What time is it? HALF TERM! And with it a super-long, angsty, possibly OOC (sorry about that if it is), emotion filled chapter! Two left after this, but don't worry children! No need to cry! Because I- being the wonderful person that I am- have decided to not only do a Clintasha companion piece, but a companion piece for all the kidvengers! HOORAY!
These will be oneshots, and will probably be posted sporadically, though I am hoping to get them all done before Christmas. There will be four of them- The Cousins, The Brothers, The Runaways and The Damned. No prizes for guessing who each one is about!
So, before I ramble on any more: have your madly long chapter!
Tony and Pepper are sat in her room. He is telling her about the cities he's seen, the foreign countries he's visited and the people he's met. Her eyes grow wide at tales of strange languages and funny food which burns your tongue until there are tears in your eyes, donkeys in the street and locals that don't care if his father's suit is Armani, all they care about is whether or not a penny is pushed into their dirty hands.
And Pepper, who has been to a small city nearby twice, once for a party and once on a school trip to a museum, wants to know more, more, more. Why were you over there? How many floors did the hotel have? Were you right at the top? Did you make any friends over there? Why not? What does it matter if they had dirty feet, Clint has dirty feet and you're still friends with him.
And Tony feebly tries to explain Howard Stark's mindset, and his abhorrence of anything that isn't opulent, isn't sumptuous and isn't clearly American. Tries to explain that the closest his father has ever come to slumming it was when he did a job for the military and had to work in one of their labs. Tries to explain that, what Howard wants, he gets, so if Tony is stuck in the penthouse with nothing but German TV, well then, that's too bad.
Pepper suggests that maybe they should go to Asgard, that maybe Howard should broker some sort of deal with King Odin, because then he'll be able to see Thorki. But then she pauses, and her face crumples slightly, and he hugs her because he knows why, and he thinks that maybe his face is crumpling too.
Hanging on the back of her door is a calendar, each day carefully crossed off. She wriggles out of his arms and crosses off Friday, before bursting into tears, because Thorki are leaving tomorrow night, and then Tony goes Sunday lunchtime, and ringed in thick red pen is Monday, the words 'back to school' written in shaky handwriting that somehow manages to look depressed, and Tony didn't even realise that handwriting could look depressed. He grabs her by the waist and drags her back to the bed, stroking her hair and reminding her that, hey, she'll still have Bruce and Steve and Clintasha.
"But I won't have you," she hiccups, "and you're the best cousin in the whole wide world and you're my best friend and you'll be gone."
"No I won't," he tells her, before pausing; "Okay, yes, I will, but that's why we have the US postal service. I can write to you. Every week. Every day if you want. A hundred, no, a thousand, no, a hundred thousand letters, enough to break your house!" And she stops crying and starts to giggle. He waves his arms around, getting into it, wanting nothing more in that moment than for her to keep smiling. "Picture it! Letters in the chimney! Letters in your bed! On the floor! You'd turn on the shower and more letters will come out! There'll be no trees left because I'll use them all for paper to write letters!" And she's squealing, flat on her back as he pokes at her stomach and her ribs, laughing so hard that when she rolls off the bed and lands on the floor with a thud there is only a slight pause before the giggles continue.
The next day in the clearing, Thorki are the last to arrive. When they do it is bearing melancholy smiles and two brightly wrapped boxes. Thor's is red with silver ribbon while Loki's is gold with green ribbon, and are those...?
"Nice box, reindeer games," smirks Tony. Loki just huffs a sigh and rolls his eyes.
"It was the only wrapping paper to be found that wasn't such a tacky shade of... scarlet," he drawls, eyeing Thor's box distastefully. Steve snorts.
"Because there's nothing tacky about gold, is there?"
