“So, whaddya in for?” Tony oozed, putting on his best Tribbiani accent. He’d turned onto his side, one arm propping up his head as he curled the other around his abdomen, with his legs out straight towards the end of the bed.
The blond woman next to him had all the right curves in all the right places and he had just enough hydrocodone in his system to make it worthwhile. Her sharp gaze turned towards him, assessing, before she smirked, replying, “ACL and meniscus. You?”
Tony gestured to his right leg resting atop his left, covered in a white compression sock that left grimy toes peaking out at the tip and extended up his thigh beyond the hem of his shorts. Another larger compression wrap covered the area from calf to just above his knee, restricting movement. “ACL. Meniscus. Small LCL too, but not complete, so they left it alone.”
“Ouch. Rough break,” She seemed genuinely sympathetic. “Fun story?”
“Hardly. Skiing. Last run of the day, fresh powder, moguls, and liquid lunch. The usual.” Tony gave a sigh, lighthearted. “What’s your story, saving the world? Jumping out of a plane?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” the woman extended her hand. “Bobbi. Bobbi Morse.”
“Tony,” he replied, wincing at her firm grip.
“I know who you are, Stark.”
“Ah,” he muttered. Here it came, either the tirade about how could he abandon their soldiers without his tech in the field or the lecture about what that news reporter had found after he’d cleaned house at Stark Industries.
“Oh come on, you had to expect that.” She grinned, disarmingly, taking the bite out of her words. She gestured at the lead therapist, a bald ex-military type, who went by the name ‘Orlando’ but Tony couldn’t tell if that was his actual name or just an honorific. “Why’d you pick this guy for PT anyway?”
Tony shrugged, wary that she hadn’t launched into a lecture already. “I wanted the best.”
“Well I’ll give you that.” Bobbie grimaced, shoving herself to the edge of the bench before she eased herself over to stand gingerly beside him. “But if I were you, I’d get back to your leg raises before he notices you’ve stopped to chat. See you around, Stark.”
“Yeah,” Tony grimaced, lifting his compression-wrapped leg a few inches vertically, before lowering it again. Huh. Maybe the news about SI’s change of manufacturing focus and the spectacular death of its former CEO had finally blown over, after half a year. Not that he was complaining; the last few years of his life weren’t exactly something to be proud of.
He watched as Morse hobbled over to the stationary cycles, swinging her injured leg around to adjust the straps and resistance. Her long hair swung across her shoulders as she peddled, slowly but surely against the machine. She was clearly weeks ahead of him in the recovery schedule, if she could do all that.
He turned onto his stomach; concentrated on ten more leg lifts, mentally calculating whether he could create some sort of machine, a suit maybe, that could do this for him. Could he lay down and let his mind work while his bots lifted and prodded and strengthened his muscles? What if he replaced his injured knee with a mechanical leg entirely; but then the muscles would atrophy even further, and with—no, better not.
He grimaced, muttering under his breath as he turned again.
Ten, turned again, this time to the left, start from the beginning.
Tony huffed. The way the surgeon had explained it, he probably couldn’t create a device that would reconstruct his muscles post-op, at least not quickly enough to avoid being here for the next six months in the meantime. It had to be done now. Not six months from now, not six weeks, now, if he ever wanted to fully bend his knee again.
He flipped onto his back, careful not to aggravate his already-aching muscles. Who’d have thought his leg would feel this heavy? He could barely lift his heel more than a few inches from the bed before feeling the strain against his quads.
Ten, turn. Ten, turn. Ten. Turn. Yawn.
He completed four more sets, before Orlando returned.
“Tony!” the tall man shouted, his voice echoing against the strange cacophony of the weight equipment and various athletes drilling in quick movements across the floor. “You’re done for today, man. Let’s get you some ice.”
Tony smiled, surprised to find a sheen of sweat across his brow. He scooted his way up to sit against the wall, leaning forward as Orlando shoved a wedge behind his back. An assistant returned with two bags of ice, carefully positioning them under and on top of Tony’s knee before propping his foot up with a roller.
“Tomorrow you do twenty each set,” Orlando pointed at him. “And don’t forget to use the CPM tonight. No weight still on that leg, alright?”
Stark nodded, biting back his frustration. The CPM was this obsolete piece of tech that had no right to still be used in modern medicine; basically he had to shove his injured leg into this hammock-brace and let the arm of the rickety crapshoot device cycle through a limited range of motion movement designed to slowly but surely return his knee to something that, you know, acted like a knee. Aka bending it in the right places.
The shitty part, at least in Tony’s mind, was that to use the CPM he had to be seated in one place for upwards of six hours a day, for the first two weeks post op.
To hell with this. He was never going skiing again; it wasn’t worth it.
Tony sighed again, letting his head rest against the wall, as the assistant set a timer for his ice packs. He wondered if he could bring his Stark Pad in next time, and catch up in between sets on his emails and projects. On that plan to miniaturize the arc reactor that he’d been procrastinating on. On, well, everything. Not that he hadn’t been trying to figure it out, while strapped into the CPM, but it just wasn’t—he couldn’t get the power source to align, there was something he was missing—
A sharp curse caught his attention, and he turned in time to see a tall, lanky guy with greasy black hair fall from a balancing board. There was a shout and then Orlando was sprinting across the gym, faster than Tony had thought a man that tall could move in a crowded room. For a moment, it seemed like the action on the floor stopped as everyone turned to stare, before another physical therapist whistled loudly and clapped her hands, ordering them back to work.
Tony turned, pretending to check his watch and fiddling with the controls (latest Stark model, miniaturizing the functions of StarkTech into a smaller package, ever since SI stopped making weapons six months ago), flipping through his messages. The screen was too small to do much else (even if he’d had the computing power for more advanced mechanics), but it gave him just enough shade in his glance that he could surreptitiously watch what was going on across the gym.
Orlando had managed to help the dark-haired man to sit up, and seemed to be arguing with him. Which, in of itself, Tony thought was unusual.
See, It was like this. Everyone just did what their physical therapists told them to do. Without questioning. Just like that. There were football players and soccer moms and college athletes and people like Bobbi who looked a little bit scary and like they’d walked straight out of Fallujah and into rehab.
Everyone, that is, except that guy.
The argument looked like it was escalating now; Tony could see the way the thin man’s shoulders had tensed, as though he was preparing for a fight, and Orlando’s patient, exasperated look…
Tony had been coming to physical therapy for weeks, ever since he’d first injured his knee, as he prepared for surgery. He’d given out autographs to countless soccer moms and even a few soccer dads, met absolutely the biggest man he’d ever seen (football player, full reconstruction with six weeks no weight bearing, ouch.), but he had never noticed the dark haired man until today.
And now that Tony thought about it, he did remember him being around, like someone remembers the lady walking down the street when the news shared a photo of a murder victim, like this back of the mind presence that he’d never focused on.
Tony watched as Orlando’s helpful hands were brushed aside, as the injured guy shoved himself up using the brick wall despite his shaking limbs. Orlando hadn’t seemed like the touchy-feely type, but Tony could make out the barest hints of concern on his face, even from this distance, as he hovered beside his patient, arms extended as though to catch the man if his grip should falter again.
“Don’t bother,” Bobbi piped up beside him.
“Hmm?” Tony turned, surprised to find her on the bed beside his again, a strap tucked around her foot as she stretched out her injured leg.
“Guy’s a Brit, you can tell from his cursing. He’s been here for six months at least. Won’t talk to anyone.” Blondie shrugged.
“So?” Tony cocked an eyebrow. “Maybe he’s just shy.”
“No,” Bobbi shook her head, a haunted look entering her eyes as she studied the figure across the room. “Something happened.”
Tony followed her gaze, watching how the dark haired man sank into a plastic chair, his limbs giving way as he oozed into the seat. It was like watching a puppet as someone cut the strings, falling to the floor in a graceless, barely controlled flurry of movement. Nerve damage, Tony thought. Nothing else made sense.
And then there was the way the guy curled in on himself, protecting his core, before pulling his left arm up and over his sternum, as though it was dead weight against his chest.
Tony was about to ask Bobbie what she thought had happened, but Orlando returned, blocking his view.
“Don’t stare, Stark,” Orlando scolded, removing the ice packs and reaching for Tony’s knee brace from under the bed. “Everyone here has a story; doesn’t mean this is story time.”
Tony looked down, chastised, drumming his fingers impatiently against his good leg as the therapist fixed the brace straps. He looked up just as the job was finished, just in time to catch his crutches as Orlando shoved them towards Tony.
“So when do I get to the fun stuff?”
“Tomorrow, Tony!” Orlando exclaimed. “Everything starts tomorrow!”
Everything did not start tomorrow, Tony mused a week later, as he slowly peddled on the lowest of resistance settings on the stationary bike.
At least someone had the forethought to position the bike in front of the window, so he could stare at the Los Angeles skyline instead of the drab gray walls and motivational phrases.
Fuck the meniscus, who needed a meniscus anyway?
His knee felt stiff and disjointed, as though he would never be able to bend it beyond ninety degrees ever again. It was like controlling a limb operated by a drunken robot, like if he’d given Dum-E access to his body and asked him to walk Tony across the floor.
There was another younger guy to his left, breezing through twenty minutes on high resistance with his knee unwrapped and shiny pink keyhole scars showing as he peddled at a rapid pace.
Fuck that guy too, Tony thought. Maybe doing PT at a specialized facility wasn’t a great idea; everyone here was in better shape than him; with all the world class athletes, flexing their injured and uninjured muscles all around, he felt like an old man. And a few were even more attractive than him (but only a few, of course).
And the stories he’d heard! Even Bobbi’s fake story was better than his real one (and he was pretty sure it was fake, and she was just pretending to be the next James Bond when she’d said: “It’s classified, Stark. Let’s just say I showed up to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I was all out of bubblegum”).
In the short time he’d been coming to therapy, he’d heard a lot of stories. A lot of stories. Everyone wanted to talk about their injury, their surgery and recovery, blah blah blah— everyone except for the mystery guy.
Tony turned towards the window. The morning sun hit the building just right that the reflection made the glass a translucent mirror, and just there, to his right, he could see that dark haired guy, sitting on a therapy table, stretching his left leg. His hair wasn’t as greasy today, pinned up in a loose bun at the base of his skull, but he still looked thinner than he should be. The forest-green sweatshirt he wore hung in odd places, too tight across the width of his shoulders but baggy in the front and around his neck and arms.
Tony had tugged off his own hoodie ten minutes ago; it was warm at the gym, especially once he got moving. And it wasn’t exactly cold in L.A., even in winter. But like the time before, this guy was clothed from head to toe, dark blacks and greens covering his wrists and ankles.
Tony glanced at the timer. Five more minutes. Oh, but it was so boring.
Pepper had called earlier, with a list of things the Board wanted to discuss at the next meeting; R&D targets for the new StarkTech designs; and a partridge in a pear tree. Tony had just about signed over the company to her then and there, because spending twenty precious daylight hours a week at physical therapy and then being expected to read legal documents? It must violate the Geneva Convention somehow.
He closed his eyes, that rhythmic pedaling pace of 80 rpms almost hypnotic as his leg moved up-down-up-down, and exhaled. The last six months had been hectic, a whirlwind of stock changes and upheaval, after Obi’s rather spectacular death. And now this unexpected downtime, the hours of recovery and sitting around and not being able to go, go, go, really messed with a guy’s head.
Tony grimaced, rubbing a tired hand across his forehead, then smirked as though he’d thought of a joke only he’d understand. And it was a fucking joke, alright? Obi’s death, that is. Ha. Ha fucking ha. More like Obi’s attempt to take out half of SI’s Los Angeles headquarters via chemical attack after Tony discovered his oldest and most trusted advisor had apparently been dealing arms on the black market, and, oh yeah, had also tried to have him killed several times over the last few months.
Peachy. Point is, last thing he needed was a knee injury.
The timer dinged.
“Stark! Stretch it out, then ROM and lifts!” Orlando’s voice boomed. “Don’t make me get Wanda!”
