"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Tony grumbles and buries his face in his pillow, because he just isn't ready to get up yet-
Hey. Something is off. Going still, Tony tries to wake up his brain enough to figure it out; there's something niggling at him, something isn't right, but he isn't sure-
His head isn't hurting. He had a concussion and a number of bruises and cuts all over his body; his ribs were bruised and he strained his wrist, banged up his knee and shoulder with a big, sprawling bruise on his hip to go with it.
Abruptly feeling considerably more awake, Tony lifts his head and almost doubts his faculties the next moment, because he's in the tower, in his bedroom. The bedroom he didn't go to sleep in because the penthouse was windy as hell, what with the broken glass and other damage. Neither of which he finds any evidence of now.
Tony stumbles out of bed, noticing absently that he's wearing boxers and a wifebeater, not what he went to bed with. He actually put on a proper pajama because he couldn't stand to look at himself, looking so much like he had when he came out of Afghanistan, less because of the bruises on his body and more for the expression in his eyes.
In the door to the living room he freezes, because it's perfectly intact. No shattered window, no broken floor, no fine layer of grey dust coating everything, dry and strangely tasty on his lips. "Jarvis?" he asks, voice wavering. "What-"
The ding of the elevator arriving interrupts Tony; Pepper strides into the room, wearing the moss green business suit she wore the day before everything went down. When she spots him she frowns. "Tony," she chides. "Do you call that being ready? You are supposed to activate the arc reactor today."
The arc reactor? The one he activated four days ago?
Now, Tony isn't stupid. He can put two and two together. It's absolutely impossible that the tower got repaired overnight, without him noticing, and even more so that someone put him in his bed in the penthouse when he went to sleep two stories down. Unless they sedated him, but there's really little point to that, and Pepper wouldn't go along with that.
To confirm his suspicion, Tony strides over to his panorama window to look over New York, and yep, everything is fine. No destroyed buildings.
For a moment all Tony does is stare. Until this moment he hadn't realized how much seeing his city destroyed had impacted him, but seeing it intact now makes him very aware of that.
It also confirms his theory of Tony having a very vivid, very detailed dream of the upcoming days. Now the question is, was it a vision or just a dream? He can't test with Pepper, she's already frowning and suspicious, not relaxed and vaguely cheerful as she had been around this time in the dream. They had bantered as they had once more discussed the details of the upcoming experiment, finally having managed to get back into their previous equilibrium as friends after that disastrous kiss that had thrown them off for weeks.
Tony plays along, now. He smiles sheepishly and says something about bad dreams, which makes Pepper chide him for sleeping in the middle of the afternoon, and then for not sleeping at all the previous night, but she lets up. Tony gets dressed and goes through the whole discussion of the plan again – where to cut the tower off from the city's energy network, the check-up of the arc reactor, the whole shebang precluding the going online. Having gone through all that once before Tony would've been incredibly bored, but his thoughts are racing. Is he actually going insane or just delusional? He can't actually be having prophetic dreams. The longer he's awake the more absurd the idea seems to him.
He gets dressed, puts on the suit and goes for some underwater soldering. Once done he returns to the tower, Pepper's calm voice telling him of the success of the plan in his ears. At the tower he gets out of the suit and once more contemplates trying to talk Pepper into having a glass of celebratory champagne with him; in the dream he'd tried and failed. Now that he knows not to act all smug and sure of his victory, he'll surely manage.
Mind made up, Tony pastes on a sweet smile and says, "Up for some celebration?"
Pepper hesitates, the way she hadn't done in his dream. Tony can see the conflict in her face, how she isn't sure, but wants to preserve their friendship, and ups the ante. "Come on, we've been working on this for weeks and you don't have time for one measly glass of champagne?"
She caves. "Fine, but only one glass. One."
Strike! Tony pours them both a glass and hands Pepper hers. They've just clinked their glasses when Jarvis says, "Sir, Agent Coulson is calling."
In the dream, by this point Pepper had been on her way out of the tower and Tony had been sipping scotch, half bitter, half resigned, and fairly snarky with the Agent. But all of a sudden all he can see is a bloodstain on the wall, a cellist in Portland he doesn't know the identity of, bloodied vintage cards of Captain America who is a self-righteous, smug dick in person and who Coulson nevertheless adores, nervous as a teenager in the face of his idol.
Yeah. Tony isn't feeling much like champagne anymore. "Let him up." Putting the champagne flute away Tony walks over to the elevator. It dings open and there Coulson stands, face bland.
"Mr. Stark," he says.
"Yeah, yeah, hand it over," Tony replies, not knowing at all how to react anymore.
Eyebrow going up, Coulson holds out a folder full of information Tony is sure he already knows. Pepper comes up behind him, ready to take the folder and give it to Tony, but Tony takes it instead, ignoring Pepper's shocked gasp as he flicks it open. Yeah, he knows it all already.
In a daze, Tony waits as Pepper ushers herself and Coulson out. By this point it's completely obvious that Tony's dream was more than just that. The question is only what to do with that. Tony certainly isn't going to pretend he doesn't know how future events are going to play out, but he obviously can't tell anyone that he had a prophetic dream.
Over the next hour he makes a timeline of events in the dream, flagging those down he wants to try to prevent; Coulson's murder and Manhattan's destruction most of all. For Barton it's too late, he's been made a mind slave already, and Tony feels a sting of guilt at that; maybe he could've prevented it, it happened after he woke up, long enough for him to have done something about it.
Well, it's too late for that now, so Tony concentrates on the things that aren't too late. He might not know where Loki is currently, but he knows where he's going to be, so Tony gets on his jet and heads to Stuttgart.
It's not difficult for him to finagle his way into the party, dressed in a tux and armed with one glove, the rest of his mobile suit close by. Having seen the security tape he knows from which direction Loki will approach, and Tony waits for him there, in the middle of the stairs. Adrenaline heightening his awareness, Tony smiles sharply as Loki comes down the stairs, looking razor sharp, unholy excitement glinting in his eyes. He raises an eyebrow when he spots Tony, grip on his cane tightening.
"Hello, darling," Tony coos, raises his gloved hand and fires at Loki.
Loki doesn't expect it at all; he's caught completely off-guard, head slamming into the stairs as he's thrown back from the impact. In the crowd people scream but Tony ignores them, stepping up to the unmoving body – Loki clearly is unconscious.
Security descends on Tony and he has to deal with that; he bears it calmly until they start approaching Loki to fuss over him. Thankfully at that moment Captain America shows up on the scene, and shortly afterwards Natasha and a couple of SHIELD agents. They all seem pissed with Tony's methods but Tony doesn't give a fuck because while they might be inelegant, they're at least also efficient. SHIELD's agents drag Loki off into the jet and send Tony and Capsicle after him, some of the agents staying for the inevitable diplomatic aftermath.
Once in the air, Capsicle turns to Tony and nods at him, an unpleasant pull around his mouth. "Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark, though I can't say I approve of your methods."
"What, you'd rather wait until he kills a security guard, gouges some other guy's eye out and terrifies a couple of Germans in the process?" Tony returns. "War's over, we're all friends now." Patience isn't something he has in spades right now, especially not where Steve Rogers is concerned. Sure, the real one has no idea what happened between them in the dream, but Tony can't just switch the inevitable dislike off. Especially since it's deeply ingrained from early puberty on, once he'd gone off his childhood hero-worship and realized that even a ghost of Captain America was more important to his father than his very real son.
Mouth tightening even further, Rogers says, "Of course not, and I know that."
And there's that. Awkward silence descends as they sit around; Rogers waiting for them to get somewhere, Tony waiting for a certain Thunder God. In preparation he fully gets into his suit before sitting down next to Loki, who is slumped in a corner, still unconscious. Rogers watches his actions with a faint frown, but after he's only received sarcastic mocking to his initial question he keeps silent.
Never having been one not to poke a sleeping dragon (not that he's ever come as close to literally having the opportunity), Tony leans forwards and pokes Loki in the ribs. The third time he does this, less than tentative by this point, Loki flails awake and sits up, looking around with confusion. His eyes land on Tony and he frowns. He opens his mouth as if to say something, but suddenly he gasps and stiffens, body going completely still for a second. Confused because it's clear something is going on Tony leans forwards, and the next moment a fist smashes into his face.
For a couple of minutes Tony is dazed because holy cow, that guy packs quite a punch; by the time he slowly becomes aware of his surroundings again Thor has boarded the plane and kidnapped Loki.
With a growl Tony pushes Rogers aside, grabs his helmet and jumps after the two Norse gods, ignoring Rogers' shouting. Not caring to indulge in another fight with Thor Tony utilizes his gloves again, shooting Thor out of the way before landing in his place.
Loki smiles at him, cold and sharp. "We meet yet again."
Somewhere not far off Thor roars; without turning around Tony raises his arm and shoots in his direction.
Eyes glittering Loki leans forwards. "You certainly must have a death wish."
"Or maybe I'm just tired of the dramatics," Tony returns. Somewhere off in the forest there's a loud clang; clearly, Capsicle is getting acquainted with Thor.
"Well then, darling," Loki purrs, holding out his hand to Tony like a lady awaiting a kiss on the back of it. "Take me to your humble abode."
Fuck no, is Tony's first instinct, but he's already thought it all over; there is no other way, he doesn't have a prison better than the helicarrier available. So he takes Loki's hand at the wrist, not bothering to be gentle, and pulls him close, intending to wrap his arm around Loki's waist and fly him off to the jet; in the dream he had taken Rogers and Thor had taken Loki but Tony isn't too keen on that.
And then Loki says, "Perhaps you can offer me a drink again."
"What?" Tony lets go and opens his face mask, no matter how unwise it might be. "What did you say?"
Loki is frowning and blinking; then his head suddenly jerks to the side. When he faces Tony again there is no ambiguity in his expression, just a raised eyebrow. "I haven't said anything. Perhaps you should call one of your friends to arrest me instead, if you aren't capable."
With a growl Tony takes Loki's wrist again, discarding it as stupid banter, and takes him to the jet that's circling around the area where they all jumped off. Not fighting back at all, Loki sits down on the bench again and leans back, watching Tony from underneath lowered eyelids. A while later Rogers and Thor join them, which puts an end to the silent staring contest; Loki closes off completely and shuts Thor up with a few very sharp, pointed remarks – he's clearly guilting Thor, reminding him that he never cared enough to come looking for him so he has no right to act all high and mighty now. It's successful; Thor falls silent. In the dream Tony and Steve had been talking to him and Thor had largely ignored Loki. Maybe Tony didn't give them enough time to exchange words earlier.
"Stark!" Rogers bellows. He's been trying to talk to Tony but Tony was too busy watching the interaction between the adopted brothers. "We need to talk."
Tony carelessly slants his eyes at him. "About what?"
Looking furious, Rogers grinds out, "Your tendency to go off on your own."
"Been on my own all my life, no thanks to you, Rogers," Tony returns sharply, "so kindly shut the fuck up about my methods."
"That's all good and well if you're alone," Rogers says, "but if you're working with other people you have to work with them."
"How adorable," Tony sneers. "You think I'm working with you? Sorry to rob you of your delusions, but we only happen to have the same goals currently. I'm by no means working with you."
"Stop being so childish," Rogers cries. "Why are you so hostile? What have I ever done to you?"
"Not kept your mouth shut when you should," Tony hisses.
"Truly, brother?" Loki's voice is quite but insidious, shutting them both up abruptly. "These are the creatures with which you wish to ally?"
Thor eyes them, expression disgusted. "They are a lot smaller than the people I have met before," he says.
Tony sneers at him. "I don't think you have much ground to stand on, Point Break, you and your brother both haven't exactly cut such fine figures, coming here and rampaging all over the place." It had already pissed him off when Thor had said it in the dream, but he'd been too busy pissing off Rogers at the time.
"Let's not discuss this now," Rogers intervenes before Thor can say anything else. "We should get him to a safe place and talk after we've calmed down."
Whatever. Tony knows how that conversation is going to go, so he doesn't care.
For a while Tony lets things pass mostly as they had in the dream; they hand Loki off to the SHIELD agents on the helicarrier, get debriefed individually and then Tony gets comfortable in the lab (speak: unpacks his bags and spreads his stuff everywhere to mark his territory, not that it's anything important that he actually cares about). After a catnap it's time for the meeting.
Tony might not have bothered making an entrance as he had in the dream, but he is a diva (he didn't figure Loki out merely because he's a genius, you know) and also Rogers rubs him the wrong way even more now than it had then, so he still does it. It goes mostly the same except Rogers reacts even cooler towards him now, not that Tony gives a fuck either way. Oh, and Tony is maybe even more friendly towards Bruce, but come on, the Hulk saved him from being smashed flatter than a pancake. Tony can't possibly fear him after that, not that he really had before.
He lets them dither around for a while, clumsy and awkward as they all sound each other out, try to mark their territory, before he puts his foot down. "This is all nice and well," he says before Thor can go on his "blahblahblah I know he fucked up but he's still my brother – well okay he's adopted so it doesn't really count I'm mostly paying lip service and too honorable to realize how much like a hypocritical dick this makes me sound" tangent. "But could we concentrate on the fact that Loki wants to be here?"
They all go silent, focusing on him, and nobody's ever accused Tony of not knowing how to play an audience. "Seriously, he didn't fight back at all, not even when he could've. He just calmly sat down and let us take him, and sorry big guy, but it doesn't seem to be because he realized he fucked up and is trying to make it right. So, you know, we should maybe try to figure out his angle before he plays us like a fiddle, yeah?"
"What exactly are you suggesting?" Natasha asks. Tony maybe feels a little less hostile towards her after having witnessed her badassery during the invasion (and the resentful crush he has on her is mostly over too by this point, which helps), so he doesn't insult her.
Much. "Oh, I don't know, maybe talk to him? Or try to figure it out ourselves. He certainly didn't want me nor Capsicle here nor Thor, because he had us right there and didn't seem to care much either way. Barton probably told him all he knows, what with the brainwashing, so what could Barton have told him is here that Loki wants?" Jesus fuck, this is hard. Tony wants to tell them, but he sort of loves the part where the Hulk runs loose; only the part where Barton takes out one propeller was a bit inconvenient. And Coulson's death, of course.
"Since you seem to know so much more than any of us," Fury drawls, "why don't you go talk to the guy yourself?"
Well. Tony can do that. "Okay, great. I can do that." That's at least something new, Tony has no idea how that might change the course of things. Probably it will finally knock events completely off-course from the dream. "You guys watch out who you let land on here." Or just come close, but this is as much as Tony can say without mentioning the part where he's apparently having prophetic dreams now.
Loki seems perfectly in control in his glass cage; Fury had really nailed it when he'd said that Loki is the only one who looks like he wants to be here. When Tony enters the room he smiles, cold but a little sweeter than he had smiled at Natasha in the dream. "Hello, darling."
"Hey babe," Tony drawls carelessly, "sorry you had to wait, I had to coddle some idiots, you know how it is."
The corner of Loki's mouth tilts up in amusement but he says nothing as Tony walks around the room towards the entrance. Maybe he can get Loki to threaten him with rape; he's not as good as Natasha at drawing information out of people but his skills at annoying someone into blind fury are surpassed by none.
"So. I would offer you a drink but you came unannounced so I don't have anything available close by." Lie. Tony doesn't go anywhere without his personal stash of scotch. It's in the lab. He would pour Loki a glass, but he doubts Fury would let him open the door to the cage to hand it over, as much as he'd like to see Loki's reaction towards it. Liquor is an acquired taste.
"Oh, no need to go out of your way to be hospitable," Loki says sweetly. "I am quite comfortable here." He glances around, cold amusement on his face. "This place is quite… entertaining."
That might have needled Tony if he hadn't seen Loki do quite a lot more disturbing things in the dream. So he just smiles, wide and fake. "Yes, I imagine so. You're having quite the ball, are you?"
"It's horrible what you do to language these days," Loki comments, casually changing topics. "There is no creativity anymore. Many of your poets of the past would weep if they could hear you speak now."
"Yeah, not just people of the past," Tony agrees. "People keep bitching about language. They keep giving me a language coach who's supposed to make me sound less like a college frat boy – never mind that I was never a frat boy at college, I was fifteen when I graduated, Jesus – but really, I don't care. There's actually a poem about the depreciation of language, wait for it:" Tony leans against the railing and closes his eyes as he recites. "Good authors who once knew better words, now only use four-letter words; writing prose, anything goes."
"Four-letter words?" Loki repeats, curiously tilting his head.
Never ask Tony to curse. "Yeah. You know, fuck, cunt, shit, cock, dick, tits, twat, piss, jizz, damn, crap-"
"I get the picture," Loki interrupts, exasperated and amused. "I reiterate, you are not creative anymore these days, even with your insults."
"Yeah, no mewling quims anymore these days, sorry," Tony agrees. "Now it's all cunt, twat, pussy and all that."
"I'm afraid I must rely on your expert opinion for all things vulgar," Loki says smoothly.
Very slick. "Yeah, looks like," Tony agrees nonchalantly. "I'll come to you for all things villainous in exchange, shall I? We can be bros, braid each other's hair, paint our nails in the same color, that sort of thing. Sound good?"
"I look forward to it," Loki says.
"Brilliant, it's a date. But listen, as much as I'm enjoying the flirting, I got some business stuff to clear up." Tony leans forwards, smiling sweetly – a smile that Loki echoes. Then Tony says, "You're here for the Hulk, aren't you?" and the smile drops off Loki's face like oil, his entire body going still. It lasts for just a second, then he's all "I have no idea what you are talking about" but Tony got him – with a prophetic dream fuelled advantage, but still. He knows it, Loki knows it, and the others watching the security footage know it too. Tony doesn't bother loitering around; he waves cheekily at Loki and goes off to join the others again.
