If someone had told him that seven years ago, Tony Stark would be standing in front of a sink washing a bunch of dishes and humming happily while he did it, he probably would've had that person committed. Yet here he was, billion dollar watch carefully set on the counter, hands plunged deep into hot, sudsy water. He scrubbed the last of the plates, rinsed them off, and set them aside to dry. Then he dried his own hands off and hung the cloth back on the stove, shooting a rueful look at the dishwasher. He really needed to get into town to pick up that part.
"All done?" came the soft query behind him, shortly before warm arms wrapped around Tony's waist and drew him back against a tall, solid body. Tony melted into the embrace, letting his head loll backwards until he could see the pair of sparkling green eyes looking down at him.
"Yup. Finally. What a thankless job," Tony sighed, pouting for extra effort.
Loki gave a slow, wicked smirk that never failed to make Tony's knees a little weak and said, "I could thank you... you know, if you really wanted."
Tony pretended to think about it for all of five minutes before grinning. "I could probably be persuaded," he said, turning around within the circle of Loki's arms. He leaned up and gave his husband a gentle kiss, sliding his own arms around Loki's neck to give himself better leverage.
He squealed when Loki suddenly bent and slid an arm under his legs, effortlessly scooping him up. Loki just laughed and turned, fully intending to carry Tony into the bedroom, but stopped. Tony glanced up at him in confusion, then followed Loki's gaze out the window. His own smile slowly faded as he took in the truck that was approaching the cabin. It didn't belong to anyone that Tony was familiar with - and his heart sank straight through the floor when the truck parked and a couple of very familiar people got out.
"Do you want me to get rid of them?" Loki asked, any sign of mirth now gone. His face was shuttered and cold; if Tony gave the word, he would lay waste to the three intruders until there was nothing left. It was a much more tempting offer than it should have been.
Regretfully, Tony shook his head. "No. If those three don't come back, they'll just keep sending more people. And while I know you'd happily keep at it, I really don't want to keep being disturbed." It was bad enough that it was happening now. What the hell did Rogers and Romanov want after five years of complete radio silence? Part of him dreaded finding out, but Tony was almost positive that they weren't here for Loki. No. They were here for him.
"Should I come with you?" Loki said, setting Tony down.
"Not yet," Tony said after a moment's thought. "I want to see what they want first. No sense in showing our whole hand right away." He grabbed his watch off the counter and slid it on. It still functioned as a glove when need be, but the improved nanobots were far superior. He kissed Loki one more time and then walked over to the door to the kitchen.
There, he paused a moment to mentally prep himself for what was no doubt going to be a very painstaking and difficult conversation. There was zero doubt in Tony's mind that Rogers and Romanov had to want something. Neither one of them had ever bothered to follow up with him once he'd told them what had happened in space. It was like once Tony ceased to be useful to them, he ceased to matter. So, if they were here now, that meant there was some way for Tony to be useful. Just the thought of it all made his head start to ache.
Last time he'd been useful to them, he had nearly died. He'd been left a battered, broken, changed man. It had ended his relationship with Pepper. He tightened his right hand into a fist and drew his shoulders up, tipping his chin up proudly. It had been a while since he'd had to pull that old genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist mask into place, and he wasn't wearing a three-piece tailored suit... but the mask still settled over him comfortably in spite of his torn jeans and stained button-up shirt. Wearing a blank expression, Tony opened the door and stepped out onto the porch.
"Tony!" Rogers said, stopping short at the sight of him. The years had been good to him. Rogers still looked as young as the day Tony had departed from the Compound. He had gotten rid of his beard, which had always had the effect of making him look younger, and his hair was styled a little differently, but those were the only changes that Tony could pick out.
"Good afternoon," Tony said curtly, glancing next at Romanov. The very first thing he noticed was that she was growing her hair out. It hung around her shoulders, natural red at the top to her chin where the strands changed to blond. The effect didn't look bad, but it definitely stole attention to her, and it made him wonder if she had, however temporarily, given up the spy game. Without Fury, SHIELD had quietly crumbled from within. So far as Tony knew, and his reach extended pretty far, SHIELD as it was no longer existed, which had left Romanov out of a job.
So far as he could tell, it showed. There more lines in her face than Tony remembered, and she looked pale and thin. A small part of her wanted to unwind and invite her in for a cup of coffee, but Tony refrained. Romanov had toed the line between him and Rogers for a long time, but she had made her choice when she joined the rest of the Avengers in Wakanda. The friend that Tony had always thought she was didn't exist; he had to remember that. Especially now that he had people who actually loved and cared about him. He touched the ring on his finger and felt a little calmer.
"We, ah, we wanted to talk to you, but none of your old numbers were working," Rogers said with a glance at Romanov. "No one seemed to know the new number... all we could get was that this was where you lived."
"Okay," Tony said. "What do you need?"
Rogers adopted a wounded look. "Can't we just come by to see how you're doing?"
"I don't think anyone believes that, so spare me," Tony said. “I’m only going to ask this one more time. Why are you here?”
“We need your help,” Romanov said abruptly, apparently deciding to drop all the pleasantries. “We – well, Scott Lang approached us with an idea for how we might be able to fix things. But it’s not something we’re capable of doing with you.” Her face took on a sour expression, like she’d sucked on a lemon. It had to cost her some pride to admit that to Tony’s face.
“Scott Lang?” Tony repeated, the name ringing a faint bell.
“Aw, come on. You still don’t remember me?” The back door on the passenger’s side of the truck swung up and a man clambered out awkwardly. Tony squinted at him.