He sighed, shuffling over to his bench with his crutches. Wanda was an overzealous therapist with an attitude to match, and he’d learned the hard way when he tried to take a call from Pepper in his first week of therapy that he did not want to mess with her. She knew just how to get in his head, and not in a good way.
On one side of his bed sat a teenage boy with zits and glasses and a complicated post-op routine for an elbow injury from swimming, on the other a woman he’d met a few weeks ago who had injured herself somehow while running after two kids.
He pulled out his headphones, cueing up the latest market reports and let the news play as he muddled his way through his daily routine. It was the same every day, stretch out the calf and quad as best he could before wrapping the strap around the front of his ankle and gently pulling his heel towards his ass. He wasn’t quite there yet, maybe 10-15 degrees to go, before he could bend his right knee enough to tie his shoes without doing acrobatic yoga. But hey, it was better than never gaining that flexibility back, right?
Maybe he could get Dum-E to tie his laces, he huffed, pulling his heel back again. Probably not.
He skimmed the crowd as the news repeated; cycling through the day’s market numbers and the price of oil and gold. Bobbi wasn’t there today; nor was Mr. Big, the gigantic football player with a full replacement. There was a new kid, looked to be maybe mid-twenties and wearing merch from a team Tony was pretty sure was in the NFL. Waving his arms around and talking shit about how fast he was, if the look on Orlando’s face was anything to go by.
He switched to leg lifts, lying down carefully and flexing his foot before he raised his entire right leg off the table a few inches, held it for a count of ten, and repeated.
“Bugger,” someone muttered, and Tony peaked towards his left.
Mystery man was sitting on the table next to Tony’s—where pimple-boy had been just moments ago—grasping a purple strap in shaking fingers as it kept slipping from his hold. As though he couldn’t tighten his grip enough to hold onto the material before it fluttered away.
“So you can talk.” Tony piped up. “Bobbi had me convinced last week that you were mute.”
The deadpan look the other man sent Tony would have been fatal to anyone with less charisma. “Just because I can, does not mean I will,” he replied, almost muffled as if his words were a curse.
“Oh come on,” Tony huffed, flipping to his stomach for the next set of lifts. “It’s so boring here, how can you not talk to the other inmates?”
“Patients?” the man raised a pointed eyebrow.
“Whatever.” Tony shrugged, wincing as his toe caught on the descent before he locked his knee for another set.
“There are worse things than physical therapy, Stark,” the other man muttered, pulling his hoodie sleeves down as he abandoned the troublesome strap.
“Okay, see, that’s not fair.” Tony sat up, turning towards the guy. “You know my name—”
“Everyone knows your name,” the guy replied, a smirk curling around his lips.
“—But I don’t know your name,” Tony pointed out, answering with a smile of his own.
“No,” the reply was curt. “You do not.”
Tony hesitated a beat, before prompting, “Well?”
“What’s your name?” Tony huffed, exasperated. Really, a wall would be better conversation.
“Stark!” Wanda shouted, materializing out of nowhere, and Tony flinched, throwing his arms back. A strong grip seized his calf, and Tony looked up sharply to find Wanda strapping a weight around his ankle.
“I’m doing the lifts!” he protested.
Wanda grinned. “Orlando sent me. Said if you have enough time to yap at Loki, you must need more of a challenge.”
“Ah ha!” Tony called, turning to grin triumphantly at Loki—only to find he’d disappeared. “Loki,” he muttered, chewing his lip. “Fucking god of mischief. Huh. Name kinda suits him.”
“Mr. Stark? This is Christine Everhart.”
“I’m a reporter with—”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Tony interrupted. “How did you get this number?”
“You gave it to me at the Stark Annual Gala. Said to call you if I found anything more on Stark Industries’ weapons being sold under the radar.”
Tony sat straight up, waving at Jarvis to turn up the volume. “I did? I mean, er, I did.” He remembered her now; gorgeous, blonde, cute little thing that Tony would have been all over, had that not been only a month after Stane had let slip that he planned to have Tony killed if only he’d gone to Afghanistan, if only he hadn’t missed that plane. She’d tried to approach him that night, too, but he’d left too late and had a few too many drinks to bother bringing a one night stand home. And then later, he had been too busy cleaning house back then, after Stane’s death. “Did you find something?”
“I found a mystery wrapped in an enigma, Mr. Stark,” Everhart sounded frustrated, and there was a brief hiss of static on her side of the line. Jarvis flashed a warning light, signaling that the line was unsecured, and Stark sprung out of his chair, pacing across the workshop. Everhart continued, “Someone’s got their fingers in the pie already, from the intelligence—”
“Carrie—” Stark interrupted suddenly.
“Christine,” she corrected sharply.
“Christine, mind if I call you Christine?” Stark paced across the room, his injured knee twanging as he turned; he’d forgotten the brace again, and didn’t have time in his schedule to circle back to Malibu that day to retrieve it. “I think you should come over for lunch. You and me, really. Lunch. At my place. What do you say?”
“Say yes,” Stark drummed his fingers nervously across the desktop. “This is a fascinating conversation but I really think we should talk more in person. Face to face.”
“Yes,” Everhart agreed, and Stark let out a small sigh of appreciation. She at least had a brain in there, somewhere.
“Great. I’ll have my people talk to your people,” Stark twirled a finger in the air; the flashing red dot on the holo-display told him Jarvis was listening. “See you soon.”
It was later that day, when Happy had brought his lunch order to the office and complained about the afternoon sun—how unseasonably warm it was—that Tony realized Loki had never once removed his sweatshirt, even when the gym was well over 80 inside.
Mystery wrapped in an enigma.
“Pepper, Pepper, really. Can’t you handle it?” Tony opened the car door one-handed, shoving his briefcase inside before he edged across the seat, careful of his knee. “I don’t have time to fly to New York right now for end of quarter, with all the new stuff in R&D and my knee—”
“Shareholders don’t care about your drunken skiing accident, Tony.”
“Ouch. I mean really. I’m hurt.” He switched the phone to his other hand, really needed to make a wearable earpiece a priority, he thought. “How could they not care about this gorgeous mug, I mean—”
“Someone named Everhart called again too—” Pepper ignored him; it sounded like she was reading from a list as papers fluttered in the background. “Says she has something important to discuss and wants to come over to your house?”
“Who?” Tony fiddled with the door handle, trying to close it without tweaking his leg, until Happy came up. He waved Stark off, clicking the door shut with an efficient push. Tony gave his driver a half-smile, turning towards the bag with his lunch.
“How should I know, she had your private line,” Pepper replied. “Gross, are you eating on the phone again?’
“What, I’m hungry? We were in that meeting for hours.” Tony took another bite. “And you answered the private line,” Tony countered, “So how should I know who called?”
“Tony, you had Jarvis forward it to me!”
“Oh, yeah. I did.” Tony rubbed his forehead. He crumpled the wrapper and tossed it aside.
“Along with any calls from the board.” Pepper exclaimed. “Tony, when they call the CEO and get me, they are not pleased.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony grumbled. Sometimes he missed Obi; not the murderous ‘attempting to kill him’ version, of course, but the board-interfering one who kept all of this company day-to-day bullshit off Tony’s plate. Of course, that’s what got him into trouble in the first place—with Tony’s hands-off management, Obadiah Stane had been able to deal under the table with no one the wiser. And got greedy, too, looking to remove Tony from the picture entirely.
He sighed, the familiar guilt and worry creeping into the back of his mind. “Can I videoconference in? Would that keep them happy?”
“For a little while,” Pepper seemed distracted, likely replying to emails while she had phoned him. “But you know you barely survived the last vote, after shutting down weapons—”
“Which is not negotiable,” Stark bit out. “I thought we agreed—”
“I know, I know,” Pepper soothed. “But they don’t know.”
“More trouble than it was worth, keeping the whole Stane thing hushed up,” Stark grumbled.
“Tony,” Pepper scolded, “This isn’t a secure line. You remember what Phil—”
“—said about keeping it offline.”
Tony nodded once, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I know. I know. Just... . Keep them off my back, Pepper. StarkTech is revolutionizing the field already, and I know I’m close on this renewable energy thing—”
“You’ve been saying that since you shut down weapons, Tony.”
“I know, but I’m really close this time, I swear—”
“One month,” Pepper interrupted. “That’s the best I can do. Then you’ll need to make an appearance with the board in April.”
“Yes ma’am,” Tony cut the call. “One fuckin’ month it is.” He rapped on the glass. “Let’s go Happy, my torturers await.”
“To physical therapy, Sir?” Happy tossed his newspaper aside.
“Yup, and step on it, Orlando hates when I’m late,” Tony fiddled with his knee brace, not mentioning that Orlando’s assistant Wanda would eat him alive and make him do extra time on the bike if he was late a second time this week.
His driver studied him carefully, before switching on the ignition. “You shouldn’t call them torturers, Mr. Stark,” Happy veered into the road, edging the car out towards the highway. “One day you’re going to meet someone who knows the difference.”
He strolled in (okay, okay, hobbled, sort of) a few minutes early, relieved to see the clock on his phone matched the one on the wall above reception. Leave it to a military-preferred physical therapy office to run on exact USNO time.
Grabbing a towel, he dropped his brace off at a bed and carefully made his way to an open stationary bike to warm up. Across the room he could see that Bobbi had already finished her stretches; she moved across the floor in some strange crab walk with a rubber-band material stretched across her thighs, medicine ball in her arms.
Shit, Tony shuddered; Wanda must be in charge today.
He increased the resistance and speeded up to 80 RPMs, relaxing into the routine. On the bike next to his was a soccer mom who had also injured her knee skiing (“Oh! You too, Mr. Stark, oh my gosh this is so hilarious! I have to post this on Facebook!”), so Tony quickly slipped his headphones in, letting Jarvis cycle his playlist as he pedaled.
The problem with physical therapy is that it afforded him too much time to think and not about useful things, like that damn miniaturized reactor design, but to obsess over the thoughts and figures and concepts that he spent most of his waking time avoiding.
It was almost counterintuitive, that he, Tony Stark, would need time to think when all he did was think for a living—hell, he practically ran R&D right now. But thinking about work and inventing for the company was different than thinking about life. Specifically, his life.
And life, well, kinda sucked right now.
He checked the timer again; another ten minutes. Ten more minutes alone with his thoughts and knee and the soccer mom. She’d already tried to get his attention once, but he was able to pretend he was focused on his workout, looking at his phone.
A smile crossed his face as AC/DC came on, and Tony gave into the urge to rock out for just a moment, before grabbing the handlebars for a heart-rate reading. His RPMs hovered at 85 before dipping back to 80.
In the quiet moments since he’d been coming to rehab, Tony had realized something. Ever since that day last year, when Pepper had received a suspiciously anonymous email—ever since that fateful day when she’d rushed into the workshop in absolute tears only to find Stark still under a car, covered in grease instead of on his way to Afghanistan—it was like the world had stopped moving forward. Work moved forward, sure; after Obadiah’s spectacular attempt to avoid arrest that involved more explosions than Stark had ever managed with a pack of fireworks and matches at age ten, well—
He’d taken a long hard look at Stane’s activities, with Jarvis’s help….and didn’t like what he found.
Tony snapped his fingers, pulling the mic on his headset closer to his mouth. “Jarvis,” he muttered quietly, waiting for the music to click off, “Remind me to call that lady back, make sure she’s still on for tomorrow.”
“Very well Sir,” Jarvis’s smooth tone in his ear didn’t sound like any other A.I. on the market, because he wasn’t. “Shall I put in an order for the usual, Italian and obvious for the paparazzi that you will be entertaining?”
“Yes, and add a bottle of champagne or a nice red, just to be safe.”
“Hot date?” a voice interrupted to his right, and Tony whipped off his headphones. The soccer mom had finished her routine, but somehow had managed to just keep standing there. Like she’d been waiting for any opportunity to interject herself.
Tony let a smile play across his lips, false and stretched over his teeth. “Maybe, maybe not,” he winked at her, hopping off the bike as the timer buzzed.
He scooted back across the bed, minding his knee as he shoved a pillow behind his back to lean against the brick wall. Tucking the woven strap around his toes, he tugged gently, stretching his calf; he was just about halfway through his routine when Loki appeared on the bed next to his, wearing his usual hoodie and sweatpants.