After some discussion of the what and how and why that leads to nowhere, Tony abducts Bruce and runs off with him to play in the lab. Well, the official explanation is that they're looking for the tesseract. Tony makes sure to reiterate to SHIELD that they have to look out for jets that don't belong and then plays with Bruce. Instead of poking him with the stick as he did in the dream he slaps him on the ass because come on, that ass is mighty fine, nobody can tell him they wouldn't do the same in his position. Bruce jumps and flushes fetchingly, and then he ducks his head and is all embarrassed, which is just adorable.
"So, hey," Tony says, leaning against the lab table. "Wanna come live with me when this is all over?"
Bruce turns around to stare at him. "Uh," he says.
"I have the most awesome lab in the world," Tony coaxes. "Several stories of it, in fact. You can have however much you want to yourself." It's driving him nuts. In the dream he'd asked Bruce as well, shortly before they had accompanied Thor and Loki to the Bifrost landing strip, and Bruce had said he'd think about it. Tony had gone to sleep without an answer and damnit, he wants for Bruce to say yes. He's never lived with somebody who he's actually comfortable leaving alone in a lab. And yeah, he can admit it by this point, he has a crush on Bruce's zen ass. Or maybe his brain. Probably both?
Bruce is still staring at him. "I'll think about it," he says eventually.
Tony doesn't get much time to pout because Rogers comes in, blathering about something or other. Having already been through that fight Tony doesn't show much interest, but he wouldn't be himself if he held his tongue so a couple of barbs are exchanged. He waits long enough for Bruce to take his side – diplomatically, yes, but definitely Tony's side, ha, take that, Capsicle – before telling Rogers exactly where to look to find the tesseract-fuelled guns.
Rogers returns, and somehow everybody else ends up in the lab too for the fight that ends with Bruce accidentally grabbing Loki's Glowstick of Destiny. This time Tony is paying more attention to him than to Rogers and watches as Bruce's fingers – clearly subconscious – wrap around the stick. The blue light within the crystal whirls just before Fury tells Bruce to put the stick down, and everybody sort of goes still. So much for "we don't care about the green rage monster in you, really, we don't". No wonder Bruce has problems trusting anyone.
This is the moment where in the dream the jet shot at them and Bruce hulked out; Tony sort of hopes this time SHIELD will be a little more vigilant even though he'd sort of like to see the Hulk again.
He waits with baited breath, not paying attention to whatever Fury is saying – the explosion is late, but Tony changed the timeline of a couple of things so it might still-
Fury stills, receiving a call over his headset, and then says, "We just shot down an unauthorized jet approaching the helicarrier."
Tony's breath catches in his chest. How had he not thought of that? He should have thought of that. Of course they'd shoot the intruder down.
Barton was on that jet, and they don't even know it, Tony realizes with a jolt. They killed Barton and they have no idea.
In his mind's eye he replays scenes of Barton fighting during the invasion, using his arrows to stab Chitauri and as agile as an athlete, magnificent when he shoots with how completely still he goes as he focuses. His eyesight is as impossible as his mouth. He'd been subdued after the whole brainwashing incident, understandably so, but when they'd gotten drunk after the whole shawarma affair he'd let loose a little.
Tony blinks to find all eyes on him.
"Everything alright?" Bruce asks, concern wrinkling his forehead. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Tony licks his lips, very aware that he can't tell them. Not the least of which because they won't believe him anyway; what would be the point? He has extrapolated enough about their relationship to know that Natasha would be devastated.
No, they'll figure it out soon enough.
Plastering on a fake smile – something he's an expert at – Tony waves their attention away. "Nothing, I was just thinking. Who's gonna tell Loki that his plan failed?"
Fury raises both eyebrows. "Well, you seem to have something of a rapport with him."
"Honey, I'm back!" Tony trills, swinging back into the room hosting Loki's cage. "Did you miss me?"
"Yes," Loki drawls, stopping Tony short in his tracks for a moment. He gets right back on track though, smiling broadly.
"Aww, I'm sorry to hear that, and even sorrier to say that I come bearing bad news. We caught your jet, there's no get out of jail free card for you."
A muscle in Loki's cheek twitches, the only sign of his annoyance; he's right back to his smooth persona. "What's the matter, Stark? You look unhappy." He steps up to the glass. "Don't tell me you were emotionally attached to dear Agent Barton."
So much for keeping that part secret.
"You're a bastard," Tony says, dropping the smile and chirpy persona.
Loki narrows his eyes, half angry, half smug. "That seems to be the case," he grants, a crazy smile stretching his lips – the first one that makes him look truly mad. "But I was not the one who killed one of my own, no?"
"No?" Tony asks, remembering the things Thor had drunkenly told him. "So you didn't try to use the Bifrost to kill an entire race? Though I suppose that doesn't really count as your own. But what about the guys who died when you let some Frost Giants in? Not to mention the fact that you betrayed your king and father in the process."
Loki has gone completely still, staring at Tony. "Thor told you that, did he?" he then says silkily. He suddenly looks considerably more dangerous than he had previously, even with ten inch thick glass and a couple of failsafes between them.
The next moment all that is void because Loki is suddenly standing in front of Tony, putting a hand on his chin. His eyes are impossibly blue and up close he looks even more exhausted. "Did he not mention," Loki breathes, "that I am not his brother? The Allfather stole me when I was a mere infant."
Well, yeah, Thor had mentioned that, but not during the whole drunk rambling thing. Tilting his face up in a challenge Tony says, "He might have mentioned something like that."
Loki's demeanor cools even more. "Did he tell you what I am?" Slowly what little color there was drains out of Loki's skin, making room for the deepest blue starting with the hand on Tony's face, turning it icy cold. "Did he tell you that I am a monster?" The blue creeps up Loki's neck towards his face. "That I am a Frost Giant?" Loki whispers, breath going from hot to cold as it fans across Tony's face.
Eyes turning red for a moment before a sheen of purple settles over them, Loki steps back, now completely blue, lines on his skin raised in strange patterns that look meaningful. He looks beautiful and dangerous; Tony's always had a bit of a thing for beautiful aliens à la Star Trek. "So in fact," Loki concludes, voice a purr, "I betrayed both my people, and none."
The next moment he's gone, leaving Tony strangely breathless and very confused.
From then on, events pass pretty much like they had in the dream, with Coulson sort of taking Barton's place. And Coulson certainly is considerably more badass than Tony would have thought, but he doesn't hold a candle to Barton on top of a building; Tony can't give any exact figures but he's sure the destruction around the city is greater than it had been in the dream. Natasha fights like a woman possessed, eyes cold and fierce; Rogers looks both scared and aroused by her. Interesting.
Bruce doesn't show up in the middle of the fight when it's convenient. Tony has to cajole and convince him, but he gets on the plane with Natasha, Coulson and Rogers while Tony and Thor take the aerial route. It isn't hard for Tony to convince the others to hurry off to New York; Coulson didn't die to motivate them (and the mere thought of that having been necessary leaves a bitter taste in Tony's mouth) but Barton did. There were some feeble arguments referring to Loki's trustworthiness, but generally they're inclined to believe the logic in having someone who knows the inner workings of the helicarrier invade it.
As in the dream, Tony heads straight for the tower, where Loki is waiting for him. He's pulled his composure back around himself like a cloak, smiling the smile that's a third amusement, a third cruel, arrogant control and a third madness.
Tony returns the smile. In the dream he'd been scared out of his wits, but now he feels a little more secure, a little more careless. He puts the bracelets on as he makes them drinks and calculates how long he has to stall Loki, wonders what he's going to say.
"Here," he says, handing one of the two glasses over to Loki; he didn't bother asking as he had in the dream. "Welcome to my humble abode, and all that."
"Not overly humble," Loki comments, looking around.
"Figure you're used to more, what with being a prince and all," Tony returns, taking a sip from his scotch. It's one of his best bottles, technically not something Loki deserves, but nobody can claim Tony treats his guests to anything but the best. "Wait, you aren't a prince after all, are you? What with the whole kidnapping business."
"How sweet of you to worry," Loki coos, cold eyes a stark contrast to his sweet voice and smile, "but you are wrong. Despite the fact that I might be a bastard, I am a king's bastard, however worthless his kingdom might be."
"Aww, that's good to know." Tony puts a hand on his arc reactor, fluttering his eyelashes. "And a worthless kingdom is always better than no kingdom, I always say."
"You're too kind." Loki finally takes a sip from the scotch Tony gave him, eying the liquid curiously while he rolls it around on his tongue.
"You like?" Tony raises an eyebrow and doesn't give Loki the opportunity to say either way, stepping closer to him and affecting a conspiratorial tone. "So, listen, darling, I've been meaning to ask you something."
Mirroring Tony's expression Loki raises an eyebrow as well, looking him up and down. "Go on."
"We both know that there is little point to this whole thing." Tony gestures towards the roof. "There is no way, not even the slightest chance that you'll come out of this with the Earth in your control. This planet is too chaotic, too splintered for that to ever work out. I know that, and I'm fairly sure you know it too, you're not stupid."
"I don't hear a question," Loki hums, taking another sip from the scotch.
"Well, I'm wondering why you're doing this," Tony says, leaning further in.
Tony blinks and looks down to find the tip of the stick against his arc reactor. He looks up again to find Loki looking disgruntled and confused, much like he had the first time – like a cat whose mouse has been taken away.
"Well," Tony says.
Loki scowls and tries again, and once more, the blue magic building up in a whirl around the tip of the stick dissipates as it ticks against the arc reactor.
Tony has lost track of time. He doesn't know if this is too early, he doesn't know if he'll be fine if Loki throws him out of the window now. So he shrugs, trying to keep his smugness at bay, and says, "I take it that's your answer?"
As it turns out, it doesn't matter what Tony says; he still ends up being thrown out of the window. Fortunately, just as in the dream the mobile suit catches up to him at the last minute, and the fighting begins.
None of the Avengers dies. Tony still ends up personally accompanying a nuclear bomb through the wormhole. Bruce aka the Hulk still catches him.
They don't eat shawarma afterwards. As they pick up Loki Natasha jumps him and has to be held back by Steve and Coulson; SHIELD takes her away. Bruce smiles weakly at Tony and follows them. Tony ends up picking through the wreck of his tower on his own. Eventually he crawls into his bed, dusty and cold, and doesn't fall asleep for hours.
"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Tony blinks and thinks, what the fuck. He's in his bedroom in the tower, that far it's not surprising. But there's no dust, no icy draft, and when Tony scrambles out of bed and runs into the living room he finds both the tower and the city intact. The fact that he's wearing boxers and a wifebeater again registers pretty low against that, but he didn't bother taking his clothes off when he went to bed the previous night.
And it was the previous night. It wasn't all a dream; Tony is completely sure of that. Once, yeah, he can accept that, but twice? No way. He's starting to doubt that the first time was a dream too, it was too vivid, too detailed.
Technically Tony would need a third time to confirm his theory, but so far this smells of time loop to him. It's not a hard leap to make, Tony is familiar enough with science fiction, but he's still pretty disbelieving. Because this is his life, and yeah, it has some scifi elements – especially with the recent alien invasion – but still it seems very unlikely that he's actually in a time loop.
But a lot of evidence speaks for the theory, and Occam's razor dictates… well. The thing is, it didn't end at the same time. The second loop ended a day before the first – though both ended apparently while Tony was asleep. He needs to find the common denominator.
Well, hopefully it won't be necessary; maybe it's not really an actual loop. Maybe it's just… a hiccup. A glitch in the Matrix.
Clinging to that idea, Tony goes through the whole setting up the arc reactor thing with Pepper as he had before. He maybe should've tried to help Clint before he gets brainwashed, but he has no idea how to go about that and it's almost too late anyway by the time the thought occurs to him, about an hour after Pepper arrives.
Thoughtfully, Tony eyes his redheaded CEO. Maybe this is the time he should ask some questions he's never asked before.
Or maybe not. Maybe he should just concentrate on not getting either Clint or Coulson killed again.
Tony gets the whole arc reactor thing over with – by this point it feels like routine more than anything else – and then ushers Pepper out, just before Coulson shows up. He takes the file and sends Coulson off as well. He barely bothers flicking through the file to make sure all the information he remembers is correct as he packs his things and gets on his jet.
As the second time around, he accosts Loki before he can terrify a bunch of people and largely ignores Rogers, not feeling like getting into a pissing contest but neither being in any mood to be nice to the guy. On the jet, Tony sits up close the unconscious Loki and pokes him awake, ducking out of the way when a fist flies towards his face.
"Whoa, sweetheart," Tony says. Loki seems confused, frowning at him, and somehow it doesn't seem related to the fact that Tony managed to avoid his fist. "Slow."
Still blinking, Loki stares at him, strangely silent. Something is off about him. Narrowing his eyes Tony takes a closer look; something is different, he can't quite put his finger on it-
He doesn't get the chance to figure it out because Thor arrives.
"Hey!" Tony yells when Thor boards the jet. "Get in line! We had him first!"
Thor falters for a moment, confused. Loki uses the opportunity to needle him. "I am a highly sought-after person these days, Son of Odin."
Face hardening, Thor pulls Loki off the bench and jumps off the jet with him.
Cursing, Tony follows the both of them, completely ignoring Rogers once more. He lands shortly after Thor and Loki and promptly earns himself a hammer in the chest.
When Tony comes to they're all back on the jet; Loki glances at him smugly. Thor is a little apologetic but not overly so. A little disgruntled and with his chest aching Tony looks down and finds that the casing to the arc reactor is cracked.
It's perfectly natural to freak out a little. Tony is not fond of panic attacks but he has them where the arc reactor is concerned. Especially since the replacement is currently on the helicarrier, still several hours out.
"Stark!" Rogers bellows, not at all snapping Tony out of it. Because guess what, yelling at somebody who has a panic attack does not help in the least.
Tony pushes the asshole away and closes his eyes, trying to tell himself to calm the fuck down. Not that that's too successful either.
"Tony," a calm voice breaks through his thoughts. "It's okay. Just breathe."
"Easily said," he gasps.
A cool hand settles in the back of his neck. "Breathe," Natasha says again. "Along with me, you can do it, come on. In, one, two, out, one two. Come on."
She counts him through it and slowly Tony manages to slow his breathing down; right along with it, the rapid beat of his heart calms down as well, which helps considerably. His heart is what Tony worries about the most, no metaphor intended, and when he starts to panic it starts beating harder, which freaks him out more, and so on. He passed out a couple of times at the beginning until JARVIS learned how to talk him through it.
When Tony opens his eyes, considerably calmer (if not at all relaxed), he's sitting in a corner of the jet and Natasha is crouching before him. Thor and Loki are as far away from him as possible, and Rogers is nowhere to be seen.
"He took over flying for me," Natasha tells Tony, noticing his searching glance.
"Sure that's a good idea?" Tony asks. "Considering the last time he flew a plane he ended up frozen in Antarctica for sixty plus years?"
Natasha snorts. "I figured better that than having him around here. Clearly you are not destined to be best friends."
Tony almost laughs at the idea. "No, definitely not." Tentatively, he reaches up to finger the arc reactor, feeling up the crack. It's definitely not immediately fatal, it's still working, but that's about all he can ascertain without proper equipment.
"Man of Iron," Thor says very earnestly. "I seem to have done you far greater harm than expected. Please accept my sincerest apologies."
Tony waves him off weakly, keeping his other hand firmly on the arc reactor as if he could actually hold it together if it started falling apart, literally or figuratively.
"If you don't mind my asking," Thor speaks up again some time later. "What is it? I have never seen such a technology before."
Very aware that Loki is present, Tony keeps it simple. "It keeps metal shards away from my heart."
Despite the fact that he doesn't seem to be comprehending, Thor nods and leaves it be.
Once on the helicarrier Tony makes a beeline for his jet there and replaces the arc reactor, after which he feels considerably better. That doesn't change the fact though that his confidence is considerably shaken; his arc reactor is his most vulnerable spot and he only has the one replacement. If this one gets damaged he'll have to go back to a palladium core and if he never has to feel that acrid taste on the back of his tongue again it'll be too soon.
Consequently, even though he had a couple of hours to himself he's a bit subdued when he joins the group meeting, not having much more to offer than a faint smile for Bruce, though he still makes sure to compliment him on his work, remembering at the last moment that this is the first time they're meeting from Bruce's point of view. During the talking he keeps mostly silent though, looking forwards to just spending some quiet time in the lab with Bruce.
They dabble around looking for the tesseract, working in perfect sync – they did the first time, and the second time, and still do so now. Tony loves it, he's never had it with anybody else, not this smoothly, effortlessly. From the first moment on Bruce had felt comfortable, and this only increases the more time Tony spends with him. He even leaves off the teasing this time, just not feeling up to much – he knows it's safe, yes, but he'd much rather just connect with Bruce via science.
Of course they don't have much time to themselves. Rogers comes around, but without Tony going out of his way to antagonize him their talk this time around stays surprisingly non-hostile. Right until Tony loses his patience and opens his eyes about SHIELD's double-sidedness. As before, Rogers storms off once Bruce takes Tony's side.
At which point Tony abruptly remembers that right, he hasn't done anything to prevent Coulson's death. So he calls him over for the big showdown fight in the lab, which doesn't change the fight much, Coulson just stands there and stares calmly at all of them.
And puts a hand on Bruce's arm when he subconsciously reaches for the stick. Everybody still goes silent and stares; Bruce looks stricken as Coulson says calmly, "I wouldn't suggest anybody touch this, Dr. Banner."
"I didn't mean to-" Bruce stammers.
"The staff seems to hold suggestive powers even without anybody wielding it," Coulson says.
