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Empires Of Wood

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--
So, Loki is a great big bag of dicks and Tony is going to punch him in his lying, life wrecking mouth and then shoot him and watch him bleed out just for kicks.

Ironman, Tony’s significantly shinier and greater appreciated half, dives right into another one of Nameless Supervillan Number 3’s electromagnetic whatsits and promptly falls to the ground twitching. Again. Because Loki is a bag of weeping sores who deserves an incessantly slow death.

Surprisingly, this is not because Loki whammed him with some magic hooplah that breaks the suit or turns it evil or makes it pulse rainbows instead of rays of destruction or something irritating but otherwise liveable like that. This is not because he made the Guild of Evil –and what even is that as a name besides stupid, what were they even thinking?- invulnerable or invincible or another type of in word. This is not because Steve has just been thrown into a building for the sixth time today which could have been avoided if Tony wasn’t say, lying on the ground in a tin can of uselessness. Loki is a great big bag of flaming turdsicles because Tony has just broken his favourite ridiculously complicated pocketwatch with the thousand visible moving parts and the impossible to replicate hour hand that has a hairline fracture shaped like a C and a minute hand that is always three behind.

Basically, the impossibly complicated, one of a kind, would know it in his sleep Tony loves it so well watch is in fucking pieces and Tony is fucked three way’s to Sunday and back again and none of this would be a problem if Loki had just had as much therapy as Tony did to get over his fucking father issues.

Tony is fucked and it is Loki’s reality screwing fault.

--

Six months ago Loki showed up injured at the Avengers door.

Pepper remembers this because she is downstairs Tony-wrangling her way to finally, finally closing the Tokyo deal and maybe averting a small war between her stockholders and the middle man that is the working class of America when it happens. She remembers standing in her cherry red Louboutins and being interrupted mid rant by Steve’s politely concerned face and Natasha’s pointed grip on her shoulder and Peter saying, ‘Holy Hell and a half this is a problem, no, guys, really, this is a problem.’ And Natasha’s hand always too low on her back guiding her to the exit that’s apparently always been in the garage and Natasha’s face, controlled and beautiful as she says, ‘Avengers business. Go. If I don’t contact you in the next three hours call Fury and raise hell.’

Pepper nods displeased and irritated that she didn’t get Tony’s signature and climbs up the tunnel ladder, walks around the house and the last ten metres to where Happy and Tony’s favourite car is waiting for her. She’s barely in the car before a shock knocks it over and Pepper is once again standing next to a crater where Tony should have been.

--

Three days, three hours and three minutes from the exact moment Pepper Potts, Stark Industries CEO yells at SHEILD agent Maria Hill, Resident Badass and All Around Scary Bitch In Charge to get her skinny ass down here, the Avengers Mansion reappears all residents accounted for alive and unconscious.

--

Incidentally, Pepper lost the Tokyo deal. Tony pays through the mouth, the ass and oh yeah, a good third of his monthly allowance for that one.

--

Tony can’t sleep.

And yeah he’s a raging insomniac and crazy person who appreciates a fine cognac like most people appreciate cold lemonade on a hot day and not sleeping regularly is like a normal person having a regular bowel movement –that is to say, not uncommon and very rarely mentioned in polite society. But it’s not that Tony cannot get to sleep, no, Tony is fucking exhausted and would like very much to sleep, it’s that if Tony goes to sleep he will wake up crazy (and not the charming, pitiful kind he’s always been, the legal, psychotic kind he’s been religiously avoiding) and it will be no one’s fault but his own for carrying that fucking pocket watch with him in a fight.

He looks at the bed again like it will spontaneously give up and tell him how to fix this, fix the watch, manage his fucking subconscious. The bed sits pristine and perfectly made and says ‘Sorry Tony, you can be crazy from lack of sleep and slip up in battle and die disappointing everyone or you can take a fifteen minute nap and wake up a little crazier in a dangerous way and go on being half useful for awhile longer.’
Tony closes his eyes and breathes deeply; slipping out of his work clothes and between the sheets, cool against his legs, the scarring around the arc reactor sensitive like it always is when he’s in the grip of stupid basic emotions like fear, panic or unrequited love.

Tony thinks, ‘Any other stupid ideas?’ before he lets go and dreams.

--

Tony wakes up three hours later, sure that he’s just lost the pivotal battle of a war he didn’t know he was fighting.

--

Peter of all people is the first to notice.

This isn’t to say that Peter isn’t brilliant in his own right it’s just that he lives in a house with people who, on any day of the week, will be taken seriously more frequently than he ever will and have enough PhD’s to sink a boat three times over.

(Seriously, the only one besides him currently without one is Captain America and he’s Captain America. People want to give him honorary ones for breathing.)

Clint said that if he shaved off the mop he claims is cool everyone might start thinking he’s a real boy.

Clint is a dick. Clint is a dick who does not understand how coolness works. Peter would tell him but what would be the point?

Anyway. Peter wakes up one fine morning without MJ cuddled into his side to discover that he no longer is entirely sure he is awake. He pinches his arms and runs his hands over his suit and feels a detachment from reality, like his arms been blown off and he’s just getting phantom sensations. He calls MJ, listens to her voice and decides that, yeah, he’s awake, she sounds right and what the hell is going on anyway?
The detachment doesn’t go away and when he wakes up the next day he feels just a little bit less real then he did yesterday.

When Peter mentions it at dinner he’s only mildly surprised by the relieved ‘good it’s not just me who’s crazy’ looks and he’s only half sarcastic when he mentions they need better hazard pay.

--

Actually, that is a lie, Natasha notices first because she is extremely paranoid and catalogues every minor change in her body or mind. She assumes PTSD is catching up with her, after all, it is not like she has a shortage.

It is after the third time in a week and a half that she dreams of the Winter Solider smiling over a cup of coffee (and he never smiled, not in uniform and nothing else ever happened, there was never a chance-) that she decides something else may be going on.

--

Peter suddenly viciously regrets ever bringing his dreams up. Not because everyone’s sitting around telling him he’s crazy but because, with the exception of Tony and the Black Widow, everyone else is using this as a sharefest to see whose dream-alternate-reality-which-may-be-true is the best.

Well. Okay, it’s actually just Thor and Clint getting increasingly loud and everyone else looking ashamed to be here. But that happens a lot, so, whatever.

Tony slaps a hand on the desk, ‘Okay, so, we’re having weird dreams, don’t know about you guys but that’s pretty normal for me. I’m fairly sure we can keep all the dark corners of our id to ourselves.’

‘I don’t know maybe talking about how much you hate swimming and Middle Eastern food would help. Maybe we could change up our dinner plans once in a while.’ Steve smiles as he says it, missing Tonys flinch and it’s not like Steve’s ever really noticed Tony being desperately in love with him or that he is, according to Clint, a bundle of untreated PTSD and barely functioning psychosis. If even half of what people say about what happened to Tony is true it makes sense that Tony wants to talk about his dreams like Peter wants a heart attack.

Tony picks up a pack of cards left over from when they tried to teach Thor Texas Hold ‘Em with minimal success and major property damage and shuffles them from hand to hand, ‘I’m just saying,’ he palms the King of Spades and puts it on the table, ‘that maybe there’s no problem here.’

Black Widow -and okay, yeah, maybe he can think Ms Romanoff in his head or something, she’s not actually psychic or out to kill him- sighs and taps the table with a knife she just somehow has, ‘I’m missing three days from about a month ago. I’ve checked SHEILD logs and I was apparently on assignment.’

‘So?’ Tony says as he pulls out the Ace of Clubs. He makes a face at it and flicks it at Clint. Clint stabs it with the broken arrow head he’s been aimlessly twisting between his fingers.

‘There was no possible way I could have been on the assignment they said I was on.’ Her tone says that they sure as hell better not ask what the assignment was, ‘and when I asked Pepper about it she stonewalled me.’

‘You talk to Pepper a lot?’ Steve asks, barely dodging the five of diamonds Tony flicks at him, ‘Tony. Stop throwing cards at people.’

‘I work for Pepper.’

‘Like that means anything,’ Tony mutters and pockets the cards he hasn’t thrown at people.

‘I’m missing time too,’ Banner grumbles, ‘have to keep track ‘cause of the Hulk, about a month ago I have three days or so I know I wasn’t all-’ he makes hand motions, ‘angry.’

‘How do you know,’ Peter asks because, well, how does he know?

‘Because there was no crater of mass destruction and I don’t think Hulk would just sit down and be quiet for three whole days.’

Truth

‘Okay. So. We call Pepper.’ Tony says, phone out and dialling, ‘easily solved.’

There’s about ten seconds of tense silence between Tony calling Pepper and Pepper answering the phone.

‘Who did you kill Tony?’ is the first thing she says with, ‘It better not be a politician,’ as the follow up.

‘What, Pepper, would I kill someone without telling you-’

Steve sighs, ‘That really shouldn’t be the bit that concerns you Tony.’

‘-I mean, I can imagine the schedule rearrangement would be awful on short notice but you could do it and after I‘d buy you a puppy, puppy’s are great, wait, are you allergic to those or is it just strawberries? Anyway, Peps, Pepper, my heart, what do you know about a weird occurrence about a month ago-’

‘That lasted three days.’

‘-Yes, thank you, Banner, but I am capable of having a conversation with her all by myself, a month ago for three days-’

‘Three hours, three minutes.’ Pepper says curtly. ‘Ask Hill.’ She hangs up immediately after.

‘So,’ Peter says falsely bright and obvious about it, ‘my spidey senses are telling me we’re about to get screwed over.’
--

Peter is often surprised about being right. Everyone else tries not to let it happen too much lest he get ideas.

--
Maria Hill regrets three things about her job.

1- Tony Stark.
2- The fact that Director Fury will get to shoot Tony Stark before she does.
3- The fact that when the Black Widow is off being heroic, she is the one to deal with Pepper Potts who is more bulldog/shark then she is small woman with minimal defensive training.

Never has the last one been more apparent than now.

It’s an hour after the Avengers mansion reappears out of nowhere with an assortment of human weapons of mass destruction inside all of whom are currently unconscious. She’s standing above an operating room in the helicarrier watching a gaggle of scientists who technically don’t exist check the Avengers over with equipment the world considers fictional. Potts stands next to her, tapping her toes and firing texts off like she’s got everywhere else to be and no time to get there. There’s mild chatter through the open comm. system that’s going from pleasantly distracting to irritating.

Doctor Williams, a neurosurgeon who will probably be dead next week, not by her hand but by his inability to follow orders and keep his dick out of his subordinates, exclaims and points to an x-ray.

‘Marvelous brain structure do you see the-’

Potts snaps a pen against the side of a table, disturbingly loud and distorted by the comm. system, ‘Yes, Dr Williams, the Asgardian has a beautiful mind, I need to know why they aren’t awake.’

‘Well, Ms Potts, simply put,’ Mr Williams says, waving a scanner over Banner for the third time, ‘they’re dreaming.’

For one brilliant crazy moment Maria thinks, ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ before she leans over, whooshing Potts out of the way, ‘And why are they dreaming?’

A short bottle blonde with an unattractively masculine face opens Rogers eyes and peers at them with a light, ‘Because they’re not awake, sir.’ She says like this isn’t all perfectly obvious.

She fucking hates smartasses.

‘The thought never occurred doctor. Now tell me why aren’t they awake.’

After a moment in which they all look perplexed at each other the same bottle blonde clears her throat, ‘Well, sir, um, magic?’
Potts pockets her phone and leans forward to knock on the glass. Ten beady pairs of eyes look up at the gallery blinking owlishly, ‘I suggest,’ she says, reasonably and polite but with that edge her drill sergeant used to have, ‘that you have a better answer then ‘um, magic’ for when Fury finds out.’

Potts flicks off the comm. system and turns to Maria, ‘You’ll tell me, right, what happens, you’ll tell me?’ voice small for a woman who’s got a better command of her life and Starks life and maybe the entire world then everyone else put together.

And this is the bit Romanoff didn’t put in her assessment of Ms Potts but was heavily implied.

Pepper Potts has no idea what she’s doing here.

‘Sure, Ms Potts. I’ll call.’

--

Hill texts her 13 hours later. Pepper is asleep for her daily 5 hour allotment when she does and wakes up to the pale blue beep of a message on her phone.

‘Found traces of magic. A source tells us that it’s the same kind that’s in Thor’s hammer. Almost certainly Loki. Looks pretty harmless. They’re awake. Stark’s asking for you. Send someone soon or I will hurt him and not regret it.’

Pepper dresses with extra efficiency that morning, a sharp pantsuit and shoes beyond impractical looking. Tony has long since known that the more frighteningly well put together Pepper looks the more screwed he is.

When she arrives at the mansion Hill takes her aside and squeezes her elbow until it hurts, ‘They don’t know, they don’t remember, there’s no need to tell them. Leave this alone Potts.’ And Pepper nods, ‘yes, of course,’ and writes everything she knows down and sends it to an email account Natasha suggested three weeks ago with a cryptic comment about never really knowing what you know unless you can prove it. Over the last year or so the Avengers have been running Pepper has learned to appreciate Natasha’s paranoia.

She’s swept into a hug by Tony and a swing around the room by Thor. Everything looks fine. In fact, they all look very well rested.

‘This’ Pepper thinks, sitting legs crossed at the dining table with Tony prattling and a rare visit from Rhodey making everyone slightly better behaved. ‘Is a trap.’

--

Pepper would be disturbed but not particularly surprised by how often she's right.

--
‘So, to be clear, we got whammied by magic’s foreign and strange and you didn’t think to tell us for an entire month?’ Tony yells directly into Hill’s face, hands swinging around and an entire team of pissed off, in costume superheroes (minus Tony, who had a business meeting to which he wasn’t allowed to take the armour) glowering behind him. If Fury’s desk wasn’t between them Tony would probably be punching her face.

Hill hisses low in her throat, ‘Calm down Stark. It was for your own good.’

‘With all due respect ma’am,’ Cap says, inching between Tony and Hill, ‘it wasn’t your call to make.’

Hill turns and opens her mouth, only to close it again, ‘Director, sir, I hadn’t expected to...’ And lo and behold Fury walks into his office, snarl firmly in place.

‘You think I don’t know when that lot is on my property?’ Fury growls, gesturing at the Avengers. ‘They’re a walkin’, talkin’ accident waiting to happen.’ He nods at Cap, ‘This about last month?’

He nods back, ‘Sir, I’d like to-’

Fury holds up a hand, ‘Save it son, we got a lot more to worry about then Hills little cock up.’

‘What-’

‘A month ago Loki kidnapped you for three days, when you got back you were in some kind of dream state. We couldn’t find anything wrong with you so we released you.’

‘My brother stole us away for three days and you did not think this worth mentioning?’ Thor sounds cold. With the bubbly nature and the gold hair and the hugs it’s easy to forget that Thor has already fought more battles than they ever will and that some of them have been against his brother, against chaos itself.

Spiderman raises an eyebrow, ‘That’s pretty shifty, even for you guys.’

‘I, myself, wasn’t even told till two hours after it happened so you can take your complaints and shove them up your ass.’ Fury moves behind his desk, effectively shoving Hill out of any authority.

‘Sir, yes sir!’ Spiderman barks back with a mock salute.

‘We don’t know anymore about what happened than that. What we do know is –you can’t go looking for Loki. Not this time.’

Tony slams his hand down and then regrets it, because, ow, ‘Why the hell not!’

‘Despite what you may think Stark I don’t work for you. I have no obligation to explain my orders to you. Do not go after Loki.’

‘Or?’

‘You’ll lose the support of SHEILD. See how long your merry band of vigilantes lasts then.’

‘You’d throw us out in the cold over this?’ Tony yells, ‘This isn’t even the worst thing Loki’s done!’

Fury’s lips tighten, a brief strain and a pointed little laugh, ‘That’d be a matter of opinion Stark. Now, get the fuck outta my office.’

--

‘I don’t like this.’

Tony looks up at Steve, the debris of one of his repulsors around him on the floor; he’s been here for the hour and a half they’ve been home. Lost in something he understands instead of thinking about how he might be losing something he’s never really had, ‘How long have you-?’

‘Long enough for my coffee to be half cold.’ Steve taps the mug on the bench next to Tony’s head.

Tony grimaces, ‘You should have said something.’

‘Nah. You looked like you needed to do whatever you were doing and I just needed somewhere quiet.’ Steve walks over to the stool and sits on it, his weight causing the chair to creak just a little. ‘Natasha’s ‘talk’ with Pepper only got worse.’

