Actions

Work Header

Das Ende der Welt; Das Ende unserer Welt

Work Text:

It started off innocently enough.

If “innocently” meant a door being slammed open and shut in the span of two seconds, kicked closed by a foot since one party’s hands were too occupied gripping the leather jacket of the other party and tugging him at his level. Meant mouths that clashed hungrily against each other, tongues that danced in a competition to lead, and low, demanding moans that rumbled in each other’s throats. Meant arms that wrapped around each other, one set of fingers running through each other’s dark hair, the other set gripping flesh that was most definitely not above the torso.

Meant clothes being shred more than shed, buttons coming loose, zippers being more of a problem than they should be. Meant the greedy slurps of the one who knelt, the satisfied groans of the one who stood. Meant the wanton cries of the one who had his legs wrapped around the other’s waist and the sweet murmurs of the one who growled them into the receiver’s ear as he thrust and pumped until they had both came and then collapsed at the edge of the bed.

Meant a few seconds after, deciding going another round, and then you know I’ve got enough room for one more if you know what I mean, and oh what the hell it wouldn’t hurt to keep going because it hurt so good. Meant not giving one single fuck about whether or not anybody heard; if any of these two wanted to give a single fuck about anybody else, they would have stopped a while ago, and there was no purpose of not giving one single fuck since they’ve kind of gone beyond just one single fuck and one fuck more and the only thing they had to pay attention too was the other person that gasped above them, below them, whatever position from them, and finally across from them with their head rested on a pillow, hair damp and clinging to glistening skin, teeth showing in smiles that showed nothing below 100% approval.

If he had to go straight to the office of Webster or whoever the hell was in charge of controlling the English language to redefine the word “innocently” just so it could fit this particular Monday morning (late morning, Monday morning as in “dawn” was always unpleasant), he damn well would (and he probably damn well could with his occupation and his connections; he was always a man interested in making a big impact on the world in a big way).

It started off innocently enough.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 “My family is holding a party this Friday.”

The lighter-haired of the dark-haired men lifted his hand to the cigarette balancing on his lips, plucking it with his index and thumb before he exhaled slowly. He watched the clouds float, forming tendrils of smoke that slithered towards the ceiling of the flickering, incandescent light that illuminated the hotel room. He turned his head to his left side, where his partner for the evening snapped their green lighter shut.

Sirens were already going off in his head, and it wasn’t even work yet. It was always a warning signal if the other party wanted to talk about their life – hell, they had some great chemistry earlier at the bar, but it was 80% flirting, 10% intellectual, 10% alcohol-influenced, and 0% personal.  Stark didn’t even know this guy’s name, and the first thing Pretty Boy decided to say after “oh fuck that’s it yes yes oh YES” was shit about his family problems?

He forced a smile towards Pretty Boy and decided the man was worthy enough to make a quip for anyway.    

“Am I invited?”

Pretty Boy gave a chuckle devoid of any mirth, and shifted his eyes to him. Stark felt his heart skip a beat again (and it better not be the pacemaker failing, though if anyone asked he probably could die happy if he died this instant) because this guy had these amazing eyes, these bright fucking marbles of blue or green or maybe both. It was the first thing that drew his attention that midnight at the bar, that made him royally screw up his shot and land the eight-ball in too early – Pretty Boy here with those eyes the same tint as his bottle of Midori (who the fuck orders Midori at a bar like this? Why does this bar even have Midori?), looking right at him, giving a lascivious smirk and a playful wink when Stark had smiled invitingly first. It was why he had never made Pretty Boy turn around even once (when he was leading, anyway) during their lovely sex romp, savouring the lust and desire within them that spoke more volumes than the beautiful noises that came out of his mouth did.

This time, there wasn’t that mischievous twinkle in them from before, or that bliss that Stark wanted to drown himself into – just this dull, half-lidded cynicism that had bugged Stark a little bit more than it should have as Pretty Boy graced his index and middle digit to his own cigarette, breathing out exasperatedly. 

“Not even I am invited,” Pretty Boy muttered.

Stark gave a sharp hiss, wincing.

“Ouch.” He tilted his head curiously. “How’d you figure that out?”

A scoff laced the dry chuckle this time as Pretty Boy’s eyes shifted upwards, following the trail of smoke.

“I received a text from one of them asking what time I would be there and if I’d be performing magic tricks for the younger ones.”

Stark winced again as he clicked his tongue.

“Double ouch.”

The green-or-blue-eyed man hummed in agreement, just barely shaking his head, disheveled black curls just barely moving with the motion. Stark smiled again, this one more genuine than the one a few minutes ago as he pointed his cigarette towards the svelte man.  

“Well, look at it this way: maybe they’re just all super jealous because you’re the one who got the deep end of the gorgeous gene.”

Pretty Boy laughed softly at this, casting his eyes back towards Stark.

“I’m touched by the romantic depth of your pillow talk, but I was under the impression that this wouldn’t stretch beyond one night,” he teased.

His eyes looked back down again, and he took a long puff before he spoke quietly again.

“It’s not them who are envious anyway.”

And there were the sirens again. This one would get him in trouble if he wasn’t careful.

“Hey, I was under the impression that this wouldn’t stretch beyond one night,” Stark taunted back.

Pretty Boy arched a chastising eyebrow with a lopsided smirk in response.  Stark rolled his eyes and groaned.

“Listen, it’s your family, for Christ’s sake. I emphasize that last part since this is December so I’m gonna go ahead and guess it’s a Christmas party, and not showing up to one of those when there’s family involved is asking for it.” He took a quick puff before continuing. “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you dropped by with a casserole, some presents, and a six-pack. Especially the six-pack, that’s important, or maybe something classy like Asti. I mean, if one of them is bothering to text you with the expectation that you were invited – ”

“It doesn’t work that way – ”

“That means you’re close to them.”

“I am not close to any of them,” the man snapped, glaring away icily.

The expression thawed.

“The ‘gorgeous gene’ isn’t even theirs.”

And there it was. The miscalculation of where to step so as not to sound off the alarm that screamed “Danger, code red, priority higher than a motherfucker, get the fuck out of there now”. Evacuation was absolutely necessary right about now – if he wasn’t so damn exhausted thanks to this good-looking asshole.

Stark brought back that tight-lipped, forced smile for him, and he hated having to put it on for a guy who was probably super sweet and 100% perfect boyfriend material; smooth gentleman by day, sex god by night. But Stark was a busy guy with a busier job. It was how his last relationship fell apart; fuck, it was always how the last relationships fell apart. And it was a known-fact anyway that Stark never liked letting people get close to him, regardless of the Golden Rule of One-Night Stands.

He took one last puff before extinguishing the cigarette into an ashtray that sat on the small desk next to him (in which there was supposed to be a lamp on it that somebody must have stolen since there was a circle in the center of this dusty piece of crap and oh shit if that was how the desk looked how clean were the beds and the walls fuck. God, this one didn’t deserve such a cheap hotel, this one deserved Delta or The Four Fucking Seasons), and sweeping his side of the covers away. Bending over to pick up his pants and his underwear – as well as let Pretty Boy get one last good look at his ass – he tilted his head far back enough to shoot Pretty Boy one more smile; a confident and cocky grin.

“Well, then, let ‘em know what they’re missing out on. If it goes wrong, fuck it. Go have a party with yourself, or some other dashingly handsome young rogue or sweet fair maiden. Not the end of the world.”

Pretty Boy huffed.

“The Mayans believed otherwise last year. The gullible believe they were one year behind.”

Stark’s grin grew wider as he attempted to button what was left of his shirt.

“As much as I love the Mayans for their contribution to the misunderstood beauty that is mathematics, you should ignore what they said, what these even stupider idiots are saying, cheer up, have some scotch, buy those presents, and go to that party.” He grabbed his coat as he walked towards the door, pausing momentarily to look one last time at his evening lover. “Knock ‘em dead, Pretty Boy.”

And something was off about the obviously disappointed smile and nod that Pretty Boy gave him, but he had paid it no heed as Pretty Boy glanced away.

“Perhaps I will.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It turned into something that was far from innocent.

Maybe it was because it was Friday 13th when everything started to turn into complete and utter fucking bullshit. Of course it had to be Friday the fucking 13th. Of all the frustrating things that 2013 wanted to throw at humanity just to revel in the schadenfreude of it all (including a huge bunch of conspiracy theorists who keep preaching about how 2012 wasn’t the year everyone was going to die; no, it was the year after because 13 is the unlucky number), of course they had to make December’s 13th day fall on Friday.

Of course it would have to involve one of his co-worker’s siblings getting murdered that night.

SHIELD (which stood for the Superior Headquarters for Immediate Enforcement of Law Division) was a law-enforcement agency under the United States of America government, main headquarters stationed in the city of New York that was named after its state. Arguably, they specialized in everything within the land of the free, but it was mostly cold cases and the super serious and serial crimes. They were the extra back-up that NYC’s police department could get a hold of when something went really wrong and their own detectives weren’t enough.

This wasn’t exactly a cold case, nor was it super serious and serial by the standards of SHIELD – but one of his co-worker’s siblings was murdered. That was more than enough reason for Director Fury to reflect on the standards that SHIELD has based on involving themselves right away in local police investigations, before you proceed to not give a flying fuck about them and just get your motherfucking asses there  A-fucking-SAP.

Agent Donar Odinson’s (code name: Thor) was a man that Stark had never ever seen cry, not once in his employment at SHIELD or the times they worked together with Squad A. Odinson’s expressions of emotions were as huge as his physical build – when he was happy, you could absolutely tell he was happy by the stupid grin on his bearded face, the whoops and hollers he would make like the jock he probably was in high school, and the well-meaning slaps and punches he would give to his fellow colleagues that would leave bruises for days (even with bulletproof vests underneath the suits). When he was angry, you could definitely tell he was angry by the thunderous look on his face, the literal roars that left his mouth, and the occasional table that was flipped. (Oh, but it was nothing compared to when Agent Banner got pissed off – you wouldn’t think it at first but Bruce was fucking terrifying when he got angry. There was a reason his code name was Hulk and everyone who found out why found out the hard way.)

So when Stark saw Odinson sitting in front of the steps of the giant house surrounded by yellow police tape, with snow gathering on his hair and shoulders, gloved hands folded over his mouth, and eyes strained and streaming tears, it definitely felt like his heart had dropped into his stomach.

He brought a hand up to the left side of chest – just for his own reassurance – as he exchanged uneasy glances with Captain S. Rogers (head agent of Squad A, actually, but they called him Captain anyway, sometimes with “America” added at the end because of how the man practically bled golden patriotism every now and then).

It was Rogers that slipped under the police tape first and approached Odinson, placing a hand on his shoulder and being the one to console him. It was Stark that decided not to once he saw Odinson’s face completely crumple and his shoulders shake, turning his head away because he would not be able to handle this and he was terrible at condolences anyway.

When it seemed like none of the damn cops would go up to him and tell him what the fuck went down, he chose to approach Agent N. Romanov (code name: Black Widow) because if anybody knew what just happened, it was going to be her.

This woman was one of the higher-up agents for the reason; she knew everything about everything. It was her, the Director, and one of the other agents (Agent Coulson; he didn’t give a damn what the asshole’s first name or code name was, this guy had dated his last ex-girlfriend after she had left him) that had recruited him full-time into SHIELD, based on literally every underground piece of shit he had been involved with in the past that Romanov had uncovered, and initiated him into Squad A based on his level of expertise. 

He didn’t even have to ask as he opened his mouth and Romanov interjected.

“There was a family gathering here for the Odinsons.” Romanov nodded towards Agents Rogers and Odinson. “Don arrived right before anybody could tell what was going on, so he didn’t see what was happening, but from what his family told him, the lights went out before they could do anything. Police suspect an EMP bomb, but none of us have found anything yet. When they finally managed to get their hands on a flashlight, they found his brother dead in a lounge, stabbed in the heart.”

Stark clicked his tongue, eyeing the mansion uneasily.

“Well, somebody crashed that party hard. I had no idea Glam Rock lived in such a nice house, because that is a nice house. How much does he get paid again? Wait, no, he lived in an apartment, I remember; me, Barton, and Banner played foosball there once and watched The Usual Suspects smashed because none of us ever saw it except Banner. Totally called that guy being Keyzer Soze the moment they did the line-up scene, by the way. But yeah, so I assume Daddy Morbucks owns this house then?”

Romanov looked nonplussed as she finished tying her hair back. The redhead (naturally, though every month she’d dye and style it something else; either she did secret undercover covert shit for SHIELD or the guys she dated were all psychopaths or something) lifted a brow towards him.

“Anthony – ”

Anthony gave a tut of protest, pointing a finger at her warningly.

“Tony – ”

“No, Natasha, we talked about this,” he interrupted, lowering his gaze. “Ever since you essentially violated all my privacy just to get me where I am now, you are not and never will be worthy of using first-name acknowledgement for me, even for abbreviations, Tasha.”