The explosion distracts all of them. "Barton," Tony barks; Coulson and Natasha immediately focus on him, eyes wide. They stare for just a second, then training sets in and everybody runs off as they had before, but Tony hopes it will be enough to keep Coulson away from Loki.
It is. It's also enough to keep Natasha away from Bruce, which means the Hulk doesn't have a target to focus on when he comes out, and he destroys considerably more of the helicarrier than before. Tony and Rogers still get one engine running again, Coulson and Natasha manage to subdue Barton, Loki still tricks Thor and throws him off in a glass cage (clearly, Thor truly is always going to fall for that).
Coulson doesn't die, but Tony and Rogers aren't fighting as bitterly as they had before so they still manage to get the team together as a team. Including Coulson, again, but Tony figures that can only be a good thing, remembering how brilliantly and surprisingly athletic the guy had fought the last time.
And man, does it make Tony feel shitty that it's primarily due to his and Rogers antagonistic interaction that Fury had felt the need to use Coulson's death to unite them. They had polarized the whole team and he hadn't even realized it.
When Tony lands on the tower he goes straight for the bar and downs a glass before filling it again, and a second for Loki.
"You look tired, Stark," he comments idly.
"Yeah, because I am," Tony replies, handing the glass over to Loki without comment. They stare at each other silently for a moment, then Tony walks by Loki and stares out the window. "Aren't you?"
"Why would I be tired?" Loki says. "I'm getting everything I want. Your people are scattered and will be easy picking for my army."
Tony throws him a glance. "Is it really your army, though? Or are you just another pawn in the hand of somebody else?"
Turns out Loki's plan on taking control of Tony isn't set in stone; he's perfectly fine throwing him out of the window without that. And apparently Tony was operating under a misapprehension: even though Loki is throwing him out much earlier than the previous two times the suit still comes flying out and catches him in time. Tony wants to be peeved at JARVIS for not telling him but granted, Tony didn't ask, too relieved at making it out alive.
The rest plays out mostly like it previously had, with the addition of badass kicking alien ass like the badass he turns out to be. There's still a nuke, and the Hulk still catches Tony.
Again, he asks for shawarma and surprisingly, the round is a little more companionable than it had been the first time around; no awkward silence as everybody tries not to chew too loudly. Instead they talk, a bit awkwardly, but growing more comfortable with each other; Coulson, Natasha and Barton appear to be a team within themselves and have quite the repertoire of embarrassing stories about each other. Unlike the first time, where Tony had suggested the alcohol in an attempt to lift the gloomy mood (which had worked, he'd like for that to go on record), this time around they drink because they're enjoying themselves. They spend the night at the tower, on one of the lower levels where there isn't a draft, and after they have gotten over the hangovers they debrief with SHIELD and then accompany Thor and Loki to the Bifrost landing strip.
Once the two Norse gods are gone there is more debriefing, and Tony actually manages to convince Bruce to stay another night with him, though he still hasn't gotten a proper answer from him about the moving in issue.
Naturally, Tony first of all introduces him to the R&D levels. Bruce is at first his typical, reserved self but very quickly gets seduced by the science; he and Tony start to play around. It feels a little bit like falling in love, but in an entirely intellectual way. Tony is very sure he's developing a huge mancrush on Bruce's brain.
Right when he's really getting into it, completely immersed in the science, he suddenly hears JARVIS say, "Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes" and blinks awake.
"Hey Tony, good to see you're ready, we have-" much to do, Pepper says, smiling faintly, exactly as she had the first time around, but Tony interrupts her.
"Why did we not work out, Pep?"
Pepper goes still, stares at him for a moment. Then she gives a fake laugh. "What are you talking about? We're working together just fine, aren't we?"
"Yes, yes," Tony says impatiently. "You know that's not what I'm talking about. I'm referring to the kiss, Pepper."
Unable to divert again, Pepper lowers her gaze, swallows. They had kissed, after the whole debacle with Vanko, and Tony had felt like there could have been something, but the next day Pepper had acted like nothing had happened and Tony had played along. Until now, they had never talked about it.
"I just…" Pepper sighs. "I have- had feelings for you, Tony. But I can't… I had just found out that you almost died, that you were dying for months, and you never- you never said a word. I know you meant to, but you didn't. And I know that I'm the person you trust most in your life, but you still didn't trust me with that, and I can't be in a relationship with somebody who doesn't trust me. Besides… I work for you, Tony. I know how you are, how you get, and it's fine as a friend, but as a boyfriend… I need to leave work, the stress behind when I get home, otherwise I'll go crazy. That wouldn't work out if I were with you, and certainly not with you doing… with you being Iron Man." Face vulnerable, eyes red, Pepper takes a step towards him. "I thought a lot about this, Tony, every day for a long time, but as important as you are to me, I realized that we just wouldn't work out. Sooner or later it would have become too much for me. I'm sorry."
Tony looks at her for one moment, then he adopts a smile. "Nah, it's okay. Listen, I'm not sure the arc reactor is up for activation yet, I want to check things over again, so we gotta do this sometime else, that okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, sure," Pepper says and makes a hasty retreat, though not without sending him another painful look.
Tony sighs and has JARVIS call Fury.
"Listen up, director, I'm detecting some strange energy traces above your cute little base in Texas, you should be careful. Cube doing alright?"
Fury splutters, then growls, then postures, but Tony doesn't care; he's alerted Fury that something is going on, now he can only hope it'll be useful somehow.
While waiting for news from SHIELD, Tony tinkers around with the mobile suit, considers making another arc reactor. Having one as replacement might not be enough, as relieved as he is that he has the reserve again. He'd never done it because it's just too dangerous, with the new element the arc reactor has an incredible shelf life and pucks quite a punch. The mere idea of it ending up in the wrong hands… Obie's betrayal is still too fresh on his mind for him to trust that he could keep it out of said wrong hands.
About an hour after the phone call JARVIS informs him that Loki invaded the base and escaped with the tesseract, Coulson as his mind slave and having killed thirty-three members of the security personnel. Barton, at least, is neither dead nor a mind slave, but that's a small comfort considering that Coulson has taken his place and that Tony managed to get thirty-three agents killed.
Tony once more catches Loki in Stuttgart. This time he's prepared even better though and slaps a microphone onto Loki. When Thor comes to take his brother away Tony plays along with Roger's need to plan, figuring it will be good for team harmony if nothing else, while he listens to the brothers' conversation. What he primarily notices is that Loki is a spoilt, arrogant brat and that his targeting Earth is basically a temper tantrum to piss of Thor, who isn't much better on the arrogance front, but at least isn't trying to subjugate anyone. That Tony knows of.
Due to Tony's cooperative behavior Rogers submits to Tony's plan of carrying him over to where Thor landed. Thor doesn't look happy about the interruption but Rogers starts an earnest spiel about how Loki killed their people, Thor can't just take him away, he has to submit to Earth justice. Reluctantly and with a sad expression, Thor grants that they can talk to Loki, but withholds his agreement about the whole punishment thing. Figuring that that's good enough for them, Tony carries Rogers back to the jet while Thor carries his brother, who comes with them without comment.
Once on the helicarrier Tony thinks about it for a moment, but he's getting tired of all this fucking around and makes his way over to the room containing the glass cage.
Loki raises an eyebrow when Tony wanders in. "Hello, honey," Tony says, wanders over to the control panel, opens the cover and hits the big red button. He barely has the time to meet Loki's shocked eyes and wave sweetly before the glass cage drops down.
Fury, of course, is not at all happy, but Thor is even less so; he rages and yells and then jumps off the helicarrier, following his brother. Fury puts Tony on probation, meaning he has limited access to stuff – nevermind that he technically didn't have access to the cage room to begin with. It doesn't mean much, all things considered, because SHIELD needs him to look for the tesseract and can't afford not to use all their resources, among which Tony apparently counts when they feel like it. Tony doesn't mind, though he's confused about the hurry; Loki has been taken care of, there won't be an invasion anymore.
Except all of a sudden there are reports about a spear of light reaching from Tony's tower into the sky above New York, and immediately after of aliens flying in through the wormhole. An invasion led by Coulson, eyes glowing blue.
Tony flies off to New York ahead of the jet carrying Rogers, Barton and Natasha and doesn't bother with the whole drink spiel, not that he'd have the time even if he wanted to, having to jump right into the fight. His thoughts are running at high speed; how did Coulson manage to activate the wormhole machine without the stick? How did, now that he's thinking about it, they activate the thing without the iridium?
Well, he doesn't get the chance to clear either question up. Coulson's invasion is, perhaps not unsurprisingly considering the undisturbed beginning and the fact that it's Coulson, so much more devastating than any others before. Tony doesn't even have time to breathe, much less anything else; it's not going well, somehow Coulson anticipates all their movements and it seems all they do is catch up, catch up, catch up. Clearly, Tony severely underestimated the advantages of someone attacking who doesn't even know them. The worst part is that Tony knows that one single blow to the head would cure Coulson, but nobody can get close enough to even think about delivering said blow. Tony is cursing a blue streak and about to use the last of his energy to shoot a Chitauri that's jumped Rogers when-
"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Tony keeps right on cursing. And punches the pillow, just because he can.
"Mr. Stark?" JARVIS asks, clearly confused. From his point of view Tony's reaction must seem excessive.
"Send her away," Tony orders sharply. By this point it's fairly clear that he's trapped in a time loop, and he has no fucking idea how or why and he's fucking fed up with it.
He goes to get drunk. By the time Coulson comes to inform him of what's going on he's completely drunk and doesn't even feel like pretending; he has JARVIS send him away again. In fact, he tells JARVIS not to let anybody in or through, no matter what they want or say, no matter what happens. Absolutely nobody is to get into contact with Tony.
Over the next couple of hours Tony plays around with things, has JARVIS hack into helicarrier – he hadn't bothered to do any hacking since the first time but he had looked at the protocols the first time around and even drunk remembers enough to speed up the process. He keeps up to date on whatever happens with Loki and the Avengers – Barton gets taken as a mind slave, Steve takes Loki in and some people in Stuttgart die in the process, because Natasha fires at Loki from the jet.
Tony drinks and drinks and eventually passes out.
JARVIS wakes him up; he says, "Sir, there is activity on the roof," definitely sounding peeved.
"I don't care," Tony grunts, but now that he's awake an urgent need to pee and a pounding headache won't let him get back to sleep that easily again. So he makes a short stop in the bathroom that involves a couple of aspirin before crawling back into bed.
He's woken up shortly later, again by JARVIS. "My apologies, Sir, but SHIELD's former prisoner is knocking on your door."
Tony groans. "Let him in, whatever." He buries his head under his pillow for a moment before lifting his head. He's sitting up just as Loki enters the bedroom, looking curious and confused and menacing.
Waving carelessly, Tony rubs his face with both hands and grumbles, "Hola, Reindeer Games, what's up?"
"I have been wondering where the owner of this monument to narcissism might be," Loki says silkily.
"Monument to narcissism? Not sure you're in a position to criticize anybody else for something like that," Tony returns tiredly. "So, how's this going to go down? You gonna kill me?"
Loki looks him up and down and sneers. "Clearly, there is no need. All I have to do is wait." He turns around and leaves again. A minute later JARVIS reports that he's left the tower.
Tony feels oddly bereft. To cover up the feeling he gets another bottle of scotch, noticing absently that Loki and Thor are fighting out on his balcony now. He watches them as he drinks, and then Loki rolls off the balcony and Thor flies off, leaving the stick behind.
Detaching himself from what's going on only works so far. With a sigh Tony puts the scotch away, collects the stick and gets to the top of the roof. Pushing blue-eyed Selvig out of the way, he inserts the stick and deactivates the wormhole. The backslash throws him and Selvig off against the wall circling the roof; Tony hits his head and everything goes black around him.
When he comes to Selvig is shaking him. The wormhole in the sky is gone; there are no explosions to be heard anymore. Very quickly, SHIELD agents descend upon them. They treat Tony with a sort of derisive content he isn't really used to, but that isn't new to him either. Tony doesn't care.
They leave him alone quickly, and Tony goes back to his scotch, watching the security tapes of Loki's interrogation – not that there is much to interrogate, as Loki remains completely silent, staring at the wall with empty eyes. He doesn't sleep – Tony doesn't, and Loki doesn't either. Eventually Thor comes to take him away, and Tony closes his eyes.
"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Tony jumps up and takes the elevator down into the garage. He gets into a car and calls his pilot on the way, telling him to get the plane ready. An hour later they're in the air, heading towards LA. After six hours of flying time they touch down and Tony leaves the plane with nothing on him, wearing the wifebeater he woke up with, a pair of jeans he hastily pulled on and a pair of flip flops. He has no luggage, but he's a rich asshole so it's not like he needs anything – not like he couldn't buy anything he might need.
A chauffeur picks him up and drives him to his Malibu residence, where Tony then lolls about in the sun, drinks and orders pizza. JARVIS cuts off all communication and Tony only stops pretending nothing is going on when the invasion starts. Even then, Tony stays away from SHIELD files or anything more informative and just watches the news reports that switch back and forth between close up cameras in the city (and those camera men are suicidal, not that that's much of a surprise to Tony) and cameras further away. It's one of those far-away cameras that shows live the impact of the nuclear bomb; there is a bright light that blinds everyone who looks right at it, a pressure wave, the mushroom cloud starts to rise, the narrator's voice goes high and panicky-
"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Out of pure spite, Tony blows his tower up. He doesn't bother getting out of it first. It's not difficult at all, just some tinkering with the arc reactor (the big one, which will only take out part of New York with it, unlike the small one which would be exponentially more devastating) and everything goes boom. Too bad that Tony doesn't get to see it.
"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Tony barely bats an eyelash anymore, just lets out a deep breath. "Send her away."
Time to pull some facts together.
Tony is in a time loop. Because time loops until right now were, to Tony's knowledge, entirely fictional, he should probably draw some hints from said fiction, but somehow he doubts they somehow ended up in a wormhole's event horizon. Another theory (that is completely woolly and non-scientific, as far as Tony is concerned, but whatever) is that there is one event that has to be corrected; once said event stops occurring the loop stops.
Fact is, nothing he's done so far – which admittedly wasn't much – has got him out of there. He always starts out at the same point, but the loop doesn't end at the same point; he's going to have to figure out the common denominator. That's going to be hella difficult because obviously it's not him, seeing as he was always doing different things when he looped back.
Clearly, the thing to stop the loop isn't changing Barton's mind slave thing, or Coulson's death. The earliest time the loop ended, not counting the one Tony himself ended prematurely, was when the nuclear bomb was deployed and Tony wasn't there to stop it; the latest time was the loop where Tony had a science party with Bruce. It's possible the first loop lasted longer, but that's impossible to tell since Tony was asleep.
All in all, it's not much to go on. He changed little things, he changed big things – dropping Loki from the helicarrier, not getting involved at all – but so far nothing clicked.
It's driving Tony nuts. He feels something at the tip of his tongue, a realization that could solve everything, so close and yet he can't figure it out.
He's felt like that before, scientific breakthroughs like a fata morgana, feeling so close but not being it at all, and he knows how to best deal with them; by ignoring them. Occupying his brain with something else might coax the realization out, so Tony sets to writing a program for JARVIS to break into SHIELD more easily. Then he calls Fury, because this is a route he hasn't tried yet.
"What," Fury bellows. "I'm busy, Stark."
"To make it short, we're in a time loop," Tony says, not one to beat around the bush. "You need to listen to me and do everything I tell you."
Unsurprisingly, Fury doesn't believe him and barks a laugh. "Right, pull the other one."
Tony figured this would happen; he doesn't expect anything to come out of it right now. But he's hoping that by the end of it Fury will believe him, and he can go from there. "Yeah, thought as much. See you in thirteen hours." He hangs up and gets on a jet to Germany.
As before, Tony knocks Loki out before he can kill that guy for his eye or try to subjugate a bunch of people. He manages to be polite, if distant to Rogers – he never again wants to be half at fault for bloody vintage card being used as chess pieces in a game to force a team together ever again. When Thor lands to collect his brother Tony doesn't intervene and again convinces Rogers to just let Tony carry him to where the brothers landed. They have a talk with Thor, as before, and Thor takes Loki back.
Thirteen hours after Tony's call to Fury, the four of them land on the helicarrier and Loki is brought to the cage. When Fury meets Tony for the debriefing his eyes are narrowed, suspicion in them, but not enough yet. Tony doesn't care. "He's here for Bruce," he informs Fury, who frowns. "Also, in four hours Barton is going to come in a jet and take out one of the helicarrier's engines. They're going to board the jet and try to free Loki. A blow to the head will cure him of the mind control thing, but Loki will still escape – and he's going to kill Coulson, so keep him away from the cage."
Fury narrows his eyes at him and sends him off, but Tony knows that he listened and that he's at least going to be cautious, just in case.
They still shoot Barton's jet down. When Tony hears he can't even look at Fury anymore.
Shortly afterwards, Loki vanishes from his cage. He doesn't kill Coulson, in fact, he leaves the helicarrier in the same condition that he found it in. Tony rallies Bruce, Rogers, Coulson, Natasha and Thor together, managing to convince each with the right arguments in under five minutes, and they head off towards New York; Rogers, Coulson and Natasha in a jet, Thor and Tony by their own means.
Just before he's about to take off Fury finds Tony. "Time loop, huh?" he says.
Tony glances at him. "Starting to believe me?"
"No." Fury raises an eyebrow. "I never believe anything you say on principle. But I'm inclined to not completely discard the idea."
"Great. We're gonna loop back soon and I'm going to have to start over, but the sentiment is appreciated," Tony snorts sarcastically.
Fury rolls his eyes. "If that happens again, next time, tell me about the pink tutu."
The fuck? "What pink tutu?"
But Fury doesn't say a word, just raises his eyebrow again, and eventually Tony growls, slaps his face mask down and takes off.