Natasha had called Pepper on the way home. From the very little Russian Tony knows –which is actually pretty much limited to ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘I’m a billionaire and you’re lovely,’ and ‘vodka on the rocks’- he can tell that all is not well in their little paradise. And that’s something else Tony’s not touching with a ten foot pole. Who knew there’d be a day he doesn’t want to think about hot redheads having hate sex?

‘Most people don’t look at me and think ‘quiet’. It’s usually got a more loud and obnoxious bent.’

‘Yeah, well, people think all kinds of stupid stuff about you.’

And see, that right there is why he needs this dream shit to stop. It’s not a remotely new fact that Tony is brutally, disgustingly in love with Steve. Dreaming about him stopped being new a week after they met. But it’s –okay, he can deal with it most of the time, the fact that Steve likes treating him like a person who deserves things like praise and acknowledgment. Steve is a team building kind of guy; he says nice stuff to everyone who isn’t evil. He made his brain stop lighting up with hope signals about a month after the first time Steve said ‘Good job, Ironman. You did well.’

But then these fucking dreams and the fact that, well, Thor keeps dreaming about being a detective in a film noir world where Loki never fought with his parents and he’s married to Jane. Clint is a cowboy with a SuperBow that kills everything, always has arrows and never misses and he’s happily in lust with someone named Bobbi. Peter dreams about being an ultra successful photographer that fights aliens in his downtime. Banner dreams, mostly, about not being the Hulk. This thrills him deeply. Natasha won’t talk about it. And Steve, well, Steve apparently dreams of a world where there was never a war and he grew up non-sickly and everyone lives happily back in 1940-whatever and oh yeah, he’s married to Peggy. And the worst bit is that Tony isn’t even a shitty enough person to resent him for it.

Tony dreams of having Steve love him back in a world where his father wasn’t such a dickbag and he doesn’t have a pressing need to be in the spotlight just so people know he hasn’t died while they weren’t looking.

Everyone’s dreaming of their perfect world and even though Tony knows in his head that he wasn’t going to be Steve’s perfect it’s worse knowing for sure.

‘Nice of you to say so.’

Tony continues to build. The silence stretches outward, it’s not uncomfortable, never really is. Steve’s foot starts to tap.

‘What’s up solider?’ Tony asks, he’s almost back in the zone, can feel the technology coming together. He needs a new copper wire. The old one is burnt to crap.

‘I, I sort of have an idea. For how we can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.’

‘Hmm,’ Tony stands and stretches. He has a box of copper wire pieces somewhere. ‘What is it?’

‘There was that movie we watched awhile ago. About the invading dreams thing? You said the math was off.’

Where is that box?

‘It really, really was.’

‘But they had those, things, you know, that they carried with them.’

Oh! Bench! Next to the drafting paper!

‘Yep. Okay.’

He leans around Steve, who has graduated from sitting on the stool to resting his hip against the bench.

‘Tony. I need you to listen to me.’

Steve’s kind of big and the bench is kind of small and Tony needs to put himself off balance just to get his hand around Steve to reach the box. His hand grasps the box just as he over balances, tries to adjust and goes rolling backward. Steve wraps an arm around his waist and brings them down less than gracefully, most of the weight on Steve’s knees. Tony’s under him with Steve’s elbow next to his head. Steve lets him go and goes from elbows and knees to hands and-

Oh, that’s a dirty thought.

‘Tony?’

Hands and knees in Tonys workshop. Wow.

‘Yes, Steve.’ He replies. Breathe, Tony, it’s been 40 years, you should be able to do that.

‘We need totems. Something unique. Unreplaceable. Ours.’

Tony hums, contemplating, ‘Something only we’d know.’

‘Yeah.’ Steve says, relief evident, ‘You’ll support me?’

Tony doesn’t really think before he says it, ‘I’d support anything you did.’

Steve smiles big and strong and gold, ‘Great, I mean, if you thought it was a bad idea I wouldn’t bring it up at all. It means a lot that you always support me. Um, we should get up.’

‘Yeah.’ Tony says suddenly breathless. ‘We should get up.’
--

The totem thing doesn’t really start for a week. It all sounds a little preposterous, even for superheroes. One night Clint stabs himself in a dream and simply stares at the wound for five minutes.

When asked why he didn’t do something about it Clint says, ‘Because when I wake up it’ll be gone.’

--

Clint is the first one to find his totem.

--

By unanimously unspoken agreement the first time they sleep plus totem they arrange themselves in the lounge. Even Natasha, though, she does glare at them a lot while she takes the couch.

‘Alright! Into the great unknown!’ Peter punches the air like he’s five and this is a carnival.

Clint throws a pillow at him, ‘Shuddup and sleep kid.’

One by one they all nod off until Steve and Tony are left awake leaning against the glass windows, New York lit behind them.

‘Sweet dreams, Tony.’ Steve says as his eyes close.

‘Yeah, sweet dreams.’

--
Eventually, Tony’s dreams become something of a respite. When he can’t deal with reality or when he simply doesn’t want to he takes a nap. It’s nice, it’s good, there’s an entire world inside his head where Tony Stark is welcome. He toys with the idea of forgetting his totem once or twice. Staying asleep and warm. He doesn’t. Tony Stark is a realist and reality is here for better or worse.

Except.

Except not. Not anymore. The watch is broken and Tony is unanchored.

He’ll never know if he’s dreaming again.

Chapter Text

--
Every morning the maple leaves.
Every morning another chapter where the hero shifts
from one foot to the other. Every morning the same big
and little words all spelling out desire, all spelling out
You will be alone always and then you will die.

--

Anthony Stark-Rogers is a world renowned poet for whom the world has a tilted axis.

Well, that’s what Vanity Fair said anyway.

He has a lot of things going for him. A spacious apartment in a building overlooking the city. A super hot boyfriend who he loves and loves him back. Two best friends who’ve stuck with him through everything. A beat up typewriter that clangs when he presses the ‘A’ key. Two collections and a short novel. Five awards. Three nominations. A cafe two blocks away that understands him and his triple shot espresso. Happy’s gym three blocks away. A store that specialises in his kind of antiquity. Parents who live four blocks away and still make him come over for dinner on Sundays. A heart that has yet to fail him in the six years since he had surgery.

Anthony Stark-Rogers, actually, has an entire world going for him.
So it’s strange, then, that he dreams of being a superhero. He dreams of a world where he doesn’t have Steve and Rhodey’s barely talking to him and Pepper is, well, still running his life, but doing it in corporate suits instead of boutique buys. A world where Natasha wears skin tight suits and kills people and actually hates him instead of finding him tolerable now that he isn’t hitting on her. Where Peter was bitten by a spider and climbs walls instead of living a floor below with MJ and three kids. Where he knows someone named Thor and someone named Loki and a Fury, whatever that is, as well as a whole host of other terrifying characters.

A world where he’s a maker, a builder. A smith of metal instead of words. Someone who has such a deep running vein of self hatred he’d cut out his own heart at the first opportunity.

Anthony Stark-Rogers has no idea why he keeps dreaming of being Tony Stark (Golden Boy, Merchant of Death, Ironman, That Guy and Long Running Perpetual Fuck Up) but he does know one thing-

The man makes one hell of a story.

--

Anthony meets Steve Rogers like this-

It is a party in the bohemian/art deco/sorority party/glitter nightmare apartment that belongs to the local queens who really should have stopped partying half a decade ago. There’s glitter in the cocktails, penis cups, all manner of mostly naked men plastered around. A boy toy someone has forgotten about in the bathtub with neon paint splashed across his chest. A pretty femme boy being schmoozed by his sugar daddy on the couch. There’s the usual assortment of hags giggling at the nudity and the usual muff eaters looking sophisticated or debauched. Anthony hates these parties. He hates the cocaine and the cheap booze and the cheaper thrills.

On the balcony, between the potted plants and dragging on a cigarette is a tall, well built blonde man wearing nothing but a toga, a silly hat with wings on it and a painted on American flag for a shirt.
Anthony, on his second cocaine high of the night and his third nicotine low bums a puff off him and says, ‘So, Captain America, what’s underneath the toga.’

Captain America blinks slowly and there’s glitter clumped there, falling silver on to his nose and lips. ‘Nothing.’

--

Anthony Stark chooses this moment to fall in love with Captain America.

--

The first time Steve Rogers meets Anthony Stark is at 5 am at his typewriter. He’d left the bed some 45 minutes before Steve got up. He knows how this works, collect your clothes and go, maybe some breakfast, usually just a coffee. Steve can’t find his toga. Or his sandals. And he doesn’t care to overstay his welcome.

But-

See. The apartment is beautiful. Steve is an artist, he knows beauty, it’s actually his job and whoever lives here has got gorgeous taste. It’s mostly a large living area, where the kitchen and a lounge area take up three quarters of the space. The furniture is an odd mix of industrial practicality and a sort of thrown together comfort that means nothing matches and everything looks like you pieced it straight from a dream. It leads the eye to the huge window that takes up one side of the wall and the New York lights beyond it.

He passes by a nook on a hallway that seems like an afterthought and finds a man sans underwear and wearing Steve’s toga, typing and muttering. Its barely sunrise and while the army can make an early riser out of anyone Steve thinks that the strange man with the bright brown eyes who dragged him down three flights of stairs and past the snarky redhead last night is a man who doesn’t sleep, not one who wants to be awake.

‘Steve Rogers.’

Brown eyes turns around, startled and apparently he’s been wearing glasses this whole time, ‘What?’

‘My name isn’t Captain America. It’s Steve Rogers.’

‘Anthony Stark. But I’m sure you knew that.’

He really didn’t.

‘Well, Anthony, would you like some breakfast?’

--

Three weeks later Steve hasn’t really left. There’s a bunch of art stuff throughout Anthony’s living room and while Pepper finds it amusing to smirk over her latte at him she says nothing which means that having Steve here is probably a good thing. A week later Steve stops pretending he doesn’t live there and they have dinner with his parents.

For a whirlwind romance that took everyone by surprise –and that’s his publicists wording, you’d think people would have stopped caring who he slept with by now- it’s pretty easy to forget that Steve hasn’t always been here.

--

Anthony Stark met Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts when she was 21 and not half as cynical as she is now.

She was a sorority girl, a staunch supporter of baseball and halfway through fucking every girl in her class. Even the straight ones. Especially the straight ones.

He was chatting her up while she was nodding vaguely amused and using him for drinks. Rhodey, who has somehow missed that he’s best friend is a big homo set them up at a party and promptly ditched. Anthony figured he might as well try lady parts and Pepper’s, well, not nice but doesn’t care that he’s talking about his engineering major, so, win.

Now they’re sitting in the bathroom while Tony holds her hair and wonders why he’s the one doing this. He makes to let go of her and she swings around and looks straight into his eyes. She frowns a little and goes back to throwing up. Tony doesn’t try to let go again.

‘You okay?’ He asks because that’s a hell of a lot of vomit.

And Pepper, who is five foot six without heels and kind of scrawny on top of that, grabs him by the hair and smashes his nose into the wall. His nose breaks on impact and about thirty seconds later someone lays in a very embarrassing call for an ambulance. Not wanting to ruin the party for others Tony and Pepper sort of sway their way outside to wait for the ambulance.

Pepper comes with him to the hospital and in the light of sober morning, drives him back home to face his parents.

‘Look. This isn’t your fault. You can just go if you want. You don’t need to-’

‘You know,’ Pepper says, ‘the last time I broke someone’s nose I fucked him to make up for it.’

Tony blanches and tries to think of something that isn’t a pink squishy vagina eating his dick, ‘We-we could, um, maybe do that if you but you should know that I have a condition, it’s very, uh, infectious, it gives you these spots on your, um, fuck, no wait, I’m pregnant, oh, fuck, geez...’

Pepper laughs, scratchy from throwing up, ‘You are the lying-ist motherfucker I’ve ever met. Let’s be friends.’

And that is the story of how Anthony gains the single most important friendship of his entire life.

--

Three years later when he and Pepper are sharing an apartment he accidently leaves a book open. See, Anthony’s got a secret. He’s a poet. Not in a sad, teenage phase, leave-your-good-grammar-at-the-door kinda way, in a writes shit that changes lives kinda way. Anthony Stark does not know this, and until about five minutes ago, neither did Pepper.

Anthony’s left for groceries since Pepper has decided pop tarts aren’t a food group now that they’re in their mid-twenties and when he comes back he finds Pepper sobbing quietly on the couch and holding a piece of ripped paper. Pepper doesn’t cry. Not ever.

‘You lying motherfucker,’ and is it sad that that’s an endearment? ‘You’ve been holding out on me.’

‘What? Peps, no, I haven’t held anything. What are you even talking about? If this is about last week’s blonde again? You said you didn’t want her. Him. Shim? Is there a word for that?’

Pepper holds out the book, ‘Why didn’t you ever tell me you were this good?’

‘Oh, that.’ He shrugs and puts down the grocery bags, ‘I’m not. Wouldn’t pay the bills.’

‘This would.’ Pepper says sombrely, ‘this is good.’

‘Peps-’

‘Let me show this to some people. If it doesn’t work out you can go on with your life and if it does then we can work from there.’

Anthony looks at the tear tracks on her cheeks, says, ‘Sure Pepper,’ and puts away the vegetables.

--

Ten years and a lifetime of brilliance and achievement later Pepper still says ‘I told you so.’

--

‘So maybe I wanted to give you something more than a catalog
of non-definitive acts,
something other than the desperation.
Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your party.
Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I came to your party
and seduced you
and left you bruised and ruined, you poor sad thing.
Your want a better story. Who wouldn’t?
A forest, then. Beautiful trees. And a lady singing.
Love on the water, love underwater, love, love and so on.
What a sweet lady. Sing lady, sing! Of course, she wakes the dragon.
Love always wakes the dragon and suddenly
flames everywhere.’

‘You’re reading from that film again.’

‘Of course I am,’ Steve says as he flops onto the couch next to Anthony. ‘Who else can say their boyfriend inspired that?’

‘Well, Greg could. You know, the character in the film that read it out.’ Tony replies, ‘Since neither one of us was in that film...’

‘We could be film stars.’

‘You could. I’m too old.’

‘You are not. 37 is not old.’

‘Am too.’

‘Not.’

‘Too.’

‘Children please, stop squabbling.’ Pepper says as she strolls in the door dressed in a blue evening gown, ‘Why aren’t you dressed?’

Anthony flops down further on the couch, ‘Blargh charity.’

Steve smiles from where he’s pressed into Anthony’s shoulder, ‘Charities are good Anthony. Say it with me now.’

‘Charity good. Fundraiser with society babies and twinky little nothing boys bad.’

‘Anthony.’

He gives in, ‘Fine, give us a kiss then.’ Steve leans up and smacks one on his temple, ‘that’s not what I meant and you know it, whatever, Pepper, suit up!’

‘I’m already dressed. And your suit is on your door.’

‘Yes, oh wise and powerful queen.’

Pepper rolls her eyes and sits down next to Steve. They’re talking about him. He can feel it. The suit has too many buttons; it’s double breasted and has two separate undershirts. When he picks up the tie he almost
looks for a lighter so he can set it on fire.

The tie is red with gold piping, the back ultramarine.

He barely makes it to the bathroom before he throws up.

--

This is the thing Anthony Rogers-Stark is not telling anyone.

He doesn’t think he’s real.

--

The charity gala goes off with a hitch. He smiled, he wined, he dined, he sold his soul for tax purposes. Now he gets to go home and snuggles into bed with his own personal solider and ignore the fact that Pepper snuck into Natasha’s apartment.

But-

‘Steve! Steve!’ Tony yells because, what?

‘Yes Tony?’ Comes from somewhere around the couch area. Steve must have tried to stay up which is cute because Steve considers 11pm ungodly late in the evening.

‘This is a kitten.’ And yes, it is a kitten, black and silky with glowing green eyes sitting on the kitchen bench tail wrapped around itself just so, ‘We did not have a kitten when I left.’

Steve groans, ‘No. Tony. We did not have a kitten before you left.’

‘But there is a kitten now. Sudden kitten. Magical kitten.’

‘God. He was on the balcony. He wouldn’t leave. I let him stay. His name is Loki.’

Loki.

Oh sweet merciful Josephine.

‘Did you name the Suddenly Appearing Kitten, Steve? We do not attach ourselves to marauding wildlife. You’ll feel bad when it gets run over.’

