Deadline for Abstracts

The 'Hard Sciences Honours Thesis Students' Society is actually started as a joke by a particularly bitter geophysics sessional who had found himself a victim of budget-cuts (private office, three-person office, home office, street). Tony doesn't find this out until the Christmas party, and at that point there's no turning back. He signs up drunk at the clubs fair during Freshers', and then Pepper guilts him into actually attending the first meeting. There are five people signed up. Four actually show.

"This is going to be a really great networking opportunity, don't you think so?" Reed Richard asks from the front of the tiny basement room in the Student Union. He's brought cupcakes.

"No," Victor von Doom replies flatly. Tony is not drunk enough for this.

"I think we should go bowling," Bruce Banner offers. Tony eats another cupcake.

"I am not opening my future self up to blackmail photos like that," he says. Bruce slumps.

"It was worth a try."

"Do we need society regulations?" Tony asks.

"He's already written them," Victor jerks his head towards a proud-as-punch Reed.

"Oh good," says Tony. "Meeting adjourned, see you never?"

"Pizza," Reed says firmly. "Next Wednesday."

"I'm busy," says Bruce.

Tony's gaze flicks from Reed to Victor. "I will punch you in the face."

"And vegetarian," Bruce continues.

"In. The. Face."

"You probably shouldn't actually do that," Bruce sighs. "I'm serious. Someone take note, he's forewarned."

"You aren't busy on Wednesday," Tony accuses.

"I feel like this whole plan was flawed," Bruce says sadly.

"I wasn't going to come to the meeting," Tony commiserates.

"I sort of meant my entire post-secondary career, but well done on actually attending. Gold star."

"Wednesday," Reed says a little desperately. Victor gets up and leaves. Tony takes a minute to congratulate himself on not being the first one, and then follows.

XXX

Late Tuesday night, second week of the semester, Tony and Pepper have to go upstairs to the apartment above theirs and ask them to keep the party noise down.

"This is so upsetting," Tony says, rubbing at his sore eyes and probably getting ink all over his face. "We've become those people, I feel like I am betraying everything I stand for."

"Obi offered us a penthouse," Pepper says darkly. "I really hope you are enjoying your authentic university experience. Do you remember undergrad, Tony? We had a hot tub."

"And parties," he says listlessly.

Pepper pounds on the door with the kind of vengeance born of needing to be awake in six hours to present to a panel of the highest ranking CEOs in the western world. The blond who opens the door is already blushing, and has the kind of muscles that make Tony want to lick him all over. "We're being too noisy, aren't we?" he asks. "I am so so sorry, some people we didn't invite sort of showed up, and I didn't realize it was so late, please don't call the police, we'll keep it down."

"Um," says Pepper, which basically heralds the apocalypse. "That's ok, we were just- Yes, if you wouldn't mind just a bit- I'm Pepper, hi."

Tony would mock her, but he's caught a glimpse of the two people behind the first guy, staggering their way over to see what's up, and wow, how much is he regretting the ink smudges and crazy hair and dirty shirt right now?

"I'm Steve," the original guy says, and he actually holds out a hand for Pepper to shake.

"Steven! Have we more guests?"

"No, Thor. Um, actually, we need to keep it down, it's late and these nice folks want to get some sleep."

"Vodka is like sleep," the redhead supporting Thor says seriously.

"It is not, however, like designing a microwave that can tell when your food is at the optimum temperature," Tony explains. "Believe me, I've checked."

Pepper glances back at him. "Is that seriously what you're working on?"

"100% non-carcinogenic," he replies cheerfully.

"Do you want to come in?" the redhead asks.

"Like, for a fivesome?" Tony tilts his head. Valid question.

"Buy us breakfast first," she replies promptly.

Which is how Tony and Pepper accidentally wind up adopting the four jocks in apartment 12C. By the time brunch (like breakfast was ever a legitimate possibility) is over he feels like he's obtained four kids of his very own, which makes sleeping with them kind of inappropriate. Besides, Thor and Steve are great, but Natasha and Clint are maybe a bit too frightening to allow into his bed.

