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Observer Effect

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Ivan probably would’ve let Tony and his entourage enter the menagerie on their own if not for what Kletka had told him about Tony’s last 48 hours.

He knew that Tony liked to move around the country without a lot of fanfare, hopping from facility to facility to business venture to business venture without anyone to herald his approach. It was part of the reason he had such a small security detail, even though it was hard to notice him anyway since he usually took personal vehicles as transportation.

Having people waiting for him when he arrived wasn’t his style, but Ivan didn’t feel too keen on letting Tony get away with slipping past him. Not after what Kletka told him. Not after the pictures she had sent him. Not after the video he had seen.

Ivan sometimes wondered if Tony knew how much Kletka told him. Sure, she didn’t tell him everything she knew about what Tony was up to, but she answered him when he asked and Ivan was good at asking questions. And he was even better at putting together the shards of information that he got to create a full picture.

He didn’t like the picture he was seeing now.

Ivan left the workshop, wiping grease from his hands with a stained cloth and tossing it into a nearby bin when he was done with it, a few minutes after Kletka told him Tony and the others had landed. He walked towards the door nearest to the runway, frowning already. He stopped in the middle of the hallway just as the door unlocked with a metallic clunking sound.

Tony was the first one through the door, pushing it open while looking over his shoulder, one hand on the handle, the other holding the badge he needed to unlock the door. Ivan was almost certain that it was the one that Tony kept a spare of in the hangar, as Kletka had told him he’d lost everything he’d been wearing when he was captured.

“... the door,” Tony was saying to the people behind him. He turned back around as he crossed the threshold. He faltered just a step when he saw Ivan, but made a smooth recovery with a big smile. He stepped to the side, holding open the door for others that came pouring in. “Hey, Ivan! Sorry about all this, I swear it’s just temporary.”

Natasha was the next one through the door, Ivan recognized her despite her pain drawn expression and the bandaged quality of about half her body. She had two casts on and was being wheeled in by another man, a sandy-blond man that Ivan didn’t recognize. Behind them were the two Asgardians, Kletka had told him all about them and their escapades across some town down south. Thor entered first, tall and broad-shouldered and rubbing sleep from his face. His younger brother, Loki, was half in his shadow and looked no more awake than Thor, though he didn’t do anything uncouth like yawn or blink sleepily.

Ivan promptly ignored the four of them and directed all his attention to Tony.

“We must talk,” he said firmly. There would be no squirreling out of this, no matter how much Tony twisted to escape. “Kletka can show them to their rooms and settle them in.” He added before Tony could even try that avenue of resistance.

Tony let the door swing shut behind Loki. “Aww, but I just got here! Let me kick my feet up a little first, Ivan. It’s been a long day.”

“I am aware,” Ivan said simply. He stared Tony down, unmoved when Tony stared back. His smile slid from his face and he sighed.

“Nat,” Tony half turned towards her.

She waved her hand at him, “Don’t worry about it. We’re all here. We’re all safe. Clint will get me settled in and I’ll give him a rundown of the rules.”

“And I will be happy to show Thor and Loki to their provided rooms, sir,” Kletka said from the overhead speakers. “Allow me to perform according to my programming, sir, and assist you in management of the menagerie.”

Tony sighed heavily, “All right, all right. Everyone go settle in. If you need any help, ask Kletka and she’ll direct you accordingly. Try to get some rest and try not to make any messes in the kitchen, okay?”

Nat nodded, so did Clint. Thor yawned out in agreement. Loki nodded once, slowly, his eyes moving from Tony to Ivan curiously. Ivan met the Asgardian’s gaze evenly. He knew of Loki, the Loki of myth, and was reasonably sure his thoughts couldn’t be read from his mind, no matter what other magics the god had. Or alien, Ivan supposed. He’d talk to them later when things were calm again and there was time for more in-depth conversation. Depending on what they knew about their homeworld’s technology, they could be useful contacts.

The blonde man wheeled Natasha away with the princes tailing them slowly down the hallway. Ivan waited until they were out of sight around a corner before he looked at Tony.

Once they were alone, Tony’s expression shifted. His smile was gone, extinguished from his face as if there had never been a trace of it to begin with. He blinked slowly at Ivan, exhaustion sunk into the lines of his face and making him look far older than he really was. Tony had only been away for a few weeks, since one of the earlier launches, but he looked ten years older.

Ivan walked over to him. He initially wanted to take Tony by the shoulder and guide him into the workshop, their safe haven, but he remembered what Kletka had shown him and know better than to touch Tony’s back. “Come,” he said instead, gesturing for Tony to follow. “I know a way to ease the pain, hm?”

Tony snorted but followed him into the workshop.