Natasha rolled her eyes.

“Agent Stark. Would you like to see what happened before our medical examiner gets their hands on Agent Odinson’s brother?”

And the prospect of that was enough to make Agent A. Stark (code name: Iron Man) stroll right on under the police tape with Romanov in stride through the back doors – walking by Rogers and Odinson at this particular moment was just asking for trouble – straight through the five-star kitchen, the giant-ass dining room which still had food on plates, the hallway decorated with paintings of what Stark assumed was the Odinson men generation after generation (and boy did this totally not remind him of his childhood days, nope, not one bit) before they finally arrived at the lounge where –

Oh. Okay, yeah, seeing a body lying at the doorframe, face-up with bulging eyes and cloth stuffed in his mouth, and a goddamn silver butterfly knife embedded straight in the left chest cavity would undoubtedly crash a party hard.

Stark’s hand twitched, but he balled it into a fist and slipped it into his jacket pocket, rummaging for the one thing that would allow him to look closer at the body. It was Romanov who had given the introductions to the police, however.

“Agent Romanov and Agent Stark.” She reached inside her coat and presented her badge in unison with Stark. The Silver Eagle disappeared as soon as it had appeared. “Superior Headquarters for Immediate Enforcement of Law Division. If our captain or the chief-of-police hasn’t already told you, this investigation is officially being overseen by SHIELD now. All details and reports will be sent over to SHIELD for assessment as soon as they are processed through your detectives’ department.” She gave them a small smile for good measure. “Your cooperation and involvement in the investigation is imperative and highly acknowledged.”

That was the moment Stark took advantage of as he crouched next to the corpse. He stared it down, noting every detail he could – lavender-tinted dress shirt, white blazer, blue scarf, grey slacks. Short brown hair, eyes as blue as his brother’s, and a build even bigger than his brother’s. He lifted his head up towards the cops and Romanov – and suddenly frowned.

“Was this guy fly with the ladies?” Stark murmured. “He’s easy on the eyes, it’s not a ridiculous notion that maybe one of his many evil ex-girlfriends – scratch that, actually, it could have been a present girlfriend who was getting tired of putting up with his shit, and God don’t I know that feeling – she could have done this. Like, let’s be completely serious for a moment here. How much bad luck do you have to have to die under the fucking mistletoe?”

The cops and Romanov looked up towards the doorframe, decorated with tinsel, garland, and – sure enough – the best holiday excuse for stealing kisses next to New Year’s Day, tied with a red ribbon and complete with sparkly silver beads since the plant was evidently plastic.

(Ostentatious rich cheap-asses. His father went all-out for Christmas bashes when he was younger.)

“Our primary suspect is one of his brothers found in the room with him,” one of the cops responded. He nodded towards Romanov. “We have him in custody, and we’ll be turning him over to SHIELD for interrogation.”

Romanov gave a single, stoic-faced nod back in response, and Stark tsked as he stood back up, shaking his head down at the fallen Odinson.

Looks like this family wasn’t going to have a happy holiday anytime soon.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It was the 15th when Stark realized exactly how far from innocent it really was.

“Hodar Odinson, thirty-nine years old.”

Out of general good intentions and SHIELD standard (as well as common sense), Agent Odinson had been given a leave of absence despite his protests. It was probably why the glum feeling that hung in the air was more depressing than it should have been since Odinson’s chair was the only one not occupied in the lounge.

“He was going to the bathroom before the lights were cut out, and he fell over the victim’s body in the dark.” Romanov flipped through the file in her hand at the table with one hand, the other reaching for the cup of coffee nearest her. “He had tried to help the person in question get back up – only for his hands to touch the knife. He said he had smelled blood so he was afraid he had injured someone, but the moment he felt Balder’s shirt where the knife was connected, he knew what had happened, just as the rest of the family found them when his dog started panicking.”

“Forget about what this guy smelled. You know what I smell? That right there is the smell of bullshit. You expect us to believe this?”

All heads of Squad A turned towards their fellow agent aiming a dart at a giant poster replica of a cherub painting; pink tush, golden bow, heart-shaped arrowheads, swan wings, and everything. Agent C. Barton (code name: Cupid when he had received that poster with his face originally superimposed on the head, before he had slapped a picture of Stark’s mug over it and went back to being Hawkeye) squinted an eye, before he let the dart fly and hit the cherub’s left ass-cheek.

Stark winced audibly as he made a big show of reaching for his backside.

“Oooh, I felt that one, man.”

Barton shot back a flat grin.

“Good.”

Romanov did not resist the urge to roll her eyes before she raised her coffee cup towards Barton, scrutinizing her closest comrade (and everyone knew this; there was a betting pool that Stark was sure they knew about in terms of whether or not they were going to hook up any time soon).

“Barton, no offense, but I trust your sense of vision more than your sense of smell,” she remarked.    

“Then see what I’m seeing here,” Barton retorted, leaning back in his chair as he picked up another dart from the table. He spun it in his fingers as he looked towards everyone, just as Rogers looked over Romanov’s shoulder at the file. “The ‘I was trying to find the bathroom’ is the oldest fucking excuse in the book. He wasn’t present with the – what? Other ten, excluding their servants and the kids, since they were dining?”

“Eleven,” Rogers interjected, squinting at the folder and the contents of it. “According to the other family members, there had been twelve guests – ”

“No, Glamour-Pants, I said that this Hotter guy wasn’t with the rest of his folks when he was dining. Neither was Baldy. If they were, then there would have been twelve at the table. Banner, Stark, back me up, you guys are the smart ones of this group.”

Stark and Banner, who were sitting next to each other, exchanged brown-eyed glances before they looked back at Barton condescendingly; an evident sign that no, they were not going to back him up. The dart was thrown irritably – just as the dossier was tossed towards Barton’s direction. Rogers pointed two fingers at the papers.

“If you read the interrogation reports closely, Agent Barton, there weren’t just twelve guests that night.”

The authoritative tone was enough to make Barton grumble something under his breath as he spread the individual sheets out in front of him; Stark and Banner had stood up and hovered over him as Barton’s eyes darted up and down, left and right. Fifteen seconds later, they were looking back at Rogers and Romanov.

“Nope, my math was totally correct. It was twelve guests – the thirteenth clearly wasn’t invited to their party based on what everybody else said. He left the place around fifteen or twenty minutes before the murder happened anyway, so he ain’t important.”

Banner’s eyebrows furrowed as he pushed his glasses back up, lips pursing in thought as he pulled one of the accounts closer to him. Stark did the same, picking up the sheet closest to Barton and flipping it over.

“Hold on, Hawk.” Banner frowned. “The thirteenth guest could be important. Really important, actually.”

Stark’s eyebrows rose in perfect timing. Barton just scoffed at Banner as Stark resisted the urge to slap Cupid across the face with the folder.

“No, he’s not. Hotrod was right there when Bald-Guy died. Right there. He planted a timed EMP or set the whole lighting system to shut off at a certain time, and he tackled, gagged, and stabbed the guy while the lights were still out. Look at the report on the fingerprints that were found on the knife, they fucking matched and they were shown to be in a position where the handle was definitely gripped for attack. He would have gotten away with it too if their dog hadn’t freaked the fuck out.”

“His dog.”

Everyone stared at Stark, who was still looking at the papers with narrow eyes. He didn’t pay any heed to Barton folding his arms and staring at him like he’d completely lost twenty brain cells.

“’Scuse me? His dog, their dog, same shit.”

“Mmm, no, not same shit, not even close. Oh, will you look at that, he had a cane too.”

“Stark, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“Barton.” And now Stark was shoving the paper straight in his face as he jutted a finger at it. “Oh, my God. Barton, for the love of everything that’s still sacred, seriously. You might have this stupidly incredible 20/20 vision that extends as far as you can fire your damn arrows from that really unconventional crossbow you always use – come on, we are in the 21st Century, not the Bronze Age, I would rely more on your glock than that – and you have the speed-reading abilities and photographic memory a college kid wishes they had the day before the midterm they didn’t study for. But your eyes are even more poor than this guy’s is.”

“...what?”

Read, asshole.”      

And Barton did read. And his eyes widened. And he glared at Stark before he focused back to Romanov, and Stark could swear he could see the steam hissing out of his ears.

“He’s blind.”

Banner’s eyes also widened.

“He’s blind?” he echoed, picking one of the sheets back up and skimming it, and oh man, Barton was absolutely fuming right now and it was just as rich as his face when he had first seen the poster. Stark did not hide a smug grin.

“Yes, lady and gentlemen – our primary suspect is indeed blind.”

“As a fucking bat, apparently,” Barton grumbled.

“Actually – ” Stark and Banner interjected, but not before Romanov raised a hand. The corner of her lips had curved ever-so-slightly just enough so that Barton could catch it.

“I was wondering when you would catch onto that.”

“You hid details from me, from the whole damn team, for your personal amusement on my behalf?”

The shrug she gave only prompted Barton to inhale sharply, trying his best not to flip the table.

“What can I say, Barton? I thought you needed to focus a little more as of late; I figured public humiliation in front of the whole team was the best way.”

Barton cursed, Banner snickered, Rogers shook his head with an eye-roll, and Stark chuckled, continuing to skim the file and – wait, why did this sound eerily familiar to something somebody might have told him?

“Okay, children, that’s enough,” the Captain groused, reaching for the remaining sheets in the dossier and placing them back in front of Romanov. “Now that we’ve lost our biggest suspect, we can focus on the other suspect – the thirteenth guest who wasn’t invited in the first place. Who was this fella, and what were his reasons for not being invited?”

Stark’s eyes flew open.

Oh, crap.

“Loki Odinson, thirty years old. Second youngest brother next to Balder. He was adopted at a very young age, which was kept hidden by his parents until a few years ago when his birth father had approached him in a university psychology class and revealed the truth.”

Oh, shit.

“Even before then, the family had noticed tension when it came with him. The father – well, his stepfather – said that as of late, Loki had been incredibly bitter towards him and a few of his other family members, attempting to gain sympathy by twisting his words. He was never given an invitation out of fear that he would cause even more tension in the family, or start unnecessary drama while everyone was having a good time.”

Oh, fuck.

“Do we have a photo of Mr. Loki Odinson, Agent Romanov?”

“Yes, Captain. We have one; it’s a family portrait and it’s dated from two years back, but we’ve picked him out and according to the family, he still pretty much looks like this.”

The photo was displayed at the center of the table, and everybody leaned closer in to get a better look at the man circled with a red marker.

Stark froze.

Oh, no.

“What the hell does he have anything to be jealous of?” Barton muttered. “Shit, look at the guy! Feel free to judge me after I say this, but I’m not sure whether or not I want to be him or screw him.”

Romanov almost choked on her coffee at that. Rogers shot a testy glare towards Barton, before he noticed Stark balling his fists and gawking at the photo.

“Agent Stark,” the Captain said. “Do you recognize this man?”

Ignoring the eyes that focused back on him, Agent Stark swallowed as he fought to gather his thoughts – his thoughts, damn it, not a bunch of memories of those swollen lips, that pale skin, those slender fingers, that velvety voice, the leather jacket, those black curls, and those eyes...

The last three things which were present on the man known as Loki, together with his apparently adopted family, standing next to Agent Odinson and their father (Odinson’s father, Loki’s stepfather) with arms linked around their shoulders, and a smile on his face that didn’t quite match the expression in those eyes.

Those stupid fucking blue-green eyes.   

“Oh, yeah,” Stark hissed, and only now he realized that one of his hands was at his pounding heart and the other gripping the edge of his table. He allowed himself to finally exhale, taking his hand away from his chest and pointing his index straight at Loki. “Barton’s right, you can’t forget a guy like this, no way. Because that’s him. That’s the guy who did it, he absolutely 100% fucking did it and fuck. That guy right there – that’s Pretty Boy. And we need to start looking for his ass.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

At this point, all Stark wanted to do was find innocence and break its neck.

“You lie.”     

That was the first thing that Agent Odinson had said they had brought him again for questioning, along with the rest of his family, each being separately talked with. There were some notable agents that specialized in that particular department of the division. Agent Romanov was one of them, and one of the best. Occasionally, the Captain would be called in just because he had this aura about him; a soldier that you felt you could fully trust (not surprising since he had been in the military before), and one you just wanted to be honest with the moment that intimidating, firm look on his face softened. And honestly, Rogers really didn’t need anybody else with him when he was doing the interrogation because of that heart as gold as his damn hair (his natural hair anyway, he could see the blond roots through the fading brown).

Having Agent Stark, who was far from specialized in the interrogation department (let alone getting out there and shooting the fuck out of the bad guys department, this is why he opted for the technical stuff), in stride with the Captain questioning Agent Odinson, was just throwing the whole situation in a steaming pile of shit waiting any moment now to hit the fan.

