He leaned back in his shop chair and scrubbed at his eyes. Page 36 on version 13 of the Accords done. "Run the changes J." He said, watching as the red marks on the digital page flickered and settled themselves into the document. He swiped to the next page and started to read. The lines blurred together, words jumping from sentence to sentence. "Fuck." He rubbed his aching eyes again. It did nothing to help.
With a groan, he leaned back again and closed his eyes. He had to be back tomorrow to defend this shit. He had to have the documents emailed by 8 a.m. to be ready for his own appearance at 10. He glanced at the clock. Twelve hours. It should be plenty of time. He knew from experience it wouldn't be. He threw back the last of the scotch in the glass sitting next to him.
How many fucking months had he listened to this being argued? It felt like an eternity. It had been a year and three maybe four months since he'd signed the original draft which had blown his life apart.
Six months ago Scott and Clint had finally gotten to go home. He'd fought for them, against Pepper's advice. If you fight for them it won't be long until everyone can come back. She'd warned him. Still, Clint and Scott both had kids, families. It wasn't fair for them to spend their lives apart. Not for this. And so after months of arguing they'd been pardoned, allowed to return home. They were still being monitored 24/7 but it was better than jail or even house arrest which were the original options.
Pepper had been right of course. She was always right. The document that floated before him added pardons to the two people he never wanted to see again. Their names seemed to jump out at him every time he read them. Steve Rogers and James 'Bucky' Barnes. The document further detailed their safe return to Avengers Compound. Together back under one roof. The man who killed his mother and the man who tried to kill him living just down the hall like nothing happened.
Panic clenched around his heart as he pushed down memories of the last time he'd seen the two men when they'd left to die alone in the cold. Friday had managed to call for help, to get him home. The two had been 'missing' ever since. He knew where they were, had even considered alerting the government of their safe haven in Wakanda but he hadn't. He'd stayed quiet. Steve had made his choice, loud and fucking clear. Maybe, just maybe, if he didn't bring them up the world could just forget them. Maybe he would never have to see them again. Steve's eyes as he'd slammed the shield into his chest. His heart had stuttered, the cold seeping into his armor--
"Sir, shutdown protocol will commence in ten minutes." Jarvis's voice cut into his thoughts. He forced himself forward, eyes back on the document. He should really disable that protocol. It wouldn't be hard. There was no longer an override code. Nothing to stop him. And yet he hadn't. Pepper had created the shutdown protocol when they were still together. It locked down his lab and projects if he went too long without eating or sleeping. Having it active, letting it drag him away from his work somehow felt almost like she was still there, almost as if he wasn't alone.
He'd seen it coming. He'd tried so hard to prevent the breakup but honestly, why would she have wanted to stay? He was a mess. Everyone in the world knew it. She could do so much better and in the end, she'd seen it too. She still ran SI operations. He was pretty sure death would be the only thing that stopped her from driving the company onwards and upwards.
Keeping it professional, talking to her as if nothing had ever even happened was thousands of times harder than the actual split. She had started blocking his number every night after business hours when he'd called her drunk one too many times. She ignored any messages he sent not explicitly about the business. Even messages asking if she was okay, or doing well, went unanswered. He'd seen her a week ago to sign some papers. She'd shut down anything he asked about her or her life. He'd see her again next week in a board meeting. She looked good. Happy. Happier than she ever looked with him.
"Shutting down in one minute," Jarvis warned.
"Fucking shit!" He saved the changes, knowing that even if he didn't Jarvis would hold them. He stood and grabbed the empty old fashioned glass and stalking into the kitchen for something large enough to unlock his work.
The house was silent, his footsteps the only sound in the building. The lights flickered on as he moved from room to room. Rhodey would be out another seven months working with the UN. Nat was somewhere working for Fury. She would occasionally pop in between missions but that was getting less and less common. Vision and Wanda were out too, on vacation.
