Tony stumbles over the pebbled ground, the sun harsh and the land barren but for the single track of railroad crawling its way through the dirt. Loki follows a few steps behind, footsteps measured and steady, silent.
"We're waiting for a train." Tony says out loud, although both of them already know it. They lower themselves onto the ground, resting their heads directly on the metal rail. Loki takes his place facing the train-to-come. Tony keeps his eyes fixed Loki's eyes, afraid and too nervous to voice it. Instead he goes on, measuring the distance between them and the train by the faint whistle audible through the fog:
"We're waiting for a train, a train that will take us far away. We know where we hope this train will take us, but we can't know for sure." Loki's fingers ghost over his eyelids, and Tony realizes he has closed them. He opens them again.
"Yet it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, b ecause-" Loki presses his hand over Tony's mouth then, stopping him. Tony looks at him uncomprehendingly. Loki's face is deathly white, his gaze fixed on Tony's face like this is the last time he will ever see it and he wants to memorize every tiny detail. And Tony knows this is the best way, the necessary way, that death is the only escape, but it hurts still to see suffering in Loki. The inception was flawless, and Tony doesn't understand why Loki is so agitated when he has agreed, so easily, to take a leap of faith.
Loki squeezes his eyes shut painfully. The distant rumble of train draws closer, and the steel beneath their cheeks begins to rattle.
"Tony, I notice when someone performs inception on my person." Loki whispers, and Tony goes rigid. The train is now a thundering presence behind Tony, and the noise almost drowns out Loki's next words.
I've always known this is a dream, you fool.
The train runs over them.
Tony wakes up alone.
Steve feels acutely out of place as he slips into a seat at the bar, glancing uncomfortably around the ridiculously opulent decor and the ridiculously rich people milling about.
"Never been to a casino, Mr. Stick-in-the-mud?"
Steve turns his eyes to the man sitting next to him, classy and well-dressed and possibly the richest man in the place, which is saying something. If Steve hasn't been his friend for the past eight years, he would have missed the weariness in his features. As it is, he notices.
"Not all of us see the point of paying money to play games that lose us money." He replies, assessing his friend carefully. "Tony, I heard rumors that said you fell to Limbo."
Steve expects a denial, because there is never been to Limbo and still in Limbo but no been there, out now. But what he gets is a tense nod and an even tenser smile.
"True. You know how I am, I can't resist temptations. Saw one at first level and fell right through to the bottom in pursuit. But I'm out now. I'm fine."
Tony lifts his glass to that. The bartender slides Steve's across the table as if on cue. Tony rolls his eyes when Steve doesn't take it, opting instead for giving Tony a worried look.
"Seriously, I'm peachy. Let's stop spewing feelings and talk business like grown people. What've you got?"
Steve takes a sip from his glass. He honestly can't distinguish what sort of alcoholic concoction it is, most of Tony's buys are like that.
"Inception." He says simply.
To his surprise, Tony only nods. "Inspiring. And you want me in?"
Steve gapes at him a little. "Aren't you going to tell me it's impossible?"
Tony executes a flailing arm gesture that, as always, make absolutely no sense to Steve's admittedly limited imagination.
"Pretty sure plenty of people have said that already. Also, it's not impossible. It's just damn difficult to do."
"Okay." Steve mutters, and takes a healthy swig of liquor. It seems to be a prudent coping mechanism when faced with a Tony. He hesitates, then blurts out: "I'm doing it to Bucky. He's alive."
Tony's mouth forms a slack O. Steve rushes on, "He's lost all his memory, he's been unconscious for a while, and he wants never to wake up, I've been in his dreams. He wants to just- fade away. I can't let him do that. You know how I-" He stops. There are a hundred ways to end that sentence, how I missed him, how felt when I thought he was dead, how I believed he would stay. He chooses the truest one. "How I loved him." He says softly.
It's apparently Tony's turn to stare holes into Steve's face.
"I'm in." Tony announces. "But I can't build you the dream. I quit that after Limbo, there's been some... impairments. It's best I don't know much about the layout of the dream." Tony taps his chin thoughtfully. "Fortunately for you, I'm a versatile man. I'll go in as forger."
Steve manages a grateful half-smile. Tony grins back, the one that makes him look like a shark.
"We just need to convince Bucky to try." Steve says, more to himself than anything. Tony reaches over and squeezes his shoulder.
"We'll do that. Who's your point man?"
"Natasha and Clint. They only work as a pair now."
Tony makes an exaggerated face.
"You still work with that terrifying woman?"
"She's the best."
Tony hums in assent. "No one disputes that unless they want their balls removed. And your architect? Do you have one in mind who's as good as me?"
"No one is as good as you." Steve says, with complete honesty. Tony waves him off dismissively.
"I have one in mind. Name's Pepper, friend of mind- but she's in only if she gets the first out if things get messy. I know what inception means. It means more than three layers, and it means Limbo if we die while too deep." He pushes his empty glass aside and stands up. Steve follows suit. "She's a good one, and I'm not dragging her down with the rest of us just because you need someone of her level to succeed in this. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've some annoying tails to drop."
Steve gives a casual sweep around the place, and sure enough, he sees at least three men with their attention not-so-subtly fixed on Tony.
"I'll help." Steve offers easily. "And hey, before you go, do you really think inception is possible?"
Tony is already shuffling away from the bar, shielded by Steve's bulk looming over him.
"I don't just think it's possible." He says, before disappearing into the crowd. "I know it's possible. I did it to get out of Limbo."
They assemble at a former workshop of Tony's that is barely more than a warehouse but for the jaw-droppingly expensive equipment filling it from floor to ceiling. It's a decent team: Steve, with his years of military training with PASIV prototypes, as orchestrator; Natasha and Clint as a united point man; the infamous genius Tony Stark as forger; Bruce with his triple doctorates as chemist; Virginia- "Pepper, please"- as architect. Steve stands in the middle of them all, locking eyes with each and feeling the atmosphere thrum with suppressed energy.
"All right." He says, dusting off his hands. "Let's begin."
