Tony is in a pretty good mood when he walks into Loki's holding area. He and Bruce spent most of last night having truly spectacular make-up sex, and Loki hasn't been nonconsensually experimented on by S.H.I.E.L.D. Things are good. God's in his Heaven and all's right with the world. Bruce even thinks he might have an angle on Steve.
Loki is sitting on his bed reading Cat's Cradle. Tony can't help smiling. "Morning, dude. I knew you would dig Vonnegut."
Loki visibly tenses at the sound of his voice. That hurts. But maybe he's just scared Tony is going to reject him over this frost giant crap. Tony googled Jotunheim this morning and apparently it's a mythical-but-actually-it-turns-out-real land of ice and darkness peopled by the frost giants, hereditary enemies of Asgard.
"Look, I already knew you were adopted," Tony says. "Finding out you were adopted from another species isn't really a big deal. Thor seems cool with it."
Loki laughs. "Thor is doing his best to adjust."
"So you guys didn't know about this growing up?"
Loki does about three faces in the space of a second, too fast for Tony to process. "No."
"That had to be rough."
"It was certainly rough on your planet."
Suddenly everything falls into place:
1. Loki finds out he's Thor's hereditary enemy while Thor's out of town. (Tony heard the hammer story from Clint.)
2. Loki freaks the fuck out.
3. Loki sends the Destroyer.
4. ??? The part in between is kind of a mystery because Thor makes Gary Cooper look like a nervous babbler, and Loki is really good at steering conversations around stuff he doesn't want to talk about. But hey, Tony's willing to respect the guy's privacy.
Okay, not really, but Tony's never bothered to let his curiosity roam free on this one because he can make a pretty good guess, which is that Loki and Thor had the fight to end all fights and either Loki stalked off in a huff or Thor kicked him out, and then
5. Loki ran into the Chitauri, and Tony knows what happened after that.
"Wow," Tony says. "That is like, a really good excuse for an identity crisis."
"An identity crisis," Loki repeats slowly. "I suppose you could call it that."
"So can I see again?" Probably he should hold off. But it was just so cool.
"It isn't a parlor trick."
"I know that. But it's not like Bruce, right? You're still the same on the inside?"
Loki does that too-many-expressions thing again. Tony wishes he was at home so JARVIS could freeze-frame them for him. "Yes."
"Does that mean you picked the way you look right now? That would explain a lot. Like your face, I have no problem believing that your face is magic."
Tony sighs. "Because you're good looking?"
Loki looks down at Bruce's book, still held lightly in his hands. "Ah yes, that."
"You didn't make yourself look much like Thor."
Loki smiles a little. "I've wondered about that too."
He doesn't look happy. Tony wants to cheer him up. But he also really, really wants to see him turn blue again. Science has never seen anything like that. Heat's a thing, cold isn't. Power can be turned directly into heat, but you can't make cold except by moving heat around. First thing you learn in Thermodynamics 101. The possibilities are endless. "Once we've got you out of here, do you think you could come down to my lab and let me run some tests?"
Loki doesn't answer.
"Look, no one on Earth cares about some stupid feud between Asgard and Jotunheim. You don't have to hide who you are." He tries to keep the words in but they come out anyway. "So is that why you didn't tell me?"
Loki gives him a mean smile. Tony has a lot of extremely fond memories of that mean smile, so it probably doesn't have as much impact as Loki meant it to. "Maybe I didn't tell you because I knew you'd never shut up about it."
"Fair point. Okay, just one more question: have you ever...? Because I bet it's better than peppermint lube."
Loki looks at the guards. Whatever, Tony asks everyone inappropriate personal questions. And they probably knew anyway, it's not exactly a case for Sherlock Holmes.
"No," Loki says distantly, "and I don't plan to."
"Well that's just not fair."
"You can't always get what you want."
"No, but this is totally attainable. You have to be curious if it'll be different."
"It's different," Loki says, his mean smile widening. His mean smile is really amazingly suggestive. His voice gets all low and thrumming when he threatens. Tony wonders if he does it on purpose or if it just happens. "It's ugly."
Tony blinks. "I didn't think it was ugly."
Loki rolls his eyes.
Tony doesn't like that. Loki's not ugly. He points at him, the tip of his index finger on the glass. "Come on, love the person you see in the mirror. Let your freak flag fly. Take what you want."
Loki stands up and does that menacing stride over to the glass. This is what Tony is talking about. "Do you want to know what I want, Stark?" He's forgotten the guards now.