To make this pile of shit even closer to said fan, Rogers was probing Stark to do most of the talking, and this was either going to end with a broken table or a broken nose. Stark tried not to think about it too hard as he deliberately shifted his eyes away from Odinson. Something about this went again so many ethics and standards of SHIELD – but when the hell has SHIELD or any governmental agency been 100% upholding of their own policies?

“Look, I met him at the Eisen Eis over pool. He was having a bottle of absinthe – no, no, wait, not absinthe; I’d remember the taste of absinthe. Midori, I remember wondering why a bar like that had Midori. Not important.”

“You’d remember the taste of absinthe?” Rogers echoed, raising a brow skeptically towards Stark, and damn it, weren’t they questioning Odinson right now? Stark just glanced back at Rogers coolly, arms folded.

“Well, we shared a few drinks, and anybody who drinks enough – hint hint, Captain – will know there’s a huge difference between Midori and absinthe. But this is leading up to the important part, be patient.” Stark managed to focus back on Odinson. “He got drunk enough to start telling me all this stuff about his personal life, like how he wasn’t invited to some family party that week’s Friday and how he found out when one of his bros asked if he’d be there – ”

Odinson flinched at that.

Oh, fuck, of course. He loved all his brothers, but there was this one he always talked about in terms of wanting to get him more involved in family activities and hanging out after so long. Like this wasn’t awkward enough already. Stark had to avert his eyes once more.

“Agent Stark, how did you manage to strike up conversation relating to Loki’s family?”

At this, Stark had to roll his eyes.

“Gee, I don’t know, Cap. But I guess talking about football season or the Yankees vs. the Red Sox would have been more sensible at a bar over a bottle of fruity Japanese alcohol.”

“Well, given your past history with your own – ”

Uh uh, nope.

“I asked where he got his eyes from, Cap.”

He ignored the suspicious and inquiring stares of Rogers and Odinson. No, as much as he respected the Captain and found him a good guy to be around, to talk to, to even call on first-name basis every now and then – he was not going to let Captain Rogers bring up his personal shit in an interrogation of Agent Odinson that was being recorded and monitored very closely by the Director, the Black Widow, and the Hawk.

Stark’s index and thumb twitched. A nice smoke break would be great right about now.

 “It was a harmless compliment and I was tipsy, okay? But then he started whining throughout the whole night about how jealous he was and hinted at his adoption.” Stark gulped. “Look, it’s either one of your brothers confirmed for fratricide, Odinson. We only found one set of fingerprints on the knife that belonged to somebody from your family, so we’re guessing he used gloves, and we’re still tracking down whoever sells those type of blades in New York.”

“I will not hold this against either Loki or Hodar, whoever may be responsible.” Odinson blinked furiously, and Stark and Rogers noted his hands trembling on the table, dangerously edging towards the edge of it (why did they not get the room with the bolted-down table, damn it). “But I refuse to come to terms with the notion that my own brothers would stain their hands with those of their own blood.”

“Loki’s adopted, Don,” Rogers pointed out quietly. He sighed. “He technically isn’t your brother, and if Stark’s right, then this just gives him a bigger motive behind the fratricide.”

Odinson flinched again.

“Steve,” the longer-haired blonde whispered back, voice shaky.

At this point, Stark really wanted to just get the fuck out of this room, go to his office, open the book he had on supreme court, and pull out the flask he had hidden there and down it all in one go. All hope of escaping was lost when Agent Romanov walked into their room, though.

“I contacted the owner of the Eisen Eis and anyone who was working shifts that night. Stark’s story checks out – Loki was definitely there.” And no, Stark absolutely did not like how Romanov was staring at him the whole time with that same expression she had when she knew something no one else did. “He left the bar around 2 AM in the morning; closing hour. Reports say that he checked into a hotel nearby, before he left the moment 8 AM rolled around.”

“And what of the events that transpired on Friday?” Odinson demanded. “When I arrived, the lights were still off and it had been my own mother than answered the door, not the maids.”

“Yes.” Romanov diverted her attention from Stark to Odinson. “The party started officially at 6:30 PM. Loki arrived at exactly 7:13 PM empty-handed. Loki, Balder, and Tyr ended up arguing with each other shortly after, Tyr threatening to ‘beat him to the ground’ if Loki didn’t leave. That’s when your dad pulled Loki aside, took him to the second floor, and reprimanded him for trying to stir controversy within the family when he wasn’t invited. Loki left the front door at 7:26 without any goodbyes. Dinner started at 7:35. Hodar left the table to go to the washroom with his guide dog before he ate. Balder left at 7:42 to get wine from the cellar. The lights went out at exactly 7:45. You and your family said you came at 7:55 – the same time they found Balder.”

Odinson cursed freely, his hands clenching into fists. “I don’t understand how he would have gotten in to disable the lighting systems so freely, though,” Rogers pointed out. “There’s only six ways to get in and out of that house; three are emergency fire exits, one is the rooftop, the other two are the front and back doors. I think he used an EMP.”

Romanov shook her head.

“We haven’t found any evidence of EMPs being used. The power came back on anyway, so it’s very likely that – ”

“That he had snuck in.”

All of them blinked as they turned towards Odinson, face grim and hands folded together on the desk.

“He would have a key – we all do. We just have the decency to doorbell first after we went our separate ways and moved out.” Odinson gave a light chuckle. “He was very good at that sort of thing, sneaking into the house wordlessly past curfews or if he wanted to surprise somebody. He would have fooled Barton easily – our head butler sees and knows everything that happens in that mansion as well as my father used to.”

An indignant voice echoed in the room.

“I heard that, Agent Odinson. No offense, but your bro would not escape my eyes that easily.”

Stark shuddered. God, Romanov used to send chills down his spine when he first met her (still does), but Barton; Barton would be that kind of person you would file a restraining order on right away because he was always watching when something was amiss. 

Odinson just scoffed bitterly.

“The light room is on the main floor. He could have slipped in through the back door or one of the fire exits before disabling the lights. The shadows were always at his beck and call. The darkness would have given him ample opportunity to...”

His breath hitched.

“Do you have security cameras?”

Odinson turned to Stark.

“I beg your pardon?”

Stark frowned, as though he shouldn’t have to repeat himself (because he really shouldn’t and he didn’t like repeating himself).

“Security cameras. You know, play back the footage, enhance it a little if they don’t have night vision capabilities – and I really don’t know why you guys wouldn’t have cameras that up-to-date, it’s the standard...”

Odinson just craned his head with furrowed eyebrows. Stark’s eyes widened.

“You don’t even have security cameras, do you? Oh, my God, you’re kidding me. You’re kidding me, right? You have a bunch of butlers, cooks, maids, cleaners, maybe even plumbers and gardeners and shoe-shiners, and you don’t have security cameras?”

“We never had a need for them. We have enough up-to-date security alarms and precautions to keep them out of the vicinity. The servants’ eyes were sharp, especially Heimdall’s.”

“That’s not the point, Odinson! It’s a damn mansion. My – ” He stopped himself just on time before took a deep breath. “Most mansions should have surveillance systems installed into their homes, as well as a few security guards, and at least two people monitoring the surveillance footage. It’s practical and it’s common sense.”

“Agent Stark,” Rogers began testily, but Stark ignored him as he shook his head.

“Even a hobo can bust his way into your house without proper security.”

“Do not slander my family, Agent Stark,” Odinson growled, leaning forward.

“Agent Odinson. Both of you need to settle down.” 

“Cap, I am settled. It’s He-Man here who thinks I’m implying something by saying his security sucks.” Stark shrugged. “Which, I can see where you’re coming from. I’m just saying, if you had cameras, this would have made things so much easier if any break-ins or shit like this happens like that shady bastard shanking your brother – ”

It was the Captain who had stood up first to slam his hands firmly on the other end of the table when Thor had bolted to his own feet and gripped the edges opposite of them.

“Don!” Rogers barked sharply. His shoulders relaxed, and pity replaced anger. “Please.”

Odinson’s chest heaved as he breathed heavily, glaring straight at Stark, who had chosen this time to take several steps back towards the door. Agent Romanov sighed.

“I’ll take care of him, Captain Rogers.”

Rogers nodded, before he shot one last look at Stark that actually made Stark want to not leave. If he was going to be pissed off, then hell, he might as well piss of everybody in the damn room. However, if it was going to end with a broken table or a broken nose at this point, he’d rather not be there for when any of those results came to fruition by the legendary anger of Agent Odinson, second to Agent Banner.

Whatever.

Giving one last shameless eye-roll to Captain Rogers and Agent Odinson, Stark opened the door behind them and saw himself out.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“I swear, they’re exactly the same. Natural blondes, blue eyes, more ripped than I will ever be, and oozing this self-righteous sense of – ”

“Did you sleep with him, Stark?”

Oh, shit.

It just kept getting worse, didn’t it?

Of course Agent Romanov would know. That was why she was giving him that trademark I-know-shit-you-don’t-know blackmail face back in that room when she was matching the bar owner’s account with his story. Thankful he didn’t cough and choke down the cigarette in his mouth, he turned towards Romanov, leaning back against the fire exit balcony with that face on.

“I didn’t sleep with him.” He shifted his eyes. “Pretty sure we didn’t even get any sleep. Shit went down, he was drunk, I had to check him into that craphole of a hotel and so we didn’t sleep – ”

“Did you fuck him, Stark?” she exclaimed, breath puffing in the air.

Damn this asshole. Damn her. 

Stark removed the cigarette from his mouth and exhaled with a long, weary sigh, aiming towards Romanov. “How long have you known?” he muttered.

Romanov gave a wry smirk as she swatted a hand at the smoke.

“The moment I saw your face when we pulled out that photo.”

Both of Stark’s hands flew up to his face in shame, cigarette butt dangerously close to his hair. It was then he realized how thick the stubble had gotten, and he wondered briefly if he should just accept he wasn’t getting any younger; grow a goatee to make up for the wrinkles.

“Also, calling him ‘Pretty Boy’ pretty much sealed the deal.”

“Hey, I’m not gonna lie, that boy is very pretty.” Stark scoffed as he lowered his hands. “You’re just jealous because your boyfriend has his orientations mixed up after laying eyes on him.”

“I can kill you with that cigarette, you know.”

“Kinky, I’m not sure whether or not Barton is into that kind of stuff.” Stark just shook his head as he began to take another drag. “Don’t worry, honey, the smokes will kill me sooner or later.”

“I’m sure it’s the former, considering your heart condition.”

This time he almost choked on the cigarette, tapping his chest with a hand as he doubled over, coughing out smoke in the frigid air. He gasped as he panted, glaring up towards Romanov, who looked not one bit apologetic.

“Don’t expect me to say anything sympathetic, Tony. It’s your health, not mine.”

Fucking insensitive Russians.

Stark glowered at her. “Fair enough.”

There was a pause between them, before Stark spoke up again after another puff.

“Alright, no, seriously, how’d you figure it out right away?”

“The exact way I said. It just so happened that Eisen Eis’ stories matched up with the evidence that you tried so hard to hide.” Romanov folded her arms. “You came to the bar around 11 PM. You played pool past midnight, when it was then you noticed Loki. You sat with him after you lost, started chatting him up, ordered him some drinks, and according to the sources, your intentions were clear as crystal.” She smirked. “You didn’t seem like you were that drunk; tipsy, said the bartender, but not flat-out wasted. You were the one who checked him into that hotel at 2:07 AM, and believe me, it wasn’t just the very few guests who could hear you two humping each other’s brains out for a good hour or so. You left around 4 AM via taxi, and he checked out at 8 AM.”

Well, there was no use hiding that any longer.

“Thank you for not saying that in front of Agent Odinson, by the way,” Stark deadpanned.

She gave him her best shit-eating grin.

“Hey, it was either a broken table or a broken nose.”

And there she was, bypassing Barton once again on Stark’s Creepy Scale. There were quite a few people on that scale (Stark included, he knew a thing or two about proper stalking via the internet and hacking), and he didn’t think that Romanov and Barton were getting off the far top of that scale anytime soon.

He hated how this Loki guy was slowly trying to climb up it too. While it was perfectly acceptable to have people he’d only met once on the scale, it was not for Pretty Boy. No, he wanted Pretty Boy as far away from the scale as possible. He didn’t want to keep remembering that night at the hotel; Pretty Boy’s tongue practically lolling out, drool trailing from his reddened lips down his chin, black locks framing his cheekbones as he bucked and whimpered there, yes, right there, that’s it, ohh yes, closer, come closer...  

He didn’t want to keep remembering it, because it ended with a sharp, agonizing pain to his heart, and Pretty Boy giving a low cackle as his fingers curled around Stark’s hair and yanked him closer, teeth bared in a feral grin and eyes dark. Oooh, that’s a little too close, Pretty Boy would whisper as though he’d done nothing wrong, his other hand crushing the pacemaker  – and that’s when Stark would sit up in bed with a gasp, drenched in sweat, chest tight and hand practically clawing at where his heart was.