The following weeks are a blur of necessary preparations, of blueprints and late-night tryouts that leave them nauseous and curiously sleep-deprived. Bucky shows no signs of regaining consciousness, smuggled from the hospital to a tower that Tony apparently owns. Steve bunks by his side more often than not; the rest of the team bunk two floors down in the building, which makes the gesture less dramatic than it could have been.
They make steady progress, slower than Tony would like and just as careful as Steve prefers it to be. Steve crafts the idea to be released in Bucky's mind while Tony walks Pepper through the basics of dream architecture: namely, ignoring all rules of physics and following all whims of the heart. Pepper takes this advice seriously and upends them straight out of their first practice dream by bending reality so that the road they're walking on becomes the wall, then suddenly the ceiling. Tony might have forgotten to mention beforehand that people can die in dreams, and when they do it hurts just as fucking much as it probably does in reality. There are more graceful ways to go than going splat on the asphalt of a ground-ceiling-ground.
Clint, for his part, turns out to be incredible with a rifle. And a machine gun. And pretty much anything that involves aiming and firing. He is also unexpectedly bendy, a trait that Tony would like to put no further thoughts upon. Natasha on the other hand is incredible when equipped with nothing. The woman and her bare hands are a thing to be feared.
All in all, things are smooth. Too smooth. Tony should've known that this insane project of all things can't possibly be the one to break all records and run a straight path to success.
Tony should've known to expect Loki.
He stays with Pepper a little overdue in practice one day, absorbed in a trick involving mirrors that leans more toward academic curiosity than actual practice. They walk companionably down a bridge with ice cream cones in hand, locked in heated conversation and gesturing wildly with their free hands. Nothing happens until they're midway over to the other side.
Then Tony spots Loki, standing at the other end of the bridge.
He stutters in his steps immediately. Pepper says something beside him, confused, but he only has eyes for the man looking straight at him across the loose sea of people between them, posture relaxed and hands in the pockets of his slacks. One of said pockets is uncharacteristically bulgy.
"Pep." Tony breathes, gripping tightly at her arm, eyes still on Loki. Loki's own shift to Pepper, and Tony knows he has made a mistake when he sees an assumption bloom on Loki's face, contorting it with pain and bitter jealousy.
Run, Pepper, Tony means to say, but before he can speak a word she is knocked out of his grasp. The hilt of a dagger protrudes from the dead center of her neck. Tony stares down at her body, her half-melted chocolate mint a gruesome smudge of green beside her head. He looks up.
Loki is there, smiling almost sweetly at him, another dagger in hand. He reaches out and cups a palm around Tony's chin. Tony doesn't flinch away; he lifts his own hand to Loki's and leans in as much as is allowed.
"You're waiting for a train." Loki murmurs, moving indulgently into Tony's space and winding an arm around his shoulders. Tony tries to focus on Loki's words and not his warmth, blissful in the way of things that are loved but never last. "A train that will take you far away. I begged you not to look for it- but you wanted it too much, didn't you? You wanted it, you want it more than you want me." Tony stays silent only because he knows Loki will not listen to anything he says. Loki's grip on his jaw tightens to the point of crushing, and still Tony says nothing.
"And what you want, I give to you. Even if it is departure. Even if it is escape."
Loki's hand snaps toward Tony's abdomen. Tony doesn't even feel the knife splitting the skin, the slide in is so swift. He knows Loki intended it that way- intended it to hurt as little as possible. Tony doubles over, hit by a familiar wave of pain. Loki catches him and mavoeuvres his head onto Loki's shoulder.
"Death is the only escape." Loki says, pushing a strand of hair away from Tony's forehead. Tony pants and struggles to breathe, trying to stall, and Loki's hand hovers over Tony's windpipe but doesn't press down. Because, as they both know, Loki does not want to kill him. Loki was ever averse to the idea of trains; Tony was the one fixated on leaving, on escaping dreams into reality.
He watches Loki watch him, the softness of his slack mouth, the minute flutter of his eyelashes. He watches the love in Loki's face, until the blood leaking from his stomach drags him under and up back to reality.
Pepper is yelling at him when he blinks awake, her hysterical voice rebounding off the walls of the empty workshop. He rubs at his face to hid the wetness cluttering his lashes and tells her- just as loudly- that what she saw won't be a problem, he's got it under control, Loki doesn't usually target anyone other than Tony himself. Pepper still storms out of the workshop, claiming to be unwilling to work with him when he's hiding such a violent secret in his subconsciousness.
Despite this, Tony doesn't think that is it for Pepper- and he is right. Tony has been her friend for more or less fifteen years since uni, anyway, and they know practically everything about each other. Tony knows of her hunger for impossible things. In turn, Pepper knows about his recklessness. Possibly the only thing she doesn't know about Tony used to be his involvement with the dreamsharing business, which is now mostly disclosed but for matters regarding his stay in Limbo.
So Tony is right when he predicts Pepper will return. But he makes the mistake of also predicting she will leave the Loki thing alone, and in this he is wrong. Though looking back, Tony supposes she has the right to prod.
He's in the workshop, the sixty-stories-up one where he first met Loki in a dream, and is offering drinks and waiting for Loki to push him out the window. It is one of the rare occurrences in which Loki takes the offered drink, even sitting down on a stool with his leather outer coat draped immaculately over his lean frame.
Tony is about to attempt kissing him when the elevator door dings open with Pepper standing inside.
"You shouldn't be here." He says furiously, leaping into the elevator before Loki can decapitate her. She ignores him completely.
"He's your boyfriend?" She says. The screen above the door counts steadily up, too slow.
"He's Loki, and he's my husband." Tony snaps. Pepper is silent for a moment. Then she asks again, shrewd as ever: "Is he dead? In reality?"
Tony breathes out, trying to calm himself. It's no use trying to hide anything now. Better to let her know correctly than to have her assume falsely.
"He isn't." He says. "He- isn't. In real life. He exists in my dreams. He's not even my projection- I don't know what he is exactly. But he shares my knowledge of the dream to some extent, which is why I couldn't be architect in this project. He tends to know the layout too well when I am. Makes it more difficult to avoid him."