‘Name tag. Can I sleep now or do you need to berate me more for caring about defenceless animals?’ He can just make out Steve’s shining hair before he flops back down on the couch, evidently exhausted by the effort of appearing awake.

‘Yes, sleep, do that. Sleep is a good thing.’

‘Uh huh, night, love you, you’re kinda crazy.’

‘These are things I know.’

Once he’s taken off the tie and the shoes and the underwear (who invented male spanks, did they have a personal vendetta against realistically shaped scrotums? Was there some untreated childhood trauma there?) he goes to get a glass of water.

Loki is sitting on his fridge, huge green eyes blinking slowly. He lets out a little mew and makes a batting motion at Anthony’s face.

Anthony walks right up to him and waves a finger in his pointed little face, ‘You are up to something and I am not falling for it.’

Loki blinks slowly and if cats could smirk, well, Loki would win fucking awards, the furry bastard.

Anthony doesn’t sleep that night. He figures he doesn’t need the nightmares.

--

Mr Coulson is his landlord. He’s in his mid forties, non-descript in a balding mildly attractive way. He dresses like a CIA agent, carries three tasers at all times and has a frightening obsession with trashy British shows. He is also part of the mafia. So at least the taser make sense, even if the Supernanny obsession doesn’t.

‘I don’t allow pets, Stark,’ Coulson says evenly, scratching the cats ears, ‘Especially not ones named after malevolent tricksters.’

Loki sniffs disdainfully and jumps over to sit on Steve’s very expensive, very breakable brand new tablet. Steve makes a small pained noise and scoops the kitten up, depositing him somewhere away from his breakables.
Anthony walks from the window to tap his glass of whiskey lightly against Coulson’s head, ‘Hey, come on. Unlike Lorette and Lourette I don’t track enough glitter through your lobby to drown Lady Gaga’s back up dancers every other Saturday nor do I make upsetting grunting noises while working out like Mr Banner. Besides I think having a cat would be good for me, like, responsibility. By looking after the kitty I’m not devolving into a kept toy boy who does nothing but sit around, work out and apply makeup. Also, it’ll give me less time to sit outside the complex in my batman boxers.’

‘If anyone was going to be a kept boy it would be Steve.’ Coulson points out because the rest of that statement is just so Anthony.

‘That is unkind.’

‘But probably true.’ Steve chimes in, lifting Loki and placing him square on Coulsons chest. ‘Look, he likes you. And he promises not to leave dead things everywhere and I promise to take him running with me.’

Anthony smiles small and true, ‘He’s a cat, Steve. He’s not going running with you.’

‘You could always come running with me.’

‘I have sex with you. Isn’t that enough?’

And apparently the part of this conversation fit for public consumption has ended. Coulson looks at the cat on his chest. It has remarkable green eyes and several long scars running along its body. There’s an extra joint in its tail which makes it bend at an odd angle. Loki purrs and the vibration hits something at the base of his skull making him tired and kind of-
For a moment everything fades out and he can see a room behind this one. Austere and empty but for the slowly beeping machines and the dark faces around him. There’s a needle in his arm and he can dimly hear his name being called out over and over again. He tries to wake up but a button is pressed and he returns to-

-Loki jumps off his chest and makes to leave via an open window. Coulson stays still for a moment. Breathes. Checks his surroundings. The room is the one that Anthony Stark and Steven Rogers rent. It is near the top of the building. It’s paid for so he didn’t come for the rent. He came to talk about the cat. The cat that just jumped out the window. He turns to ask if the cats allowed outside. He catches the tail end of

‘-well, if it’s not the kind of harness you want...’

‘I’m leaving now.’ Coulson says too loudly into the near silence of Anthony’s dirty whispering.

Anthony leers vaguely in his direction and Steve moves to take his shirt off, ‘Hmm, yes, do.’

‘You can keep the cat.’

‘Yes we can.’

‘You break it-’

‘Yes, dear, unless you want an eyeful you should leave now.’

He beats it the hell out of there. It’s one thing to know his tenants are having sex a whole different thing to have witnessed it. Coulson whistles ‘Feeling Good’ on his way back down to the ground floor completely missing the green eyes and the shadows silently following him.

--

Three days, three hours, three minutes later Coulson tries to call Mafia Don Nick Fury with some very important information. Due to Fury’s paranoia and a new gangs attempts to take over the drug trade Fury does not take this call.

Fury lives to regret this. It is yet unclear if Coulson does too.

--

The thing about writers block is that unless you’ve experienced it you cannot understand the sheer maddening frustration that it brings.

It’s like having a too hot cup of tea that you burn your tongue drinking so you settle down to wait it out but you miss the vital point between too hot and too cold and now you just have a cup of cooling tea and a waste of a half hour. It’s missing the best train to work by five seconds and waiting another ten minutes you could have done something important with. Writers block is a missed opportunity to write something worth reading.

Anthony has had writers block for seven weeks.

It’s not like he needs to write. He has more money than is strictly sensible anyhow and even if he didn’t he’s pretty decent at building things. He has an engineering degree. He could probably get a job. But he wants to write and the words are all just stalled on the page and no matter what way he bangs his typewriters it won’t shake out a masterpiece. This would be fine but like the idiot he is he’s left a bunch of professional work to the last minute –reviews of other poets, a soliloquy for the New Shakespearean, a short life-in-the-times-of piece that makes him want to vomit. He didn’t get into the writing game to talk about how he got there. He shoves all the forms, half written pages, the how to’s aside and lifts up a rope bound manuscript, heavy and full of tabs and notes.

He stares at it. An epic length poem about his dream counterpart. The fast times and unfortunate lives of Ironman who is sometimes Tony Stark written down in ink. He has the father issues and the alcohol issues and the Obie issues and the Pepper issues and the Steve issues and a million more besides. He has three pages of notes on the suit alone. He knows that Tony admires Thor the most of all his teammates even if it’s Natasha he respects most. He knows that Tony adores Steve and there is literally nothing he wouldn’t do for him. He knows that Tony expects to die alone.

Anthony knows Tony better than he knows himself.

This does not help his overwhelming belief that he’s not real.

Anthony shoves away the manuscript. It topples off the table to land on the floor. From half a foot down and in one of the little nooks his office is filled with comes a pathetic little mew. Loki’s little head pops out. He gives it an absent minded pat and looks around his office. It’s covered from wall to wall in string and pieces of his research. Which really amounts to hastily written scraps of his dreams, swatches of colour, collections of old propaganda posters, the occasional weaponry schematic, a bottle of perfume and three bottles of super expensive gin. Anthony spends from seven to nine hours of every day sitting in a small room surrounded by Tony Stark.

Loki mews again. Anthony picks him up and makes to tuck him under his chin. Loki’s claws flick out and he scratches a long line from underneath one of Anthony’s ears, under his jaw, to curve up again near toward his nose. He can already feel the blood matting in his beard.

‘Fucking fuck!’ He drops Loki and scrambles up put of his chair. A few drops of blood land on the manuscript where he’d painstakingly written out the title- ‘You Could Be the Greatest Man in the World.’- Anthony thinks he was drunk when he did it. He doesn’t remember it at least.

He sits down again and lets the blood drip down his neck. First there’s the warm buzz, then the cool prickling on his left arm and in three, two, one-

Ah.

His fingers graze lightly down the slightly scratchy, perfectly fine area that was bleeding a moment ago.

--

There’s a list of reasons why Anthony Stark-Rogers doesn’t believe he’s a real person. Most of them having to do with the fact that when he bleeds it only hurts because he thinks it should, sometimes he goes places and has no idea how he got there, he knows he’s a mediocre writer and yet somehow he’s sold millions of books. He has two best friends but for the life of him he cannot remember the colour of Pepper’s eyes or where he met Rhodey. If he’s not paying specific attention everything at the edge of his vision blurs.

All of this would be normal, explainable, but there are a million small details that change about his life every time he wakes up. A million things floating through his head that say something is wrong here and he can’t shake that he’s forgotten something and that it was something he should have kept.

--

Like clockwork Loki demands to be fed at 10.10pm every night. If Steve’s out, which happens once or twice every blue moon, Anthony has the pleasure of trying to please the unpleasable. More than once Loki has statement vomited on his shoes.

Tonight Steve is at some event or another for some undoubtedly civic minded thing he does. Anthony begged off on account of probably having been the antichrist in a past life.
He turns the music up louder and lets the bass hit him while he opens the tuna can. Loki butts his head rather insistently against his leg. Again. And once more for good measure. Anthony’s got a can of tuna in one hand, his yet to be put on pants in the other and a shitty tasting cigarette burning its way into his lungs. He unceremoniously dumps the tuna into Loki’s food bowl, puts out the cigarette on his pants, puts his pants on and wonders were the fuck his shirt is.

Loki bumps his calf again, apparently done with eating and back to irritating people, ‘For fucks sake. There’s your goddamn tuna. Now go away and let me be not dressed in peace.’ He sets off to find a shirt, lighting another cigarette as he goes.

With a flick of his tail Loki twines himself around his leg, the curving column of fur twisting up his feet. Instead of Anthony falling to the ground in a tangle of limbs and swearing, the room tilts with him giving him a ridiculous sense of vertigo. He’s airborne for a moment, flipping over and over in the air, the cushions on his couch flipping in just the same way. He goes once over, his head hitting his stomach, and when he comes the right way up again he sees a grey wall and a red door where his panorama of New York should be. He flips over once more and then he’s sitting on his couch, patting Loki and wondering just what the hell happened here.

Loki paws the stubble on his jaw.

‘We are not in fucking Kansas anymore, Kitty.’

Chapter Text

Tony is afraid of some things.

Drowning. Having the arc reactor pulled out. Pepper wising up and quitting and him not being able to talk her out of it (which is not just bad for him but probably for the free world). Steve cottoning on to how desperately Tony is in love with him. The Hulk figuring out how to use the oven. High Clint, just on general principle. Angry Natasha, again, principle.

There’s a whole host of things Tony is generally afraid of and up until three minutes ago Tony never thought he’d have to add an almost Byronic looking Thor, a mug of coffee and a half pack of red vines.

Seriously, red vines.

Tony sort of sidles up the counter, just in case Thor’s been replaced with a pod person and is waiting for a chance to attack, Tony won’t bet on him winning but he’ll bet on giving a fight, ‘So, what is up my
Immortally endowed friend?’

Thor looks befuddled for a moment, eyebrows drawing in and his mouth taking on a cartoonish ‘O’ shape, ‘Nothing is above me but the roof and I was told it was impolite to speak of endowment around the dining table.’

‘That’s...not really what I meant.’ Tony grabs the chair opposite him, tugs his pants up a bit as he sits down, ‘and when did you bring up, uh, endowment?’

‘Darcy asked me what my shoe size was, Jane felt this was inappropriate dining conversation. After we had finished eating Darcy asked if the carpets matched the drapery-’

‘Ah, I think you can stop there.’ To be fair, Thor could have just said Darcy and left it that. There is, in fact, a detailed how-to-deal-with-Darcy-who-is-not-afraid-of-you-and-will-use-her-tazer-first-and-never-ask-questions pamphlet and an information card in the Avengers ‘welcome to hell’ package. Clint has a whole thing about it.

‘So, can’t sleep?’ Tony asks.

Thor sighs, ‘My dreams have not been...restful of late. I find them confusing.’

Well. Yes, solving murder mysteries could be a bit of a stretch for an alien god from another universe. Especially since there’s still some cultural divide, although, Thor is considerably more in touch with his inner 15 year old girl then Tony has ever been.

‘I can buy you more Christie. Or maybe Chandler would be better.’

Thor blinks slowly, once, twice, then snorts, ‘It is not the murders. They are gruesome, yes, but I have seen much more disturbing things. The mysteries themselves are much simpler to solve then I had thought they would be.’

‘I’ll be sure to tell the local murder squad you think their jobs easy.’ Tony expects a smile; all Thor does is chew mawkishly on a red vine and push his coffee away.

‘I have a malevolent trickster for a brother. He did far more complex pranks for joy let alone what he has done with intent to harm. Besides, the motives do not change. Passion and arrogance and greed are just as rife through the Asgardians as they are here. My father’s powers made murder tricky but not impossible.’

A crack of thunder outside. Tony gets up, fixes himself a drink and sits back down. In the silence he watches Thor twist a red vine between his fingers and rip it to pieces, ‘I’m getting the feeling you’re kind of melancholic this evening.’

‘Perhaps. I cannot help but feel that we have yet to see the worst part of my brother’s plan.’

‘Massive sleep deprivation wasn’t his grand plan?’ Tony half jokes, ‘Well. You are the detective here. What is his master plan?’

‘I do not know. I have very rarely seen all the way to the heart of my brothers scheming but this, this is-’ he makes an all encompassing hand gesture, ‘this is strange. To leave us at ends like this with no bigger game is unlike him...I do not think this is wholly my brothers doing.’

‘Wait. So Loki’s not doing this.’

‘No. This is his magic. This is his trickery. But this isn’t just his plan.’ Thor stands abruptly, ‘I think I will try to sleep again.’

Tony nods, he kind of lost this conversation a few minutes back. He ponders about sleep himself, but, no, he’s used up his hours this week. Morosely he thinks of the days where he could go six days with a cat nap and some energy drink. Oh how he misses his twenties. It occurs to him suddenly that he’s never seen Thor’s totem. He’s seen or at least heard of everyone else’s but he’s never even thought to ask what Thor uses.

‘You’ve never said what your totem was.’

Thor pauses at the stairs before reaching up and pulling a spinning top out of somewhere. He walks back to the table and spins it. The top is no more than 5cms in diameter, an orb surrounded by green metal, its points either invisible or magical. When the orb spins Tony see’s a complex swirling of green, stars and the blackness of space.

‘Someone gave you a miniature replica of the cat’s eye nebula? You are going to be the hardest person to shop for ever.’

Thor shrugs and holds his finger on the invisible point of the top, the nebula pulses an eerie blue. ‘It was a gift. The nebula is green. You never see the same colour twice in a dream.’

Thor spins it again. The nebula spins bright red, sinister against the outer green rims. Thor makes a small tired noise before scooping up the toy and leaving Tony alone in the dark, the only light the soft glow of New York.

--

Approximately five minutes later Tony lets out a resounding ‘Oh fuck me.’

--

Tony Starks inevitable mental breakdown and subsequent incarceration has to wait a few days. Or a week. Or a month and a half.

Being heroic and then being business savvy and then being an emotional alcoholic wreck when Steve gets temporarily blinded takes up a lot of time he could be otherwise using to freak out about his rapidly vanishing sanity. He’s not sure if he should be thankful that it takes him an extra six weeks to breakdown and freak out, his stockholders would probably say it was a goddamn miracle he lasted this long. In the bottom draw of the kitchenette in his lab sits his notarized, signed, t’s-dotted-I’s-crossed will. It’s the first time he’s looked at it since the whole palladium core poisoning debacle.

It’s not exactly the forms he needs, mostly he needs to change his finances around to support the Avengers after he tips into non-functional insanity, but it’s a nice reminder that he has somehow ended up with more people in his life. More people he’ll have to make sure are looked after once he’s...gone.

Which leaves him with another problem.

He doesn’t have a successor. He doesn’t have someone to pass the Iron Mantle on to after he kicks it. And sure, yes, there is Rhodey, but Rhodey is busy being military and he’s never really understood what Tony is doing here. Why he became Iron Man in the first place. Why he was so insistent on the Avengers. So, Tony, who is unaccustomed to backing down or off or out has a solution.

Pepper Potts.

In some dimly aware back section of his head he really thinks he should stop doing this to her.

He pulls out a pen and some paper from the bottom draw and sets to work.

--

‘Has anyone seen Coulson lately?’ Clint asks over breakfast one morning. He has his feet on the table and the paper Tony actually wants to be reading open on his lap. Tony has the society pages. He hates the society pages.

Peter sparks off a web and steals some bacon off Tony’s plate, ‘Nah, not for ages. Why?’

Tony scowls and pushes away his plate because his breakfast is tainted now, ‘Please don’t display your puberty problems at the table. Or on my breakfast.’

Peter smiles wide and greasy, ‘I just can’t control myself sometimes,’ and slurps his coffee.

Natasha chooses this moment to stroll by, says ‘Pepper’s waiting for you downstairs.’

Tony slaps his paper down and jumps up, ‘Great. JARVIS, hey, JARVIS fix Peter while I’m gone. I have a meeting with a beautiful lady, well, beautiful Pepper, there isn’t a big enough word for what Pepper is.’

