A/N: The last installment of this story. All your reviews are much appreciated. Thanks for reading.
Epilogue: See You Later
There's this thing, a thing about people like Howard Stark and Pepper Potts and Clint Barton – aside from them being brilliant and famous and super-successful and regarded as heroes by the public – and that thing was that they crept under your skin and holed up there and then disappointed you, and no matter how hard you tried to convince yourself and how hard you tried to pretend to the world at large that you didn't care anymore, you did.
Tony could repeat to himself until the space mouse ate the whole cheesy Moon that Barton wasn't his friend, it still felt horrible to stand face to face with him in the centre of the living room and listen to him talk.
"Guess it comes from being born with a silver spoon up your ass, Stark. You never learnt to give a damn about anything you had."
This was rich, coming from someone who had been living on Tony's dime for, whoa, a couple of years now.
"Natasha said Fury shouldn't let you join the team, because you're volatile, and unreliable, and didn't care about anything but yourself."
This, Tony mused, was probably one of the reasons why Barton chose to have this conversation in relative privacy, as opposed to waiting for witnesses to compound what he expected to be Tony's humiliation. Barton wasn't that guy. He wasn't doing this to humiliate Tony. He was just lashing out, out of genuine resentment.
Tony thought about pointing out all the arrows he had made for Barton. He knew what the guy would answer, though, and he didn't particularly want to listen to how it was his ego and his narcissism that wouldn't allow him to let SHIELD kit out his ex-teammates.
"I didn't care in the beginning, and then – I knew there was more to you. You did some good shit. I don't get where it's all got this fucked up."
Tony considered if maybe this was another test. He had enough practice by now that he could activate the thread overlay – as he had begun to call it in his head and his notes (encrypted to Hell and back) – at a moment's notice. Barton was damaged on the 'magical' level. Natasha's recalibration had ripped a couple of things to dislodge the knots, and the subsequent healing Barton had received wasn't supplied by an experienced magic-user.
Tony could sort of see what was wrong, even if at his level he couldn't have done anything about it.
"-ny! Stark! C'mon, Stark, what the fuck-"
"Sir," said JARVIS.
Tony blinked. He ripped his arms out of Barton's hands and backed away, momentarily disoriented. Ugh, shaking someone out of mage-sight was about as bad as waking a sleepwalker.
"That's it," snapped Barton. "You need help. I don't care what Natasha says-"
"You don't?" Natasha inquired.
She was suddenly there, but Tony realized that he wasn't startled. He had known.
Just as he was just realizing that Thor was nearby. Not in the Tower itself, but gods had big presences unless they cared to hide them. And Thor never cared.
Thor was a thunderstorm everywhere in his vicinity; sometimes literal, mostly just metaphorical. The sky outside was blue-grey, with a few scattered white clouds passing by overhead.
"You know what I meant," Barton said to his spy-twin, and then they stared into each other's eyes and communicated by dilating and contracting their pupils, or whatever it was they used in lieu of actual telepathy.
"Leave Tony be," said Natasha.
"You can't order me-"
"Leave Stark be," said the Coulson-stein Monster.
Even his presence didn't surprise Tony, although he had definitely not heard the man come in. Huh, of all the altered states of mind he had experienced, using magic wasn't the freakiest, but not by far.
Barton gave his favorite zombie a betrayed look.
"My threats don't affect him anymore," the stiff announced stiffly. As though he was above admitting that Tony had the full right to feel slighted by the dead-Coulson double-cross. If not on his own behalf, then on Pepper's.
"He's under Loki's control," Barton protested. "We can't actually let him-"
"Loki's influence," amended Natasha. "We know about it. He was never hiding it."
"I don't get it!" Barton snapped and, oh, were his eyes sort of glistening? This was weird. "Is Stark a traitor or a victim? Should we lock him up or save him?"
Natasha put an arm around her spy-twin's shoulders, and that was weird, too.
Not to speak about Agent Zombie's soft look in their direction. Tony hadn't known the guy was physically capable of a soft look.
"Tebye nada astavit' yivo v pakoye, yastrebyonok."
The translation of 'you should leave him alone, little hawk' appeared on the tablet in Tony's hand, which he had been using to run a simulation, but pretty much forgotten about when Barton accosted him.
"I'm going back to Malibu, anyway," Tony said.
"In that case, Mr Stark," Coulson spoke up, "you should be aware that SHIELD keeps continuously revising our contingency plans in case you choose to change your affiliation."
Tony, who had stopped taking SHIELD seriously after Steve and Natasha and Sam Wilson blew it up and subsequently broke the internet, didn't say anything. He walked past the Zombie like it wasn't there, like there still was just a hole left after a deceased friend rather than another next to it from the stab of betrayal.