If anybody wanted to ask him why he slept with a sphygmometer in the empty spot next to his queen-sized bed, they could go jump off a cliff because there was no way he was going to tell them anything about it, not even Romanov.

He scowled as she piped up again.

“Am I gonna have to say it for you, Stark?”

“Say what?” Stark snapped, throwing the cigarette down. “That I just dug myself into a really big shithole that keeps piling up with even more shit? That I’m fucked?”

She looked away nonchalantly.

“Alright, looks like I don’t have to then,” Romanov muttered.

His foot practically slammed into the butt of the cigarette, twisting the ashes onto the metal. “Look, Pretty Boy didn’t tell me anything about wanting to kill one of his adopted brothers,” Stark retorted, pointing a finger at her. “All he said was he learned he wasn’t invited to a family party that Friday, which he found out about when Odinson texted him, he gave off the impression that he was a jealous little shit, told me he wasn’t technically their kid, and that’s when I bailed.”

“There’s more than that.”

“There’s nothing more than that.”

Romanov’s gaze hardened once more, and Stark knew he had lost as his shoulders slumped.

“I may or may not have said that he should go anyway and let ‘em know whose company they were missing out on.”

There weren’t many times where Romanov’s poker face would shift into something more obvious like, say, shock or horror (both of which became very evident when somebody set Agent Banner off and she was in his nearby vicinity). This time, her green eyes widened very visibly.

“Tony – ”

“Stark.”

 “Stark. God, I bet you weren’t always that fucking picky about the name thing.”

Stark huffed.

“Tasha, this is me we’re talking about. I’m always picky. That’s what everyone calls it, though; I like to refer to it as ‘taste’.”

“Well, your taste kind of sucks when you can’t tell that it’s going to give you food poisoning. Stark, you’re already under SHIELD’s eye enough, even before you admitted that you’ve had conservation with Loki that gives him a solid motive for the murder. If they find out you’ve not only been fraternizing with him, but what details you discussed – ”

“Which again, I wasn’t told that he’d kill someone –  ”

“How do you even drop the ball that fucking high up? I would have thought you knew better. What happened to the Golden Rule?”

“Stop right there, you are not allowed to throw the Golden Rule back in my face. I perfected the Golden Rule to the point where I am allowed to break it and get away with it scot-free. It’s what I do. I mean breaking the rules is, ironically enough, what got me into SHIELD’s bed, wasn’t it?”

The woman looked ready to dropkick him. She scowled. Stark raised his hands.

“In my defense, he broke the rule first, and I didn’t know he’d commit murder by the time the weekend rolled around. They can’t call me out on coercion because it’s not coercion. I didn’t do anything, I didn’t know anything, ergo I couldn’t have done anything or predicted that he’d drive a fucking butterfly blade into someone’s chest.” He raised his chin. “Go on, tell me I’m shitting you. Try it.”

She didn’t. But she did try something else.

“Even if that’s the case, Stark, why do I get the feeling it’s not me you’re trying to convince?”

That was when she had left Stark out on the balcony as she went back inside, leaving Stark to stare blindly into the air and trying to banish any memories of that cynicism he had glimpsed in Pretty Boy’s eyes; that first sign that should have told him something just wasn’t right.

Stark has slept with quite a few people, and because of the Golden Rule, it didn’t matter whether or not they were awful people or not. As long as he could convince himself that he hadn’t slept with a murderer since he wasn’t a murderer at the time, the Loki situation would ease over soon enough.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Then Agent Coulson (Captain of Squad C, actually, but he preferred “Agent” just because he didn’t like people calling Squad C Squad Coulson) stopped by Squad A’s wing on Wednesday with a new dossier of a guy named Laufey Nalson, convicted in 1978 for engaging in sexual activity with a woman that he had thought was eighteen. Needless to say, the parents were not in the least bit happy about this, nor were they willing to help use every penny they could take from Nalson’s pocket from the lawsuit to support the premature child she eventually gave up for adoption.

He had an autopsy report. March 14th, 2013. They found him in his beaten-up apartment room at 5:08 AM, passed out over a coffee table, glass surface cracked and head bleeding. The cause of death, however, was consumption of absinthe laced with cyanide, according to what the chemists had found from a spilled bottle on the carpet that still had at least a teaspoon of alcohol in it to analyze.

People around the apartment that day confirmed that a young, black-haired man that looked very much like Nalson had come over that evening, and had rushed out.  

They had obtained a strand of hair that didn’t entirely match with Laufey’s DNA during the investigation. Once they found the abandoned, cleaned out condo that Loki had lived in, they confirmed that it was definitely his. It was then decided that Loki needed to be tracked down as soon as possible and addressed to the public, but Director Fury refused the latter, saying that even though it’s been more than a damn week already, they should hold off until they had absolute solid, scientific evidence that it was Loki. As though all the rest of the signs that pointed to “he totally fucking did it” weren’t flashing in neon lights and snaking Vegas bulbs. Everyone partially suspected it was out of sympathy for Agent Odinson, who had decided to cut his leave short for the sake of SHIELD.

For the sake of catching his brother and finding out the truth.

Oh, God. Stark did sleep with a murderer.

It was why he really did not feel even the slightest bit comfortable when he had to sit with Odinson in the back of Banner’s car, only because Banner for whatever reason insisted he place his equipment in the passenger’s seat. (This was because of that incident with Squad F, wasn’t it? There were only four people in Squad F, it wasn’t Stark’s fault that he kind of influenced a brawl of brawn by saying Agent Grimm was a lot tougher than Banner was.) Especially when Odinson was staring at what looked like a photo from high school days of him and Loki.

“I doubt my brother will be where the tips say he will be. If he was the one who made it obvious, then he is most likely setting us up. His cryptic and influential nature makes him incapable of sincerity.”

Banner spoke up from the wheel.

“Somebody want to explain to me how exactly we’re even getting tips if we haven’t shown his face to the public yet?”

If Odinson had a problem with that, he didn’t show it. “The police were the ones that gave the tips to SHIELD,” Stark replied, deciding that Odinson already had enough problems to deal with (as did he, but he felt particularly charitable today. Or just plain fucking guilty, one of the two).

“Then why didn’t the police stop him themselves?” Banner retorted.

Stark shrugged.

“Off-duty was the punk’s excuse.”

Banner shook his head, and Odinson scoffed, which amused Stark far more than it should as he watched a puff of air leave his mouth within the car. (And the heater was cranked up all the way too. Did Hell freeze over and affect the overworld’s weather this month?)

“Neglecting your responsibility to protecting your city is most foolish and disgraceful. While I wish for no harm to come to my brother – any of my brothers or family – I would have been the first to place the handcuffs on his wrists, even if I had just gotten out of the shower and had a towel around my waist.”

A brief thought of Loki with a towel around his waist crossed Stark’s mind. It was soon followed, much against Stark’s rational thinking, by the sensation of hot water running down his bare back as he saw himself pinning Loki against the fogged glass of the shower door. Throaty exclamations of bliss echoed and bounced off the walls, resonating in his ears more beautifully than any hymn sung by an angel could. Water trickled down Pretty Boy’s wet hair as he looked deep into Stark’s eyes, sliding a hand behind Stark’s back, down his waist, nails suddenly piercing his left kidney as Loki’s eyes narrowed dangerously and the water turned red –

Stark actually gasped as he returned back to reality, prompting Agent Odinson to turn towards him warily.

“Agent Stark, are you alright? You look troubled so suddenly. Is your mind not at peace?”

He pretended he didn’t notice Banner looking at the rear-view mirror as he coughed and cleared his throat, waving a hand dismissively. “Nah, no, it’s not me you should be worrying about, Point Break. I’m good, I just...I was thinking.”

“Thinking about what?” Banner questioned, and if that tone meant something, Stark pretended he didn’t catch it.

“About Loki – well, no, not Loki but about what he’s doing.” Stark groaned, puffing his cheeks before he let it escape through a small “o” in his mouth, leaning back into the leather seat with folded arms. He cast a glance to the right, and he wasn’t too sure why he was trying to look out of a frost-covered window. For a moment, he was tempted to draw a smiley face (or a penis. Or a penis with a smiley face, Banner would love that) on it, but the mere fact that it seemed so pointless to try and see what was being covered up bugged him too much and he figured out why.

“We’re chasing after a goose here, guys. We’re not gonna find him there. You know that, right?”

None of them said anything as Banner focused back on the traffic up ahead, windshield wipers being less effective than any of them desired, and Odinson pushed back a stray strand of hair that hadn’t been tied back. Stark grimaced.

“He wiped his computer clean when they looked through his home. All his bank accounts went empty, his phone records were wiped; everything was gone. Poof, like magic. There were scorch marks on the wall where the garbage can had been before it melted into this hunk of metal – clearly, he meant to burn every piece of evidence to the fucking ground, even if it meant collateral on the people living above him and next to him, because there was no way he was going to get caught now.”

He took a deep breath in before concluding. “It’s not that he’s afraid of jail. No, no way is a guy like that afraid of a few years in the slammer. He’s not turning himself in because he’s still got things to do if he’s on the run, trying to cover up every single step he makes.”

The car slid to an abrupt halt again. Banner cursed, slamming a fist on the side of the steering wheel. Of course they had to use the car with the busted sirens and the broken lights today in the middle of a traffic jam and a fender bender. Odinson chose this moment to focus long and hard on Stark, and it was almost unnerving how there was this look on his face – that look people used to give Stark when they wanted to understand why are you doing this, you could put these skills to such better use, Tony.

Stark forced a cocky, proud grin back towards Odinson.

“In case it wasn’t obvious or leaked out yet – I was a bad guy back in the day.”

Odinson responded with a single nod, as well as a voice far too gentle for who was arguably the toughest, most excitable member on their team.

“Yes.” A ghost of a smile graced his face. “But now you are a ‘good guy’, as they say.”

And Stark knew what that was. That right there, that was clinging onto hope that if someone like him could change, then surely there was hope that someone like Don’s brother could change. Become a better person in the eyes of everyone around him. Have every vice buried in this façade of heroism that was meant to redeem all past sins and all grave mistakes made in days long gone, days that Stark never wanted to go back to.

He ignored the feeling of his heart dropping back into his gut as he looked back out the window.

“As they say,” Stark murmured.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

There was no such thing as innocence.

Innocence was something that has been solidly defined in most dictionaries as something pure and clean. It meant this sense of elation and freedom, everything being black and white with bright colours here and there to make things happier. That idea that you could enter into a relationship expecting everything to go smoothly; buy them ice cream, put an arm around them when watching a movie, holding hands after the movie finished, sharing that chaste first kiss once you dropped them off at home. That notion that you could go home after school with these great plans of building a supercomputer that could do your work for you, help you in your conquest to make great contributions to science and technology, show your parents what you made and hoped that they liked it and that they would always like it and never leave you behind. That confidence you had that you’d make sure that your life doesn’t become absolute shit and you’d stay healthy and safe and everything would be okay.

Innocence was a complete joke. Innocence was a lie.

Innocence was a word that people used to veil the truth from the unsuspecting, the ones they wanted to protect. This cover for the burdens the world placed on humanity’s shoulders, bright colours fading into duller shades, black and white fading into each other to become grey. That thing that crumbled the moment you realized your first girlfriend had lied about liking sweet things, flinched not because she disliked physical contact but she disliked you, telling this to your face the moment she decided you only cared about yourself and your stupid little toys that you cared about so much. That sick feeling when your father told you that there is no way in hell you were old enough to support your pointless dreams and that you should just leave that to him, just quit fooling around and go do your homework, Tony. Daddy’s got this, don’t worry. That despair you stumble into when your mom’s heart finally stops working, fully drowning in it when your dad dies in a car crash shortly after, and graduation had only been a week away.

That depression you get when you almost died because your own heart sucked just as bad as your mom’s and you weren’t even in your senior years (you weren’t even forty right now, for fuck’s sake) and no matter how state-of-the-art and amazingly ground-breaking this pacemaker was supposed to be, it didn’t change the fact that you were closer to dying than anyone else and you’d probably be the first to kick the bucket, especially when risking your life every work day was basically your fucking job.

Phil.

Phil was Agent Coulson’s first name.

He had only learned that recently, and it wasn’t even Coulson that told him that. It wasn’t even Romanov or Barton, who had been closest to him out of everyone in Squad A. It wasn’t even Rogers, who he was pretty sure Coulson had a huge man-crush on since he had been invited by Coulson to go see a film with him, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye. The plot said something about a soldier that promised his family that he’d make it back home before Christmas Eve. It was supposed to come out this Friday.   

Phil was dead.