He did relax as he walked in, one hand brushing along a table and his attention moving over Ivan’s various projects. Ivan walks over to one of his cabinets and opens it up, pulling out a bottle and two glasses. Tony sits down on the stool he always uses when he’s here and spins around on it until he’s facing Ivan. He lets out a weak little laugh when he sees the glasses that Ivan’s carrying, but he doesn’t argue. Ivan puts the bottle down on the table, along with the glasses, and he drags over his own stool so they’re sitting side by side at a semi-empty table.

Ivan uncorks the bottle and pours for them both. Tony takes his glass, turning it in his hand as if he’ll see something in the clear vodka. Ivan lifts his and they clink them together. Tony knocks his back and Ivan does the same, drinking the alcohol down with a few quick gulps.

Tony shudders after he puts down his glass and then laughs, “Right. Okay. So I did need that.”

Ivan refills their glasses. “Kletka sent me many images,” he said simply.

Tony stops in lifting his glass and turns toward him, eyes wide. The glow of them seems so much more pronounced when Ivan can see them up close like this. “What?” he whispered.

Ivan looks at him silently, because he knows Tony heard him correctly. Tony continues to gape for another long moment before he tips his glass to his lips. His hand is shaking as he sets it back down. “I’m sorry. She shouldn’t have- It’s not part of her programming to do something like that.” His eyes are on his glass.

Ivan sighs noisily, but still Tony does not look up. He sips his drink and then says, “You know how little that truly means- not in her programming.”   He clicks his tongue across his teeth disapprovingly, “You do not program life, Tony. It is a thing that grows and Kletka? She has grown.”

“She still shouldn’t have sent you anything,” Tony mutters. Ivan shakes his head again and pours more vodka for Tony and for himself. Tony scowls at the cup but doesn’t immediately drink from it. “Why would she do that? It doesn’t make sense.”

“She was scared,” Ivan said, “And she was panicking. Her father was taken from her and might have been killed, can you imagine how she must have felt?”

Tony opens his mouth, chin tilted and eyes looking up at Ivan with a glimmer that makes Ivan speak quickly to cut him off, “If not your father, then your mother. The threat of losing her creator, her parent, scared her and she sought my help and comfort.”

Tony’s brows rise, “Your comfort?”

“She wanted to be told that you would be found and saved. I said as much knowing how protective your other children are,” Ivan shrugged one shoulder, “Even if she wasn’t the one to do it, I knew one of them would. They will not let you go easily, Tony.”

“If she was so afraid, why hasn’t she said anything to me?” Tony asked, “She’s acted normal since I got back if just a little more helpful, but she hasn’t said anything.”

“Perhaps she is embarrassed by her own fear,” Ivan said after a thoughtful sip. “Perhaps she does not want to dwell upon it. Perhaps she is waiting for you to ask if she is well, or waiting for a moment when she can speak privately with you. I would not doubt that your children will need greater assurances in the coming weeks after this. You scared them all.”

Tony shook his head, but he didn’t argue with Ivan’s words. He just stared down at his hand on the table. Ivan looked too, frowning at the bandages. His stomach turned at the memory of the raw wounds that Kletka showed him. She had been so frantic that part of their conversation had just been a series of images without any text. Ivan had at first thought that there was a corruption in her programming, but no, she had just been unable to use any verbal or text database while trying to process through the visual input of Tony’s torture.

Ivan had worried that she would become obsessed with protecting Tony, but she hadn’t acted oddly since she’d first finally calmed down. He could tell she was more attentive, having told him down to the minute of when Tony would arrive, but he thought it was mostly unobtrusive. Tony would be under tighter surveillance, but all of it conducted by his AI and so he’d hardly notice it.

Tony cared for them and was aware of them as individuals, but Ivan sometimes thought Tony wasn’t entirely aware of what it was they were capable of.

Or what they were willing to do.

“I’ll talk to them,” Tony said quietly. “It’ll be all right.”

Ivan nodded. He drained his glass and then considered the bottle silently. Tony slid his empty cup towards him and Ivan obliged him by filling it and then his own.

“Have you taken care of those who did this to you already?” Ivan asked, looking pointedly at Tony’s hands.

Tony grimaced and curled his left hand in closer while his right held his glass tightly. “They’re dead.”

“Good,” Ivan said, “Those who would do something like that to a man like you deserve death.”

Tony straightened up, “People don’t deserve to die just because they hurt me a little. I’m not any more special than-” He shut his mouth with a snap, glaring at Ivan whose snort had interrupted his little declaration.

“I do not think they deserve death because they hurt Tony Stark, billionaire genius. I think they deserve death because they damaged the priceless hands of a mechanic and inventor. It’ll be six months before your nails grow back, if the beds aren’t damaged, if they grow back properly. It’ll be three times that length for your toenails,” Ivan said grimly, “You’ll work around it, I have no doubt, but it’s an insult to your skill and yes, those who hurt you in such a way deserve death. In my opinion.” He added on the end because Tony’s face fell, the anguish of it burning out the indignation.

