It's been exactly twenty-three days and seven hours since Tony went missing when Jarvis tells them that he's back. They're sitting in the living room doing one of their many crisis meetings ever since Tony's disappearance, and Jarvis says, "Mr. Rogers, Mr. Stark wishes for me to inform you that he will be returning in thirty-two minutes."
Steve doesn't know what to say. He gapes, and all the others right along with him. "Tony is- Tony is back?!"
"Mr. Stark indeed has returned, Sir," Jarvis tells him.
Between clenched teeth, Natasha grits, "If he has been on a vacation without telling anyone all this time…"
"I can assure you, Agent Romanova, Mr. Stark has not been on a vacation."
"Well then where was he?" Clint demands.
"To be perfectly honest with you, Sir, I am not clear on the details yet either. Would you like to call Mr. Stark?"
"Yes," Steve says firmly.
After a brief period of the dial tone, the phone is picked up. "In-built phone, whohoo, fancy," Tony says sarcastically.
"Tony?" Steve asks. "Are you okay?"
"Peachy, just peachy, Capsicle, so nice to hear your voice." Tony's voice is cold and angry, though. For some reason, it makes the hair in the back of Steve's neck stand up. Before he can say anything, however, Natasha speaks up.
"Where were you?"
"That's a little difficult to answer," Tony replies easily, but the hardness doesn't fade from his voice.
"I don't understand," Steve says, confused. "Are you alright?"
There's a brief pause. "Going by some definition of it, I'm as well as can be," Tony says then, voice sober.
"Tony, what does that mean?"
"Well, I've been- ooooh, is that a Burger King? Is that a Burger King, darling?"
"I don't know," a new voice says, sounding dryly amused, but that's not what makes them all freeze; they know that voice. "You tell me. Is it?"
"You think they'd take this car in exchange for cheeseburgers?" Tony asks, longing in his voice.
"In my experience, people here aren't too fond of bartering," Loki replies smoothly. "Maybe we could rob them."
"Tony," Steve chokes. "Is that Loki with you?"
"Oh, right, that, yeah," Tony says carelessly, voice back to being cold. "So, you noticed the part where I went missing, yeah? Good. Turns out our acquaintances the Chitauri – you'll remember those too, they had one hell of a party in New York oh, it must have been about half a year ago from your perspective. Well, they took offense to the nuclear bomb thing and they figured it was my fault, so they decided to invite me for a chat. Into a parallel universe. Loki was there too, they weren't very happy with him either, for reasons I'm sure you can figure out yourself. As you can imagine, we didn't much enjoy their form of hospitality, so we took our leave."
"They took you to another universe?" Bruce asks sharply. "How? How did you get back?"
"Oh, Bruce, always asking the right questions." Tony sighs. "Took us one and a half years, all in all. The details are too complicated to discuss over the phone, but I'll be home momentarily, dear."
"One and a half years?" Steve repeats. "I don't understand. You vanished twenty-three days ago."
"Yeah, I've been informed." All the false cheer vanishes from Tony's voice, leaving only hardness behind. "Parallel universes. Time can pass differently. For every hour here, forty-one pass in the other universe."
A beat of silence. "Jesus fucking Christ," Clint curses hoarsely.
Steve can't think. He can't think.
"Wait, forty-one hours for every hour here? That means over two years and seven months passed for you," Bruce says, voice faint. He looks about as ill as Steve feels.
"Plus sixteen days and twelve hours, but we're a bit fuzzy on the details – what with the torture and all, you understand," Tony replies falsely sweetly. "I was a bit pissed at all of you for not getting me out of there, but in the end I figured I shouldn't actually be surprised, last time I had to get myself out as well."
"But Tony," Steve says. He feels so sick. This exceeds even his worst fantasies of what might have happened to Tony. "It was just... it was just twenty-three days for us. We had no idea."
"Yeah, imagine my surprise when I found that out." Tony doesn't sound pleased. He doesn't sound much of anything like his old self, and everything makes so much more sense now – how angry he sounds, could and hard in a way Steve has rarely, if ever, heard him speak.
"Jesus, Tony, we've been looking for you everywhere…" Bruce trails off because clearly they haven't.