"What I want is for you to beat that blue monstrosity until it chokes on its own blood."
That kills Tony's buzz right away. He feels like a cat someone took a spray bottle to. None of the guards behind him better get any ideas about taking Loki up on that because Bruce just talked him out of supporting the death penalty a couple weeks ago and Tony hates going backwards. Onward and upward and--"Hey. Don't say 'it.' That's you."
Loki's mean smile kind of freaks him out this time. If they were playing, Tony would be using his safeword right about now. "Yes, it is. It knows what I know. Do you know what I know, Stark?"
"I know that you just used the word 'know' way too many times."
"I know that if it ripped out that circle of light in your chest, the Hulk would kill it."
Okay. Okay, Loki is freaking out. Tony missed the signs like he always does and now he's gone way too far.
Loki didn't just pull that out of nowhere. He had it ready. On ice, you could say. Maybe it's too soon for ice puns. His mind starts making a list anyway. Okay. Focus. Loki's thought about that before, and...
Bruce was here last night. Bruce was here last night and Loki was being weird and picking a fight with him and then Bruce freaked out and said he couldn't live like this.
Does everybody but him want to kill themselves? And Pepper, obviously.
And Pepper, right? Does Pepper want to kill herself? Tony doesn't get it. Life is hard. It's hard, but you stick it out. You don't just quit. You don't just walk out on people.
Even as he's thinking it he knows it's stupid because obviously Loki wouldn't be walking out on him. If he'd be walking out on anyone, it's Thor. Tony is just--Tony is just the shrapnel Loki's been using to try to gouge his own heart out. Shrapnel, that's a good one, nice metaphor there, Tony. Nice metaphor for how people have to spend like 90% of their energy just pushing you away.
He looks at Loki, who's standing there freaking out, and he wants to reach into Loki's chest and fix it, connect a wire or recalibrate something. Loki's still smiling that sexy asshole smile that Tony really really likes.
Tony whirls around. "Put him on suicide watch," he says to the guards. "Do it now. If anything happens to him I will personally sue each and every one of you until you're eating out of dumpsters. And I finally figured out how to hack into your audio files so don't think you can pretend this conversation never happened."
"I'm already on suicide watch," Loki says behind him. He sounds as if he thinks it's funny.
Tony kisses his fingers and slaps them on the glass without turning around. "I need some air." He walks out. He doesn't actually want air. He wants a drink. He wants a drink, and to do something really dangerous. That'd perk him right up.
He calls Pepper. "Can you take a long lunch?"
"Oh Tony, I'm so sorry," Pepper says. "Come here."
He snuggles up to her on their awesome couch and almost feels better.
"Are you okay?"
"No," Tony says plaintively. "You should probably scratch my head."
She laughs and scritches her fingers through his hair. Mmmmm, heaven.
"You've been doing a lot for Loki," she says. "You're paying for his therapy, too. If you want to take a step back--"
Tony sits up. "A step back?"
"You can't make him be happy."
Tony doesn't want to make Loki be happy. He wants to make him happy. There's a difference.
"You've been making yourself crazy over Loki all week. You've been skipping meals and waking up early. You need to take care of yourself, too."
"So I should abandon him because he's in a bad place." Like you did to me, he thinks. He doesn't say it, though. It's one of the few things he would never say, because he knows it's unfair. He knows he can't expect her to stay forever no matter what.
He'd ask her to marry him if he thought she'd say yes.
"I didn't say that. I said take a step back. Give both of you some space so you can get through this S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff without a meltdown."
Loki is miserable and scared. The last thing he needs is to hear that his friend is sick of his shit.
Pepper sighs. "At least eat your lunch."
It's good she reminded him. He's starving. He actually eats more when he's stressed, if he remembers that he's hungry. He eats about half again as much lunch as normal. It reminds him of Loki, who everyone for some reason expects to eat less than Thor (including Tony at first), but the thing is, they're both demi-gods. Well, apparently Loki is something else, but he's something else with a really high metabolism too, because on a good day he can pace Thor. Which makes Tony put together for the first time that when he takes Loki out for small plates, Loki must be going home hungry. How did he not figure that out before?
You don't give a flying fuck about what Loki needs, Bruce said last night. Tony hasn't felt like this much of a failure since he was too dumb to figure out how to stabilize his own arc reactor.
"Bruce, can I talk to you?"
Bruce pulls his glasses down his nose with a finger on the bridge. "Sure."
