With a graceful wave and a smile, Tony departed the press conference for the stifling darkness behind the curtain. Voices buzzed in the room behind him, a rising hum of the reporter hive pleased with the pollen he’d provided. They’d go back to their newsrooms to make honeyed headlines with too much alliteration and bad puns.
A nervous, fluttering assistant pressed a bottle of water into his hand. He drank it down in one long swallow before taking the few vital steps to the back room. Stark Industries personnel carried him on a tidal wave of forms and questions all the way to his car. There was a new driver behind the wheel. Maybe not that new; Tony never bothered to learn their names anymore. Not since Happy had taken an early retirement, still walking wounded from the latest villain that realized civilians were much easier targets than a man in armor.
The back seat should have been empty, a welcome respite to the constant crowds of the morning. Instead, there was Steve. Tony checked his surprised reaction, keeping his face neutral and bland. Wherever Steve had come from it had left him battered and bruised at the edges.
“Cap.” Tony slid into the seat and tried not to groan as the soft leather embraced the ache in his bones. “How are you?”
“Fine.” Steve frowned, a crease not only at the side of his mouth, but at the corner of his eyes.
“You might as well just say whatever it is you came to say then go.” Tony sighed. “I’ve had a long day and it’s only going to get longer.”
“Why are you retiring?” Steve blurted. “You took on an entire alien race last month!”
“And it took me until today to get out of bed without whimpering.” Tony rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I can’t sustain the macho bullshit anymore. It looked good on me at forty, but at sixty? Everything hurts. All the old breaks, the scars, every weird experiment and near death experience, they add up.”
“What about the virtual reality piloting system you used to talk about? You could operate the suit without actually going out.”
“I tried that for a few months last year.” He snorted. “Like wearing two condoms to fuck someone wrapped in plastic.”
Too bad Steve doesn’t blush anymore. Instead he just looked faintly annoyed.
“So you’re going to quit.”
“Retire.” Tony corrected. “You know, that thing people do when they can’t work anymore? Why do you give a shit anyway? Don’t you have your team to worry about?”
“I’ll always care.” Steve gave him a doe eyed look that had once worked magic. Now dug under Tony’s skin and he fought hard against lashing out. “You’re my friend.”
“Am I? Interesting. Is that why I haven’t seen you since the funeral?”
“You told me to leave you alone.”
“I meant for a month or two. I needed that space, but then I needed you and you were gone.” Tony narrowed his eyes. “Do you know how pathetic I felt? Calling up Fury and begging to know where you were?”
“Yes. That’s what he told me. Top secret mission.” The car turned and in the distance the Avengers Tower thrust up in an angry stab towards the sky. “No timetable.”
“I’m sorry, Tony. I should have- but I couldn’t. I only got back yesterday and then I hear that you’re retiring. I came as soon as I knew. You don’t have to do this. You can come back, join the new team.”
“And be shown up by kids a quarter my age and twice the natural abilities?” He reached into the car’s fridge and pulled out another bottle of water. “I’m not interested in being anyone’s mentor.”
“You wouldn’t have to be.” Steve put a hand on Tony’s knee. “Please, don’t do this. She wouldn’t have wanted it.”
“You want to stop touching me, right now.” Tony said quietly, watched in angry satisfaction as Steve drew back as if slapped. “You don’t get to use her against me. No one has that privilege.”
The car pulled into the garage, idling there as Steve searched for something to say.
“Everyone else is gone.” He settled on, a pinched look at edges of his perfect lips. “If you go, then there’s nothing left of the original team. Nothing left of the Avengers.”
“It was always going to happen.” Tony popped the door open sliding out. “The rest of us faced that a long time ago. Call up Thor, maybe he’s sick of being king. Tell the driver where you want to be dropped off.”
He walked towards the elevator, satisfied at having gotten the last word. So of course, that was the moment the bright light flashed and he slid into the familiar land of unconsciousness.
In the course of his long, fraught relationship with concussions, Tony had woken up in a variety of locations ranging from the nightmarish to the medicinal. So it was with some begrudging respect that he had to admit that this time was different. The room was quiet and smelled pleasantly of the ocean. Wide windows were propped open, letting in a warm breeze. The bed was soft underneath him, white diaphanous curtains fluttering from the tall four posters. All in all, it felt much more like a scene from a terrible romance novel than a prison.
Tentatively, he sat up waiting for a surge of nausea and the pounding headache, but neither were forthcoming. The suit he’d been wearing had been mostly stripped off, leaving him in his undershirt and slacks. The rest of his clothing had been left neatly draped over a chair, but it was too warm to pull them back on.
A door stood ajar, leading into a hallway tiled in white. A faint trail of sand lingered on the floor, stirred occasionally by some passing breeze. Tony turned back to the room looking for anything that could be used as an impromptu weapon. Short of disassembling the fan without tools, there was nothing. With a resigned sigh, he headed down the hall. There were two other doors and he cautiously looked opened both. One proved to contain a gleaming white bathroom with a generously large shower stall. The other was empty. Ceiling to floor windows faced out over the lonely dunes of sand spotted here and there with thin vegetation. A single mat sat in the center of the room and beside it an unlit stick of incense.
Something about the barren scene disturbed him, he slammed the door shut and escaped back down the hall. The other end emptied out into a generous open space that spanned a spartan kitchen and a living room furnished entirely in cushions. They lay in heaping piles mixing with a collection of books, shells and driftwood carvings. Like his bedroom door, the front door had been left open.
Apparently he’d been abducted by some kind of zen beachcomber. Tony headed determinedly for the door, swinging it open to freedom. No path lead up to the house, no welcome mat waited for his feet outside the door. Instead the sand rose right up to the front door. A line of neat footprints lead out to the ocean and back. The water sparkled in the perfect blue clarity only found in pictures of the Caribbean. It reminded him painfully of his house in Malibu.
Tentatively he stepped out into the sand. The warm grains were unreasonably comforting between his toes. He followed the footprints even as he searched for any other sign of life. The beach stretched wide in either direction, a vast expanse of light that sparkled in the distance. He could admit, if only the privacy of his own head, that his vision wasn’t what it had once been and without the contacts he’d forgone that morning, everything took on a hazier, airbrushed look.
The last few footprints had been swallowed by the lap of the waves, but a single deck chair waited empty for him. On impulse, he rolled up the legs of his pants and let the waves caress his ankles. Raising a hand to shield his eyes, he could just make out a small blur in the water that could be a swimmer or a clump of seaweed.
