Tony prowled cautiously along the darkened gallery, trying to put his feet down as gently as possible on the tiles. Not for the first time, it occurred to him just how unsuitable the Iron Man armour was for this kind of work. Which was why he didn't usually do this kind of work, and was an idiot for agreeing to it.
The museum looked very different with not even the emergency lighting up; the full moon streaming through the high windows gave enough light to find his way, but the greyed out displays looked, well, spooky.
He stepped behind a sculpture of a woman in a toga, and turned up the armour's audio pickups. He could hear very faint murmurs coming from further down the gallery, from the direction of the atrium. That was almost back where he'd started, albeit two floors down; the place was a warren.
He slipped from shadow to shadow, alert for movement; he'd counted seven figures on the security monitors before the screens had abruptly cut out. The electricity had gone, too, and all forms of contact with the outside world.
He tried the radio again, just in case. Nothing but bristling static.
He advanced, and put his head cautiously over the balcony rail. The atrium was dark, the stained glass dome that dropped sunlit colour during the day letting very little moonlight in. From the second floor it was like peering down into a well, dim pale shapes moving like ghosts in the gloom. He flicked up the thermal lenses and counted. Seven humanoids, normal human temperatures, moving around in no discernable pattern. A subvocalized command overlaid the display map onto his vision. He'd uploaded all the museum information to his armour, which was just as well; with all the computers down, and the Internet cut off, he'd be flying blind otherwise.
Lots of small pedestals scattered through the atrium, each with its own small statue; but the people were showing no particular interest in the displays, as far as he could tell, occasionally pushing them back out of the way, and they kept leaning down, as if they were doing something to the floor.
A sparked of white flared with the sound of a lighter, and he snapped down the lenses, hoping to catch a glimpse of a face by the flame. The figure holding it was hooded, though, wearing a pale robe loosely belted. He - or possibly she - stooped to light a candle, then another, then another, circling slowly round the floor, gradually illuminating trails of paint over the mosaic floor, and six more figures in robes, all deeply hooded. They moved erratically about, painting lines and scattering powders and lighting little cones of incense.
"Hurry up," someone said softly, and there was a dim green glow that was a digital watch. "Full moon is in three minutes."
"Hurrying," and the movements sped up, followed by a clatter and a curse as a small statue was knocked off its pedestal. Tony winced, and pulled up the museum catalogue with a whispered command. Fortunately, none of the displays here were particularly valuable. The museum was running a special exhibit on mythical beasts, and the atrium was host to a number of interactive exhibits, including a wide range of toy-sized models for children to examine.
"I thought you said there were no security scheduled for the exhibition?" a young woman's voice.
"Not for the next three days, but I don't know why. It's possible they contracted an outside security team." An older woman's voice, irritable. And not wrong; with Iron Man on the premises, there was no need for extra security. Mostly so Tony could take of his helmet and catch up with his paperwork, but he was also fully equipped to cope with most kinds of burglars single-handed.
This was clearly not your average robbery, if it even was a robbery. Whatever it was, it sounded as if the best time to disrupt would be just before the Moon reached fullness; that way, even if they turned out to have actual magical powers that would take him out, they wouldn't have time to redo the ritual
Twenty-one candles, and Tony could make out the shapes and patterns; some kind of many-pointed star, wobbly lines of red paint crossing and recrossing and centred on a display case, a tall narrow display case that didn't belong there. He squinted, and searched the catalogue for 'medium sized-rock', then gave it up as a bad job.
One of the robed figures took up position in front of the case, and raised his arms theatrically. Judging by the thick black hair on the forearms, Tony felt safe calling this one a guy. He started to intone something in a language Tony didn't recognise, and the candleflames lengthened and into slim pillars of light, slowly twisting higher and brighter.
Almost immediately, the rock started to glow, revealing a complex pattern engraved on the surface. A moment later, the glass of the display case shivered and shattered and fell in shining heaps to the floor. That was pretty fast, for magic. In Tony's experience, you had to get a lot more chanting in before things started smashing.
"Okay, I think that's enough," Tony said loudly. Several heads craned up towards him, but the chanting continued unabated as Tony fired his repulsors and took off.
Between the candleflames, fine walls had formed of light and smoke. Tony shot up and over, through the narrow gap beneath the dome, and then plummeted floorwards to a chorus of panicked yelps.
He landed with a crunch that was probably the death of quite a few tiles, and put his hands on his hips in what he hoped was a threatening fashion.
"All right, show's over. Quit your chanting, and - " he ducked away as something flew through the air towards him, and then blinked in puzzlement at the yellowish powder that scattered over his gauntlet. "Is that - " He lifted it closer to his helmet for examination and analysis. "Did you throw mustard seeds on me? What -"
The gauntlet wasn't responding. He tried again to flex his fingers, but the motors didn't respond, and he had to force his hand shut.
All the power had gone off in the museum.
If his arc reactor stopped working -
He shot into the air, dodging another spray of seeds, and fired his working repulsor at the young lady who'd thrown it. She flew backwards into the misty wall of light, and the whole incandescent structure wavered.
One of them pointed a wand at him - an honest-to-god wand, with a crystal on the end - and shouted something. Tony dodged, or rather attempted to dodge, because nothing happened. He looked around wildly, but nothing seemed to have changed. Repulsor blast for that one, too, and they knocked over a candle and the walls began a slow and dignified collapse. Not that it really mattered, as he was already on the inside.
He cast a look around; the rest of them were... just standing there. Apparently they were completely unprepared for flying security guards. Chanting guy was still chanting, though, and he should probably put a stop -
"Jeff's on fire!" someone yelled, and sure enough the one who had knocked over a candle was beginning to smoulder at the edges of his robe. Tony dropped back to the ground, but there was a general rush towards the fallen Jeff, and the fire was being slapped out. Tony shrugged, and turned his attention towards the man in the centre of the circle. Repulsor now, questions later, he reasoned, and brought his hand up.
The beams splashed harmlessly off the floor as approximately a hundred and fifty pounds of enraged woman leapt bodily onto him, over balancing him. He stumbled, flailing his arms, as she pounded on his helmet and yelled.
Then his foot hit a patch of candlewax, and it all got messy. He staggered forwards, bashing into the chanter, and they both fell forward against the podium, which was really not very stable. The rock went flying, and Tony dived, and managed to shoulder aside the figures in robes that also dived for it, and Tony would swear that the rock wriggled as it slipped from his grasp and struck the floor hard.
What was indisputable was that when the corner of the rock hit the tiled floor, a shower of sparks flew up as if it were a flint on steel, spiraling out and rising, spreading, and the man who'd been chanting swore under his breath and skittered backwards. Tony propped himself up on his elbow, and tried to analyse them; the armour's sensors showed no sign of noticing the gently spiralling vortex of fireflies.
One of them brushed against the outstretched marble hand of a nymph adorning the capital of a pillar, and popped like a fiery soap bubble. For a moment her slim figure was limned in light; then her fingers flushed pink and twitched. Colour slipped down her slim wrist, and she stretched and yawned and then wrapped her slipping draperies more firmly around her graceful form.
"Is that meant to - " Tony began, and then he looked around at the ranks of mythical beasts, and back up at the cloud of sparks that drifted slowly downwards.
He switched his chest repulsor to a wide spread, and fired up into the cloud; and the sparks exploded upwards, zoomed and hissed and then flew off and away, vanished down passageways and galleries.
"Oh," Tony said. "Well, that's... less than ideal."
"Idiot," said the man beside him bitterly. "Who knows what you've woken up?"
"Hey, buddy, it was you that - " the woman attempted to hit him over the head with a signpost, and he scrambled to his feet and pulled it out of her grip. A bullet rang off his armour, and he turned to see not-chanting-anymore-guy holding - "You have a gun? Isn't that just a tiny bit anachronistic with this robe and incense stuff?"