"Did you know Loki had a death wish?" As he says it, he realizes how stupid it sounds. Of course Loki has a death wish. What else was all that shit last year? They all knew his plan was destined to fail. Loki's smart enough he probably connected the dots too.
Bruce chews on the end of his glasses. Tony really, really loves him. "He never told me, if that's what you mean. I wondered."
"What do I say to him?"
Bruce shrugs. "I don't know. I'm sorry, Tony. I know you really like him."
"I don't want you guys in a room together anymore."
Bruce laughs. "I think the cat's out of the bag on that one. But--I kind of wanted to talk to you about that."
"Okay," Tony says. His nerves sound like a honky-tonk piano. "I can listen. I'm a good listener. And shutting up now."
"I want to try turning into the Hulk on purpose and seeing if I can get more control."
Tony does a double-take. "Okay. What? I mean, I'm down, obviously, I've been saying you should do that for a while. Why now?"
Bruce looks down and smiles. He almost always looks down when he smiles. Tony wishes he wouldn't. "I guess you're a bad influence."
Tony's pretty sure it's a joke. "Do I make you unhappy?" he blurts out.
Bruce kind of raises his eyebrows just the tiniest bit like he thinks Tony doesn't want to know the answer to that one.
"Look, if I make you unhappy, you don't have to stick around just because I pay for your food and clothes and give you awesome sex and let you use my lab and--"
Bruce laughs. Was his hair this gray when they met? Tony makes a mental note to have JARVIS compare visual samples. "Love has ups and downs, Tony. If I'm not happy all the time, it's not a personal failure on your part."
"But there are ups, right?"
Bruce nods. Tony remembers the way Bruce held on to him last night, the way he pulled him in and held him there. He wishes Bruce would do that now. But Bruce hardly ever makes first contact. Tony counted once how many times Bruce touched him in a day without Tony making the first move and it was, like, two.
"How high would you say the ups are on a scale of one to ten?"
Bruce ducks his head again and kind of looks at Tony through his lashes. "I think they're off the charts."
Good answer. "Are the lows off the charts too?"
Bruce rubs at his temple like Tony is giving him a headache. Tony is unpleasantly reminded of his dad right before he poured himself another glass of Scotch. Tony wouldn't mind a glass of Scotch himself right now. Or a dirty martini. He wonders what Bruce drank before he got gamma-radiated. "I'm doing my best, Tony. When I--" He looks away. "When I tried to kill myself, I'd been really depressed for a long time. I'm not there now."
But he could be again. Tony bites his tongue to keep from asking what the warning signs are, what he should do, just a million stupid annoying questions that nobody wants to answer.
"I'm sorry about Loki," Bruce says. He doesn't say, He'll be okay.
Everybody's ready to just give up. Fuck that. "What should I say to him?"
"I don't know. We aren't the same person." Now Bruce is doing his other smile, the one that means I'm smiling so I won't yell at you.
"I know that. But come on. What would you want to hear if you were him?"
Bruce chuckles pissily and scrubs a hand through his hair. He's got really nice hair. Sometimes Tony is tempted to just sit around and groom him like a monkey. "What does anyone ever want to hear?" He sets his glasses down. "'I love you just the way you are.'"
"I do love you just the way you are."
Bruce snorts and gives him a half-smile. "Sure."
"I do. Come on, everybody wishes they could write the other person's dialogue too, but it wouldn't be as good, would it? It'd be like writing the paper for an experiment you've already done. Once you know how it turns out it's boring."
Bruce looks at him like he's an alien. "I like writing papers."
"See? There you go. You're a continually unfolding mystery. A really mysterious one." Tony thought everyone hated writing papers.
"And you like that."
"I'm a scientist. Of course I do." He can't hold back any longer. He starts unbuttoning Bruce's shirt. Not because he wants to have sex. Well, he does want to have sex. He always wants to have sex. But right now he just wants to rub his nose in Bruce's chest hair. Bruce has really nice chest hair.
"Look..." Bruce sounds like he's about to say something he already knows he'll regret. "You really want to get matching tattoos?"
Tony looks up so fast he almost bashes Bruce in the chin with his head. Yep, Bruce looks like he wishes he could take the words back. "Only if you want it too. No pity tattoos."
Bruce twists his mouth around. "It's against my better judgment."
"Your better judgment kind of reminds me of my kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Anastasi. Did I ever tell you about her?"
Oh. Tony strokes his fingers across Bruce's skin. Mmm, fuzzy.
"Don't be disappointed if it doesn't last when I'm the Hulk," Bruce says.
