The days creep by so slowly that sometimes Tony can swear that time is moving backwards, as if Loki has created his own little special time-distorted torture dungeon, just for him. He doesn't do anything worthwhile or memorable, merely waits for the week to be over so the godly dictator can do whatever.
Mostly, he thinks of Pepper, as he lies on the couch and stares up into the ceiling, remembering the good times they had shared before everything went to shit. At least Pepper survived and is safe in Portland, so he tries to hang onto that. It's the only good thing left, the only thought grounding his sanity enough to prevent it from slipping away in the all-compassing boredom, frustration, and glumness.
What a way for the great Iron Man to go, wasting away as a prisoner in his own damn tower.
Well, Loki will no doubt make the process short, once Tony's seven days of grace are over without his having budged even an inch on the whole loyal-serving-issue.
And so he waits for the inevitable, slouching on the couch, standing at the window, or pacing restlessly. The walls around him are like a confining snare, in some ways worse than when he'd been kept in that dingy cell down in that underground basement. At least back then, he had expected to be let out at some point and get a chance to escape or otherwise put up resistance or do some sabotage, but now there is not even that. Because now, he knows he's stuck in here, and his ideas for viable plans have all been exhausted. Loki's won, as loathe as Tony is to admit it, and there is no chance of a happily ever after. These final few days are just the road towards the inevitable end, now.
He's so deep into his own miserable thoughts that he startles when Jarvis suddenly speaks, interrupting the pressing silence.
"I would like to bring to your attention that your seven days of consideration are up, Mr Stark," the AI informs him.
Seven days of consideration. Like something taken straight out of the bible that he's never even read.
And he startles at that, because has it been seven days already? Seven days of pointless waiting and gloomy rumination, and he didn't even realize it.
He half-expects Loki to make an entrance on the scene, prepared to hear Tony's final answer – the last answer that he's probably ever going to give – in person, but there is no sign of the god as of yet.
"King Loki would like to hear your answer now." A short pause, as if Jarvis is holding the breath he doesn't even have. "Will you agree to serve your king willingly and loyally, or do you still refuse?" Jarvis continues, sounding even more formal than usual.
"Well, you can tell Loki that my answer is still no way in hell," Tony says, remaining on his back on the couch where he's sprawling. "It's not gonna happen, Jarvis. So go ahead and tell your boss he might as well start preparing that execution, because I will never willingly say yes."
The AI is quiet for a while. Then, "I am sorry to hear that, Mr Stark. I will, however, relay your unfortunate answer to King Loki."
"Yeah, you do that, Jarvis," Tony mutters, waving a dismissive hand towards the ceiling. At least he can be defiant to the end, refusing to bow down and submit to Loki's fucking shit.
He steels himself, expecting Loki to materialize out of thin air any second, either spitting fury and venom at Tony's stubbornness, or exerting enough self-control to play up his creepy, ominous you-have-defied-me-for-the-last-time side, but nothing of the sort happens. Perhaps the god is currently busy smashing up his furniture in anger before proceeding to taking it out on the actual source of his rage, then.
He waits, nervous trepidation slowly growing inside of him. He had been sure Loki would appear on the scene shortly after to meet out whatever consequences are to follow, but so far there is nothing.
At that, he remembers all too clearly how Loki's face had hardened in resolution towards the end of their conversation a week ago just before the god had spoken his ultimatum, as if whatever last-resort decision he had come to in regards to how he would deal with Tony's obstinacy had been unsavoury and disagreeable even for him.
And Tony really doesn't want to know what such a the-end-justifies-the-means line of action would entail for him, not if it leaves a sour taste even in Loki's mouth.
Still, that thought keeps churning relentlessly in his head – What kind of decision had Loki come to back there? Why had it brought such a grim but determined look to his face?
He waits for a long time – at least it seems like a long time, his uncooperative mind imagining the worst scenarios it can possibly conceive of, churning out scene after scene of disturbing executions and torture sessions and unholy mind-controlling magic. And a possibility that he hasn't even considered until now, but that is probably the worst of them all – getting thrown back into that old, underground cell again, alone and forgotten, until he goes crazy in there, loosing his mind once and for all.
He shudders. Don't think about that. Because who knows, maybe Loki has some way of tapping into Tony's thoughts and will be able to tell it's one of the things that he'd fear the most, deciding to make that his chosen method of retribution.
What if the god decides to lock him up down there again? Hands clenching into fists, he swallows, mouth dry.
He waits for even longer. He waits for so long that his nerves are frayed enough for him to jump a little when Jarvis' voice comes on-line again.
"Please enter the elevator, sir," it says, as usual offering no more information than absolutely necessary.
So that's it, then. He's going to have to answer to Loki, now; the moment has finally arrived.
But there's no point in drawing it out any longer. Everything has been so painfully drawn out during these months and he just wants for this to be over and done with. Even if it means that everything will be over and done with.