He can feel Pepper's disapproval on the side of his face. It's almost as bad as Steve's.
"He lives in dreams, and he's your husband. So why does he want you dead?"
The elevator slows. It's the beach, the one he and Loki used to lounge out at in Limbo. Tony leads Pepper out, feeling strangely like he is being invaded.
"He doesn't want me dead. He only thinks that I want myself dead. He thinks I want to escape, and death is the only escape."
Their steps sink deeper into the sand than Tony remembers. But then, he hasn't visited the place for a while.
"Escape from what?" Pepper asks, nailing the gist of the matter. Tony would've been impressed were he not so damn tired of everything.
"Escape from the dreams." He admits. "I was in Limbo, Pepper, the deepest level possible, where time is glacial and reality blurs into dream and people forget who they are." He looks at her. "Me, I forgot who Loki was. I forgot he only lived in my dreams, and told him I wanted no more of the dreams. And I didn't just tell- I thought he didn't understand we weren't living in reality, so I planted that understanding in him. I performed inception on him, with the idea that this was but a dream and that I wanted nothing more than to escape. The first was useless, he already knew. The latter," He barks out a humorless laugh. "The latter was disastrous. Now, whenever I dream, he watches me and visits me when he thinks I've been staying for too long. He believes I want to escape."
Tony realizes his cheeks are wet. He keeps his eyes fixed resolutely ahead, walking briskly, and feels Pepper snake a hand around his own. He lets her.
"But I don't want to. I've never wanted to escape if it means I have to abandon him. I try to tell him that, but he won't believe me now because I embedded that stupid thought in his head. He's consumed by it. The only time I get to have with him is when he has a knife stabbed somewhere vital in me or is about to do so. It's fucked up."
They have reached the far corner of the beach, where a lone parasol sits over two sunbeds covered in red-and-green striped beach towels. Tony lifts the hem and picks up the revolver hiding underneath.
"But he won't hurt anyone beside me unless they provoke him, so he's not going to endanger this project. I don't know if you've noticed, but I've been making sure our current plan's workable with the forger out of the picture. I've got it under control, Pepper, back off from this."
He shoots her point blank on the forehead.
Tony wakes up alone. Tony wakes up remembering that Loki can't follow him up. He wakes up, shoves the needle back into his wrist, and gets kicked back to wakefulness by a spear-wielding Loki. He dives into sleep again, and again, and again, until the inside of his elbow is a single mottled bruise of punctured veins, until he has tried every verbal approach he can think of to convince Loki that he didn't mean it like that, he doesn't want to leave.
The inception, as matters seem, was too successful.
Tony doesn't stop attempting long after he stops hoping. He takes regular dreamsharing jobs, keeps himself honed- and discovers his disposition rather suited to being a forger. Loki is smart in his chases; Tony is smarter in his evasion. None of his temporary colleagues notice something amiss about his performance.
Life goes on. Tony's company flourishes and so does his part-time career as forger. Tony learns to cope, but he never learns to forget.
The specifics of their project is largely in place by the time Pepper announces she is accompanying the rest of them into the dream. It is mid-June in Malibu and the sun is a suffocating source of heat outside the window, but her statement leaves a chill around the workshop.
"One moment." Tony says tightly, pulling her aside and into an isolated section of the room. He can't decide whether to be impressed that she waited this long to make a move or to be angry that she chose to ignore his warning.
Pepper crosses her arms, radiating defiance. "I think we both know what this is about. I go in, or you at least tell Steve."
Tony's shoulder slumps, and he definitely doesn't feel angry now. He doesn't feel anything. He just wants this conversation to be over.
"I told you, I'm the only person ever to be on Loki's hit list. The team-"
"This isn't just about the team, Tony." Pepper interrupts, in a gentle way that doesn't hide her pity. "You're my friend. I'm worried."
Tony resists the urge to roll his eyes. "Pep, I appreciate your concern. But trust me, I'm disturbingly used to being speared, dropped, dunked, crushed, and- in one memorable occasion- exploded. Another gruesome death isn't going to break me."
Pepper looks at him directly. "But it will." She says. "It will when it's your husband holding the knife. It must break you every single time. I can't let that happen to you while I sit back doing nothing."
Tony can't say anything. He has a great friend who sees him through too well.
"Fine." He says eventually. "But- let me redesign the train in the third layer. I think some changes are due if we're going to have an extra hand in the picture. And admit it, you need a real engineer to take care of that part."
"-won't try to kill me in that layer. Death in the third is Limbo, not up. It's the opposite of what Loki wants. When we get in that deep, he'll be helping me survive until the kick."
Pepper purses her lips.
"Are you lovebirds done with the fight yet? Because I think our dear captain's about to burst a vein here." Clint calls. Tony shrugs at him.
"She's going in with us." He says in place of Pepper, and breezes past with a pat on her shoulder.
Bruce does a brilliant job on the sedative. Tony's sure Loki stepping on his precious parts at first level won't be enough to fish him up from a deeper layer once he goes under. Natasha does a meticulous and perfect research while Clint serves her regular coffee, and Steve is subject to her merciless interrogations on Bucky's background, his habits, and the preferred color of his underwear.
"He wears military-issued ones. Why are you even asking that?" Steve says, traumatized.
"So you know." She hums. She and Tony exchange meaningful looks.
"That is one extremely relevant piece of information, captain Rogers. In the lights of which I've come up with an idea." Tony says, sliding off the edge of the table and sauntering over. "How confident do you feel with flirting?"
Steve puts his face in his hands.
When Steve presents his idea for the inception, it involves a train. Tony mentally applauds himself for not flinching when he first speaks of it. Apparently Bucky fell off a train, and Steve remembers seeing resignation in the brief moment their eyes met then. Steve plans to change that.
The first and second layers are designed to match points in Bucky's past when Steve was still a skinny boy, but the third is set after Steve went through his growth spurt and joined the military. It begets the minor problem of Bucky possibly encountering two Steves in the third layer, the real one and Bucky's own projection. It is solved by Steve donning a cowl that covers up everything but his mouth. Clint gleefully takes pictures of him in it, claiming he looks stupid. He sort of does. Tony is mostly busy being grossed out by how Steve, despite everything, manages to retain a notable amount of handsomeness.
