There But For The Grace Of God Go I

Part I: In Medias Res

I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

-Sylvia Plath's "Elm"

It started, Tony decided, with a nightmare, as all truly terrifying and unexplainably horrific things do, because in reality monsters only ever lived in the spaces between a head and a brain, and sleeping always had a nice tendency to rile up such monsters until they became an overwhelming and nearly unnecessary burden.

Which was why, after Afghanistan - and Tony had essentially split up his life into Before-Afghanistan and After-Afghanistan -he'd decided two things.

One: Coffee was truly a blessing from God.

Two: Eight-Hour Sleep was pretty impractical and fairly needless and most of the time it was just better to stay up and tinker with circuit boards and wires and anything else that could be pulled apart and put back together again.

Eventually, though, the nightmares came less often and were less harrowing and Tony found himself returning to the days Before-Afghanistan when sleep was a thing to be trusted, not feared.

In the great Three-Act Tragedy that was The Life of Tony Stark, however, such a thing as peace was ridiculously short and uproariously destroyed. Which was right about the time that New York happened, and Tony decided it would seem right to just throw himself - and a nuke - into the great, gaping maw of an otherworldly portal in an attempt to seem a hero. Even if he was, by his own self-definition, no such thing.

So he tried self-sacrifice.

And survived.

And for some reason this didn't seem at all right. Correct. Like a math formula with missing variables, and he didn't sleep at all those three days that SHIELD took to decided Loki's fate because there was something bugging him, a niggling feeling in the back of his head like they were just missing something.

In the end it hadn't mattered at all, because Thor and Loki were gone and now there was just himself, Pepper and his toys.

But of course it hadn't ended there.

And so, the nightmares returned in earnest.

Tony fell.

He'd stood on snow and ice in a world that was not his own. It seemed to him like a corpse picked clean by crows, a war-torn thing that was his and not his and these thoughts did not seem his own. They were someone else's, which seemed really out-of-place in dreams because thought was word and word was thought and there wasn't any way to actually tell the two apart.

He'd stood there, and let the cold wash over him, felt goose bumps prickle beneath his sleeves and all of a sudden the earth had cracked beneath him, and he had been all but shoved down, by something he couldn't - didn't - want to see.

So he just fell, and the wind had buffeted him, cradled him, and punched him all at once. This bipolar wind seemed all but natural, and Tony knew exactly what it was like to be harassed by natural winds, and his fall seemed to him unbearably short and unbearably and unbearably a lot of things that anyone else wouldn't have thought in the middle of a freefall.

In his ears there was the sing-song of something that was unnatural, and there was no armor, no anything, like he were naked. His skin burned, and the wind felt like hands in a way, all around. In a brief second - a second which felt like the moment before impact - he was yanked up, like a doll on strings, or a parasail, and the whiplash was enough to make him scream, though no sound left him.

It was at that exact moment that Tony woke up.

Tony always felt strange in the few minutes between a nightmare and the waking hour. Especially recently. Something always felt particularly wrong, perverted, like he hadn't quite escaped the nightmare regardless of whether he was awake or not - and yeah, that was something that really just scared Tony, straight to the bone.

He got up, listened to JARVIS' drone about weather and appointments and responsibilities and all sorts of words Tony couldn't be bothered about, and set about his morning routine.

He ended up in his workshop.

Reality wasn't like movies. You didn't save a world and ignore the repercussions from it. Because, yeah, maybe the Avengers did save the world from an army of raging pseudo-machines, and maybe they did stop the single greatest threat the world had ever seen.

But what was left was a broken down, battered, torn apart metropolis, the people that helped rebuild said metropolis, people that refused to take action and instead complained, and the government.

"The Avengers were the mistake that saved the world."

Yeah. Mistake.

When Tony Stark sets to finishing a personal project, he does it for two reasons. To think, or to distract himself. Sometimes the two correlated directly in a huge brain-hurricane that ended up with him becoming ultimately very frustrated. Most of the time, at least now, he thinks too much about the New York Incident.

He wondered what it was like, for normal people, to suddenly and violently realize you weren't alone.

It sounded terrible, but he wouldn't really know.

He'd seen a few news programs, on extra-terrestrials, he'd seen a few debates on Thor - which was alright, because of the six of them Thor's the one that they'll most likely never see again - on how he fits into all of this, on the dangers of what he represented and it was really a damn shame, because Thor was a good person, he really was, if a bit dumb.

And of course there's the nutballs that split off into religious factions to pay worship to the machine race. But Tony decided he'd rather not think about them.

In all honesty, he spent a little too much time thinking about Loki. And Asgardian justice, and deep down Tony hoped that he was getting everything he deserved, because there was just something about Loki that rubbed Tony the wrong way. He pitied Thor, because it was hard to believe in somebody and have them slap you back down every single time you turned their way - and sure, Tony gets that.

What bothers him isn't what comes next, it's what happened. Because even if it is all over it isn't.

They're missing something and Tony, frankly, just does not like that.

Life goes on, though.