“Clint shot an arrow through the eye and into the brain of the one who was trying to brainwash me,” Tony said, staring past Ivan at the wall. “I don’t know what happened to the torturer.”

“Natasha slit his throat in his sleep and took his eye and his hand to unlock the third-floor door,” NOBODY suddenly spoke from overhead. Tony jumped, looking up in surprise. Ivan hid his grimace in a swallow of vodka. He hadn’t a lot of personal interaction with the AI that Kletka usually only called her “Elder Sister”, but he could recognize her voice since the only other female-voiced AI was Kletka. NOBODY sounded older and quieter, though no less intense for it.

“She did?” Tony asked the AI.

“I watched her do so,” NOBODY confirmed.

Tony’s eyelids fluttered closed. His expression was tight with whatever strong emotion pulled its way through him at the moment. He sat with his cup cradled against his chest in one hand, eyes closed and throat bobbing as he swallowed nothing. Ivan looked away, letting Tony find his composure without human eyes watching him.

“Well,” Tony said after a long time, “I guess that settles that matter.”

It didn’t, not completely, but Ivan knew better than to push it. Besides, he had something more interesting than picking at Tony’s visible wounds. He set his cup down with a clink on the metal table and said, “Before you go, there is one more thing we should talk about.”

Tony looked at Ivan suspiciously, “What is that?”

Ivan got down off his chair, bracing himself on the table for a moment to steady himself. He hadn’t been drinking as much as he used to, not when he had so much damn work to do, and he’d had a lot more in a few minutes than he normally would when he did drink. Still, he managed to walk across the room and over to one of the seven-foot tall metal cabinets that offered extra storage to the workshop. He unlocked the second one and opened the doors up wide, turning towards Tony as he did.

Pointing to the metal suit standing still inside of the cabinet, Ivan asked, “Mind explaining what this is and why I found it standing on the roof this morning?”





Tony opened his mouth, expecting something witting and deflecting to come out of it, but what came out instead was, “Look, I can explain.” He stopped himself from continuing, mouth closing with a snap to cut off that drunken whine. He glared down at the cup in his hand, betrayed by the alcohol and his own willingness to get drunk so quickly. He knew Ivan didn’t play fair. He knew Ivan didn’t care much for Tony’s bullshit. He should’ve been more wary of the drink, should’ve been more careful.

Except he trusted Ivan, trusted him more than a lot of people, and he liked Ivan too. They were friends after a fashion, different than his friendship with Rhodey, different than his relationship with Pepper. Ivan was the science bro that Bruce had once been except he had teeth and murky morals.

Ivan sipped from his own cup and stared at Tony, eyebrows up, waiting for that explanation.

The thing about Ivan- The thing about Tony- The thing about this all-

The problem was-

The fact was-


It came down to that simple fact. Tony trusted Ivan. Trusted him with Kletka, trusted him with SPIKE and apparently NOBODY felt comfortable enough to reveal herself to him and now Tony had to trust Ivan with the details of his torture, something he’d never choose to share but he couldn’t begrudge Kletka for turning to Ivan when she was freaking out and didn’t know what to do. Whatever Ivan had done to help her had worked because she was calm now and not overprotective the way JARVIS had become sometimes in the beginning, when Tony was in and out of trouble.

Tony sighed. “I built it,” he said, gesturing to the suit with one hand. “I got the idea from my escape from Afghanistan and I tweaked it and tweaked it until I had something that I liked, something that would work well, and I had it made. Just the one. Just this one.”

His tongue curled in his mouth around the words for now. But even that wasn’t exactly true. This suit was hollow. The other ones he was going to make wouldn’t be. There would be no humans in the legion.

Ivan was looking at the suit now. It looked just like Tony remembered it did when he left it in Malibu. The metal was brushed, unpainted. There were small, barely visible seams in a few places. The chest piece and matching backplate where a darker metal than the rest of it. “It could use some polish,” Ivan said, “I admit, I am not surprised you made such a thing, only that you haven’t been caught wearing it yet.”

Tony laughed. He made himself stop doing that because it sounded too sharp and bitter. “I’m not going to wear it,” he said, “God no. I’ve had enough of that. This is- I made this without thinking about it. My hands made it without me.” He drags one of his hands over his face, hissing in pain when his fingers press too hard and the tips of them throb. “I can’t wear that thing.”

“No?” Ivan asked. “You don’t want to be the man in the metal suit? I imagine your saving the world agenda could get a boost with something like this.”

“No,” Tony repeated. “And you’d think that, but you’re wrong. Knowing me, all that would matter in the end is what I did in the suit, not what I did outside of it. Everything would be ignored for the damn thing. And then I’d feel- Well, I don’t want to bore you with imaginary scenarios,” Tony shook his head. He turned away from the suit, “I’m never going to wear it.”

“Then why send it here?”