And then- and then the preparations are over. Plans are in place, layouts are perfected and drilled into everybody's brain barring Tony's, and they gather in a circle around Bucky's bed in the six most comfortable chairs that could be found in the tower. It is probably strange to describe a start as being anticlimactic, but that is the way it feels. They slide in needles into each other's veins, lean back on the cushioned backrests, and let the sedative drag them into an undisturbable slumber.
That is the way inception begins.
"So this thing you do, it is called dreamsharing?" Loki asks over his fifth shot of concentrated alcohol. Tony makes a noise of confirmation.
"Interesting. I suppose what I am doing could be called so as well, if you look at it that way." Loki muses. When Tony looks at him, surprised, Loki snorts and tilts his head.
"I did say I am not a product of anyone's imagination. This, to me, is a dream also."
"You're an actual person? Who exists in-" Tony waves a hand. "-in real life?"
Loki takes another sip of his drink. "No. I do not exist in the reality of your dimension, so I suppose- to you- I am not real. Your people call me a god, but I am not omnipotent. I can't breach your reality. I can't step over to your physical world. But the other way around..."
Tony is predictably intrigued. "You have a reality? That is not one of our dreams? Are you inviting me over?"
Loki laughs at Tony's obvious enthusiasm. "I could, but only if you abandon your own reality for good. Perhaps one day, when you are old and ready to pass, you will be my guest and I will be your host. And I will show you liquor that actually gets you drunk."
"Fuck you, your liver's inhuman." Tony grumbles, because it is. In the most literal sense. Loki drains his glass, still grinning, and Tony marvels at the easiness of it all.
The thing is, Tony remembers their first encounter perfectly, down to the way the late evening sun peeped through the blinds draped halfway over the window. He remembers that it was one of the looser jobs, low-risk and uncomplicated. He was architect then- as he was most of the time- and fashioned himself a tower in the dream to sit in and overlook his colleagues struggling on the pavement below. The room he chose was a duplicate of one of his workshops, and Tony was fixing himself a drink at the minibar when he heard someone clear his throat.
"Hello." said the projection standing at the middle of the room. Tony frowned. Six feet something of black leather and pale skin, mischievous green eyes, and an honest-to-god scepter in hand. Someone in this dream had a very antique sort of imagination. Also some stellar taste in men.
The man raised a single perfect eyebrow. "You would leave a guest standing and without a drink?" He said, pointing at Tony with his fancy little spear.
"Guest?" Tony said, retaliating on autopilot. "I have some other words in mind. You know, trespasser? Intruder?"
The stranger threw back his head and laughed. Tony tried not to stare at the exposed stretch of his neck. "Intruder? You were radiating boredom, Stark, you practically invited me in."
This... was starting to be worrying. No projection talked like that.
"I wasn't aware of extending any invitation of the kind." Tony said cautiously. "Maybe if you tell me whose subconsciousness you're from...?"
The man scoffed. "Please. As if any of your limited mortal minds are capable of producing the likes of me. I am not one of your 'projections', dream-builder. I only dropped by for a friendly chat."
Tony's eyes flickered reflexively to the clock. Unpredictable situation two minutes before the kick. It wasn't too bad. It could even be okay.
"Uh-huuuh." He said, never subtle in his stalling. The not-projection smirked at him knowingly.
"Perhaps not this time. But I'll be visiting again, Anthony Stark, to improve your atrocious manners as host. Make sure you keep your liquor collection. I think I'd like a taste of that bottle on the top shelf, third to the right."
A faint hum of cello started floating in from the distance. The man tipped his chin up and considered it.
"I believe that is your cue to leave. Come, I'll give you a hand."
Before Tony knew the man was well into his personal space, lifting him up by the armpits- which, what the hell, rude- and manhandling him toward the edge of the floor.
"Oh god." Tony said, realizing what was about to happen.
"Ah, one of my more popular aliases. But you may call me Loki, little mortal. I do feel generous today." Loki said cheerfully. Then he shoved Tony through the glass.
So yes, the thing is, Tony remembers it. He can recount every unsavory detail of that meeting and the consequent sixty-story drop. He remembers the second encounter with similar clarity, and the third, and pretty much the rest of them all. Loki was often in full armor and wielding a spear of some kind when he visited; occasionally he was in modern casual, an alarming number of daggers stashed away in various pockets and hidden spaces. But the consistent factor was that he stuck to plain old-fashioned when it came to choice in weaponry.
Now is the first time Tony sees him defy that rule, with a monster of a gun easy and familiar in his grip and standard military gear clinging to his body like a tailored suit. And he is just as good with bullets as he is with blades, if the gaping hole pumping blood out of Tony's shoulder is any indication.
Pepper screams when she sees, which draws the attention of the rest of the team. Bucky's subconsciousness is more violent than the worst of soldiers', armed, combat-trained, chaotic and desperate. The first layer is a mess of peppering bullets and grenades, and the shaded SUV they appropriate was not designed with firearms in mind. Amid the shouts and the frantic driving, no one has noticed a man clad in all black tracking them from the rooftop of a window.
That is, until he buries a bullet in Tony.
Tony knows, instantly, that it is Loki. A mask covers all of his features but for a pair of green eyes, but those are more than enough for Tony to recognize him. Steve and Natasha see him too, just before he disappears. Bruce takes a screeching turn into an alley, and the raining assault of bullets abruptly stop.
"Tony, Tony..." Steve says under his breath, scrambling to take off Tony's vest. His bulletproof vest. But then, Loki probably knew that from Tony's mind and came prepared.
The vest falls away at last, and Steve's brows scrunch together as he takes in the several spots of blood spreading on the shirt underneath. They are not standard gun wounds, even Tony can discern that. Shrapnel, then. Most of the bullet must still be embedded in the vest.
Natasha leans over from the front seat. "Who was that?" She hisses.
"Tony's ex." Pepper supplies.
"He's not my ex!" Tony squeaks indignantly. "True love never dies."
