"We sing, fight, we cry.
We slide, slide, we slide into the light.
Maybe we're sealed in silence, and maybe we feel a guidance.
Maybe your own devices will keep you afraid and cold, well.
Pull out the fear of silence.
Put out the need for guidance.
Put out your own devices.
And don't be afraid of the cold.
Afraid of the cold, afraid of the time.
You've got no where to go but here."
-Growing Old is Getting Old by Silversun Pickups
"-in a few more months, New York will look as good as new, don't you think?" Tony asked as he studied the plans for reconstruction on his tablet. "We won't need to worry about buildings falling on us, and shopping won't be a circus. The construction for Stark Tower is set to begin next week, too. Though I'll kind of miss this apartment..." Tony trailed off, not because there was an interruption but because there wasn't one. He glanced up from his tablet. "Loki?"
He saw immediately why the god wasn't talking; Loki, still clad in armor and covered in dust from lifting massive chunks of stone single-handedly, was passed out on the arm of the couch. Though perhaps 'passed out' wasn't the best way to describe it; one of his hands was brushing against the carpet while his hair had fanned out around his shoulders in dirty tangles. When Coro batted at the locks and bit Loki's fingers, the god didn't even twitch.
Tony scooped up the little hellion, who mewed at him unhappily. "Yeah, yeah. I get it. But annoy him when he isn't blanked out, okay? It's a lot more satisfying then." He placed the cat on his lap, but apparently he wasn't as interesting as Loki; Coro immediately jumped off the couch and scurried from the room. "Whatever," Tony muttered. "Not like I wanted to pet you anyway."
Then he turned his attention back to Loki, and his brow furrowed. "How long was it this time? Two weeks? That's an improvement, but I guess finding that Chitauri set you off, huh?"
Even months after the invasion, it wasn't uncommon to find corpses in the rubble. It was, however, rare to find one intact, and while Loki had hid his surprise well when he uncovered the iced alien, the sight must have rattled something in his mind. Cities weren't the only things that needed repairing after Thanos's invasion; everyone came away burdened with loss, and though time has passed, the wounds were still healing. The friends that had given up their lives left gaping holes, and the destruction left indelible images that rose up in moments of vulnerability.
However, that didn't mean they weren't moving on. It took time, and what they experienced would never truly leave them, but life was returning to some semblance of normality. Though Thanos's spell had cut Loki deep, he was not broken. He was, just like the rest of them, healing. Soon, there would be nothing keeping him from saying, 'I'm okay.' Whether it was in a few months or a few years, it would happen, and Tony would be there to help him if he needed it.
As the man leaned over to shove Loki further onto the couch, he thought about the first time he had to keep Loki from falling. More than that, he thought about how far they had both come since then, and if Yinsen could see him now, he would be proud of what Tony has done.
They appeared at the edge of the park under a wide oak tree whose branches drooped beneath the weight of snow. Beyond the grass, towards the city, they could hear the ever-present thuds of hammers and beeping of bulldozers. However, as they walked forwards, the noise of reconstruction gave way to respectful silence. The park was filled with people, but while the Avengers' presence would cause a stir on a normal day, today no one bothered them.
Loki and Tony stopped before the large statue in the center of the park. The two bronze figures towered over them, forever frozen in valor. Captain America was making a salute in the direction of the city while his shield was held loosely in his other hand. Hawkeye stood by his side, bow pointed at the sky, as a constant sentinel between the city and what lurked behind the stars. At the foot of the statue, a plaque said:
In memory of two great heroes and even greater men.
Their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
Clint Barton: March 21, 1980 – September 7, 2018
Steven Rogers: July 4, 1918 – November 26, 2018
On the marble ledge above the plaque, dozens of gifts had been left in honor of the two heroes. Normally there were just a few items, but today there were action figures left by well-meaning children, trinkets meant to represent Clint and Steve, flowers of every color imaginable, and newspaper articles that showed how many people the Avengers had saved.
"It doesn't feel like four years have passed, does it?" Tony asked, glancing over at Loki. The god was staring at the effigies of their friends, lost in memory, and only slightly; his eyes remained fixed on their faces as if he was trying to refresh his memories of them.