He watched for a long time, the blur coming closer at an excruciatingly slow pace. The sun had moved far enough in the sky to send his shadow straight behind him by the time he’d determined it was definitely some kind of person. They were in no rush, swimming in long lazy strokes. Occasionally they flipped over onto their back and let the waves carry them. Eventually, Tony dragged the deck chair closer to the water and sank into it. The sun and the susurration of the waves lulled him into a doze. The warmth sunk under his skin to wrap around his aching bones.
Instincts honed to a knife’s edge woke him when the gradual beat was interrupted by a sharp splash. He jumped up from the chair, bending slightly at the knees, ready to take any comer.
The swimmer had at last arrived on the shore. Rivulets of water poured down off sickly pale skin, displaying a too thin and too naked body. One clever fingered hand reached up to untangle a long ponytail of hair so black that it mocked Tony’s salt and pepper crop. Green eyes focused on Tony with unashamed curiosity.
“Holy shit.” Tony dropped his stance. There wasn’t any point up against this kind of enemy. “We thought you were dead.”
“Hello, Tony.” Loki smiled with sharp amusement. “Did you miss me?”
“How did you survive? You were in the center of a nuclear explosion for fuck’s sake!”
“Was I?” Loki shrugged. “I’m sure it seemed that way at the time.”
“What do you want? Why have you brought me here?”
“Hungry?” Loki started walking back towards the house. “Swimming always builds an appetite.”
“What’s to stop me from running off?” Tony yelled after him.
“Nothing. It’s an uninhabited island. Lots of space to run.” Loki didn’t bother turning around. “I recommend going along the shore for the best views.”
Tony surveyed his options, but he never could help being curious and in the end, it was the easy choice to follow his captor back to the house. There was no proper kitchen table, only a counter with stools. He drew one out and sat down as Loki puttered around the kitchen with a thin white linen robe wrapped loosely around him, fluttering at the edges as he pulled ingredients from the fridge. He grilled the pink flesh of some fish Tony had never seen before, lavishing it with a butter and herb sauce. The smell filled the room and despite himself, Tony began to feel hungry.
“You didn’t die in the blast then.” He said to distract himself.
“No. I escaped through a slit in time.” Loki sliced a lemon carefully, then licked the juice off his fingers. “I traveled for a while. Saw other worlds, conquered a few. How long have I been gone?”
“Eight, maybe nine, years.” The bombing in the desert had made headlines for weeks and Pepper had made him take iodine pills every morning with his usual breakfast of black coffee. “Slit in time?”
“I could explain it to you, but the science of magic always bored me.” With a deft hand, Loki flipped the fish. “It allowed me certain freedoms. For me, I’d estimate that three or four centuries have passed since that day.”
“That’s some vacation.” Tony whistled low. “So what, you came back and decided that you had to abduct someone for old time’s sake?”
“No.” The flash of well sharpened knife divided the fish neatly in two. “I brought you here for a purpose.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense then.” He accepted the plate that Loki handed him.
“I need you to kill me.” Loki slid half the fish onto the plate. “Eradicate me from existence.”
“Excuse me?” Tony set the plate down harder than he intended.
“You should eat that while it’s hot.” Loki handed him a knife and fork, then set about devouring his own portion with his fingers, steam rising from his skin. “It becomes bitter when it goes cold.”
“How do I know this isn’t poisoned?” He asked even as he cut off the first bite.
“I could have done anything I wanted to you the moment you arrived here.” Loki ripped a long strip of pink flesh from the bone and sucked it into his mouth with a slick slurp. “Eat your dinner.”
Tony ate. The fish tasted a little like salmon, but also a little like an apple. The sauce added a citric tang. Before he could pin down all the flavors, he’d finished the plate. Loki poured him a glass of water from the tap which he drank down greedily, handing it back for a refill.
“Kidney failure?” Loki asked as he handed him the second glass.
“Long term effect of palladium poisoning.” He drank the second glass more slowly. “The dehydration tip you off?”
“I can smell it.” Loki shrugged, turning back to the fridge and pulling out two dishes of chocolate pudding. “It would explain why your name came up.”
“When? Chat with the voices in your head?”
“I didn’t choose you out of a hat.” Loki raised an eyebrow, handing over the cool glass. “I asked the Norns how I could end my life. You were suggested.”
“They do know that I’ve already tried to kill you about three dozen times without success right?” He dipped his spoon in and found the pudding surprisingly thick. When he put the spoon in his mouth, it melted in a thick flood of bittersweet chocolate, hazelnut and cream. “This is good.”
“Thank you.” Loki ate his with quick swipes of a pale tongue like a particularly deadly cat. “I suspect there is some poetic irony in it or some warrior’s death in letting a respected enemy kill oneself. I don’t much care. I’m ready to die and if you can bring it to me, then you will do.”
“Why are you so ready to die?”
“Why are you?”
“Death is coming for me. Hardly a choice for us mere mortals.” He teased the spoon through the depths of the bowl. “I’m paying a lot of doctors a lot of money to keep me alive as long as possible, but the end is inevitable now. It’s not just my kidneys.”
“You have no idea.”
“Oh, but I do.” Loki said softly, setting down his clean bowl. “Do you know how old I am?”
“No.” He frowned. “Didn’t think gods bothered counting.”
“Other gods are simple for the most part. Their base desires fill their days with ease. They lose track in the sameness.” He waved a hand as if to dismiss every other god in the myriad pantheons. “I’ve always had a strong time sense. An internal clock counting down every senseless second. In linear time alone, I’m eight hundred and fifty-five years old. If you include the time travel, universe hopping and various imprisonments, it comes to one thousand six hundred and twenty-two years.
“In that time, I have conquered worlds, universes. Reigned with an iron fist that caused ample rebellion and deep loyalty, led peaceful people to war and turned warriors into farmers. I’ve married seventeen times, fathered children on beasts you cannot begin to imagine and even raised some of them. I’ve played pranks of every kind, made jokes of the most serious men and turned saints to sinners. I have filled at every turn the purpose for which I was created. God of Mischief, God of Evil, God of the Beasts. Do you know what I have left?”
“Well you still do a decent villain monologue.” Tony offered, mouth already a little dry.
“Thank you.” The thin smile brought a broad one to Tony’s face. It was almost as if Loki found the whole thing as ridiculous as he did. “What I meant, is there is one role I have not yet filled. I am fated to bring the end of the universe. Death to the world tree.”
“So you and many others have said.” Tony faked a yawn. “What else is new?”
“I don’t want to do it.”
“Oh, come on. That’s your whole schtick! Rule the world or end it, right?”
“Maybe. But I’ve changed my mind.” Loki shrugged. “Let someone else bring an end to all things.”
“You know, if you were anyone else I’d ask if you’d found God or something.”