Whatever he said in return was clearly something magical, and for him, it worked. Mist coiled up from the tiles around him, and Tony backed away. He tried his repulsor, but it scattered like headlamps in fog.
His sensors helpfully alerted him that the temperature was dropping. The mist was bulking out and darkening, and he could hear a noise like chattering teeth, that set his own teeth unpleasantly on edge. Tendrils arced over his head, cutting off that escape route, and his back hit a pillar. If he could distract the magician - he tried another repulsor blast, but it seemed to be vanishing into the distance only a few feet away, which was rather worrying. He wasn't about to risk physically entering it, but the alternative seemed to be breaking down the pillar at his back, which might well be a supporting pillar, and even Tony Stark would have trouble replacing some of the exhibits here -
There was a roar like the world's angriest lion, and the sound of something very heavy hitting the floor, and again, and again, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex charged into the atrium, tipping over displays and scattering broken glass like confetti. The magician took a small sculpture to the shoulder and went flying, and the mist vanished like... well, like mist.
The T-Rex threw back its head and roared; Tony stared up at it, paralysed, as a giant tail whirled over his head and it trampled past and vanished down a hallway. There was someone riding it.
Never mind that; he pounced onto the magician, and grappled the gun away from him, and used it to hit him in the jaw. He went limp, and Tony looked up just in time to dive out of the way of more damn mustard seed.
"Will you quit that?" he snapped, and repulsored her. Then he directed his palm threateningly towards the other five. "Now, I want you to - "
"It's coming back!" one of them yelped, and sure enough, the thud-thud-thud was back and getting louder, and they all scattered as the T-Rex bounded back in like a five-ton ballerina, spinning and thrashing, its tail beating against the pillars. The rider had dropped the reins; Tony dashed forward and grabbed them. They were steel cable, strong enough, probably. Tony locked his other hand around what appeared to be a support pillar, and pulled, winding the cable around his fist. The great head dipped, dipped more, and as the figure leapt free of the dinosaur's back, lurid yellow eyes focused on Tony, and it occurred to him there was nothing stopping the creature from coming this way...
Teeth shrieked on his armour, and his repulsor splashed harmlessly off its haunch, and he had time to speculate on the crushing power of T-Rex jaws before a red and blue shape spun past his face, and the dinosaur roared and dropped him; then, realising it was free, it turned and stampeded away down the hall, trailing cables. Tony blinked after it, and then realised the robed figures had gone. And they'd taken his unconscious guy with them.
"Well, crap." He slumped back onto the tile, and flexed his damaged gauntlet. At least whatever had happened seemed to be wearing off; it was still sluggish, but it responded.
A red glove appeared in front of his face. Tony stared at it, and it waggled gently. Then he looked up, and saw Captain America smiling down at him.
"Cap!" After a stunned second, he added, "Sir. I mean, Captain."
"Cap is fine," said Captain America, holy crap, and he waggled his hand again. Tony grabbed it, and let Cap pull him to his feet - which was really stupid, because he weighed upwards of four hundred pounds in the armour, but only the widening of Cap's eyes showed he'd noticed the weight.
"Uh, hi," Tony said, like some kind of starstruck idiot. "Thanks for the save."
"No problem." Cap smiled at him, a wide, sincere smile that made Tony feel slightly weak in the knee area. Good God, he was handsome. The pictures really did not do him justice. "I was just doing a patrol, and heard all the ruckus, and thought I should see what was going on - you seemed to be in a bit of a fix, and that big guy was just roaming the halls, so... He was kind of sleepy, guess he just woke up or something. Livened up more than I expected! I thought those suckers were cold-blooded."
"No, they're actually warm-blooded, distantly related to birds." Tony shut his mouth tight before he could lecture Captain America on birds. He suddenly realised he was still clasping Cap's hand, and he let go. Why had he never noticed he had nothing to do with his hands in the armour? He put them on his hips, and then realised that looked like he was posing. He folded his arms awkwardly over his chest, and tried a smile before remembering Cap couldn't see his face. Would the arm-folding come off as aggressive?
"So I'm Captain America." Tony nodded. There was a pause. "And you're..?"
"Oh! Oh, yeah. I'm - uh, Iron Man." He couldn't offer his hand. He'd only just let go of Cap.
"Are you - " Cap eyed him up and down speculatively. "Are you a robot?"
"I mean, I've worked with - "
"No, I - " Tony only hesitated a second before putting his faceplate up and giving Cap his most winning smile, because to hell with his secret identity, if he had a chance to charm Captain America, he was grabbing it with both hands. "Tony. Tony Stark."
"Oh!" Cap blinked at him and then waved a hand around. "Aren't you - "
"My granddad was a collector, donated a lot of stuff," he admitted. "I sit on the board now."
"But why are you... you're not usually the security guard, surely."
"No, no. We've got some particularly valuable items on loan for the mythical beasts display... we've got some kind of amazing rare and valuable book that's we've only got for three days... so I said I'd come and keep an eye on things." In fact, they'd asked him to loan out his bodyguard. Which he wouldn't usually have said yes to, but the museum curator was an astonishingly attractive woman with eyes like Bambi, and, well.
"That was good of you." Cap looked around at the atrium, a lone still-burning candle sparking light off the broken glass. "So... what was all that?"
"I have no idea." Tony picked up a placard and a battered wooden centaur. "At least nothing expensive was damaged." He tapped the front of the armour, and a diffuse ray of pale blue light illuminated the hall. Tumbled candles, paint - and a crumpled figure nestled at the bottom of a pillar.
Cap hurried over, and when Tony reached his side he was feeling carefully down the neck and shoulders.
"Nothing seems broken. Looks like she hit her head."
"She?" Tony leaned closer, and put the hood back. An older woman, with salt and pepper hair. "Huh. Not our normal type of criminal."
"Well, they weren't thieves." Cap glanced around doubtfully at the mess. "Ritual magicians of some kind, I guess."
"I have no idea what they were trying to do." Tony turned to look up at the nymph, who sat on top of her pillar combing her hair. She squinted into the beam of light and gave him a disapproving look. "But, well, that was the result."
"I thought the museum was a bit busy," Cap sat back on his heels and looked up at the nymph. "A lot going on."
"We don't usually have T-Rexes roaming the floors."
"I thought maybe it was one of those robotic display doo-dads," Cap said guilelessly. "They're doing wonderful things with gadgets these days."
Tony gave him a suspicious look; he didn't seem to be joking.
"What else is out there?" he said, after Cap's innocent look didn't waver.
"I thought it was fancy dress, maybe. There were a few Pharaoh-looking types, and I think I saw Davy Crockett stalking a man with antlers."
"I suspect that won't end well for Davy Crockett." Tony sighed. "Great, half the exhibits will probably have murdered the others by the time we get this sorted out, and how will we explain that? We're going to be returning them in pieces."
In retrospect, he really shouldn't have blasted the balls of light. Thirty knee-high mythical beasts would have been a lot easier to contain, and a lot easier to replace.
There was a groan, and the figure on the floor stirred. Tony hastily put his faceplate down, and Cap put a firm hand on her shoulder.
"Don't try to get up," he ordered. "Wiggle your toes and fingers."
The woman promptly tried to make a break for it, which suggested she was physically unhurt even if it didn't say much for her brains. Cap had her flipped and immobilized almost before she'd gotten her feet under her.
"What now?" He looked up at Tony. "This is your operation."
"We should..." he glanced around, and saw a dark shape silhouetted in flight against the skylight. He could hear distant shouting, in what sounded like Latin. "We should get to the security office."
Fortunately, the security office was down one narrow hallway containing no exhibits, inanimate or otherwise. Tony duct-taped her into a chair, in the absence of a better solution. She turned out to be wearing a sensible skirt and blouse under her robe, complete with brogues and a capacious purse, which Cap confiscated.
"Talk," Tony ordered, and got a nasty look in response. He shrugged, and opened the back of his gauntlet to start a diagnostic running. It was almost back to normal again now.