‘But seriously,’ he hears Clint say as he turns down the stairs, ‘where’s Coulson?’

As he steps into the lab two things become apparent. One is that Pepper is agitated, uncomfortable and so fucking onto him and two is that Dummy has set fire to something.

‘Dummy, whatever stupid thing you’re doing right now I demand you stop for the sake of everyone and everything you love.’ Dummy whines low and bobs twice, ‘I don’t care if you thought you were helping.’ He knocks on Dummy’s head as he looks at the burning pile on his garage floor. It’s unsalvageable so Tony signals for it to be cleaned up and moves on.

Pepper’s sitting on his stool, arms and legs crossed. Her Tony, you are so stupid I deserve better and yet I put up with you face on.

‘Tony.’ Pepper says, ‘If you’re dying again-’

‘Why would you assume-’

‘Last time you started giving things away with no explanation you gave me a company-’

‘Pep’s that was like, an entire year and a half ago and oh my god it has been over a year hasn’t it? I need some champagne to celebrate-’

‘Tony. You are not getting me drunk enough to sign your estate over, or to sell your art collections or, or, whatever it is you think-’

Tony laughs once, a sharp Ha into the open space between them. ‘I’m not dying Pepper I just have something I need to give you. I can give you things without me being in danger of dying. ’ Peppers face says ‘all evidence to the contrary’ which is both vaguely insulting and completely true.

Pepper stands slowly and accepts the glass of champagne Tony hands her, ‘If you give me strawberries again I will have all your favourite band shirts destroyed.’

Tony laughs again, a true one from deep down that he hasn’t felt in a long while, he leans forward and wraps her in a one armed hug. Pepper stiffens for a second before relaxing, softly exhaling against his neck

‘You, Pepper Potts are the single greatest woman in the world. And I Tony Stark, the greatest man in the world, have a gift for you.’

‘We’re not getting married.’

‘Pepper, are you saying you won’t make an honest man out of me?’

Pepper smiles against his neck, ‘I’m serious. Strawberries and I quit. And-’ her smile fades, ‘We tried honest man already.’

Right. The three months of dating hell and Peppers sad, relieved face when he said, ‘we can still be friends can’t we?’

‘Yeah. I’m too good a liar.’

‘Best I’ve met.’

Tony lets her go. ‘JARVIS pull up my latest project.’

The room dims and blue light flows into some schematics and then into an image of the Iron Man suit, but, no, this one is softer around the edges, curved and designed for someone three inches shorter than Pepper is right now.

‘Tony...’

‘I called it Rescue because, well, I’m not spelling that one out but it’s a reason my therapist would say is very indicative of emotional growth, you don’t have to call her that though, she’s yours so right of naming goes to you.’

Pepper feels her throat tighten up and wipes her hair away from her face to disguise a tear, ‘I can’t accept this.’

He scratches his beard sheepishly, ‘I, uh, wasn’t going to give you a choice.’

She snorts, because, of course she can’t say no, Tony has always steam rolled over everything and if she doesn’t say yes now he’ll probably just leave it fully assembled in her office. ‘Yes. And I think I’ll keep Rescue as a name. Almost hopeful isn’t it?’

Tony pulls the stool over so he can sit down. He flings his hands up and makes some gestures, ‘Yep. Hopeful is the right thing for you Peps. JARVIS bring up the control system for Rescue. So, this is the control system, I need you to do some tests so I can figure out how to make it work for you. You’re hands are tiny for one thing so that needs to be taken...’

--

Three hours after Pepper had finally gotten fed up with the electrodes all over her body and left, Steve walks into the garage. Well, he tries, but there’s mess and Dummy swinging his fire extinguisher around and Tony lying on the floor laughing. Tony doesn’t laugh much, not truly, and Steve likes seeing his best friend happy.

There’s a beat of sadness there for all the other friends Steve’s had who he’ll never get to see laugh again. But, as a general rule, Steve endeavours to find something to be grateful for in every moment and right now it’s Tony’s smile.

He raps on the door but Tonys regular music is loud and he doesn’t look up from where one of his ridiculously expensive cars is being drenched in foam. Because there’s nothing else to do, Steve sits down at Tony’s worktable to wait. Now that he thinks about it, he spends an awful lot of time waiting for Tony.

It fades eventually and Tony returns to his regular scheduled smirk, ‘Hello solider. What brings you here?’ Tony shoves some stuff around and sits on the table.

‘You do.’

‘Do I?’ Tony smirks more, voice rolling on the do.

Steve gives no reaction except to hand Tony a paper bag, ‘Hmm, you missed dinner so I figured I’d just bring down some.’

‘Is that-’

‘Burger. Yeah. No onion because of your heart problems-‘ Steve makes a face because Tony’s heart problems range from onions to other people driving his cars to talking to his ex’s to being handed subpoenas.

‘Totally a real thing, gives me heart burn.’

‘I’m sure.’

‘Really.’

Steve opens another bag and brings out a perfect slice of pie, ‘And some apple pie.’

‘You brought me apple pie.’

‘Tony.’

‘No. Really. The Sentinel of Liberty brought me apple pie. You, sir, have just become a parody of yourself.’ Tony takes a bite of the burger, a slice of tomato sliding down his chin, ‘and a bad one too. The internet will never forgive me for not documenting this.’

Steve laughs as he wipes away the tomato from Tony’s chin, ‘Why do I talk to you?’

‘Because I’m adorable.’

Tony smiles again and Steve, well, Steve feels another one of these moments coming on. Sometimes he hates being a soldier, because if there’s one thing fighting all the time does it’s hone your fight or flight to a ludicrously fine point and right now there’s a big ol’ beacon screaming run now as fast as you can. Steve’s hand slips for a moment to the side of Tony’s neck where he can feel the pulse. He doubts anyone else has ever noticed that Tony’s pulse has an irregular rhythm behind it, a faint whurring noise that Steve can feel under his fingers. For a brief crazy moment he wants to press in harder. Steve swallows once and pulls his fingers back.

‘Hey, Cap, everything good?’ Tony waggles his fingers in Steve’s face, not disturbed in the least by another man dabbing his chin and oblivious to the inappropriate nature of what just happened.
It’s not- Steve doesn’t have a problem with homosexuality, he was in the army during the most desperate parts of the worst war the world has ever seen, anything that made any of that easier is fine by him. Before that, when he was just a sick kid with a lot of courage, he didn’t have much time to judge people for who they loved let alone enough time to condemn them. It’s just, he never would have thought it would happen to him, he’s not the type, he had Peggy.

He’s just not that guy.

And then there’s the fact that he’s responsible for Tony. He’s his commanding officer (sort of, as much as Tony lets anyone command anything) and his friend and Steve has been here before. Seen the breakdown of the chain of command in action. He can see just as well as anyone the cracks Tony wears like armour, most days he even sees the person underneath, the man who’s always trying his hardest but doesn’t know if there’s anything else under the bravado. One good hard push would be all it took to crack him wide open, soft underbelly exposed, and Steve won’t be that push.

‘Everything’s fine.’

Tony looks doubtful, ‘Yep. Uh huh. So has anyone caught up to Bruce yet?’

The Hulk caused an unusually Hulk sized problem two days ago when Bruce sort of but not quite broke up with his girlfriend. This wouldn’t be such a thing if it weren’t for the fact that Thor and Clint are needed elsewhere and Natasha had just left for something classified. Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that the Avengers are a few short of a team and they need Bruce back, Steve would just let him calm down on his own. But they don’t really have the luxury so Steve has to spend most of his time searching around North America in the snow. Because he and snow have such a fantastic working relationship. The last time the Hulk was spotted he’d crossed through Alaska and, hilariously to Tony and Clint and mostly horrifying to everyone else, run right through Sarah Palin’s house.

Clint had said, ‘At least we know he doesn’t vote Republican,’ before toddling off with Thor to New Mexico.

‘Would it be really inhumane to put a tracker in that guy?’ Tony asks.

‘Yes, very, Geneva would put us away wet.’ Steve replies, totally missing Tony’s shocked face, ‘I’m not sure I’m still against it.’

‘Did you just say ‘put away wet?’ I really don’t think that means what you think it means.’

Steve sighs, because of course Clint had been the one to tell him that it was the new in phrase with an excited but probably syntax confused Thor ready to vouch for him. Of course it’s a sex joke. Steve longs for the days where everyone was quietly respectful and a little intimidated by him, longs for them with a passion, ‘It’s a sex-’

‘It’s a sex thing, yes,’ Tony chuckles, ‘Man, what did you do in the forties.’

‘Sat around admiring our chastity belts, obviously,’ Steve says drily.

‘Obviously.’ Tony picks up the leftovers of his burger and dumps them into a bin, one of the robots, Steve thinks’ he’s called Dummy but he could be wrong, responds by setting it on fire. Tony merely casts a long suffering but ultimately amused look and says, ‘Really? Again? Am I going to have to pay for therapy?’

Dummy whines and promptly sets about putting the fire out.

Tony shakes his head and pulls his goggles off his head, hair sticking up everywhere, ‘Some days I think he does it for the attention.’
Steve stands up and makes to leave. As he does his eyes catch on some of the papers on Tony’s desk. They look like the Iron Man suit but...

‘Tony. Is there something you’re not telling me?’

Tony looks startled for a moment, like he truly hadn’t been expecting the question and was caught, for once, with no evasion of the truth, ‘Uh, not really.’

Not really isn’t a good enough answer here.

‘Because, unless you have been lying for the last year or so, this looks a female version of the Iron Man suit.’

‘Oh,’ and Tony exhales, relief evident, ‘That’s Pepper’s suit. It’s called Rescue.’

‘And why does Pepper need a suit? Not that I doubt her capacity to, but I rather thought being Iron Man was your job.’ Steve crosses his arms.

‘Um. It’s a just-in-case thing. If I can’t be Iron Man anymore-’

‘And since when was your ability as Iron Man being doubted. If this is that Everhart lady causing a stink again, Tony, there’s ways to get around that besides giving up.’ Steve pauses a beat too long, ‘If this is about the drinki-’

‘Wow, I wouldn’t give this gig up for anything so slow down, but, if I’m permanently hospitalized or something you have a back up. Not that Pepper wouldn’t be awesome at this anyway.’ Tony casts a look around; like Pepper will magically appear and berate him for saying she was less that capable.

‘Why,’ Steve says slowly, his best ‘I am your calm inspiring leader do not be afraid’ face on, ‘would you be hospitalized Tony?’

Tony tenses and Steve has been expecting this, yes, because he had an alcoholic for a father and Tony has signs but he’s a million miles away from the angry, self destructive man Steve met on the helicarrier all those months ago. Steve was really hoping the three glasses of water interspersing the four of whiskey meant something.

‘It’s not like that Steve. It’s a precaution.’

And Steve can’t believe him, ‘Right. Okay. Well, when you’re done being evasive come tell me what’s actually going on.’

‘There’s nothing to worry about Steve. Everyone’s going to be fine.’

‘Everyone except you.’

‘Including me. It’s just a precaution.’

Steve throws up his hands, ‘done with this’ reading in the entire movement, ‘Fine, Tony, have your secrets.’

‘Steve.’

‘No. Tony, I’m just, I’m going now.’ And with that he turns and leaves.

Upstairs he finds a newly returned Natasha in a leather jacket and black dress with a big duffle bag. She looks him over once and glances at the stairs behind him; she raises an eyebrow and lifts her chin. Steve makes a sharp don’t ask nod and she backs off.

‘Fury wants to see you in the morning,’ is all she says before crossing the room to the stairs that lead to the bedrooms. ‘Says it’s important.’

Steve nods and gestures to her bags, ‘Need help?’

She shakes her head, ‘No. I’m fine. Get some sleep.’

Steve nods and leaves to do just that.

--

His meeting with Fury takes approximately 30 seconds.

‘Coulson is on a,’ Fury pauses, a look of extreme displeasure rolling across his face, ‘sensitive mission. He may not be back for some time.’

Steve nods, ‘I’ll let the team know. Was there anything else?’

Fury looks like he desperately wants to say something but thinks better of it, ‘No. No that’ll be all.’

Frankly, Steve wonders why the guy couldn’t just send a message.

--

The next week is a clusterfuck.

Dr Doom makes a surprise visit causing mass mayhem and destruction. He’s somehow found a way to build regenerating doom bots which means all they’ve done for the last six days is beat them back about two blocks. Every time they beat them down the mob just gets bigger and angrier. Last night some of the civilians started throwing down.

They’re still down two team members since Clint and Thor haven’t come back, they do have the Hulk since a bruised Banner was found lying in what used to be Alkali Lake, but the Hulks version of help is more like contained chaos with the side benefit of occasionally destroying some doom bots. Spider man broke his leg when he was thrown sideways through a building and Tony has the absolute delight of feeling one of his ribs slowly puncture through his lung. Which would be okay but he’s also get one hell of a concussion and his left hip isn’t moving right. They’ve been alternating shifts for the last six days, he hasn’t slept in twice that many and he’s exhausted. He’s not entirely sure he can fight the good fight anymore. Tony can dimly feel the pull of unconsciousness and it feels like losing.

The fight ends with the Fantastic Four and Reed Richards doing something heroically scienc-y. Tony would care what but he has a rapidly widening hole in his lung right now and a throb in his head that says he’s damn well going to sleep now whether he wants to or not.

He makes it over to Cap whose uniform is kind of just an imaginative scrap across the top and some shorts and lifts him up to safety.

‘Steve.’ He says gravely once they land on one of the rooves. ‘You need to tell Pepper to look for her favourite briefcase. Also. The boy scouts get the art and that mausoleum thing I bought last week this time. You get the rest of the shit.’

Captain America looks at him like he’s crazy, ‘Iron Man, we need to get back in the fight.’

Tony grits his teeth. ‘Steve. I am not asking this as your teammate I am asking this as your friend tell Pepper to look in her briefcase.’

Captain America lifts up and takes his cowl off, ‘Tony what’s wrong?’

And Tony Stark, Iron Man, Greatest Man in the World in the middle of a battle on top of a roof, lowers his face plate and kisses Steve Rogers, best friend and Captain America lightly on the lips. ‘Tell her I’m sorry for doing this to her again. And Steve? It’s meant more to me than anything that I got to meet you. You are the best thing that ever happened to me.’

And with that said, Tony falls to his knees and closes his eyes.

--

Chapter Text

The problem with being famous is that people notice you and the problem with being noticed is that it makes it really goddamn hard to find somewhere to quietly have a panic attack. About three minutes ago the entire street Anthony was standing on went up in a series of brilliant explosions and glass, a skyscraper cracked in the middle and the world went silent except for the sound of breathing and falling rubble.

Anthony runs, he doesn’t know why, not really, but as he does the people in the street stop, stare, eyes blank and unblinking.

He stumbles into an alley and heaves all over the wall.

From his position doubled over and puking, Anthony can hear the distant footsteps of the mob storming the streets. According to gossip fleeced from Anthony’s favourite hairdresser the five families have had a falling out that’s resulted in all of them taking to the streets, weapons in hand.

He leans his head against the wall for a moment longer. Everywhere he goes the footsteps seem to get louder, closer, like they’re chasing him down. Which is stupid. Except for how it’s not, not really. He stands
and gets ready to run again. Run faster.

‘Anthony?’

He looks up and into Steve’s concerned blue eyes. Steve’s a fire fighter and they set someone’s house on fire less than 45 minutes ago. Anthony knows it happened since he was watching the news when Steve got the call. ‘You should be at work.’

‘I finished.’
Anthony snorts and takes in Steve’s perfectly pressed shirt and jeans, he’s six blocks from his apartment, he can see the smoke tendrils from here and Steve doesn’t smell of fire at all, ‘And went home, had a shower and somehow found me?’

‘What is with you lately?’ Steve demands, ‘All the time, it’s like you’re testing me.’

‘And if I am?’

‘I’ve got nothing to prove to you!’

‘Well that settles that!’

Steve looks utterly confused like Anthony has just insisted the sky is red and rain is chocolate drops, ‘What are you doing? I don’t understand! Don’t you want me!’

‘Of course I do.’

‘But you aren’t, this is wrong; this isn’t what’s meant to happen. You’re not meant to decide something differ-’

Steve’s entire body seems to seize, like a mannequin that’s strings have been pulled all the way up. His eyes turn a brief bright shade of violet twisting in a vortex. He sighs and shakes his head, mutters some words Tony can’t understand. The footsteps are closer and the screaming is so loud, the cracks in the sidewalk widen, threaten to spilt all the way open but all the cracks are coming toward him, only him, and Steve who smiles too wide and says, ‘What am I going to do with you?’