Thor and Natasha are studying international relations, and they're a well matched set in that Natasha has an excellent grasp of practical application of theory, and Thor can make even the driest research paper read like a grandly poetic tale complete with perfectly annotated bibliography. Clint and Steve are both on scholarships (Clint for archery and Steve for painting) but neither can settle on a major and their grades are suffering as a result of a lack of any sort of cohesion. They're also very obviously the kids who got picked first in PE in grade school and loved it. They've got a standing four-times-a-week friend date at the gym, for fuck's sake. Tony-who runs when he needs to think through an engineering problem and does free weights in his living room if he's going to wear a short sleeved shirt-and Pepper-who swims purely because of a bet she's got going on with Rhodey and boxes at the local gym when she needs to take out her aggression-exchange glances that are equal parts disgusted and impressed.

XXX

"In Malibu," Tony says, throwing himself down onto the ratty old couch in their basement room, "Classes would be cancelled in the event of the Snowpocalypse."

Victor smirks at him over the top of his laptop. "This is nothing."

Tony fumbles through his bag with numb fingers. His coat is long and elegant and wool and well-tailored and absolutely fucking useless against the bone chilling wind outside. He throws a notebook at Victor's head. "I finished the basic outline for the robotics project, you can go ahead and tear it to shreds now. Just remember first draft is due on Monday *before* five PM. We lose any marks because it was late and I will cut you in your sleep."

"It's charming the way you still operate under the assumption that you'll never have to work on a team in the real world."

"Is Victor being a hypocrite again?" Reed asks, bustling in with a cardboard tray of paper cups balanced in his hands and a highlighter clenched between his teeth. His coat is green and puffy and makes 'swooshing' sounds every time he moves his arms and Tony can think of at least five ways to kill him and steal it just using what he has to hand. "Because in case you were unaware, being so paranoid about the privacy of a project that you're building it in your res room is kind of the opposite of team work."

Tony stares at him. "I- I want to judge you right now, but I kind of get it. Not the paranoia thing because hello, no one can replicate my genius, but sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and need to work on something right away, I get that."

Reed passes out the cups. Bruce has managed to fall asleep sitting up, face resting in the crook of his book. Tony sniffs the cup suspiciously. "Is this hot chocolate? Seriously?"

"It's cold outside," Reed replies primly. Tony doesn't even try to hide pulling his flask out of his bag to make improvements.

"So I was thinking we should all go for drinks," Reed says once he's settled. Tony wriggles far enough down the couch to kick Bruce awake.

"And I was thinking I could commit ritual suicide," says Victor in an identically cheery tone. Reed glares at him.

"Don't we see enough of each other?" Tony asks.

"I thought maybe in a more relaxed setting," Reed explains. "Somewhere we could bring our significant others along. It could be fun."

"You don't have very many friends, do you," Bruce rubs his eyes. It isn't a question.

"We need to have at least one outing a month to keep our club registration," Reed explains.

"That is not a thing," Tony objects. "Bruce, tell him that is not a thing."

"It might be, actually." Bruce frowns. "Is that coffee?"

Tony nods. Bruce steals his cup instead of taking the last one from the tray like a normal person.

"We don't have to go far, we can hang out in the student union bar," Reed wheedles.

"Oh my God," says Tony. "I have some class, Jesus Christ."

"Ok, ok. I don't really... know what bars are good," Reed shrugs. "You guys can pick one."

Tony looks to Victor, who stares back like he's just been asked to pick his favourite Power Puff Girl. "Ok, ok, Bruce. I guess it's you and me."

Bruce takes a sip from the cup. "There's the hipster bar by the tower," he offers. "Also fuck you, can we talk about your alcoholism yet?"

"Our friendship has not progressed that far, no. When is this shindig happening, I'll have to check with Pepper's calendar."

"Friday?" Reed offers. Tony's theory that he has no life is given even more validity.

Tony's phone rings before he can comment, and he rolls over to face the back of the sofa for the illusion of privacy.

"Guess where I'm standing," Obi says.

"In my future penthouse office," Tony says flatly. "I do check the projects folder on occasion."

"It's got windows floor to ceiling. We could even move the piano over here, give it a classy touch."

"You leave the piano the fuck alone. Did I tell you I'm coding an AI to install in the house when I get back?"

"I am shocked and amazed," Obi says, expressionless. "I emailed you some paint samples."

"Ok, ok, I'll check. Why not send me the latest issue of Home and Garden while you're at it?"

"I'll call back later, ok? Get some sleep, drink some water."

