"It wasn't your fault," Rhodey said, standing behind Tony as he put a hand on his shoulder, which Tony resolutely ignored in favor of taking apart his gauntlet. "Tony..."
"Never said it was," Tony replied, oiling a servo that had been giving him trouble. He tested it after, but didn't feel pleased like he normally would that it was working properly again.
"Of course you haven't," Rhodey said dryly. "You've been down here refusing to talk to anyone since Natasha broke the news. It's just been heavily implied by the sulking."
"Not sulking," Tony said, gritting his teeth as he put the gauntlet back together.
"Oh yeah? Then why haven't you come up since Cap's gone missing?"
Tony didn't answer. The silence was strong enough to answer for him.
Rhodey sighed, pulling Tony into a one-armed hug. Tony let him, because he wasn't one to argue with Rhodey hugs. "It's not your fault," Rhodey repeated.
"He left because of our fight," Tony said, closing his eyes. "I should be used to people leaving when they're disappointed."
Rhodey's arm tightened around him. "Some of us come back. It was a bad mission. You got drunk after, and Cap had been coming down off a week of nightmares according to Clint, who's been seeing him in the gym at odd hours. You both said things you shouldn't have, but him disappearing isn't your fault."
Tony stayed wrapped up in Rhodey's hug for a second longer, then he forced himself to pull away. "I should get back to work."
"JARVIS is scanning for any sign of him on the CCTV or anywhere else. I'll let the team know if he finds anything."
"Tony, that's not-"
Tony missed the rest of what Rhodey said as a sense of vertigo overwhelmed him. As he fell to his knees, his stomach twisting in protest, he heard Rhodey shouting his name. He fought down the bile as he felt hands on his shoulders steadying him.
Then the hands were gone. Tony looked up in panic when he heard Rhodey yell, ignoring the way the world tilted as he tried to stand. Rhodey was lying against the wall, unmoving as blood trickled down his forehead. "Rhodey?" Tony said, reaching for the gauntlet. It wrapped around his arm as he frantically looked for the source of the attack.
What he saw was a dragon.
The dragon was a rusted red color that reminded Tony of dried blood. He fought back a wave of nausea as he fired a repulsor at the dragon's swirling red eye. Singular, since the other eye was closed, scarred over in what looked like a painful wound. Tony aimed for the good eye, but he didn't have much luck. The dragon dodged, earning Tony a few scorch marks on the wall.
The dragon was large, so big that Tony didn't even know how it actually fit in his workshop. He tried shooting again, but his aim was thrown off as the dragon spread its wings and a gust of wind knocked him back. "JARVIS, call-" Tony said as two very large claws wrapped around his shoulders.
The last thing he remembered before blacking out was the single swirling eye turning an unmistakeable shade of blue.
* * *
Tony woke up with a start, the gauntleted arm coming up in front of him defensively. "Easy," someone said, his voice soothing. "You're safe now."
Tony knew that voice. "Steve?" he asked, looking for the super-soldier. Except it wasn't Steve, or at least, not the Steve he knew. He was older for one, by about ten years if Tony were to judge, and he wore some kind of medieval-Shakespearean outfit with a dark blue tunic that was intricately embroidered with stars and other symbols. His pants were a lighter blue and skin-tight, half-hidden by dark boots that came up to his thighs. It was all topped off by a golden circlet that rested on his head.
Tony's eyes widened, and he scooted back against the bed. It was then he realized he wasn't anywhere familiar. Instead of his workshop, he was in a big room with a fireplace and richly colored tapestries. The windows were open, letting in golden sunlight that filled the room. It was warm enough to be spring, and fuck, were those birds he could hear?
"Where am I? What happened to Rhodey?" he demanded, not lowering his arm.
"Peace, my friend. I mean you no harm," Weird-Steve said calmly, his hands in the air to show they were empty. "You are at my castle on Nimianne Lake. I'm afraid you came alone, so I know not of your comrade."
"Castle?" Tony croaked, still processing the fact Steve was talking like Thor. Rhodey would be okay, right? It hadn't been too hard a knock, and there didn't look like there was anything he could do for Rhodey now. Hopefully the other Avengers would get JARVIS's message and find Rhodey.
"Yes. The dragon has chosen you as the next challenger to its trials. It set you just outside of my lands." Weird-Steve had dropped his hands, and was now absentmindedly rubbing his left shoulder. "I thought you were..." Steve trailed off, looking out the window with a stare that both saw everything and nothing.
"Seriously, Steve, what's going on here? Why the sudden Shakespeare act?"
Weird-Steve turned to him with a sad look in his eyes. "I'm afraid you've mistaken me for someone else. I am Steven, the forgotten king of this forgotten realm. And you, friend, are going to have to face the dragon should you want to go home. I will give you what aid I can, but know it is a perilous quest you face."
"I have to fight a dragon," Tony said, disbelieving.
"It is the only way for the magic to return you home," Weird-Steve replied.
"You are of a silver tongue, Sir," King Steve said dryly.
Tony stared at Steve - Steven - for a full minute before flopping back on the bed. Though part of him was relieved, because if the dragon had brought him here, it couldn't be still terrorizing Stark Tower. Rhodey should be safe.
"What is this, a fairy tale? Fucking magic," Tony said, closing his eyes and wishing it would all go away. Seriously, he didn't sign up to be a super hero to deal with this kind of thing. Thor could fight dragons, or whatever weird-ass Norse name he had for them. Tony was just done with all of this. Maybe if he thought hard enough, he would wake up and this would all disappear.
Steven chuckled softly, a light, musical sound that Tony had never heard from his own Steve. "You have a flair for the dramatic, Sir. If I may..." Steve hesitated. Tony cracked open an eye to find a mixture of longing and grief in Steven's expression. It was replaced by a smile within the blink of an eye, and Tony wondered if he'd imagined it.
"May I have your name?" Steven asked finally.
"Tony," he replied. "Tony Stark, uh, not kingly, but I'm a billionaire if that counts. I think it counts. It's cooler and more badass."
Steve's smile softened, focusing inward. "This does not surprise me."
Tony had no idea what to make of that, so he ignored it. "Seriously though, I am not that kind of Stark. I don't deal with dragons and magic. I don't even have my armor."
"If you require armor, there is plenty in my hold," Steven replied. "But I doubt any of which I own would match the gauntlet on your hand."
"Yeah, probably a bad idea," Tony said. He didn't like to think about how clunky moving around in a medieval suit of armor would be. Fuck no. It'd be worse than the Mark I. There's a reason his armor was awesome, and now he had to deal with the low tech version? "Is there any way to go home and avoid the dragon?" he asked, because he was so done with epic quests.
"If my kingdom were at its peak, there may have been someone well-versed enough in magic to do so, but I'm afraid now..." Steve trailed off, once again looking out the window.
Tony sat up, following Steven's gaze. There was a forest outside (probably the source of the birds). It looked over-grown, but otherwise like nothing special. "Did something happen?" he asked, taking a closer look around the room. It looked clean for a castle, not drafty like the few he'd been in while he'd been a teenager touring Europe, but he could see the age of the tapestries fading colors and ragged edges. The fireplace looked like it hadn't been used in ages.
"The dragon, as you would say, 'happened'," Steven replied, sorrow coming into his voice. "I'm afraid there's no one but me who resides here now. I am tied to this place, but those that survived the first attack have long since fled."
"Er, that sucks," Tony said, still having problems imagining Steve as a benevolent dictator. It seemed so unpatriotic for Steve to be a king when the guy practically breathed democracy. Then he realized that was a tactless thing to say. "Sorry. I mean, it does suck, but-"
"Peace, friend," Steven said, holding up a hand. "I am not offended by your words, however ill-chosen. It has been a long time, and I've come to terms with the loss."
"So you've just been living out here by yourself for what, years?" Tony asked, baffled.
Steven stood, going to stand by the window he was so fascinated with. He touched the wall with a sorrowful half-smile that reminded Tony of his Steve whenever he thought of the life he'd lost in 1944. "Someone must protect these walls until it is safe to return. I'm afraid I've done poorly by my people, but I will stand guard over the place they laid their lives down to protect."
"But that's..." Lonely. Even Tony, who liked his long bouts in the workshop, was always glad when Pepper or Rhodey showed up after a day or two. "Really stupid," Tony said instead. "You're not... How can you just sit here and do nothing? You should get out, see the world! I dunno, start again! It's not like you to just..." It's not like Steve, but apparently it was like Steven.
Steven didn't look upset by the outburst. Tony was rather surprised to see a true smile on his face. "I think you are once again mistaking me for someone else. But what you say has merit. I have a promise to fulfill before I may leave, however."
"A promise?" Tony asked.
"Yes. A promise to make things right. I made a grave error in the past," Steven said. "Which is why I will aid you in any way I can. The dragon must be killed, no matter the cost."
"Didn't think personal vendettas were a Cap thing," Tony muttered under his breath. But then, this Steve was also a King. Maybe they really were two different people after all.
Dimensional travel made his head hurt. He was not meant for this kind of thing. Okay, he'd accept being blown to an advanced civilization he could reverse engineer tech from, but this was worse than the dark ages. At least the dark ages hadn't had dragons.
"So, dragon," Tony said, sitting up. He swung his legs over the bed side, looking down at his gauntlet. It had a very limited power supply. "I don't suppose you know anything about electricity?" If he was actually going to have to fight a dragon, he needed something that he could actually use. Swords were really not his style, and he'd sucked at fencing.
Steve looked at the gauntlet with a thoughtful expression. Then he smiled. "I may know of something that could benefit your quest," he said. "But first, you should change into something more suitable for traveling. Then we should eat, for we have a long journey ahead of us."
Tony groaned, not looking forward to a romp in the wilderness. There'd better be no giant spiders between him and the dragon. He refused to fight giant spiders on top of dragons. He had limits. He sent the command for the gauntlet to disassemble before picking it up and following Steven out to find new clothes. Steven didn't even blink at the gauntlet flying off, and Tony resolutely told himself that science was way cooler than the magic that the king probably assumed it was.
The meal itself was simple, and Tony tried not to think about how the meat was probably something Steven had killed himself. He wasn't all that fond of stew, to be honest, but he knew better than to complain. He'd eaten worse. And really, anything he tried to cook would come out burnt anyway.
"You aren't eating?" Tony asked when he noticed Steven hadn't touched his bowl.
Steven started, then smiled ruefully. "I apologize. I was drifting on a thought." He brought the bowl to his lips, drinking the stew straight from the bowl rather than using a spoon. Tony shrugged and went back to his own bowl.
Still, when they had finished, Tony was left with the impression that Steven hadn't eaten much. Or maybe he was just used to his Steve with the serum. Steve needed more calories than normal people, and Steven may have eaten a regular amount. That was probably it.
He looked down at the gauntlet he hadn't let stray too far from his sight. "You say there's a way to get more power for this?" he asked when they had finished the meal.
"It's not half a day's walk from here," Steven replied, sharpening a sword with a whetstone as Tony watched. He was now wearing a simple blue tunic and pants instead of the fancy expensive-looking one, but the crown stayed. Tony had snorted when he saw it, but didn't comment. As far as kings went, he supposed Steven wasn't really too decked out anyway. He just had a regal nature about him that made up for the plainness of his crown or his clothes.
"Are you certain you won't take any armor or weapons from the armory?" Steven asked, concern in his eyes. "I know your gauntlet is of a like I've never seen, but-"
"The leathers work well enough," Tony said, looking down at his own change of clothes. They weren't flashy, just a dull brown with some leather armor on top that made Tony miss Kevlar, but that was neither here nor there. It felt strange under his fingers, though he'd worked with leather gloves before. This felt different, though he couldn't say exactly how. They would protect him better than his band t-shirt would, at least. He wouldn't be able to move in one of the clunkers he'd seen down in the armory.
