Moonlight glinted off the frozen puffs of Steve’s breath as he ducked behind a battlement, shield clutched close to his chest while he breathed in quick, shallow pants. Behind him gunshots cracked through the night air, the sound of metal clanging against rock telling him the bullets had come closer than he liked. The sound of gunfire faded and a maniacal laugh echoed across the open space of the castle roof. He gritted his teeth, anger welling up at the sound.
“Nicely done, mein Kapitan! Too bad it will do you no good.”
Footsteps reverberated with hollow echoes across the parapets. Steve strained to track their origin.
“No, I think you will be joining your young friend today,” taunted the harsh voice. Steve’s fingers tightened on the shield straps as the image of Bucky’s face, strained and pale, floated across his mind. He drew in a sharp breath, trying to calm down, reminding himself that foolhardy actions wouldn’t bring Bucky back. Rushing into the open at this point would only get him killed, and that wouldn’t do anyone any good.
Peering cautiously around the edge of the stone, Steve searched for his opponent. The moonlight coming through the tattered cloud cover scattered across the castle roof, making it difficult to focus. A flash of movement drew his attention and his lips curved in a mirthless smile, his grip on the shield shifting as he tensed in preparation to throw it.
Across the open space, he could see Red Skull, something bright flashing in his hand as he raised it.
“You’ll pay for what you did to Bucky,” Steve snarled, rising from his crouch, shield at the ready.
Skull laughed. “Oh, Captain, how you underestimate me.” Steve’s eyes narrowed, but as he moved forward, Red Skull opened his hand, revealing a gleaming cube sitting on his palm. “You have no chance to defeat me now, not with the Cosmic Cube in my possession!”
A surge of adrenaline shot through him. The Cosmic Cube! The War Department had only heard the vaguest of rumors about the object, but they’d known the Red Skull was researching something powerful in this remote castle laboratory. Something powerful enough to turn four-star generals white, Steve remembered. Something that the reports hinted could destroy the whole world. If it really was as powerful as they suspected, it couldn’t be allowed to remain in the Red Skull’s hands.
He took a step forward, his hand rising in preparation to throw his shield, when he felt a strange force seize control of his entire body, freezing him in place. He strained to move, to hurl the shield and knock the shining cube from the Skull’s grasp, but his body refused to obey his commands. The Red Skull’s mouth twisted into a triumphant smirk as he met Steve’s glare.
“This is only the barest hint of the Cube’s power, Captain. Whatever your spies may have found out about it, believe me, they barely scratched the surface of the truth. With this little toy, I can make you do anything.” He approached Steve’s frozen body, his smirk distorting into something ugly. “Anything, Captain. Whatever I wish, will happen.” He seemed to read the disbelief in Steve’s eyes and chuckled. “To you, to this castle, to the entire world! Within my grasp lies the power to reshape reality itself."
"You're insane, Skull," Steve gritted out. He tensed his muscles, fighting to make even the slightest move. He had to break free of whatever control Red Skull had over to him. He couldn't die here, like this - it would make Bucky's sacrifice meaningless.
"Ah, mein Kapitan, you don't understand. It doesn't matter," the Skull hissed, leaning in close to him. Steve's lip curled derisively.
"No matter what you do, someone will stop you." Steve felt the force holding him shift, somehow, loosening. Red Skull's eyes glazed, fury fueled by insanity lending his gruesome face an almost hellish cast. "Someone will always stop you."
The Red Skull's hand clenched on the Cube, held so close to Steve's body, and the power holding him immobile flickered... failed. Steve shouted in wordless triumph as he brought all of his strength to bear on his shield, smashing it forward and down in a vicious, directed maneuver. The Red Skull cried out, trying to jump backward, but the honed edge of the shield sheered into the Cosmic Cube in his grasp. Steve's eyes flicked up to meet Skull's, seeing the enraged expression of someone whose plans were collapsing around them.
The world went white.
Shadows wrapped around the room, shrouding the distant walls in a dark haze. The soft scent of incense wound through the air, the pungent aroma tantalizing even as it soothed the senses.
In the center of the room, a crystal sphere sat on a pedestal, unearthly colors casting strange reflections across the face of the man sitting before it. He sat stiffly on a chair carved from ancient oak, thick gnarled claws digging into the floor, matching those on the chair’s arms. His elbows rested on the edges of the wooden supports, his hands clasped together in front of him, his fingers entwined in an odd pointing configuration. Although his eyes were open, his gaze aimed at the softly glowing orb, the distance in the blue eyes showed his attention was focused elsewhere.
The Sorcerer Supreme was deep in meditation.
Tracing patterns of power as they flowed through the earth, Tony Stark allowed his mind to drift as he searched for any disturbances. Something had been hovering at the edges of his mind for the last several days, something he couldn't identify but which felt off. Even as he checked, he took note of the typical currents, tweaking the plans in the back of his mind as he added new requirements for tracking ley line flows to the armor he was working on to replace the set lost to Dormammu. Most of his attention centered on his search, part of his normal watch over the planet he held responsibility for as Earth's Sorcerer Supreme, but a sharp, coldly painful sensation shooting through him brought his entire attention abruptly to one place.
Allowing his astral self to follow the sensation to its source, Tony activated the shielding spell contained within the Eye of Agamotto. He called to mind the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, holding the spell ready as he examined the area. His astral form couldn't be blinded, but he blinked reflexively against the glittering reflections of sunlight on the half-melted snow around him.
Of all the places he could have found himself in, he hadn't expected to end up in the crumbling ruins of a castle. A castle far up in the mountains, ice and snow still clinging stubbornly even in the face of oncoming summer. No wonder he'd felt an icy chill. But what could have managed to reach out and grab his attention like that? He couldn't see anything here that could have produced the powerful draw. Summoning the sensory power of the Eye of Agamotto with a thought, he scoured the area, his frown increasing as he found nothing.
"What in the world...?" he muttered. He'd never felt anything like that bitterly cold shock before, and now as he stood in the area it came from, he couldn't identify anything which could have caused it. With a last glance, he shook his head and willed himself home, back to his physical body. This would take some research. If there was one thing Tony couldn't stand, it was a puzzle that refused to be solved.
Sprawled across his dark seat, Loki smiled. Long fingers scribed a graceful arc through the air, his eyes scanning the scene revealed to him. Figures on the icy ramparts of a castle fought their battle, hurling insults at each other even as they struggled.
“Mmm. As much as I do detest these humans, the more I deal with Midgard, the more I understand Thor's attraction to the place.” The idle words fell into the silent room, only the silent statues of frost giants and Asgardians in the corners witnesses to his speech. “So very very clever, they are… children gifted with the ability to create weapons of incredible devastation, weapons they themselves do not understand.”
Watching the fight, Loki's eyes narrowed as one figure held out a glittering cube toward the other, and a gesture stopped the vision. He stood, moving closer to the image, examining the bright object shown therein. Cocking his head, Loki reached out, fingertips brushing against the image of the glowing cube, sending ripples through the frozen scene.
“And to think, my boredom was nearly complete until I stumbled across this most interesting diversion.” His musing words fell into the otherwise empty room.
Allowing the vision to resume, his eyes narrowed in focus as he watched the blinding explosion when shield met cube. His lips curved with delight as he followed the path traced by the cube and its holder while they tumbled through the Nine Realms.
“Such very clever mortals indeed,” he said with delight. “Creating the very thing that will bring them to their end.”
His high-pitched laughter echoed in the empty room.
“Are you sure that it's safe to go, sir?” Tony smiled a little at Jarvis' worried tone and finished fastening the Cloak of Levitation at his throat before turning to the man.
“As safe as anything I do, Jarvis.” Jarvis' narrowed eyes told him his casual tone hadn't disguised his non-answer, and he shrugged. “I have to find out what's causing this effect. It's something I've never come across before and the sensations are growing in strength. Just in the last week, it's gone from nearly undetectable to my being able to sense it without even trying. Whatever's behind it, I can't let it fall into the wrong hands or have some self-taught witch stumbling across it. It's too strong.”
Jarvis sighed. “Very well, sir. Do try to come home without bleeding this time, will you?”
Tony grinned at Jarvis' dry tone, then drew in a focusing breath, the triggering words for his commonly-used teleportation spell falling from his lips.
“Shades of the Seraphim - select from the day
power enough to wish me away!”
Reappearing seconds later, surrounded by snow gleaming in the faded sunlight breaking through the cloud cover, he hoped this trip would be as easy as he'd made it sound. Reassuring Jarvis was one thing; underestimating his task was something completely different. If nothing else, losing his armor to Dormammu had taught him not to overestimate his own strengths. Winning that contest had been due nearly as much to luck as to his own skill or Dormammu's ego. Remembering the fight made him wince. He'd created a new suit of armor in the time since that encounter, but he wasn't satisfied with it. Whether the faults lay in the design or the designer, he didn't yet feel as though he could rely on it, so it remained in his basement laboratory.
Opening his senses, Tony reeled for an instant at the strength of the mystical energies surrounding him. Maybe he should have worn the armor just for its extra shielding capabilities, he thought wryly.
All his research had turned up was that the castle, located in the remote mountains of Germany, had been a main location for the Nazis' research into the occult in World War II. There were rumors of sightings of the Red Skull there, along with the requisite stories about Captain America, but both of them had vanished near the end of the war. Stories still circulated about the two of them having killed each other in battle. Taking in the once-mighty castle ruins ahead of him, Tony wondered if they hadn't fought here. The place was a wreck, at least on the outside.
As he approached the main entrance, the once-imposing doors now hanging awkwardly from broken hinges, Tony paused long enough to murmur the words of a teleportation spell, allowing it to hang, ready to use, before passing through. The smell of rust, damp in the late warmth of spring, told him the gates were iron, definitely not original to the structure, and the scorch marks radiating across the courtyard inside further bespoke of some sort of devastation. He eyed the building resting further back, its walls only partly intact, then shook his head. He wasn't about to walk into that without some way of telling if it would fall on top of him.
Raising his left arm, Tony touched a button on his wrist band and activated the sensors set into it. Based on a combination of radar and seismic readings, mixed with detection spells Tony had spent days perfecting, the sophisticated array could “read” any physical object and project a three-dimensional image of it. He grinned triumphantly as the outlines of the keep in front of him sprang to life in sparking green. Whatever weird magics were acting up below this place, he'd be ready for them.
Entering the decrepit building, Tony wrinkled his nose at the scent of decay. The years hadn’t been kind to the structure, and the weather extremes seemed to be hastening its deterioration. He summoned a dim ball of light to float in front of him as he wound his way deeper into the chilly stone halls. Keeping an eye on his map as he walked, he moved with caution, backing up and circling through adjoining ways more than once in order to avoid sections that looked ready to collapse.
By the time he stood in front of another set of heavy iron doors, his smile had long since faded. He didn't know what was responsible for the current state of the grounds, but someone had been here since the original blast that took out the front gates... someone who had plenty of power to throw around. The chaos magic still twining its way through the area was too recent to be the cause of the castle’s current state of disrepair.
Tony raised an arm and touched the door. In the back of his mind, he could hear the Ancient One scolding him for being reckless, but dismissed the thought. The Ancient One wasn't here - he was. Cold radiated out from the thick metal doors, numbing his fingertips, and he pulled his hand back, frowning while he considered his options. Something was hidden behind these doors and someone didn't want anyone finding out what it was. He could sense the remnants of earlier enchantments woven into the metal, spells of binding and deception, but overlaying those impressions lay thick snarls of sickly green, almost daring him to test their strength. He wrinkled his nose at the hint of bitter almonds, the scent he associated with chaos magic.
He glanced down at his map again and exhaled sharply, the motion the only outward sign of his growing frustration. The map, so clear all the way through the fallen castle, now showed only blankness beyond the doors in front of him. Whether it was a leftover from the original magic worked into the gates or an effect of the chaos magic, the area beyond the iron doors was closed off to his senses. Reaching out again, his fingers not quite touching the chill metal, he closed his eyes and began tracing the snarled lines of enchantment. Whatever had caught his attention with the flare of that alien magic had to lay behind these doors, and a strange sense of urgency motivated him, leaving him unwilling to take too long to study the area.
Sinking further into the layered protective magics that still twined through the walls as he probed delicately, Tony was unprepared for the rumble that swept through the building. He snapped back to awareness of his body as dirt began to fall from the ceiling, and called up a shielding spell with a quick motion of his fingertip across his wrist band. Protected from the debris that seemed to be falling in larger chunks, he squinted upward, wondering what in the Nine Hells was happening above him. The ruins had been deserted when he arrived, so what could be causing the tremors?
With a thunderous roar, the ceiling caved in.
Tony's eyes narrowed as broken chunks of rock and dirt fell around him, rebounding from the mystic shield, and he brought his hand up, ready to cast the Binding of Seven Sevens if it proved necessary. If someone was trying to stop him from recovering what lay beyond the doors, he definitely needed to find out what it was. The strength of the initial flare that had drawn him here meant that whatever was here was far too powerful to leave lying around in a deserted wreck, especially one with decaying protective spells.
As the dust cleared, weak sunlight filtered in, confirming his suspicion that whoever was responsible for the destruction hadn't felt like meandering through the halls of the ruined castle as he had done. A shadowy form appeared in the gap… a large shadowy form. Holding some sort of weapon. Just once, Tony thought, I'd like to find an ancient artifact without having to fight for my life right afterward.
“Hold, villain!” The words boomed out, echoing off the stone walls, and Tony lifted an eyebrow.
“Villain? Really? That's a new one,” he replied, keeping his voice mild. The shape resolved itself into the form of a large blond man in mail and a winged helmet, the red cape billowing behind him not showing any signs of the layers of dirt he'd come through. In fact… Tony peered up, eyeing the hole. It looked to be vertical, meaning that the man had come straight down.
The blond giant frowned, not lowering the large hammer he grasped firmly in his hand. “If you be not a villain, what brings you to this deserted place that reeks with the stench of my brother?”
Oookay. Tony lowered his hands, relaxing a little. “I don't know who you or your brother are, but I’m here because of whatever it is behind these doors.” He jerked his chin toward the doors and the blond shot a suspicious look toward them.
“Thor, it's Tony Stark - the Sorcerer Supreme!” Tony glanced around at the sound of another voice, wondering if the blond giant had invisible allies. The abrupt appearance of a young woman in a tight red and black suit solved that riddle, although Tony still wasn't sure where she had come from. She looked familiar, but he couldn't place her. She looked up at him, one hand on her hip in a gesture of cocky confidence, then grinned. “You don't recognize me,” she stated.
At a loss, Tony shook his head. “Sorry, but no. Should I?”
“I certainly hope so. We only grew up being bored to tears at the same society parties, after all.” She reached up and removed her pointed helmet, and Tony's eyes widened.
She giggled at his surprised tone. “The Wasp, actually. It's good to see you again. It's been a while.”
“You look good.” Tony nearly bit his tongue as the words slipped out. He'd never dated Jan, since they’d been as close as two high society brats could be throughout their youth. His playboy reputation had nearly withered due to the years of magical and technological research in his attempt to find a cure for Stephen's hands, and he'd found that he didn't miss it. Flirting with an old friend was not at the top of his list of things to do.
