They found Loki in the center of a circle of destruction. Unfortunate, but not really all that unusual. The god, jotunn, alien, whatever the hell he was, stood hunched at the epicenter of a crater, leaning heavily on a spear, his eyes fixed on his feet. Silent and distant, like he was sleeping on his feet, only the open, fixed stare of his eyes to bely the impression.
He didn't look up as they blasted to a standstill on the rim of the crater. That was unusual.
"...Brother?" Thor asked. The first to speak, the first to risk it. Naturally, Tony thought. The thunder god shifted uneasily, his hammer turning in his hand, and took a cautious step across the raised earth of the rim. Moving hesitantly towards his brother. "Loki?"
Loki blinked. Slowly, as though from a great distance. He raised his head to look at them. Thor flinched, staggered to a halt. Behind him, Natasha straightened. Tony too. He couldn't help it. He had ... seen looks like that. Mostly in the mirror. He glanced uneasily at Natasha, raised an eyebrow at her evaluating look. The Hulk, confused by the atmosphere, fell still at Tony's side.
"Thor," Loki said, shortly. Blinking a little, as if confused. "What are you doing here?"
The Avengers glanced at each other. Trick? Or had Loki had his bell seriously rung by whatever had just happened? Reports suggested a meteor. If said meteor had been Loki, coming in for a landing ...?
"... I came to find you," Thor said eventually. Cautiously. Again, moving into unusual, Thor wasn't usually the cautious one in this, or indeed any, relationship. But there was something badly wrong in Loki's silence. They'd all picked up on it. "I was told you had returned?"
Loki blinked. A small, abortive smile flickering over his features, at that. Twisting viciously, carving itself into his cheek, then vanishing. The Hulk, with exquisite subtlety for someone ten feet tall and very green, carefully put his arm protectively in front of Tony.
"Returned?" the jotunn asked. Light and gleaming, brightly vicious. "Not quite, brother. Yes, and no." He laughed, a hard little chuckle, snapped off like an icicle. "Yes and no," he repeated, sing-song, to himself. Thor blanched.
"Brother," he said, abandoning caution now, his hammer dropping to his side as he moved to Loki's, hand outstretched. Steve instinctively snapped forward a step after him, only stopping when Natasha flashed up a desperate hand to stop him. No, she said, silently. Do not interrupt this. Don't startle him. Not yet.
Excellent advice, Tony thought. The bulk of the Hulk behind him, the armour running hot, and suddenly none of it was even remotely comforting. Not unusual, facing Loki. Never that. But never fun, either.
"Loki," Thor repeated, reaching out to touch his brother's shoulder, his hand hesitating at the last second, then following through because Thor was like that, Thor followed through no matter what. Loki didn't flinch. Didn't move. Only looked at the hand like it was something strange, foreign, and glanced back up with that carved smile etched back into his face. "Loki, what has happened to you?"
Loki tilted his head, gleamingly vicious, his hand tight around his spear. Less to attack, Tony thought, and more to keep himself standing. But his grin was as fixed and steady as ever. "Do you know of the Mirror of the Second Gate?" he asked, his tone lightly curious, staring up into his brother's eyes with an odd, sideways humour, black and icy.
Thor paused. Stared down with a concerned, fearful wrinkle of his brows. Confusion, maybe. An answer in itself. So no, Tony thought. Thor probably didn't know the Mirror of Whatsit, then.
Loki apparently agreed, his smile flashing up to something slightly more genuine for a second, still stony and bitten into his face. "No, you wouldn't," he murmured, and there was mockery, vicious, but also something that might have been fondness, much delayed. Tony shifted uneasily. "Myths of a far-off realm, brother. You wouldn't know them." He twitched, his free hand fluttering abortively. "It is known as the Mirror of Truth, brother. It shows you ... what you truly are."
His voice snapped, flashed to breaking, the humour in his eyes shattering, yawning open over a gaping, writhing pit, and Thor's hand jumped from his shoulder entirely of its own accord. The Hulk, with never a sound, plucked Tony and Natasha up and shoved them behind him, ignoring their twin snarls of fear and annoyance.
As well he might, Tony thought, staggering back to his feet. Since they were probably mostly on autopilot.