Steven apparently arrived at the same conclusion, but he didn't like it. He pushed his shield on his arm, and Tony marveled at it. It wasn't round, but it had three crests on the top. In the center was a highly ornate silver star surrounded by a sea of blue. Underneath the star was a small gold dragon with a familiar blue for eyes that Tony couldn't quite place. It was like the color was just off enough, because the artist hadn't been able to find the right shade. Tony stared at it, a pang of worry running through him. While he was running around fighting a dragon, his Steve was still missing. And Rhodey had been hurt...
"I apologize for only having brown left," Steven said, drawing him from his thoughts with a lopsided smile. "You are, I think, someone who likes colors with more flair."
"Red or gold," Tony said automatically, watching Steven's smile grow. Tony was nonplussed, unsure of his place with Steven. The king seemed to know a lot about him, but every time Tony thought he was like Cap, he was proven wrong.
"If you won't..." Steven started, then held out a beautifully crafted golden dagger. Tony stared at it. "You may not wield a sword or arrows, but this may be the only weapon capable of piercing the dragon's hide."
"Then shouldn't you keep it?" Tony asked, taking the knife anyway as he ran his fingers along the hilt. It was beautiful, with a gold dragon spiraling around it with two sapphires as its eyes. It fit his hand like it was meant for him.
"I can only aid you," Steven said sadly. "The dragon brought you here to pass its trials, and only you can kill it. But I will help where I can, even if it only amounts to a distraction."
"I hate magic," Tony complained, accepting the belt Steven passed him that included a sheath for the knife. "Seriously, the whole 'only the fated one can kill the dragon' shtick is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. And I've heard some pretty dumb things in my life."
Steven clasped his shoulder good-naturedly, patting his back after a moment. "Some things are this way for a reason. Do not forget that, my friend."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say, King Thorin. I still say science is better. At least that makes sense."
Steven grew grave for a moment. "I would prefer it if you called me Steven," he said quietly. "My kingdom has fallen and there's naught here but the ghosts of the past."
"I..." Tony said, floundering in the face of sudden emotions. "Sorry. That was- I'm not good with.... I'm kind of tactless, but I can do that. I mean, call you Steven, not keep calling you, you know."
"Your silver tongue betrays you, Tony," Steven said, a slip of a smile reappearing. "I can see why the women all flock to you."
The sass, at least, was the same no matter what version of Steve he was dealing with. "How would you know?" he grumbled, shouldering the pack of supplies that Steven had given him. They started to walk through the courtyard, out the castle gates.
"You remind me of an old friend," Steve replied, looking out into the woods. "You and he are very similar."
Tony may have been tactless, but he knew better than to ask about what happened to that friend. Though he was a little curious as to how his potential other self had died.
"We should start moving," Steven said, looking at the sun. Tony looked as well, estimating it was just past one in this world, even though it had been early evening when the dragon attacked in his world. "The glade we seek will be a safe haven for us," Steven continued, "But it's still half a day's walk away before we can make camp."
Tony winced. First magic, now camping. Joy. It couldn't even be useful magic. He'd accept Steven magicking up a hotel or something. But no. Still, it had to beat a cave in Afghanistan. "Okay, just let me-"
As he turned to face the castle again, Steven caught his arm, holding him in a tight grip that bordered on painful. "What the fuck? That hurts. What are you-?"
"It is not wise to turn your back on this quest," Steven said, not letting go of Tony's arm, though he did loosen his grip. He reached behind Tony for the bed roll that had been leaning against the side of the castle that Steven had packed while Tony ate, and placed it on Tony's pack. "Do not question this, Tony Stark. Please. I beg your trust on this."
Tony had been all set to snap and argue, but the please caught him off guard. He didn't know what to do with that, other than nod numbly.
They set off soon after that, and despite his curiosity, he did as Steven asked and didn't look at the castle again. It didn't matter much after the first few minutes anyway, since the forest was so overgrown that it was impossible to see one way or the other.
It took them an hour picking through the forest to find a proper path, and even that one was rarely used. Still, Steven seemed to know where he was going, stopping every so often to check his compass, and the weather was fair, not too hot or too cold. The birds were even pleasant once he got used to them, and he wasn't being bitten by half a dozen mosquitoes every five seconds like he had the one time Rhodey had convinced him to try camping.
The trek itself wasn't as unpleasant as Tony might have thought. Every time he'd start to worry about what he was missing back home, Steven would tell a tale about life at court, or how he'd become the king of this land. It was as disgustingly simple as the people asking him after he'd saved it single-handedly, but it kept Tony's mind off his own Steve being missing, his worry over Rhodey, and wondering how Pepper was covering his absence from SI. His feet started to hurt after a while, but Tony bore it quietly. It wasn't like they could do anything about it.
The sun was just starting to set when Tony considered asking Steven to forget this holy glade they were searching for and just camp for the night when they came to a small clearing. It was beautiful in the sunset, and the grass turned a dark red in the light as the sun ghosted over the tops of the trees. The forest had formed an almost perfect circle around the small clearing, and it was eery in a way that pricked at Tony's nerves. "What is this place?" he asked, shivering a little as they stepped past the line of trees.
"This is Thor's Glade," Steven replied, walking forward as if the feeling didn't bother him. And maybe it didn't, which was entirely unfair. Tony hated magic.
"Thor's Glade?" he asked, wondering if Thor was the same in this world as well.
"He was a good friend," Steven replied, and Tony resolutely did not wonder about the 'was'. "And his power still rests in this field. This is a safe place for you tonight."
"What about you?"
Steven looked startled, then thoughtful. "For me as well, though I haven't needed its power for a long while. Come, there is something you should see before the light dies."
Tony didn't know whether to be offended by that comment or to just let it pass since he really was out of his element here. He followed anyway, not wanting to be too far behind in a place that positively reeked of magic.
It was easy to see why they'd come here once they got closer to the crater in the center of the glade. "That's Mjölnir," Tony said as he stared at the hammer that lay hidden in the grass.
"It has rested here ever since Thor fell in the last battle," Steven said with a nod. "And so it shall remain until one worthy of its power comes forth."
Tony stepped forward, touching the handle reverently. He knelt down next to it, looking for differences and finding none. He didn't grab it, or try to move it, but he trailed his fingers down the familiar hilt. Thor was...
"You could try your strength," Steven said, gentle amusement in his voice.
"Nah, I'll pass." The last thing he needed was to feel unworthy of a friend's weapon. Or, well, the likeness of a friend from another universe. Tony reminded himself of this firmly, because Thor had been just fine last time he'd seen him.
"If you needed her, I think she would move for you in dire circumstances," Steven said cryptically as he crouched down beside Tony.
Tony started as he felt Steven's arms bracing around his, and Steven's hands guiding his along Mjölnir's sides. "What are you-?"
"But I do not think you need her power. You've always been better off on your own." Steven's voice was right next to his ear, his chest pressed against Tony's back. The intimacy made Tony shiver again, and he felt his heart rate quicken. He was so distracted that he didn't feel the crack until a small stone came away as his hands brushed against it.
He reached down to pick up the small stone without Steven's prompting, holding it up to see it clearer in the fading light. Steven moved away, leaving Tony bereft of the warmth the King's body had given him. "Though it seems we do need part of her; she is willing to lend you the stone's services," Steven said as he grinned.
Tony wasn't sure what to make of Steven's smile or the stone. He stared down at the pebble - a part of Mjölnir - that they had collected, starting to see where this was going. He was supposed to use this as a power source? It made his head hurt just thinking about it. This was why he hated magic.
He was about to complain about this when a flash of silver darted by his cheek. Steven rolled to the side, barely dodging the missile. He brought up his shield, standing in front of Tony protectively.
That didn't help either of them when the silver dart attacked Steven from behind. "Look out!" Tony called out, frantically pushing Steven down. Steven only hesitated a second before dropping.
Nothing hit Tony though. When he looked up, there was a silver... was that a baby dragon? Whatever it was, it was hissing at them angrily, its wings beating as it tried to find an opening. Which was weird, because Tony was a lot squishier than Steven's shield.
Tony looked closer at the small dragon, now that it wasn't actively attacking them. It was small, only about the size of his forearm if stretched out, with a triangular head and multi-colored eyes that were swirling reds and oranges. It didn't really have scales, but a tough hide that was a dark silver. It glinted in the dying sun, and its wings probably spread about the width of Thor's shoulders. They were nearly translucent and very fragile-looking compared to the rest of the dragon's hide. It was topped off by a long, sleek tail that ended in a point, and four stumpy legs that had what looked to be pretty vicious claws.
Hesitantly, Tony started to get off Steven. "Do you think it's stopped - Whoa!"
He pushed Steven back down, only barely missing a set of claws to his face as the dragonet pulled back at the last second. "What the hell?"
Steven merely sounded amused. "I mean him no harm, little one."
The dragon started to dive at Steven's head again. "Hey, no!" Tony said, crawling up and covering Steven's head with his arms. "Stop that!"
To his great surprise, the dragon did. It landed on the handle of Mjölnir, its wings spread and hissing violently, but it didn't leave its perch. He stared at it suspiciously, but it didn't move.
"I think it's safe enough now," Steve said from underneath him.
Tony didn't get off in a hurry though, instead pulling away slowly in case he had to move back. Steven didn't appear to mind that he lingered either, which was an odd fact that Tony pushed away for later.
They both looked at the small dragon, who was still hissing in displeasure. This time, Tony could see its whirling multi-colored eyes were glaring at Steven. "What does it have against you?" he asked.
"He has made his home here in the glade," Steve said with a shrug. "The beast may be in-tune with Mjölnir. The hammer merely tolerates my presence here because I wish no harm."
"What? Why?" Tony looked over at Steven with a startled look.
"It is... a long story," Steven said, his eyes going distant. "We should set camp before it gets too dark. You should try to invite the little one to join our meal."
Tony sighed. "I don't suppose you'd tell me that story while we eat?"
"We'll see," Steven replied, crushing any hope Tony had of actually hearing it. This place just got better and better.
Making camp was at least an easy undertaking. Steven showed him how to set up the medieval tents and collect firewood, and the stew they had for dinner wasn't spectacular, but it wasn't terrible either. He was going to be very sick of stew by the end of all this, however. All the while, the little dragonet watched Steven suspiciously, hissing and diving whenever Steven got too close to Tony. It still wouldn't come closer when Tony tried to coax it over.
"I thought dragons were evil," Tony grumbled, giving up his sixth attempt to cajole the silly little beast with a piece of meat on his knife as he drank the stew from the bowl like Steve did. When in Rome...
"The big ones are," Steven said, looking far too amused by the whole proceeding. "Little ones like our friend are mostly harmless, so long as you do them no ill. They're quite intelligent when they age."
"So you're a baby, huh?" Tony said to the dragon, slowly moving toward it. It fluttered away again.
Steven laughed. "He does seem quite young. Here. I have eaten my fill and you might lure him to you with some of the meat."
Tony eyed Steven's bowl suspiciously. "But you've barely eaten anything!"
"I did, but you were so busy luring this pretty fellow to you that you didn't notice," Steve replied, gesturing to the pot. Tony looked, and it did actually seem lower than he remembered it.
He shrugged his unease off, accepting Steven's bowl. He picked out some of the meat, lining it up on the ground in a small trail that led to where he was sitting. He saw the dragonet's eyes whirl with light blues and purples as it watched the meat from its place not far off. When Tony didn't move, it hopped forward hesitantly, its small head darting forward to grab the first piece of meat.
"Stay still," Steve said quietly as Tony shifted. "Let him come to you."
Tony fought down the urge to fidget as the small dragon ate its way closer. Staying still wasn't necessarily one of his strong points, but he'd be damned if he scared the silly beast away now.
Finally, the dragonet was close enough for Tony to touch as the greedy little bastard gobbled down the last piece. He looked over to Steven, who nodded, then slowly reached down to pet the tiny dragon's head. Instead of flying away like it had before, the dragon pushed up into Tony's hand, humming softly in contentment. It looked at him, and Tony shivered. It was like the tiny dragon could see straight into his soul.
That was when Tony's world exploded.