“If you two are quite finished,” an annoyed voice snapped. “We did come here for a reason.”
Tony raised his eyebrows at Jan. “Another invisible gatecrasher?” She laughed.
“Hank, grow up.”
“We agreed to use our codenames when we're working, Wasp.” A man about Tony's size appeared at Jan's side, arms crossed as he glowered at her from beneath an oddly-shaped helmet.
She shrugged. “It's Tony. We've known each other since childhood.”
Interpreting the man's inhalation as a precursor to angry words, Tony intervened. “I'm Tony Stark, as Jan correctly indicated. Who are you? And how did you get here?”
The man let out his breath in an exasperated huff, then extended his hand, his arm stiff. “I'm Hank Pym. Jan you already know, and our large friend there is Thor, god of thunder.” From his tone of voice, Tony thought Hank suspected disbelief or laughter at Thor's introduction, but he only smiled as he shook Hank's hand, making the connection between the man’s name and his and Jan’s abrupt appearances.
“Doctor Pym, It's an honor to meet you. I've heard of you, and your Pym particles. I just never expected to see their size-changing capabilities used in quite this way.” Catching the man's surprised look, Tony smiled to himself as he turned toward the god. “And Thor. I'm familiar with the legends, but I haven't had the pleasure of actually meeting an Asgardian before.” He inclined his head in respect, not offering to shake Thor's hand. He'd quite like to keep the use of his fingers.
“Thor brought us here,” Jan chimed in, her lips quirked in the familiar way that told Tony she was aware of Hank's prickliness toward him and found it amusing. “He can teleport things using his hammer.”
"Indeed. We came here in search of my wayward brother, Loki. He has been up to his old habits of trickery, this time in your homeland, and I traced his magics here."
Tony raised an eyebrow before turning back to the doors. "I was just about to try to untangle the enchantments on these doors, since whatever brought me here seems to be behind them."
Thor hefted his hammer. "If it is simply doors that need be passed, Mjolnir can handle them."
Tony hastily lifted a hand and cast a glance over his shoulder at the god. "With the protection spells that are still on them, bad things will happen if you just bust them open," he explained, mollifying Thor's indignation at his action.
"Bad things?" questioned Hank doubtfully, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched Tony.
"Very bad things. At a minimum, they'd explode, and with the magic running through this place, I'm pretty sure that even the god of thunder there would walk away with more than a bruise. At worst... well, anything could happen, with chaos magic involved." Tony shrugged and closed his eyes, visualizing the tangled web of magic in his mind again.
The tapestry image stuck with him due to the Ancient One's training, much to his annoyance. His own spells he worked out using language similar to the ones he programmed in, but he seemed absolutely incapable of 'seeing' magic as circuitry patterns, no matter how much he tried. His mind naturally thought in circuitry patterns for everything else, but in this, the Ancient One had definitely won the battle he'd fought against Tony's technically-trained mind. Tony's lips quirked slightly as he remembered the hours spent in argument with his mentor over the proper mental imagery to use, then dismissed the wayward thoughts and focused on his work.
He summoned the powers of the Eye of Agamotto, the fingers of his right hand twisting in an intricate pattern over the metal doors. The older protective enchantments glowed a sullen red. The combination of the shadowed hue and the chill that ran up his spine as he inspected the work told him that the original caster, whoever it had been, had walked a dark path. His mouth twisted, he gestured again, and the blood-red sigils pulsed angrily before winking out. He breathed out, then wiped sweat from his brow.
"Nothing happened," Hank said flatly, his tone clearly expressing his opinion of magic. Turning his head to meet his eyes, Tony raised an eyebrow.
"Making statements with no evidence to base them on is a primary fault in a scientist, Dr. Pym," he replied, keeping his voice mild. "Nothing visible happened, I'll grant you." He smirked to himself as Hank glared at him but kept his face emotionless. "Breaking long-standing enchantments is tiring, and it takes a lot of concentration. The original protections used blood magic, but the chaos magic is newer, and stronger. It'll take me a while to get through it."
"You mean only my brother's magics still hinder our way forward?" asked Thor, coming close enough that Tony could smell the tang of ozone. Interesting, he thought, and filed the fact away.
"If your brother is the one who put additional protection on here using chaos magic, then yes," he answered. Thor grinned mirthlessly.
"In that case, allow me." The god must have seen the alarm in Tony's eyes, as he laughed, then clapped Tony on the shoulder, nearly sending him sprawling on the ground. "Nay, worry not. I will not smash down the doors. Although I am no magician, I am familiar with my brother's trickery, and Mjolnir may prove useful."
Eyeing the large hammer, aware of the strong mystical energies emanating from it, Tony slowly nodded, then moved aside. Thor walked up to the doors, Mjolnir held confidently in his hand, and raised the hammer to the center of the doors. Blinking, Tony called on his mystical senses and watched the writhing web of chaos energy. The green tendrils seemed repulsed by the hammer, twisted away from it and curling in on themselves, but they showed no signs of weakening or breaking. He opened his mouth to tell that to Thor, when the god shifted, grasping his hammer in both hands without moving it from contact with the metal doors. Thor closed his eyes, inclined his head, and whispered something under his breath that Tony couldn't hear.
The crawling chaos protections... collapsed. Tony stared, bemused, then looked up to meet Thor's laughing eyes.
"I did tell you that I was familiar with my brother," the god pointed out.
"I've never seen any enchantment just... collapse, like that," Tony said, his voice questioning. "What did you do?"
Thor's mouth twisted into something that could have been called a smile, if not for the deep sorrow in his eyes. "I told the spell who I was."
Somehow, Tony knew he wouldn't get any more information from the god. "Well, whatever you did, it worked. I'm not sure if something else was triggered from the protections going down, so I'd suggest we move quickly."
"Finally," said Jan, an edge to her voice. "I was getting bored."
Tony flashed her a quick grin. "And I remember how devastating you can be when you're bored." Hank's mouth compressed into a thin line, and Tony suppressed a sigh as he turned back to the doors. He had a growing suspicion that this was not going to be a one-time team-up, and he’d learned not ignore those gut feelings. He just hoped that Hank learned to relax a little.
Thor pushed at the doors and they opened as if they hung on well-oiled springs, moving easily. The god met his gaze and stepped aside. "In matters of enchantment and mystic skills, I am not averse to following one well-trained in the arts," he said simply.
Tony smiled, then walked through the doors. He hadn't held any clear idea of what might lay beyond the doors. Since the castle had once been home to Nazi experiments, it could contain anything from a scientific lab to a chamber of horrors. What he saw, however, made him stop and stare.
Behind him, he felt Jan and Hank crowd close, Jan looking over his shoulder. "Why... that looks like..."
"Captain America," Tony said flatly, cutting off her amazed stuttering. Hank blinked in astonishment, while Thor merely raised an eyebrow.
"Who is this Captain, that you all seem so astonished to see him?"
Tony walked across the chamber, his senses and sensory spells on alert. No other warding spells seemed to be active, and although the walls of the chamber were lined with consoles, none of them appeared active. No electricity flowed through them and no mystic energy source seemed in evidence. After circling the frozen figure standing in the center of the room, Tony stopped and examined the area. It looked as though the chamber had been hurriedly cleared, given the discarded equipment in the far corner and the scrapes on the floor. No consoles, no apparatus of any sort, remained within thirty feet of the still figure. As for the Captain himself... Tony frowned, moving closer, as he reached out with his senses to determine the source of the strange energy.
His eyes widened. Coming to a halt directly in front of the man, Tony took him in. The Captain stood frozen as though caught in mid-motion, his face a grimace of concentration and anger, blood dripping down the side of his face from beneath his leather cowl, and his shield poised as if striking something. The most surprising thing, however, was none of those.
"He's alive," Tony half-whispered.
"What?" Hank drew closer. "But he's been missing for seventy years. How could he still be alive? Are you even sure this is really him? I mean... it looks like a statue."
Still staring into clear blue eyes, Tony shook his head. "It's not a statue." No hint of awareness in those eyes, but a clear spark of life lingered there still. Turning his awareness toward the figure, he could feel a sense of consciousness, although the alien energy he'd followed here seemed to have... muffled it, somehow. "It's really him."
"How can you tell?" asked Jan, her voice alight with curiosity.
"I can sense him. Whatever he was fighting here, whatever was the source of those wards... it did this to him." Tony reached out a cautious hand, touching the man's shoulder. He was warm.
"If he's been frozen with magic, shouldn't he be, I don't know, glowing, or something?"
"Nay, good doctor," Thor rumbled. "Oft times, magic's effects are all the more mysterious when not readily apparent to the eye."
"Can we move him?" Jan's question cut to the heart of the matter. Tony shrugged, then cautiously probed at the prone figure with his mystic senses. The same alien feel that had first caught his attention was evident, but nothing else seemed to tie the Captain to this place.
"I think so." Opening his eyes again, Tony wondered at the strange flash of protectiveness that ran through him, but shrugged it off. "I need to get him back to my Sanctum so I can figure out how to lift whatever it is that's affecting him. It's something I've never come across before, and I don't want to try to experiment with unknown magics here."
"Good call," Hank muttered.
Suppressing the sharp words that came to mind, Tony turned to Thor. "You said you could teleport?" While normally teleporting a group of people to his own home would be the work of seconds for him, Tony didn’t want to risk it if they would be transporting the Captain with them. He wanted to have no distractions in case the teleport somehow adversely affected the man.
"Aye. I would not attempt to take us inside your home, however, if it is guarded like..." Thor paused, and Tony wondered at the darkness in the god's eyes before he continued, "If it is warded similarly to the homes of other sorcerers I have known."
"And it definitely is. If you can take us to the front gate, I can lower the wards so we can get in."
Thor nodded. "Consider it done."
"Wow." Jan's whisper carried in the echoing hallway, and Tony allowed himself a small smile. The rare visitors he allowed to his home always reminded him of just what the mansion looked like to outside eyes. Although Jan had been to the mansion in their more youthful days, it had changed a lot since his parents' deaths. Semi-abandoned for years while he studied under the Ancient One, only to be later turned into his Sanctum Sanctorum, a well-warded safe area for both his mystical and his technological research, the mansion seemed to have taken on an aura of its own over the last few years. To him, that aura felt like home. To others, it seemed to appear strange and foreboding. He didn't do much to discourage the idea. While his younger days had been spent earning his playboy reputation, he no longer felt like sustaining it and welcomed the more isolated effect he had worked so hard to acquire.
"So... this is the famous Stark Mansion?" Hank sounded like he was trying not to be impressed and was failing miserably. Before turning to answer, Tony reactivated the mystic wards around the front door, as well as the technological protections.
"It is," he said as he turned back to his guests. "It's... changed a bit, since the days of the infamous Stark parties." Both his parents' and his own, although they'd been infamous for different reasons. Well, mostly different reasons. Tony had followed more closely in his father's footsteps than he ever liked to acknowledge; Howard had been quite the partier and lady-killer himself in his younger days.
"So I see." Hank glanced around, his gaze landing on the security console Tony had just reactivated. "I wouldn't have thought that the Sorcerer Supreme would bother with standard security devices," he said, not bothering to hide his sneer. Beside him, Jan rolled her eyes and put a hand on his arm. Hank glanced down at her and almost visibly relaxed. Tony wondered if the man even knew how he felt about Jan, or if he was still in denial. Judging from his touchiness, either it was the latter option or they'd just barely begun their relationship.
"I may be the Sorcerer Supreme, but I had my first engineering degree before I was eighteen," he said, not bothering to hide the arrogance in his tone. "It wasn't my last, and I certainly haven't allowed my skills to degrade."
"Sir, you – oh! I didn't realize we had guests." Jarvis stopped, nonplussed, at the foot of the stairs, taking in the people behind Tony. Tony ducked his head, a habit he'd never broken himself of around the older man.
"Sorry, Jarvis. We just got in." Stepping to the side, he gestured at each of them as he introduced them. "This is Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp – you may remember her."
Jarvis' eyes lit up and he smiled. "I do indeed. You and Miss Van Dyne used to be quite the pair of troublemakers," he smiled. Jan giggled and pushed her way forward to wrap the man in a hug.
"I remember you sneaking us cookies once the adults had gone off to drink and dance." She smiled impishly. "You always baked the best cookies."
"I'll have to see if they still meet with your approval," Jarvis smiled back at her. Jan winked at him and stepped back.
"Doctor Henry Pym." Tony gestured at the other man, who seemed to be slowly relaxing. Jarvis shook his hand. "And Thor, the god of thunder." Tony hid the smile that wanted to break out as he watched Jarvis respectfully shake Thor's hand, somewhat to Thor's bemusement. Then Jarvis caught sight of the frozen figure beside the god and his eyes widened.
"My lord," he breathed, approaching the figure with reverence. "Is that..."
"Captain America," Tony supplied. "Yes. As far as I can tell, he was caught in some sort of mystic backlash and frozen alive, so to speak." Jarvis reached out a shaking hand toward the figure, then spun around to face Tony.
"Yep. As soon as we can get our guests settled, I'm going down to the sanctum to see if I can start untangling whatever it is that did this to him."
"I shall get started immediately, then. My apologies," he said as he returned his attention to his guests. "My father served in the War and often told me tales of Captain America... it's a bit shocking to actually see him there." Jan merely smiled at him and tucked her arm through his.
"So, Jarvis – where are our rooms? I could really use some freshening up." She and Jarvis headed toward the stairs with Hank following closely behind. Only Thor lingered, casting a questioning look toward Tony.
"Will you need any assistance with the Captain?"
"No, thank you, Thor. I can transport him to my sanctum easily enough, and after that... it'll just take time and patience to untangle whatever it is that's holding him bound." Tony hoped he sounded reassuring. He couldn't help but wonder what had the god so concerned.
"Very well. You are certain that these magics have naught to do with my brother?" Thor's gaze met Tony's with unexpected intensity, and Tony swallowed. Whatever Thor wanted from his brother, Tony told himself to remember not to get between them whenever they met up again.
"As far as I can tell, no. This doesn't feel like chaos magic. It feels..." Tony paused, then shrugged. "Different. Alien. It's something I've never felt before. It's nothing like the chaos magic that bound the doors back at the castle."
Thor let out a breath, nodded, and turned away. Tony watched as he followed Jarvis and the others up the stairs, wondering just what sort of relationship Thor had with his brother. In fact... one eyebrow raised as he watched the group disappear around a corner. Loki wasn't actually Thor's brother, if he remembered his mythology correctly. Not that the myths were always correct, but... Shaking his head, Tony dismissed the errant thought and turned back to the frozen figure staring into nothingness past him.
"Just you and me now, Cap," he said softly. Between his father and Jarvis, he'd grown up hearing stories of Captain America more than he'd heard fairy tales. None of them had mentioned how devastatingly handsome the iconic hero was. One last lingering gaze, and Tony forced himself to move. Murmuring a few quiet words, one hand on the Captain's shoulder, he transported them both to his sanctum, far below ground. Arranging the Captain in the center of the inlaid silver circle, he set to work.
Much later, Tony murmured the final words of a spell composed partly from research and partly on the fly, his voice hoarse from hours of working magic and even more hours of swearing in frustration as spell after spell fizzled. The Ancient One always frowned on his resorting to improvisation, but at some point, desperation and sheer determination took over, forcing him past the failed bookwork, and it had always worked. So far.