"We'd be grateful for you assistance, Mrs Nicholson," Cap added. He was rooting through her purse with an expression of fascination, like a man exploring strange wonders.
"What were you trying to do back there?" Tony stood over her in what he hoped was an intimidating fashion. She gave him a long look, then shrugged.
"We were trying to raise the spirit of the Egyptian deity Bast," she said firmly, and bit her lip and looked away. "You've ruined it now! The ritual can't be done for another twenty-four years."
"Oh." Tony blinked. That had been surprisingly simple. "Cap?"
"I think that's a lie." Cap held up a slim notebook, and Tony went to look. Pages of close writing, lists, and diagrams, and none of it seemed Egypt-related.
Cap flicked to the last page that had writing on it.
Collect beeswax candles - ensure wicks pure cotton
Email Janey about final rehearsal
Pick up robes from cleaners
Make sure van is fully fuelled
"A tidy mind," Tony reached over to flip a few pages. Sketched floor plans of the museum, lists of names that he recognised as security guards. "Consult original of Book of the Beasts, compare with transcription." He looked at their prisoner, who glared back, lips pressed together.
"What's the Book of the Beasts?" Cap said after a moment.
"Anything she told us would probably be a lie." His gauntlet beeped, and he shut the compartment, as a readout popped up in his helmet. As simple as all the power dying; it had taken a while to recharge from the reactor. Unfortunately, there wasn't much he could do to prevent that.
"Did you break it?" Cap was watching him with interest, high-tech armour apparently more interesting than a lady's purse.
"Just power loss." He opened a panel on his forearm and folded out the tiny touchscreen.
"What's that?" Cap leaned over to look, putting his head in the way. Tony didn't quite like to tell him to move; he stretched awkwardly to see his fingers tapping away.
"I'm just looking to see if I have any information about the book." Tony preened inwardly when Cap turned to give him an awed look.
"That's so clever."
"I, uh, I built this," he couldn't resist adding, and Cap looked suitably impressed. Then he poked Tony in the ribs, as if testing the realness of the armour; Tony chose to ignore that. "Book of the Beasts," he read out. "Very famous, belongs to the British Library. Damn. I wonder if they have any scans? Let me - " he tapped away for a few moments, while Cap kept leaning in to inspect the screen. He smelled really nice. "It's on loan to - it's here.
"It's on loan to the Stark Collection." He looked across at their prisoner, who was staring at the wall. "I... think that's what I'm here to protect, actually." There had definitely been something about a book, but he'd been somewhat distracted by the cut of the lady's blouse. Oh well.
"I suppose if it's connected to the big rock thing, that makes sense." Cap nodded. "Where is it?"
"In the manuscripts room on the third floor." He looked at Mrs Nicholson again. "Okay, you know what, she's not going to be any help."
They rolled her into the broom closet across the hall, ignoring he protests, then retreated back to the security room.
"Okay, then," said Cap. "What's the quickest way? There's got to be a map; we want to avoid anything really dangerous."
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of open displays," Tony said, thinking of his silent creep through the halls. "And with the Mythical Beasts display, there's a lot of weird stuff out there." He was really hoping the eight-foot-tall minotaur stayed marble.
Fortunately, he had the floorplans uploaded, but the museum was a jumble of interlocking buildings at different levels. Tony gave in to the impulse to show off, and cupped his hands together. Cap jumped back as a translucent model of the museum shimmered into being.
"That's, uh," he leaned in, wrinkling his nose. Little labels turned towards him on Tony's command. "Wow."
"It's all online nowadays." Cap gave him a blank look. "Never mind." He scrolled through the display in his helmet, looking for anything particularly alarming. "You have a display here, don't you?"
"The Invaders do have a display," Cap said primly. "And of course there's interest in the biological aspects of my physiology."
"Fourth Floor; Captain America, The Man, The Legend," Tony read out, and Cap went pink. Tony remembered that display; it was part of the Stark Collection. He'd loved it as a kid, all the black and white photographs, the old war posters - Captain America wants YOU!. Howard had taken him to see them, and tell war stories... "With interactive - "
"Uh... yes, all right." Cap shuffled his feet, and then pointed at a room. "This way? Through the African wildlife display? Lions, right? Just down the hall."
"Lions are manageable." Better than Neanderthals, or Romans, or giant stone warriors. And stuffed lions were already dead; who cared if they took a bit of damage?
They passed through the hall with the huge empty pedestal that had held the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Cap paused to read the display board.
"Could the T-Rex have been the dragon of legend?" he read out. Tony snorted.
"Given they were all dead millions of years before humans existed, I don't think so."
"They could have found its bones."
"In that case, the woolly mammoth or the shark or an odd-shaped rock could have been the dragon of legend."
A knight in armour trotted past, and his helmet turned towards them. The horse was reined in for a second as the knight considered them; then he clopped out into the hall. Cap looked after him.
"Do you think he's following the T-Rex?"
"Not if he's got any sense." Tony shrugged and started down the hall again, past a Triceratops which had refrained from coming to life. "Hey, why didn't you just steal a horse instead of going to all the trouble of saddling up a T-Rex?"
"Well, it was waking up pretty slowly, I had plenty of time..." He looked slightly shifty, an expression Tony had never expected to see on Captain America. Tony elbowed him gently in the ribs.
"But seriously, a dinosaur?"
"Tony," Cap said exasperatedly. "How many times in his life does a man get to ride a T-Rex?"
"Exactly." Cap grinned at him. "I wasn't about to let the opportunity slide pass. And it did work. Even if it's not a dragon."
"It did," Tony conceded. "They've only put that silly dragon board up because of the Mythical Beasts display, they're trying to tie everything into it, from the dinosaurs to - " He stopped, as a horrible thought occurred to him.
"Let me - let me just check something."
The main courtyard should be visible from the windows in the Evolution of Flight display. Tony scurried over to it, Cap at his heels.
"What are we looking for?" Cap squinted into the courtyard. "What's that?"
The moonlight shone off curves of metal, which were thankfully still.
"It's a hippy sculpture from the Burning Man," Tony shook his head. "I don't know, they like to get drunk and build giant interactive death-machines for peace. Weirdos." Hypocrisy, thy name is Stark.
"Huh." Cap pressed his nose against the glass. "Is that one of those cult-people?"
"Where? What?" Tony scrabbled for the catch of the window, too late.
There were two white-robed figures at the coiled tail of the beast, and even as Tony spotted them, one of them dropped a little glowing ball onto the tail.
"Oh no, no - "
There was no seep of life or colour; fire flashed, but the steely glint remained steady as the the robed figures bolted back toward the door into the museum. For a moment, Tony hoped that it wouldn't work, that whatever force that animated the sculptures wouldn't work outside, or on metal, or on mechanical devices -
The great head lifted, the jaws opened wide in a silent yawn. The teeth ignited in daggers of blue flame.
"Interactive death machines?" Cap said feebly.
"A hundred and sixty-eight feet long, with forty-one separate flamethrowers," Tony muttered as the Serpent Mother reared into the air, its skeletal armature lit by flame.
"I don't think I understand modern art."
"That's - how are we going to stop that? We'll have to blow it up, and we're in the middle of New York." Tony tried to calculate how much damage that thing could take. He had a suspicion he wouldn't like the answer.
"There has to be a way of breaking the spell. We have to find that way."
The African wildlife hall was locked. Tony leaned close to the door, and focused his sensors, blocking out all he could from behind him, Steve's breathing and heartbeat, to try and detect movement.
"Nothing," he said. "Let's - "
"Uh, Tony?" Cap sounded worried. "There's a lion out here."
Tony spun round, bringing up his hands; the crouched shape looked wrong, somehow. He switched to thermal vision, and stared.
"What do you call a lion with a... goat sticking out of its back?" he said incredulously.
"A chimera," Cap said instantly. "Does it have a snake for a tail?"