It felt like his mind was being torn open, but any pain he might have felt from it was washed away by what filled the gap. He saw himself in that moment, but it wasn't the face he saw in the mirror. He was practically glowing with light, chasing away all of the darkness that the sun had left behind with a light from the center of his chest. He felt the awe at that, followed closely by complete and total adoration and love.
Tony gasped, feeling weak in the knees. There was nothing attached to the love, no desire for his money, no disapproval of his life choices, no want for stardom and attention that being rich and famous brought. Just pure, unconditional love that rocked the ground under Tony's feet. He had never felt that way before, and certainly never felt it directed at him. Tony had no idea what to do with the profound emotion of a love that expected nothing of him in return. There was a question there that Tony could barely comprehend, but he couldn't refuse. Yes.
The love doubled, washing over him followed by a happiness stronger than Tony had ever felt. Tony was lost in the emotion, set adrift by the sheer volume of something that strong directed at him.
When he came back to himself, he was shaking, cradling the humming dragon in his arms as he knelt on the ground. He felt the dragon's head rubbing against his chin reassuringly, and Tony automatically reached down to stroke him, scratching behind the ridges around the dragon's eyes. The humming got louder as the dragon closed his eyes and radiated love and pleasure.
Tony looked over at Steven to - he didn't know. Ask what the hell just happened? See if he'd had the same mind blowing experience? But when he looked across the fire, Steven's face was a picture of raw and twisted grief. He stared at Tony and the tiny dragon like Tony had personally betrayed everything Steven stood for, and he would never recover.
"Steven?" Tony asked uncertainly.
Steven took a shuddering breath and closed his eyes, visibly packing the grief away. Then he stood, coming to sit closer to Tony. "It's alright, my friend. It's a bit of a shock, so just take it easy."
But when Steven reached out to his shoulder, the dragon in Tony's arms reacted immediately, his long neck snapping out as he tried to bite at Steven's hand without leaving Tony's embrace. "No, hey, stop that!" Tony said, trying to shift away so the dragon couldn't reach.
The dragon shrank against him, and Tony was flooded with feelings of hurt that reminded him of when his father... "No, sweetheart. You're okay. Shh," he said frantically, scratching the dragon's eye ridges again. "You're fine. Just don't hurt him, okay? He's a friend."
He could tell the little dragon wasn't quite convinced, but he didn't try to bite this time when Steven reached out again. Steven pulled Tony into a hug, his chest against Tony's back so that he wouldn't agitate the dragon further. "It's a shock," Steven repeated gently. "Just breathe."
Tony tried to relax, holding the tiny dragon closer as he focused on breathing. It was a lot like coming down from one of his anxiety attacks, but he wasn't exactly scared. He felt numb, except for the constant stream of love and affection that came from the small beast in his arms. And it was from the dragon. It seemed impossible, but all of those feelings came from such a tiny creature and were directed at him.
When he finally stopped trembling, Steven pulled back. The dragon gave a short hiss, his eyes whirling orange in displeasure when he saw the king again, but he didn't try to attack Steven this time.
"I don't think he likes you," Tony said, feeling a little more like himself.
"He's jealous," Steven replied with a lopsided grin that was tinged with sadness.
Tony blinked, looking down at the silver dragon. The dragon blinked back at him, his eyes turning a happier blue. "Why would he be jealous?"
"You can spot lust a mile away, but honest affection is always lost on you," Steven muttered under his breath.
"What? How do you-?"
"He'll remember he's still hungry again soon," Steven said, fishing out more of the meat from the stew, then passing the bowl to Tony. The dragon immediately peeked out, his head darting into the bowl as he gobbled down the little pieces of meat. So Steven coming near Tony was bad, unless Steven was bringing food. Was that how it was?
The little dragon sent a wave of happy eating thoughts and colors, and that was just weird.
"What just happened?" Tony asked, sounding more dazed than he wanted to admit.
"You're bonded," Steven said, the sorrow returning to his eyes for a moment before he swallowed it down. "But this shouldn't have happened, not so soon. It takes weeks before such a pact can be formed. I am... I'm truly sorry. If I had known, I wouldn't have..."
"Why? Is this wrong?" Tony asked. He had the feeling he should be much more upset about this than he was, but he also couldn't let go of the little silver dragon. Any time he started to panic, he got fresh reassurance of love from the little guy, and it was kind of addicting.
Steven closed his eyes, and Tony almost regretted asking. "Not wrong," Steven said, shaking his head. "But it's not... He's bonded to you now. There's no reversing it, not without nearly killing you both."
"Oh." Yeah, that was a bit of a disadvantage. It would make going back home awkward. Because obviously he couldn't leave the dragon here. He had to... would the dragon even want to come with him?
The dragon pushed his head against Tony's cheek, a burst of love coming through the link. That meant the dragon was fine coming with him, right? So he just had to find a way to explain this to Pepper. Pepper was going to flip, but this wasn't the worst thing he'd brought home.
"You..." Steven started, his voice choked. He looked away. "You'll have to take care of him now."
Tony nodded, petting the now sleepy dragon absently as he finished the last of the meat. Steven was... Something had happened to Steven, Tony could see that. He didn't know what to do about it though, and he certainly wasn't the right person to talk to about emotional things. Nine times out of ten, he said the exact wrong thing. The look of grief on Steven's face haunted him though, and he wondered if the King had ever been bonded to a dragon before. If he had, it hadn't worked well.
"The creation of the bond is draining," Steven said. "You should rest while you can. No harm will come to you in this sacred grove."
"What about you?" Tony asked, feeling his own eyes start to droop. He shouldn't be this tired, not really, but the dragon was half asleep already and Tony was willing to blame him.
"I will rest, after a fashion." Steve was laying out the sleeping roll and Tony started to get up and protest, before he realized doing it himself would require putting down the dragon. He debated long enough for Steven to finish, then let the king lead him to the makeshift bed to lie down. Steven was very careful not to touch the dragon and remind him of his animosity. "You will be able to think clearer in the morning," Steven continued. "Just sleep for now."
"You won't crush him," Steven said with a sad smile. "He'll move if he's not comfortable."
Tony nodded, letting Steven pull up the blankets. He knew that this was embarrassing and that he should be protesting the child-like treatment. But that part of him was locked away at the moment, as the dragon in his arms shifted, sending a brief flair of annoyance that Tony was keeping it awake. The dragon didn't speak in words, but in images and emotions that Tony shouldn't have understood but did. Tony could feel the dragon's heart beating against his chest, soothing and constant, trying to lull him to sleep.
He closed his eyes, letting the little dragon's exhaustion drag him under. He thought he felt a pair of lips ghosting against his forehead, but he was asleep before he could be sure.
* * *
Tony woke up feeling very hungry. He tried to ignore it and push it away in favor of sleeping. That's when he felt a long tongue against his ear, slipping behind to-
"Stop that," Tony said, trying not to laugh. The tongue just tickled him more. He sat up and glared at the dragon, who merely watched with swirling eyes of hungry orange mixed with an amused blue. Then he sent more feelings of hunger.
"Can't you feed yourself?" Tony asked. He got back an unimpressed feeling. "Fine, whatever. Go find - hey! Stop that! Alright! I'll get up!"
The dragon curled smugly against Tony's neck as the tail wrapped around him. He should have felt strangled by the tail, but it wasn't too tight and it felt more like a comforting weight. He felt a wave of absolute love as the dragon's small head pushed against his cheek. Tony faltered as he stood, his breath hitching. There was a twinge of sadness and anger from the dragon before the feeling of love redoubled, as if he were showing Tony that it was possible.
Tony didn't know what to do in the face of that much love. He was shaking a little as he rolled the bedding away, absently petting the dragon as he worked. "Okay, I get it," Tony said, his voice only a little choked. "You love me, for whatever weird reason. Let's - Let's find Steven to see about breakfast." He didn't think there was enough meat in the stew from last night to keep the dragon happy, and he didn't know how the dragon would feel about the rest of their rations. Steven was his best bet.
The dragon just nuzzled his neck, content with the promise of breakfast for now.
Tony didn't have to look very far to see Steven. He was on the edge of the glade, and what a sight he made. He'd have been content to watch the currently shirtless man do pushups all day if not for the light tickle in his ear and the reminder of hunger.
Tony cleared his throat. "I, uh, have a hungry dragon," he said, watching the muscles in Steven's back and arms ripple. He noticed three claw marks on Steven's right arm, that looked to be about the width of the silver dragon's claws. But these were old, far older than anything the silver dragon could have given him.
But when Steven stood up, Tony's eyes weren't drawn to his amazing abs and pectoral muscles. They were drawn to the giant wound on Steven's left shoulder. It was gruesome and knotted, looking only half healed. He felt his eyes widen. "Steven, you-"
Steven looked down at the wound, his hand ghosting up to touch it before he reached for the shirt that was hanging on a low tree branch. "It's an old wound," Steven said, pulling the shirt over his head.
"You shouldn't have survived whatever gave that to you," Tony heard himself say distantly. He wasn't an expert on wounds, but that had been right over Steven's heart.
Steven merely shrugged. "The healers did their jobs."
Fucking magic. Still, Tony found that in this case, he couldn't be too ungrateful for it. It unnerved him, but modern medicine wouldn't have been able to heal that and Steven was too much like his Steve for Tony to not be selfishly glad he'd been saved. Even if the wound did kind of haunt him.
The dragon, as if sensing his thoughts were about Steven, nipped at his ear. Not hard enough to damage, but enough to make his displeasure known.
"Ow! You ungrateful little..." Tony said, glaring at the dragon who merely sent back feelings of hunger.
Steven laughed, and it was a good thing to hear after the grief Tony had seen on his face last night. "Jealousy and hunger does not mix well, little one. Careful, lest your hide turns green."
"Don't antagonize him," Tony said with a sigh, scratching the hissing dragon's eye ridges.
"Not before breakfast, at least," Steven agreed, paying no mind to the dragon's anger.
He followed Tony back to their camp. Tony restarted the fire while Steven skinned a rabbit to add to the stew from last night. He hadn't seen the rabbit earlier, but he was going to assume magic had nothing to do with it. It was big, and there was a lot of blood that Tony was trying not to think about. "Where did you get that?" Tony asked, trying not to be too repulsed by the sight. He was going to be eating it, after all.
"Caught her this morning. I figured our friend would appreciate the meat." As if to prove it, he threw a piece of it near Tony. The dragonet was off Tony's shoulder in a heart beat, gobbling down the meat and licking up the juices in a way Tony decided he wasn't going to think about.
Tony found that his hypothesis of being tired of stew was being proven right, but at least it was better fare than he had gotten in Afghanistan. He very nearly lost his appetite anyway watching the dragon tear into the rabbit, but he forced himself to eat.
"Have you thought of a name for him yet?" Steven asked.
"I..." Tony looked down at the dragon, then quickly turned away. The rabbit was still recognizable. "Argentum?"
He got a wave of scorn as Steven laughed. "I do not think he liked that name."
Tony closed his eyes and stuck his tongue out in the direction of the dragon. He sensed amusement. "I don't know then. High-ho, Silver? The moon is silver, right? Twilight?"
He got images of teenaged vampires and a firm no. "Hey! Don't pick references out of my head! I wasn't thinking about that," Tony said with a pout, though on second thought, he had to agree with the dragon.
"How about Astron?" Steven suggested.
There was a grudging approval from the dragon at this. "Really? You don't even like him, but you'll accept his names?" Tony asked.
"My suggestion is more befitting a dragon," Steven said with a smirk.
Astron settled on Tony's shoulder, tail wrapping around his neck possessively. "Oh, sure. Take his name and then expect love from me. I see how it is. I should call you Quick Silver. He was a brat too."
The dragon snuggled an apology, but repeated that his name was Astron. Tony sighed. He'd rather liked Argentum too.
"Your bond grows well," Steven said, a hint of wistful sorrow in his voice. "It is a good match, even if I've never seen one so fast."
"This bond," Tony said hesitantly. "How far does it go? Will he always wake me up to feed him?"