Squad C was the team that SHIELD decided to send out to the mall that someone had spotted Loki walking through. They were discreet, wearing their normal winter coats and garments over their suits. They had followed Loki carefully, scattering themselves and contacting each other via communication devices the moment that the man was a good few feet out of where they were. They made sure to keep eyes on him even when he left the mall and entered the parking lot, walking casually and unsuspecting of Agents Hill and Sitwell hiding behind an SUV ahead of him, as well as Coulson stepping out from behind a concrete beam and pulling out his gun.

This was when Agents Romanov and Barton had realized exactly what the fuck was actually happening and had burst through the doors of a Squad A meeting they had been excused on for whatever privileges those two had. That alone should have been the first sign that yes, something was indeed very wrong – but when Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton looked pale and panicked and scared, it was enough to assume that the worst was about to go down, and it prompted them all out of their chairs and on their feet before Romanov even said it was a set-up, he’s going to do something, we have to get there NOW.

That was how the mall had closed early, as well as anything in that area, as Loki held an injured Agent Coulson at gun-point in the midst of six agents, the others currently delayed because of the immediate lockdown that occurred and the police arguing with the rest of SHIELD that had been there.

Honestly, it was completely ridiculous. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all; this was one man with a tiny gun, and there were at least twenty Squad C agents within his vicinity.

The plan was further compromised when they learned that apparently, he had more than a gun as he explained calmly that if they were going to shoot him, a chip he’d pinned against his pulse would react to the lack of beat or a sudden spike in rate, and a total of thirteen explosives planted in random locations within the mall would detonate. He added he was feeling merciful as he proceeded to imply that one of them would definitely cause the parking lot to cave in. He also included the fact that he could very well set it off himself without having to die.

When Hill had finally settled her nerves and had given the signal for the agents to stand down (as well as contact the agents that weren’t in the lot and in the mall and telling them Agent Coulson has been compromised, do not send back-up, we have a 115 situation, evacuate everyone from the mall immediately), she was the first to ask what Loki’s demands were.

That was when on the third level, right above where Loki was, Captain Rogers had received a call on his cellphone – his work phone, no less – from Agent Coulson. Hesitantly, he answered it. They all watched as his eyebrows scrunched up.

“I don’t know how you know that, pal, but yes. Agent Rogers, Superior Headquarters for Immediate Enforcement of Law Division. Who are you and how did you get my number?”

A pause.

Then, the Captain’s eyes widened before they narrowed again, and it was Odinson that he looked at first.

“It’s Loki.”

Everyone in the van had frozen at that moment. The Captain held out the phone.

“He wants to talk to you and only you, Agent Odinson.”

That was essentially another way of saying “Stark, Banner, tap into the signal and get us in on this”. He and Banner didn’t need to be told twice as they slid on the headphones connected to their surveillance equipment and began typing command prompts into the computers, attempting to breach the network as Odinson held the phone up to his ear, taking a deep breath before he began talking.

“Brother, what are you doing?”

It was Banner, surprisingly enough, who found the signal first. Banner shot one fleeting smirk towards Stark, who simply pouted back, as he raised a thumbs-up towards the Captain, before executing the command.

“ – of it matters. Why should anything matter to someone who is not my brother?”

Yep. That was Pretty Boy’s voice.

It sounded dark and bitter, just like coffee. It also sounded smooth, just like the flavoured cream you’d add to ease the bitterness a little. It also sounded dangerous, just like the fruition of one old woman’s lack of common sense in the form of CAUTION: HOT placed on every damn paper cup. Stark knew his coffee very well; if he was ever held at gunpoint with nothing on him, and was told in order to survive he had to give up either alcohol or coffee, it would probably be the alcohol. (Although, there was something to be said about red wine in relations to human health, but he was more of a champagne and hard liquor person and he hated dark chocolate.) He definitely went over the daily recommended intake of caffeine most of the week more than he got drunk.

It was so bad but when Stark craved something, he needed to have it. No matter how he knew that by the third cup of the day, he was one step closer to his grave. With every tumbler filled with good whiskey that he downed, with every cigarette he lit and puffed, forming tendrils of smoke that slithered towards the ceiling of the flickering, incandescent light that illuminated the hotel room.

With every opportunity he had that night to just stare into Pretty Boy’s eyes as he had snapped his green lighter shut.

“It does matter. Loki, please tell me what it is you want.”

The laughter that seeped into Stark’s ears was cold and biting. He repressed a shiver as he stared ahead at the coding on one of the monitors.

“What I want is something that is beyond any of our reaches, Donar,” Loki’s voice murmured. “It is something that you cannot give me, no matter how hard you try, because it no longer exists.” A pause, before he actually snarled. “It has never existed.”

“What never existed?”

“Precisely.”

And Stark was suddenly taken back to that night – the cigarette being lifted from Loki’s lips as he expelled the smoke with something that sounded like a sigh. That bright glimmer in his eyes fading into something hurt, betrayed, angry. That was the cynicism Stark had been afraid of addressing, that he walked out on, that he had unknowing prodded forward into something far worse than he could have desired.  

“Loki, listen to me, please,” Odinson replied, shaking his head, as though he was face-to-face with him. “You are hurting innocent people. You are killing innocent people. You cannot do this; you must stop this madness at once!”

Loki responded with another dark chuckle.

“Is it madness? Is it?” It escalated into a laugh, before he snapped. “Is it? Innocence is nothing more than a filthy lie. It is the shadows that I have always been shoved into, your shadows. I watched you, Balder, and Tyr brawl and bicker and be praised for this primitive display of animalism. I watched Hodar, the oldest and wisest out of us all, be pampered like a child because of his blindness.  I watched Vali, half-brother to you three, succumb to alcoholism and drugs day after day even when he promised to stop, and yet you all cheered him on despite every broken vow. And not once have you acknowledged that I was being kept in the darkness because of the praises being bestowed upon you by our all-seeing, all-knowing, all-loving father.”

The last words were spat vehemently. Tension had successfully settled comfortably within the van, a great contrast to the effect it had on all of them. Romanov had her lips pursed tightly, staring ahead into space as though analyzing something – or lost in concern for their former team like Barton clearly was as his index finger twitched, itching to shoot something. Rogers remained still, hiding any urgency from his cross face. Banner’s chest heaved as he fiddled with his glasses.

Odinson had it the worst out of all of them.

The hand holding the phone shook, and Stark glanced sweat beginning to roll down his brow as he inhaled.

“Oh, how rude of me,” Loki drawled. “Have I put your mind out of peace? Make you have to think more than you should? Lovely feeling, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”

“Enough of this,” Odinson begged. His hand stilled as he gulped. “I cannot allow you to bring harm upon anyone else anymore, brother, but I will not allow you to die like this. You are surrounded by six well-trained agents of SHIELD who are capable of killing you in one shot if you so twitch. Place your gun on the ground, tell your accomplices if you have any to disable any of the explosives you’ve set within the building, and release the hostage at once.”

“And for what? To let all my efforts up to now go to waste? You are just as blind as Hodar, Donar. How naïve of you to think that I would surrender that easily simply because you appeal on my behalf with this fraternal notion you refuse to let go of. Sentiment.”

Sentiment.

Fuck. Fuck this guy for being so personal. Fuck him. Any other fucking word he could have chosen, and it had to be fucking sentiment. That was the last word, the last goddamn thing that Stark had barked at his father years ago, the same night the car crash happened and he became an orphan.

“You will face justice the same as anyone else shall,” Odinson warned, and he was on his feet now as he reached for his gun. “Even if I have to go get you myself.”

“Don’t even think about trying something so foolish, Donar. Either way, you are risking a human life you would rather not lose – mine, or the crippled man whose head I have a gun pointed at. To top it off, you may be inadvertently responsible for more lives being taken since the moment my pulse beats too fast or stops beating entirely, the bombs will detonate.”

Stark’s hand went up over his heart again.

This was it. The stakes were all-in, and all the cards had been dealt. This was not going to end well, no, not at all. Not when Loki had that kind of shit. God, Stark didn’t even want to know where Loki had obtained something like that in such a short amount of time...

If he actually had it.

And this is where Banner and Stark’s heads turned towards each other as Odinson turned towards the van doors, looking ready to kick them down and just go bolting down there unarmed.

“Then give yourself in now, brother!”

“I am not your brother.”

“He is also made out of shit,” Stark exclaimed, tossing off his headphones and swishing his blazer back to reach for his gun. “I’m calling him out. Banner, tell ‘em.”

“There is no way that he could have something that advanced and capable of doing both,” Banner muttered, zipping open a black duffel bag full of various small firearms (he never really kept a gun him; the Hulk was known to be more of a physical fighter). He pulled out a revolver before fumbling for ammo. “Even if he did, it’d be unstable as hell if it based its readings on his pulse.”

“He’s very convincing about it, though,” Romanov murmured as Barton turned towards Rogers.

“Cap, we can’t delay anymore.” He pulled out his crossbow gun from under the seat, as well as a glock from the bag. “We need to get in there now.”

The Captain turned towards Agent Odinson. “Stall him,” he whispered, and pressed a button on the earpiece he had on. This was soon followed by everyone else as he pointed two fingers towards the doors. “Squad A: assemble.”

They didn’t need to be told twice as they slipped out and made their way down the driving ramp.

“Stark, Banner, connect us back to the signal,” Rogers ordered. 

God damn it, why was Rogers making him do all the work?

Stark freely cursed under his breath as he pushed another button on his earpiece. A rectangular-shaped hologram popped up in front of his right eye as he rolled a small wheel on the highly advanced communicational device. These were honestly the only really good things that SHIELD had that he found any interest in, except finding signals on these rather than a computer –

“Got it. Again.”

Fuck you too, Bruce.

“Get us in on this, and make sure we’re muted.”

He almost didn’t have to say anything; Banner had already connected them to the conversation and the first thing they heard was Odinson practically yelling at Loki through the phone.

“What warning? Loki, what warning? What do you plan to do with him?”

The response Loki gave made their steps towards the second floor speed up.

“Well, let’s just say that you better watch him carefully this Saturday if your hope is to make sure I don’t hurt anymore people. Otherwise...”

There was suddenly a click as the line went dead.

“Loki? Loki?”

And aside from Thor starting to freak the fuck out, Stark wasn’t sure he was going to like what he heard next.

He was right as a reverberating gunshot was fired.

Romanov and Barton actually screamed, sprinting down the ramp to the second floor as more shots fired. Rogers was right at their heels as he pressed another button on his earpiece.

“Squad C, this is Agent Rogers from Squad A, we’re coming down there ASAP. What’s the situation?”

It was a Hill’s voice that replied first, voice cracking.

“Captain, Phil’s down! Agent Coulson is down!”

Agent Hill.

Of all the fucking people, even including Pepper, that he could have learned Coulson’s first name from, it was Agent Maria Hill: co-captain (probably captain now) of a squad that he wasn’t even fucking part of, and a woman he didn’t even know that well at all. That was how he found out Coulson’s first name.

 Something flashed in Rogers’ eyes as his nostrils flared and he pulled back the safety on his gun.

“Then take that son of a bitch down.”

Agent Sitwell was the one who responded next.

“Negative, Captain Rogers, he’s wired and the vehicle he was nearest had its engine already started. We can’t do anything!”

“Oh yes you can, son,” Rogers hissed, and practically leapt in front of the lot’s vehicle door. “Agent Rogers, SHIELD! Put the gun down or I will – ”

Just then, Stark saw his eyes bulge.

That was because Rogers had just seen Romanov and Barton suddenly dive out of the way of a speeding SUV headed straight towards him.

In any other case, Rogers would have done what any human being capable of rational thinking would have done:  jump the fuck out of the way before he got rammed into and run over by this good-looking psychopath currently trying to make his way out the lot and it was getting really fucking close to him.

Unfortunately, the distraction in the distance was a crouching Agent Hill’s face immediately crumpling up as two of her fingers slipped off Agent Coulson’s neck.

This automatically meant rational thinking was subtracted out of the equation as Rogers clenched his teeth and raised his arms, gun pointed straight at the driver’s seat.

Stark wasn’t sure if his heart stopped at that moment or if his heart really stopped at that moment.

“Steve, no!”  he cried.

Before he could do anything, there was a shot fired from behind him. Stark couldn’t process what exactly was happening as he tried to process what exactly he should pay attention to right now; Loki making a pained yelp with one of his hands flew up from the wheel to the top part of his right arm, Odinson dropping his gun as he straight-up tackled the Captain right in time as a side-view mirror just nearly grazed them, Banner firing at the tires and missing completely as the SUV drove a hole straight through the previously sealed entrance, or how his knees have buckled and he was kneeling on the concrete and his chest hurt and he couldn’t breathe and fuck, if he was going to go into cardiac arrest again, he’d rather have been run over by Loki just to see those eyes one last time.