Stark gave the taller man a small grin, “Hey, Loki—”
“No.” Loki muttered, tugging on the brace he’d left tucked under the table.
“Wait,” Stark protested, “I didn’t even say anything yet.”
“Precisely,” the other man retorted, before leaning on his cane as he made for the exit.
Stark sighed. A faint chuckle sounded, and Tony turned to find Bobbi on the bed opposite his, rolling her eyes.
“I warned you about him, Tony.”
“I don’t think he likes me very much,” Tony muttered, flipping onto his back after strapping on an ankle weight.
“No one likes you very much,” she retorted.
“Ouch.” Tony scowled. “That’s offensive. I’m offended.”
“No you’re not.”
“You’re right, I’m not,” he smirked, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Tony turned away, watching as Loki’s bent form hobbled through the glass doors.
He probably should have realized it sooner; that somehow he’d managed to form—not a crush, because that sounded too juvenile, but an attachment of some sort? An interest?—on the taller man. He wanted to know him, what made him tick, what made him work so hard in therapy when—to Tony’s untrained eye—it looked like he wasn’t improving, despite the progress everyone else around him made. Maybe it was because he wouldn’t give Tony the time of day. Maybe it was the quiet determination in the other man’s eyes, when Orlando stood with him at the balance board and Loki’s hands and legs shook.
Maybe Tony was just bored.
Regardless of what the cause was, it should not have taken Bobbi giggling at him like Susie Sheppard in third grade, for Tony to work it out.
Some fucking genius he was.
“Carrie,” Tony crooned as he opened the door, champagne bottle in hand. Ah, there, to the right; a flash of crystal in the sunshine, hidden in the trees. If it was paparazzi, he’d find out tomorrow, if the pictures made the news or not.
“Christine,” she smiled, all teeth, accepting the uncomfortable kiss on her cheek as Stark pulled her inside.
“Whatever,” Tony moved away from the door, trusting that she’d follow him. “Come in. Jarvis, lock up behind us!”
“Mr. Stark. I do hope you realize this isn’t actually a social call?” Everhart snarked, looking around as though she expected someone else to materialize for her coat, before she draped it across the back of the sofa.
“Yes, Christine, I do,” Tony hummed, turning in the doorway to his office directly off the living room, the afternoon sun reflecting off the ocean just enough to brighten the white modern lines of the mansion walls, painting yellow and orange arcs across the ceiling. ”But I have appearances to keep up. Best way to hid in plain sight.”
One elegant eyebrow mocked him, and Tony waved her inside his office, an imitation of modern lines in warm colors. “Come on, it’s safe to talk in here, I swept for bugs yesterday.”
“Bugs?” Everhart was intrigued now. “Something tells me you don’t mean the kind with six legs.”
“Or eight,” Tony agreed, closing the door behind her.
He should not be looking at this guy still. It didn’t make sense. Physically, that is. Mentally, okay, fine, he could see it—the guy wouldn’t talk to him, that irked Stark to no end.
Really, there was nothing all that compelling about Loki. His hair was too greasy, his cheeks too sunken and hollow, like he’d been scooped out from the inside, and whatever frame the lanky man once had, it was hidden beneath too-large sweatpants and hoodies, covering him from wrist to toes.
Maybe, maybe the guy could have been considered attractive before he was injured, with those high cheekbones and fiercely green eyes, and that too-pale-for-Los-Angeles complexion.
And boy didn’t that thought make Tony feel like an ass. Not like he hadn’t had his own thoughts about whether he’d ever be active again after injury (“What if I never get full flexion back in my knee, and can’t be the one on top again?” And wow was that question ever awkward to his doctor. His knee doctor.), but it was something else entirely to stare at the way Loki’s hands shook when he handled a medicine ball and wonder whether the other man could even form a firm enough grip to grasp, er, other things.
But there was something about Loki. That, he couldn’t deny, even if he didn’t understand it.
The way he kept pushing through that extra set despite the fine tremors in his muscles that even Tony could see from across the gym floor. The way that Orlando hunched over Loki whenever he’d had a bad morning, when he fell from the balance board (which happened, now that Tony was paying attention, more often than it should).
Loki never gave up. No matter what.
He never gave up.
After Stark watched him fall from a balance for the sixth time one day, he realized that the other man never stopped trying. Loki would get frustrated, and angry, and once Tony even saw him slap the mat in futile rage, but then he got back up and repeated the exercises, again and again.
He wondered what was worth that level of dedication.
It didn’t help much either that he wouldn’t talk. Seriously, everyone else in their various stages of recovery wouldn’t shut up about their knee or elbow or hip or whatever they’d injured in some ridiculously competitive sport or other activity. Even the two guys back from Iraq seemed absurdly proud and boastful about their injuries, until Orlando pointedly told them to keep it down or find a new place for therapy.
But not Loki.
No, he said a polite hello and goodbye to Orlando and sometimes Wanda, and ignored everyone else unless spoken to. He’d nod occasionally if someone asked him a question, but several months in and Tony could count on one hand the number of times he’d actually seen the guy talk to someone.
Maybe he could fix that.
“So Bobbi here was in a bar fight, and I got hurt saving the world from aliens,” Tony grinned, scratching his chin where his goatee itched from sweat. “What’s your story, Loki?”
The answering glare could have cut steel, and with a huff the other man shuffled away.
“Give it a rest, Stark,” Bobbi called, launching the medicine ball into the net as she balanced on one leg. She caught it effortlessly, too; Tony glared.
The next time Loki fell from the balancing board, Tony had been right beside him, rolling out his quads. He clambered to his feet, glancing around to see whether Orlando realized his patient had fallen—ah, there he was. Orlando was with a newbie, a kid who’d torn his ACL playing soccer. Back turned to the gym, and not paying any attention to the slender man currently cursing a blue streak on the floor.
“Here,” Tony reached Loki’s side, taking the man’s thin arm in his hand as he gently pulled upward. “Let me just—”
“Don’t touch me!” Loki hissed, like a wounded cat, pulling his arm from Stark’s grasp.
Tony stood there like a dumb fish, unsure what had happened; in the process of removing his arm from Tony’s grip, Loki had managed to crumble into the foam rollers, scattering them across the floor. “I’m—I’m sorry, Loki. I was just—”
“Stark! Leg Press!”
Tony sighed, and trudged across the gym, after giving Loki a half-hearted wave. The dark-haired man looked at him as though he’d grown antlers or something out of his head, if the incredulous glare was anything to go by.
As he slammed out his reps on the leg press, Tony mused about what could be wrong with the taller man. He himself had long since gotten rid of his crutches, hobbling around outside of therapy with just his knee brace on almost eight weeks out from surgery, but Loki still used a cane to get around, just in case his muscles gave way. Like today, on the balance board, when the man had just crumbled like a house of cards. Again.
No matter what Loki did, he didn’t seem to improve; his muscles seemed just as weak as before, as when Tony first arrived at the gym.
He wondered briefly whether he could design a suit that would help Loki move. Then the thought was gone and he counted out fifteen repetitions in sets of three, increasing the weight as he went.
A few weeks later, and it was time to throw in the towel. Even Bobbi had begun rolling her eyes every time Tony approached the other man. And after a particularly brutal fall from the balance board, and Loki’s subsequent glare at anyone and everyone who got near him, including Orlando, Tony thought it might be time to let it go.
“Look,” Stark said, stopping briefly beside Loki’s table on his way out. The man’s ever-present sweatshirt was soaked with sweat, hanging in loose folds around his shoulders, even as ice packs covered his wrists and left leg. “I’m sorry if I’m bothering you. It’s just, well, seemed like you needed to be bothered.” Tony bit his lip; best not to explain to a total stranger that he found him interesting, even after said man had been telling him for weeks to bugger off, literally, in those words but with a pretty posh-sounding accent. “Anyway, I won’t bother you again, Loki. I mean it. I just, it’s just—” He smiled bitterly. “Never mind. Sorry,” Tony managed. He turned to go.
“Stark,” Loki’s voice almost sounded hoarse, as though he’d not intentionally spoken out loud in so long that his mouth and lips had forgotten how to move.
“What did you want from me?”
Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “Want from you?” he exclaimed, “Nothing. Just wanted to talk.”
“Why, then—” Loki’s brow furrowed, and Tony regretted the moment the dark haired man looked down, his iridescent green eyes not meeting Stark’s gaze. “Why me?”
Tony shrugged, shifted his gym bag in hand. “We’re both here a lot and I’m not exactly going to get interesting adult conversation with the junior girls volleyball player, am I?”
“Maybe not legal conversation,” Loki’s voice carried a lilt, and it took Tony longer than he cared to admit to realize the man was teasing him.
“Ha,” Tony grimaced, raising a hand in surrender. “But really. Just talk. Didn’t mean any harm.”
“You are not bothering me,” Loki managed after a brief pause.
“Yeah?” Tony’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yes.” Loki enunciated the word like it was ‘tridecaphobia’ on a spelling bee.
“Um. Okay?” Tony took a hesitant step back; out of the corner of his eye, he could see Orlando watching them, like a mother swan poised to attack when one of her chicks was in danger.
Loki grunted in reply, but nodded sharply.
Good enough, Tony thought. “Okay,” he took a step back. “See you tomorrow, then, Loki.”
From that day on, Tony made a point of saying hello to Loki and talking to him while they stretched out after warm up. Sometimes they even ended up on the bikes at the same time, side by side, for thirty uninterrupted minutes (and Tony had a sneaking suspicion Orlando had done that on purpose, if the looks the bald man sent his way were anything to go by). Loki didn’t say much, some days, but that was alright.
Tony talked about silly things: Pepper; Happy; his buddy Rhodey in the military; the pranks they used to play in college. Nothing too serious; nothing that could get him in trouble.
Nothing about Obadiah Stane or why Stark Industries had suddenly quit making weapons almost nine months ago. Or about their new R&D projects, that the stockholders didn’t know about yet, much less the board of directors. Or how lonely he was, at the top and unsure who to trust, now that one of his oldest confidants had, well, basically tried to kill him.
And, fortunately, Loki didn’t ask questions.
Tony thought that was odd; everyone asked him questions. Maybe it wasn’t odd, really, but it was novel. He was so used to a microphone being shoved in his face, or being interrupted by Pepper or someone in R&D that lacked basic human decency skills, or a reporter stalking him outside his favorite burger joint for the latest gossip rag tosser claiming Tony’d made babies with her (which was a vicious lie, he took special care, and besides, half of those souls that ended up in his bed couldn’t biologically make babies, anyway). It was strange having someone to talk to who just, well, would just listen for once. Relaxing, too, like Tony could be himself instead of having to be what everyone else expected. And that was nice.
It made the time go faster, too, between leg lifts and leg press sets and balance board work and all of the gritty stuff in between. He started to notice things that he hadn’t paid attention to before, like how Loki’s left knee didn’t have full flexion back, even though everyone said he’d been in physical therapy for a long time, longer than anyone else at the gym.
Also, the shaking. Oh hell, the shaking.
It wasn’t just Loki’s hands that had the occasional tremor, but rather his whole body. Up close, Tony could see how the other man’s legs shook worse when his muscles were tired, taxed beyond capacity, or when Loki was trying to stand on the balance board, especially when he tried to stand on the balance board after doing weights. Loki’s muscles shook, as if each individual tendon was loose, as if the muscles were losing form, as if holding the movement took so much energy that the actual muscle would give way from the strain.
It made the sweatshirt getup almost understandable, an oversized security blanket to hide his insecurities behind. Because with that sweatshirt, unless someone was looking, truly looking to notice the small things, they’d never see it. They’d never see the fine motor movements that started and stopped like a wind-up toy on its last battery power, how Loki moved on bad days. Or the fine jolts in his fingers, when his hands were at rest, on the good days.
And Tony bit his tongue and didn’t say anything. It was too nice, having someone to listen to his ramblings, even if his only comments in return were biting snark. He didn’t want to fuck up… whatever this was.
Pepper managed to drag him out to New York for the next board meeting. It went surprisingly well, considering how half the board wanted to kick him out and the other half wanted to dig up his dad and resurrect him from the dead, if only that technology existed.
