There But For The Grace Of God Go I

Part X: The Waking Dream

What's left of you

Is ash and urn and

This silent horizon

Puscifer - Horizons

Loki said nothing to Tony the entire ride back to the tower. Which was fine. Tony got it, he understood. And he didn't want to say a single thing to Loki either.

Whether that was because of the distinct feeling he had in his gullet that maybe, just maybe, Tony Stark would go ahead and live up to his reputation of being notoriously forthright when most people would've forsook the idea or... or because he did have a fear of Loki running ramrod straight down his back was up to loose interpretation.

Tony preferred the idea that he was applying what he'd learned in the past few days, which was: keep your thoughts to yourself.

If there was one thing the past days had taught him, it was that. And that's what he was doing. Being suspiciously silent. And if the silence piqued Loki's interest at all, the god didn't say anything of it. He was being reputably taciturn and voiceless and stared listlessly out through the tinted windows of one of SHIELD's terribly nondescript and slow cars.

Tony was itching to say something. The urge in his brain was as annoying as a mosquito bite.

But he kept to himself, despite all the unvoiced accusations and concerns, such as, "We could talk about this, you know? What you've built up. I know it, too. You've got walls, and they've come crashing down, and you're trying to build them all back up again."

He found himself staring at the side of Loki's shorn hair, the rough angles of a face that didn't face him.

"I didn't have anyone to build me back up, you know." Tony thought, and the thoughts are foreign, indeed. "And shit, you've got a family. People that give a shit about you. And that's more than I ever had."

Something angry and wrathful rose up in him, like a nebulae that had exploded inside of him, a wave of hatred that snatched dangerously at his heart.

Loki shifted in his spot, a slight, rustled movement. Tony let out a scoff.

"I pity the hell out of you, Reindeer Games." Tony stared out his own window, feeling suddenly and awfully despondent. "You don't have any idea what you've got. You're focusing on what you don't. And if that isn't the saddest sack of shit I've ever heard..."

Tony let the thought fade out, felt all at once like he'd betrayed some deeper half of himself.

And when they returned to Stark Tower, Loki fled to his rooms without a single word.

There were nightmares again.

These were a tad different than his recent ones. He was running, from something, something with large hands and scabby eyes, feeling entirely as thought something big were on his tail. Something ferocious with snarled dagger teeth.

It had its hands around his throat when he woke up, and his bedroom was spinning, spinning, spinning.

"Here." Came a voice entirely unfamiliar to him. But he placed the voice when he sat up.

"Thought you were hating me." Tony said, words slurring up midway. Loki held out something in a dark thermos that made Tony feel entirely uneasy. "What's this?"

"It is a tea brewed from wormwood and valerian." Loki explained, as if the explanation were enough. He avoided Tony's gaze, suspiciously. "For that which plagues you."

"Great." Tony replied with sarcasm in each vowel. He took the thermos regardless. "Dope tea from a man whose greatest accomplishment was attempting to burn down Manhatten. Seems like a sound plan. Totally foolproof."

"I took the time to think on our previous conversation." Loki said, and the words sounded surprisingly rehearsed, collected, with a bit of tacit just beneath. "You're wrong."

Tony didn't say anything, feeling the warmth beneath his hands.

Loki took his silence as acceptance, "You didn't try. But you did keep me from Agent Romanov before. And I said I owed you a debt."

"And I said to cram it up your ass." Tony pursed his lips.

Loki turned his gaze unto Tony, wide-eyed and yet fierce beneath it all, "I keep my promises, and my debts. Regardless of whether they were made or not."

There was a pause there, an accusation just beneath it, too, and Tony knew that. But he brought the tea to his lips.

It tasted like molten shit and swallowing it was a lot like gargling gravel, and Tony couldn't quite decide whether or not it was the worst thing he had ever drunk. The face he must have made drew out the stoniest laugh from Loki, brought the slightest of crinkles to his eyes.

"What's in that, again?" Tony questioned, thumb pressed to his lip in a weak attempt to not hurl.

"Wormwood and valerian." Loki supplied, sounding more clipped and annoyed than anything else. "It grows on Midgard. Your women once foolishly used it as a contraceptive."

"I bet that worked wonders." Tony replied, working the lingering stench in his throat.

"Wonders is perhaps the worst term for it." Loki said, and he stood. "I will make myself scarce."

"What, you don't wanna talk?" Tony said, all snide now. "That's how you are, huh? Love 'em and leave 'em."

Loki was at the doorframe, back facing Tony and he did hesitate, just a bit.

"I have nothing I would like to say to you, Stark." And that was that, and he was gone.

What happened next was bizarre. The room seemed to flicker a bit, black and whorled and entirely too much like his whole bedroom had begun to mimic a Van Gogh painting. And then he was out, like a switch.

It was the first dreamless sleep that Tony had had in years.

Steve was the first.

"Stark." Was his stern, almost gruff greeting. Tony had met him at the elevator, toting a cup of coffee and a burgeoning feeling of a good night's sleep. Two things which were the pinnacle of happiness.

Steve Rogers, on the other hand, looked a great deal like he hadn't slept at all.

"Didn't sleep tight, oh captain, my captain?" Tony asked, as Steve stepped in with all his luggage. The captain's eyes surveyed the room quickly and briefly, catching sight of all its deadly, dastardly furnishings, such as the coffee maker and the microwave and the table.