“Wait… Ant Man?” he said, surprised. He vaguely remembered how furious Hope and her father had been after the Ant Man suit went missing. The two of them had taken a lot of flack for Ant Man’s participation in the so-called civil war. Lang was probably lucky that Hope had died in the Decimation, or she would be trying to beat his ass through the floor.
Lang brightened. “Yeah! That’s right. I have this theory. A time travel theory.”
“Time travel,” Tony said. “Seriously? Your grand plan is time travel?” He couldn’t help the derisive hint that crept into his voice.
Living with a god for five years had taught Tony a fair amount about magic and science. He was willing to concede, if somewhat grudgingly, that science could be considered a branch of magic – sometimes. And in doing so, he had learned that each branch of magic had its own rules. That included time travel. It wasn’t something for just anyone to mess around with. Whole universes had died out that way.
The door behind Tony opened. Romanov tensed, her hand flying to her hip, as a sleek black cat prowled out and began twining lazily around Tony’s ankles. Tony would’ve bet good money that the sight of the cat’s unnaturally green eyes was freaking Romanov out, just like he was 100% sure that Romanov was carrying more than one weapon at the moment. Fortunately, she had no idea that Loki would kill her before she could even think about drawing the gun holstered to her hip.
“I never pegged you as a cat person,” Romanov said tightly.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Tony said. “Get up here. Sit.” He motioned to the chairs on the porch. They might as well be comfortable while he figured out how much they knew about something so dangerous.
Unsurprisingly, Lang was the first one up the steps. He sank into the closest chair with an exhausted expression, sighing in relief. Romanov and Rogers were slower to follow, walking up the steps like they expected something to jump out at them. Tony only sat once they had, and Loki immediately leapt up onto his lap, plunked himself down and just sat there staring at Romanov.
“Okay, so it’s like this…” Lang said. He explained his theory to Tony, who listened very carefully. And while he listened, he kept an eye on the other two. The desperate, hungry gleam in Rogers’s eyes was a little creepy. It hit Tony that he’d seen that look before, and he knew then what this was all about.
After Tony had returned from space, Rhodey had given him the list of Avengers who had died in the Decimation. It had been a long list, but it had only taken Tony a few minutes to realize that the list of everyone else who had perished was even longer. Even now there were still people who were a question mark, assumed to have died because of Thanos but with no proof because no one had been there when they faded away.
But the Winter Soldier had not been one of them. He’d disintegrated right in front of Rogers’s face. Tony had never spoken to Rogers about it – he hadn’t wanted to, not when Barnes was the motivator for so many fights between them – but he was sure that had devastated Rogers. And it didn’t surprise Tony in the slightest that Rogers had never given up on getting Barnes back. There was no length that Rogers wouldn’t go to where his best friend was concerned.
Romanov’s reasons for being here were a little murkier. It could’ve been on Barton’s behalf; Tony knew that the Barton family had also died in the Decimation, and some sources had told him that Barton had reportedly gone off the deep end. Or it could’ve just been that she was following along in Rogers’s wake. Romanov was a little bit like a lost duckling that way.
“So, what do you think?” Lang asked, and Tony started when he realized that Lang was giving him an expectant look.
“It’s not feasible,” Tony replied calmly.
“What do you mean? Scott said it will work!” Rogers burst out immediately, before Lang could even open his mouth.
“And I’m telling you that it won’t,” Tony said, looking him in the eye. “There are a lot of variables that haven’t been taken into account here.”
“Then take them into account. Isn’t that what your genius brain does?” Romanov said sarcastically.
“Yup, that’s it. All of you can leave now,” Tony announced, getting up. Loki leapt gracefully to the floor.
“But Tony, you don’t understand,” Rogers said.
“I understand perfectly. It’s you who doesn’t. Playing around with things like this could destroy the universe. You may not get that, but I do.” Tony crossed his arms. “Go.”
He started to turn away, which was a mistake; he should’ve expected that Rogers wouldn’t react well. Rogers lunged towards him and made a grab for Tony’s wrist. Tony jerked away, horrified. Then, suddenly, there was a black cat between them, and Rogers was yelling in pain. He staggered back and this time made a grab for Loki, who had sunk his claws deep into Rogers’s crotch.
“Steve!” Romanov was shouting.
“I said go!” Tony yelled over both of them, and Loki released Rogers. Rogers looked at Tony like he was the one who’d been betrayed, then hobbled away with Romanov and Lang in tow. Tony didn’t move until all three of them were in the truck and driving away. Only then did he let himself sink into the chair, cold to the bone. He’d thought he was over what happened in Siberia – so much had happened since then – but one false move from Rogers and he’d gone straight back.
Loki reappeared, expression radiating fury, and gently took Tony’s arm. “Come on, let’s get you inside.”
Tony lay on their bed and listened to the sounds of Loki getting ready to join him. Their room would’ve been large with by anyone’s standards; in addition to the usual furniture, there was a sitting nook at the far end by the balcony doors. It was the spot in the cabin to get the morning sunlight, and Tony loved sitting there with a cup of coffee when he had to get up early.
He loved their cabin. He loved the life that he and Loki had built together. It wasn’t what anyone would’ve expected of Tony Stark, but that was part of what Tony liked so much about it. Here, away from the hustle and bustle of the city and out of the eyes of the press, Tony could truly relax for what felt like the first time in his life. He hated the fact that Rogers and Romanov had intruded on that.
The lights outside the bedroom turned off and Loki strolled in a moment later, clad only in a green silk bathrobe that did terrible things to Tony’s heart. The material clung to Loki’s curves in ways that should’ve been illegal, and the worst part was that Loki damn well knew it. He gave Tony a sultry smile as he paused before the bed, slowly reaching for the belt that kept the robe shut.