He hoped it lasted indefinitely, hoped they broke their trackers and ran. Vision he'd miss, but having Wanda at the compound? There were still nights he woke up in a cold sweat, her nightmare still vivid in his mind. She insisted it should have passed, that she held no further illusion on his mind. And maybe she was right. Maybe it was just further proof of his fucked up mind. Who fucking knows?
He pulled an ice cold slice of stale pizza from the box in the fridge and took a bite. He paced as he chewed. Reading and editing the rest of the Accords would probably take all night. He could sleep on the plane. He grabbed another slice and began to cross back to the lab. Thankfully Pepper's little lock-down focused exclusively on calories and the fastest way to get the lab going again was a slice and a half of supreme pizza.
"Sir. Something has just entered the atmosphere."
He coughed, choking down the half-chewed bite. "What is it?" He rasped.
"It appears to be a ship, sir. It's coming in fast."
His hand shot up to the reactor, tapping in the activation code. As the nanites expanded he sprinted for a door. By the time he was outside and taking flight the massive belly of a spaceship came crashing down through the trees. The landing, while not overly smooth was clearly intentional. Whatever was on that ship wanted to be here.
"Jarvis, we may have to pull everyone in on this. Be ready."
His heart hammered as he flew, adrenaline pounding through him. The ship did not engage as he approached, nor as he landed. The guns remained lax, hanging disengaged in their swivels. A low heavy creaking drew his eyes to a door that had unsealed and was beginning to lift. As it did a metal ramp slowly descended and landed at his feet with a dusty whomp.
He took aim, charging the blasts and waiting. The door seemed to take an eternity to rise. On the other side, two sets of feet stood close but as the door rose further he could see hundreds more behind. He frowned, eyes settling on a slowly appearing… pair of jeans? And a t-shirt?
"Tony!" Bruce called.
At the same moment Thor called, "Stark!" He hesitated, lowering his hands, the mask opening.
"Bruce? Thor?" Bruce darted down the ramp, shoes clattering on the metal surface.
"Bruce?" He repeated again as the smaller man pulled him into a hug. "What…where?" He asked, letting his arms wrap around him, keeping an eye trained on Thor who was moving down the ramp as well. Thor wore an eye patch. His hair was shorter as well. Behind him a wall of men, women, and children peered out of the open door. "Who are all these people?"
"Tony! It's been so long… Oh. It's a lot to explain right now." Bruce finished softly.
"These are the people of Asgard," Thor said easily. "Stark, we have come seeking asylum. Our world has been destroyed. We would settle here if you will have us."
He stared from Thor to Bruce and back again, his tired mind straining to follow. "Asgard is gone?" He asked.
"Indeed. My sister sought to rule it so we brought about Ragnarok in order to destroy her."
Fuck. That didn't help. "Your sister?" He tried.
"Yes. My father's firstborn. When he died she was released. She drew power from Asgard itself. To stop her we destroyed Asgard."
His head pounded. Nothing was clicking together. None of it made sense. He looked at Bruce who seemed uninterested in providing context to the random shit Thor was babbling.
There was so much to catch up on. He hadn't seen them since Sokovia… the Accords. Fuck. They would have to be added, have to sign it now or run. It was only a matter of time before someone called to ask what had entered the atmosphere right above his fucking house. He didn't have long.
Thor was still talking now about a crown that looked like an eyebrow and about fire. He waved him quiet.
"If you're here, you will have to agree to the Accords." He said to Bruce. "I can maybe get Point Break off on some kind of alien immunity but otherwise they won't let you stay. If you can't agree you have to go now before they know you're here.
Bruce blinked not thankfully didn't immediately decline. "What would it entail?" Bruce asked. The sound of boots on the ramp brought his head back up.
His blood ran cold. Slowly descending from the ship was Loki. He jumped back from Bruce both hands up, his face shield slamming back into place. The familiar whine of the reactors powering his blasts almost blocking out Bruce's voice "Tony!! Tony! Tony!" Bruce jumped between him and the completely unconcerned looking Loki.