There's nothing worthwhile to say about the invasion; Tony doesn't meet up with Loki because he just doesn't feel like it. He still does the whole nuclear bomb thing (with even more conviction, now that he's seen New York blow up; even if it was just a second it's an imaged burned into his mind) but doesn't bother trying to coax anyone into some post-fight bonding thing. All he does is silently go home and crawl into bed.
He wakes up not looped and starts to wonder whether this will be the time the loop doesn't happen again; knowing his luck, it's very well possible. But logically it shouldn't be, because Tony has no idea what the heck the common denominator that makes the loop happen is. And that Tony plays some central role in this whole business he considers a given; he's the only one aware of the loop, after all. There must be a reason for that.
Tony spends the day dithering around, wondering what he's going to do in the next loop; the plan primarily is to convince Fury of the fact that they're in a loop. He'll see what Fury will do then, maybe something major will change.
"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Tony gets up and immediately calls Fury. "What?" Fury barks, clearly in a hurry; Tony figures they're in the middle of trying to figure out what the fuck the tesseract is doing.
"Tell me about the pink tutu," Tony says.
Fury is silent for a long moment. Then, as calm as he rarely is when speaking to Tony, he says, "I'm listening."
"We're in a time loop."
Right, this is going surprisingly smooth. First things first. "In about an hour and a half the tesseract is going to open a wormhole and Loki, brother of Thor, is going to come through. He's going to kill everyone who attacks him and magically brainwash a couple of agents, including Clint Barton and Erik Selvig."
Fury growls. "What do you suggest?"
And that is completely unexpected. Fury has never so easily accepted anything Tony has said, and he most certainly has not asked for his advice. "You can't capture him. I suppose you should just keep everyone away from him? The base is going to collapse, you're evacuating already, but you should speed it up. Don't try to stop him, you can't. Don't try to capture him." Loki's willful teleporting out of the glass cage when there is no point anymore for him to remain in their "custody" has made it obvious that they can't capture him if he doesn't allow it. Which actually rouses the question whether their capturing him at the end of the whole invasion business was actually due to their strength or not – Loki most certainly waited around for them; he could have fled on foot if he couldn't have teleported away. Something Tony really has to think about at one point.
There's a brief pause at the other end of the line. "Are you sure?" Fury eventually grinds out.
"Yes," Tony says. "Very sure. Do not try to engage."
Fury curses and hangs up.
Tony resorts to hacking SHIELD again and finds out that this time, Loki's arrival on Earth doesn't come with any casualties, mind slaves or even injuries. Loki finds the base empty and abandoned, takes the tesseract and leaves.
This throws everything Tony knows off. Nevertheless, Coulson comes to pick him up, face serious as he accompanies Tony to the helicarrier; earlier than any of the other Avengers, not counting the SHIELD agents.
"Debrief," Fury barks as soon as Tony enters the conference room Coulson leads him to.
"Time loop, as I said," Tony snaps back curtly. He's tired of this whole fuckery, but he doesn't have any other choice, does he? "I don't know what Loki will do now." Then he briefly relays what Loki has done previously, orienting himself on the first loop.
Fury growls and rubs his forehead. "Brilliant. I suppose I should thank you."
"Yeah, you should," Tony says sharply, "Considering that in two previous loops, you've shot down Barton. One of those times, consciously."
Face hardening, Fury returns, "Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do."
"Well, you can be glad you didn't have to do that," Tony says. "None of your agents ended up as brainwashed mind slaves of a mad god."
Fury sighs. "Yeah, but we still gotta deal with that mad god. Go play in the lab or whatever, I'm gonna get you some playmates."
Whatever. It's easy to write a program to search for the tesseract's radiation, considering he's done it a couple of times before, and Fury must have told his agents something because they're unusually non-hostile towards him. The program is up and running by the time Coulson comes to tell him that Rogers and Banner with Natasha are arriving.
Not having anything better to do – also, Bruce! – Tony heads to the deck of the helicarrier (that isn't very heli at the moment). He exchanges handshakes and polite pleasantries with Rogers before moving on to Bruce who is just leaving the jet he was transported in with, followed by Natasha. He looks incredibly nervous and uncomfortable, which Tony can't blame him for, considering his history with the military.
"Doctor Banner!" Tony exclaims, moving towards him, unable to suppress the wide smile spreading on his face. "It's wonderful to meet you."
Bruce flinches and eyes him warily. Right, Tony forgot a part. "Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of how you lose control and turn into a giant green rage monster." Tony's never been one to beat around the bush, and he isn't going to ignore the Hulk in the room. Especially not since he's actually a huge fan of said Hulk. The guy has saved his life a bunch of times now, nobody could help being fond of a person after something like that.
Bruce stills, for the first time (this time) looking at Tony properly. "Uh, thank you."
Gifting him with another smile, Tony then turns to Natasha. "Natasha! So sweet to see you again."
She frowns. "What's up with you?"
"Didn't Fury say?" Tony asks brightly. "I'm wearing a pink tutu."
Shock floods her face. Tony really has to figure out what this is code for, but clearly, it gives him something like diplomatic immunity because she actually lets Tony hug her. He's doing it mostly to test the waters but wow, she lets him. She doesn't even glare murderously, just frowns. Maybe they can actually be friends. Though Tony probably needs at least a dozen loops more trying to figure her out. And get over his leftover hostile feelings towards her as he's getting over that strange resentful crush he's been nursing.
Tony isn't stupid; he knows what's happening to him. He's growing more and more familiar with the people he's mostly in contact with during the loop, and as a result, working through his issues with some of them – primarily Rogers but secondarily also Pepper, Natasha and Fury. By the time this whole loop thing ends Tony will probably treat them completely differently in comparison with the first time, whereas they won't even know who he is. It's going to get more and more difficult with every loop.
Behind them, Rogers does his part in making Bruce feel more comfortable and then ducks his head awkwardly when Natasha strides by. Tony has seen photos of Peggy when she was young – has met her in person, even, though primarily as his father's guest when he was a child, and she really wasn't young anymore then – and figures that there is some resemblance between Peggy and Natasha, not just physically but also in the way that they're both confident, driven women. He's looking forward to seeing what will become out of this.
"So, what's going on?" Natasha asks once the four of them have entered the command room and taken a seat at the conference table with Fury, Barton and Coulson.
"A mad Norse god broke into our Texas base, stole a valuable device and escaped, destroying the whole base in the progress." Situation succinctly summed up, Fury nods towards Tony, who raises an eyebrow. Really, Fury's going to give him the metaphorical scepter?
Well, okay. "We're in a time loop."
Barton and Coulson clearly have heard it already; Natasha reacts by frowning heavily and Rogers clearly doesn't quite understand. Bruce, however, suddenly becomes animated, sitting up and furrowing his brows. "What? How?"
"I haven't the slightest clue as to how," Tony replies, leaning towards him, "but this is the ninth time we're going through this." Technically. Tony wasn't there for three of those times. He doesn't think anybody can blame him.
Fury perks up. "We are going to discuss in detail what happened the previous times."
Honestly, Tony is surprised he's only demanding this now. Probably he was too busy dealing with the aftermath of the base collapse and all that to get on Tony's case about proper reports before.
"Uh, I'm sorry, but can somebody explain to me what this… time loop is?" Rogers pipes up.
"It's when events play out until a certain event occurs and then go back to some sort of beginning, usually some other event, before playing out all over again until that second event and going back to the first event, and so on," Bruce explains. "It's actually not a real thing but a theory. I've never heard of it actually happening."
Tony grimaces. "Me neither, but fact is, I've been through this a couple of times already."
"He correctly predicted the circumstances of the collapse of the base and possesses information he can't have stolen the way he usually does," Fury adds bluntly.
Rolling his eyes, Tony waves that away. "As if you don't steal from me too."
"So what actually happens during the loop?" Barton asks, eyes narrowed.
Tony eyes him uncomfortably, but there's no way around it. "He has this stick with which he can brainwash people. He touches the tip to your chest and all of a sudden you're completely loyal to him without question." Pulling out his tablet, he starts sketching a picture of said stick, less because he thinks it's necessary and more because he doesn't want to look at anybody. "When he first came, you guys were completely caught off-guard. He brainwashed Erik Selvig, Barton and a couple of other agents and killed some others. He left the base, it collapsed, and he established a base somewhere else, having Selvig build him a machine that could, powered by the tesseract, open a wormhole."
"How?" Bruce interrupts sharply.
Tony glances at him. "Yeah, I'd like to know as well. We don't actually know, apparently the tesseract told him how."
"What is this tesseract?" Rogers asks, brows furrowed.
Quickly sketching a tesseract model, Tony shows the picture to him. "That's a tesseract; it's actually a geometrical model. The tesseract is to the cube as the cube is to the square. You know this specific one, you last saw it in the hand of Red Skull."
Rogers jolts and stares at Tony with wide eyes before turning to stare at Fury. "You have the cube?"
"Had," Tony corrects, a bitter twist to his mouth. "And actually, my father found it and left it to them. Yeah, they had it. They were trying to figure out what it does, and making weapons with it."
Fury narrows his eyes at him; this is probably the end to their brief moment of cooperation.
"He says it's because of Thor," Tony adds before either Fury or Rogers can say anything. "I still think it's a fuck-all argument, but whatever." Drawing of the Glowstick of Destiny finished, he hands it to Bruce who looks at it before handing it over to Natasha.
"Anyways, Loki steals the tesseract, plans to open a wormhole. For some reason they decide they need some iridium for that and go to Stuttgart in Germany to steal it, in the process of which Loki kills some guy and terrifies some people and generally makes a lot of drama. Cap and I and Natasha in a jet capture him – or rather, he lets us capture him – and as we're flying back to the helicarrier Thor boards the jet to nap his brother. We follow him, and depending on the timeline we have a bit of a fight with Thor; anyways, we eventually come to an agreement and take Thor and Loki with us to the helicarrier. By the way, Loki has had countless opportunities to escape by this point, and he's taken none, but we were too busy or something to notice. Blah blah, stuff happens, lots of posturing and bitchfights especially between you and me-" Tony gestures between him and Rogers, at which point Rogers breaks the silence.
Tony raises an eyebrow. "Because I can't stand you and I'm an asshole, and you're annoying. It's nothing personal. Anyways, Barton comes along in a jet and shoots down one of the helicarrier's engines, boards the carrier with a couple of other agents and generally makes a mess in the process of which the Hulk gets released and creates even greater chaos." Bruce winces, so Tony pats him on the wrist. "No worries, we still love you. Personally, I also love the Hulk. Blah, blah, chaos, in the process of which Loki tricks Thor who ends up in that fancy glass cage prison you have down there and Loki drops him from the sky; the Hulk ends up getting off as well. Oh, and Loki stabs Coulson, who shoots him with a BFG. It shoots energy," he informs Coulson, "since you've always wanted to know what it does and all. Not that Loki seemed overly impressed, but whatever. Anyways, sometime a little later I figure out that Loki is a huge drama queen and that naturally, he'd feel drawn to another drama queen – which would be me – and that he's going to make the wormhole on top of Stark Tower. Which he does. Big fucking invasion, lots of property damage and casualties, your stupid council sends a nuclear bomb in our direction, but all ends well because I'm awesome. Sometimes we go get drunk afterwards, and then we-" mid-sentence, Tony freezes as he suddenly realizes something. All times but the last time, they had an extra day when they went out for shawarma or drink after the invasion. It's a revelation, but he knows it's just a step on the ladder to figuring this whole thing out. He's close, this close, to figuring out the rest, it's tickling his fingertips-
"Then we loop back," Tony finishes his sentence absently. "Usually we loop a day early when we don't go drinking after the invasion." He frowns thoughtfully. "Except once." How does that one time deviate from the other times? Shit, he has no idea.
"Are you thinking the loop starts later if we have a hangover to get over first?" Bruce asks with a thoughtful frown.
"Well, I doubt it's being that cordial," Tony replies dryly. "But there's something there I'm not quite getting." He tries to figure it out for a moment longer but it's futile; it's gone. "I'll figure it out. So I guess we'll start looking for the tesseract now?"
Fury sighs and waves them away. "Whatever, it looks like I'm not really in control of much of anything right now anyway."
Perfectly true. Tony would've thought he'd resist more though – not that he's complaining, Fury is difficult enough to deal with when he's being cooperative. Aiming a grin at Bruce, he says "wanna go play?"
Bruce looks amused. "Alright."
Grin widening, Tony drags him off to the lab. "I wrote the program a couple of times now, I can do it on my own, but you were a big help the first time around. Gotta say, it's been ages since I met someone even half as brilliant as me, and you're much more than that."
"Thanks." Bruce's voice is dry. He leans against the lab table and watches attentively as Tony starts writing the program. "So have you enjoyed yourself yet? Like in the movie?"
"Groundhog Day? Got no waitresses I wanna bang – or at least none where I have to try that hard for," Tony replies. "In a manner of speaking, I guess. I spent two loops getting drunk, and one I blew up my tower before shit went down. But apart from that, well. I've been trying to figure shit out, you know? The first three times I wasn't sure whether this was really happening, but after that it was hard to deny anymore."
Bruce hums thoughtfully. "It is scientifically rather unlikely."
"Yeah, magic." Tony grimaces. "If you wanna call it that. I still maintain that magic is nothing but technology we can't understand. Yet."
"Well, yeah. Apparently." Tony glances at him. "The whole mind slaves thing, I'd rather explain that with magic than believe that one day people will have that technology readily available. It was rather... terrifying." Almost subconsciously, his fingers find their way to the arc reactor. In his mind he again hears the noise of the tip of the spear clinking against it, whirl of blue magic dissipating. When he has some time on his hands – haha – he's going to try to figure out what that's about. Because technically, it should be impossible for the arc reactor to nullify magic, unless it is magical too – which would mean that Tony made something magical. On the other hand, that's an argument for the theory that magic isn't magic but highly advanced technology. Tony bets that if he took his StarkPhone to 1800 or even 1900 he'd end up being incarcerated for sorcery or some shit like that.
"Sure sounds like it." Bryce folds his hands behind his back and tilts his head to eye Tony thoughtfully. "Have you figured out yet why you're the only one who remembers the loops?"
Tony snorts. "No. I wish. I have hardly anything figured out, all I have right now is the advantage of knowledge."
"Because if you figure that out, it should become more clear to you why we're looping to begin with," Bruce says. "I have something of a theory."
"Yeah?" Tony stops typing and gives him his full attention. "I'm listening."
"It sounds terribly unscientific, but then, all of this does. But the reason why you're the only one who remembers must be that you're the only one – or at least the one in the best position – to change something significant. Prevent it from occurring, make it happen, though I'm inclined to consider the first more likely merely because it's much easier."
"Hmm." Tony frowns. "Interesting. Makes sense. Inasmuch as any of this makes sense." He rolls his eyes and goes back to the program.
Bruce leans closer again to peer at the screen. "This is brilliant."
"Well, of course it is. And it is half yours," Tony informs him. "As I said, we've been working on this together. You're probably recognizing yourself. Sort of."
"It must be difficult," Bruce says after a brief pause. "To have to start all over again every time, with us not knowing you when you know us."
"Dude, I've seen you naked," Tony smirks. "Not all that difficult." Then he sobers. "But, yeah. A bit annoying. Frustrating. Hence the drinking." Which had also been a bit the result of him freaking out about the arc reactor, but it's primarily because of the loop.
After Tony is done they tinker around for a while but before the program has managed to find the tesseract (because no matter how fast Tony is by this point in writing it, in the end it still needs time to sort through all the data and radiation) a different alert window pops up. The scanners, modified with a little extra by Tony, register a huge spike of something, and Tony hasn't had time to search through all of SHIELD's data but he highly suspects that that's Thor landing on Earth – he remembers an overheard conversation. "How much dark energy did the Allfather have to muster up to bring you here?"
He makes a choked noise – definitely not a squeak – and immediately focuses the scanners on the area the spike originates from.
"What-" Bruce asks, but Tony shushes him with a slashing motion. He can't deal with this, holy fuck, this is dark energy, they just registered dark energy. Actually measured it. It shouldn't even be possible. And Thor's people apparently not only know of dark energy but actually can use it. How did Tony not register that when he bugged Loki and listened to the brothers' conversation? Holy fuck.
That is, if Loki means the same thing as Earth scientists do when he says "dark energy".
The thought puts a damper on Tony's excitement. He frowns and gives JARVIS some instructions to explore the spike further before he calls Fury.
"Are you going to tell me now what just happened?" Bruce asks when Tony ends the quick call to Fury. "What is that energy spike?"
Tony bites his lower lip and glances at him. "Loki called it dark energy in another loop."
Bruce's eyes widen; he knows what that means, no matter how far behind he might be in the field. His excitement is more contained than Tony, who might or might not have flailed a little, but he's definitely excited as well, especially once Tony has explained to him the circumstances the dark energy was used for that Loki referred to.
"What is it?" Fury bellows as he bursts into the lab, followed by Coulson, Natasha, Barton and Rogers. "Did you find the tesseract?"
Tony throws him a look. "I'm fuelled by previous knowledge, but I can't perform magic. No." He shares a look with Bruce. "We registered a spike of energy and I'm fairly sure it's Thor's arrival."
"And?" Fury prompts impatiently. "Where?"
"Alaska." Tony points at the map where the location where spike was registered is blinking. "Denali National Preserve, near Mount McKinley."
"What are you waiting for?" Fury asks. "Get in a jet and over there. Don't come back without the tesseract."
Tony rolls his eyes and starts packing up.
