Tony knows the place was different from about a week before he signs the papers. As soon as he steps a foot past the threshold of the old apartment building he gets a sensation, the peculiar kind one gets when they step into the house of a relative one has never met, when one is unmistakably sure of the relation, but less mistakably so of the level of welcome they ought to expect.
It´s somehow both uncanny and awkward at the same time, but Tony doesn´t plan on leaving the building as it is for long, and even if some of the eeriness remains after the renovations, he figures it might be an interesting anchor point to bring people home for the night. So he signs the property papers anyways.
Six months go by before the building is remodeled as he likes it, but when he opens the door to his new loft-style bedroom, he can feel it as tangibly as he feels the hot beams of the setting sun hitting him through the floor to ceiling windows. There´s someone in there with him.
If he can say something about his... guests? Housemates? Invaders? It's that they're subtle. No blood-weeping walls, no midnight wailing, no misplaced objects or night terrors. Only the brief, uncomfortable feeling that he's interrupting a conversation whenever he walks into a room, which Tony finds a bit haunting all on its own.
After a few weeks he takes to announcing himself with a loud "Sorry guys, just passing through!" before he comes into a room or a "Guys I'm gonna need this for a while, but the living room is free if you wanna move there" if he's gonna take longer, and even that awkwardness is gone then.
They don't really show up until after his first year there, and Tony remembers the encounter with the kind of clarity only blatantly drunk people can muster.
It's the anniversary of his mother's death, and it has found him, inevitably and unsurprisingly, at the bottom of a bottle.
He's just uncapping the second one, when a voice speaks over his shoulder.
"You keep that up and you're going to be much closer to us in no time at all"
The voice, he decides later, has a slight Brooklyn accent and a hint of self righteousness that doesn't get him a particularly good standing on drunk Tony's good side.
"You mean I'm gonna start freeloading at an innocent, hard working person's home?" He spits back
"I mean you're gonna die, and your mom is gonna be pissed. I know mine was." Replies the voice dryly and before Tony has the chance to turn around and flip it the finger, the presence behind him fades, taking the last word with him.
That gets him on both drunk and sober Tony's bad side, but the indignation lasts only until he falls asleep and proceeds to forget everything about it in the morning.
He does remember a voice, but he assumes he brought someone home last night and then kicked them out when they got too sassy.
Sometimes he wishes that had been the end of it, it would've been so easy to go on like that.
That night a few weeks later, he's watching TV. Or rather, staring fixedly into the direction of the TV, since it's that time in which it's too late for anything good to be on still, but too early for something spectacularly bad to be on yet.
He clicks the remote to go from one "guess the word from mixed letters" show to another, and then the screen flickers. It's less of a The Ring flickering and more of a shitty signal one, but then the new channel's hostess vanishes and a blond guy flashes in front of a white background.
Tony wonders if this is going to be a weird deodorant commercial, or a weird soap commercial, or a weird gym commercial, because god knows there's enough of those and the guy certainly has the physique for it.
Then the guy looks straight at Tony and speaks.
"Forgive Steve, friend. He forgets sometimes that we all walk our own path when it comes to grief."
He rubs his eyes, and he's debating on what to ask first between 'Who are you?', 'How the fuck are you talking at me from the TV?' and 'Why are you speaking like a medieval fair nerd?' when the screen flickers again and the guy disappears.
The silence grows thick for a while, before he dares doing the only thing that makes sense.
"Was that one of you guys?" He asks to thin air. And then to make sure. "A little sign please? Just to convince me I shouldn't turn myself into the psychiatric ward right now"
He's much more relieved than he ought to be, when a cushion lifts off the couch and lands softly on top of his head.
"Hey Nat" Says Tony as he hangs his coat on the hook by the door. He keeps his eyes fixed on a random point to only see her out the corner of his eye, and he makes her form out.
Natasha never manifests fully or even clearly, she's always a mist of vague reds and blacks.
She says she doesn't want to burden people with her appearance.
Tony and Clint agree that she's doing it because she enjoys the dramatics, but don't comment on it when she's nearby, just on the off chance they're wrong and she decides to actually let them see.
He's gotten acquainted with them all, these past months.
The guy from the TV is Thor, and he's much less of a Norse deity trapped in the ether than an unfortunate but accurately named guy from Minnesota.
The one that clucks like and old chicken whenever Tony dares going remotely close to a drink containing alcohol is Steve. He manifests only partly, half a guy clad in half a WWII uniform and Tony's afraid to ask what happened to his other side.
Bruce he gets along with the most, even if his form flickers like an old TV, he's a bit too quiet sometimes, and loud explosions make him wince and sometimes, dissolve entirely and not form again until days later. Which means he's not particularly well fitted to keeping Tony company at his workshop.
That's where Clint comes in, hanging upside down and swinging from ropes and wires Tony can't see. He makes stupid jokes that don't really make sense or that reference things Tony hasn't heard of, but it makes him laugh all the same and it's just what he needs after hours of frustrating experiments.
All things considered, living with ghosts is pretty much like having a pack of cats roaming your house, in that they insist on following you into rooms, sitting next to you and staring longingly at your food, messing up with your electronics and falling asleep on top of you, annoying but tolerable and mostly worth it.
At least until tonight.
They're in the midst of playing an evening long game of Monopoly -Tony makes a note to hit Peps and Rhodey on the phone when he notices the people he's been having meaningful conversations with for the last six months are all dead- and Thor is being insufferable.