His heart pounded as the sensation of falling settled in his stomach. He couldn't be here. He couldn't be back. "Tony it's okay." He heard Bruce distantly. Thor was blocking Loki now, his broad shoulders preventing him from getting a good shot. He couldn't be here. They were mind-controlled. Loki had brought a different army. He couldn't fight Bruce. He hadn't even rebuilt Veronica. And Thor, how would he even begin to fight him?
"Tony he's not going to hurt anyone." Bruce was saying somewhere miles, decades away. "He helped us escape. Helped heal the wounded. He's not an enemy. Not anymore." He blinked, aware he was staring at Bruce but only hearing every few words.
Loki was down the ramp. He stepped past Thor with a grace that shouldn't have been possible for someone so tall. He came to a stop by Bruce, a look of complete indifference on his face. "I mean no harm, Stark." He said simply, as if somehow that fixed it, fixed the destruction and the murders and the wormhole.
"Tony, I promise I'll explain everything, just explain the Accords right now," Bruce said.
His head hurt. He was pretty sure the pizza was actively trying to make a repeat performance as his stomach writhed. The Accords. Right. He could do that. Loki was looking around as if pleasantly curious, like a damn tourist on holiday. Loki. Here. On Earth. Bruce and Thor just okay with it. Like he hadn't tried to destroy the planet. Like the nightmares didn't still keep him from daring to sleep.
"Tony." Bruce sounded concerned.
"Sorry right so--" he was cut off as Jarvis spoke.
"Sir, incoming call from--"
"Patch him through."
"Tony!" He heard Ross' voice clearly in the quiet. "Something just entered the atmosphere over your house. I need a repor--"
"Please hold." He said, unable to stop himself grinning.
"Tony don't you even think about it God da--." The line cut as Jarvis put the call on hold.
He closed his eyes a moment before forcing himself to focus on Bruce's face. He needed to be quick. Ross would only hold so long. "The Accords was made to supervise enhanced individuals. It was signed by 117 countries. If you agree to it, you will register bio-metrics with the UN and wear a tracking device at all times." He drew back the nanites enough to show the thin black band around his wrist before sliding them back again. "A UN--"
Loki's voice cut into his words, "You mean you have given your king--"
"No Kings here. It's called democracy. You need to look that up sometime Rudolph." He said without looking up. He wasn't sure he could handle seeing Loki without falling into his memories as effectively as he'd fallen from the tower.
Loki waved a hand dismissively and continued as if he hadn't been interrupted, "permission to collar you like animals?"
"Tony, you agreed to that?" Bruce sounded surprised.
"We couldn't keep operating without limits. People were dying because of us. It wasn't something sustainable. We needed to be put in check. Operating without rules, or limits, we might as well have been the bad guys."
Loki made a noise in his throat but thankfully remained quiet. "And if I don't agree? Then what? I can't stay?"
"The other option is retiring. Agreeing to never take part it in ever again. If you do you risk jail time indefinitely and without trial."
"And with the Hulk, there is no guarantee." Bruce finished the point he was working towards. After a moment he sighed. "Yeah, I'll sign it."
He nodded and prepared to pull Ross off hold when Thor spoke, "And I will retire. I have no interest in fighting the battles of this planet. I wish only for my people to live in peace."
Loki scoffed and turned to Thor. When Loki spoke again it was not in a language he'd ever heard before. He paused, mouth still open to listen as Thor responded to Loki in English.
"My brother makes a good argument. I will sign this treaty as well in case the day comes when I must protect my people in battle." He risked a glance at Loki's face. His expression was one of bemused frustration, like a parent reining in a wild but well-meaning child. His stomach clenched as the cold pizza tried again to come back up. He needed sleep. This was all too much on far too few hours of sleep.
"Tony. You can't tell anyone Loki is here." Bruce added suddenly. He didn't understand. Couldn't understand but for now, he just nodded.
"Ross?" He asked.
"Tony, if you don't stop doing t--."
"You know how you talked Thor and Bruce being missing? I found them. They will be coming in tomorrow to sign the Accords."