"I know." There's a brief pause before Tony sighs, voice gentling. "I know it's not your fault. But I can't just switch it off, I spent over two years being furious with you and yeah, hating you. I'm right from my point of view, and you're right from yours, and we're both wrong too. We just gotta have to deal with things as they are now." He takes a deep breath. "Things have changed. Loki's with me, and none of you better say a peep about that. He's changed. I have changed. We're all gonna have to deal, but you have to accept that Loki and I got by far the worst end of the deal."
"No kidding," Clint mutters.
"And now I'll hang up so you can discuss in peace whether you want to declare me insane. See you in ten minutes."
"We can't declare him insane," Bruce says immediately. "A lot can change in two and a half years. We haven't got the right to make judgments, especially not so quickly."
"Yeah, but what if he's lying?" Clint brings up. He looks uncomfortable about it, but clearly he thinks it's a possibility they have to consider. "What if he's under Loki's mind control?"
"It's already been established that Loki's mind control can't take hold of Tony," Steve replies. "Also, if he were under mind control, why this story? He could just act like normal and sneak Loki in instead of calling attention to him and putting the two of them in the spotlight."
"Besides, the parallel universe theory explains why we haven't gotten anything from him since he vanished when we should have. He took precautions after he was kidnapped the last time," Bruce adds. "It also makes sense that time passed so differently. As confusing as it might be to us, he's got a point – we're going to have to get used to it."
"Yeah, but what if he's been compromised the old-fashioned way?" Clint points out. "He's been away for two and a half years, completely on his own except for Loki. That's enough to screw with one's head."
"There's no way we can decide this now," Steve says. "We're going to have to wait and see." He doesn't want to believe that Tony might be compromised, but Clint is right – two and a half years out on his own, tortured, hunted and believing himself abandoned can change a man.
"Should we call Thor?" Natasha changes the topic.
Steve didn't even think of that, and he should have; Thor is one of them and the only reason he isn't here right now is because he's spending the evening with Jane in an effort to distract himself. They'd all been a mess since Tony vanished. But Tony is back now, and so is his brother. "Yes, it's probably for the better," he decides a bit reluctantly.
"Should I call Mr. Odinson, Sir?" Jarvis asks, startling Steve. Belatedly he realizes that this means Tony probably heard this whole discussion, or is going to at one point, but there's nothing to be done about it at this point.
They explain the situation to Thor, not leaving out the part where Tony isn't the only one who returned and having to rein Thor in afterwards so that he doesn't dash off immediately. Steve means for it to be only a short conversation but once Thor has calmed down somewhat Clint wants to know what Thor thinks about the whole parallel universe story so Bruce ends up trying to align the Earth way of putting things with the way Aesir put it. Once they manage that, though, they find that Thor doesn't find the story too fantastical. Actual, it turns out Thor suggested it himself during one of their many brainstorming session; they just missed it due to a communication problem. Thor is honestly dismayed when he hears just what Tony told them – that he was taken by the Chitauri, and that over two and a half years passed for him – and promises to return momentarily. Luckily they've already had the conversation about how travelling in Thor's special way is a big no unless lives are at stake. Air Traffic Control doesn't take too kindly to a random person flying through airspace, and unlike Tony, Thor doesn't have an in-built AI that informs him of any nearby flying objects.
They don't have much time to discuss anything more because shortly after Thor hangs up with the promise to return within the hour, Jarvis informs them of Tony's impending arrival.
A moment later the elevator pings, and out stroll Tony and Loki.
Tony doesn't look much different; his hair looks a bit wild and he has shadows under his eyes, but his beard is shaved as usual. Only it turns out that that's where the similarities end. There's a hard glint in Tony's eyes Steve has never seen before and he's dressed in a manner resembling Clint's preferred battle clothes, with his arms bare, skin-tight leather and weapons strapped everywhere. Except it doesn't really look like any leather they're familiar with, and the weapons – if all of them are that, which Steve can't even say one way or the other – are definitely alien too. Loki is dressed in pretty much the same manner, but somehow he looks less crazed (though no less exhausted, and until now Steve hadn't known the two were unrelated) than the last time Steve saw him. He doesn't know if he should consider that a good thing or not. The only difference Steve can detect – though he probably isn't really qualified seeing as the only time he met Loki was during battle – is that Loki's hair is longer and held back in a ponytail at the back of his head.