Everyone stares- except Bruce, who keeps his eyes on the road with zen resolve.
"I was trying to help, Tony." Pepper sighs, and Tony might see the wisdom of her way. He raises a placating hand, the one not connected to his currently torn shoulder.
"I can explain once the inception's over. He's not going to jeopardize the project-"
Bruce hits the brakes then. The van screeches to a stop, and Bruce informs them morosely:
"He already has. You have to step in now, Tony. Bucky's rounding the corner over there and we're free of projections for now."
Pepper lets out a sound of distress. "We at least need to staunch-"
"No time." Tony says, already fumbling with the door handle. "Come one, my shoulder can handle a little excitement. A bit of blood can only add to the believability of my forgery."
He sways as he spills out of the car, and- well, okay, maybe not. But Bruce is right. This is as perfect a chance to act as they're going to get.
Tony knows without looking that Natasha, Clint, and Steve are following, cowls already pulled over their faces. He walks, then trots toward the nearest shady corner. Midway along his steps turn short, legs too thin and coltish, breath coming in gasps in the mere meters he runs. He is Steve Rogers ver.Pre-military by the time he throws himself down against the concrete wall of a building. He rolls around to roughen himself up as the rest of the team take position around him, smearing the blood on his chest on his knuckles and rubbing it under his nose, over his mouth. Clint looms rather expertly over him, shoulders hunched like a local thug. Natasha looms passably. Steve looms plain awkwardly. All of them are wearing black military gear, too professional to be bullies, but an eight-year-old by isn't likely to catch that. Things tend to leave hazier impressions in a dream.
Soon enough there is the unmistakable shriek of Bucky spotting them. Tony makes himself visible enough between Steve and Natasha's legs to ensure Bucky does, and is rewarded when the boy dashes into the midst of three adults, shaking his fist in the air in righteous fury.
Steve is gone like lightening. Tony can practically hear Natasha rolling her eyes as she and Clint follow.
"Steve!" Bucky cries, kneeling down hard on the ground with no care for his kneecaps whatsoever. Tony is honestly touched.
"'s okay, Bucky." He mumbles, sounding sad and weak with just the right amount of pain. He tilts his head upward, and Bucky gasps as he takes in the blood. He grabs at Tony's shoulders and Tony fights to keep a straight face, but he doubts Bucky can see all that well judging by the abundance of angry tears flooding up his wide brown eyes.
He tugs at Tony's wrist, trying to pull him up. "C'mon. Let's get you patched up."
Tony staggers to his feet, leaning heavily on Bucky. Bucky's chest hitches against his arm, and he can see the outline of Steve sneaking closer over Bucky's shoulder.
"I'm sorry." Bucky says in a small voice. "We're friends, and I said I'll help-"
"You always help me." Tony interrupts, conjuring up a grin. "I didn't give up this time, just like you said. Trying's the important thing, right?"
A shaky smile breaks across Bucky's face. "You got that right." He agrees.
Tony drops his head into Bucky's neck. "Maybe someday I'll help you back." He whispers.
A gunshot sounds in the distance. They both freeze up. Steve chooses that moment to pounce on young Bucky, closing a drug-soaked cloth over his mouth, careful not to suffocate him too much. It's over in a matter of seconds, and Bucky falls limp in Steve's arms.
The sound of gunshots, however, is not over. It draws steadily closer, increasing in frequency and volume. Tony shrugs off his forgery just as Bruce crashes out of a nearby alley with Pepper hanging onto the backrest of his seat for dear life.
"So, race is on?" Tony says, snapping the door shut behind him. Bruce passes them the PASIV suitcase without answering, and concentrates on preventing their potential holey demise by driving the car in a manner contradictory to the utter calm reigning on his face.
Natasha peers down at Tony's shoulder, considering. Clint tugs the needles out of the suitcase, and Steve looks as if he has failed to save a box of puppies from a fiery doom.
"Tony, you need to move as little as possible. We should've set up a Plan B for this situation." He says, agitated.
"I have a Plan B." Tony offers helpfully. "Improvise."
That restores Steve's glare in full force. He jabs a needle into Tony's vein without mercy, making Tony yelp, then does the same to Bucky with infinitely more tenderness. The rest of them take care of their own injections, and they fall into deeper subconsciousness to the rhythmic swaying of the car.
Passing through the second layer is disturbingly easy. For one, Tony has very carefully led Pepper to limit the executing site of their plan to a small, unassuming bar, the exact duplicates of which are scattered around the dream city. Tony has no idea which of them is the important one. His strict exclusion from the intel leaves Loki in the same shade, and it proves to have been a wise choice when Loki fails to locate them for the duration of their stay in the layer.
Another advantage is that the projections continue to favor Steve and won't touch a strand of his hair, when Steve is the controlling factor in their plan. Bucky sits at a battered bar while Steve approaches undeterred, Bucky is surprised to find this man with the same face as his puny friend back home but with an extra eighty pounds of muscle. Steve puts his barely-there seduction skills to use, Bucky is charmed within five seconds and follows him up the stairs.
Steve has insisted the seduction part wouldn't work, that Tony would be better suited to the role. Tony has insisted that Steve is an oblivious idiot who can't recognize a crush if it punches him in the face. Natasha has agreed wholeheartedly.
No one is surprised but Steve when it turns out that Tony was right. Natasha lands a neat slice of a blow on the back of Bucky's neck as Steve enters the second floor with a dumbstruck expression. The corridor is an old and creaky thing as they move across it; Clint whistles when they sneak Bucky's limp body into the nearest room, which just happens to be stocked with firearms. Pepper does her little preening thing where she tries and fails to suppress her smugness, and Tony pats her on the shoulder and mimes wiping his tears of pride. Steve fusses over Bucky in the corner, adjusting his limbs and brushing his fingers through his hair.
"I'll take care of the corridor." Natasha says to Clint once everyone else is hooked to the PASIV. Clint salutes her, cocking his head toward the bulletproof window. "I'll see to the street." He says. Natasha disappears out the door without another word.
"Take care." Steve calls out after her, already drowsy from the sedative. Clint takes the opportunity to pat his cheek patronizingly.