"Do you know what I am, brother?" Loki hissed, black and brutal into his brother's white, desperate face. "Do you know what I was shown? What truth lies in me?"
... Madness? Tony thought. Thankfully not out loud. 'Cause I'd vote madness, right now. It wasn't cats, anymore. Loki's brain had upgraded to a pit of writhing vipers, somewhere since they'd last seen him, and Tony guessed some of them had already started eating each other.
"... No," Thor said, and god, he had to be one of the bravest people Tony had ever seen, because he wasn't flinching, and he wasn't backing away, and the expression on his face was still, even still, more afraid for Loki than of him. "But whatever it was, I would not be so quick to trust some foreign magic, my brother. Who knows for what purpose it was made?"
He rested his hand back on Loki's shoulder, heavy and sincere, and Tony idly reflected, as Loki's expression flashed back to sanity for a second, flashed back to hope, that there were times when Asgard's jingoistic outlook on things turned out to be kinda useful.
Then the madness snapped back, the yawning pit, and yup, premature, damn it anyway. Oh well.
"I do," the jotunn snapped, his free hand flashing up to bite into Thor's arm, to dig rapidly blueing fingers into his brother's skin. "I know, brother, as you know why Mjolnir was made, and for much the same reasons. It does not lie." He laughed, snapped and brittle. "It doesn't lie. Hah!"
Right. So. Crazycakes, got it. Let's hurry this along, this was only going bad places.
"Okay. So what was this 'truth' it showed you?" he asked, loudly. Stepping out around the bulk of the Hulk, ignoring the angry, panicking glare he got from the big green in the process. Not the time, big guy. We gotta get this sorted.
Loki's head had snapped around, glaring at him, the kind of lethal, molten fury that by all rights ought to have stopped Tony in his tracks. Especially with Thor's thunderous warning glare right behind it. Should have, would have, but nope, better things to be doing right now.
"Well?" Tony asked, casually and deliberately poking at them, raising his hand to his chest to study the segmented tips of the armour. Not quite buffing his nails in boredom, he wasn't actually that suicidal just yet, but enough to hurry this through the wallows of madness into something sharper and cleaner. Anger was better than fear. Always.
"What does it matter to you," Loki hissed, stepping back a little from Thor, pulling strength from somewhere so that he wasn't leaning on the spear, but braced beside it. Gearing up to fight, and that wasn't good, but it was better, closer to normal, and that was the point, here. Madness bad, action good.
"I don't know," Tony answered. More or less honestly, really. "Morbid curiosity? Scientific interest?" He spread his hands. "A pathological need to know the answer when someone fronts a question? Pick one, really. It's all good."
Loki snarled. Liquid, savage, the nest of vipers swaying up in unison to lash out at Tony. Er. Well, at least the man was now mad in mostly the same direction? That was an improvement, right?
"Loki," Thor cut in. Heavily, shooting Tony a warning glare, but having his back regardless. Pulling Loki's attention back away, into a slightly more durable direction. Yeah, Tony loved the guy. He did.
Loki snapped around, stumbling a little through it, his snarl open and blind, glaring up at Thor like he couldn't quite remember who he was. Tony grimaced behind the faceplate. Oh, this was bad.
"Loki," Thor repeated, more softly. Gently, the hand on Loki's shoulder moving to cup his upper arm, something that might have been a light shake or a stabilising grip, either or. "Brother. Tell me what distressed you so. Tell me what was done."
And his voice had hardened on that, a quick flash of Thor's own fury, the floating, pained depth of it. A desperate, bleeding love, and there were days when Tony was so glad he didn't have family anymore, so glad this was behind him, this pain and disappointment and loss and love. Howard had been bad. Obie had been worse, a thousand times. But he'd never had to look them in the eye, look like this, and have it be for nothing.
Loki blinked at him, and then ... then he laughed. Hoarse and black and bleeding, the sound hacked up from somewhere frozen and broken in his chest, spitting pain as much as humour. Loki's hand tightened around the haft of the spear until the blue turned white, beyond white, like he was trying to hold on long enough to disappear, and he laughed. Right in Thor's face, into the anguish there, and coughed the blackness inside him out into the open.