New York, what could he say about New York in April? Not quite warm enough and rainy, that’s what; it made his knee ache.
Or maybe that was the constant standing and walking and stairs and futzing about between meetings, shaking hands and downplaying investors’ concerns regarding the company’s direction, brushing over entirely any concerns about his injured knee (“As you can see Bob, rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” “Oh, that’s rather unfortunate, Mr. Stark.”).
By the time he made it back to L.A., on top of the massive pileup in correspondence from R&D and Jarvis’s own list of faults related to the trial schematics he’d been working on for the miniaturized reactor, he had also missed two of his appointments for the week. And that turned out to be Bad-with-a-capital-B thing, Tony grimaced, as he pulled the strap around his ankle tighter, gently urging his knee to bend in ways it was determined not to.
“You didn’t do your exercises,” Orlando had chided, marking his lack of progress on a chart (still using pen and paper, Tony noted. Starktech could remake the efficiency of this whole place.).
Tony put on an arrogant smile, smothering his own sense of disappointment. “Board meeting, couldn’t exactly stretch and do leg lifts on the conference table, could I? I mean, I am Tony Stark, but—“
“You couldn’t do them in your hotel room?” Orlando interrupted, clearly not impressed with the façade. He never was.
“I was busy. Lots of meetings, calls, politics,” Tony grimaced, leaning back as Orlando knuckled at a knot in his calf. “I was only gone four days.”
Orlando didn’t say anything in reply, and Tony looked around. He’d been unable to get his usual slot, with his trip out of town and the R&D emergency meeting that morning, and he didn’t recognize any of the faces around him.
Seriously, he was never going to miss another PT appointment again, ever. He’d actually lost flexibility in the interim; his knee was stiff after two transcontinental flights and no stretching. It was miserable to have to work out that last inch that he’d lost again under Orlando’s Disappointed In You stare, the look he used to wear when he caught Tony slacking off or harassing Loki.
That was another thing.
Loki wasn’t there, either. And now Orlando had decided after warm up he needed a heat and ice switcheroo today instead of weights, the muscles were so tight around his knee. Which meant not making progress.
Which meant everything sucked.
Tony hunkered down on the bed, leaning against the wall as a team of assistants wrapped his leg in various heating implements, letting his frustration slide. Slowly, as if he’d turned from one television channel to the next, he became aware of the conversation to his left. Two guys, both burly types that Tony would say were football players if he didn’t recognize the military elite ops logos both men wore on their shirts, were chatting in almost playful, boasting tones about some skinny guy in a hoodie who had been in therapy a few weeks ago during their appointment.
“I heard he was from a military family, I’m telling you,” one insisted, and the other laughed.
“No way, you saw him last time? He can’t be military.”
“Maybe not him, but supposedly his grandfather is a famous general, from World War Two.” Meathead one shrugged. “Look it up on your phone, bro. Brigadier General Boreson. Led some famous attack right after Normandy with a combined British and American force.”
They droned on and on, but the week caught up with him, and Tony closed his eyes, letting the stress of the last week slide away, dozing as the warmth cocooned his leg.
“So then I said—”
“If I agree to have a cuppa with you after therapy, will you shut up?”
“Yes!” Tony pumped his fist, almost knocking Loki off the balance board. “Yes I’ll shut up. You won’t regret this, I know a great place—wait, what’s a cuppa?”
“Tea. A cup of tea,” Loki grimaced, throwing the medicine ball at Stark. “I don’t drink coffee like you Americans.”
Tony grinned despite himself, arms wrapped around the heavy ball. The way the other man had slurred on Americans sent shivers down his spine, like he was denouncing a piece of fifth from the bottom of his shoe. Perfect. “Then yes. I’m sure they have tea as well for you crusty old Colonial types.”
“Good,” Loki nodded, and Tony thought there was the barest hint of a smile on the taller man’s lips, if he squinted just right, hopped on one foot, and looked sideways. “Now off with you, I’d like to finish my sets before Wanda returns.”
Tony huffed a laugh, putting the medicine ball on the rack. Really that meant Loki wanted to concentrate, and Tony couldn’t blame him, considering how often he’d fallen from the balancing board. Why Orlando or one of his staff members didn’t spot the taller man on the board, Tony didn’t know. But if he wanted to finish his exercises at the same time as Loki, he’d better get moving before the elusive man could back out on him.
It turned out that Tony’s favorite coffee shop in L.A. also made a mean cup of tea. Or a good cup of tea. Whatever. The loose leaf tea was imported, and Loki seemed to visibly cheer when he saw it. And he drank his tea black (“Like my soul, Stark”) without sugar or milk, like Tony drank his coffee.
Tony stirred the spoon around his cup, just to hear the quiet clank-clank-clank the metal made against the porcelain. He cleared his throat.
“Don’t look to me to talk,” Loki smirked. “This was your idea, Stark.”
“Ah, actually, no.” Tony grinned, setting his spoon aside. “If I recall, it was your idea. You said, and I quote because I have an eidetic memory, ‘if I agree to have a cuppa with you after therapy, will you shut up?’”
Loki grinned, feral, and it was the first time Tony remembered the other man really smiling. “I did say that. But it also implies quiet, does it not? I agreed to have a cuppa, not talk,” he raised his tea cup from the saucer, clinking it gently against the coffee mug in Tony’s hands, “and you agreed to shut up.”
“Ha ha,” Tony returned the grin. “Well if I agree to shut up, then you have to talk.”
Loki took a sip of his tea, green eyes watching Stark over the rim of the white porcelain cup. One elegant black eyebrow lifted in a mocking gesture; not for the first time, Tony though that the long sweatshirts and baggy exercise pants didn’t quite suit the tall man’s figure. He belonged in something more fitted, like a suit and one of those thin black Versace ties. He could probably fit into those Italian labels, too, with his figure, the lucky bastard.
Tony leaned back against the wall, turning sideways to stretch out his leg; the thin brace was cumbersome and awkward, in the small, hip shop layout. “So what do you do when you’re not in therapy?” he asked.
“Physical therapy,” Loki replied without missing a beat.
Tony waved an exaggerated hand. “So what do you do when you are not in therapy, of the physical or mental kind?”
“I’m not divulging how I was injured, Stark.”
“Ah,” Tony shook his head. “Not what I asked. And that’s okay, because me and Bobbi have already made up a great story for you.”
“Oh?” Loki leaned forward. “Do tell what the savages have come up with.”
Tony ignored the jibe, grinned. “Gypsies. Clearly it was gypsies.”
Loki scoffed. “Unoriginal.”
“They kidnapped you, in the desert outside Bucharest—” Tony nodded, biting his lip to keep a straight face at Loki’s indignant look.
Loki harrumphed. “There are no deserts in Romania, Stark—”
Tony ignored him, his voice raising as he continued, “And put you on top of their cars for a road race, in a great big basket that swings side to side and the front of the car breathed fire—”
“This is rather farfetched even for you—”
“And you injured yourself jumping to safety onto a moving train, while rival bandits attacked,” Stark finished with a flourish.
“Fascinating,” Loki deadpanned, before they both grinned.
“I thought so too,” Stark agreed. “So congratulations on your escape, Loki.”
The other man sobered, before a fleeting smile crossed his face. “Thank you, Tony.”
It went on like that for weeks, with Tony and Loki finishing their workouts and recovery routines around the same time and heading to coffee afterwards. Happy drove, because at just half a mile it was far enough away to make it difficult for Loki with his cane; some days, the shaking in his hands was so bad that Tony feared he would drop his tea mug, that the cane would give way and the taller man would crumple onto the pavement like a sack of bricks dropped from up high.
And slowly but surely, as Stark’s knee improved and his muscles strengthened under Orlando’s arduous routines, so too did Loki change. Stark didn’t notice it at first, but the taller man had begun to seek out his company at the gym, settling onto the bench beside his to stretch after warm ups, making sure when Tony did his leg presses that he was on the opposite side doing calf raises.
And somehow they developed an uneasy partnership, where Loki let Tony spot him on the balance board. Let Tony catch him should he fall, even if he was abruptly brushed off afterwards.
It was something, right?
He caught Orlando watching him one day, after Loki had fallen and Stark had caught him, and Tony gave the therapist a brief nod, surprised when the other man waved him over instead.
“What’s up, O?” Tony wiped his face with a towel from his bench, sitting expectantly on the side. Maybe they wanted to change up his knee routine, get him to start doing those crab walks that Bobbi always seemed to be stuck with. He hoped not.
Instead, Orlando leaned in close. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Stark.”
“Uh,” Tony blinked “Probably not? But that’s why I have you guys, to tell me?”
“Not about that,” Orlando’s voice dropped lower. “I meant with Loki.”
He could feel his cheeks flame, and Tony was thankful for his Italian blood, that his skin was dark enough it wouldn’t show. “We’re just friends, Big O. He seemed like he needed one.”
Orlando muttered something under his breath, before he handed a giant green rubber band to Tony. “Crab walk, Stark! Go see Bobbi, she’ll show you the basics.”
He dropped the file on Pepper’s desk, relishing in the loud smack the paper made (actual paper!). “Fire them. All of them.”
“Excuse me?” Pepper shook her head, reaching for the yellow envelope. “Tony, there’s—” She hesitated, thumbing through the documents, a look of sheer incredulity on her face as she scanned the files, personnell folders for each “Tony, I can’t—”
“There’s twenty three. Twenty three, at key roles throughout every Stark Industries facility. Every single one of these fuckers is connected to Stane. This asshole,” Tony jabbed at a paper spread out on Pepper’s desk, his thumb crinkling the edge of a smiling, smug face, “took blood money, covered up Stane’s black market arms sales with farming equipment.” He gestured at another file, this one with a woman in a white coat and laboratory eyewear tucked in her pocket. “Lily Henson, she forged records for arms that went to military tests, aka that Stane borrowed. And you know, sold to Ten Rings, among others.”
Pepper rubbed her forehead. “How? How do you know this?”
Tony leaned back, dropping into the chair across from her desk. “I have my ways.”
“What?” Tony shrugged, grabbing at the annoying spinny paperweight Pepper refused to get rid of. “I researched it, of course. Jarvis helped. Also was able to trace his bank accounts, from a source.”
“Is that legal?”
“I don’t think that’s legal.”
“Don’t care.” Tony pointed at the stack of papers. “Fired. Today.”
“Tony, this isn’t a small enough number to hide right now. It’s only been a little over a year since we stopped weapons production, SI’s shareholders are already nervous and watching very closely, and some of these people are pretty high up.” Pepper flipped through the pages, worry creasing her brow as she studied the hand-written chicken scratch notes Tony had made on each, along with another, neater print who’d added their own notes and suspicions. “If we fire this many key people across the company, someone will find out. You remember what Agent Coulson said, about keeping Obediah’s actions low profile while they went after—”
“I remember,” Tony waved her off. “I don’t want anyone who accepted blood money from Stane on my payroll. Pepper, you’re my right hand. Hell, you’re probably also my left hand, too. There has to be a way to,” Tony waved his hands, gesturing like a small implosion, “go poof, make these dickwads disappear.”
“We could give them severance—”
“Be realistic Tony, this guy is the nephew of one of the directors.”
“Yeah, about that guy—”
“No, Tony, I cannot fire Weissbach from the board of directors.”
“Worth a shot. What do you think it will take, to get him to quit?”
“Tony, be reasonable.”
He slammed a fist down on the desk, startling both of them. “I am—” Tony cleared his throat, lowering his voice. “I am being reasonable. I let this happen, Pepper. I let him get away with this, for so long, because I didn’t want to know! Because I didn’t want to see, because I was having fun, and I didn’t have to deal with the day to day bullshit, like I was a goddamn twenty one year old still. Except I’m not. Jesus, I’m almost 40.”
“It’s not your fault, Tony.” Pepper reached tentatively across the desk, her clammy palm wrapping around his clenched fist.
For a moment, before things had gone to hell and Obadiah tried to light up Los Angeles in his attempt at replicating Custer’s last stand but with modified chemical warfare, Tony had thought that he and Pepper could have had something, if he was ever interested in something more, something else. Something focused. Something real.