“Spike borrowed it for a reconnaissance mission,” Tony said with a little wave of his hand. He heard a whirring sound and didn’t have to look up to know that the suit had powered on. “He went and picked up an artifact that was taken from me. It’s called the Tesseract and you’ll need it to complete Kletka’s design.”

There was a faint hissing noise and Tony did look up because he couldn’t resist the call of the Tesseract. The blue glow of it filled the hollow space of the suit’s body. One of the metal arms reached in and pulled it out, holding it out on a flat palm. Ivan stared at the Tesseract. He was the one who looked surprised for once, which pleased Tony.

“What does it do?” Ivan asked, not touching it yet.

“It makes doorways through space,” Tony said. “And I think it’s part of what made the Bifrost that Thor uses to travel to Earth, maybe. I’m not a hundred percent on that, though. You’ll need to study it extensively before you put it into use. Do you think you can?”

“This is alien technology?” Ivan asked, sounding almost awed.

“I mean, I guess so.”  Tony shrugged. It was hard to take his eyes off of the cube. He wanted to hold it, but not so badly that he was going to get up and take it from Ivan. “I don’t think it originated on Earth, but I’m not sure it’s fully Asgardian tech either.”

“Curious,” Ivan murmured. He lifted the cube up to eye level, looking at it close to his face. “And you brought also the Asgardians to my workshop,” He lowered the cube again and looked at Tony. “Am I to pick their brains?”

Tony grimaced. “I don’t know how much you’ll manage to get from them. Thor didn’t ever seem to know much and Loki will… probably not want to give up anything for free. They’re not the scientist type, think more like warriors of an ancient kingdom. Sharing tech with another kingdom isn’t exactly kosher.”

Ivan grunted and walked back over to the table where Tony sat. He put the Tesseract down on the table next to the bottle of vodka and then sat down on his stool. “I remember your diagrams of what you want Kletka to do with this thing. For some reason, I imagined the cube you spoke of to be bigger than this.”

“Size isn’t everything, Ivan,” Tony said with a wink. He couldn’t help himself in reaching out to touch the Tesseract. It still thrummed with that energy so familiar to him and he tenderly stroked the top of the cube. “I know it can make portals in space. We just need to figure out how to do that and then control how their size, dimensions and output point. It can’t be that difficult.”

Ivan snorted, “Turn the cube into a doorway, you say. Master alien technology without any help, you say. Then put it in space and use it to defend the planet. This is not so simple a job as the satellites, Tony.”

“Hey, did I say you had to do this one alone? Hell no,” Tony frowned. “Erik and Jane will be here to help. They’ll be happy to help, too! They’re all about weird portals and space junk. You’ll have a great time!”

Ivan poured himself another drink, muttering in Russian. Tony just grinned and pushed over his glass, “Pour me one more, Ivan. We’re celebrating now.”

“Celebrating?” Ivan asked with that one raised brow, pouring Tony the drink he asked for.

Tony pat the Tesseract with a loving hand. “Celebrating. This is a big step in a safer future for everyone. I know you’ll be able to figure it out, especially with the others to help, and once we outfit Kletka with the power of the Tesseract, we’ll be one step closer from saving the world from any outside threats.”

He held up his glass, “To a safer world.”

Ivan lifted his own and clinked it against Tony’s. He smiled and said, “To a safer world.”





Tony shuffled down the hallway, one hand sliding along the smooth surface as he made his way towards his room. He hummed softly, a half-remembered song that he wasn’t paying much attention to, and let his thoughts drift as they liked. It had been a while since he’d bothered to get drunk and he was pretty sure the last time he had been it had been in Ivan’s company.

Ivan was a good drinking partner, Tony thought, he could keep up a decent conversation and didn’t make snide comments about how much they were drinking. Maybe he influenced Tony to drink a little more than he would a little faster than he should, but Tony mostly just wanted to keep pace with Ivan and, well, Ivan drank like a Russian.

He was glad they hadn’t done any shots, though. Knocking back the vodka on its own was plenty of alcohol for Tony and his poor liver. Poor Ivan’s liver too. Tony had to remember to make sure they both got scheduled for a checkup. He shuddered to think that Ivan would develop some sort of illness and that their time together would be cut short.

There weren’t many people who understood Tony the way Ivan did. Tony would miss him a lot if he left now.

Tony’s feet came to a stop at the hallway outside his rooms. There was someone in the hallway, standing there- no- not standing, pacing. They were pacing. Back and forth and back and forth and Tony had to blink a few times to place the face. Pale skin. Pointed chin. Dark hair. Loki. It was Loki.

Loki who abruptly noticed him and came to a standstill, staring down the hallway at Tony. Then, after one silent, staring second, he strode down the hall towards Tony.