"Hey guys," Tony says lazily, smirk curling his lips. It should feel normal but everything about him is a little off; Steve feels tilted off-kilter all over again, like he used to when he just woke up.
"Tony-" Steve makes a step towards him but Tony just keeps walking, past Steve and the others, casually making sure there's always some distance between them. "Sorry, got some urgent business to attend to," he throws at them over his back. Loki closely follows Tony; the two of them move in a way Steve is more used to seeing with Clint and Natasha in battle: in perfect sync, always aware of each other's bodies. It's disquieting, to say the least.
Steve and the others share a look and follow the two of them back into the living room, where Tony has walked over to one of the panels in his wall that Steve knows houses some emergency tools. "Jarvis, emergency protocol alpha seven nine eight omega three," Tony says. Jarvis confirms, the wall scans Tony's iris and handprint and then the panel slides open, revealing its insides. While turning back around to face the room Tony pulls his shirt off.
Steve feels like the bottom drops away from him.
The arc reactor in Tony's chest isn't there. Where it should be is only the hole where it used to be embedded, but it isn't empty; there's a faint glow inside, not quite a ball, more like a concentrated fog of blue light of clearly magical origin.
Tony throws him an unreadable look – and it's like a stab in his chest, Steve and Tony used to be able to communicate silently – before turning to Loki. Without breaking his gaze, Tony reaches behind him and takes a spare arc reactor out of the vault. And then, like there's absolutely nothing wrong with the gesture, Tony hands the reactor over to Loki. That, better than anything else Tony could have said or done, drives the point home; Tony trusts Loki completely. He hadn't even liked anyone seeing the reactor, before.
"Ready?" Loki asks.
Suddenly Tony looks nervous. "What if it doesn't work? I mean it was messed up pretty bad, what if I made a mistake fixing it?"
"A mistake you didn't catch any of the countless times you checked?" Loki asks skeptically.
Tony gulps. "Yeah, I mean, I didn't exactly have the equipment I needed and-"
When Tony is nervous he starts to babble, Steve knows this very well, and it can be a little difficult to shut him up, which Steve is also very aware of. Loki, though, apparently has found the sure-fire way to shut Tony up, a way Steve hadn't considered before: with his mouth.
It works pretty well, Steve has to give him that, but he isn't exactly comfortable watching Tony and Loki make out wildly, especially when Loki pushes Tony bodily into the wall. Shifting awkwardly, Steve looks at the ceiling, and that's how he misses Loki' next maneuver. When Steve, alerted by the surprised noise Tony makes, looks down again Tony is staring at his chest, where Loki apparently inserted the arc reactor while Tony was distracted.
Tony stares down, then looks up at Loki, then stares down again.
"So, how do you feel?" Loki asks, sounding like he knows the answer.
"…fine," Tony replies slowly. Relief starts to spread on his face only to switch to alarm when Loki suddenly sways on his feet. "Whoa, babe." Taking hold of Loki's elbow, Tony pushes Loki over to the sofa, despite Loki's protest.
"No, you sit down," Tony orders sternly. He cups Loki's face and tilts his face up, checking his pupils. "Backslash?" he guesses.
Looking displeased, Loki nods.
"Is everything alright?" Steve asks hesitantly, taking a step towards the two.
Slightly startled, Tony looks up. He clearly forgot that they're not alone. It makes Steve wonder if it really was just the two of them for those over two and a half years, or if they made it back to a parallel version of Earth or some other realm.
It's Loki who replies. "No. It's just magical backslash. I'm fine. Thank you," he adds belatedly.
"He used magic to keep my heart safe for the past two and a half years," Tony explains. He looks almost like the old Tony in that moment, if it weren't for the way his eyes flick over Steve and the others as if he's marking their positions and body language. It's the way Natasha assesses rooms and situations when she's calculating a potential quick exit she might have to make.
"I'm fine," Loki says irritably, pushing Tony away and standing up again.
Immediately Tony's focus turns back on Loki. Looking him up and down closely, he nods slowly. "Okay, babe." Then he claps into his hands and grins widely, slightly manic. "Time for food then!"
