Tony wakes up in handcuffs, and that’s- well, that’s a shitty start to anyone’s day, unless the handcuffs come with neon fluff around them.
The ones around Tony’s wrists, however, are depressingly fluff-less, and are instead unforgiving metal and push into Tony’s skin when he struggles against them. He stops after a while, when he feels the metal grow slightly slick with blood.
By then, he’s not sure how long it’s been. He had been groggy upon waking, but that was only for a moment before vanishing too fast for it to be normal- at first he dismissed it as the adrenaline rush, but surely any drug with enough kick to knock him out would have effects that lingered longer than a few seconds.
He goes over the facts: his mouth feels sort of swollen and mothbally, and his wrists are bleeding sluggishly, his arms hurt from where they’re cuffed behind him and his legs are cramping from all the sitting he’s been forced into, but other than that, he’s more or less unharmed.
The room he’s in is about as big as his lounge at home, which is to say about the size of a small warehouse. The windows are blacked out, and the only light he can see are the small rays filtering through the cracks.
And unless Clint got bored with his Biology homework and planned an elaborate prank, Tony’s pretty sure he’s been kidnapped and is being held hostage somewhere. Which sucks, because not only does Tony hate being kidnapped, but he thinks he was supposed to go over to Steve’s house for dinner, and it’s Thursday, which means Sarah’s cooking roast beef. Shit, is it even Thursday anymore? How long was he out?
Case in point: Tony hates being kidnapped. Hates it.
He’s about to vocalize this when the door finally opens and someone walks in, but they- she, it’s a woman, or a very curvy man in a dress- says, “Anthony Stark,” in a voice so absurdly creepy that Tony’s mouth clicks shut on a shiver.
Then he opens it again, forcing a smile, because yes, he’s Anthony fucking Stark, and that comes with smartassery leaking from his pores. “That’d be me. Sorry, did you want something? I’d offer to help, but I’m kind of tied up right now.”
He tries for a depreciating shrug, pulling a ‘what can you do’ face.
The woman is smiling. Has been since she walked in, since before she said his name. It’s nearly as creepy as her voice- she smiles like the women in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, her lips pulling up instead of sideways. She has a pointy kind of smile, and it sets Tony on edge.
Tony clears his throat, trying to rid his mind from the skeevies that her smile- voice- her entire presence, really- has provoked. “Also, I prefer ‘Tony.”
“I am… aware,” the woman says, taking her sweet time to reply. She talks slow, too- almost wondrous, her eyes wandering Tony’s body like a caress. Her lips part over her teeth, and Tony is unnecessarily relieved by the lack of fangs.
She is quiet for a moment after that, gaze on Tony in a way that freaks him out more by the second, and then she adds, “Child,” in a soft murmur, like she’s saying it to herself. “So young,” she continues, weirdly distant, sighing it.
Tony is almost too creeped out by all of this to be indignant. “Hey, I’m sixteen, thank you very much. I can legally drive and everything.”
The smile ticks, and Tony stops himself from visibly recoiling. What the fuck is up with this lady, anyway?
“Apologies,” she says eventually. “I must admit I am slightly starstruck, being confronted with you at last. I always considered myself to be very professional, I thought I’d conduct myself as such were I ever to meet you in this universe.”
That’s enough to make the flicker of fear roar up a bit. Kidnappers, Tony can just about handle. Crazy kidnappers- that’s an entirely different story.
“You’re doing fine,” Tony assures her. He pauses, pretending to think about it, before saying, “I mean, you could’ve put some more thought into accommodation.”
Another smile, and this time Tony swallows. She looks at him like he’s familiar, like he’s an old pet she used to know.
“Again, apologies,” she says, and Tony gets the feeling this is going to be a one-sided conversation in which his input doesn’t matter, “I wish there was another way, truly. I never wished to harm any of you.”
Shit. Tony bites back on the answering rush of adrenaline. Shit.
“Any of us,” he repeats, and takes immense pride in how his voice is completely steady.
She nods, regal, a graceful incline of her head. This time, the upturn of her lips is almost sad, along with her eyes, neither of which bode well.
“Any of you,” she says again, all sad smile and sorry eyes. “For many a century, we spent our time weaving your lifelines. It brings me great sadness to bring harm to any Avenger, in any life they lead, and I must- I must admit I am not looking forward to what must follow.”
Tony gropes blindly behind his back for something, anything. A rock, some glass, a bit of paper, fuck, he’ll take a pebble and lob it at her if he has to. “Follow? Nothing has to follow. You could just, y’know, let me go, let us go, and-”
“I cannot.” Sad smile. Sorry eyes. Wet eyes, Tony realises, and hey, at least if he’s going to get brutally slaughtered by a crazy chick, she’s going to feel bad about it.