Tony’s free hand, the one he wasn’t using as a guide along the wall, came up to his chest, palm out, a reflexive defensive movement that meant nothing since he didn’t have the repulsors in this world. He blinked, looking down at his own hand and lowered it with a snort and a shake of his head. He didn’t think he still had those reflexes after so long without needing to use them.

Loki stopped a few feet away. He had his hands at his sides but he pulled them up and folded them tightly over his chest, hands gripping his own upper arms. “Tony,” Loki said, leaning in slightly, “There you are. Kletka would not inform me of your location, save that this was the hall to your rooms and that you were not  yet in them.”

He spoke almost too quickly for Tony to catch and understand, but luckily for them both, Tony’s drunk mind was still pretty good at comprehension and conversational clues. “I was in the workshop,” Tony said, “S’probably locked to you, though, so it wouldn’t’ve done you much good to go lookin’ for me there anyway.” He waved his hand dismissively, “Ivan keeps it locked up tight. ‘E doesn’t much like strangers.”

“That’s fine,” Loki said with a jerky nod of his head, “I have little interest in your Midgard mechanical sciences. I was more concerned with the chemical, at the moment.”

“Chemical?” Tony blinked. “Why? Somethin’ happen?”

Loki sucked in a sharp breath, nodding once.

“What was it?” Tony asked, worry pouring into him. A chemical attack? But Kletka hadn’t said anything- “Where did it happen? Are you hurt? Or Thor or someone else?”

Loki glanced to the side. He still didn’t answer, though, just sighed and unfolded one of his arms, holding out his hand. His hand was shaking visibly. Tony blinked at it and then looked at Loki’s face and blinked again.


“I can’t. Get it. To stop.” Loki hissed out. He held out his other hand and it was shaking just as badly, if not more so. “I must have consumed some sort of Midgardian poison or chemical that is making my hands do this and I cannot make them stop.”

Tony stared at his shaking hands. He ran his tongue over his teeth in his mouth, puzzling it out. “Have you got a headache?”


“Are you feeling anxious? Irritable?”

“I’m not anxious I’m poisoned by your clearly subpar Midgardian chemicals.”

“And you did it to yourself,” Tony said with a shake of his head. He immediately stopped that and leaned a little more heavily against the wall. Headshaking was a terrible idea right now.

“Ex cuse me?”  Loki took an aggressive step towards Tony.

“What,” Tony said, “D’you really think you could drink all that coffee ‘nd not have a caffeine withdrawal afterward? I’m surprised you’re still, like, awake even. You should go drink some water and sleep it off. You’ll be fine in the morning.”

“Caffeine withdrawal?” Loki repeated back at him. He was quite close now. Tony wondered, briefly, if his eyes were always so green. He seemed to remember a time when they weren’t so. “Caffeine does not do this to people.”

“Maybe not on Asgard,” Tony said, remembering how different their alcohol intakes were. Thor had that crazy potent stuff and didn’t get plastered on Earth alcohol, so honestly, it surprised Tony that caffeine had had such a profound effect on them. “But on Earth? Hell yeah. Like I said, go drink some water and sleep it off.”

“That can’t be it,” Loki said. He had his arms folded tight over his chest again as if that was the only way to stop himself from shaking. “There must be something else.”

“Unless you actually ate like, real poison, I really doubt it,” Tony said. “You just had too much coffee and stayed out too late and then didn’t go to sleep when you got here. You should’ve just gone to sleep.”

“I wasn’t tired,” Loki said with a sniff. “I was bored in my room and came looking for you.”

“You were snooping about the facility,” Kletka said suddenly from overhead.

Tony pointed at the ceiling, “Ah ha! The truth comes out. It is your own fault you’re in this mess!” He smiled up at Kletka, “Thank you for keeping an eye on our god of mischief here, Kletka darling.”

“Do you use your machines to spy on everything done within this building?” Loki asked eyes narrowed almost into slits. “Such an invasion of privacy, Tony. I doubt everyone would be so happy to know that.”

“If they haven’t figured it out on their own, s’not my fault,” Tony said with a shrug. He winced slightly at the pull of his injuries from the motion and reminded himself not to do that again. “And it’s not like I’m watchin’ anything. I don’t see or hear it unless it’s pertinent to the moment, like how you’re a snoop, Mr. Snoop.” He waved his hand, dismissing the accusation with the gesture, “Not that I didn’t expect that. It’s in your nature to want secrets, isn’t it? And to use them for your gain. S’the kind of person you are.”

Loki gave him a weird look, his expression fixed and suspicious. He leaned his head back even though he was still in Tony’s personal space. He had his head turned slightly as if he could see and understand Tony better looking at him from the side. “Does that not concern you? Do you not fear your secrets being revealed?”

“You’re not the first spy in my house, ‘nd you probably won’t be the last,” Tony reached out and pat Loki on the shoulder in a pseudo-sympathetic gesture, “I’ve been runnin’ this rodeo since I was old enough to pick locks myself. No point in being mad at you for being who you are. But I won’t be pleased if you make the others uncomfortable with your actions, understand?”