"Yeah. What do they do?"
"Breathe fire." Cap raised his shield as the shape crouched lower, perhaps readying to spring.
"Great." Tony turned off the thermal vision, and raised a hand; he was too late, as it made a leap for Cap.
Cap caught its claws easily on his shield, and ducked the blast of flame from the goat head. The snake head struck improbably fast and far, but its fangs bounced off the scaled armour at Cap's shoulder. More fire, and Cap bashed the whole thing solidly against the wall; it fell, and then went viciously for Tony's ankles, claws and fangs shrieking on metal.
"My paintwork," Tony said indignantly, and kicked it hard in the gut, sending it flying across the hall. It twisted sharply in midair and kicked off the wall, leaping back towards them, and caught a shield in the face, tumbling backwards as the shield ricocheted off wall, ceiling and floor before landing neatly and harmlessly in Cap's hand. "That is -" Tony managed to cut off so cool before he utterly humiliated himself, but really, that was awesome. "Uh, looks like it's had enough." The chimera dashed away with its snake between its legs, the goat leaving a trail of flame behind it.
"I hope we didn't damage it," Cap said seriously. "That's an Etruscan bronze."
"How do you know?"
"It's very famous. I studied art, you know."
Tony turned, and peered into Cap's face. A little smile tugged at his mouth, but he didn't seem to be joking.
"You. Studied art?"
"Sure. I had a life before I joined the army, you know."
"Well, sure, but - " Tony stopped. Cap having a career other than being Cap was a new and confusing idea. Surely being that patriotic was the work of a lifetime? "But art?"
"I like art." Cap nodded towards the door. "Can you get us in?"
"Right, yes." Giant serpent, evil cultists. He could investigate the many facets of Captain America later on. "Of course I can get us in. I'm the security guy, remember? I have keys." He produced them, and opened the lock. When he eased the door open, the room was still, silent, shadowy. They closed the door behind them, and slowly picked their way across the floor, Tony's metal-shod feet far too loud.
"I expect the little balls of light couldn't get in," Steve said suddenly, making Tony jump.
"You're probably right." An open archway gave on to the staircase, and he stepped through and started up the stairs.
There was a dark shape on the landing; Tony brought his repulsor up, and beamed a gentle blue light at it. A sphinx yawned back at them, and rolled onto its side. One very large paw flexed, unsheathing vicious-looking claws.
"Is it going to ask us a riddle?" Cap breathed, and Tony shrugged.
"Depends," he whispered back, wincing slightly at the electronic burr. "Is it Greek?"
Cap peered closer, and it blinked wide golden eyes back at him.
"I think it's Egyptian," he said finally, and the woman's face smiled, revealing long dagger-like teeth.
"I am a servant of Sekhmet." Her voice reverberated in a not-entirely comfortable way, like a great bell. "Have you come to me to die, little ones?"
"No thank you, ma'am," Cap said. "We're sorry to disturb you, but we have business up the stairs. Would you mind letting us through?"
"I guard these steps." Her tail lashed. There was a pause. Tony eyed her claws, which had left quite deep scores in the pale grey stone.
"Why?" Cap said, and she shrugged, which made parts of her jiggle distractingly. Or it would have been distracting if she wasn't part lion, Tony reminded himself.
"Here is where I was placed."
"But you're not where you were originally placed, ma'am. It wasn't Sekhmet or her worshippers who placed you there."
The sphinx mulled that over, putting up one huge paw to scratch under her headdress.
"That is true," she allowed.
"And, in fact, we are guardians of this place." Cap sounded terribly, terrible earnest. Tony glanced sideways at him; his face was a picture of sincerity. It was a very good look on him.
"How so?" The sphinx seemed interested now, looked back and forth between them. "Is that one a statue?"
"Iron Man here is - " Cap glanced at him. "He sits - "
"I'm here at the request of the owners, specifically to protect the exhibits." Tony offered. He didn't think the ancient Egyptians had boards of directors. "I'm not a statue, no. And this is Captain America. He's a guardian of all America. Which is where you are."
The sphinx gazed at them for a long moment, golden eyes narrowing a little. Then she crossed her paws, and put her chin down on them.
"Very well." She closed her eyes. Cap stepped forward confidently, and Tony grabbed his arm and tried to convey with gestures that mythical beasts were very probably untrustworthy and would claw his leg off. Cap just looked puzzled, and Tony tugged him back and took his place.
He could smell the sharp animal smell rising off her as he edged past, but she didn't move. He backed slowly up the stair, and looked down at Cap, who raised his eyebrows. Tony threw up his hands, meaning fine, and Cap apparently got that one, because he bounded up the stairs with no apparent concern.
Tony would swear the sphinx's eyes slitted open as Cap passed, but she made no move, and Cap beamed at Tony as he passed.
"See? No problem."
They climbed the stairs, ignoring the flirtations of the mermaids on the second landing (honestly, was this the topless staircase or something?) Tony was starting to hope this would be nice and simple. Almost as soon as he'd had that very silly thought, he heard a gunshot. A modern gun, Tony was sure, no Davy Crockett firearm. He ran up the stairs, Cap in pursuit, as a second and third gunshot sounded. The last was followed by a shrieking cry of distress, and a meaty thud.
Two figures in white robes crouched over a huddled form, a pool of darkness was spilling around them onto the pale floor. Magic Tony thought for a second, then blood.
They looked up, then bolted, and Cap's shield and a repulsor beam followed. Unfortunately, they'd both picked the same target, who went down hard.
"Oops," said Cap. "In future, I'll take the right hand, you the left. Okay?"
"Sure," Tony approached the pool of blood, and the hunched shape in the middle of it.
"What's that?" Cap poked it cautiously with his foot, and Tony rolled it over. Feathery, snakey, clawed, ugly.
"No idea." He pushed it back and forth, trying to find some clue. "Huh. Looks like he chopped off some of its tail feathers." He reached down to fan out the tail, and sure enough, there was an obvious gap. "I wonder why?"
"Maybe it's all an elaborate big game hunting thing?" Cap suggested doubtfully.
"It's a new variant on the most dangerous game. But in their position, I'd go after the T-Rex."
"Well, yeah," Cap wandered over to the person they'd combined to knock unconscious, leaving bloody footprints in his wake. "All right, you, talk."
This one had a very charming story about how they were pagan thieves, who couldn't rob a museum without doing a ritual to placate the guardian spirits first. Cap produced the duct tape from a pouch, and they taped him up and stuffed him into a corner behind a medium-sized sculpture of a rearing horse.
"Now, manuscript room," Tony said, and Cap promptly veered off into a side room. "Or not, I guess." He followed Cap in to the dark room, and trained a beam of light into the case he was gazing into.
"Are those... real kittens?" Cap said in a hushed voice, and Tony peered over his shoulder. A case full of stuffed kittens, dressed and posed.
"The label says they were popular in the Victorian era." Tony shook his head in wonder at the weird tastes of Victorians, and Cap shuddered eloquently. "They're pretty grim."
"I'm glad they haven't come to life." He turned his head to look at Tony. "I wonder why?"
"I guess there weren't enough of all the little floating balls," Tony shrugged, and turned back towards the door.
"No, look," and Cap pointed to the rearmost kitten, who wearing a sailor suit and holding a tiny jump rope. "No, turn your light-thing off."
With the light dimmed, it became obvious that the kitten had a glowing ball resting in the space between chin and shoulder.
"That's odd," Tony said.
"Mm. Can we get in?"
The case wasn't secured; apparently no one was worried about kitten-theft. Tony lifted the case off so Cap could reach in and coax the little glow out into his hand.
"Their fur is really soft," he reported unhappily. "That's so creepy. Got it." He lifted it for inspection, and Tony put the case back and tried his sensors again. Nothing; Cap might as well have been holding up an empty hand.