Once they're all in the jet (Tony's, of course, he won't fly in SHIELD's stuff if he has a choice about it) and on course things turn a little awkward as an uncomfortable silence settles between them. Tony is reminded of the silence when they had gone to eat shawarma the first time around. In hindsight it's sort of funny, but he doesn't need that again. Luckily, this being his jet, he's fully equipped to waste time in the most entertaining ways.
Within five minutes he, Natasha, Coulson and Barton are involved in a fierce Halo battle; Bruce and Rogers mainly sit by and look lost as the language turns fouler and fouler. Well, Rogers looks lost, and severely disapproving. At one point he involves Bruce in a conversation where he asks why anyone would want to play war, how this can be considered fun. Tony is rather glad he wasn't the one asked, because Bruce turns out to be much better at explaining in a way that doesn't make Rogers go all judgmental, disapproving grandfather on them.
About half an hour before they're set to arrive Tony pauses the game and decides to properly debrief them on everything he knows about Loki and Thor.
"So, listen," he says. "Loki is badass, okay? He can do magic. By which I mean that if I believed in magic I would believe it's magic, but since I don't I maintain that it's just highly advanced technology, but it's so highly advaned most scientists, if they saw him do the things he can do, would believe he's performing magic. You got that?"
"No," Clint – he's become Clint when he and Tony ganged up in an attempt to break up the deadly alliance of Natasha and Coulson – says dryly. "But go on."
"Well, the only time we've been managing to capture him was if he allowed us." Tony is growing more and more sure that this is true even for the end of the invasion, and he's gotta find out what's up with that sometime soon. When he has some time he needs to do some serious thinking. "I'm not saying he's invincible, primarily because I don't believe any such things exists, but power-wise, so far we fall woefully short of being able to actually do something about him. Our only chance is Thor, who is on our side. He's sort of Earth's protector, as far as I can tell."
"Yes, he is," Coulson agrees in his quietly confident manner. "He's been on Earth before. He was willing to sacrifice his own life to protect humans from his brother."
"Not really his brother, though," Tony says. "Apparently we're just a chesspiece in a fucked up family conflict. As far as I can tell Loki is here primarily because, as Thor put it, Earth is under Thor's protection. It's nothing personal." He grimaces as he remembers something. "I think. There is the whole invasion and world domination business, I have no idea what's up with that." Another thing to the list of things he has to find out. It's growing exponentially.
"Okay, so, family issues," Clint sums up. "What exactly?"
"Apparently Loki is adopted," Tony says, annoyed with himself for knowing so little. If there'll be a next loop – which he really, really hopes won't be the case – he'll have to do some research into Norse mythology. "He's a Jötunn?"
Coulson sits up straighter at that. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah." Tony tilts his head. "He told me himself. Why?"
"Merely because the Jötunn are the Æsir's – that's Thor and Odin and the whole lot – mortal enemies," Coulson says dryly. "This is part of mythology but we have previously been inclined to believe it's been made up by humans, because at no point in the mythology does it mention that Thor and Loki are brothers – or were raised as such, at least."
Tony frowns. "Well, it's not made up. Also, I have a feeling that this explains a lot. Not that it's useful knowledge for us at this point; you probably shouldn't mention it, it's a bit of a delicate subject. He's got a bit of a temper, and here in the mountains there are no windows to be thrown out of, so we probably should be a little careful. Though on the positive side, there'll be far less casualties should he start his invasion business here."
"That sounds oddly specific," Natasha remarks. "Been thrown out of any windows lately?"
"Once or twice." Tony shrugs nonchalantly and winks at her. "I bet you can understand the impulse."
"I'm heartbroken that I wasn't the first to think of it," she deadpans.
Tony laughs. "I bet. Get in line, if we really do this team thing you'll probably get your chance sooner or later. Any questions?" He looks around, one eyebrow raised. Certainly he's done better debriefings, but fact of the matter is he barely knows anything about Loki, something he only truly realizes now. There really is some research to be done, and soon. Well, if necessary, because he's still hoping it won't be.
"What are his skills?" Natasha asks promptly.
Right, yeah. Of course he'd forget the most important part. "Well he's got this spear stick thing, you saw the sketch I made, don't let the tip touch you on the chest. I'm immune because of this little thing," he tabs the arc reactor, "but you won't be."
"Are you sure?" Coulson asks with a frown.
"Yeah." Tony can't help it, he flashes back to the image of Coulson on one of the Chitauri transport platforms, leading the invasion in a far more efficient, ruthless manner than Loki had, which he wouldn't have considered possible before.
He clears his throat, trying to disperse the memory, and ignores the way they glance at each other, clearly having caught the moment. "Anyways. Stick. It can also shoot energy, so be careful of that. He can also make copies of himself, but I'm not sure how autonomic they really are; I've only seen them stand around and look impressive but who knows. He can also make holograms of himself that you won't realize are holograms until you're touching air where mad Norse god should be. This seems to be a general Norse god thing, but he's very strong physically, and difficult to permanently injure. And he can teleport."
They're all staring at him with raised eyebrows by the time he finishes. "Well," Clint says. "At least this won't be boring?"
Tony snorts. "Right. One last thing." He focuses on Bruce. "I know you don't want to do this, but the only one who's been able to hold a candle to Loki who wasn't his brother was the Hulk. Loki seemed quite shocked by that, which was hilarious, but yeah. Just so you know."
Bruce just nods. He isn't stupid; he knows they didn't take him with them on the jet because they need his expertise as a physicist. Doesn't mean he's at all happy about it though.
The rest of the trip they're silent, each preparing for whatever might happen in their own way. They all suit up – Barton with sleeves this time because Coulson tells him he can't run around with naked arms in Alaska – and arm themselves. Once they're there they first fly over the area of the spike for some reconnaissance.
"I think it's safe to say they're in the cave," Coulson says, pointing towards an opening in the mountain. The forest is empty and silent.
They all agree, and the jet hovers as the others come down via a rope. Even Bruce joins them, though he's very firm about the fact that he's a last resort, and that he won't do it in the cave. Nobody wants the Hulk let loose in a cage; Bruce would probably be the only one who survived that.
They walk over to the cage, eye each other and then decide to enter all at once; safety before subtlety.
Tony walks in front, because he knows best what might expect them and also because he has an in-built torch in the form of the arc reactor and thus has both hands free to defend himself without any impairment to his sight. But it turns out that's not necessary, because after some time of climbing around in twilight they notice a yellow, flickering light, as if from a fire. As they approach it turns out to be a fire, next to which Thor sits. Loki is lying on the other side of the fire, unconscious.
"Hello," Thor says, surprised to see them until he spots Coulson at the back. "Son of Coul! I did not expect to meet you here."
"Hello, Thor," Coulson says. "How are you?"
"I am well," Thor replies, then grimaces, likely realizing the lie just as it leaves his lips. He doesn't correct himself, though.
"So, hey," Tony involves himself before they can do any more smalltalk. "What happened to Reind- Loki?"
Glancing at his brother before focusing back on them, Thor furrows his brows. "How do you know my brother?"
"Uh, we've met," Tony evades. "He didn't seem to be in a great mood."
Thor frowns. "Heimdall did not speak of Loki being in contact with any Midgardians."
"Technically he wasn't," Tony says, then decides to fuck it. Maybe Thor knows something about what's happening. "Say, you ever heard of a time loop?" When Thor doesn't seem to understand the terminology he tries to explain, "when something happens again and again until somebody changes something vital, from which point on time continues to pass as normal?"
"I have never heard of such a spell," Thor says, "but perhaps my brother has. He is much more versed in these things."
Tony winces. "He's also not too friendly, though, is he?" He looks around. "Where did he leave the tesseract, anyway?"
Unconcerned, Thor shrugs. "He hid it. Not to worry, he will take it out when he needs it to complete the spell. May I ask who you are?"
A round of introductions follows, and then Thor invites them to sit with him by his fire. That doesn't smoke, Tony suddenly notices. It seems Thor can do some magic after all.
Nobody seems to want to sit next to Loki's head so Tony ends up sitting there; it's for the best anyway, he figures, since he's armored. If Loki bites he'll hopefully be a bit better off than one of the others. Maybe he won't even lose a limb.
"How do you know my brother, then?" Thor asks once they all sit and he has apologized for being unable to offer them anything to eat or drink.
"Well, the events that keep on occurring? They're basically your brother landing here and trying to invade the planet," Tony explains.
Thor seems devastated. "Truly so? I had not thought he would be this far gone."
Tony feels a little bad, but only for Thor and his misguided affection for his brother. "Didn't you speak to him? I gather you knocked him out? Because he doesn't seem to be sleeping."
"Yes." Thor frowns and glances at Loki. "It was an accident."
Right. Tony eyes the hammer and chooses not to comment on that, instead continues to briefly abbreviate what the hell is going on. By the end of the explanation Thor is frowning primarily in confusion.
"This seems a very complicated matter, friend," he says when Tony is finished. "A spell requiring very refined skills and a large amount of power, if it truly is a spell."
"What else could it be?" Clint asks. The others are mostly silent, eyeing Loki and Thor with varying degrees of wariness.
Thor blinks. "Why, fate, of course! You have to change something, do you not, Tony Stark?"
"Uh, at least I assume as much," Tony says. "This has actually never happened before, as far as I know. I'm just making things up as I go along."
"Improvising," Thor nods. "My brother is very skilled at that."
Does he always talk this much about Loki? He hadn't any time before, but then again, it's understandable and only sensible for him not to mention the guy who had just killed a bunch of humans and nearly leveled a city in front of them. For some reason, Tony had never really thought about what it actually means that Thor and Loki are brothers – yes, family issues, naturally, but there's actually more to it than that.
As if aware of their conversation, Loki stirs. Everybody – Thor included, whose fingers wrap around the handle of his hammer, though he doesn't lift it – tenses. Tony leans away and considers giving up all dignity to jump up and back away, but before he can do so Loki blinks awake.
Tony probably isn't the only one who waits with baited breath as Loki looks around, confusion on his face that only increases as he spots his brother and the people he's sitting with. Drawing a careful breath, Loki pushes himself upright and looks around again. He looks surprisingly harmless.
"Thor?" he says, sounding surprisingly harmless too. Then he spots Tony and frowns. "I know you." He leans in and grabs Tony's chin, not at all painfully like he had before. Behind Tony his friends draw sharp breaths and move, probably get up, but he doesn't look at them to check; he's too focused on Loki's face.
More specifically, his eyes. His bright green eyes, not a hint of blue.
"Darling," Loki says, narrowing his eyes and raising an eyebrow. "You have been avoiding me."
Jesus fuck. "Can't blame me," Tony says hoarsely. "Your temper tantrums are entertaining the first couple of times, but it gets boring after a while."
"You destroyed your magnificent monument to narcissism," Loki replies, sounding put-out. "I was going to..." He pauses, tilts his head, starts to frown. "No, not me." Abruptly he lets go of Tony's chin and backs away, looks around hastily. "Where is the spear? Thor, where is the spear?"
Thor frowns. "I destroyed it." He points towards a corner where indeed, the spear is lying, broken into several pieces, the formerly blue-glowing crystal in the middle shattered into milky white pieces.
Loki stares for a moment, eyes wide, and then he starts to laugh. It sounds a lot like hysteria; Tony is familiar with the sound. He shares a helpless look with the others, who look as freaked out as he feels, before turning back to the clearly, definitely mad Norse god in front of him. "Hey," he says when the laughter starts sounding more like sobbing than anything else. "What's up, Reindeer Games? Everything is peachy, not to worry."
"Oh, no," Loki hiccups, mad grin still stretching his lips. The others shift uncomfortably. "I have every reason to worry."
Tony shakes his head. "Look, if I'm reading this correctly, the stick had you under mind control as well, didn't it?" Stupid, stupid, stupid. He should have realized. Loki's eyes were far too unnaturally blue, the color resembling Clint's and Coulson's and Selvig's far too much. "Besides, nothing happened."
"Nothing..." Loki stills, lips parted. Then he smiles, less insane but still painful. "Yes, of course."
He rises swiftly, surprising all of them. "I assume you wish to take me back to the Allfather, Thor."
Thor frowns at him. "Yes, of course. Are you alright, br-"
"Best do it now, then," Loki interrupts. "I am not sure how sane I will be if we linger." He does a simple-looking twist of his hands and is suddenly holding the tesseract. "Come."
Thor looks at Tony and the others, looking a little uncomfortable but determined. "As my brother suggests, it is best I take my leave now, friends. It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Call when you're back on the planet," Tony tells him. "Maybe I'll hire Jane, her expertise in a highly obscure area could be useful."
With a nod, Thor steps up to Loki and puts a hand on his shoulder.
"Goodbye, darling," Loki says, and the two vanish.
"What the fuck," Clint bursts out as soon as they're gone.
"I have no fucking idea," Tony says in the same incredulous tone.
Rogers shifts, looking unhappy about the language. "So you think Loki was under mind control as well?"
"Definitely," Tony mutters. "His eyes always were this crazy blue color, I just didn't think-" he pauses as a memory flashes through his mind; of Loki blinking in confusion after he wakes up on the jet after Tony has knocked him out, for a brief moment not seeming as crazy.
"Well," Rogers says. "I guess we can go back now."
So that's what they do. On the helicarrier they debrief the whole anticlimactic incident. Fury doesn't seem happy, but that's primarily because he has a destroyed base and nobody to blame it on; shortly after Thor and Loki left the cave SHIELD's scanners registered an energy spike they're attributing to an activation of the bifrost. The brothers have clearly left the planet.
After he has debriefed Tony goes to find Bruce, who is sitting in a sort of training room, meditating. Tony waits around, shifting and not exactly patient but trying for it anyway, until Bruce sighs and opens his eyes.
"Okay, so," Tony says. "You want to come live with me? I got this huge tower, you can have your own floor, a private lab and then there's ten floors of R&D, you'll love it, it'll be awesome."
Bruce raises an eyebrow. "You have made this offer before, have you?"
"Once or twice." Tony shrugs and tries really hard not to shuffle on his feet. He feels ridiculous; he's never shy or insecure. Of course that's a lie but Tony would like to keep pretending, thank you very much.
"Have I ever said yes?"
Now, Tony would love to lie, but it's probably not a good idea. "You've never really said either way. All you said was "I'll think about it"," he admits.
Bruce smiles at him politely. "Thank you for the generous offer. I'll think about it."
Yeah. With a nod, Tony leaves him to it. He'd originally planned to extend the same offer to the others, but now he doesn't really feel like it – that was as good as a no from Bruce; Tony would bet half his fortune on the fact that Bruce will vanished as much as his possible for him within the week. Maybe he came on a little too strong, he tends to forget (willfully ignore, rather) the fact that the others don't know him at all. And he did convince Bruce to come with them on the jet despite the fact that Bruce has some deep-seated issues about the Hulk. Understandably so, but still. And this time they didn't have any bonding experiences either, like the Hulk saving Tony from certain death or protecting the planet together or anything like that.
Same goes for the others, really. In general Tony isn't entirely happy with Rogers' existence, much less with the idea of inviting him to his home, but he would've done it, they're a team, but now that he thinks about it, Rogers hadn't seemed to like him much either (and oh, all the childhood issues coming up again, he really doesn't want to have to deal with that shit all over again). And Clint and Natasha and Coulson seem to be a unit, especially now; it had never really registered with Tony that Coulson was part of the bond between Clint and Natasha primarily because either he or Clint had been gone, but it's rather obvious now, he has to admit. Inviting Clint and Natasha to live with him is one thing; Coulson an entirely different one. He's SHIELD in a way Clint and Natasha aren't, not really. And Thor left.
Tony still extends his invitation to Rogers, Clint, Natasha and even Coulson – "if you're ever in my area, you know, pop in or something" – but he doesn't expect much to come out of it, really. All in all this loop has left him feel strangely drained, sort of empty, so he's almost looking forward to getting to do it all over again. This time he plans to meet with Loki when he appears at SHIELD, get some answers.
Naturally, the loop doesn't come. Tony wakes up at home, and at first he thinks it's a loop again, but JARVIS didn't wake him up, and the sky is a dab grey it hadn't been the day before the invasion. So maybe this is a loop with an extra day, and Tony really has to figure out what's up with that.
He spends it making a plan about speaking with Loki, or rather, about getting there in time to speak with Loki. The base is in Texas, which means about five hours flight time in a normal plane. The suit isn't a normal plane (isn't a plane at all) but even with that he can't make it to the base in under two hours. He's got to figure out a way to make himself faster, which is actually remotely entertaining and consequently distracting, so that's good. Not that he really expects to get anywhere useful before he loops back, but he's always liked a challenge.
By the time he comes up for air it's dawn. Tony is fairly sure they didn't make it this far into day two after the invasion the previous loops, even the longest ones. Yeah, he was asleep most of the time, but still.
Trying to ignore the feeling of disquiet settling under his skin, Tony buries himself back in the virtual prototype, vaguely expecting to be zapped back anytime, but it doesn't happen. It doesn't happen all day. Or the day after that, or the day after that.
"Sir, if you do not eat a proper meal and sleep for more than five hours, I am authorized to shut down the lab," JARVIS threatens.
"Yeah?" Tony returns, voice hoarse from disuse. He's only used it to grunt at DUM-E and U, who have been helping him implement the new thrusters into his boots and gloves. "Authorized by who?"
"You, sir," JARVIS says. "You gave careful instructions that give me leeway to act in the event of you seriously endangering your health."
"Hey, 'm not endangering anythin'," Tony protests. His head feels a little strange, sort of heavy and light at the same time. Maybe that's not so good, maybe JARVIS has a point, but it's the principle of the thing.
"You have not slept for more than three hours at a time in the past four days and nights," JARVIS informs him archly. "Neither have you had anything remotely approaching a proper meal, and you have only been drinking alcohol. I will shut down the lab in five minutes."