"No worries, cap, she'll lead them on a merry chase." is the last thing they all hear, sinking into the third layer.
The first time Loki finds Tony in a compromised situation is also when Tony is in some serious physical pain. Apparently torture exists in the minds of security projections, and with a surprisingly advanced methodology at that. Tony's chest doesn't have the surgery scars it has in reality, his body a smooth and young thing with long limbs and painted nails, but the remembered vulnerability is there, the amplified pain when a boot kicks mercilessly at his sternum. Tony has a difficult time remembering how to breathe.
He is mostly holding his wits together and mostly failing to hold his forgery together when Loki materializes in front of him, swiping the security projections off their feet with a swing of his ridiculously long spear. They don't get back up on their feet. Loki pokes at Tony with the speartip, their acquaintance then shallow enough to draw nothing more than mild sympathy from Loki.
"Well, that must hurt." He comments, slicing through the binds tying Tony to the chair. Tony slumps forward onto the interrogation table, unable to reply. He hears the thud-thud of boots crossing the short distance between them, then sees Loki's torso pressing into the edge of the table as Loki leans over Tony. A hand presses lightly into his back. Startling warmth seeps into him from the point of contact.
When Tony straightens, pain all but vanished, Loki's hand is faintly glowing.
"What was that?" Tony says, breathing in wonderful, painless gulps. Loki regards him with an amused look.
"Nothing that you would understand." He says loftily. "But your people tend to run screaming 'magic!' when they witness this."
Tony nods. It makes sense. Or it doesn't. Tony reminds himself that this is a dream and Loki is a complete weirdo. Stranger things could happen.
"I've never seen you do that."
"Strictly speaking, I am not allowed to do it in a dream. But this much should not create trouble."
Tony pushes himself to his feet, mentally calculating the minutes left until the kick. He wants out of here, ASAP. "What happens if you do it too much?" He asks on his way to the door, Loki trailing him a few steps behind. Loki twirls a hand near his head, blowing air into his cheeks and releasing it with a little poof.
"Then I wake up."
Loki crashes into the safehouse as soon as Steve lowers Tony on the table at the center, bursting in through the door and focusing immediately on Tony. Steve tenses beside Tony's head, recognizing Loki even without the mask, but Tony manages to grab his wrist before he charges. Tony makes a choked sound of pain when it jostles his shoulder. Still, the pain is marginally less than it was in the shallower layers.
Loki makes his way straight toward the table, not sparing a glance at Steve or Pepper. He splays a hand over Tony's ribs without preamble, and the familiar hot tingle spiders its way to his shoulder. Tony breathes out his relief.
There is a distinct lack of any attack from outside of the warehouse. Tony imagines Bucky's projections had an unpleasant intervention while approaching.
Loki, of course, notices him peering at the windows. "You are not stepping out of this place." He snarls, looking ready and prepared to shackle him to the table.
"Okay." Tony says easily. Loki looks at him, surprised.
Tony takes advantage of the surprise to shoot him in the chest.
"Problem solved." Tony says dryly, watching Loki stagger, then evaporate into a vaguely solid smoke that dissipates within the second. "He'll be coming back soon enough. We should move now." He says to Steve. "Let's go board the train of doom."
They do, after they pick up the necessary equipment. The train is at a temporary stop on the tracks a scant dozen meters away from the warehouse, and Pepper climbs up into the foremost compartment that Tony dubbed the control room. The whole train shudders and groans to a sluggish start as soon as Steve and Tony follow, packed with the three of them, guns for the three of them, Bucky, Bucky's projection of Steve, and god knows how many more hostile projections.
"I'll keep watch here, cap." Tony says, lowering himself with some difficulty onto the roof. "I don't think I'm up for more vigorous physical activities than lying flat on my stomach and pulling the trigger."
Steve gives a salute, taking position in front of the control room. Muffled clanking sounds leak from inside as Pepper auto-locks the doors of all the compartments. It won't hold the projections inside for good, but it will buy them time.
'Lying flat on my stomach and pulling the trigger' turns out to be a more stimulating activity than Tony anticipated. Bucky's projections could have doctorates in spontaneous rooftop-sprinting if the way they advance is any indication. The wind is against them, blasting at everything exposed on the roof with enough force to knock a bucket of water over. Not too much that it makes movement impossible, but enough to give Tony time to aim properly. Some of the projections climb to the roof from the windows, some break down the doors and come through there to Steve.
He is watching the window of the fourth compartment being smashed open when Loki's head appears outside the window two compartments away from that one. Tony waves. The head disappears again.
"Help's arriving." Tony hums to himself, considering his rapidly diminishing supply of loaded guns. Pepper dreamed a decent amount of ammo into the control room, enough to make a sizable pile when gathered beside Tony, but it probably won't last long. A vicious gun-wielding teeth-grinding guardian angel would be of use.
Tony squints at the long stretch of train before him. Speaking of running out of bullets, the train seems to be running out of projections, too.
"Cap, I think about half of the compartments are emptied, and-" His eyes widen as they catch on a barely visible figure at the far end of the train, clinging onto the side of the compartment and shifting minutely. "Fuck, how did he manage that? When did he manage that? Cap! Your Bucky's hanging off the train already!"
"Got it! Going now!" Comes the reply. Tony turns his attention back onto the roof.
Steve stands panting at the door to the control room, looking around for any standing attackers and finding none. He can't judge if this is the end of the projections or just a lull in their attack, but for now the coast is clear. And he has to leave now if he's going to arrive at the back of the train in time to help save Bucky.
"All clear!" He shouts into the room, and Pepper returns a distracted yell of acknowledgement. He turns toward the outside again, contemplating checking on Tony- just in time to see his dream self fall out of the window three compartments over.
"Fuck." He says, giving zero fucks for language. That projection was supposed to rescue Bucky, Steve was supposed to help it do its natural job and instill hope in his friend. None of which is going to work now, because it's dead. Fuck indeed.