“Wait!” Tony said, then immediately hated himself.
“Do you want be to dance for you?” Loki asked, fingering the belt. This time, his smile was wholly sly and Tony had to bite back the ‘fuck yes’ that he was so desperate to blurt out. Loki’s dances never failed to be the hottest thing on the planet, especially when he tied Tony to the bed beforehand to make sure that Tony didn’t break the rule of ‘look, don’t touch’.
“Not yet. I think… ugh, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we need to talk before the fun sexy times,” Tony said.
Loki sighed, his casual sexiness seeping away to be replaced by annoyance. “Don’t tell me you’re actually considering what those idiots said.”
“Well… time travel is probably the only way to change things back,” Tony said. “I would never leave it to them to do, because fuck knows what they would actually end up doing, but…” He fiddled with the blankets pulled up over his lap, not meeting Loki’s eye. “If someone with an impeccable knowledge of magic were to team up with a brilliant scientist, maybe we could avoid drastically ending the world and still save people.”
“Flattery won’t get you anywhere,” Loki grumbled, which was a bald-faced lie and they both knew it. Tony looked up at him with a smirk that said as much and Loki pouted in response, deliberately flopping onto the bed hard enough to make Tony bounce.
“I’m just saying. I know how dangerous time travel is. I’ve heard your stories and I believe them. But… don’t we owe it to people to at least consider it?” Tony said. It was a genuine question.
Living with Loki for five years had gone a long way towards helping Tony realize that he didn’t have to always be the one who sacrificed himself. It had given Tony the space to recognize just how toxic the Avengers had been for him: they had always been the ones who expected Tony to prove himself, and he always came up short in their eyes no matter what he did. Having someone who loved him, really loved him and who was in love with everything that he was, was still a novel experience.
“Perhaps,” Loki said slowly, looking thoughtful. “But perhaps not.”
“What do you mean?” Tony asked, rolling onto his side.
“What Thanos did was terrible, and it took everyone a very long time to figure things out... But just last week, you said it yourself; it seems like the Earth is finally getting to the point that things are stabilizing and we’re finally capable of not just surviving, but moving on. Do you really think that suddenly dumping several million people back into an economy that isn’t prepared for them is the best course of action?” Loki’s eyes were intent on Tony’s face.
Tony opened his mouth and then closed it as he imagined the potential consequences of that. Things had changed dramatically in the past five years. People had gone a little crazy when the Decimation happened. Tony, and people like him, had done their best to mitigate the potential shock waves, but there was no denying that reversing what Thanos had done would put them right back where they started.
There was the potential for literally millions of people to be without homes, just as one example. Their houses and apartments would’ve long since been sold or rented to others. Most bank accounts were still frozen so far as Tony knew, and trying to untangle that mess was going to be a literal nightmare. And what about even the most basic things like food and water? Who was going to be responsible for providing all those people with that? It would take months, if not years, to get everything figured out.
He pursed his lips and sighed through his nose, realizing that Loki had a very good point. “I guess you’re right in that respect,” he allowed. “I just… when I think of Peter…”
Loki reached out and set a hand on Tony’s. “You can’t make it personal,” he said, very quietly. “I know what I would give to have my mother back if I could, but something like this is bigger than just you.”
“I just… I don’t think I’m the right person to make this choice,” Tony said.
“Who is?” Loki asked frankly, scoffing. “The government? Hardly. They would do what was best for them, not necessarily what was best for the world. And if you took this to the general public, you’d have just as many people threatening you if you don’t change time as you would people threatening you if you did. I’d argue that you are exactly the right person to make this choice.”
“You believe in me way too much,” Tony said, leaning over to give Loki a gentle kiss on the mouth.
“Or you don’t believe in yourself enough,” Loki said, shifting to allow Tony to lay his head on Loki’s shoulder.
“Maybe,” Tony said absently, brow furrowed in thought. “I don’t suppose that just changing time entirely is an option, is it? Like erasing the present and going back to that time?” He really didn’t want to do that. He loved his life too much. When he thought about losing the life he and Loki had built, it ached in ways he couldn’t properly express. But he had to ask.
“No,” Loki said, thankfully cutting that off at the pass. “All you would do is create an alternate timeline. This timeline would still exist. There are ways to destroy timelines, but they tend to require a lot more destruction and cruelty than you would be comfortable with.” His fingers ran idly through Tony’s hair.
“Okay,” Tony said, relieved that option was off the table entirely. Rogers and Romanov may not have moved on, but Tony had. So had Pepper and Happy. He’d walked Pepper down the aisle at their wedding four years ago, and was godfather to their daughter. Rhodey had managed to move on too in spite of losing his parents in the Decimation; he was still single, but he was a very content ladies man with a multitude of dates during any given week.
“Besides, I wouldn’t let you do that anyway. I like what we have. I wouldn’t want to lose it,” Loki said.
Tony looked up at him. “I like it too.” He leaned up and pressed his mouth to Loki’s, savoring the familiar warmth and pressure. If they reversed everything that had happened, there was a good chance he might not end up with Loki. He and Pepper had only broken up after Tony returned from space, after all. Not long after, a wounded Loki had shown up, much to Thor’s eternal joy. Things had progressed slowly between him and Tony, but now Tony could honestly say he’d never been happier.