Slumping forward, resting his elbows on his crossed legs and his head on his palms, Tony drew in a long, shuddering breath. Working with this scale of magic always drained him, and doing so while working with a completely unknown type of mystical energy only exacerbated things. Right then, he craved nothing more than thirty-six hours of sleep, but lacked the energy even to rise to his feet. Gods only knew if the spell had actually worked; the Captain hadn't been frozen in or out of time, he hadn't been put into magical hibernation, or just frozen in place, or anything else Tony had come across in his research or experience.
Finally forcing himself to his feet, he swayed a little, then took another breath and forced himself to steadiness. He banished the wards around his working circle and crossed the threshold of the pentacle inscribed therein, stopping in front of the frozen form placed there. Studying the form brought forth a frown; there was no apparent change.
His lips tightened in frustration that, years ago, would have had him throwing something across the room. Now he simply blew out a long, slow breath, then took in another one, and repeated the process until he felt calm again. His mind churned as he went over each and every choice he'd made, every option he'd tried or discarded, trying to find where he'd gone wrong.
Then the shield fell to the floor.
The bell-like tone of metal on stone quickly faded to reverberating echoes as the shield rolled until it stopped. Tony barely noticed. Even as the Captain's hand loosened enough for him to drop the shield, Tony watched, entranced, as the man took a deep breath. Then he blinked.
And then Tony scrambled to move quickly enough to catch him as he dropped like a rock. It wasn't an easy feat – the man had a good forty pounds on him and it was all muscle, by the feel of him – and it ended messily, with Tony on his knees, arms wrapped awkwardly around the man's waist and shoulders, the Captain slumped bonelessly against him, head lolling against his shoulder. But it ended without either of them hitting the ground, so Tony counted it as a victory. And, he thought privately, having an armful of drop-dead gorgeous super soldier wasn't something he could complain about. Tilting his head to check the Captain over, Tony inhaled the strong scent of leather and sweat and... something else, something he couldn't identify. The whole blended together in a scent he immediately identified as "Cap," and he found himself wishing he could fall asleep like this, with the other man wrapped around him. Although possibly with rather less clothing between them.
Shaking himself, choosing to blame his wandering thoughts on the weariness overtaking him, Tony shifted his grip until he could free a hand, then gently ran a hand along the man's face, pausing to check his pulse. Breathing normal, heart rate a little high, but probably to be expected, considering that he'd just been set free from some sort of seven-decade-long mystical imprisonment. The blood on the side of his face was still wet but drying, and Tony cocked his head as he considered that. The energy surrounding the Captain hadn't responded to any of his normal time-affecting spells, but somehow, he must have been frozen in – out of – something – time, if his wounds hadn’t healed since the moment he’d been affected.
He really had to learn his name, Tony thought. He couldn't keep calling him "The Captain." It was too awkward. And even if "Cap" rolled off the tongue, it didn't make up for lack of an actual name.
A quiet activation of the Eye’s teleportation power solved the problem of how to move the other man upstairs, and Tony hoped he hadn't just picked one of the rooms that Jarvis had settled the other three unexpected guests in. A quick look around the room told him it was empty, and at this hour, he took that to mean it was unoccupied. Forcing himself to his feet, he nearly staggered under the weight of the other man, but managed to get him across the room and onto the bed.
At that point, he paused. Normally, he wouldn't even think of putting someone dressed in leather and chainmail to bed still wearing said items, but he saw no way of getting the Captain out of them without getting unnecessarily personal. Not to mention the fact that Captain America's identity, while much speculated upon, especially following his mysterious disappearance at the height of the War, had never been revealed. That thought made Tony's fingers twitch as he eyed the cowl covering the Captain's face, but he pushed the temptation away and settled for pulling off the man's boots and gloves, setting them beside the bedside table where he would see them upon awaking. After another moment’s thought, he teleported the shield up from his sanctum and leaned it against the same table, surprised at its lightness. Pulling up the blanket, Tony checked the man's heart rate and breathing again, gratified to find them almost normal this time.
“Well, Captain America, whoever you are, you are certainly not anything I ever expected to find,” he said softly, watching the sleeping man. Tony stepped back from the bed, wondering how his unexpected guest would react when he awoke. He worried his lower lip between his teeth at the thought, and decided it would be best to be careful. Better that I know when he’s awake so I can be here… hopefully a calm face will help make it easier for him.
“By the Eternal Vishanti, let none disturb this man’s rest; when of his own will he awakes, alert me to him my guest.” The simple ward took only seconds to establish. When he realized he was swaying on his feet, he made a mental note to research the ruins further, now that he had a better idea of what to look for, then carefully walked out of the room and headed for his own bed.
Some time later, Tony's eyes snapped open and he stared into the darkness of his room, trying to pinpoint what had awoken him. A repeated mental ping from the wards he'd set on the Captain's room made him sit up and reach for his robe, tossed carelessly across the chair beside the bed. He'd almost forgotten about setting the wards, as they'd been a last-minute thought before he slipped into sleep earlier, but he'd wanted to know when the man woke up. Aside from any probable culture shock, wandering around the mansion uninvited could be dangerous for anyone who didn't know where they were. A quick check of his mental clock told him it was nearly dawn - he'd slept for over twelve hours.
Running a hand through his hair in a hopeless effort to calm it down, Tony pulled the red robe around him, tightening the belt over his black pajama bottoms, then left his room, only realizing he was still barefoot when the chill of the tile floor made him wince. Shrugging, he headed down the hall, relieved to see the door to the Captain's bedroom still closed. He rapped politely at the door and listened, ready to open the door uninvited if he didn't hear a response within sixty seconds.
“Come in,” rasped a weary voice, the words delivered in a soft baritone that had Tony pushing away all sorts of salacious thoughts. Instead, he pushed the door open and stepped inside, closing it behind him as he surveyed the room before turning his full attention to the man sitting on the edge of the bed.
He's blond, thought Tony, then mentally rolled his eyes at himself. This wasn't the time. Instead, he took a few steps closer and asked, “How do you feel?”
The man raised his head, meeting his gaze with piercing blue eyes, and shrugged. “Like crap, to be honest.” The bluntness startled a laugh out of Tony, and the other man's lips twitched at the sound. “Where am I? And who are you?”
Those questions, Tony had expected. Pulling the desk chair closer, he settled into it backwards, leaning forward against the wooden chair back, and considered the man in front of him for a long moment. “You're certainly lucid enough. That's a good sign.” The narrow-eyed glare he received in response told Tony his guest was not the type to appreciate avoidance. He shrugged. “You're in New York City, at the Stark Mansion. I'm Tony Stark.”
“Tony Stark? Any relation to Howard?” The emphasis on his name made Tony pause for a moment. Captain America knew his father? His dad had failed to mention that little fact. One thing of many, came the familiar, bitter thought, and Tony ignored it.
“Howard was my father.” He kept his voice level, but some of the sharp edge must have shown, from the considering look he received.
“Was? Is he dead?”
“He died in a car accident, along with my mother.” Biting back the words twenty years ago was difficult, but he managed. He knew they were headed in that direction, but there was no sense in shocking the man right off the bat. In an effort to delay the moment a little longer, he tilted his head and asked, “So… Captain America. May I have the honor of knowing your name?” He couldn't quite keep the half-teasing tone from his voice, and the other man grinned at him.
“Nice avoidance method, if a little obvious.”
Tony shrugged again. “Whatever works. I would like to know your name, though. If you don't mind.”
There was a long pause as the other man considered him. “I suppose it doesn't really matter, since you could find out anyway if you're really Howard's son.” Tony wondered just how much his father had failed to tell him about the “special projects” he'd been involved in during World War Two. “I'm Steve Rogers. It's nice to meet you.” The Captain – Steve – reached out and Tony shook his hand unthinkingly.
As he did, Steve asked, his tone casual, “So. What year is this?”
“What?” Tony froze, hand still clasped in Steve's. The blond wasn't grinning anymore. Instead, his somber gaze met Tony's squarely, and Tony read the fear and resignation there. He sighed, easing his grasp on Steve's hand to one of comfort. “You've been missing for almost seventy years.”
Steve's hand tightened on his as an expression of unimaginable pain crossed his features. Slowly, his fingers relaxed again, but Tony noted that he didn't attempt to withdraw from that one point of human contact.
“Seventy years,” he muttered, and swallowed. Tony could see the blue eyes glittering as Steve's head swung away to stare sightlessly at the wall, his throat working against the emotions Tony could practically feel swelling up inside him. He fought back the crazy urge to sit beside Steve and wrap his arms around him. Not only did he not know the man, he knew enough about Captain America to suspect an action like that from an effective stranger would be enough to land him flat on his back and in not a little bit of pain. Instead, he tightened his grasp on Steve's hand. He'd always been terrible at expressing his emotions, but in these circumstances, even a little bit probably meant a lot.
When Steve finally turned back to him, his eyes were dry and clear, even though he still gripped Tony's hand firmly in his own. “How long ago did Howard die?”
“Almost twenty years.” The familiar pang of bitter grief and anger was muted from the passage of time, but Tony still felt it. From the look on Steve's face, he'd known Howard, so Tony continued, “They'd been at a party. He… was drinking. They went off the road. They… neither of them survived the crash.”
“I told him he drank too much,” Steve said softly, and Tony snorted.
“Yeah, well, that didn't change. Fortunately, my attempt at following in his footsteps ended a little better.” Steve raised his eyebrows, and Tony cursed his loose tongue. “I didn't die,” he said, and changed the subject before Steve could draw out anything about his own car crash and the wreck he'd made of Stephen Strange's life. “I know it has to be a shock,” he offered instead. Steve nodded slowly.
“I'm… pretty sure I don't actually believe it yet. But at least I didn't have anyone waiting for me back home.” The hint of bitterness in the words didn't escape Tony, but he didn't press.
“Come on – it's early, but you look like you could use some food. I'm not much of a cook, but I can at least manage scrambled eggs and toast,” he offered, rising to his feet, releasing Steve's hand with reluctance.
“That sounds swell,” Steve agreed, and Tony found himself smiling.
An hour later, Tony took another swallow of his coffee and watched Steve eat. The only things he’d been able to find to fit the man were a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt, but Steve made the casual clothes look good. He smiled a little as Steve polished off the last of his eggs before setting down his fork and looking up almost apologetically.
“Sorry. I don't normally eat this much – even with the super soldier serum, I don't—"
Tony waved a hand in a vague motion and cut him off. “Don't worry about it. Even if you were trapped outside time somehow, your body still needs to replenish its energy. You'll probably be eating more for the next few days before everything settles down to normal again.”
Steve's brow wrinkled and he stared at his empty plate in silent contemplation until Jarvis bustled in with fresh coffee. Steve shook his head. "Uh, no thanks, Jarvis. I've had plenty. Thanks."
Tony accepted a refill, then waited until the older man left the room. "Spit it out, Steve. Something's bothering you."
"Besides the whole lost-seventy-years-out-of-my-time thing, you mean?" As a joke, it fell flat. Tony caught the blank grief in Steve's eyes before Steve blinked, shuttering it away. Steve saw Tony's lifted eyebrow and shrugged. "I... don't know, really. I just... I wonder why you found me."
"Why? Because you were leaking alien energy." Tony sat his mug down on the table with a thud. The newsreels hadn’t done this man justice at all, he thought. Steve was impatient, demanding, hated dancing around the subject, loved scrambled eggs, was gorgeous and brilliant… Tony cut off that train of thought. Not the time or the place for that sort of thinking, not about this man. This dangerous man, he reminded himself. Among other things, Captain America was widely considered one of the best hand-to-hand combatants in the world. Not someone he wanted to upset over his mental meanderings.
Unaware of the turn of his thoughts, Steve shook his head, his expression impatient. "No, I mean... why. Why you? Why now? Why was I... leaking... this energy? The last thing I remember is fighting the Red Skull, smashing the Cosmic Cube with my shield, and then I woke up in your bed." Steve stopped abruptly, an embarrassed flush crawling up his face. "I mean—"
A wolf whistle cut through the air. Steve whipped around to look at the doorway, but Tony only picked up his mug again, his mouth curling. "Good morning to you too, Jan," he said mildly. "Say hello to Captain America. He's only been awake for a few hours, so be nice."
Jan pouted, pausing in the doorway as Hank peered at Steve. "You never used to be such a party-pooper, Tony."
"People change." He kept the words soft, not biting, because he knew that Jan's teasing was meant in fun. It wasn't her fault that the Tony Stark she knew had died years ago. Anthony Stark may have survived that car crash, but the man who crawled out of the wreckage was not the same man who'd been behind the wheel.
Steve stood up, his chair scraping across the tiled floor with a loud squeal as he nodded his head to Jan. "I'm Steve Rogers." Jan stared at him, at the hand he extended, and then grinned. She seized his hand, then used it as leverage to lean upward and peer at him.
"You're even more gorgeous when you're mobile!" she exclaimed. Steve didn't blush at that, as far as Tony could tell, but the awkwardness was unmistakable. He decided to intervene before one of New York's leading socialites caused the poor man to keel over from extreme embarrassment due to her unseemly forwardness.
"Steve, this is Janet Van Dyne, also known as the Wasp... hence the costume. Jan, meet Steve Rogers... Captain America." Jan smiled up at Steve, eyes glittering with merriment, and curtsied over his hand.
"Please, call me Jan," she gushed.
Over her shoulder, Tony saw Hank's deepening frown and cut in, "I believe Jarvis is still in the kitchen if you're hungry, Jan."
"Oh! I wonder if his pancakes are as marvelous as I remember." Releasing Steve's hand, Jan turned toward the kitchen, winking at Tony as she did. He shook his head with a smile. Jan would never change.
"And this is Doctor Henry Pym, who also goes by Ant-Man. He's a leading biologist. I suspect his research on Pym Particles will revolutionize the field." Tony didn't believe in false praise, although he wasn't above using it above and beyond the norm if the situation called for it. He saw the surprise cross Hank's face at his words, followed by a glow of pride. He shook Steve's hand politely.
"I can't say it's nice to meet you, Captain. It's... amazing, really," Hank said earnestly. "You're a legend, and to actually meet you—" He cut himself off. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to fall all over you. I hope I see you again, Steve."
Steve turned to watch as Hank followed Jan's trail into the kitchen before looking back at Tony, confusion written on his face. "But... they don't live here?"
Tony shook his head. "Nope. Normally it's just Jarvis and me. I ran into the three of them when I was investigating the alien energy I detected and ended up finding you. Before yesterday, I hadn't seen Jan in five years, probably."
"Three?" At Steve's puzzled tone, Tony mentally reviewed the last few moments, then realized who was missing.
"Jarvis?" He raised his voice enough to carry to into the kitchen, wrapping a hand around the warm mug he held. "Has Thor come downstairs yet?"
Jarvis entered the dining room carrying a tray and frowned at Tony, who recognized the silent reprimand for the rudeness of yelling in the house and ducked his head in acknowledgement. He hid the smile at the corners of his lips by taking another swallow of his coffee. "I have yet to see him, sir."