Pepper was everything; loyal, intelligent, a true friend, and nothing had made that more apparent than Obadiah Stane’s betrayal.
But the moment had passed, many months ago, in the guilt and anger that followed Stane’s death and the turmoil in his company, and he’d backed off. Tony pulled away.
He sighed, and pointed at the files. “Then whose fault is it, Pep? I’m the CEO, and I didn’t see what Stane was doing. If it’s not my fault, then whose?”
The line rang twice before a polite voice answered.
“It’s done,” Tony murmured into the line. “Can you keep it quiet on your end?”
“I’ll do what I can, Mr. Stark.”
The line clicked, and Tony hung up, quickly tucking his phone into his back pocket. He was late, after all.
It was at coffee that afternoon, when it happened. May wasn’t particularly hot in Los Angeles, but warm enough, and the coffee shop had fans and air conditioning running, but it just wasn’t enough. Not that day.
Tony had long since stripped off his MIT hoodie to reveal his favorite AC/DC shirt beneath; he’d abandoned the sweatshirt in the confines of the car with Happy on the way to the coffee shop, but Loki had continued to wear his usual black sweatshirt that covered every inch of his thin frame from wrists to shoulder, but for the skinny collar bones that peaked out the top of the overly large garment on occasion.
They’d been seated for close to ten minutes, Tony deep into a story from boarding school (they’d discovered pretty early on that they had that in common, though Loki wouldn’t mention where he’d gone to school, just somewhere in UK, but Tony was pretty certain based on his stories that it was Eton), when the other man had slowly started rolling back his sleeves.
Inch by inch, almost as though he was waiting for Tony to freak out, Loki slowly rolled up his sleeves, revealing a patchwork of raised pink scars that circled his wrists and spiraled upward, into his sleeves; perfect little lines, not jagged or rough around the edges, not like the thin white lines he remembered from that friend at MIT with a self-harm problem.
No, these were deliberate, slow and steady. Not something the other man could manage himself, unless he had a superhuman threshold for pain. Which, Tony shook away the thought, Loki couldn’t have; he’d seen him in PT for almost three months now.
Tony ignored the revelation, stuffing it away for later, smiling in the right places as Loki took over the conversation, about how his older brother was coming to visit him soon. Pretended he didn’t see the little white lines, or how the other man had sagged around the edges when he realized Tony wasn’t going to make a big deal about his scars.
It was enough, Tony thought later, to break his heart. As if he already didn’t want to know what had happened to Loki, his curiosity was insatiable now.
“Jarvis, gimme everything you can find on Loki Odinson, from the UK. Possibly military.”
“Is this your coffee acquaintance, sir? Perhaps you should just ask him.”
“But where’s the fun in that?” Tony drummed his fingers, throwing up the latest schematics for the miniaturized reactor. He couldn’t put his finger on why it wasn’t working, on what piece he was missing just yet. “Keep me updated, buddy. Daddy’s got some work to do.”
It took the press almost a week to get wind of Stark Industries firing of twenty-odd something key employees across various entities (one had resigned when Pepper walked into his office, then and there, and Stark wasn’t sure if he was pleased or disappointed, because where’s the satisfaction in that?). And even when the news broke, it made barely a ripple, a byline on page three of the business section on a Monday behind the news about OPEC and a failed Time Warner merger attempt. Almost as though it wasn’t important.
Almost as though it’d been hidden intentionally on a big news day.
Stark flipped down his tablet, the thin device coming to rest against an empty coffee mug on his desk. She’d done a good job. Almost too good a job. And even better, the news somehow came out on the same day that some big offensive in the Middle East was launched against the latest assholes to grace the terrorist watch list, some organization calling themselves AIM.
He drummed his fingers across the surface of the drafting table. It wasn’t enough. Sure, he’d rooted out the corruption within his company, but near as Christine could tell, the conspiracy extended a lot deeper. There was an anonymous donor in New York, rumored to be a big shot but no one could identify who it was, that was funneling money from someone in Russia to someone else in Asian Pacific to someone else in the Middle East to fund weapons from what might be Ten Rings to another buyer in Eastern Europe or maybe China, but it could be whatever new flavor of the month terrorists had cropped up, instead.
But he had no way to find out, no way to take out those assholes still trading his weapons, still selling on the black market.
And then there was the inventory.
Between Jarvis, the recovered discs from records, a few good accountants working in secret, and a satellite backup of database files, the list of artillery missing was nothing short of staggering. Pepper wanted to take the list straight to Coulson, but Tony’d managed to convince her to wait. To lay low, for now, because literally turning over a list to a shady government organization of all the unaccounted for weapons of mass destruction Stark Industries had produced and managed to lose in the last ten years, well that just sounded like a really bad plan.
And to make matters worse, he was being discharged from therapy. It’d been six months, already, and supposedly he was cured. Or at least cleared to continue working out in a regular gym with a regular therapist, according to Orlando (his exact words might have been a wee bit more forceful, along the lines of “Get out of here Stark, we’re not OKCupid.”).
His cell rang.
“Put it on speaker, J,” Tony twirled his empty mug, slouching in his chair. “Hello, Stark Residence, Tony’s not in right now but if you--”
“Pardon?” a rich baritone rang out, interrupting Stark’s faux message. Tony sat straight up in his chair.
“Loki?” Tony said. “You called me back!”
“Yes,” Loki answered, his deep voice echoing around the white mansion walls from the surround sound speaker system. “That is generally the socially acceptable response in this country to a missed telephone call, is it not?”
Stark grinned. “Well you don’t really have to put up with me anymore, since I’m not at therapy now. So I wasn’t sure….”
He could almost hear the other man’s dramatic sigh, picture him rolling his eyes, as Loki replied. “Maybe I just like the free cuppa, you know.”
Tony barked a laugh. “Using me for my money, eh? I’ll tell you what. How about lunch tomorrow instead?”
There was a pregnant pause on the line, and Stark wondered for a moment if he’d gone too far, before he heard Loki exhale and inhale again sharply, before he replied, “Lunch, then.”
He absolutely, positively, did not dress up for lunch. It just had happened, of course, that Tony had been in a meeting that morning. And he had worn a nice suit for that meeting. With his R&D department. Who were just as surprised, to see Stark in a suit at their monthly meeting, as Loki had been when Tony showed up for their lunch date.
And boy if that look wouldn’t leave Tony wondering whether it really was a date after all.
When Loki had walked out of PT and seen Stark standing there, fiddling with his phone as he leaned (casually, of course) against the side of his Audi no sign of his driver in sight. Literally, the taller man had stood there, his cane stuck to the pavement as though it had grown roots, long enough for Stark to look down to check his fly wasn’t open (it wasn’t) and he’d not drowned his shirt in coffee at R&D that morning (he hadn’t).
But then it was gone, and Loki had greeted him as he always had, with a casual nod, before edging his way towards the passenger side of Stark’s car.
Tony had picked a nicer fusion Italian place, one with a semi-private space next to a courtyard, a pretty little picture in the heart of Santa Monica. Honestly, he didn’t remember what he ate, but Loki had a dish with little butternut squash balsamic vinaigrette tortellini that he could stab with his fork in shaky movements without cutting into smaller bites.And Tony realized for the first time, this close to the other man and watching his fine motor skills, that the nerve damage extended beyond simple tremors in his legs and arms. Loki’s reflexes had been affected by whatever happened to him, and his grip was off, as though his fingers and thumbs didn’t connect the same way.
But never mind that, Stark had thought. The conversation was easy and there were moments when Loki looked at him with something akin to disbelief, before he laughed, again, surprised. They’d talked about silly things; about the newest patients at therapy that week, including the kid who kept proclaiming himself the next Usain Bolt (with a total knee replacement; not likely); about Stark’s latest phone, as Loki had seen Tony’s prototype. Loki had even mentioned that his brother was coming to visit soon, so he couldn’t meet later that week for coffee, after therapy.
And then, when they’d walked out into the Los Angeles sunshine, there’d been a flash and a scream, and another flash, and Tony belatedly realized his little hidden Italian courtyard cafe wasn’t so hidden, after all.
Somewhere between the apologetic look he’d shot Loki and signing the second autograph request, the other man had disappeared. Poof, gone. Nowhere to be seen. He looked around for a few seconds, scanning the crowd and the cameras around him, but no, Loki had flitted away, faster than Stark would have thought someone with his lingering muscle weakness could move.
Tony left soon after, disappointed.
It was that night, as Stark sat on the workshop couch, tossing a baseball against the wall, that he decided to push deeper. He was missing something, something big, he could feel it.
Because Loki Odinson was a ghost.
There were a few pictures here and there of a dark haired skinny boy at Eton; he was a member of the chess club; here he was, nose in a book and only the top of his hairline visible. There, another image of Loki with his classmates in the yearbook. And nothing more. After he’d left school at 18, with a record number of A-levels even for Eton, according to one article, it was as though he’d disappeared. One school newspaper article had said Mr. Odinson planned to study at Oxford, but Oxford’s records were dismal; maybe he’d been a student at Oxford, and maybe he’d studied languages, or politics, or international relations, or all three, according to some records, but he couldn’t be sure. The records just weren’t there, at least in electronic form. Stupid archaic British traditions.
And who leaves Oxford with a triple major and a thesis and disappears into the atmosphere?
“Jarvis,” Tony hesitated, a thought occurring to him. “Look for Loki Odinson in those other databases.”
“You heard me, buddy. Start digging.”
Tony looked up from his coffee and donut, at the red-headed woman looming over his table. “Um, hello. Scary Spice, is that you?”
The woman invited herself into the booth across from him. “I mean it, Stark. Stop.”
“I would, because honestly you are terrifying, with all that black leather and red hair getup,” he gestured, reaching with his other hand for the panic button on his phone, “But I have no idea what you are talking about so—”
A foot caught his hand, pinning it to his leg, his fingers mere inches from paging Jarvis. The woman grinned. Reminded Tony of an animal he’d seen at the zoo once, something vicious and not tame. “Stop looking for information, Stark.”
Tony blinked. “I’m sorry, you really are going to have to be more specific. I mean, I’m Tony Stark, I look for information, hell I invent information for a living, how can I stop—”
“You hacked SHIELD’s servers.”
Tony gave an indignant huff. “I did no such thing! Why, the nerve, Ms… Ms. Scary Spice, I’ll have you know—”
She gave a small smile, a hint in her grin that made Tony think they could have been friends in a different life. “You had your AI hack SHIELD’s servers.”
“What? No! Naughty J,” Tony flexed his fingers, relieved that she’d felt inclined to remove her foot from against his thigh, and God that sounded way dirtier than it had felt. “I’ll make sure to put him in time out. Take away his internet privileges,” he waved his hand dismissively. “Change the wifi password or something.”
This time the woman did not smile back. “Whatever you’re looking for, stop. We won’t ask nicely again.” Then she was gone, and Tony pushed his donut aside.
Jelly filled never looked so disgusting.
“Jarvis, did you find anything interesting in your adventures in cyberland?” Tony tapped furiously into his phone, half-heartedly watching as Happy swung in and out of traffic. He was late to pick Loki up from PT, for their Friday coffee date. Meeting. Coffee meeting. Whatever. He’d thought the guy had cancelled on him, because his brother (What brother? Jarvis couldn’t find any family listed in England or elsewhere. It was driving Tony crazy, this not knowing...) was in town, but then he’d gotten a text late last night informing (literally) Tony that they were still on for coffee, after all.
And Tony had replied back immediately, Sure.
Why? He didn’t know, really. But when he’d gone to sleep, the picture he saw in his mind’s eye was that one image Jarvis had managed to find of Loki in which the guy’s nose wasn’t buried in a book.
Ironically, it was from Oxford, from some quad tradition or some sort that Tony had already forgotten about. There was Loki, his youthful expression and smirk the same, shirtless and standing on some sort of boat, like he’d been out for a row in the English sunshine. He was smiling at the camera, his shoulders and spine straight as he maneuvered the punt, and Tony was smitten.
This was Loki, as he was supposed to be. Uninjured and whole, not bent over a cane and with a shake to his limbs. And he couldn’t stop thinking about that young man, about the picture he’d seen compared with the reality before him every week.
