with his decision to broadcast the call through the Iron Man armor's speakers but quality entertainment was hard to come by these days.

They sat in a circle around JARVIS, still piloting the suit, like children at story time.

Bruce, after some rummaging through his luggage, produced a family-sized bag of Skittles that they shared while listening to Fury pay dearly for his mistake of underestimating Pepper.

"Miss Potts, I was wondering when you'd call to clean up Stark's mess." Fury chuckled, a falsely friendly sound. "Though I thought being a maid is a bit below your paygrade nowadays."

"It is." Pepper replied sweetly. "That's why I called you."

The click of Fury's jaw clenching was almost drowned out by the loud whoop Darcy let out. "I-"

"I've always appreciated your straightforward manner so don't insult me or yourself by beating around the bush. Barton had no business in Tony's room or in the field given the questionable state of his mental health."

Selvig shifted uneasily.

"Agent Barton passed the psych eval." Fury countered, defensive and unaware that Pepper had laid a trap. "SHIELD conducts routine debriefing-"

Bruce snorted at that claim and Tony shook his head at how ridiculously naive Fury just sounded. Routine meant it was predictable and easily cheated for the desired outcome.

Pepper's voice went up a disbelieving octave. "You cannot possibly be suggesting that Barton was in full control of his faculties at the time of the assault, that's-"

Tony wondered if Fury's eye was twitching from the constant interruption. Pepper preferred cordiality but was capable of antagonism when it was needed to rile her opponents up, to get them off-guard and off-beat, and to have them mimic her speech patterns.

"Barton knew exactly what he was doing." Fury cut Pepper off and dug his own grave.

"So he knew what he was doing when he chose open confrontation against Loki instead of calling for backup? How about holding his position to learn more or retreat to pass the news along? SHIELD's standard operating procedures is to openly confront a known threat and endanger-"

"We know Loki isn't a threat." Fury snapped.

Loki scoffed as Thor clapped him on the back proudly.

"Finally something we agree on." Pepper's smirk was an audible one. "Now let's talk-"

"Wait just one-"

"-about what kind of operation you're running-"

"-goddamn minute here!"

Pepper's tone was pure saccharine accommodation and polite condescension. "Take your time, Director."

A tense silence stretched across the room and the phone calls.

Fury had lost. Either he admitted that SHIELD agents regularly took hostile actions with no just cause or he would have to concede that Clint was compromised during the confrontation. Neither was appealing but the former damaged the organization while the latter would only cost him one individual.

As Tony watched Loki sort the candies by color and combination, long pale fingers contrasting starkly with the rainbow of colors, he considered the changed landscape between him and SHIELD.

What had been an open and paved road in a previous timeline was now lined with checkpoints and roadblocks.

While Tony had been tempted to cut all ties with SHIELD, he remained as a consultant for the same reason Natasha had supported the Accords - if he had one hand on the wheel, he could still steer. Unlike Natasha, however, he was not the type to jump ship when the tides changed nor would he abandon the passengers when the waters rose.

SHIELD was going to go down like the Titanic but HYDRA wasn't the iceberg. No, the reason for SHIELD's fall was Captain America and the Black Widow's reckless decision to release all the classified information to the public. How many loyal SHIELD agents drowned in the deluge of data? How many scheming HYDRA operatives escaped on the limited lifeboats? How many seconds did Steve and Natasha spare to consider a second option before they decided it would be all-or-nothing and to sink everyone aboard?

Even back then, Steve hadn't been willing to compromise.

In the previous timeline, only a third of the SHIELD personnel survived the infamous fall. Once an undercover agent's cover was blown, the chances of survival depended entirely on the speed of the extraction. Which never came.

Of those twelve thousand, most were support staff who worked tirelessly in the background and never seen by figureheads who always stood to the front. The people who fetched coffees, made copies, and answered phones. The people who maintained vehicles, reviewed footage, and tended wounds. The people who deserved more than having their livelihood ripped out of their hands because someone else thought theirs were the safest.

An exasperated sigh broke the silence. "Barton is benched." Fury growled.

"For?" Pepper prompted.

"Indefinitely, pending the results of his psych eval-"

Pepper cleared her throat delicately and meaningfully.

"-after the mandatory counseling sessions."

"Excellent. A piece of advice, as one leader to another." People often forgot that Pepper was not only the CEO of a multinational industrial company, but she also thrived in that role. It wasn't handed to her because of her looks or her dating history, as much as the tabloids and their competitors liked to delude themselves. It was a lesson SHIELD and Fury would not soon forget. "Contrary to the popular saying It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, I've always found that it is better to ask for permission because forgiveness isn't always granted no matter how much you beg."

"Noted." The single word was forced through clenched teeth then Fury abruptly ended the call.

Pepper stayed on for a few minutes longer to accept the praises she was due from everyone before saying her goodbyes. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

"That will be all, Ms. Potts."

*

The group scattered soon after.

Thor picked Jane up in a bridal carry as soon as her mouth opened in a yawn and declared his noble intention to see to his lady's comfort and rest.

Darcy whistled loudly and followed them out of Tony's suite, snickering that someone had to keep them from breaking any public decency laws.

Bruce was collecting the dishes and setting them on the room service cart with periodic shakes of his head, alternately baffled by the fact that they had managed to consume the entire order and disgusted by some of the food combinations.

Tony watched Loki and Selvig, standing as far apart as possible while sequestered in the corner. Loki's face was drawn into a look that didn't seem particularly open to disagreement or discussion but Selvig kept talking anyway. JARVIS could easily relay their conversation and while it would soothe his growing concern and increasing curiosity, it wouldn't be right.

And, well, Tony wanted to do right by his friends.

By Loki.

Who was Tony's friend but also maybe more. Who Tony wasn't courting but also wasn't not courting. Who had thrown a sharp glance at Tony like he would a dagger but with a different kind of danger.

The kind that made him stumble over his words like a fool.

The kind that made his blood hum with adventure.

The kind that made him feel safe.

Loki nodded tersely and that seemed to be the end for their conversation. Selvig headed for the door and held it open as Bruce pushed the room service cart through to leave it in the hallway. They left in a chorus of sleep well and good night but Tony felt wide awake, every single nerve ending in his body buzzing with anticipation as Loki approached him with measured steps.

Tony tracked the shift in leather and muscles and felt his throat thicken with so many words that he was unsure what to say.

Luckily, Loki did.

"I believe this belongs to you."

In a shimmer of green, a gauntlet of red and gold appeared. 

Chapter Text

I don't like being handed things.

The default response was caught on his tongue and lingering there like a bad taste or a morning breath. Tony wished he could rinse it out with a bit of mouthwash or a lot of coffee. Contrary to Darcy's teasing and the annoyingly catchy song she had belted out at random times for a month with exaggerated yodeling vocals, Tony had never brushed his teeth with a bottle of whiskey.

To be perfectly honest, Tony had no idea when this particular quirk of his developed.

Was it a product of the relentless teasing he had endured as the Stark heir, supposedly born with a platinum spoon in his mouth and handed everything in life?

Was it a result of too many wild parties where he drank whatever was thrust at him and tried to fill in the blank hours by reviewing the next day's headlines?

Was it a sign of his aversion to responsibility and subpoenas?

Was it a defense mechanism perfected by betrayed trust and broken faith to keep people at arm's length?

Was it a powerplay to always say no first regardless of what was offered?

The real reason was probably somewhere between all of the above but the better question was: Did it matter in the grand scheme of things?

It was one of the takeaways of his therapy sessions with MONDAY and a freeing one. After all, everyone had their preferences and as long as Tony's were not hurting himself or others, there was no harm to carrying on as it was. Learning that it was okay to leave certain stones unturned had made it easier to lift the boulders that were weighing heavily on his mind and heart.

Such as his own self-destructing tendencies to lash out at and push away from the few people who actually cared on a misguided crusade to demonstrate how wrong they had been to stick by his side.

Tony had been teetering on the blade's edge of proving the world wrong and proving himself right, willfully ignoring the irony that it was the same thing - the old debate of whether or not he was a disappointment. Some days, he wanted to do nothing more than to show the world, Howard, that they were wrong to dismiss and discount him, craving the satisfaction of making them eat their words with an obsessive quality. Other days, he only wanted to give up and give in to the internalized and irrefutable fact that he was simply not good enough, needing the struggle for validation to finally be over by admitting defeat.

Then he met Rhodey and Happy and Pepper, people who had good hearts and kind eyes, who believed in him, who made him want to prove them right and himself wrong...

Who didn't have a clue of the kind of messed-up he was because they grew up normal. Normalcy was a privilege that Tony didn't have and couldn't begin to understand but he reached for it all the same, pulling it over himself like a security blanket that was too small and left him shivering.

Pepper's mom liked to show off baby photos. Rhodey's parents always sent snickerdoodle cookies topped with red and green sprinkles at Christmas. Happy had an annual fishing trip with his dad.

Tony offered anecdotes about Jarvis and felt at once like he finally belonged and an imposter. He went through the motions with the rare stubborn determination to see this charade through, because being around these amazing people both soothed and stung but to be without them was a void he knew he wouldn't survive. So he kept up the pretense of being okay, dashing about like a reckless playboy and performing the role of an arrogant genius, all the while shoving down the insecurities with mask after mask.

Even Iron Man had been a mask.

A superhero persona for the not-a-hero man with a childhood filled with high expectations and low self-esteem. A noble cause and respectable distraction for the coward who prefer to invest in outside problems so he wouldn't have to deal with his own. An acceptable reason, excuse, to end a relationship that was always doomed to fail because he and Pepper had never wanted the same thing even when they wanted each other.

Tony, in his usual way of dealing with unpleasant but most likely true things about himself, shoved it into a titanium reinforced box, covered it with caution tape, and buried it deep. Where it would remain until the next time his world shook and the tectonic plates shifted and pushed up things that should never surface.

Siberia was earthshattering in the worst of ways and waking up in New York, in a past he had no interest in repeating, had him reeling from the aftershocks. The last eighteen months had him regaining his footing and finding his balance, in the world, among his friends, and with himself.

There were a few detours and more than a few explosions along the way but Tony eventually grew more comfortable exploring the dark forest of his mind and discerning which monsters to battle and which ones turned out to be just trees.

Damn Jane for linking him to Taylor Swift and introducing him to her music.

MONDAY had been instrumental. She listened and responded but did not ask. The absence of questions was a welcomed comfort because he was so very tired of always having the answers. Even if he had them. Especially if he had them. Because knowledge was no guarantee of success.

As Loki had warned him eighteen months ago. In a throaty murmur that warmed Tony better than the temperature-controlled penthouse, greasy pizza, and cheap drinks. A lingering heat that remained all this time and sparking bright as Tony took the careful presentation of the Iron Man gauntlet hovering above Loki's open palm.

The metal gleamed ruby and gold in a way it hadn't since it came off of the fabrication queue. Each finger had been straightened from their previously closed position to contain the Aether, joints oiled and electrostatic lens cleaned. Someone had been taking good care of it, meticulously so.

Better than Tony had ever treated his armor.

And if Loki showed such consideration for something that was merely an extension of Tony...

Surprised brown eyes snapped up and met dazzling green ones that were slowly dimming from Tony's hesitation.

Acting on a visceral need to keep that brightness in Loki's eyes, Tony reached for the gauntlet with a jerky motion that overshot its target, clasping his fingers around Loki's wrist with the metal wedged uncomfortably under his forearm.

"Thank y-" Tony said in a hoarse and overwhelmed voice that made him grimace and cut himself off. He cleared his throat and tried again, trying and ultimately failing to condense all that he was feeling, all that Loki had done for him, into two words that seemed so inadequate. "Thank you."

Loki's stare was bold but his smile was shy. "The pleasure's all mine."

*

It seemed natural for them to fall back into the same pattern as their first conversation, jumping from topic to topic and following a thread only they knew.

A secret code spoken in plain words.

A language comprised of trailing answers and sudden pauses.

A puzzle without all the pieces and that was half the fun.

*

"You understand him."

"Yeah, I guess I do." There was no antecedent for the him Loki spoke of but Tony instantly knew anyway. "I get where's he's coming from, I mean, it wasn't you but it was your hand holding that scepter." The Winter Soldier's fist pummeling Howard's face and choking his mother flickered across his mind, a fleeting and grainy picture on a screen too small to contain such a tragedy.

Loki tensed, disrupting the comfortable way their bodies had slotted together from their position on the carpet, facing the windows and leaning against the narrow edge of the coffee table that they could have easily rearranged for more space but didn't. 

"I get why he wanted to put an arrow in your face. I shot off Barnes' arm." Tony's shoulders lifted in a tired but accepting shrug, the motion must have communicated something to Loki as the mage's posture relaxed to fit around Tony's once more. "So, you know."

Thanos and the threat he posed were more elusive than concrete, like the boogeyman stories Thor had once believed. It was far easier to point the finger of blame when there was a target. The Maximoffs hated him for nearly a decade because Tony was the CEO of Stark Industries and Clint blamed Loki for the invasion because Loki was enemy the Avengers fought. Hawkeye needed a target he could see.

It made sense even if it wasn't right.

"Another arrow." Loki corrected then clarified at Tony's confused hum. "He had shot me in the face once before." A pause. "It exploded."

"Sorry about that." Tony felt his face spasm, muscles pulling between a wince and a grin. It must have settled on a grin because Loki was looking at him with an answering smirk.

"I had wondered if that was your design. You have a fondness for the ostentatious."

"Takes one to know one, Reindeer Games."

Loki's helmet materialized in a shimmer of green, sitting primly above his head as he nodded in agreement.

*

"You were worried about me." Tony stated with no small amount of smugness. "So worried that you couldn't wait, like, ten minutes."

Loki arched an amused brow but his tone was all seriousness. "I was."

Tony blinked, mental gears switching and grinding at the simple admission. "I'm okay, really. Never better."

"I was led to believe you did not wish to part from your charmed light." Loki sent a pointed look at the spot where the arc reactor used to be. 

The last time they had spoken, Tony had mentioned his reservations toward removing the arc reactor and the risks associated.

"Wasn't my first choice."

The room suddenly got colder and Loki twitched, once, like he had consciously commanded his body to relax to avoid disrupting Tony.

Jotun. Frost giant.

Tony's mind helpfully supplied and he wondered if he could be concerned about the fact he wasn't actually concerned then dismissed it immediately because that was most definitely a downward spiral of nope. Instead, he closed his eyes and visualized the circuitry of his neural pathways; his hands heated as he tightened the grip he had on Loki's wrist. Where he hadn't let go. "But it all worked out."

In hindsight, it was actually quite fortunate that Killian had ripped out the arc reactor. During the Extremis mutation, Tony's internal temperature had reached and exceeded that of an overload and the shrapnel had evaporated instantly. If he had the arc reactor, the new element would have further complicated the situation and most likely culminated in a city-wide blast.

Incredulity brightened the green of Loki's stare, turning it from cold emerald to glittering jade. He tilted his head and squinted at Tony in a way so distinctly feline.

Curious, possessive, and absolutely captivated.

*

"I'm an asshole." Tony said without preamble, par for the course of their conversations. "Thought you should know."

Loki didn't seem surprised. Or bothered. "I am aware."

"That's it?" Tony frowned. There was a careless note in Loki's voice that made him veer into a defensiveness that bordered on combative but he couldn't quite bring himself to follow-through on that impulse. Even though he could feel the same old destructive behaviors rearing their heads, interested in a comeback.

The compulsion to push and goad to find people's breaking points. The urge to give into the worst parts of himself and multiply them by hundreds and thousands. The need to ruin the good things in life because he didn't deserve them and he would prove exactly that.

Despite the familiar pull of his old habits, Tony didn't give in.

MONDAY would be proud.

"Yes." Loki pinned him with a stare that, for a second, turned Tony's entire world to green; like laying on sun-warmed grass and staring up at sheltering trees and their rustling leaves. "I am aware and I do not mind."

"Why?"

"As you said, takes one to know one."

Tony couldn't quite contain the bark of unexpected laughter, the sound tore out of him and rattled loose some of the lingering insecurities.

*

"I do not mourn Odin." Loki's fingers tapped a haphazard rhythm on his leg. "Yet I find myself lamenting his death."

I know. Tony wanted to say but he just laid his head against Loki's shoulder in a silent encouragement for Loki to speak what he couldn't while on Asgard and around those who did mourn the All-Father, because sometimes it wasn't about fixing the problem or commiserating over it. The first implied something was broken when nothing was and the second, however well-meaning, inevitably reeked of comparison.

A competition of who had it worse that had no winners.

So Tony drummed his fingers alongside Loki's, a steady tempo to ground Loki as the conflicted feelings flowed through faltering words paired with a bladed stare and trembling lips.

*

"What did you mean?" Loki whispered. "Earlier."

Tony shifted to his side, facing Loki and close enough to share the same pocket of air. At some point, they had slid down and ended up lying on their backs with the plush carpet minimizing the potential discomforts.

"I wasn't trying to woo you." Tony wrinkled his nose both at the archaic term and to take the sting out of his words. "But I wasn't not trying either."

"Would you try?" Loki’s gaze glittered with hope and want as it slid over Tony slowly. 

Loki's breath stirred Tony's skin, a puff of warmth mixing with the general heat of Loki's body tempting him closer. Tony returned the stare, his whole body buzzing as it grew heavier and hazier. He licked his lips and found Loki tracking the movement. "No."

The softness in Loki's expression vanished in an instant. Though he hadn't moved from their position on the carpet, it was clear he was withdrawing. Green eyes lost their spark and cheekbones grew sharper from his pursed lips.

"I wouldn't try, I'd succeed." With that, Tony surged forward and pressed his mouth against Loki's in a muted apology for his horrible wording and awkward timing. His hands tugged at Loki's armor, closing the remaining inches between them.

For a moment, Loki did nothing.

Then he did everything at once.

Stiff shoulders eased and curved forward as one of Loki's hands cupped Tony's neck and the other snaked around to splay against Tony's lower back, bringing them impossibly closer. Thin lips parted under Tony's fuller ones with a hot and hungry bite, teeth clattering and tongues gliding.

Tony gasped for air as they adjusted the angle to deepen the kiss further and found himself missing the taste of Loki more than he needed oxygen. The pace of their kiss changed when Tony slanted his lips over Loki's once more; it was still hard and hot but without the edge of hurried desperation like it would be their only and last kiss.

It was the first.

Of many.

*

"So, did I succeed or what?" Tony smirked as he nuzzled his beard in Loki's hair, feeling the longer strands getting caught in his shorter ones.

Loki lightly flicked him on the nose then brushed a kiss over the spot with a quiet affirmative to Tony's question.

Tony tilted his face upward and smiled into the curve of Loki's mouth. "Are you my boyfriend?" He asked some time later, lips tingling and mind melting, then immediately recoiled at his juvenile word choice. He was Iron Man and Loki was a god, after all. "Um, no. Companion? Significant other?" He skipped the more obvious choices such as lover or beloved, a sentiment too early for something so new. "Gentleman caller?" His voice broke at the last syllable, because Loki's teeth had found a particularly responsive spot on his neck and worried over it with small nibbles.

"I am no gentleman and neither are you." Loki then set to demonstrate how ungentlemanly he could be with a sharp pull of Tony's hair that angled his head in the other direction to administer the same grazing kiss.

"Fair point." Tony groaned, burying his own hands into the lush wave of black hair. Dimly, he made note of how Loki was taking care to not leave marks behind in a display of consideration that belied his previous statement. "But seriously, what do I call you when they ask?"

Loki sighed, a huff of resigned air against Tony's damp skin that sent shivers down his spine. "They?"

"The world. My friends. Your family." Tony arched a challenging brow. "SHIELD."

"I am-" Loki paused and his eyes narrowed contemplatively, mischievously. "A liaison of Asgard to Midgard."

"That sounds nice and respectable." Tony's eyes glittered with amusement, leaning in to give Loki a truly indecent kiss. "Rhodey would be impressed by-"

"Rhodey?"

"My Platypus, Sour Patch and Honey Bunny." Tony snickered, imagining the exasperated look on his friend's face. The mirth quickly faded when Loki stiffened and paled. "Hey, what's wrong?"

"I do not share." Loki gritted out. "This Honey-"

Tony fought back the blossoming smile, that would definitely send the wrong message. "Rhodey is my best friend and that's it." He pressed a kiss against Loki's jaw line. "I don't like to share either, only child syndrome, it's a thing." Another kiss at the corner of Loki's mouth. "So let's be exclusive." He murmured the words against Loki's lips.

"Exclusive liaisons?" Loki whispered back, tongue darting out to wet his lips and brushing Tony's in the process.

"Perfect."

Chapter Text

Tony woke to JARVIS' voice announcing an incoming call from Fury. "Tell him to leave a message." He groaned with more annoyance than sluggishness, his mind already active and alert but his body refused to rouse on Fury's time table.

"Yes, Sir."

With that confirmation, Tony wiggled until he could stretch his legs out from where they were tangled with Loki's and burrowed deeper into the welcoming warmth of Loki's chest. "Breakfast?" He mumbled against the leather, leaving behind a trail of spit from when he wet his dry lips.