"Don't worry Steve, I'm feeling generous and I'll charge you only one million seven hundred eighty thousand instead of one million eight hundred thousand." He grins at the other ghost, who rolls his eyes (or... visible eye?) and groans. It makes the entire piping of the house groan along, but Tony's gotten used to it.
"You know Thor?" Tony says, chin lazily supported on a propped up hand and spinning one of his property cards with the tip of a finger. "The good thing about you is that you're just enough of a bastard for me to like."
It's like a switch flipped, Thor turns to him and his eyes are bluer than ever, unnaturally so even for a ghost, if such a thing is possible.
Those same eyes search his face for something Tony doesn't know, and then Thor is gone. Like someone had sucked him into a vacuum cleaner, he spins and twists and disappears.
Tony turns to ask the other ghosts just what the fuck, but an awkward silence has fallen like a blanket over the table.
"That was-" Steve begins to ask.
"Yes." Responds the mist that is Natasha. Steve nods.
"I'll go talk to him" he says and floats up through the ceiling.
"Guys what's going on?" Tony forces out finally. The ghosts avoid his eyes, and something in his stomach begins to twist.
"You can't help him Tony, it wasn't your fault." Bruce begins, and nerves seem to make him more prone to flickering. "He's OK, it's just..."
"Ghost stuff" Clint pipes in when Bruce's voice fades out. "Just ghost stuff, there's really nothing you can do"
And it's right then and there that Tony decides he will do everything it takes, whatever it takes, thrice over and once more for good measure because absolutely no one alive or dead tells Tony Stark he can't do something.
That's how he finds himself standing in front of a small but surprisingly good looking bookstore after an embarrassing and kinda paranoid Google search.
He pushes the door open and it rings a bell. Like an actual bell. Who uses that anymore? He's glaring accusingly at the old fashioned alarm system and when he turns back to the inside of the store, a white fluffy cat is sitting primply in front of him.
"... So are you the owner?" He asks because hell, it wouldn't be the strangest that's happened to him.
"Nah, Jenyfurr here is my receptionist, she does a fine job of it" responds a deep, rich voice. Tony looks up from the cat, and keeps looking up and up until he's staring into the face of the -presumed- owner of Wakanda Bookstore. Tony's still not sure his claim holds more validity than Jenyfur's.
"I'm T'challa, what can I help you with?" The man asks with a dazzling white smile that doesn't feel like a retail smile at all.
"Well... I know how this is going to sound but I have trouble with ghosts at my house" Tony responds quickly, before his nerve runs out.
The man lifts an unimpressed eyebrow. “You do know the kind of bookshop this is right?”
“Well yeah” Tony feels his face heat up. “But you're not supposed to believe me on the first try, that's not how it works in movies.”
“Ghost movies are terrible guides when it comes to how to deal with ghosts. And mostly terrible in general” T’challa says as he turns. “I have some books on exorcisms you could us-”
“Oh no” The man turns again at Tony’s voice, and he hurries to explain. “I don't wanna exorcise them. It's just that one of them disappeared? I don't think he's feeling too well, and I thought I might find some sort of… make your ghost feel alright book?”
"Well, that is new" T'challa frowns. "Most people just want them out."
"I've kinda... made friends with them, they're all mostly cool." Tony shrugs. "But I said something the other day and one of them just vanished like he was straight up sucked back into the afterlife. I just wanna know if he's alright"
"I haven't exactly got a book on that, but... I think I know a pair of someones who will be more than interested in hearing about your situation. They might even be of help, if you're lucky." T'challa gives him a knowing, amusing look.
"Well, off with the names" Tony says, feeling like the man is toying with him.
In the end T'challa doesn't only give him names. He also pushes a fat yellow cat -Brad Kitt, he explains- off the counter and writes an address in a piece of chewed on paper.
The woman that opens the door is well into her thirties, beautiful and confused looking. Tony bites down on his impulse to say something flirty and funny and sticks to his plan, thinking of his ghosts.
"I... was told I'd find Wanda and the Peters here?" He asks, feeling stupider by the second. The woman's face lights up in mirth and she laughs.
"The name's sticking I see" she says, then waves him inside. "They're in my Peter's bedroom, I'll call them. Would you like a drink?"
"I'm fine, thanks" Says Tony, taking a seat on a flowery couch that seems more fitting for the house of an octogenarian than this woman's.
A few minutes later, two gangly kids -the Peters, probably- not older than college age, come down the stairs followed by an equally gangly girl. She's obviously related to one of the guys, their faces an exact copy of each other framed in ruby red and silver grey dyed hair respectively. Kids these days.
"Uh, hello." Greets the other boy. Tony dubs him Peter1 and looks him up and down; crooked glasses, an oversized hoodie and messy brown hair. The kid fidgets, and Tony can't hold the smirk back. "My aunt said you wanted to talk to us?"
Tony's about to make a quip about the pretty aunt, when Thor's dismayed face comes back to him, and he sobers up.
"T'challa told me to come and see you. The guy from the bookstore? He said you might be interested in my cas-"
Suddenly, the three kids are all up on his face.
"You have ghosts?" Says Peter2, awed. "Real, hundred percent sure?"
"Uh... yeah, pretty sure. We talk a lot"
"You talk to the ghosts?" Peter1's face is pale, and Tony rolls his eyes. "That's... the manifestations would have to be nearly solid if that's true!"
"It's true" The girl -Wanda?- says. Her eyes pierce into Tony and he fidgets as uncomfortably as Peter1 a few minutes before. "I can feel their presence around him"
"... So your gimmick is ghosts? Who you gonna call and all that?" Tony says to break the awkward silence after the girl's words.