"It is *snowing*," Tony mutters vindictively.

"Only a few more months," Obi reminds him. "Go build a snow man. Catch up on absent childhood experiences."

"You're a dick," Tony says, but he's laughing at bit. "I'll talk to you later."

When he rolls back to face the room Victor and Reed are involved in an icy staring match and Bruce is frowning at Tony. "Girlfriend?"

Tony chokes. "Jesus, no. Uncle. He's calling to let me know my future office is officially built."

Bruce's eyebrows go up. "You're going right into the family business when you're done school? I'd thought you'd go for at least one doctorate."

Tony shrugs. "It's not like I need the qualifications for a position that's basically been mine since I was born. And it's not good for me, being so far away from head office for years. Looks bad, sends the wrong image."

Bruce doesn't look convinced. "You sound like you're quoting a press statement."

Tony laughs a bit. "I guess I've just heard Obi explaining it so often it's become embedded. Doesn't change the fact that it's true."

Bruce holds up his hands, placating. "Ok. I'm not doubting you."

XXX

Tony finds Clint and Thor sitting on the steps of the apartment building when he gets home from meeting with his advisor. Convincing her to let him not only change his final honours project three months in to the school year, but change it to a partnered endeavour was not easy, and he's gliding along on a myriad of razor sharp edges and viciously charming determination. Victor's advisor had eventually had to produce a written and signed statement taking all responsibility for the pair of them, and now that they've gotten the go-ahead Tony's head is buzzing with ideas. By the end of the school year they're going to introduce the first entirely human-appearing robot body, with a brilliant AI capable of human-like learning and interaction. It's going to be great.

"Hey, Stark," Clint greets when he stops on the step below them.

"Hello, kids. What, did you lock yourselves out?"

They exchange uncomfortable glances. "There was... an incident," Thor says finally.

"He had a fight with his brother and his brother threw his keys into the river," Clint translates. "And Tasha and I share a set, and she's in class right now."

"You share- In the fucking river? Why don't you have class now, Barton?"

"That's what you're choosing to focus on?"

"Legit question."

Clint shrugs, scuffing his boot against the cement. "I do have class. Obviously, I'm not there. It's not like there's any point anyway, the prof posts all the notes online."

"I can't believe I need to remind you of the fact that basically every professor will include relevant details in the lectures specifically to prevent people from skipping."

Clint just shrugs. Tony throws up his hands. "Whatever, your funeral. Come on, I'll let you guys in."

Tony winds up following Clint and Thor up to their apartment. Ostensibly they're playing video games, but within ten minutes Tony's ripping people apart on Wikipedia Talk and flipping through Steve's first year chem textbook making corrections in the margins. Pepper comes up around seven, bringing dinner and Steve and Natasha along in her wake. They all look to be in far better moods than the others, mellow and laughing and cracking open a bottle of wine with the curry. It makes things a little awkward, and Tony just winds up feeling guilty for harshing their mellow.

"There's another night out with Nerds Are Us on Monday," Tony tells Pepper when she hands him his wine glass.

She grins. "Excellent."

"I know, right?"

Steve frowns. "I thought you guys hated them?"

Tony holds up a hand. "Hate is probably pushing it, loathe as I am to admit it. I mean, Victor and I see enough of each other already, I'll give you that, but the nights out have... other appealing qualities."

"They've made it their life's ambition to get some poor radiation specialist drunk and into their bed," Clint explains.

Pepper and Tony exchange a high five. "Not just our bed, though that'd be a nice start, I'm not gonna lie."

"We've got a five month plan," Pepper says crisply. "He should be all moved in with us by March."

"Just in time for you to leave to the other side of the country," Clint snipes.

Tony frowns slightly. "We're working on that."

XXX

Monday night, Bruce shows up to the pub with his girlfriend Betty on his arm.

Tony and Pepper deal… poorly.

Reed and Sue are predictably friendly and sweet and unconsciously arrogant assholes, and Victor and Loki are equally predictably awkward and dismissive and also arrogant assholes. Tony and Pepper, usually excellent at making first impressions, are probably so fake in their enthusiasm even Reed can tell.