So he’d woken up late and gone for donuts, impromptu and spur of the moment, and it made him nervous that someone from SHIELD had magically appeared to lecture him on his recent nocturnal habits. Especially because that someone wasn’t Agent.
Agent Coulson, he was sort of, well, not as scary in a suit sort of way. Tony was afraid of him, like he feared salmonella poisoning (just avoid the egg salad and you’ll be fine).
Besides, Tony hadn’t even done anything that bad, nothing that would warrant sending Scary Spice. Certainly trying to trace information on his coffee buddy shouldn’t result in such a harsh reaction, unless Loki really was messed up in something big.
The thought made Tony sweat, and he tugged at his collar.
What, really, did he know about his friend? He’d been grabbing coffee with the guy every other day for months now, and still knew very little about him. Besides that he had scars, and was British, and had gone to Oxford, and probably Eton, if the skinny tall boy with a similar sounding last name but no brother was actually him. But the pictures were too grainy to tell, even if he’d been able to find one without a book in front of the dark haired boy’s face, and apparently Eton didn’t keep its records online, either.
Seriously, fuck England.
“Who pissed in your cheerios today?”
“It’s an expression, Loki. What’s got you down, basically.”
“Ah. Well, if you must know,” he sipped his tea, a far-away look on his face as he gazed out into the coffee shop; the manager had begun setting aside a table just for them, around the corner from the main floor and hidden from view of the windows. “My brother is to be married next month.”
“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Tony wheedled, unsure why this had made Loki so melancholic. “You’re going to be his best man? Is the wedding in the UK?”
Loki gave a bitter smile. “No. She’s American. From Seattle, actually. But—”
“That’s good! Seattle’s not far, you can make it to Seattle.”
“—he does not want me to attend,” Loki finished, settling his teacup down in the saucer.
Tony blinked, leaning back in his chair. “Okay buddy, I’m lost. Why would he not want you at his wedding?”
Loki gestured to his hands; this close, Tony could see the find tremors that echoed across his palms, his fingers never quite steady. “He is worried I will embarrass him, fall or drop something, during the ceremony. He doesn’t want his friends to know about his cripple brother.”
Tony’s jaw dropped open, unable to reconcile what the other man was saying. “He doesn’t want you at his wedding because you were injured?” Tony whispered furiously, when his voice finally did return. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but does he know how you were hurt, right? I mean, it doesn’t sound like a ski accident, Loki, I don’t understand how he can blame you for —”
“Car accident,” Loki interrupted, fiddling with the handle of his loose leaf teapot.
“No way,” Tony scoffed, mentally running through what he knew about Loki’s injuries. It might explain some of the ligament damage, but not the muscle weakness and nerve issues, or—
“That’s what he was told,” Loki said, meeting Stark’s incredulous stare with a stubborn glint in his eye. But not denying that it was a lie, either.
“Loki,” Tony chewed on his lip. “What really happened?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Fine, you don’t want to talk about it, I get it. But I don’t understand why he doesn’t want you there. Even if you don’t take part in the ceremony, I mean, you could still just sit there, couldn’t you?” He tapped his fingers against the side of his espresso cup, a nervous habit he’d picked up, near as he could tell, from Pepper. “Is there some weird British thing at play here, some superstition or something?”
Loki’s grin was feral, lethal almost. “No. It’s more likely my father’s doing, than Thor’s.”
Tony blinked. “Wait,” he gasped, before cackling again, “Wait, wait, wait.”
The dark haired man glared over his tea mug. “What?” he hissed.
“Sorry,” Tony wiped his eyes, before he giggled again. “It’s just, your brother. His name is Thor? What even were your parents thinking, I mean, is someone in your family a huge fan of Nordic mythology?”
“Ha. Ha.” Loki deadpanned. “You’re so original, Stark. It’s as if I’ve never heard this before.”
“That’s just, you know,” Tony giggled again, “Really funny.”
“It’s not that funny,” the dark haired man protested.
Tony grinned. “It’s a little funny.”
Loki signed, defeated. “Perhaps a little.”
Tony took a sip of his coffee to hide his grin; he’d selected an Americano—black with sugar—not his usual red-eye. The heat against his tongue emboldened him, here in the shadowed corner with the late morning sunshine creeping across the wood floor, and Tony turned, studying the man across from him.
Loki’s hair was longer now than when they’d met; he no longer hid behind a curtain of greasy black, his hair pulled loosely into a bun now, a mean feat considering Tony’d seen how much the other man struggled with fine motor movements. His features were sharper than they should be still, his jaw more angular and face skinnier than when he was younger, in those Oxford pictures. Skinnier, too, were his shoulders, but he’d recently ceased to cower in that infernal sweatshirt in the heat of Los Angeles’ summer. Thin and thick white scars interlaced across the other man’s right arm, surgical almost in their precision but for the jerky segments that told Tony they hadn’t been caused under sedation. And they weren’t self-inflicted, either. Both of his forearms were covered in thin white patterns, from just above his wrist to elbow, and maybe further up, judging from the little skin Tony had seen not covered by the other man’s overly large gray t-shirt.
“Loki,” Tony sighed, looking into the murky black of his coffee. “We’re friends, right?”
“What does it matter, Stark?” the other man’s reply was muffled, far away, and it made Tony inexplicably sad.
He shrugged, his shoulders bobbing gently. “It matters to me.”
“I’m not telling you about my injuries,” Loki protested, his tea cup rattling as he set it down too quickly, his fingers bent unnaturally around the handle. “I’m not telling you—”
“That’s fine—” Tony interrupted, lifting a hand to cover Loki’s, quelling the shaking cup still gripped too tightly in the other man’s hand in the process. “But you know you could, if you wanted to. Right? Look, I’m a shit friend and sometimes even more of a shit human being, but I can listen. I’ve learned how to do at least that much. If you ever need an ear.” He squeezed the other man’s hand once, before he let go.
Loki pulled his hand into his lap, as though his skin had been burned. “I have to go,” he whispered, reaching for his cane.
Stark noticed only after he’d hobbled away, as the taller man reached the sunlight filtering in across the room, how red Loki’s cheeks had become.
Tony was gone the following week, out to New York for another board meeting and to look over potential sites for his (Pepper’s) latest project—an expanded HQ for Stark Industries on the Eastern coast not far from that gilded cage Tony had grown up in.
Not that Loki had seemed to notice his departure; Tony had texted him several times and even left a message apologizing for missing coffee that week, but his secretive friend hadn’t replied. Hadn’t in fact responded at all, since their last coffee. Maybe he’d gone too far, touching the other guy’s hand like that; maybe he’d hurt him, or offended him. Or something.
But he couldn’t dwell on that, could he? Not with Christine finding him at an upscale bar his last night in the city, surreptitiously sliding a USB drive into his pocket as she plucked a kiss on his cheek (and damned if Tony didn’t hear the hushed click of a camera shutter nearby; it’d be all over the internet in a hour, pictures of Stark the Womanizer in New York City). She winked and hurried away, after, and Tony was left to stand helplessly with his hand in his pocket, clutching the small drive like a lifeline holding him adrift in the sea.
And when he was finally able to view the files back at his penthouse at the W, Tony would have fallen to his knees if he hadn’t already been seated.
He clicked through quickly, mentally ticking off the weapons crates in the images and short video footage that Everhart had found against his and Jarvis’s inventory lists of those missing from Obadiah’s black market deals; there were the Jerichos; the Big Babies; some Whiner Rockets; and one of the last few he’d personally worked on, a modified bunker buster that delayed explosion for maximum effect. Guns, too, and some of his more high-tech portable generators; hospital equipment in one photograph; something that looked like his line of water purifiers, that only the U.S. military had previously used. Crate after crate, image after image, with his stolen inventory, from caves and bunkers across the globe.
It was mesmerizing—and horrifying—and Tony thought he would have been sick, if the righteous anger hadn’t burned so fiercely in his gut. It was too fucking bad the asshole who’d done this was already dead, that he’d been cremated and there was no actual grave Tony could go dance on or spit on or burn in effigy.
All too soon, he’d managed to go through almost all hundred or so of the image and video files, tallying with Jarvis’s help the inventory and probable location based on the GPS metadata and time stamps, that Everhart had managed to locate through God knows what sources Jarvis couldn’t touch. And then there was another video clip at the end, something from a decent sized video camcorder instead of a phone camera, judging from the image size.
“Play the last video, J,” he muttered, preparing himself for another shot of his weapons strewn about in some hell hole, with Obadiah’s smug visage shaking hands with someone Tony was pretty sure would be on the watch list. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, squinting at the screen—3 AM, too late to be calling Agent, probably, but first thing tomorrow, after—a voice began speaking in an angry, clipped fashion as the video began, and Tony looked up.
There, surrounded by half a dozen men with their faces covered and holding machine guns (his goddamn design, not even Hammer’s crap), was a broad-shouldered man with a burlap sack over his head, sat in the center spotlight, his bare torso and forearms wrapped in dirty white bandages.
And then one of the men removed the sack, revealing a bloodied face that Tony knew all too well.
Pep,” Tony croaked. “Pep, Pep. Seasoning of my life.”
“Tony?” a groggy voice replied over the line. “You sound drunk, and it’s… it’s two in the morning? Are you drunk?”
“Yeah.” He clinked the ice in his glass against the side, letting the sound echo in the dark hotel room. “A little. But. Listen.” Tony coughed, sipped, “Pepper. Remember when I was supposed to go out to one of the Stan countries—”
“Tony, it’s almost 2 in the morning. In California.” She yawned, and there was a shuffling sound on the line. “Almost 5 AM in New York.”
“I know,” Tony cleared his throat. “Sorry. But this is important. The Stan country last year.”
“Yes. That one. That’s the one.” Tony set his glass down, and leaned forward. “Why didn’t I go, again? There was the awards thingy in Vegas, and I was supposed to go with Rhodey—But I didn’t. Do you remember why?”
“You missed the plane,” Pepper yawned into the receiver.
“Yes, but there was something else…” Tony protested. “You came down to the workshop, really upset. Because something happened.”
“You mean the email?” Pepper huffed, exhaling into the receiver.
“Yes. That email.” Tony snapped his fingers, spilling bourbon on the settee. “What did that email say?”
“What does it matter, Tony? Remember what Phil said, that it was—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know what Agent said,” Tony interrupted, “But what did it say? What did the actual email say?”
Pepper signed, a quiet puff into the receiver. “It warned you not to go to the weapons demonstration because of ‘imminent danger.’ That’s all. It was maybe two lines, I don’t remember.... It was why you started investigating Stane, though….” There was a shuffling noise, before she spoke again. “But Phil said it was a hoax, remember? And nothing happened at the Jericho demonstration.”
“Agent,” Tony repeated the word venomously. “Agent lied…. And he has some explaining to do.”
“What?” Pepper sounded more awake now. “What’s going on? Tony?”
“Can you clear my schedule?” Tony muttered, fiddling for his Starkpad. “Cancel my morning meetings.”
“Oh no, no” Pepper protested, a sharp clicking noise in the background indicating she’d turned on the lights. “You can’t leave yet, you are meeting the developer tomorrow—”
“Thanks. Owe you,” he said, waving at Jarvis to kill the line. “J, start my coffee, call room service. And get me Everhart on the line. There’s no way she didn’t know what was on that drive.”
“Sir, might I remind you that it is rather early in the morning in New York, and Ms. Everhart is likely to be asleep—”
“Then wake her,” Tony stood, pacing in quick steps to the coffee machine. “This is important.”
You’ve reached Loki’s voicemail, leave a message.
Flying back to Los Angeles really took too long, Tony mused as he flipped back and forth between images on the two Starkpads propped across his knees. On one screen he’d cued up the images from Everhart, making quick work of the inventory and volume notes on the other screen as he doubled down on what items were still missing, and where, if possible, the GPS coordinates indicated these images had been taken.
Agent was conveniently unavailable, but promised one of his associates would be in touch soon. If Tony was a gambling man, he’d put money on Red showing up again… clearly, they knew about his pal Loki and for some reason didn’t want him to know about it.