"No! Well yeah, but not exactly the same, I mean, we run a vlog like, we go to weird places and try to make contact and film it up, my sister's a medium but I think Peter and I throw off her groove because she can never go into trance when we're there, says we're too noisy but whatever, my point is we haven't had a one hundred percent confirmed case since we started this, only rumors and urban legends, but if you're certain there are ghosts at your house and you've spoken to them this could be our big break man!" Peter2 finishes his spiel with an excited grin. Tony blinks.
"Could someone who speaks at human speed repeat that?" He asks
"The basics are that we run a ghosthunting show on the internet" Peter1 explains with an embarrassed smile.
Wanda looks back up at him. "I can fix your ghost problem"
Her voice is calm, her eyes relaxed and her pose is completely non threatening, but Tony still feels a shiver run up his spine.
"Yeah... you know what? I'm gonna be out of town for a few weeks starting tomorrow" he lies "but give me a phone number and I'll hit you up when I'm back, how 'bout that?"
"So not yet huh?" Tony asks at the dinner table. Expressions are hard to read, what with Natasha being mist, Bruce flickering uncontrollably and Steve having only half a face, but Clint's nervous fidgeting and the fact Thor is still absent speak for themselves. "It's been a month."' Tony sighs. "Was what I said really that bad?"
"The thing is, we don't know..." Steve starts, after a long silence and everyone's gazes fixed on him like every other time they have a problem. "Right now Thor is... Non corporeal. We can't communicate with him."
"So you don't even know what's wrong?! You told me he'd be OK!" Tony exclaims. The ghosts turn their gazes away from him, until Natasha's voice echoes around the room.
"Being like this is different for everybody. We don't know how to make contact with him, but that doesn't mean we haven't tried."
"Is that really all you have to say?!" Tony drops his fork with loud clink and stands off his chair. "Thor could never come back and all you can say is 'we tried'? Why haven't you told me this before?"
"Because it's-" Bruce tries, but Tony cuts him up -and only feels slightly guilty-
"Ghost business, I get it." He rolls his eyes. "You know what? I could've brought in that weird medium girl, but i thought you had it under control and now it turns out that no, you're way in over your heads but you didn't think of telling me anything because of course a simple human couldn't even begin to process your ethereal business. Cool guys, amazing friends."
"You sound ridiculous right now" Clint rolls his eyes "The drama is not going to help"
"And you know about not helping don't you?" Tony bites back, then waves any response Clint might have away. "Whatever, if you'll excuse me I'll go do some living business right now, in case you wanna keep trying your best at doing nothing."
He sees the city skylight dim and the lamp posts flash on from the balcony of a penthouse club.
The view is beautiful, but not enough to rid him of the worry and the feeling of betrayal and alienation and of realizing once again, that he's nothing at all like his friends.
A man leans on the crystal handrail beside him. His profile is sharp against the blurry city lights that reflect on his green eyes.
"Bit weird to come to a place like this just to watch the sunset." He says. The stranger's voice is both silk and tar, Tony feels himself getting trapped.
"What else do you suggest?" Tony asks. The stranger smirks. His lips are thin and his eyes speak of mischief and daring, a carefully trimmed eyebrow arched in invitation.
"I can think of a few things."
Turned out he could. Some of the few things were drinking and dancing, and a cab ride back to Tony's place speckled with wandering hands and knowing smirks.
Some of the other things, Tony would rather think in private.
He'sfeeling pretty comfortable with himself the next morning, even if his guest has already left. He hadn't looked like the cuddling type anyways, all elbows and skinny legs, so no loss there.
Still, he decides a second later he wished her stayed, if only to have someone to cling to when he locks eyes with his reflection in the mirror and the reflected room is covered in wild splashes of blood.
"WHAT THE FUCK GUYS?!" He yells, squeezing his pillow with such strength he fears the filling will pop off and unable to tear his eyes away from the image.
"Yes so... good news is Thor is corporeal again" Steve appears by his side and Tony had never thought he'd be genuinely relieved to look at a person ripped in half, but the reflected walls have started bleeding and he's the lesser of two mentally scarring evils. "Bad news is, you'll have to forgive him for the mood swings, his brother has been trying every form of escapism known to man and then some since he died, and Thor finds it kinda hard to deal with."
Steve looks at him, an eyebrow raised -or maybe both, there's really no way to tell with him- and gestures to the other side of the bed. "His brother, you know, the guy you brought in last night?"
"Wh- I didn't even know Thor had a brother? Isn't he from Minnesota? Why would he even be here?!" Tony's starting to freak out because the blood stains on the mirror room are taking the form of words and he does not want to know what they say. "Is he mad at me?" He asks finally, when his own reflection begins to bleed from the corners of the eyes.
Steve shrugs. "I don't think so? But I don't know. Never had a brother myself."
After covering the mirror with a blanket and calling an impromptu house meeting -which consisted mostly of half assed nodding and shrugging and a vaguely threatening "I'd like to meet the little medium girl" from Natasha- Tony calls the number Peter1 gave him.
"Hello?" Comes the teenager's voice through the line.
"Hey. Uh, Tony Stark here, the guy with the ghosts? I'm back from my trip and things are a bit weird, I need your friend to come and help me figure out what the fuck is going on." Tony explains. "No exorcism business tho, tell her to leave that at home, I just want her to help me help a friend out?"