“I haven’t found anything, but what wiser and younger beings than me long ago discovered.” Turning, Loki turned on the sink and started to wash the dishes. “The universe is a vast place and I’m only one tiny part of it. I have no right to destroy it.”
Tony mulled that one over as Loki cleared the kitchen washing the pan, the dishes and bowls. He filled Tony’s glass again and set it front of him before meticulously wiping down the stove and counter.
“I could stab you.” He suggested when the kitchen had been returned to its previous pristine state. “That knife is sharp and I’m sure if I did something creative and you didn’t fight me off I could manage it.”
“That’s one of the hurdles.” Loki sighed. “I would fight you off.”
“You’re suicidal and you would fight me off?”
“I’m not suicidal. I’m ready to die.” Loki corrected as if the difference should be obvious. “Anyway, it’s not a conscious choice. The magic that makes me what I am has a certain natural resistance to ending. It’s tied closely to the other two hurdles.”
“That I’m only flesh and bone and I’m taking on a god that’ll fight back? There’s more to it than that?”
“You have to kill my magic. My soul, spirit... essence. Whatever you wish to call it. If you don’t, I’ll only reform. It would take years, but eventually I’d be right back where I started.”
“Kill your soul.” Tony rubbed his eyes. “I was on my way to a board meeting, you know. A nice ordinary boring board meeting.”
“You have to admit that you’ve already enjoyed this a lot better.”
“What’s the last hurdle then?” Because he’d do no such thing.
“You’ll have to actually do it when the time comes.” Loki leaned on the counter, chin propped on his fist, his eyes were bright and curious as they searched Tony’s face. “Will you?”
“You’ve killed a lot of innocent people.” Tony said out loud more to remind himself than anything else. “I don’t think I’ll have a lot of trouble putting you down.”
“That’s the spirit.” Loki smiled dreamily. “You’ll have the run of the house, but I’m sure the basement will interest you the most. I’ve gathered data over the years, more than you could read in several lifetimes, but it’s well indexed.”
“What if I die or escape before I figure it out?”
“You won’t.” Loki snorted. “I’ve taken us out of time. It seemed more prudent. You won’t age here. I can’t heal you, my magic doesn’t extend that way, but you won’t get worse. As to escape, there’s really nowhere to go. Here doesn’t exist the way you’re used to. It’s more a concept.”
“A concept of what?”
“Peace. The closest I can manage.” Loki turned away, treading quietly back down the hall to the empty room. “Sleep. You look like you could use it.”
Tony searched the house again first. In the living room, he uncovered a discrete sound system without a logo. He scrolled through the playlist, recognizing less than a tenth of the languages let alone exact tracks. The bathroom yielded no extra secrets unless Loki’s apparent fondness for jasmine scented hair products could be construed as scandalous.
The bedroom he’d woken up in still contained the rest of his suit, a chair and the ridiculous bed. There was a closet and he threw it open. A white linen robe hung from a single hanger. Shoved limp and wrinkled in one corner was a familiar black cloak. When Tony drew it out, a cloud of dust rose up. Underneath the great helm rested against the wall. A cobweb hung between the pointed horns. Disturbed, Tony threw the cloak back over the helm, then wiped his hands off on his trousers.
For the sake of completion, he pushed open the door to the empty room. There were no locks in the house, but he assumed that Loki could keep him out if he really wanted. Privacy had never been a great concern of Tony’s and he was damned if he’d start now.
Loki sat, robe discarded, on the mat in the center of the room. He’d taken the tie from his hair and it fell in a dark wave over the sharp blades of his shoulders. Each visible knob of his spine stretched the skin over it as tight as a drum. The incense was lit, but it smelled nothing like the rank thick odor Tony had expected. There were notes of something bloody, thick musky aftershave and frost. A memory rose unbidden to the fore of Tony’s mind.
The phone lay hot against his face as her voice rose and fell on the other end.
“Come home soon.” He could hear her smile. “You have no idea how much paperwork I have waiting for you.”
“I love when you sweet talk me.” He winked broadly at Steve, who was trying desperately not to listen to the conversation. It couldn’t be helped though. Not when they were stuck in this godforsaken tent in the middle of the icy wilderness. “It’s fucking freezing here, Pep. My frostbite has frostbite.”
“I packed you extra gloves.” She clucked her tongue.
“Extra gloves! It’s five below. Gloves aren’t going to cut it.” He searched his bag as he talked, grinning when he found the extra pair. They were bright pink. “Especially not Hello Kitty gloves. I’m serious about the cold. I might cut Steve open and crawl into his body to sleep.”
“Tony!” They both scolded at the same time.
“What?” He slipped Hello Kitty over the practical black SHIELD gloves. “It’d be warm for a while.”
“You could just share body heat.” Her laugh warmed him from the inside heat.
“What if I succumb to his manly charms? I could commit nearly unwilling infidelity.”
“I trust you.”
“That’s tragic.” Even under the two sets of gloves, the metal of his wedding ring stayed a cold reminder. “Mrs. Stark, I’m sorry to hear you’ve been brain damaged.”
“I love you.”
He swallowed hard. “Yeah, I know. Love you too.”
They hung up without saying goodbye because that’s what they did.
“Everything alright?” Steve asked, but it was clear by the deep blush rising on his cheeks that he’d heard the whole thing.
“You up for a snuggle?” Tony put on his most charming smile. “I promise to keep it above the belt.”
“Are you really cold or are you bored and think annoying me will pass the time?”
“Can’t it be both?”
Outside a freezing wind ramped up another notch, wailing at a high pitch and sending thick drifts of snow up against their tent. A single lantern threw thick yellow light everywhere, highlighting the bright strands of Steve’s hair and the rich tan of his skin. With a sigh, he lifted one muscular arm and Tony burrowed under it. Steve’s arm went around his shoulders, heavy and warm. For the first time in days, Tony thought he might manage a few minutes of sleep.
A scream rent the air, mingling so perfectly with the cry of the wind that they both nearly missed it. Shouts followed it and within an instant they were suited up and heading into the blinding darkness of a blizzard.
“It’s a powerful smoke.” Loki said softly without turning. “It sends you backwards. Takes getting used to.”
“What do you want to see?” Tony stumbled further into the room, his left knee gone stiff from standing as he sifted through the memory.
“Everything. I’m...settling my accounts for lack of a better term.” Whatever Loki was doing it, it didn’t seem to require him closing his eyes. He stared straight forward into the dunes. “Making sure everything balances out to zero.”
Though his knee and ankles protested, Tony sank into a full lotus next to Loki. He was still flexible despite his aches and pains. Something he used to be vain about, but there was no one to show off to anymore.