He took a moment to run his sensors over Cap. Slow heartbeat, slightly elevated body temperature, but everything else perfectly normal. What he wouldn't give for a chance to take some blood, even if biology wasn't his science.
"Anything?" Cap said, and he shook his head.
"Can't see anything. Let's move on."
The manuscript room was undisturbed. They found the Book of Beasts in a large glass case, opened at the centre, and Tony unlocked while Cap read the placard.
"This book is of Celtic origin," he told Tony, who shrugged. "From the late fifth century."
"So it's incredibly fragile, then," Tony said. He looked down at his metal-gloved hands. "You'd better turn the pages."
"Right. We should sign the book."
"The - " Cap pointed. "People who study the manuscripts have to sign them in and out, see." He paged to the end.
"Cap, I don't think - " Tony leaned forward. "Jacqueline Nicholson?"
"Professor Jacqueline Nicholson. That was our prisoner's name." Cap picked up a pen, and added his name under hers. That was going to confuse some people. "I guess she's some kind of academic?"
"At least they're not after the book, then." That was a relief. The museum may be tearing itself apart, but hey, he'd been asked to protect the book. He was technically a success.
Cap found some weird looking implements in a drawer, which were either salad tongs or some kind of page-turning implement. Cap used them to turn the pages, anyway, patiently working from the centre towards the back.
"There," Tony said finally. A picture of the rock in question, surrounded by robed figures wearing feathered masks. "Our guys didn't have masks, I feel cheated."
"Can you read Latin?"
"A bit." Tony squinted. "Uh. Apparently Latin from the fifth Century is different from the stuff I learned." He scooped up the pen and paper, and started jotting down notes.
"Huh." Cap turned another page, and they looked at the pictures of the mythical beasts that surrounded and sometimes encroached upon the text. Another page, and a picture of a woman, holding a staff. On one side of her, the full moon, and a riot of creatures leaping and clambering; on the other, the sun, and the creatures lay dead or asleep at her feet. "Any thoughts?"
"Give me a minute." Tony scratched at his notebook, and gestured for Cap to turn the page back. "Dawn. The spell lasts til dawn."
"Yeah. It's some kind of celebration of something. Like a... revel. Everything comes to life and parties hard all night, and then with the dawn, it all goes back to sleep."
"Well, that's good, right?" Cap turned the pages back towards the centre.
"Maybe it is just a hunting thing. Or a religious thing." Still, breaking into the museum and trashing the exhibits was not really on. "I suppose we should find a vantage point and listen for other attacks? "
"Best we can do, I suppose. Somewhere we can see the big snake thing, just in case."
They went out, and listened to the clatter, but no sounds of gunshots or even modern voices were audible. They wandered down the gallery, past a couple of Vikings shying stones at each other, and ended up in the cafe, which had as yet remained unpillaged. Probably most of the museum's exhibits wouldn't recognize a packet of crisps as food. Tony checked out the windows to the courtyard, where the Serpent Mother was investigating the fountain, dipping her head in and sending up clouds of steam. Harmless enough. When he turned away, Cap was standing at the big sheet of windows that looked out over the city.
"Colourful from up here," he remarked. "It's changed so much since my time."
"Sure has." Tony suppressed the urge to question him. It wouldn't be tactful. "What are we going to do now?"
"We've not heard anything in a while, and I don't really know how we can track them through this mess." Cap turned back from the window. "It's possible they've left, they - oh, Coke!" He took a step towards the vending machine, face brightening even in the low light from the window. Then he gave Tony a sheepish look. "Can we - I don't have any money..."
"Not a problem," Tony said. "I can stop by and pay them tomorrow, I'm sure they'll understand." Instead of breaking into the vending machine, he stepped round the counter, and after a brief search, found old-fashioned green glass bottles, which made Cap's grin widen. Then he dug for M&Ms in the snack display.
Cap ate three packets of M&Ms, and drank two bottles of Coke. Tony sat on the counter, which offered a view of the courtyard, and watched his blissful expression. He put his faceplate up again, and Cap grinned at him.
"It's so hard to tell what you're thinking with that thing on."
"That's part of the point. It's supposed to be intimidating." Cap laughed, and Tony frowned at him. "Hey, stop that."
"But you're so shiny," he said with what Tony deemed inappropriate cheer. "You look like a sports car."
"Excuse me, this is very advanced military technology." He might have been able to work up some offence if Cap hadn't suddenly deployed dimples at him, which somehow wiped the rest of his indignant response. Damn, Cap was an attractive man.
"It's very clever and all, and it looks very impressive, but it's not really intimidating."
"Says the man in red, white and blue!"
"I'm not meant to be intimidating." Cap stuffed more M&Ms into his mouth with the air of one who had won the conversation. Tony tried not to pout, and failed utterly. What did Captain America know, anyway.
Cap stuffed another packet of M&Ms in one of the pouches at his waist, and then came over to Tony and patted him on the shoulder. When he continued to pout, Cap put a finger on his lip, and pushed it in, which was again cheating. Tony didn't quite yelp, and looked up at him, which brought their faces very close together. The dimples were there again. How did you make a pass at a man from the Forties?
"Don't be mad," Cap said in coaxing tones that did wonderful things to Tony's insides. "I love your armour. I'm terribly impressed. I love the ray-gun things in the hands - "
"Repulsors. Now you're just being patronizing." He grabbed Cap's hand and pulled it away from his mouth before the temptation to nibble his fingers became overwhelming. Was it possible a man from the Forties was making a pass at him?
"And the little gadgety thing where you look stuff up is incredible." Cap nodded. "And it makes you stronger, right, that thing with the T-Rex - " his face went a little blank, and then he frowned.
"What's up?" The very serious look wasn't quite as attractive as the smile, which made it easier to let go of Cap's hand.
"I have an idea," Cap said slowly. "I think - can we go back to the atrium?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"I'd rather not say right now, in case I remember wrong." Cap conscientiously gathered up his trash, and Tony nipped the glass bottles out of his grasp and dropped them in the recycling. "What's the quickest way down?"
"Straight over the edge." Tony glanced at him. "I can carry you?"
"Over? Won't you damage the floor?"
"What? No, I can fly."
"You can fly?" The look on Cap's face almost entirely made up for the earlier teasing, and Tony took his arm and pulled him towards the door, eager to show off.
"I told you my armour was impressive."
"I'm very impressed!" Cap laughed. "Still not intimidated."
"It's not meant to intimidate you." They crossed the short distance to the atrium balcony, and Tony was just about to reach for Cap when he heard an odd noise. Something like hooves; he looked around to see a horse making its way down the hall. Tony stepped away and levelled a repulsor at it; it kept going straight towards Cap, who turned and regarded it with interest.
"Careful," Tony said. "I'm sure there are some carnivorous horses in Greek legend."
"I think it's hurt," Cap stepped towards it, hand held out, because clearly he had no sense of self-preservation. How he'd made it through a world war, Tony couldn't imagine. The horse reached him, and then dropped to its front knees; after a moment, its hind legs collapsed and it sprawled. Steve crouched down, and it nudged at him with its nose.
Tony brought the light up slowly, and its ears twitched and its eyes rolled back, but Steve's petting hand soothed it.
Blood smeared the pale coat, and Tony looked it over, puzzled. The lion-like tail, the cloven hooves...
"It's a - " he hesitated, and leaned to look at the horse's brow, where blood was smeared thickly. "It's a unicorn?"
"Oh," Cap's mouth turned down. "Oh, they cut off its horn? That's awful."
"Maybe it is big game hunting," Tony stared at it. It wasn't real, of course, but -
The unicorn shuddered out a breath, and then went still. Cap looked as if he was about to cry. Tony patted his shoulder, awkwardly.
"You know, unicorns were quite fierce," he said. "They fought lions."
"But lions won, didn't they?" Steve held out his hand, and Tony helped him up.
"Quite possibly," Tony admitted. "I wonder why it came to - " Tony's brain caught up with his mouth about the same time Cap blushed deeply. "Anyway - "
"I was very busy and also had to set an example," Cap said with dignity.