That gained Tony a small smile. "You will never be alone again," Steven replied, saying words that rocked Tony to the core without realizing he'd struck a nerve. "And you will know his thoughts as he grows older, and he yours. He'll make your life longer as well."
"What?" Tony had the feeling he should be more disturbed by the fact he'd never have his thoughts to himself, but never being alone? After the battle of New York, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He was used to being alone in his workshop, but he talked to JARVIS constantly and had Dummy and You wandering about. The thought of being truly alone still scared him.
Living longer, that was also hard to believe. How would the dragon...
"You already look about ten years younger than you did when you arrived here," Steven replied.
Tony started, looking at Astron's whirling eyes. They were a smug, deep blue that Tony wasn't sure what to make of. "I..." he said, then stopped, wishing he had a mirror. Now that he thought about it, he'd felt better than he had in years, and that was after a night of sleeping on the ground. He should be sore and achy from yesterday's trek and his rocky bed.
"It's true," Steven said. "You'll be teaching him language skills soon, among other things. But it goes two ways. It wouldn't have worked if you hadn't accepted the bond. You may not have known what he'd give you, but you agreed to it."
Tony wondered about that. "It's hard to say no when that much..." he trailed off, unable to vocalize the sheer amount of feeling that Astron was sending him, even now.
"I do wonder how he formed such a strong bond with you so quickly," Steven said quietly, almost too softly for Tony to hear.
Or why at all. It wasn't like Tony had a winning personality. And there was still so much darkness that clouded around him from his past that he had to fix...
The tail around his tightened around his neck, not threateningly, but comfortingly, as Astron snuggled up against him. Images of Tony with the light in his chest hit him, glowing brighter than the arc reactor ever had. His hand automatically went up to his chest that now only had scars, not the reactor's casing. "I'm not..." he started to say, trying to look down at the little dragon. But Astron was too close to his neck to see properly.
"Whatever he's showing you, I doubt he'll be moved," Steven said with a grin. "His eyes are a determined brown. He's not backing down."
"I don't know what to do with any of this," Tony admitted.
"Then do nothing and accept that he loves you," Steven replied. "Enjoy the bond, for it is a special gift."
Tony reached up, stroking along Astron's long neck. He got a pleased hum, and he hesitantly sent back some of the warmth that Astron gave him in spades. He wasn't all that good at it, but the dragon didn't seem to mind.
"The stone..." Steven said, looking at Tony with an expectant expression.
Tony pulled it out of his pocket, turning it over in his hands. He'd forgotten all about it. "I still have it. What do we do with it? It's not like I can plug it in and use it as a battery."
Steven nodded, then pointed to a near by rock. "Strike them against each other, but be careful."
This reeked of magic. Tony took the stone grudgingly, not wanting to do as Steven said. But Steven for some reason wouldn't touch Mjölnir, so that meant he had to try it for himself.
Carefully, he hit the two stones together, nearly dropping them at the spark it caused. But it wasn't fire. It was... "Lightning," Tony said, looking down at the stone in his hand. Thor's lightning.
"Will it work to power your gauntlet?" Steven asked.
Tony didn't need JARVIS to answer that one. "It'll give me plenty of power," he said, putting the stone away in his pack next to the gauntlet. He didn't want to lose that.
Steven looked at the sun, which was getting quite high in the east. "Good. We should begin moving soon, or we won't make the next campsite. The dragon's den is a two day journey from here."
Tony groaned inwardly, then helped clean the pot and dishes. There was a little stream not too far off that they used to freshen up and restock their water. By this point, Astron had fallen into a deep sleep against his neck. "Is this normal?" he asked, glad that he wasn't also feeling tired.
"He is young and the bond is new," Steven replied. "Do not worry. He won't spend all of his time between gluttony and sloth. Forming the bond is tiresome for one so young."
Tony just hoped that they'd all survive this encounter with the big dragon so he could find out for himself.
* * *
Astron woke around noon, drowsily chirping from his perch on Tony's neck. The trail was hard through the overgrown forest, and Tony could only spare a short caress in acknowledgement. He was bruised and scratched from all the tree branches and bushes that he hadn't quite avoided, even with Steven's help. Steven, of course, didn't look even a little dirty. And no, Tony wasn't resentful.
Okay, maybe a little.
Astron chirped, his eyes swirling a playful mix of bright colors. He launched himself from Tony's shoulder, flying up into the trees. "What was that about?" he asked.
Steven shrugged. "We should keep going. He will find us again."
Tony wasn't too worried, since he could still feel Astron's presence in his mind. The dragon was definitely up to something, but Tony couldn't tell what.
That is, until a nest of some sort dropped right on Steven's head.
Steven automatically drew his sword, twisting around to face the attacker. Tony himself only caught a brief flash of silver and a pulse of merriment through the bond. "Um, that wasn't me," he said, straining not to laugh.
Steven put two and two together, then sighed, sheathing his sword. He started to brush the twigs and egg shells out of his hair, only to have another handful (or clawful) of leaves thrown on him. "You little..."
Tony doubled over laughing, because the look of indignation on Steven's face was priceless. He'd only just managed to stop laughing when a bunch of half crushed berries dropped on Steven, the juices turning his hair a light purple where they touched.
"If you could stop braying like an ass, you could control him," Steven said, trying to wipe away the berries and only creating a bigger mess.
By this point, Tony was pretty much in tears, so stopping Astron was out of the question.
Then Steven got a wicked gleam in his eyes, standing perfectly still. Tony wiped away the tears, a little worried about what Steven was planning. When Tony saw the tell-tale silver coming from above, Steven was the one who moved faster than Tony could follow. Before Tony could blink, Steven had a hissing Astron by the right wing, holding the dragon at arm's length to avoid the claws. He could feel Astron's annoyance, but Steven's smug, lopsided grin was ruined by the purple still dripping down his face.
"Your dragon," Steven said, handing over the hissing creature.
Tony stifled another laugh as he took the eggs from Astron's claws and scratched his eye ridges. "No, no clawing Steven. Be nice," he said, though he sent faint approval as he looked up to see Steven once again battling the berry juice. "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll get the better of him soon."
Steven raised an eyebrow at him, and Tony was reminded of his Steve so painfully that it hurt. Astron gave a small chirp, his eyes swirling red with anger as he looked at Steven.
"No. It's not something he's done to hurt me," Tony whispered, trying to calm the dragon down. "It's okay. Don't hurt him."
He felt Astron's tongue flickering behind his ear in an apology, and this time, Tony felt more of an annoyed tolerance for Steven as the man stepped closer. "He doesn't like you all that much," Tony said, baffled by their continued rivalry.
"He should realize I'm not a threat to your affections," Steven said, giving up on getting the berry juice out of his hair with a sigh. "Though I am a little hurt you don't try to soothe my ego as well."
"You won in the end," Tony said, forcing a smile to his face. He didn't really feel it, but Astron sent some of his earlier laughter back to him, and that helped. "Come on. There's bound to be a river around here somewhere, though admittedly purple is a good look on you. It's royal."
"You think so?" Steven asked. He leaned forward, closer into Tony's personal space. If he didn't know any better, he'd have said Steven was leaning in for a kiss, and Tony was a little breathless at the thought. But Steven didn't kiss him. Instead, he squished some of the berries against Tony's nose before Tony had time to step back.
"Hey!" Tony shouted, trying to wipe the berries off and getting purple all over his hands. "You're sneakier than people give you credit for. That's not fair."
"I think it suits you," Steven said, laughing softly. "Come, we both look ridiculous now. Let us find a stream to wash the berries away."
Tony only paused to move Astron to his shoulder, getting purple finger prints on Astron's flank that he knew would end up on his neck as well. The tail wrapping around him now was both welcome and startlingly familiar though, so Tony didn't mind as much.
How much was this little dragon going to change him?
* * *
They ended up not finding a pond until close to dusk, by which point Steven had somehow managed to paint a purple star onto Astron's chest while the dragon had been sleeping. Astron was not particularly pleased by this development and got his revenge by splashing Steven every chance he got. Tony was glad he'd left his leathers a good distance away, since he ended up getting very wet as well. His undershirt was soaked through by the end of it, and Tony sighed, hoping the fire wouldn't take too long to start tonight.
He looked at his reflection in the water once he'd moved a little ways away, seeing a much younger face than he was expecting staring back at him. He shivered, wondering how he was going to explain the fact that he looked about twenty-five to everyone. At least he didn't appear to be beefing up like a super soldier. He did need to fit into his armor when he got back home, after all.
Thankfully, the fire was already roaring by the time he got back. Tony sat by it as soon as possible, trying to dry off his shirt. "You two are worse than children. Seriously, a king and a dragon. You'd expect them to be regal. Instead they think they're Laurel and Hardy."
"Who are Laurel and Hardy?" Steven asked.
"What? That's one even you should get, old-" Tony cut off, remembering that he wasn't talking to his Steve. Of course some fairy tale king wouldn't get that reference. "Never mind."
"You should get out of those clothes," Steven said, sensing well enough to leave the subject alone. Tony looked over at Astron, who was still playing around in the pond, splashing and diving. "Did he just catch a fish? And then eat it? Sushi is one thing, but-"
"Tony," Steven said in a very familiar tone of voice.
Steven was already without a shirt, the wounds he'd taken on display. Tony looked down at his undershirt, shivering silently. "Whatever is under your garments, it will not offend me," Steven said. "I've fought many wars against tyrants trying to take my kingdom and have seen the scars they leave behind. My own chest is not a sight for children anymore."
Tony took a deep breath. "I didn't get this from fighting a battle." He'd been running away when he'd been hit, watching those who'd stayed behind to protect him fight and die. The arc reactor was gone, but even Extremis hadn't been able to heal all of the scars.
Steven knelt down beside him, his blue eyes serious. "That doesn't make them any less honorably kept. May I?"
His hands rested on the bottom of Tony's shirt. Tony closed his eyes for a moment, then nodded. He lifted his arms as Steven peeled the shirt off of him, shivering as the fire's heat was blocked by Steven's body. Steven laid the shirt neatly by the fire to dry before turning back to Tony and the scars from the arc reactor's hole. His hand reached out, tracing the scars with fingers that Tony knew were calloused from drawing and sword fighting. He shivered again, not because of the cold this time, looking up into Steven's eyes and seeing an unfamiliar emotion there. "Steven..." he said, his breath catching.
That was when a hissing and scratching silver monstrosity flew right between them. Tony fell backwards in surprise, scrambling to avoid Astron's claws. "What the hell?"
Steven was a respectful distance away now, his hands up in surrender. "Green is often considered a color of jealousy among my people," Steven said, looking far more amused than he should for someone who had nearly had his hand bitten off.
"Where I come from green is more about rage," Tony said, not wanting to admit that jealousy was a green-eyed monster.
"Is that so?" Steven asked innocently, obviously not fooled. Tony looked down at Astron, noting the bit of green mixed in with sulky yellows and angry reds. Tony wasn't sure what was going on here, but he had the feeling whatever the score was between the king and the dragon, Steven had just gained a point.
All of this had successfully distracted Tony from the scars, and past his initial reaction, Steven ignored them. As Tony pulled out Thor's stone to test it on the gauntlets, he decided he was grateful.
* * *
The black emptiness of space wasn't unfeeling or uncaring. It was just empty. The sky was full of stars, but there wasn't a single life out there, except the ones he had just destroyed. All those stars that were burning hydrogen like the fire in his lungs, and none of them able to give him the oxygen he needed. He was going to die alone out here, and there was no one who-
Tony woke with a scream caught in his throat, his fear tripling. He trembled, gasping for breath against the darkness as yellow fear and bright orange panic rippled through him.
"-down! Tony," he heard faintly in the distance. "Breathe. There is danger, but you must calm yourself. Tony."
Tony snapped out of it, blinking dazedly at Steven as he gulped in breaths of clean air. "Good," Steven said soothingly. "Calm down. And calm Astron. You need him close."