Tony turned away. Shaking, convulsive, Tony turned to the side, and met the Hulk's gaze, met the soft, liquid pain there. And Natasha, so deliberately blank, so carefully still, standing almost absently behind the shelter of the Hulk's arm. Clint beside her, face frozen, as blank as she, no way to know what the hell he was thinking, feeling, faced with this. Steve, standing slightly off to the side, his gaze fixed on Thor's back, and such a depth of sorrow there that Tony had to turn again, look away again, and there was just no safe place to look, was there?
Thor, face twisting around his grief, shifted his grip. Slowly, deliberately, so there could be no surprise, so that Loki would know what he was doing. And then, in a move that just begged for a knife between his ribs, he pulled his brother into his chest, and tangled the hand now empty of Mjolnir in his brother's hair, cradled it around the back of Loki's neck. The spear shifted in Loki's hand, listing drunkenly out to the side, beneath the circle of Thor's arms.
"Brother," Thor whispered, his voice shaking. "Loki. Please. Tell me."
Loki sucked in a breath, coughed it back out, breaking into the hysterical flow of his own laughter. He hiccuped, the spear shoving outward towards Thor. Less to push him away, Tony thought, and more because Loki didn't know what to do with his hands, flexing them convulsively, clinging to his weapon without having the first clue what to do with it.
"Nothing," he whispered, a torn rasp. Then, tumbling, sing-song, rushing over each other: "Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing." He yanked his head back, snapped it forward. Either trying to headbutt Thor, or just trying to shake the crazy out of his own skull. "The mirror told me truth, and it was nothing!"
Tony blinked, frowned. What the ...? Steve echoed him, Hulk. Thor, in a crease of desperate confusion.
But Natasha straightened, Natasha stiffened, the ice of her expression faltering suddenly around a black creak of knowing, and Clint, beside her, flinched.
"I do not understand," Thor whispered, his hand tight at the nape of his brother's neck, his arms flexing desperately to hold Loki near, to keep Loki beside him until the answers came, until he knew what this was and how to fix it. Tony winced, shifted uneasily from side to side. "Loki. I don't understand."
"I thought it would show me the monster," Loki whispered. Voice dull and flat, as though someone had suddenly pulled the plug on his passion and all the feeling had drained out of him in one fell rush. "Or the Asgardian. Something. An answer, either way. I wanted to know. Which I ... which I truly was. So that I could be it, so that this ... this confusion, this need ... So that I could be rid of it. Cast it out, cut it away. Find the truth, not the lie, and then act. Then be."
Oh. Oh. And yeah, Natasha's expression made sense, now, Tony'd caught glimpses in files and in Natalie's face, way back when, he had an idea, suddenly. Who am I and what am I, and why can't I stop wanting?
Yeah, Natasha made sense. And ... and other people, too.
"But it didn't," Loki went on. Hanging in Thor's arms, his hands suddenly limp. The spear dropping softly to the ground, it's tip clattering vaguely off Mjolnir, resting beside Thor. Thor took his brother's weight with never a sound, his expression, that only Tony could see, bleached clean of everything save pain, and a desperate pity, a love. "It showed me nothing. Nothing at all." He laughed, cracked and near-sobbing. "Do you understand, brother? I asked it what I was, and the answer was nothing."
... Fuck. Fuck, oh fuck. Big man in a suit of armour. Take that away and what are you? And there were answers, there were a thousand answers, but how many were real?
And Natasha, who wore a thousand faces and sometimes lost the real one, flinched too.
"... Maybe it was broken?" Steve asked, suddenly. With that stubborn, gentle optimism that had pulled him through the loss of everything, and god, Tony needed to keep these people. He needed to have them, and hold them, and keep them the fuck safe, because they could ask this shit, and make it sound real. "Loki," Steve said. Taking a step forward, his expression torn between pity for Loki and concern for Thor, possibly for Clint. "Maybe the mirror was broken?"