And suddenly, impossibly, a swirl of water comes crashing down the alleyway and Steve presses his hands gently to either side of Anthony’s neck, tenses, twists-

--

Anthony wakes up in bed, Steve snoring next to him and Loki’s bright green eyes staring at him.

‘This is wrong, Kitty.’

Loki merely inclines his head, as if to say took you long enough.

--

Pepper appears over breakfast. And when he says appears he means suddenly materialises while he’s drinking his coffee. Anthony is learning not to be strange about this, well, at least not to show that he finds this strange.

‘Heard you and Steve had a fight.’ Pepper says.

‘Wasn’t a fight.’

‘Really? Because you’ve been giving him the third degree a lot lately and-’

‘Pepper. How did you get here?’

‘What?’

‘I’m curious. Did you walk? Did you drive?’

‘I-’

The sounds stop and Pepper freezes mid-word, Anthony swirls the coffee in his cup and waits. After a second Pepper moves again, a tiny twitch in her movements the only indication anything out of the ordinary happened.

‘Never mind. Do you have the draft?’

Pepper pulls out a bound manuscript, tabs and post it notes spilling out. There’s a dash of red-brown across the top, right over the title. Anthony takes a few seconds to absolutely freak out in his head.

She holds up the bundle of paper, black inked words ‘You Could be the Greatest Man in the World’ mocking him. Pepper thumbs it open, a small folded origami cat falling out, ‘It’s a really interesting read-’

He feels nauseous. ‘This isn’t the draft I sent the editor.’

‘It’s the one that got sent back.’ She drops it in front of him, ‘Anthony is there something you’d like to tell me?’

‘Nope.’

‘Look, this obsession you have with this imaginary character-’

‘He’s not imaginary.’ And yeah, he really shouldn’t be taking offense, but, shit, Tony Stark has to be a fucking person because the other option is that Anthony is legitimately crap balls crazy. He reaches over and grabs the coffee pot, grabs the little origami cat too.

‘Anthony.’

Loki twines around his legs as if to say Danger Will Robinson! And isn’t it sad that the only thing he really trusts about his life right now is his cat?

‘You know what Peps, you’re right, I’ll go get rid of this right now.’

He, his coffee, his cat and his manuscript all but run out of the room.

--

About three hours later and the temperature has just dropped 10 degrees. Its winter, it’s cold and Anthony wants some cocoa. Loki makes his usual batting motion at the bottom of his chin and Anthony doesn’t even make his token protest. He closes his reference book and pads out into the kitchen. He makes himself a cup of cocoa, more whipped cream and chocolate sauce than anything else. He takes a seat at his couch and opens a book, takes a moment to be surprised that there are no words and closes it again. Right. Everything is crazy here.

He finds a cigarette and a lighter and makes the executive decision to sit out the front of the building, looking like a hobo and smoke up. A little bit of Mary Jane to take the paranoid edge off. His pipe is by the window, last he remembers.

‘Holy mother of a stripper-’

And scrawled all across his windows are symbols he’s never seen before, circles and lines and sigils blending together. His first thought, after the stripper bit, is that Steve will have a goddamn baby when he sees that across his windows. His second is ‘where the goddamn hell is Loki? This is his fault, I know it is.’

Loki, because he is a magical, sudden kitten appears with his usual twirl between the legs.

He looks at the windows and tries to figure out if he could do anything about it, ‘Shit. Well, no, I have no idea how to fix this. Fuck it, let’s get high.’

He finds the pipe; sitting under the table where impromptu making out had left it, cleans it out, packs it and sticks it in his mouth. On a whim he picks up a book and sails out his door, down the hallway and into the elevator.

Somewhere between the realisation that his cat has come with him and that the book he’s holding is really goddamned heavy Anthony realises he should probably tell Coulson someone broke into his apartment.
Coulsons office is off the main foyer, tucked in a small corridor behind the service desk. Anthony, who has never felt an ounce of shame in his life, has been in their many times, often for nigh on unmentionable reasons. The office door has this cute little pink smiley face on it left over from when Wade, in a fit of LSD driven pique, scrawled ‘Alabama Sunshine, Won’t You Go Down On Me’. That was a good night.

‘Coulson I’ve got- Wow. Someone went to town on you.’

Coulson is a control freak and his office reflects that. It’s usually neat and grey with something ‘whimsical’ rendered irrelevant by being neat and boxed and perpetually matching to everything else. Currently his neat as a button office is a bunch of strewn papers, toppled furniture and black marks. Anthony makes one turn and observes the entire room. There’s very little salvageable about this space. Loki hops on the desk, paws neatly crossed on the top of some Super Nanny DVD’s strewn around and makes some more pawing motion at the air. Anthony sighs and sits on the desk, tilts his head up, ‘look, kitty, there’s nothing under my chin so just let it go, yeah?’

His eyes inevitably travel to the roof and, well, he sighs because he’s all out of shocked right now.

‘There is a bunch of scribbly shit on the ceiling and I am officially not high or drunk enough to deal with it.’

Loki makes a tired sounding mew and lies down. Anthony follows suit and takes a seat behind the desk. He pulls out a lighter and smokes up. There are a few moments of waiting, of boredom and then the soft lull over his senses. Actually, now that he looks again the writing on the ceiling is very interesting.

‘Stark,’ it says, ‘this is a dream. Wake up.’

Well, that seems odd.

‘Don’t that seem odd, Kitty? I think it is a very odd-’

‘Tony,’ it says, ‘if you don’t shut up I will find a way out of this limbo to taze you and throw your out in the cold.’

‘My name isn’t Tony, scribbling on the ceiling. Wait, no, Coulson, you’re the only person who threatens to taze me and make me homeless.’

‘Yes. It is. You are Tony Stark, you’ve just forgotten.’

‘How could I forget who I am?’

‘Because you wanted to be someone else.’

Anthony –Tony?- mulls that over in his mind. Is he Tony Stark? Is this reality or is this a fantasy? Does he have a copy of Queen’s greatest hits? Is it just the laced weed making him philosophical about his position in life? Does he want a sandwich? Doesn’t he have an existential crisis to be working through right now? He slouches down in the chair further, letting the symbols and the weirdness wash over him. He rubs his face and breathes hard through his mouth. This is not real. He is not real.

‘How do I wake up?’

‘Put the DVD on.’

‘You don’t have a DVD player. Also, I’m hallucinating because of bad hash.’

‘Look again.’ Anthony looks at the desk and lo and behold there is a DVD player attached to a monitor. He nearly falls off his chair. ‘You aren’t awake, Mr Stark. Anything is possible here. I can’t use this method of communication much longer though so hurry up.’

‘Fuck. I need to be sober.’ Even as he thinks it his head clears and the light tingling in his fingers fades. He looks up one last time and catches the fading symbols and Coulsons last message- ‘I’m counting on you. God have mercy on us all, Stark, you are the only hope any of us have.’

He stares at the ceiling a beat longer before Loki taps him on the chin like he always does.

--

So. Anthony is going to punch Lorette in the face for dealing him bad shit and then he’s going to go find Coulson and hit him too for his stupid Super Nanny obsession.

He has just watched a season and a fucking half of Super Nanny. That’s like, 15 episodes of shitty children and shittier parents and that thing screeching. Coulson is a horrible person. He slides the last disk of season 2 in and hopes to dear god that this is the disc he’s meant to be watching or if it isn’t that something explodes and kills him. Someone, somewhere takes pity on him and instead of some snobby British voice describing how awful a bunch of snotty children are Super Nanny turns to look him straight in the eye and pronounces with a voice that is clearly male, ‘What hell took so long?’

‘To be fair, you never specified a disc.’

Super Nanny Coulson snorts, ‘I can’t help that you’re stupid.’

‘Yeah, well, can you help that I’m imaginary?’ It comes out angrier than he meant.

She -he? She? This is Mardi Gras all over again- shrugs, ‘You aren’t. Well, you are but you also aren’t.’

‘You said Tony Stark was real which obviously means Anthony Stark-Rogers isn’t.’

‘It doesn’t mean that.’

‘Then what does it mean?’

‘I-’ Super Coulson makes a noise in the back of his throat like spitting and choking at the same time, ‘can’t answer that.’

‘Why not?’

‘That cat of yours. Does he have some sort of obsession with you?’

That wasn’t even a decent attempt to change the subject, ‘Always hitting my jaw. Why?’

‘You believe in magic?’

‘What’s with the twenty questions, no, I don’t, magic isn’t real.’

‘Yes. It is. Just as real as Tony Stark.’

‘I think I’d know if -’

‘For god’s sake Stark, shut up.’ Super Nanny Coulson pauses for a moment as the three brats he’s meant to be fixing run around his knees, ‘Magic is real, fact number one. Fact number two is everything around you is a dream. One you can’t wake up from. Fact number three the only person besides myself who knows enough about what’s happening right now to stop it is you. I need you to take the package in my desk to a cafe three blocks from here and give it to Mr Fury. Fact number four, and this one you need to remember Mr Stark, nothing is what we thought it was, it's not-’

Anthony boggles, ‘As in, Mafia Don Nick Fury.’

‘Yes, you need to give him the-’

‘Okay, no, I am not giving a suspicious package to a known member of the mafia in broad daylight. I am not that stupid.’

‘Would you feel better about meeting him in a back alley at night?’

‘No. No I would not, fine, take your super secret boyfriend your love note and what? Join your criminal boy band?’

‘No. Stark. See what he says and do what he tells you.’

‘See did you miss the bit about not being in your boy band? People know who I am; I cannot take orders from the goddamn mafia.’

Super Coulson makes a face like Anthony is the stupidest thing he’s ever seen, ‘Stark. This isn’t real.’

‘It’s the only real I’ve had.’

‘Stark th –Anthony. Anthony, I know this must be hard for you to accept but you are not and never have been real. The real person is Tony Stark and this world needs him.’

He’s missed the point, Anthony is well aware he’s not real, he doesn’t mind that. But it’s one thing to know everything you’ve done and are isn’t true and another to have to accept it. ‘Tony died in the other reality-dream thing. I remember. I dreamed it.’

‘He’s dead.’ Super Coulson’s face does this weird half face twitch, ‘Are you sure.’

‘Yep. Completely.’

‘Ah. Well, that complicates things.’

Super Coulson frowns really hard and Anthony wonders if the disc is stuck. A light rustling sound and an envelope appears smacking lightly on top of the monitor. ‘Put a piece of paper inside of it.’

He does so and he must manage to look so utterly bewildered by what’s happening Super Coulson decides to take pity on him.

With a much gentler voice Coulson says, ‘Take the Package Stark. We all have to do things we’d rather not sometimes. Also, go somewhere else for the rest of the episode; your face is beginning to grate on me.’

So maybe there wasn’t that much pity.

--

‘The blue eagle flies west at midnight.’ Anthony says to the snarling face of one Mafia Don Nick Fury.

‘What the fuck are you on about?’

‘The correct answer is ‘yes, Pussy Galore’ but I’ll take ‘what did my super secret boyfriend get me’ for five points and the game.’ He waves around the yellow envelope and slides into the non-descript-its-been-described-so-many-times-now booth in a quaint 50’s style diner. It’s half full, unexpected considering the gale of nervous wind outside.

‘You know for some stupid reason I expected you to be less annoying asleep. I actually have no fucking idea why I thought that.’ Fury sighs, like Anthony is just one huge disappointment, before sipping his coffee.
Anthony smirks and hands over the yellow envelope, ‘Does the eye patch affect your depth perception in a dream?’

Fury does this thing with his one eye where he judges you and finds your very molecules undeserving of being bonded to one another before simply, visibly, tuning him out, all focus on the document in front of him.‘Ah. You said Stark was dead on the other side.’

‘Yes. Very. Hole in his lung, tres unpleasant.’

‘And you are absolutely sure.’

‘Yes. He’s dead. I was there. I felt it.’

Fury pulls out a lighter and sets the paper on fire. The other patrons don’t so much as stir. Fury brushes the ashes off the table and stands.

‘Meet me here tomorrow. Try not to die in the meantime.’

‘Yeah. Okay. Alright. Will that be all?’ Anthony says, standing as well. Fury looks at him from the ground up and then simply turns and walks away. Outside the sun switches from its gloomy mysterious atmosphere to a bright and sunny afternoon. Three black cars prowl down the street, stopping outside the diner.

‘Yes. Fuck off.’ He waves a hand over his shoulder, ‘And I was serious about not dying.’

Anthony snorts and mutters about crazy paranoid mafia. After all who would try to kill him.

--

In retrospect that was just a stupid fucking thing to say.

--

His apartment is blacked out. There is broken glass everywhere and the stench of burnt food left to fester. He steps cautiously and hears a plaintive little mew. He can hear the soft continuous sharpening of a blade and the sound of breaking crockery.

‘Hi Steve.’ He says into the all consuming darkness.

Candles flicker to life, Steve’s face is illuminated in the glow, his lips frowning as his wrist makes a quick jab motion, sending a sandwich plate flying into the wall. He’s dressed up in a tux with a blue, red and white striped tie. His hair is swept back and his eyes are, well, they look a lot like Tony’s actually. If Tony’s had the benefit of occasionally being streaked with violet.

‘I do believe you’re upset with me.’ Anthony says as he shrugs out of his coat. He hangs it up and feels proud for a moment that his hands only shake slightly.

‘What was your first clue?’

He looks for Loki. He finds a circle of candles and those strange twisting symbols again, a golden light permeating everything; Loki is laying stomach to the floor inside an interlocking mass of golden bars.

‘The knife. Or the broken glass. Or that you’ve, uh, imprisoned my cat.’

‘Your cat?’

‘Well, you’re never around...’

‘Never around?’ Steve smiles far too wide, ‘Why Tony, I am all around you all the time. To a certain extent I am you. The cat is mine too, always, irrevocably, mine.’

‘You’re not Steve are you? Never have been.’

Steve sighs and rests his head on his hand, the other twirling the knife, ‘No. I would have been content to let you have your little fantasies of him. They do me no great harm and you are just so terribly interesting to me. Far more so than most of the others they’ve put in here. Except for the Princeling, so much potential in that one.’

Here is where he should ask what and why and how. Instead he says, ‘Are you going to kill me?’

‘I can’t kill. Only trap or free. And obey, of course. So it is writ and so I am bound.’

‘Then what are you going to do with me?’

‘I plan to enjoy your hospitality, Mr Stark.’

Loki makes one more desperate tackle at his golden cage. It does nothing. Anthony thinks this might be a metaphor for the clusterfuck he’s found himself in. Steve walks over to him and gentle brushes a hand down his face. Anthony doesn’t move, he doesn’t know if he’s too scared or if he still thinks that Steve won’t hurt him. Even with the brown and violet eyed proof standing over him.

Not Steve’s lips brush against his hair as he croons, ‘I’ve always wondered about the way you imagine this man. You see him as both an ideal to be lived up to and a benchmark to judge all that shames you. You see him as so much worthier than yourself, even when you can’t help but hate him. Your father loved him; everyone wants to believe in him, he’s the perfect focus for your self hatred, your self destruction. I could be your father right now. Or Obie. But you choose Steve for this. Does he know how vicious you imagine him? Does he know how much you can’t stand not having him?’ The edge of the knife skirts across his thigh and rests, cold, against his stomach. ‘Does he know what I know? That he’ll be the thing that breaks you?’

Steve slides the knife up his chest, over his beating heart.

‘I would have given you sweet dreams. Why couldn’t you just stay asleep? It would have been so easy. I wouldn’t have to hurt you if you’d just done it right.’ Steve presses the knife hard against his chest, tipping it so the blade just dances across the skin, ‘Pain is in the mind, love, and you can’t ignore it here. There is no suit, no alcohol, no one to pick you up and save you because, lets face it, you’ve never been much good at saving yourself. There’s just Steve and you and this nightmare and nowhere to run.’

And the knife presses a little bit harder.

--

Anthony doesn’t die. No matter how bitterly he might wish he had.

--

The next morning is a mess of wild agony and broken things. Steve is gone for which he can only be grateful. He finds Loki and cleans his apartment until he realises that his apartment is not a real thing either. He crouches down in front of the New York skyline that he shouldn’t be able to see because there is a skyscraper three blocks over that’s been blocking the view for years.