He paused before entering the elevator and said what little he felt confident saying, both emotionally and linguistically: "Da svidanya, Natasha."
"Sir," JARVIS spoke mid-flight, "you have a call from Sergeant Barnes."
Tony frowned. "Emergency?"
"No." Jay didn't say anything else, but he only ever tended to be secretive over things that were either harmful to Tony (in which case he would have send Barnes straight to Hell and never told Tony about the call) or funny.
"Stark, were you in such a hurry to get out of here that you couldn't stop to say goodbye?" demanded Barnes.
Tony grinned. "Steve pouting?"
"Cow eyes like you told him the Moon landing was fake."
"Shh," Tony insisted. "Not so loud. He wasn't supposed to figure that one out-"
"What?!" There were some furious whispers and a familiar snort in the background, and then Barnes came back with: "You bastard, I almost believed you."
Tony stopped biting his lip and laughed. "Look, Anakin, if Steve pines for little awesome me too much, teach him how to use a phone. I tried, but it takes more than I could give to drill something so complicated into his head-"
"Goddamnit, Tony, I know how to use a phone-" yelled Captain America from the background.
"Finally," Tony snarked. "Congratulations. Now gimme Bee. I know he's there. No one else snorts that cute-"
"We're commiserating about our landlord being an asshole," replied Barnes.
"I think that's practically a prerequisite for a landlord," quipped Bruce in the process of accepting the phone from Barnes, as if putting Tony on speaker wasn't an option.
So much for the WWII veterans knowing how to use a phone.
"Hey, Bee. Missing me? Already?"
"I think if I did, I've just stopped."
Tony grinned. "If commiserating with the retirement home gets old-"
"You're a dick, Stark!" and "Tony!" echoed from the background, because supersoldiers had enhanced hearing.
"-you've got your own room at Malibu. Jay?"
"Standing invitation, Dr Banner," confirmed JARVIS.
"And the landlord's much less of an asshole," Tony pointed out.
Bruce sighed. He seemed like he was trying to refuse the offer, but all that came out of his mouth was: "Take care of yourself, Tony. Jarvis, please keep me in the loop, okay?"
"I'll be calling you every night," Tony promised mock-sweetly. "Put an hour aside. Daily. I'll be all yours. It'll be all 'no, you hang up first, boo'."
Bruce sighed and hung up.
Before its crash into the ocean, the Malibu Villa used to be a mixture of modern architectural trends, professional interior design, and the kind of facilities Tony needed to comfortably work on his stuff.
It had been rebuilt afterwards as something different.
Tony didn't give a fuck about alleged modern trends. He set the fucking trends, anyway.
He had simply given JARVIS complete freedom in building his new home. This was way before things came to pass that decided Tony would move in with his artificial baby again. Being welcome there was the best feeling he had experienced in a long while. It ached in his chest, and made it a little hard to breathe (made his sight go a little out of focus, too), but in a good way.
The red and gold sunset shone through the floor-to-ceiling windows, hit the planes of cut glass, and reflected and refracted in mind-bending ways. It was like walking into a CGI set design.
Tony was a little overwhelmed. "Genie, genie…" Tony muttered to himself. "That time I saved the world…"
"Which of the times?" asked JARVIS.
The plea was supposed to continue with the request for Obliviation, but Tony found that he didn't want to complete it.
The green fairy, damn him, had been right.
"The very sunset bends to your will and dons your colors," said Loki.
Spare a single miniscule thought for the devil, and he shall appear, Tony mused. He didn't want to look away from the light, though.
He would have to raise anti-Apparition wards around the estate. He didn't actually mind Loki coming in (and honestly doubted that he could keep the god out, no matter how hard he tried – he hadn't forgotten about him eating lightning), but Loki had more or less promised to send all kind of rabble this way so Tony would have someone to practice his defensive skills on.
"Jay's will," Tony amended. "I had nothing to do with this. It's all him."
"Appreciation of aesthetics," Loki said with undisguised fascination.
Tony shrugged. He would have been smug, except that was genuinely all JARVIS. The only thing he as a programmer could boast was giving his program the ability to recognize its own snags and design or request specific alterations. Frankly, Tony hadn't known that aesthetics were important – except when choosing a girl to fuck that night, and not even always then, depending on factors like his level of inebriation or her experience and enthusiasm, but they weren't discussing his forays into BDSM now – much less vital for a sentient being.
"Did you know we'd die of depression without the ability to like stuff?" he inquired idly.
Loki inclined his head ever-so-slightly, and that could have been an acknowledgment of new information as easily as it might have been confirmation that he had indeed known. Either way, Tony had obviously won major points through helping JARVIS make himself.
"It is far too easy to be overwhelmed with despair even when surrounded by beauty."