"Aw man!" Peter1 exclaims, and Tony hears what's probably him stomping on the floor. "Wish you'd called yesterday, Peter and Wanda went to Washington today to visit their dad."
Tony frowns, he certainly didn't take them to be public figure kids. "Politician?"
"He's in jail for murder I think. They don't speak about it much."
"So, when will they be back?"
"Next week. Is that good for you?"
Tony looks at the wall. There are dancing shadows where there should not be, since the sun is hitting fully through the windows. Besides, no shadow should move like that.
"... It could be better, but I'll wait.”
"Could you tell him to tone it down? I didn't know he was his brother, I just did what I do with everyone I bring home!" Tony exclaims, frustrated. The ceiling of his workshop is peppered with each and every one of his tools and he can't do anything but stare up at them because even the fucking ladder is stuck up there.
"No can do man, sorry." Clint answers next to him. "He's corporeal, but he's like... out of it. We can't get through to him, it's like he can't hear us." He shrugs. "Natasha thinks you should bring his brother in again."
"Are you kidding me? He turned into a fucking poltergeist because I brought him in once! I don't want him to murder me!"
"She thinks it might snap him back to reason"
"Easy for her to risk it, she's dead" Tony deadpans.
"It's not like you don't want to have him around."
Tony hums absentmindedly. "No, I guess it's not."
The guy -Thor's brother, he reminds himself, but it's not as weird as he expected- looks extremely amused to find him in the club again, and Tony has no heart to tell him it's less of a 'your charming personality and sensual prowess gave me an obsession' and more of a 'your sudden presence in my house caused your dead brother to attempt to break reality and I kinda need you to attempt to speak to him' kinda situation.
"Hey" he greets, and the guy smirks.
"Come to watch the sunset again?"
"Nah. I thought of a few other things I'd rather do." Tony smiles. This is a game he knows how to play, at least. "I don't think I caught your name last time, so it would've been a bit complicated to simply look you up on Facebook."
"You would've wasted your time." The guy shrugs. "Either way, it's common courtesy to give before you take"
So Tony rolls his eyes with a smile, and stretches a hand. "Tony Stark. Your ride tonight, hopefully."
"Loki" The guy doesn't take his hand as much as run the tip of a finger over it all the way to his forearm, tracing the outline of a vein. Tony swallows heavily. He's only supposed to bring the guy back to the house, but it's really unfair, when Loki is clearly unaware of the rule.
When he wakes up in the middle of the night, he half expects Loki to be gone, but he's still there, curled over himself under the sheets and looking like the kind of guy the man at the club would've eaten for breakfast, not a crease in his brow and his mouth a soft, relaxed line.
He smiles. He's not even sure why, it just comes.
It goes away just as fast when he notices Thor's translucent form floating on his other side.
"Thor what the hell?!" He whispers hurriedly, half an eye fixed on Loki because he reeeeally doesn't want to be one of the millions of 'That time I slept with crazy' stories on the internet.
Thor doesn't respond. Instead, he vanishes and takes the room's warmth with him.
Tony sighs and moves closer to Loki. He should've known the night had been too good to last.
"Wow" is the first thing Wanda says when she steps into the house, which OK, it's what Tony's used to hearing from his guests, even if they're most definitely older than her and here for other reasons.
She could, of course, be referring to the floating furniture, but Tony would rather think it's his good taste in decoration.
"How long has it been like this?" She asks.
"The floating? Just two days or so. It's a bit hard to sit and have breakfast and stuff but once you get used to it it's not so bad" Tony shrugs. The Peters are trying to find any hidden wires or crystal bases, Peter2 rolling under the couch and jumping on the table while Peter1 films him with a GoPro. "Kid if you break my stuff I'm charging you, I don't care how many hours you have to mop a sad Walmart aisle to pay me" he warns, when the guy's efforts become a tad violent.
"I think you should get down." says Tony's current favorite Peter
"He's bluffing Pete, he wants his ghosts gone, he has to deal with us"
"I don't want my ghosts gone, I told you!" Tony exclaims, though with the way Peter2 keeps on with his frantic pushing and jumping, he doubts he sounds as menacing as he wishes.
A hand lands softly on his forearm. "It's ok, he's going to fall off now" Wanda says, and her words are punctuated by the sound of her brother's body hitting the floor.
Tony whistles. "You really got the mojo huh?"
"I do, but that was less a prediction and more an educated guess from living with him for nineteen years." She corrects. "I can feel your ghosts. They're worried about the other one... Thor?" She looks at him with a concerned frown, and Tony waves the matter away.
"He's just a guy, weird name aside" he explains.
Wanda nods. "He feels troubled. Something happened that brought him back to the moment he died, and it's causing him pain."
Tony sighs, and for the first time his wish that he had never brought Loki home feels genuine.
"It's not that." Wanda says, startling him. Did she just.... "I did, but only because you're very agitated." She shrugs like it's nothing.
"Ok, I'm gonna act like that doesn't give me the creeps. What can we do to help Thor?" He asks. Wanda frowns in thought, but he has no time to consider her because a GoPro and its attached Peter are shoved into his face.
"So what can you tell us about your ghosts, Mister S?" Says Peter2, holding a cheap mic to his mouth. "They seem very passive, floating furniture aside."
Tony sighs. "Guys" He calls out. "A little paranormal activity for the kids here?"
The Peters look like they're gonna wet themselves for a second, their breaths held and eyes wide as... as nothing happens.
"Well, that was disappoi-"
"Baby squirrel you's a sexy mother fucker"
Peter2 jumps three feet in the air and Tony's hoping, wishing Peter1 got it on camera, because he's willing to pay good money for it.