Loki kissed him back, adding a touch of heat to the moment by lightly nipping at Tony’s lower lip. Tony hummed pleasantly, deciding that a distraction would be very handy right now, and allowed Loki to push him onto his back. Loki followed the roll, straddling Tony’s hips. His eyes were dark with desire. Tony skimmed his hands up Loki’s sides and up onto his shoulders, before pulling Loki down for another passionate kiss.
When they were finished, Tony curled in even more closely to Loki and closed his eyes, sighing. The distraction hadn’t helped as much as he had hoped. Though time travel had been the furthest thing from his mind for a precious few seconds, everything had come rushing back now that he was catching his breath. Instead of post-coital lassitude, his brain was spinning.
The loss of Peter Parker still hurt in ways that Tony couldn’t properly put into words. Peter had been such a good kid, with a strong work ethic and a sense of humor that would’ve taken him a long well. Hell, the kid had been Spider-Man just for the sole purpose of helping other people even though it made Peter’s life infinitely difficult. And what was Peter’s reward? Being robbed of the chance to grow up. It really wasn’t fair that Peter, and so many other people like him, had had their lives cut off at the pass.
Yet Loki was also right when he said that they couldn’t make this personal. Rogers already had. Tony would’ve been a lot of money on that. Sure, having all those people back would be great… but not at the potential economic collapse of the world. And that wasn’t even thinking about the countless planets out there whose factors couldn’t be taken into consideration because Tony didn’t know enough about that. Something like this wouldn’t just effect the Earth, after all.
He lay awake thinking about it long after Loki had fallen asleep. Finally, around 2am, Tony gently separated himself from his husband and got up. He picked up Loki’s silk robe from the floor and wrapped it around himself as he made his way down to his workshop. There was no doubt in his mind that between him and Loki, science and magic, they could make time travel work. They might not even need the Pym Particles to do it.
But should they? Were the risks too great? Was the reward too small? Those were the questions Tony didn’t know how to answer. It sounded absolutely terrible to think that saving millions of people wasn’t enough of a reward, but if by saving them, they doomed everyone… Tony sank into his chair in front of his desk and sat there, staring vacantly at air above the desk. After several minutes, FRIDAY spoke up.
“Boss?” she asked. “You need something.”
“I need answers,” Tony said, rubbing his forehead tiredly.
“About what? I can search for them,” FRIDAY said eagerly, and Tony had to smile. FRIDAY had never developed JARVIS’s sassy attitude, but she was always sweet and ready to please.
“Thanks, baby girl. But the kinds of answers I need can’t be found on the internet.” He could just imagine the headache that would result if he posted this online. This kind of moral, ethical dilemma didn’t have a right or wrong answer. A case could be made for both instances.
He was still there in his chair when dawn broke, flooding the room with light. Loki shuffled in about an hour later, hair in disarray and eyes heavy with sleep. He pouted at Tony – Loki had never liked waking up alone – and shuffled over. Tony was expecting a good morning kiss, and ended up squeaking in surprise when Loki sat down in his lap instead. He automatically looped an arm around Loki’s waist to steady him.
“Have you been here all night?” Loki asked.
“Yeah. Couldn’t sleep. Just… just thinking,” Tony said with a heavy sigh. “What do you think we should do?”
“It’s not really –”
“Nope, it is. You’d be helping me to do it,” Tony pointed out.
Loki tapped his foot on the floor in thought. “I’m not a hero like you. When I look at a situation like this, I tend to err on the side of caution. Yes, what happened was terrible. Yes, most of those people are missed. But… to me, the risks significantly outweigh the potential benefits. Using the Infinity Stones is extraordinarily dangerous and difficult, and that’s saying we would be able to collect them all. I’m not even sure how we’d get the Soul Stone. But you…” He ran a finger down Tony’s cheek. “I suspect you have a different answer in mind, don’t you?”
Tony’s sheepish smile was his only response.
Tony whistled softly as he ducked out of the clothing store, bags hanging from his arm. Twice a week, he and Loki made the trek into a nearby town for supplies. Once a month, they made the longer drive to the city. Tony was toying with the idea of increasing those trips, but for right now he was perfectly content with once a month. The city had changed a lot, and as much as he loved New York it was no longer a place where he felt wholly comfortable.
Plus, there was the fact that Loki didn’t have to hide himself here. He’d been caught without his glamor one day. People who had initially recognized Loki had been wary, and rightfully so. But Loki had more than proven himself over the past four years, and now Tony was pretty sure that the town loved Loki more than they loved Tony. It had gotten to the point where Loki didn’t even need to use his alias. He didn’t have to be Luke Osmund here; he was just Loki. And Tony knew that meant considerably more to Loki than Loki would ever be willing to admit.
He put the bags into the back of the car and turned to observe the street, wondering where his husband had gone off to. Most likely the kids had kidnapped him. Tony had to smile at the thought. He’d never thought Loki would be a person who liked kids, but Tony had been very wrong. Loki adored children. He was incredibly gentle and endlessly patient, even knowing how to calm a crying baby with just a hug and a few words.
Magical, Tony thought, shoving his hands in his pockets and ambling down the street. There was no other word for it. Truth be told, it was making him thinking about a kid of their own. Either through adoption, or maybe even surrogacy. Tony had never seriously considered kids before, but seeing Loki holding a cute little boy or girl… well, it did things to him that he hadn’t anticipated.
No sooner had his foot hit sidewalk for the main road than Tony heard a gunshot. He froze for a moment, the sound so unexpected that he couldn’t even be sure he’d really heard it – but then the screaming started, and he snapped out of his shock. Yeah that definitely been a gunshot, and it was coming from somewhere directly ahead. He sprinted up the street as fast as he could.
