A/N: So, the contest's over, and I can now post the second chapter (and the last unless somethign very inspirational happens...). Yeah, I didn't win, but still, a big thanks to everyone who voted for me, or reviewed, or just read the fic.
A Different Kind of Casualty
When Tony wakes, the world is still not there for a moment. His vision is so blurred it's practically nonexistent, and ringing echoes in his ears. Pain is creeping through his body, through every single cell. Partly, it is the normal kind of pain, similar to the soreness exercise leaves in his muscles, and the headache is no different than the ones his legendary hangovers introduced him to. But, there is an odd sensation mixed with it all, something dull, and hollow, and painful.
The first thing his brain remembers is how to move his arm, and he rubs his eyes. When he opens them, blinding light scorches the tender surfaces, and he covers his face with his palm. His mouth is dry, and the back of his throat feels like sandpaper. A groan parts his lips.
His thoughts are blurred, a crazy mess full of flashes and dark spots, all enveloped in blue light. His head is pounding. His muscles strain, fighting against themselves. He grits his teeth so hard it hurts. Perhaps he screams. He doesn't know.
He can't think, and he probably screams some more.
Slowly, his mind clears. The blue subsides; reality substitutes the black spots. He realizes the hard surface under him is the terrace floor. It is sunlight that irritates his eyes. His muscles all but shout at him when he forces himself into a sitting position.
That is when he notices the most important thing.
Or, the lack thereof.
He is alone.
The golden warriors are gone.
Loki is gone.
For a second, he can't quite grasp it. Pleasing somebody else is no longer on the forefront of his mind. He can do whatever he wants. Although, he always thought the first taste of freedom should be sweeter.
No matter. He remembers, and he knows the world must be in a state of chaos. He knows because he was there. He helped.
"Jarvis," he rasps, struggling to his feet.
"Good to hear you again, sir."
"Jarvis." That is the only thing he can think of saying right now.
"The others," he says, swaying a little. A lump of fear forms in his chest. He doesn't know them well, he doesn't even like them that much, yet… "Are they—"
"They are alive, sir, but Mr Odinson has left the Earth. I believe the other Avengers are being realised from captivity as we speak."
"Captivity," Tony repeats blankly. Loki never spoke about them, and Tony didn't ask, just like he didn't talk to Jarvis or try to prevent Loki's world domination.
"Yes, sir. Would you like me to contact them?"
"No. Just tell… Tell Pepper I'm all right. Don't wake me up."
He drags his feet inside. He needs rest. Needs to clear his head. Rest. Sitting at Loki's bedside didn't equal sleep.
He pushes the thought aside.
A lovely bed is waiting for him.
He doesn't sleep. He pretends to, though, when the sound of high heels clicking against the floor reaches his ears. The bed dips under Pepper's weight. Gentle fingers card through his hair.
In a moment, his eyes are wide open, and he bolts uprights, startling Pepper enough that some undignified noise of shock tears free of her throat. He didn't mean to.
But, he couldn't do anything else.
"Tony." Pepper's eyes are wide, glistening, and her hands fly up to her mouth.
He tries to say her name right back, but it gets stuck in his throat.
When she closes the distance between them and he kisses back, too, he finds himself thinking how kissing is, in its basest form, nothing but movement of one's lips.
After Afghanistan, they left him alone. They don't, this time. Fury, the Avengers, Rhodey, Pepper; they all ask and look with such questioning eyes. Tony doesn't have anything to say. They know the story already; take one glowing sceptre and a bunch of stuck up people in suits, and voila, world domination is ready. It scares him how easy it was, both the domination and working with Loki. Especially the latter.
"What of the end, Stark? What happened in the end?" Fury enquires urgently, staring at the billionaire who only shrugs.
"Loki disappeared," he says as if it's no big deal. "He just wasn't here anymore."
He doesn't mention how Loki always heard the ticking of some menacing clock only he knew existed. It would sound utterly ridiculous if put into words. Even in his mind it does.
Before the night falls, he locks himself in his workshop. The purpose is simple; rather than with his brain, he wants to think with his hands, shut his mind off, and never, never spare a thought for the last two weeks.
He does fall asleep eventually. Only, he can't remember how many days it took.
They manage to override Jarvis's protocol, somehow. Perhaps the A.I. himself decides to help; Tony wouldn't put it past him. The point is, they drag him out of the workshop and threaten to donate all his inventions to the nearest art gallery for their exhibits if he doesn't take a shower, and shaves, and all that jazz. Well, Pepper does. Clint, Bruce, and Steve just stand aside.