And the two of them stride off into the kitchen.
Steve shares a look with the others. They all look varying degrees of confused and worried with a fair dose of nonplussed; exactly how Steve feels. With a helpless shrug, Steve follows Tony and Loki; the others trudge after him.
Tony is raiding the fridge, commenting on everything he sees; things such as "it's been ages since I had this" and "you really need to try this it's amazing" and "wow I completely forgot this exists". Loki is sitting on a chair by the table, and the only thing he says is, "no meat."
Tony pauses before pulling his head out of the fridge. He stares at Loki for a long moment before nodding.
"There's vegetable lasagna," Steve brings up. Hesitantly he takes a seat at the table as well, careful to give Loki enough space. He does know a bit about PTSD.
"Hm, yeah…" Tony looks back into the fridge. "Don't take it personally, but I think I'd rather make something myself." He takes out red peppers and zucchini, dices them while simultaneously preparing to boil a handful of pasta. It's strangely relieving, to see Tony do this sort of thing; he always was a multitasker. It makes Steve feel less estranged.
"I didn't eat anything I hadn't made myself for four months after Iraq," Clint says quietly into the silence.
Tony throws him a glance. "Yeah." Something in the set of his shoulders relaxes infinitesimally; Steve doesn't think he's imagining that.
"If I never have to eat a rat again it'll be too soon," Natasha adds.
That actually makes Tony huff something resembling a laugh. "At least you didn't have to eat creepy aliens."
Everybody collectively shudders.
"So, hey," Steve starts awkwardly, having no idea what to say but feeling the need to break the silence before it turns completely awkward. Luckily he doesn't have to think of something on the spot, because that moment Jarvis speaks up, letting them know that Thor is on his way.
Loki straightens in his seat upon the news, spine stiffening. His face turns to ice when the elevator pings and Thor calls loudly, "Brother?!"
"In the kitchen," Steve calls back, not sure if he should send Loki an apologetic look or not.
"Do not," Loki says loudly the moment Thor appears in the doorway, acting as if he's about to make a beeline for Loki. "Touch me," Loki continues when Thor freezes.
Thor's eyes are wide and pained when they wander over his brother's face. "Oh, Loki," he says quietly, walking carefully over to the table and taking a seat, as careful as Steve to keep some distance between them. "What has happened?"
"I'm sure you have heard." Loki raises an eyebrow, eyes flickering towards Steve.
"I have," Thor confirms sorrowfully. "Please, put my mind at rest. Tell me you have not encountered the Mad Titan."
Silence drops like a stone between them, not even broken by Tony as he quietly starts to fry the diced vegetables.
"I cannot," Loki says eventually, voice quiet.
Thor's face distorts for a second. "I grieve for thee," he then says very quietly.
"No need to worry about it," Tony says blandly, keeping his back to them all. "We took care of it."
"Took care of the Mad Titan?" Thor asks, surprised. "How? He cannot die."
Loki tilts his head, face equally bland as Tony's voice as he says, "Familiarity breeds fondness."
For a moment Thor's eyes flicker back and forth between Tony and Loki as understanding grows on his face – together with horror. He doesn't say anything though, just closes his eyes and calms his expression.
"What," Clint says very calmly. Steve wants to close his eyes and sigh because this is definitely not the situation for his particular brand of distrust, but he certainly can't blame him either, considering his history with Loki. "Is going on here? Who's this mad titan guy?"
"A very dangerous enemy," Thor explains after a moment of silent communication with Loki. "He is the one behind the invasion of the Chitauri."
"Loki is the one behind that," Clint says forcibly.
"Are you truly that naïve?" Loki asks. "Are things in this realm truly that simple? There is never just one player in the game."
"You weren't the only one under control of the glowstick of destiny," Tony adds. "Check the security footage, you might notice a difference in the color of Loki's eyes."
"Wait," Steve interrupts before Clint can explode. "You knew of this before?"
Tony throws him a look. "What, you didn't think I'd watch the hell of that security footage? I noticed something was off the moment I saw the way Barton and Selvig looked under the spell."
"And you didn't think to say anything?" Steve asks incredulously. That's pertinent information, even if Loki hadn't been an issue anymore as soon as Thor took him to Asgard.