Jan sat in the chair beside Tony with a graceful movement and a happy sigh as she covered her pancakes with syrup. Beside her, Hank took a seat and nodded awkwardly at Tony. "Thank you for breakfast."
One shoulder lifted in an absent shrug as Tony drained his coffee before setting the cup on the table in front of him and leaning back in his chair to meet the eyes of his unexpected house guests. "So... care to tell me what exactly you were doing at a ruined castle in Germany?"
Jan tilted her head with a sidelong look at Hank. "We were looking for Loki."
"Thor’s brother? Why?"
Hank swallowed and replied, "Jan and I answered a radio call asking for help in the Midwest with the Hulk, but when we got there, it turned out he wasn't the problem."
"The Hulk?" Tony kept his surprise out of his voice and mentally re-estimated the pair's capabilities, if they were willing to take on the Hulk. Admittedly, he'd never heard of them – in their super-hero capacities – before yesterday, but at the very least, confronting the Hulk showed an unexpected confidence in their abilities.
"Yep," Jan answered. "He was there, but he wasn't the one causing problems. We were trying to get him to talk to us, maybe help track down whoever was blaming him for what they were doing, but this guy in green and black showed up." She rolled her eyes. "Cue the standard melodramatic villain monologue and threats, and he introduced himself as Loki, God of Mischief."
Threads started to connect in Tony's mind. He reached for the coffee pot as he thought, allowing the others to continue talking.
"A god? Really?" Steve interjected, leaning forward on the table as he looked at Jan. She giggled and nodded.
"I know, right? Turns out he was telling the truth."
"Occasionally, even the Liesmith may let slip the truth," interrupted a booming voice. "All the better to trip others up in his wondrously crafted plots, of course." Tony nodded at Thor in greeting as the thunder god entered the dining room, ducking his head as he passed through the doorway. "Good day, my friends! I trust that I have not missed the morning meal?"
"Of course not, sir," Jarvis said crisply. He eyed the god as Thor took a seat opposite from Tony, placing him at the foot of the table. Tony took in Thor's confident, even arrogant expression and revised his thought to, or the head of the table. "Would you like steak and eggs?"
"I would prefer fresh-killed venison, but an excellent steak is nearly as good." Thor slapped the table, grinning jovially, and Tony winced as the wood creaked.
"So... Loki." He looked at Thor. The god met his gaze squarely, no hint of duplicity in his features. Not that Thor was known for cleverness, Tony thought, and made a note to remember that reputations were rarely true. "Your brother?"
"Aye." A flash of something crossed Thor's face too quickly for Tony to identify. "My foster brother. Loki is a frost giant, raised by our father. He has ever delighted in mischief, but of late, he crosses the line toward worse."
"Any idea what he’s after, working with the Red Skull?" Tony couldn't quite keep the edge out of his voice.
Thor frowned, rubbing his chin. "The Red Skull... he was a great villain of the past, yes?"
"Yes," Steve answered, his voice clipped.
"If he is not in your world at the present time, I do not see how Loki could be working with him. My brother can do many things, but even he cannot travel through time." Thor's frown deepened, and he looked somberly across the table. "Not without assistance. But I do not know many who would be willing to help him." Tony could see Steve's growing glare as the god stared off into the distance, lost in thought.
"Doctor Doom, maybe?" Hank suggested. Tony shot him a look. "What? Doom time travels. If anyone would be willing to help Loki, it would be Doom."
"Maybe, but let's not go knocking on his door just yet. Doom's a sorcerer himself, as well as a brilliant engineer, and I have no desire to start a fight unintentionally - or needlessly." Tony kept his voice even, watching Steve from the corner of his eye. The good Captain appeared to have a temper, even if he kept a tight grip on it. Something else the newsreels hadn't mentioned.
"If he can't travel through time, maybe he can just... open a window?" Jan suggested as she finished her pancakes, laying her fork down with a pleased expression. She caught the look Tony gave her and shrugged. "What? I'm just throwing out an idea. It's hard to travel through time, but is it hard for a god to just look at what's going on somewhere in the past?"
Thor's head snapped around. "You are truly a genius, Wasp!” A pleased flush spread across Jan’s face and Hank glowered down at his pancakes. “In truth, calling up the vision of another place is child's play to a sorcerer such as my brother. I cannot think he would find it difficult to choose to move that vision in time rather than place. He is nearly as fond of spying in order to discover secrets as he is of playing mischief upon others. It would be eminently in his character."
"So he, what, opened his mystic window and watched the Skull in the past? What good would that do?" Steve asked doubtfully.
"Steve... you said you remember fighting the Skull, and hitting the Cube, and then nothing after that?" Tony leaned forward, steepling his fingers on the table in front of him as he looked at Steve.
"Yes. We were on the battlements, and-"
"The battlements?" Jan asked, frowning. "But we found you in the dungeon."
"In one of the underground rooms, yes. It hardly looked like a dungeon," Tony objected. "No torture devices, but a lot of high-tech control panels and stuff." He paused, then added, "Well, high tech for World War Two, anyway. It looked like a laboratory, but it was empty except for you, standing in the middle of the room."
"But... I wasn't underground. I never even made it that far – I found Red Skull in the main hall, and chased him up the stairs until we ended up on the battlements," Steve objected. Tony saw a flash in his eyes, and remembered abruptly that the leading theory for Captain America’s disappearance was that he had died taking down the Red Skull in revenge for killing his young partner. He reached out and laid a hand on Steve's shoulder in an unthinking motion, then froze when Steve gave him a curious look. He squeezed Steve's shoulder with an awkward motion, then pulled his arm back, wondering where the impulse had come from.
Leaning back in his chair, Tony looked up at the ceiling and thought out loud. "So... Steve smashes the Cosmic Cube, something happens, and it freezes him in his own little brand of forever. Something happens to the Red Skull, since he’s never seen again. Something moves Steve down to the laboratory we found him in. I wonder," he looked across the table at Steve. "If your smashing the Cosmic Cube is part of what led to the castle ending up like it did."
"What do you mean? It was a hell of a fortress. The troops had to blow the main gates for us to get in, but that was the only real damage I know of... at least, from what I remember."
Hearing Captain America swear sent a perverse thrill sliding down Tony's spine even as he called himself names for the reaction. Then he set it aside and said, "The castle's falling apart now. Seventy years isn't enough time to do that kind of damage, and if you guys had to fight your way in, that means something else caused a lot of the damage, because the outer building and the wall have fallen apart – outward. Whatever this Cosmic Cube was, it must’ve been incredibly powerful."
"It was." Steve's voice was somber as he met Tony's gaze again. "From the little the War Department knew about it, it was a weapon of incredible energy. From what the Red Skull said while we were fighting, it was capable of anything."
"That's not very specific," Hank observed.
"No... I mean anything. Anything at all. Red Skull said he could remake the world in his image with a single thought." Steve's voice sharpened. "He held me in place just by willing it, Doctor Pym. No gestures, no hidden buttons, no man behind the curtain. It happened because he wanted it to."
Hank looked taken aback at Steve's tone. "Sorry, I didn't mean... I didn't realize you meant it literally." Steve opened his mouth, but Hank added, "And... call me Hank. Please. Everyone else does." Tony watched as Steve shut his mouth and took a deep breath, regaining his composure. Also doesn’t like being questioned about his battles. Or at least his decisions in them. Tony added another fact to the mental list he’d started earlier that morning.
"So mayhap my brother came across mentions of your battle in his studies and watched it," Thor said thoughtfully. Tony nodded.
"If Loki can't travel in time, there's nothing saying he can't watch something and see what happens. Or, say... watch where someone ends up?"
Steve's eyes widened. "The Red Skull disappeared after our fight, too?"
"Yep. Never heard from again. No one knew what happened to either of you, but a lot of people thought you’d killed each other.” Tony cocked his head, considering. “Maybe... maybe whatever happened to you happened to him, too, only since he was holding the Cube, he went... somewhere else. A different dimension, maybe." Hank made a noise in the back of his throat and Tony glanced at him. "Ridicule the concept after you've been to the Dark Dimension," he advised flatly. "It's not a place I'd recommend for a vacation."
"So if the Red Skull got sent flying across a dimension, maybe Loki went and found him?" Jan asked, her eyes bright. "Maybe he got him unstuck from the frozen time effect like you did with Steve, and they're working together?"
"Maybe. It doesn't explain how Steve ended up in the lab if he was on the battlements originally, though," Tony mused.
"I believe my brother must have moved him there," Thor stated gravely. "It was his chaos magic that you found on the doors."
"Hmm... maybe. Cap must've been up on the battlements for a good long time, though, with no one seeing him..." Tony paused, then snapped his fingers. "Your brother's known for plotting, right?" Thor nodded. "I don't think we're going to know all the whys and wherefores of what's happened until we figure out his entire plan, but I'm beginning to think he wanted me to find Cap. The Cube's effect must have been decaying, or I wouldn't have started picking up the energy from it a few weeks ago, but Loki definitely sealed those doors. There were blood magic wards on it, similar to other Nazi sites I've been to, but the chaos energy was new – and you said it was his, Thor. Plus, it recognized you."
"Aye." Thor crossed his arms and leaned back, his chair creaking, as Jarvis carried in a platter full of eggs and one of the largest steaks Tony had ever seen. He raised an eyebrow at Jarvis, who gave him a small smile before returning to the kitchen. "In Loki's twisted mind, perhaps he felt it necessary for Captain America to be found. If he is working with this Red Skull, he may find it a great trick to resurrect his current partner's mortal enemy."
Silence fell across the dining room. Tony slanted a look at Steve, who was glaring into the table. With the position of his chair, he could see Steve's fists clenched, resting on his knees beneath the edge of the table. Even as he watched, Steve took a deep breath and exhaled, almost visibly forcing the tension out of his body. When he raised his head and met Tony's worried frown, his eyes were grim. The anger he'd suppressed was still visible in their depths, and Tony decided he did not ever want Steve Rogers angry with him.
"I'm going to stop him." The words were flat. "You aren't going to be able to stop me."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Why would we want to?" He watched Steve's eyes widen and took a long look around the room, meeting everyone's eyes and receiving determined nods from each of them before returning his attention to Steve. "But we will help you."
Thor stared grimly at nothing, ignoring the landscapes and clouds rushing past him in a rainbow of blurred colors as he gripped Mjolnir tightly. The hammer flew, pulling him with it through the atmosphere, the familiar tingles of electricity across his skin as he broke through the clouds comforting in a mindless way. Seconds later, the whirling scenes of Midgard faded from view, replaced by the abstract, almost violent hues of the ether that separated the Nine Realms. Long had it been since Thor returned to Asgard, but if his brother was planning havoc on Earth, he had to return to his home and attempt to seek out Loki. It was his duty, as a sworn protector of Midgard.
His lip curled. Even in his own mind, he lied. How much like Loki did he become, as more time passed? Too much, said part of his mind, and not enough, said another. Yet another part quietly mourned the fact that Loki never took on his qualities – never was willing to face him directly, either in combat or out of it; never was willing to stop forward and fight his battles face to face rather than maneuvering through his intricate plots and layers of others used as pawns... Always, Loki remained Loki.
There was a time, said the quiet voice in his mind, that you loved Loki all the more for that very fact.
His eyes narrowed. It was a fact he could not deny, but it was not one he wanted to remember. Remembering past days, when he and Loki stood side by side, conquering new adventures and new scenes.... But no. The sly voice – which he realized now sounded a bit like the Liesmith – reminded him that they had never stood side by side. Always, Loki stood behind him. To watch his back, to weave his magics about the both of them, to keep a watchful eye out for the deceit he knew so well on the faces of any of their foes. And yet... no matter how often he faced his brother, thwarted his plans of mischief, heard the other tell him that he hated everything about him... even yet, Thor could not help but love him.
Perhaps that very love was part of what drove Loki away, he thought. Perhaps Thor had loved too dearly the brother he saw, and loved not enough the true being beneath the shell. Even in those younger days, he'd known that Loki showed to others only what he wanted them to see. He had never known, until it was too late, how much Loki had hidden from him as well.
Lost in his increasingly morose thoughts, Thor entered Asgard almost without noticing. Only the golden spires of the All-Father's palace at the heart of the Realm pulled him from his brooding, although it left a strange, formless anger behind.
He passed by Heimdall without pausing for a greeting, in no mood to waste time with needless banter. Besides, Heimdall most likely already knew why Thor had come. Beyond that, Thor knew that Heimdall hadn't been able to see Loki in years – much to Loki's eternal, gloating pleasure, and to Heimdall's frowning disapproval. Loki's prophesied role in Ragnarok meant that many Asgardians had queried the watcher as to the God of Mischief's location and plans over the centuries, and the Liesmith had taken steps as soon as he had come into his full power to block the ever-vigilant Heimdall's gaze.
Not for the first time, Thor cursed Loki for that decision. He understood his brother's need for privacy, his need to connive and plot and plan mischief that always dragged others in after him, even if he didn't understand why Loki needed it so, but to make himself completely invisible to Heimdall... He dismissed the thought as he came to a solid landing at the front entrance of the palace. The guards bowed their heads to him in due deference and he nodded at them as he strode past. At this time, Odin would be in the throne room, so there it was that Thor headed.
When the doors opened before him, he saw his father seated in the golden throne of Asgard, his ravens Hugin and Munin at either shoulder. Although the room was full of courtiers and petitioners, no one stood in front of the king. Undoubtedly either the ravens or Heimdall had informed Odin of Thor's approach. Equally undoubtedly, Odin knew why Thor had come.
Forcing away the smoldering anger which refused to leave, Thor strode across the familiar hall, ignoring those around him as he focused on Odin. "Father, I have need to speak with you." He kept his voice respectful, but no one hearing it could mistake the demanding undertone as he locked his gaze on his father.
Odin merely looked at him. "Then speak."
Thor didn't spare a glance for those around them, although he could see them clustering closer to the throne, hear the voices whispering excitedly behind him. His visits to Asgard were infrequent these days and to the throne room, to speak publically with his father, even more so. "I must locate my brother. Do you have any knowledge of his location?"
The ravens at Odin's shoulders hissed into his ears, their guttural voices too low for any other to hear their words. Odin tilted his head as he listened, never looking away from his son. "Why do you search for Loki? You know the God of Lies is not favored here these days. He has oft tried to kill even you."
"Nay, father. Loki works much mischief – even some evil, at times – but he has never tried to kill me," Thor disagreed. In the privacy of his own mind, he wondered at his strange confidence in the statement. Why was he so certain that for all of their battles, all of their harsh words, his brother had never truly tried to harm him? Perhaps because he was still alive. He had seen more than one foe of Loki's meet their certain end at his brother's hands – directly or not. "But I do not seek him for my own sake. I seek him because of certain mischiefs he appears to be planning on Midgard."
Odin's eyebrow raised. "And what makes this new trickery so urgent? Loki has created mischief on Midgard – indeed, in all the Nine Realms – for centuries afore now."