"What's..." Tony started, trying to stand but his still-trembling legs wouldn't hold him.
"Stay here. Get Astron to come to you." Tony looked up to where Steven was pointing. Astron was flying about, his eyes a terrified swirling yellow and orange.
"Think calming thoughts. Call him to you."
Oh, because that was easy. The urgency in Steven's voice made him try though. "Astron," he called out, trying to think of things that made him calm. It was a very short list. Maybe colors would help? Astron thought in colors a lot. Soft blues and purples.
Astron still wouldn't come down.
"Astron, come on," he tried again, then added, "Uh, please?" because please sounded like a thing he should use, right? He'd never been too good with manners, but he could apparently remember them when he was half-hysterical and in the middle of a panic attack if it would get the dragon to come down.
Manners was a go for panicky dragons. Astron finally fluttered down, his wings beating in agitation. He was trembling as much as Tony as he settled on Tony's shoulder, tail wrapping a little too tightly around his neck. Enough to cut off air and -
Tony's hand shook, but he managed to get the tail to loosen a little. He pulled Astron off his shoulder and into his arms, where they could tremble together. "Steven?" he asked finally.
Steven was making a circle with... was that salt? "Whatever happens, do not step outside of the circle," he said.
"You're outside of the circle," Tony said, his mind working through the haze of fear. "You're not-"
"I can't be in the circle," Steven said. "But I am protected against what's coming. You are not, and if you come out here, " he gestured to the outside of the circle, "you will call more of them and more would be extremely bad. I need your trust, Tony. No matter what, you cannot break the circle."
"Wait, I'm calling them? What am I calling?" Tony asked, because that seemed relevant.
"Yes, and I will explain after, but I need your word," Steven replied.
"I..." Tony bit down on the helplessness that brought back the panic. This was his fault. He couldn't even clean up his own messes.
"Promise me," Steven demanded urgently as the wind picked up.
"I promise," Tony said, hating each word.
"Then I promise I will be fine. Calm him, and do not let him leave either," Steven said before shouting something, and everything outside the circle went dark.
"Steven?" Tony half made to get up before remembering his promise. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He wouldn't be much good in this condition anyway. He and Astron needed to calm down. Steven hadn't left, even if it felt like he had. He was just on the other side of the circle that was very, very dark.
It really would help if the wind didn't sound like screaming.
Astron fluttered agitatedly in his arms. "Shh," he said, holding the little dragon tightly against him. "Hey, hey, Silverado. We're okay. Steven will be okay too, I promise." He hoped.
"Come on, sweet pea," Tony said, fighting the wave of fear that flooded through him. "I meant that. It's okay."
Tony got an image of the empty black. Alone. He swallowed, this time the fear not coming from the dragon. "It just feels like that. But there were..." Tony's throat went dry as he felt the mind pressed against his. "There were stars too. And now you're here, so not alone anymore."
Astron chirped, still radiating fear and anxiety. He flattened himself against Tony, proving to both of them that they weren't alone with the fast-paced heart-beat against Tony's chest. They sat like that for a long while, desperately ignoring the screaming of the wind and the blackness outside the circle. Tony's heart was pounding, but that meant he was still alive.
Finally, the black came down. He looked up just in time to see Steven fall to his knees. "Steven, you-"
"Don't you dare come out of that circle," Steven warned, his tone freezing Tony in place.
"But you..." Tony said, sitting back down.
"I am not hurt," Steven replied, taking shallow breaths. "Just weary. And if you come out now, you will call more magical terrors."
"So it was my fault," Tony said as Astron chittered unhappily.
"No, it was mine," Steven said with a sigh. He leaned against the nearby tree, and Tony wished he could at least be a shoulder to lean on. "Though you do attract more trouble than I bargained for. This shouldn't keep surprising me as much as it does."
"Did you know it takes months to form a bond with a dragon?" Steven said conversationally in a light tone that was at odds with how tired he looked.
"So you've said." Even Astron chirped in dismissal of the old news.
"Did you also know that it takes years to develop the bond enough for the dragon to be able to share its magic with the human?"
Tony's mouth went dry. "No. No. No magic. I don't do magic. I don't want magic."
"You have it anyway," Steven said, laying his head back against the tree. "And in spades. You may not want it, but you'll need some sort of training or you will call deadly magics every time you have night terrors."
Astron chirped, his eyes an anxious yellow. "I'm not talking to you," Tony said, his voice only just above a whine. "You gave me magic. I do science and you gave me the bane of my existence."
Steven chuckled softly. "More trouble than anyone could bargain for," he repeated, his eyes going distant. "Though I was that foolish once. Foolish enough to let you lead me into all sorts of..."
"We just met," Tony said as Steven trailed off, though he knew he wasn't the one Steven was thinking of. "Steve..."
"No," Steven replied. "I am not he, and you are not the dear friend of my memories. But it is so easy to look at you and forget that..."
Tony looked down. Yeah, it really was.
Astron hopped onto Tony's shoulder, nuzzling his neck and cheek. The now familiar weight rested around his neck. The others would find Steve. Hell, they might have even found him already and were now looking for him. He couldn't worry about Steve or about Rhodey's head wound until he got back.
Finally, Steven sighed. "You're both probably calm enough now. You can break the circle."
"How do I do that?" Tony asked, glaring at the salt in distaste.
"Rub your foot in it to disrupt it, or just walk out," Steven said with a snort.
While Tony was all for not touching things that have magic, he was also not above childishly ruining the perfect circle and the latter impulse won out as he kicked dirt over the salt. Steven smiled weakly, but didn't comment.
He sat down next to Steven as Astron moved to Tony's other shoulder with a disgruntled chirp. He was tolerating the king, but apparently wanted to be as far away from him as possible. "That sucked," Tony said, earning a laugh out of Steven.
"Eloquent as usual," Steven replied. "My magic is not what it used to be, but I should be able to put a block on yours."
Tony perked up at that, but his hopes were quickly dashed as Steven went on. "You will still need someone to train you though, or when your magic gets stronger - and it will, given your attraction to trouble - this will happen again."
"I should be breaking the laws of physics with legit scientific breakthroughs, not magic," Tony grumbled, ignoring the smugness on the other end of the bond. Bastard wasn't even sorry about it.
A quiet settled on them, and Tony hated quiet. It was like Steven was waiting patiently for Tony to break first, and he probably was. Unfortunately, the words that fell out of Tony's mouth were the wrong ones. "What happened to the me in this world?"
Steven stiffened beside him. "It was my fault," Steven said before Tony could start panicked babbling to brush it off. "Allow me to put on the block before worse happens."
"You still need rest," Tony said as Steven moved anyway. Steven's hands braced against Tony's temples, and he swallowed hard as he realized how close Steven was. "Will this hurt? And can I have an honest answer, not just 'it stings a little' and then have it hurt like a bitch."
"It shouldn't. You need to be still though," Steven replied. Tony could see a light blue out of the side of his eyes. He held as still as he could, Astron humming softly in his ear to help soothe his nerves.
He wasn't prepared for Steven basically collapsing in his arms a minute later. "Whoa, what-"
"Tired," Steven said against his shoulder. "You were right. Should've rested..."
"I'm always right," Tony said, trying to shift Steven's weight to a more comfortable position.
"Only sometimes," Steven murmured before sleep claimed him.
"How do you like that? Insulting me and then passing out to get the last word," Tony said, briefly resting his chin on top of Steven's golden hair. Astron just chirped, as if the fear and anxiety from earlier were completely out of his head. Tony wondered about the dragon's sense of time. He certainly didn't feel like Astron kept grudges - just an irrational dislike of Steven.
In the end, he shifted Steven until his head was lying on Tony's lap, and he could card his hands through Steven's hair absently. At least, until Astron snapped at his fingers, then he started scratching the dragon's eye ridges. Figures his dragon would be an attention diva.
He'd meant to stand watch, but he ended up dozing off before he realized it. He only woke when Astron started to lick behind his ear. "Quit tickling," he muttered, opening his eyes to glare. Astron stared back with swirling eyes and untameable hunger.
"No, go feed yourself," Tony said, stretching his shoulders and then regretting it. So sleeping against a tree was an extremely bad idea, especially for his neck. "Ow..."
He looked down at Steven, who was as still as death in his sleep. Cold too. His Steve was always like a furnace, but right now this one... Tony shivered, turning his thoughts away from dead bodies. This Steve was a little weird, but he was still breathing, and Cap would be too, when they found him.
Astron hissed impatiently.
"No," Tony said, pointing at Steven. "He's still sleeping. You have to get your own food if you want your breakfast. You did it well enough before Steven and I came along. Not everything is about you."
The dragon's head hung low at this, and Tony immediately felt guilty. "No, come here, you stupid dragon. I'm not angry," he said, scooping up Astron and hugging him against his chest. He sent feelings of love along the bond, finding it easier than last time. "I just can't move right now, so you have to get your own, okay?"
Astron seemed uncertain, and Tony scratched under his chin like he might a cat. "We won't leave you," he said. "We'll wait here until you come back, I promise. I'd never leave you. We'll be fine. We have to let Steven rest though, since he protected us."
That Astron understood and he chirped a grudging agreement. Tony hugged him once more before the dragon flew off.
Tony missed Astron's warmth already. He decided not to think about how the dragon basically had Tony wrapped around his little claw, because it had been one day and Tony was not that much of a push over.
Okay, maybe he was. But that didn't mean he would admit it.
He was a little hungry himself, but he'd missed breakfast often enough that going without wouldn't bother him too much. He sensed triumph through the link, but the hunger didn't wane. It was still going strong five minutes later when he heard the flapping of wings.
He looked up and saw a dead rabbit hanging from Astron's claws. Tony had seen quite a bit of death since becoming Iron Man, but staring right into the dead rabbit's terrified eyes still made him a little sick.
Astron, on the other hand, was absolutely beaming with pride. "That's great, buddy. Now you can eat," Tony said, really hoping now that he seen his dragon's kill, Astron would eat it somewhere out of Tony's sight.
But the little dragon didn't move to either eat or take it away. He chirped quizzically, apparently waiting on Tony for something. When Tony didn't do anything, he dropped the rabbit by Tony's side, then flew off again.
Tony tried to inch away from the dead rabbit as much as he could. It was going to attract bugs, wasn't it? Tony took a deep breath and grabbed the thing by the ears, tossing it a little further away. Then he wiped his hands on Steven's shirt, because he could still see the rabbit staring up at him and it made his skin crawl. Seriously, he was Iron Man. A dead rabbit killed by his dragon was what? Some sort of peace offering? Either way, he had handled worse. He totally could handle this.
Except the goddamned thing was still staring at him.
Tony whacked his head against the tree, wondering how this had become his life. Fucking magic.
It was a little while longer this time before he felt the triumph, and Tony started to worry when Astron's hunger didn't abate this time either. He wasn't wrong. This time when Astron came back into view, he had a still flapping fish in his claws and more pride. "Wow, you're not only a champion hunter, but a champion fisher. Good job, kiddo. Too bad sushi doesn't quite work like that."
Astron looked at the rabbit, then back at Tony, his eyes swirling a deep blue for sadness and light brown for confusion. He offered Tony the fish again, chirping his question.
And that was when Tony got it. Astron was trying to give him breakfast first. "That's... sweet," he said, trying not to flinch away from the smell of uncooked fish. He'd eaten a lot of weird things in his time (Don't get him started on drunken shrimp), but half-alive fish he was going to pass on.
Astron set the fish down by the rabbit, then chirped sadly, his head hanging down. "No, hey, you're good," Tony said, pulling the silver dragon into his arms as soon as he came close enough. "They're great, little guy, and you're a good hunter. You really are." He showered Astron with affection and pride, both through the link and his frantically spoken words.
He felt a hesitant question pushed through the link. What was Astron doing wrong?
Tony hugged him tighter, the fact that he'd made Astron feel like how his father used to make Tony feel made him sick to his stomach. "You didn't do anything wrong. You're amazing, Silver Bells, you are," he said, repeating the words until some of the dragon's worry abated. God, this was why he'd make a horrible father.