Pepper arranges benefits for the arc reactor funding, Tony chips in every now and then to give a smile and a well, senator, we can cut the costs of fuel by a great deal with just a nudge in the right direction, which is half-truth and half-lie but it's working towards something better. Fury checks in on him every now and then in the presence of Natalie Rushman - AKA, Natasha Romanov, Black Widow, a thousand other aliases - and Bruce calls him up whenever there's an available phone.

And Tony has his nightmares, and his sleeping problems and eventually Pepper figures there's something wrong. Which, in turn, leads to a handful of other people worrying about absolutely nothing.

Or he thought it was absolutely nothing.

It all leads up to this: Loki Odinson falling through his ceiling.

It was the second nightmare of falling he'd had. A repeat of the last, with the snow and the chill and the cracking, the feeling of being roughly pulled up. It didn't seem at all like anything special, or different, or truly alarming - though repeat dreams were always atypical and always ugly.

It ended the same; a soundless scream and no air to go and Tony found himself awake at precisely 2:32 AM, or so the face of his LCD clock said.

"Would you like for me to put on the coffeemaker, sir?" JARVIS had said, in that polite and vaguely condescending way of his. Tony had ended up reprogramming him after a few snide, would you like me to call up Miss Potts, sir? Because he didn't - couldn't - worry Pepper any more.

Tony didn't answer, he sat up in his bed, half-tangled in his sheets, and just breathed. Like it were a blessing, some venerable thing that made him recognize that yes, he had survived the Battle of Manhatten. Yes, he was not a splat of blood and bone beneath the summit of Stark Tower. He was alive, he was living.

Distantly, the coffeemaker turned on its own, a low beeping that almost called Tony out of bed. He lingered in the insidious air of his nightmare for a while longer, let his eyes wander half-absently to the telescope he'd set up in his rooms.

"Yeah, but there's more out there than just you, isn't there?"

Tony was halfway to the coffeemaker before he even knew it.

It was when he was pouring himself a cup - all black, no sugar - that it happened.

It happened in the same way that an atomic bomb happens: suddenly, and without warning, and completely, utterly, startlingly loud.

Which it should've been, as it was the sound of a body crashing through a glass skylight, though Tony hadn't known it at the time. He'd heard it, though, and it was enough to send his mug to the ground with a loud crack, and JARVIS set off the alarms, a loud wailing that only added to the absolute chaos of it all.

Tony ran, snatching up one of the Mark VII bracelets on his way there. Just in case. It didn't hurt to be cautious, but Tony needed to find out what was what right now, before anything.

When he found himself in the living room, there was, amid the alarms and shattered glass and smears of blood a dark, tangled and decidedly broken figure in the middle of his home. Tony felt his pulse jump, his spine stiffen, and he watched as Loki Odinson attempted to pull himself up.

Loki turned his face to Tony, and all the world seemed to freeze.

There are very few things that Tony can say, without a doubt, have truly terrified him. Howard Stark was one of them. So was Afghanistan, and Stane, and falling, the idea of Pepper dying, the idea of himself being dead, the feeling he felt when Loki's hand was against his windpipe, closing in and the hiss of, "You will all fall before me."

He knew what is was like to be afraid, and he knew what it was like to look afraid.

And it was petrifying to him - though he'd never admit it - to see that fear reflected in Loki's eyes. To recognize it, though he could barely recognize Loki, in a person who Tony could never quite attribute the word afraid to.

Confident, monstrous, foolish, angry - not afraid. Never afraid.

There were other things Tony could not recognize about Loki, even in the dim darkness of his home. The alarms dimmed after he barked at JARVIS, and he'd cut the soles of his feet on shattered glass when he ran to Loki's side. Loki had shoved him away, at first, when he'd grabbed for his shoulder. Tony figured out why when blood stuck to it, red and dark.

"Shit." Tony said, and Loki looked away, turned away. His hair had been uncleanly cut, stuck out in odd angles, like it'd been sheared with a dull knife. "Shit."

Loki didn't say a single word, and when he finally faced Tony, as he was being hefted up, Tony saw why.

The stitches were just as unclean and sloppy as the haircut; a crooked whipstitch performed by a person with no real talent in sewing up lips.

"Shit, Reindeer Games." Tony breathed in the darkness, as Loki leaned against him. In a brief moment this seemed all surreal and all a part of his nightmares - though of course he was awake. "So this is Asgardian justice, huh?"

The pit of Tony's stomach felt sick, and Loki paused - which made Tony pause - and after a long, long while, Loki just shook his head. Loki reached over, weakly, and tapped the arc reactor in the middle of Tony's chest.

What that meant, Tony had no idea, and when Loki reached back there were two little bloody fingerprints left behind.

Tony wasn't sure what to do in this situation. What was the protocol for a Norse God falling through your skylight? Especially a Norse God that should, for all accounts and purposes, not be here?

Loki leaned heavy against him, weighty and with too many limbs, and Tony knew all at once that he needed to get him on a bed before he passed out on a bed of shattered glass.

Which was why, in but a few brief moments, that Loki ended up on Tony's bed.

He'd figure out the details later, he'd decided.

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