Tony sighs gustily. He's long since learned to acknowledge when he's been defeated, and okay, being bested by his AI isn't exactly a great feeling, but whatever. He made JARVIS, so he's technically being bested by himself. Okay, not at all, but that's an idea he can live with, so he'll stick with that.
As he makes his way to his bedroom, more stumbling than walking, he finds that his hands are trembling vaguely; he's long since finished the flight stabilizers and hasn't been working on anything delicate so he didn't notice, but as he supports himself at the wall it becomes obvious. His limbs are weak, almost embarrassingly so.
Stupid. He shouldn't forget himself like that; what if an emergency came right now? He's in absolutely no state to do anything. A kitten could knock him out.
Angry with himself, Tony falls face down into bed and immediately drops off to sleep. Thirteen hours later he wakes up, hungover and dehydrated and starving and feeling dirty, so he has JARVIS order a pizza or three and takes a quick shower. A secretary or intern or something sent by the receptionist takes the pizza up to him, flushing and not knowing where to put her eyes when Tony waits by the elevator clad in just a towel. Tony sends her away with a dismissive wave, already opening the top box and taking a huge bite out of a nice, cheesy peperoni pizza.
Discarding the towel – where can he walk around naked, if not his own home? – Tony drops down on the sofa and grumpily munches the pizza while staring out of the window – the very window he'd been thrown out of a couple of times, actually.
So, it seems like the loop isn't happening. Which is utter bullshit, if Tony has anything to say about it, not that he could explain why; he should be happy. He certainly wouldn't have been if he had looped back, he doesn't think.
Still, something feels off; Tony feels jittery like he forgot something, like there's somewhere he needs to be, something he's got to do. It's stupid, he knows this, because really, this was the best loop of them all; no casualties at all, no mind slaves. So what if they aren't a team after all? Tony's acting like a sentimental, self-pitying little shit. He's been doing fine without others before, he'll be fine again. Anyways, they'll probably show up if he's in big trouble, at least some of them. At least Cap, maybe? Coulson, if Fury sends him?
Anyways, he still has Pepper. By the way… "JARVIS, where is Pepper?"
"In her office, sir," JARVIS informs him. "She wished for me to relay the message to you that you should get back to her when you are ready to focus again on your dayjob."
Tony winces. Pepper definitely isn't happy with him. Better take of it sooner rather than later; he has JARVIS call her. It takes him about twenty minutes to convince her to go easy on him, and it mostly works only because he tells her about the time loop and the fact that Fury believed him. She clearly doesn't think he'd lie about something like that – which he wouldn't. Half-truths and blatant lies about when he's last eaten or how injured he is, yes, but not about the important things.
They make up a new appointment for the installation of the arc reactor and two days later, they do it. There are no complications; everything goes smoothly. Everything goes smoothly for Tony in general over the next couple of weeks, he shouldn't feel as disquieted as he does. But he can't shake the feeling off, it has settled deep in his bones. Something is just… not right.
It's still a surprise when Thor suddenly appears on his doorstep. As in, literally suddenly appears on Tony's balcony. "Man of Iron," he says, uncharacteristically subdued when Tony opens the glass door.
"Thor, buddy, how are you?" Tony gestures him towards the sofa and wanders off to get some poptarts. As promised, he's hired Jane Foster and they had spent a couple of evenings together, talking about stuff, including Thor and the fact that he's fond of poptarts.
Thor seems pathetically grateful when Tony hands a couple of toasted poptarts over. "Thank you."
Tony sits down at the other end of the sofa and eyes the blond Norse god. "You don't look good, Thor."
Startled, Thor shakes his head. "I am well, friend, do not worry."
"Yeah sorry, I can't help it. I've never seen you this peaked, and that's saying something, considering the crap I've seen you go through." Tony has had a lot of time to think about things; much needed, he thinks now. He went through past events again and again, and he noted a list of hints that in hindsight are proof for the fact that Loki was at least vaguely aware of the loop, under all the brainwashing. Coulson had even almost noticed it; he had pointed out in one of the loops that the spear holds suggestive powers. Loki himself had all but told him – told Thor – when he'd said that he'd seen the true power of the tesseract, in much the same way Selvig had reported he'd felt: with feverish adulation. Maybe it's understandable Tony hadn't picked up on those cues, he'd been busy with bigger things, but he still thinks he should've noticed. He isn't called a genius for nothing, he should make leaps other people don't.
Thor looks surprised for a moment, then he nods. "Of course. Forgive me, friend, I forgot that you, too, were aware of the Wheel."
"Wheel?" Tony repeats, frowning in confusion.
"That is what my brother calls it," Thor informs him. "He says it is something that happens very, very rarely, at pivotal moments that could change the whole history of all the realms. It is magic's attempt to balance something out, prevent something disastrous from happening."
Well, good to know that it's at least not something completely fantastical. "So what is this moment magic is trying to fix? You figure that out?"
"My apologies, but no. Loki says it is only possible to know if the loop does not happen again."
Tony nods and frowns into his cup of cooling coffee. "So, how's your brother? You fix the madness thing?"
Thor's face distorts into a painful grimace. "His trial came to an end a few days ago. The Allfather passed judgment on him."
"For what?" Tony frowns. "He didn't do anything, and he can't really blame him for anything he did if time went back and made it un-happen."
"Truly." Thor shakes his head unhappily. "It is not Loki's not-action that he stood trial for; his actions before he... fell were the ones he had to accept judgment for."
"What actions?" Tony asks, and Thor tells him the whole story – the failed coronation, how he tried to invade Jötunnheim (something he now cringes about, clearly embarrassed about his youthful brashness and naiveté), his banishment. How Loki was made king and tried to kill his brother. How he "fell".
It's clear to Tony that Thor is very aware that Loki didn't "fall", he let go, was very possibly trying to kill himself, going by what Thor tells him they know of the space between.
To say that Tony is surprised puts it mildly. Yes, he'd known SHIELD's side of things, had read the reports of what happened in Puente Antiguo and had even heard bits of Jane's side of the story, and a few stray comments from Thor during a previous loop. Loki himself had told him about the whole Jötunn thing and Tony has done his research, he's much better equipped to understand now that this must be a huge issue for them. It would be like waking up and finding out that you're a cylon, or a Borg, or something. The Alien monster. A zombie. A replicator. One of the not-good Terminators. But he's never had the full picture put together for him like this. It makes Loki seem a lot less gratuitous and willful.
"So he killed a bunch of people in New Mexico? That's what he stood trial for?" Tony eventually asks when Thor finishes the story.
Shifting uncomfortably, Thor admits, "More his actions in bringing Frost Giants into Asgard. It is treason."
Tony frowns. "But come on, even you admit now that it would've been disastrous if you'd become king. It can't have been that bad?" He doesn't know why he's on Loki's side all of a sudden – and he isn't, really. But from his point of view it looks like Loki's being solely judged for something that three people should be blamed for, maybe even four if they count Loki and Thor's mother, which technically they probably should, even if it seems like she wasn't involved much. Besides, Tony always sympathizes with the underdog, it's a sort of instinctive thing; honor among thieves or something. Underdogs. Whatever.
"He did not receive the death penalty," Thor says quietly. "Which the King would have been in his right to pass."
"Going by your face, the alternative isn't much better," Tony replies just as quietly.
Thor lifts his shoulders in a gesture decidedly helpless. "It is not my right to criticize the king."
"Well, come on, we're among friends, I won't tell. Besides, who can be a good ruler without someone to criticize them?"
After thinking about that for a moment, Thor eventually nods. "Loki was stripped of his disguise – of the spell the Allfather embedded within him to hide his true heritage."
That doesn't sound pleasant. "Is that... bad?"
"It seemed... painful," Thor says quietly. Considering all the things that happened to Thor and Loki, including being bashed around by the Hulk (both of them), and how neither of them had looked much worse for wear, hearing Thor call something "painful" chills Tony.
"Okay. I bet he completely hates that." Understatement, going by how Loki had told Tony about it – like he'd parted with a disgusting, painful secret with a sick, masochistic sort of relish at the fact that he was hurting both himself and Thor by speaking of it so plainly. "But that's not all, is it?"
Thor draws a breath, nods. "Like me, he was banished. But the Allfather decided that, since Loki has many contacts in many of the realms and since he does not trust Loki not to harm the inhabitants of Midgard... Jötunheimr would be the best place for Loki to learn his mistakes."
"Wait, wait, backtrack. Jötunheimr? The home of the Jötunn? Whose king he tricked and killed?" Tony can't believe it. "That's as good as a death sentence, they're hardly going to welcome him with open arms!"
Wordlessly, Thor nods again. "Most... unlikely," he admits quietly. "The sentence was passed. Loki was sent off to Jötunheimr just before I returned to Midgard."
Tony wonders if Thor left because he couldn't look his father in the eye anymore, or if he wanted to hide. The news of Loki's death – if there would even be any – won't reach him as quickly here, that's for sure. "Well, crap." This definitely calls for some drinking.
Three hours later Thor is drunk and Tony's alcohol stash has been severely depleted, but he doesn't care about that right now because he is also drunk. "An then," he slurs, "he says, "I betrayed both my people and none" and jus vanishes! Poof!"
"He does that," Thor says mournfully, hugging the bottle of vodka Tony gave him close to his chest. "But why would he do that?"
"I dunno!" Tony exclaims. "Especially with the whole being all sexy and dangerous. He's gotta stop that."
"We are still his people," Thor laments. "He is truly my brother, nothing anybody says can change that!"
"You go girl," Tony commends, pointing at Thor. Or at least one of the three Thor's he can see right now. "Don' let anybody tell you whata do."
"I will not," Thor enunciates and suddenly gets up, a determined expression on his face. Then he gets dizzy and drops on his ass again, looking comically surprised. "I am drunk!"
"That you are, buddy," Tony murmurs, patting him on the shoulder. "Better sleep it off before you do anything rash, yes?"
Thor looks at him earnestly. "You are a good friend, Tony Stark," he pronounces. Then he lies down and starts to snore.
Tony blinks a little and watches as the last bit of the vodka slowly drips out of the bottle, getting Thor's chest wet. Then he decides that maybe Thor didn't have too bad an idea, curls up on the couch and goes to sleep as well.
He wakes up with the mother of all hangovers. JARVIS thoughtfully dimmed the windows so at least the sun doesn't try to stab his brain through his eyes, but it's only a small comfort. With a groan he rolls off the sofa and almost stumbles over Thor's still body on the floor. Blearily Tony blinks at him before he leans down and checks for Thor's pulse. After he's made sure that Thor is still alive Tony stands again; he has to hold his head because it feels like it's going to fall off, or split open for his brain to dribble out or something gruesome like that.
Luckily, Tony has practice with hangovers. He goes through the process of trying to rehydrate himself without throwing up – slightly successful, though he does throw up once – with the help of some aspirin and takes a shower that helps making him feel a little human again. When he checks up on Thor again after all that he finds the guy still deeply asleep in his living room.
Tony dithers a little but eventually decides to wake his friend up; then he helps Thor through the process of allaying the hangover. Once Thor seems well enough again Tony takes him down to the floor he built for him – he figured he might as well build each of the Avengers their own floor, even if they weren't going to use it – and then goes to extract Jane from her work and give her a week off. At first she protests but the words die on her mouth when Tony pushes her out of the elevator and she spots Thor. The last Tony sees of the two is a super romantic hug.
He doesn't know why it leaves a strange feeling in the pit of his belly, and as usual lately he goes bury the strange feeling in his lab.
Four days later, just as he's biting into a pizza while Jane lowers her voice and dramatically speaks along to "I am your father", he wakes up and JARVIS says, "Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Tony blinks at the ceiling and tells himself that isn't relief flooding him. Then he jumps up, dashes down into the lab and upgrades his suit – he'd spent the vast amounts of free time he had over the past couple of weeks trying to figure out the quickest way to make his suit fast enough to get to the Texas SHIELD base before Loki appears. He couldn't explain to himself why and thus didn't even try but now he's unbelievably grateful for it, because instead of reworking the thrusters he just uses some replacements, powers them with a spare arc reactor – the palladium ones that he only keeps around because he's paranoid – and garbles it all together in a sort of backpack. All in all, with the help of JARVIS and DUM-E, it takes about half an hour before Tony is in the suit and on the way over at a speed that is probably some sort of world record; he breaks the sound barrier five seconds after liftoff.
"JARVIS, patch me through to Fury," he orders on the way. When Fury picks up he puts it very succinctly: "Pink tutu. You have to evacuate the Texas base completely, right now. It's going to collapse and everybody inside will die. Leave the tesseract."
Without saying a word Fury hangs up. JARVIS informs Tony a little later that the base is being cleared at top speed. By the time Tony gets there it's completely abandoned; Tony has no problem flying (at a much more moderate speed) through the corridors down into the reinforced hall containing the tesseract. He's almost too late; Loki is already there, spear in hand and making his way towards the tesseract. Blue light looking a lot like magic is congregating at the ceiling.
Tony unceremoniously flies right into Loki, who notices him at the last moment and makes as if to fire at him with the spear, but Tony puts on a burst of speed and slams right into him. He hears a few bones snap and winces, but Loki lets go of the spear and hits his head upon impact with the floor, which is what Tony wanted.
With Loki out of commission at least temporarily he walks over to the spear, kicks it into a corner and shoots at it.
Turns out, that's not a good idea. The thing explodes, sending Tony flying into the opposite end of the hall, and then the base collapses on top of him.
"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Another loop, another try. This time, after knocking Loki out, Tony drags the spear over into a reinforced safe room; on the flight over to the base he had JARVIS hack the blueprints and this is the safest place around. He fires, slams the door shut and...
The third try he doesn't bother with any of that. He attaches a timed bomb to the spear, sprints over to Loki who is lying unconscious on the floor and drags him out of the base. When the two of them are safe in the sky, a hundred meters above the base, the bomb goes off; Tony watches as the underground base collapses. It does look sort of impressive.
And, wow, look at that. He did it. He's not sure what he actually did or what he's going to do with it now, but he did it.
He flies to the nearest hospital, where people start running around like headless chicken when they see Iron Man carrying in an injured person who looks like a RPG refugee, but on the plus side, nobody asks for insurance papers. They put Loki on a stretcher and wheel him off for x-rays; Tony insists on following them. Who knows what mood Loki will be in when he awakes.
In the end Loki doesn't wake up for six hours, long after all the medical tests have been made, all the adrenaline in Tony has worn off and he's grown very uncomfortable in the suit. When he took it off the nurses alternately frowned at him or giggled, because Tony didn't bother putting on any clothes when he woke up and is thus only dressed in boxers and a wifebeater. They lend him scrubs, pink ones with skunks printed on them for some reason, and Tony almost would rather walk around half naked but by this point the press is around so that's not a good idea.
When Loki finally blinks his eyes open they're green and clear. "Hey there, darling," Tony says and pretends it's still a joke.
"Where..." Loki sits up and looks around. He's been stripped of his leather gear and put in one of those horrible gowns where the back is completely open from the neck down. "What..."
"No worries, I destroyed the spear," Tony says. "Thor isn't here. You're in a hospital. I sort of broke a couple of your ribs and gave you a mild concussion, sorry about that. Also, they're saying you're underfed, dehydrated and generally not in top form. Don't take that out, it's supposed to help you." He takes Loki's hand to prevent him from taking the IV out. "And let me tell you, you're looking healthier already so I'm inclined to believe you need it." That, or it's the sleep. Maybe both?
Loki doesn't say a word, just stares at him silently for so long that Tony starts to shift uncomfortably. "So, okay, uh... everything alright? You're aware that we're looping, right? When does it start for you?"
"As I get thrown through the pass," Loki replies. "But I... as I am under the influence of the spear again, I do not recall."
"You only do when it's destroyed," Tony supplies, shifting closer. "Yeah, I figured that out. That's why I've destroyed it."
Instead of looking happy or relieved, Loki closes his eyes. "He'll be here much sooner now."
"The one who controls you through the spear? Yeah, I imagine." Tony shifts. "So... I have a question. When does the loop end? Because I've been unable to figure it out and there was one that lasted weeks."
"With my death," Loki says blandly. "Odin Allfather sentences me to my death. As I die, I wake up again."
Only not really. And Tony had been thinking he'd been having a bad time. Loki has by far the worse end of the deal. "That sucks. So, do you have any idea what we have to do to stop this? Just prevent your death?"
"Just?" Loki laughs bleakly. "The last time I was torn apart by Jötunn. Though I suppose I should be grateful they didn't torture me for too long first."
Tony clears his throat and reaches for a plastic cup of water, handing it over to Loki. That counts as comforting, right? "Yeah, well. That means we have to tell Odin that he can't sentence you to death or to anything that will result in your death. He's gotta respect that, right? Thor said you know what this is, he said you called it a Wheel, so that means it's a legit thing. For some reason the universe or something doesn't want you to die."
"It's not that simple," Loki says forcefully. "This is a very complicated magical event. The only ones able to manipulate it are the ones aware of it, which is limited to me and you of all people!"
"Hey!" Tony protests. "I've been doing a good job of it all in all! If it had been anyone else you'd be in so much deeper shit, because it'd have taken them ages to get this far."
Loki sneers. "Nevertheless, it is not about me dying. I am a pivotal figure in this, clearly, as with my death the loop begins anew, but the same is true for you."
Tony blinks. "Wait, what? You're saying we also loop when I die?"
"When you destroyed your tower – a childish act of defiance, might I add – we went back to the beginning," Loki informs him sourly. Clearly he isn't happy about that in the least.
Tony, on the other hand, grins gleefully. "How about that! So we're both of equal importance in this, which means that there's something only you and only and I, or rather that only the combination of you and me, can accomplish. Right?"
"It seems that way," Loki sneers.