He could hear Ross stammer, obviously caught off guard. "See to it that they do!" He said finally and the line disconnected.
"Does this mean we will be permitted to stay?" Thor asked, a grin spreading over his features.
"Sure does Scar." He patted Thor's arm. "I need you up bright and early tomorrow morning okay?"
"Of course. Of course." Thor said amicably before climbing back up the ramp. He had the distinct feeling Loki was watching him as he turned to Bruce.
"Want a lift home? It's a bit of a walk."
"Yeah, thanks," Bruce said. He wrapped an arm around Bruce's side and took off.
He landed outside the glass door he'd left open in his haste to meet the threat head-on. He tapped the code and the nanites retracted into the reactor. "What kind of tech is that?" Bruce asked, eyes wide.
"I promise I'll fill you in on everything." He said, grabbing the mostly finished second slice of pizza off the floor as he walked inside and tossing it. "But tonight I have another 64 pages to read and edit of the Accords before tomorrow morning."
" Another 64? How long is this thing?" Bruce asked, following him through the empty compound. "And why would it need to be edited?" Bruce's eyes traveled over the closed doors and silent hallways as they moved.
"This draft is exactly 100 pages." He said, entering the lab. "And this version provides pardons for Steve and Bucky."
"Wait, Bucky? Like Bucky Barnes? The guy Steve was friends with?"
He closed his eyes and glared at the clock. As happy as he was for Bruce's return he had no time to try to catch him up. "Jarvis? Can you pull up video of everything Bruce has missed?"
"Of course sir."
"Jarvis, you're back," Bruce said, surprised, as he reached for the tablet. "Does that mean Vision…?"
"Vision is currently on holiday," Jarvis answered.
"Oh. I." But the sound of video beginning to play stopped the rest of Bruce's words.
He turned back to the floating page and began to read. Each page, full of unnecessarily complex legal jargon and mile-long lists of contingencies grated at his nerves. It could all be done so much faster, so much cleaner. His mind filled with hundreds of ways to say the same thing in less than one page.
As he finished page 87 Bruce's voice cut into the quiet. "He just left you there?" He glanced up to see Bruce glaring at the screen. "You were alone. Your suit was damaged and he just left?" He was surprised at the anger in Bruce's voice, the indignation on his behalf. Still, he couldn't help feeling a warmth in his chest. How long had it been since someone took his side? It felt like an eternity ago.
"Haven't seen him since." He said.
"And now they are trying to pardon him?"
He nodded. "It was my idea. Well, not exactly but I convinced the council to pardon Clint and Scott. They both deserved to be with their families. That opened the door for this." He gestured at the screen.
"And this is how he apologized?!" Bruce held up a scan Jarvis had done on the note. "He almost killed you!!"
He closed his eyes, forcing back the memories. "Yeah."
"Tony. You can't." Bruce's voice was soft. "You can't help them. Not after this."
"Everyone deserves a second chance." He said simply. "I killed thousands and I got to turn my life around."
"Yeah but Tony…," Bruce sighed heavily. "Do you have a copy of that I can read?"
"Added to your tablet," Jarvis answered.
"Thanks, Jarvis," Bruce said.
He turned back to the file. The sky was turning pink as he saved the changes on the final page. His edits had pushed the document to 101 pages.
He rubbed his burning eyes and hit send, getting it delivered an hour early. Bruce had been silently reading his own copy. When he stood Bruce looked up. "So they would have to live here?" He asked.
"Yeah. Since they were the biggest opposition, the committee wants them close."
"And if they run again? Or break the Accords?"
"That's on them."
"You won't be held accountable?"
He opened his mouth, fully prepared to say no and stopped. Nothing on the document specifically mentioned to what degree he was baby-sitting.
He closed his eyes. "I'll have to get that added in."
"So, tell me what happened since Sakovia. Last I saw, Hulk was flying to fuck knows where."