“Oh my god, she’s got a gun!” someone shrieked up ahead. A dozen panicking people rushed past him, going in the opposite direction.
There was only one person who leaped to mind. Only one person who had been in the immediate vicinity of the area with a gun in the past three days – only one person who would go into a public area and start shooting. Tony prayed that he was wrong, but as he burst into the town square, he realized instantly that he wasn’t. Sure enough, Natasha Romanov was standing there with a gun aimed at Loki.
It was a scene straight out of Tony’s nightmares. His chest constricted for a moment out of pure fear. Loki was at a disadvantage, because he was holding a small child in his arms and there were still too many civilians around. Though it didn’t seem like Romanov cared very much about that: she kept her gun trained on Loki even as Rogers tried to get closer.
“Come here, it’s okay,” Rogers said, holding his arms out to the child in Loki’s arms.
“Give him the child, Loki,” Romanov commanded.
“I certainly will not,” Loki said, wrapping a free arm around the child.
“What the hell is going on here?!” Tony demanded.
“Tony!” Rogers looked relieved to see him. “It’s okay, we’re working on containing the situation.”
“What situation?” Tony said, unsure if he should laugh or cry. “Because from where I’m standing, it looks a lot like Romanov opened up fire in the middle of a crowd of innocent people.”
“It’s Loki!” Rogers said, gesturing expansively. “He’s trying to kidnap a child!”
“Actually, I was helping her to fix her dress,” Loki muttered, but Tony was pretty sure that neither Rogers nor Romanov heard him.
“For god’s sake,” Tony said, storming over to Loki. He gently took the little girl from Loki’s arms, balancing her on his hip. She grabbed onto him with her both hands and buried her head in Tony’s shoulder. His heart melted, but he held it together. He carried her over to one of the women who was watching and gently passed her over.
Rogers watched this, mouth open.
“What’s going on?” Romanov said suddenly, her eyes darting between them.
“Well, my husband and I were having a nice day out in town,” Tony snapped, returning to Loki’s side. He took Loki’s hand, lacing their fingers together.
“Husband?” Romanov repeated, sounding incredulous, eyes darting back and forth between them. Rogers made a low, wordless sound, eyes the size of saucers.
“Yes, husband,” Tony said, feeling a flicker of satisfaction at the complete shock that was happening in front of him. Neither Rogers nor Romanov had made mention of his husband when they showed up at the cabin. He’d wondered if they realized he was married. Apparently not. Figures, he finally managed to pull something over on them and he hadn’t even been trying. His marriage to Loki – well, to Luke Osmund, anyway – was nice and legal. More importantly, the certificate was open to the public. There was a small chance they just hadn’t equated Luke Osmund with Loki…
“I didn’t – you – what about Pepper?” Rogers stuttered.
Tony looked at him with the frostiest expression he could muster. “Pepper and I are friends and colleagues,” he said. At least that answered that question. The two of them had done exactly zero research before showing up, or they also would’ve seen records of Pepper’s marriage to Happy. He couldn’t believe that Romanov had ever tried to pass herself off as a hacker.
“She broke up with you, and instead you married Loki?” Romanov said judgmentally.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but Pepper’s and my relationship ended companionably,” Tony shot back.
“And you just happened to marry Loki. Loki, who tried to destroy New York. Loki, who has been our enemy since the Avengers began,” she said. Tony couldn’t tell whether she thought Loki was controlling him, or whether she thought Tony had sunk too low. Knowing her, she was conflicted about which would be the worst of the two options to think of him.
“I didn’t just happen to do anything. I married Loki on purpose,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “But it’s good to know that you haven’t lost your ability to jump to conclusion.”
Her eyes flashed. “What did he do, brainwash you?”
“Go to hell, Romanov,” Tony sneered. “There is way more to the story than you realize. Maybe if either of you had bothered to keep in contact with me over the past five years, you’d know what it was.” He looked down his nose at both of them. After Tony had returned from space, the Avengers had rapidly drifted apart – Rogers and Romanov had left the compound that very day. Thor was the only one he and Loki had consistent contact with, much to Loki’s (feigned) disgust.
“Tony don’t be like that! What did you expect us to do when there’s a supervillain standing here?” Rogers demanded. “In fact, I think you should get away from Loki.”
Tony looked over Rogers’s shoulder. “And I think you should go quietly with the police.”
“Wh-what?!” Rogers spun around and took a step backwards when he realized that, while he and Romanov were otherwise distracted, the town’s police force had quietly surrounded them. Half a dozen guns were aiming at Romanov.
“Put down your weapon!” one the officers commanded.
“Tell them we didn’t mean any harm,” Romanov said. It took Tony a moment to realize she was speaking to him, and he raised his eyebrows incredulously.
The Avengers had always been strange in their opinions of him. They didn’t think much of Tony, yet they also seemed to think that he controlled everything. The most glaring example was the Accords, were always his fault and not the decision of a hundred plus countries. Even now, Romanov was looking at him expectantly like Tony could wave a hand and a crowd of police officers would immediately bow their heads.
“But you did mean harm. You fired into a crowd of civilians at my husband,” he pointed out. “Do as the officer says, Romanov, before you cause anymore trouble.”
“But – that’s Loki!” Rogers exclaimed, pointing at Loki.
“My name is Luke,” Loki said, giving Rogers a disdainful look. Tony noticed Romanov flinching when Loki spoke, and concealed a smirk.
“No, it’s Loki!” Rogers said. “Tony admitted it! You all heard him!” He looked frantically around at the crowd, only to be met with a bunch of blank expressions.
“That’s Mr. Osmund,” Shari Richards, owner of the local bakery, said with a perfectly straight face.