"Good. So you better crop the attitude and help me figure this shit out, because I'm getting tired of being stuck in this crap."
Loki doesn't reply, just stares at him haughtily. Tony decides to take it as silent acquiescence. "So, back to the beginning: you can't die, and I can't die. We have to figure out what will happen if we don't do whatever we're supposed to do."
"For that, we first need to know what it is we are meant to do, do we not," Loki says flatly.
Tony smiles at him but chooses not to comment on the newborn cooperation. He opens his mouth to say something but at that moment a nurse comes in to check on Loki; when she finds that he's awake and upright she immediately checks his vitals, which Loki bears with a sort of haughty reluctance, and promises that the doctor will be there immediately.
It's not a good thing, because if the doctor checks Loki over and finds that he can be released that means Tony will have to take him back to the tower. Not that he has much of a problem with that, but it also means he has to deal with SHIELD and Fury, who are probably trying to break his virtual door down right this minute to find out how Tony knew to use the code (what it stands for, he has yet to find out) and all that. He'll probably also have to talk to Pepper, she's probably pissed with him again for having JARVIS send her away. And then there's the other Avengers; Tony has to figure out how they fit into this, if they do at all. The thought that they don't and that the brief glimpses of teamwork and camaraderie he got during the loops are as close as he'll ever get to the real thing is not a pleasant one.
The doctor comes quickly to check Loki over and decides cautiously that Loki can be released, if he keeps to bed rest for a couple of days while he gets his strength back. He leaves again, and the nurse he brought with him finally asks about medical insurance and payment.
"No worries," Tony says, "I'll take care of it."
The nurse eyes the two of them, then nods. "I'll get you Mr. Loki's things and the forms."
After all the administrative stuff has been taken care of Tony helps Loki into some clothes – scrubs, of course, because they were all unable to figure out how to get him out of his hella complicated leather gear and as hospitals do, they unceremoniously cut through them. When Loki finds that out he makes offended and outraged noises and then tries something magical, but he winces before he can finish and quickly gives it up.
"My magical channels are raw," he reluctantly informs Tony. "I can use magic, but it's... painful."
Tony thinks of Loki's high tolerance for pain and how often he'd used magic in previous loops and swallows.
Really, the best part of it all is that they put Loki in the same scrubs as Tony; pink with skunks on them. Tony does his best to keep a straight face so Loki won't notice that there might be something iffy about that and secretly high-fives the nurse who brought them behind his back. She giggles and informs him at a whisper that they're usually for childcare nurses, they have a huge children's hospital here. "We thought you'd look much better in them than the usual drab colors," she says, eyes twinkling.
Tony has to agree.
He has a car waiting at the back entrance of the hospital but of course, journalists are waiting there too; it's not every day that Iron Man brings an injured person to the hospital and stays there to wait. They get in a good couple of pictures but Loki and Tony are in the car before they get mobbed. Loki bears it all with a sort of exasperated disdain.
The drive to the closest airport will take a while so Tony gets out some chips he had the chauffeur bring and offers them to Loki. At first Loki just snorts but eventually he gives in and takes some.
Tony tries to think it all through. So he and Loki are pivotal figures, but what does that mean? What is it that only the two of them are equipped to do? There are a number of things that only Tony is equipped to do, at least on Earth, but he really doesn't know enough about Loki to tell either way. "So," he eventually awkwardly breaks the silence. "Tell me some things that only you can do, not anyone else you know."
Loki sneers at him. "Why?"
"Come on," Tony says impatiently. "We gotta figure this out. I know what I can do, but I have no idea what you can do."
"Why don't you tell me what you can do instead?" Loki challenges.
Talk about himself? Tony can certainly do that. "I'm very smart. By which I mean I'm one of the smartest people on the planet, not just because I'm one of the most intelligent but because I'm very good at improvising and at making something out of nothing." Tony frowns. Maybe talking about himself isn't that easy after all. "My inventions are the most innovative on the planet; I'm generally at the very least ten years ahead of everyone else, fifty years in some cases."
Loki is watching him attentively, barely any hostility in him now. Tony can't interpret the expression on his face at all.
He shifts uncomfortably. "This is only about useful things, right? Not about how I manage to fuck things up again and again?"
"Most likely," Loki grants eventually. "Unless you… fuck up in especially unusual ways."
"Only especially epically generally," Tony admits. "So, anything you can do with that?"
"You are very versed in technology," Loki recaps. "Creative to the point of abstraction. The same is true for me with magic."
Okay then. There's something they should be able to do with that. "So clearly we're needed for something that requires creative thinking."
"Which does not help us much," Loki points out. Which is the truth, Tony has to give him that.
"Still, it brings us forwards at least a little, right? And we know what we have to do: convince Odin not to kill you. Actually, the best thing would be if Odin lets you stay here on Earth, because I figure we have to be together to do whatever we gotta do, right?"
Loki snorts derisively. "Good luck with that."
"Come on," Tony coaxes. "With this whole Wheel thing, that's a good reason, right? And if you manage to explain the whole traitor thing properly-"
"Thor told you?" Loki interrupts.
"Well, yeah." Tony looks at him freely. "He told me you were right and that it's a good job, because he would've made a horrible king."
Loki seems temporarily speechless at that.
"We have to make Odin listen. Even if it's difficult, it should work out, with the whole Wheel thing, right?"
"You keep using this word "we"," Loki says. "I will be the one who will have to do the work. It's not like your word will hold any clout at all with the Allfather."
Well, okay, that's true. "But you can do it, right?"
"Perhaps," is all Loki will say on the matter. It doesn't bode well, but Tony decides to put on a positive outlook.
"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts will be here in ten minutes."
Optimism, Tony decides, is over-rated. He would say it's for children but he doesn't think he was all that optimistic even as a child.
Things between him and Loki didn't work out for long after they left the hospital; long enough to get on the plane together, but then Loki had asked what Tony had done with the tesseract. Upon being informed that Tony hadn't done anything with it and that it was effectively buried under tons of former SHIELD base rubble Loki had shrieked with frustration and jumped Tony. He isn't sure if the breaking of his neck was accidental or not but it happened and Tony is Not Happy. Sure, it was painless and quick, but still, it's common courtesy not to break a person's neck, isn't it?
"Was that really necessary?" Tony asks irritably when Loki opens his eyes in the hospital. Loki glares at him, glances at the cast his arm is encased in and returns, "Was it necessary to break my arm?"
"You fell the wrong way," Tony replies blandly. Then he lifts the suitcase containing the tesseract. "Happy?"
Turning up his nose Loki sniffs, "It's the least you could do. Without it travelling to Asgard becomes neigh to impossible at this time."
"Great," Tony says. Originally he had contemplated withholding it from Loki in exchange for something, but he can't really think of anything and he doesn't think he wants Loki to stay around. Still, he's not going to just hand it over, not after Loki jumping him like he had.
So he lowers the suitcase and puts it back under his chair, joining his other suitcase containing the suit, and crosses his arms. "I can't really get over the feeling that you know more about this than you're letting on."
Loki's face remains completely expressionless, which is as good as a verbal confirmation.
"Great," Tony says tightly. "So I think we should go to my home, have that drink we keep dancing around, and you tell me what the heck is going on." When Loki doesn't reply he leans forward, letting a bit of steel seep into his voice. "Clearly, something in the universe has decided that we're both of equal importance. So you better get over your superiority complex and start working with me, because otherwise we'll keep at this for all eternity."
Loki curls up his nose derisively, but the sullen way he lowers his gaze tells Tony that his point came across.
They don't talk much more as they leave the hospital, get into a car and then on a plane to New York. Loki keeps eying the tesseract's suitcase Tony is carrying but he makes no attempt to grab it, not even when Tony is distracted.
They're on a public plane, had to because Tony's personal jet couldn't be there in time; he forgot to tell JARVIS to call for it in time. It's first class, yes, but Tony and Loki are wearing matching pairs of pink scrubs with skunks on them, both looking a little banged up, and Tony is carrying two important looking suitcases, one containing the tesseract, one the folded up suit. Inevitably, people stare at them. There is one woman across the aisle from them that Tony remembers jumping Loki when he'd attacked Tony, just seconds before Tony's neck broke. Now she's taking surreptitious pictures with her mobile that are probably going to end up in some newspaper. Tony decides that this is enough, he needs a bit of a break. He allows himself to drift off into a doze that eventually turns into as deep a sleep as one can get, sitting upright on a public plane.
Loki wakes him up by pushing Tony off him. It takes Tony a second to gather his bearings, during which he realizes two things: one, people around them are getting up to leave the plane, meaning better angles to take better pictures of two: somewhere in his sleep, Tony's head ended up on Loki's shoulder.
Wonderful. Now everyone will think Tony's banging Loki.
Tony doesn't get much time to lament that, because Coulson is waiting for them at the airport. Tony sees at least two other SHIELD agents hovering around, which means there's probably at least three times as many undercover.
"Agent!" Tony says jovially. "You went all out didn't you? You shouldn't have."
Coulson smiles blandly. "Mr. Stark. The director is very interested in speaking with you." His eyes flicker to Loki.
Tony puts his hand in the small of Loki's back and smiles sweetly. "The director can wait until I've found some proper clothes and a meal." Throwing Coulson a bone, he adds, "The pink tutu situation is under control currently."
Coulson looks at him calmly before gesturing towards the suitcase. "I would like to take that back now. Thanks for holding on to SHIELD property."
"You don't want that," Loki gets involved. "You cannot contain it, that much has become obvious, has it not? You won't like what comes out of it next time."
"You bit off more than you can chew," Tony adds soberly, making sure to convey how serious he is.
With a sigh Coulson gives in, but not without one last order. "One hour, Mr. Stark." Then he leaves.
Tony rolls his eyes. "Awesome. Let's go." Hand still in the small of Loki's back, something Loki bears with no comment, Tony guides him to where Happy is waiting for them with a car.
At Stark Tower an order of Chinese is waiting for them. Tony descends upon it like a man starving and Loki soon gives up decorum and follows his example. Once they're both full Tony digs up some clothes for Loki and sends him into a guest room for a shower while he does the same.
Loki returns wearing Tony's Star Wars t-shirt, a pair of loose sweatpants that are way too short for his long legs and a suspicious frown. "These clothes are very different from the ones we were given at the healing house."
"Hospital," Tony corrects. "And come on, do you really think I'd be so petty as to humiliate myself just to humiliate you?" Tony totally is that petty, but as it happens he doesn't think pink scrubs with skunks on them are all that humiliating after having worn them several times in a row. More funny than anything else. If Tony were less secure in his sexuality and masculinity maybe he'd mind more, but alas, that at least is an area in which he has very few, if any, issues.
Loki clearly doesn't trust him but apparently decides to let it rest, for he rolls his eyes and gingerly sits down on the sofa. Tony almost feels bad about the cast he's been given for his broken arm, but it's purple (upon Tony's request, admittedly) and actually sort of stylish. Tony's had worse casts, really.
"Gotta call Fury now and explain this crap to him," Tony says.
Loki sighs with exasperation. "His mind is severely limited."
"Absolutely, but he holds some cards, and in the end we're better off with him on our side than against us," Tony argues. He's not trying to persuade Loki, he's going to do this either way, but he has to follow his own advice; they have to work together.
"If you must," Loki grants with another exasperated sigh.
"Stark," Fury bellows as he picks up. "What the fuck is going on, and who the fuck is Walter Lawson?"
Loki's fake identity. Tony sighs, takes a deep breath and lays down the whole story. He leaves out the less important parts, abbreviating the rest, and still he's hoarse by the time he finishes.
For a long moment, Fury is silent. "Let me sum up. We're all caught in a magical Groundhog Day, and our only hope at getting out of it are you and an unstable Norse god?"
"Yes," Tony confirms, smiling broadly even though Fury can't see him anyway. "Be grateful you can't fucking remember. I keep having to have the same conversations with people and believe me, it gets really tiresome."
Fury grunts unsympathetically. "Why do you need the tesseract?"
"It is not yours to begin with," Loki involves himself coolly, the first time he speaks up.
"Besides, all you were doing with it was not figure out anything useful and make weapons," Tony adds. "As the incident with your base has shown, you have no idea what the fuck it is or what the fuck it does. I say let the people who made it deal with it."
The dial tone is all Tony gets for his opinion. Not that he's overly disappointed, something about Fury just grates him – a feeling that is entirely mutual, he's fully aware. With a shrug he turns to Loki. "Your turn at storytime, darling."
Loki, curled up sideways in an armchair, doesn't look at him. "I assume you know the circumstances surrounding Thor's coronation and the aftermath."
"Vaguely," Tony replies. It's a lie but he wants to hear everything from Loki's point of view; though Thor clearly tried to see through Loki's eyes his side of the story was still severely limited, partly by virtue of him not having been there during the pivotal moments.
With a nod, Loki begins to speak. His voice remains sober, nearly expressionless, but still his feelings shine through as he tells the story: worry for the kingdom, for Odin's sanity (that's how bad a king Thor would have made, and Loki clearly can't grasp how nobody had understood that), for Thor, all of them, the kingdom all over again when Thor had invaded Jötunheimr with the intention to wage war. How lost he'd felt when Thor had been banished and how the following events had broken over him like an avalanche, completely overwhelming him. Loki and Thor's family clearly isn't the sort who properly talks thinks out – Tony has heard such families exist, though he doesn't personally know if that's true, certainly hasn't experienced it himself – and the whole Jötunn thing had completely fucked Loki up. He doesn't apologize, makes no excuses for himself, but still Tony can't help but sympathize with him; he knows a bit what it's like to grow up constantly held up against an ideal and always found lacking. He can't condone the part where Loki tried to prevent his brother from returning to Asgard, but he understands. Even as king, Loki had had no supporters. Tony knows what that's like too. Even now he doesn't really have supporters, business-wise; his former contacts in the weapons industry are shunning him and the people who had been against him because of the whole weapons thing still don't trust him. At least Tony has Pepper who supports him, but she isn't exactly a candidate for scientific discourse. Tony had hoped Bruce would be it but by this point he's come to accept that Bruce isn't in a place yet where he can make such a decision.
The end of Loki's story shouldn't stun Tony so, he had known what was coming after all, but for some reason it makes his throat dry up. Perhaps because it's all of a sudden starkly obvious to him that it had been a complete suicide attempt.
"I think this calls for a drink," he says a little hoarsely once Loki falls silent. Not waiting for a reply he wanders over to his bar and pours them both two fingers of scotch. As he hands Loki the tumbler he says very quietly, "I've been there too."
Loki snorts. "Are you seriously comparing your life with mine?"
"Even superficially there are parallels," Tony returns, unimpressed. "Privileged but never acknowledged, much less favored son, impossible image to live up to, not accepted by peers, watched avidly by the public waiting for screw-ups. If I think more I'll find more. But no, that's not actually what I meant; what I meant was the moment you realize everything you've wanted, have been working towards all your life is a lie and worse, that you're a fool for trying to pursue it because you can't possibly achieve it. Everything you are, everything that means something to you becomes false and worthless, a negative image of what you had believed it to be. Yeah, I know what that's like." Maybe Tony would have died too, in Afghanistan, if he hadn't had Yinsen and an enemy he didn't want to give anything to. He was too stubborn to have let the Ten Rings win, no matter what they had done to him. But if he'd been hanging off a cliff, no enemy to fight and with his father telling him to his face that he'll never be good enough? Well.
Loki remains silent, just takes a sip from his tumbler and rolls the taste around on his tongue, stares out of the window. It's dark outside, the city's lights an artificial, ambitious reflection of the night sky, falling so woefully short it's a mockery.
They're silent for a long time until Loki eventually speaks up again, voice quiet. "I fell into the arms of a creature immensely powerful, and immensely dangerous. He... craves genocide for no other reason than the sake of it. Even in my darkest moments I never-" He swallows. "His purpose is to court Mistress Death; his specialty is genocide and the murder of especially powerful figures. He almost- I did manage to convince him otherwise, eventually, by telling him about the tesseract and the power it could bring him. The Chitauri are under his command."
No more words are needed to explain; Tony can read between the lines, infer the rest. "You suspect that that's what the Wheel is about."
Loki nods. "Undoubtedly, he will find his way here. And undoubtedly, with my knowledge whoever fights him will have a better chance against him."
"So we're supposed to defeat this guy together?" Tony sighs, rubs his face. It couldn't have been anything easy, but a guy Loki visibly fears? Loki with all his resourcefulness and magic? Yeah, not a good prospect.
"I would assume so," Loki says. "Or perhaps our purpose is only to bring our... to bring your people and the Æsir together so an alliance is formed."
"Have you told any of this to Odin?"
Mouth tightening, Loki throws back the whole remainder of his scotch. Clearly not a good topic. "He does not listen. He is too absorbed in himself to hear what I say, believing my words to be nothing but the self-serving prevarications of a coward and a liar." His mouth twists bitterly. "For too long he has lent his ear to those who believe me envious of Thor. My words no longer reach him." He takes a breath, lowers his gaze, voice very quiet when he adds, "I am not sure they ever truly have."
Tony has no idea what to say to that, so he just wordlessly gets up and refills their tumblers. He hands the glass back to Loki and hesitantly squeezes his shoulder – just fleetingly, it barely counts, but he feels like some gesture of support is necessary.
"Has the Wheel thing made him listen before?" he eventually asks quietly. Maybe he should let it rest, but they can't really afford that, honestly.
"Liar," Loki says, tone expressionless with just a hint of bitterness.
"What if I came along?" Tony suggests. Visiting Asgard isn't exactly on his top ten list of impossible things he's got to do before he dies (not even in the top twenty) but he can't deny a bit of curiosity. It sounds like a stifling place full off narrow-minded, stagnant people, but the technology... oh, the technology.