"Where is he?" Steve retorted, looking deeply uncomfortable with the entire situation.

"Avoiding Thor." Was Tony's reply.

"It might be better to keep an eye on him," Steve said, quickly. "In case he pulls anything."

"I've got it under control. JARVIS is keeping me updated." Which, JARVIS really wasn't. But he knew better than Steve did. "Fury give you the whole rundown?"

And there was where Steve truly looked distressed.

"Yeah, I..." He shifted from foot to foot, looking almost... itchy. "Fury told me everything he knows. Like how you kept him under the radar before SHIELD got wind of it. It's... this whole situation is between the devil and the deep blue sea, and that's the way I see it, at least."

Tony was almost slightly surprised. Pleasantly, at least.

"Glad to have your approval." He said, with a slap on Steve's arm. "I was pretty sure this was going to awkward and unpleasant fast."

"I'm not blind to Fury-"

"Half-blind, maybe." Tony interrupted, with a little insensitivity. "But whatever, it's water under the bridge. You know when the rest of us are coming? ETA's and all that?"

Steve looked a little sour, all stiff postures and stern eyes, with his ridiculous vintage duffel bag and parted hair and Tony felt just the tiniest bit guilty for yanking him out of whatever he was doing just for babysitting duty.

But, hey, it wasn't all his fault. Not at all.

"Agent Romanov and Barton..." Steve straightened up a bit. "Well, Agent Romanov, at least... she'll be next, I think. Thor's here, already, but you knew that. Which means Dr. Banner won't be a few days, at the least."

"A few days?" Tony asked, heart sinking already. "What? We interrupt his vacation in the Bahamas or something? He taking time to suck on a Long Island and get a nice tan on some balmy beach and all that?"

"Pathein, actually. Up to his old digs." Steve answered, with a nod. "SHIELD's still trying to find him."

And there, yeah, Tony felt like absolute, fermented shit. Bruce was being pulled out God knew where to play patty-cake with... well, Loki.

"You wanna drink?" Tony queried, already half-ambling along to the wet bar in the corner of the room. Steve followed him. "For the nerves?"

"I can't get drunk, Stark." Replied Steve, sounding partially wistful. "It's a lost cause."

Tony shrugged once again, pouring a tumbler of Bourbon straight into a glass, and said, "Damn shame, Cap. But Fury told you what he knows." And he settled down on the loveseat, and Steve took the spot beside him. "And I'll tell you what I know."

And he did, the whole damn thing, with all the angry commentary attached to it.

Steve had responded to the story almost exactly how Tony thought he would: Dignified, restrained anger. A dash of pity and a sprinkle of guilt. And all of it added up to a grand jumble of, what now?

Which was good, yeah. Because that was the general consensus among the people involved.

"What do we do now?" and all of that had a lot of awful parameters like: can't give Loki to Thor, can't give Loki to Asgard, can't set Loki loose, etc.

And Steve knew that, and even if he didn't, Tony would've told him. Would've told him in the same way he told Thor, "You're not taking him."

But even Tony didn't know what to do with Loki. And he doubted that even Loki knew what to do with Loki.

So when Steve was settled in his room, he went and searched for Loki.

Why and for what reason was lost to him, and he didn't even bother knocking because part of him knew, just a little bit, that Loki wasn't going to be awake. He was right, of course. The door creaked open and there was Loki at the foot of his bed, one leg curled up to his chest and the other leisurely splayed out ahead of him.

There were papers all around, and Tony tiptoed around them.

"Stark." Loki greeted, sending a small, flickering glance of acknowledgment upwards at Tony. "Have you any need of me?"

"Thanks." Tony replied, and he took notice that the papers were scraps torn out of books. English, with scrawled notes in runic in the margins. "You know, for the weed-tea or whatever it was."

Loki hesitated, noticeably, "You are most welcome." Though his tone indicated that Tony was anything but.

"You tearing up my books?" And Tony bent down to retrieve a scrap from the ground. He recognized it, actually. The Bell Jar. The book he'd used as scrap paper when he was trying to talk to Loki when talking was something he couldn't... well, do.

And he said, aloud, quoting, "The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along. I simply hadn't thought about it."

"I can figure out the reading for myself," Loki hissed, with a sudden white-hot anger in his voice. "There's no need for you to read aloud for me."

Tony's eyes scanned the paper, the circled words and underlined phrases, all the hand-written postmarks and scratched out thought-lines.

"Looks like you're having a bit of trouble." Tony remarked. "How about a favor for a favor?"

Loki's eyes wandered up to him, skin half-alive almost in the darkness, and Tony felt a sudden fist in his gullet, a kind of twisty thing that made him want to run out of there as quick as possible. That feeling came as quickly as it went.

"A favor," Loki echoed, as though he were tasting each word. "For a favor."

"You need something to do while you figure all," Tony made a hand gesture, tapping the top of the paper. "This out, right? I need some nice, quiet dreamless sleep. So how about it? I teach you to read and write in English, and you brew me up witch-doctor voodoo hoodoo?"

Loki broke off the stare, looking aimlessly about the piles of papers around him. For a brief moment, Tony was sure he'd reject the offer, turn it down with an insult to boot.

But instead, Loki did what he did best - going beyond expectations: "Very well."

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