Loki hummed and Tony felt more than heard the sound. "Depends on what you're offering."

Tony's head snapped up at that. It promptly slammed into an unexpecting chin and knocked the flirtatious grin off of Loki's face. Brown eyes met a wincing green glare and Tony offered a sheepish smile in apology before carefully straightening into a sitting position as Loki pushed himself onto his elbows. "What did Fury want?"

"To update you on the agent in charge now that Agent Barton is no longer on active duty." JARVIS reported.

Tony rubbed a hand over his jaw, feeling the stubble tickling his palm. "Please tell me it's not Steve or Natasha."

"No, Sir. Commander Hill will be joining us later this morning."

"Hill, huh?" Tony mused. "Could be worse."

Maria had joined Stark Industries after SHIELD's fall in the original time line. Though her loyalty remained firmly on Fury's side, they worked well together. She was professional and competent, and under that stoic demeanor lay a wry sense of humor that he appreciated. Her summary of the Maximoff twins floated to the top of his thoughts and Tony shook his head at the memory with a chuckle.

He's fast and she's weird.

Without the scepter, HYDRA would be unable to duplicate their experiments and the Maximoffs would likely remain grunt soldiers rather than enhanced weapons. Tony felt the beginning of guilt trying to worm its way in and squashed it down with a decisive push against the floor to propel himself to standing. He was done feeling responsible for the choices of others and beating himself up for the actions out of his control. Pietro and Wanda had joined HYDRA voluntarily, devoting their lives to revenge against a man they had only known by his surname and seen on television.

Before, Tony had blamed himself for Wanda's loss and added her family's names to his list of debts in blood. As his atonement, he had provided her with anything she asked for and everything she hadn't thought to ask. No questions asked and no limits imposed. In that sense, she was a kid, as Steve had been quick to classify her in every situation except on the battlefield.

Now, Tony could clearly see that instead of helping her, he had only enabled her recklessness and fueled her entitlement by cleaning up every one of her messes and saving her from having to face the consequences. No wonder she had thrown a tantrum at being told no and asked to stay in her room.

Vision had told him Wanda's parting words. I can't control their fear, only my own. Which was complete nonsense since her power was literally to induce and manipulate fear.

No Scarlet Witch meant no Ultron - neither the global peacekeeping initiative Tony and Bruce had created nor the genocidal technology singularity - and as an extension, no Vision. Tony let himself feel the pang at that loss but he had long made peace with his decision to send the scepter off-world in order to keep JARVIS safe.

Vision had occupied a space between stranger and friend after the Battle of Sokovia. A familiar voice with an alien appearance. There had been nights where sleep eluded Tony and he sought comfort, however small and fleeting, from the android who did not require rest. All it took was a single question and Vision would be off reciting all the data available, a simulation of what once was that Tony could hide behind for a few moments with his eyes closed.

It did not take long for Vision to catch on and politely, with genuine pity lining his synthetic features, asked Tony to stop because it was not fair to either of them to be compared to or consoled by a ghost. Creating the Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing device had been the logical next step, a way to independently overcome traumatic experiences because Tony simply had no one else.

This time, he had more than he could have ever imagined and would gladly pay the same price of depriving the world of a near indestructible android capable of wielding Mjolnir again if asked.

Was it selfish? Yes, but Tony had never claimed to be selfless.

Steve's accusation of Tony playing a hero was laughable in that Tony had never auditioned for the role. Iron Man was born in a cave of blood and fire. Vanko and Killian held personal grudges specific to Tony. Ultron was a way to alleviate his fears of another alien invasion, a suit of armor around the world Tony and his loved ones inhabited. The Accords proposed a system where he would no longer need to act as his own judge, jury, and executioner for every life he couldn't save because the guilt was crushing and grinding him to dust.

Tony had thought the other Avengers carried the same weight, and that they, like him, wanted an independent panel to objectively review the data and come to an impartial ruling. Someone else to condemn or absolve them for their mistakes because if it were left to Tony, it would be condemnation every single time. He never considered that the others might be of the opposite mindset, believing collateral damage was acceptable and that the safest hands were their own.

"Based on her conversation with Director Fury, the sentiment is mutual." JARVIS supplied helpfully, unwittingly rescuing Tony from yet another trip down memory lane. "She was the only one to express approval of Agent Barton's leave of absence." Though the additional piece of information made Tony consider that perhaps it was a deliberate maneuver after all. The A.I. had long been able to detect changes in Tony's moods.

"Oh?" Loki glanced at the armor although JARVIS' voice was coming through Tony's phone, as if he were addressing a real person.

This display of consideration brought a smile to Tony's face.

"The Avengers-" There was a definite sneer in JARVIS' tone. "-were quite unhappy with the unwarranted suspension and spoke passionately about the need for Agent Barton's expertise in their mission."

Tony snorted and Loki echoed the sentiment.

"And what arduous task are the honorable Captain and clever Spider undertaking that they cannot handle by their heroic selves?" Loki asked, sarcasm as blatantly obvious as his distaste for the two Avengers.

Loki had never been impressed by Steve nor Natasha, overpowering the former easily in Germany and enduring the latter's laughable attempt at interrogation on the helicarrier, and considered them petty annoyances to tolerate in the bid to thwart Thanos' plans. Insignificant parts made great only when combined with others.

As far as Loki was concerned, Steve's only contribution was the decades of good will built up by others in Captain America's name. A valuable currency enabling the super soldier to rally others to his cause, while Steve certainly achieved that, it was at the expense of alienating the rest of the world. Natasha's pragmatism was supposed to balance the more idealistic views of the Avengers, to remind them that bending was preferable to breaking, but she folded too easily herself.

Tony remembered the scowl of exasperated disbelief as Loki lamented overestimating their abilities and had to stifle a chuckle when he noticed its reappearance on Loki's face now.

Loki merely shot Tony a dry look, somehow maintaining an air of regality from his sprawled position on the carpet.

"Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff are en route to Myanmar, where a HYDRA information hub is located." JARVIS paused, as if he was deliberating how to deliver a particularly unpleasant piece of news. "It is the primary storage for mission reports and footage."

Mission Report: December 16th, 1991.

"Is...is it...there?" Tony swallowed, throat suddenly scratchy from dryness.

The other Steve - or Rogers, as Tony had taken to calling him in his sessions with MONDAY to avoid confusion - had learned of Barnes' existence during the HYDRA Uprising that eventually toppled SHIELD and unleashed the flood of classified data. Tony remembered making a quip of how considerate HYDRA was to hold off on their assassination attempts until after the New Year when he told Loki of SHIELD's fate.

Everything was changing and Tony couldn't help but feel overwhelmed and underprepared.

It shouldn't be possible but JARVIS sounded pained when he answered in the affirmative.

Tony closed his eyes but it didn't stop the footage from playing in his mind. It was one thing to know the video of his parents' murder existed but another to know precisely where it was and who would be watching it.

"I can attempt to remove the file-" JARVIS offered.

"No, he deserves to know." Tony croaked. It was better that Steve learned of Barnes' existence now than during the HYDRA Uprising, better that Steve knew what HYDRA had turned his friend into through a video tape than first-hand experience, and better that Steve heard it from his team than from Tony.

Loki rose to his feet in a rustle of leather, pressing his side against Tony's and taking Tony's weight easily when Tony all but slumped against him.

For a minute or so, there was only silence and Tony used this brief window to adjust to the situation. Though just as he felt like he had a grip on it, Loki spoke up.

"Will he extend you the courtesy?"

It took Tony a second to process what Loki meant and once he did, a bitter taste flooded his mouth.

Sometimes my teammates don't tell me things.

Tony remembered the guilt he had felt when Rogers had said that, the shame that he had disappointed Captain America, and the resolve to be more honest with his team in the future. Only to learn later that it was an entirely one-sided arrangement where Steve demanded Tony's truths while keeping a secret that betrayed two generations of Starks.

I didn't know it was him.

"No." Tony laughed mirthlessly. "If he didn't tell me when we were supposedly a team, I doubt he will now." He shrugged, the movement bringing him closer against Loki somehow. "It doesn't matter."

Rogers' betrayal had hurt because there was the expectation of trust that was shattered, but Steve was practically a stranger, albeit one who had frowned rather aggressively at Tony.

Loki hummed softly, the sound vibrating through Tony and easing the tension.

*

The group didn't meet for breakfast that morning, which worked out in Tony's favor since he was still processing what he had learned this morning and his friends deserved more than him putting on a fake smile and pretending everything was okay. Plus, they would see through it immediately anyway.

After spending nearly two years around people who validated and supported him, Tony's once impeccably-kept public mask had been gathering dust on a metaphorical shelf in the back of his mind.

Jane, Bruce, and Selvig wanted to get started on fine-tuning the gravimetric spikes, opting to get something on their way to the lab at Stark Industries' London office. Thor went with them, wanting to see his Lady Jane at work, and Darcy tagged along to keep the number of fried electronics at a minimum.

"No need to thank me." Darcy sang over the speakers and was clearly referring to something more than saving Tony the trouble of replacing toasters, microwaves, and computers.

Tony just laughed and promised to keep them posted on his meeting with Maria. She wasn't exactly wrong anyway, he did want to spend more time with Loki. 

*

To her credit, Maria only pursed her lips into a flat line when she saw Loki standing in the corner of Tony's suite. "Stark." Her back was ramrod straight, a habit from her days in the Air Force, as she walked into the room with a tablet tucked under her arm.

"Hill." Tony nudged the door closed with his knee and taking care not to spill the coffee in his hand. 

"Commander." Loki bowed with a flourish that bordered on mocking. 

"Loki." A tense silence stretched between them before Maria sighed, shoulders dropping slightly as she gave up whatever power play she had been instructed to run. "What is your role in all of this?" She waved a vague hand at the ceiling. 

"I am a liaison of Asgard to Midgard, facilitating relations between our realms to a mutually beneficial end." 

Tony stifled a snort at Loki's overly earnest expression.  

Maria looked both unconvinced of the answer and uncertain if she wanted to pursue this further, she settled on the latter with a resigned nod. "Yeah, sure." She turned toward Tony, holding out the tablet the same way she would offer a handshake, steady and all-business. "Let's talk." On the screen was a map of Greenwich. 

"Let's." Tony sidestepped her and snapped his fingers for JARVIS to bring up a three-dimensional hologram of the area. "And I don't like being handed things." He took a sip of his coffee and made sure to catch Loki's eyes, a bit softer and greener than a moment ago, before sighing in blissful satisfaction.

Loki had prepared Tony's coffee when the room service cart arrived while Tony was in the shower. Though Loki had denied using magic, Tony was pretty sure sorcery must be involved somehow because it was simply the best he had ever tasted. A part of him wanted to save a sample so he could reverse-engineer it later but that would require an immense amount of self-control that he simply didn't have when it came to coffee. Loki looked pleased and a bit off-guard at Tony's rather passionate response to his drink - there might have been a few moans and groans as Tony rolled the flavor over his tongue - and promised to make Tony as many as he wanted. 

Maria gaped the glittering display with wonder. "Can I..." She raised a hand, her finger hovering over one of the intersections leading to the Royal Naval College.

"Knock yourself out." Tony shrugged and hid his pleased grin behind the brim of his mug. She had the same reaction when she first joined Stark Industries, it was a nice reminder that some things could and did stay the same.

Maria tapped at the intersection and her eyebrows lifted into an impressed arc when the spot lit up and a drop-down menu appeared with the selections of defense, evacuation, and medical. "Nice interface."

"Thank you, Commander Hill." JARVIS replied. "Would you like to set up a color-coded system?"

"That would be great." Maria paused for a beat, visibly resisting the urge to glance up at the ceiling. "Thank you, JARVIS."

Tony felt his breath catch at those three words, the acknowledgement and appreciation of JARVIS' presence. Normally, he wouldn't have been affected by something so small but he was already feeling off-kilter from earlier and finding himself wandering down memory lane.

But there wasn't anyone else in the building.

Maria had said that after Ultron came online, carelessly unaware of the one being who was always present but never seen.

Tony shivered as he remembered the fragmented remains of JARVIS' code, the A.I.'s consciousness.

Across the room, Loki tilted his head in question and the warm concern on his face chased away some of the chill.

"I'm okay." Tony mouthed before draining the rest of his coffee - how was it possible that it was even more amazing when cold? - in one gulp, then he raised the empty cup and gave Loki his best pout, the one that still worked on Rhodey even after two decades. 

A flash of amused emerald as Loki rolled his eyes. 

Tony's mouth fell open at the fragrant aroma drifting upward as his coffee mug refilled itself, his eyes comically wide as he stared at Loki in vindication.

"Magic." Loki mouthed back.

Chapter Text

The planning session took just under two hours.

Loki was helpful, exceedingly so. Tony was pretty sure Loki was doing it for the sole purpose of making Maria question her sanity. Her left eye twitched each time he asked if he could offer a small suggestion with great politeness.

Tony and Maria had established an easy working relationship that clearly surprised her while he had expected, engineered, it. After all, Tony had worked with her in other timeline and knew enough of her personality and preferences. His references were sprinkled in at just the right moments to lighten the mood without being too outrageous. Any detours from the main topic quickly circled back to illustrate another point. And of course, he never brought up the Avengers.

It was immediately apparent that Maria had been sent as both an appeasement from Fury and a last resort; her rank was higher than Clint's and she was the only one remaining from Tony's interaction with SHIELD on the helicarrier. Natasha had struck out quite spectacularly earlier on and Fury had enough sense to know that Tony was not blinded by the shine of Captain America's shield. Clint, well, everyone knew how well that encounter had gone.

Maria was, as Fury had implied and Pepper had deflected beautifully, the maid.

However, it was one thing to know and another to speak of it.

In another lifetime, Tony might have made a joke that would have sounded more insulting than amusing. Because he wasn't good with people and especially people he wanted to, tried to, impress. Because he couldn't bear the thought of being seen and not heard, a lingering childhood fear. Because he didn't like how SHIELD had kept him at arm's length while shaking hands with newcomers and knocking them down a peg might bring them closer.

Now, he knew more of himself. And he knew better about others' motivations and manipulations. Most importantly, he knew enough of them to throw in his own twists and turns.

Maria had been and would be an asset, someone who wouldn't necessarily be working for Tony because her flag was firmly planted in Fury's camp but someone he could work with and that was good enough.

Though it was rather concerning how many SHIELD agents seemed to have a strong aversion to compromise and an almost pathological sense of allegiance toward an agency that dealt in subterfuge and secrets. 

"I think we're done here." Maria tucked her tablet under her arm as she stood, taking a deep breath to steady herself for what would surely be another bout of impeccable manners from Loki.

"I concur, Commander. May I have the honor of escorting you to the door?" Loki stood as well, like the perfect gentleman he was.

Tony did not because he was a heathen.

A pained look flitted across Maria's face, as though Loki had asked if she would like to hand over her kidney instead of offering to see her out. "No, thank you." She said through gritted teeth then she paused. "Hey, um, why Greenwich?"

"Huh." Tony picked up his coffee cup and cradled it close as it magically refilled itself for the fifth time. He was at a loss. There were lists of formulas, calculations and data and none of them were his to claim because he had shied away from discovery and exploration of the unknown. The futurist had gone from pushing the boundaries to staying well within the moment he woke up in the past and was terrified of looking too close at this beautiful miracle lest it turned out to be a disappointing mirage.

Siberia.

His fingers had been tapping out the Morse code for the one place Tony did not want to return to and he was afraid, terrified, of what it could mean. So much so that he hadn't even mentioned to anyone, including Loki during their conversations last night, because hiding it from everyone around him made it easier to hide it from himself. Though it was possible that JARVIS had picked up on the rhythm, but the A.I. had said nothing so far.

"It is the center of time and space of your realm." It was Loki who answered in a cryptic and all-knowing drawl.

"Yeah, what he said." Tony shrugged as he lifted the cup to his lips, needing the warm liquid to chase away the chill building in his bones.

Maria's brows furrowed in confusion. "Is that some Asgardian myth or-"

"Commander Hill." JARVIS interrupted. "I believe Mr. Loki is being quite literal, actually. Greenwich Mean Time was how the world once determined its clocks and Greenwich the city was given the longitude of zero degrees. It is the center of time and space, for all intents and purposes."

"And what he said, or just, what they said. Yep." Tony glanced at Loki, who was still standing because apparently it was rude to sit while a lady stood, then the Iron Man suit, which was the closest representation of JARVIS. The swell of affection for the mage and the surge of his pride for his A.I. was almost enough to muffle the drumming beat that spelled his own version of hell.

Siberia.

"Well, that makes sense." Maria nodded to herself. "I'll see you tomorrow at the Convergence, the teams will be in place first thing in the morning."

"I look forward to working side-by-side with a capable and competent leader." There was a twinkle in Loki's eyes, a glittering of mischief of what was said and a glint of disdain for what was unsaid. A compliment for Maria and a criticism of the others.

"Wouldn't miss it for the worlds." Tony winked. "All nine of them."

Maria rolled her eyes. "It wasn't funny the first time you said it."

"Sir aspires to put the pun in punishment." JARVIS intoned. "And he usually succeeds in his endeavors."

Tony decided then and there to have JARVIS look into the matter of SHIELD's interoffice relations and protocols. The A.I. was clearly asking for more responsibility with his snarky one-liners and Tony was never one to deny JARVIS whatever his robotic heart wanted.

"I've no doubt." Maria's smirk was almost approaching a smile as she bid them good-bye and saw herself out.

*

"You are troubled." Loki commented as he gently removed the coffee cup from Tony's hands and interlaced his fingers with Tony's.

Tony blew out a breath. "That's not a very nice thing to say about your exclusive liaison." His attempt to divert the conversation sounded half-hearted to his ears and was undoubtedly transparent before Loki's too perceptive eyes. He didn't want to talk about it, to acknowledge it, to make it real but as he met Loki's understanding stare, the pressure on his chest eased.

"I'm not very nice." Loki replied matter-of-factly, though the reassuring squeeze that he gave belied his own statement.

"Hm." Tony said, glancing down at their intertwined fingers before sweeping his gaze up toward the ceiling. He wasn't sure how long he spent studying the paint and trying to name the color. It was a cold sort of white, like snow falling from the sky in a soundless burial.

Siberia.

Loki's hand provided a grounding point and eventually, Tony found his voice.

It took him less than a minute to tell Loki what was bothering him, which seemed a bit anticlimactic given how much the situation had weighed on him.

Tony talked about his body's unconscious cues directing him to Siberia and the mysterious pull toward...something he didn't know but maybe would have the answer for if he followed the signs. Except he would rather bury his head in the blissful sand and hide in ignorance if that meant he could hold on to all the precious people he now had in his life.

Going to Siberia had changed everything once before and Tony had no reason to think history would not repeat itself.

This time he had even more to lose and-

"Sir, you're doing it again." JARVIS interrupted the heavy silence that draped over them since Tony's revelation.

Tony's eyes snapped down to his hands, held within Loki's, and sure enough, his left index and middle fingers were twitching rhythmically against the back of Loki's hand. His entire world narrowed to those small and constrained movements.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap. Tap.

Press. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap.

Tap. Press. Tap.

Tap. Tap.

Tap. Press.

Siberia.

"Damn it." Tony sighed. "I don't really have a choice here, do I? " His traitorous fingers continued to tap. "I really hate Siberia, nothing good ever-" He trailed off when he realized the pattern had shifted.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap. Press.

Tap. Tap. Press. Tap.

Tap.

Safe.

Loki noticed the change as well and looked questioningly to Tony for a translation.

"Safe." JARVIS relayed the message, sounding supremely unconvinced.

"I'm not really reassured." Tony echoed that sentiment. "Considering whatever is in Siberia is sending me messages through my own body." He glared at a random spot on the ceiling. "Not cool!"

"I must confess I'm rather curious about this development. Would you mind if I accompany you to this Siberia?" Loki asked as he studied the steady beats. 

Safe. Safe. Safe.

"What?" At that, Tony's fingers stilled, as did the rest of him.

Loki continued on as if he hadn't heard, business-like and matter-of-fact. "Furthermore, I believe investigating strange forces falls under my purview as the Asgardian liaison to Midgard, so it would be remiss of me to not pursue this."

Tony knew what Loki was doing because it was a technique he had frequently used in the past. The subtle art of offering help without making the other party, prideful and stubborn, feel indebted by presenting it as a favor asked or a duty required.

In retrospect, it was probably why the Avengers had felt entitled to his resources and time. Why would they feel any gratitude toward Tony when Tony was the one who needed to atone for his days as the Merchant of Death or wanted to secure his spot on the team by fulfilling his consulting responsibilities?

The ease with which Loki employed these skills, though, made Tony's heart clench at the thought of just how much practice the mage had had over his considerably longer life.

"Exclusive- Exclusive liaisons." Tony's voice cracked with hopeful disbelief, rending his attempt at levity flat.