“He’s Mr. Stark’s husband!” piped up Donald White, owner of the hardware store, and the rest of the crowd murmured their agreement.
“No! You’re all wrong. Loki is dangerous! We were trying to protect that kid. I mean, look at him!” Rogers flung a hand out in Loki’s direction.
Tony turned his head, looking critically at his husband. Loki was dressed casually today in a pair of black boots, skin-tight black jeans and a loose green shirt. His hair was gathered in a loose ponytail at the nape of his neck with a green ribbon. His only jewelry was a gold chain around his neck, which was a gift from Thor, and the gold wedding band on his finger. In Tony’s expert opinion, Loki looked ridiculously hot.
“Ma’am, you won’t be told again. Put down your weapon,” the officer said again, apparently deciding to disregard Rogers entirely.
Romanov hesitated before slowly lowering her weapon. She knelt, setting it on the ground. That was all the officers needed. They swarmed her and Rogers, who thankfully didn’t try to resist. Tony didn’t feel like putting on the Iron Man armor today, but he gladly would’ve if it meant having to protect people who were just trying to do their jobs from a supersoldier who didn’t always know his own strength.
“It’s fine. I’ll speak to Coulson,” Romanov hissed at Rogers as she was lifted to her feet, and Tony immediately whipped out his phone and sent Coulson a text. Following Fury’s death in the Snap, Coulson had emerged publicly as the new head of SHIELD. He and Tony weren’t on the best of terms, but Tony knew that Coulson would be very interested to hear what the Black Widow had been up to. He probably wouldn’t take kindly to the fact that someone who was supposed to be one of SHIELD’s best spies was making a very public spectacle of herself.
“Right,” Rogers said. “We’ll be back for you, Tony!”
“Please don’t,” Tony said dryly, watching as the two of them were hastily led away. He was pretty sure they wouldn’t actually end up in prison – there was still a lot of residual fame and adulation for the Avengers - but he wasn’t going to do anything to help them, either.
Two officers came to speak to Tony and Loki individually, asking for their statements. Tony gave his, watching as a third officer went around to the rest of the crowd. That’s when he noticed the slightly familiar face standing amongst the townspeople. He finished up with the officer and, since Loki was still doing his statement, walked over to speak to Scott Lang.
“Uh, hey,” Lang said uncomfortably. “Sorry about… that.” He waved a hand to indicate where Rogers and Romanov had gone. “I didn’t know they were gonna do that, I swear.”
“I believe you,” Tony said, and he really did. Lang had no prior history with Loki and didn’t seem like the kind of guy that would pull a gun out in the middle of a crowd – especially when there were kids around.
Lang looked relieved at that. “Good. That’s good. Cause I know it’s been five years, but that would probably still be a violation of my parole,” he admitted. “We were going for breakfast and they just freaked out all of a sudden. Is that really Loki?”
“Yeah, it is,” Tony said. “They didn’t know that?”
“No, Natasha said you were married to Pepper,” Lang said.
“Of course she did.” Tony shoved his hands in his pockets, giving Lang a critical look. The guy didn’t look great, honestly. Of course, he’d spent five years trapped in the Quantum Realm. That would throw anyone for a loop. He wondered if Lang even realized the potential effects that could have on a person.
“So, uh… I guess… I guess the plan is officially off the table now?” Lang said, making it sound like a question.
“Well, I told you all to get off my property,” Tony said.
“Natasha seemed to think that you were just posturing,” Lang said awkwardly. “And that once you got over yourself, you’d come around. Rogers said that you were still trying to make up for everything, and that you wouldn’t feel you had a choice once you really thought about it.”
Tony flushed with anger. “Oh, they did, did they?” He wanted to snap, wanted to scream or punch something, but controlled himself. It wasn’t Lang’s fault.
“Yeah but… I’m guessing they were wrong, so… I’m just gonna…” Lang took a step back.
“Hang on,” Tony said, and Lang paused. Tony sighed. “Wanna come to my place for lunch?”
Lang’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”
“Seriously,” Tony replied.
As it turned out, Lang didn’t really have anywhere to go. Hank and Hope van Dyne had been lost in the Decimation, which Tony had already known about. Lang mumbled something about his daughter, his ex-wife and her husband as lunch was finishing up, but it didn’t take a genius to picture just how awkward that had to be. Tony sighed and silently pointed Lang into the guest room.
“We have another stray,” he announced as he ambled out onto the patio. Loki was sitting in their favorite spot: a swing meant for two, positioned so that it could look out over the lake. Annabelle, their black cat who came and went as she pleased, was curled up on Loki’s lap.
Loki snorted. “Does that surprise you?” he asked, tilting his head back until he could shoot Tony a sly smirk. “You bring home more strays than a child with a fondness for injured animals.”
“Rude,” Tony said with a huff, sliding into the seat beside Loki. “I haven’t brought home a stray since Nightcrawler needed a place to crash for the night.” He paused, screwing his face up in thought. “Or wait, was that before or after Tigra and Jessica stayed with us for a week?”
He grinned as Loki sighed and rolled his eyes. He knew that Loki didn’t really mind their visitors, but that didn’t mean Loki couldn’t and wouldn’t tease him about it. Their sprawling cabin, with its five guest rooms, had become a safe place for much of the superhero community. Tony could never be sure if he’d wake up to find Valkyrie at the kitchen table or Wolverine smoking a cigar outside.
