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Liquid Courage

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November 2012

Tony couldn’t sleep.

This was becoming something of a recurring – and undeniably annoying – scenario. Well, annoying once he’d noticed he was actually having a problem. It had just seemed Business As Usual, at first. He was used to keeping late nights and long hours – used to a spark of inspiration sweeping him up into the arms of his next project, the excitement and the vision of what he saw in his mind’s-eye keeping him lost in the shop and losing track of time.

And there was no denying that, since the fight in New York, the ideas had been coming fast and furious. Additions and enhancements and completely new ways of activating the armor and augmenting the suits, swirling in hypnotic dreamscapes every time he closed his eyes. He’d thought, at first, that it was because he’d hit a new peak of creative inspiration – but as the sleepless hours turned to sleepless nights and then sleepless weeks, he started to understand, on a level he wasn’t quite ready to articulate to himself, that something else was going on. There was some other emotion there, something that was lying buried beneath the creative drive and feverish enthusiasm and sleepless nights.

… but he couldn’t think about that. He wasn’t ready. Not yet.

Tonight fell into the typical pattern he’d found himself fallen into: try to sleep, can’t sleep, do some deep breathing, run through a few mental mathematical equations, check the clock, curse himself for checking the clock because it never left him feeling any more encouraged, do a bit more deep breathing, give up the deep breathing because it never did a damn thing, check the clock again, drop his head back on the pillow in despair; wash, rinse, repeat. The one thing that had broken this night out of the routine was that, instead of whiling away the full eight hours stuck in an insomnia-fueled recursive loop, he gave it up as a lost cause after the first time through.

Sliding out of bed, he fumbled for the sweatshirt he’d left tossed carelessly across the back of the armchair in the corner. He pulled the sweatshirt over his head, and as he was jerking the front of it into place, he looked over at Pepper, still curled up asleep on her side of the bed. Her eyes were closed, breathing deep and even, and he felt something in his face soften as he soaked in a bit of that peacefulness, just for a moment.

But even as he stood there, looking at the one person he loved more than anyone else on this planet (or on any other) – he felt that unnamed emotion beginning to roil up from where he tried to keep it buried deep in his gut. He turned away quickly then, snapping the feeling back where it belonged – shoving it away from him, from where he had to think about it and deal with it and feel it.

He was pretty sure he could outrun it if he kept running hard enough.

His feet padded briskly across the familiar path through the house to the workshop below, and as he felt his pace quicken into something that was nearly, but not quite, a run, the line from the old Carroll book his mother used to read to him popped unbidden into his head:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

“Okay. We’ll try twice as fast, then,” he murmured to himself, as he tapped the code into the panel set into the glass door. He cursed when his fingers slipped and fumbled onto the wrong numbers, and when the panel gave an angry buzz in return, he found himself lowering a fist he hadn’t realized he’d raised a split second before driving said fist into the glass.

“Not a good start, here,” he said in a louder voice, and forced himself to slow, typing the code slowly and deliberately – as if this were only the second or third time he’d input this number into this keypad, as opposed to the fifteen thousandth or so. This time, the panel chirruped in merry agreement, and he opened the door and slipped into the shop with a sigh. He meant it to come out relieved, but instead all he heard in his own breath was weariness.

The automatic lights bloomed into a gentle glow, the lighting subdued to match the late hour. He waited to hear J.A.R.V.I.S. greet him, but the A.I. was strangely silent.

Well. Tony wasn’t certain he was in the mood for company, anyway.

He stood in the middle of the shop and considered, blowing a weary breath out through his teeth. After a moment, he headed over to the corner kitchenette and opened the fridge, staring absently into its contents before grabbing a jar of some leftover yogurt-and-veggie smoothie concoction that he was relatively certain had been green when he’d first put it away. He shut the fridge, then wandered back towards the center of the shop, realizing on a kind of subconscious level that he had no idea what he’d come down here to do – other than retreating to the one place that still seemed to offer him some kind of sanctuary.

Or maybe a hiding place.