"What was that?" Peter2 asks as he turns around frantically. Tony points calmly to a the floating TV where Bruno Mars is smiling diabolically down at them.
The Peters scramble towards it just as a very distorted version of 'Treasure' begins playing. Tony sighs, he'll have to thank Natasha for any nightmares he has tonight.
He turns back to Wanda, who's still staring into the ether like it holds the key to Thor's emotional diarrhea.
"So?" He asks, and the girl frowns deeper.
"I don't... he wants to tell" she starts, like Thor's talking to her through a static-y phone. "But not to me? He says he only wants his friends to know."
Tony holds back a sarcastic, but heartfelt 'aw'. The Peters don't, and Bruno Mars sings loudly about how he's going to drag them screaming into the pits of hell.
"Well then, what do I do?" He ignores the other two. Judging from Wanda's actions, it's the only reasonable response.
"I can act as a contact"
"Yeah, for him to go through me into you and show you what he wants you to see."
"Whoa, go inside me?" Tony frowns. That's a bit too invasive for friendship, especially given his on and off meetings with Thor's brother.
Wanda shrugs. "Ghosts do what they want." She says simply. "So? Are you in or not?"
"How bad can it be?" A voice speaks from somewhere over his shoulder, and he turns in time to see Steve, smiling awkwardly and being fawned over by the guys.
"Famous last words, Steve, but I think you'd know a bit more about that than me" he smirks at the soldier, then looks back at Wanda. "Well, can't let my buddy down."
"Are you ready?" She warns.
"Always ready to hear about my friend's dirty laundry." He tries to go for a smirk again, but Wanda reaches to touch his forehead with a finger and it feels like a hammer slammed against him.
"Are you ok?" Asks someone. Tony turns and has a moment of disorientation. He definitely wasn't this tall five seconds ago. "Hey? Earth to Thor?" He finally focuses on the person talking to him.
Loki looks younger in every aspect, from the clothes he wears to the way he carries himself, but the most astounding change is in his eyes. They look mischievous and fond as he looks at him, and it's not until then that Tony realizes present time Loki has never held his gaze for more than a few seconds.
Then, he processes the words and things begin clicking into place. He looks through the corner of his eye and catches his reflection in a dark window.
Thor looks different too, but not as much. He's young and he's naive, but he died without the deep apathy that plagues his brother.
He feels his lips moving by themselves and he forces himself to pay attention. This is important, if only because Thor wanted him to see it.
"Me? I'm OK, I'm not the one who downed a bottle of vodka in thirty three seconds." He hears himself speak in Thor's amused, rough tones.
"It's not my fault you lost the designated driver raffle." Loki shrugs. Tony can smell the alcohol on his breath. "Besides, Sif dared me"
"Sif has the resistance of seventeen sailors and you know it"
"I wasn't about to let a free bottle of vodka go to waste"
"When have you ever?"
The memory shifts and tumbles over itself, like he remembers cassette tapes doing when his dad's chauffeur drove through a bumpy road.
Now he's sitting behind the wheel of a car. Loki's his copilot and three guys are chuckling slumped against each other in the back in a way that makes it very clear that it's only their seatbelts holding them sitting. Through his side view mirror he sees half of a beautiful girl, holding herself on the open window to scream excitedly at the road running past them.
He feels love and excitement , and Tony knows the feeling isn't his. The only feeling that truly belong to him right now is the sadness that weighs his chest down.
"She kissed me, I'm telling you." Loki brags from his seat. "Her boyfriend was like, right there, and I kinda felt sorry for him but then he just-" he hiccups, a goofy grin parting his face and he lets out an amused bark of laughter. "Shut up, anyways, he just came over to us and told her they should ask for my number, just in case we wanted to go out for coffee sometime"
"He did not!" Screams one of the guys from the backseat, while another punctuates with a high spirited 'you're so full of shit, I bet he just punched you'.
"I don't talk to people who can't count backwards from seven, sorry" He lifts up a hand to flip them off, and Tony notices two smudged phone numbers written in blue ink against his pale skin. In the back, the guys take him up on the challenge but end up breaking into hysterical laughter when one of them affirms three comes after five. That must've been some good party "Hot dates Thor!"
"Pity, I was hoping you'd finally get to be the pretty one in a relationship" Thor says through Tony's lips. Or is it the opposite? He doesn't know anymore, he just laughs at Loki's offended face and delights in his friends' cackles.
"You know what Thor?" Loki says finally. "You're lucky you're just enough of a bastard to be likable"
Thor turns to ruffle his brother's carefully stylized hair, and doesn't see the other car turn into the road, swerving erratically from side to side.
The crushing pain against his head is back, only now he can recognize it.
He doesn't recognize the people standing around his coffin.
There's a man with a white beard, an eye covered by a patch and another blinded with tears. He clings to a twig of a woman like she's his lifeline, and she stands as though her spine is made of steel and her flesh is stone as she looks upon Thor's dead face.
Tony sits up and his top half goes through the plexiglass cover of the coffin as easily as his ghosts go through him. It's a weird thought, to be the ghost himself.
The Loki he sees crumbled on the floor is so foreign to him that he wonders how one person can be so many people. There are tears running down his face, but he makes no effort to stop or wipe them. Some splash on the pure white cast around his left forearm and on the hazelnut hair of the child curled on his lap.