Bruce looks sad and wounded and confused and it makes Tony physically sick to his stomach, but he can't help the feeling of betrayal. Sue and Victor try to pick up the conversational slack (with really pathetic results), while Reed remains engrossed by something on his tablet and Loki leans back in the booth, weirdly calm and staring down at his hands like he's never seen them before. It takes Tony a few minutes to notice the bruises around his wrists, and the way he gets an embarrassingly pleased little smile every time he presses on them. Now that he's looking for it, Victor seems a touch more at tentative than usual - neither of them are the type for public displays of affection, but Victor glances over at Loki pretty steadily and when Tony leans down to retrieve his fallen phone he notices Victor's hand resting on Loki's knee. Well. At least other people are making successful changes to their relationships.

Tony and Pepper wind up leaving early, and Pepper swears off all future nights out with the club. Tony doesn't blame her.

They pass Thor and some of his friends from the Scandinavian society just leaving, Thor clearly already drunk and vocally angry with it. Tony doesn't have the mental energy to ask what's up, though he gathers that it has something to do with the mysterious brother. They get home and fall into bed together, but half an hour later the sweat and the anger have cooled and they're both wide awake, so they pull on pyjamas and go upstairs.

It takes a while for Clint to answer the door, long enough that they're just turning away to head back to their own apartment. He opens the door and holds up a hand immediately.

"Sorry, sorry. I was in the living room, I didn't hear you knocking. Shh. Come on in, but be quiet."

"What's up?" Pepper asks.

Clint runs hands through his hair. "We were watching a documentary about human rights violations, torture, shit like that and it triggered a panic attack in Steve and flashbacks for Natasha. Militaries fuck people up, Christ."

Eventually they all wind up sleeping on the living room floor in what has got to be the most upsetting slumber party ever. Tony feels like shit because he still feels like shit over the Bruce thing. He doesn't fall asleep until near six, and winds up sleeping through his first class. It's a super start to the week.

XXX

The Christmas party happens.

"I'm sorry I never showed up to the meetings," Jane Foster says earnestly. "I tend to lose track of time."

"Brother!" Thor exclaims.

Tony blinks. Victor glares. Loki pulls out a bottle of pills and downs two with his entire glass of mulled wine.

"So many things make sense," Pepper mutters. Sue tilts her head.

"They look nothing alike."

"Loki is adopted," Thor says absently. Loki looks like he would rather be literally anywhere else. Victor settles a hand at the back of his neck and glares ineffectually at Thor. Jane glances around uncomfortably.

"So!" says Tony too loudly. "Drink up, everyone."

XXX

Tony stops by Loki and Victor's on-campus apartment one Saturday morning in January to pick up some prototype robotic eyes that he needs to integrate with the AI's code by Monday. The door is unlocked, so he wanders in, stamping snow off his boots. Loki is leaning against the kitchen counter, clearly fresh out of the shower in low-slung jeans and a towel, hair dripping everywhere. He's also laughing hysterically, clutching the counter for balance as he gasps with it, one hand making a half-hearted attempt to cover his mouth. He's got his phone in the other hand, scrolling steadily.

"I don't want to know, do I?" Tony asks. Loki glances over at him, then turns.

"Check your university hashtag. It turns out some videos of the dean of the medical college in, shall we say... compromising positions with some of this year's honours graduates have found their way to the internet. Tragic, really."

Tony's eyebrows go up. "You... wouldn't know anything about the leak, I assume."

Loki's hand comes up to cross his heart. "Me? I haven't any idea what you could be implying, Stark."

Loki's chest is bared by the towel, and Tony takes a minute to appreciate just how fucking pale human skin can be. He's got a couple weirdly symmetrical scars on either side of his chest, but other than that and one or two tiny freckles, he's ghostly white. "Man, do you sparkle in the sunlight, too?" Tony asks before he can stop himself. Loki jerks the towel up, shoulders hunching in and lips pressing together. Tony is used to Loki by now, capricious and vulnerable in inexplicable ways, so he doesn't take it personally when the younger man storms off into his room without a word.

He flops on the sofa and occupies himself following up on the scandal via Twitter and Facebook until Victor emerges from his room.

"I think I upset Loki," Tony says in introduction.

Victor makes a hmm noise, and heads straight for the coffee pot. Tony looks up and has to do a double-take. "Are you dying? Jesus Christ, you look like me after a really awful bender and I know for a fact that you don't drink, so I can only assume great personal tragedy. Come on, spill."

"It is none of your concern," Victor growls.