Tony copied his actions, and they remained quiet for a long time. Occasionally, people would come up alongside them, either to leave gifts or read the plaque, but after a few minutes, they would move on. Children that recognized Loki and Tony grew excited and were herded away by their parents that softly scolded them, saying that the Avengers were there to honor their friends and not to play. It was a somber ritual, standing there, but it also drove home the fact that their comrades didn't die in vain.
Eventually, after the sun had switched sides of the sky and the cold gusts of wind started to pierce through Tony's coat, he stepped away from the monument. But he wasn't ready to leave quite yet; he wandered towards to the marble slabs that ringed the statue. There were millions of names etched into those stones, and while Tony did not read them all, he skimmed the list as he walked slowly around the park. Only when a familiar name appeared, emboldened to distinguish it from civilians, did he stop: Alonya Derkhaunt, Agatha Fielding, and Mack Schuler were among those he recognized.
Snow began to fall from the sky, adding to the thin layer that crunched underfoot. Loki had, at some point, joined Tony and moved by his side like a shadow. Now the god spoke up, drawing him from his reverie. "We should go."
Brushing his fingers against the freezing stone, Tony nodded. He stepped back so Loki could teleport them away, but he knew that next year, and each year after that, they would be back. It was the least they could do for those who had died in Thanos's invasion.
The ring of stitches on Tony's chest brushed unnaturally against his fingers, and he pushed down harder. "Ouch," he muttered, continuing to prod at his new sternum.
"It wouldn't hurt if you stopped touching it," Loki said from the other side of the sofa. He was absentmindedly flicking through movies, though nothing seemed to catch his interest. Loki liked to blame that on the fact that Tony had 'deplorable taste in entertainment'.
"But there's nothing else to do," the man griped as he pulled his hand away. When he shifted, he could feel the skin pull. "I thought a few incisions would be less obnoxious, but no. I'm starting to want the arc reactor back."
"No you don't. That's just the painkillers talking. Now will you please shut up and watch the movie?"
Tony did shut up, at least for a few minutes. But as the movie played, he continued to pick at his chest. He had never thought that he would be rid of the reactor. It seemed more like it would kill him before technology was advanced enough to pick the shrapnel from his chest. But now, with magic running through his veins, they were able to take away both the shrapnel and the metal cage with only minor complications. The arc reactor was gone, he wasn't dead, and his friends were being overbearing as usual.
Deciding that their caution was excessive, Tony rose from the couch, tripped on the corner of the rug, tried to saunter to the kitchen, and bumped into the other sofa. By the time his wobbly legs got him to the kitchen, he was desperate for a drink, but then he turned the corner and saw that the room he arrived at wasn't the kitchen at all; it was a bathroom.
Tony cursed his drugged mind. They had lived in this house for months, and it had been years since he lived in Malibu—that house was sitting in ruin at the bottom of the sea—but he still got confused whenever he was tired. He slammed the door shut and started walking down the hall to where the kitchen actually was.
Loki called after him, "You aren't going to find any alcohol in the house! Pepper and I already took care of it!"
Not believing Loki—he had genius hiding spots, though it was rare that he had to resort to using them—Tony continued to search the house, but four empty stashes later, he was forced to admit defeat. He shambled back to the couch with a scowl and a throbbing, empty hole in his chest. In protest of Loki's actions, he put his feet on the god's lap when he sat back down and said, "You suck."
"You'll get over it," Loki replied, and Tony huffed, his eyes moving to the screen while his hands prodded tender skin. But Loki was right; no matter how weird his chest felt, he didn't miss the metallic clang beneath his fingers.
Loki's hands darted up to block the punch aimed for his head, and then he leapt over the leg heading towards his ankles. As he landed, Natasha flipped to her feet. She caught Loki's leg when he kicked at her, and throwing all of her weight into it, she shoved him off balance. He stumbled, and she jump-kicked his knee to make him fall the rest of the way. However, just when Natasha made to pin Loki down, he grabbed onto her foot and knocked her down onto the mat. She scrambled to get back up, but Loki already had her limbs pinned. He grinned triumphantly.
"You've improved," Natasha said between pants. Loki released her so she could rise to her feet and wipe the sweat away from her eyes.
"You say that like I don't win every time." When the assassin shot Loki an unimpressed look, he grinned.
"Hitting you is like punching a brick wall," she defended. "We both know that if you were human, the outcome would be different."
"Whatever you say." Though his tone was sarcastic, Loki agreed with her; while he physically could best the average human, he wasn't so vain as to think that meant he was always more skilled.