"Verily, father. But this time..." Thor paused, not certain how to describe the foreboding that had filled him ever since Tony first told him of the chaos magics woven across the ruined castle's inner doors. The discussion around Stark's breakfast table had only increased his sense of urgency, although he didn't understand why. "This time, I fear he goes too far. He has apparently joined with one of Midgard's most twisted villains, one thought lost to time through his own meddling with forces outside the mortal realm. Yesterday, Midgard's Sorcerer Supreme found Loki's sorcery worked into the ruins of a place this villain had once claimed as his own. Inside, we discovered one of Midgard's greatest heroes, also once lost to time."
"Why does this concern you, then? If Loki indeed is working with a villain, it sounds as though this hero who was found will counter him." Odin's voice was level, and Thor narrowed his eyes.
"Your own words should answer the question, father. Loki is known for spinning wheels within wheels. Whatever he hopes to accomplish with this villain, he obviously had a hand in the discovery of the hero... but why? I suspect he too feels there is a sort of balance to be found by pitting old enemies against each other, but what is he truly after, if he is going to all this trouble to create some sort of distraction?"
Odin made a quiet noise and listened to his ravens again. Thor stood, fingers tightening around the haft of Mjolnir as the hammer hung from his belt, the strange urgency he felt creeping up again. "I have not seen him," Odin finally pronounced, leaning back in the throne. "Your brother has not been to Asgard for a century or more, as the mortals reckon time."
Thor suppressed the urge to shout at his father. "And this was so difficult to tell me... why, exactly?" He couldn't keep the edge from his voice, and Odin frowned at him.
"Loki's trickery has ever led to trouble for you, Thor. That is something you would do well to remember."
"Aye... as those same skills have saved my life time and again," Thor retorted. "That is something others would do well to remember."
Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode from the room, his boots ringing against the marble floor with each angry stride. Odin knew more than he was saying – as he always did – but Thor knew it was pointless to argue with him. If the All-Father decided not to share knowledge he possessed, there would be no swaying his opinion and no matter the reason behind it.
Even without his wards sounding a quiet alarm in his mind, the sound of footsteps in the tiled hallway beyond the glass door of his laboratory gave Tony warning. When Steve appeared around the corner, Tony wordlessly pressed a button, allowing the door to slide open with only the barest whisper of noise. Steve eyed the door warily, then stepped through, looking around. Tony knew he was taking in the lab, a place that must look like something out of a science fiction story to him. He seemed fascinated by the armor on its stand, reaching to trace the flowing lines of azure and gold. Tony wondered if Steve had been surprised by it during their earlier fight. It looked almost like it was made out of cloth, flimsy and useless. In reality, it was a high-tensile titanium alloy and although it was nearly as thin as the fabric it appeared to be, Tony had strengthened it with every protective and defensive spell he’d been able to work into its design.
Finally turning away from the stand, Steve picked his way through the room, avoiding the tables piled high with half-completed projects and spare parts, as well as the silver circle inlaid into the floor near the side of the room. Tony watched as he paused there, glancing up at the shelves beyond it, loaded down with jars containing what probably seemed to random items. "This is your lab, right?"
"Yes." Setting down the soldering iron he'd been using on a new circuit board for the armor, Tony leaned back in his chair, taking the opportunity to stretch with a grateful groan as his back popped. "God, I have to remember to actually stand up once in a while."
Steve stopped beside him, one hand closing on the shoulder he'd been favoring since being thrown into the side of a building that morning by Thunderball. Another groan slipped out as Tony's eyes shut, his head falling forward as Steve rubbed the knot away. The silence that fell between them felt comfortable. Steve had only been "back," as the press had put it, for a few weeks, but the friendship they'd already struck up was growing by leaps and bounds. Tony had to wonder if it was how friendships worked for normal people – it wasn't like anything he'd experienced before. Steve chuckled and shook his head.
"If you'd work on your dodges like I keep telling you to, you'd get thrown into buildings a lot less often," he pointed out. Tony slitted his eyes open and glared at him.
"If you'd distracted him like you were supposed to so that I could get the binding spell done, I wouldn't have been thrown into one today." His retort lacked its normal sharpness, and Steve just shook his head.
"Dodging, Tony. Working out is good for you."
"Says you," Tony muttered. "If I wanted to work out, I wouldn't have armor. And how many sorcerers do you know who have fitness routines?"
"None – since the only sorcerer I know is you."
"This is the first time I've been in here," Steve finally observed. Tony opened his eyes again, watching Steve as he looked around the room.
"I didn't... I don't know. I didn't expect it to look like this." Steve waved a hand vaguely. "Half technological and half magical. I know you made your own armor, and you have those engineering degrees, but this..." He moved away from Tony, and Tony sighed at the loss of Steve's touch. Steve walked over to the anvil in the corner, close to the forge but far enough away from delicate equipment to prevent mishaps. "I didn't think you'd make everything yourself. I just... Howard was always fiddling with his projects, but he didn't forge his own parts from raw ore."
Tony tensed at the mention of his father. Steve hadn't really said a lot about how well they'd known each other, but the more time Tony spent around him, the more often Howard's name got mentioned. Tony didn't like the silent comparison. "Well, Dad wasn't a magician, either. Not literally, anyway."
"No, he wasn't. I mean, some of the things he did sure seemed like magic then, but watching you..." Steve shook his head. "It's so strange to walk into a lab and find high-tech equipment mixed in with medieval forges, and then all the... the magical stuff... It's almost like seeing Doctor Frankenstein's lab, if he had used magic instead of a thunderstorm."
Tony snorted, then stood up. "I've been called worse things than Frankenstein, but the comparison has been made." The distressed expression on Steve's face when he turned startled Tony.
"No, I didn't mean... not like that. I didn't mean that you're playing God or anything like that." Steve paused, rubbing the back of his neck in a nervous tic Tony had come to recognize over the past few weeks. "I just meant... as strange as everything is, with the time passing and all the changes that have taken place... I thought you'd be like Howard, and you are."
Tony felt his spine straighten as Steve's words tumbled out, and he pressed his lips together, fighting back the tired, angry words. Steve must have seen it, as his brows furrowed.
"I'm not saying anything right. Dammit," and Tony was surprised again at hearing Steve swear, even though the man swore almost every day. Steve's eyes were intent, looking right into his as Steve crossed the room again to stand in front of him. "I'm not saying you're the same as Howard, Tony. You have a lot in common with him – you're both brilliant, both marvelous engineers, both annoying as hell."
An unwilling laugh escaped Tony at the last observation, and Steve's look of worry faded slightly. "I meant... I don't know. When I found out you were Howard's son, I thought you'd be a lot like him, and you are, but you aren't. You're... more level-headed than he is. Was," Steve corrected himself. "And knowing you, that's saying something. But you're... wiser than he was. I think whatever happened to make you change, whatever turned you into a magician as well as Howard Stark's son... it was a good thing."
Tony's breath caught as he stared into those intent eyes, his heart hammering in his chest. Drawing in a shaky breath, he shook his head, his words slow. "It... it wasn't a good thing. It was a very, very bad thing, and it was my fault. I almost killed myself, and Stephen Strange, and I ruined his life." Steve reached out, clasping his shoulder again, his face grave, and Tony fell silent.
"I know the event was horrible, but what it did, ultimately – I think it made you better than you would have been." Tony heard the sincerity in Steve's words and stopped himself from flinching out of his grasp. Steve seemed to sense his discomfort anyway, and said, a note of sadness in his voice, "I wish you could yourself like I see you, Tony. You're a good man."
Tony stared at his friend, floored by earnestness of the unexpected words. He didn't trust himself to speak past the lump in his throat and instead nodded sharply. Steve's hand tightened on his shoulder, a silent, comforting gesture, and then he stepped back, his hand falling to his side. He cleared his throat as if to speak, still studying Tony, then shook his head.
"Someday, Tony, I'll convince you." He threw Tony a casually sardonic salute, making him laugh, and left the room.
"Dammit, Tony, duck!" The anger and worry in Cap's voice had Tony throwing himself down before he'd finished processing the words. As a bolt of crawling pink energy went flashing through the space his head had just been, he wondered – not for the first time – how he'd ever managed in a fight without Captain America at his side. Of course, he thought ruefully, he hadn't been in nearly so many fights before finding Captain America, either. Pushing himself to his feet, he glanced around for the other members of their proto-team. Thor had hauled the Executioner away from the street, into a nearby park, and Tony winced as a tree flew through the air. The bill for this fight was going to hit his desk early the next morning, he knew. He made a note to be sure to contact Pepper and see how she was doing with setting up that non-profit. If nothing else, it would help cover the bills that seemed to be cropping up more frequently.
To the side, Jan and Hank were keeping Zemo busy. His cursing was audible across the street as he kept missing Jan with blasts from his... ray gun? Tony grinned at the sight, noting that Zemo's apparent bad aim seemed to be due to the mass of ants crawling up his legs. Good. Steve's lectures about working together were starting to pay off.
And on that note... a high, tittering laugh made him grit his teeth. The Enchantress stood on the other side of the street, one hand on her hip, an inviting smile aimed at Steve, who seemed to be moving through molasses. Calling on the Eye of Agamotto’s sensory power, augmented by the armor, he growled as he saw the swirling purple aura around Cap. His slow movement was due to him fighting the effects of the spell, but against someone of Amora's power, sheer willpower could only do so much. Fortunately, after their last encounter with the self-proclaimed Masters of Evil some weeks ago, Tony had made some preparations.
“May the Images of Ikonn dispel the haze which surrounds thee – May the Omnipotent Oshtur restore thee to the land of the living!” His hand moved in a quick, flicking gesture. He smiled in grim satisfaction as the purple aura shattered, the backlash driving Amora to her knees with a shriek of pain.
Cap stopped immediately, his shield raising to a defensive position as he watched the witch. As he took to the air, the Cloak of Levitation swirling around him, Tony called, "Don't get too close, Cap," He crossed to where the Enchantress knelt in seconds. She looked up, meeting his glare with a smirk.
"All that effort, just to get close to me? Tony Stark, all you had to do was look." The words fell with sweet seductiveness from her lips, but Tony expected them. Rather than pay attention to what she said, he watched the Enchantress' hands, and as soon as they began to move, he triggered the other spell he'd been holding at the ready. Golden bands of force formed around her wrists and mouth, tied to a matching set at her ankles, keeping her still and silent. Her eyes flashed with impotent fury. Tony ignored her, landing in front of Steve.
"Are you okay?" he asked, already scanning Steve for any lingering effects from the spell. Steve nodded.
"I should be asking you that. You're the one who can't pay enough attention to his surroundings to know when to duck," he teased. Tony snorted at him, then nodded briskly.
"All clear. And you're the one who can't avoid beguilement spells from pretty ladies," he retorted.
"Well, how was I to know? You've never used one on me," Steve answered. For a second, Tony forgot they were in the middle of a fight as Steve's words conjured up images in his brain, images he'd spent the last few months doing his best to suppress... images of using spells similar to the one holding Amora on Steve, but for an altogether different purpose. He stared at Steve, watching his pupils dilate at whatever he saw on Tony's face, and only snapped out of it when another tree flew past, followed in short order by Thor.
"I..." Steve started to say, and Tony turned around, looking after Thor.
"We have work to do," he said shortly. Steve fell silent and nodded, then followed him back into the fray.
That evening found Tony banging out a sheet of metal on the forge. While he needed to create a holding pen for the spell he'd spent the last few weeks working on, nothing said it had to be made from scratch. With the frame of mind he found himself in, however, the forge seemed like an excellent method for working out his frustrations. Between the Masters of Evil escaping – again – before the fight could be finished, anticipating the bill for the damages done to the park and the surrounding buildings, and trying not to think about whatever the hell it was that had happened between him and Steve, however briefly, a hefty dose of physical exertion seemed like the perfect thing to keep him occupied.
Until Steve walked in.
Tony knew he was coming; his wards alerted him of anyone approaching the room. When Steve opened the door, the hammer turned in Tony’s hand as he brought it down in another stroke and skittered across the metal, denting it. With a curse, Tony stepped back, his concentration blown. He laid the hammer down, closed the forge so that its flames would smother, and gave up on his project for the night.
"Am I interrupting?" Steve's voice was carefully casual, which only made Tony want to curse more.
He wiped his hands on the heavy apron before taking it off and hanging it on a hook on the wall, then turned around, his eyes narrow and his voice sharp. "Yes."
"Sorry." Steve didn't sound in the least bit repentant. "I think we need to talk."
"About what?" Tony crossed the room, taking a seat at his desk, and opened the grimoire that held the containment spell. Steve followed him, putting his weight on his hip as he leaned against the desk.
"About what happened earlier."
Tony didn't look up. He knew Steve was watching him with a steady, serious look. "Nothing happened earlier. We were in the middle of a fight, you were bespelled, and I broke it. Then the bad guys got away. Again."
"Steve," he retorted, still staring at the book in front of him. "Nothing. Happened." He picked up his pen and frowned down at his notes. What had he been thinking? Of course copper wouldn't work for the binding inscription. He scribbled out a line, rapidly scrawling words above it, and heard Steve's deep sigh. When he continued to make notes, Steve straightened. Tony wanted to call him back, to admit that yes, something had happened, but he knew that doing so would only lead to complications they didn't need. Steve was still lost in the modern era, trying to find his footing. Tony had too many responsibilities, between being Sorcerer Supreme and running Stark Industries, to waste time on a relationship. Sure, Steve was a handsome guy and Tony was attracted to him. Nothing had to come of it, and nothing would.
His head jerked up as the door closed behind Steve. Had he imagined it, or had Steve muttered, “Maybe I wanted it to?”
"So, I guess this is almost an official meeting, huh?" The corner of Tony's lips curled up in a half-smile as he looked around his dining table. Once again, Jan, Hank, and Thor had joined him and Steve for a meal. They hadn’t discussed Steve’s continued presence at the Mansion, and Tony was in no hurry to bring it up.
"It's dinner," Hank disagreed.
Tony ignored him. "Maybe we should give some thought to making this something official. We keep ending up working together. The press is starting to think we're a real team." He saw Steve's thoughtful expression but purposely didn't let his gaze linger on his friend. Too many undercurrents between them lately made things awkward when they weren't working.
"Aye, perhaps we should." Thor sounded almost melancholy, and Tony's brows furrowed as he looked at the god of thunder. "Although I find myself wondering if that too is not a part of my brother's plan."
"We haven't seen Loki at all," Steve objected. "Not since... since I was found. Why do you think everything's part of some evil scheme of his?"
"Because I know my brother, Captain!" Thor snapped, then visibly deflated. "My apologies. I have been... on edge, as of late, and I cannot pinpoint the reason why. All of these foes we have encountered lately, these plans we have foiled, all of them bear my brother's mark. It is almost as if he is drawing us out, testing us. The involvement of Amora only makes me all the more suspicious, as she and my brother have ever been close allies."
"Allies?" Hank asked delicately, managing to inject just the right tone into the word to make it clear what he meant: Allies... or lovers? All of them were thinking it, Tony could tell. Thor's eyes narrowed as he looked at the scientist before sighing.
"Aye. Allies as well as lovers, as you have implied. Methinks the latter arrangement a much more fleeting one, done out of convenience rather than any real affection. But the sorcerous arts are not well known in Asgard, and as such, the Enchantress and my brother have often found similarities in each other that they could not find anywhere else. Her involvement in these matters makes me suspect my brother all the more, as they have oft partnered in magical mischief in the past."