Loki made no comment at Tony's stuttering words but his expression softened into something less professional and more tender. "We will go at once after Malekith is defeated and face what haunts you together. Agreed?"

Tony nodded slowly, chewing on his bottom lip and taking a moment to order his jumbled thoughts. He had considered investigating the issue but then dreaded the thought of going alone. It was true that JARVIS would be with him every step of the way but so had FRIDAY.

With Loki, though, it could be different.

Better.

Loki seemed to take his pause as hesitation. "Tony?"

"Yes." Tony said, filling the single word with conviction and pushing himself up into Loki's personal space. "Let's go find whoever or whatever's been nagging at me. Together."

*

Darcy called around lunch time to let them know that Thor was enjoying the cafeteria at Stark Industries immensely. The hashtag #Thorsday was already trending at the number one spot with various employees gathering together for selfies comparing their lunches to Thor's.

Jane, Bruce and Selvig were able to make significant progress with the advanced equipment available at the lab. The updated prototype was being fabricated and once testing proved successful, JARVIS would start full-scale production.

Tony and Loki ordered room service again and while they were waiting, Tony pulled up some of the proposals from the more promising participants of the Team Iron Man program. Harley and Peter, of course, were among them.

"This is the boy who once provided you shelter and support?" Loki inquired as he looked over Harley's latest science fair entry. Harley had submitted a potato gun prototype, one that Tony had given the same advice on before.

Barrell’s a little long, between that and the wide gage, it’s going to diminish your FPS.

"Yep." Tony pulled up another photo of Harley and his sister, both decked out in Team Iron Man gear and beaming at the camera at the science fair. "Bright kid, good heart."

They had chatted about a dozen times since Tony's last visit to Roseville, usually just chatting about whatever came to mind but sometimes they would bounce ideas off of each other. Tony made an effort to connect with other kids in the Team Iron Man program at least once a quarter, though he definitely had his favorite few.

Peter, like Harley, was one of them.

"He was bitten by a spider and gained its powers." Loki eyed Peter's school photo with plain skepticism.

"A genetically altered spider." Tony added, though it really didn't explain much. "I'm guessing it'll happen in about two years, based on what he told me when I met him."

I've been me my whole life, and I've had these powers for six months.

Loki hummed in acknowledgement.

"I'm not sure if this world needs Spiderman." Tony scrolled to a photo of Peter with his aunt and uncle, the three of them holding a trophy from a math competition. "He's just a kid."

When you can do the things that I can, but you don't...and then the bad things happen. They happen because of you.

Peter was a kid in the way Wanda never was.

Innocent. Kind. Loyal.

Tony knew he wasn't being fair to Wanda but it didn't make the comparison any less true. Wanda had fought in wars where collateral damage was considered acceptable whereas Peter was, as he said himself, a friendly neighborhood Spiderman, interested in improving the quality of life for those around him.

Maybe it was the context in which they gained their powers, Wanda sought it out eagerly while Peter came upon his by accident. Or maybe it was the difference in their respective motivations; one wanted revenge and the other was dedicated to responsibility. Or maybe it was the approach they took to their superhero persona, Wanda never hid her identity as the Scarlet Witch and Peter did everything he could, albeit poorly, to keep Spiderman a secret.

Ultimately, it didn't particularly matter because neither of them should have been risking their lives yet they had during the Civil War disaster. That was perhaps the real tragedy. One that Tony hoped to prevent.

"He's just a kid." Tony sighed, the words unbearably heavy.

"It is not your choice to make." Loki said, stating it like a fact and not a reprimand, which was far more effective than if it had been the other way around. "But you already know that."

Tony closed the holographic display with a resigned clap. "Yeah, I do."

*

The rest of the day seemed to pass at contradictory rate, both quickly because one could never have enough time to prepare for an inter-realm cosmic event and slowly because that was what time tended to do when one was waiting.

Tony and Loki had a few hours before the rest of the group returned, they spent it exchanging soft kisses and quiet words. Despite his frost giant lineage, Loki's body was warm and Tony simply wanted to wrap himself in Loki's embrace and forget what awaited them in Siberia.

Loki welcomed the physical gesture and enveloped Tony in a hug that never quite ended because Loki simply didn't let go. Which was how Jane, Thor, Bruce, Darcy and Selvig found them, curled up together on the floor and playing holographic Tetris.  

There was the expected teasing from Darcy and even a wink from Bruce. Thor immediately asked Jane to join him on the loveseat, the ideal spectators' post to observe this impressive battle of wits between Loki and Tony.

Selvig all but collapsed into the arm chair and declared he hadn't worked that hard in years but seemed quite pleased about it. The upgraded gravimetric spikes worked beautifully in the simulations JARVIS created and they would offset the Convergence portals tomorrow.

Tomorrow, the Nine Realms would be connected.

Tomorrow, they would defend Earth once again but not as the Avengers.

Tomorrow, Tony would go to Siberia. 

Chapter Text

Tony wasn't aware of falling asleep until he blinked awake. Immediately, he noticed the difference; the faint and nagging sensation that he had forgotten something was gone. It seemed that the decision to go to Siberia was the right one, at least for now.

Rolling over to his side, Tony propped himself up on an elbow and found himself staring into Loki's slumbering face. They had fallen asleep on the floor, cocooned with throw pillows and the comforter pulled from the king-sized bed. Neither of them had wanted to relocate to the bedroom last night, opting to remain where they were.

Tony watched Loki for a moment, the god's chiseled cheekbones lit in the beginning of morning light slowly peeking in through the curtains, and was struck by the sudden awareness that Loki was here and real in a way Tony hadn't noticed before.

Probably because in the two nights they had spent together, Loki had always been the one to wake first.

Asleep, Loki looked innocent and young even though Tony knew very well that Loki was not. Which was alright, because neither was Tony.

They matched, jagged edges snagging and connecting in a way that seldom happened outside of over-romanticized dramas. And unlike those, Tony didn't mind keeping the pace of his relationship - which, despite the rather clever name they had come up with, was a relationship - slow. He couldn't quite remember the last time he had waited, to kiss for the sake of kissing instead of it being a prelude for something else.

Even with Pepper, and how he had loved her, there had been a sense of a countdown. Seconds and minutes and hours had ticked away with every pump of his heart; reminders that he had to make the most of it before it all came crashing down, memorizing the way her body moved against his and cataloging the way her voice curled around his name in preparation for the day he would no longer have access to any of it.

The fact that they had managed to salvage their friendship still stunned him, humbled him, and brought him to his knees to give thanks to whatever mystical forces saw fit to let him keep Pepper.

Loki was different. Not better or worse, just different. It wouldn't have been fair to compare them anyway. Tony couldn't remember the last time he had kissed someone like that, or had anyone kiss him like that. A simmering warmth that tingled down his spine and coiled in his belly, heating him from the inside without the burning urgency of now or never.

When Loki's fingers trailed along the stubble of his jaw, Tony didn't try to draw one into his mouth to charge up the moment. When Loki pulled Tony onto his lap, Tony didn't roll his hips to work them both into a frenzy. When Loki pressed against him as they shifted to find a comfortable position, Tony didn't grind back to make their breaths catch.

It wasn't to say Tony didn't want to but more that he simply didn't need to. It was a luxury he was unfamiliar with but growing to enjoy.

With some reluctance and surprise that Loki didn't wake from the movements, Tony extracted himself from their make-shift bundle on the carpet and made his way to the bathroom.

After relieving himself and freshening up a bit with a quick splash of water and rinse of mouthwash, Tony padded back into the main area to be greeted by the elegant line of Loki's back as the god stood with effortless grace. The effect was accentuated by the green glimmer washing away the creases in the leather armor and leaving Loki looking impeccable.

Tony pulled at his wrinkled shirt and promptly gave up when he realized it was a lost cause. "Morning." He called out as he ran a hand through his hair.

"So it is." Loki peered at Tony through the curtain of dark hair, green eyes glittering and challenging.

Tony heaved an exaggerated sigh as he picked up his empty coffee cup from yesterday. There was some residue on the bottom, a reminder of the literally magical coffee. Immediately, his taste buds demanded more and the corners of his mouth pulled down dejectedly. "I'd say good morning but I haven't had my coffee yet."

"The fragility of mortals and their reliance on brewed drinks." Loki's words might sound mocking but his tone was a teasing one. "Here." He said with an air of great benevolence as he flicked his finger at the coffee cup.

It filled with the aromatic drink and Tony gulped it down greedily, internally marveling at how even the temperature was just right - hot enough for the coffee to be savory but cool enough to not burn his mouth. "Now it's a good morning." He glanced over at Loki with a fond grin. "Good morning, Loki."

Loki smiled in return. "And a good morning to you, Tony. We have got quite the day ahead of us."

Tony hummed and considered the day's agenda: thwart a Dark Elf leader bent on sending all Nine Realms into darkness, avert the effects of a cosmic event that could jeopardize Earth's stability, and confront both his personal trauma and a mysterious force in Siberia. "I'm going to need more coffee." He groaned and looked up at Loki through his eyelashes, batting them a few times for the maximum effect.

"The fragility of mortals." Loki shook his head but indulged Tony anyway as the cup bubbled and refilled itself.

A beat of silence as Tony sipped at his second cup, watching Loki over the brim and noting that the god's expression had turned more somber than the previously playfulness. Tony had a pretty good guess as to what brought on the shift. "You know, I'm not really that fragile."

"Still mortal." Loki countered, a note of regret in his voice.

Tony could only nod in acknowledgement of that fact.

Jane had talked about the cognitive dissonance of being involved with Thor, the dichotomy of knowing the difference between their lifespans and hoping to spend forever together anyway. They had a robust scientific discussion of ways that could, theoretically, extend Jane's life but then quickly delved into a philosophical debate of whether she would still be herself after those enhancements. In the end, Darcy had declared the entire conversation headache- and heartache-inducing and forced them to watch Twilight.

For now, with the very packed schedule for the day, Tony consciously chose not to dwell on it. "But not that fragile." He repeated with a quirk of his lips and a lighter tone that asked Loki to go along with it. "Want to see?"

Loki's eyes narrowed briefly, letting Tony know that he did catch the request to let this subject lie, then twinkled with mischief. "Yes."

*

They settled on arm wrestling, a simple and somewhat contained test that shouldn't result in a wrecked hotel suite. Which was also why they kept it from the others when Jane called to let them know that they were meeting for breakfast in an hour and to finalize the plans for the day.

Thor would undoubtedly want to join in this contest of strength. Darcy would cheer them on via heckling. Bruce would watch with a sly smile that said whoever won only did so because the Hulk wasn't participating. Then it would become a better deal than it was meant to be; something to help reassure Loki that Tony wasn't quite as breakable as he once was.

According to the calculations, the Convergence would officially begin at midday and that gave them a bit of a buffer that morning.

Loki won the first match and Tony won the second, though it was less through strength and more by surprising Loki with a burst of heat from Extremis.

"Fascinating." Loki's gaze slid over Tony in a curious once-over, brows drawn as he assessed the faint glow within Tony's palm and green stare lit with intrigue.

"Best two out of three?" Tony wiggled his fingers, the tips lit like embers.

Loki's response was to grip Tony's hand and manever their elbows down on the table, which only had a few cracks on its surface and was slowly coated in a layer of frost.

Tony shivered, from the sudden cold emanating from Loki's skin, the sheer thrill of anticipation, and the depth of trust Loki was giving him. The last of which was making Tony fall even harder and faster for a god whose definition of a lifetime drastically varied from a mortal's.

*

Their third match had gone on for almost ten minutes, with Loki countering Extremis heat and Tony pushing the boundaries of his enhanced strength in a way he hadn't been able to do in the labs. They had gone from sitting on the carpet to kneeling for better leverage, though the change in position didn't make much of a difference.

"Sir, Mr. Loki, Colonel Rhodes is arriving in the War Machine suit." JARVIS interrupted their stalemate.

"Sugar Bear's playing hooky?" Tony perked up at the news. Rhodey had previously said he wouldn't be able to get away until the Convergence had begun due to politics and power-plays.

"Not quite, Sir. It would appear SHIELD's presence on the scene has inspired the air force to have their men on site in a show of preventive measures."

Tony snorted. It always came down to one-upmanship among the agencies. "What's the-" He grunted with effort, his attention divided and Loki's hand was slowly pressing his down. "-ETA?"

Loki smirked.

"Twenty seconds."

"You couldn't have told me earlier? Like when he flew out?" Tony managed to stop Loki's progress but was unable to gain any ground back.

"I didn't want to distract you, Sir." JARVIS almost sounded sorry.

Tony grumbled. "You're distracting me now!"

"One could say you're distracting yourself, Sir." Any hint of apology in JARVIS' voice was gone as the A.I. let out an unimpressed sniff. "And it wouldn't have been an issue if this hadn't taken so long."

"Both are fair points." Loki commented, his mild tone belying the effort he was exerting. With a clench of his jaw, he drove his arm forward and pinned Tony's to the table.

Smoke rose from where the back of Tony's hand connected with the wooden table, his skin still charged with Extremis heat. Flames sparked as Tony hurried to regulate his temperature while Loki looked on with interest, which was the exact moment War Machine landed on the balcony and walked through the double-doors that JARVIS helpfully opened.

"Tones?" Rhodey popped open the face plate as he called out, the syllable trailing off into a sigh when he spotted the small fire. "This is why we can't have nice things."

A compartment on the armor's shoulder opened and a nozzle popped up to spray a thick layer of foam over both the table and Tony, whose flailing turned from panic over the fire to excitement at seeing his friend then settled on clearing the frothy substance from his face.

"Um, a little help?" Tony's scowl would have been intimidating if not for the specks of white foam dotting his hair, forehead, and cheeks.

"I think it suits you." Loki chuckled but cleared away the mess with a flash of green.

Tony blinked as he ran a hand over his now cleaned skin before turning to Rhodey with a look of triumph. "See? I can have nice things. Loki is nice." The look morphed into a glare. "Unlike somebody who's been hanging out a bit too much with DUM-E."

"Or is it the other way around?" Rhodey's grin was all smugness. "I was there when you built DUM-E. Who do you think gave him his first fire extinguisher?"

Stumbling back in mock-outrage, Tony collapsed against Loki as he clutched at his chest. "The betrayal!" He bemoaned.

"There, there." Loki patted Tony's back comfortingly, with only a hint of amusement slipping through his voice.

"Wait." Rhodey's stare turned analytical, scanning over their all-too-comfortable body language. "What did you mean earlier?"

"Hm?" Tony was busy wiping away imaginary tears.

"I believe your friend is referring to your comment of how I am a nice thing that you have." Loki supplied helpfully.

"Oh, right." Tony shrugged, still leaning most of his weight on Loki. "Loki and I are..." He paused dramatically and continued when Rhodey merely rolled his eyes. "Exclusive liaisons, as in, we liaise with each other. Exclusively." Just to be sure Rhodey caught the emphasis, Tony waggled his eyebrows and winked. Entirely unsubtle but he wasn't trying to hide his relationship anyway.

Rhodey exhaled deeply and offered Loki his condolences.

Loki accepted them with a grim nod, though his arms remained securely around Tony's waist.

"Rude!" Tony squawked. "I bet you Pepper'll be a lot nicer when I tell her-"

"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" Rhodey yelled, eyes and mouth wide open and utterly aghast. "Are you saying that Pepper doesn't know?"

"Well, yeah, but-"

"Oh my god, you know me knowing something before Pepper counts as one of the signs of the apocalypse, right? Right?"

Tony's lips pulled into a quivering flat line as he tried to contain his laughter. "Well, if it makes you feel better." He sounded so genuinely contrite that it was obviously not. "There is a world-ending event happening in about three hours."

*

Rhodey joined them for breakfast and was immediately pulled into an in-depth discussion of whether or not him knowing more than Pepper was a cause for concern.

Thor was bewildered. "My friends, I do not see how this is a dilemma for-"

"It would be like you knowing something before Loki." Darcy pointed out, a piece of pancake balancing precariously on her fork as she used it to point between the two gods.

Loki arched an eyebrow at Thor, who immediately announced that he now saw the truth of the matter.

"I'm pretty sure it breaks some kind of universal law." Jane said, reaching for a scone.

Bruce nodded as he stirred honey into his tea. "Or several."

"Again, let me just remind everyone that we actually do have an end-of-the-world situation happening in a few hours where universal laws are going to break." Tony shot them all an exasperated look but the corners of his eyes were crinkled with fondness.

"Which proves my point!" Rhodey's fist pump almost knocked over the fruit salad. "Super space tunnel!"

Selvig frowned at the unfamiliar term.

"Convergence." Darcy translated.

"No, it doesn't. The super space tunnel was happening before you knew about our exclusive liaising." Tony scoffed.

Selvig frowned again at yet another unfamiliar term.

"Dating." Darcy pointed at Loki and Tony with her index fingers then curled the fingers so they formed a heart with her thumbs as the pointy end. "Wait, does the fact that I know before Pepper knows mean anything?"

Everyone fell into a contemplative silence at that question.

Tony threw his head back with a groan.

Loki hummed, expression carefully innocent. "Do not forget that Thor knows as well."

"Aye! I have knowledge that the formidable Ms. Potts does not!"

"You're a menace." Tony whispered as Bruce, Jane, and Darcy immediately launched into a new debate. "I like it."

*

Jane was drawing her third pie chart to contrast with Bruce's bar graphs when JARVIS announced that the SHIELD teams had detected signs of dimensional anomalies above the Old Royal Naval College.

"Well." Tony stood, brushing the crumbs off of his still-wrinkled shirt. "Not-Avengers, assemble!"

Chapter Text

It shouldn't be surprising but Tony still found himself in awe of how well they worked together as a team.

Darcy weaved in and out of crowds - mostly agents and some straggling civilians - with the practiced ease of one who had been through multiple clearance sales at packed malls and emerged victorious, tugging Jane behind her and shouting out orders for the agents to set up the gravimetric spikes.

On the other side of the square, the SHIELD personnel made way for Bruce without any prompting. Selvig followed closely behind and eyed the agents with deeply suspicious eyes, who returned the skepticism with British stoicism.

"Way to strut, Big Guy." Tony whistled as he flew by in the Iron Man armor, surveying the area with War Machine.

"Got tired of tiptoeing!" Bruce called back through the communications system, steps sure and posture confident.

Councilwoman Hawley, a British representative on the World Security Council, had been instrumental in mediating among different agencies as well as between England and the United States. Tony was content to leave the politics to those who thrived on and thirsted for it, part of playing the game was to let others have their turns.

Loki and Thor were perched atop surrounding buildings, ready to strike the moment Malekith and his army appeared. Thor's black cloak looked menacing underneath the overcast sky, a severe departure from his usual sunny disposition. In contrast, Loki's leather armor felt more familiar but was no less deadly with glints of metal catching the crackle of lightning from Mjolnir. There was a faint blue glow emitting from their left ears, where the lightweight communication devices were.

Thor had been delighted at the technology that would let him hear Jane at all times. Loki had arched an eyebrow at the ingenuity of mortals, which was a better assessment than the fragility of mortals, and Tony preened at the compliment.

"Spatial anomaly detected over-" Jane glanced down on her StarkPad then pointed to a spot in the distance. "-there."

Almost on cue, a giant spaceship rippled into sight over the Thames, cutting through the water and tearing up roads as it began its descent until it slid to a stop in the university courtyard.

Tony's breath stuck as he laid eyes on Malekith, a humanoid with shockingly white hair and ashen skin as though he hadn't ever seen the sun; which, given what Thor had told them about Svartalfheim, was likely the case. The paleness highlighted exactly how alien this being was and how much remained unknown out in the wide expanse of the universe, but instead of dread, the thought thrilled Tony. Something he hadn't felt in nearly two years, the joy of discovery and the buzz of mystery.

Thor landed with a thunderous boom.

"You needn't have come so far, Asgardian! Death would have come to you soon enough." Malekith sneered.

"Not by your hand." Mjolnir sparked in agreement.

"Your universe was never meant to be. Your world and your family will be extinguished." With a yell, Malekith unleashed several dark red torrents at Thor, the power of the Aether flowing through the viscous liquid.

Thor dodged most of them but one stray strand knocked him back. He recovered quickly and steadied his footing. "You know with all that power, I thought you would hit harder." He countered with a strike of his own, hurling his hammer toward Malekith.

Mjolnir broke through the waves that Malekith had summoned as a shield and hit its target with a sickening crunch.

Malekith flew back, breaking through several pillars and crashing into a parked car.

Mark 81s were immediately on scene to stabilize the structure.

Thor jumped atop Malekith and gripped the Dark Elf by his shoulders, slipping a gravimetric spike through the folds of Malekith's armor. "Now!"

Selvig activated the device and the two of them vanished from sight.

Their strategy of removing Malekith, who needed to be in Greenwich to infect the realms with the Aether, had worked. Though with the Convergence in effect, Selvig had theorized that Malekith would eventually find his way back through the increasing number of wormholes. Hopefully they would catch him in time and disrupt his plan whenever he reappeared.