The picnic, being their last one as a group, is massive, even bigger than normal, and- not for the first time- Tony wonders what his aunt thinks of how much they eat. She doesn't know about their friends, any of them. It started with not mentioning Clintasha, and since then it's just always seemed... prudent, to avoid mentioning the gaggle of misfits they hang out with. There are two peanut butter sandwiches each- including Pepper's special one she makes for Bruce- along with two candy bars, two bottles of pop, a bag of crisps and a packet of sweeties. Somehow- and Tony can't possibly think how- Tasha ends up with four candy bars, four bottles of pop, three packets of crisps and three packets of sweets, while Thor and Loki are looking remarkably empty-handed.
Steve has brought in his dad's old camera, and they set it up on a precarious 'tripod' consisting of a few twigs, some balanced stones and half a foot of string. Steve sets the timer for ten seconds and then they all squeeze into the photo, big goofy grins on their faces, trying to pretend they haven't realised why this photo is being taken now, trying to pretend it doesn't hurt. Pepper and Bruce are holding hands, Thor has both arms raised into the air jubilantly, Clint is giving Steve bunny ears while Loki tries to edge as close as he can to Tasha, and Tony is on the edge with a laugh on his lips, watching his friends with a heart fit to burst.
They play a final few rounds of bullshit, with Pepper very nearly as good as Tasha and Loki now, a thought that Tony finds more than a little concerning. Thor ruefully tells them that he has never won a game, not once this entire summer, and though this isn't really a great shocker- Thor isn't exactly renowned for his subtlety- Tony is surprised that he has been willing to play game after game, just to lose every one. Not many people would do that, and out of all of them, Thor seems the most likely to get frustrated and give up. Tony finds himself with new respect for the princeling.
After the cards are packed away, the presents are brought out, Thor beaming widely and Loki smirking a little smile that makes Tony worry for his safety.
"From my time spent here!" the elder brother booms, "I have learnt many things about America! Your parents are awful, your bullies cowardly, and your people not as fat as the television would have us believe, though the food is often disgusting! However, despite this, I have much enjoyed myself, and I know Loki has too! So, as a gift of gratitude to my friends who have been so wonderful, I present you with a gift all Americans are sure to love!"
"Which is?" asks Bruce, eyebrow quirking up. Thor hands them the red box, and they tear away the wrapping to find it filled with... paddleballs.
"You know, I've never had one of these before," comments Tony as the clearing fills with preteens desperately swinging their arms around.
"Really?" Clint is lying atop a branch, effortlessly thwacking the ball without even looking at it, eyes shut dreamily. "They were, like, the currency at the orphanage. Paddleballs, actual money and cigarettes. They could get you anything you wanted, if you had enough of them."
"So could a knuckle sandwich," mutters Tasha through gritted teeth, missing the ball with every swing, "and I had plenty of those to give out."
Pepper is bouncing it downwards instead of up in the hope that that will make it easier, while Bruce has gone for the sideways approach. Tony isn't too bad, managing to get runs of two or three before he misses it again. Thor is waving his arms madly, and has already hit himself in the face with the ball several times. Loki isn't helping this, having decided it is his life's ambition to hit Thor's ear with the red rubber ball. Clint has switched to using his wrong hand and is still managing to get it every time. Tasha throws hers down with a frustrated shout, before picking it up and trying again. It is definitely a lot harder than TV makes it seem, and for a while they are kept busy.
"I am bored," announces Loki after maybe half an hour. "Allow me to give you my present. I have no speech to give you, unfortunately not being nearly as... eloquent as Thor," Thor beams, the sarcasm going straight over his head. "I do, however, wish to thank you, for... I suppose for being you. So here," the smirk is back and they take the box with apprehension. "I stole it some months back from my father's liquor cabinet."
Inside the box are six small bottles of a honey-coloured liquid, strange writing printed on the side. They each take one apprehensively, and Thor grins.
"It is a worthy gift! Asgard's finest mead can make any party enjoyable!"
Steve is staring at his with a large frown, and Bruce is hardly touching the bottle, looking close to tears. Clint and Tasha have both laid theirs down on the grass, Pepper is eyeing hers as though it might bite, and Tony feels his stomach churn at the thought of its contents. Alcohol. The root cause of most of their problems. How could Loki have forgotten that?