"I haven't found any active traces of chaos magic since we found Cap," Tony interjected. "Amora uses a different type of magic, and I haven't detected any chaos magic on her, either. If your brother is behind all this fighting we've been doing lately, he's being very subtle."
"Subtlety is one of Loki's specialties," replied Thor. "I suspect that he is testing us, to see our strengths and our weaknesses."
"But why?" asked Jan. "I mean, we're not a team. We work together sometimes, but until we all ran into each other at that castle, we'd never even met. Well, mostly." She dimpled a smile at Tony.
"My brother's plots are often complicated for their own sake, but this time, I wonder. The Cosmic Cube that you spoke of before, Captain. That is something my brother would dearly love to possess, with the power it would give him."
"That's the same reasoning the Red Skull had," Steve said, voice grim. "And it’s the exact reason neither of them should have it."
"With the sort of power you described, no one should have it," Hank said firmly. Jan nodded.
"I agree." All eyes turned to Tony. "Whatever is going on, it's pretty obvious at this point that we work well together, so it makes sense to at least act like a team, even if we're not officially one. No one's saying there needs to be a press release or a club house or anything. But I think Thor's right. I haven't found any more traces of Loki, but from what I've read, and what Thor's told me, I believe he led us all to that castle for a reason. If that reason is the Cosmic Cube, then we have to make sure he doesn't get his hands on it. No one should have it." Tony paused as he looked around, holding each person's gaze in turn. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. There is no one so pure that they could use the Cube without giving in to their own desires. That sort of artifact is usually impossible to destroy, but if we find it, I know I can contain it. But I'm sure I won’t get that chance unless we all work together."
Hank cast a glance at Jan, who must have been expecting it. She laid a hand over his, smiling at him, then looked at Tony and nodded. "We're in."
"I cannot allow my brother's schemes to proceed. If you stand against him, then I will stand beside you." Thor's voice held a wealth of emotion that Tony didn't even want to think about. Instead, he looked at Cap. Steve raised an eyebrow at him.
"You know you don't even have to ask." Tony waited anyway, and Steve snorted. "Fine. With the Red Skull involved, I can't stay out of it. Between what he did to Bucky," and Tony heard the catch in Steve's voice, "and the simple fact that we can't let him have the Cube, you couldn't keep me out of it if you tried."
"Then we're agreed. We will find Loki and the Red Skull, and we will keep the Cosmic Cube from them." Tony swept the room with his gaze after his declaration and saw nothing but agreement. "Then let's get busy."
Tony's eyes flew open. Rising from his normal meditative pose in front of the Orb of Agamotto, he crossed the Sanctum and entered the main room of the lab with ground-eating strides. Leaning in, he slapped the intercom on the wall.
"Cap, signal the others. I've found Loki."
He didn't wait for Steve's response. Instead, he strode across the lab and stopped in front of his armor. After the last encounter with the Masters of Evil, Tony had decided the armor needed more work and had spent more hours in the lab working on it than he’d devoted to any other single project for longer than he could remember. Probably since the last time he'd worked on a spell to try to fix Stephen's hands, he thought bleakly. Now, whether he was happy with it or not, the armor was going into a real battle.
It took only a few moments to don the gleaming armor. One good thing about building armor to hold mystic energies was the weight. Since the armor was almost as thin and flexible as fabric, it had a light, almost gauzy appearance. In this case, however, appearances were deceiving. He'd enchanted the armor with every defensive spell he could squeeze into it, either by direct inscription or programming them into the armor’s operating system. The range of offensive and useful spells was pretty damned amazing, too, and using the armor to form them made it a lot faster than the traditional methods of spell casting. As far as he knew, he was the only person anywhere who had that particular advantage.
He frowned at the helmet as he held it in his hands. Hopefully, that advantage would be enough to count, since they were about to take on a god along with an artifact that could change the very fabric of the universe with a single thought.
He bit his lip. Steve had adamantly refused to allow Tony to instill any sort of magic into his shield, no matter how many logical arguments Tony came up with for doing so. He'd finally relented enough to let Tony enchant his uniform with some basic protection spells, but Tony still worried. With what they were going up against, Steve would need all the extra protection he could get. Well, he thought, it was really too late to worry about it now.
The emerald flare of chaos energy that had just erupted from one of the Stark Industry warehouses near the harbor made any outstanding plans irrelevant. Loki hadn't accidentally unleashed that magic – it had been a beacon, a signal to tell the heroes who had been looking for him for so many weeks exactly where he was. It practically shouted, "Come and get me!"
"Come into my parlor," muttered Tony, and sighed. It was a good metaphor; from everything he'd learned about Loki over the last few months, the trickster god did nothing but sit back and spin complicated plots that involved others... usually without ever revealing his own presence.
He drew the helmet on, almost wishing he’d opted for a face plate instead of the open-faced design, and activated the sensory lens over his left eye. With a thought, the Cloak attached itself to the armor and Tony triggered the teleportation spell, appearing in the Mansion’s front yard beside a grim-looking Steve Rogers. The steely glint in his eyes was visible even with the cowl on.
“They’re on their way,” he said in answer to Tony’s quick glance. Tony nodded and waited for the others to arrive.
Moving carefully as he picked his way across the cracked concrete, Tony wished he'd thought to build a silencing spell into his armor. The armor was light and flexible, but it was still made of metal. He bit back yet another curse as he bumped into a crate for the fourth time in as many minutes.
The speakers in his helmet crackled. "Tony! Do you need backup?"
He cast a glare in the general direction of the other side of the warehouse they were creeping through. "No, Cap. I'm fine."
"Okay. Have you spotted anything yet?"
Even through the crackling of the radio – a surefire side effect of the magic that had drawn them here – Tony could hear worry in Steve's voice, nearly hidden beneath the "Command Voice" he'd so easily assumed during their very first fight together. That voice gave Tony mixed emotions. On one hand, it forced him snap to attention in order to attempt to ignore the little spark he felt every single time he heard it. On the other hand, it made him want to smack the smug "I'm in charge here" tone right out of Steve. He'd had plenty of practice at using the latter reaction to disguise the former.
"Nothing besides the general flare I originally spotted... wait." Ahead of him, something moved in the shadows. "There's something in front of me." He instinctively lowered his voice, even though the armor’s enchantment kept his comm silent... something that had prevented him from noticing how much external noise the suit made. Until now.
"Ah, my friends! So good of you to join me!"
The sudden flare of light took Tony off guard, but the protective spells woven into the armor meant that the flare failed to blind him. From the chorus of irate swearing exploding over his comm, he was the only one to come out that lucky. He halted, taking in the figure ahead of him. Even from here, he could see the long green cloak and the distinctive horned helmet. He didn't need Thor's shout from the side.
"Loki!" Well, apparently Tony wasn't the only one unaffected by the light after all.
Laughing, the god of mischief turned, standing on thin air as far as Tony could tell, and smiled down at his brother, teeth flashing. "Ah, Thor. It's been too long, my brother."
Checking the sensory spells showed a wild, dancing swirl of magic around the god, all of it the distinctive emerald of his trademark chaos magic. Tony’s nose twitched at the hint of bitter almond scent the energy seemed to give off.
"What mischief are you plotting, Loki?" Thor demanded, striding forward.
Loki's smile widened into a grin. "And wouldn't you like to know? For now, it is enough that you are all here, exactly as I wished you to be. Thank you all, for walking straight into my trap."
Tony heard Cap swear into the comm again. Before he could reply, before he could even attempt to trigger a basic shielding spell, the warehouse flashed again, this time with a distinctly green tinge, and the world changed.
"Where are we?"
Through the comm in his helmet, Tony heard Jan's whisper, although he doubted she expected an answer. He looked around, rising to his knees from his prone position and propping himself up on one hand for balance. The landscape around them was nothing on Earth, he could tell immediately. The ground was a soft lavender, almost sandy in substance. Scattered across it were grey and pink rocks, and the black sky overhead blazed with light from thousands upon thousands of stars. He triggered one of the suit's specialized sensory spells with a quiet murmur, and kept a close eye on the others as he clambered to his feet, turning in a slow circle.
"Tony?" Cap questioned softly, taking a sideways step to stand behind him, back to back, shield up. "Any ideas?"
"Not really," Tony admitted, reluctance dragging the words out of him. "It's not the Dark Dimension, we're not on Earth, and since we're still breathing, I'm going to assume this isn't the Moon. Other than that... I have no idea." He sensed Cap's disquiet at his answer, and added, "I've sent out a location tracking spell. It’ll find us a way back home, given some time."
"How much time?" Steve asked grimly. Tony hesitated.
"If we're close... five, ten minutes. If we're far away... it could be a while."
"There are no ants here," Hank chimed in, looking discomfited. Tony turned his head, looking at him over his shoulder. He shrugged, and repeated, "There are no ants. No insects at all. I'm not detecting any life signs at all, except for us."
This made no sense. Why in the world would Loki transport them all to some lifeless dimension, if not to gloat or try to kill them all? If he wanted them out of his way, dumping them in a pocket dimension would work, but he had to know they would eventually find a way back. This wasn’t a permanent way of taking care of them. To the side, beyond Hank and Jan, Thor stood, hammer in his hand, glaring up at the sky.
"Loki, show thyself!" roared Thor, his fury clear in the archaic challenge. Tony saw Jan jump at the unexpected noise, then almost visibly straighten up. Way to go, Jan, he thought, oddly proud of her. She wasn't the type to cringe and cuddle into someone for protection, and it was good to see her finding her strength again even in such a strange setting. When she stepped away from Hank, Tony caught a flash of worry on the scientist's features before it was replaced with a small smile, and he nodded slightly. Hank finally realized just what a catch she was. Maybe he'd even be brave enough to take her up on everything she'd been offering to him since Tony had first seen them.
Jan shrank, flying up beside Thor in her Wasp form. She too stared at the sky, and then yelled out, "Coward! You're nothing but a coward, Loki, taking us by surprise and then not even brave enough to show your face!"
Tony grinned, secure that no one was watching him to see it. At his back, he could feel Cap stiffen before relaxing again.
"She's quite a gal," he said. Tony could hear the grin in his voice and nodded.
"That she most definitely is, Cap."
In the sky above them, Tony could see clouds gathering. He didn't need to see Thor's angry scowl to know that the god held some control over the weather in whatever dimension they were in. On the horizon, lightning flashed.
In the instant of nothingness between the flash of lightning and the echoing boom of thunder, Loki appeared in front of them. He stood high before them, supported by nothing more than air. A wide smirk stretched across his face, and Tony's fingers itched with the urge to punch it off of those thin lips.
"Welcome, my friends," Loki cried out, bowing deeply. "Welcome to your dooms."
"Your words drip with the poison of untruth, Liesmith," bellowed Thor in return, Mjolnir rising in his grasp. Loki's grin wavered, replaced by a glare that had Tony wondering if Asgardian looks could actually kill.
"My brother, you have no idea of what you are facing," Loki hissed, moving closer to the thunder god. Beyond him, lightning flashed again, leaving him a moving shadow for an instant. "None at all."
"Then tell me, Loki. You do love to expound upon your own cleverness," retorted Thor, Mjolnir held at the ready but otherwise unmoving. Tony held his breath as he watched the two gods, Loki's feet hitting the sand with a gentle puff of lavender. They stared at each other for a long moment. Then Loki threw his head back and laughed, a high-pitched, exultant shriek of amusement that made Tony's ears hurt even through the helmet's sound dampener. He saw Steve wincing beside him.
"This time, thunderer, even you cannot deny my brilliance," Loki finally said, calming. His voice held a note of confidence that sent a warning prickle down Tony's spine.
"Watch out. Something's—"
Another flare of emerald light, the now-familiar bitter almond taste of chaos magic in his mouth, and Tony lost the rest of his words as the scene changed once again. Instead of the lifeless pastel desert, they now stood on the main street of a city – Berlin, his mind supplied – lined by thousands upon thousands of men in...
"Nazis," Cap hissed in his ear, his voice tight. "This is the Red Skull's doing."
"So nice to see that you still remember me, mein Kapitan," rang out a new voice.
Everyone looked up, to the elevated parade platform in front of them at the end of the street. Tony reached out, wrapping a hand around Steve's upper arm, as they saw the Red Skull standing there. His uniform gleamed golden in the noon-day sun, diamond swastikas on his shoulders. On his head sat a golden crown, a swastika of brilliant rubies in the center. Steve stood at Tony’s side, his body tensed for combat, his eyes narrow. Beside him stood Hank, Jan hovering at his shoulder. They turned questioning eyes on him at the Red Skull's words.
"Cap... Tony...? Either of you have any idea what's happening?" Hank said softly. Cap nodded, a short, angry movement. His eyes never left the Red Skull.
"It's the Cube. The Red Skull has the Cosmic Cube." His words fell into a sudden silence.
"Time has not completely dulled your senses," sneered the Red Skull. He raised his hand, and everyone could see the gleaming cube he held. "I had suspected otherwise, seeing this... trash... that you surround yourself with now. Of course, your taste in companions always did leave something to be desired."
Tony saw Cap's jaw clench at the words and leaned in, tightening his grip on Steve's arm. "He's trying to wind you up, Cap. You can't let him."
Steve nodded. "I know." Fury blazed from the words.
"Perhaps you would like these new friends of yours to meet your old, hmm? I could easily arrange to have them all meet your former partner." Tony frowned, not liking the crooked grin on the Skull's face.
"What's that supposed to mean, Cap?" Hank asked. Steve's fingers were white on the edge of his shield.
"Bucky. He's talking about Bucky," he gritted out.
"Bucky?" Hank sounded confused, and Jan flitted past, hovering in front of Cap. Her eyes were soft with understanding, although her body language shouted out that she was ready for anything.
"Cap's partner from World War Two," she said. "Red Skull killed him."
Cap drew in a breath, and Hank's eyes widened. "No," Steve said shortly. "He tortured him. To death. If he had just killed him, it would have been a mercy."
"And we all know that mercy is something only those too weak to have power believe in." The nearness of Red Skull's words surprised everyone. He now stood almost directly in front of them. Twenty feet away, supplied the suit's sensors. Too far away to attack without getting shot down, Tony thought, and too close for comfort.
"Your partner screamed, Captain. He cried like a little baby, sobbing for mercy as I worked on him." Red Skull paused, drinking in the fury that washed across Steve's face. "He screamed even more sweetly when I took him."
Tony almost stopped breathing. Did Red Skull really mean... The calculating expression in Red Skull's eyes told him that yes, he did. Steve seemed frozen in place, his eyes burning with a fury Tony had never seen before.
"It was so sweet, Captain. He was so young... untouched. And I left him a broken, bloody heap on the floor of my dungeon, begging for death." His teeth flashed in what could almost have been called a smile. "Once my guards were done with him, his body lay cold on the stones."
"You bastard!" Steve broke free of Tony's grip, the shield a glittering streak of motion even as he lunged forward. The Red Skull threw his head back and laughed.
With a discordant clang, the shield struck an invisible barrier and fell to the ground, spinning off to the side. Steve stopped cold, chest heaving as he tried to take a breath, his face slowly changing color.
Tony pushed his panic over Steve away, trying to focus on the battle at hand and cried out.