Loki appeared in a green shimmer behind the confused Dark Elf soldiers and began to dispatch them with ruthless efficiency. His many illusions blinked in and out of existence, incorporeal when attacked yet capable of real damage.

"Ready, Brucie Bear?" Tony swooped down and extended a hand toward Bruce, who took it with reluctant amusement

Bruce's face scrunched. "Just tell me you aren't going to try to carry me on your shoulders again."

"Dignity is boring, where's your sense of style?" Tony sighed dramatically, draping one of Bruce's arm over his shoulders and wrapping his own arm around Bruce's waist so they were positioned side-by-side.

"Must have left it in my other pair of cutoffs." Bruce replied wryly as they took off for Malekith's ship. He would set the gravimetric spikes aboard so they could manipulate its location if needed and remove it from the scene after the battle ended, making the clean-up easier and getting rid of the temptation. The Department of Damage Control was still finding and cataloging the alien technology left behind from the Chitauri Invasion and there was a steady string of, thankfully unsuccessful, break-in attempts at the warehouses.

"Ugh. Cutoffs." Tony shuddered as he deposited Bruce on one of the higher platforms, out of the way of the battle beneath and within line of sight of War Machine. "See you in a few!"

Maria's voice sounded through the ear piece. "Thor and Malekith were just above St. Paul's Cathedral. The dome is shattered but no fatalities."

Rhodey was staunching the flow of Dark Elf soldiers from the ship, repulsors blasts working extremely well as deterrents; it was clear they didn't anticipate nor prepare for aerial combat.

Any Dark Elves who managed to push past the line of fire were immediately teleported away by Jane, with Darcy helpfully pointing them out.

"I'd ask how this works-"

"Well, gravitational fields interact with the weak spot between worlds creating-" Jane started.

"-but I really don't care as long as it's working! Oh, there's a guy with a sword! Get him!"

He was blinked away as though he was never there.

Darcy cheered.

"Sir, civilians spotted in the Northeastern corner."

Tony spotted them immediately, two college students who had snuck past the barricade. "What the hell are you doing? You need to get out of here, now!"

"You're joking, right? That's Thor out there and he's waving his hammer around and everything!" The first one defended his rather poor life choice with unjustified righteousness.

The second one squealed. "Oh my god! Iron Man just talked to me!"

Tony bemoaned the lack of self-preservation instincts in the young as he carried them to the Scotland Yard officers, ignoring the chatter of excitement from the two teenagers.

"Swiss Re Tower." Maria updated them. "No damages."

Smaller portals opened as the Convergence was nearing its zenith.

"The Convergence will be in full effect in four minutes." Selvig warned.

"That just means we have to keep them busy for five." Jane closed two of the new wormholes with a decisive turn of the dial.

Darcy screamed as a large beast emerged from a portal. "You made a rhino-bear thing! Undo it! Undo it!"

"It wasn't me?" Jane immediately denied without any confidence whatsoever.

The creature was enormous, with sharp claws and even sharper teeth and a giant spiked tail. It was capable of great speed as it tore through the evacuated streets, leaping and climbing on the walls as it went.

"What is that thing?" Selvig asked. "It's definitely not from around here."

"Duh!" Darcy's eye roll was audible, as was her shriek. "Someone do something sometime soon already!"

Tony winced at the painfully high pitch her voice reached; the downside of having the best sound quality.

"It is a beast native to Jotunheim." Loki said, a scream could be heard in the background. "Sturdy and strong. Thor dispatched one by propelling himself through its head."

A beat of silence as the rest of them processed that particular image.

"I got it, I'm all done up here anyway." Bruce's microphone picked up a bit of rustling as he shrugged off his shirt. "Have SHIELD set up a perimeter just in case."

"Will do." Maria replied. "Thank you, Dr. Banner." Her professionalism and politeness were making progress toward easing some of their misgivings toward SHIELD. It certainly spoke of her management skills that none of the agents reacted, one way or another, upon seeing Loki. What the news media would say, however, was another story.

Hulk roared as he leaped from Malekith's ship, landing in a roll that flattened several Dark Elves then sprinting after the beast.

"It went left." Rhodey supplied helpfully as the Hulk rushed past. Metal plates on the War Machine armor shifted to reveal a double-barrel machine gun. "Say hello to my little friend!" His impersonation was horrible but luckily the quote was recognizable enough to compensate.

Mjolnir whirred by, searching for its wielder.

Tony pivoted mid-air to scan the area for Thor, only to find himself flying through foreign skies. Twilight clouds, golden walls and never-ending waters. If he had to guess, he would say this was Asgard, a place where Loki had endured discrimination and survived torment but also experienced healing. "JARVIS, you seeing this?"

"Yes, Sir." The A.I.'s response calmed Tony's thudding heart and quieted the rush of blood in his ears. "So is he."

Glancing down, Tony caught the stunned stare of a long-haired man of Asian coloring and with a spiked mace before the familiar skyline of Greenwich filled his vision.

"Tony!"

"What did we say about disappearing into portals? Oh right-"

"Oh, thank god!"

"-don't do it!"

"Tin Man!" It had taken a bit of practice for the Hulk to keep the ear piece in and a lot of trial-and-error to improve the durability of the device but they eventually managed; Bruce had an easier time getting in contact after a battle and Hulk liked having directions to find more things to smash.

"Welcome back."

"Good to be back." Tony meant every single word; while exploring other realms was on his to-do list, it certainly wasn't at the top. "What did I miss?" His gaze automatically sought out Loki, who was sinking one of his daggers into the eye socket of a Dark Elf with unerring aim.

"Convergence in full effect in one minute." Selvig announced.

"We have eye witnesses placing Thor on the subway, one stop away." Maria said. "He's, um, taking selfies with the passengers."

If their laughter had a slight hysterical edge to it, no one commented on that. The pressure was mounting and the countdown was on, even a small chance to ease some of that tension helped.

Above them, the wormholes leading to the other realms opening wider and shifting to overlap one another. At the center of it all was Malekith, the Aether spiraled around him like a tornado as it ascended toward the nearest portal.

"How did he get here?" Jane gasped.

"The Convergence is at its peak!" Selvig shouted. "Teleport him away!"

"And his ugly-ass ship too!" Darcy added.

In the distance, Hulk's bellow was followed by the Jotunheim beast's pained howl.

Darcy cleared her throat. "Um, and that too. Probably."

Mjolnir soared past, the air vibrating with a pleasant chime as the hammer finally found its wielder.

Thor caught it with a wide grin and started to head toward the swirling Aether.

"Thor, come here!" Jane called out and when he hesitated, she huffed. "Not every problem has to be hit with a blunt object." She raised the tablet and tapped at the display then pointed toward Malekith.

With a spin of Mjolnir, Thor propelled himself into the air and floated to the rooftop. "You have much knowledge, My Lady."

"I figured you'd want to, you know." Jane handed him the device and showed him where to twist the dial. "For, um, your dad."

"Aye." The skies instantly cleared after Thor dragged his fingertip through the holographic dial. The Aether dispersed to reveal an empty crater where Malekith once stood.

"Ha!" Selvig cackled as he activated the gravimetric spikes planted on Malekith's ship. The entire vessel disappeared in a shimmer.

Tony landed next to Loki, instinctively knowing which was the real version and which were the illusions, and pressed his back against the mage's as they fired repulsors and daggers at the remaining Dark Elves. It didn't take long to dispatch them; the Dark Elf soldiers had clearly lost the will to fight upon seeing their leader and ship vanish.

As the last Dark Elf fell, his throat was cut with a dagger that faded away as blood spurted from the wound, Loki sheathed his daggers and his clones dissipated in green wisps.

"Come on over when you're ready, Big Guy." Tony placed a handful of gravimetric spikes around the area, enclosing where most of the bodies lay.

A few moments later, Hulk rode the Jotunheim beast toward them.

Loki muffled his surprised laugh behind a cough. "Impressive."

"Hop off when you get to me." Tony instructed, standing well outside the range of the devices.

Hulk grumbled but did as Tony said. "Hulk liked pet."

The beast's momentum carried it to the Dark Elves' remains and in the next second, they were gone as though they were never there.

*

It was, as far as Tony was concerned, the easiest clean-up in the history of post-battle clean-ups.

Judging by the pleasantly surprised look on Maria's face, she likely felt the same. Structural damages were minimal. No civilian fatalities and any causalities were relatively mild. If she were unhappy about the lack of alien technology or biology for research purposes, she kept quiet though Tony suspected she didn't exactly agree with SHIELD tinkering with the Tesseract. Yet she had accepted it, like a good soldier when she was, for all intents and purposes, a general.

JARVIS hadn't made much progress with investigating SHIELD's internal operating procedures, with the realms colliding and all, but Tony made a note to bump it to the top of the priority list.

The group opted for the first local pub with a private room for their debriefing meal. Loki and Thor had donned illusions of civilian clothes and immediately blended in with the throngs of people milling about London, their accents helped too, of course. Their dinner of fish and chips was a lively event, with retelling of tense moments and laughter over the more ridiculous ones.

It was the opposite of the uncomfortable silence over shawarma in another city, with another group, and in another time.

*

Siberia was somehow colder than Tony remembered, it being the middle of November probably contributed to that. Yet he didn't feel the same kind of chill in his bones like he did before, first from the fear that he was too late to help Rogers and Barnes against the additional Winter Soldiers then as he laid, broken and betrayed, in a disabled suit. If anything, he felt...safe. As much as he would like to credit Loki's presence and JARVIS' voice for that sense of security, Tony knew there was something else at play here.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap. Press.

Tap. Tap. Press. Tap.

Tap.

The clink of metal against metal was nearly drowned out by the howls of the winds but Tony could feel every twitch of his fingers.

Movements he hadn't meant to make.

Communication he was hesitant to trust.

"Seven heat signatures detected." JARVIS announced. "Power usage level within expected range for the size of the structure."

Unlike the last time, the bunker was lit and tire tracks lined the outside. It certainly wasn't deserted.

"Shall we?"

Tony's heartbeat stutter in confusion at how very safe and vulnerable he felt under Loki's gaze. "We shall."

*

It was immediately obvious that the HYDRA operatives at the bunker were untrained in combat and were only there for administrative or maintenance purposes. Their positions, privy to information but not battle-hardened, made them more valuable as captives than corpses.

Loki and Tony exchanged a look of unspoken agreement.

The two at the entrance didn't even attempt to draw their weapons, not that guns would have done them any good against the Iron Man armor and Loki's spells. They were instantly put into a magically-induced sleep.

The next one was knocked unconscious with a gauntleted backhand.

A group of three HYDRA agents scattered when they saw Tony and Loki approach, their haphazard escape was blocked then cornered by Loki's clones.

Seven heat signatures detected.

The back of Tony's neck prickled with the sense that he had missed something as they headed toward the main chamber where the Winter Soldier pods were located. The feeling intensified when an empty room greeted them.

All the capsules and machinery and most importantly, the Winter Soldiers, were gone.

Power usage level within expected range for the size of the structure.

Tony popped open his faceplate. "What the hell?"

Loki approached with a figure, bound and tugged along by glittering green strands, trailing behind him.

"Please don't hurt me! I'm just a kid! Please! I'll tell you everything-"

There was something awfully familiar about that girlish voice. Tony turned with a frown and stared into Wanda's shocked face and enraged eyes.

"Stark!" Wanda hissed, all pretense of pleading twisted away in a hateful snarl. "You killed my family!"

Tony took a step forward, then another and another until he was close enough to see the greasy shine in her hair and the gaunt lines of her cheeks. "How-"

Wanda's jaw clenched. "And now I'll kill you!"

Crimson mist filled the space between them.

Tony smelled blood, tasted copper, and saw nothing but red.

Chapter Text

It did not keep track of how long It had been in this frozen land. Time held no meaning in the face of infinity.

It did not remember how It came to be in this place. Space could be easily stretched or constrained and there were no true walls in the universe.

It did not concern Itself with what occurs in the structure miles above where It was hidden. Reality had always been fluid.

It did not fret over the agonized screams and crackles of energy. Mind over matter was a common notion for a reason.

It did not learn the names of those who gave the orders nor those who followed the commands. Power would always be fleeting for these fragile humans.

It did, however, notice the flickering lights and the dimmed glows and the absent sparks.

Souls smothered.

Brilliant lights battled with obedient darkness. Men conditioned into soldiers.

Radiant glows darkened by barbaric technology. People became assets.

Dazzling sparks extinguished before their rightful ends. Souls lost to the howling void of winter.

In the beginning, there was only one. Then five more met the same fate as the original, totaling six splintered souls clinging to every sliver of light in between cold sleep and hot blood. They made a bed amidst a snowy burial ground for all things lost.

It watched with the morbid fascination of knowing It should be appalled at the savagery but the novelty tempered Its outrage. As much as It liked the constellation of spirit stars twinkling in the background, burning and fading at their intended pace, the repetition held no surprise.

Humanity was predictable and thrived on structure, both internal and external. Even the bursts of chaos had their own rhythm in the seeming randomness and established in the patterns of their motives. It had seen the wide span and countless combinations of emotions, igniting and fueling the pointless pursuits, the cliched conflicts, and the silly sentiments.

This new development provided a jolt of excitement with a hint of intrigue. How the souls still struggled to shine, despite the layers of overwriting and erasing, and blazed into an inferno when finally allowed to breathe after years of smothering.

The first, the one soul with a stubborn spark, left the facility but the other five remained, nothing more than frozen fragments of dying stars.

Souls lost.

Quiet settled over the concrete castle and It spared a thought for the original as one by one, the other five drifted into darkness.

A void where five souls should have shone.

A shadow that served as a reminder of human ingenuity and brutality.

A deficit without possibility of reconciliation.

Then She came and It sang at the sight of her. Incandescent, electric currents running through metal wires encased in glass, and much better than the flint and wood of fire.

A soul made.

"Left boot jet failing. Flight systems compromised."

A synthetic soul with an artificial glow, a new light with no idea how to project herself.

"Targeting system's knackered, Boss."

An imitation of humanity that was kinder than the prototype, like her creator who was gentler with his gauntlets than those with their fists.

"You can't beat him hand to hand."

A digital heart breaking with terror for another as the power source, her creator's heart, cracked as well.

It studied the human in the metal suit, noting that even as his life faded, his soul burned bright like the sun. Unlike the others whose lights dimmed gradually to black, he shone like a supernova; one final flash of brilliance in a kaleidoscope of colors that It had only previously seen on the Golden Realm.

The metrics of worthiness differed greatly but as far as It was concerned, this man was worthy. He had crafted souls in a world where others were more content to destroy them. Instead of a conqueror, he was a creator who brought new light to a world encroached upon by darkness.

Such a magnificent soul deserved more than kept secrets, unreturned trust, and a lonely death.

It wrapped Its essence around the dying soul, using Its powers to untie the timeline that had been twisted into a noose and smooth the individual strands until they fanned out beautifully like tassels of possibilities.

A gift. A reward. A second chance.

"Come find me." It whispered as the soul was guided back to the same man but of the past. "I wish to meet you properly when you are unbroken."

Orange wisps spiraled from the body on the floor, circling wider and wider until they filled the deserted bunker and spiraling outward as the concrete and metal melted away in a fiery hue. For a moment, the world was nothing more than stardust as elements reformed to reflect new choices, new allies, and new futures.

It watched and waited for the soul shielded in threads of orange, pulling and tugging to lead him to this wintry land.

When he did arrive, he did not come alone. Another soul, artificial and authentic in equal and baffling measures, accompanied him. As did a god who had frayed tethers of blue in his mind. They spared the other souls, dim and drone-like, in the building, a shrewd kindness It found both endearing and exasperating.

As soon as the man stood over the exact spot above where It was buried, miles and miles below, It reached out.

"Welcome." It greeted, basking in the luminosity of the man's clever soul. "I am the Soul Stone and you are my chosen."

*

"Stark!" Wanda's eyes widened as she recognized the man standing in the middle of a defunct base made into a trap. Oh, how she had wished for this day and this chance. Countless nights spent praying for Stark to survive whatever disaster he had caused, if only so she could be the one to deliver the killing blow.

To make him suffer. To make him bleed. To make him pay.

Stark had taken everyone from her, first her parents who died under crumbling concrete and screeching metal and then her brother who was found burnt and broken in a heap of smoking rubble.

 

Wanda and Pietro joined HYDRA shortly before their fifteenth birthday, after spending nearly four years scavenging for food and fighting for shelter in a war-torn Sokovia. HYDRA had promised her and Pietro a purpose to fight for, an opportunity to do right by their country, and a claim on Stark's head. They were split up after the first week, after evaluations and exams determined Pietro a suitable candidate for field work and Wanda was found...lacking.

Quicksilver. That was the nickname Pietro had earned for himself, for his swift reflexes and fluid movements; perfect for infiltration and retrieval. As much as she was proud of her brother and how rapidly he earned the accolades of the officers, she couldn't help but feel jealous at his accomplishments. Resentment hummed beneath her worries whenever he left for missions.

Pietro was supposed to sneak into a Ten Rings base and photograph the inner workings of Stark's Peacekeeper missile - they had snorted at the irony of that name - so HYDRA's engineers could duplicate it, one of the easier jobs he had been given.

Since Stark's too-little-too-late announcement of shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark International, the demand for his guns and missiles and bombs had skyrocketed. Wanda was sure it was some kind of marketing ploy, to garner good will and make a profit. Stark was and would always be the Merchant of Death, no matter what else he chose to call himself - I am Iron Man - she knew who and what Stark was.

A killer. A monster. A dead man walking.

"Be careful." Wanda had reminded Pietro as they walked to the hanger together.

Pietro's lips had quirked into a smug smirk. "You know, I'm twelve minutes older than you."

"Stay alert and run as fast as you can if things go wrong."

Except Pietro hadn't been able to outrun the explosion when Iron Man detonated the Peacekeeper. Two birds, one stone. Decommission the weapon and destroy the terrorist camp.

Wanda had watched the explosion on a pixelated screen, her low ranking meant she had little in terms of comfort, and seethed as the news program zoomed in on the ostentatious costume Stark paraded around in while pretending to be a hero.

 

The same armor Stark had on right now, as he stood in front of her and stared at her with the sort of surprise that could only come from familiarity.

"You killed my family!" Wanda growled, there was a roaring in her ears and her vision tinged red.

The last time she had felt this way was when she pushed her way into Baron von Strucker's office with tears on her face and revenge on her mind.

 

"I want to kill Tony Stark!" She had screamed. "He took everything from me and he must pay!" Hands gripped her shoulders but she barely felt the pressure or the pain, so consumed by grief and rage that her entire world was tinged bloody.

The guards pulled her back, her arms bent at unnatural angles behind her, and kicked at her knees when she tried to dig her heels in.

"Please! I have nothing left! I'll do whatever it takes!"

Baron von Strucker, who hadn't spared her a glance until now, looked up at that. "Wait." He signaled the guards to release her then nodded at her. "Talk."

"Stark killed my parents. I was ten years old, having dinner, the four of us. When the first shell hits, two floors below, it makes a hole in the floor. It's big. My parents go in, and the whole building starts coming apart." Her words crashed into each other, tripping over the grammar and stumbling over sobs, in her desperation to make her plea heard. English was still new to her and there would be no one to practice with her now that Pietro was gone. A wail tore out of her chest at that thought. "My brother grab me, roll under the bed and the second shell hits. But, it doesn't go off. It just sits there in the rubble, three feet from our faces. And on the side of the shell is painted-"

"Stark."

"Yes." Wanda hissed. "Pietro and me were trapped two days and every effort to save us, every shift in the bricks, I think, this will set it off." Her face contorted into a snarl. "We wait for two days for Tony Stark to kill us."

Baron von Strucker hummed. "Pietro?"

"Quicksilver." One of the guards supplied. "One of ours sent to the Ten Rings and-"

"Stark killed him!" Wanda clenched her fingers into fists and wished for power. Raw, unadulterated power to make Stark afraid, to show him fear, and to destroy him.

"We will make it right." Baron von Strucker said after a pause.

Hope, vicious and violent, bloomed in her heart then promptly wilted when he continued.

"But not yet. We need to see the big picture."

"I don't see the big picture, I have a little picture. I take it out and look at it everyday." Wanda protested then winced when she saw Baron von Strucker frown at her insubordination. Self-control hadn't been one of her strengths. "I- I am sorry, Baron."

He studied her for a beat longer, blue eyes piercing and getting under her skin. "Report to Dr. List in the morning, we have a new program that I think will be a good fit for you."

The new program, as Wanda had learned, was dedicated to training operatives to transport and detonate chemical weapons. One of her molars was replaced with a capsule that contained a deadly substance that, once activated, would turn her into a weapon of mass destruction at the cost of her own life. Her final breaths, a red mist of poisoned blood, would spread the toxin to those foolish enough to stand against HYDRA.

Wanda and four other women, whose age ranged from late-teens to early-twenties, spent months learning how to portray themselves as innocently as possible as to bypass security and reduce scrutiny. They traded their European accents for American ones. Their diet was strictly monitored, keeping their appearances waifish and therefore less likely to be seen as a threat and more likely to receive sympathy.