Finally, Astron looked at the rabbit and fish (that had finally stopped flopping around, thank God) and chirped quizzically without a trace of hurt.
Tony breathed a sigh of relief. At least he hadn't screwed up too badly. "You can eat them, but I can't. I have to have meat cooked," he said. Astron cocked his head to the side and chirped again.
"Uh, cooking." Still a blank stare. Tony tried picturing the stew and the fire from the night before and sent that to Astron. That got a reaction. "Cooking," Tony repeated. "I need it to eat those." He waved in the direction of the dead fish and rabbit.
He got a flash of light green in understanding, then Astron started to shake his wings. Tony got the hint, letting Astron down. Then Astron hopped over to the fish and the rabbit, and reared back on his hind legs.
Tony remembered at that moment that dragons were supposed to breathe fire. He'd never seen Astron do it, but that didn't mean he couldn't. And in the middle of the forest where there were lots of overgrown burnable things, an uncontrolled fire would be a disaster. Not to mention Steven was still a complete dead weight. "No, don't-" he started, but he was too late and-
And all that came out of Astron's mouth was an anti-climactic puff of smoke.
Astron let out a dismayed chirp, which just sent Tony into a laughing fit. The dragon's chirps changed to anger as Tony continued to laugh, a little bit of hurt showing through the link. Tony tried to control the chuckling, wiping away the tears. "Come here, Puff," he said. Astron's tail flicked angrily. "Yeah, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have laughed. Please?"
The silver dragon came closer grudgingly, but Tony didn't waste a second scooping him up into his arms again. "I'm sorry," he repeated, surprised at how easy the words were. Usually a mixture of shame and pride plus a healthy fear of forgiveness kept him from saying that very often. But he'd do anything to soothe that hurt, and apologies and cuddles seemed to work the best.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I shouldn't have laughed at you. It's probably because you're a baby, so you'll breathe fire when you get bigger. We'll ask Steven when he gets up."
Though Tony was a little worried, since Steven still hadn't woken up. His Steve was a pretty light sleeper, and Tony and Astron hadn't exactly been quiet. But Steven hadn't even stirred.
"How 'bout this," Tony said. "You get me some berries or nuts-" He tried to send a clear picture of the berries from earlier and peanuts, and hoped that neither were poisonous. "-and then you can eat the fish and the rabbit."
It took awhile to get across that he didn't have to cook berries, but eventually Astron flew off with a bowl from their supplies between his claws. Tony only hoped that he wouldn't try to carry too much. The bowl had been pretty heavy to start with. Though he supposed the rabbit had been heavy too, so maybe it would work.
He ran his hand through Steven's hair once Astron had gone, checking his pulse. "Steven?" he tried, shaking him a few times. But Steven didn't wake. He bit his lip, feeling how chapped it was and picking at the dried skin. Steven was breathing, but he wouldn't wake up. Maybe he was just that exhausted? He really shouldn't have done that last spell. This was why Tony hated magic.
Astron came back with a bowl full of what looked like blackberries and walnuts. "Well, here goes," he said, trying one of the blackberry-like things. It didn't taste anything like a blackberry, but it was sweet and tasty, so Tony didn't mind. He also didn't die after eating it, which was always a plus. "Good job, little buddy. You're our official forager from now on. Now go eat your own meal."
For a smart little dragon, Astron took a lot of convincing that Tony was fine and could eat for himself. But once he was convinced, he attacked the fish and rabbit with the same amount of voracity as before. This time, Tony forced himself to watch and not lose his appetite. The latter didn't work as well, but he needed to start getting used to it.
It was noon before Steven stirred. Tony was glad. His back hurt, though admittedly it didn't hurt as much as it should for someone of his age. He was trying not to think about how much younger he felt.
He hated magic.
"Are you alright?" Tony asked, helping Steven sit up. Astron chirped neutrally from Tony's shoulder, apparently deciding to tolerate Steven for now.
"Been better," Steven said with a wince. "You..."
"I'm good. Nothing else attacked and Astron got breakfast. Berry?" He was a little disappointed when Steven refused the berry with a shake of his head. He could feel that it wasn't winning the king any favors with Astron either.
After getting Steven some water, Tony moved off to relieve himself, as that need had become rather pressing. He missed actual toilets and running water. He made a mental note to send all dragons to Clint after this, because he already used medieval weapons. This would be right up his alley.
When he got back, Steven had rekindled the fire. He looked better, though still a little pale. He looked up as Tony approached and smiled. "I apologize. I appear to have cost us half a day's travel."
Tony waved him off. "You saved us. Not going to argue. Want me to send Astron for another rabbit? He was put out I couldn't eat the last one. He even tried breathing fire to cook it."
"He what?" Steven looked at Astron in alarm. "He can already...?"
"Not really. All that came out was a puff of smoke. It was kind of cute."
Steven relaxed at this, shaking his head. "He shouldn't be able to breathe fire for at least a decade, but with the trouble the two of you attract, I don't know what to expect anymore."
Astron landed on Tony's shoulder, his tail taking its comforting place around Tony's neck. "Hear that, kiddo? You've got some growing to - hey!"
Steven laughed as Tony turned to glare at the dragon, who stared back with slightly annoyed orange eyes. "He bit my ear," Tony complained. It hadn't been hard enough to damage, but just enough to hurt, like a little pinch.
"I don't think he likes you thinking of him as a child," Steven said with an amused smile. Steven knew something Tony didn't, he could tell, and he looked back and forth between him and Astron to try to figure out what it was.
"Is this some kind of rebellious phase or something?" Tony asked. "Because I thought they were supposed to be cute and cuddly for at least a few years. What happened to being a cute ba-Ow!"
Steven laughed, though he sounded a little wistful. "You will understand eventually. Hopefully sooner than I."
"What-" Tony started to ask.
"We should have a light meal and pack up. We have already lost much of the day," Steven deflected.
Tony's eyes narrowed. "You know, the easiest way to keep these things from happening again is to tell me up front."
"In this case, it is better for you to understand it on your own," Steven said. "For I do not think you would believe me, even if I told you."
Tony rolled his eyes, but dropped it. They ended up helping Astron catch fish for lunch, which wasted more time at odds with what Steven had said and got Tony very wet, but it was nice seeing Steven happy. His Steve had a goofy sort of smile that he didn't always mean, but it was nothing like the smile Steven occasionally turned on him, the bright and happy one that Tony suspected was meant for someone else. He wondered what that smile would look like on his Steve. It was unlikely he'd see it directed at him though. There were very few people who smiled for Tony, and he had more than enough experience with people wishing he was someone else. After all, when did Tony Stark start to measure up to-
There was a very wet weight on his shoulder that started to soak through his shirt. Before he could tell Astron to dry off first, he felt the dragon's head pushing up against his cheek as open love and adoration pulsed through the link. Astron didn't want Tony to be anyone else. He wanted Tony, with the bright light in his chest that chased away the shadows.
Tony felt his throat tighten as he blinked, scratching Astron's eye ridges as the dragon hummed. "Thanks, buddy," he said quietly, sending some of it back through the link in return.
"It's like nothing you've ever felt before," Steven said, his voice soft and nostalgic.
"I don't deserve it," Tony admitted.
The humming next to his ear got louder and the feelings through the link nearly overwhelmed Tony. He felt his eyes go wide as Steven caught him before his knees gave out. "I don't think that is for you to decide, but for him," Steven said sagely. "What we deserve doesn't come into it. We can only cherish what love comes our way."
"Don't," Steven said, his voice sharp as he gripped Tony's arm harder for a second. Then he let go, stepping away. "I've missed my chance," the king said simply. "Now the only thing left for me is to try to set my mistakes right again. I owe him that much."
"I'm told revenge doesn't help," Tony said, not quite believing his own words. He'd sought revenge far too often, though most of the time it had felt empty rather than satisfied. Except for Senator Stern. That had been extremely satisfying.
But Steve, it wasn't like Steve to want revenge. He fought to protect people. To make things right again, but not because he wanted to hurt people, even a dragon. It didn't seem right.
"You would do well to live by your own advice," Steven said, his eyes going dark. He refused to say more, ignoring Tony's questions for the rest of the afternoon.
* * *
Despite what Steven had said about making up for lost time, they took traveling pretty slow for the rest of the day. Tony couldn't decide if Steven was still tired from the previous night's activities, or if he was drawing out his time traveling with Tony.
Tony was just glad Steven had started talking to him again. Astron was in good spirits at least, alternating between flying ahead and bringing Tony small berries or flowers, and sitting on Tony's shoulder, with his tail wrapped around Tony's neck.
The sun was just starting to set when they reached the edge of the forest. Tony's breath caught in his chest as he saw the burnt fields and broken weapons littered across the soiled ground. There were no bodies nearby, but there were the occasional bones scattered here and there and what looked like a human skull not too far off. "What happened?" Tony asked, the sunset making the scorched earth look red with blood, even though he knew that it was just his imagination.
"The dragon," Steven said, a pain in his eyes that looked like an old wound. He stared out at the field, not seeing what was before them. "This used to be a beautiful place, where the star lilies and silver hyacinths grew. It was one of Anthony's favorite places to-"
Steven cut himself off and Tony hesitantly reached out. "Steven?"
"I'm sorry," Steven said, closing his eyes. "This is a place of many memories. The good ones are nothing but sorrow now, and the bad..."
"The bad ones look like they sucked," Tony said, squeezing Steven's shoulder lightly. "You okay?" he asked, uncertain of what to do. Emotions were not his strong point.
Steven opened his eyes, staring out at the field with a blank expression. "It will pass."
Astron chirped next to Tony's ear, questioning and hesitant, as if he knew things were serious but couldn't quite grasp it. It was a childlike naïveté that Tony almost wished Astron would never lose. Tony wanted to send both Astron and Steven reassurances, but he wasn't sure how. "You could... talk about it? If you want?" Tony said.
"It would not change things," Steven snapped, shaking his head. "This was my burden to bear."
"Steven, it's not your-"
Astron flew off with a chirp, spotting something curious in the distance. Tony couldn't have said how he knew this, but he did. Steven frowned, his eyes following Astron's path.
Tony sighed. Fine. See if he tried to be emotionally supportive again. "Let's see what he's found," Tony said as he started out after his wayward dragon. He noticed with a start that there were actual bodies along this path further in the distance. He felt a sharp worry settle in his gut. Whatever Astron had seen, it couldn't be good.
Steven caught his wrist, stopping him from moving. Tony looked back, raising an eyebrow. "I apologize for my shortness with you," Steven said, fingers lightly tracing over the inside of Tony's wrist. Tony fought back the urge to shiver at the touch. "It is a difficult thing for me to speak of, but your offer was kind. I should not have spoken harshly."
"It's a-okay, Cap," Tony said as Astron had a rush of triumph.
Steven smiled crookedly. "It appears I am not the only one who mistakes one person for another."
"Steven. I meant Steven. Uh, Astron found something. So we should-" Tony paused, going over the feelings Astron was sending him. "Something I'm looking for?"
Steven's face went blank again. "Stay here. I'll-"
"Like hell," Tony said, unpacking the gauntlet and summoning it to his arm. It formed around his fingers. He didn't know if he'd need it, but Steven's reaction told him something was up. "You know something," he said suspiciously.
"I have a guess," Steven said, closing his eyes again for a moment. "I hope for your sake that I am wrong."
With those ominous words, Tony followed after Steven, a cold feeling of dread rising up again. He tried calling Astron back, but the dragon just sent happy pride for finding something Tony was looking for. Astron was guarding it and it was pretty.
"That body is more recent than the other ones," Tony said as they picked their way through the increasing number of full skeletons and half-decaying bodies. The stench of the dead was making him queasy and his eyes were watering. A glance at Steven showed that even the king had a hand over his nose. They had been upwind of it before, but now it surrounded Tony and he was suffocating.