Beside the central work counter, Dum-E whirred slightly and swung towards him, mechanical claw turning in place as if the ‘bot was raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“Can’t sleep either, huh?” Tony spun off the lid of the jar of smoothie, then frowned, casting his gaze over the desk for a relatively clean glass. “Yeah, seems to be going around. Nothing a little nightcap can’t cure, right?”

“I certainly hope so,” someone replied, and the suddenness of the sound probably would’ve been enough to make Tony damn near jump out of his skin even if he hadn’t recognized the voice.

Which – he did, oh, he did.

Shit –” The jar had slipped from his hand before he realized what was happening. He made a reflexive, half-hearted grab for the container – but he was already spinning around, eyes darting wildly, and when the jar smashed to the floor, it barely registered.

“Terribly sorry to have startled you,” said the newcomer. He was standing to one side of the shop, in front of the row of hot rods and sports cars – and smiling just slightly, with an air that could’ve been considered damn near close to friendly if he wasn’t who he was. “I would’ve knocked, but I confess my method of arrival isn’t really conducive to such. Temporal portals and spatial wormholes; you know how it is.”

Bare feet slipping through the remains of thickening smoothie, Tony’s hands shot out towards the worktable, scrabbling for the bracelet to call the suit to him. Tools and gadgets and bits of scrap metal crashed to the ground, setting off a cacophony that he prayed to God wouldn’t wake up Pepper and bring her running to join him.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” said Tony, voice sounding only mildly strangled to his own ears. “Ah, it looks like we’ve got a little intruder-alert emergency going on here, buddy. Might be time to call – er – somebody.”

“I assure you,” said the newcomer, hands patting the air in a kind of reassuring gesture that Tony found grimly hilarious, given who it was attempting to do the reassurance. “I’m not here to cause you harm. I was only –”

“SHIELD, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony said. His voice now was high and shaking, but still, he thought, pretty damn impressively level. “You could call up SHIELD for me. Or see what maybe the FBI’s up to.”

“I do believe there’s been some sort of misunderstanding,” said his visitor, with something approaching patience.

“Or a SWAT team. The Navy SEALs. Hell, a bomb squad. Whatever.” And then his memory clicked into gear, and – shit, he’d left the damn bracelet upstairs on the effing bedside table; he could picture himself putting it there as he’d been sliding into bed beside Pepper. Nice one, Tony. Leave your best weapon two flights up. Very super-heroic. “Whoever’s free, J.A.R.V.I.S.! Anyone’s welcome!”

“Please, there’s no need –”

“And, hey, if you’re having trouble getting through official channels, you can always call in the gang.” One of Tony’s hands was still grabbing blindly for a weapon; with the other, he slapped at the side of his own head, trying to reboot his apparently-malfunctioning earpiece and reach the A.I. “Rhodey would be top choice, no question. Or Fury. Or – y’know what, go for broke. Let’s just get Banner on the line, all right?”

Tony’s visitor winced. “Oh, I don’t think we need to involve Bruce tonight, do we?”

“Romanoff might be available; I think she’s still Stateside. Hell, J.A.R.V.I.S., you know what? Just – just call ‘em all. Call everybody!” Tony’s hand closed around something coldly metallic. “J.A.R.V.I.S.? J.A.R.V.I.S.?

“He’s momentarily unavailable,” said the newcomer, with an apologetic note to his voice that was at such damn dissonance with the face the voice was coming out of that Tony almost couldn’t make sense of the words. His visitor took a careful step forward, hands held loosely at his side. “I do apologize for coming in unannounced, and for momentarily disabling your overly polite A.I. system. And I hope you don’t find my presence too terribly inconvenient. I won’t be long, I just –”

“Stop! Just – just stop right there.” Tony brandished the object he’d grabbed in front of him. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a ten-inch-long spanner wrench, which was not exactly going to give him all that much of an upper hand over this particular visitor to the shop. Well. He could at least give himself bonus points for almost being able to keep his hand from shaking. “What the hell do you want?”