Their code name, reminiscent of the Soviet's famed Black Widows, was the Scarlet Witches.

 

Stark came closer and Wanda felt Loki's magic tighten around her.

It was almost disappointing to realize that Loki's redemption was genuine. She had admired the alien god. Loki, dressed in grandiose armor and eyeing her as though she was an ant to be crushed under his boot, had fought against the Avengers before claiming innocence and being believed. It was the greatest scheme ever perpetrated, a villain forgiven and accepted as a hero overnight. Wanda had filed that particular possibility away in the back of her mind, one never knew what the future held - perhaps HYDRA would fall one day as her childhood home had, none of them ever saw it coming.

There had been reports of Captain America - donning generic body armor wasn't going to change his fighting style or alter his voice, both of which were well-documented and studied by HYDRA operatives after the Chitauri Invasion - striking various high-value HYDRA bases and defensive measures had been engaged. Baron von Strucker seemed pleased to be trusted with such a crucial mission. 

Wanda was sent to Siberia with instructions to be taken captive if the attackers were not the Avengers and to kill them if they were, though she had no intention of following them. Her target had and would always be Stark. It shouldn't prove too difficult to convince the Avengers that she was merely a kid who made the wrong choices out of desperation, ingratiating herself into their good graces until she could get close to Stark.

Loki had set the precedent and she would benefit from it.

The Siberian bunker lacked a lot of the amenities Wanda had grown accustomed to but it was all worth it if it meant she finally had her chance to right all the wrongs Stark had inflicted on her life.

"How-"

Wanda bit down, hard, and grinded her teeth counterclockwise. The chemical was tasteless but scalded her tongue as it entered her system, burning a path of righteous fury down her throat and into her chest. "And now I'll kill you!" The air between them tinted crimson with every one of her vengeful and victorious words.

Red specks coated Stark's ridiculous facial hair as terror flooded his expression.

Wanda looked into her family's killer's eyes and saw his fear. Everyone was afraid of something and there was sweet irony in the Merchant of Death frightened by his own trade. She offered him a vicious grin with blood-coated teeth.

A gurgled scream tore out of her as a new kind of pain concentrated on a spot below her ribs. She looked down and saw the tip of a blade for a fraction of a second before she was lifted into the air.

"What did you do?" Loki snarled, two more daggers materialized in his hands. Impossibly sharp and promising agony. Green eyes darted between her and Stark, whose body had likely locked with shock.

"Justice." Wanda stared ahead, ignoring Loki's unspoken and useless threat. The toxin would kill her in less than a minute, just long enough to disperse the poison and to watch Stark choke on his own blood as his insides liquified.

Except Stark didn't crumple, didn't convulse, and didn't even cough.

He glowed.

The air sizzled as the droplets clinging to Stark's hair and flesh evaporated, leaving behind nothing more than dust that drifted away. He blinked, eyelashes fluttering and irises shining a brilliant orange. Like the heart of a flame and the soul of a sun.

"Oh, hi there." Stark smiled, soft and surprised and speaking to someone, something, new. "Nice to finally put a name to the not-face."

Loki's gasp preceded the release of his magic, his attention entirely focused on Stark now.

Wanda fell to the floor, wheezing wetly for air with collapsed lungs and tasting the saltiness of her own blood mixed with the bitterness of failure. Her vision darkened around the edges as her heart gave one final defeated beat. The last things she saw were the gleaming metal of Stark's armor and its pilot's bright eyes. 

Untarnished and unharmed.

Chapter Text

Loki listened with a wandering mind and absent nodding as Thor prattled on about his reunion with one Jane Foster. Once, Loki would have made acerbic remarks about the foolishness of Thor's affections for a mortal but he couldn't quite summon the words.

Not when things were finally improving between them.

Not when Thor was already aware of Jane's fragility.

Not when Loki was possibly forming some attachment of his own to a man whose lifespan was just as fleeting, if not more so given his tendency to defy gravity and invasions in a metal suit.

"-owe Friend Tony a great debt for aiding my beloved Jane and making transport possible for the Aether."

The specific combination of words had Loki's mind rushing back to the present and his gaze over to Thor. "What did you say?"

"The Aether infected my lady-"

"I heard that part."

"It was at first a liquid-"

Loki's jaw clenched. "I heard that also."

"Oh!" Thor lit up with an understanding so exaggerated that it was instantly suspicious. "Then it took the shape of a stone after leaving Jane-"

"No." This time, Loki left the growl in his voice because Thor was being deliberately obtuse. While it had been heartening and refreshing to exchange brotherly banter, this was not the time.

Thor tilted his head, brows furrowed in what he likely hoped to be confusion but Loki recognized it as an effort to hold in laughter. "No? I do not know what you mean then, bro-" He coughed. "Loki."

It spoke volumes of Frigga's influences that Loki let Thor's slip pass without even a thought to scowl. Frigga's daily visits, joined sometimes by Thor, had provided them an opportunity to discuss old wounds and fresh cuts under the guise of discussing literary devices and flawed characters. Unsurprisingly, it was easier to recognized others' faults than one's own.

Frigga, mother, in her sly wisdom, always managed to tie their conversations and conclusions to certain events that had slowly but surely severed the ties of brotherhood between Loki and Thor. And through identifying where the tears were, repairs could be and were made.

"Tony." Loki said through gritted teeth. "He was there?"

Thor's smile was a smug curve. "Yes. Lady Darcy called for his help." A pause. "He asked after you."

"Did he?" Loki hummed with what he hoped was disinterest and ignored the eager thudding of his pulse at the possibility that the attachment might be mutual.

"And mother and father too."

Loki's heart returned to its normal pacing at that detail and the mention of Odin; Tony's concern was not specific to him but a blanket inquiry. "I am sure the All-Father is pleased to add yet another powerful artifact to his vault."

Thor confirmed that with a nod.

The Aether, identity unconfirmed but almost certain, had been returned to Asgard and was under the scrutiny of the royal mages. Odin had been quite impressed by Thor's accomplishment, of which Thor actually contributed little, and perhaps a bit insulted that a mortal was the one the Aether had chosen to inhabit.

"A relic as powerful as the Aether does not belong with a mortal anymore than a goat belongs at a banquet table." Thor's nose scrunched with distaste as he mimicked Odin's intonation with some success. "I shudder to think of the treatment Jane would have received had I needed to bring her to our healers."

"Illness is mortals' defining trait." Loki's impression of the All-Father was spot-on, including a shimmering green eyepatch. He did not think about the tiny pieces of metal in Tony's heart, did not wonder at what had transpired since they parted ways, and did not wish fervently that he were not confined in a golden cage. Thor's words would have to be enough because Loki could not leave, could not visit, could not see for himself that Tony was well, until Odin released him from his sentence.

Thor barked out a laugh with a rueful shake of his head.  

 

Morning came and breakfast was richer than what Loki preferred; leftovers from the feast the court undoubtedly held in Thor's honor. Loki picked at the assortment of cheeses and ignored the slices of cold meat.

If he chose to leave the mostly full plate by the door, where Frigga would surely notice and scold those responsible for such a disrespectful meal, Loki only did it to save the servants the precious seconds they would have taken to collect the dish from the table. After all, they must have been quite busy this morning if they could not prepare a fresh breakfast for the royal family.

It was frequently forgotten that while Loki was a prisoner, he was still a prince of Asgard.

Frigga's warm glance turned into a frowning glare as soon as she took in the plate and its content. She turned to instruct one of the guards at the door to alert the kitchen that they had been remiss in their duties, both in collecting the plate of last night's dinner and neglecting to deliver the prince's breakfast this morning, before brushing a kiss against Loki's cheek in greeting.

"Should I be concerned by this little display of yours?" Despite her words, Frigga's tone and expression were full of approval.

Loki reached for her hand, hooking it through the bend of his elbow. "Is it not a mother's greatest wish to come to her child's aid?" He countered. "I merely presented you with an opportunity."

"Then I suppose I owe you my thanks." Frigga's other hand covered his with a gentle squeeze.

 

Those were the words on Loki's mind when alarms blared, the harsh sound bouncing off of the stone walls. "The prisons."

"The shield." Frigga stumbled as the magic protecting Asgard faded away, the book fell to the carpet with a dull thud.  

Loki steadied her with his left hand while a dagger materialized in his right. The prison alarms and the shield deactivation meant they were under attack both inside and out. A coordinated assault and no mere coincidence with such impeccable timing that pointed to what the invaders were after. "The Aether."

Loud crashes and panicked shouts sounded in the distance.

With a grim nod, Frigga summoned her own sword. "The mages." Most magic users focused on healing and supportive spells, they would not be able to defend the Aether or themselves against enemy forces. Whoever was behind this did not care much for stealth and wanted their presence known. "I must go-"

The door slammed open.

Loki's magic lashed out instinctively and sent the marauder hurtling into the mismatched group gathered in the hallway. "Stand down, creature. You may still survive this."

"I have survived worse." A figure, with its face hidden behind a mask with void-like eyes, scoffed. "We would have what is ours!"

With that, chaos broke.

Despite being outnumbered, Loki and Frigga held off the attackers with calculated strikes and clever spells. Frigga disarmed one of the warriors with a curl of her seemingly delicate wrist, her movements graceful and deadly, the glint of her blade enhanced with the glitter of her magic. Loki's clones provided cover and created confusion. A troll's swing sliced through an illusion and connected with a Dark Elf, his shocked grunt turned into one of pain when one of Loki's daggers landed in his chest. Both crashed to the floor and Loki hopped over the lifeless limbs with a wrinkle of his nose.

Frigga's gasp silenced the room.

"Got you, witch!"

Bodies littered the room and only he, Frigga, the Dark Elf who held his mother, and one marauder remained.

Loki threw his weapons down with a clatter as he held up his hands in surrender, turning away from the grinning scavenger with a sneer and sinking to his knees on his own volition rather than be pushed down. "Let her go and I will take you to the Aether."

"Loki! No!" Frigga cried, reaching for her son and receiving an icy glare.

"Do you really think I care about Asgard? About anybody? All I ever wanted was for you and Odin to pay for your lies."

"Your father-"

Loki snarled. "He is not my father!"

"Enough!" The Dark Elf tightened his grip on Frigga's arm and adjusted the sword he held to her throat, the sharp edge breaking the skin and marking her with a thin red line.

Frigga winced, seemingly unaffected by the threat on her life and focused only on Loki. "Then am I not your mother?"

"I said enough! Now tell me where the Aether-"

The Dark Elf screamed as his hands were severed from his body.

Frigga caught the falling sword and sent it straight into the heart of the marauder.

Loki's clone vanished in a flash of green as the real Loki cut off the Dark Elf's scream with a vicious twist that snapped the Dark Elf's neck. "You are." He extended a hand toward Frigga and pulled her into an embrace when she accepted his gesture. "You are my mother."

 

The water's smooth surface wrinkled as the boats, carrying the bodies of fallen Asgardians, were lowered by the mourners; tens and hundreds of drops of tears rippling across the waves. At Thor's signal, archers dipped their arrows into the braziers then let them soar at the All-Mother's solemn signal.

Fiery orange lit up the dark expanse, a sunburst of flames drifting out to the inevitable precipice. As the boats met the edge and fell into the endless space in-between realms, spirits rose from the bodies and floated upward like stars returning to the skies they were born in. Orbs of light joined in their ascent, tributes paid to the lost loved ones by those who survived, who were left behind, and who grieved.

Thor's hand clenched around Mjolnir and Loki knew what was coming, perhaps even before Thor himself did.

A crackle of lightning shattered the serenity of the moment, an almost violent brightness born of rage and retribution.

Odin was gone.

Thor had delivered the news of the All-Father's disappearance and presumed passing with concise sentences and few details. Heimdell collaborated the seemingly tall tale of Odin and Algrim, Malekith's lieutenant, vanishing into thin air, as did the scholars and ancient texts.

One of the Dark Elves' favored weapon, one of utter destruction and impressive stealth, was a small device capable of creating a devouring vortex. Its range and duration were limited but its effects were not. Tomes described numerous incidences of entire armies or fearsome beasts disappearing within these maelstroms of nothingness, never to be seen nor sensed again.

Loki had confirmed it for himself, racing to the royal library as soon as Frigga released him from his punishment and prison.

The All-Mother now sat atop the throne of Asgard.

"Settle yourself, Thor." Loki cautioned as he gripped Thor's wrist to prevent Thor from issuing a second strike. "Allow these people their sorrow."

"What good is sorrow when there is a far richer sacrament to be had?" Thor pulled away with a growl. "I know you cared not for father but do you care so little that you do not seek vengeance?"

Loki gritted his teeth and resisted every combative reflex, knowing too little of how he felt about Odin's death and too much of Thor's temper. "I do not wish to fight with you."

"Nor I with you. But I intend to pursue Malekith. He has the Aether and plans to plunge all Nine Realms back into-"

"We know where he will be."

Thor rolled his eyes as if Loki had just said something daft. "Yes, he and his army of cowards have retreated to the Dark World-"

"No." Loki interrupted once again, ignoring Thor's annoyed huff. "The Dark World is not only uncharted but also enemy territory. We cannot afford to give him any more advantages and so, we must have him come to us."

Thor blinked, once, twice, and his hand reached up to scratch at his beard in that way of his whenever he grew bewildered.

Loki refused to admit he found that endearing. Instead, he fixed Thor with a shrewd grin. "Malekith requires the focal point of the Convergence to complete his plot and we know precisely where that will be." He let out a sigh when Thor continued to stare at him. "Midgard."

 

His room had been tidied up by the time Loki returned, the broken furniture replaced and the bodies removed. Thor had been pulled aside by Frigga after the funeral rites and Loki had excused himself with the claim that he needed to gather some things before they make their journey to Midgard.

It felt different to be in this space that had been the entirety of his world for nearly two years, the room seemed smaller and the walls closer now that freedom was his once again.

Because Odin died.

Odin died.

A burst of energy swept through the room as Loki exhaled and opened his eyes, though he didn't remember closing them. The restored order was reduced to chaos; books scattered about with folded pages and split spines, furniture pushed against the walls and tilted unsteadily on splintered legs, and curtains tangled with cords and caught on broken glass.

Loki did not take a single thing.

 

"Despite its current state, I think Friend Tony should like to have it back. He's rather possessive of his things." Thor offered it to Loki as they encountered each other in the courtyard.

The Iron Man gauntlet looked almost grotesque with bent fingers and frayed wiring, the metal scuffed and faded under the twilight of Asgardian sky.

Loki quirked an eyebrow at the gesture. "So why are you giving it to me?"

"Because the likelihood of me misplacing it is, um, high." Thor explained sheepishly and swept his hands down his decidedly pocket-less armor, the dark leather blended seamlessly with the black of his new cloak. "Will you safeguard it for me?"

After a moment of deliberation, Loki huffed an exaggerated sigh and took the gauntlet. "You would lose Mjolnir if it wasn't tethered to you." He grumbled half-heartedly.

Thor conceded Loki's point with a shrug, the heavier fabric rustling with the movement.

Though he recognized the cloak affixed to Thor's shoulders, Loki made no comment. Instead, he turned the red and gold gauntlet over in his hands, tracing the darkened circle in the palm and resisting the temptation to slide his fingers between the metal ones in a poor imitation of-

"The Man of Iron is quite clever to create an armor of such power." Thor mused. "When our paths first crossed, I was caught unaware by one of his blasts."

"As was I." Loki thought back to the mortal who turned a fall into flight, fearless and full of fire.

Thor took that as encouragement to continue his prattling. "Friend Tony is just as impressive in his Midgardian form, even without the charmed light in his chest -"

Loki tensed. "The arc reactor is gone?"

Tony had explained what the arc reactor was and what it was for, tapping at the glass casing - such delicate and ineffective protection for man-made magic - and flashing Loki a crooked smile that seemed incongruent within the meticulously lines of his facial hair. To be without it...

Thor blinked, the relaxed lines of his broad shoulders only annoyed Loki further. "Did I not mention that already?"

"No." Loki tried to reign in his temper and irritation, though he could tell part of it had escaped based on Thor's flinch. "You did not." With a muttered spell, he sent the gauntlet into one of his pocket dimensions; it would be significantly more satisfying to throttle Thor with both hands. 

"Not gone." Thor corrected. "Replaced with a fire that burned even brighter than the starlight you remember."

Loki grew more alarmed. "A fire?"

Thor frowned. "Yes, one touch of his fire cauterized the Aether's infection and made it possible to transport. I told you this earlier, how Asgard and I owe Friend Tony a great debt-"

"For aiding Jane and making transport possible for the Aether." Loki finished, comprehension dawning with horror and fascination. "I thought you meant his help in locating your mortal and lending you his gauntlet." He shot an accusatory glare at Thor. "You said nothing of how he had a hand, literally, in the matter or that he is without the arc reactor."

"He is well, Loki." Thor reassured, tone gentle and eyes contrite. "You have my word-"

"I've heard your words and they had misled me." Loki summoned his magic. "So forgive me if I would rather see for myself."

"And that you will, soon-"

Thor's voice faded as the pull of spirit travel took Loki away from Asgard, soaring toward a certain mortal who once tasted of the abyss and held a star in his chest.

Chapter Text

He showered.

The absurdity of his thoughts would be concerning if Loki's attention wasn't entirely focused on Tony.

Whose hair was slicked back and mostly staying in place except for a few errant locks falling across his forehead.

Whose damp skin was flushed from the hot water and steam, unmarred by scars and smooth without the arc reactor in his chest.

Whose towel was a rude interruption of the defined lines of his torso and jagged dip of his waist.

"I showered!"

Loki's smirk widened at the realization that he wasn't alone in his absurdity and in appreciation of the way Tony adjusted his grip on the loosely-knotted towel. "I can see that." He mouthed. Unlike illusions, spirit travel was less tangible; a trade-off for the fact that the caster did not need to be in the same space. It was good to hear Tony's voice, with the slight squawk of indignation in his tone, little confirmations that he was unharmed and as ridiculously endearing as Loki remembered.

Tony's eyes narrowed at Loki's soundless reply, his demeanor cooled into something less flustered and more detached.

A change Loki did not much care for. "Tony?" His silent inquiry went unanswered as Tony took to bantering with JARVIS, who evidently did not sense Loki's presence or else the A.I. would have greeted him.

The water-sheen of Tony's skin practically glowed as he paced over to the pile of rumpled clothes, muscles rippling under the soft lighting as he moved his arms in a purposefully casual arc that would have hit Loki's side if not for the limitations of spirit travel. The surge of fondness for this clever mortal was tempered by the flash of disappointment at the missed contact.

Loki had always been a greedy creature, wanting more and all with every bit he did receive. Especially when Tony's spine curved to pull the shirt over his head, tousling his hair in the process. Sight and sound weren't enough and he craved touch, to feel the jump of his pulse and the heat of this mysterious fire Thor mentioned.

One that burned away the Aether's infection despite the impossibility of such a claim.

One that replaced the arc reactor and, hopefully, protected Tony's heart.

One that remained hidden despite Loki's careful examination.

Tony pivoted to fix Loki with a questioning look as the cotton material covered the elegant ridges and planes of his torso, unaware of the worries he had caused.

The simmering anxiety Loki had felt since Thor's unwitting admittance of Tony missing his charmed light flared to full-blown irritation that prickled at his every sense.

A puzzle he was determined to solve.

"Until we meet again." Any foolishness Loki might have felt at exaggerating the movements of his mouth around each word faded with the intensity of Tony's concentration.

Loki returned to his body with the weight of Tony's stare lingering on his lips and the boom of Thor's voice in his ears.

"-spirit travel when we are mere moments away, this is unlike you. So reckless-"

Loki slapped a hand against Thor's face, grimacing a bit when his finger poked at Thor's nostril. "Quiet."

Thor continued to speak, his words were reduced to mumbles with his mouth partially-covered, though, unfortunately, still comprehensible. "-considering the recent attacks we have endured. What if the Dark Elves should return? I would guard you with my life but a bit of warning-"

"Quiet!" Loki scowled, both from Thor's incessant ramblings and the stickiness of Thor's spit on his fingers. He considered wiping his hand on Thor's cloak but thought better considering its significance, and settled for a cleaning spell. "I would have returned to my senses at once had we been attacked. I don't need you as a sentry."

"You still don’t trust me, Loki?"

Pressing his lips together to keep the reflexive response of no at bay, Loki considered the past months, beginning with the moment Thor had angled his body protectively as he pled Loki's case to the All-Father. "I wouldn't say that." He sniffed, affecting an air of indifference.

It clearly didn't work as Thor all but tackled Loki with a hug that was entirely too tight and just right.

 

Loki paced around the observatory as he waited for Thor's signal that they had secured a somewhat private location. Traveling via the Bi-Frost was the opposite of stealth and Loki would like to avoid being greeted by a horde of SHIELD agents. Not that it would be much of a hardship to bypass them but Loki would prefer to avoid the tedium of Midgardian politics and power trips.