Then, figuring Natasha was done for the day, he released his ponytail and offered her the hair tie. She took it and nodded towards his shoulder-length hair. "I like how it looks now. So," she smirked, "why'd you cut it?"
Her expression was mischievous, and Loki raised an eyebrow as he answered, "Tony wouldn't stop badgering me about it. He kept calling me Rapunzel until I agreed to make it a more reasonable length."
Romanov began her stretches, feigning disinterest in his words; that lasted for about thirty seconds before she couldn't hold back whatever it was she knew. "So... are you telling me that the mutant squid trying to drown you by your hair last week had nothing to do with your decision?"
With a groan, Loki asked, "How did you learn about that?"
Her smirk grew wider. "Parker told me. He found it amusing. Couldn't stop laughing, in fact."
"I wasn't aware he had noticed," Loki muttered; he made a note to himself to remind Parker why people called him the God of Mischief.
"The new group seems to be doing well," Natasha commented. "That other newbie—Kamala Khan? I like her." She finished her stretches, padded over to where Loki had perched himself on the bench, and took a seat beside him. "You've finally assembled a full team."
A nostalgic look found its way onto her face then, and it was an expression that Loki copied. It had been a long time since the war—almost a decade—and the losses they endured no longer burned in their chests. They missed their friends, certainly, and Loki knew Clint's death meant more to Natasha than anyone else, but the wounds had scarred.
A hush fell over them, but it was not uncomfortable; Natasha gulped down a water while Loki contemplated the best way to get back at Parker. When she spoke again, the wistfulness had vanished from her tone. "Since the team is back running again, I'm going to retire from the Avengers."
Loki glanced at her in surprise. "Now?"
She nodded. "SHIELD needs me to help train new recruits, and in addition to that, Hill wants me to take the council position that's opening. I won't have the time to run around the country fighting bad guys."
"If time is the problem, you know I can always teleport you to the mission sites," Loki said, but Natasha was already shaking her head.
"I'm getting old, Loki. I can't jump across buildings and tackle things like I used to." She stood up and tossed the empty water bottle over her shoulder; it landed perfectly in the trashcan across the room. "But don't worry, I'll still drop by to visit. I can't have you getting lazy in my absence."
Cameras flashed, and the crowd vied to get close to the podium. Their questions were barely discernible as they shouted over one another, but one of the closer reporters was loud enough for Tony to make out the words: "Mr. Stark, can this discovery be used to stop degenerative diseases? Is Stark Industries going to explore medical science?"
"I've already told you, it's not a discovery," Tony answered. He clutched at the podium, blinking against the flashing lights with a scowl on his face. "It's a spell, and no, Stark Industries is not going to try and replicate the effect."
"But Mr. Stark, is Stark Industries not dedicated to improving lives?" another journalist demanded. "Why would you withhold an innovation that could help billions of people?"
"Because it's not an innovation!" Tony snapped. "It's a spell, and it's impossible to recreate."
No one seemed to care about that particular fact, and they continued to harass him until he reached the end of his patience. With a growl, Tony turned to look at Loki, who had an equally annoyed expression. "You want to handle this?"
Tony stepped aside as Loki marched up to the podium. At the sight of the god, who also didn't appear to have aged in the past two decades, the crowd became even more rabid—at least until Loki flicked his wrist and magic exploded over their heads. People screamed, but when they saw Loki's hand glow in preparation for another blast, the noise fell into nervous silence.
"Tony Stark is not responsible for his longevity," he stated, making sure each word was clear and final. "I am." Someone took that as their cue to speak, and Loki glowered at them until they slunk back. It was admittedly a tactless way to manage the crowd, and Pepper would no doubt scold them for it later, but threatening the crowd allowed Loki to continue, "There is no way for me to recreate the spell, nor would testing on Stark provide a solution to human mortality. With that being the case, I believe this conference is over."
Even the (mostly) empty threat of Loki's magic was not enough of a deterrent to keep the reporters quiet after that. They started shouting out questions again, but Tony was beyond caring; when the god glanced over at him, he nodded, and they left the conference in a wash of green.
The key twisted back, killing the ignition, but Tony didn't pull it out. He turned to Loki and asked, "Are you sure you're ready to do this?"
Loki didn't speak at first. He gently ran his fingers through wiry fur, no longer as thick and soft as it had once been, and felt the bones lying underneath. "Delaying it won't change anything."