“I’m using your bedroom.” He breathed through his mouth, trying to ignore the insidious smell of incense. “Where will you sleep?”
“I don’t. I can if I wish, but it’s an affectation.”
“Thor always said you were an ice giant.”
“Yes, he would, wouldn’t he?” Loki sighed without a hint of anger and that surprised Tony more than anything else.
“Then wouldn’t living here be a form of masochism?”
“I like it.” A faint smile crossed Loki’s lips. “I wasn’t raised in the ice and I find that no matter the passage of time that makes all the difference.”
Tony couldn’t think of anything to say in response. That had begun happening more and more over the last few months. Since the last prognosis, he found himself retreating into silence. He ceased playing loud music in his lab, stopped going to parties and conferences. It was as if he were listening for something that he couldn’t afford to miss. He couldn’t imagine what that might be.
Unconsciously, his breathing slid into rhythm with the same deep and easy draws that Loki took. Together they looked out over the silent sands. Tony wasn’t sure when he slumped into sleep, but he woke up back in the bed with the sun creeping up over the water outside. The white sheets picked up the pink and orange highlights of the sky.
Tony sat up slowly, wincing as his joints cracked. After two days of wear, his trousers and shirt were beginning to itch at him. With a frown, he shed them and took the light robe off its hanger. The shower in the bathroom proved to produce deliciously hot water that he let rush over him for a long time before reaching for the fresh bar of soap sitting idly on the ledge. It filled the steamy air with the pungent smell of lime and basil. Whatever was in it left his skin subtly tingling.
The mirror over the sink provided him with no surprises. The deep furrows around his eyes lifted when he flashed himself a bright smile. The first hints of real sickness were only just encroaching. He ran his hand through his damp hair. It was grey, but still thick. Pepper had liked the first hints of white sneaking in at his temples. He could never bring himself to dye it.
“What am I doing?” He asked his reflection, but it only stared back just as confused. Opening a drawer, he wasn’t surprised to find a new stick of deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. None of them had labels or a brand name. The light cloth of the robe clung to his damp skin as he shrugged into it, belting it tightly.
He checked the empty room, but its occupant had left. The kitchen proved more fruitful, boasting a plate of raspberries and a glass of water left out on the corner. He downed the water and picked up a single berry. The juice stained his fingertips red. He set it back down in the bowl, refilled his water glass and headed outside. He followed Loki’s prints down to the shore.
The deck chair greeted him like an old friend as he sank down into it. Loki wasn’t nearly as far out today. He wasn’t even bothering to swim. Instead he floated on his back, letting the waves carry him in and out until he washed up on the shore like a bit of driftwood.
“Good morning.” Loki rose out of the sand.
“You need to show me the basement.” He rolled the empty glass of water between his hands. “If you want me to help.”
“You should eat something.” Loki reached out and took Tony’s hand in his, unerringly seeking out his juice stained thumb and forefinger. The god’s skin was unnaturally cool as if the fine network of blue veins carried ice instead of blood. Maybe they did. “Your body still requires it.”
“I never eat breakfast.” He ached to snatch his hand away, but a part of him still feared what Loki might do. “Ruins my concentration, all that metabolizing.”
“As you say.” Loki sighed and released him. Tony flexed his fingers surreptitiously. They felt no different for the brief encounter. “Come along then.”
Tony watched every muscle in Loki’s back, ass and legs propel him up the path. It had been a long time since someone had been so casually nude in front of Tony and he felt greedy for the sight.
They skirted around the house to a pair of storm doors that must have rested under the enormous windows of the empty room. Loki threw them open in one graceful motion. Stairs unfolded into darkness.
“Don’t get lost.” Loki advised. “I’ll bring you lunch later.”
“You aren’t coming?”
“You’ll want to see it alone first.”
He took each stair carefully, groping for a banister and nearly sighing in relief when he found one. The light from the open doors only penetrated the first few steps. After that it was inky black. He reminded himself that Loki probably hadn’t brought him all this way, only to have him fall down a flight of stairs. That’d be petty even for the God of Mischief.
Stairs gave way abruptly to a cold concrete floor. Tony’s bare feet transmitted unhappy shocks. He felt along the wall for a light switch. It occurred him that the house hadn’t had any light fixtures. The only sign that the house had electricity at all was the refrigerator and hot water.
He never did find a switch. A few more steps in and the basement shuddered slightly. Torches caught up along the walls, fire jumping to life to scatter crazed shadows. Shelves upon shelves of books lined the walls shoved in among scrolls, CDs, crystals and discarded hard drives. Dead center there was a long bench scattered with equipment that would have been at home in any alchemist’s wet dream.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with with this?” He asked the air as he ghosted his hands over bubbling beakers and bars of gold.
The air tensed, then shook like a dog throwing water from its fur. The table disappeared in the wave and reformed into a familiar metal work table, blueprints and a heap of scraps. A hologram glittered in the corner, an all too familiar interface.
“JARVIS?” He asked tentatively.
“No, sorry.” The voice that echoed around him was definitely masculine, but lacked JARVIS’ crisp accent. It had a softer, more tentative edge. There was something distantly familiar about it. “I’m the Archivist. I haven’t manifested as a computer before. It’s interesting.”
“What do you look like normally?”
“Sometimes I’m a card catalog or a librarian. Sometimes Loki prefers I don’t manifest at all.” The voice took on an amused edge. “I annoy him.”
“Didn’t he create you? I mean, if this is a concept not a place.”
“He doesn’t have as much control as he’d like to think.” The voice hesitated. “Never mind. What can I do for you, Mr. Stark?”
“Call me Tony.” He fiddled with a screwdriver. “Loki wants me to kill him. And he thinks the answer is somewhere in here. Sorry if that’s a conflict of interest or something for you.”
“I don’t have interests.” It informed him in the exact way JARVIS denied having feelings that Tony didn’t program. “There are many sources that discuss the death of gods, but he has read many of them and come to no conclusion. Might I suggest instead that I cross index the highlights for you and you can read them on your tablet? It would catch you up far quicker. I believe you will have to move onto experimentation after that.”
Most of what the Archivist turned up proved to be myth. Tony had never put much stock in stories, but many of them were from planets he would never travel too and cultures he could never hope to encounter. The brief visits to exotic location made the reading worth it. At one point, he looked up and someone had left a pitcher of water at his elbow along with a plate of thinly sliced melon and prosciutto.
He rolled the melon and meat together, eating them in quick bites as he scrolled through a story about tribe of plainsman, who in worshipping a god of fate had determined that the sincerest form of worship was to capture the god in a bottle. It worked about as well as one could expect.