In that moment it hits. He’s asleep. He should have known that. Should have remembered. He used to have a watch. Tony used to have a watch. A million tiny pieces ticking over and over and he just forgot.

How did he just forget?

He gets dressed. He feeds Loki. He walks three blocks to the cafe. He finds Fury sitting in the same booth as yesterday. He’s smirking but for the life of him Anthony cannot be fucked playing ball today. Fury sips his coffee; he always has a cup of coffee. Anthony opens his mouth and instead of the rather lame retort he had planned our comes everything that had happened to him in the last however long its been. He’s angry. Spitting with it. At least last time he had the benefit of a goddamn machine in his chest to distract him. This time he’s alone with his thoughts all the time, letting them mutate into this uncontrollable all consuming thing that scratches him up and makes him miserable. He’s not good at misery. Not good at it sober anyway.

Fury just sips at his immortal cup of coffee and after Anthony’s done hissing his displeasure Fury says, vaguely amused and perhaps a smidgen impressed, ‘Congratulations. You’ve just met your id.’

‘What could you possibly have to congratulate me for?’

‘It means you’re nearly there. Reality is breaking through for you. It’s a last line of defence for whatever thing is controlling this. If it helps mine was at least as bad as yours. Everyone’s is. The point is to make you believe that the dream is the safe choice. Most choose to go back to being safe and happy in dreamland. Can’t say I blame them, reality is a fucking mess right now.’

‘So you know what’s happening?’

‘No. And Yes. Mostly no. But we’re fighting anyway.’ Fury takes a sip of coffee, taps under his chin and would people stop doing that? ‘I can’t tell you.’

‘How can I help?’

Fury actually looks shocked briefly. So maybe he isn’t the most helpful person but hell, even his narcissistic ass can see this problem is a hell of a lot bigger than him and if he never has to go back to that goddamn apartment and see Steve he’ll be happy and grateful. Fury smooths it over and reaches inside his coat, probably to get another stupid yellow envelope of stupid.

‘For what it’s worth Tony and if you remember any of this on the other side, you’ve got some of my respect.’

And then he pulls out a gun and puts a bullet right between Anthony’s eyes.

--
Anthony falls

And falls

And falls

And falls

Everywhere there are pages of script, pages and pages of schematics, information flowing past him. A scrapbook full of memories and that same weird combination of symbols and lines, runes, splashed across everything. Writhing across his skin. His eyes.

He falls

He falls

And he lands.

--

Chapter Text

If there was one thing Pepper Potts never expected to do in the course of her strange, ulcer inducing and often terrifying job it would be attending her, well not boss, despite his frequent claims Tony was never really in charge, but close friend and ex-employers funeral. But here she is on a Wednesday afternoon surrounded by people just as sad and just as devastated as she is burying Anthony Edward Stark in his family plot next to his mother and just above the original Jarvis. Rhodey and Steve give the eulogy, cutting in every time one of them chokes off. They don’t finish the speech.

Christine Everhart is here, somewhere, and while Pepper wishes it was someone, anyone else she wasn’t allowed to organise the funeral. Because it obviously would have been too much for her in her delicate and compromised state. It takes a lot of patience and the zen techniques she had to learn to calm herself enough to not choose that exact moment to find out how well the Rescue suit works.

‘What do you want to do with the house?’ Steve asks. He’s been wonderful, really, helpful and supportive and it chokes her up, makes her crazy, she wants Tonys insecurities and his borderline sociopathic tendencies back. She wants Tony back.

‘It’s yours. I’m...I’m the executor of his estate, of everything actually, you can have whatever he didn’t donate. I don’t need it.’

‘All the same, he’d have wanted you to have something.’

‘I have the suit.’

Steve smiles in a patient sympathetic way. It’s a well known fact that while they appreciate what she does in an everyday organisational sense no one wants grieving Pepper Potts on a team of superheroes. Well tough luck to them, she has the suit, Tony taught her how to use it, she’s damn well going too. Even if she has to do it all by herself. Pepper will fight and she will win because she has never done anything else. She puts her head back in her hands and does some more breathing exercises and when she finishes that set she starts over again. Steve leaves at some point and she just keeps breathing. Natasha checks on her and she keeps breathing. Rhodey kisses her on the head and still she breathes.

‘I have the suit. I am Rescue. The suit is mine. I am Rescue and Rescue is me. Tony gave me this because I am Rescue and I have never failed him. I am the suit and the suit is me.’

She breathes.

Inhale

Exhale

--

Pepper Potts is a problem solver. If you have something that needs a solution, she can probably find it.

But being Pepper Potts just seems to get harder. They won't let her fight and the board is getting itchy, the right of succesion isn't clear and although she knows they want her to step in she can't quite bring herself to. The depression hits hard. She can't fight for the memory and she can't let it go. It's worse than Veitghanastan by a long mile. At least that time she knew what she had to do.

--
She’s at her high school reunion.

If it was set in the 20’s and everyone was wearing last years Saab.

She’s wearing a constructed dress and a mask in red and gold. All around her people are spinning and spinning in a waltz. She’s never been here but it makes sense that she is now. A man grabs her from behind. She isn’t scared. She tries to turn but he won’t let her. They spin and they turn.

“It’s a dream Ms Potts.” A deep voice. Male with a distinct Brooklyn accent she’s heard before.

“It is very lovely.” She says and knows it was the wrong thing to say in the next moment.

He laughs, “If that’s how you want to take it.”

“Who are you?”

“We’ve never met. Not here.”

“Where have we met?” He spins her and she catches a glimpse of his face. Brunet, stubble, bright blue eyes.

“When you’re awake.”

“I’m asleep.”

Too long ago Loki stole the Avengers. They came back strange. They couldn’t dream properly. Pepper wasn’t with them but she remembers being terrified for them. That they wouldn’t wake up and come back. Tony thinks –thought- she didn’t notice, that they all missed him going off the rails about it. They didn’t. It’s –it- was Tony though, you can’t pin him down about any of his issues. It just makes –made- him slipperier.

“Yes.”

Loki didn’t take her all those months ago, why would she be asleep? “Why am I asleep?”

“You’re boy never asked that.” He sounds delighted and spins her again, much faster than any time before.

“My...” Oh, “Tony. Why would you have talked to Tony?”

“Why do you imagine I’ve ever talked to Tony?”

He’s a projection. A voice in her head. Of course he’s never really talked to Tony, “If you’re a manifestation of my grief I’m going to be very displeased when I wake up.”

“Why don’t you think you’re awake now?”

“Why would everyone in the room be wearing Saab?”

“Perhaps it was a theme?”

“No. It’s one of my favourites and this is a McQueen. A particularly outrageous one I don’t like much.”

“I like you.” His smile is bright and considering as he moves his hand to tap her nose.

“I’m not very sure I like you.”

“You don’t have too.” The windows clang as hail starts up, Pepper could have sworn it was perfect out a moment ago, “Things are very strange outside Ms Potts. Wouldn’t you like to know why?”

“I-”

She twirls once more and comes awake to Natasha’s face.

--

Natasha passes her a cup of coffee and a thin, stale biscuit. Someone has to go shopping again, “We’re worried about you.”

She sips the coffee and thinks of the strange man in her dream, “I’m worried for me too.”

--

The Fantastic Four are vacationing again. The universe is in danger.

“I’m going on that mission.”

Steve makes his ‘appease the populace face’, “I’m sorry Pepper.”

“I’m in the suit. It’s Rescue. I’m going.”

Steve sighs, long and hard, he’s lost some weight recently. Tony’s death is hitting everyone hard. That and their new enemies, all harder to put down, all aware that they’re missing a heavy hitter. Pepper can fix this problem. He just has to let her.

Pepper bites her lip and then chastises herself for it, she isn’t Pepper right now, she’s Rescue, Best Woman for the Job “Is it because I’m civilian?”

Steve's face twitches, so, yes, this is the problem,

“You’ve never been in a fight and if something happened to you Ton-”

And she’s furious, she’s fought before and no, it wasn’t punching Hitler in the face but it was terrifying all the same. She’s stood up to things that scare her. She’s won. Saying that she’s some sort of widowed damsel to be cosseted and protected back here where it’s safe is ridiculous. Tony always thought she was capable of anything and it’s frustrating that no one else seems to think the same. Using his memory against her is un-fucking-forgivable.

“He’s a little too dead to forgive you anyway, Mr Rogers.” His face pales and draws together in fury or hurt, she doesn’t care, “I need to fight Steve. I’m doing this for him.”

“Let her do it.”

She turns around just as Natasha shoulder checks her, putting herself between Steve and Pepper. “If she can’t stand up to the heat we don’t have to take her next time.”

Steve closes his eyes and pinches his nose, “Fine. Rescue, we leave in five.” With that he leaves the room.

Pepper turns her face into Natasha’s shoulder and mouths thank you over and over.

--

Pepper wins them the fight. For the first time since Tony died it’s looking like a brighter day.

--

“I think I’m in love with you.”

Pepper lets her breath go, unaware it was rattling around, “That’s a relief, I thought it was just me.”

Natasha smiles

Inhale

Exhale

--

Things are okay until they aren’t anymore. Until a problem not even Pepper Potts, Rescue, CEO of Stark Industries can solve pops up.

The problem is the strange man in her dreams who has her convinced that everything is wrong. That Tony isn’t as gone as he seems. That her dreams are turning as twisted and acidic as everyone else’s on the Avengers. She doesn’t like to sleep now. It feels too much like she’s falling down a never ending waterfall, knowing there’s a bottom but never reaching it. Knowing that the same horrible thing that happened to Tony is right there at the bottom waiting for her. He doesn’t help. All he does is make her notice the strange things when she’s awake. Whispers in her ear that it’s strange, isn’t it? How she can’t remember things and she doesn’t know how she got places. He, himself is one of those strange things. A voice and a face she’s seen before. Like a long forgotten muscle memory she just can’t find the trigger for.

She thinks that if she could just figure him out she’d have this whole damn thing solved.

--

Steve makes them all go to Arlington. Natasha’s hand is resting gently in her back pocket. Clint is on her other side alternating between making kissy faces and disgusted ones.
Eventually, after a ridiculous amount of pomp and circumstance, the new statue is revealed. Steve claps and starts his speech. She notices Natasha stiffen and pull away; she turns to object to her sudden disappearance, after all, it is cold out, but Natasha is long gone. She turns back to actually get a good long look at the statue and, oh, oh no, oh motherfuck...

She knows who her mysterious man is now.

--

That same night she goes to sleep with Nat’s arm ticked around her. Only to come awake in the bedroom of her old apartment, lying next to the naked bodies of her Mystery Man and Natasha. They’re lying on her old bed
in her favourite rose gold sheets, Natasha’s hair brilliant against the backdrop as Mystery Man slips between her legs. His hand travels down Pepper’s body, just as he cups Natasha and Pepper-

-Pepper looks to her right and see’s a bewildered looking Tony.

‘Tony?’ she says, ‘Is that really-’

But Natasha’s hand slips between her legs and she loses it. All sensory information and Pepper can’t remember a thing about why she’s here. What was she meant to remember again? Wasn’t it important? But Pepper forgets and when she wakes up the next morning she catches Thor spinning his totem, the lights red and green and blue.

--

She cuts her hand on a piece of the suit. It bleeds but it doesn’t hurt.

Oh. She thinks. I remember now.

--

“Why me?” Pepper asks as she knocks off his bishop. They’re still at her high school reunion although everyone else is gone. The decorations are tumbling down and the sound system stutters out one half of a song with no intention of finishing. They’ve been playing chess for awhile now. Back and forth as Pepper tries to figure out why she’s remembering and figuring all this stuff out. Why her and not any of the other Avengers.

“Why not you?”

He moves into checkmate and she snaps, “Knock it off Mr Barnes.”

He grins, wide and unashamed, “Bucky, please, after all I am inside you right now.”

“Why. Me.”

“You’re in the perfect position. Up to date on all the Avengers stuff but not so close that it thinks you’re a real threat.”

“Threat to what?”

He taps his chin and smirks, “You have all the clues Ms Potts, as well as the benefit of being one step removed from the problem. You’re our ace in the hole. Just put all those pieces together.”

She swallows and asks the 64 million dollar question, “Is Tony...?”

He nods and isn’t that heartbreaking? “Yes. But it might not stay that way. He’s not really dead just sort of in limbo, a transient state.”

The song on the stereo is winding to a crescendo point. A thunder crash outside. She should leave. “We’ve never met, in here I mean, how do I know you sound like?”

“I’m still doing the talking but your mind has to find a way to make you understand it, so it’s taking what you think I should sound and look like and making it work.”

So he’s an outside source that’s hacking her mind but can’t speak the language. Where is Tech Support when you need it?

“I need to go.”

He mimes putting a gun to his head, “You know how to get out.”

She does.

--

She falls awake to the sound of a sharpening blade.

“Natasha?”

The blade stops moving. It’s not Natasha, unless she’s wearing eerie violet contacts, “Sorry. No. I’m your id. We’re going to have some fun now.”

“I know what you are.” And she does, the memory is beating against her brain.

“I think you have a much better idea than anyone else, yes. But you have no idea what and who I am.” Nat holds up the knife, her face flickers to her old math teacher, the one who always told her she could do anything, she loved him, “Please, do scream.”

“You won’t win.”

The knife stops just above her collarbone, “Why not?”

“I know exactly what you are. You screwed up.”

He just smiles.

--

The thing someone should have told Pepper upon entry to the Avengers is that goading the super villain just makes them meaner. She can see why people do it though; even a cheap shot makes the pain easier to bare.

--

Pepper Potts kills herself in her dream because it seems like the right thing to do. Pepper Potts does it in what she then considers real life because she is fresh out of sane, safe options and she isn’t built like a hero, not in the same way Tony was. But Pepper is the queen of organisation and the queen of fudging paperwork to look like something else. Before she takes a bottle of pills and drinks an extra large glass of whiskey, she goes through the email account she set up in secret way back when and writes down everything she knows. It might not work, but hey, if it does at least the others will know what she does.

This isn’t real. Her entire world is just a dream.

--

When Pepper wakes up, it’s to a pair of bright blue eyes smiling at her.

--

Chapter Text

Tony comes to on a deserted shore line, the sound of a city crumbling like sandcastles and a low hum that whispers a million small secrets ringing in his ears.

He tries to stand and finds himself pushed back down into the water. He struggles onto the sand and lies there for a minute. Considers all the bad life choices he’s made to reach this point. A quick look around shows that apart from the constant sound of falling he is totally and utterly alone. He shouldn’t be surprised. He’s not surprised. If this is the deep dark corner of his mind where everything and nothing is real then it makes sense he’d be in it alone. Tony’s really beginning to suspect he should have never made any of them watch Inception. He stands up, slowly, and takes a few shuddering steps forward. Suddenly he’s standing in the middle of a street, weird things floating by. Pictures of Peter’s grandmother and pieces of Bruce’s thesis and a few, huh, lacy undergarments. Tony plucks a particularly lacy under thing out of the air. It’s his subconscious; he can be as creepy as he wants.

The scenery changes and he’s standing in the middle of Peppers apartment watching as she, wow, okay, it’s a little awkward watching your ex-girlfriend get off with someone else. Two someone else’s, actually, a very curvy looking Natasha and a tall dark haired man, handsome and sharp looking. He’s seen that face somewhere before. Probably something Steve related-

-the entire structure shakes and Pepper snaps out of it long enough to sit up and look at him, her face flowing from lazy arousal to shock to anger to that special Pepper expression that means she’s actually looking at him.

‘Tony?’ Pepper mouths. ‘Is that really-’

And then Pepper disappears. The entire building shakes and there is a sound like a hissing snake and a murder of crows. A brief stretch of white light.

Tony is still standing in Peppers apartment, holding the lacy scrap of underwear. Peppers apartment is just like her. Organised and pretty and vaguely reminiscent of strawberries to him. She’d probably kill him if she heard that. He sits down on a comfortable black and white chair. Nothing to do but waste time until he can figure out why he’s here. Unlike that damn film his thoughts are clearer down here. More so then they were as Tony in Iron-Man-Fuck-Up Land and a billion times less confusing then Anthony the Crap Balls Crazy Poet. Here he can think of a million things at once and not have it be problematic. He thinks in a rather roundabout way that this is what it’s like to be a god. Without all the bizarre vaguely incestuous rampages that seem to be par for the course in Thors weird little family.