"I know, but... We could wait a day if you need to."
In response, Loki cradled Choronzon to his chest and unbuckled his seat belt. When he stepped out of the car, the cat blinked slowly at the change in light and lifted his head as if it weighed a hundred pounds. Loki continued to stroke the twenty-two year old cat until Choronzon decided that curiosity was not worth the effort; his head dropped back down and his eyes closed.
The door on the other side of the car slammed shut, and Tony walked around to join Loki. Together, they walked up the steps to the small animal clinic, and inside, a man sat in the waiting area with a puppy while a woman watched them enter from the front desk. Judging by the sympathetic look she was giving them, she knew exactly who they were. Loki knew Tony had been calling the vet a lot in the past few weeks when he thought the god wasn't around, trying to find any better alternative than what they had come to do.
But even the combination of their intellect and Tony's money couldn't prevent the inevitable. "I'll inform Doctor Hobbs that you've arrived," the veterinary assistant said, and Tony nodded.
As they sat in the waiting area, neither of them spoke, and for that Loki was glad. While he knew that he was making the right decision, it did not keep doubt from cluttering his mind. He worried that if he spoke, it would break his resolve or make him feel like he was betraying Choronzon more than he already was. So instead, he remained silent as he continued to comfort his friend, taking care to not jostle his sensitive joints.
And when the vet, the same one that had diagnosed Choronzon with severe arthritis years ago, opened the door and called, "Loki Stark," the god knew it was time to say goodbye.
Dark red wine filled their glasses. "May I get you anything else?"
"No thank you." Pepper reached for her drink and the waiter nodded. Tony watched him walk away with a frown, and when he lifted his glass, he tapped his fingers against it. Thoughts raced in his mind, constantly switching between 'say it' and 'it's a stupid idea'.
He had only gotten a few seconds into his poor rendition of 'Ode to Joy' when Pep grew impatient and asked, "What is it?"
Her prompting was enough for him to temporarily get over his uncertainty, and in a rush he said, "I've been thinking about designing a spaceship. I know Stark Industries has some prototypes made, but those are too basic. I want something even better than what NASA has been working on."
"Then do it," Pepper said dismissively. "I'm sure if you need ideas, Loki will be happy to help."
"That's the thing: I don't want to make a ship just for the hell of it. I want to make one so Loki and I can leave Earth."
Pepper had been about to take a sip of her wine, but at his admission, she slowly set her glass down. "You want to leave?" Tony nodded, inexplicably feeling ashamed even though Pep's expression remained neutral. "For how long have you wanted to?"
"I don't know. I mean, it has crossed my mind a couple of times over the years, but I never seriously considered it until Coro passed away. It's just... I guess I never noticed that time was passing, at least not in a way that mattered. But after that, it sort of hit me that Loki and I, we're... We're static. Everything around us keeps changing, people are aging, and we just don't."
While Pepper didn't understand what it was like to be frozen in time, Tony knew she understood how disconcerting it was; she experienced the same problem, just in reverse. "When?"
"Not for a long time. Even with the Chitauri ships, it'll take a while to recreate their warp drive, and I'm not leaving you guys. It's just an idea for... afterwards."
Pepper hummed. "You haven't spoken to Loki about this, I take it."
"No, not yet. Like I said, it's just an idea, but I did talk to Thor last time he visited. He said it wouldn't violate Loki's exile if we toured space, since technically it is still a part of 'Midgard's branch'. Though if you ask me, I think he's just stretching the definition for us."
Pepper pressed her lips together. "If you've already asked Thor, it sounds like it is more than just an 'idea'. What does he think about the two of you leaving?"
"You mean how upset will he be if Loki travels light years away?" Tony shrugged. "He won't like it, but I doubt he'd stop us if that's what Loki really wants to do. You know how he is. The big softy just can't tell his brother no." Then Tony frowned. "I'm more worried about how Loki would react to being in space. I don't want him to feel like he's trapped in the void again."
"So ask him if he thinks he can handle it, and let him decide. He hasn't had problems in years."
"I know that, but... I can't help worry about it. You know how it is, and I don't want to make it worse by pressuring him into it. Really, it's just a silly idea-"
"Tony Stark," Pepper interrupted, and he snapped his mouth shut. "Clearly you have given this a lot of thought, and if it's what you want to do, then go for it. You're underestimating him again. He's going to do what makes the two of you happy, and if you want to leave, then you know nothing is going to stop him."