Loki sends him a dry look, opening his mouth-
Thunder rolls in the sky, immediately chased by a lightning bolt. The air cracks roughly, the sound of two heavy stones grinding into opposite direction echoes in the night and, accompanied by another couple of lightning bolts, Thor lands on Tony's balcony, right in front of Tony and Loki's eyes, crouching, hammer in hand.
As suddenly as it came the thunderstorm (if it can even be called that) dissolves again. Calmly Thor rises and walks over to the glass door, knocking politely.
Tony blinks and looks at Loki, who is looking past his brother, face entirely expressionless, body like stone. Tony makes it a point to brush by him as he walks to open the door for Thor, maybe as a gesture of solidarity or comfort; he honestly can't tell.
Thor opens his mouth when Tony opens the door – manually, which is completely unnecessary, but Tony didn't want to just let Thor in – but Tony is faster. "Thor, buddy! I was wondering if you'd show up."
Naturally, seeing as he doesn't remember a thing, Thor is confused. "You know of me?" he asks. "Has my brother-"
Loki must have reacted somehow because Thor breaks off mid-sentence, but when Tony turns around all he sees is Loki's back as he quickly leaves Tony's living room. Thor's face is a mix of hurt and resignation when Tony faces him again.
Tony sighs and steps aside. "You better come in, I have a lot to tell you."
Looking a bit dubious Thor enters the living room and, upon Tony's gesture, takes a seat on the couch.
Several drinking sessions with the Norse god have taught Tony exactly which kind of alcohol prefers; he gets him half a tumbler full of vodka on ice. Then he sits down and gets to explain the whole stupid time loop thing again. He's seriously considering just dictating it all and playing the recording back to anybody who wants to hear the story from Tony's mouth. At least with Thor he can leave out a fair bit more than with Fury, though he does go into a bit more detail about his interaction with Loki.
By the end of the story Thor stares sightlessly at the floor, empty tumbler clutched in his hand. Eventually he lifts his head and faces Tony. "If I had not seen my brother calmly sitting with you with my own eyes, I might not believe you, Tony Stark."
"That, and I know stuff about you I couldn't have heard from Loki," Tony replies.
Thor nods slowly. "Indeed. It grieves me, how much my relationship with my brother has soured."
"Yeah." Tony shifts uncomfortably, not liking the way Thor looks; a little broken, a little hurt, very sad. "Why don't I go check on Loki while you think about... stuff?" he says vaguely, half out of the honest desire to see what Loki's doing, half because nothing makes him more uncomfortable and panicky than sad people. Thor nods again and Tony is off immediately, heading for the guest room he had previously assigned to Loki.
There is no reply when Tony knocks on the door but that's no deterrent for him. Cautiously he opens the door and peers inside.
"In the bathroom," JARVIS says helpfully when Tony finds the room empty.
When Tony knocks on the bathroom door there's the sound of splashing. "Who is it?"
"Tony. You got a minute?"
There is a brief pause. "Come in."
Right, so Tony doesn't expect Loki to be naked and in the bathtub when he enters the bathroom. He doesn't know what he expected, to be honest he didn't have much time to think about it before he opened the door and there Loki is. Naked in the bathtub.
There isn't any convenient foam floating around to cover the most important bits like in all the movies. Loki's just lying in the water, completely bare, skin wet above the water, hair plastered to his head even more than his normal style. His eyelashes are clinging to each other and for some reason his face looks naked too, though Tony has no idea why he gets that impression; he really couldn't tell.
"Uhm," he says intelligently.
Loki raises an elegant eyebrow, looking like there's nothing at all wrong with the current situation.
Tony clears his throat, tells himself that they're all adults and none of them are teenagers who get- okay that's not exactly a teenager thing, many people get… interested when they see another person naked. Better not to dwell on it, really.
"Yes?" Loki asks, impatient because Tony took too long to move along
"Uhm," Tony says again. "Okay, to be honest, I'm just hiding from Thor. He was starting to get emotional and okay, that's just not for me. So. How are you?"
"I am bathing," Loki enunciates clearly, then sighs and rolls his eyes. "But I understand the impulse, so I suppose you are forgiven. Come in and close the door before he sees you and gains the impression that I'm fine receiving people while I'm taking a bath."
Nope, wouldn't want that. Tony does as asked and tries really, really hard not to think about the situation. It's not working well, because Loki's right there, naked.
And then Loki starts soaping himself up, rubbing his chest and arms all over. "How did he take the news?" he asks conversationally.
"Rrgh," Tony says.
Again, Loki raises an eyebrow at him. "Come now, Stark," he says. "The game we play is interesting and vaguely entertaining, yes, but you can quit it now. I know you are not truly interested."
"Who says that?" Tony asks. Then he curses himself because what the heck is he doing here? Is he honestly coming on to Loki? In a setting where it definitely can't be taken as a joke, or as light-hearted banter?
Well, looks like he is. In for a penny, in for a pound, he raises an eyebrow at Loki's incredulous expression and says, "Come on, you're hot. Why wouldn't I be interested?"
Loki frowns. "I am not… hot means you find me sexually attractive, yes?"
"Yeah. Yes, that's what hot means – that I find you very sexually attractive." Tony clears his throat. Normally this sort of thing doesn't go like that.
"I do not…" again, Loki doesn't finish a sentence; Tony definitely rattled him. He doesn't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing and briefly considers giving him an out, but honestly, he doesn't really want to do that. They might or might not have been dancing around this for several loops, even back when Tony still pretty much hated Loki for the shit he did in the first couple of loops, and he would like to clear things up once and for all now.
"This is unexpected," Loki eventually admits, not without difficulty. "I thought… it is a thing enemies do here, yes? Try to rattle each other?"
"Not really," Tony replies. "Not here, at least. I mean yeah, try to rattle each other, but the flirting isn't really a common thing. It's more of a… me thing, I suppose, though this is the first time I did it so maybe it's just a you and me thing."
What the fuck is he even saying here? Someone really needs to shut him up.
"Oh," Loki makes.
Tony breaks. "You know, it's okay if it's just a game and all – I mean it was mostly a game before, I just… well I'm just also open for it to not be a game, but if you don't then that's fine too, I mean you probably- you have this whole mortals are a waste of space thing going on, so-"
"Do shut up," Loki interrupts sharply. "Yes, I do not consider most mortals to be all that useful or interesting; you are like flies, one blinks and suddenly you're dead. But that doesn't mean I don't… that I can't…"
"Uh, find someone interesting nonetheless?" Tony supplies hopefully.
Loki sends him a dry look. "Yes."
"Okay." Tony takes a deep breath. This shouldn't be so nerve-rattling, how often has he had a similar conversation with a person- okay not that often, generally it's more of a wordless, unspoken agreement thing. But still. "Okay. So. Where do we go from here?"
Loki splashes water over his chest to wash off the last of the suds of soap clinging to his skin. Tony's mouth goes dry seeing that, and he's already trying really hard to not let his eyes wander down, below the surface where there is the dip of Loki's belly, his lightly spread thighs… woops, abort, abort. Tony closes his eyes and when he opens them again he isn't looking at anything but Loki's amused face.
"Do I really need to spell it out for you?" Loki says. "I would not have expected that."
Ah. "No, not really." Okay, time to get over this awkward teenager thing. This is getting ridiculous.
Tony steps up to the tub and holds his hand out for Loki. He definitely doesn't make any noise when Loki rises, water running in rivulets down his body, but he lets himself stare this time because it's clearly allowed.
Loki takes his hand and steps out of the tub. Ridiculously, Tony starts to look for a towel, but an unusually warm, wet hand turns his face back to Loki. His eyes are so green, Tony keeps being shocked by this again and again; maybe it's because the first couple of times Tony saw him they were blue. Or maybe it's just because they're unusually green.
He can't tell who leans in first, but it's not important anymore when their lips touch. All thoughts flee from Tony's head at the contact and all he can focus on anymore is the feeling. Loki's lips are warm, and soft, a little bit moist; when Tony deepens the kiss he happily follows along, opens his mouth, lets Tony's tongue slip in. Tony's heart beats loud in his ears and he can't breathe but that's not important either when Loki's tongue meets his, moves against his gently. One of them makes a noise, he doesn't know who, but the next noise definitely comes from Tony; he moans and pulls Loki closer, one hand on his wet, naked waist.
And shit, Loki's naked, he completely forgot about that. He's completely done for now, moans again, lets his hand slip down Loki's back and settle on his ass. Loki hums and presses his body against Tony's, getting his clothes wet, but his hand is dry when it finds its way into Tony's hair, half carding his fingers through, half holding his head still as Loki sets to thoroughly exploring Tony's mouth.
By the time Loki finally lets up Tony is dizzy and completely breathless; he leans against Loki and just gasps for breath for a couple of moments. Loki holds him steady, eyes closed, forehead pressed against Tony's.
When they've regained their breath a little Tony looks back to get a proper look at Loki's face. Tony can't really interpret his expression, there's need there and maybe… hurt?
That's not right. That's not how somebody Tony is making out with is supposed to look, and it abruptly sobers Tony up almost completely (certain parts of his body aren't so happy to part with direction they might have been heading towards). He cups Loki's face and presses a short kiss to his mouth. "Hey," he says then, quietly, maybe even gently. "What's up? Are you alright?"
"Yes," Loki says, voice a little hoarse.
"There's been a lot going on, huh," Tony says and suddenly realizes just how true that is; all the loops that have been happening and every time they get thrown back to the same moment. And unlike Tony, Loki didn't have any time to take a breather, just kept going back to being brainwashed. It's a wonder he's still sane. "How about you go to sleep? Tomorrow we can talk."
Finally Loki opens his eyes, narrowing them at Tony. "I don't need to be coddled like a child," he growls.
"Yeah, no, I know that," Tony hastens to reassure him. "I'm just, you know. This is new for me too, I really didn't expect for this to happen, and on top of all the loop- er, Wheel crap… I just think we could both need some time to think, is all."
Loki nods, displeasure mostly leaving his expression, but his voice is still a bit stiff. "As you wish."
Tony leans in for another quick kiss and then steps back, regretfully letting his eyes wander over Loki's naked body one last time. Damn, the guy is hot, it should be illegal, all lean muscle and creamy skin. "Good night."
"Good night," Loki replies, sounding mostly normal now. His eyes follow Tony as he turns around and leaves the room.
There's nothing Tony would like to do less now, but there's no way around it; he goes to check on Thor. The guy is still in the living room but thankfully looks a lot less now like he's one word away from a complete emotional break-down.
"Tony Stark," he says when Tony comes in. "How is my brother?"
Er. "Tired. Well, exhausted, really. He went to sleep."
Thor nods. "He is angry with me."
Oh, crap, looks like Tony's going to have to be emotional support after all. "Maybe. Well, probably, I mean nobody even went looking for him- I'm not saying it's your fault or anything, but maybe you should have… well, he's not happy about that, anyway. Sorry."
"It is not your fault," Thor says tiredly. "You are right. I should not have so easily accepted that Loki is dead without any proof."
"Maybe," Tony says noncommittally. "But, anyways, you can probably talk to him about it all tomorrow. He's been through a lot of crap – and I mean a lot of crap – and he'll need some time to cope with it all." And Tony better listen to himself, because as much as he'd like to take Loki to bed and not come up for air for a week-end or two, Loki just came out of his own personal Afghanistan. Tony resolves to be a little more responsible in the future.
"I suppose you are right, Tony Stark," Thor says slowly, still sad and contemplative.
Tony grimaces. "Okay, big guy, come on, I'll show you your room, I think Loki isn't the only one who needs some time to think." He shows Thor to a guest room, but on the floor below; there's only one guest room on Tony's floor and Loki is in that one. Tony didn't plan it that way but he would have. Once Thor has been shown to the stocked kitchen downstairs and had it explained that if he needs anything, JARVIS will get it for him, Tony gets back to his own room. On the way he walks past Loki's door and hesitates at it, but manages not to give in and ends up in his own bed. It is a little difficult – the image of Loki naked and wet is burned in his mind – but he stays strong. He's rather proud of himself, really.
Besides, his fantasies of Loki are almost as good as the real thing, especially considering that he's seen Loki naked and knows enough to know that he's a grower, not a shower.
When Tony the next morning gets into the kitchen Loki is already there, hands wrapped around a steaming cup of something.
"Coffee?" Tony asks hopefully.
Raising an eyebrow Loki pushes the cup across the table and yes, it's coffee, delicious, beautiful coffee. Tony would be doomed without coffee, completely doomed.
Loki makes an amused noise. "I have no idea how you can drink this," he comments. "It's terribly bitter."
"That's what milk and sugar are for," Tony replies. "But really, go on not liking coffee, more for me."
Loki rolls his eyes. "Bring me food. I wish to eat."
Ah, there is Loki's bossy behavior again; Tony might have missed it just the tiniest bit. With a sigh Tony gets up. "Just so you know, I'm only doing this once. Next time you're going to have to feed yourself."
Loki sniffs imperiously but watches carefully as Tony turns on the stove, gets a pan and makes some scrambled eggs. It's much simpler than omelet and Loki seems happy with it; when Tony hands him the hot toast popping out of the toaster he seems a little more dubious. After nibbling at it he seems to decide that it's edible, but asks for cheese. The only cheese Tony finds is shaved parmesan – he didn't even know he had it, but it still seems okay – but Loki seems happy with it. Well, Loki's specific brand of happy; he says "Well, the best host you make not, but I suppose this is acceptable." He does eat everything and makes himself more toast though, and asks for honey. Tony actually finds some in one of the cupboards, which he never would have thought. The jar is a bit dusty and Tony is dubious about offering it to anyone but Loki sneers at him and informs him that honey does not go bad. And he eats it, ripping off bits of toast and dipping it in the honey, so it must be true.
"Where is Thor?" Loki eventually asks with false nonchalance.
"Downstairs," Tony informs him. "He's got a guest room there and his own kitchen. Wanna go talk to him?"
"Perhaps," is all Loki will say on the matter.
Tony takes it as a hint and changes topics. "So. What's the plan? Not the long-term plan, I know that one, I mean short-term."
Loki scowls at him. "I suppose we will need to speak to my- to Thor." He stuffs a bit of honey-drenched toast into his mouth, chewing resentfully.
"Okay." Tony shifts, trying not to stare at Loki's lower lip; a drip of honey is clinging to it and it makes him do things. Involving Loki's naked body – of which he knows exactly what it looks like, he just can't get over that, and oh god he needs to stop thinking about it – and the golden honey.
And oh, he's staring, and Loki's noticed; he smirks and leans a little closer to Tony, raising an eyebrow. "I have a feeling you are not thinking of our impending conversation with Thor."
The drop of honey is still there. It's driving Tony nuts. With a strangled noise he pushes out of his chair and leans across the breakfast bar, licking that golden drop off Loki's lips. Loki draws in a sharp breath and pushes into the contact, sucking Tony's tongue into his mouth and meeting it with his own tongue. Tony moans; Loki's mouth tastes sweet but what excites him far more is his eagerness, how greedy he is for Tony's kiss.
"My apologies, sir, but Mr. Odinson is on the way up."
Simultaneously they pull apart, Tony cursing and Loki glaring. And fuck, Loki looks glorious like this, eyes poisonously green, cheeks flushed, lips red. Tony has no idea what the fuck is happening to him.
He doesn't have any time to think about it because the elevator pings.
"In here!" Tony calls out before Thor can ask for them.
The usually boisterous blond is subdued, almost grim when he enters the room. Instead of pouncing on Loki with a hug – something that almost certainly would have chased Loki off, Tony is sure of that much – he nods at them and smiles weakly.
"Hey, big guy," Tony says. "Pull up a chair, sit down. Have you eaten?"
Thor grimaces, but nods. "It took me some tries to understand how the little machine called toaster functions, but I was successful eventually."
Loki snorts and pointedly takes a slice of toast out of the toaster, dipping it in the honey again. He didn't need any tries to figure out how the toaster works, but to be fair, he did watch Tony use it. Thor had at most had JARVIS to explain it to him.
"Great," Tony says awkwardly. "Okay, so. How are you? Slept well?"
Thor glances at him and replies a short "yes" before he turns to Loki. "I wish to say something to you, Loki. Father told me about the adoption and that you are truly Jötunn, and I want for you to know that this changes nothing about my feelings for you. You are my brother, we grew up together, and I love you. Nothing can change that. I do understand that I've made mistakes, but I hope you can find it in you to forgive me eventually."
Not looking up from the jar of honey at all, Loki snorts derisively. "Do you believe it so easy?"
"No, not at all," Thor says immediately. "I know that much has changed, that much is broken. But I believe that, if you are willing, we might be able to repair at least our relationship?"
"Tell me the truth." Finally Loki looks up, face an expressionless mask. "Did you grieve?"
Thor hesitates. "I did. Very much so. As did mother, and father. He regrets-"
"Thor," Loki interrupts, voice hard. "When I asked you before, you said "we all did". I demand the truth now."
"I do not recall that," Thor says. "But… some members of the magical guild expressed their regret at your passing, and I believe they were speaking the truth."
"But not the rest?" Loki asks, a malicious sort of satisfaction on his face. "Hogun? Sif?"
"Hogun has been even quieter," Thor replies. "But… I do not believe anyone else truthfully grieved for you."
Loki nods. "Do you understand now?"
"I do," Thor says quietly. "And I deeply regret never listening closely to you." He leans in. "I have thought much about the mistakes I made in the past. I will listening to you better from now on, this I swear."
"You seem to be listening now," Loki says, focusing on his honey again.
Thor clearly interprets that as a good sign because a broad smile spreads on his face. Tony, who until this point has tried to keep as still as possible, sensing the delicateness of the situation, finally allows himself to breathe deeply again.