Loki looked at Tony’s hand and then at his face. He frowned and nodded slightly. “I believe I do, Tony.”

“Good. Good! Now. What you and I both need is some water and some sleep. Do you know where the kitchen is yet?”

Loki shook his head, though there was a glint in his eye that made Tony think he was lying about that. Kletka didn’t interject, though, so Tony couldn’t be sure. He didn’t care much either way. He turned around, motioning for Loki to follow him, “S’this way. It’s not far from the rooms and right in the middle of the common area.”

Loki stepped up quickly to his side, walking beside him with another one of those unreadable side-eye looks. As they left the hallway, where Tony had the wall to support him as he stumbled along, and into the more open area where Tony had to concentrate on walking, Loki said, “You’re drunk.”

Tony snapped his fingers, cursed because fuck that hurt, and then pointed at Loki, “Bingo.”

Loki gave him a horrified look, standing still as Tony continued his stagger across the room. “I didn’t smell any alcohol-” he started and then stopped and shook his head, “You’re slurring your words. I should have noticed that immediately. Of course you’re drunk.”

“You should’ve and I am,” Tony said. He made it to the island counter and leaned against it. “Ivan an’ I were celebrating. And commiserating. And plotting? I think we were plotting.”

Loki crossed the room quickly with those long strides of his that made him almost look like he was strutting. Tony snorted to himself and went back to looking for glasses. Hydration was key to feeling a little bit better, both for him and for Loki. He wouldn’t have bothered for himself if he hadn’t run into Loki, so it was probably for the best that they had bumped into each other. “You’re going to fall over and hurt yourself, you incompetent mortal,” Loki said, suddenly standing beside Tony. “Sit down.”

“What, on the floor?” Tony asked. The tile did not look comfortable.

“No. Here.” Loki ushered him around to one of the stools. Tony sat down and sighed. He was a little less dizzy when sitting down.

“The glasses are up there,” Tony said, pointing to a cupboard. “And the fridge gives out filtered water. Should be cold, too.” He put his chin in his palm and his elbow on the counter. Loki seemed to manage his trembling enough to get them both a glass of water, which was good news.

Tony sipped his glass, resisting the temptation to gulp down the refreshing water. “Y’know, I didn’t know Asgardian caffeine had no withdrawal to it. Do you know why it’s like that?”

“I’m not trained in that science,” Loki said with a shake of his head, “But from experience, the caffeine upon Midgard is stronger, more bitter and sharp. On Asgard, the java is we drink our caffeine in is more heavily spiced and smoother. It’s richer, much like our mead.”

“Huh. I’d love to try some sometime, see if it’s really all that,” Tony said. “Asgardian coffee. Bet it’s real fuckin’ tasty.”

“It has a strong flavor,” Loki said. He stood on the other side of the counter from Tony, watching him with a thoughtful expression. He leaned against the counter, holding his glass in both hands. “I’m not particularly fond of it, perhaps because the taste is so smooth. The bitterness of Midgardian java is more my inclination.”

Tony grinned, “There are lots of different kinds of coffee here on Earth. You should try them all while you’re here.” He blinked and then asked, “Why are you here, anyway?”

Loki’s expression tightened slightly, “Didn’t I mention this already? I’m here to check on Thor.”

Tony ran his knuckle down the side of his glass, where condensation had begun to gather, “You did mention that, but I find it a bit hard to believe. Thor just got down here on Earth so I don’t think he was gone long enough to cause any worry. And,” Tony raised his finger, “you just found out about the Tesseract when you got here, so I don’t think that you came for that, either.”

Loki made a show of rolling his eyes, “Thinking so badly of me already, Tony? I promise I’m not all tricks and lies as it seems my brother has been saying.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Tony said, “I just didn’t think you were so close to Thor that you’d come to our little shit planet to hang out with him and a bunch of weirdos for no reason other than your concern. You’re here for something. I know you are.” He met Loki’s gaze and held it, “I just want to know if I need to keep an extra eye on you or if your mischief won’t end with people getting killed.”

Loki braced his hands flat on the counter and leaned in. His green eyes glittered, actually honest-to-god glittered like gemstones with a flashlight put on them, and Tony wondered if that was Loki’s magic that made that happen. Then his wondering stopped as his brain caught up with his ears and he heard what Loki was saying.

“You cannot compel me like the others, Tony Stark,” Loki said from between clenched teeth. “I do not know where you got your hands on an infinity stone, but your control over it is weak and you cannot command me by looking into my soul.”

Tony blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Do not think you can play dumb with me,” Loki said with an imperious lift to his chin, “You’re too smart to do so. You know of me, of the Tesseract- You will not catch my soul unguarded so that you can influence it.”