"Yes," Thor agreed. Suddenly, fiercely, his huge hand tightening in Loki's hair, his arms pulling Loki closer. Holding Loki to him, when Loki still couldn't stand. "Brother, it was broken. It must have been. You are many things, my brother. Mad, I think. Desperate." A long pause, careful, pained. "Perhaps ... perhaps even my enemy, though that is not by my choice. But you are not nothing." He shook his head, fierce and certain. "I have known you since we were children, I remember every moment of that life, and those memories are not false. They are real. And with them, so are you."
... Which was not necessarily true, Tony reflected, watching Loki shake silently in his brother's arms, watching their enemy curl there like a child. Not necessarily true. There was a decent argument there, subjective versus objective reality, and even that aside there were patently some flaws in those memories, at least one key fact missing, but ... Yeah. Not the time, he got that. And not the point, either.
And besides. The memories were probably no more questionable a source than a fucking magic mirror, were they? There were a lot better things to test your personal reality with than some fucking mythological artifact gathering rust who the fuck knew where. Honestly. Who the fuck trusted their sanity to a slab of glass animated by thoroughly questionable means, unexplainable without devolving into woo-woo language?
And that was without getting into, as Thor said, who the fuck made the thing, and why, and whether it was actually designed to tell you the truth or just bounce up and down on your greatest fears about what the truth might be. I mean, as far as psychological traps go, there's a doozy. Come on, godling. What the hell happened to your paranoia?
But Tony knew, didn't he? The paranoia was the problem. Who did you listen to, when you feared someone was lying to you? The person who offered you reassurance, who told you pretty things that you so wanted to believe? Or the person who told you the bad things, the terrible things, the things you so feared were true? What did you listen to. Your hope, or your fear?
Fuck. Shit and fuck. Okay. Lets do this from the ground up. This was all the bad places, they weren't sticking around down here, for Loki or anyone else. This was where the bad things were, and Tony didn't have alcohol on him to put up with it.
"Forget that," he said, abruptly. Stalking down into the crater, ignoring Thor's head as it snapped up in fury, ignoring Steve's panicked flap of warning. Focusing, instead, on the way Loki's spine stiffened, his drooped head coming up, fighting for enough control to face the new threat. To face Tony. Well, good. Seriously. Wallowing bad, action good. Tempting as the former might be (oh, so tempting, sometimes).
And distantly, just for a moment, Tony thought about what he was doing. About to do. Thought about trying to put an enemy back together, trying to firm him back up into something crazy and vicious and strong. He thought about Loki curled in Thor's arms, about how much safer it might be to leave him broken, to leave him curled there. Thought how much they had earned that. Clint, Natasha. Bruce. How that might be a vengeance they'd earned upon him. Thought how much Thor might ... might like that, like the chance to have him back, to love him and support him and hold him while he shuddered. And then ...
Then Tony thought about Pepper, who was only worth leaning on because she stood up to him, because her strength was not his strength, and that was why she was beautiful. He thought about her, and he thought about deliberately destroying that, just to make her love him, and he realised that leaving Loki broken just because it might be easier would be ... as close to evil as he'd ever come. And he wasn't doing that. Not for Loki. Not for Thor. Not for the Avengers. Not for anyone.
Even if it damned him, there were some things Tony couldn't do.
"Maybe the mirror was broken," he said, clipped and hard, flipping the faceplate back to glare at Loki's blotched, ice-white face in person. To glare straight into that yawning, desperate pit behind his eyes. "Maybe it was a trap, maybe it was some mystical bastard's idea of a fun practical joke. Hell, maybe it even told the truth. 'Nothing', who the fuck knows what that means? Not exactly enlightening. Woo woo shit, magic, just open a fucking fortune cookie, if you're that desperate. I can do you up a randomiser, if you want. Get you any answer you want to hear."
"Stark," Thor growled, a warning rumble of thunder, but Tony was coasting now, Tony was riding the thermals up above the void, and there was no touching him now. Not here. Not with this.
"But that's the question, isn't it?" he steamrollered on, eyes sharp and flinty on Loki's. Watching the man struggle back from Thor's arms to face him, watching Loki remember where he was, who he'd come to in his weakness, who he'd shown his weakness to. Absently, Tony wondered if Thor realised how hopeful that was, in so much more real a way. If Thor realised how much it mattered, that stripped of everything, Loki had come to him. To his brother. "What do you want, Loki? What answer did you want to hear?"