"I prefer to see my creation as a meagre expression of gratitude for a gift of freedom," said JARVIS.
The conversation had turned far too serious for Tony's stomach. He went for the bar and surveyed the selection of beverages.
"It must be a wondrous thing, freedom," said Loki. "Not being bound by your parentage, by your class or the color of your skin or by whom you prefer to take to bed. Being allowed to not only feel anger but also to express it."
"And the same with affection," returned the A.I. "It is not quite the ideal of having a recourse against every injustice, and yet I dare say it is closer than we have ever come before."
"A realm without an absolute power to rule it." Loki stepped into the light. Bathed in red and gold, he turned to the west and squinted against the sun. "A never-ending, vain struggle for peace."
"That's why Odin sucks so much at ruling," Tony mentioned, deciding on scotch, for which Loki had shown middling preference in the past. He poured two glasses and handed one over to his (or rather, Jay's) uninvited guest. "Too much perspective that leads directly to too much compartmentalization. His kingdom works like a clockwork; it's efficient and it's totally stagnant. If there's ever an anomaly, the power differential's so great that he squashes the divergent with ridiculous overkill." Tony sipped. Good stuff. Then again, all of his stuff was good. "He's like that guy who's been playing World of Warcraft since two thousand four with the same character, and by now he's leveled up to… uh… ubergod?"
Holding lightning in his bare hands, Jesus Homer Christ. Tony wouldn't get over that one anytime soon. Loki had known exactly what he was doing in showing off that particular trick. Mindfuck.
Tony shrugged and looked at his self-appointed mentor. "No point to playing with him. Even less point to playing against him."
Loki tacitly drank. It was as good as an acquiescence.
"You staying for dinner?"
"Perhaps another time. Since Thor's currently on Midgard, I am needed to keep his nascent court from disintegrating in his absence. I cannot afford but short trips to your realm. However, I am aware of how personally young ones take perceived neglect, thus I travelled here to reassure you."
Tony rolled his eyes. Then he reconsidered. If Loki disappeared for a few weeks without any sort of forewarning, Tony would have felt abandoned.
As it was, he would probably feel pretty bad, anyway. Withdrawal sucked.
"Since I am already here, and you do not appear overly busy-" He made a complicated gesture with both hands. The floor in front of him seemed to turn liquid and get sucked down a drain, but a moment later the funnel reversed direction, and regurgitated a polar fox that sat on its hunches and stared up at Loki with mild curiosity.
The god pointed two fingers at the animal and spoke: "I bind you to walk before Stark and rub everything of metal that stands in his way with your tail."
Tony activated threads overlay just in time to watch something hopelessly complicated happen. The result looked like a quantum dream-catcher in at least four dimensions.
His face must have done something truly hilarious, since Loki snickered.
Then the god briefly put a hand on top of Tony's head, and returned his glass at the same time, confusing Tony's reactions for just long enough to get away with it without any retaliation.
"Once you break the enchantment," said the mage, "she may be a worthy companion. Until that time, do enjoy electricity, Iron Man."
And he vanished.
Tony looked down. The fox wasn't there anymore. It was across the room, sniffing at things and trailing its tail over everything metallic. Considering JARVIS' taste, there was a lot of those things, from table legs to handles to the cover panels of holo-projectors.
"Don't say anything, Jarvis. Just… don't."
Later that night Tony muted Chappie in the middle, downed the rest of his scotch, and sank deeper into his armchair that was mostly made of insulating materials.
"So, just, let me put this into perspective." His fingers drummed against the edge of the arc reactor. "Half a year ago, Loki was topping the list of wanted criminals on Earth, and a recently released ex-con on Asgard. Today he is persona non grata on Earth unless representing an alien government in an official capacity, and the chief advisor of the crown prince of Asgard. He also has me eating out of his hand, not in the least because I am physically addicted to his very presence."
"It does sound accurate, sir," agreed JARVIS. "May I point out that he also has your advocacy? If not in public, then amongst the Avengers he is not universally regarded as an enemy chiefly due to your unexpectedly vocal support."
Tony groaned. Something ran over his feet and he flinched, before remembering the newest addition to the household. "Thank fuck for Barton, baby. At least that acerbic ass will remain rational."
The Voice of Reason must have decided that diplomacy was the better part of valor, and refused to comment. Instead, he returned to the previous topic. "You are, however, correct in the observation that Mr Loki needed less than a year to jump from a prominent public enemy to a grudgingly accepted ally."
"And it only took one failed Ontvaettir incursion."
"In fact, sir," JARVIS protested, "you will find that it took two failed Ontvaettir incursions."
"Jay…" Tony took a deep, deep breath. "I feel like we still have a lot to learn."