Bruce nodded and began to speak. He talked about flying into space, getting sucked into something like a black hole and ending up on a planet called Sakaar. He'd spent two years there which due to a difference in time flow had felt more like 5. Hulk had battled in a gladiator arena for someone called the Grand-Master.
He guided Bruce down the hall and into his room, letting the words wash over him as he did. He directed Bruce into the massive bathroom. He pointed a small alcove with a cushioned bench for Bruce to sit on so he could hear him talking without Bruce having to have a front and center view of him showering.
He stepped around the alcove and into the bathroom. The tub, easily large enough for three people sat unused. It had been for Pepper. He didn't take baths, not since Afghanistan. The feeling of being submerged in water sent him into a panic. Instead, he crossed into the shower and turned on the rain overhead. The heat filled the room and melted away some of the tension in his shoulders.
As he washed up, Bruce told him about Thor defeating something called Surtur and stealing his crown then returning to Asgard. Once home he found Loki on the throne disguised as Odin. When they had gone looking for Odin they had found him just before his death. Odin had warned of his firstborn Hela. When she'd appeared she'd broken Mjölnir and made it back to Asgard.
Thor and Loki had ended up on Sakaar. Eventually, Bruce, Thor, and Brunnhilde, who was something called a Valkyrie, had escaped to return to Asgard and fight Hela. Loki had stolen the ship they had arrived in and helped evacuate the Asgardians and fight Hela. In the ensuing battle, Thor had lost his eye.
Hela had been too strong and in the end, Thor and Loki had brought about a prophecy called Ragnarok by putting Surtur's crown in the eternal flame. Asgard had been destroyed but Hela had gone with it.
His head spun as he dried off and Bruce detailed the months of travel on the ship that had eventually brought them home. It was all too much to take in with the Accords still swimming through his mind but at least all the pieces fit. He pulled on boxers and stepped around the divide to see Bruce. "What about Loki. Why are we not calling every leader of every nation to lock him up forever?"
"Loki is...I don't know. Different somehow?" Bruce said. "Thor says he's served out his punishment and has risked himself repeatedly to help both Thor and Asgard."
"And what do you think?"
"Something's changed. When he was here in New York he was crazy, unpredictable. But now, the past few months it's like he's a totally different person."
"Not a person." He reminded, moving to the mirror. Fuck he looked like shit. The dark rings under his eyes played witness to his lack of sleep in the last week. He grabbed a tube of concealer and worked it until he no longer looked like death. If Bruce had any opinion of him putting on makeup he kept it quiet.
"On the ship, he seemed to organize things even before Thor thought of them. He had people divided into professions and delegating tasks. He healed anyone who was injured enough they couldn't recover on their own. And once he was done and things were running smoothly, he disappeared. I thought he'd left the ship somehow. It wasn't until I was up late one night that I realized he'd just switched his schedule and was up most of the night."
He focused on fixing his hair, biting back the jab that jumped to his lips. "I started coming out some nights to talk to him. He was wary at first but when he realized Hulk wasn't going to make an appearance and attack him he was surprisingly knowledgeable. He taught me a lot about their methods of healing and their way of life. He was calm and logical. I really don't think he's a threat, not anymore."
He waved for Bruce to follow him back into the bedroom. "What about you? Have you ever been the Hulk that long?"
"No. The big guy and I have come to an understanding, I think. He had a chance to really come into his own on Sakaar, to just exist. We are going to keep working but I think there is a chance we could exist together rather than always fighting. There are things he's good at and things in good at and maybe we could just take turns."
He fixed his collar as he looked at Bruce. He looked so hopeful. He smiled. "I'm so glad you're back." He said honestly.
Bruce smile back. "Me too." He pulled the man into another hug.
"What about you?" Bruce asked when they split apart. "How have you been? And not Tony fighting the Accords, or Ironman. Just you?"
He stared for a moment. If it had been a long time since someone had taken his side it must have been five times as long since someone asked how he was doing. His normal flippant answers came to mind but he pushed them off.
He turned back to the closet before answering. "Not good. Pep and I broke up."