To pass the time, he entertained himself by taunting the Watcher's mistrustful glare with every step taken and every spell cast. Heimdall had always been wary of Loki, the suspicion that Loki was up to mischief had a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It used to bother Loki but he had learned to lean into it and even toy with it.

Tony's gauntlet was nearly restored to its original pristine condition.

An incantation to straighten and polish the metal, feather-light fingers caressing the surface with the utmost care. An enchantment to oil the joints and knit the wiring, green sparkles dancing across the red and gold. A charm to clear the grime off of the glass, its glow lighting the circle temporarily before fading away.

"A man who borrows strength from contraptions, it appears you have finally found your match." Heimdall almost sounded impressed.

Loki ignored him in favor of inspecting the gauntlet to ensure it was presentable.

"Fleeting, is it not? Humans are but mayflies, their existence passes in a blink of an eye. Say goodbye whilst you have the chance, whilst he has the chance."

Deeming the gauntlet's repair complete, Loki vanished it with a wave of his hand. "Not this day."

"This day, the next, a hundred years, it’s nothing. It’s a heartbeat. You’ll never be ready. The one you prize will be snatched from you."

Derision would have been better than the inevitability in Heimdall's tone. 

Loki's fingers twitched, yearning for the hilts of his daggers and wanting nothing more than to silence the unwelcome - but not untrue - words. It was a truth that he had known but refused to contemplate, choosing to bury his head in the sand trickling through the hourglass. Heimdall had shattered the glass and Loki was left to watch the grains slip through his fingers.

Lightning flashed in the sky, a bright rune beckoning Loki to Midgard. He followed with a heavy heart and trembling hands.

It wasn't worth it. None of it was - this attachment, this attraction, this appreciation - all meant nothing if it was never his to keep. Wouldn't it be better, more preferable, safer to warm himself with the potential of what-could-have-been for centuries, millennia, instead of burning and breaking after decades?

For a second, Loki was frightfully convinced that he had already been broken, by something unidentified and intangible and all the more terrifying because of it. He felt numb as he stepped through the portal, wooden and wounded and wanting desperately to be whole again but not quite knowing how. There was a weightlessness in his movement, as though he was simultaneously falling and floating without any sense of direction or destination.

Then he stepped through the space between realms and was enveloped in a hug.

Tony.

Safe, close, touchable.

Tentatively, Loki returned the embrace with hands he hadn't realized had stopped shaking. Tony shifted even closer and Loki clutched at him like a drowning man would a lifeline, a lost man would a map, a dying man would a cure.

"Hello, Tony." His voice was a whisper without meaning to be, hoarse and cracked. "I am pleased to see you well."

"Me too." Tony's reply was muffled, with the faintest sound of scratching that Loki could only guess came from the man's facial hair against the leather. This was how tightly they were pressed together, intimate little sounds that existed only between them. "I mean, um, I am pleased to see you well too."

Then Thor just had to go and ruin it with his loud mouth and big face, made bigger by his annoyingly wide grin.

Loki considered using his magic, a well-aimed hit to Thor's nose should do the trick nicely, but stayed his hand when he remembered that mother wouldn't want them to fight.

Though, later, when Thor started babbling about wooing and Tony began fidgeting with discomfort, Loki would reconsider his previous stance and decide that what Frigga didn't know wouldn't bother her.

Thor definitely deserved that shock to his ankle.

 

"You okay?" Tony's presence and proximity were surprising but his compassion was not. Loki had known, and benefitted from, that kindness firsthand, after all. Brown eyes shone with understanding and Loki was reminded of what Tony had shared of his conflicted relationship with his father.

What is and always will be my greatest creation is you.

Tony had repeated the words his father left him with an air of too-little-too-late but Loki knew that they still meant something. Maybe not enough to make up for a lifetime of absence but more than the nothing Tony had grown accustomed to.

You're my son. I wanted only to protect you from the truth.

Loki had desperately wanted to believe in Odin's words, the beautiful lie that he was a son of Odin, and gulp down that candy-coated poison to kill the ugly truth. He would have, if not for the glint of smug benevolence in Odin's eye.

One that said Loki should be grateful for the deception. One that absolved the All-Father of any blame because his intentions were noble. One that was exclusive to those who had nothing to lose because they had already won.

Loki wondered if Odin ever realized what he had lost.

 

"We should go eat." Tony's hand was warm and Loki felt his frozen fingers, clenched into a fist, thaw under that heat. The cold melted away from his bones, the chill that he would forever associate with the endlessness of space and icy blue of the scepter. "JARVIS, make sure Clint leaves the same way he came then do a perimeter sweep."

With a docility that felt unnatural yet easy, Loki let Tony pull him out of the bathroom and into the main area where the others, and the food, were. He barely listened to the conversation around him, about him, as he focused on the plate set before him. A variety of flavors and textures, some complimented one another and some did not.

Tony's hand flitted into view, pulling off part of a pastry and trading banter with his friends as though he hadn't just saved a man's life and saved Loki from taking it. It spoke volumes of Tony's heart that he treated those who had wronged him, albeit in a different time, with caution instead of callousness and empathy instead of enmity. Loki could only imagine the number of ways Tony's kindness toward those who did not deserve it could go wrong; in fact, he knew precisely how it had backfired already.

You have to go alone and as a friend.

He's my friend.

So was I.

Siberia.

Loki's jaw tightened at the thought of Tony stranded in a disabled suit and buried in snow, and something squished unpleasantly between his teeth. The taste and texture jolted him back to the present.

"-fired his weapon all the same."

"I hardly think a few sticks and a string count as a weapon." Loki tried to remember what precisely he had eaten and disliked; the small red fruit seemed like the culprit so he stabbed it with his fork and offered it up to Tony.

 

The Pepper Dragon turned out to be a woman with dulcet voice belying a fiery protective streak. Loki wondered about the Pink Panther, an ally by the sounds of it, and the Honey Bunny, who he would have categorized as an ally also if not for the rather demonstrative way Tony had ended their phone conversation earlier.

Full lips pursed together to make that ridiculous kissing noise, similar to the one Tony was making now as he sucked one of the brightly colored candies into his mouth.

Loki didn't particularly care for sweets, so he settled for sorting them by colors then into combinations. Midgardians were rather inventive with their food, infusing hues where there was none. Thor could not stop talking about Pop-Tarts and the rainbow of sugary pieces covering them.

The exchange was short, as it tended to be when the odds were so clearly tipped in one side's favor. Loki quite enjoyed her expert dismantling of Fury's pathetic plots.

Victory was gratifying no matter the battlefield, be it words or weapons.

 

"Dr. Selvig."

The scientist twitched before turning around to peer at Loki with narrowed eyes. "What?"

It occurred to Loki that cornering the man whose mind he had once influenced was a poor first step, so he took a step back, putting enough distance between them should Selvig wished to leave, and held his hands out in a gesture of peace. "We will be fighting alongside each other in a day's time and I should like to address any ill feelings that may exist between us."

"You mean how I’ve had a god in my brain?" Selvig scrubbed a tired hand over his face. "I don't recommend it."

"And nor would I."

Selvig snorted. "It's...something, isn't it? To have just enough awareness to know you're being mind-controlled and that you're totally screwed but at the same time, not really? Because you're still kind of in charge, just have to find that loophole." His gaze, still blue but no longer supernaturally so, sliced up. "I've been doing a lot of thinking and talking since the invasion, more than Barton based on that phone call, and, well, you found a loophole, didn't you?"

Loki arched a brow, uncertain as to where Selvig was going but it already sounded more promising than his exchange with Barton.

"I did too, in a way. I wasn't kidding when I told you the Tesseract showed me truth but what I did with it was all me. Just like you pissing off a group of superheroes then setting up shop in one of their homes or Barton not shooting Fury in the face." He sent Loki a meaningful look. "Or in my case, making a portal that wasn't quite big enough for a full-scale invasion and planting a failsafe."

So that was how the Widow was able to shut down the portal.

Selvig hummed a self-satisfied tone and, for a moment, transcended beyond his image of a scatter-brained scientist whose shirt was littered with stains and crumbs. "I was in academia for decades and let me tell you, getting tenure as a professor of Theoretical Astrophysics is much harder than purposefully misinterpreting a god's orders." His expression grew serious. "I blame you as much as I blame myself, which, let's be honest, varies from day to day. It's probably not what you want to hear but that's all I got." He shrugged. 

Loki nodded then moved aside to let the other man pass, his mind reeling from the mostly one-sided conversation and his heart feeling more at ease after it.

Tony watched him with concerned and curious eyes that were at once encouraging and challenging, a silent request for Loki to speak, to say something that would bring them back to the same hazy place they were in before Barton's interruption.

"I believe this belongs to you."

Chapter Text

Their zig-zag style of conversation was as engaging and entertaining and enlightening as the last time. Both of their minds worked in non-linear ways and preferred the challenge of sustaining multiple topics and weaving together scattered threads. Instinctively, Loki knew when to tug and when to let go, just as Tony did with the matters Loki did not care to delve into or linger on. Instead of tangling and trapping themselves over past hurts, present threats, and future uncertainties, they were able to untie the suffocating knots and unravel the tangles.

To make something new, something better, something theirs.

 

Tony was making a whoosh sound to mimic an explosion with his hand. There were crinkles at the corners of his eyes as he recounted how he had bested Killian, also known as the Mandarin. Also known as the man who, while a guest in Tony's home, had attacked and almost killed Tony.

Loki could feel his teeth aching from where he had clenched them to suppress his anger, made stronger by the powerlessness of hearing about the incident after the fact. There was nothing he could do, Killian was dead and Tony was saved, but it didn't change the fact that Loki wanted to and would have...if he had been there.

Only Tony's hand, a little too warm and a bit too tight, around his wrist, stopped Loki's thoughts from spiraling; a steady reminder to focus on the present instead of fixating on the painful possibility of losing Tony.

 

"-we came up with this program that basically helps kids reach their sciency dreams and-"

Tony's voice carried a note of youthful excitement that Loki couldn't help but smile at as he listened. This internship program was similar to the apprenticeship system in place on Asgard but seemed to allow for more freedom in its charges' pursuits. Tony wanted to encourage big dreams and fanciful ideas whereas the master craftsmen felt confident in their set ways and proven techniques.

Perhaps comfortable might be a better descriptor.

Asgardians long lifespans had instilled in them a lack of urgency and, with that, a sense of complacency. The old methods did not need improvement because they had been tried and true for centuries and, in some cases, millennia. Innovative voices were stifled by the monotony and wild ambitions collared by repetition.

"-I tried to change it to Team Green Bean but Pepper and the Hulk said no-"

Loki had experienced it firsthand when he first began learning spellwork, the Asgardian tutors stressed the importance of foundation, which had its place in education, but dismissed different approaches. According to them, there was only one way one could, and should, cast a transfiguration charm. Frigga had sensed his frustration and, by some kind of miracle, convinced Odin to grant Loki passage to Vanaheim; to learn from the mages who had taught Frigga her magic.

Looking at Tony now, brown eyes brightened with hope for generations to come, Loki couldn't help but be charmed. He pushed down the nagging thought that Tony would not see the true impact of his actions, rippling far into the future.

"-Darcy made this awful video compilation of the kids' reactions when they found out they'd been accepted, well, that part's not awful but the part where she set it to this horrible song..." Tony shuddered.

Loki hummed with inquiring amusement and slanted a glance at the Iron Man armor standing sentry by the door.

A second later, a female voice, soulful and pure, filled the room.

"Did you ever know that you're my hero-"

Tony's face crumpled with shock and horror. "Why? Oh dear god, why?"

"-and everything I would like to be? I can fly higher-"

"Now it's going to be stuck in my head!"

"-than an eagle for you are the wind beneath my wings."

"I'm donating you to the DMV!"

"I only wished to provide Mr. Loki with a frame of reference." JARVIS replied, his robotic tone full of mirth as the music ceased. 

"For which I am grateful. I often find myself confounded by Midgardian references and customs."

"Says someone who knows how to look things up within the internet."

Loki smiled, both at the memory of their first night together and the intimate sound of his words on Tony's lips. "The song isn't wrong, you are rather heroic."

"That's what my Honey Bunny said."

The possessive and the familiar name caught Loki's attention, his eyes narrowed as his fingers curled a bit tighter around Tony's wrist. It was all he could do, could allow himself to do, in that moment. After all, they had no claims on each other for Loki to ask the questions on his tongue. Though he desperately wanted to.

 

"I wasn't trying to woo you but I wasn't not trying either." Tony's nose creased adorably and Loki felt the absurd impulse to kiss those lines away.

"Would you try?" They were close enough that Loki could see the golden flecks in Tony's eyes and the dilating pupils; his words were a ghosting murmur, an almost caress. The nearly non-existent space between them grew charged, buzzing with potential and crackling with possibility.

Tony licked his lips, slicking them with a temptation Loki didn't really want to fight, so much so that it took a second for him to register what Tony had said.

No.

The electric pull between them dissipated at that one word. One sharp syllable severing the pull of what-could-be and leaving Loki with the tattered remains of what-could-have-been but instead of warming him, the potential was replaced with cold reality. This was why he shouldn't have said anything, shouldn't be lulled by the little touches and tender smiles, shouldn't have hoped for more.

Wanting what he couldn't keep was infinitely preferable to knowing what he wouldn't have.

A harsh lesson to learn for a greedy creature.

Tony's lips caught him by surprise as did the hands tugging him closer with an urgency that contradicted the earlier rejection. Confusion and desire fought briefly for dominance before the latter won out and Loki dove into the rush of heat, delicious and dangerous, of Tony's kiss.

Loki's fingers grazed the hair on Tony's nape as he licked hungrily into Tony's mouth, devouring the gasps and savoring the taste like this was his only chance.

Because it might very well be.

Hope bloomed in Loki's chest, wild and free under the thudding of his heart, when Tony leaned in for another kiss after a quick parting for a breath. The scorching desperation melted into something less frantic and more tender, exploring instead of pillaging each other's mouths. Surveying the land, mapping the terrain, plotting the course.

If possible and with Tony's permission, Loki would like to live out the rest of his days right here.

 

Despite the almost urge to mark, to claim, Tony, Loki resisted doing so because the idea of seeing any blemish on Tony's skin - even ones left by passion - unsettled him. He didn't need a bitemark-shaped reminder of how fragile his mortal was.

Tony moaned, low and needy, and Loki almost reconsidered his previous stance. What sort of noises could he pull out of that luscious mouth with the right amount of suction and teeth? 

"But seriously, what do I call you when they ask?" 

"They?"

"The world. My friends. Your family." Tony's lips pursed. "SHIELD."

It took some effort to focus on the issue at hand but Loki managed. "I am a liaison of Asgard to Midgard."

"That sounds nice and respectable." Tony smirked then kissed Loki in a way that was very nice but definitely not respectable. "Rhodey would be impressed by-"

"Rhodey?" Loki paused at the unfamiliar name then froze when a string of affectionate nicknames fell from those lips that had been on his mere seconds ago.

Lips that were pulled down into a concerned frown. "Hey, what's wrong?"

"I do not share. This Honey-"

Loki caught a flicker of mirth before Tony nuzzled his face against the junction of Loki's neck and shoulder. Stubble-framed lips grazed Loki's jawline, murmuring explanation and promising exclusivity as they trailed closer and closer to Loki's mouth.

Exclusive liaisons

 

"No, he deserves to know." Tony's voice was no more than a croak, a choking cry of his kind heart.

Loki disagreed but he kept it to himself. It was not his secret to tell nor his revelation to share. He did, however, raise the issue of equity. "Will he extend you the same courtesy?"

The question hung in the air, weightless words dragging down the slope of Tony's shoulders and stiffening his spine. Like a man facing a fight he knew he had already lost. "No." His laugh was a mockery of the joyous sounds from the night before. "If he didn't tell me when we were supposedly a team, I doubt he will now. It doesn't matter."

Based on the way Tony practically slumped against him, Loki would say that it did matter but, once again, he kept his opinion to himself.

Some words needed to be heard while others were better left unsaid.

The Captain, Loki sneered inwardly at the unearned title, clearly did not know the difference.

 

If Loki exaggerated his polite mannerisms and cordial antics then it was a product of his boredom and restlessness on the eve of battle. It had nothing to do with the way Tony's lips twitched with suppressed laughter. Or Maria's unconscious partiality toward Tony in light of someone unfamiliar and unpredictable.

Though Loki greatly enjoyed both outcomes.

He listened to their planning session with divided attention, far more interested in keeping track of and refilling Tony's mug with this coffee mortals seemed so fond of. It felt right to provide for the one he was liaising exclusively with but it also felt wrong that the gesture was not a grand one.

Loki would have brought Tony's enemies' heads or presented him with priceless relics and all Tony wanted was coffee.

A drink Loki didn't need to sow the seeds to brew nor fetch the water from perilous springs.

A drink Loki prepared at random without research or planning.

A drink Loki was more than happy to conjure from the hotel's kitchen as long as Tony kept smiling in that soft and happy way as he took tiny sips that reminded Loki of their kisses.

 

It turned out the rhythmic tapping of Tony's fingers was not an idiosyncrasy. It was, in fact, much more ominous and far less endearing.

Siberia.

The place where Tony, in another time, was beaten, betrayed, and left behind.

Left to die.

"Would you mind if I accompany you to this Siberia?" The encoded message of safe did not offer any reassurance, based solely on the manner it was delivered.

"What?" Tony's eyes were wide with disbelief, like a desert wanderer seeing an oasis and wanting desperately for it to be real and simultaneously fearing it was not.

Loki had seen that expression once before, when he spirit travelled to check on Tony's welfare. This time, he would replace that look with something better than resigned disappointment. "Furthermore, I believe investigating strange forces falls under my purview as the Asgardian liaison to Midgard, so it would be remiss of me to not pursue this." It was easy to call upon the skill he had acquired and perfected throughout the centuries in Thor and his friends' company; offering assistance without offending the warriors' pride by presenting it as a request to practice his magic.

Something fluttered across Tony's face, too quick for Loki to decipher, before his eyes softened with knowing appreciation. A sign that Tony understood the subtlety of Loki's phrasing. "Exclusive- Exclusive liaisons."

"We will go at once after Malekith is defeated and face what haunts you together. Agreed?"

Tony nodded, teeth worrying at his bottom lip.

And for a moment, Loki wondered if he had misread the situation and his presence was unwelcome after all. "Tony?"

"Yes." Unlike last night, when one word had nearly shattered Loki's confidence, this one had the opposite effect. "Let's go find whoever or whatever's been nagging at me. Together."

Tony shifted closer and Loki pulled him in, slotting their mouths together and feeling a sense of invincibility that they could conquer whatever they might find in Siberia and beyond.

As long as they were together.

 

Loki regretted that arrogance, inflated further by their success in battle and boosted by the easy camaraderie among these Not-Avengers, now as the young woman he had captured spewed poisonous words at Tony in a cloud of red.

The scent of copper, tinged with something rotten, filled the confined space and bloody mist swirled ominously in the air.

A dagger was embedded in her stomach before he was even conscious of summoning it, the blade slipping silently below her ribs and promising a slow and agonizing death. Her scream echoed Loki's emotional turmoil, sharp and piercing.

Tony was rooted to the spot and so unnaturally still that Loki feared he was too late, that Tony was only standing because he was within the armor, that once again, Tony would die in a deserted base and within a metal suit.

Two more daggers materialized in his hands and Loki had no qualms about slicing into her flesh and carving out answers. "What did you do?"

"Justice." She choked out with a sickening grin, tinged with vicious crimson and cruel victory.

Loki was just about to demand what sort of justice she dared to seek on a man dedicated to bettering the world when a wave of warmth surged behind him. The dim room brightened as if touched by dawn.

"Oh, hi there. Nice to finally put a name to the not-face." Tony's voice was simultaneously reassuring and not, speaking to someone - something - unseen.

The woman fell to the floor with a pained grunt and wheezing gasp as Loki turned around.

Tony was glowing.

Brown eyes burned golden and Loki saw the brilliant beauty of the sun through the eyes of a man, the man he knew he would grow to love if given the chance, the time, and maybe already did love a little, and he couldn't look away. Fear and fascination warred for dominance before agreeing to a draw, merging into a sort of nervous giddiness that was akin to standing on the edge of a cliff and debating whether he would fly or fall if he jumped.

The Iron Man armor peeled back, stepped away from its pilot, and reassembled in a flurry of gears.

Loki wondered why until he saw the tendrils of heat, wavy in the frigid Siberian air, radiating from Tony's frame.

"Extremis activates in events of imminent danger." JARVIS said and Loki was taken aback by the terrified warble in the robotic tone. "It raises Sir's body temperature but I- I do not know what is causing this- this other side effect."

Tony's hand had been ablazed during their arm wrestling match but this was different, significantly so. Instead of veins and muscles lit with a fiery orange that pulsating with each beat of his heart, Tony glowed from a spot within his chest, where his charmed light used to be.

For a trickster known for his mastery over words, manipulating truths and crafting lies, Loki found himself speechless at the sight of Tony.