Loki's head is resting against the armrest of a wheelchair, and the girl sitting on it, the one that screamed in the cold night air, has a hand on his shoulder. Her nails dig deeply into the fabric of his suit and she doesn't seem to mind her tears either.
The three guys, bruised and bandaged still, stand around them like a wall against the world, like they don't know where else to be if not by their side and like they can't conceive the thought of taking a step further from them or closer to the coffin.
The couple and the group barely moves as time passes, as second cousins and ex girlfriends and old high school teachers and little league baseball coaches come and go, until the sky turns dark.
They stand still like a painting for so long that Tony begins to wonder what else there is to see in this scene.
Loki stands up then, dislodging the child carefully, and he stares.
He's still staring, when Loki walks away from his friends, his family and his brothers.
Still, when one of the three guys notices him leaving the funeral parlor.
He doesn't bother following, he knows what happens.
The guy that went after Loki comes back with a bloody nose, and the others seem to know too.
The bearded man runs a tired hand over his face, and only then the woman moves.
She mourns both her sons over the body of her eldest, and her sobs are so heart wrenching Tony is glad for the first time that his mother died before he did.
"What did he show you?" Wanda's soft voice reaches him as if through water, and he feels himself coming back gradually.
He locks eyes with Wanda, and her gaze softens.
"He showed me what he needs." He sighs. "I'm gonna come off as such a creep" he says finally, rubbing a hand over his face.
The kids stay at his house under the strict vigilance of half a WWII soldier and a mysterious Russian vapor, because Tony thinks it will make things less weird.
It doesn't. Much as he predicted, Loki looks less than amused when he spots him at the bar where he's chatting up a girl that's smiling and twirling a lock of hair around her index finger and giving off all the signals.
Tony feels sorry for a moment before he walks over and wraps an arm around his waist. The girl's smile withers like a grape under the sun and she hastily finds herself another place to be; Loki doesn't miss a beat in pushing Tony away from him.
"Ok, I'm going to say this once, so pay attention." Loki begins, and he looks cold enough that Tony knows it's not the first time he's had to do this. "First time was fun, second was nice, none meant shit. So if you think you can come find me when you need a quick fuck or that you own me now or whatever then you're a lot less bright than I thought, budd-"
"Thor wants to see you" Tony blurts out. It's like bandaids, right? The faster he does it, the lesser the pain.
Loki's punch to the face hurts just as much, though.
"Wait!" He exclaims at Loki's retreating back; he definitely doesn't expect the other guy to just turn around and slam into him, hands at his collar and rage in his face.
"I don't know how you found out about-"
"He told me" Tony interrupts, and holds both hands up in an attempt to call Loki, because they're starting to call attention to themselves. "I'm not lying, the night he died, you- you drank a bottle of vodka in thirty three seconds and got the numbers of a couple you met at the party" he gets it out as quickly as he can.
Loki's eyes narrow. "What are you playing at?"
"Come with me. I'm not lying, he needs to see you." He insists, nearly begs. This is his friend they're talking about and he's going to fix this. "Please. You can hit me again if I'm lying, I won't even move, promise"
"If you're lying I'm going to do a whole lot more than just hit you. Promise" Loki says, and he doesn't let go of Tony's neck the whole way down to his car. Tony wisely decides not to comment on how as soon as he starts the engine Loki's reaching down into his boot to pull out a pocket knife.
"... did you kidnap these kids as well?" Loki deadpans, eyes fixed on Wanda Peter and Peter who are calmly watching a movie. Of course there's no furniture floating around now, because that would be too easy. Tony curses his ghosts before going to correct Loki.
"OK, first off I didn't kidnap you. You punched me and then agreed to come." He gestures at the teenagers. "and they're mostly just meddling with my business, but Wanda's pretty good."
"So this is the guy?" Peter2 turns around on the couch to sweep a gaze over Loki, who takes it like a champ. "I guess he's alright, if you're into dudes I mean"
"Shut up Peter" says Wanda. Both Peters blush, and isn't that interesting? Tony files it for later.
"I'm Wanda. I... spoke to your brother" she says to Loki then. She doesn't offer a hand to shake, which is just as good since Loki looks like he might rip it off. "He really only wants to speak to you and-"
"Is this what this is all about?" Loki cuts her up. His eyes drill into Tony, and he has to fight a wince down. "You and some kids wanted to play Ghostbusters and you brought me here for a fucking ouija session?" He practically snarls.
"No, see.. Wanda can do this thing-" Tony tries to explain, but his words are mixed and tangled in the face of the sheer rage in Loki's features, that even thick as it is cannot manage to fully cover the raw hurt underneath. Loki's always seemed so stoic and collected that Tony forgot for a second about the guy that hid a child in his chest even as he himself crumbled to pieces before a coffin. " -Thor just... he wants to talk to you" he repeats in the end, uselessly.
"No he doesn't." Loki responds after a moment. It's cold and composed again, but Tony can see his left hand clenched right in the fabric of his shirt. "He doesn't. You know how I know that?"
"I-" Tony begins, but Wanda's hand clings vicelike to his forearm, and he stays his tongue. Even the Peters are silent.
"I know because I have tried." Loki spits out, and it's so ugly and bitter and venomous that Tony wonders how on earth he isn't choking on it. "I have tried everything. Name me a religion, been there, done that. Greedy freaks like your little girlfriend?" he gestures Wanda with a distasteful sneer. "A dime a dozen, none of them worth jack. Inner peace? Bullshit."