"Hey princess, can you come over here and hold this for me?" Tony called from the underside of a large metal ship; his muscles were quaking with exertion as he supported a wide sheet of steel.
"Of course I can," Loki stated, but he made no move to approach. Tony could hear rustling as the god flipped through a book. "Just as soon as you stop calling me that ridiculous nickname."
"Hmm... Nah, I don't think I will. 'Princess' is perfect for you," Tony teased, and then he grunted as the weight shifted, intent on smashing him.
"Then I am sure you can handle whatever it is on your own."
"Whoa, wait," Tony cried as his elbows started to buckle. "Seriously, Lokes, I need your help! This thing is about to crush me!"
The god sighed, but he set aside his book and walked over to Tony. He crouched down to peer under the spaceship-to-be, and when he realized that Tony hadn't been joking about the whole getting crushed thing, he slid under the ship. Pushing Tony's hands out of the way, Loki effortlessly held the metal in place. The reprieve had Tony's muscles singing in relief, and he massaged feeling back into his hands before starting on the bolts he had mistakenly unscrewed.
"What are you working on this time?" Loki asked.
"Spaceship. Admittedly, it's a miniature model, but I need to test the warpspeed on something disposable before making anything larger."
There was only two bolts left when Jarvis announced, "Sirs, there is an incoming phone call from the Avengers."
Curious, Loki shifted away from Tony while slackening his arms. The metal sheet groaned and started sinking out of position. "Hey, I'm not done," Tony said, and then to Jarvis he shouted, "Tell them to hold for a minute!"
"Dr. Pym insists that it is an emergency."
Tony tightened the bolts as fast as he could while Loki said, "Put him through."
"Thank God you two are there," Hank said in a rush. "We're experiencing a problem down in Kentucky. There's this megalomaniac—Tech Lord or something like that—and... You two should probably come see for yourselves. "
"We'll be there in a minute," Tony said as the last bolt was put in position. Once it would no longer twist, he motioned for Loki to slowly lower his hands; this time the piece stayed in place. They crawled out from under the bus-sized ship, and without needing to be prompted, Jarvis offered Loki footage of the battleground.
They teleported to the outskirts of the small town, and Loki plucked an Iron Man suit out of the air and handed it over. Janet noticed them and darted forwards, ducking under one of the many metal tentacles that occupied the street. Tony raised an eyebrow at the mayhem.
"Well, this looks like it's going to be fun."
"It isn't fair, you know," Rhodey complained. "You're seventy-three, and yet you still have people fawning over you like you're thirty."
Tony finished signing his autograph with a flourish and grinned at the young boy. "Don't listen to him. Fawn over Iron Man all you want." The kid beamed back at him, but then the boy's father led him away. Once they were out of earshot, Tony turned back to Rhodes. "You know, I wish I did look thirty. I'm really not digging this mid-forties thing. It makes me feel old."
"Oh, you feel 'old'?" Rhodey asked with a chuckle. "Then what am I? Ancient?"
Tony knew that the words were intended as a joke, but that didn't stop him from studying his friend. Time had changed him like it did everyone else; his facial hair was sparse and grey, skin wrinkled and dry, and without his glasses, he was practically blind. Compared to Tony, who was only a few months older, he did look ancient.
Realizing that he had taken too long to respond, Tony went ahead and admitted, "Loki and I got in a fight the other day." His friend looked at him in surprise—concern, even—so Tony tried to lessen the impact by joking, "You should have seen our neighbors' faces."
Rhodey didn't take the bait. In fact, it just made his brow furrow further. "Man, the closest people to you are like half a mile away. What in the world were you arguing about?"
With a huff, Tony said, "Jeeze, you're going senile. This." He gestured to his body that had barely changed in two and a half decades. "I'm mad about this."
"But I thought you forgave him years ago. Did he do something else?"
Tony shook his head, but he didn't answer beyond that. He wasn't sure how to put in words the anxiety he felt as the effect of his immortality became clear. Everyone he knew, with the exception of Loki and Thor, had grown old. Rhodey, Pepper, Natasha, Bruce... they were all nearing the ends of their lives. They might not die this year, or even ten years from now, but it was going to happen, and Tony wasn't changing alongside them. He watched, but he could neither stop it nor become a part of it.