"Pepper- gotta go!" He hollers, his face feeling sweaty and itchy under the cowl. He grabs the rope he was going to hand over to the projection and clambers up the ladder onto the roof, sprinting unsteadily past Tony and leaping across to the next compartment. Tony shouts something, which Steve doesn't have time to listen to. The few projections on the roof try to stop him, but there's not much they can do when they're aiming to do so without harming him. Steve ducks and weaves past them easily, breath coming in gasps as he pumps his legs to get to Bucky in time.
"Cap, the third compartment's still full, they're coming through the doors- fuck, and you're gone now. Awesome." Tony says, as Steve speeds past him and takes a running leap over to the nearest compartment. He contemplates climbing down to guard the door to Pepper himself, but then they would both be exposed to projections coming from the rooftop. It's a dead end. Fortunately, Loki chooses that moment to poke his head up onto the roof, boots squeaking on the metal rungs of the ladder.
"My hero!" Tony exclaims, shooting the last remaining projection neatly on the head. The rooftop is clear of projections for now. Loki raises an impressed eyebrow.
"You seem to actually have an aim now." He says, approaching Tony and laying a careful hand on his shoulder. Tony recalls the many past disasters that was Loki witnessing Tony trying to use a gun.
"Obviously." He says, as haughtily as he can. Loki doesn't crack a smile as he hoped, only makes to withdraw his hand. Tony reaches up in time to catch it in place.
"Why didn't you tell me?" He asks suddenly, out of the blue. "When I forgot who you were in Limbo, why didn't you remind me?"
Then I wouldn't have left, he doesn't say. Loki averts his eyes. His hand moves across Tony's collarbone and up past his neck, coming to rest draped across his brows. Tony can't see anything. He doesn't mind.
"Because I could not say I was not real to you, when all you sought was to return to your reality." Tony hears. Loki's voice is closer than he thought. He can feel Loki's breath on the bridge of his nose- it comes as a puff of exhale as a gunshot sounds nearby, presumably Loki taking out a projection.
Futile as he knows it is, Tony can't help pleading yet another time.
"It wasn't all. I wanted you more, I want you more. Loki, I don't want to wake up."
The blackness lifts from Tony's vision.
"But you do." Loki says, looking at him blankly- Tony's words, as always, having had no effect on him. Tony wishes inception were an impossible thing. He wishes himself to be still trapped in Limbo, miserable and paranoid and together with Loki.
"Rest here." Loki says, breaking through Tony's thoughts. "I'll see to the projections."
With that he climbs back down the ladder, aware of the new group of projections making their way through the insides of the compartments. Tony wordlessly pulls at the nearest loaded gun, scanning the roof himself.
Tony hasn't known rest since Limbo. He doesn't tell Loki that.
Bucky is miraculously still holding on when Steve spots him from five compartments away.
"Bucky!" Steve yells. Bucky doesn't seem to hear him. His body is curled against the side of the compartment, barely keeping himself attached, swaying helplessly whenever the train runs over a bump. His head is bowed into his chest, face obscured by wild hair. Steve knows he is about to let go.
"Bucky!" Steve shouts again, scrabbling at his cowl and ripping it off. The wind blasts against his back as he stumbles forward on the roof, his muscles boosted by the force of a train running sixty kilometers per hour. Objectively, he knows he would have lost his balance on a train going any faster than that; he still curses himself for not having insisted it go faster.
He reaches the last compartment after what feels like an eternity, the side of which Bucky is hanging on. He jumps down onto the the juncture between it and the second last one, barreling into the room and squeezing himself between two rows of seats to push his upper body through the window. The rope unravels quickly in his grasp, reaching where Steve's hands can't to Bucky. Bucky's head jerks up at the rope hitting the side of his torso, and they look at each other for a moment, struck dumb by the intensity of the moment.
The rope slaps against Bucky again. Steve startles back to focus and gestures frantically at the rope, miming grabby hands. Bucky continues to stare at him, not moving. Slowly he detaches a hand from the train and brings it toward his face instead of the rope.
Steve does the same with his free hand, unconsciously- and realizes he has been crying. His other hand spasms on the rope and he snaps his eyes down to it, hastily clutching at it with both hands.
When he looks back up, Bucky is doing the same. His sudden weight yanks at the rope; Steve braces himself against the back of the seats and pulls with all he's got. The progress is slow, but it happens. Steve drags Bucky inch by inch toward the safety of the compartment, palm opening up and not hurting at all. Bucky drags himself forward with the same steadfast stubbornness, eyes fixed on Steve. They both yank and struggle, do it over and over again, and then some more, and then for one last time. Bucky tumbles into Steve's waiting arms, and doesn't pull back even when Steve carries them both to the relatively spacious aisle.
"Hey, hey, Bucky, it's okay. You're safe. We're safe." Steve says, digging his fingers into Bucky's back in what is probably a painfully tight embrace. Bucky doesn't seem to care, and squeezes back with less strength but matching desperation.
"How," He chokes out hoarsely. "Steve-"
"I said I'll help you back." Steve says, less strategy now and more raw sincerity. There is nothing fabricated about this inception. Every word he says is drawn from his heart, and he breathes raggedly from emotion as he finishes: "I'll help you back. You just need to keep trying, Bucky, just hold on until I come to help. Don't give up."
Bucky looks into Steve's eyes. Something shifts in him, something vital and alive, and when he speaks it is with resolve.
"Okay." He says, simply. Then he slumps further into Steve's hold, falling unconscious.
The kick starts sounding in the distance. Steve lays Bucky carefully on the nearest seats and pulls himself up onto the windowsill, hands on the upper part of the window for balance. He casts one last look back, at the peace on his friend's face and the promise of his words.
In the midst of shooting off a fresh line of projections, Tony realizes they are nearing an intersection. He didn't expect the train to come far enough to pass one before the kick; they will have to ride their way through the jolts and bumps accompanying the passage. Tony imagines the jostle will do a fat lot of good for his injuries. The thought is enough to distract him, and he doesn't notice the projection sneaking up on him until it lands a punch squarely on his face.