"Of course," Tony snapped his faceplate down again. "Let's, uh," he gestured to the balcony rail, and held his arm out. Cap pressed close, and looped an arm around his neck.
"Is this okay? Or will it ruin your balance?"
"Don't worry, I've carried a lot of people like this."
"I've flown like this before," Cap put his other hand over Tony's at his waist. "I won't panic or anything."
"Namor?" Tony took off, carefully, and carried them forward into the atrium. Cap was probably the heaviest person he'd carried, between his size and his armour and his shield. He didn't move at all, though, only his breathing betraying he was more than an exceptionally well-detailed waxwork, which made him simple enough to carry. People who wriggled were the worst for flying with.
"Yeah. I bet you can go faster than him, right?"
"I bet I can." Tony suppressed the urge to promise him all the ridiculously-fast flights he wanted. "Not here, though."
"Yeah, I - " Cap's breathing hitched a little, and when Tony glanced over, he was staring down into the darkness.
"I haven't actually flown since the accident," he said very quietly, and Tony flicked on the chest repulsor, beamed a spray of light down onto the floor. "Oh, that's better. Thank you."
They landed next to the engraved rock. The nymph was still combing out her hair, and cast them only a brief glance. There was a weird creature that looked like a cross between a beaver and a giant squirrel building a nest out of what seemed to be museum leaflets; it gave them a suspicious look and retreated behind a pillar.
"There, look!" Cap pointed.
Set back in an alcove - fortunately, or it would probably have been trampled by the T-Rex -there was a waxwork of a woman in a long pale robe, crowned with a wreath. Beside her was a framed copy of the page in the book.
"Oh, good spot," Tony said, impressed.
"I almost landed on her when I jumped off the T-Rex," Cap admitted, and leaned over to read the plaque. "Apparently she's some kind of pagan priestess or witch, known as Eiluned."
"Does it say anything about rituals?"
"No, but it does say she was regarded as a benevolent figure, and was revered as a saint in some areas of Wales, right up to the nineteenth century."
"So she might be helpful."
"Helpful?" Tony echoed, and Cap produced the tiny glowing globe from his pocket. "Oh. Do you think that's a good idea?"
"It's the only one I've got."
"She might not even speak English."
"The sphinx did." Cap shrugged. "It's your call, really." Tony looked from glow to waxwork to plaque, and was forced to admit he had no better ideas.
Cap pressed the globe into the woman's outstretched hand. A shiver of flame flowed over her skin, and then she blinked. She lowered her hand, and took a deep breath.
"Pardon me, ma'am," Cap said in very respectful tones, and she looked at him with clear pale eyes. "Do you know what is happening?"
"I do." There was soft rolling accent to her voice, but she was clear enough. "The powers of the fantastic have been unleashed, as is traditional at this time."
"The fantastic?" said Cap.
"This time?" said Tony.
"The Solstice Moon." Tony checked his calendar.
"Solstice isn't for two days."
"That is near enough."
"The fantastic?" Cap repeated.
"All the creatures of myth and legend walk the earth again. A time of revel and wildness... or it was, when I lived." She stepped down from her platform, and walked out across the atrium, sandalled feet crunching on the glass.
It's all mythical creatures," Tony said in realisation, and Cap frowned.
"But T-Rexes are real."
"But people thought of them as dragons." Davy Crockett, of course, and -
"And me," Eiluned said calmly, turning to look back at them. "I was real; I lived, I died, but I'm more a myth than a woman, these days. So here I am."
"They're cutting bits off things." Cap followed her across the room. "Feathers. A unicorn horn."
"The sting of a manticore; the scale of a basilisk; the claw of a gryphon." She crouched, and dug her fingers under the edge of the rock; Cap leapt to help her, and pulled it upright and set it back on its display. "Yes. The dawn will chase this reality away, if they do not fix it in place. The second ritual will be where the dawn's rays will touch first, within the precints of the building."
"That's why they did it in here, I guess," Cap poked with his toe at a broken winged horse. "They wanted tiny creatures they could harvest from easily."
"They may not be able to collect all the items they need in time." She shrugged. "They may not even exist, if the right creatures were not awoken."
"But we have to assume they will, and be ready to stop them."
"Yes." She took a few steps, and picked up one of the fallen models. "That's your task. We all have to do what's expected of us." She held out the model, and Cap took it from her, eyes widening. "Some things don't change much, not in sixty years, and not in sixteen hundred. Wherever you cut off a head - "
"Two more will take its place," Cap said softly.
"Do we want to stop the ritual?" Tony said suddenly, and Cap and the witch both turned to look at him. "I mean... pardon me, ma'am, Eiluned, but you'll stop existing. And there's a real live Tyrannosaurus Rex out there, and actual Romans, and - well, the things we could learn." Not to mention the vast profit attached to being the owner of the only T-Rex in the world, but that was really quite a minor detail when you thought of all the other things to gain. But Cap shook his head.
"We have to," he said firmly, and the witch nodded. "It's not right, this - they don't belong here." He looked at the witch, who nodded again.
"This is no real life," she said gently. "I am a ghost, a shadow, an idea. I don't have it in me to learn the world anew, and these creatures do not belong in this time. They cannot live in a world that has no place for them.."
"You could," Tony insisted. "It's not so hard - Cap - "
"It's that hard." Cap put his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Tony, it's all right."
"Oh, fine." Tony sighed. "Dawn's rays, you said? The easternmost place is the bar. Will you come with us, Eiluned?"
"No." She smiled, sweet, but turned her back on them and walked away.
The quickest way to the bar was through the planetarium, which he guessed would be pretty safe. He glanced back at Cap as he pushed through the heavy doors, and it was in Cap's widening eyes he'd guessed wrong. He looked back round in time to see his foot descend into a void, and he almost fired the repulsor; but his foot hit the floor, although his eyes saw nothing. The suit helpfully reported the air as breathable; it just looked like the infinity of space spread out before them.
It was obvious at a second glance; the galaxies were tight packed, the nebulae were in all the wrong places, stars blossomed and died in moments. He took a few steps into the emptiness, trying to look at everything at once.
"Tony?" Cap said in a small voice, and groped for his hand.
"It's okay," Tony grabbed his hand and squeezed. "Holy crap, though."
"Is this special effects?"
"No, I - the spell's done this, somehow." He shook his head. "How..."
"People have always made up stories and legends about the stars." Cap shuffled closer, and Tony nodded.
"Yes, but - " he shook his head. Then he opened the faceplate and looked about him, because while his sensors were fantastic, sometimes you just needed to look at things with the naked eye, and a supernova - well, technically it was one of the last things you should look at with the naked eye, but his sensors weren't detecting any harmful radiation, so anyway, wow.
"Can we get across? Should we go around?" Cap gazed doubtfully at the floor, or the apparent absence of floor.
"If this door's here - " he glanced back at the void, and then reached out. After a second's fumbling, he found the door handle and opened a crack of museum into space. "The other door must be, as well."
"Can you find it?"
"Oh, sure. I have floor plans." There were steps, though, a couple of different levels... "Come here, I'll fly us."
He hooked an arm around Cap's waist and fired them into the sky; carefully, as if the floor was still there, the roof was still there, and breaking the planetarium would be embarrassing. Steve stared out at the glittering skyscape, lips parted and eyes wide.
It was like the few spacewalks Tony had done; he really had to build himself a spacecraft, but he knew, looking around him, it wouldn't be the same. Nothing human in sight but his armour, and Cap, of course, clutching his shoulders white-knuckled, looking about with fascination, breath slightly quickened. Of course, he'd never been in space at all.
"I'm going to build a spaceship," Tony told him, mostly to distract him, but possibly also to show off. Cap looked duly impressed.
"This is - I feel so tiny."
"Well, yeah. Yes. We're tiny. Earth's a little speck of dust in the galaxy."