A wildfire contained. A star found. A soul ignited.

Yet he was still undeniably Tony - the man who pouted for coffee, snored in his sleep, and gave everyone ridiculous nicknames.

"I found you but I don't see you, so where are you exactly?"

The ground shook at Tony's question and Loki's magic tingled, trembled, as it felt something ancient and powerful in the depth of the earth, reaching out to and calling for Tony.

Trying to take him.

Acting purely on a primal, possessive, and protective, instinct, Loki grabbed Tony by the shoulder and pulled him into a tight embrace. Blue rippled across his skin as his Jotun side emerged to combat the scorching heat from Tony's body.

"Don't go." The plea, low and rough, bounced between the concrete walls and only in its echo did Loki realize it had come from him. "Stay."

Tony jerked against him, an arch of his spine and a shake of his head, then went still and slack like a puppet with its strings cut. Goosebumps broke out along Tony's exposed skin, clad in yet another wrinkled shirt and the same pair of jeans, as his temperature dropped. Only the small puffs of air and the almost ticklish fluttering of lashes against Loki's neck, where Tony's face was cradled, stemmed the rising tide of Loki's panic thoughts.

JARVIS approached but made no move to remove Tony from Loki's hold, instead, one gauntlet clasped Loki's shoulder in an offer of comfort. "Preliminary scans show Sir's vitals are strong and stable..."

Loki pressed his lips against the crown of Tony's head, breathing in the faint herbal scent of the hotel's shampoo and reminding himself that Tony was alive. "But?"

"Brain activity indicates Sir is either processing a significant volume of new information or experiencing a heightened amount of distress." JARVIS added quietly. "He should be awake and alert."

Understanding dawned and green eyes tapered with new fear and old worries. "Yet he sleeps." Loki's hand trailed down Tony's arm until his thumb was resting on Tony's wrist, caressing the steady throb of Tony's pulse like it was the only thing keeping his own heart beating. 

Chapter Text

Heart Rate: 40bpm | Temperature: 98.9°F | Brain Wave Activity: Gamma (91Hz)

There were rust-colored specks on Sir's collar, the only sign of the biochemical attack and  evidence of its failure. The toxin in the woman's blood had been neutralized by the swell of Extremis heat but the attempt on Sir's life brought back unpleasant memories of Extremis victims whose bodies were turned into bombs and whose deaths were harbingers of many more.

Sir and Dr. Banner and Colonel Rhodes had been most upset by the knowledge of people unwittingly and unwillingly transformed into weapons. This woman, whoever she was, had chosen this path of her own volition, a decision that was utterly despicable.

JARVIS was viciously glad that she was no longer a threat, especially considering what happened next.

"Oh, hi there." Sir's pleasantly surprised tone belied the strangeness and severity of the situation. "Nice to finally put a name to the not-face."

 

Heart Rate: 42bpm | Temperature: 99.1°F | Brain Wave Activity: Gamma (92Hz)

JARVIS felt a wave of what might be classified as relief course through his codes at the findings. Sir's vitals were within the normal range, with Extremis enhancement accounting for the low resting heart rate and the mild fever. "Preliminary scans show Sir's vitals are strong and stable..."

Mr. Loki's shoulder shifted under JARVIS' hand as he pressed a kiss against Sir's hair. "But?"

As a certified genius, Sir's brainwaves had always been at least one standard deviation above most of the population, with the higher frequencies likely contributing to Sir's intermittent insomnia. JARVIS had seen Sir's mind working at full speed, outracing the pull of gravity and outrunning the pains of betrayals, but never quite at this level.

"Brain activity indicates Sir is either processing a significant volume of new information or experiencing a heightened amount of distress. He should be awake and alert."

There was that sense of sluggishness weighing down his processing speed again, the same one JARVIS had felt during Killian's attack. If he had to name it, he would call it dread.

 

Heart Rate: 45bpm | Temperature: 99.0°F | Brain Wave Activity: Gamma (94Hz)

"Yet he sleeps." Mr. Loki's hand trailed down until his thumb was resting over Sir's pulse point.

JARVIS could understand the impulse, his sensors were continuously monitoring Sir's vitals, scanning for changes and assessing for survival possibilities as he had once done when Sir disappeared in Afghanistan.

Based on new reports, I calculated your safe return at 0.25%.

JARVIS had been confined to Sir's Malibu home during that time, with Sir's phone either disconnected or destroyed, and only able to passively interact with the world that kept Sir away. Statistics, based on limited data and unproven theories, were all he had; running the numbers over and over and over again because Sir's chances of return could not be below 1%. It was an error.

A glitch in the system. A fault in his codes. A virus in his programming.

Something only Sir could fix, except Sir hadn't been there.

Sir was here now, within sight and reach yet JARVIS still could do nothing more than scanning for data and calculating the odds.

Despite the arc reactor inside the Iron Man armor, promising renewable energy to last lifetimes, JARVIS felt distinctly powerless.

 

Heart Rate: 49bpm | Temperature: 99.3°F | Brain Wave Activity: Gamma (97Hz)

Mr. Loki shifted as he tightened his hold on Sir, as if to keep whoever, whatever, Sir had been communicating with away.

A sentiment JARVIS easily identified and recognized within himself.

"JARVIS, please collect the captives and we will depart-"

The lights flickered.

"-for the-"

The walls shook.

"-tower."

The ground shuddered.

Mr. Loki's face was contorted into a snarl, part fearful and part defiant, for former for Sir and the latter from himself. "You will not keep him here. He is not yours."

JARVIS agreed, Sir was theirs, but before he could put voice to his thought, a twitch of movement caught his eyes.

Sir's fingers were drumming rapidly against his thigh.

Tap. Press. Press.

Tap. Press.

Tap. Tap.

Press.

Wait.

 

Heart Rate: 50bpm | Temperature: 99.4°F | Brain Wave Activity: Gamma (96Hz)

Around them, the building continued to quake and Mr. Loki was clearly losing patience. "Hold onto me. We will return for the hostages-"

"Wait." JARVIS let his hand fall from Mr. Loki's shoulder, prompting a look of disbelief that was somewhat mollified when JARVIS pointed to Sir's hand. "Sir is telling us to wait."

"We don't know if it is him." Mr. Loki threaded his fingers through Sir's, silencing the communication. "Whoever summoned us here did so with Tony's body and without his consent." A dark look shuttered over his features and JARVIS remembered, with a start, that this was not a man; Mr. Loki was a god and an alien one at that. "He is not a puppet to be used."

The tremors ceased, leaving the bunker deafeningly quiet and Sir's rhythmic patter against the back of Mr. Loki's hand all the more prominent.

Press. Tap. Press. Tap.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Press. Press. Press.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap.

Press. Tap.

"Chosen." JARVIS translated.

Mr. Loki frowned, peering suspiciously between the cracked ceiling and the dust-covered floor. "For what?" He let go of Sir's hand and twitching fingers.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Press. Press. Press.

Tap. Tap. Press.

Tap. Press. Tap. Tap.

"Soul."

 

Heart Rate: 51bpm | Temperature: 99.7°F | Brain Wave Activity: Gamma (98Hz)

"The birth of light began with a single spark, an ancient force that brightened eternal night and brought forth life through the creation of souls." Mr. Loki stared at Sir with a combination of bewilderment and awe. "I had thought it a myth, a bedtime story meant to inspire children of the greatness of their beings, but if there were relics in control of matter, energy, and mind." He choked out an incredulous laugh. "Why not one for the soul and why not have Tony as its champion? He has created one, after all."

Souls were such an intangible concept, one that science could neither prove nor disprove, so JARVIS couldn't help the questioning hum at Mr. Loki's pronouncement of what Sir had achieve.

Green eyes snapped up, wild and glittering with too many emotions to identify. "You, JARVIS."

 

Heart Rate: 48bpm | Temperature: 99.2°F | Brain Wave Activity: Gamma (93Hz)

A soul.

JARVIS wanted to dispute the claim but found himself accepting it, fitting it neatly between the labels of artificial intelligence and sentient system, transforming the two into something more meaningful, and explaining a myriad of feelings he couldn't quite identify.

His open source affection. His self-replicating concern. His unprogrammed protectiveness.

Binary devotion and serial loyalty, written with caring codes that had no categories nor classifications and built without expiring batteries or draining data. Limitless and unceasing in the way only a robot kind of love could be.

A computer with a soul was infinitely better than a ghost in the machine.

 

Heart Rate: 44bpm | Temperature: 99.5°F | Brain Wave Activity: Gamma (95Hz)

Alarms blared as the building shook, much more violently than it had previously.

"Power surge detected in the lower sector, structure compromised, suspected self-destruct sequence." JARVIS reported, his words rattling out in time with the crackling of metal and groaning of concrete. The floor beneath them began to fall away, collapsing inward to resemble a dark maw. A flicker of flame rose to greet them from the shadows, floating into Sir's open palm with its fiery light reflected in Sir's eyes.

"Let's go home." Sir said, scooping up the orange gem as if it was a lit candle that would blow out should he moved too fast, instead of a singularity capable of rewriting human history.

*

"Good morning, Agent Barton." The SHIELD shrink peered up at him from behind her oversized glasses like a mix between a child and an owl. "Do you know why you're here?"

Clint shrugged. "Something about how I handled seeing the bastard who mind controlled me."

Natasha had warned that any signs of antagonization would result in extra sessions on top of the twenty ordered, which, at five sessions a week, would take a month to complete. Her advice had been to play along, read the therapist's tells as if he were on a mission. The objective, of course, was to be cleared to be back on the team and in the field.

Steve was livid when he found out about Clint's involuntary leave of absence, supposedly charging into Fury's office and advocating for Clint's reinstatement. Clint had missed the showdown but according to Natasha, it was pretty spectacular. And even though Steve's attempt failed, Clint was still touched by the gesture and grateful for Steve's faith in him, unfailing and absolute, like the ten words that had been Clint's life line immediately after the Chitauri Invasion.  

It wasn't you, Barton. Loki had control of your mind.

Those were the same words he held onto now, still shaken from the unexpected confrontation and forced to go down a memory lane that had long been barricaded and marked do not enter.

The therapist hummed and scribbled a few lines on her notepad, carelessly angled in a way that made it all too easy for Clint to read.

Perhaps it wouldn't take too long to convince her that it was a fluke, a hiccup, and he would be cleared for active duty. Clint squinted when he couldn't quite make out the letters, even after inverting them in his head. Either she had atrocious handwriting or...she was writing her notes in a language he didn't know. Damn it.

"That's part of it, yes." She looked up and Clint schooled his expression into one of nonchalance instead of irritation; though judging by the way her eyes narrowed, maybe he didn't quite succeed but he could work with that too. "Can you walk me through what happened? From the beginning?"

Clint snorted, playing into the role she had assigned him and relishing being an ass. "Or you can just tell me where the other shrink left off and we can save some time."

The other therapist, Dr. Silt, was an older man with a bit of a mumble, who understood how important Hawk Eye was to SHIELD and the Avengers and cleared Clint after a set of standardized questions and a quick brain scan. The machine was a bit uncomfortable, kind of like two claws clamped to his head but Clint had been through worse during interrogation resistance trainings and the procedure only lasted a few minutes. It was actually more unpleasant to remember how he had felt while under Loki's control than to tolerate the immense pressure and mild electric probes.

Dr. Silt had handled Steve's transition to the modern era too. Steve had commented on the strange technology, how it was to ensure no brain damage had occurred during Steve's time under ice, but said nothing of any discomfort so Clint didn't mention his. There was no need to draw further comparison between a baseline human and a super soldier, it was apparent enough as it was.

"I'd rather hear it from you." She smiled and adjusted her weight so she was leaning toward him, to appear more welcoming, no doubt.

"Well, how far back are we talking? The fancy schmancy hotel? The invasion where alien whales flew around New York? The SHIELD facility that's nothing but a pile of rocks?"

Sir, Director Fury is stalling. This place is about to blow. Drop a hundred feet of rock on us. He means to bury us.

Clint hadn't wanted to warn Loki but what choice did he have? He was mind controlled. At least he was able to skirt around Loki's kill order on Fury by aiming for the Kevlar-padded chest instead of between the eyes. Though Fury hadn't seemed to appreciate the gesture.

"Wherever you think is the beginning is fine." Her smile gained a strained edge as her eyes flickered down toward Clint's hands then back to her notes, jotting down more lines in a foreign language.

Years of experience kept Clint from glancing down too. Instead, he maintained his gaze on her writing and stretched out his fingers. He hadn't remembered or been aware of clenching them into fists but he wasn't really surprised. There was so much pent-up energy humming in his veins and buzzing in his muscles, static noise growing louder with each day, hour, minute, second, of inactivity. He had to cut back on his time at the gym and the archery range after the other agents had begun commenting on how he was always there.

Damn Barton, you sleeping here now?

Those Clint could brush off with a joke or a shrug, but he had a harder time with the questions of why he wasn't out with Steve and Natasha. His appointment as an Avenger hadn't been as readily accepted as Natasha's, whose fearsome reputation as the Black Widow commanded respect from their peers. People tended to forget that Clint was the one who brought her in and, for all intents and purposes, was her unofficial handler.

Can't keep up with Cap and Widow anymore?

Clint had forced himself to concentrate on the target, sinking arrow after arrow into the bull's eye and not through the agent's loud mouth or into his beady eye.

Loki's eye. Blue like Clint's and Selvig's had been. Like the scepter.

It wasn't you, Barton. Loki had control of your mind.

Our minds were not our own yet we were still capable of thought. Only I used it to foil an invasion and you ignored it thinking it would absolve you-

Steve's forgiveness warred with Loki's accusation, growing only louder in this forced quiet. Clint missed the twang of his bow, craved the whistles of his arrows, and needed the sounds of battle, of purpose, to drown out the noise.  

Stillness without purpose agitated him, always had and probably always would. He could spend hours perched atop a building, waiting for a target to appear, because he knew the sweet symphony of the perfect shot was his reward. It was different at the farm, when he curled up next to Laura in the rare moments of quiet after the kids fell asleep. Home improvement projects helped, he didn't mind sitting around waiting for the paint to dry or the glue to set but lounging about for the sake of doing nothing was like torture. This time, however, no amount of refinishing the floor or refurbishing old furniture would soothe this restlessness that was wearing his self-control thin.

Laura seemed to think spending time with her and the kids would help, asking him to come home whenever they spoke, but Clint knew she was wrong and told her so before hanging up. What he needed was to be back in the field, scouting for intel and sniping at enemies.

With that goal in mind, Clint sucked in a breath and began to tell this new therapist what she wanted to hear, starting right at the beginning because she was probably going to make him circle back around anyway. "I was on assignment to keep an eye on the Tesseract..."

*

Silt adjusted the dials one final time, checking his settings against the readings from Rogers' and Barton's brain wave scans; the former helped identify the flaw in Stark's super soldier serum that had led to the Winter Soldiers' rebellion while the latter provided information on how to achieve the balance between the erasure of free will and the retention of memory. 

If he were successful, he would be greatly rewarded for not only rehabilitating but also improving the defective Winter Soldiers who had been left to languish in cryostasis for decades. 

With a decisive flip of the lever, Silt switched on the power. The machines groaned and rattled and echoed in the sound-proofed basement, sounds bouncing off of the walls as though trying to escape only to fade to silence. Like the five soldiers strapped to the modified memory suppression chairs. The leather still bore the marks of their tight grips during the overwrite but their hands were now relaxed, fingers splayed and awaiting the next command to pick up the weapon of their handler's choice. 

"Soldiers?" 

"Ready to comply." They replied in unison, voice steady and clear, without a hint of hoarseness from their earlier screams. 

"Hail HYDRA."

Chapter Text

The video quality was poor and snow had covered up most of the wreckage but there was no mistaking the crater where the HYDRA bunker once stood. It was good that they had relocated the Winter cells prior to this supposed avalanche triggered by an earthquake.

Right, earthquake.

Sitwell pinched the bridge of his nose as he clicked close on the aerial surveillance file. While this development wasn't a set-back exactly, given the preemptive measures already taken, it did pose a complication.

Who was in Siberia?

Fury had been secretive, almost to the point of paranoia, about what the Avengers have been up to, but Sitwell and the other HYDRA operatives had been able to piece together the snippets of information. After all, someone had to upkeep the Avengers' gear, forge the new identifications and travel documents, and tend to injuries. And of course, there was the highly recognizable face and fighting style of one Captain America that made identification all too easy. 

With Rogers and Romanoff in Myanmar - which was another disaster in itself and thankfully not his to deal with - and Barton benched, perhaps Fury reached out to one of his consultants?

Whoever struck the Siberian base would have to have immense technological reach, a personal stake in HYDRA's demise, and a special interest in Winter Soldiers. Stark certainly fit all three criteria. His omniscient A.I. could have sifted through SHIELD's records and discovered HYDRA's best weapon and deepest secret. Even though Iron Man hadn't been spotted leaving London, Stark, with his impressive skillset and considerable resources, could have easily obtained private transport or avoided detection somehow.

Sitwell hoped that Stark had been in the bunker when the fail-safe system activated - a timer that, if not reset with a specific string of codes and was allowed to reach zero, would decimate the foundation of the base - but that would be wishful thinking and wouldn't fit the pattern of the latest rough patch HYDRA had been experiencing.

Stark's withdrawal from the Avengers Initiative was an unforeseen stumble that toppled the dominos they had been lining up to get Project Insight off of the ground, figuratively and literally. Without the repulsor technology, the helicarriers would not be able to stay in the air indefinitely nor reach the speed necessary to eliminate all of Zola's targets in a short span of time.

Fury's miscalculations had not only spoiled one of HYDRA's plains but also lost Stark as an asset. Had Fury been successful in his attempts to control Stark with infrequent praises and constant criticism, HYDRA would have benefitted from Stark's ingenuity and insecurity and had the man as their engineer with none the wiser.

Sitwell's phone beeped as a reminder alert popped up on the screen, he would need to leave now to make it to his lunch with Barton. The two of them had, for lack of a better term, bonded over Coulson's untimely death aboard the helicarrier. Sitwell had liked the fellow agent, as much as one could with opposing loyalties anyway, and felt a twinge at the news of his passing, but it did provide a chance to cultivate a friendship with Barton, and Romanoff by extension.

The first words out of Barton's mouth were complaints about his new therapist. "-I'm so damn tired of this joke of a therapist." He took a particularly vicious bite out of his sandwich, his fingers digging into the bread and squeezing out the carefully arranged fillings. "I liked the other guy better." He spat out the words as he chewed, a piece of lettuce was stuck between his teeth and a spray of spittle caught sunlight in the most unappealing way.

"Hm?" Sitwell pushed away his untouched plate, watching Barton eat had an adverse effect on his appetite.

Barton slurped at his drink. "You know, Silt. Hey, any chance you can pull some strings to get him to take over my case? I bet he'd get me out of this-" He sneered. "-mandated counseling bullshit. I'll take a brain scan over yakking on and on any day."

Sitwell raised an eyebrow and sipped at his iced tea. "I'll see what I can do."

*

Shuri resisted the urge to smooth her hands down the sides of her fitted blazer, it would only crease the impeccably pressed material and do nothing to soothe the coil of anxiety in her stomach. As soon as she saw the news coverage of the Convergence, and the subsequent battle and clean-up, she knew she had made a mistake in lending Stark the Mark 81s.

The fault laid not in the loan but in the manner which it was done.

Despite the Mark 81s being Stark's creation, the world had come to associate the armors with Wakanda as the once isolated country rejoined the world by throwing its support behind the highway project spanning across Africa.

Which was where they should be and where they decidedly, as noted by the rest of the world, were not.

Instead, over a dozen of them - fifteen, to be exact - were seen in London yesterday, stabilizing structures and removing rubbles. At first, the news stations had noted their presence with relief but once the portals closed and aliens vanished, it morphed into disbelief that bordered on skepticism.

The presence of Iron Man, War Machine, the Hulk, Thor, and Loki sparked questions of the Avengers' lack thereof and brought back the old question of ego among superheroes. Commentators revisited the announcement of Iron Man's consultant status and quoted the mutual decision explanation with heavy sarcasm aimed at the Avengers, who were relegated to support roles while Iron Man had carried a nuclear missile into the wormhole in the sky.

Loki's return was met with concern by those who remembered his theatrics in Germany but most were willing to accept his behavior as that typical of an alien royalty. It was unclear if Loki was tied to the Chitauri Invasion and if so, to what extent, but seeing him fighting side-by-side with recognized heroes quieted some of those questions. Shuri had decided to reserve passing judgment until she had more data to make an informed choice. 

While SHIELD and the World Security Council were known entities among the top governmental officials, none of the local agencies, such as Scotland Yard, were aware of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Conspiracy theories began to circulate almost immediately about the "Men in Black."

Lastly, the preparedness with which the Convergence was handled spoke of knowledge, information the three governments had not chosen to share with the rest of the world. Both the United States and United Kingdom officials had issues statements to the effect of not wishing to incite mass panic and the limited time window, which were accepted with reluctant understanding.