The gun is knocked out of Tony's grasp. He kicks it away before the projection can get hold of it, but the movement allows it to land another hit on him, this time on the upper chest right above the shrapnel. Tony's entire body seizes up at that, and it's a miracle he doesn't pass out on the spot.
The projection swings back its arm again, going for another blow. Tony curls away best he can- and the projection drops like a stone.
Pepper stands over it, chest heaving and looking viciously satisfied.
"What are you doing?" Tony gasps out incredulously, eyeing the frankly enormous wrench gripped tightly in Pepper's delicate hands.
"Improvising!" Pepper pants back. Tony really can't argue with that.
"You should be watching the train-"
"-I can't do that when the monitoring compartment's ambushed by three projections with machine guns, Tony-"
"Loki let them past?" He says, then groans. "Of course he did. He doesn't give a shit about anything other than keeping them from the roof. Is he still down there?"
"Excellent. Gimme a hand, we gotta go and take care of the train, somebody should stabilize this monster through the intersection. Fucking projections."
Pepper nods grimly. "But your shoulder." She says, looking slightly green.
"Will have to hold."
A loud clang vibrates through the roof, and they both turn to find Loki hoisting himself up the ladder attached to the side of the train, a gun hooked on the highest rung and panting like he just eviscerated a couple dozen men. Which he probably did.
"Your shoulder is not holding." He growls, glaring at the redness staining Tony's parka that, okay, is maybe a little wider than it should be.
"Okay, love, then why don't you go take care of the train?" Tony bites out, then thinks about it. "Oh. That should work, actually. Do go into the control room and make sure we don't all go toppling off the tracks at the intersection."
The lost look on Loki's face would've made Tony laugh if it wouldn't have jarred his chest. Pepper glances toward Loki, realization passing across her features.
"You share Tony's knowledge about the train." She says.
"Enough to know where the necessary bits are." Tony agrees. "You know I designed the mechanisms to be simple enough that people who aren't a genius like me can control it. I'm thorough in my planning. All you have to do is to pull the right levers- lower the rightmost lever all the way down, the one next to it halfway down, and leave the rest."
Loki nods wordlessly, hair a wild tangle in the wind, and disappears down the ladder again. Tony lets his head thunk back against the roof.
"Hold on." Pepper says anxiously, poking her head into his line of sight. Tony tries to give her a reassuring smile. They stay like that for a few moments; then a shudder runs through the compartment, along with several screeches of metal sliding against each other.
Silence. A muffled shout from inside, then silence again.
The train rocks, this time more forcefully- from something pounding at its walls from inside.
"Is he locked in?" Pepper says disbelievingly. Tony manages a weak grin.
"Did say I'm thorough." He says. Pepper ignores him in favor of crawling to the edge, peering down at the windows- and finding none to look in. None to break and escape through.
"Very thorough." Tony stresses. Pepper looks back at him with an appalled sort of approval.
Then they hear the kick.
The music is an eighties rock song that blares obnoxiously loud right from the start. The wind is suddenly harsher- and not just from the speed of the train. Pepper stares at Tony for a moment, petrified, before the wind knocks her off balance and she bounces and rolls all the way to the edge. She catches on the ladder at the last moment, glancing down at the ground speeding past. It's the perfect position to jump.
"Tony!" Pepper screams, hanging onto the rungs and reaching out, urging him to follow. Tony shakes his head at her and watches her eyes widen.
"Go." He mutters, knowing it doesn't carry over all the noise. The music thunders in the air now, a last desperate call to hoist them up to reality. Their eyes meet across the roof of the train; slowly, Pepper withdraws her outstretched hand. Tony smiles a little. She always was quick to understand.
"This was your plan all along." He reads from her lips. Underneath them the train jerks, a rattle that indicates Loki is getting truly desperate.
"Maybe." Tony concedes. Pepper is sobbing openly now, her tears falling more freely than Tony could ever allow himself to cry. The ladder detaches from the train with a mighty creak, finally giving in to the increasingly harsh wind, and a second later Pepper is gone.
The music starts to dim. Tony notices it has started to rain, a full-blown storm that signals the end of the dream. Just then a burst of green light shines through the seams of the compartment. Tony blinks and Loki is kneeling by his head, upright and steady even in the assault of the wind.
The kick dies off completely.
"Too late, too late." Tony pants breathlessly, joyously. Too late to leave, he's staying. Loki can't make him choose escape.
Then he takes a closer look at Loki, and the joy dies in his chest. The man is half-translucent, blurry around the edges, and his face is pinched like he is staying solid through sheer force of will. Tony recalls the green light, recalls Loki mentioning having to wake up, and blanches.
"You're- you're-" Tony stammers. Loki sighs, sliding his arms around Tony and pulling him up into a sit.
"I am waking." Loki confirms. "Idiot. You should have escaped when you had the chance."
Tony shakes his head mutely. "Then I'm waking with you." He says, begs. "You said- you said you'd take me with you when I'm ready. I'm ready. I don't want to escape, Loki, I want to stay with you. I want to follow."
"I never wished to see you suffer." Loki says, instead of answering. Tony can't gauge if any of his words have reached him. He opens his mouth, hoping there's no blood on his teeth.
"I'm waiting for a train." He says, now barely more than a whisper. "A train to take me far away. I know once I board I can never go back, but it doesn't matter because I know where it goes. It doesn't matter-" He stops to breathe. There are black smudges in his vision and he's feeling increasingly faint. Loki does not press his hand over Tony's mouth, but it's Tony this time who can't make himself finish. Maybe it's his lungs, or maybe it's his heart. His heart was never a cooperative one.
Loki touches Tony's face. Tony looks up, and sees understanding unfurl in him.
"It doesn't matter." Loki says, softly. "Because we will be together."
There. Tony's real wish, his only wish, not escape, not departure, just the together. The one fatal fault in his inception- reality never meant anything to Tony if it meant Loki wasn't in it. But now they both know. Now is the time to take a leap of faith.
"Together." Loki repeats. The train groans beneath them, starting to fall apart. A flash of green light washes over Loki and floods over to Tony; it feels familiar, and warm, and heartbreakingly inviting.
Tony closes his eyes.
He wakes again, and this time he is not alone.