She turns her head to where she had walked in the room, and Tony looks with her. Suddenly, he can’t see the door, which is stupid, since it was there a minute ago.
He blinks, and- and yeah, yep, definitely a door again, that’s weird, and then the door is opening and light is streaming through and half a dozen men in ancient uniforms are marching in. Ancient as in toga-looking, the kind of things Tony’s seen gods wear in History class.
The marching men stop in an even line in front of the woman, staring straight ahead through their masks.
“Have you accumulated the others,” the woman asks.
The answer is immediate, and in unison. All six men intone, “Only Steven and Natasha, mighty Skuld. We are working on finding the other ones.”
Tony’s hands freeze where they’re scrabbling as discreetly as possible, his heart thudding dangerously hard in his chest and then going in double-time. What the fuck are these crazyball nutcases doing with Steve and Natasha? What could they possibly want with them? Tony- Tony’s rich, he’s heir to a fortune, but Natasha lives rent-free uptown in a dorm with Bucky and Rhodey, and the Rogers family are currently struggling to buy a new washing machine.
Crazyball nutcases, Tony reminds himself. Probably no reason other than the crazyball nutness.
“Bring them here,” the woman instructs.
Again, in practised unison: “Yes, mighty Skuld,” and then they’re turning on their heel and marching out, their feet in perfect time with each other.
Tony waits until the door closes, and then- it doesn’t vanish, because of course it can’t, but he sure as hell can’t see it anymore- before asking, “What are you going to do with us?”
The answer comes from the woman- Skuld’s- turned head, still looking towards the blank wall that used to have a door: “Ritual sacrifice,” she says, and then turns back to Tony, where he’s trying not to let that sink in.
“Not just yet, neverfear,” Skuld continues. The smile is back, sadder than ever, like she really regrets this whole thing. “Of course I will wait until you are all in front of me.”
“How nice of you,” Tony says, his mind racing.
“I will attempt to make it hurt the least amount possible.”
Tony can’t really think up an answer for that, but he wants to keep her talking, so he says, “Mighty Skuld, huh?”
Her head dips. “That is my name.”
“Good to meet you.” Tony grits a smile. “Well, not really, if we’re being honest.”
For a moment, Tony thinks she’s going to laugh. Her lips move like she’s going to, but then she stops, like she’s remembered something to jar the laugh from existence. She begins to bend, and Tony holds back on an instinctive flinch. She seems to notice anyway, and hesitates before bending fully, so she’s eye-to-eye with him.
Her mouth opens. Hovers on the edge of speech for a second. Says, like it pains her to do it, “I do believe this is the first time I have seen you like this. This young, with so much violence already taking hold.”
The corner of her mouth wobbles, and for a terrifying second, Tony thinks she’s going to start crying. She doesn’t, though, and her voice stays steady, calm and crisp as she says, “I do apologize for that.”
“How else do you see me,” Tony asks, scrabbling for anything to make her keep talking, give him time to stall, or by some miracle find something behind him to use against her.
“Older,” she answers, and Tony’s fingers grapple uselessly with empty dirt behind him. “Often much older. Sometimes you manage to become Iron Man in your early twenties, even your late teens, but that is very rare. Usually it starts in your mid to late thirties, when life has already gotten its hooks firmly into you.”
Something in that makes Tony stop, but he goes instantly to shove it back. Crazy, Tony reminds himself. She’s batshit insane. Batshit insane with a cult behind her, or something.
“It is good, though,” she goes on. “To see you as you are here. Though I have always found it to be quite… melancholy, to find you at this age, with so much you have yet to know, so much pain ahead of you. Not that you’ll experience it now.”
“I don’t know,” Tony says. “Ritual sacrifice doesn’t sound so pain-free.”
“You have been through much worse, believe me, young Anthony,” she murmurs. “So much worse, a million times over. So much suffering.”
“So what, you’re freeing me from that?” Tony’s fingers are bleeding, he’s pretty sure. They’re scraped raw. They feel that way, anyway. “Saving me from what I’d have to go through otherwise?”
Skuld frowns for the first time since Tony woke up, and her lips go straight down instead of outwards. Fuck. “In some worlds, you would consider it a kindness. Have you not been dreaming of the grievances that you have had to experience in other worlds?”
Crazy, Tony thinks to himself. He forces it again, crazy crazy crazy, batshit, crazy as fuckballs, because he hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in a long time, and he remembers.