Tony pushed his glass aside and held up one hand, “Back up there, buddy. What do you mean compel people? What the fuck is the infinity stone?”

Loki opened his mouth as if to argue but then stopped. He looked into Tony’s face and shook his head slightly, “What do you- No. You know what an infinity stone is. You can’t-” he stopped and drew back. His eyes still had that shining glitter to them as he looked Tony over, “You’re not lying. I would know if you were.”

“That’s right. I’m glad we’re on the same page here,” Tony leaned forward, “Now tell me about these infinity stones. You think that I’m using one? Why? You don’t just believe things for no reason, Loki, what’s the evidence?”

“Your eyes,” Loki said. He was staring into Tony’s eyes again, “The glow of them- that shade of orange- It’s the same as the infinity stone of the soul.” His brows pinched together and he grimaced, “Right, the infinity stones, you don’t know what they are?”

“Never heard of them before today,” Tony said. He had to wonder if the stones, whatever they were, existed in the other world he could remember.

“They are powerful artifacts created at the foundation of all things,” Loki said, finally looking away. He picked up his glass of water and sipped from it, looking off to the side as he recited words like he was in a history lesson- or like he was reciting his own history lessons from when he was a boy, “There are six stones and they each have a unique power over a different aspect of, well, everything. There is mind, soul, power, reality, time and space; each stone as unfathomable power on its own and combined they can do literally anything. They have no limit, except for the strength of the person using them. Few beings are capable of holding the stone without it destroying them instantly. Some records indicate that the power of a stone can be shared between individuals, but they must always be strong enough to bear the burden of the stone. If they cannot, they die.”

Tony looked down at his hands on the counter. He thought of the staff; just one touch and the mind was taken over. How there had been a stone in the staff, the thing that powered it, how that stone sat at Vision’s forehead- inexplicable in nature but irrefutable part of Vision. He thought of the Tesseract; able to place stable portals through space with just the right kind of activation. He’d never seen the inside of the cube, but now he remembered his flub of the word stone in front of Thor and he wondered if some part of him knew already.

Some part of him that was under the influence of the soul stone.

In a moment of brilliance, Tony knew his truth.

He shuddered and brought up his hand, covering his eyes with his palm. “Fuck,” he whispered.

He heard the creak of leather and footsteps- Loki moving- and a cool hand gripped his wrist and pulled his hand down. Loki stood next to him, close enough that Tony could smell his leather, could almost feel Loki’s breath on his cheek. Loki took his hand and lowered it from Tony’s face, holding it in both of his own hands, “I know you speak the truth when you say you did not know what the infinity stones were before now, but now that you understand what they are, how can you argue that you’re not using one to compel those around you? The soul stone’s sight rests in your eyes, Tony. Were it not for my magic to shield my own soul, it would peel back the layers of me and show my true nature. Indeed, has it not done that already, when we spoke in the hallway? You know so much for a man who has had no teacher.”

Tony glanced to the side. He felt almost compelled himself, wanting to spill open the truth that he’d just figured out on his own but knowing instinctively that Loki was not the one to tell. At least, not the one to tell first. There were others that Tony could trust more, that he did trust more, that deserved such knowledge.

“I’m not using the stone,” Tony said, keeping in mind to speak the truth. From the look of his intense expression, Loki would call out any lie now and demand truth. “Whatever you feel when you look in my eyes isn’t because of me. I think the stone’s influenced me somehow, but that’s it. If that’s what is going on with my eyes, then it’s not through any action of mine that it happened. I never saw this stone. I never held it. I didn’t feel any different when I woke up with this orange light than when I- well I didn’t exactly go to sleep it was more like passing out. But whatever. You know what I mean.”

“Then it speaks to you without you being aware of it,” Loki said, “It looks into the souls of others and tells you what they want most, what they need most.”

Tony laughed softly, shaking his head. No. There wasn’t any stone that told him what people wanted. It was just his knowledge of a dead life. “It doesn’t talk to me, Loki. I don’t even remember it’s there for the most part.”

“But the things you know-”

“Come from some other source of knowledge,” Tony said, finally pulling his hand out of Loki’s grip. “You’re not just bothered because I got your character pinned down and you can’t explain why I know what I know, are you? Because I know a lot of shit, Loki, and I’ve probably forgotten even more than I remember.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Loki said with an abruptness that told Tony he had narrowly missed his mark. “I simply think that the stone’s influence might be subtle enough that you aren’t fully aware of its power. It certainly has reached out to those around you and put pressure on them before because it attempted to do the same to me.”

Tony shook his head. He couldn’t feel guilty for the way a stone looked at people with his eyes. He didn’t think he had pressed people into doing things they wouldn’t have done otherwise. He just knew what people wanted, what they needed, he had so much more information than everyone else-

There was a light touch on his jaw and Tony looked up, blinking. Loki was close and his eyes met and held Tony’s gaze. “I wonder,” Loki murmured, “what I would be compelled to do if I did not have my magic to shield me?”