The next four stories were along the similar vein then jumped to a rather brutal set of tales from various cultures that involved a lot more dismemberment that resulted in unlikely creation. Bones made mountains and flesh melted into streams. Hearts were set at the center of worlds in graphic detail.
“That’s enough of that.” He rubbed delicately at the skin around the arc reactor. “Archivist?”
“I need Asgard myths. Jotun ones if they exist. Then history texts on both.”
The tablet screen froze, then reconfigured and spilled forth fresh text. Tony drank a glass of water and started to read. The history of the war between the Asgardians and the frost giants took him off guard in its detail and he got far more absorbed than he’d intended. He was deep into the Great Battle of Midgard when an icy hand slid around the back of the neck. Starting, he dropped the tablet to the table.
“How did you do that?” He whipped around, out of Loki’s grip.
“Your attention was elsewhere.” Loki said quietly. He was still naked. Maybe the robe was only for cooking. “Come. You must eat.”
“What is your obsession with food?” Tony stood up, stretching his stiff back carefully.
“I have hunger. I wish to eat. That’s not an obsession. It’s rational.”
“You look like you’re two missed meals away from starvation.”
“Appearances deceive.” Loki started for the stairs.
“Vague nearly wise sayings don’t suit you.” Tony followed him up, watching the torches douse themselves as Loki left them behind. “Yoda, you aren’t.”
“I’ve always thought I could do better than a wrinkled green puppet.” Loki closed the storm doors behind them.
“You keep up with pop culture?”
“Here and there. When I was on earth, I didn’t have much to do between plans. I usually indulged in movies and the like. It kept the days from being too empty.”
Tony looked pointedly around the stretching miles of quiet. Loki smiled and shrugged.
“It’s different.” But he didn’t expound, only led the way to a blanket spread in the sand.
They ate crab legs and fresh cherry tomatoes that burst on the tongue. Tony worked his way through another pitcher of water and kept his eyes on the sunset. It proved to be spectacular, an explosion of color that rivaled any he could remember back home.
“Pepper used to make me watch sunsets.” He said quietly, then started at the sound of his own voice. He didn’t talk about her to other people. Certainly not to enemies.
“Why?” Loki asked, plucking up one of the grapes that was serving for dessert.
“She said I never took enough time to look at things. It was bullshit because she was busier than I was most of the time. Only she faced her desk towards the windows and I was usually in the basement. Every day when we were in the same place, she dragged me outside to watch the sunset and have a drink.” He dragged a finger through the sand. “It’s a stupid, sentimental thing to miss.”
“Is it?” Loki tilted his head back, the last hint of the sun playing over his face. “I imagine that most of the things one misses are silly and sentimental. If we missed the unvarnished truth than it would hurt too much to carry on.”
Tony thought about the catch in Pepper’s voice when she was disappointed in him and the way she bit her cuticles until they bled when he was away too long on a mission. He thought of their crowded bathroom sink overrun with their combined creams and perfumes. How many times he’d been annoyed at how she was always there at his elbow or calling his phone, checking up on him and invading his life by inches until there was no room left to breath. How when she died, it left so many crevices and deep hollows behind.
“Yes.” He blinked rapidly against a deep burn in his eyes. “Yes, there’s that.”
“One of my husbands was a chef.” Methodically, Loki peeled the skin from the grape in strips. “He taught me to love food, meal by meal. I never cared much before then. I found him on one of the worlds I had conquered. His people were slaves under my tyranny and I took him to my bed because he was young and pretty. I thought he would hate me and that would add spice to the sex. Instead, he spotted this plate of fruit in my rooms and became excited, explained how when it was cooked it would taste like meat and be spread on herb bread. I let him make it instead of taking him to bed. That night anyway. We had forty years together in the end.”
“And he was fine with you being a fascist dictator?” Even including the years they had spent as boss and assistant, Tony and Pepper had shared only twenty years together. Nothing was fair.
“By the time he died, his people were not only free, but the wealthiest in seven galaxies. It was my first experiment in peace, you might say. I was conquered by a berry no larger than this.” He held the skinned grape up to the light then popped it into his mouth. “I miss the way he looked at me when I was cruel.”
“That’s....” Tony left off. It was sad and frightening and not exactly what he expected.
“Yes.” Loki nodded as if Tony had finished his thought. “Would you like to meditate with me tonight?”
“Shouldn’t I be researching your death?”
“I think it’s best to limit your studies to the daylight. The Archive can be tricky at night.”
“I have no idea what that means coming from you.”
“It’s a good warning, is what it is.”
They settled together in the empty room. Loki lit the incense without a match. It was the first display of personal power the god had bothered with since Tony had arrived. The smoke penetrated the room and though Tony was sure it was the same stick of incense, the smell was entirely different. Tonight it smelled a little like roses, a little like gunpowder and a lot like sex.
Pepper’s spine dipped beautifully into the small of her back when she lay on her stomach. She pillowed her head on her arms and smiled at him drowsily while he ran a hand down her side. They were both naked, sweating and satisfied.
“I want to get married.” He told her, kissing the mole on her left shoulder. “Let’s run off to Las Vegas tonight. We can find an Elvis impersonator who’s met an alien or something.”
“That was a terrible proposal.” She wrinkled her nose. “You didn’t even phrase it as a question.”
“If I phrase it as a question that means you have a choice and I’m certainly not giving you one of those.”
“Tony, I’d say yes if you did.” She turned her head enough to catch him in a kiss. “How can you even think otherwise?”
“Because you’ve never wanted to be Mrs. Stark.”
“I’ve never wanted to lose myself in you.” She turned onto her side and that view was good too. It was a shame he couldn’t give it his full attention. “That won’t be any harder if I have your last name and a ring.”
“I did get you one.” He hesitated. “It’s in the office, should I get it?”
“No.” She kissed him again and he can feel her smile on his lips. “I want you to take me out tomorrow night for dinner and do it properly. We’re not getting married in Vegas. I want our people to be there.”
“I call dibs on Rhodey as my best man.” He said because it was easier than the million and one other things he wanted to tell her that wouldn’t quite fit in his mouth.
“That’s fine. I want Natasha anyway. You should see what she can do with a few bobby pins and a torn dress.” She replied like she knew exactly what he meant to say. “I want flowers. Big, ridiculous girly pink flowers.”
“I can do that.” He nudged her cheek with his nose, kissing her jaw. “I can’t guarantee it won’t be interrupted by angry giant robot alien squirrels though.”
“That’s what the rest of the wedding party is for. You’re not leaving me at the altar to chase down evil.”