Then he found his left shoulder and his right arm being grasped tightly by a very concerned Bruce telling him to breathe Tony, come on damn it, you’re gonna be fine, just breathe as well as a very shaken Steve, shouting orders into his earpiece about how Loki’s bluffing, there are no explosives, pursue him at high priority, issue a public warning and a photo of the bastard already, I don’t care what the Director says, I don’t care if half the street is ice, get him and Don was just staring at the plethora of police cars from the sounds of those sirens knowing they were going after Loki and damn it he hadn’t even been able to get a good look at Loki and everything was turning black...

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

And now that he thought about it, he actually wouldn’t have minded just dying right then and there.

Because why the fuck not? He didn’t believe in anything anyway; if there was a Hell, he’d be the first to say that he had it coming before he burned up, and if there wasn’t and he just ceased to exist – oh well, life goes on for other people. He’d already cheated death two times before and they always said the third time was the charm. How he managed to defy that, wriggle out of death’s bony grasp, give it the finger, and wake up gasping and clutching Steve’s arm in the van as they just neared the medical division of SHIELD’s headquarters was beyond him.

Although, Banner and SHIELD’s doctor did say it only ended up being an anxiety attack before they gave him the usual lecture of good health and it could have been a heart attack Tony God I almost had a heart attack myself, do not stress me out, you know what happens when I get stressed out.

What had he done that was considered anything useful ? Snark at people who were pissing him off?  Point out obvious shit if Barton wasn’t around to do it himself? Flaunt his technological prowess to emphasize how he just didn’t belong out there with any of them? Flip out at anybody who cracked a harmless joke that he should be Tin Man instead of Iron Man because that heart thing was a more sensitive issue than he wished it was?

He didn’t dive in front of the Captain, his Captain, when the guy was about to get rammed the fuck down. He didn’t even do what Banner did and shoot the tires, and even if Banner missed, that was a smart move on anyone’s part. He didn’t console Odinson when his brother had died, when he had invited them all to the cremation early Wednesday, when he was going to a rough fucking time because he lost family and God, Stark knows what that’s like. He really does and he knows it’s shitty. But he was the only one who didn’t show up. Not even show some semblance of sympathy when it was revealed that his adopted brother, the one that Odinson cared about most, was the one behind it all.

He slept with his co-worker’s closest sibling, who was a murderer then and a murderer now.

And fine, yeah, he’s gotten his own hands dirty before. All the soap and water in the world wouldn’t be enough to wash the red that still stained them. He almost did jail time for it, if not for Romanov finding him and offering him another solution other than drinking and smoking until his heart would finally say “fuck it” and bail on him before he even went behind bars.

He didn’t deserve this.

He didn’t deserve to survive the first time. That was the heart problem, and honestly, that was what he figured would kill him eventually. Which is why he completely ignored the doctor’s warnings about drinking and smoking because hey, carpe diem. While other people would have taken this to heart (pun not intended) and went out, did good deeds, swore off alcohol and nicotine, praised the Lord, and spent all their life savings just to go to Europe, Anthony Stark just wasn’t other people.

He didn’t deserve to survive the second time. That was when he popped a bullet in the head of the guy who took care of him after his parents had died. Sure, Obie had intentionally fucked up their last black hat operation and given away their IP coordinates to the motherfucking White House for the sake of getting Stark’s ass arrested so Obie could steal what Stark needed. But he was everything that Stark wished his father had been – until, you know, that was shown to be a lie when Obie had nearly shot him in the heart.

He didn’t deserve SHIELD. That was when Romanov and Phil had found him. Saved him. All of them – Natasha, Clint, Bruce, Don, and Steve, especially Steven Fucking Rogers – they all treated him with a lot more slack than he could have had. They tolerated him, they put up with him, and as much as he pissed them off time and time again, they liked him and that was what bugged him most.

They were closer to family than his own family had been.

They were the good guys.

Fuck, Phil was a great guy and more of a good guy that Stark could ever be. Maybe that’s why Pepper had dated him right after their time together ended. He had given condolences to Romanov and Barton when he found them; told the two that he will definitely be at Phil’s funeral, and gave each of them a genuine hug because he had never seen them so fragile before and he never wanted to see them like that ever again. He didn’t even prod at Natasha calling him Anthony in that moment.

Good guys didn’t deserve to die like that.

Odinson was wrong. Stark wasn’t a good guy. Stark was far from being a good guy, no matter what his resume said or what the news fed to the people. He may have moved past his previous life working underground hacking operations and attempting to build a lot of dangerous things for the sake of science – but he hadn’t moved on from everything else in-between the lines.

God, why didn't anybody save Loki?

There was a good six or seven year age difference between him and Loki, and he wouldn’t have even guessed that Loki was thirty already, he looked so damn young. Hell, Don was four years older than Loki and he still managed to escape a fuckton of wrinkles and look as fit as a bodybuilder. He wondered if Loki noticed that; was jealous of how ripped all his other brothers were, sans Hod. Didn’t want to have to live up to that standard either since he had other shit to do than work out and beat the crap out of each other, but that buried longing to be like that, to be recognized, prodded him so much to the point where it would drive him to tears and he just wanted to wreck something, anything, anyone.

If attention whores needed attention to thrive, so be it, because it damn well saved him.

So why not save Loki? Was it really too late?

Well. Why wonder if somebody could save Loki when who they really needed to save was Loki’s stepfather?

They never did catch Loki a couple of hours ago. They did find the SUV overturned in a ditch somewhere, but no Loki in the passenger seat; only brown handprints once red in the seat. It honestly did not surprise Stark one bit.

But after the very clear threat of what Loki would do if he got his hands on Daddy Dearest, Odinson was demanding that Fury move his family into the witness protection program as soon as possible, or relocate them somewhere where they would be safe, they need to stay away from my brother, especially my father, he’s dangerous to humanity now and I will not rest peacefully until I know that my father is as far away from here under the protection of capable agents, with a safe house that has up-to-date surveillance equipment, and Stark kind of felt as guilty as hiding the fact that he had defiled Odinson’s no-longer-favourite brother and then probed him.

Even guiltier when Odinson along with Rogers insisted that Stark be given medical leave for a week, and Fury allowed it, refusing to listen to Stark’s protests because while you might not think it and believe me, sometimes even I don’t wanna think about it too hard, you are an asset to Squad A and SHIELD and you’re not gonna ask me why because I want you out of here by 6 PM and I better not hear about your dumb ass being in a goddamn shady as hell bar tonight. Go find a nice girl, flirt with her, give her something for Christmas, and have a motherfucking happy holiday.

Those were probably the kindest words that the Director had ever said to him in his time at SHIELD, and it prompted Stark to actually say thank you – and just that.

Kindest. When was the last time he used that word?

Oh, right. When he had decided it was synonymous with innocence.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

There was no such thing as innocence. There was only ignorance.

Ignorance didn’t have to be not knowing what something was. This was a word that Stark would feel more than comfortable finding Merriam or whoever wrote the dictionary and tell them to redefine the damn word. While Stark was far from being an expert on the English language, he was pretty sure the root word of “ignorance” was “ignore”. If you thought the grass was pink and you had never seen grass before, that’s ignorant. If you saw that grass was actually green but for whatever reason you still refused to believe the fact it was green and keep choosing to believe grass was pink, that’s absolutely fucking ignorant.

And fucking ignorance was pretending that the world didn’t suck, that people didn’t suck, that everything would just be okay if you turned a blind eye towards it. Not let those facts that the world sucked and people sucked get to you. Make something out of your life so that your world didn’t suck and you didn’t suck (or so you’d like to believe). Be out celebrating Christmas parties and dinners with lovers or relatives, rather than sitting at the Eisen Eis’ counter on midnight surrounded by bunch of drunken assholes around him whooping like it was football season because oh wow, look at that, the apocalypse actually did not happen on December 21st, 2013, what a mind-blowing, astonishing, I-shit-my-pants-in-sheer-excitement miracle.

It would have helped if he just went with the usual scotch rather than the half-full Midori he had. It would be half-empty if it wasn’t so fucking sweet. This was worse than sparkling cider and a truck of sugar together. Shit, he could not handle what this drink was doing to his taste buds and it drove him nuts and why would anybody drink this stuff? How would anybody even be able to drink a whole fucking bottle of this crap?

It tasted better on a pair of lips and an agile tongue anyway.

God. How did he manage to drop the ball this fucking high? The Golden Rule was the most important and simplest shit out of how to have a one-night stand properly, and he had royally fucked it up because Loki was Pretty Boy and Pretty Boy was pretty and gorgeous and crazy and fucked in the head and incredibly insecure about the stupidest shit.

And so was he.

Fuck. He needed a drink. A real drink, not this melon-flavoured green bullshit. He wanted to feel the burn down his throat. He wanted to feel his tension just ease away. He wanted to forget things right now. He wanted to forget everything.

He asked for a cold glass of water before he left the bar at 12:45 AM.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It was snowing pretty tamely. That alone had prompted Stark to cancel calling a cab and just...start strolling down the sidewalk.

His house was a good 30-minute walk from the bar, but everything seemed settled enough. After days and days of snow shitstorms (blizzards just did not cut how bad they had been) and having to go outside during these snow shitstorms, it was a nice change to just have these tiny white flakes flutter to the Earth from a dark, moon-lit sky at 1 AM.

It helped that he had a half-loaded Glock .22 with him, as well as enough martial arts training to break somebody’s neck.

Placing his hands in his coat pockets, Stark breathed, watching vapours puff out of his mouth before they wisped away.

For the first time in a long time, Stark felt...liberated. Free. At peace.

Huh. This was kind of nice.

Maybe the medical leave was actually a good idea. (No, it was actually a great idea; he just being him just disagreed with what everybody else thought.) He should definitely thank Don and Steve personally when he came back from the Christmas holidays. Maybe invite them over for a huge New Year’s bash involving legal and illegal fireworks being lit on the streets and potentially accidentally lighting some trees on fire if there wasn’t enough snow that night. Open all the old, expensive spirits that he had not yet consumed from his liquor cabinets. Toast to the mighty who have fallen and celebrate what good men they were when they had been alive rather than keep fucking mourning them for the rest of your life.

It wasn’t being a good guy entirely, but it sounded like a nice start.

Maybe it was how calm everything was, even as he decided to shortcut it through a thing of fucking trees that he wouldn’t call a forest, just because one, that sounded cliché and two, a set-up for a really bad time.

“What the FUCK!”

Didn’t help at all for the motherfucking wolf that came out of nowhere – these trees were deciduous for crying out loud and they had no leaves on it whatsoever. Did it fall out of the fucking sky or what? – tackling him down with a vicious snarl.

With all due respect to Balder, the mistletoe thing was pansy shit compared to this. How much bad luck did you have to have to get tackled by a wolf in New York Fucking City?

Trying to get his arms around the thing’s neck before it tore off one of its limbs or ate his face, Stark pushed himself up against the back of a tree and gripped. He only briefly wondered why the hell its fur was so wet since the air was still frigid and the snow wasn’t wet, and why this animal smelled like road kill.

Wait, if he hadn’t even lashed back or had something yanked off his body, why were his fingers covered in –

Jesus Christ born on the 25th of this month. There was blood on this fucker’s teeth and paws. He could even smell it from the bastard’s fur. It definitely wasn’t his blood, and it definitely wasn’t about to be his blood. Unless this fucker killed a moose or whatever large domestic animal decided it’s a good idea to roam around when there were wolves on the loose, this was enough to rouse Stark’s suspicion.

Even more so when Stark found his grip on the dog’s collar. He was about to rip the bronze tag clean off with his free hand, when at that moment something hurt and he let out a pained gasp as his eyes squeezed shut. He prayed that the moron who owned this thing gave it shots already, because it was biting down on his arm, and he was 100% sure that the fangs had broken through the fabric of his coat already, based on how he could feel them digging into his skin.

And that’s when Stark lost his shit.

“Fuck you, PETA,” he spat.

Gun. He needed to get his glock out right the fuck now. This husky was ravenous, probably rabid, and had gone beyond that stupid one-bite rule anyway.

Stark forced more weight against the dog, pinning it down with the arm he had around the back of its neck, the other trying to pry itself away from the dark husky’s jaws (at the rate this thing was attacking him, he was probably infected by now) and attempt to unbutton whichever button was closed to his fucking gun.

That’s when it started biting his hands, rousing a scream from Stark when he felt skin being ripped off. His eyes stung and he would have screamed longer if he hadn’t bitten his lower lip down because of how much that hurt.

Then he felt its teeth sink into his leg.

That was the point in when Stark cried out and he kicked the husky off – giving him ample opportunity to rip his coat open, snap off almost every button, yank out his gun, and shoot.

Of course it just grazed past the fucker’s ear since his hand was shaking.

Of course it would be more provoked as it barked and leapt towards his face.

Of course he would miss a vital part of this asshole’s body again and shoot its paw.