But then Tony looks at Loki, really looks at him; ignores the pleasant smile and the beaming brother next to him, but look into his eyes, and sees a coldness there, a calculation that scares him. The others go back to playing bullshit, but he pulls Loki aside for a talk.
"What do you think you're doing?" he hisses, and Loki blinks, trying to look innocent.
"I am trying to play bullshit, friend Stark, but you are making it very difficult for me."
"Oh no, don't you even try that. Tell me straight, or I might have to deck you: what do you think you're doing?" The smile slides from Loki's face, and he glares back, brown eyes clashing against startling blue.
"Do not delude yourself, Stark; even if you could hurt me, you wouldn't dare- Thor would destroy you," the princeling spits. "As for what I'm doing, I'm giving my supposed 'friends' a little leaving gift to remember me by."
"It's a horrible gift, and you know it; and what do you mean, 'supposed friends?'
"You don't think I truly care for any of you, do you? That I enjoy being with you? You are puppets, and I am the marionette, pulling the strings and watching the reactions. I did want to give you my thanks, however- without you freaks I would have had a most dull summer, alone with Thor. Just remember this:" his voice lowers to a whisper. "You. You and all the others here, your stupid little cousin especially. You. Are. Nothing. To me." Tony takes a step back, cold horror rushing through him. It was a lie. All this time, all their jokes, all their fun, it was a lie. Loki takes in his expression and smirks. "Predictable little puppet." With that, he turns on his heel and walks back to the others.
"You okay, Tony?" calls Clint, who is currently holding half the deck and trying to work out how many eights he has.
"Um, yeah," manages the young prodigy. Loki is still smirking. "I'll, uh, be back in a second." He practically runs from the clearing, tears pricking the back of his eyes. His blood feels frozen in his veins, and he shivers despite the warm sun.
He has been completely and utterly betrayed.
He bites his lip, trying to keep the tears at bay. Dropping to his knees, he wraps his arms around himself, as though doing so will stop his heart from shattering. Loki was lying to them this whole time. One of his closest friends from this summer, and it had all been a farce.
"Tony?" It's Clint, eyes widening at the sight of his friend. "Tony, what's wrong?"
Tony doesn't want to say, doesn't want to admit how badly duped he was, but Clint has been fooled too, and Clint has a right to know. So he tells him everything, from the look in Loki's eyes to how he likened them to puppets. Clint sits and listens, and sometimes pats Tony's shoulder awkwardly, and sometimes hums in an understanding tone. When Tony is done, they both pretend not to notice the tears on his cheeks, and the young runaway rocks back on his heels.
"He's fucking with our emotions."
"You do realise he's scared shitless?" The young prodigy pauses, staring at his friend in confusion.
"He's scared shitless. Like, he doesn't have friends in Asgard. Thor told me. And now he has friends here, but he's leaving them, and he doesn't want to. He's scared, though, that we like Thor more than him. Or that he'll get in touch and we'll reject him, say that we don't need him, that we don't want him, that we have other friends, that we have Thor instead. So he gives us gifts purposely designed to make us uncomfortable, and waits for the confrontation that will in.. inevit... definitely happen. He tells you what he told you, takes away our chance to reject him by rejecting us instead. Leaves with Thor this evening, and knows that he can never get back in touch because you'll have told us what happened. There's no risk for him. No risk of rejection, no chance of him being hurt, and no way we can forget him. We'll remember him for what he did to us, and we'll hate him, but he'll have got the best of us. And as long as he has that, then he's safe." Tony frowns, because it's strange but it almost makes sense. Sort of, in a twisted way. It's also probably the most he's ever heard the young runaway say in one go, and he wants to know more.
"How do you know all this?" he demands, and Clint shrugs, leaning back.
"I've seen a lot of fear. Kids at the orphanage, they got good at hiding it, but there are things you can pick up on no matter what. Most people, they don't fear what's there. They fear what they fear is there."