“I can tell you’re going to be one of those bossy wives.” He nipped at her neck. “I like it. Tell me what to do, Mrs. Stark.”
“You can do that again.” She breathed out, eyelids fluttering shut as one hand twined in his hair.
“Shit.” Tony let his head hang scrubbing his hands wildly through his hair. “Is there any way I can choose what memories come up?”
But Loki didn’t respond. Tony glanced up and found the god’s eyes drooped half closed. His lips were flushed a deep bloody red. Unnerved, Tony fled the room. He headed down the beach, the taste of Pepper still lingering on his lips. It felt profoundly real and impossible. Dropping the linen robe, he dove into the waves and started to swim.
The water embraced him and he took long strong strokes. It cradled him as he flung himself onto his back under the watchful eye of the moon. It occurred to him as he floated that the isolation of the beach, its tiny house and bizarre quasi-evil owner was still the most continuous company he’d had in three years. So many of his friends were dead or gone and he’d lost the knack of making new ones.
When he’d firmly shut the door in Steve’s face, expecting him to still be there when he was ready, it had almost been comforting. Comforting to turn someone away, to see someone who cared about him disappointed. As if Pepper might sweep in and scold him for his rudeness. It was Pepper who had brokered peace between he and Steve so many times. Without her, perhaps their friendship was impossible. Maybe that was why Steve had run into the arms of SHIELD and a mission that would wipe him off even the most determined radar.
The moon turned the water around him to silver and he let himself be thrown back towards shore. The sand reached into every tuck and fold of his skin, raining off of him as he walked slowly back into the house. Through the front windows, he spotted Loki who had apparently given up meditation for something far more disturbing.
The God of Evil was dancing. The long naked line of his body whipped around at improbable angles as if his joints were a mere suggestion. As Tony got closer, he could feel the music pounding out of the house and rumbling through the ground. The tempo was achingly close, the same rhythm as his rapidly escalating heartbeat.
Tentatively he entered the house, the first warning prickles of arousal rushing over his skin. A singer wailed in a heavy glottal language, rising up over the beat. Loki rolled his neck, the long ebony fall of his hair flying wildly around him. His eyes were closed, lips parted and quick feet wove around the cushions and debris on the floor without a single misstep. Hips slid in circles that were less a suggestion than a blatant invitation.
Without any conscious decision, Tony’s body started to sway to the hypnotic beat. It wormed its way into his shoulders and chest. When Loki’s eyes snapped open, vicious and hungry, Tony had to swallow hard. With a gesture that was half-command, half-request, Loki extended his hand. Tony quirked a smile, reached forward and grabbed onto Loki’s thin wrist. With quick tug he closed the space between them, the brush of Loki’s cold skin against his own was a hard shock to his lungs.
The eye contact didn’t waver, even as the beat increased and Loki’s dance became frenetic, ecstatic, winding around Tony like a snake. Tony had always thought of himself as a good dancer, but he was quickly left behind in Loki’s whirlwind. The god was emitting a low level scent that was anything, but human. Musky, coppery and chemical, it only addled Tony’s already bemused senses further.
When they dropped on a pile of pillows, the sex flowed straight from the dance. The music wailed on in an endless tight spiral of feverish voices and heavy beats, accompanying the rise and fall of Loki’s trim waist as he took Tony into his body. He was cold there too, but Tony was far too gone to care. He’d only felt like this a few times before, back in college when he’d mixed pot, ecstasy and a six pack of beer. Time dilated peculiarly as they moved together. At one moment, the slow motion of Loki’s face descending closer to him, the next moving at hyper speeds as their mouths tore together in a vicious parody of a kiss that left both their lips smeared with blood. It went on forever, it was over in a minute. They danced together, men possessed until the unearthly music followed Tony into a muddy dream-filled sleep.
When he woke, everything was still and quiet. A sheet had been draped over him where he lay on the myriad cushions. A glass of water had been left a foot away from his head. He resisted the urge to throw it against the wall. Instead he drank it down in careful sips and tried to make peace with what must have happened.
“Sorry, Pep.” He set the glass back down, rubbing a hand over his eyes. He’d maintained his vows for so long. Perhaps their demise was inevitable, but it didn’t have to be with someone that he intended to murder and justly so.
His legs were stiff when he rose. With a frown, he fell into his routine stretches until everything moved easily again. Usually at home, he would be on a treadmill already, adhering to the discipline Steve had taken years to drum into him. The white stretch of sand outside beckoned him. He headed back to the bedroom, searching for his discarded underwear and slacks. With a few key cuts with the kitchen knife they made serviceable enough running shorts. Nothing to be done about footwear though. Sandals wouldn’t cut it and his dress shoes would do more harm than help.
The sand gave more resistance then he was used too, but he was powered by rage, guilt and frustration this morning. He moved to the wet sand closest to water and went full tilt, leaving behind the house and its owner. The island stayed level and calm, soothing in its breathtakingly beautiful sameness. He didn’t bother slowing until he rounded the farthest point from the house. He could still see it out of the corner of his eye, a white serene dot on the horizon.
One eye on what was behind him, he almost tripped on what lay in front of him. Thrusting up in the sand was a sharp pointed glint of gold. Tony squatted down and idly pushed the sand away, revealing a much larger object than he originally suspected. The pushing became digging first casual and then frenetic until he freed the great helm from the sand. Golden wings swept back, the delicate dome marked and scarred from too many battles.
“What are you doing here?” He asked Thor’s helmet, brushing the sand from it.
The helm offered no answers, gleaming dully in his hands. He tucked it under his arm and headed back to the house. At the last minute he diverted and headed down into the blissful cool of the Archives.
“Yes, Tony?” The voice teased on the edges of his consciousness, a repressed memory trying to surface.
“I’ve got Thor’s helm here. How is that possible?”
“It is quite likely in locations such as this one.”
“I’ve been asking the wrong questions,” Tony set the helm down gently on his work table, leaving a hand on its golden bulk. “Where am I?”
“It is not a physical realm.”
“Right. It’s a concept. Loki’s concept of peace. But where does a concept call home? A mind.”
“That would generally be true,” the Archivist hedged.
“And you can’t tell me because it’s one of Loki’s obstacles. Which means this must be his mind. All the components of it are working against me because they know his goal.”
There was silence for a long moment and Tony tried to imagine the nimble mind of a god pausing for even a second. A supercomputer digesting the data.
“That is not the complete picture,” the Archivist said in that same gentle tone, “though you are quite close. The current limitations of my existence prevent from helping you as much as I potentially could.”
“Current? So it’s changeable. Interesting.”
“We exist in a bridge of possibility.”
“You mean state.”
“Of course, Tony.” And was that a lilt of sarcasm?