He sits and he thinks and he ponders. He walks onto the balcony and watches as the sun rises and sets. Buildings rising and falling. Some, old and patched with bright new bits coloured in the patriotic colours. Others a small selection of apartments crawling through and around things, always banked softly in snow. A golden skyscraper touching the sky and nothing else, monsters and fiends Tony cannot even begin to name circling the bottom. He sees a million buildings rise and crumble around what he’s come to realise is the New York cityscape and wonders which building is him and when it crumbled. In the cracks between the buildings are fields of poppies, bright red and glowing. For a wild moment he thinks of the Matrix and then of the mythology books he had as a child.

‘You’re late.’

He turns and finds a child holding a large, overly ornate pocket watch. The child is small and dressed in a funeral suit too big for him, the shiny patches of his elbows glinting gold and the bottom of his chin
covered in runes. Huh, maybe the thing with the chins was important.

The child blinks and a tear rolls down his face, ‘You are so late. Why are you so late?’

It figures that this would be down here. Although, everyone else’s inner child probably looks less like a serial killer. ‘You’re me. At my parents funeral.’

The child is not young, he realises, unless you’re hitting the bad side of forty two which he is. It’s him at 16 bitter and angry, ready to take on anything and everything that so much as happened across his way. God that seems so far away. Before Veitghanastan and the suit. Before Obie and Vanko. Before Steve walked into his life and shook it all to hell and back.

‘It’s too late.’ Teenage Tony says, ‘It’s all done. You’re dead. Everyone is dead. That’s why you’re here. This is dead.’

Well that’s morbid. Morosely, Tony wonders what teenage him would think if he told him that actually he’s dead twice over and it doesn’t look like its sticking anytime soon? Also, he’s friends with a bunch of people, who redefine ‘hard to kill ’on a nigh weekly basis, ‘I’m not dead. You can’t fool me into this twice, weird mind fuck villain. I am on to you.’

Teenage Tony scowls, his eyes flicking from normal brown to an eerie violet and green, ‘You are so very irritating. You refuse to be trapped in a fantasy and you refuse to live in a nightmare. And now you refuse
to fear me. I just can’t do anything with you.’

‘Is this the real life or is it fantasy?’ Tony sings, he thinks he’s almost got the point of all this, ‘You made one really big mistake bringing me here.’

‘That is?’

He gives patented shit eating grin no. 5, Tony Knows Something You Don’t and it Might Be What Colour Your Underwear Is, ‘This place isn’t half as confusing as Leonardo DiCaprio said it was and if there is anything
I am good at it is figuring things out. Genius, remember?’

‘You won’t solve this.’

He's got two thirds of any idea already, actually.

‘100 bucks says I will.’

Young Tony’s face twitches in a way that suggests insolence and vague incontinence, huh, so that’s what teenage spirit looks like on the other side, ‘I have other things to attend to.’

He smiles, challenge accepted, ‘You do that sweetheart.’

--

Frankly, Tony is underwhelmed by his welcome.

He swings the bat again and clips weird zombie thing across the face. It leaps back, looks offended and comes in again for the jugular. He hits it with his bat at the elbow, the arm clatters to the ground. He and the zombie both glance at the ground.

‘Only flesh a wound?’ He asks. The zombie grunts and attacks again.

Tony parries and turns striking upward for the zombies head. He connects and its head goes flying.

‘Yep, totally a flesh wound.’ He spins to his left ready to face the second zombie. One good thing about that zombie nightmare he’s had since he was nine. They all shuffled. He sweeps out the next zombies knees; there are four more behind it. He lofts up a brick, wide and heavy. He yells, ‘This isn’t a very good distraction!’

He chucks the brick at the zombies head and runs.

He enters a building, small, a home and comes bursting into a ballroom. The patrons are all faceless and the music is Wagner, a strange choice but he’s learning not to question his minds aesthetic choices. In the middle of the ballroom is four year old him swinging around on his mother heels, screeching and yelling. It’s strange, he remembers his father and his abject negligence but he can barely remember how much his
mother was always there.

‘You only remember the bits that hurt.’

He looks to his left. A tall thin man, dark slicked back hair and a pocket watch flipping open and closed. He’s in a finely tailored dark blue suit and a light grey vest and tie. His green eyes snap to Tony.

‘I’m not entirely sure why the scion of chaos is in my subconscious.’ He says more calmly then he feels, with his tattered clothes and zombie entrail covered bat he’s feeling out of place.

Loki smirks, ‘Have you figured it out yet?’

‘I have an idea.’ Tony shifts his weight and imagines his favourite blue grey suit, ‘I’m just working out the details.’

Tony snags two glasses of champagne and hands one to Loki. They both sip and Tony wonders how to ask his question.

Loki sighs and twirls the champagne in his glass, ‘Ask mortal, it’ll cost you nothing here.’

‘What the hell are you doing here?’

‘This is my plan.’

‘I’m fairly sure your plan didn’t involve being trapped in my head.’ Tony says sardonically.

Loki rolls his eyes, ‘I am not stuck in your head.’

‘The surroundings would suggest otherwise.’

Loki scowls, ‘You dribbling moron, we are not stuck in your head or mine. We’re stuck in-’ He chokes on the last word and gasps. Hands raking at his tie, he pulls it away from his throat and coughs hard. Blood splatters on the ground. He breathes harshly and falls to his knees. The dancers in the ballroom stop and the music cuts off mid-note.

‘I told you not to do that.’ His mother -not his mother, she’d dead, the projection of- comes to stand next to Loki, violet eyes bright, her small hand resting on his head. ‘Look how you’ve hurt yourself.’

Loki looks up and snarls, ‘You will not rule me.’

‘Hush, darling, we’ll have all the time in the world to deal with you.’

Loki pales and simply fades away.

His mother straightens up, ‘Now. On to you Mr Stark. You’ve ruined my game. You and Ms Potts both.’

He contemplates fist pumping the air. Go Pepper.

‘I don’t like that. Not a bit.’ She walks toward him, hips switching and grinding the same way he’s seen porn stars and debutantes do. Fuck, Freud was totally right. What a gross thought. ‘I can’t tell you what’s happening. I offer you a deal. Another dream. Or your freedom.’

‘Freedom.’ He says instantly. She clicks her tongue, obviously expecting the answer.

‘Let me show you a dream.’

-his legs wrapped around Steves waist and the bump and grind of their hips. Steve’s face pressed into his shoulder and a litany of ‘don’t stop, please, more’ he can feel himself tighten up, come together, let go-

Tony stumbles back. Hits a wall and slides down it. His mother laughs and god isn’t this a moment filled with unnecessary symbology. He pretends very hard that he isn’t about to come out of his pants, that the strange howling thing he’s got for Steve isn’t clawing at him to choose Door A for once in his fucking life. ‘We could have it all’, it whispers, ‘we could have it fucking all.’ And Tony is nowhere near good enough to pretend that he isn’t tired. Tired after Steve hurt Anthony, tired of pretending Tony in Fuck Up Land didn’t know that Steve felt something for him. Could see that he couldn’t reconcile it, that Tony isn’t even worth it in his own fucking head.

All the teeny tiny truths of who he and Steve were in his mind are spinning out. Tony lying under Steve in the lab, Anthony falling in love after one goddamn word, how much it hurt when Steve broke him- all of it spins out in his mind and makes him ill. What’s it like between them out there, in the real real world? Is Tony still pathetically in love? Is he playing this game out in real time? This thing, this love has always hurt him and all he wants is more of it. He’s painted Steve as his own self destruction, always has, and god it is sick. He’s sick. Tony Stark has officially crossed from charming and pitifully eccentricity to actual full blown self destruction because he still wants Steve.

What is that they say about people who do the same thing over and over expecting a different result?

‘And your freedom.’ It says, mouth curving gently.

He resists, no one wants the truth, not really. Down here where he can’t really hide, where you can see what people are when they’re in the dark, he’s got the option of a deliberate facade. Of pretending that he can have anything he wants with no judgement. It’s a beautiful thought. A gorgeous lie.

He opens his mouth to say, ‘wait, I change my mind,’ but it goes on anyway, forcing it through his head.

-The suit takes another hit, and another and another. He crashes to the ground, his leg at an odd angle. Hears Loki’s voice, garbaled and weak, nothing like the arrogant son of a bitch they’re use to, in his head ‘wouldn’t you like another try?’ and then something behind Loki, hissing, grabbing his mind and twisting-

‘Wait.’ He hears himself say through the pain in his leg. ‘That one was real. I remember that-’

Her eyes widen, ‘You have not-’

‘I remember.’ He screams, the last little bit of a puzzle flying together, ‘I remember.’

--

It’s a Saturday. The Avengers are sitting around the breakfast table.

Pepper walks in and gives him her ‘it’s work time Tony’ look. They go downstairs and Pepper is making usual Pepper yells. He gets a paper cut and patiently waits for it to bleed. He waits for a solid three minutes, the cut is deep enough, why isn’t it bleeding? Speaking of, how did he get here, why is it suddenly afternoon when he had breakfast five minutes ago-

-And things get confused. Suddenly he’s somewhere else entirely, lying defeated in a huge circular room filled with harsh bright light. His suit’s beaten and battered and he’s got a piece of shrapnel moving around in his lung. Every time he stops for a second the wound heals around the shrapnel, ready to be dislodged at any moment. There are these things, aliens crawling all over them and their faces are horrible. One reaches for him, its green skin stretched tight over its bones, its mouth distended. He stands up, an effort of extreme will against gravity and common sense and pulls up some strength to fight. Tony Stark does not die in holes.

It clicks its long tongue, spittle flying, ‘You should have slept longer.’

The monster throws him down and it’s terrible, long thin claws grasp under his chin, prickling and ripping the skin open. The blood pouring down his chest and sliding back up to twist into a symbol under his chin.

‘I do not know how you broke free,’ the monster says, ‘but this time around I will bind my problems together.’

It tilts his head to the left, the movement jerking the shrapnel in his lung around. He sees Loki sitting in a huge silver and gold throne covered in symbols glowing with magic. He’s looking up into a huge orb of light, eyes streaming with the effort of keeping them open. All around Loki the other Avengers sit exact distances apart in a perfect circle. The circle glowing an eerie blue he’d caught in Thor’s totem, the Cat’s Eye nebula spinning on the floor, runes he’s never seen before cut into it. They look peaceful. No, all except Thor look peaceful. Their resident god of thunder shudders against the binds and looks like he could fly awake at any moment. From overhead he hears a voice he can’t quite pinpoint the origin of. Foreign, at least. Asking if the problem is ‘under control.’ The monster moves its hand and he falls to the side. From his position strewn on the ground he can see Steve on the opposite side of the circle. Calm, breathing easily. His lungs heal around the shrapnel again. He smiles, bleakly. At least everyone’s getting some rest after that hellish week-

The monster grabs him by his hair and drags him across the floor. The carved runes on the floor making sure to hit him exactly where he doesn’t want to be hit.

‘Such a curious creature.’ It says. ‘I will enjoy breaking you.’

It stops two metres in from where he was before, now practically bowing to Loki, arranges his hands to either side of him and lifts his head up so he too is staring at the light. He blinks once, twice and falls under again-

--

He comes crashing awake, for the first time, as Anthony Edward Stark-Rogers. The details of a life he has not had filling itself in.

--

He opens his eyes and struggles for breath. It feels like an entire ocean is sitting on top of his chest, crashing down on his heart every time he breathes.

‘I know what you are.’ The messenger in dreams, something beyond human comprehension dragged here by magic and false promises. The worst thing Loki has ever done.

‘Do you?’ It’s still wearing his mothers face, the corners a little too tight, ‘Excellent, I propose a deal.’

‘Why would I want to make a deal with you?’

‘Because you have no other choice.’ His mother flickers away, replaced by an old man holding a scroll, ‘I will endeavour to provide you the quickest route to your freedom and in return you’ll fulfil a promise.’

‘What do you want?’

‘I won’t tell you yet.’

‘Then I’m not sure I can say yes.’

‘You will.’

‘Why’s that?’

His mother flickers back, her voice soft and inviting, ‘Because your mind is filled with the shades of your teammates and friends. Because you remember your family. Because you love, Mr Stark.’ His mothers’ projections grin stretching all the way to its creepy violet eyes, ‘Take a leap of faith.’

‘Faith? In you?’

‘I have done exactly as was bargained. I have kept you all in relative health. I have not told you anything directly. I have not helped you free yourselves. I have obeyed the orders given to the letter.’ The ‘if not the spirit’ comes across loud and clear.

He rolls answers around in his mouth. Why is too obvious and How is just too complicated. He settles for a statement. ‘You want out.’

It crooks his mothers’ mouth at him and says with a great deal of affection, ‘I never really wanted in, Tony.’ It pats his head, ‘I think I’ll call you Tony.’

‘Please don’t.’

It adopts the guise of an old man again, ‘Do you accept?’

‘I don’t decline.’

‘That will do.’ It smiles, ‘It’s time for you to wake up.’

‘I want Loki to come with me.’

‘No.’

‘I’ll say yes.’ He uses his best ‘you know you wanna, I’ll be on my best behaviour’ voice. Despite his reputation it still works three times out of five.

It makes a low rumbling noise, like thunder, ‘I will let him be of assistance to you in a way I deem fit. Do stop pushing me now, I only like you so much.’The old man makes a big show out of magically appearing a pen. This would be more impressive if they were, say, outside of his imagination. It opens the scroll and spends a long time writing down things. Once it finishes it taps the scroll lightly on its head and throws it onto Tonys lap.

‘What’s this?’ he asks, fingering the seal of poppy flowers surrounded by black wings. Yeah, next time he sees Loki he is getting punched in the face. Definitely all his fault.

‘Your way out.’ It’s eyes flash brightly, ‘Goodbye for now, Tony.’

And the Dream God disappears, leaving his message behind and Tony kind of sick of this nonsensical shit.

--

He lies on the floor for awhile longer, the thundering of drums and a new storm outside. Eventually, when the sounds die down and the air is less full of static, he imagines himself to the top of the building. New York sprawls in perfect circles around him, slices of Malibu, a Brooklyn he’s never seen, a Russian winter, a perfectly formed tree growing branches on a rainbow bridge, all of it spreads across the landscape tucking in and out of eachother. Loki was right, down here is not, as he thought, his subconscious. It’s everyone’s. He isn’t asleep. He’s in Sleep. And goddamn if he knows how or why or what the freaking hell Loki was thinking when he did this. Whatever this is.

‘I’ve already said the question would cost you nothing and yet you didn’t ask. Mortals truly are stupid.’

Loki breezes in next to him, his eyes training on the tree and the bridge, breaking apart over and over again under his gaze. Tony looks away, the moment, it seems, is private.

‘This is all your fault.’

‘Yes. You’ve been very vocal about that.’ The tree falls and he can distantly hear a wolf howling victory, ‘Hand me the message.’

Tony narrows his eyes at him, ‘You’re working together then.’

‘No, we are, at best, working in the same direction. It would not benefit me at all if that creature escaped before I did.’ His green eyes slide over to Tony, ‘It would not benefit you either.’

‘The devil you know, right?’

Loki makes a vague noise of agreement, ‘For the remainder of this exercise we will work together. But should it ever suit me better to kill you, I will.’

‘Same.’

‘I very much doubt that.’ He says dismissively. He steps back from the edge and holds his breath, letting it, and apparently his penis, go. His shape ebbs and flows into something softer, his hair lengthens and he settles into a woman. A perfect imitation of Lady Sif’s.

‘Nice trick.’

‘This form was a recent acquisition.’ He sighs and rearranges the men’s cut suit so the tie is looser. ‘I have somewhere to be, though, so give me the message.’

Tony rolls his shoulders and hopes for a better solution, hell, any other solution to turn up, ‘You don’t get to backstab me.’

‘Of course not.’

Liar.

Loki smiles like he knows what Tony is thinking, ‘Have you not read it?’

He grits his teeth. He wants to, god does he want to, ‘No I haven’t.’

‘Do.’ Loki-in-Sif, and isn’t that a weird thought, gives him a soft doe eyed look.

And he’s horrible at denying himself anything so he tucks his finger under the seal and presses. The seal breaks easily enough, the wax sliding off messily onto his hands. He reads the message, once, twice and then rolls it up again and hands it over.

‘What does it say?’ Loki asks with greedy eyes.

‘Nothing.’ Tony says, meaning it and knowing it’s a lie at the same time.

Loki clicks his tongue and gives the scroll a considering look. He switches the look to Tony after a moment, ‘What do you intend to do now?’