Tony tries to interject. “Lok-"
"No, NO" Loki interrupts. "You shut up and listen, I don't know what your deal is, if you just wanted to poke fun at the guy that got his brother killed, if someone set you up on this, if you're just a nutcase, I don't give a fuck. I tried to get in touch with a dead man for nine years before I realized it was a lost case, and a rich asshole with a group of kids in for a quick cash fix isn't going to change that. I'm leaving, and you better not look for me again, I'm not kidding" with those last words, Loki turns on his heel and yanks the door open.
It's slammed back against the frame just as harshly, and Loki takes a few steps back, like someone pushed him.
He turns immediately, his hand flies to the pocket knife he has in his jacket, and Tony steps in front of Wanda.
"You have three seconds to tell me what's going on here." Loki says. Tony has no doubt he's already counting in his head, and by the way the Peters go to stand next to him, tense and silent, they know too.
"First off, I need you to calm down. None of us is armed, and whatever you're thinking, I can guarantee it's not it" Tony replies. He holds his hands up to mark his point, and after a subtle look to Peter1 and a less subtle kick to Peter2, they do the same. "This is not a trick Loki, and I need you to at least try to believe me, because if you leave right now there might be no other chance to help Thor"
Loki's hand lowers, but his grip on the knife is still tight, his eyes still narrow. "How did you close the door?" He demands.
Tony opens his mouth to reply, but he doesn't get to.
"He didn't. I did" says Natasha. They all turn to her, she's levitating a foot over the ground next to the door, and Tony lets out an impressed whistle just as Loki's limp body hits the floor and Peter two turns away and runs to find a bathroom.
Natasha is fully manifested for the first time, and now Tony's one hundred percent sure she'd been saving her appearance for shock value.
Her hair is waving around her head, pushed by a wind that doesn't exist, and it's as red as the bloody handprints that drag down her face and her naked pale arms. Her lips are sliced across by a clean, knife-like cut, two of her fingers are missing and the weirdly colorless fabric of her blouse is ripped at the stomach. The burning and cutting there is certainly impressive, but Tony's willing to bet that what really did her in were the three gunshots to the forehead.
"That was definitely over the top" he observes. Peter1's hands are shaky as they hold the camera, and he pats his shoulder. "She's not going to hurt you kid. She's just a bit dramatic”
Natasha shrugs. "I had to shut him up. We'll bring Thor, make sure he's awake by then."
"... so this is for real" Loki's surprisingly calm when he comes about, but Tony still moves carefully.
"I'm afraid so."
"Why would Thor be here?" He asks. It sounds a bit wobbly. Tony chooses to ignore it.
"I have no idea, they were here when I bought the place. Him and Nat and the others" he explains. Peter2 leans forward excitedly.
"From what I've been investigating and I have only been at it for like an hour but still it's possible that this house acts like a magnet for some reason and it's attracting ghosts from different eras and parts of the world and we're not sure why but Wanda's talking to the ghosts and Parks and I are working on-"
"I think he's got it Peter, thank you." Tony pushes the guy back into the couch at Loki's bewildered expression. "He gets excited. Or he´s just like this all the time, I really don't know."
"I do, you have to stop him before he picks up inertia" Peter1 pipes in from the other couch.
They fall into silence again. Tony's starting to wonder why Thor hasn't shown up yet, and he's getting uncomfortable.
"So was he always so into Pop Tarts or is that new?" He asks before he can stop himself.
For a moment Loki looks like the wind has been punched out of him, but then his lips curl into a fond smile.
"Had them for breakfast every day and kept a box in his locker when we were in high school" he replies. "I always wondered how he wasn't morbidly obese but then again he was the biggest gym junkie I've ever met"
"No kidding" Tony smirks. "First time he appeared, he showed up in my TV. I thought I was in for a new fitness machine informercial"
Surprisingly, Loki laughs. "Well, he has the type." He sighs. "In the TV... he did always like The Ring, the dork"
"Right!?" Tony jumps at the conversation opening excitedly. "He's super dorky for such a jock type guy. Sometimes we play Monopoly and-"
"He's the WORST at Monopoly" Loki cuts him. "He's always overloading his properties with hotels and he makes alliances with my dad to buy me out of the board!"
"Well, you're always in league with Bal to steal our money when you think we aren't looking" says Thor, and they both freeze.
He manifests slowly, like a window fogging up, until he's fully formed and looking down at Loki with an expression so pained and anxious and so openly loving that Tony looks away. Peter2 doesn't, but then again he guess the kid has more experience with siblings showing love, because Peter1 is looking just as uncomfortable as him.
"We found him" Wanda chooses that moment to speak, standing at the edge of the living room next to Natasha's blurry form. "It took a bit to convince him to come"
Tony clears his throat. "Well" he starts, uneasy. "That's just not nice. I went through a the trouble of almost getting stabbed by your brother and you weren't even going to show up?"
" I... I was afraid he wouldn't want to see me." Thor sighs. "I was afraid you'd be mad at me" he directs at Loki then, and Tony turns to the guy.
Loki looks like he's seeing a ghost which well, duh, but still.
Tony stares openly and unashamedly, but he kind of envies the rest of the ghosts' ability to be invisible and not make it awkward, because the absolutely adoring way Thor is looking at his brother is making him feel like he's intruding merely by existing.
"You came to see me" says Thor.
Slowly, like Tony's brain on coffee-less mornings, Loki nods. His eyes are still wide as plates and his lips are slightly parted.
"Will you please stop with all of this?" Thor speaks again, and Tony knows without question what all of this is; the hitchhiking with strangers, the chain smoking, the drinking, himself, and all the other one night stands.