"But I did. SHIELD knows all about it." Carelessly, Tony strains off the water before adding the spaghetti to the vegetables frying in the pan. "Not that they cared much, but hey." He throws them all a look over his shoulder. "I keep telling you not to trust them but the only one who really listens is Bruce."
"He was not," Clint grinds out, eyes fixated on Loki, "under mind control."
"Not the way you were, no," Loki admits freely, carelessly, "but no less than you, I was a pawn in the hand of a being of great power." He grimaces, his distaste at having to admit that evident.
"You knew about it as well?" Steve adds Thor, who meets his eyes calmly.
"I did," he admits without regret. "There still is such discord among us, even those who are supposed to be on the same side."
Steve puzzles that together to mean that Thor did tell SHIELD, or possibly that he decided not to tell them because he doesn't trust them. SHIELD, hopefully, not his teammates.
"So, can somebody explain plainly what is actually going on?" Bruce asks in his usual non-offensive manner.
"Loki was mind-controlled in some capacity as he led the Chitauri invasion," Steve recaps, "and apparently Loki and Tony met the guy behind that while they were in the parallel universe?"
"Correct," Loki says.
"And we had quite the lovely time," Tony adds, separating the contents of the pan onto two plates. He gets two forks and brings the plates over to the table, putting one in front of Loki and taking a seat next to him.
"Will it be a problem?" Natasha asks coolly.
"It would've been," Tony says, meticulously picking up a bit of zucchini while Loki carefully starts to sift through the food with the fork. "But it's not going to for quite a while now. We took care of it."
"You're going to have to properly debrief," is her reply.
"But not now," Steve interjects hastily, sending Natasha a look. Emotions are running high right now, everything is under change. Loki is apparently not their enemy anymore, hasn't been as much as they had thought even before this whole kidnapping incident. It's understandable that Natasha and especially Clint have a problem with Loki's presence in their home, but a lot is going on right now, everybody has something to adjust to. They definitely are going to have a talk about talking to each other (the irony of that doesn't escape Steve), but not right now. Steve doesn't know in detail what Tony and Loki have just come back from, but suffice to say, it can't have been a walk in the park. Whatever issues they have – and there certainly are valid ones – they can wait.
"Well, that went better than expected," Tony says after they've closed and locked the door of his bedroom.
"Did it?" Loki asks, prowling around the room, touching the bare walls and letting his fingertips trail over the bed. It's the biggest space they've had to sleep in in quite a while, and certainly the safest, even despite the fact that Clint is probably having detailed fantasies of murder and bloodshed one floor below them.
"You know it did." Tony follows Loki's trail over to the panorama window and molds himself to his back. He wraps his arms around his partner's waist and presses his forehead between Loki's shoulder blades, closing his eyes and breathing in the familiar scent of Loki and Chitauri skin. They had a plan, forged of many nights of lying together and fantasizing what they'd do once they got back, but reality had derailed that plan pretty early on. Still, they'd stuck to the bare bones of it: arc reactor, food. Now there will be the bath. Jarvis had already turned on the water for them; in a couple of minutes Tony's giant tub will be filled enough for them to get in.
"Come on," Tony murmurs and starts to disarm Loki, carefully telegraphing his intentions by running his fingers across Loki's skin towards his hips, taking the handgun and bone knife out of his belt. When Loki makes no move to stop him he continues, taking off throwing daggers they made of bones, explosives they had mixed together, the garrote, his other guns. In the process he necessarily has to undress Loki, sliding thin, stretchy leather off him. Hopefully they'll never have to put these things on again; there are not many of the Chitauri left, Tony and Loki made sure of that, and if they never see one again it'll be too soon.
Once Loki is completely naked he turns around and presses his lips to Tony's before returning the favor, disarming and undressing Tony expertly. They've done this countless times, they know each other's bodies and armaments as well as they know their own.