“A bridge.” He trailed a finger the helmet, frowning when his thumb caught. There was a gouge just behind the left feather. Closing his eyes, he searched his memory. Wolverine. Thor and the mutant had sparred nearly leveling the complex. Thor had been filled with righteous indignation when Wolverine had managed to nick the previously unblemished helm.
“Where did you find this?” Loki’s hand closed over his.
“Does it matter?” Tony wanted to pull away, but he didn’t want to relinquish possession of his first clue in the whole mess.
“I’m no longer sure,” Loki sighed softly, the breeze of it fluttering against Tony’s cheek. “It used to mean everything.”
“...we’re not talking about the helm are we?”
“What was his name?” Loki closed his eyes, searching for something beneath his lids.
“Uh...you mean Thor?”
“Yes.” The god sighed softly. “How could I just...forget? He was everything, once.”
“You tried to kill him a few times.”
“I know. I remember. There’s just so much now. Perhaps I buried him on purpose.”
The helm buried in the sand, something tickled at Tony’s mind. A suggestion.
“Why would you do that?”
“Why does anyone try to forget something?” Loki put the helm down gently. “It hurt too much to remember.”
“Do you want something?” He demanded, knocked off kilter and unwilling to feel sympathy.
“This is my Archive. I visit in on occasion.” Raising an eyebrow, Loki communicated amusement and disdain. “You are on edge today.”
“I’m not exactly thrilled by last night.”
“No?” Loki shrugged. “Impulse. It’s a flaw we share, I think. I won’t apologize for it.”
A younger Tony would have protested the comparison. Now he saw the truth in it. Of course, he tempered his impulsivity with affection and the strict morals he’d picked up over the last fifteen years. Then again, there was nothing immoral about what they’d done. Everyone had been consenting and no one betrayed.
“Not looking for an apology.” He settled on, slowly sliding his hand along with the helm out from Loki’s grasp.
“As you wish.” Turning from him, Loki studied the shelves. Finally he laid his hand on a book and retreated back up the stairs.
“What was that about?” Tony mused, turning back to the Asgardian myths from the day before.
“No idea.” The Archivist said with a vocal shrug.
“Is there anything written about this kind of conceptual living?” Tony asked idly, finger running down a list of battles that occurred long before his earliest ancestor had been born.
“Great. Give it up.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Right. Obstacles.” Tony frowned.
The afternoon was a loss after that. He searched through piles of notes and attempted to build some kind of model for god tensile strength that simply wouldn’t run. Mostly he thought about what the Archivist had tried to tell him. By the time Loki fetched him for dinner, Tony had worked himself into knots.
“No progress?” Loki asked mildly, handing him a bowl of gazpacho that soothed away the remains of the day’s heat.
“I have a tentative theory.” He said with equal equanimity.
When Loki slipped away to meditate, Tony gamely followed. As the incense was lit, Tony brought the voice of the Archivist firmly to mind and focused on it. He had no idea if the incense would take guidance, but he was damned if he wouldn’t at least try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
They stood on the roof of the Avengers’ Tower. Tony’s scarf whipped around his head, his sunglasses tinting the sunset blue and black.
“Do you ever wonder,” Bruce asked him, wrapped in countless layers of clothes, nose and eyes red with the whipping wind, “what comes after?”
“After what?” Tony shoved his hands in his pockets and watched the first flakes of snow fall towards them in a lazy spin.
“Life. I always assumed a vast, dark nothingness. Wouldn’t that be something?”
“Why do you bring it up now?”
“Don’t get suspicious.” Bruce snorted. “Only winter makes me think about death. The ending of things and how they come again.”
“See, this? This is why you’re not usually allowed to have any of my whiskey.” Tony passed him the bottle anyway and Bruce took a generous sip.
“There’s a time for every purpose under heaven.” Bruce hummed and for the first time under the influence of the incense, Tony knew exactly what was going on.
He opened his eyes with a quick snap and slipped from the room, leaving Loki to his statue impression. Night had fallen again outside and he slipped a few times in the sand as he made his way to the basement doors.
Even as he thundered down the stairs, he remember Loki’s warning about the archives after dark. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the twitch and slither of phantoms, ugly, salivating beasts. He ignored them.
“Yes, Mr. Stark?” The warm, all too familiar now voice asked.
The torches flickered out and then burst back into life. Standing next to Tony’s worktable was the weather beaten form of Bruce Banner. He even wore the glasses that Tony had many years ago replaced with lenses. He was Bruce as Tony had first met him. Back then he had thought Bruce terribly old, shoulders rounded and hair shot through with grey. He had been an idiot then. The Bruce that had walked away in the middle of a battle six years ago never to be seen or heard from again had truly been old. Old in a way that had nothing to do with time and everything to do with the fight he had waged for twenty years inside himself.
Tony had spent every day for three years convinced that Bruce would come back. It was only when Pepper died and he didn’t attend the funeral that he lost all sense of hope. Bruce had always loved Pepper, lavishing her with attention that might have gone to a wife in a different man.
“Are you...” He started ask, before trailing off to drink his fill of his friend.
“I have no idea.” Bruce shrugged. “Whatever you know, I know.”
“Because the bridge that Loki made between our minds is starting to fail. We’re sliding into my head now. Right?”
“I can confirm that, yes.” Bruce smiled faintly. “I thought I would have to feed you everything.”
“Can I touch you?”
“No.” Bruce passed his hand through the table. “We haven’t gotten that far yet.”
“I think I know what I have to do.” Tony came to stand by his side anyway. For all intents and purposes, Bruce was there, ready to fight with him once again.
“Are you prepared to do it?”
One of the beasts, a black snake that dripped ooze as it moved, approached the table and wound around the leg.
“I don’t think I have any choice.” Tony shrugged. “It’s the end of me anyway.”
“How do you want to do it?”
“With a bang.”
Bruce couldn’t touch anything, but he still knew everything. Especially about Tony. They had the necessary explosives prepared within an hour.
“You may not survive this.” Bruce’s voice was kind and Tony appreciated that shred of comfort. Especially here at what seemed, at long last, to be the end.
“Thanks.” He clapped Bruce on the arm and was surprised to find it was solid. “Huh.”
“You’ve always were an overachiever.”
“Can you help me line the house?”
“Not that much of an achiever.” Bruce leaned over, grazed a kiss over Tony’s cheek. “Walk with the blessing of Yggdrasil.”
Bruce winked out of existence and Tony bit back a curse.