"Oh come on, don't be like that. I thought we were friends."

Victor slams the coffee pot down and drains his mug with quick, uninterrupted swallows. "You and Banner are friends. You and I are merely colleagues, and I'll thank you to stay out of my business."

Tony shoves himself to his feet. "Ok then. Message received. Where are the eyeballs?"

Victor grabs a box from the desk in the corner and shoves it at Tony. Tony flinches back automatically. "No handing things! Also, why... is it covered in pink glitter?"

"You learn," says Victor irritably, "Not to ask these questions when you live with Loki." He sets the box on the coffee table.

"Oookay," Tony hesitantly picks up the box and tucks it carefully into his bag. "I seem to be unwelcome here, so I'm gonna... go. I guess. Have fun with your temper tantrum and maybe check on your boyfriend sooner rather than later."

"Get out," Victor says, but he just sounds terribly exhausted. Tony leaves, but he's not sure it's the right choice.

XXX

Things start to go downhill in February and they don't stop. Steve accidentally walks in on Pepper and Natasha, and he comes to Tony quiet and gentle and upset.

Tony shrugs. "Yeah, I know. Pepper has a thing for terrifying people. There was this guy during our under-grad years, Phil-"

"But you two are-"

Tony nods agreeably. "Yup. It doesn't mean we don't see other people, Steve. Did you think we were kidding about Bruce?"

Steve blushes and glances off to the side. Tony winces.

"You totally did, didn't you? Oh man, no. Ok, look, it was sweet of you to be concerned, A+ for friendship points. But there's nothing to be worried about."

"So you both just-" Steve cuts off, hands twisting together in his lap. "I have to admit, Tony, I'm confused."

Tony measures out another finger of scotch. "Ok, what's confusing you?"

"Just- I guess I don't really understand how you can ever trust each other if you're sleeping around. It doesn't seem like a very healthy relationship. I'm not trying to be a jerk, Tony, I'm just... it's not a thing that I can really wrap my head around."

Tony finishes the scotch in one long pull. It burns going down and settles warm in his otherwise empty stomach. "It works for us, I don't know what else you need to know."

Steve gives up on the conversation, but there's a new distance between them, an awkwardness that coats each interaction in a thin grime of discomfort.

Three days later, Tony overhears Thor and Loki having a low-voiced argument in the back of the arts library. It's late, and he only feels guilty for lurking behind the shelves to eavesdrop for a couple seconds.

"Mother and father are right," Thor is saying firmly. "It is better for everyone involved if you don't know."

"I have a right," Loki snarls. "I merely want to know, and your parents have no place making that choice for me."

"*Our* parents are looking out for your best interests *and* those of the child. You were a minor when you gave her up, it was up to our parents to keep the records and they made that choice"

"If you were truly my brother you would not take their side, Thor. Do you hear yourself? You can't truly believe that the law works that way."

"It is because I am your brother that I wish to protect you!"

"If this is what you call protection than I am right to want nothing of it."

"You are being irrational," Thor says, obviously trying to soothe Loki down. "Take a few days to think on this, and I am certain you will see our side of things."

Loki is quiet for long enough that Tony starts to shift away, but then his voice comes, cool and detached. "Do not speak to me again. Do not seek me out or claim me as your family. As of now I am finished with all of you, and only sad I haven't done so sooner."

Tony doesn't stay to hear the fallout. He's confused by the content of the argument, but he doesn't need the whole story to tell that Loki is dead serious, and he knows Thor well enough to predict the horrific emotional fallout of such a declaration.

XXX

Clint drops out of school in March. Tony hears about it through Pepper, because he's been busy doing the fucking entirety of the honours project on his own, as Victor seems to have practically disappeared from the face of the planet and when he does appear he looks wild-eyed and frantic. Tony hunts Clint down at the coffee shop where he works and sits at a table right in front of the counter so he can't avoid him when he goes on break. As soon as the apron's off Tony's got a tight grip on the other man's ridiculous bicep and is marching him outside and around the corner.

"What the fuck, Barton?"

"Hi to you too, Tony. I'm doing well, thanks for asking."

"You dropped the fuck out. You wanna explain that life choice?"

Clint shrugs, yanking his arm out of Tony's grasp. "I was a scholarship kid, remember? And damned lucky, too. I don't even have an official GED, I got in by the skin of my teeth."