“… I was hoping,” said Loki, after a pause, “that I might be able to take you up on that drink.”

Whatever Tony had expected, that wasn’t it. For a few seconds, all he could do was stand there and stare.

“You’re not serious,” said Tony at last. He realized as he spoke that his mouth had been hanging open, and as he finished speaking, he snapped his jaw shut so sharply he actually bit his own tongue.

“I assure you –” Loki began, taking a step forward, then stopped in his tracks when Tony brandished the spanner.

“Don’t!” Tony stopped, frowned, took a breath between his teeth, and then shook the spanner in the general direction of Loki’s face. “Don’t,” he repeated. “Just – just wait. Wait just a goddamned minute.” He felt his expression change. “What’d you just say to me?”

Loki hesitated. “I was just –”

“No-no-no no. No. Wait. Wait. Did you –” and Tony began punctuating each title addition with a wave of the spanner, “Did you, Mr. Mass-murdering, Propaganda-spewing, Alien-army-leading, Norse-god-of-wack-a-doodlery – did you or did you not just come into my house and ask me for a drink?

“I did.” The hint of a smile was suddenly tugging at the corner of Loki’s mouth. “Though in my defense, you did offer.”

“That was five months ago!” Tony sputtered, and then immediately snorted. “Which, I mean, I don’t know if that’s even the most obvious point, here.”

“Only five months?” Loki grimaced good-naturedly. “Damn. I knew I should’ve chosen something a bit farther down the line. At least after Sokovia. I can see why you might still be a bit freshly cross –”

What are you talking about? No, you know what?” Tony tried to run a hand over his face, only to nearly bash himself in the nose with the spanner he’d forgotten he was holding. “For crying out loud –” He tossed the item back onto the table, where it collided with a pile of tools and slid the entire lot of them off the desk and onto the floor with a thunderous crash.

The two of them winced in unison.

“If we wake up Pepper, she’s gonna kill us both,” muttered Tony.

“‘Pepper’?”

“No – hey.” Tony lunged for the floor, scrabbling to pick up the spanner he’d dropped. “You leave her out of this.”

“Stark?”

“I mean it. Touch one hair on her head, and you will not be making it off this planet alive. You got me?”

“Stark.”

“You think Banner did some damage? I have forty-one suits of armor just waiting to rain all kinds of hell down on your ass, you sonova –”

Stark.” Loki reached down, and Tony cursed when he saw that the spanner had slid across the floor to land at the other man’s feet. Loki plucked it up from the ground and straightened slowly, keeping his eyes on Tony. “I am not here to hurt you, your friends, or anyone else on this planet. I am here because I’m about to … because I’m having a bit of a rough day, and I thought I could do with a moment to collect myself before I see it through. And while there are plenty of souls out there that feel that they owe me something, it’s mostly along the lines of a punch to the face or a knife in the back. You, I’m afraid, are the only person I could think of who owes me a debt of a more agreeable nature – and who I just might be able to cajole into joining me in a toast. Now. What do you say?”

He twirled the spanner in his hand like a dagger, then held it out, handle-first, towards Tony. Tony stared at it, then shifted his gaze to Loki.

“… my God,” said Tony numbly. “I think you might actually be serious.”

“I assure you, I’m rarely anything else but. Well.” Loki grinned. “In a manner of speaking.”

The two of them stared at each other for a long moment, Loki’s face set into an expression of patient expectation. Tony could feel the question forming in his mouth even though he’d not yet decided whether or not it was a good idea to ask it.

“So …” Okay, yes, it did seem stupid to expect an honest answer on this one, but it seemed even stupider not to bother raise the issue. “You’re sure you’re not here to continue on with that whole, kill-half-the-planet, enslave-the-rest mission you had your heart set on the first go round?”

He didn’t know what sort of reaction he’d expected. Feigned ignorance, perhaps, or a patent denial that that had been Loki’s original intention.

What he hadn’t expected was what little color remained in Loki’s face to drain completely.