"About three months ago." Fuck it hurt to admit as if saying it aloud made it more real.
"God Tony I'm sorry. What happened?" Bruce asked.
"I wasn't ever going to be what she needed. And she could do so much better than me. It just took her awhile to realize it."
"I'm so sorry Tony," Bruce said again. He waved him off.
"Outside that it's been mainly work. Vision and Wanda have been on vacation for about four months, Rhodey is working with the UN this year so it's been pretty quiet here." He turned. "Your room is down the hall if you want to clean up. Any clothes you had in Avengers tower were moved here. I think I remember seeing a suit or two."
"Thanks, Tony." Bruce followed him down the hall and into the room he gestured to. "See you in a while."
"Yeah." He said, walking alone into the kitchen.
He started the coffee, and started breakfast. Whisking eggs in a bowl he poured them into a pan. He might not normally eat breakfast but Bruce may or may not have eaten recently. Grabbing his glass from the night before he poured himself some scotch. "Breakfast of champions." He said to no one in particular as he swallowed the liquid.
The sun was up now, pouring through the wall of windows, casting light across the open land between the compound and the forest that surrounded it. From here there was no visible indication of the ship that had landed in the trees. It could so easily be just another day. The arrival of Thor and Bruce just some strange fantastic dream his mind created. And since it was his mind, of course, it couldn't be all good which explained Loki. The sound of footsteps down the hall drew his attention from his musings.
A still damp Bruce entered the kitchen, drying his hair on an oversized Hulk green towel. "Really Tony?" He asked, holding up the towel.
He couldn't help but grin. "Breakfast." He said, indicating the pan.
"Thanks." Bruce grabbed the plate he'd pulled out and transferred eggs into it. Hands in his pockets he wandered over to the windows, looking out at the grass. The last drops of dew made it sparkle. "What about you?" Bruce asked.
"I'm good." He said.
"Uh-huh. Tony eat. There is plenty for us both." He sighed and crossed back to the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. "Eggs too Tony," Bruce said as he started to wander back to the table. He glared at Bruce but poured the rest of the eggs into a plate and returned to the table, sitting with his back to the windows.
They ate in comfortable silence. Bruce finished before he did but sat and watched him eat without saying anything. As soon as he swallowed the last bite, Bruce began to ask about where they were going and how the day would go. Truth be told he didn't have a lot of answers but that didn't seem to bother Bruce.
A knock at the windows made him jump. Thor stood, smiling brightly at the glass. At least, the face looked like Thor. He wore a suit, remarkably tailored, instead of his normal attire. He stared long enough Bruce stood and let him in. "Good morning!" Thor said happily. "I hope this is correct attire. Loki assured me that it would be proper."
"Yeah. You look great." He said lamely. The mention of Loki jump-starting is numb brain. He stood, a thought occurred to him and moved to Thor. "Can I..can I just?" He reached out and tugged lightly on the suit. The material was soft, far softer than it should be possible to hold the correct lines of the suit. The buttons felt real, but cool and hard like stone instead of plastic. The folds of the collar and sleeves felt solid.
Thor smiled amicably at him as he stepped back. So the clothes Loki magicked were real, not an illusion covering the actual garment underneath. It was good to know, something he'd been curious about since watching the feeds of Germany. It didn't help make sense of how it was done but at least he knew now the end result. If Thor was at all confused or concerned about the invasion of space he hid it well.
"Let's get this done." He said.
The day was thankfully passed without any international incident. Thor and Bruce's signatures joined the slowly growing list at the bottom of the Accords. He watched in shock as, during the collection of biometrics, Hulk made an appearance and not only didn't destroy anything but also willing followed instructions and allowed Bruce's return after.
And then the committee meeting started. Minutes dragged on like decades as he sat through the arguing and the discussions, the modifications, and considerations. After the hours of frustration the only progress made was amnesty for the Asgardians. The panel didn't mention Loki so no one had to lie about his location. No decision was made regarding Steve and Bucky. Instead, it was set to re-adjourn again at a later date.