"And? You're not dumb, Clint."

"Apparently I am," he says easily. "I wasn't keeping up the grades they required for the money to keep coming in."

Tony frowns fiercely. "Fuck, Barton, there's a goddamn solution to your problem, you know there is."

Clint laughs shortly. "Yeah, there really isn't."

Tony wants to shake him. Clint's not stupid, and it's fucking incredible to him that he's the only one who's noticed the way Clint has to focus during conversations, the way he fakes his way through outings in noisy bars, the way he sits as close to the front of his lectures as possible and still winds up zoning out half the time, or coming out downing Tylenol and looking utterly wiped. But Tony's not going to be the one to throw it in his face. He wants to, fuck does he want to, but if Clint is willing to give up his fucking degree for it then Tony's quite certain he'll only do more damage by giving the problem a name. Clint is staring at him, and Tony realizes he's waiting for Tony to do just that, and he looks deeply, viscerally terrified. Tony steps back, pats his shoulder awkwardly. "Ok, Barton. Yeah, ok."

Clint's shoulders slump in relief. "Hey, you want a free coffee before I go back on shift?"

Tony shakes his head. "Nah, I've got to go do some drunken engineering."

Barton frowns. "You're not drunk."

Tony winks. "That's my first order of business. The fuckload of work I have to do comes second."

XXX

The call wakes Tony and Pepper at 4:00 in the morning. Tony fumbles around on the night stand, knocking pens and water bottles and cufflinks to the floor before he gets a hold of his mobile. Pepper flicks on the lamp, sitting up.

"Jesus, Bruce, do you know what time it is?" Tony demands.

"Tony," Bruce says sharply. "Have you heard?"

Tony tenses up, because Bruce sounds really goddamn serious. "Heard what?"

"There was an explosion. Victor and Loki's place. Police and campus security have blocked it all off, but Thor says Victor's in the hospital in serious condition."

Tony kicks away the blankets, frantically hunting for a pair of pants. Pepper follows suit. There's a pounding on their front door, and she yanks on a robe, hurrying out to answer it. "Shit. Jesus. Is Loki? Do they know what happened?"

"Loki's fine," Bruce says quickly. "He was out, he got home just when the police were pulling up. If they know what happened they're not releasing it."

"Ok, ok. Look, Pep and I will head to the hospital. Is Loki there?"

"I think so, yeah. Thor said he was heading over there."

"Fuck," Tony shoves his feet into shoes and grabs his wallet. "Ok, I think Tasha and Clint are here. I'll call you. Or something."

"Yeah," Bruce says, and Tony hangs up.

Reed is pacing the waiting room when they get to the hospital, hands tugging through his hair. He rushes over when they walk in. "You heard?"

"Obviously," Tony replies. "Do you know what happened?"

Reed laughs a little hysterically. "Yeah. Yes, I know *exactly* what happened. I- he hadn't been sleeping, his numbers were off and he wouldn't listen to me, I tried to tell him."

"Slow down," Pepper says steadily. "Tell us what happened from the beginning."

After Reed shares his story, only slightly more coherent than the first time, Tony goes to find Loki. It takes a while, since Loki is clearly hiding from Thor, and eventually Tony winds up texting him. He's surprised when Loki replies, but doesn't have any intention of looking gift horses in mouths. Loki's hunched up in the back corner of the basement cafeteria, half hidden behind a fake tree. Tony sits down across from him. Loki doesn't say anything, but when Pepper texts them to let them know that Victor is out of surgery and they stand to head upstairs Loki touches Tony's wrist lightly and offers a shaky smile.

XXX

Obi calls in the middle of Tony's review by the academic board. He's already sworn up and down that he had no idea about Victor's private experiments, and now he's trying to make a case for his own half of the honours project. He needs to graduate this semester, or he'll be headed back to California with nothing to show for his two years of grad school. He calls back once he's out of the meeting and on the train over to the hospital. Victor's being released today, and Loki has been the only one to see him since the accident.

"Jesus Christ, Tony," are Obi's first words. "You're a goddamn trouble magnet, aren't you? Do you know what the press are going to do once it gets out that you were working with this nutjob?"

"He's got a name," Tony says evenly. "And let's face it, I've probably done worse. By the time June rolls around and I step up everyone will have forgotten about it."