“I’m afraid,” said Loki, his voice still light and easy but with an undercurrent of something that, had Tony not known better, he might’ve thought was fear, “That the tables have rather turned in that regard.”

Tony eyed him again. And then, quite suddenly – without him entirely understanding how – he wasn’t seeing the alien monster who’d attacked them five months ago, who’d led the army that had terrorized the city and torn apart his life.

He simply saw another man who clearly hadn’t been getting much sleep.

“… Let’s head up to the bar,” said Tony.

* * * * *

“You absolutely positive you’re not here to pick up where you left off?” asked Tony.

“Heavens, no. I lack both the time and the motivation.”

“Righty then. Well.” Tony planted his hands on the counter in front of him. “I hope you don’t take the double-checking personally, by the way. I’m still just a little suspicious about this whole you-showing-up-out-of-nowhere-to-have-a-nice-chat thing.”

“Entirely understandable,” said Loki, and there was the hint of an amused smile playing at the corner of his mouth that Tony couldn’t wrap his mind around. When had this crazy-toons guy gotten so mellow?

They both paused for another beat, and then Tony resumed combing through the long shelf behind the bar, reaching for various bottles and decanters. They’d left the shop, Tony taking up the rear while instructing his unexpected visitor through the shop’s glass doors and then the stairs and the hall, through the kitchen and the side rooms and the back library – to adjourn, finally, to the miniature bar in the rear of the house. It was more of a storehouse for Tony’s private stock than it was an actual bar, but there was a fridge and a counter and a single stool, the latter on which Loki was now perched – if not quite at his ease, then certainly with more natural comfort than seemed entirely fair.

Now Tony was popping the crystal stopper from the decanter of Scotch and fumbling for a tumbler, all the while shooting suspicious glances in Loki’s general direction. “So tell me,” said Tony, conversationally, and was pleased to find that his hand had stopped shaking enough that he got most of the liquid into the glass, “how exactly is it that a guy like you seems to have, ah, gotten such a laid-back new attitude? Last I heard, you were headed on a one-way ticket to space jail. I wouldn’t’ve thought that would’ve done much for your attitude. No offense.”

“What can I say, Stark? People change.” Loki winked at him, and Tony found himself gritting his teeth. “As for what you so eloquently term ‘space jail’ – it just so happens that I was granted a full pardon some time ago. Well, Odin granted me a full pardon. Well, I granted myself a full pardon while disguised as Odin. It’s all rather a long story.” Loki nodded curiously at the tumbler. “Is that for me?”

“Nope.” Tony lifted the glass, downed the contents in two great gulps, and was reaching for the decanter with one hand before he’d completely put down the glass in the other. “That’s a hell of a busy five months.”

“‘Five months’? … ah, yes!” Was that a trace of embarrassment in Loki’s eyes? Surely not. “I suppose I should’ve mentioned – I’m actually from a bit further down the timeline than that.”

Tony goggled at him. “Further down the what?

“Suffice it to say,” Loki continued hastily, “I currently find myself in a situation where I had a moment to take my leave and gather myself before plunging back into the fray. To – what is the Midgardian expression? – take a breather.”

“… uh-huh,” said Tony, pouring more Scotch. “Yeah, okay. This one’s not for you, either, by the way. This is all a lot to take in, Lucky Charms – kinda feels reasonable to say you owe me a couple as a head start.” He downed the glass again, exhaled through his teeth, then set down the glass and braced both hands on the bar. “I like the new threads, by the way. Got much less of an ‘evil overlord’ vibe than the old look.”

Tony hadn’t realized he was bracing himself for a reaction until he felt his shoulders begin to relax at Loki’s amused smile. “My brother has said much the same, actually.”

And there was something to Loki’s smile – something about the surprisingly gentle, high-good humor of the expression that suddenly threw of the rest of the man into contrast. For the first time, Tony was able to really register the tears in Loki’s clothing and the battered plates of his armor, the streaks of ash and blood on his drawn, lined, hollowed face – the slash across his brow, and the singes along the torn green cape.