"Hey," Rhodey said, snapping Tony out of his reverie. "We aren't dead yet, alright? Look at me: I'm still young!"
Tony snorted, pushing aside the bad mood; if their time was limited, he didn't want to waste it brooding. "Don't kid yourself. You've got one foot in the grave, old man."
"Oh yeah? Then let's get suited up and this old man is going to kick your ass. I think it's time I used the old War Machine for more than collecting dust."
"You really want to use that? It's more outdated than you." Tony grinned. "Alright, have it your way. But don't come crying to me when Mark 256 turns it into scraps."
Though it had never worked before, and sometimes he wasn't even sure why he did it, Loki ignored Thor when the god came to visit. There was no scorn—at least not anymore—in the action, but Loki persisted in doing it. He always caved, of course, and would talk back, but not after a long-winded, one-sided discussion. Were Loki to think about it long enough to find an explanation, he would say that he did it because he feared that one day, Thor would stop visiting. If that happened, Loki didn't want to grow too attached, because otherwise he would miss the few hours he gets to spend with his brother.
Despite Loki's trepidation, Thor continued to visit. Sometimes he came only once a year, and other times he came every few months. But no matter how much time had passed, the fool would eventually come knocking. Tony would invite him inside, the three of them would stand idle for a few minutes, and then Tony would come up with a ridiculous excuse to leave the room. Like now.
"I have to go down to the lab," Tony said, shuffling towards the stairwell. "Dum-E's cleaning, and you know how that goes." He grinned at Loki. "Bye."
Then he was gone, leaving Loki alone with his brother. Thor's smile was blinding. "How have affairs been on Midgard? Your planet looks a lot healthier than it used to. You have tales of grand battles, no doubt. Your Avengers are a mighty force indeed."
Loki rolled his eyes and let out an annoyed—or perhaps 'amused' was a better descriptor—huff. Without answering, he walked from the house and into the surrounding woods. Well-worn paths wound between the dense trees, and it didn't take long before the house was obscured. There were times that Tony missed living on the beach, but Loki loved the seclusion of their home.
Undaunted by the lack of reply, Thor continued, "My friends and I went on a glorious hunt the other day. There was a dragon terrorizing the eastern provinces, and I have never seen a larger beast! Its wings turned the sky to night, and its snout down to its tail stretched from one mountain to another! It was a fierce battle. The Lady Sif would have enjoyed it, and you as well, brother. We could certainly have used both of your blades."
As Thor enthused over his journeys, he continued to make similar comments: 'Had Sif been there, I doubt we would have fallen for their trap,' or, 'I saw one of those plants you often use in spells, and I regret not taking some of its leaves with me.' They weren't said with sorrow, merely as a matter of fact, and while Loki griped to himself about how noisy the god was, he was glad that Thor was happy.
Though when the story ended and Thor, in an effort to keep the conversation going, begin to list in boorish detail every meeting he attended in the last year, Loki decided enough was enough. "You have grown too fond of your own voice," he said, and Thor had the audacity to look happy at the interruption.
"Then I will gladly hear what you have to say, brother. Tony mentioned your new allies last time I spoke to him. Tell me about your adventures."
"I would hardly call them 'adventures'," Loki said as he kicked a rock off the path; it embedded itself halfway through a tree. But when he glanced up at Thor's hopeful expression, he sighed and thought back to their last mission. It had been an interesting one, to say the least, and when he started to talk, a smile had replaced his scowl. "We were called in to contain a toxic leak that mutated the cells of everything it touched. By the time we arrived, there was already..."
With magic coating his skin, Loki hesitated. "Are you sure you don't want to join us? It would help take your mind off of her."
Tony shook his head. "No, it's... it's fine. I have stuff I need to do here anyway." The light surrounding the god faded, and Tony knew Loki was going to offer to stay even though voices were calling for him through his headset. "Go. I'll be fine, honestly. I just need some time to myself."
Loki relented, but before he disappeared, he said, "Call me if you need anything."
Then Tony was alone in the kitchen, and he sighed before turning to look out the window. At the edge of the house, the ground fell away into a cliff, giving a perfect view of rolling hills and thick trees. He had come to love the scenery, especially at sunrise, but after five minutes of staring blankly at it, the tightness in his chest hadn't faded.