"The dragon seems to be using this as a burial ground for its challengers. These ones obviously failed the dragon's trials," Steven replied. "You should stay back. You needn't see this."
Tony swallowed down the bile as he made his way around a much fresher body, shaking his head stubbornly. If this was the big dragon's way of intimidating them, it was admittedly working pretty well. But Tony needed to see this, because more people would end up like this if he failed. The dragon had to be stopped. It wasn't just about going home anymore. He hadn't realized... With only Steven in that big empty castle, the fact that other people were still in danger hadn't quite set in. He had to put this right.
A chirp from Astron showed them where he had hidden, and Tony could feel the pleased hum the little dragon was giving off. But when Tony saw what Astron was guarding, the world dropped out from under him.
Among the rubble and bodies was a round shield, a silver star in the dead center surrounded by red, white, and blue circles. There were familiar bullet marks just under the surface that the new paint job barely hid and that Steve always smiled sadly at.
Astron was playfully poking at the shield, marveling at the metal that felt so different from anything the little dragon had seen before. He rubbed the top of his head against the star, eyes closing with pleasure as he poked and rolled the shield closer. That was when Tony saw a different shade of red on the shield. It was the rusty red of dried blood.
The small dragon stopped, chirping hesitantly when he saw Tony wasn't happy like he'd expected. He sent Tony the image of Steve - his Steve, probably taken from Tony's own memories - dressed up as Captain America, but minus the cowl. The shield was on his arm, and he was smiling at Tony with the sort of exasperated fondness he got whenever he told the Avengers to cut the chatter on the comms.
Tony's hands curled into fists.
"This was where Steve went missing," he said.
Steven traced the edges of his own shield, a kind of empathy in his eyes that Tony didn't want to see. "There was another version of me a few months back. I could not help him as I have you, as there are... limits to what I can do." There was a genuine grief in Steven's voice which Tony ignored, staring at the shield since he couldn't take his eyes off it.
"I had hoped that he was from a different place from you, or that he was spared some how. The dragon sometimes shows mercy, and with his likeness I thought..."
Tony didn't want to hear the excuses or know how Steve could have been here for months when it had only been a week back home. He didn't want to hear the explanations. He didn't want any of it.
Astron chirped, obviously upset. He flew around Tony's legs before darting back to the shield, rolling it closer and nudging it towards him.
"Tony Stark, you are distressing your dragon," Steven said sharply.
That snapped Tony out of it, and he slowly unclenched his fists. Astron was still pushing the shield closer, only pausing to dart around it frantically every so often, his eyes swirling black and yellow in anxiety. Tony walked over, kneeling beside the shield. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice only cracking a little. "You did good finding the shield, little guy. I'm not angry at you. Come here, please?"
Astron looked from Tony to the shield, confusion and distress in his wings' jerky movements. He pushed the shield into Tony's hands, and Tony closed his eyes as he gripped the vibranium, then he set it aside. He felt Steven's hand on his shoulder, and Tony took what little comfort he could from it as he opened his eyes again.
"He's too young to understand death," Steven said, his voice soft and sorrowful. "You have to put it in terms he'll understand."
Which meant in pictures. Tony took a deep breath to steady himself, then sent the picture of Steve that Astron had taken from his memories. Then he took the shield away from the image, showing just Steve. Gone.
Astron looked at the shield, then sent the picture back of just Steve with a confused chirp. "Yeah, he's gone," Tony said, feeling empty. "Not Steven, Steve."
Instead of coming closer to Tony though, Astron chirped again, then flew off. "Wait," Tony said, watching the little dragon flying low over the field. "What's he doing?"
"You have shown him a picture of your Steven?" Steven asked.
"Of Steve, yeah."
"Then he is probably looking for the body."
The body. There was no body that looked like Steve nearby, but it made him sick to think that Steve's body may just have been dumped here with rest, left to rot and for carrion eaters to pick at. Tony wasn't religious, but Steve was. And Steve deserved so much better.
"If there is no body, there may yet be a chance," Steven said quietly.
"Would you have given up your shield?" Tony asked, taking the shield in his hands. The vibranium felt like no other metal he'd handled before, just like Steve had been unique and one-of-a-kind. Tony pulled the shield against his chest, letting Steven's silence answer for him. Besides, if it had been months in this place, the body probably wouldn't be recognizable anymore given the state of some of these more recent bodies. "Didn't think so. The big dragon did this?"
"Yes." Steven stared at the star on the shield for a while before continuing. "That shield could do you service in the dragon's den."
"Not as good as Steve would," Tony said, waiting for the feeling of triumph from Astron that would confirm what he already knew.
"Maybe not," Steven said, squeezing his shoulder. "But I would have wanted my Anthony to use it to protect himself. And I would be proud to have him use it."
"You don't know my Steve," Tony said a little hysterically. They were friends, sure, maybe moving towards something more, but their relationship was always a work in progress outside of battles. It had been getting better before this latest hiccup, but he didn't know where that left him now. He never would. "He was angry at me at the start of all of this. And now he's..." Tony cut himself off. He'd never be able to apologize.
"I know myself," Steven said, drawing Tony into a proper hug. Tony let him, fighting the stinging in his eyes when he realized his Steve would never do this. His breath hitched, but he fought to keep calm. He couldn't afford to break down now.
"And I know," Steven continued, and Tony latched onto his voice. It was just different enough that he could tell himself he wasn't searching for Steve's voice. "I know that no matter how angry I was with Anthony, I never stopped loving him. If there was anyone I would trust my shield to, it would be to him."
"We weren't as close as you and Anthony," Tony protested.
"You were close enough," Steven replied. "I see it in your eyes every time you look at me. You may not realize it yet, but I know you. And I see what I missed for all those years."
"What do you-" Tony was cut off by a distressed feeling from Astron, pulling away from Steven as he looked around. "Astron?" he called, feeling panic when he didn't see the little dragon anywhere.
"What's wrong?" Steven said sharply, his hand going towards his sword.
"I don't know. He's distressed, but I can't-" He caught sight of Astron in the distance, running to the little dragon as quickly as he was able to navigate through the sea of rusting weapons. Astron flew around him in circles until Tony managed to grab him by the middle, careful of the wings that were still beating rapidly instead of Astron's usual glide.
"Easy," Tony said, clamping down on his own panic. "Honey, what's wrong?"
Astron folded his wings, allowing Tony to hold him close. "Shh," he said, cradling Astron against his chest. "You're okay, Silverado. What happened?"
Tony got the picture of Steve without the shield that he had sent earlier, then a blank. "You couldn't find him?" Tony asked, getting an affirmative. "That's okay. You tried your best. You did enough finding the shield. Shh. It's okay, sweetheart."
Except it wasn't okay. Astron sent back the emotions Tony had been feeling earlier, then his own dark failure. "No, baby," Tony said, hugging the little dragon tighter. "Sometimes the right thing hurts. But you did right, showing it to me. It's just... It's not your fault Steve is dead."
Steve was dead. The words felt like they were torn out of him. God, what were the rest of the team going to say? They had just managed to form the team, and Barnes was still out there and Natasha was still recovering from the whole SHIELD mess. And Tony was going to have to tell them that Steve was dead.
He felt strong arms pulling him back against a chest that Tony could pretend for a fleeting second was Steve, and that things were okay. That he could give Steve back his shield, berate him for dropping something his father had made again. But the voice in his ear was older, more weathered, and there was no mistaking it. "You should take your own advice," Steven said as he held the both of them. "It's not your fault."
Tony closed his eyes, letting Astron curl around his neck and nuzzle. It was his fault for not finding Steve sooner. He'd been down in the lab refining JARVIS's search, but he could have done more. He could have...
He took a deep breath at Astron's anxious chirp, pushing the emotions away. He couldn't afford to do this right now. Maybe his Steve was good enough to fight for the right reasons and save people, but Tony wasn't. Steve wasn't here any more to lead him right either. The dragon had killed him.
Tony opened his eyes, looking across the wasteland in the last light of the fading sun to where he had left the shield. It glistened in the orange light, silver and white turning a more threatening color.
Tony was going to avenge Steve, even if it was the last thing he did. The dragon was going down.
* * *
They moved further into the dragon's territory before making camp for the night. Just enough distance to put the field and the smell of rotting flesh behind them. Tony sat by the fire, trying to clean the blood off the shield until it shone. He might not be deserving of it, but he would take care of the shield until he could find someone who was worthy. Maybe when Barnes got his life together...
Tony didn't want to have to think about this.
Steven and Astron were searching for dinner as Tony tended the fire and set up camp. The area was rocky with lots of hills to keep visibility poor, but Tony didn't give much thought to the surroundings beyond listening to Steven worry. He wanted...
"I told you, you're so self-absorbed!"
Tony nearly dropped the shield. He scrambled for it before it hit the ground, looking across the fire to see...
"You're alive," Tony said, his voice cracking on the words as he clutched the shield against his chest.
"No thanks to you," Steve said viciously.
Tony reeled back as if he'd been hit. Steve was in civilian clothes, and his eyes were burning with fury as he stepped closer. Tony realized with a start that it was the same white shirt that Steve had been wearing during their fight. "Steve, I-"
"Would you have noticed I was gone, or would you just have stayed in your lab till you passed out because your 'work' is more important than your team? No, don't tell me. You'd only lie again anyway. I can't trust you to be an Avenger!"
"That's not true," Tony said, swallowing heavily. "I was trying to find you. I wouldn't - I wouldn't lie about that."
"You were pushing yourself to exhaustion again, ignoring the fact that you could be called on at any minute. I bet none of the code you wrote even worked, but you wouldn't tell some one that, not if it meant someone else can step up and be better than you." Steve stalked closer, ripping the shield out of Tony's hands. "You failed when we needed you. And you failed when I needed you. You lied, which is about all you're good for, aren't you? You don't deserve the shield."
Tony looked down, not able to meet Steve's eyes. "The code worked. I can't just stop everything in my life, Steve! I can't..."
"Maybe not, but you could at least tell the truth," Steve said, his eyes cold. "If I can't trust you, you're not on the team."
"No, Steve, you don't know anything about-" Tony's anger drained away, seeing Steve on the ground, his shield on his arm. He was rotting like the bodies they'd seen earlier. "No. No. You were alive. Steve..."
"You're a liar, Stark. This was your fault."
Tony woke up, barely suppressing the scream on his lips. His heart was pounding, and he could feel his body trembling. He jumped at the fingers ghosting through his hair, looking up to see Steve - Steven staring down at him with a worried expression. Astron was also chirping drowsily, stirring in Tony's arms, and Tony clamped down on the link to keep from waking the dragon further.
"I'm fine," Tony snapped, pushing the covers off him.
"Of course you are," Steve said, but his voice wasn't condescending. "Sit with me a while?"
Tony had been all set to go off by himself to calm down where no one would judge him, but the offer caught him off guard. The off-kilter feeling was doubled by the love the now awake Astron sent that chased after the anger and grief the dream had left him with. "Astron," he choked out.
"Come," Steven said as Astron rubbed his head against Tony's neck. "Sit with me. It's a cold night and I could use the company."
Wordlessly, Tony stood on shaky legs, moving to sit by the fire with Steven. Astron moved to his neck, curling up with a hum and nearly overwhelming Tony with the flood of love and affection with just a hint of stubbornness any time Tony started to wonder what he'd done to deserve it.
Tony glanced across the fire to see Steve's shield, the fire flickering and reflecting off the metal as the soft crackling and burning wood overcame the sound of his labored breathing. Tony looked down again as a fresh feeling of grief hit him. He was met with redoubled love and affection from Astron, but even that couldn't chase away grief. Tony could lose himself in it though, and he almost wanted to.
"It's a little overwhelming when they do that, isn't it?" Steven asked, his voice gentle and soft.
"I... I don't deserve this," Tony admitted, then gasped as Astron nipped at his ear and shoved pictures of Tony into his mind. The one with the bright light shining through his chest and new ones, of Tony being warm curled around Astron, of letting Steven rest in his lap, of the tenderness in Tony's eyes as he smiled at Astron, and Tony comforting Astron when he'd failed. That must be wrong, because the sheer kindness Astron saw in Tony had to be exaggerated. But the moment he thought that, Astron gave him countless small examples and the little dragon's gratitude nearly left him breathless.