Good thing no one else had been here when Rogers and Romanov had shown up. Tony smirked to himself, picturing that. They were probably unaware, but the names of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov, and Clint Barton were mud in the superhero community. None of the three had faced any legal repercussions for their actions before Thanos arrived on Earth, much to the consternation of pretty much everyone. Tony wasn’t the only one who was frustrated to see them walk away with no consequences.
But on top of that, Rogers and Romanov hadn’t taken it upon themselves to make up for what they’d done. Both of them had gone quiet, only surfacing on occasion to make a mess of things. Barton, on the other hand, had gone totally off the deep end and started hunting people. Tony knew of more than a few superheroes who had Barton in their line of sight as a considerable threat, so his days were definitely numbered.
It was widespread opinion that it was only a matter of time before Rogers or Romanov fucked up in a way that couldn’t be written off. Tony leaned his head against Loki’s shoulder and idly wondered if that day had finally come. Firing into a crowd of civilians wasn’t the worst crime either of them had committed, but it was up there. Romanov could’ve easily hit someone other than Loki. She could’ve hit a kid.
“What are you thinking?” Loki asked quietly.
“Just… wondering how I got tangled up with such dumb people,” Tony admitted. “In retrospect… I can see it all so clearly. But at the time…”
“Well, there’s a saying that hindsight is 20/20 for a reason,” Loki said, lacing their fingers together. He stroked a purring Annabelle’s head with his free hand. “Perhaps someday soon they’ll no longer be your concern.”
“I hope so.” Tony used his foot to start the swing, gently pushing them backwards before letting up. “I’m just worried about what’ll happen when that someday comes. The kind of behavior they displayed today was seriously unhinged. Even if you had been a danger, that’s not the way to handle it. That kid was not in immediate danger, but Romanov could’ve hit someone… killed someone…”
Loki sighed. “You know I wouldn’t have let that happen. I stopped her bullet.”
“I know, but you shouldn’t have had to,” Tony said. “I’m definitely not working with either of them. They’re too unstable. I can’t be sure that they’ll do what they’re supposed to do, you know? How do I know we wouldn’t go back in time and the two of them would go totally off the rails?” He didn’t say it, but how did he know that Barnes wouldn’t become Rogers’s first priority? If they happened to encounter a past version of the Winter Soldier, Rogers would absolutely deviate from their plan. There was no doubt in Tony’s mind about that.
“I don’t disagree.” Loki fell quiet, and Tony knew that he wanted to ask if Tony had made his decision. But, out of respect for not pressuring Tony, he wouldn’t bring it up again until Tony did. Tony loved him for that.
They sat there and just relaxed until it got dark. Annabelle got up, stretched, and leaped down from Loki’s lap with a plaintive meow. Loki chuckled and got up, following her into the kitchen to feed her. Tony remained where he was, watching the reflection of the moon and the stars in the water. Every so often, an animal or a falling leaf would distort the surface and cause ripples.
He realized then that he had made his decision and just hadn’t known it. There was no way he and Loki could go back in time to fix things. What was done was done, and there was no safe way to change it at this point. What good would it do to save those who had been lost if, in the process, they destroyed everyone who had been left behind? It just wasn’t worth it.
Hot tears stung his eyes, rolling down his cheeks. In the dark, with only nature for company, Tony Stark said a final, quiet goodbye to Peter Parker and everyone else who had been killed in the wake of what Thanos had done.
It was three full days before Lang approached him about it, which was honestly two days longer than Tony had anticipated. Tony was sitting at the breakfast table, finishing off a cup of coffee, when Lang slid into the chair opposite him with a nervous look. Knowing what that meant, Tony sighed and held up a finger. He got up, refilled his cup of coffee, and then sat back down.
“We can’t do it, Lang,” he said quietly.
“Call me Scott,” Lang said automatically, and then, “What?”
“Scott,” Tony repeated. “I’ve put a lot of thought into it. Your ideas aren’t unrealistic, but I won’t help you.”
Now if this had been Rogers, Romanov, or Barton, or maybe even Bruce, this would’ve been the moment when they flew completely off the handle. Tony found himself unconsciously bracing for that reaction, ready to be shouted at, scolded, mocked or even physically threatened depending on who it was. He wasn’t prepared for Scott to sit back with a thoughtful expression, looking at Tony for a solid few seconds before responding.
“Can I ask why?”
Tony blinked in surprise. “Uh… sure. Well, there are several reasons actually,” he said slowly. “For one thing, the Gauntlet is incredibly dangerous to wield. I don’t know if Rogers or Romanov told you, but using it nearly killed Thanos. I’m not sure a human or even an Asgardian could wield it, and if they did, and they were able to make use of the stones before they were destroyed, the use of the Gauntlet would probably still kill them.”
And while Tony would happily sacrifice himself for that cause if he had to, he was being honest when he said he wasn’t sure a human was capable of it. Knowing his luck, he’d slide the Gauntlet on and die before the stones even did what he wanted them to do.
“I didn’t know that,” Scott said. “I, uh, didn’t get much chance to research what happened here.”
“That’s okay. I’m guessing that means you also don’t know that the Soul Stone requires a sacrifice to get,” Tony said.
“A sacrifice?” Scott said. “Like…”
“A soul for a soul is how Loki put it,” Tony said solemnly.
Scott paled slightly. “Yeah… I didn’t know that either. That’s…” He whistled softly and shook his head. “No one mentioned that part. How did Thanos get it?”
“He killed someone. Someone he said was important to him,” Tony said, remember the grief from Peter Quill and Nebula. Quill was gone now, of course, but Nebula dropped by to stay with Tony and Loki several times a year. It wasn’t uncommon for Tony to wake up, walk into the kitchen, and find her and Loki talking about different planets as though Nebula had never left.