"... None of your business, Stark." Shockingly childish, scrambling for pride, for viciousness, for power. Tony watched Thor flinch, watched Thor stare in wonder. Watched the sudden surge of hope, and realised Thor didn't want his brother broken either. No matter what the cost.
Then Loki had it, then Loki'd armoured up, scrounged spine from somewhere, and spat in Tony's face. Digging for anger in lieu of fear, pride on top of it, holding himself up by it. Hard and bright and vicious. "I am made nothing, Stark, what does it matter?"
... Yinsen, Tony thought. Suddenly, with a lurch inside him. Yinsen, what I wouldn't give to have you here now.
One sentence. Yinsen could have stopped this, had stopped this, with one sentence. Eleven words. The man had slapped him up out of this, with those words, had forged something ... something powerful, something dangerous and strong and capable. With one sentence, the man had done that.
On the other hand, Yinsen had died for it. Tony was sort of hoping to avoid that part.
"Are you?" he asked instead. Raising an eyebrow, a dare, a challenge. "You look pretty much your usual self to me. Crazy? Check. Annoyingly indestructible, if the crater is anything to go by? Check. Mad as all hell and wanting to pound on someone?" He grinned, soft and fierce, while Loki snarled at him. "Yeah, I think that's a check, too." He tilted his head. "The mirror said nothing, but nothing doesn't make dents in people's floors the size of a small meteor hit. Nothing doesn't make Thor cry, nothing doesn't make a significant portion of the local population want to kill it. Nothing doesn't do shit. Sort of the definition, there. Basic logic. So."
He stepped forward, the weight of the armour up in Loki's face. Goading the crazy-ass god of destruction into defining himself, yes, that was a sane move, totally, this was why Tony was the crazy one, this was why he flew the nukes into space. We're already riding the void. Why the hell not?
"You're not your brother's memories," he said, soft and flat, watching the dark glitter in those eyes. Flinching, a little, at Thor's naked recoil. "And hey, maybe you're not a monster either, maybe you're not an Asgardian, but you're also not nothing. Fucking alien slabs of glass don't get a say. That's the point." He took a breath, wishing his could scrub a hand through his hair, goddamn helmet in the way. "A good man once asked me what I'd be if someone took the armour away." And there, Steve taking his turn to flinch. "Decent question, pretty good question, asked myself that a few times. Only ever once got an answer." He grinned, a black slide of glass, hovering over his own void, his own yawning pit. But his was brighter than Loki's. His had fire in. "Want to know what it was?"
Loki didn't want. Or rather, didn't want to want. But there was curiosity, shining in that pit of vipers, and desperation, and hunger, and if this was what the mirror'd seen, the one who made the mirror, if this was what they'd drawn towards themselves, then yes, Tony was betting it was a trap, Tony was betting anyone who wanted this pointed at them enjoyed playing on people's fears. Had to.
"What," Loki snapped, a rigid snarl, trying to deny his own hunger. Maybe succeeding, a little bit. "Since you want to reveal yourself, Stark. What are you, without your armour?"
Tony grinned reflexively. Involuntarily, the expression flinching across his face, sword and shield. He ignored it. Let it do what it wanted.
"I'm the man who built the armour," he said, soft and savage. "I'm the man who had nothing left, who was dying in a cave with wires dangling out of his chest. I'm the man who had a week to live, who decided to do something with it."
And thank you, Yinsen, he thought, desperate and savage, vibrating with the memory. 'Then this is a very important week for you, isn't it?' Yes. Yes, it was. And you, my friend. I'm the man you made, in that cave. I'm the man you built, wire by wire. I'm the man you died for. And that is worth something, it has to be, it will be, I can't be nothing when you died for me. I won't be nothing.
And can't be, having so decided. That was, he thought desperately, the point. Always the point.