“Seven rings has Raggadorr –
indigo to deepest black –
but Oshtur grant me something more –
crimson Bands of Cyttorak!”
The brilliant red tendrils of Tony's spell swam through the air, pausing at the barrier before separating and spreading to either side, growing additional 'fingers' as they searched for a way through. He saw Hank beside him, face grim as he concentrated, and above him, Jan soared toward Red Skull, tears in her eyes even as she fired bio blasts at him. The blasts faded into nothing as they hit the barrier that surrounded the Skull, but Jan kept firing, searching for a weak spot.
As he searched for something that might be able to get through the invisible barrier, Tony watched his friends. To the side, Hank watched Jan intently before blinking as if startled. He couldn't see Thor anywhere – or Loki – but he had other things to worry about. Flipping through mental lists, he dismissed one spell after another, pausing on one for a heartbeat longer than the others. Then he narrowed his eyes. Steve was in no immediate danger of dying – the Red Skull's twisted enjoyment in torturing the man was all too clear on his warped remnant of a face – but his suffering was plain to see.
And, Tony realized with some surprise, that suffering hurt him to witness. Pushing the thought away, he grabbed at another one for strength: Seeing that suffering pissed him off.
The Red Skull really had no idea what was about to hit him.
The scarlet fingers crawling across the invisible barrier in front of the Red Skull began to fade as Tony watched and he cursed under his breath. He pulled up the second spell he'd paused on, his mind flying as he thought, trying to figure out a way through the barrier. He heard Steve still gasping for breath. With a murmured syllable, a shower of golden light fell on the super soldier, not breaking the hold that Skull had on him but disrupting it enough for Steve to draw in a deep breath, followed by another. Something inside Tony relaxed at the sight, something he hadn't realized was tense.
Whatever else happened, he couldn't let Steve die. Even if he had to throw himself on top of Red Skull and use his own body as a conduit for raw magical energy to get the Cube away from him, he couldn't allow Steve to die. Steve was too important.
He flicked a gaze to the side and watched as Jan looped around the barrier, her bio blasts bouncing back from the invisible field. The scowl on her face made Tony glad he wasn't her target, but written beneath it he could see the sheer determination that had always made Janet Van Dyne an exceptional person. They might not officially be a team, but after the last several weeks of working together, he knew she wouldn't give up until they freed Steve and defeated the Red Skull or until she had no strength left in her body. It was a mindset that he could appreciate.
Keeping an eye on her, he summoned the Flames of the Faltine, the brilliant green energy flowing toward the barrier, underneath... and then he saw Wasp twist around in midair, waving a frantic signal at him. He frowned, not understanding her gesture... and then his eyes widened. She was behind the Red Skull. Behind him, and behind the barrier. He flicked a hand at her, indicating that he understood.
"Ja, mein Kapitan, it is almost too bad that I will not have the same opportunity with you that I had with your young partner," he heard the Skull say, dark pleasure edging the man's words.
Bile rose in his throat at the thought of Red Skull's hands on Steve, forcing him down, forcing... no. He was not going to think of that. It would never happen. Another gesture, and the green energy flows divided, circling to either side of the barrier, looking for the edges he now knew had to be there. A mental command to the flowing cloak he wore over the armor, and he was in the air. He saw Red Skull look up at him, saw the Skull's grasp on the Cube shift as his attention was diverted from Steve.
He grinned, knowing the Red Skull could hear it in his words. "Sorry, Skull, but all of your twisted little fantasies are about to come crashing down on you!"
"Your words reek of desperation, Sorcerer," snarled the Skull. "Desperation and despair, for you know I hold the future of the universe in my hands and there is nothing you can do to stop me!" He raised the Cube and Tony snapped out the words to summon the Circle of Cyttorak, knowing even as he did that it wouldn't be enough to prevent the Cube from doing whatever Skull wanted.
"You're the desperate one, Red Skull!" Jan's words were strong even though she was barely visible at her smallest Wasp size, and Red Skull's lips curled.
"You shall be the first to die, then, insect. And good riddance! You are an atrocity, a woman no longer even human. You do not deserve to live."
"You, accusing somebody else of being inhuman? That's a joke!" shouted Hank, and Tony had to fight back a laugh. The Red Skull was almost spinning now, trying to keep them all in sight. And below him... Tony shot a glance at Hank. Ant-Man hadn't shrunk, but his face was locked in the concentration that Tony knew meant he was using the cybernetic communications in his helmet. Hank had said... but they weren't in the pocket dimension anymore. Glancing around, Tony saw the ranks of Nazi soldiers remaining in place, still and unmoving and utterly focused on the battle as they watched their ruler take on the heroes. Beyond them, he saw familiar plazas and buildings, and he didn't bother to hold back his laugh this time.
In his arrogance, Red Skull had returned them to the Earth. His Earth, the world created out of his megalomaniacal, twisted dreams of a Nazi utopia. But the Earth. And here, they all had access to more resources than the Red Skull could imagine.
Even as he thought that, he could see the ground moving at Skull's feet. Dark ripples... and then he blinked, and the sight resolved itself. The ground wasn't moving. The hundreds of thousands of ants that had responded to Hank's call were moving. The Red Skull hadn't noticed them yet, his attention still focused on Hank. One gauntleted hand moved, the Cube rising in the air, and Hank lifted into the air with it, his hands at his neck, throttling slowly as Red Skull watched, eyes blazing with power and hunger, taking pleasure in the sight of Hank's suffering. Tony risked a quick glance at Steve, relieved to see him still breathing, his eyes ablaze with fury as he watched the Skull, impotent to intervene.
With his attention diverted, Tony didn't see what Jan did. But the shriek of pain that erupted from the Red Skull brought his attention right back to the man, in time to see his free hand falling from the invisible stranglehold. Hank fell back to the ground, free from the Cube’s power as the Skull staggered to his knees. Jan shot another bio blast directly at the back of Skull's neck and the man's body jerked in pain even as he shouted curses. At his feet, the writhing mass of ants moved, and with Hank able to guide them again, they swarmed upward, over the Skull's boots and up his legs, his chest... Tony winced. The Red Skull was nothing more than a dark blob, covering with moving, writhing insects. From his vantage point, Tony could see the ants covering the Skull's clothes, his skin, and writhing across his eyes and mouth.
The Skull twisted, shrieking, as he slapped frantically at himself, trying to remove the bugs. Tony saw Steve sag forward, released from the hold Skull had on him as all of the Red Skull's attention went toward the insects attacking him. Steve took a step, scooping up his shield, then headed straight for the Skull's writhing body. Before Tony could try to stop him, Steve threw himself on top of the Red Skull, his anger and fury and hurt and pain bleeding out as he punched him, again and again and again. Tony winced as blood splattered across the street, but his attention was caught by something more important than the sight of Captain America beating the hell out of the Red Skull.
The barrier was gone.
Eyes narrowing, Tony muttered another syllable, triggered the flaming whip, and swooped forward toward the Skull. The blazing scarlet band he summoned swept through the air in front of him, winding around the Skull, binding him into place... forcing him to drop the Cube.
Steve stopped cold as the Cube fell from the Red Skull's fingers and rolled across the ground until it stopped in front of him. His arm was still pulled back for another blow, the Skull bloody and bound and helpless beneath him. He glanced up at Tony, uncertainty clear on his face, and Tony could see the fury in the blue eyes draining, replaced by awareness of their overall situation.
He called out, "Pick it up, Steve! Somebody has to put the world back to how it should be." Hovering over the Skull's prone body, he added the same golden holding spell that he'd used on Amora.
When the ants began to retreat, Tony almost regretted it. Seeing the Red Skull helpless against such a simple force of nature, screaming in mindless terror... that was a once in a lifetime thing. And looking into the Skull's eyes, now narrow and dark and angry and already plotting, Tony knew it would never happen again. He allowed himself to sink, until his feet were again on the ground, never taking his eyes off of their enemy.
Beside him, Steve rolled to the side and stooped, gingerly picking up the Cube. Around them, the Nazis seemed stunned, but Tony could hear a low murmur rippling through the ranks, a murmur that would soon enough turn into a growl, and then a shout. Then they'd all be in serious trouble, with thousands of Nazi soldiers trying to tear them apart for daring to take down their invincible emperor. And the really bad thing about that, Tony grimaced, was that they would have to try not to hurt them – even Nazi soldiers commanded by Red Skull, especially here in this twisted version of reality the villain had created, were innocents of a sort.
"Tony..." Steve's voice trailed off and Tony turned to him, keeping the Skull in the periphery of his vision. Jan and Hank came toward them arms around each other, looking pale and exhausted but with fierce grins on their faces. Tony smiled at them, then returned his attention to Steve. The man looked... worried.
"What are you waiting for? Go on, wish the world back to how it was," Tony said encouragingly. Steve bit his lip.
"What if... what if I do it wrong? Or make it all different? You said nobody should use this thing. How can you be so sure I'll do it right?" His eyes met Tony's, challenging, demanding, and Tony's heart nearly stopped at the emotions in them.
He cleared his throat. "Because you're you."
"Why don't you do it?"
"Because I'm not you. If I use the Cube, I'll try to make things different... how I think they should be, and that's not right, that's not how things need to be. Our world is corrupt and dark and full of bad things, Steve, but we need it like that. And just because it's dark, doesn't mean it's broken. It has good things, too, and good people. We can make it better. But we have to do it the hard way. Doing things the easy way..." He thought of Dormammu and Stephen's hands, the hands Stephen had been so desperate to have intact again that he'd nearly traded his soul away in return for them. "Doing things the easy way is never the right way."
Below them, Red Skull made a harsh, derisive noise. "The Captain is too weak, Sorcerer. He's afraid. And for all of your pretty words, we all know what he will really do – he will make the world in his own image, to his own desires, just as I have done, just as you would do. He has not gotten over the loss of his... partner... after all."
The way the Red Skull said the word, the lascivious sound of it on his lips, made Tony's skin crawl. Reaching out, he clasped Steve's shoulder, trying to reassure him. "He's wrong, Steve. I know you better than that. Just... make the world how it was."
Hank glanced around, his eyes taking in the increasing discomfort in the Nazi lines surrounding them, Jan's eyes worried but sure beyond him. "Whatever you do, do it fast. I don't think these soldiers are going to let us just stand around here for much longer."
Steve looked up then, looked around them, and Tony saw his mouth firm into a determined line. He nodded. "Right. I just..." He paused, glanced at Tony, then pulled his gaze away and stared down at Red Skull. "I'm not even going to wish you out of existence, Skull. Because without you... I don't think I would be me." His voice was low, reluctant, but Tony squeezed his shoulder tighter. That was exactly why Steve Rogers had to be the person to use the Cosmic Cube this one last time.
There was no flicker, no bright light, no visual cue at all. Just... suddenly, they were standing in Berlin. But not the Nazi utopia the Red Skull had created. They stood in the middle of a plaza, tourists and citizens and everyday people rushing around them, trying to move on with their own lives, and none of them stopped to spare the heroes a second glance. Even the bound and bloody Red Skull at their feet didn't cause much of a reaction.
"You did it." Tony didn't realize how quiet his words were until Steve's head jerked up to look at him. "You did it," he repeated, louder, and Steve blinked, then looked around. Hank and Jan were grinning at their side, and Steve smiled at Tony.
"But you still failed, mein Kapitan." The words ended with Red Skull spitting blood to the side, his lips twisted in a vicious grin as he stared up at Steve. "You failed in your own goal. No vengeance for your partner, no ghost to put to rest... only pain, and the knowledge of your eternal failure."
Steve tensed, probably fighting the urge to start hitting the Red Skull again, and Tony tightened his grip, his hand still on Steve's shoulder. "Don't. He's not worth it, Steve. He's not worth falling to his level. You're better than that." Steve straightened again, although Tony could still feel the tension in his body, and slowly nodded.
The Red Skull's mouth gaped open in loud, abrasive laughter. "Not this time perhaps, mein Kapitan, but there is always the next."
And then he was gone.
"What the hell?" Hank sounded stunned. Beneath Tony’s hand, he felt Steve’s body tense as the man began to swear.
“He had an escape plan,” Jan said flatly. Tony looked at her. “Just like the Masters of Evil. And Loki. Tony,” she said, her tone serious as she turned to face him, hands on her hips, “I think from now on every time we fight a super-villain, we need to knock them out cold so that you can make sure they’re not carrying any Super Secret Teleport Away In Case of Emergency devices.” Tony stared. Her lips twitched. Hank muffled his chuckle behind his hand.
Beside them, Steve started laughing.
Clouds surrounded Thor, thick and dark, thunder rumbling through their depths. Wherever he was, it wasn't Earth. He suspected it wasn't the pocket dimension that Loki had originally transported them all to, either, since he could detect no sign of ground below him, let alone his comrades. He twitched slightly at that thought. For so long, his comrades had been the Warriors Three, Sif... and Loki. Now, he considered a group of mortals as his brothers-in-arms. Once, he would have thought that beneath him. Now, he appreciated how lucky he had been to find a group of friends such as the mortal heroes he fought beside.
His hand tightened on Mjolnir. Whatever Loki's game, he had separated Thor from those mortal allies, and Thor could only hope they were prevailing against the Red Skull without him. He had to focus on Loki, and finding out what his brother's plans were. Around him, the clouds grew darker, flashes of lightning flickering within as his frown deepened. Soaring through clouds was one thing, but wandering aimlessly through a never-ending storm was something altogether different.
"Ah, brother, you always were too easy to read," came a light voice, the words floating through the air. Thor twisted, searching the clouds around him for a sign of Loki, but saw nothing.
"Show yourself!" he cried, frustrated anger rising to the surface, pushing away his concern for his friends, his worry at Loki's actions. "Or do you not dare to face me directly?"
For a long moment, his only answer was the mocking laugh that the winds brought back to him.
Then he looked up, somehow sensing a presence, and Loki stood before him. Stood on the clouds themselves, as he delighted in doing, the better to show off the sorcery so few other Asgardians had mastered. His thin lips were crooked in a sneer, goading Thor on without a word. With a bellow, Thor dove forward, Mjolnir at the ready. He swung at Loki with all his strength, felt the impact as the uru metal head struck Loki's flesh...
With a giggle, Loki disappeared.
"So terribly easy to predict, my dear brother." Disembodied words drifted through the air, circling around Thor as he hovered, aimless, his eyes searching the thunderclouds for any sign of movement. Only lightning, the bright electric blades growing larger and more jagged the longer he searched, met his eyes.
"I never wanted to fight you, you know," the wind sighed mournfully.
Thor scowled. "You have a strange way indeed of showing it, then."
The storm laughed at him. "As always, Thor, you are too blind to see the obvious, yet too suspicious to believe the simplicity of the plot." A plume of cloud blew past his face, dampening his eyes. He reached up, wiping the moisture away, and when he blinked his eyes open, he saw Loki once more.
"Explain yourself, then," he growled. "What sort of plan could you possibly have that would need you to ally yourself with that villainous mortal?"