"Come," Loki says when Tony is completely naked, contemplatively trailing his fingers over the arc reactor. The Chitauri had taken out the original one within the first couple of days of Tony's arrival, after they had ensured that he wouldn't die. Or rather, that his death wasn't permanent. From that moment on Tony had been in constant pain from the shrapnel in his heart until they had managed to free themselves and get Loki out of the magic inhibitor zone. The first thing Loki had done then was weave a magical repellant into Tony's chest cavity that basically did the same thing as the arc reactor. They're both not used to a machine instead of magic being embedded in Tony's chest anymore.
The bathroom is clean and big; the water in the tub is clear. Tony takes it all in for a moment, just not used to so much space, so much cleanliness anymore. It's one of the things they had fantasized about, the cleanliness. Water isn't exactly a commodity on the Chitauri homeworld.
God, Tony can't wait until they've washed it all off their skin, if not the memories then at least the smell.
"We should shower first," he suggests, eying the clear, hot water filling the tub.
Loki nods and they climb into the shower stall – it fits both of them more than comfortably, god, what did Tony need all that space for? The shower gel smells strong and perfumed and they use way too much of it, delighting in the foam it generates and how clean it makes them feel. Tony's hair, stiff and bristly, turns buttery soft, as does Loki's, going from oily to clean and silky.
Once they feel sufficiently clean they step out of the shower and, not bothering to dry off, directly into the hot water filling giant tub. Tony groans happily and leans back, tilting his head back as the water laps sensually over his skin. For over half an hour they don't say a word, just lie there and let the heat relax their muscles. Tony feels luxuriously sluggish and languid when Loki shifts close, pressing their sides together before straddling his lap, slick skin against slick skin.
"What shall we do now, then?" he asks, arms sliding loosely around Tony's neck.
"Well, we have been deprived of the big bad revenge," Tony points out with some regret. They'd had epic plans to kick some butt; he had figured somebody would have taken his company from him and he would have had to take it back. He'd had elaborate fantasies about throwing the Avengers and SHIELD off all his properties, thanks for nothing, assholes, but he can't really do that now that it has turned out that a mere three weeks passed for this dimension. Nothing has ever pissed Tony off as much as this.
"Unfortunately," Loki sighs, leaning their foreheads together.
Of course, that doesn't mean they can't have any fun, and they're having it. Tony doesn't feel particularly fair right now, and he honestly doesn't give a fuck about how Clint or anybody else feels with Loki here. Yeah, it probably sucks for Clint, but guess who the past three years have sucked for more.
"I love you," Tony says, running his hands up Loki's spine. He does. He's prepared for all the arguments that will undoubtedly come over the next couple of days, even weeks; Stockholm Syndrome, whatever, he can easily imagine what everyone will have to say. He doesn't give a fuck. Loki is no angel; actually, he's much more a demon, if anything. Tony still loves every bit of him, even the grotesque parts. You can't go through what they've gone through together without developing a very deep bond. Tony is much more of a demon than an angel as well.
Loki smiles easily. "I love you too."
"And I got some ideas of what we can do now," Tony says, letting his hands slide down Loki's back again, landing on Loki's small, firm ass.
"Oh, do you," Loki purrs, the corners of his mouth curling up. He shifts, tilting his hips closer to Tony's. "It seems to me to be a plan of a rather… immediate nature."
"Not that immediate," Tony drawls.
They will have sex and then they will have a good night of sleep without any night watch. In the morning they will eat something nice, eggs probably, maybe they'll even manage toast even though they didn't prepare it themselves. There will probably a good long talk with Steve and the others; Tony could tell just by looking at him that Steve had a need for a talk or five – Steve is fond of talks. Natasha was right as well, they'll have to debrief with SHIELD, though Tony has some things to say to them first – he has no intention of letting them handle him for a second more. He's not going to waste any more time on stupid mindgames and threats of them taking his suits and empire away – both belong to Tony, and Tony alone. He built them and SHIELD does not control them nor Tony himself.
For the long-term, there will probably have to be a talk with Odin, and some planning for Thanos' return – and that the asshole will return, of that Tony has little doubt. They had managed to lock him up and Mistress Death is fond enough of them for the time being, but Thanos won't be contained forever. But when he does return, they'll be waiting; Tony and Loki won't be caught unaware again. They have a few aces up their sleeves still, and the trap they built is strong enough for them to have some more at hand by the time Thanos manages to get out.
But yeah, that's for later. Sex first.