Tony’s eyes flicked back up to meet Loki’s level gaze.

“… is Earth in danger?” Tony asked quietly.

Loki pulled in a breath, the sudden flush of tension tightening the lines of his face. His eyes flickered briefly to something over Tony’s shoulder. “Not tonight, Stark.”

Tony looked over his shoulder, but saw only the small room’s wall clock, ticking steadily forward. It was late – so late it wouldn’t be much longer until it became early. “All right, well. Okay then. You’re just here for a drink. Which I promised you. Sort of. Before. Okay. What’ll you have? No,” and he raised a hand, his expression turning thoughtful. “Let me surprise ya; turnabout’s fair play and all that.” He hesitated, then added the next cautiously, wondering if his attempt at unexpected sympathy would be taken as a jibe. “You look like you could use a drink.”

Loki smiled again. His smiles, though seemingly genuine, only served to heighten the tired lines around his eyes, the strain in the set of his mouth. Tony realized, with a jolt, that he was seeing Thor’s crazy little brother with his guard down. It was startling, almost alarming, to see him – and to know that Loki was letting himself be seen. All of himself. “I could say the same to you, my friend. No offense meant, of course.”

“None taken.” Tony turned, considering the array of bottles lined up against the wall, then abruptly turned back. “What d’you mean by that, exactly?”

“Well, for a start – you aren’t sleeping.”

Tony straightened indignantly, hands spread flat against the bar. “How the hell do you know that? Have you been watching me? Invading my mind like you did with Barton? I knew you were up to something –”

“No! No, of course not. For heaven’s sake, Stark.” Loki looked like he was fighting to hold back an eyeroll, which Tony found almost ludicrously unfair. If this guy was seriously going to act impatient over any lingering trust issues on Tony’s part, Tony couldn’t pretend to have much sympathy. “The hour is late – but you were already awake. Ergo, you haven’t been sleeping. It’s understandable, you know,” he added almost thoughtfully. “The battle in New York. I imagine it had … lasting effects.”

“What? No, I mean – sure, maybe things have been a skosh rough lately. Nothing alarming. Just a little periodic insomnia.” Tony reached towards the bottles for a decanter of brandy, then thought better of it and went for the tequila instead. “And maybe the occasional night terror, y’know, on those off occasions when I actually manage to nod off. A couple of other things here and there. Indigestion. Shortness of breath. Dizzy spells. Neck pain. A two-week-long frozen shoulder. Heart palpitations – and the ol’ arc reactor doesn’t care for those, lemme tell ya. Also I haven’t slept more than three hours at a clip in the last two weeks. But otherwise, y’know, whatever. Situation Normal, me.”

“So you do understand.” There was a shot glass full of tiny paper umbrellas sitting on the counter, and Loki plucked one of them out, absently twirling it between his pale fingertips. He stared down at his hands without seeing them, but not because he was unfocused – rather, because he was seeing something else entirely.

And just like that, Tony did understand. And felt a kind of shocked numbness.

“… you’re afraid,” he said. It came out quietly – almost a whisper. “You’re here because you’re afraid of something. Something that’s about to happen.”

Loki looked up at him, giving a half smile so sad, Tony wasn’t certain if it qualified as a smile. “You sound surprised.”

“Yeah, well, I guess – I guess you don’t really think about the guy invading the world with an alien army as ever having much to be scared of.” Tony paused in his mixology ministrations to grasp the bottle of Scotch again and gulp a mouthful directly from the decanter. “Guess it’s like you said: people can change.”

“Oh, don’t misunderstand me, Mister Stark. I was very much afraid the last time we met.”

Tony considered this. He thought back to the icy, polished veneer of the man before – and the thinly veiled fury and desperation that veneer had barely contained.

“What were you so afraid of, then?” Tony asked, and while his voice was not unsympathetic, he realized he was also genuinely curious.