The foot was apparently a more convincing way to tell this bitch (if it was a bitch; screw it, it was still a bitch even if it was male) to fuck off, though, because it backed away the moment it landed on him, yelping and making these half-snarl-half-whimpers.  It glared up at Stark, a low growl rumbling from its clenched jaw baring blood teeth. Stark, ignoring how fast his pulse rate had shot up, glared right the fuck back into its bright, bloodthirsty yellow eyes, finger from his bleeding hand placed right over the trigger of the firearm in his hold and aimed straight at its head.

Out of all the standoffs that Stark had ever experienced, this one definitely took the whole goddamn cake.

Then Stark fired at the ground in front of it, prompting it to burst off deeper into the woods with a yelp and a limp in its sprint.

Shit, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to leave it alive. If it found its way to the residential area (which wasn’t far off from here), it might end up mauling some poor kid when the sun rose, or a moody teenager running away from home at this time. He’d probably have to call the cops later and let them know about that so they could issue a public announcement about it right away – just not now, he had his phone on silent anyway and he really didn’t feel like being social at all tonight.

But wow. That shit escalated really quickly. He even realized that he had just let himself not die at the hands of a crazy fucking dog.

Huh. This whole day wasn’t kind of nice at all.

Stark wiped the back of his good hand against his forehead, chest rising up and down as he gulped in cold breaths of air. Then he took off his coat and blazer and crouched back down, burying his hand straight in the snow and seething as he wiped off what he could. When it was evident that these scratches were not going to clot anytime soon, he tore off a good half of his left shirt sleeve, ripping it into two to tie around the wound on that arm and the gashes in his right hand.

Placing only his blazer back on and draping his coat over his back since he was still perspiring, Stark squeezed a good fistful of snow into a ball of ice before standing up. Pressing it against his injured hand with his lips pursed in disapproval, he resumed walking.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

There was an old shed that someone had built around this area that Stark often passed back when he used Tilly to get home faster. (Also back when he actually worked his legs rather than call a taxi or drive.) If the world wanted to spare him any mercy at all tonight other than not ending, it would make sure that that shed was in the exact same place Stark remembered it being in after three years, because shit he was tired and he just needed to sit down and settle his nerves right now. 

Sure enough, it was there – along with some rusting lemon lacking a license plate which had been upgraded and equipped with blinding blue as balls Xenon bulbs. Giving it only the most cursory of condescending glances, Stark approached the shed and knocked on its door.

Well, nobody was answering the door, so the shed was probably hobo-free. Perfect reason to throw open the door with a grin and toss his jacket to the floor next to the illuminated mangled corpse of HOLY FUCKING SHIT.

Taking five seconds to compose himself and not vomit, Stark moved his palms off his chest and away from his mouth as he crouched down next to the dead body. His eyes darted up and down on the shredded clothes, the two fingers that had been severed off the guy’s left hand, the still-bleeding gashes across his face (and why did this bearded face look so familiar), and it was pretty obvious now why that son of a bitch from earlier had all that blood on it. God, he even managed to slash this guy’s eyeballs and that shade of blue looked almost exactly like –

Balder’s.

Don’s.

Medical leave was back to being a terrible idea again.

Stark fumbled for his phone, sliding his thumb across the screen. That’s when he realized that he had missed a fuckload of text messages and calls from Rogers and Romanov, all of them about how Odinson’s father had been kidnapped and they had issued a missing person and culprit alert for both him and Loki.

It was Rogers that Stark dialed to first, plopping himself down on his jacket right next to Odinson Senior, drumming his fingers impatiently against his thigh because holy shit you better pick up Steve or I will shove firecrackers up your ass when Independence Day rolls around.

“Stark?”

“Cap, oh, thank God you picked up. I got big news – ”

“Stark, that’s what I should be telling you right now! Why in Sam Hill didn’t you pick up when Agent Romanov and I were trying to reach you?”

“Cap, look, that’s not the important shit right now, and in my defense I’m on my holiday vacation.” Stark peered out the window. “Old shed in the shady area, just near Captain Tilly’s park. There’s an ancient as fuck 1999 Civic parked outside it, blue, ugly, no license plate, keys still in the ignition. I’m probably gonna check it out in a bit. Just get SHIELD over here right now.”

“Tony, why?

Okay, for a guy who had been in the army and a guy who had a knack for being on top of things, Rogers could be just plain fucking stupid sometimes. Stark’s palm slapped his forehead and ran down his face as he groaned.

“Steve, I found him. I – ”

The door chose to swing open at that moment. Stark did not hesitate to drop the phone in favour of pulling out his glock, placing on his best “I will fuck your shit up” face as he pointed it straight at –

Loki.

Stark’s mouth went dry and slack, and he gazed up in a mixture of horror and awe, ignoring the cries of Steve demanding who did you find? Tony? TONY, doing this damnedest to stay focused on the gun pointed directly down at him.

It wasn’t really working when he noticed that Loki’s knuckles were turning white as the grip on his gun tightened, fingers clenching. He was wearing that black jacket from that evening too. Stark considered whether or not it would be a good idea to ask about that arm Odinson shot, lest it get him shot and tossed out the window. That’s when finally allowed himself to look at his face.

God. He just didn’t get Loki no matter how much he’d never admit he wanted to. Why did this guy have to feel jealous enough to start kicking other people’s buckets with those bright eyes staring down at him with this barely composed conflict?

This wasn’t a man with ulterior goals of taking down people out of sheer revenge for his personal gain.

This was a man who just wanted everything around him to burn and crumble to ashes, right before the flames he lit swallowed him whole.

The shock dissolved, and the lighter-haired of the dark-haired men narrowed his eyes as he craned his neck to the side accusingly.

“You don’t have to do this,” Stark hissed.

The darker-haired of the two just barely shook his head, black curls lit with blue just moving slightly with the motion.

“Oh, but I’ve come too far to do anything but,” Loki breathed.

Stark’s glare hardened. Without averting his eyes away from Loki’s, he placed his free hand behind him to prop himself on one knee, and he would have managed to do it if Loki’s eyes didn’t suddenly flare up as he jerked the gun forward and nearly caused him to piss himself.

“No, no! Do not do not! Fucking – don’t, don’t, goddamn it!” The glock’s grasp tightened in Stark’s hand as he glowered threateningly back towards Loki, leaning forward instead and placing his open palm on the ground in front of him, glock still aimed. “Just...just let me stand the fuck up. If you’re gonna make this a Mexican stand-off, then I really, really don’t want to keep crouching next to your old man’s corpse. It’s gross and he smells worse than shit.”

Loki didn’t waver.

“That man is not my father,” he responded airily.

On his feet now, Stark brushed off the sides of his pants and blazer.

“I know. But you still killed both of them anyway.”

This time, Loki wavered. Stark lowered his gaze defiantly.

Loki’s eyebrows scrunched, and his face practically said if you don’t tell me right now how you know that I will blow your brains out. Stark’s free hand raised into a finger as he tilted his head in a gesture of understanding. It reached for his belt and didn’t stay there long as he raised it back up swiftly with a fierce no do NOT fucking shoot me you bitch expression aimed towards Loki’s do NOT fucking pull some shit over me you cunt urgency when the blue-or-green-eyed man jerked his gun again.

Fingers unraveling first to become an open, calm down palm, Stark slowly pulled open the right side of blazer, revealing no extra guns or weapons on his belt. Loki seemed to calm down at this as his eyebrows stopped scrunching. Trembling only slightly, Stark reached very carefully into his pocket, before gingerly lifting out his badge and presenting it towards Loki.

He should not feel bad about the absolute betrayal that broke the man’s collected façade a moment ago. A restrained laugh was spat out of Loki’s lips, and the mask was back again as he clenched his teeth savagely. Stark took a deep breath.

“Agent Stark, Superior Headquarters for Immediate Enforcement of Law Division.” If Loki flinched at that, Stark didn’t pay any heed to it as he re-pocketed the Silver Eagle. “Loki Odinson, you’ve been found guilty for patricide, fratricide, homicide, possession of unlicensed weapons, extortion, breaking and entering, kidnapping, and sic’ing Whitefang’s evil twin on the old man which, by the way, totally falls under violation of the Dangerous Dog Law.” He took another long breath before continuing. “There’s probably more, but I’ll stop there since I don’t really want to know what else you’ve done. The cops can read you your Miranda rights; right now, what I need from you is for you to put the gun down on the ground, and turn yourself in.”

His arm holding the gun steadied as Loki just shook his head with a tight-lipped, furious smile.

“A SHIELD agent.” Loki scoffed. “Of course. You couldn’t just stay a charming man I met once with a wit as quick as your tongue that I met at a dirty pub and frolicked with in a dirtier hotel room. No, I had the pleasure of seeing your face again, and this time you just had to be a SHIELD agent out of all the fucking occupations you could have held.” He kept shaking his head as his smile soured. “Lady Luck is ever so kind to me.”

Stark hadn’t even realized his shoulders had tensed less as he let out a quiet whistle towards Loki, a grin threatening to show up anytime on the lower part of his mug.

“Well, face it, Pretty Boy,” he murmured. “You just hit the jackpot.”

At this, Loki gave a light, mocking laugh.

“I imagine that feeling isn’t entirely mutual.”

Something twisted within Stark’s gut, and that’s why Stark just guffawed back, his tone more scathing than Loki’s. The damn boy actually pouted at him.  

“I mean that most sincerely, as hard as that is to accept,” Loki drawled.

It wasn’t because of the cold when Stark shook again, nostrils flaring as he forced all of Loki’s bad qualities over his good ones again.

“I don’t know, Loki.” He allowed himself to smirk. “From what your family – sorry, your adopted family – has told us, you’re not somebody that’s really all that capable of sincerity.”

Loki did not return the expression as he raised his chin.

“Then you should consider yourself most fortunate, Agent Stark.” His face started making that threat towards unstably angry again. “You, a mere stranger with an attractive face and a bright mind, whom I allowed myself to be honest with, whom I allowed to glimpse the weakness that corrupts my very soul – ”

“Except you left out the important part where you were planning to kill your own brother!” Stark snapped, and he couldn’t help that, he really couldn’t, especially when it provoked Loki even more as he shouted right back at him.

“He is not my brother! None of them are! I am bound by blood to not one single member of this wretched legacy!”

“Not even Don? Boy, I don’t know what your standards are ever since life started to suck for you, but he sounds like a guy I would be more than happy to call a brother even if we didn’t share the same DNA.”

“Ah, but you forget the part where we are not the same,” Loki hissed venomously.

Stark breathed wearily.

“No, but don’t try to tell me I don’t know what it’s like to get pushed aside by other people, by my own family, just because they thought I wasn’t good enough.” This time, it was his eyes that bored into Loki’s, this time he allowed his own flaws to show. “Don’t fucking tell me nobody understands you, because guess what, princess? You’re not the only one who’s got issues. Don’t think you get special treatment just because you think your life sucks more than anyone else’s does.”

“And what do you hope to gain out of this pathetic, self-centered attempt at empathy, Agent Stark?” Loki scowled. “I was under the impression that this wouldn’t stretch beyond one night. So why stall the inevitable conclusion that one of us will have to die tonight?”

“I’m sorry, but this coming from the guy who splurged his insecure little feelings on my – ”

Shit, he prodded too hard.

One step even closer to him, Loki’s pale fingers wrapped around the gun trembled. “Choose your next fucking words carefully, Stark, or I might have to lodge a bullet in that thick skull of yours,” he rasped. His gaze became withering again. “Why do you stall?”

Stark did not budge as their eyes stayed locked onto each other.

Then Loki jerked the damn gun again as his face twisted agonizingly and he screamed.

“Why do you stall?”

“Because it doesn’t have to be like this!” Stark barked. He gasped, chest heaving as he shook his head towards Pretty Boy. “It doesn’t have to get worse than this, okay? I just...” His nostrils flared again, and his eyebrows creased upwards. “I just want you to listen to me, alright? You can be a good guy, Loki. You don’t have to be the bad guy just because you think you don’t matter.”

Loki sneered at him. 

“And what makes you think that I believe I don’t matter?”

Stark’s tone became somber.

“I work for SHIELD, but that doesn’t mean my ledger is anywhere close to being clean.”

And Pretty Boy – he got that. Pretty Boy understood what he had meant by that by the way his bravado cracked again as his jaw slackened, and his eyes became wide and readable again, shining arduously in the light, all this anger and frustration and confusion threatening to pour out any moment against his will.

And his arms dropped and he actually looked down, looked away from him; away from the only thing that could stop him. Whether that was the glock or he himself was not something Stark thought about. No, fuck, far from it.

All Tony wanted to do was throw down his gun and grab this stupid fucking kid and wrap his arms around him; run his fingers through his hair again, grip it just enough out of affection, tiptoe enough so he could whisper into his ears that it’s going to be okay, Pretty Boy, I know, I’m sorry it got this fucked up and I’m sorry you’re so fucked up but you’ll be okay because so am I, kiss those tears running down his chin, run his tongue across his cracked lips and dart it behind his teeth, hear those whimpers and half-sob-half-moans as fists clutched the fabric of his tie, yanking them even closer, together...