His head pounded and his chest ached. Maybe he could sleep tonight. Just for a few hours at least. He'd be analog when he got home if he was working on anything. Pepper's lock down would be back in effect until he slept. Relief rolled over him as he climbed back into the Quinjet. Just a few hours and he'd be done with Accord bullshit for at least another month. If there was any good to be had with the panel they at least didn't try to make changes often.
Once Thor and Bruce were in and settled he took off before passing the controls over to Jarvis. Turning he looked at Thor. The god had quickly picked up on how and when to button or unbutton his suit jacket. He sat staring at the wall, lost in thought.
"Point Break? You need anything to get started rebuilding?" He asked.
Thor jumped ever so slightly as he was pulled from his thoughts. "Our builders are most accustomed to working with stone. Do you know of any nearby deposits?"
"I can do one better and get cut stone delivered. I'll order some and you can just let me know if you get low?"
"Thank you, Stark. It is appreciated."
"You good on food? Water? Clothes? Basic stuff like plates and cups?"
Thor thought a moment. "We have plenty of water. Cloth would be helpful too. I'm not sure if you have the same material our weavers use. And truly I would not know what it is called. Perhaps you could come once we get home and speak to them? I am sure there will be many things we need, I cannot think of them all now."
The idea of potentially seeing Loki again so quickly was not really his idea of an ending to an already shit day but he nodded regardless. "Bruce? You need anything?"
Bruce shook his head. "I'm just looking forward to a mattress. And clothes that fit."
He laughed easily. So he'd go to New Asgard, get a shopping list, and…he couldn't order it. Everything would be on lockdown. J might be able to since it wasn't him doing actual work. His tired brain tried to focus on the next project. The Stark phones needed a new patch. Some users were reporting glitches in the software. Plus a new Stark pad was set to hit the market in a few months and he still needed to design that. His latest intellicrops need testing and he had about ten more clean energy projects he was sitting on.
The soft jolt of wheels touching down pulled him from his thoughts. They were home? How long had they all sat in silence? He blinked, fighting back the aching weight behind his eyes and standing.
Instead of going inside he turned towards the crash site. Next to him, he heard a strange sound, like the quietest whisper of the wind over leaves but somehow different, almost slick. When he glanced over Thor's suit was gone. In its place, black leather armor fitted close to his body. Around that a large cloth cloak that wrapped around his shoulders and gathered on large waves at the neck. If Thor was startled by the change he hid it well.
He tried to roll with it, he really did but finally, he couldn't stop himself asking, "So what? Is he watching for us or something?"
"Loki likely heard the sound of the plane as it passed overhead," Thor said with a smile.
Even Bruce looked highly unconcerned. Great. Just him freaking out about the mass murder living within a stone's throw from his house. Great.
He followed Thor and Bruce across the lawn and into the trees. He considered asking if Thor knew where he was going but the larger man was moving confidently. He heard it, faint at first then growing louder, the sounds of voices all talking in words he couldn't quite make out. As they stepped into the edge of the massive clearing made as the ship went down he realized why. The voices all spoke a different language. Probably Asgardian he reasoned but with Thor and Loki able to speak English he'd somehow just assumed they all did.
At their appearance, some of the chatter died down. His eyes scanned the crowd, looking for Rudolph but he couldn't see him anywhere in the dying light. The Asgardians sat huddled around campfires which roared happily in the early spring air. Thor called out, beckoning the crowd forward.
His heart jumped into his chest as the people crowded forward, wrapping around them. He couldn't escape. He was surrounded by a wall of people. When they spoke it was not English, not any language he'd ever heard before. What was Thor saying? He couldn't seem to hear him. Someone to his left moved and he jumped, ready to fight, but the woman was simply moving her hand.
He forced himself to breathe. Wherever Loki was watching from, he didn't need the fucker to see him panicking. Suddenly the wall of humanity around him was moving. He jerked as someone brushed past him.