Once upon a time, this would be where Tony ran to the fridge and grabbed a beer (or ten). However, it had been a long time since he resorted to such methods, and he felt that if he did it now, it would be disrespectful to her memory. Spending time with friends was another activity that helped, but Loki was out with the new Avengers, and the others...
"Sir, would you like to work on a project?" Jarvis asked, rousing Tony from his self-pity. He had thought that maybe it would get easier, but it never did.
"Sure. Pick whatever you want." He rose from the table and meandered down the hall towards the massive basement. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Jarvis had already pulled up the holographic screens. Tony went to them, expecting to see blueprints for the Iron Man suit (he couldn't remember how much he had designed by this point), but instead, the screens were covered with a project he hadn't opened in years.
Tony froze, staring at the words 'Iron Dragon' written boldly above complex equations and diagrams. "Jarvis, why'd you open this?" he asked, automatically reaching to close down the window. However, he could not stop his eyes from taking in the years of hard work and the painstaking details that had gone into planning the spacecraft.
"You said you were making it for when you were ready to leave, sir," Jarvis said. "Based on my observations from the last few weeks, I believe you have reached that point."
The hand that had been about to hit 'close' lowered; Tony's mouth went dry. "Do you really think I should leave, Jarvis?"
"I think you should do whatever makes you happy, sir. I would just appreciate if you did not leave me behind."
"Don't worry, bud. I don't know what I'd do without you nagging at me."Tony continued to stare at the plans—originally abandoned because there had still been people tying him and Loki to Earth—and came to his decision; the plans were projected across the entire room, and in the center was the scaled down frame of the ship. As he worked on fleshing out the plans, he did his best to not think about why he was ready to leave now when he hadn't been five years ago.
As he set the hydrangeas and peonies on the ground, the wind blew, causing the petals to brush against the engraved words. It didn't matter that the splashes of color obscured the grey; Tony knew each letter on the stone by heart. When he stood back up to rest his palm on the granite, which had started to chip despite how carefully it was maintained, the spot he touched was unusually smooth.
Taking a deep breath, he told the stone, "I've decided that it's time to leave. I thought I could stay longer, but it's not the same anymore. I think he's ready, too." A small, fond smile crept on his lips. "God, you should have seen him last week. I don't know why he was so wound up, but he and that new kid—have I mentioned him before? Miles Morales? He took Parker's position. Anyway, the two of them completely trashed a theme park. I thought Carter was going to have a fit."
He chuckled at the memory, but when the sound died down, a frown had somehow found its way back onto his face. "I don't know if leaving means I'm running away," he confessed, "or if it means I'm moving on. It's not that we aren't happy here, and the new Avengers are great. But... It always feels like something is missing. When I look at myself in the mirror, it's like nothing has changed, but it has. And I know that the longer we stay here, the more friends I outlive, the worse that feeling will become."
Another breeze swept through the grounds, and Tony pulled his coat tighter around himself. It was late autumn, and the sun had risen less than an hour ago. However, he didn't mind the cold, as it meant that less people would be around. It let him talk as loud as he wanted to without needing to worry about who was listening, and it gave the illusion that he was talking to more than just a slab of carved rock.
"Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing anymore. That's why I know we need to get out of here, even if just for a few years. Besides, can you imagine how much fun it'd be to visit whole new planets? I was reading one of Loki's books, and it makes sci-fi look boring. And the best part is that most aliens don't actually look humanoid. That's just the races who share a common origin with the Nine Realms. The rest are crazy weird, and..."
Tony talked until the sun rose higher into the sky and other people arrived. It wasn't until a family came to visit a grave a dozen feet from him that he said, "I have to go now, but I promise to visit one last time before we leave, okay?"
There was, of course, no answer, but Tony could picture Pepper's smiling face and imagined that if she was there, she would tell him that it was okay to move on. His hand fell away from the stone, and he grinned.
"Thanks, Pep. For everything. And... I miss you."
Then he turned and walked back through the rows of graves towards his waiting car.
AC/DC played quietly on the stereo as the car wound through the countryside, only passing another vehicle every twenty minutes. The sound leaked out through Tony's open window, and crisp winter air blew in. Overhead, not a single cloud was in sight.
There was a grin on Tony's face as he took the car around a particularly tight curve. The man had insisted on bringing his oldest car—the only one he has owned since before he met Loki—and its engine hissed as the gas pedal was pushed down farther. Loki shared the car's attitude when it came to Tony's driving; they turned again, and the book he was trying (and failing) to read slammed against the door.