And since waiting for the inevitable is even worse, he draws a deep breath and slowly gets up from the couch and makes his way to the elevator, walking towards his doom. At least he'll go with dignity and his head held high; he can at least grant himself that small something.
The doors close behind him and he tries not to think about how final it sounds before the carriage starts to move upwards to take him to Loki's quarters.
Expect that it doesn't. Instead of going upwards as expected, he finds himself being taken down, down, and further down, until the carriage finally comes to a halt at ground level.
So it would seem that whatever Loki has planned, it is to be carried out here for whatever malevolent reason. Maybe the god finds the prospect of getting the walls of his floor splattered with Tony's blood distasteful, even if he has his instant-stain-remover magic at hand. He holds his breath as the doors open with agonizing slowness, having little idea what to expect.
What greets him isn't what he expected (whatever that was), though. Instead, there is only the ground floor as he remembers it, nothing out of place or out of the ordinary. Gingerly, he sticks his head out to look both left and right, before exiting the elevator. The doors close behind him, and for some reason that sounds even more final than when they slid shut before the ride down here.
He keeps eyeing his immediate surroundings in suspicion, hoping to spot what is about to happen before it actually does. It's all so disturbingly familiar down here, like he's been transported to another time, back to when things were different and normal. There's the big hallway mirror, the cheesy plastic palm tree in the corner that looks almost real, the floor mat with its just barely discernible brownish stain still there. He finds himself suddenly remembering how he had made a mental note to have a cleaning firm take care of it, but never got around to. It wasn't that terribly many months ago, but still feels like forever, now.
There's a gym bag lying forlornly in the hallway, and he whimsically tries to recall why it's lying there in the first place, when and for what purpose it was used before it got dumped into its current spot on the floor, but his memory fails him. Whatever. It's not like it's important anyway.
Stubbornly, he refuses to look all the way to the right, because he knows full well what is there and he just can't bring himself to. It's too close, too much, too imposing. He can't even bear to see it now – the door leading to the outside. So close, and yet so far away. Of course, it's been magicked shut like all those other doors in this place he can't open, and he's not going to debase himself by pathetically and desperately lunging for such an impossible temptation when Loki will no doubt appear any second, if the god isn't watching out of some corner already, hidden by magic smoke and mirrors.
"You are free to go, Mr Stark," Jarvis suddenly says, the unexpected sound of the AI's voice followed by a quiet but still very much audible click as the locking mechanism to the entrance door snaps open. "Since your choice has regretfully been not to serve King Loki, the king has no use for you, and you will have to leave the premises without being allowed to return here again."
And that just isn't right. It can't be. It's not possible. It just plain… can't.
He stares dumbly as the door impossibly swings open to admit a full view of the outside, one he hasn't seen without a glass pane covering it for so long. One he had been certain he never would see again.
But it's all a cruel trick, of course. He knows that. Nothing but a game of Loki's, another one of his attempts to punish and torment Tony for refusing to play along. Nothing but that. The door will be slammed shut in his face when he approaches, or a spell has been put in place to physically prevent him from stepping over the threshold.
"By the way, sir," Jarvis continues, "I took the liberty of asking Dummy to pack a bag for you with some basic necessities. I figured you might need it."
Slowly, carefully, he makes his way over to the open door, despite already knowing that it's all a devious trick conceived to torment him. He comes to a halt just before the doorsill, waiting for the door to slam shut, but it remains open. So he gingerly reaches out a hand, expecting it to encounter an invisible barrier, but there is none, only a gust of wind caressing his fingers.
He pulls his hand back, dumbfounded.
And he stands there for a long time, still and unmoving, waiting for the curtain to fall, for the hoax to finally be revealed, but there is nothing. Nothing but another gust of wind, soft against his face, and a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds above to pierce his eyes.
And that's when he reaches out his other hand in transfixion, grabbing the gym bag lying waiting at his side, his eyes never leaving the view outside.
"Bye, Jarvis," he says, words oddly choked in his throat.
"Good bye, Mr Stark. And – good luck."
And with that, he steps over the threshold and out into the open. He doesn't turn to look back, he only keeps walking, the sun in his eyes and the wind against his skin.
And a smile on his face.
Because Pepper is waiting for him in Portland.
And that is the final chapter, people! ^^ I'm sure quite a lot of you expected this to take another turn, but this is the outcome I had in mind all along, and the happiest ending I could envision under the circumstances.
As for the million dollar question, why did Loki let Tony go in the end? Well, Loki might be a bastard alright, but he's still only 95% bastard or so. ;) If anyone wants a more in-depth explanation than that, you're free to ask in a PM or review and I'll provide some more psychological insight into Loki's thoughts/reasons/actions – while I've always had a clear notion of what's been driving Loki's actions (either consciously or subconsciously) in regards to Tony, the limitation of the story being Tony's POV-only has left much of that to be inferred or guessed by the reader, after all, but I'm happy to elaborate on it in case anyone is curious.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the story, and, as always, please review. :D