He stands, too, in front of the bathroom door. Remembers staring at it for hours, torn between the two pulls inside of him, the one telling him to enter, and the one ordering him not to.
He shakes his head as his hand closes around the doorknob.
Even when he is all clean and neat again, Pepper's eyes don't leave him.
"Sit," she says, and Tony doesn't, because he has a choice. Leaning against the couch with his hip is a much better position to beat a hasty retreat.
"Did he hurt you?" Pepper asks.
"Of course he did." It is really not that complicated. "He took over my mind."
"I mean, did he torture you?"
"Did he… do anything else to you?"
"No," he repeats.
"Were you forced to do things?"
Yes, he wants to say, because it's true, yet it isn't. Not completely. His eyes catch Clint's gaze, searching for understanding. He finds it. He's just not sure it helps.
"I didn't hurt anyone." His voice is dry. "Physically," he adds.
Pepper offers a small smile. "That is good."
"Yes. Can I go back to work?"
He sees the hurt in her eyes. It pains him. But, it's not enough to keep him there. "I'll get some sleep," he promises.
It's the best he can do.
When he finally sneaks into his room in the middle of the night, he finds Pepper asleep in the bed. Without thinking, he sits down and runs his fingers through her hair.
Over and over again.
The world is a mess, at first. Quite quickly, the wheels start turning the usual way, although people are still afraid. What if Loki is somewhere out there, lulling them into a false sense of security? Toying with them like a cat with its prey?
There are moments when Tony feels guilty. He ought to tell them.
He ought to at least know why he cannot.
But he doesn't.
At least people don't blame him. He was just a tool, after all. He had no choice.
Tony wonders if he should feel more used.
"Please tell me," Pepper says when she finds him sipping scotch absent-mindedly more than a week later, "what's wrong."
The golden liquid swirls when he expertly moves his wrist. "Nothing."
Pepper places her hands on her hips. "Don't give me that. You're not talking to anyone. You're not even talking to me, you've buried yourself in your projects, you keep stopping and looking at things in that weird way. I know this is hard for you, but you're behaving like a total stranger. You don't even kiss me, anymore."
"That's not true." He wrinkles his forehead. "We kiss."
Pepper cocks her head just the slightest. Her voice is soft and sad. "Your lips move, Tony, but they move when you talk, too."
Of course his mind goes in the stupidest possible direction—would that mean a conversation equalled a kiss?
"But, you're not there," Pepper adds.
"I'm sorry," Tony hears himself say. It sounds distant, somehow, as if he's only an observer, listening to the conversation of two strangers. "I need time. Everything will be fine."
He wonders why lies are so much easier to tell. Why drinking, and drinking, and drinking after he spent such a long time sober comes so naturally. And he wonders, after his feet carried him to a bedroom not his own, why he would ever wish scents would cling to fabric just a little longer.
Fury forces his to see a therapist. It's mandatory, he says. All of Loki's victims must do it. It's all Tony can do not to feel sick when he stares at the woman observing him from the other side of her desk, and emotionlessly recounts the story. The things he talks about are not so bad, per se. It's the unsaid that makes his insides turn cold and his breathing come heavily. Because, after two weeks of avoiding any intellectual activity, he is forced to remember every single detail, if only so that he can carefully leave it out.
Later, he sits on the terrace, sun rays caressing his face, and thinks. And the more he thinks, the more everything makes sense. The more he thinks, the more he understands.
That cold mass in his chest grows even colder.
Somehow, he ends up watching Gone with the Wind with Pepper. Or better, Pepper watches. He just keeps staring out of the window. Loki's eyes haunt him. That last look the god sent Tony.
Pepper's foot nudges his knee. "Tony. Focus."
People are supposed to do that, right? Keep his mind in the present so he wouldn't think of the 'trauma' too much?
Focus. He can do that.
And just like that, he realises what the problem is.
"I know too much," he mutters. "That's what wrong."
"Hm?" Pepper glances at him.
"I know too much." His voice is louder, this time. His throat closes up.
He should be dead. He was always meant to end up dead. But, he isn't, and now there are things he can never forget. Gestures. Words. Loki's eyes.
Suddenly, Tony is on his feet. He needs to do something, needs to get away, needs to… His elbow hits the doorframe when he slips into the bathroom, but the pain barely registers.
Yes. He knows too much.
It is still not enough. He wants so much more.
Most of all, he wants to know one single thing, but he can only wait and hope someday someone will step down from the sky with an answer.
The sound of water seems deafening. That's a good thing, he assures himself and splashes water in his face.
Somewhere, there is pain, and he thinks about laughing.
He does not.
Instead, he sinks to his knees and cries.
A/N: Please review ;)