Tony thinks it will. Bruce's green skin is impermeable but tattoos are on the dermis, not the epidermis, and--anyway he thinks it will. "I won't," he promises. And he won't. He refuses to ever be disappointed in Bruce.
The revolving door of S.H.I.E.L.D. Central is hard to manage while carrying four take-out boxes. "Get Agent Coulson," he tells the guy behind the desk. "Tell him it's urgent."
Coulson appears almost instantly. "Stark?"
"I brought Loki breakfast."
"I thought it was urgent?"
Tony waves the boxes at him. "It's getting cold."
"You know we can't--"
"Just run it through an X-ray or something. I promise I didn't bake a file into his pancakes."
"It's against regulations."
Tony looks at Agent Coulson. "You know I wouldn't be messing around with Loki if he'd actually killed you, right?"
Coulson's eyebrows shoot up. "That's very flattering," he says after a second, "but I still can't give him that food."
"Come on," Tony says. "He's had a rough week. It's just breakfast. And if you give it to him, I won't leak the plans for that little Destroyer gun you like so much."
Coulson looks at him impassively for a minute. Tony doesn't think the threat made much of an impact, so he does his best puppy-dog eyes.
"Agree to notify me next time you decide to run field tests on a new arm weapon," Coulson suggests.
"I didn't know it was going to--"
"That's why it's called a test," Coulson says. "I'd like to cordon off the area from civilians next time. But it's up to you." He smiles.
Coulson definitely has more patience. Tony's not going to outwait him. "Fine."
"Run them through the X-ray," Coulson tells the guard. "This is a one time only deal."
"Then I'm going to notify you one time only."
Coulson shrugs and walks off.
As Tony's going down the stairs, he passes Nicole on her way up. "Mr. Stark," she says, giving him one of those warm smiles he doesn't really trust. She does those professionally.
"Nicole," he says with a wide smile. "Did you ever think it might be helpful to mention that Loki's a suicide risk?"
She glances at the security camera. "Mr. Stark, I know you pay my bills, but that doesn't entitle you to know the details of Loki's sessions. We've had this conversation several times. If you can't accept it, maybe we should--"
"What about the fact that I've been getting Loki off by telling him he doesn't deserve to live?" Tony snaps at her. "Does that entitle me to know?"
For a second her eyes go wide. Then it's all calm social-worker face again. "I can't talk to you about this," she says. "If you ask Loki to include you in a session, and he agrees, I'd be happy to talk to the two of you together, but--"
"Great," Tony says. "We'll do that."
She looks completely taken aback. "You want to come to a session?"
"I saved the world from a nuclear warhead," he points out. "I'm not afraid of a chair."
"Okay," she says. "It's fine with me. But only if Loki really wants to. He's my client."
Tony grits his teeth. She's right. He knows she's right. He shouldn't pressure Loki. He should keep it cool.
"Are you okay?" she asks him.
"What I can say is that communication is the most important thing in any close relationship. Why don't you try being honest with him about how you're feeling and ask him to be honest with you? Not just today, but on a regular basis."
Right, because Tony being honest about his feelings is exactly what Loki needs right now. In Tony's experience, people are generally better off hearing less about his feelings. "Food's getting cold," he says, and heads down the stairs.
Loki is wary, but he can't hide his pleasure when he sees the food. Four orders of his favorite Swedish pancakes. This remembering-what-people-like-to-eat thing really pays off.
"Sorry," Tony says after he's hustled Thor out the door. He wonders if the guards tell Thor everything he said later anyway.
"Whatever for?" Loki asks snarkily. Asshole.
Tony leans his shoulder against the glass. Honesty. "I got scared. I acted like a jerk."
Weirdly, Loki being mean makes it easier to talk about. Like it's not a big deal, because if it was, Loki would have to be polite. It's bullshit because Loki is never polite, but Tony's mind is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and if there's a key nobody's found it yet. Russian national interest was a complete flop. "Last year I was kind of terminally ill."
Loki doesn't look surprised. Clint must have told him. But he does say "I thought you were cured" in a carefully nonchalant voice, which is nice.
"I am. The point is, dying was scary. I really didn't want to do it. But I figured, at least I'd be dead after. Being alone is way scarier."
Loki looks right into his eyes and it's like he's a million miles away. His mouth curves up in a small, distant smile that Tony doesn't like at all. "I've learned something in your realm. We're all alone."
Loki doesn't get it. He's always had Thor, even if Tony doesn't really get that as like, a thing you'd want for every second of your life. Tony's been alone. For most of his life, actually. It's shit.