A man stood close, less than three feet away, staring at him. The lights from the fires made his facial features shimmer and flicker. Everyone else was moving, what was going on? Suddenly a thought occurred to him, what if Loki could change his face? What if he could change his whole appearance and was waiting now to strike.
"Stark." Thor's voice made him jump. "My people have many requests if you are willing to hear them tonight?"
"I..yeah. Yeah sure." His chest felt tight. His left arm was starting to throb. He pulled out his phone. Thankfully the lockdown hadn't spread to it yet. Or Jarvis was being nice. It was a toss up.
The man who had been waiting stepped forward and he realized a queue had formed behind him of people waiting for help in rebuilding their lives. He forced himself to focus. Life rebuilding Santa reporting for duty.
And then the man spoke… He couldn't understand him. Fuck. He was about to open his mouth but Thor cut him off. "Cattle? Do you have cattle on Midgard."
"What? Oh, yes. Yeah. There are different kinds, I can show you tomorrow."
Thor repeated back the answer and the man said something in return and offered his hand. He reached to take it but instead of grabbing his hand the Asgardian's fingers wrapped around his forearm. He moved his hand and mimicked echoed the hold. The man squeezed his forearm gently then let go.
A woman was next. She spoke then held out one of the folds in the dress she wore. Thor prompted him to feel. He didn't know cloth names any better than Thor and in the end, he was proved with a scrap for Jarvis to analyze.
On and on into the night the requests came. At some point, he realized Bruce was no longer next to him. He wondered if he was walking around or if he'd gone to bed. After the last man requested a tool he'd never ever seen before he took a long breath.
"Thank you, Stark. My people are in your debt."
"Don't sweat it. I'll catch you in the morning okay?"
Thor patted his shoulder with enough strength he almost toppled over and finally, he was free of the voices speaking words he couldn't understand and the warm pop and flicker of the fires. He turned for home.
The walk back up to the house was quiet and chilly. He didn't see Bruce in the common area. He must be in bed. "J, order what we know, fastest delivery." He said, turning for his room.
"Of course sir." Jarvis' voice followed him as he moved down the hall. His room felt oddly quiet after the day spent in conference halls and a night spent surrounded by Asgardians.
He unbuttoned and hung his suit jacket before loosening his tie and pulling it off. As he unbuttoned his shirt he considered a shower to help him relax but in the end, he was worried it might wake him up.
Pulling off his shirt he tossed it into the hamper then stepped into the bathroom to wash his face. He stopped, eyes settling on the reactor. After the surgery had removed the shrapnel they'd suggested a normal pacemaker but even with Pepper pressing for it he just hadn't been able to fully rid himself of the reactor. Not that it would have really mattered. So much bone and muscle had been removed to make room for the reactor housing even if they had taken it out he could have never healed correctly. Even with the advancements in 3D printing creating a whole new sternum and rebuilding the cartilage and bone to connect his now floating ribs? It would have been highly experimental at best.
And so the reactor continued to keep his heart on track and the housing now offered storage for the nanites that made up his suit. He remembered Pepper's response to the idea he was never without his suit again. It hadn't been a positive one.
He washed the concealer from his face. Fuck he looked like shit. He stared into his brown eyes, reflected back. The dark rings under his eyes stood out vividly against his skin. His beard was getting lighter too. Not grey, thank fuck, but not the black-brown that it once was. Instead the brown seemed to be lightening ever so slowly. "Time marches on." He says to his reflection.
He sighed and turned off the light, turning back into the bedroom. Crossing to the bed he kicked off his pants and pulled back the covers. He hesitated, eyes settling in an unopened prescription next to his bed. He didn't have eight hours to sleep that night. Besides, he hated the way he felt groggy when he took them. Decided once again to leave the bottle unopened he crawled into bed.
As soon as he laid down hundreds of thoughts poured into his mind. New designs for the Stark pad warred against ways he could have saved his relationship. He forced himself to ignore them, let them press into his mind without taking root. He was confident he saw dawn starting to lighten his room as he finally drifted off to sleep.