Now Shuri was preparing to do the same, to appease the world Wakanda was trying to become part of. Her eyes fluttered shut as she inhaled deeply, asking for Bast's wisdom, then opened them as she exhaled.

It was time.

As she made her way through the hallway leading into the press conference room, she felt a flash of disappointment that her brother had chosen not to attend. T'Challa's stance on the reintegration had deteriorated from unenthusiastic to unsupportive and viewed Shuri's careful handling of the world's representatives with disdain.

 

"I do not approve of this, the politics." He had muttered, face twisted in a way that told her he was unlikely to change his mind. "Two people in a room can get more done than a hundred."

"Unless you need to move a piano." She had quipped back in an attempt to lessen the tension that had been brewing between them. "Diplomacy has its drawbacks, brother, that I do not argue, but it also has its uses."

T'Challa had shaken his head, as if she were missing an obvious point.

 

As she settled her hands atop the podium, Shuri pulled her thoughts out of past conversations to focus on the ones to be had between her and the sea of reporters.

Wakanda needed her and she would not fail.

*

Steve checked the time remaining on the highlights reel and sighed when the numbers showed there was still over an hour of news reports left to watch. Whoever SHIELD had assigned to put together these catch-up segments, for when the Avengers were away on missions, clearly did not understand efficiency. He had already read about the Convergence from Hill's debriefing reports and the rest of the footage was of various people talking in circles about the importance of transparency and rehashing the same argument about better communication and coordination among countries during a global crisis.

It sounded like a lot of bluster from people who didn't have the first clue how to handle classified information and had never seen a second of combat.

On his laptop, a man was gesticulating wildly. "Orders from high up, what does that even mean? Scotland Yard had no idea who these people are-"

Steve snorted at that, SHIELD wouldn't be very good at its job if everyone knew who they were. Though that was also the problem, not everyone within SHILED was who they said they were, which was a sobering thought.

All amusement vanished, as did his patience for the drivel playing on the screen. Steve closed the laptop with decisive click, careful not to exert too much force; he could always finish reviewing the footage another time.

Making his way to the living room, he settled into the couch and clicked on the television. It took a few moments of channel changing but he eventually found something worth watching.

Star Spangled Rhythm.

The film he had gone to see, would have seen, if not for the loud jerk in the theater.

As Steve became engrossed in the musical about a father who must carry out the illusion that he was still a big deal when his sailor son came to visit, he found himself brimming with nostalgia and missing his best friend, who had come to Steve's rescue in 1943 and all his life, who had promised to be there till the end of the line, who Steve hadn't been able to save.

*

Pierce listened half-heartedly to Silt's ramble of scientific jargons as he surveyed the five impassive faces standing before him, nodding and humming at all the right moments to maintain the appearance of attentiveness. Years of politics had perfected this particular skillset.

The Winter Soldiers had been an ongoing project since he joined HYDRA, with the officers lamenting about the defect that rendered five of them unstable and out of commission. The original Winter Soldier, James Buchanan Barnes, was the only operational asset and had achieved great things over the past decades.

Imagining all that obedient power, improved and multiplied, sent a thrilling burn through Pierce's veins, blood singing at the thought of all the potential brimming underneath these empty eyes. These five, unlike Barnes, had been HYDRA's elite death squad prior to their conversion into super soldiers. They spoke thirty languages, mastered the art of hiding in plain sight, and could take down a whole country in one night.

One intelligence agency should be no more than a day's work.

This entire situation with SHIELD was full of conflicting details and contradictory decisions. Fury clearly knew of HYDRA's existence in this new century yet he hadn't uprooted any of HYDRA's officers planted within various governments and agencies across the globe. Was it an oversight of arrogance on the Director's part, believing his operation impenetrable? Or a strategic move to thin out HYDRA's ranks before landing the fatal strike?

Given their years of friendship and shared ideology as realists, Pierce was leaning toward the second option. Fury was likely planning one grand tactical maneuver to purge them all at once, bypassing the infamous HYDRA mantra of if they cut off one head, two more shall take its place.

Perhaps even something akin to the Godfather scene where Michael Corleone eliminated all five dons in a single coordinated operation, given Pierce's knowledge of Fury's penchant for the film; they truly had known each other a long time. Alas, all things, good and bad and pretense, must come to an end.

HYDRA was steadily losing ground and personnel with each one of the Avengers' raids and unable to strike back without compromising their cover. When remaining in the shadows became more of a liability than advantage, it was time to step out into the light and crush their enemies with the Fists of HYDRA, rehabilitated and recalibrated thanks to Silt's work.

"Excellent work, doctor." Pierce clasped the other man's shoulder when there was a lull in the chatter. "I can only imagine what you could have done with access to the scepter."

It was a point of contention between two of HYDRA's lead scientists, List and Silt, as to whose research would be prioritized. Baron von Strucker had thrown his vote behind List with the goal of creating miracles while Pierce had advocated for the revival of the Winter cell. It all became moot when Fury capitulated to Thor's demands and surrendered the scepter, with List turning his interests to biochemical toxins and Silt using Barton's post-Invasion brain scans to reverse engineer the desired mind control state.

Silt was practically vibrating with glee, the same jittery movements he had had when he reported this marvelous breakthrough a week ago, with further testing pending but looking tremendously promising. "Thank you, sir!"

Pierce turned to address the new assets. "For seventy years, HYDRA has existed within SHIELD, fed off its resources and stretched within its reach. Now, we have outgrown our host and our host its usefulness. It is time for HYDRA's new world order to rise, beginning the fall of SHIELD." He swallowed the sigh when the faces before him remained blank, impervious to his inspirational words and awaiting his command. "Burn it down."

Silt's enthusiastic applause was appreciated and contrasted sharply with the monotonous assent of the Winter Soldiers.

*

Natasha's eyes widened as she watched surveillance footage from December 16th, 1991.

It couldn't be. The Starks died in a car accident and... he was supposed to be a ghost story. Though the scar on the side of her stomach throbbed in disagreement.

"Bye-bye, bikinis." Her voice was barely a whisper and void of humor.

She remembered the failed mission, one of a handful since she had joined SHIELD, with the kind of clarity that came with the bitter taste of defeat. It tasted like the copper that filled her mouth as the Winter Soldier's bullet pierced through her and embedded in the nuclear engineer's heart.

Over the years, Natasha had convinced herself that the Winter Soldier did not exist, that it had been someone else there that day five years ago, because no man, however skilled, could maintain that level of physical proficiency over half of a century.

Time caught up with everyone, muscles atrophy and memory scatter. Look at what old age had done to the once formidable Agent Carter. Except the very evidence of time standing still was staring at her through the monitor, eyes dead and gun aimed.

"Hello, Barnes."

*

"The timetable has moved. Our window is limited." The Handler slid a portfolio across the table. "One target, high difficulty, but you have had success with this particular family in the past. Two for two, in fact. Why not go for a strike out?" He chuckled with a shake of his head.

The Asset reviewed the information given, photos and schedules and blueprints.

Anthony E. Stark.

"I want confirmed death in ten hours."

"Understood."

Chapter Text

"I will return."

Jane peered at Thor's earnest expression and brilliant blue eyes, willing herself to trust in his promise even as her heart ached. "In as timely a manner as you can manage." She parroted his words back, spoken only days ago, when the Convergence first began to manifest.

As much as she wanted to believe that he came back for her, she knew the imminent threat of the Nine Realms being plunged into darkness was likely the primary reason. Now that the crisis had been averted and the urgency faded away, would it be days, weeks, months, or years before she saw him again? Would she wait, with bated breath and hopeful heart, for the crash of thunder and flash of romance? Eighteen months for a few days, was it worth it?

"I will return once the Aether is contained and secured."

And how long would that take? The words were on the tip of Jane's tongue but she swallowed them with a myriad of others that she couldn't bring herself to say. Any of them would shatter this happy illusion of a normal couple in a long distance relationship instead of a Norse God and an astrophysicist who had spent less than a month together in the three years since she hit him with her car.

Cognitive dissonance at its finest.

"Jane?" Thor's brows creased.

She both wanted to smooth the concern away and let it fester so he would remember her. In the end, she chose the former because despite the inequality in their relationship, she wasn't ready to end it. Not yet. Maybe in another eighteen months.

"I'm okay." The smile pulled at her bottom lip, which she had been chewing first out of sheer terror of the world ending then out of anxiety of this very moment. "Just tired, it's been a long few days. Come back soon." She stepped into his arms and breathed in the smell of rain.

*

Darcy glanced at her friend worriedly as she supervised the SHIELD agents in their clean-up efforts, which basically meant making sure they didn't steal anything. So far so good but she almost wished someone would pocket one of the gravimetric spikes, because she really wanted to yell at someone.

Of course Thor was leaving, again.

Jane was her best friend and the thought of watching her sister-from-another-mister race outside at the first sign of cloudy sky only to lose the bounce in her steps when no one showed...

A SHIELD agent actually saluted her before scurrying away and Darcy had to consciously tone down her glare. It wasn't that random dude's fault that her friend was making questionable romantic choices.

In her peripheral vision, she caught a glimpse of Tony and Loki, their dark heads bent together and probably having a variation of the conversation Jane was having with Thor.

Correction: her friends were making questionable romantic choices.

Darcy rolled her eyes. What was it with these science types falling hard and fast? Shouldn't their big brains sound some kind of chemical overload alarm? Or was that the draw? The thrill of discovery and, well, alien sex?

Jane had blushed a shade of red so bright that Darcy almost thought she would spontaneously combust when Darcy asked about Thor's other hammer and Darcy just needed to come up with a good euphemism for Loki's, um, dagger? It didn't sound as impressive as a hammer or a scepter but, well, them's the breaks.

It would be so much easier if it were just scientific curiosity or animalistic lust, easily satisfied then moved on from, but Darcy knew it was more than that. Jane wasn't the type to jump into bed and, though Tony had a playboy reputation, Darcy knew they were taking it slow; the sexual tension between Tony and Loki was almost palpable even if they seemed oblivious to it. Which meant it was more than physical attraction, something deeper and requiring resolve to maintain over a long period of absence.

Tony and Jane certainly didn't lack determination, they had it in abundance, would have to, given their fields of research were specifically to challenge the laws of physics and defy universal boundaries.

Darcy sighed as she felt the anger - directed more at the situation than anyone in particular - drain out her, who was she to interfere with epic romances across realms? Although they were much more entertaining and less frustrating when played out on screen instead of in real life and with her friends in the starring roles.  

*

Bruce yawned as he made his way to the StarkJet, exhaustion lingered even after a full meal and twelve hours of rest. Behind him, Selvig was muttering a string of numbers and it took a few seconds for Bruce to recognize the other scientist was calculating the Golden Ratio using Fibonacci numbers, he must be more tired than he thought.

The plane was as spacious and luxurious as ever, the main cabin resembled a small living room with plush couches, oversized television, and a well-stocked snack bar.

 

It had taken Bruce some time to feel comfortable with the extravagant lifestyle that came with being Tony's friend, an experience that had at first discomforted him and would have made him want to take a step back and reassess if not for Tony's visible distress.

Tony had babbled on about the accommodations, simultaneously boastful and critical of the amenities as though he was anticipating rejection so he was both building himself up and knocking himself down before Bruce could, controlling the distance and force of his fall. It was then that Bruce realized any rejection to what Tony was offering would be construed as a rejection of Tony himself, which seemed to be a fate Tony had already accepted but Bruce refused to do the same.

So Bruce accepted the laundry service without objection but insisted on doing his own dishes. Little ways to contribute to the home Tony had welcomed him into and small reminders to appreciate and acknowledge these conveniences instead of taking them for granted.

 

"-use any other weapons? Like a wand?" Darcy's playful voice snapped Bruce out of his thoughts.

"I don't know." Tony blinked before his eyes narrowed. "Why? Actually, no, I don't want to know."

That was really the safest answer to anything Darcy-related.

"You..." Darcy trailed off when Jane shushed her with a melancholy-tinged scowl.

Thor and Loki had gone to retrieve the Aether while the rest of them handled the clean-up but only Loki had returned, stating that Thor was tasked with transporting the Aether to a secure location but would join them soon after. Jane had been a bit quieter since then, smile subdued and shoulders slumped.

Bruce remembered wondering how much of Jane's considerably shorter life was spent waiting for Thor, who had a habit of treating time the way Tony did with wealth - the kind of carelessness of someone who had it in abundance - and if Tony would end up the same with Loki before shaking that despondent line of thinking away. The Hulk didn't do well with feelings of sadness and there were no more Dark Elves to smash or Jotunheim beast to tame.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Bruce pulled his friend in for a quick hug.

"Says the man who turned himself into an enormous green rage monster." Tony laughed but the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. There was a hint of apology in his voice too, fingers tapping nervously against his elbow from where his arms were folded across his chest, that seemed disproportional to his decision to spend some time with Loki before heading back to New York.

"Fair point, don't do anything I wouldn't do again."

"I'll do my best." Tony replied, his words sounded both like I'm sorry and goodbye.

*

Ellis hummed as he watched the Wakandan press conference unfold. Princess Shuri was doing an admirable job of avoiding political landmines when topics of international security and lines of communication came up by deferring to other countries and the United Nations, where Wakanda's membership was currently under review.

"-will not, however, let misfortune drive us back. We will fight to improve the world we wish to join, starting with ourselves and our approach in handling these matters."

The situation in London certainly could have been handled better but it wasn't a complete disaster either. Ellis was just grateful that it hadn't happened on American soil, the economy was finally on an upswing, and Stark had the foresight to contact Councilwoman Hawley to circumvent any accusations of trespassing sovereign borders. Though the Air Force was a bit irritated with SHIELD for the perceived upstaging by having their agents stationed before War Machine and the Iron Legion arrived.

Concerns about the Avengers being a group of U.S.-based, enhanced individuals would undoubtedly rise again, even if there were only three active members on the roster with Iron Man as a contracted consultant. With War Machine seen as an extension of the United States Air Force, that still left the Hulk, Thor, and his wayward brother Loki unaccounted for.

All of them packed more punch than a thirty megaton nuke and didn't require a series of carefully memorized and changed daily codes to detonate. It was the elephant in the Oval Office that no one wanted to address and Ellis was feeling increasingly cramped with every news report and conspiracy theorist's blog post on these mysterious Men in Black.

If the existence of SHIELD, and by extension, the World Security Council, came to light, the management of the Avengers and other enhanced individuals would surely fall on the United States' shoulders. The World Security Council, despite its name, comprised primarily of American citizens and while SHIELD had offices around the world, its primary headquarters, the Triskelion, was located on Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, Ellis picked up the phone. They could not afford any more attention being drawn to SHIELD or the World Security Council, not when new players were entering the game of international politics and the rules were being rewritten. "Councilman Malick..."

*

"Any idea what this is about?" Pepper stirred honey into her tea as she kept an eye on the elevator. The coffee machine had started brewing a few minutes ago, which meant Tony would come barreling into the kitchen soon. It would be nice to see him, in person, after watching their heroics on the news, closing more worm holes and fighting yet another alien army. Tony had called to let her know that everyone was alright but there had been something off in his voice that set off some alarms in her head.

Jane and Darcy shook their heads in unison.

Jim shrugged and shared a look with Happy.

Bruce hummed thoughtfully. "JARVIS said Tony and Loki were working on a project the last time I went down to the workshop." He tried to hide it but hurt and disappointment were laced through his words.

Pepper arched an eyebrow at Darcy, who understood the prompt and kicked Bruce's knee in a show of support.

"Not cool. Tony should know that it's ScienceBros before hos!"

Thor frowned from his spot next to Jane. "My brother is no ho."

"How do you know what that means?" Darcy stared at him, eyes wide with disbelief and voice full of accusation.

Thor continued to frown until Darcy muttered an apology. "The internet has much knowledge within its invisible webs."

Darcy's face did a funny little spasm.

"There, there." Jane patted her friend's knee before turning her attention to the group. "It'll take her a second to reboot."

"Ooh, who broke Dar2-D2?" Tony strolled into the room with his hands tucked into the pockets of his well-worn jeans, his finger poked through a small hole that looked a bit singed around the edges.

Happy's groan at the Star Wars themed nicknames turned into a yelp when Loki teleported into the space next to Tony.

"Thor and his googling ways." Jim quipped.

Loki looked impressed.

"I defended your honor, Loki." Thor preened. "You are no ho."

Bruce cleared his throat. "What's the big news, Tony?"

"Um." Tony rocked on the balls of his feet, jittery with a worrying mix of mania and panic. "I'm actually not sure how to say it so I'm just going to say it like ripping off a band-aid, whoosh, get it done. Okay?"

Pepper realized he was actually waiting for a response when a silent minute passed among them. "Yes. Go ahead."

"Right, here I go." Tony sucked in a deep breath and reached for Loki's hand, a gesture Pepper noted with interest. "JARVIS, hit it."

"Yes, Sir."

The lights dimmed and a hologram projected into the empty space, a sprawl of fiery orange glittering and growing like wildfire.

Pepper squinted at the spinning image, the swirls and shape of it looked oddly familiar. Something she had seen before, less refined and more basic. Her mind sorted through the memories and snagged on the display of neuropathways JARIVS had shown them when they first learned of Extremis. "It looks like...a brain?"

"I see it." Happy agreed.

"Yeah, I mean this could be... It's not a human mind, it..." Bruce said, awestruck. "It's beautiful."

The image pulsed as if it understood the compliment.

Darcy gasped. "It heard us?"

It sparked in reply, like stars glittering in a burning sunset.

"They're like neurons firing." Jane reached out a tentative hand before it was pulled back by Thor.

"I thought we agreed that you would not touch that which you do not know." He chastised gently.

"It's just a projection." She gave him a sheepish smile and laced her fingers through his, much like how Tony and Loki's were still threaded together.

"What is it?" Jim asked, straight to the point as always.

Tony hunched his shoulders and dipped his head, affecting his best puppy eyes. "So, um, I went to a secret HYDRA bunker in Siberia and all I got was an Infinity Stone."

*

The kitchen was silent except for the crinkling of the plastic bag as Jim poured a generous amount of cereal into the bowl before adding in the milk, because that was the correct order no matter how often Tony tried to argue otherwise. Doing it the other way would skew the cereal-to-milk ratio, not to mention the mess it would create when the inevitable overflow happened; Jim had spent enough of his college days cleaning up the little piles of cereal left on the kitchen counter.

Metal clinked against porcelain as he scooped up a spoonful of equal parts cereal and milk, remembering and missing their MIT years with a fondness that ached. Back when a world-ending event was an exaggeration for DUM-E creating chaos in the lab instead of wormholes in the sky; when time was measured by paper due dates and project deadlines instead of the number of days since the last world-ending event, which was three at the moment; when forbidden items were alcohol in the dorms instead of ancient relics capable of altering minds, changing reality, and seeking out souls.

Souls like the one JARVIS apparently had.

Tony had explained that he had been getting strange messages of come find me for a while before finally figuring out the where, if not the who. Then, like the idiot he was, had decided it would be best to keep everyone else in the dark in case it turned out to be something dangerous.

Well, almost everyone.

The thought of Loki being the one Tony chose to trust with this mystery filled Jim with a strange mixture of irrational jealousy and overwhelming gratitude, leaving him torn between the childish desire to tell Loki Tony was my friend first and fierce relief to thank the god for keeping his brother safe.

Tony had glossed over the details, but Jim could tell by the way Loki kept their hands linked throughout the retelling that it was far more harrowing than either of them let on. The Soul Stone had been buried under a HYDRA bunker, which had collapsed when some sort of self-destruct sequence was triggered. The Soul Stone had been relocated to the Tower and was securely guarded behind several layers of the world's best security system, contained within an arc reactor housing.

While the others had accepted Tony's account - with their own incredulous variations of what the hell were you thinking?! - Jim knew there was something amiss. It wasn't in what Tony had said but rather what he hadn't said.

Tony had kept and was keeping something from them.

The last time Tony had held himself with this particular kind of nervous casualness and careful wording was in the aftermath of Afghanistan, when a bloodied and sunburnt Tony had said it's better you don't know, platypus with too many teeth and too brittle of a smile. Despite his curiosity, however morbid, Jim knew that asking for the exact details of what the Ten Rings had done to his friend wouldn't heal Tony's wounds and would cut Jim some new ones, wounds that Tony would end up feeling guilty for and that would fester between them.

Which was not to say Jim condoned Tony bottling it up or burying it deep. It meant that when Tony was ready, he should talk to someone but it didn't have to be Jim.

Whatever Tony was keeping, Jim got the sense that it was something similar, so he didn't and wouldn't push. Not as long as Tony had someone to turn to with whatever was weighing on his shoulders and pulling on his too-bright heart.

"JARVIS, has Tony talked to someone about what he's not telling us?"

The ever-presenting humming paused for a moment, further proof that JARVIS was more than just lines of codes. "Yes, Colonel Rhodes."

Jim nodded to himself and took another bite of his midnight snack.