Loki held up the tiny paper umbrella, considering it absently. “Myself. What I was, and what I could become, and if I had any choice in the matter. And the loss, of course. I was terrified of that, of losing everything I’d understood about myself – and losing the family I loved in the process.” He gave a little shrug then, as if laying bare the deepest secrets of his soul had been of no consequence, and then glanced at the clock once again. “It seemed better to push it all away, to run from it – instead of waiting for a pain that would be as unbearable as it was inevitable.”

“… I know the feeling,” said Tony.

Loki looked at him.

“I used to think I knew about everything there was to be afraid of,” Tony began slowly. “Guns and bombs and the most advanced weaponry on the planet. Hell, I helped invent half of it. But that was all right, in a way. Because even when I realized I didn’t want to do that anymore, even when I decided it was time to start finding ways to build things up instead of knocking them down – even when I wasn’t in the arms race anymore, it was still a race I understood. I knew what was out there, knew what to guard against.

“And then, five months ago I found myself carrying off the biggest, baddest weapon our planet’s ever come up with into a wormhole leading into the heart of the galaxy – and I got a glimpse of what’s out there. And there’s … there’s so much more than I realized. More danger. More darkness. Things wilder and crazier and more apocalyptic than anything we ever could’ve imagined, ready and waiting to come in and destroy us. And just like that, I realized … I realized I don’t know how to protect the people I care about the most. I can’t do enough to keep them safe. I can’t be enough to keep them safe. To make them be safe. I’m supposed to be able to protect people – but I – I can’t promise it anymore. At any second, bam, something could happen, and I could lose them, I could lose –”

Tony realized he was shaking. He swiped at his eyes and nose with the back of his hand, then leaned down to the small fridge under the counter, all the while avoiding Loki’s eyes.

“That sounds like a heavy burden to carry alone,” said Loki softly. “I should know.”

Tony snorted, grateful for a way to mask the hard lump in his throat. “It’s impossible.” He raised the carton of orange juice. “This expired two days ago, but I’m sure it’s still fine. You mind?”

Loki stared at him, apparently nonplussed – then chuckled faintly and shook his head. Tony did a bit of a double-take, eying him curiously.

“Care to let me in on the joke?” asked Tony, still glancing at him even as he began to pour the orange juice into a highball glass.

Loki smiled ruefully. “I suppose I found it amusing to be reminded that everything’s on a deadline.”

“I get that.” Tony started to reach for the tequila, then cursed quietly when he realized he’d forgotten the ice. He leaned down towards the fridge again, fumbling for the tray in the fridge’s miniscule top-shelf freezer. “You know what I hate most?”

“Keeping company waiting for their drinks?”

“There’s that sense of humor. You and your brother have that much in common, you know.” Tony emerged with a double-handful of ice cubes, which he dropped into the glass before grabbing once more for the bottle of tequila. “I hate the feeling that nothing will ever feel safe again. That they’ll always be that threat, that danger, lurking over our shoulders – lurking over the horizon. That I’ll never be able to let my guard down again. Not for a moment. Because one moment is all it could take.”

“And because it’s your responsibility to keep those you love safe. Is that it?”

Tony glared at him from where he was taking a swallow of juice directly from the carton. “Isn’t it? If not mine – whose?”

“Well, that depends on what you’re trying to keep them safe from, I suppose.” Loki tapped the point of the tiny paper umbrella against the polished surface of the counter in front of him. “I understand more than you might think, Stark.”

Tony reached for the grenadine, glancing at Loki as he did so.

“My brother’s waiting for me right now,” said Loki. “I left after pulling him out of the grasp of something terrible, but he’s not out of danger yet. I have to go back and finish the job. The problem is, I can only shield him from so much. And regrettably, I know …” Loki dug the toothpick tip of the umbrella into the counter. “I know he’s still going to get hurt.”

“And what’s, ah –” Tony balanced a spoon over the glass, pouring the grenadine and daring a glance at Loki from the corner of his eye. “What’s going to happen to you when you go back?”