"Is it really necessary that we drive? If you had let me teleport us, we could have been there hours ago."
"Cool your jets, Sparkles. We're almost there." The road straightened and they hurtled past a logging truck. "Besides, this is part of your present."
"I fail to see how driving for hours is meant to celebrate the day of my birth," Loki griped as he leaned his chin against his palm. His elbow was resting on the lip of the window, and he stared out at the mountain ranges towering around them. "It's droll."
"You're such a killjoy," Tony said, but his tone didn't support his words. "It's supposed to build up the suspense. Aren't you dying to know what your present is?"
"Not really." However, as the land flattened into long stretches of field, Loki perked up. He scanned the horizon for any indication of why they were out in the middle of nowhere, and his interest didn't go unnoticed. With a laugh, Tony returned his focus to the road, and the world raced past them.
A few minutes later, a building appeared on the horizon. Its slated metal roof gleamed in the afternoon sun like a beacon, and the car accelerated towards it. They veered off the road onto a gravel driveway, and Tony slowed down as they came around towards the front of the building. There, hidden amongst the tall grass and invisible from the road, was a small landing strip.
The car jerked to a stop, and Tony wasted no time jumping out. When Loki took more than a second to open the door, the man impatiently called, "Come on, slow poke! Your gift is inside."
Though Loki made a show of sighing, an amused smile tugged at his lips. His book vanished into the air, and he stepped from the car. Tony was jittering in place by a massive overhead door, but even when Loki joined him, he didn't make any move to open the garage.
Catching on, Loki said, "You are too theatrical. Just open it."
"So says the princess," Tony countered, but he nonetheless typed the code in a flourish. However, all that revealed was a retinal and fingerprint scan. Loki raised an eyebrow, and Tony shrugged. "It'd really suck if it got stolen."
When the door at last lifted and the steel wall behind it slid to the side, Loki could see why the extra security was necessary. He blinked in surprise, and Tony asked, "What do you think? You like it, right?"
Loki stepped into the brightly lit hangar, his fingers reaching out towards the dark grey, almost black, metal. Keeping his hand on the spacecraft, he began to walk around it, feeling the seams of the Vibranium and the ridges of the gold and green accents. On the side of the hull, the words 'Iron Dragon' were painted in white.
"This isn't one of the spaceships you were making for Stark Industries."
"No, it isn't," Tony confirmed. "It's one of a kind, and no one could make a second one if they tried. That shell is made from three quarters of the world's Vibranium supply. It took a lot of negotiating to obtain."
Loki hummed in response as he continued to inspect the ship. Its wings stretched to the ends of the massive warehouse, nearly touching the equipment shoved to the side; platforms, storage crates, cranes, and metal sheets were all left over from construction. There was no doubt in Loki's mind that Tony had spent years, possibly decades, planning to make this spaceship. It wasn't a spur of the moment gift.
"You want to leave Midgard," Loki stated as he ended back at Tony's side.
"Yeah. It's time, don't you think?" the man asked, looking away from the ship to meet Loki's eyes. "With this, we could finally go somewhere new. We don't have to stagnate."
It was clear that Tony was itching to leave, and Loki understood; people he had known what seemed like yesterday were dead today. In Asgard, such a thing was never a problem, but now... Now they looked the same age as some of their friends' grandchildren, and with each generation that passed, he and Tony became less and less involved.
Which is why when Loki asked, "What of the people here?" Tony was quick to reply with, "What about them? They'll manage without us."
But then Tony's excitement slowed, and he added, "You don't have to make a decision now. I mean, I understand if you don't want to leave-"
"I want to," Loki said, interrupting Tony's nervous chattering. When the man had the gall to look surprised—as if he thought, after all of these years, that Loki wouldn't follow him past the end of the world—he repeated, "I want to leave. You're right: we're not getting anywhere staying here."
The relief on Tony's face was immense. "Good." He reached up to pat the nose of the spaceship. "I was starting to think that I had built this thing for nothing."
Loki followed the action, and he took in the impressive sight that the Iron Dragon made. It was vastly different from their home right now, but he was sure that it wouldn't take them long to adjust. In fact, he looked forwards to the adventure.
Turning to Tony, Loki asked, "Where will we go first?"
Tony smiled. "Anywhere."