"You're not nothing," he said, watching Loki, smiling mirthlessly. "Not just because your brother thinks you aren't, though he does. Not just because the mirror could have been broken, or old, or put there to fuck with you, though I'd lay good fucking odds that it was. Not just because almost everyone you meet wants to kill you, though I'm pretty sure no-one goes out of their way to try and kill a nothing." He grinned, rich and dark. "You're not nothing because you can't be nothing. If you were nothing, you'd have stopped. And you haven't stopped yet, or I wouldn't be standing here picking a fight with you. You're not nothing, because it's a basic fact of logic. I think, therefore I am." He paused, grinned a little, more real. "Or, in your case, possibly mine ... I piss people off, therefore I am."
Clint snorted, somewhere behind them. Tony felt his breath hitch, felt it stutter, didn't dare look at the man. Because Clint was the one he was betraying, Clint was the one he was stabbing through the heart, with this, putting back together the man who'd torn Clint apart. But Clint snorted, and even if you could find humour in pain, even if Tony knew that, he still found himself hoping, at that tiny sound.
He looked at Loki. Kept Loki's gaze, held that blank, desperate stare. The yawning void, the pit of vipers. Didn't matter. Tony's was bigger, Tony's was better, Tony had built a reactor to power the void behind his eyes and in his chest, and all the black despair of gods couldn't touch what Yinsen had built, all those years ago.
"The mirror doesn't matter," he said, quietly. "The face you see in it, whether it's a lie or the truth? It doesn't matter. It can't. You can't ... you can't let it." Because that was the bad place, that was where the bad things were, you stayed the hell away, from that place. "Pick one. Decide who you want to be. Not what, what changes day to day, depending on what the world throws at you. But who. Who is Loki, and when he has nothing left, what does he do about it."
Loki tilted his head, Thor hovering anxiously, desperately, behind him. Loki watched Tony, a small furrow of confusion, consideration, on his face. And then, slowly, cautiously, Loki smiled. Well. Sneered. Hard and testing and bitter.
"And if what I decide to do is kill you?" he asked, quietly. Waving a hand out at them, at the crater. At the towers of New York, somewhere distant to the south. "If I decide to sell your world, and break your people, and make myself your king?" He smirked, faintly. "Again?" Grinning blackly for them. "What will you do if I decide that?"
Tony grinned back. Black and bleak and proud. "Then we'll kick your ass and send you home in chains," he answered, crisp and clean. Lifting a contemptuous lip. "Again."
He shook his head, grinning into the black, desperate thing in Loki's eyes, that had stopped staring blindly, that had stopped shuddering in blind stillness. Weighed it, weighed the deadly thing there, and the broken thing that had come before. Had he made the right choice? Was resurrecting that thing, that mad, dangerous thing, worth it?
Yes. Yes it was. If for no other reason than that in doing so, he hadn't betrayed Yinsen. He hadn't betrayed Pepper, Rhodey, all those people who knew how to stand up to him, and were more precious for it. Was his honour worth Loki's life? No. But Loki's life might be worth his honour.
And besides. They fucking would send him home in chains, no matter what he found the strength to throw at them. That was what they did, that was who they were, they didn't need to leave him broken to the soul to manage that. They were stronger than that. They didn't have to stoop that low.
"... Brother," Thor said softly. Cutting through the vibrating thing between Loki and Tony, gently forcing himself back into the frame in a way only an eight foot tall blond god could manage. "Loki?"
Loki flinched, a little, snapped back from defiance, in the face of Tony, to desolate fear, loss, in the face of Thor. He flinched, but he still turned. Found spine, found pride, and turned to face the brother he had betrayed, the brother he had fled to in the midst of his despair, and been welcomed.
"What?" he asked. Waspishly, desperately, getting the snap in before the blow could land, pre-emptively getting his shot in in case he wouldn't get the chance later. "What, Thor?"
Thor smiled at him. Suddenly, sincerely, the kind of deep, shocking, suck-in-your-breath holy fuck kind of smile. Something so simple and sudden and clear Tony, never mind Loki, slammed his mouth shut in the face of it.
"You will always be my brother," Thor said, soft and heavy, and it wasn't a mirror of truth, oh no, but Tony dared anyone to call it a lie regardless. "No matter who you are, or what you do. Even if we are enemies from now on." He shook his head, smiled, a little sadly, a little crookedly, but with no lie whatsoever. "Whatever happens, Loki. Remember. You are my brother. I always loved you. And I always will."