"Is Earth here?" Cap looked about, and Tony pointed. "Oh. It's pretty."
"Isn't it?" All the chilly jewels around them were well enough - okay, they were spectacular - but the Earth had that lived-in look. Cap laughed as it turned to show them nighttime, a thousand candles lighting its dark side.
"Some things do change," Cap said suddenly. "Surely, you can't go on fighting the same things for centuries and not have the world get better?"
"Of course it gets better." Tony squeezed him round the waist, gently.
"Sometime you think it's all over, but then it's the same old fights over again." He looked, suddenly, very tired. Tony put his other arm round Cap's shoulders in an awkward hug, and Cap leaned close against him.
Something warm and slightly damp touched Tony's cheek, and for a second he thought Cap had licked him. He turned his head, and Cap's eyes were dark and near; he could see a galaxy reflected there. Blond lashes fluttered down, and it was a second before the press at Tony's lips resolved into a kiss. A second too long, because Cap pulled away and Tony decided Cap's eyes were a prettier blue than the Earth.
"What?" he said a little stupidly, and Cap opened his mouth to speak. "Actually, no, never mind." He grabbed the back of Cap's head, and pressed their lips together again.
He still tasted faintly of chocolate, and he kissed with exactly the kind of dedicated intensity Tony would have expected from Captain America, as if Tony was the only thing in the world right now worth his attention.
Tony was panting by the time they broke the kiss, and not for lack of air. If not for the armour, he was pretty sure his hands would have been shaking, he felt like a teenager with his first crush.
"Cap," he said, and Cap shook his head.
"Steve." Tony frowned.
"My name's Steve. Steve Rogers."
"Steve," Tony said, tasting the name, and felt a little thrill of glee at knowing Captain America's secret identity. "Steve. C'mere, Steve."
He manhandled Steve so he could wrap both arms solidly around him, so they were nose to nose and chest to chest, and after thirty seconds of being very respectful of Steve's unicorn-attracting abilities, he gave it up as a bad job and slid a hand down to grab a lovely solid handful of muscled rear.
"Mmm," Steve mumbled, and kissed him deeper, and then pulled back and yanked a glove off with his teeth and ran his fingertips down Tony's cheek before leaning in again. "You're so warm."
"You - " he turned his head to nip at Steve's fingers, slipped his tongue over the calloused tips, then turned back for another kiss, abandoning whatever that sentence had been. Steve moaned and pressed up against him, and Tony was sure if he wasn't wearing two hundred pounds of metal, he'd be able to feel Steve's dick pressing into him. Stupid armour. He contented himself by groping Steve's rear quite thoroughly, sliding his hand down between Steve's thighs to pet him until he was rubbing himself against Tony.
Far too soon, Steve pulled back, and grabbed Tony's wrist and tugged his hand away.
"We should get going," Steve was bright pink, eyes blown and mouth wet, and it was the most enticing thing Tony had ever seen.
"We should?" He sounded hideously disappointed, he knew, and the way Steve smiled was definitely smug. Tease.
"We have a deadline, remember?"
It was over an hour until dawn, and surely that was plenty of time to find a quiet corner and - and ensure no unicorns ever bothered Steve ever again, but -
"Fine." He caught Steve's chin in his hand to give him one final kiss, which got him a delicious moan, and then turned them towards the door, carrying them down through the starfield.
After the planetarium was a hallway of tableaux of scientists, and usually he would have complained about how scientists never got to be myths and legends; obscure Welsh saints, but no Galileo? But right now it was hard to feel negative about anything, so he just trailed after Steve, clutching his hand firmly enough that he'd have trouble getting away.
Right at the end was Tony Stark, standing next to Iron Man. (The Fantastic Four were there too, kitted out in spacesuits, but who cared about them? They got their superpowers by getting science wrong.)
"It's me," he said gleefully, and Steve grinned at him.
"Very impressive, Tony."
"I just want you to appreciate my genius. Did you notice the bit about how I'm a pioneer of new engineering techniques?"
"You are very clever indeed, your armour is very sexy, and you're very cute." He squeezed Tony's hand firmly enough to be felt through the armour, and Tony squeezed back, because Steve couldn't see his dopey grin.
"I'm not cute, though."
"You're very cute," Steve tugged him onwards. "Especially the pout. I bet you're pouting now."
"Am not." And it wasn't even a lie. He was smiling so wide it almost hurt.
The bar was a big, open space with a glass roof; if Tony recalled correctly, they rented it out for weddings. It would certainly catch the early morning light, if not the dawn's first rays.
"We should make a space for the ritual," Steve said.
"Can't they do that themselves?"
"Sure, but if we make a space where we want it, they'll probably use that."
"Aren't we just going to jump them?"
"There's... five of them left? And they have magic, and guns. I'd prefer the element of surprise."
"Five's not..." Tony remembered the power drain, and shut his mouth. "Okay then."
There was plenty of empty space underneath the bar; Steve was of the opinion it was the first place anyone would look, but Tony was of the opinion there were no other places to hide, and Steve conceded the point. The glass and steel decor was all very nice, but it was sparse of places to hide grown men in armour. At least it was clean. Steve settled in to wait with all the patience of a soldier, but after one hundred and forty-six seconds, Tony put his faceplate up and leaned in for a kiss.
"Hardly the time," Steve breathed against his kiss.
"Shh, we're hiding," Tony murmured back, and kissed him to muffle his laugh. That was his story, and he was sticking to it.
Four hundred and sixty-three very pleasant seconds later, there was a screech of rending metal, and the door hit the mirror above the the bar and shattered, spraying them with broken glass, which mostly bounced off the shield Steve had brought up in front of their faces.
"Search the place," came a very annoyed voice, and Tony put his faceplate down and prepared to happen to someone. Cockblocking villains were the very worst kind. "Find Captain America. I want his head."
Well, apparently Cap made a really bad first impression on some people.
Cap went right, Tony went left, and that was two down with the opening strike. Cap's target, Tony noted, had been mustard-seed lady. Good riddance. He took off with a brief repulsor burn, skimming the glass roof and coming down with a crash on his next guy, who put three bullet with great accuracy into the armour, and got himself in the shoulder with a ricochet.
It was all going far too well, so he shouldn't really have been surprised when something like a tentacle made of smoke grabbed his ankle and hurled him across the room. He hit Cap's shield with a dull clang, and they both tumbled into the wall.
"This guy is a one-trick pony." Tony dragged them both upright, and they turned to face the unruly mass of howling darkness.
"It's a good trick though. Any ideas?" Steve hefted his shield, and cast a dubious look at it.
"My kingdom for a T-Rex," Tony said, and as if on cue, the glassed-over roof caved in, raining shards and fire and a colossal metal snake.
Deeming discretion the better part of valour, Tony grabbed Steve around the waist and launched himself into the air. About a third of the snake even fitted into the bar, although that was really more than enough. The rest was draped over the roof, and standing perched on a windowsill as calm as still water was Eiluned.
"What the hell," Tony said, for want of anything better, and she raised an eyebrow at him. "Okay, yes, thank you, but really? You had to drop that thing in the bar?"
"Forces such as these are not to be toyed with," she said. "It's an important lesson." She bared her teeth in a smile much less sweet than the last. "I've seen far too much damage done by such as these, man of iron. This head won't grow back."
"You can't kill them," Steve said sharply. "That's not - "
"I have no mercy for - " she began, and then Steve twisted straight out of Tony's grip and plummeted towards the seething, flaming mess.
It was like hell, if hell was full of broken glass and wrought iron chairs to go with screaming darkness and gouts of flame. Tony ducked and crawled and groped about on the floor, searching for bodies, listening for cries. Strange noises came to him, smothered in the fog.
"Cap!" he yelled, and it echoed back at him, a dozen emotionless metallic voices calling out.