"You keep those rose coloured glasses glued on, don't you?"

"Fuck you," Tony bites out. He's drinking vodka straight from his water bottle.

Obi sighs. "Just get your precious degree and get yourself back here, Tony. I'll feel better when you're somewhere I can keep an eye on you."

"Yeah," Tony says on a sigh. "Yeah, we'll be home soon."

Loki is sitting on a bench outside of the hospital when Tony arrives. He waves him over, and Tony collapses down beside him on the chilly wood. "When are they springing him?"

"A couple hours. There's paperwork. How was the review?"

Tony shrugs slightly. "I guess I'll find out within five business days. Does Victor know what's going to happen to him?"

"He's been kicked out," Loki says wearily. "It's unfair, though not unexpected."

"Yeah," Tony agrees. "I was hoping, but I'm not surprised."

"Mmhm. He's going back to Latviria, I think. To recuperate. And to, well, alter his life plan accordingly."

Tony nods. "And you?"

Loki glances over at him in surprise. "I'll go with him, of course."

"But what about your degree?"

"A BA in English Literature and Religious Studies, Stark. Hardly of concern if I walk away."

Tony winces. "Fuck that, it's your education."

Loki stares directly at him, eyes quietly steady. "Perhaps you don't' understand. Victor is quite literally all I have. It is not even a choice to follow him."

Tony blows out a breath. "Thor-"

"Is nothing to me," Loki bites out. "Less than nothing, and I would be quite pleased never to here his name again as long as I live."

"Ok," Tony leans away. "Ok, I get it, you have feelings."

"And you, Stark?" Loki asks after a moment of silence. "What great plans do you have now?"

Tony shrugs. "Same thing we do every night, Pinkie."

Loki arches an eyebrow. "The world seems a lofty goal."

"I've got a fucking big company. Also a Pepper. I estimate a year, tops."

Loki pushes himself to his feet. "Well. I, for one, will welcome our new Stark-Potts overlords."

"Good man," Tony claps his hands together. He follows Loki into the lobby, where a nurse is pushing Victor towards them in a wheelchair. His face is half covered in bandages still. Tony sucks in a breath. Victor glares, as much as he's able.

"Stark."

"Hey," Tony says. "I brought you a present."

"Oh?"

He pulls the USB stick out of his pocket and holds it out. "All of your notes and models were destroyed in the explosion, and what you had at school was confiscated by the cops. This is everything we worked on for the robotics project, even the stuff that you had noted down that makes no fucking sense to me. I'm keeping some of my more advanced concepts for the AI, but other than that, you deserve this just as much as I do."

Victor takes it. "You- I expected to be angry with you," he says. "And then you do this. It is... an honourable thing to do. And perhaps I was wrong when I declared us nothing but colleagues."

"Oh my God, stop," Tony groans. "I'm gonna barf."

Victor's shoulders straighten, and his lip curls. Tony shakes his head. "Sorry, sorry, I'm bad at emotions. Look. I'm- yeah. What you said. I'm sorry this happened to you, and it was good being your... more than colleague. And your colleague too, actually."

Victor nods jerkily. Loki steps closer to him. Tony clasps his hands behind his back, bounces a bit on his feet. "Ok. So. Congratulations on not being dead, have a good life."

The doors slide shut behind him and he feels like he's going to crumple down to the sidewalk and never get up.

XXX

Tony's review goes favourably. He and Pepper walk the stage at their respective ceremonies, pack up the apartment, cut ties that need cutting and strengthen those which need to survive long distances. Tony throws out an offer of employment to Bruce and Betty whenever they want it.

"I've got a project with the military," Bruce says. "But after that's done, I might just take you up on that."

They go up to say goodbye to everybody upstairs before their flight, but no one answers the door when they knock. Jane and Reed drive them to the airport, and Tony makes them both the same offer he'd extended to Bruce and Betty, but he suspects he'll never hear from either of them.

They board the plane holding hands, both well-groomed and dressed in expensive businesswear, ready to hit the ground running with the press conference and banquet that Obi's set up. Once they're buckled in, Pepper looks over at him, smiling from behind perfect lipstick and thick lashes.

"Well, Mr. Stark. Welcome to the rest of our lives."

He dips his chin back in reply, grinning just a bit. "I think, Miss Potts, that they'll be good lives to live."