"You want to be enough of a reason for me to live," Loki says, and it's like a little piece of metal right in his heart. Yeah, he does. "Thor wants that too. But Nicole says I have to want to live for myself."
"And do you?"
Loki laughs. "It's a process."
"I told Nicole I want us to do, like, a joint session or something."
Loki looks incredulous. "You want therapy?"
"No," Tony says immediately, and then wishes he hadn't. "Look, therapy's awesome, it brings us in touch with our inner selves, yadda yadda. But this isn't therapy. It's...it's a mediated conversation."
Loki licks the syrup off the bottom of the container. "About what?"
Tony glances at the guards. "You really want to talk about it here?"
Loki shrugs and smiles his nasty smile. "Suit yourself."
Tony tries to decide if he's being squirrelier than normal or not. It's a complex set of variables and he can't come to any good conclusions. "Fine. Look, for the record--I do like you just the way you are. I wouldn't say I didn't if--I mean, all that stuff I say, it's just to get you off. I don't--you know that, right?" He can hear the guards being assholes behind him. "Oh, come on," he says to them. "Like you didn't know? Here, you want something you can post on Facebook?" He breathes on the glass and draws a little heart in the fog.
Loki laughs and flicks his finger at it. It freezes instead of fading. He shakes his head. "Sometimes I wonder how your heart fits in your chest."
"I mean it. You have the largest heart I've come across. It's like one of those aliens in that movie you made me watch." Loki makes a long-fingered gesture that conveys chest-burster with unerring accuracy.
"Alien. It's called Alien for fuck's sake."
Loki shrugs for about the billionth time. "You're lucky the arc reactor stopped my spear because you would have burned the world down."
Tony has no idea what to say to that. "Bigger than Thor's?"
Loki laughs delightedly.
"Really? We're doing dick jokes right now?" No one's ever said anything like that to him before. Everyone knows Tony Stark's a heartless bastard. He feels uncomfortable and itchy. "Look, are you tired of this little vacation yet? Because Bruce thinks he can talk Steve into backing you, and that's the complete set. We could get a fortune on e-bay, plus Steve is literally a spokesmodel. He's like, Excite-to-Buy times x as x goes to infinity."
Loki watches him. He seems like maybe he's not freaking out quite as much anymore. Tony downgrades the situation to Code Yellow: Pensive. "I would not have had mercy on you," Loki says. "If I had won the Earth, you would all have perished."
Tony rolls his eyes. "Bond villain much? Look, if you wanted to destroy the world I'm pretty sure you would have. So you can sit in here and let S.H.I.E.L.D. make you into the next generation of disaster movies, or you can help save it."
"I'm not joining your team." He says team the way Pepper says designer knock-off.
Tony is actually a little disappointed, because Loki is a bad-ass, but, "That's not what I meant. You could help me make the next big breakthrough in green energy. Think about it. Air conditioning without a carbon footprint. Who knows, maybe we could even stop global warming."
"My people brought the first Ice Age to your planet," Loki says, starting on his last pancake. "Be careful what you wish for."
"Obviously we'll run tests first. God, it's like you've never heard of science." So they've definitely affected the global climate before. That's promising. "Do you know how they did it?"
Loki gives him an asshole smile again. "I could take you to Jotunheim to ask."
"Really? Do you have friends there?"
Loki laughs. "No."
"Hmm. Let's keep that as a back-up plan."
"Men who kill only one person spend their lives in a cage," Loki points out before shoving a forkful of lingonberries in his face. It annoys Tony that he's not allowed to touch him.
He taps his fingers on the glass instead. "Not if they're rich." Sad but true, and he's not above taking advantage of it. "Look, if you want to volunteer for Books Behind Bars or start an internet petition to reform the legal system, you probably need to not be locked in a basement first. Just saying."
Loki licks his fingers. "You should have been an inspirational speaker."
"Who says I won't be? I bet people would buy my book. I'm a highly successful person. I'm aspirational." The little heart he drew is melting, plus it's pulled condensation out of the air on the other side of the glass. It's dripping down both sides now in a pattern that would be almost impossible to accurately model.
Loki laughs. Not his Bond villain laugh or anything, so Tony stays leaning against the glass and does a whole bit: possible titles, chapter headings, how he's got to work fast if he doesn't want to be overshadowed by Agent Coulson's unauthorized biography of Captain America. Loki looks calmer. See? Tony can make people happy. He can.