It’s just snippets- his hands, older and more scarred, fiddling at a bench over the skeleton of a metal suit. The sky screaming past him at full speed. Skinny, steady hands inside his bloody chest, lining it with metal. Cameras going off. Martinis blurring together.
Clint, older, pulling back a bow with red-stained fingers. A green smear in the distance getting closer, and for some reason Tony knows it’s Bruce, and he knows to give orders over his shoulder for everyone to evacuate, now.
A woman named Pepper Potts, a woman who Tony loves so much it aches, a woman who wears makeup to cover her freckles and screams at Tony when he’s being an idiot, a woman who Tony wakes up missing too often.
And Steve. Steve, only a few years older, with a shoulder span that would put Bucky to shame. Steve, bright and bold and brilliant as ever, but bigger than Tony knows him to be.
Steve yelling at him in the stairwell of the Avengers Tower, Steve yelling at him through the comm, Steve yelling at him in the pauses between biting kisses after a mission, Steve yelling at him in the workshop with a hand on his shoulder, Steve yelling at him in a meeting with a fast-healing black eye from the most recent villain of the week.
“World,” Skuld corrects herself, reading Tony’s sharp inhale correctly. “It is often so. Too many worlds would be too hard on even your brain. The world you are getting flashes of in your sleep is the one closest to yours.”
Tony stares. Stares at the mouth which turns all the wrong ways. “Why,” he says, and has to swallow, hard, shaky. “What’s with the ritual sacrifice?”
“You are not supposed to experience leakage from other universes,” Skuld answers. “This is dangerous. All universes are now falling apart, however slowly, and my sisters and I believe we have located the source.”
“None of us did anything, none of us ever-”
“You are innocent,” Skuld agrees. “I know. Unfortunately, this universe is parallel with several others that are far from it, and although I had originally been planning to do this in one of them, my powers have become- limited, shall we say. And a seventeen year old group of Avengers are better than none at all. Souls are souls.”
“Souls are souls,” Tony croaks. “Right. And, and we’re-”
“You are,” Skuld nods.
The door opens then, appearing in the wall and then swinging, and in marches six men and an unconscious Steve in one of their arms, and Tony’s chest constricts. Fuck. Fucking fuck.
They deposit a handcuffed and lightly beat-up Steve onto the ground beside Tony, and Tony drinks in the sight like a lifeline, looking for any signs that the damage is anything worse than it seems. His chest rises and falls, slow and steady, which is what Tony’s focusing on the most.
The men tell Skuld that Natasha is proving difficult, and that they will return with her posthaste. They actually use the word, and not ironically, and then leave, the door disappearing behind them.
Tony is so screwed.
He watches, eyes stuck solid on Skuld’s hand as she reaches into her dress- togas have pockets, who knew- and draws out a short, curved dagger, the kind that Tony’s only seen on TV. It’s thick, with jewels encrusted on the blade, the hilt thinning where Skuld holds it.
“Again, apologies,” Skuld tells him with a sigh. “We seem to have less time than I previously thought. I shall have to make do with killing you separately.”
Tony chokes on his own spit.
Skuld raises the dagger, and in the split second that it hovers, Tony realizes where it’s aiming, and shoves in the way just in time so that instead of splitting Steve’s throat, it sinks into Tony’s left shoulder.
Tony screams. He’s never made a sound like that before, not that he’s aware of, and it’s ugly and desperate as it tears out his throat. The pain- god. God, Jesus, Mary and everyone else.
He makes a tiny noise, not a sob but not much else, when the knife moves in his shoulder, just a bit.
When he looks up, Skuld is staring at him. She stares for a long time, her eyes full of something Tony hasn’t seen in anyone’s eyes before and probably never will again. Her hand is still clutching the hilt of the knife that is piercing the meat of Tony’s shoulder.
She says, “Anyone who says the hero was born in a dank cave in Afghanistan is a fool.”
Tony tells her he has no idea what she’s talking about, all the while remembering waking up last night from a dream about lighting the arc reactor up for the first time, how it was the brightest thing he had seen in weeks. In the dream, Tony had thought it was the brightest thing he had seen in his life.
Then, though, Skuld puts that idea to bed.
At first, when the glow starts, Tony thinks he’s just delirious from the pain. But then the glow deepens, starts to spread out from her chest and continuing out, out, out, until it’s brimming under her skin.
“I- what,” Skuld gasps. The dark cave of her mouth is starting to shine. Her eye sockets are pits of light. “What did- sisters, I am completing the ritual-”
Her voice cuts off, and she screams, louder than Tony, louder than Tony’s heard anyone scream, and it’s enough for him to flinch violently backwards, crying out in pain when it jolts the knife in his shoulder that Skuld is no longer holding.