Loki shrugged, one hand rising in a careless gesture. "Only the simplest, yet the grandest possible. Imagine, if you will, my years of solitude thanks to our dearest father's generosity in banishing me." Although the sardonic edge to his words told Thor the truth of Loki's feelings, his brother's voice remained light as he spoke. "I took to watching other lands for entertainment, lest I go mad with boredom." Green eyes glanced toward him, a sharp look that he felt as keenly as a dagger thrust. "Madder, even, than you have ever accused me of. Midgard, surprisingly enough, proved to be the most entertaining of all. Mortals are always so keen to do things to each other that even the most twisted of Hela's servants wouldn't dream of.... Once I discovered I could look at different times as well as places, I passed most of my days doing so, watching humanity's efforts and evils. And then one night, I saw something... something that could change everything. Everything."
Loki's eyes grew distant in memory and Thor bit back the words that wanted to come spilling from his mouth. When Loki met his gaze again, Thor was taken aback by the strange glow in the emerald eyes. "The Cosmic Cube would allow me to remake all of reality, my brother. All of reality, bending to my will." Thor drew in a breath, feeling as though he should be horrified at the thought, but something about Loki's expression prevented it. Instead, he felt... wistful? He frowned, shaking off the strange feeling. Loki's laughter sounded above the thunder.
"You think you know what my reality would look like, Thunderer?" he asked, challenging. Thor's eyes narrowed.
"I think your reality would have all others as less than the dirt beneath your feet, Loki, with yourself reigning in heaven," he retorted. The words contained an anger he barely felt anymore, and Loki shook his head slowly, sadly.
"Oh, my brother," he sighed, coming closer to Thor, until they drifted only an arm span apart. "You have never known my truest, deepest desires." So close, Thor could see straight into Loki's eyes. Something within the green depths tugged at him, drew him forward... and then Loki's arms were around him, pressing their bodies close together, and their faces so close that their breaths intermingled. He tensed, unsure of Loki's game, and Loki smiled at him, darkness edging his eyes. "Watch, then, Thor, my brother, my dearest enemy... and learn something new."
Thor drew in a breath to question... and Loki kissed him. The Liesmith's lips were soft, he thought distantly, only part of his mind aware that his own arms had moved to surround his brother, to hold him close in a way he had never dared even dream of. The rest of him was too caught up in the sensation of his brother's lips on his, Loki in his arms, the taste of his mouth, to care about anything else. Loki kissed Thor as though the thunder god were water in a desert and Loki dying for a drink, and Thor gave back, gladly.
Only after Loki slipped out of his embrace, moved back too far for Thor to catch again, did Thor's mind catch up to him. Hanging there, storm clouds rumbling around him, he stared at his brother. His brother, he thought absently. His foster brother. The brother he had always loved a little too dearly for Odin's comfort. Mayhap it was not just he who loved too much. He looked up, meeting Loki's gaze directly.
"Stay with me."
Loki's eyes widened. He opened his mouth as if to reply, then shut it again. For some reason, Thor felt as though he had surprised Loki, something he only rarely managed to do. A long moment passed, neither of them looking away from the other, and then Loki's lips curved in a rueful half-smile.
"Only you, my brother, would invite the viper to your breast," the Trickster breathed. Before Thor could protest, Loki's shape glimmered, and was gone.
Thor was alone in the never-ending storm, only the thunder and the lightning to keep him company.
In the Sanctum, Tony crossed the room, Steve following behind, until he reached a door Steve had never noticed before. When Tony paused in front of it before turning to face him, Steve raised an eyebrow. "I take it this is your... safe?"
A smile flickered across Tony's expression. "You could say that. In this... room... is where I keep several artifacts that are too dangerous to leave out. I'm not sure anything can truly contain the Cube, but this will do until I come up with something better." His gaze flicked down to the Cube, still in Steve's hand, and Steve felt suddenly self-conscious, all too aware of the dirt and the blood covering his hands. The Red Skull's blood... he shook his head. That didn't make it any better. He should be ashamed of himself for losing control, but all Steve could really feel was a bone-deep satisfaction as he remembered the feeling and the sound of his fist slamming into the Red Skull's flesh again and again.
When he looked up, Tony's eyes were on him, a concerned light in their depths. He fought back a flush, and Tony sighed. "Steve. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Given the situation..." He paused, obviously debating his words, before continuing, "In that situation, I'm not sure I wouldn't have done a hell of a lot worse to the man than beat him bloody. He deserves worse."
Steve's lips quirked in a grim, unamused smile. "No, he deserves better. He deserves a fair trial for everything he's done, so that everyone he's ever hurt could have their justice. Not just me, beating my anger out on him." Something softened in Tony's eyes at his words, and Steve decided he really didn't want to have this conversation. Not now, not ever. "Let's get on with it. The longer I have this thing, the more worried I am that I'll... do something with it."
Tony nodded, and turned back to the door, his hands moving in quick, complex gestures as he murmured something too softly even for Steve to hear. Steve envied him that, the ability to so quickly jump from personal concern to all business. He'd never been good at it himself, no matter how often Bucky had teased him for it. At the thought of his partner's name, Steve tensed, swallowing harshly to combat the thickness in his throat. Bucky might not have gotten his justice, but at least now Steve could attempt to lay to rest the memory of the partner he'd failed. It was time for him to move on with his life. Bucky would have wanted it that way.
The door opened. Tony gestured at him with one hand to stay where he was, and took a step forward, disappearing into a darkness that seemed to twist around him. Steve's eyebrows furrowed as he gazed into the room beyond. The room that wasn't there. Whatever was beyond the door, it wasn't another room in the Stark mansion. It was... elsewhere. In the same way the dimension Loki had teleported them all to had been elsewhere, Steve could tell, but it didn't feel like the same elsewhere. No wonder Tony had believed the Cube would safe here. There. Wherever it was.
"All right," Tony said, reappearing from the depths of the space. "Put it in here." He held up a metal box, and Steve realized it was what Tony had been working on the last time he'd been down here, after their latest fight with the Masters of Evil. Hand-beaten silver and copper, and possibly some other metals as well, judging from the alien gleamings he could see on the box. Steve placed the Cube in the box and Tony closed the lid, the latch catching as he spoke the strange words of another spell. For a brief second, the box glowed pinkish-purple. Even as Steve blinked, the color faded. Tony pivoted on his heel and strode back into the writhing emptiness beyond the door. Steve waited, growing increasingly anxious as Tony failed to reappear.
Just as Steve had nearly worked himself up into going after the man, Tony walked back out. This time, his steps were slow, placed with the careful deliberation of someone who was forcing himself to keep moving past the point of total exhaustion. Steve noted that Tony’s hands were shaking. Without thinking, he reached out and grasped Tony's arm, offering support. Tony flashed him a grateful look, almost staggering as he reached the threshold of his workroom.
"It's okay," he rasped. Steve's disbelief must have been clear on his face, as Tony grinned. "Really. I'm fine. I just need some sleep. That room isn't... as close as you would think." Turning slowly, Tony closed the door and Steve waited without letting go of him as more quiet words were said, sealing the room again.
"Let's get you to bed, then," Steve said, already thinking longingly of a shower and increasingly aware of his own exhaustion. Tony's laughter startled him, until he replayed his words in his head. He shook his head, a smile pulling at his lips. "Incorrigible," he said, fondness edging the words, and together, they left the Sanctum.
Much later, with everyone once again gathered around Tony's dining room table for one of Jarvis’s perfect meals, Tony leaned back in his chair and looked at his companions. When he first assumed the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, it had been with the unspoken understanding that doing so would forever isolate him, leave him to perform his duties alone. The past several weeks had turned that assumption upside-down, and as he thought back over the last few months, he realized he didn't want it to end.
"We work well together," he said abruptly. Heads swiveled to face him, confusion on their faces and questions on their lips. He leaned forward again, the front legs of his chair hitting the wooden floor with a loud bang. "I think we should make this official. Us." He gestured widely around the table. "All of us. A team."
Silence fell across the table. As Tony looked around, he saw surprise on everyone's faces. After their discussion weeks before about not making this a permanent team, he knew he shouldn't be surprised, but he'd hoped he wasn't the only one who had felt how well they worked together, how right their team was. Meeting Steve's eyes, he saw the surprise quickly fade into a thoughtful smile and knew that Captain America, at least, would be for the idea. Maybe Cap hadn't gotten over the loss of his first partner, but Tony knew that Steve was looking to the future for the first time since waking up from his suspended animation. He suspected the group gathered at his dining room table was the closest to family that Steve had.
Pulling his gaze away before Steve grew suspicious of his stare, Tony looked next to Hank and Jan. Even if they weren't officially anything more than partners, he knew how seriously Hank felt about the petite woman beside him. After watching Jan for the last few months, he also knew that she felt just as seriously about Hank, although they didn't seem to be on the same wavelength yet. Hopefully he'd get the chance to watch them work things out, because they made a good pair.
Jan grinned up at him, her eyes sparkling, and he smiled back. Her reaction was the only one he'd been counting on, since Jan threw herself wholeheartedly into anything she loved. He was sure that Hank would go along with whatever Jan decided, although he suspected that Doctor Pym would always be more at home in a laboratory than a fight. Beside her, Hank looked thoughtful. Apparently Hank hadn't yet noticed the hand that Jan had slipped over his on the table top.
Tony smothered the grin that threatened to break out and turned to the biggest question mark.
Thor met his gaze somberly, his chin resting on his fist as he leaned forward, elbows on the table. Even the god of thunder's serious expression couldn't completely wipe away the strangely ebullient feeling filling Tony. Tony wasn't sure what was troubling Thor, but the god had been withdrawn ever since their return from their battle. Thor had told them briefly about his confrontation with Loki. Tony had heard in the god's awkward silences the details that had been left out of his description, but hadn't pressed the point. The most important thing was that the Cube was safely hidden away and not in the grasp of either Loki or the Red Skull. Let Thor have his secrets about his brother. Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to know more about their peculiar relationship anyway.
“I think the idea has merit,” Thor said, his voice a quiet rumble. “Without all of you by my side these past weeks, I could not have even found Loki, let alone prevented my brother's plans. After working together, I find that… I like the idea of continuing to do so.”
“I think it's a great idea!” chirped Jan. “We stopped two super-villains and we avenged Bucky. At least,” she threw a quick look at Steve, her lips twisting a little, “We got some vengeance for him, even if it didn't really turn out like you'd hoped, Cap.”
Steve didn't look up from where he sat staring at his hands, clasped in front of him on the table. “No, it didn't.” He paused and took a deep breath. “But I think I'm glad of it, now. Bucky…” His breath hitched on the name and Tony curled his own hands around the edge of the table to keep from reaching out. “He wouldn't have wanted me to… to take things into my own hands like I did. Eventually, the Red Skull will pay for everything's he done, but I'll make sure that he does so fairly, not by my personal brand of justice.” Tony pressed his lips together, pretending the hot knot of feeling in his chest at Steve's words was purely pride. Steve looked up, straight into his eyes. His lips curved in a small smile. “I would be honored to be a part of a team with any of you, let alone all of you.”
Tony took a breath. He wasn't surprised they had agreed. He really wasn't. He was just surprised that it hadn't taken an argument to get them there. “So, then,” he said, forcing a light note to his voice. “We just need a name.”
Jan glanced at Cap again, her expression thoughtful. “How about… the Avengers? That way everyone can know we're all about avenging wrongs and making things right.”
Tony only saw Steve's eyes glitter because he was watching him. Then Steve blinked and his face smoothed out again into a smile. “I think that would be perfect, Wasp.”
The next day found Tony watching Steve openly, smirking as the other man fidgeted with his cowl. Finally, Steve growled in exasperation and turned away from the window, glaring at him. “I don't understand why I have to be the spokesman,” he complained. Tony's smirk widened.
“Because you're Captain America,” he said flippantly, tapping the white star on Steve's chest with one finger. Steve grabbed his hand before he could pull away again, and they stared at each other for a long moment, tension rising between them. The grin fell from his face as he looked at the other man. His friend looked back at him, something leaping in his eyes.
“Are you guys ready yet?” called Jan from the hallway.
The moment was gone.
Tony could picture Jan, foot tapping impatiently, as she waited by the front door with Hank and Thor. He raised an eyebrow at Steve, who shrugged in a small, resigned motion, and released his hand.
He cleared his throat, then called back, “We'll be right there! I'm just keeping Cap from worrying a hole in his shield." Forcing away his distracting thoughts, Tony smiled up at Steve, his eyes twinkling. "Well, Cap? Ready for the big event?"
Steve sighed, but Tony could see him pulling on Captain America like a part of the costume, his spine straightening and his face smoothing to calmness. Then he nodded.
Tony stepped out into the hallway, waiting for him. Walking to the front door, side by side, he thought, I could get used to this. Rather than the weakness he'd always supposed having a team would cause him, a warm flush of contentment ran through him at the thought.
Pausing at the front door, he glanced at each of his teammates... his friends... in turn. They all looked confident, ready. He caught Steve's eye, his lips twitching up into a smile, and Steve rolled his eyes before smiling himself.
Reaching out, Cap opened the mansion's front door and stepped onto the porch, the other four following behind him as he stopped in front of the podium placed at the top of the steps. Reporters and photographers filled the front yard, cameras from a dozen news networks set up scant feet away from the stairs. As they walked out, the hubbub and clamor of the crowd died as though someone had flipped a mute switch. Everyone stood poised, looking up at the group on steps, quiet, expectant.
Clearing his throat, Cap faced the crowd, one hand twitching toward the shield on his back. Tony stood at his side, Hank and Jan on the opposite side, and Thor behind them. The god’s benignly calm expression contrasted with the delighted grin on Jan's face. Hank looked more nervous than anything else, and Tony suspected he just looked ridiculous, with the little smile he couldn't get rid of as he watched Captain America.
"Um." Cap cleared his throat again. Jan's giggle floated through the air and Tony saw Steve's ears turn pink at the sound. He moved a little closer and bumped Steve's arm with his, hoping the small gesture would reassure the man. Steve flashed him a sidelong glance, amusement and appreciation mingled in his eyes, and took a breath.
"Thank you all for coming today," he began, and Tony heard the moment when his voice evened out, slipping into the "public speaking" role that Tony remembered from the newsreels. "For several weeks now, the five of us have been working together in an effort to stop the plans of a group of super-villains. I'm pleased to announce that with the success we've had in that endeavor so far, we have decided to take the next logical step." He paused, and Tony could practically hear the reporters holding their breaths.
Cap glanced to either side, looking at each person beside him before looking back at the crowd. He smiled. "Today, I am happy to announce formally that we are a team. We are the Avengers."
The crowd erupted, questions and exclamations flying toward them, flashbulbs going off like a field of exploding stars. Tony knew they would have to give more details, answer at least some of the questions. He'd privately estimated the press conference would last no less than an hour. As his friends smiled around him, he turned to fully look at Cap – at Steve – and quirked an eyebrow, waiting. Steve sighed a little, but Tony saw the grin threatening to break free.
Steve stepped back from the podium and unslung his shield, raising it before him in a rallying gesture. Thor raised Mjolnir as Jan shrank to Wasp-size and Hank hovered on the back of one of his flying ants. Tony allowed his cloak to whip dramatically as he levitated from the porch. Steve glanced at him and he winked.
Then Steve looked out over the crowd, his grin escaping, and shouted, "Avengers.... assemble!"
~ fin ~