"You've lost me."
"Like, look at us; as a group I mean. You know what people should be afraid of, know the basics of what they are afraid of. Bruce should be and is afraid of Ross and his dad, Tasha and I should be and are afraid of what happens if Coulson finds us, Steve should be and is afraid of what happens now that his dad is dead. But they aren't their biggest fears. You can have your worst dreams come true, you can be beaten and bloody and bruised, but it's not nearly as bad as what people can do to you without laying a finger on your body."
"Can you give me an example?" asks Tony, still not sure that he fully understands what Clint is getting at.
"Bruce is afraid that nothing will change. That with Thor gone, Ross will be right back at it. That his dad will stay the same, and that his mum will keep being helpless. That's his worst nightmare. That's he's stuck in a rut, that this is it, this is his life right here." Tony nods, because he can see it, can understand it, but would never have noticed it if Clint hadn't pointed it out.
"Pepper," the runaway continues, "is the opposite. She's afraid that things will change. That with you gone and Thorki gone, and school starting again everything will be different. She's afraid that we'll drift apart, that Bruce will stop liking her, that me and Tasha will be taken away, that Steve will ignore her because he's a big kid and she's not, and that this summer will be nothing more than a memory."
"What about Thorki?"
"Thor and Loki are both afraid of rejection. Loki has been second best all his life- the second son, the adopted son, never as good as Thor. He makes it so that people can't reject him- he pushes them away, rejects them pre... pre-emp... before they can reject him. Thor is afraid because he's never been rejected- everything's been handed to him on a silver platter, but he's not thick. He's seen how people treat Loki, and he's scared that if he does one thing wrong the same will happen to him. He tries his best to please everyone, to draw them close so that they don't want to reject him."
"So they're sort of opposites too?"
"They're the same, but they handle it in opposites, yeah."
"What about Steve and Tasha?"
"Steve is afraid of being a disappointment. Of people looking at him, and him not being good enough. He knows what they said about his father, and he doesn't want it to happen to him. So he goes to church and he's patriotic, he stands up for little boys being hurt and he follows the rules and the reason he has no character, the reason he's so boring, is because he's so busy trying to be what everyone else wants that he forgets to be himself. We tease him for it, and he needs that, because it helps remind him that he doesn't have to be perfect, that in our eyes it's the worst thing he could be."
"Tasha is afraid that she's like them. That by dropping that match, she pulled herself down to his level, and that there's no way to make up for it. That, no matter what she does, she'll always have red on her ledger. She's scared she did the wrong thing, and no matter what she does in the future, she's no better than he was. She's worried she'll become a monster."
"How long have you been watching all us?"
"You're not the only one people tell stuff to, Tony. And I pick up on things, more than Tasha. She's good at watching reactions, predicting what they'll do next. I can tell a person's motives."
"You seem awfully sure of yourself," smiles Tony, bumping the young runaway's shoulder with his fist, but the smile isn't returned.
"You're afraid of being alone."
"You're afraid that you're going to go back home, and your dad's going to lock you away with your circuit boards and your gadgets."
"No more card games or swimming with friends. No Pepper, to surprise you with some of the things she says and to smile when you get things right. Isolation. Locked in a house with a father who can't be bothered to give you the time of day, a mother too weak willed to stand up to him and show you some love- a mother that maybe doesn't love you at all- and a boatload of servants who call you 'Master Stark.'
"Shut up!" snaps the young prodigy, pushing himself to his feet. "You think you're so fucking clever! Poking at everyone's fears, explaining them, making yourself out to be some sort of... of guru or something! If you're so smart, what are you afraid of, huh?" He turned and slipped his fist into a tree, ignoring the pain of his knuckles splitting. "Answer me!"
For a moment, there is silence. Tony's eyes are scrunched closed and he is breathing heavily, anger coursing through him. He doesn't know how close they are to the clearing, doesn't care if the others heard him. Clint had no right. No right.