Loki takes a deep breath before replying. Tony has only seen the guy twice or thrice, doesn't really know much about him except that he's good in bed and bad at cuddling, but when he finally answers his voice holds a sort of fragility that makes him want to wrap him into a blanket, hand him a mug of something warm and then hurry away before he can get slapped.
"I never wanted you to die" Is all he says.
Thor's eyes fill with the kind of detached sadness Tony has come to associate with his ghosts, like they're feeling but they've also started to forget what feeling is like.
"And I never wanted you to blame yourself"
"I'm sorry" Loki reaches forward. Tony's about to warn him about the cold, stick-your-hand-in-a-barrel-of-dead-fish feeling, but he's cut short when Thor lets out a blood curdling scream as his brother's hand goes through his chest.
Loki's hand retreats at the speed of light and he gets paler by the second. Tony begins to worry that he's going to pass out again, but then Thor starts laughing.
It's just a low chuckle at first, but it grows exponentially and becomes full roaring cackles and the ghost points a finger at Loki.
"Shit, you should've seen your face!" Thor manages to rasp out between one burst of laughter and the next. "It was like when you thought you ran over Balder with your bike!"
Tony thinks Loki's going to break the interdimensional barrier through sheer power of rage just to strangle Thor, but as his face regains what little color it had and his cheeks redden, he sighs and the corners of his mouth turn up into a smirk.
"You're lucky you're just enough of a bastard to be likable" He snorts in a very un-attractive way. It's still kind of attractive, somehow. Then, his face falls as if his whole façade has been wiped with a wet cloth. "I miss you."
"Me too" Thor replies. "And I'm glad we were able to talk again, but..." he looks over his shoulder at Tony, at the other ghosts. "But I think I have to go now."
"What?! Why now?" Loki reaches for Thor again, stops before actually going through him.
Thor shrugs. "I don't think I have anything else to do here." His voice is getting fainter by the moment. It feels like reaching the final seconds of your favorite song. "I'll be waiting for you, and I don't want to see your stupid face in a very long time, am I clear?"
Thor smiles. It makes Tony think back to his mother, to the angels she spoke so much about.
"See you" Loki's voice is so thin it's barely audible, and his hand gives a weak wave, just as Thor starts to dissolve.
The ghost turns to Tony. He can feel the presence of the others surrounding him, and they feel relieved. Sad.
"I guess it's way past your time huh, big guy?" Tony says.
Thor smiles. "I guess. Thanks for everything Tony." Then he looks past him. "Hope you make it soon, friends"
He fades as slowly as he appeared, after the other ghosts don't reply, and he leaves behind a loaded, heavy silence.
"... I need a place to crash tonight" Loki says suddenly. He's not looking at anywhere or anyone in particular, and he reminds Tony of himself after they told him of his parent's accident. "And if you could spare me your wifi, I need to buy a plane ticket." He added. At least there's some feeling there, though Tony can't begin to figure out what.
He escorts the teenagers out, pays a cab for them, promises to call them. Then he comes back inside and leads Loki to the never used guest room.
"There's food in the fridge if you want to have dinner" he says, not expecting an answer, and he turns to leave.
The others haven't shown their faces in a while, and he's getting worried.
"Thank you." He hears behind him.
Tony doesn't turn back. Somehow he doesn't think he's the right person to comfort this stranger in this moment. He wonders if there even is a person qualified for it.
"He never thought it was your fault, you know? It was just an accident.” Tony says, then sighs. “Sometimes bad things happen to good people. The world is unfair like that” He adds, and he's not thinking only about Thor.
Loki doesn't speak, and Tony doesn't either.
“So that's it? Thor’s gone just like that?” Tony asks. He's staring at the shady ceiling with his arms crossed over his chest but not quite filling the void he feels there. “Is that even a good thing, or did I just make everything worse?” He adds after getting no reply for a while.
“It's a great thing” Steve says then. He's got a sad smile on his face. “He's gone where we should all be. He's in a better place now”
“If you believe in those things, of course.” Bruce appears at the foot of his bed and Tony rolls his eyes at hiss words.
“Bruce, not to be rude but I kinda stopped being skeptical when I started playing board games with dead people”
Steve chuckles, but he sobers up quickly enough. “It's a great thing what you did today. You helped set Thor free”
“Wait. Free?” Tony frowns. “You mean to tell me you're trapped here? I thought you stayed because you wanted to”
“We do, at least for now.” Bruce replies. However, he's twiddling his thumbs and looking pointedly down so Tony knows there's something he isn't saying. He gives a disbelieving grunt, but stays otherwise silent until Bruce sighs and looks up at him. “Truth is… we were tied here long before you came. We couldn't leave, it was like…” Bruce’s voice fades gradually and he starts to flicker, so Tony focuses back on Steve.
The ghost fixes him with a gentle smile. He looks embarrassed, somehow. “It felt like we were waiting for someone” He starts. “We didn't know each other when we were alive, we didn't even know where we were. We just knew we were waiting, and when you showed up it just felt… right” Steve smiles wider, encouragingly. “Maybe you were sent here to help us move on”
“How romantic" Tony runs a hand down his face. “Look, this is all a bit too much to take in right now. Call me a coward but I'd like to sleep for a bit before examining our predestined bond, OK?”
He doesn't wait for an answer before turning on his bed to find a more comfortable position, but the ghosts don't reply and he feels their presence fade, the room get a couple degrees warmer.
When he falls asleep, his last thought is that maybe he should have looked at the other building before signing on this one.