How upset Pretty Boy would be if that actually happened.

Stark’s face was all sympathy as he breathed.

“If you put the gun down, walk out there with empty hands, and turn yourself in now, you can get away from this, all of this.” He beckoned his empty hand to the shed around them, the body on the ground; the phone with the call that had long ended a while back as he knew SHIELD was right on their fucking way. “There are people who will be willing to listen to you, there are people who won’t make you feel like shit and who would give a damn.”

Loki shook his head furiously, trembling as he just looked at Stark. He brought out a smile as he blinked towards Loki.

“Come on, Pretty Boy. Even that night, I listened to you.”

And then Loki gave that same closed-mouthed smile back as all his second thoughts were locked away once more.

“Oh, how could I forget? Even that night, you responded with smiles crafted out of lies,” he spat.

Stark’s blood went cold as the smile vanished. Loki’s cackle was sardonic as he straightened his posture again, raising the gun back up.

“Don’t think I was fooled even for a second. I’ve always successfully called out bluffs in pokers, and I have a tongue made out of silver.” He grimaced. “It takes one to know one.”

And God, Stark was the poster boy of sheer ignorance right now. He should have known from the start; the moment the warning alarms had gone off and he had flashed him the Smile that should have clearly conveyed look, nice fucking you and all, but I’m not interested in going beyond that so I’m going to just go now.

“You knew it was a lie,” Stark challenged.

“And you meant it as a lie, a blatant tell with a hidden purpose – so you could win the upper hand even when the stakes were rising beyond the meager amount in your own pocket that you cannot afford to lose.” His arms were shaking again as his glare darkened. “I’ve seen it more times than I want to remember. And whether or not its intentions are unconscious or fully aware, they hurt.”

The dark-haired man sneered again.

“So don’t whisper sweet, saccharine nothings into my ear to ease my own bitterness. You don’t know a single thing about me.”

“I could if you let me,” Stark responded, and shit, did he really mean that?

“I’ve let enough people get close to me, and look how that turned out.” He nodded towards Odinson’s father. “Besides, it would be a short date anyway.”

“Unless you change your mind.”

“Oh, grow a fucking pair, why don’t you?” Loki snapped, eyes flying open again in disgust. “I’m sick of all the responsibility assumed that it’s me who has to fix every problem that I have. Why is no one charitable enough to offer their assistance, to show that they at least care? Don’t think you stand with me based on sentiment. You had your opportunity, you had your privilege, and you were the one who left it behind!”

“It was a one-night stand,” Stark growled back right away.

The corners of Loki’s lips quirked snidely.

“Precisely why it’s a little late to be begging for second chances, don’t you think?”

“Then let me put one on the table before this turns domestic.” Stark’s shoulders tensed as he placed both hands on his glock, brown-eyed gaze firm. “And it’s going to be your last chance too. Put the gun down now, and nobody gets hurt.”

“Oh, you’re asking for a lot considering how glowingly trustworthy you are,” Loki snarled back.

“Look, Loki, we can settle this once you’ve made bail or if I finally win the fucking lottery. Come on, put it down.”

That was the last moment Loki kept his façade up.

Because after that pained look vanished, Loki started to laugh. He laughed softly at first, before it escalated into something that disturbed Stark based on how shattered it was; how a tear rolled down each of those perfect cheekbones; how he was shaking his head again as though he really couldn’t believe the nerve of this motherfucker in front of him who still believed that he could change for the better.

And honestly, at this point, Stark wasn’t even sure how strong his faith was anymore.

Yes, he was breaking all the rules of being calm and collected and cordial when confronting somebody armed and trying to settle matters as peacefully as possible. Because what Loki said before, how he walked out on him and all that shit?

That wasn’t an invitation to be peaceful at all. Fuck that. No, really. Fuck that.

Maybe, maybe Loki could have been super sweet and 100% perfect boyfriend material; smooth gentleman by day, sex god by night. But Stark never liked letting people get close to him, regardless of the Golden Rule of One-Night Stands. Because of shit like this.

And you know what else he realized?

Maybe it’s not that he shouldn’t have broken the Golden Rule. Stark could do it any fucking time he pleased and get away with no strings attached. He did whatever the fuck he pleased and he would fix that shit if it went wrong. But this particular situation? No, it really fucking wasn’t that Stark shouldn’t have broken the Golden Rule.

It was that Loki broke the Golden Rule by trying to hold onto a complete stranger at one of the lowest points in his life and then clinging to it in the after-sex haze and not being able to just let that go, because of his fear of being let go.

It was never Stark’s fault. This was all on Loki.

This was Loki’s fault.

“You think this is a fucking joke?” Stark snapped. “Alright, I’m done fucking around with you, Pretty Boy.”

“You’re the same as all of them,” Loki whispered, still chuckling hopelessly.

“Drop it, Loki.”

“Lies, lies.”

The chuckles dwindled into heavy, short breathes, and the next thing he said was in the form of a strangled whine; an accusation, one that he dared Stark to prove him wrong on when the sounds of police sirens were approaching.

“Everything is made of lies.”

Stark was trembling again. His heart pounded so much it hurt.

“Loki, that’s enough.”

“All of it, lies!”

“Drop it right now or I swear to God I will shoot,” Stark hissed, releasing his injured hand from the gun to hold up to his tightening chest.  

“There is nothing you can do!” Loki balked. His index finger was directly over the trigger as he aimed for Stark’s heart. “There is nothing anyone can do!”

It was getting harder to breathe. Stark chose the exact same target on him.

“Last chance, put it down!” Stark croaked.

“There is nothing.”

“Put it down!”

“That’s all everything is, nothing,” Loki sobbed.  “Nothing.”

“Loki, don’t do this,” Stark gasped.

His voice was drowned out by Loki’s shrieks, howling the word like a mantra, strained and sharp blue-green-eyes flickering with a primal rage, vicious and raw.

This was Loki’s fault.

“Nothing!”

This was Loki’s fault.  

Nothing!”

This was Loki’s fault.

“Loki, stop!”

“It’s the end of the world, Agent Stark. There is nothing left and that is why nothing is going to stop me!”

“Drop the gun now!” Stark cried.

Loki’s finger moved.

Stark pulled.

Their gunshots blasted together.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It had started off innocently enough.

Whatever the fuck Stark’s definition of that goddamn word was.

In fact, Stark wasn’t entirely sure how he would redefine “innocently” anymore. He knew this was far from it. But something was off about it all.

Was it the sounds of the sirens getting closer, or was that just his imagination telling him he was in trouble again? Was it that knowledge that there was an insane dog running rampant and most likely devouring some poor bastard’s innards right about now? Was it the mangled body he collapsed and slumped on the wall next to, glock sliding out of his fingers?  

Or maybe it wasn’t any of his shit. Maybe it was Loki’s.

Was it Loki himself, standing rigid as he gawked down at him with those tear-streaked cheeks? Those pink lips parted? The shuddering fingers that had been pressed against the left side of his chest, now raised away from his chest and in front of both of their visions, red clearly visible on them as well as the spot on his green T-shirt growing bigger?

Those wide eyes that immediately gazed back towards him?

Those amazing eyes, these bright fucking marbles of blue or green, or maybe both, that swam with some sort of vague, cryptic mood that Stark wished he could put his finger on?

That he’d never figure out what mood it exactly was when he realized that even though they were locked onto his own eyes, they weren’t actually looking at him anymore?

That remained open as the gun hit the ground first right before Loki did?

God. He had looked so sorry, as though it had just hit him exactly what the fuck he had done to everyone, to everything. Assuming it was all nothing, detaching himself from it all just so in the end, it would be easier to just take everything down with him. He looked like some little kid who had overfed the fish that night, hoping it would grow bigger by the next day, and had found it floating upside-down in the bowl the next morning. Some stupid, naïve, ignorant, innocent kid.

What was innocence anymore? Just being good?

What was being good about?

Was being good like the cops that had flooded into the shed soon after, guns akimbo? Was it Squad A, rushing to his side – except for Odinson, who had frozen at the door, the colour draining from his face as he realized who the other two parties were with Stark? Was it Steve bolting straight at his side again, screaming culprit down, Agent Stark down, demanding that they get an ambulance ASAP or somebody was gonna die and it wasn’t going to be Stark?

Was it Banner’s voice saying Loki's going into cardiac arrest, before he felt two fingers against his pulse and another pushing aside the arm he had clutched around the agony searing somewhere near his stomach or under the ribs? Banner saying oh God tell the ambulance to hurry the fuck up, get me a bunch of the kits we have, he’s in fucking shock and he knows it’s for him more than it is for Loki?  

Was it when Don started to cry? When Clint had placed a hand on his shoulder as he stared gravely from Don’s father’s body to Don’s brother’s body? When they had put Stark on a stretcher and he managed to get one last look at Loki before he had been wheeled into the ambulance van, having doctors attach God knows what to him as Natasha and Bruce explained what his blood type was?

Was it how Loki still looked sorry, even with his fingers limp as his eyes stared into nothingness?

Was it any of that?     

It was cold. He felt dizzy, drained, and defeated. He wanted to pass out. He wanted to die. He wanted the doctors to say that it was cardiac arrest or a punctured lung or stomach he had, not a fucking flesh wound that he could make it through once they transfused enough blood and plasma into his systems, got some oxygen into him, extracted the bullet, regulated his heart rate. What about Loki? Don’s going to completely break the fuck down if both his dad and his brother are dying today.

Fuck, what about Loki? Was he gone already? Was it too late? Why can’t they save Loki instead? Odinson, Romanov, Banner, any of them? Why couldn’t they save Pretty Boy?

Why couldn’t he save Pretty Boy?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In the end, Stark decided that it was his fault.

Nobody was perfect. Rogers and Odinson were definitely pushing it, but really, nobody was perfect.

It was his fault that he was a selfish asshole who only cared about what he wanted and not what anyone else really wanted. And Stark wanted a lot of things, most of them implausibly unattainable. He wanted to be able to get off this stupid leave and not feel absolutely useless after Fury chewed him out when he was finally able to stand on his feet and get out of that hospital. He wanted to be able to drink and smoke without having to keep counting down the number of years he was going to live, before lung cancer or liver poisoning would get in an argument with his shitty heart about who was going to make him kick the bucket first. He wanted to be able to sleep around without worrying about not having lube or condoms, or catching the clap or knocking up a woman or sleeping with a Yakuza agent, or calling out the wrong fucking name, even if the partner for the night hadn’t even given their name.

He wanted to be able to sleep in general without a bunch of people from his past visiting him dreams: his dad, his mom, Edwin, Obie, people who he had lost that didn’t deserve to go so soon, people who he had lost who did deserve to fucking rot. Old flames he had held some commitment to that he still remembered their names; Joanna, Whitney, Tiberius, Edwin II, Indries, Ritsuko, Stephen, Pepper.    

He wanted Pretty Boy. He really had wanted Pretty Boy.

Right now, though, he wanted Pretty Boy to stop trying to pry his fucking way into that list of People I Actually Had Something With because he didn’t count. He was a one-night stand. He could give less of a shit about that kid now that he was dead and gone. Stark’s faults were his faults; Loki’s faults were Loki’s faults. He accepted that Pretty Boy was right; he really didn’t know a damn thing about Loki, and if he did, maybe it was only the tip of the iceberg. Not like he wanted to know Pretty Boy as Loki anyway.

Stark only went to Loki’s cremation (which was held a different day than his stepfather’s; that he had also gone too) because he felt guilty for Odinson and Odinson only. Stark had only attended the dinner after when Odinson had recalled better times because there was a bunch of alcohol and a little more celebrating than crying, and hey, why the fuck not. Stark did not dwell on how Loki would have liked having people that put up with his shit every damn day still dare to have him around because apparently he wasn’t a completely useless prick – and though he’ll never say it, he was more than grateful that they were there for him, seeing as they were the only things keeping him grounded and convincing him that maybe his life wasn’t worth an overstocked cargo ship of crap.

Stark did not at all think about what it would have been like if he had been the one to jump in front of the SUV instead of Steve, wondering what Loki’s face would have been when he realized that he had hit him because come on, he was only a one-night stand. Stark did not wish that he could have asked him out that night they had slept together so he could have showed him off to Pepper and Rhodey at Phil’s funeral because it was a fucking funeral, not a bragging contest.

Most importantly, Stark did not go to Eisen Eis on the midnight of the 24th, and if he did, it was because it was open on Christmas Eve and he had nothing or nobody to do that evening, not because dreams poisoned with Loki’s body or his face or his damn voice or those godforsaken eyes the same colour of the Midori he did not order were keeping him awake.   

And Stark definitely did not shed a goddamn tear as his lips closed around the bottle’s mouth for one last sweet, melon-flavoured kiss from Pretty Boy.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ende