Gunshots cracked, and he lunged towards their source; he came up fast on the cult leader, who lashed out with a scything rope of darkness. Tony ducked, and saw Steve loom up out of the fog.
Steve went one way, his shield went another, and they came together in an almighty smash on the leader, who dropped like a rock but wasn't quite out, because he rolled over and scrabbled up a velvet bag that had fallen to the floor at some point.
"You," hissed the leader. "You should have stayed dead!" His hand came up with a handful of mustard seed, and hurled it as Steve was getting to his feet.
It didn't hit him, though. It hit Tony, because Tony had thrown himself in front of it, and it had scattered all over his chestplate. It had missed his hands, though, and he used the last of his power to direct a repulsor blast right into the guy's chest until he went still. He almost certainly wasn't dead, Tony figured. Steve would be happy.
"Are you okay?" Steve didn't look particularly happy. He was blood and soot all over, too.
"Sure," Tony lied, and fell over with a noise like clattering saucepans. Steve could handle the rest of them, him and the giant snake and the Welsh witch. Tony was going to lie here and try and restart his heart.
That didn't work out so well. After a little while, he undid the locks on the helmet, and put it off. His vision was interestingly sparkly by the time Steve reappeared in it.
"You're not okay, are you?"
"Not so much."
"That was really stupid," Steve told him, and Tony nodded.
"Actually, by my standards - no, you're right, even for me that was stupid."
It was really quite terrible to feel glad that Steve was upset; really, he should feel ashamed. But on the fuzzy cloud of oxygen-deprivation, it seemed delightful that Steve was so worried for him.
"I don't - Rhodey'll laugh. Dying from security guard at a museum."
"I don't understand. Where did it hit you?" Steve ran his palms down the armour, as if searching for damage.
"My heart - runs on batteries. Spell killed the power - going to kill me." He might have added something sappy about being glad Steve was there, but abruptly, he wasn't. Tony blinked up at the ceiling, and felt mildly affronted. What, Steve had places to be? Did he not even rate a kiss before dying?
There was crunching, and thudding, and rattling; was there a fight breaking out again? Tony tried to push himself over on to his side, which was tricky, as he couldn't really feel his hands and feet and the armour was heavy.
"What are you doing?" Steve sounded irritated, for some reason.
"Helping?" Tony managed to force his fingers shut around a chair leg. "What's happening?"
"Put that down. Come here." Steve pulled him up to a sitting position with enviable ease. "Drink this." He held a little can of tonic water up to Tony's lips, and Tony gave him a disgusted look.
"What are you doing? At least make my last drink a gin and tonic. And I'd rather have a kiss." He listed hopefully towards Steve, and Steve grabbed his head and mashed the can against his lips.
"Drink this and then I'll kiss you," he ordered. Tony sighed, and shut his eyes, and drank what had to be the most revolting tonic water he'd ever had. It was gritty and vile and only a promised kiss could have kept him drinking it. He turned his head hopefully, and Steve's lips were warm against his.
Steve pulled away, and Tony smiled at him.
"Steve, I - " he cut off what was going to be an embarrassing declaration just in time. "Wait. I can feel my - my heart is working!" For a moment, all he could think of was Snow White, but he was pretty sure even Cap didn't have magical kisses. Not literally.
"Oh, thank God." Steve hugged him so hard the armour creaked. "I wasn't sure it would work on an electronic thing."
"The unicorn horn."
"Unicorn horns have healing powers, everyone knows that. I ground up - "
"I drank what?"
"You're better, aren't you?"
"When it changes back I will have rock in me."
"But you'll be alive."
"Well... point." He let Steve lower him back to the floor, and blinked up at the dim pre-dawn sky and listened to Steve hum as he unwound duct tape from the roll.
"How long til dawn?" Steve said, and Tony consulted the clock.
"Twenty-three minutes. Do you think the displays all go back to their places?"
"I hope so. I hate to think of all those works of art being all... wrong."
"I suppose we could find the dead ones and sort of... prop them up."
"Never mind that." Steve locked the door on their prisoners. "There's something I'd like you to see."
Steve led them up to the top floor again, shaking his head when Tony questioned him.
They skirted with great care through the Modern Evolution section. Magneto turned to watch them, eyes glittering behind his helm; Cap nodded to him, and after a second, he inclined his head and turned away, cape swirling in no wind.
A huge banner proclaimed PROJECT REBIRTH. Steve caught Tony's hand and pulled him through glass cases of memorabilia and displays about the war. There was some kind of interactive biology display, although of course it was off now.
There was a waxwork of Namor, the Prince of Atlantis, riding a wave of blue-green perspex. It was somewhat flattering; it had had to be, as when the display had opened, they'd gotten Namor himself to come and cut the ribbon. He'd given quite a nice speech, with only two disparaging references to surface-dwellers. Tony had been very small, then. Namor had looked just the same.
Steve skirted the riotous, flame clouded display of the Human Torch and Toro. Against the back wall, was a familiar figure in blue, fists on his hips - Bucky Barnes.
"I hoped he'd be awake." Steve gave a little sigh. "I checked earlier, but..."
"Sorry," Tony said, awkwardly, and Steve smiled at him.
"It's all right. Bucky was caught in the explosion. The plane, it blew up?" Steve looked at him inquiringly, and he nodded. "I fell off, and he reached out for me... that was the last thing I saw..."
Tony squeezed his hand; Steve smiled a bit, eyes damp, and leaned his cheek against Tony's shoulder. Tony pressed a kiss to his forehead, and Steve sighed and shut his eyes. Then he pulled free, and stepped over the low barrier. Tony followed him, and Steve put an arm around him, and turned him towards at the big map on the back wall, marked with little gold stars for Cap's missions. He pointed to the northernmost one, high up in the Atlantic.
"It wasn't that far south," he said. "The plane was blown off-course. There were currents, of course, but the weight of the shield pulled me down quickly. I was locked in the ice. It was so cold. No one should have to lie out there alone."
"I'm sorry." How do you say I'm sorry you died, to someone who's warm and alive now? Steve seemed to appreciate the thought, kissed his cheek and then his mouth, slow and tender, before returning his gaze to the map.
"I know whereabouts we were. Do you have a pen?"
"You can't... " Tony stopped, and then dug out a pen. He tried to hand it to Steve; Steve just pointed to the map, and Tony suppressed a sigh. Of course it was his job, to deface exhibits. He stepped forward, and reached up.
"57.38,-47.52," Steve murmured.
Tony made a mark on the map, a neat cross, and tried not to think of Steve, all warm and vital, lying cold in the ocean, entombed in ice.
"All right?" he said.
There was silence.
Tony realised that he couldn't hear Steve's breathing anymore. For a moment, he didn't want to turn around.
He did anyway, because he couldn't stay frozen in the exhibit forever, like another waxwork.
Captain America and his shield posed heroically, one gloved hand resting on Bucky's shoulder, the other raising the shield high. His face was remote and distant, staring off into space, no sign of a smile on the stern mouth.
"Steve?" Tony whispered, foolishly. The museum was still around him, no rustle or shiver anywhere in the long halls.
No one should have to lie out there alone.
He looked up at the map, and then at the figure.
"That was it, huh? Okay. Well, you're in luck, I can fund a trip to search for Captain America's... his... remains. Okay? I'll find you, and we'll bury you at Arlington, and the shield can go in a nice glass case in the lobby, and... " his voice trailed off, and the figure didn't change expression.
"Oh, damn it." He sat down on the model of a tank, which creaked alarmingly under the weight of the armour. When he closed his eyes, he could still feel Steve's lips against his. God, his smile. Why hadn't he taken a photograph? "You could have just asked," he said. "You didn't..."
It was so cold.
You're so warm.
Maybe Steve was lonely down there in the ice.
"I'll find you," he promised. "However long it takes."
Today it has been revealed that, in what can only be described as a miracle, the World War II hero Captain America was found alive and well in the Atlantic Ocean by a Stark International exploratory vessel...