"I'm scared of being forgotten," says a small voice, and he pauses. "That you'll all move on and I'll be left behind. Not alone. There are always people around. But forgotten. A person you knew once, whose name you can't think of but whose face you can sort of remember. A person who had no impact on your life. Barney's got a job now- he doesn't need me anymore. Tasha's already left me once; got herself adopted, didn't she? I don't know where my parents are; haven't heard a word of them since I got taken away. You leave tomorrow, Thorki leave tonight, Pepper, Bruce and Steve are starting school again and won't have time for us. Tasha- well, look at her. She'll always be adopted again. So I'll just be left here, like a broken toy on the side of the road. Who needs a broken orphan?"
"I won't," muttered Tony, his face scrunched up in pain both emotional and physical.
"I won't forget you. I could never forget you, none of us could, and you're mad if you think otherwise." There is a pause.
"I'll write to you."
"You won't be able to write back, but I'll sneak into town and send you letters. Pepper can give me the address."
"Thanks, Clint." There is silence for a moment, both of them thinking about what has been said.
"You should probably get that bandaged. It looks sore." Tony glances down at his knuckles, which are trickling blood. Now that he thinks about it, the pain is excruciating.
"Yeah, you're right."
When they get back to the clearing, the others all look at him in concern, with the exception of Loki, who smirks. Clint tells them that Tony fell and hit his hand against a tree, and though no one buys it, no one says anything either. Pepper and Tasha patch it up, and they go back to bullshit, all horribly aware of the time.
Five o'clock arrives and it's time for them to go, Thor and Loki forever. Pepper and Bruce are both in tears, while the rest of them are blinking fiercely, trying to keep themselves together. Last hugs are swapped, promises of letters are made, and final joking insults are laughed at. Tony gets the last hug, and when he hugs Loki he pulls him tight.
"Goodbye, friend Loki. Don't be a stranger."
When he pulls away, Loki looks hurt and confused. Tony grins, his favourite shit-eating grin that gets Steve so riled up.
"You really think you're going to get rid of me that easy? For a fellow prodigy, you're pretty dumb."
"Do I have to spell it out to you?"
"Don't even bother; I'm your friend, Loki, and some cheap little lies don't change anything." Loki opens his mouth to reply, pauses, shuts it again, and smiles shyly.
"I'll keep that in mind, friend Tony. Goodbye." Thor grabs them up in an enormous hug, somehow wrapping his arms around all seven of them. This is probably aided by the fact that he is slowly crushing the life out of them.
"Um, Thor... can't breathe," Clint chokes out, turning slightly blue. The princeling lets go, only to burst into loud, noisy sobs.
"I shall miss you all so! The adventures we have had! I cannot wait to tell Lady Sif and the warriors three about our times together!" Behind him, Loki makes gagging noises and mimes sticking a finger down his throat. From the little they've gleaned, Thor's friends are definitely not his friends.
Then Pepper starts to cry all over again, and they have another round of hugs. Clint seems to decide this is just too much sentimentality in one clearing, and instead gives the brothers a punch to the arm each, an idea Tony shamelessly copies. Tasha gives each of them a kiss, not just on the cheek but right on the lips, and the brothers look like they'll explode from pent up excitement.
Pepper is crying the whole way home, and Tony does what he can to comfort her, which isn't very much. His own impending departure is weighing on his stomach like lead, and Pepper's tears feel like little drops of acid, burning into his soul.
That night, they slip out the house and make the ten minute walk to the footbridge leading over the road out of town. They don't have to wait very long before a sleek black car appears. Pepper scrambles onto his shoulders, and they both wave wildly. At first, the young prodigy is worried that they weren't noticed; however, one of the tinted windows rolls down and two hands appear, one broad and tanned, the other far paler and much narrower. They wave back, and a voice calls out
"Go to bed, Stark!" The car continues down its path, and within a minute it is gone, taking Loki and Thor with it. It is the last time any of them will see the princes for a very long time.