Two armfuls of extremely volatile explosives were not Tony’s idea of a safe trip, but needs must. He planted his terrible seeds in the sand around the house. In a strange way, he’d grown to like the place. It hurt to sow it’s destruction, but Tony was used to killing the things he loved. Or watching them die. When he finished, he walked down to the beach and settled himself into a chair. He looked up at the darkening sky.
“What do you see?” Loki appeared, naked and wild as the first day. He crouched next to Tony’s chair. It should have been an uncomfortable pose, but he held it with graceful ease.
“I see stars.” Tony raised an eyebrow. “Why? What do you see?”
“I see pain. And anger. And suffering. Painted over a hundred million worlds. I see joy. I see hope.” Loki shrugged, eyes turned upward. “I can’t look at them and forget the suns that have shone their good light on my face.”
“Nice thought.” Tony sat up a little, turned in his chair to study Loki’s timeless face. “Why are you so ready to give this up?”
“Why are you?”
“I’m not!” Tony got to his feet, suddenly enraged. Loki didn’t move, but even crouched at Tony’s feet there was nothing vulnerable about him. “I’m old and sick and tired, but you know what? Being here? I realized something. I’m not fucking ready to die. I will if I must, but if God himself finally decided to show up and asked me if I wanted five more years living exactly as I am, I’d say yes! Pepper would have wanted that, I think. I don’t know any more. I can’t live by what she’d want, maybe. But I want...I want to live.”
“That’s a change of tune.” Loki stood slowly and for the first time, Tony saw the god in him. It wasn’t any one thing. There was a massiveness to his presence, a sudden fathomless age that swelled over the beach and dwarfed the ocean. “Are you backing out then? Will you refuse to kill me?”
“No.” Tony looked into that terrible truth, the awesome power that lay under the fragile pale skin and dark hair. “I just thought I would say that out loud. One last dramatic speech for the road. Your turn.”
The vastness collapsed back into that whippet thin body and dark eyes. For a moment, Tony thought that Loki even looked a little...afraid. Was that possible?
“I loved.” Loki said quietly. “What else is there?”
It lay heavy and thick between them. Tony let out one last thready breath.
“It’s been real....well. No. I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?” Tony crossed the last few inches of sand between them and brushed a kiss over Loki’s thin lips. “Wanna count to three?”
“One...” Clouds gathered overhead in the worst kind of omen, lightning flashed through Loki’s eyes. “Two...”
Tony hit the trigger.
Lighting ran toward him and he wasn’t sure if the flame engulfed him first or that jagged burst of energy.
All he knew was
the hypnotic darkness of Loki’s eyes
and a voice old and tired as the moon whisper
Wear it well, Stark.
“Tony!” Someone was shaking him and the pain of a thousand searing burns disappeared as quickly as they had come.
“Fuck! What?” Tony’s eyes flew open and it was Steve. Just Steve.
Steve looking half scared to death and sad and...he had a red pulsing energy around him.
“You fainted.” Steve choked out. “Just collapsed on the way to the elevator.”
“Right. Of course.” He groaned, sat up. The red halo hung around Steve like a second skin, moving with him as he backed away. “Timeless mind dimension. Shit.”
“Are you ok?” Steve’s baby blues winked and the red aura flickered into a steady white flame.
“Not even close to the right question.” He pushed up off the floor and the pavement crumbled under his hands. Brushing the dust of it from his palms, Tony laughed in an ugly jagged way. “You know what the right question was? What happens when you kill a god, Steve?”
“Tony?” The aura went red again, fear and concern streaking through it.
The crackle of power was unmistakable for all that Tony had never felt it before. It rattled and shook under his skin. New knowledge flooded his mind like the ocean he’d swam in and facts more numerous than grains of sand on the beach he had stood on. There was no memory attached. Wiped clean by the fire that Tony had burned through Loki.
“The thing is as it turns out,” Tony turned up his palm and watched a flame spring up from it. Steve’s aura was dizzying now, red, orange, blue and green. Fireworks of fear, confusion and awe, “you can’t kill a god. Oh, the mind sure. You can strip it bare and erase it all, burn the memories and the personality out. That’s what he wanted, so I kept up my end of the bargain.”
“You look.... What did you do?”
“What we always do.” And he could feel himself changing, the lines smoothing away and the grey shivering out of his hair. “Killed the bad guy. But there’s always consequences aren’t there?”
“Tony.” Steve said once, very softly.
“Not anymore. At least, not only.” And Tony reached out and touched Steve’s cheek. He could feel his life force, a strong pulse in time with his heart. He could taste the worlds where Steve had traveled and the scars he’d gathered there. “Damn. No wonder everyone liked you best. It’s like you’re made of good intentions.”
“I dreamed about you. In the mind of a god...my mind now. Wow. Confusing.” He blinked. “Anyway. I dreamed you. We were in the snow somewhere. Pepper gave me Hello Kitty gloves and you let me sleep under your arm. Do you remember that?”
“Yeah.” Steve said hoarsely. “Yeah, of course I do. You know I’ve always-”
“It doesn’t matter.” Tony smiled jaggedly. “Passing thought. Passing dream.”
Tony let his hand drop.
“I don’t understand.”
“I do.” Tony could see so much more now. Not omnipotence, not even close, but far more than his human mind could. There were so many things he’d missed, so many places he could touch that had been out of the reach of his imagination let alone hands before. “There’s always a god of mischief and chaos because mortals are inherently chaotic. It’ll drive me mad, a time or two. Can I visit you? That would be a decent touchstone and as far as we know, you’re immortal.”
“Where are you going?”
“Between. Star walking. If I’m going god, I’m going all the way.”
“You’re not a god.” Steve said firmly with all the surety of a man who had seen too many false ones.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Tony had to smile at him. Had to reach out again, to kiss each cheek and a last benediction to the forehead. “Close enough. I’ve got a present for you.”
“Are you even listening to yourself? Please. Let’s go sit down somewhere, talk about this. Figure out what’s going on.”
“Go home.” Tony said softly. “There’s someone coming soon. Two or three days. I don’t know who, but it’ll be good. Treat them well. Ok?”
Steve stared at him hard as if he could see right into Tony’s augmented soul. Then he looked into Tony’s eyes and nodded once, curtly.
There were stars overhead. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel their warm light on his skin. New worlds, new experiences, new music, tastes, touches, thoughts, experiments, friends....love, maybe. The Armani suit wasn’t going to cut it. He conjured fresh armor, something new and brilliant. He pulled his wallet from his pocket, discarded the heavy lump of it after he drew a single picture from it’s folds. He tucked Pepper’s image away, under his skin and close to his heart.
Then he stepped forward on boots as black as midnight and embossed with the curl of ram’s horns. They broke the pavement under his feet and led him into a new story.