“Shit,” Scott muttered.
“Pretty much. Plus… even if we didn’t have those barriers, there are other logistical issues in place.” Tony straightened up slightly, looking Scott in the eye. “We don’t have the resources for all those people. Things like food production have been scaled way back, and there’s no time to ramp it up to that degree in a matter of days. Plus, you’re looking at a total collapse of the economy. There aren’t enough jobs. There’s not enough money. There’s not even enough homes. People would be homeless.”
“I didn’t…” Scott’s mouth hung open slightly.
Tony forged on, wanting him to fully understand. “Even places like Stark Industries could only make so much difference. It’s just not feasible. Then you’ve got other, slightly less dramatic, issues, but they’re still important to consider. What about people who have moved on and remarried? Children who were adopted because their parents died in the Decimation? Things have moved on without all those people. It’s been five years.”
Scott remained quiet, and said nothing. His eyes were huge.
“And finally... there are a lot of people who died indirectly because of Thanos. People were on planes that crashed because the pilot was gone. People who died in surgeries when doctors vanished. People were died in car crashes because vehicles suddenly didn’t have drivers.” Tony waved his hand, because there were countless examples. “People who –”
“I get it,” Scott interrupted. “I… fuck. I really didn’t put much thought into this plan, did I? Time travel… it just seemed so exciting.”
“It wasn’t a bad plan. And not many people can say they’ve actually figured out time travel,” Tony said, softening. “Your idea could actually work. The problem is more the logistics surrounding it. Logistics that we can’t change. Even if we could use the stones to account for all the other issues – and that’s a huge if, because then you’re expanding what you’re using them for and the intensity would be exponentially worse – you’ve still got the problem of who would be able to use them and the issue of how we would get them.”
“Right.” Scott drummed his fingers on the table, his expression falling into a sad, wistful look that Tony recognized because he’d seen it in the mirror dozens of times. The face of a man who was accepting that he had to say good-bye to the people he had lost.
“I’m sorry,” Tony said quietly.
“What? No. It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t – I have got carried away. It was just… really cool. Popping out of the Quantum Realm, going to see Captain America, knowing how to save the world…” Scott flushed. “In retrospect, none of us really thought about it seriously. Natasha and Steve just jumped on board.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me,” Tony said carefully. “I don’t think that either of them are big on the whole moving on thing.”
“I can tell,” Scott said. He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “Wow. I don’t really know what to do now.”
“You’re welcome to stay here for as long as you need to,” Tony told him. “Loki and I won’t kick you out.” And he didn’t mind using his connections to get Scott a job somewhere. There would be plenty of people who’d jump at the chance to get a better understanding of the Quantum Realm now that Hank, and all of his research, was gone forever. Perhaps Scott could help fill in a lot of the empty gaps.
“Thanks,” Scott said, shyly pleased. “I’ll accept that offer. What do you think will happen to Steve and Natasha?”
“Oh… that’s hard to say. They could get off, or they might not. It’s not really my concern.” Tony shrugged. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who could make the time travel work, and you’re the only person with knowledge about the Pym Particles anyway. Without us, they can’t do anything.” He eyed Scott meaningfully.
Scott picked up on that, nodding. “I get it. I’m letting the time travel plan go.”
“Good.” Tony stood up, bringing his coffee cup with him. “Feel free to help yourself to anything. The only places I ask you to avoid are my workshop, which is in the basement, and our bedroom. FRIDAY can help you with anything you need.”
“FRIDAY?” Scott repeated.
“Good morning, Mr. Lang,” FRIDAY piped up. Scott squeaked in alarm, then sat straight up with a look of childlike wonder. Tony hid a smile behind his cup as he walked over to the sink. He finished his coffee and slipped out while Scott was besieging FRIDAY with questions.
As expected, Loki was standing in the hallway, blatantly eavesdropping. He silently reached out and pulled Tony into a hug. Tony went with it, melting into the much-needed hug and letting out a shuddery sigh. He was relieved that Scott hadn’t argued and had instead taken the time to listen to listen to what Tony had to say rather than jump to conclusions or just assume that Tony’s motivations were negative or wrong.
“I’m proud of you,” Loki said quietly.
That simple sentence made Tony feel warm from head to toe. “You know what? I’m proud of me too,” he admitted, pulling back so he could look into Loki’s beautiful eyes. “I was really struggling there… for a little while, I was thinking that I couldn’t not try. But then I realized that you were right.”
“I’m always right,” Loki said, a teasing sparkle in his eyes, and Tony snorted.
“Uh huh, were you right when we bought the –”
“You promised to stop bringing that up!” Loki interrupted.
Tony chuckled. “Okay, okay. I’m glad you were here. You made me really stop and think about the implications of everything rather than just going along with what my heart thought was right.”
“It’s an unfortunate fact of life that your heart can’t make all the decisions for you,” Loki said, resting his hands on Tony’s shoulders. “Do you think Rogers and Romanov will persist?”
“Oh, I’m 100% sure that they will. I’d be shocked if they didn’t!” Tony replied. He smiled devilishly. “But I know Scott won’t give them what they need now, and besides… I may have spent a while on the phone with Coulson last night. He was really interested to hear what I had to say about those two. I have the feeling that Rogers, Romanov and Barton all have bigger fish to worry about.”
Loki snickered at that. “I love you and your devious mind.”
“I love you too,” Tony said, amused and, he realized, content. He leaned up and gave his husband a kiss, humming happily when Loki eagerly kissed him back. The time to mourn the past was gone; this was the future, and Tony was ready for it.