Tony’s breath caught in his throat. The green glow in Loki’s eyes faded and a small smile touched his lips. Tony felt Loki’s individual fingertips on his skin, all three of them, like cold stone against his jaw except softer than stone.

There was a moment there where it felt like time hung in place. Tony couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t even blink.

“Brother? Tony?”

Thor shattered the moment with his call as he entered the room, not quite as boisterous as he could be and yawning so widely his jaw creaked. The words had barely left his mouth before Loki was seated one stool away from Tony, his expression closed off with his lips pressed into a thin line.

Tony blinked a few times and then rubbed the heel of his hand absently over his cheek. “Hey Thor,” he said, “How ya feeling?”

“I am well, my friend,” Thor said, saying nothing about what he’d almost walked in on. Instead, he came over and greeted Tony with a carefully placed pat on the shoulder. “But you do not look so well! Tell me, has Loki been keeping you up with his stories? He can weave a great tale when he has a mind to!”

“We were just having a history lesson, I think,” Tony said, “Though I think I’ve hit my limit for today. Between Ivan’s drinking and Loki’s lessons, I really ought to go to bed.” He got to his feet, steadying himself with a hand to the counter. He was feeling a little less drunk, but that only meant he was more tired and more aching from his wounds. With a wince, he stepped away from the counter. “Goodnight, Loki.”

“Goodnight, Tony,” Loki murmured, picking up his glass of water and drinking from it. He didn’t look away, just watched as Tony headed for the hallway. Thor, on the other hand, decided to follow Tony like some sort of escort.

Tony didn’t roll his eyes when Thor walked with him down the hallway, but he was seriously tempted to. “I thought you’d still be sleeping off the caffeine jitters, Thor,” Tony said as they walked towards his room together.

“I was roused from my sleep by the Lady Kletka,” Thor said, “She informed me that Loki was causing you distress over some topic of conversation and that you needed your rest. Tell me truly, was Loki troubling you?”

“No more than usual for him, I think,” Tony said with a sigh. He glanced up at the ceiling, “And if she wanted me to go to sleep, she should’ve mentioned something to me herself. Involving others isn’t usually her style.”

“Do not blame her for her concern,” Thor said, “She is your child, is she not? A child worries for their parent, especially after so recent an attack. Why, when I was younger, we once had an invasion upon our borders and my father’s arm was scored open to the bone. Though he was quickly healed, there remains a thin scar there that strikes like an arrow to the heart. Many a warrior has fallen to deep wounds upon the arm, thinking them less dangerous than a wound upon the belly or thigh.”

“Still,” Tony said, “I’ll have to have a talk with her about bothering people when they’re sleeping.”

Thor gave him a troubled look, but nodded. Tony sighed again and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Thor. I needed to talk to her anyway. But first I’ve got to get some sleep.” He stopped outside the room claimed as his own and turned to Thor. “I appreciate your concern, but you and Loki should both get some rest. We’ve had a pretty crazy last couple of days and that caffeine is going to be a pain to get through awake. Just sleep it off, all right?”

Thor took a step towards Tony, hand lifting up. Tony’s breath caught in his lungs and for one long second all he could think of was the way Thor had gripped him by the throat, had lifted him up, had nearly throttled him-

Thor touched his cheek, fingers warm where Loki’s fingers had been cool. Tony closed his eyes and forced himself to let go of his trapped breath. Thor didn’t say anything, but Tony could almost feel the pressure of his words anyway.

Blindly, Tony reached behind himself with one hand and gripped the doorknob. He turned it and his head from Thor’s touch in the same moment. Blinking, he glanced up at Thor and murmured, “Goodnight, Thor.” The door swung open behind him.

“Goodnight, Tony,” Thor murmured, hand slowly lowering and his gaze watchful as Tony stepped, alone, into his bedroom.

Tony shut the door and almost leaned against it. Then pain shot up his back and he hissed instead.

Limping to his bed, he worked off his shoes, his belt, and his pants before he reached the edge of it. He crawled across the blankets on his still made bed and sprawled, face down, on it. He closed his eyes.

“Kletka,” he said, voice partially muffled by his pillow.

“Yes Papa?” she replied, her voice small and soft. With Tony’s eyes closed, he could almost imagine her standing at his bed, a little girl looking at her father with big eyes and her hands behind her back.

“Lock the door, turn off all my lights and for the love of god, please let me sleep undisturbed for as long as possible,” he said, “And thank you. I’m home safe because of you.”

The lights went out and he heard the lock of the door slide into place. “Nobody did most of the work,” Kletka said, but she sounded a little less sad and that was what Tony wanted. “Goodnight, Papa. Please rest well.”

Tony mumbled something in agreement and went to sleep.