As for Everhart, apparently she’d accepted an assignment out of country immediately after she’d rendezvoused with Stark last night. Convenient, that. And if that wasn’t enough, Rhodey wasn’t answering his damn phone calls, either.
Rhodey, that ass, who did go to Afghanistan without him, with a VP from SI’s weapons sales division to demonstrate the Jericho for America’s top brass. Who berated Tony endlessly for not making the flight. And now that Tony was stone cold sober and had slept a few hours (and was well into his fourth cup of coffee that morning), he remembered little things. Like how annoyed Stane had been when he’d found out that Tony didn’t make the trip. And how soon after that, weird things began happening in R&D. The explosion from the chem hood when Tony had been the only one in the lab. The car that veered out of control and would have hit him, but for Happy shoving them both over a brick wall a few weeks later. How Stane kept asking Tony what his schedule was like, for the next few days, so they could grab lunch (they never lunched before).
He exhaled, flipped one of the Starkpads onto the seat next to him. It’d taken several hours for the corporate jet to be readied, but it wasn’t fast enough, he couldn’t get back to Los Angeles fast enough….
Tony brought up the text again, Jarvis’s translation of the video statement flashed on screen, stark black letters against the white background.
You did not tell us that the target you paid us to kill was to be the great Tony Stark. But he did not come, and it’s this man’s fault.... Now MI6 knows about Ten Rings, Obadiah Stane, and your deception and lies will cost you dearly. The price of our loyalty has just gone up.
It went on, but Tony couldn’t read it anymore. Jarvis’s own searches had turned up emails, encrypted and to unknown individuals, that referenced soon after the video an additional ‘payment’ and their ‘mutual agreement’ to the cause, but Tony couldn’t find anything more. Stane had gone to Afghanistan for a meeting soon after with an SI plane and security force, something that his official schedule listed as US-military related, but Tony’s contacts at Rhodey’s office in the Pentagon didn’t know anything about it. And then…. Nothing.
It was another punch in the gut, something else that Tony might be responsible for, that might be his fault. Loki, or whoever he really was, if that even was his name (and damn if that didn’t sting), was he the reason Stark avoided Stane’s first assassination attempt? Or worse… was it his fault, that Loki was injured, unable to walk without a cane? A shadow of the image in the photographs, the smirk Tony had grown to appreciate.
Tony thumbed the Starkpad, flipping back to the image burned in his memory. The one of Loki standing there, punt pole in hand and smirking at the camera with such casual arrogance. The young man with short dark hair, he looked happy. Happy and alive, and free.
It made Tony sick.
Did Loki know? If he’d sent the email, the one that Pepper had received from a fabricated IP address, then he had to know. He had to know. And then that meant this entire time, when he and Loki had met for coffee, had talked at PT, hell, even the time they’d gone to lunch, Loki had known the entire time that Stark was the reason for his injuries? That Tony’s failure to clean house had resulted in—in—
He reached for his phone again, flipping to his text messages. It was almost mid morning, in California. Loki would be leaving PT soon. And still the other man hadn’t responded to Tony’s message, asking if they could do coffee the next morning; he’d read the message hours ago, Stark could tell that much, but… nothing.
Tony chewed on his lip. He didn’t know what he’d even say, when he saw the other man. He wasn’t even sure why he’d left New York in such a hurry. It just felt wrong, staying in New York a second longer…
He skimmed down the inventory list of missing SI weapons again, fingers tapping nervously against his knee… one thing didn’t make sense. Loki’s injuries, they were unlike anything he’d seen, unlike anything else he’d found in the medical texts and reports Jarvis had compiled on recovery from torture. For one, while the other man had clearly been injured and had bone or ligament damage, based on his PT routines alone, the brute force injuries he’d experienced wouldn’t cause nerve damage (and it’d made Tony a little sick to read about that, imagining Loki there, strapped down and—).
“Mr. Stark, we’re preparing for descent,” a voice announced over the PA.
Tony shook himself, brushing the memory aside. Best not, he grimaced, scrolling down the list.
“Thanks Walters,” he sighed, switching off the tablet.
Red was waiting for him, instead of his usual driver.
“What’d you do with Happy?” Tony hesitated. She’d even come clad as a chauffeur, complete with the requisite hat, if anyone was watching. Tony glanced around, noting the milling airport folks and terminal workers at the private facility. A few were glancing over, curious, but most paid him no attention. This was L.A. after all, used to the celebs travelling in style. “He’s not in the trunk, is he?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Stark,” she smiled, appearing for all the world like she’d greeted her client politely.
“It’s a valid question,” Tony protested, reaching past the woman to open the car door. “You driving, Red? I assume Agent sent you, and I’ve got places to be.”
She smiled again, deadly. “Romanov. Agent Natalia Romanov. And yes, I’m driving.”
“Pleasure,” Tony grumbled, dumping his bag on the seat as he climbed in. He waited while the woman sat in the driver’s seat.
“Phil said you had questions, about Afghanistan and your friend.”
“Is he? My friend, that is,” Tony fished out his phone. No new messages. “Can we just cut to the chase? Can I assume you know what I think you know and that I now know about it too? You, you wiretapped that reporter, didn’t you? Patriot Act? That’s how you knew.”
She nodded, once.
“Okay, that’s kind of creepy,” Tony shivered. “Verbal answers are a thing, you know. But you know what? Fine. I’ll bite. Why does SHIELD even care?”
“We don’t,” she replied. “We just don’t want you hacking our servers or MI6’s servers.”
“That’s oddly not reassuring. For one, what else are you hiding?” Outside, the rolling hills of Malibu appeared in the distance. At least Scary Agent wasn’t kidnapping him; she appeared to be driving in the right direction. When she didn’t respond, Tony huffed, exasperated. “Can you at least tell me how it happened? How he was captured?”
“He sent that email,” Romanov replied. “Stupid move, while undercover. And unfortunately, the network he sent it through had its own spies on hand.”
Tony closed his eyes, letting his head rest against the seat as he huffed a frustrated sound. The silence stretched a beat, the only sound the gentle clicking of the turn signal as Romanov expertly maneuvered the vehicle into Stark’s private driveway, before Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “But it doesn’t explain his injuries, the nerve damage, that’s not—”
“You sent Coulson an inventory of missing weapons this morning,” Romanov interrupted. “Everything on that list was already in production. Military level equipment that had disappeared before the sale.”
“Yeah, what’s your point?”
“Tell me, Stark,” Romanov put the car in park, and turned, looking at him over her shoulder. “How good are your inventory records, for those R&D projects that didn’t make it off the cutting room floor?”
Tony blinked once, then buried his face in his hands. “Oh, fuck.”
You’ve reached Loki’s voicemail, leave a message.
Three days, seventeen hours, and twenty six minutes, and, Tony glanced at his watch, twelve seconds. Since the world stopped spinning. Since Tony had realized that several R&D design prototypes were missing, including the peripheral nerve disrupter that the U.S. DoD Standards of Conduct Office had rejected as too unethical for the army to use. The device, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, mimicked damage to the myelin sheath surrounding nerve axon, which impeded nerves from sending signals to the patient’s muscles and brain.
In effect, temporarily paralyzing the person; or rather, locking their muscles into whatever position they’d last been in. If a person was resting, they continued resting. If the muscle had flexed, it remained flexed. Breathing, that happened, because the movements were controlled by the involuntary systems, not reflexive, so thank fuck for small miracles, but otherwise, the test subject just…. Just sat there. Locked in their body and unable to move, while fully conscious and aware of everything going on around them. Feeling everything but unable to move, or only able twitch in the barest fashion in response to the world around them.
He shuddered, shaking off the thought of the scars on Loki’s arms, and expanded on the holoprojectors the data from the last few medical studies SI had completed on the disrupter. In rats, long term and repeated exposure to the nerve disrupter had created a repeated, cyclical effect, imitating the myelin sheath damage even though the actual nerves were not inflamed any longer. It was as though the nerves had learned to respond as though inflamed and the signals sent by the brain didn’t always work, resulting in a shuddering movement, a start-stop distinctive pattern as the subject animal walked or moved.
Like how Loki moved; how his muscles just seemed to cease responding when he stood on the balance board; how his fingers shuttered to a stop sometimes, unable to release or grasp the teacup handle.
The effect was permanent, according to the research studies—or at least, for as long as rats lived. Which, for the rattus norvegicus, or the common brown rats used in research studies, wasn’t very long.
The prototype had been in the SI vaults, in a section that Obadiah Stane controlled.
It was missing now, of course.
You’ve reached Loki’s voicemail, leave a message.
It’s one thing to know your weapons caused harm, and entirely another to see the effects of those weapons paraded in front of you, day after day, for months, in the sarcastic, overly astute and intelligent package that Tony had come to appreciate in a way he couldn’t define.
And he didn’t even realize how much he’d come to depend on Loki’s company, until he realized that the other man was avoiding him. Not just avoiding him. Ignoring him.
It’d been over a week, now, since Tony had returned from New York. Almost two weeks since he and Loki had last met for coffee, and not a word from his once-constant coffee companion.
Tony was… honestly, he didn’t know what to think anymore. He’d called Agent, again, and apparently they hadn’t been in contact with Loki. (His exact words might have been, “Mr. Stark, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division has more important things to do than informing Mr. Odinson that you now know what you think he thinks you don’t know.”). But his calls went to voicemail and his texts went unanswered (though he was relatively certain they were read).
“Sir, render is complete. Calculations indicate that the electric impulses would override peripheral nerve signals on a scale of 2000 to one.”
“That’s too high. Why is it so high?”
“In the words of Doctor Taggert, you are attempting to replicate externally a process that takes place at a microscopic level, Sir.”
“Don’t quote her, she’s wrong,” Tony muttered, spinning the projected render in slow circles. “Neuroprosthetics can do this, it can’t be that hard.”
“Not without implants in the peripheral nerves, sir.”
“Yeah,” Tony flipped the render upside down, and reached his hand inside, manipulating the glove, “Pretty sure if the guy isn’t returning my phone calls, he’s not going to say yes to an experimental medical implant.”
“An unfortunate circumstance, considering Mr. Odinson appears to be the only living individual able to test this prototype.”
Tony exhaled. “Unfortunately,” he spat, waiving off the holographic display. “Rerun, with a higher up neural-prosthetic interface, and double the fiber concentration. Maybe to the elbow? All we’re trying to do is amplify, not replace.”
“Rendering. Estimated time to completion is approximately two hours.”
“Jarvis you’re killing me here,” Tony paced the room, reaching for his coffee as he circled. “Show me the polymer readings, maybe I can—”
“Sir, Ms. Potts is—”
“Nope, not available, tell her—”
Tony spun around, to find Pepper staring at the state of his workshop in open dismay. He gave a feeble wave. “Um. Hi?”
“Tony—” she started, stepping over a thick black cable running the length of the floor. “What— What is—Is that from the chemical division?”
“Maybe. Maybe? I borrowed it,” Stark crossed his arms. “I needed it. I, um. I needed—”
She picked up an empty coffee cup, examining the stains like she could read his future in the patterns. “I don’t want to know. When did you last sleep?”
“I slept,” Tony protested. “Recently.”
Pepper collected another three coffee mugs, dumping them in the workshop sink. “You’ve missed meetings in R&D for the last three days. You haven’t been into the office in a week. You actually stink, I can smell you from here. What’s going on, Tony?”
“Nothing?” Tony asked, shoving aside a Starkpad; he’d just put the last report here somewhere, the file with—ah! “I, um, I just have an idea. You know. A project. About to have a breakthrough, actually. Any minute. Or whenever the next render is complete.”
“On the miniaturized power source?” Pepper crossed her arms, a small scowl playing across her features. “Or does this have to do with Afghanistan and that reporter you were with in New York?”
Tony paused, then shrugged. “Afghanistan. Stane. Me. What does it matter, Pep? This is something I have to do. Have to fix.”
“Not everything Stane did is your fault, Tony.”
“This is,” Tony turned again, checking the polymers. “This time it is.”
You’ve reached Loki’s voicemail, leave a message.