Loki gave a little shrug, holding up the paper umbrella once more. He’d chosen a green one, Tony saw; of course he had. “Well. I can hardly say for certain, can I? I can’t see into the future, I’m not a witch.” The ghost of a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth for a moment. “But as I did mention before – everything has an expiration date.”

Tony sloshed a splash of grenadine over the side of the glass and onto the counter. “You mean you’re going to –”

“I’m going to save my brother’s life,” said Loki. “But I won’t be able to save him from loss. My brother, who has already lost so much – more than I can tell you, Stark. So much more. We both have.”

“Then how can you stand it?” asked Tony quietly.

Loki smiled then, with an expression that combined warmth with such sadness that Tony felt a sudden pang in the ol’ arc reactor.

“Because,” said Loki, “I’m giving myself a moment to stop and feel it.”

“… come again?” asked Tony.

“The winds of Chaos blow us in unexpected directions, Stark. I’ve always been amazed at how few beings truly grasp how little control they have over their own lives. But the thing of it is, that isn’t quite as bad a thing as it sounds. Because we still can choose – what we do, who we stand with. Who we are.”

“I get that,” said Tony, more sharply than he intended. “And I get that I can only do so much. I get that I can’t hold back every danger. I just …” He sighed then, and ran a hand over his face. “I don’t know how I’m not supposed to try.

“You can try. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my brother, it’s even that you should. I do believe that’s what heroes do. But the thing to remember is –” Loki’s smile was suddenly and suspiciously bright. “Sometimes, you have to strip away the armor and allow yourself to feel whatever’s underneath it.”

Tony found himself glancing back towards the door, to the hallway that would lead back down to his shop and the few-dozen new suits of armor waiting in the wings. “Take off your armor and you’ll get hurt.”

“We all get hurt.” Loki gestured at the torn leathers and tattered green cape that had replaced the golden battle armor he’d once worn. “But you can’t be truly brave if you’re always standing behind a shield.”

Tony snorted in spite of himself, better to hide the sudden stinging in the corners of his eyes. “Better not let Cap hear you say that.”

“Heaven forefend.” Loki rolled his eyes, looking pained – and then sighed. “I’m just suggesting that perhaps you could take a little of that weight-of-responsibility off of your shoulders. You’re only human, you know.”

“The hell I am.” When Loki looked confused, Tony hastened to add, “I mean, you know. I am Iron Man.”

“So I’ve heard. But even we heroes and tricksters are only mortal. And I’ve finally worked out – that’s not such a bad thing.” Loki smiled ruefully. “It just takes a little courage.”

Tony blinked at him. “It takes courage to be afraid?”

“I knew you’d catch on.” Loki clapped his hands in front of him and made to stand. “Now. I suppose I’d best be taking my leave. After all, I’ve got a job to finish.”

“Now, wait just a second,” Tony protested. Despite Loki’s smile, he had seen the flash of sadness and naked fear on the other man’s face as he’d said the last, and Tony had an uncomfortable feeling of what that job had to entail. “You can’t leave without that drink. That’s what you came here for, right?”

Loki hesitated, then slid back fully into his seat. “I suppose I could spare a minute more without the time-jump back getting overly messy.”

“Yeah, sure. Okay. Anyway. Here you go.” Tony slid the brightly colored drink across the table. “Sorry you’re not getting the full effect; we’re out of oranges.”

Loki studied the brightly colored drink, which went from a golden yellow at the top to a deeper red at the bottom of the glass. “And this concoction would be –”

“It’s called a Tequila Sunrise,” said Tony, and blinked slightly in alarm when Loki’s head jerked up to look at him.

“Truly?” Loki’s face suddenly broke out into a grin. “Well. Perhaps there’s a bit of hope for both of us after all, Stark.”

“Call me Tony,” said Tony, half surprising himself. He was even more surprised when he dumped a splash of the leftover orange juice into his own tumbler, then raised it in a toast. “All right, Reindeer Games. To Courage.”

Loki raised his drink and tapped Tony’s glass with his own. “I’ll drink to that.”