... And there was no mirror in all the universe, Tony thought raggedly, no cosmic practical joke ever invented, that could break someone more easily than those words, said that way. Ask fucking Pepper. Hell. Ask anyone.
Loki agreed. Tony couldn't fucking blame, but Loki agreed. Face whiter than death, staring up into the sincerity in his brother's eyes, Loki took that blow on the chin, and crumpled under it. His form flickered, wavered like a heat mirage, and Thor noticed, Thor knew what was happening, the knowledge of it crumpled his expression in turn, but it was too late. Loki, with a desperate flash of illusion, a lie to shield himself from truth, cast magic about himself, and vanished. However it was he did that, and maybe Tony could have figured it out, maybe he could have caught the guy running, but there were some cruelties you didn't stoop to.
And in the silence after him, the six of them stood there, in the bowl or on the rim of a crater, and carefully avoided each other's eyes. For ... a really long time, really. A worryingly long time.
"... I'm sorry," Tony said, at last. Tipping his head back to stare blindly up at the sky, the stars, the distant, invisible thermals. "That was ... We all know I'm the stupid one, when it comes to this shit. We had a chance to take him, and I went the other way. So ... sorry." He smiled, crookedly, up into the void. "Wouldn't have changed my mind, of course. Still wouldn't. But for what it's worth ... I'm sorry."
Clint. Mostly Clint, almost entirely Clint. Also Natasha. And the Hulk, Bruce underneath him, lurking on the rim of the pit. Even Thor, a little. Maybe that was the last time Thor would ever get to hold his brother, and it was Tony who'd ruined it. But ...
He was sorry. He really was. But he couldn't betray the man Yinsen had made. Not for ... not for any of them.
Whatever that made him. Stubborn, he guessed. And maybe a little mad.
"... Nah," Clint said, softly. Tony watched him from the corner of his eye, saw the smile, soft and crooked, that Clint sent Natasha beside him. "We don't break people that way," Clint said, softly, and it was her he was talking to, the woman she was, the person underneath Natasha and Natalie and the Widow and the kid back in those files. It was Natasha Clint was talking to, not Loki, not Tony, and Tony figured then that Clint had a man he wasn't going to betray, either. And that man, for both of them, was worth so much more than vengeance.
"No," Steve agreed, soft and distant, standing that little separate, staring somewhere into the past, and then at Thor. Past and present, maybe, and the people you didn't break. "No, we don't."
And then Thor's face appeared in Tony's line of vision, then the god loomed over him where he stood staring at the sky, and fuck, Tony wasn't any more equipped to handle that expression than Loki was. Nope, no, never.
"Thank you, my friend," Thor said, with a weird little crack in his voice, a staggered lump, and Tony couldn't breathe. Shit. He couldn't breathe. "Thank you," Thor said, smiling around the edges of his grief and his hope and his love, and Tony closed his eyes. A void against the truth, rather than a lie, and about as effective.
"...Welcome," he managed, swallowing faintly. "You, ah. You're welcome, big guy."
This, he thought, desperately. Thor and the Hulk moving around him, clustering close, Natasha and Clint and Steve behind them. Pepper, somewhere out there, proud and beautiful and unbroken, unbreakable even by him. Rhodey, JARVIS, fucking Nick Fury. This, all of this. Yinsen, forging a future in a cave with eleven words. Yinsen, the void with fire in, the man Tony wasn't ever going to betray.
Not for Loki, he thought. Not really for Loki. No-one was nothing, none of them were nothing, not even the worst of them, not even mad gods broken by lies. It wasn't for Loki, and it wasn't for them, either. It wasn't for truth, it wasn't for lies, it wasn't to be someone he'd always wanted to be.
It was because you didn't stop. And so long as you didn't stop, you were still someone. And as long as you were still someone ... you could have this. This life, this world, these people. This love. So long as you were still you, that was what you could have.
Loki, you mad, desperate bastard, he thought. I get to have this. That's why my void is better than yours. That's why we're stronger.
And, you stupid son of a bitch, this is what you could have too. This is what you can have. So just ... just get your ass in gear, won't you?
Ah hell, he thought. At least the thermals were free and clear. At least the skies were clear.
Something had to be.