It took another week to perfect the design, and then another few days to reduce the weight and size until, finally, he was left with a thin polymer-lined synthetic material with sensors integrated into the smart fabric, shaped like fingerless gloves that ran lengthwise to Tony’s elbows. With Jarvis’s help, he’d roughly estimated the dimensions, give or take as the material naturally had to be stretchy to accommodate the jumbled, bunched nature of peripheral nerves.
It was time to test it.
Tony strolled into the gym at his usual time—Loki’s usual time, but after three weeks of silence, he couldn’t pretend any longer that the other man’s cell phone had died. He moved like he owned the place, like he always did in public; like he hadn’t spent six months living in fear of Wanda’s days in command. There, in the corner, was that high school kid who had just had surgery the last week Tony had physical therapy. And across the room, he caught sight of Wanda’s red-streaked hair, amongst a sea of unrecognizable faces. But no Loki.
“Tony,” Orlando materialized at his elbow. “What are you doing here?”
“Hi,” Stark tucked away his sunglasses, “Is Loki around? Isn’t this when he comes in?”
Orlando sadly shook his head. “I can’t tell you that, man.”
“He’s not hurt, is he?” Tony hesitated; he’d never considered that something could have happened to the other man, when his messages and texts had stopped, what if—
“No, Tony. He’s the same as he was, before,” Orlando’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “But he doesn’t want to talk to you.”
Tony tried to smile around the pain, around the feeling of his heart shattering in his chest. Loki didn’t want to see him, ever again. “That’s fine. Really. I get it. Not the first time. I—” He stretched out his arm, thrusting the case he carried into Orlando’s arms. “Can you give him these? It’s—It’s hard to—Look, just tell him I know what happened, so I don’t blame him, for, you know, ghosting me. But these should help. Have him try them on here, first, of course, and see if—”
“Tony—” Orlando interrupted, tried to return the case. “I can’t—”
“No, really. They’ll reduce the muscle response failures,” Tony stepped back. “Get him to try them out. Call me if they need tweaking, I’ll stop by when he’s not here. I can probably make a leggings version, too, for his balance issues,” he shoved his hands in his pockets. “Just need more time. Time. You know?”
Orlando looked at the case, then at Stark, a confused mixture of wonder and concern highlighting his face. “Tony—”
“Just. Tell him I’m sorry?” Stark grimaced, turning on his heel. He walked quickly, eyes downcast, ignoring the way Orlando called after him.
You’ve reached Loki’s voicemail, leave a message.
“Hi. It’s me. Uh. Tony. Listen, I won’t bother you again. I just wanted to say—I mean—I’m sorry. I don’t know what I did, but whatever it is, I’m sorry. And, uh, thank you. I mean, for Afghanistan, you know. I, uh. I mean. If Agent didn’t actually tell you, I figured it out. I mean, I had help figuring it out, but I know now. And I’m sorry about that too, God, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
But hey, um. I made you something; Orlando has it, at the gym. I hope it helps. I, uh. I won’t call you again. If you don’t want to talk to me, that is. I mean, I don’t blame you. Really, I wouldn’t want to talk to me, either…
So, uh, this is goodbye, Loki. Goodbye.”
Tony stepped in from the rain, shaking off his umbrella. It’d been almost eight weeks since he’d come for coffee here, but he couldn’t avoid it forever. The Grindz was still his favorite shop, still had the best Americano and red-eyes this side of the continent, no matter how much the place now reminded him of Loki.
The barista smiled at him, even flirted a little, but the most Tony could muster was a small nod in her direction as she took his order. He had almost ordered tea, too, but stopped himself at the last moment and asked for a slice of the carrot cake instead.
“Two forks?” she’d asked, and Tony had blinked, before he shook his head.
Hell, was he tired. After another whirlwind trip to New York to supervise the new SI headquarters, he’d come back to another package with more data-readings from Orlando, an R&D fiasco with the latest Stark Tech Intellicrops, and somewhere, somehow, a breakthrough finally on the miniaturized reactor. The polymer he’d developed for Loki’s gloves had helped; got him experimenting with conductivity and other materials that hadn’t existed or been discovered yet when the original reactor was invented.
And yet there was so much left to do, Tony mused, as he collected his cake and coffee. So much left to do, but not today. Today, he would relax, at least for the rest of the afternoon. It’d been one year, after all, since he’d injured his knee. And it seemed to him like he’d earned a break.
He moved towards his usual table in the corner, deposited the cake with a clang as he balanced his coffee, only to look up in surprise when someone cleared their throat.
“Stark,” Loki said. Studied him, like he was a rare specimen. But then Tony noticed, he was wearing the gloves. And his hands didn’t shake, as he placed his teacup down on the saucer.
“Loki,” Tony exhaled, “I didn’t see you here.”
“Clearly,” he replied, nodding towards the coffee still precariously balanced in Stark’s hand. “Quadruple shot Americano, black?”
“Yes,” Tony’s lips curled in a gentle smile, and he nodded towards the tea pot. “Loose leaf English Breakfast, steeped for five minutes instead of three?”
Loki’s answering nod felt surreal, even more so than when the other man replied, “Sit down, Stark.”
“Uh,” Tony gracelessly sat, “Okay.”
“You first,” Loki gestured.
Stark chuckled, noticing that the barista had given him two forks after all. He handed one to Loki, watched as the man’s fingers effortlessly curled around the fork, as he took the first bite, a corner from the end of the slice, with the most icing. “I was, you know, just going to ask how you were.”
“Fine,” Loki said.
“Oh.” Stark fiddled with his coffee, twirling the steaming cup around on its saucer. “And the gloves?”
“You already know, I’m aware Orlando has been sending you data every week. And that you collected and tweaked the prototypes. Twice.” Loki put down his fork. “Enough of this. You are too blunt to trifle with me. You must know I do not blame you, for what happened to me.”
Tony looked away. “Maybe. But if you had not sent that warning, you wouldn’t have been injured.”
“Is that what you believe?” Loki scoffed. “You’re an idiot, Stark.”
Tony barked out a laugh. “Yep, I know.”
“You truly think that one message is why I was captured?” Loki stabbed at the carrot cake, a vicious move that he wouldn’t have been capable of only a few months ago. “And even if it were, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was my job, Stark, my duty.”
“Even after you’d met me?” Tony huffed.
“Especially after I’d met you.” Loki muttered, so quietly in the busy shop that Tony almost wondered if he’d imagined it.
“Then let me ask you something,” Tony turned the plate, snagging a bite, before he waived the fork in Loki’s direction. “If you aren’t mad at me… If you don’t blame me, like you say… why did you stop returning my calls?”
Loki looked up, meeting Tony’s gaze, steadfast. “I wanted something I could not obtain. That became clear to me, when those photos of you were published.”
Tony put down his coffee. “Wait. Which photos? You mean… what was trending most recently—I haven’t been out since New York—wait, you don’t mean the blonde woman in New York?” his mouth fell open. “The photos—Christine? Christine Everhart?”
“I didn’t need to know her name, Stark,” Loki crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair. The gesture made the taller man look like a petulant teenager.
“Wait—” Tony chortled, feeling very much like he’d dived down into the ocean and come up too fast, “Does this mean you’re jealous? Of Christine Everhart?”
“Do I appear to find this amusing?” Loki hissed, moving to grab his cane.
“No, no, wait—” Tony grabbed at the other man’s sleeve. “Wait, please. I can explain. Loki—”
“I’m not here for your entertainment,” Loki growled, weakly attempting to shake off Tony’s grip.
“I know, I know. Please, wait.” Tony squeezed Loki’s wrist, ever so gently, through the fabric of his sleeve. “I’m sorry, it just surprised me—you surprised me—I’ve spent the last few months thinking I’d done something, that I’d offended you somehow—”
Loki settled back into his chair, cane rested against his knee. “And you think you haven’t—”
“No, not like that,” Tony interrupted. “Loki, Everhart is a reporter.”
“Yes, Stark, I know how to google—”
Tony grinned, “You googled her? Wow you really are jealous—”
“Right,” Loki reached for his cane, “I’m leaving.”
“It was a setup,” Tony blurted out. He held out his hands, in the universal gesture for I come in peace. “I’ve been working with her, rooting out information on how—wait, you know what, we really should go somewhere else—Agent will be mad if I have this conversation in public—”
“Why?” Loki leaned forward, green eyes flashing intently. “Don’t want to be seen with me in a coffee shop? With a man?”
Tony blinked, hesitating for only a second before he leaned across the table and seized Loki’s hand in his. “Loki,” he lowered his voice, “I’m only going to say this once, so please, don’t interrupt me. Do you know why I thought I’d offended you, the last time we had coffee?”
“I’m all ears, Stark,” Loki scowled, but didn’t shake off Tony’s grip.
“This,” Tony shook Loki’s hand, still enclosed in his own, their fingers intertwined. “Because last time, when I grabbed your hand, you ran away. Literally, you ran away. So I thought you didn’t like me, that I’d offended you somehow when I asked if we were friends and touched your hand. And now I find out that you’ve been avoiding my calls because you were jealous? Of—of a reporter who was giving me documents, in plain sight of the paparazzi?”
Loki hesitated, then sagged in his seat. “Oh…. ”
“Yeah. Oh,” Tony grinned, leaning back in his chair. “I like you too, you know.”
“Then we are both idiots,” Loki mused. But the small smirk on his face was enough for Tony.
“Yep,” he agreed, unable to hide the amusement in his voice. “Complete idiots, both of us.”
Chapter 11: Epilogue
“Do something, Stark!” Loki hissed, kicking him under the desk. “They’re going to shoot it down!”
“Hold your horses, Lokes,” Tony grumbled, turning the virtual reality headset to the side again, as he flexed his fingers to maneuver.
“Sir, Colonel Rhodes is on the line.”
“Put him through,” Stark replied, as Loki cursed under his breath and reached for his cell phone. “Rho-Rho! What brings you to my speakerphone?”
“Tones, I need your help right now. We got a weapons depot that was just blown up a few klicks from where your boyfriend was being held.”
“Well, I’d say that’s a hot spot. Sounds—” Tony exhaled, ducking his head sharply to avoid the F-22 that dropped into position in front of him, “—like someone stepped in and did your job for you.”
“Why do you sound out of breath, Tony?”
“No reason. Calisthenics. Meditation. Meditative calisthenics.” Tony twirled his fingers, sending the sentry into a sharp dive. “You know.”
“No, I don’t know. Did you just make that shit up?” Rhodes huffed sharply. “That better not be a euphemism for sex—You know what, I don’t want to know.”
Tony exhaled, before turning the controls to execute a barrel roll with his eye movements, careful to keep the prototype steady. “Yeah, probably not. Listen, I’m really busy right now, can I call you back later, maybe—”
“You sure you don’t have any tech in that area I should know about?” Rhodes interrupted. Loki pinched his shoulder, hard.
“Nope,” Tony whimpered, shaking off the other man’s fingers and accidentally sending the sentry into a spin, hissed, “Quit it, Judas!”
“What was that?”
“Nothing!” Tony gritted his teeth, barely managing to pull up from the unexpected descent, only to find himself again flanked on either side by Raptors again.
“Good, because we got a lock on something and we’re about to blow it to kingdom come.” Rhodes declared.
“Wait!” Tony gasped.
Loki covered his mouth with one slim hand, the polymer glove fabric grating against Tony’s goatee. “Colonel Rhodes,” he interjected. “If you will check your mobile now, you will see that I’m in charge of a small operation in this region at present, sanctioned under the appropriate treaties and intelligence organizations, et cetera, et cetera.”
There was a pause, before Rhodes returned to the line. “Tony, your boyfriend is scary.”
“Suck it up, buttercup,” Tony grinned, talking around Loki’s fingers. “Now kindly call off your attack dogs, so my boyfriend will stop pinching me.”
“I don’t even want to know,” Rhodes grumbled, the telltale click disconnecting the call not far behind.
Tony peeled off the headset, and turned in his chair. Loki had that look on his face, that smirk that said he’d thought through this plan better than Tony. That he’d been one step ahead, again.
“Jarvis,” Tony grinned. “Fly our little friend home, willya? Loki and I, we’re going to celebrate.”