“Sisters,” Skuld sobs, and Tony has to squeeze his eyes shut against the light, but it shines through his eyelids.
When the light finally dims, Tony opens his eyes and his handcuffs are gone, the door is open and the only people in the room are him and Steve.
The door is open.
Tony thinks this is a very important point.
The door is open, and there’s light behind it, and Tony would really like to get to wherever the hell the door leads to, because anything is better than staying here and hoping that the men have also fizzled out into whatever happened to Skuld.
First thing, he checks Steve’s pulse on his handcuff-less wrist, which is harder than it seems, regardless of what movies have taught him. Then he slaps Steve’s face, lightly at first, then increasing in hardness until he gives up.
“Steve,” he tries. “Steve! Now is seriously not the time for a nap! Wakey-wakey!”
He shakes Steve as much as he can without dislodging Steve’s arms from their sockets.
Next, he deliberates pulling the knife out of his shoulder, before deciding that it’s ultimately a horrible idea and would most likely end with him bleeding out all over the floor and leaving Steve to fend for himself. Which would suck.
He attempts to drag Steve towards the door, which proves fruitless, due to the fact that Tony can’t move his left arm without inflicting immense pain on himself. He tries using just his right arm, pushing it under Steve’s armpits and holding him awkwardly to his chest as he half-carries, half-drags Steve to the door in very, very slow increments.
Also, he keeps dropping him. Because Steve isn’t exactly heavy, but neither is Tony, and he’s in pain and the grip is awkward and the blood makes everything slippery.
After the sixth time that Steve slips from Tony’s grasp to the floor, Tony gets down on his knees next to him. “Steve,” he says. “Steve. Steve, Steven, wake the fuck up, come on, please. Pretty please? For me?”
He looks Steve up and down. “God, you are going to have so many bruises from where I keep dropping you,” he realizes aloud. “Shit. Sorry. But in my defence, you’re incredibly uncooperative and also you bruise like a peach, so that’s only half my fault-”
“Wh’izzit,” Steve says from the floor, and Tony jumps, and then hisses in pain from the motion.
“Fuck,” Tony says, first about the flare in his shoulder, and then: “Fuck! You’re awake!”
Steve makes a sound like, “Mmf,” as if he’s not happy at all to be awake, his eyelids fluttering open. “Tony? Where- where the heck are we?”
“Yeah,” Tony says. “About that. We seem to have been kidnapped by crazies. Also, said crazies vanished in a burst of light and I don’t know if they’re coming back, so we should get moving.”
Tony helps him stand, and Steve is frowning and muttering as he wobbles to his feet. He rubs a hand over his face- skinny fingers, slim palms, Tony notes, and it’s familiar and heartbreaking all at the same time- before freezing.
“Is that a knife sticking out of your shoulder,” Steve chokes, his eyes wide and appalled.
Tony looks over at the hilt that moves whenever his shoulder does. “Maybe,” he says after a second.
“Why is there a knife, oh my god, are you okay-”
“Of course I’m not okay, I’ve been IMPALED, Rogers-”
“What did you do,” Steve says, despairing, hovering his hands to and then away from the hilt.
“I didn’t do anything! Hey, no, don’t pull it out,” Tony warns, twisting away from where Steve’s hands keep getting too close. “I’ll bleed out and die and that would be really bad because you need someone to carry you when you pass out from running away from crazies for thirty seconds. Speaking of which-”
Tony sticks his good hand into his pocket and comes out with an inhaler, holding it out to Steve, who hesitates before taking it.
“You keep a spare,” Steve says as he pockets it.
Tony has to keep himself from shrugging, with the whole shoulder thing. “Better safe than whatever.”
“I wasn’t going to pull the knife out.”
“I know. Just making sure.”
“They have Nat,” Steve says, and Tony’s smile gutters.
“Yeah, I heard. Hey, Steve?”
“Have you by any chance been having weirdly vivid dreams about World War Two lately?”
Steve only pauses for a second, but in that second, Tony watches his throat work nervously. Steve is nervous plenty of the time, but mostly he either shoves it down or rides through it and punches the guy in the face anyway.
Steve swallows, and says, “Have you had any dreams about flying around in a metal suit?”
Tony doesn’t know what else he expected. “What the fuck is going on,” he growls, to no-one in particular.
“Dunno.” Steve nods towards the door, a few feet away and casting light. Through it, there’s a hallway, long and twisting. “Should we go find out?”
“After you,” Tony tells him.