Tony looks over the edge, the ground is so far down and he can imagine it further away. ‘I intend to fall.’

Loki-in-Sif’s expression is incredulous. Tony shrugs, it is nowhere near the first time someone has thought he was doing something strange. At least he’s fully clothed this time.

‘Goodbye Stark.’

Tony nods before turning back to the edge and spreading his arms for a swan dive. Closes his eyes and readies his mind.

‘Oh, right, one more thing.’ He says and turns so Loki isn’t expecting it and then socks him right in the face. ‘You are a great big bag of dicks.’

Loki-in-Sif falls to the ground. ‘Mortal-’

With that done Tony dives off the edge, turning in mid air to present his middle fingers.

--

The thing is Tony wasn’t actually expecting the falling thing to work.

See, what he was thinking of was the ending of Inception with that weird shit with the kids and the spinning top and wondering how the fuck did they get out? And he was, possibly, theorising that they jumped and as they were falling were thinking very hard ‘I am asleep, this is a dream, things are not as I thought they were’. Assuming, of course, that this is not what actually happens. Well, fuck Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Nolan because apparently, that is exactly how shit works. He expected to end up a pancake on the ground. Instead, because this is Tonys life and it never goes smooth, he’s sitting with a face full of gun and an angry cherry red skull smiling at him.

‘Welcome to hell, Mr Stark.’

The one resounding thought in Tonys head is fuck Christopher Nolan.
--

Chapter Text

It has been the worst week ever for the Avengers.

The Hulk is gone, Thor is slowly going mad, Tony has long since departed, Pepper topped herself three weeks ago, Natasha is emotionally unstable, Steve is only slightly better, Spidermans’ suit is infected with something poisonous and Clint is, well, he’s gritting his teeth to get through it.

Fury isn’t answering his calls, and Clint has made a lot of calls. It seems New York is crumbling to pieces around them. Buildings collapsing, swells in the water creating huge freak tsunamis. The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, every superhero on the planet is in New York trying to figure out how to stop it. It’s not a supervillain and it’s not a pissed off god. All the greatest minds in the world can’t figure out why the big apple is playing ground zero for the freaky and weird and it is seriously getting to everyone.

He ducks under a flying oil truck three seconds from being a fireball and launches himself over a piece of debris to land next to Nat, ‘Reinforcements?’ he asks for the third time in a half hour.

She nicks an arrow breaks it in half and attaches it to a makeshift explosive. ‘No.’

‘Shit.’

Thor comes swinging down a shaft of lightning. He launches his hammer and crushes a huge wave of weird pseudo monsters. Cap following after and smashing his shield left and right. The monsters get up again, attacking wilder then before. Cap goes down and Thor calls down lightning as a distraction to pull him out. The Avengers retreat. They haven’t won a battle since Pepper- since Pepper went away. Nat throws her makeshift bomb and watches the explosion. God, Clint is scared for her. She’s losing it faster than he’s ever seen. Spiralling down whatever internal rabbit hole of horrors her dreams bring.

‘Retreat!’ And it says something that Thor, god of obstinately never giving up, is the one making the call.

Clint grabs Nat by the waist and hauls both of them over the wreckage of New York. Over the screaming and the breaking, over the random destruction that serves no purpose. Everyone is holed up in the Fantastic Fours penthouse. The only safe place in the world. For as long as New York lasts, anyway. Thor takes Cap and Nat straight up to the medbay. Clint walks into the empty, ruined lobby, limping slightly, bow and arrow ready for surprises. The lobby has been the scene of many an attack over the last week. It seems to be all clear today, small mercies.

He stabs his id into the elevator in the lobby. When it doesn’t open he pulls the wiring out of the wall and makes the door open.

He leans against the wall as the elevator goes up. Breathing through his nose and out through his mouth. He has six months training in not freaking out. If he has to breakdown he will do it like a man, in the privacy of his own bathroom with a bottle of whiskey. Clint tries not to think about it. That SHEILD is gone, half the Avengers crazy, god, not even New Mexico is there anymore. Jane and Darcy and all of that long since blown away. He doesn’t think about it because it will drive him just as crazy as loosing the arrow head would.

It’s quiet when the doors slide open. Not unusual, the penthouse is still too roomy even with every caped crusader left in the world camping there. He can hear raised voices, the sound of smashing glass. He already has his bow up, arrow notched, when he comes around the corner. Thor is roaring, hammer above his head, Nat is ducking under Caps shield and Cap is moving and leaping to attack Sif. Clint doesn’t know who to aim for.

‘Brother!’ Thor bellows, ‘you have gone too far!’

Clint hisses. It is a bad fucking day. New York is dying and his friends are slowing going insane. It was already a day high on his shit list.

Then Loki appeared.

--

Loki is a big back of dicks and one day, one day, someone will punch him right in the mouth.

Clint wants it to be him. He wants like burning.

‘So this isn’t real and we all need to kill ourselves and wake up?’

‘Yes,’ Lady Loki AKA Loki who kidnapped Sifs body for reasons he won’t explain, crosses her legs at the ankle and takes a sip of water, ‘Tony Stark realised first. Apparently his self destructive tendencies proved useful.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

Loki tilts his –her?- head and smirks, making sure to catch Steve’s eyes, ‘He couldn’t believe in a world where love comes without attached strings.’

Steve pales and, oh, he knew, the entire time Tony was pining-

Clint shuts the thought away before it can spin off what ifs?

Loki makes a disbelieving noise, ‘Surely you noticed things were strange?’

‘No.’ Steve says flat. No, we did not notice the crazy or the weird or the goddamn dangerous. No, we did not see.

‘That you want places without knowing how, you would decide you were hungry and then food would magically appear.’ He leans toward Thor, ‘Have you noticed you are entirely alone in this building. You are entirely alone in this city, all that’s out there are projections of your fear and anger. I bet if you all tried to describe this room you’d come up with at least slightly varied answers. For my brother it looks like one of the old rooms we used to play in as children. For the Captain it looks like his best friends bedroom. Oh, not all the details, but enough to comfort you.’

Clint looks around the room, catches silvers of his old barracks and the colours of his trapeze uniform in the corners of the room. Like having a security blanket worked into the seams of your vision.

‘Tony Stark broke the illusion by dying. As did Ms Potts, but that was a separate affair.’

Clint is tired. He’s tired of gods, of losing people, of slowly creeping insanity, of the bitter realisation that everything he has in his head with Bobbi is a figment of his goddamn imagination. He stands up and without thinking about it strings an arrow and losses it right through Loki’s glass of water.

Nat grabs his arm, ‘Clint.’

‘No, this is insane. We are not going to do this.’ He goes for another arrow, Nat quick as ever, snatching it from his hands.

‘Clint. What do we have left to lose?’

‘That doesn’t sound like the Nat I know.’

She looks like she could slap him, ‘The Nat you know hasn’t been able to close her eyes without wanting to scream for months.’ She lets go of his arm. ‘I am tired Clint.’

‘You are the strongest woman I have ever known.’ You’ll get through it, she always had.

Nat laughs, or cries, it’s too hard to tell anymore. She makes a loud, almost terrified noise, ‘I am not this strong.’

He looks at Cap for back up but finds him cowl down, Steve looking at his hands and struggling to breathe. He can sense Bruce a little behind him, holding up a sickly Peter. Not even Thor has a trace of lightness or fight left in him. The toll, it seems, has long since been too high.

‘Fine.’ He says, ‘tell us what we need to do.’

Loki nods and smiles.

‘Brother,’ he says, eyes still on Clint, ‘fetch your ‘totem’.’

Thor blinks a little and stands, walking out of the room and coming back with a small marble.

Loki swivels on Thor and smiles like he’s got a secret and that the secret will ruin you, ‘Didn’t you wonder why you chose this as your totem?’

Thor looks at him with a blankness Clint has never seen before, ‘No.’

Loki blinks, surprise sliding off his face a moment later, ‘Oh?’

‘It was one of my favourite gifts next to Mjonir.’

Loki, literally, pales to an ice blue. ‘You were always too sentimental.’

Thor smiles, tiny and tucked into his mouth at the corners, fondness seeping through, ‘You were always too quick to assume.’

Clint averts his eyes, private moment it seems.

‘Why?’ Steve asks, voice tinny with repressed emotion, ‘what game are you playing?’

‘I am as trapped as you are. Do you think I enjoy this body? I cannot-’

He chokes suddenly, grabbing for his throat, no, underneath his chin, pale tendrils of, well, Clint guesses, magic, appearing. He falls to the ground, screaming without making a sound.

Thor gets on his knees, ‘Brother...’

‘Do not pity me.’ Loki snarls when he gets his breathe back. ‘Do not pity me.’

‘You’re trapped too.’ Steve says, anger coming back. Good, Clint thinks, you can get pretty far on anger.

‘Yes, so hurry up and die so I can get out of it.’

‘And if you’re lying and we just die?’ Bruce asks; face pale and drawn and almost painfully skinny in his tattered clothes.

Loki raises an eyebrow, ‘Have you seen how you have been living?’

Peter coughs and Bruce hauls him further up his body. Nat gets up and fetches him a glass of water. Peter spills half of it on himself but at least the other half went in.

‘We die, we wake up somewhere else.’ Steve says.

Loki rolls his eyes, ‘You die, you fall into your secondary dream, you die, you wake up.’

‘Why didn’t Fury-’

‘These are all brilliantly irrelevant questions.’ Loki says, ‘that I cannot answer.’

‘Try,’ Clint replies, ‘watching you in pain might be worth it.’

‘Enough.’ Thor rumbles. He helps his brother back onto the chair. Loki glaring the whole time. Loki does something to the spinning top, which Clint notices has the goddamn Cats Eye nebula –thank you, Darcy, for the fear of tasers and the unneeded ‘Astronomy for Dumb Archers with Great Asses’ crash course. He whispers into it and it glows bright green for a moment. He realises a moment later that he’s staring. Clint snaps his teeth at

Loki who smiles in return. Almost impressed it seems. Ain’t that a kick?

‘So we die, we die again and then we wake up in the real world.’ He says.

‘Yes.’ Loki nods once, ‘with that done, I will leave.’

He sags as he gets up, leaning his weight against Thor. Guess he can’t strut it in those heels and that corset. Clint wonders why he didn’t find some more appropriate clothes. Loki shares one last lingeringly uncomfortable look with Thor before shrugging and muttering to himself. Clint wants to ask more questions why, how, fucking why but refrains.

Just as quickly as he appeared he vanishes again.

All the energy in the room sags out again.

‘I love you Thor, but your brother is such a bag of dicks.’ Peter mutters.

Clint snorts, ain’t that the truth.

--

‘We’re doing this then?’

‘Yeah, I guess we are.’

Five shots ring out.

--

Clint wakes up with hands on his throat, Bobbi’s, dragging lines down his chest. He reaches underneath his bed and comes up with a knife. It’ll be bloody-

--

Steve is a scrawny kid again, too weak to stop the punches, he rolls and comes up again. Running down a street and into the road-

--

Bruce is trapped in a cage again, the Hulk rippling out of him, bringing a building down on top. The Hulk is near indestructible though, so he calms down and runs full tilt at a jagged edge of glass, keeping so very calm as
he does so. It should be harder than this-

--

Natasha wakes to a peaceful winter morning. She walks to the bathroom and steals some of the anxiety medication; she swallows, alternating between the pills and a bottle of whiskey and, finally, a noose-

--

Peter throws himself head first off a building. Closes his eyes just before the pavement-

--

The first thing Clint thinks is The Matrix wasn’t lying, shortly after that he starts seizing.

Something, something horrible dredged from Lovecraft novel stabs him, panic receding. He’s in a circular room with circles on the ground and writing on the wall. He’s chained to the wall. He can see Bruce strung up opposite him, Steve to the side, Nat on the other side and Peter across from her. Thor is on the other side of Nat. In the centre sits a throne and on top of that throne sits Loki, looking into an orb of light, eyes streaming, hair a long matted mess flowing upward. Tony is on his knees, a little way further in, on another circle. His eyes staring up into the light as well.

‘Don’t look at the light!’ he yells.

The Lovecraft horrors snicker and snap their hands near his feet.

‘The others approach,’ it says, ‘the end is not so far now.’

In a horror movie sequence, Lokis eyes, dead looking and slightly milky, meet each of theirs in turn. When ihis eyes lands on Thor he opens his mouth, ‘I was captured. They forced me to do it. But I am a mere container for something far more powerful they should not have touched.’

Before he can demand an answer that makes sense, a shutter of light opens above him. He has the terrible sensation of falling upwards and then nothing.

--

When he comes to again he’s being thrown about a medical facility. Stabbed with needles and having his blood taken. The rest of his team are here too, lying on beds in various states of undress and health. Peter looks just as sick as he did in the dream. Once the medicals are done they’re dragged through rooms, tossed into a shower and told to dress themselves. They’re taken to separate doors in another wide circular room and he can see the others being forced inside. He catches a glimpse of Nat; her hair unevenly chopped and dyed a deep black. He looks the other way and sees Bruce being sedated, halfway through Hulking out. His guard grabs him by the back of the neck after the others are gone and leads him in the other direction. All the way out of the room and into another door entirely.

‘What-?’

The guard smashes his face against the wall, ‘You have five minutes.’

He kicks him over the threshold, sprawling Clint over a soft red carpet. He ends up staring at a familiar pair of boots.

He looks up and finds Nick Fury’s disapproving stare coming full force down at him. Fury looks like he lost a fight with a lawnmower and went back for seconds, ‘You’re late, solider.’

Clint rests his head on the carpet, confused and comforted that it might have been an almost equally shit day for Fury, ‘Sorry sir, we got lost down the rabbit hole.’

Fury makes his favourite ‘Son I am Disappoint’ face and beckons him upright. Because Clint is an excellent solider, he obeys.

‘You’ve got an audience with the King.’

‘We aren’t a monarchy.’

‘No,’ Fury says as he tugs him into some semblance of military composure, ‘We are no longer a democracy.’

Clint turns his eyes briefly and looks out the window. He stops, stares. Outside he can just make out a flag, purple and black and hugely archaic.

The Hydra symbol.

‘What-’

‘Shut up,’ Fury covers his mouth with a hand, ‘We’ve got three minutes. The world is under Hydra control. They put all of us, and I mean all of us, into a suspended dream state. We don’t know how but assume they can do it again. Find Coulson. Find Ms Potts. Start in Brooklyn. We have a...rogue agent helping her but we don’t know how much helping he’s doing. Tony Stark has the key and Pepper Potts is the way in. Find them both and protect them. I’ll get the others to you as soon as possible but assume you have no back up.’

When Fury drops his hand Clint all but spits out, ‘They used Loki. Forced him into binding us. He said that there’s another aspect of it that we’re missing.’

‘I know. Find Stark. Make sure he doesn’t get his stupid ass killed.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Here,’ he hands him a bow, a mobile, and a quiver of arrows. ‘Good luck.’

Clint decides to try for humour, ‘Who needs luck when you’re this pretty.’

Fury glares a little bit more. Clint finds it soothing.

He smiles, and lord is he out of practice on that score, ‘Good luck to you too, sir.’

‘Get your ass out of here.’

Clint turns and salutes before jumping out the window.

--

The door opens on an angelic scene.

The room is high and made mostly of glass windows. There is food and drink and the light tinkle of music.

There are people of all shapes and sizes standing in a large hall. And, Steve notes, all of them are superheroes. A woman dressed in red gives him a solemn nod, the Fantastic Four and the Human Torch in particular give him solemn looks. A woman he’s seen pictures of -Janet Van Dyne? - All but sobs into a man’s shirt. They all look like revellers caught in a moment of sadness. Dressed to dance but weeping instead.

On an ostentatious throne sits Baron Zemo, the lead man behind Hydra. Just seeing his face gives Steve an uncomfortable urge to hide behind his shield. Which he doesn’t have, damn it. He always figured if he was going to be killed it’d be somewhat more heroic. He lifts his head higher and shakes off his guard. He will not go meekly.

‘So you’re planning to execute me publically?’ Steve says, discreetly looking for a way out among the assembly. He can’t see one. A woman in green smiles at him from a spot near a window. Nods at the guard on his left. Steve glances at the guard, he’s standing oddly, an old injury flaring up. He could possibly-

‘No,’ Steve looks back at Zemo as he smiles and sprawls on his throne, ‘Oh no, Captain, I plan to have you lead a revolution.’

--