"What did I say of whom decides such matters?" Steven said with clear amusement. "Accept it, Tony Stark, and treasure it. Never take your dragon's love for granted as I did."
Tony didn't imagine there would ever be a time when he would stop marveling at the love this little creature gave him. It was too overwhelming. "Your dragon," Tony asked hesitantly, because any topic was better than talking about Steve, but this was probably not a good path to tread. "What happened to him?"
Steve stared into the fire, his expression dark. At first, Tony assumed he wasn't going to get an answer. But then just before Tony could brush off the question and make a joke, Steve started to speak. "Sometimes when I see you and Astron, I remember how he would..." Steven stopped, his voice breaking before he got control of it, packing everything away. "He was a brilliant gold that always reminded me of the sun, and he was just as bright and giving. I was sickly and thin when I first saw him playing with the village children. A dragon bond is rare, but many of the children were still trying to win him over with treats and games. I wanted to try too, but I was too ill to leave my bed."
A small smile tipped Steven's lips that was colored by nostalgia and sorrow. "I never knew why he came to me. I never felt like I deserved him either, but for some reason he stayed, and he made a nuisance of himself in my mother's kitchen. He hated all the names I tried to give him. It was my mother who called him Isern when he knocked over the pans one too many times, despite the fact that he was gold. He liked that name, and he just... stayed. He'd beg for dinner scraps even when all the other children offered him full meals. And when we couldn't afford to put food on the table, he'd bring home a rabbit or a small boar, and just leave it on the doorstep like a cat leaving a mouse."
"How quaint," Tony said, thinking back to the rabbit from this morning. It was a good thing Astron would never want for food at the Tower.
Steven chuckled softly. "Isern had a mind of his own. I remember how angry I was when I figured out he'd been changing me, making me stronger and healthier, without even a proper bond. I thought it was just pity, and I was so angry with him that I yelled at him to stop.
"Then the war came, and there were so many men and women that were laying down their lives to protect us. I could do no less."
"You enlisted," Tony said, hearing a familiar story.
"Not that anyone would have me," Steven said, shaking his head. "Finally, I went back to Isern. He never held a grudge. That came after the bond, and it's my shame to realize my humanity taught him what a grudge was. He was so happy when I returned. He offered the bond then, which I realized he'd been trying to offer all along, but was scared I would refuse. And you're right. It's impossible to say no in the face of that much love."
Astron hummed softly in Tony's ear, and Tony sent back a wave of love, which gained him a happy hum and answering emotion. He never wanted to taint the pureness of Astron's love. He wondered if it was inevitable though, given how very flawed Tony was.
"After that, I became as you see me now. I fought and rose through the ranks, and eventually they asked me to lead. I never wanted to be king, but Isern convinced me it would be for the best. Sometimes I wonder if he hadn't orchestrated the whole thing, but I know he knew me well enough to not want to force this crown upon me.
"He loved to create more than anything. Isern had a powerful magic, but I would often see him making toys for the children or gadgets to help the poor. Isern's heart was so kind and open, that I never suspected..."
"What happened?" Tony asked.
Steven leaned forward, his chin resting in his hands as he stared into the fire. "I never realized he was so good at hiding things. Another war came along, and we argued over what to do. We couldn't see eye to eye, and I found out... I found out that he had lied to me on something important. I felt betrayed, more betrayed than I had ever felt before, and we quarreled. And then..."
Steven didn't speak for a long while, and Tony hesitantly touched Steven's shoulder. He started, looking at Tony in shock before sorrow took its place. "I'm sorry," Tony said, knowing what he'd just done. Whoever Steven's Anthony had been, it was all too easy to see his own Steve in this version. Denial was a strong calling.
"Don't be," Steven said, reaching out to trace his fingers along Tony's goatee, like he was touching a ghost to be sure he was real. "We were the only ones to blame, and I am..." Steven swallowed, pulling away just before his fingers reached Tony's lips. "I am grateful to have this chance with you. To make things right. I owe my Anthony that much."
Tony knew that look of longing. It was the same draw that made him see his Steve instead of Steven there. He leaned against Steven's shoulder, linking his arm through the king's.
"I am not your Steven," Steven said, his voice choked.
"You've seen whoever this Anthony is in me every day since we've met," Tony said, not caring for once that he was being compared to the dead and found lacking. "Let me pretend for tonight."
"Alright," Steven said, his voice quiet and soft as he gave in and pulled Tony closer.
The last thing Tony remembered before he fell asleep was how good it felt to fall asleep on Steve's shoulder.
* * *
He woke up on top of Steve, and for one glorious moment he allowed himself to revel in the feel of Steve's chest beneath him. Astron was curled up in his arms dreaming peacefully, and he had Steve's arms around him. He'd honestly never thought of waking up with Steve in his bed (or waking up in Steve's), but now that he was here, Tony could get used to it. Especially with Steve's hand running through his hair. He'd known that he and Steve were working towards a deeper friendship, but this... this was different. A good different. He could get used to this feeling, of waking up next to someone again.
But it only lasted a few seconds as Tony realized the fabric of Steve's shirt was all wrong and there were scars underneath the shirt that didn't belong to Steve. When he looked up, it was Steven's weathered face looking down at him, not Steve's. Steve was dead. He wasn't allowed to get used to this.
"I apologize," Steven said, looking as though he were trying to memorize the moment as well, running his fingers through Tony's hair one last time. "It is not right of me to take advantage like this."
"You could come back with me to my world. It's not like there's anything for you here," Tony said, catching himself from reaching out as Steven pulled away.
"We both know that wouldn't work," Steven said, helping Tony sit up before moving to their supplies.
"Why not?" Tony asked, knowing he shouldn't push, because Steven was right. The thought of trying to replace Steve was sickening, but he wanted Steve back. There was so much they could have been, and he was almost a little resentful of Steven for showing it to him.
"You know why," Steven said, reproach in his tone to remind Tony of how he was once again lacking. Tony didn't look up to see the disapproval in his eyes, but he heard Steven sigh again. "I've had more time to adjust to the loss. But you know why we can't-"
"Not like you're being hypocritical at all," Tony said bitterly. He looked up this time to see Steven wince. "You'll allow it only when you want it?"
"Please," Steven said, his voice a ghost of a whisper. "Can we not fight?"
Tony looked down at Astron, remembering the last words he'd said to Steve before... "I'm sorry," Tony said, feeling the will to fight drain out of him. "I didn't - I mean..."
"I'm sorry too," Steven said, returning to sit by Tony again and drawing him into a brief hug. "You're right. It has been unfair to both me and to you. Your grief is still fresh. I know it is the pain lashing out, not you, and I shouldn't have let my own sorrow take advantage of yours."
Tony didn't let himself linger in the hug, though he wanted to. It would only hurt more in the end, the more he knew he was missing.
"He may yet be alive," Steven said quietly, looking at the round shield.
"Maybe," Tony agreed, though he didn't get his hopes up.
* * *
They set off early that day, the hike sober and still. Even Astron seemed to understand the need for silence. He didn't hum or chirp, and he never strayed too far from Tony either, his tail usually wrapped around Tony's neck as a constant reminder that he wasn't alone.
Tony was pathetically grateful for that. With Steve... With Steve dead, he didn't want to be alone, no matter how much his instincts used to crave it. He'd had a taste of companionship, and now he couldn't let go of it.
It was half a day's walk before they came to the base of a small mountain. Tony could see a large cavern that looked dark and menacing. One obvious dragon's lair, served with an extra flourish of bones along the walls. "We can leave our stuff here?" Tony asked as he unpacked the gauntlet and pulled on the leathers.
"Either you triumph and are sent home, or you fail and the supplies won't be of use to you anyway," Steven said with a shrug.
"Well, when you put it that way," Tony said, rolling his eyes. He called the gauntlet to his arm, watching as it formed around him. Knowing this would hurt, he struck Thor's stone against the repulsor, biting his lip against crying out as the electricity danced up his shoulder.
"You couldn't have done that before you put it on?" Steven asked, worry lacing his voice.
Tony drew a deep breath, shaking his head. "It wouldn't have charged right," he said, relaxing his shoulders. It would be different if the armor was all together, but just a piece made charging it tricky, and he couldn't afford a false charge. It actually hurt a lot less than he thought it would, which was always a plus. He should have up to six hours of continuous fire now, not that he was planning on flying anywhere with one gauntlet.
Astron chirped, his eyes swirling light green in curiosity. "Wait 'til you see the full armor," Tony told him with a grin that he didn't feel. "You'll be impressed then."
He got a sense of love and affection despite a distinct lack of impressed-ness. "Hey! The armor is awesome! I can't be bonded to a dragon that doesn't like the armor."
"I think he already knows better than to stroke your ego," Steven said, before sobering as he looked at the cave. "And this is where I must leave you."
"Wait, what?" Tony looked up sharply. "You're kidding."
Steven didn't look at him, but his hand went to his wounded shoulder, massaging it lightly. "I wish I were, but I cannot enter that cave beside you. My power does not extend there."
"So what, you come all this way here just to dump me on the dragon's doorstep? 'Here, dragon, have a nice snack,' is that it?" Tony asked, his voice tight. His fingers curled into fists. His Steve wouldn't have left him.
"Tony, that is not-"
"You said it yourself. You caused this!" He could hear Astron hissing in his ear, but his rage only doubled. "Do you always let people kidnapped from another world do your dirty work, or am I just special because I look like your dead friend? What would he think, that you're too cowardly to face up to the mess you caused?"
Steven took a step back as if Tony had slapped him. "Please, don't," he said, closing his eyes in pain, but Tony could see his knuckles were white with anger.
"Don't what?" Tony snapped. "Don't get angry because you're abandoning me? Is that what you did to your Anthony? Abandon him and leave him to fight the dragon for you, to die in your place?"
Steven's face twisted in grief and fury. "You know not of what you speak."
"Damn right, I don't! All you've done since we've met is string me along. Magic says only I can kill the dragon. Magic says you can't go with me. Magic says you're a coward and an asshat!" He was shouting now, vaguely aware Astron was growling, but all the dragon did was feed his own deep red anger. "I don't give a fuck what magic says. All I see is-"
"Tony Stark, control your dragon," Steven said, cutting through Tony's tirade with a command voice that brought him up short. That and the small amount of real panic in Steven's eyes.
"Why should I?" Tony asked, the crimson anger still fueling him.
"Because if you don't calm Astron, you will fight two dragons today and your tragedies will double. Calm him before he turns into the same monster we came here to fight!" Steven said.
Tony looked at Astron, who was still growling, his eyes swirling a deep red, the color of blood. There were no other colors mixed in, just that single angry shade. He was staring at Steven, his claws digging into Tony's shoulder enough to break through his skin. "Astron," he choked out, but the dragon didn't turn to face him. He stared at Steven.
"No," Tony said, trying for firm, but ended up closer to a whisper. "Astron, Silverado, calm down. You're hurting me," he said, trying again. He sent calming colors and grasped for the love Astron usually always sent him, but it wasn't there. It was like gazing at the roaring Hulk.
Tony sent his own love back through the link instead. It was broken and flawed, but it was the best he could do. "Come on, Silver Bell. Astron, baby, calm down. Please. I love you." The final words weighted his shoulders like the world pressing down on him, but Tony kept going, scratching Astron's eye ridges as he fought down his own panic. "Listen to me. We have to calm down. I need you to let go of my shoulder, sugar pie. Please?"
Astron's eyes slowed their swirling, the angry red fading to lighter colors. "That's it. You're good. Nothing to be angry about," Tony continued, pushing down his own anger.
Finally, Astron let go of Tony's shoulder, and he was able to move the little dragon into his lap. Steven immediately began to pull off Tony's leathers and pushed aside his shirt, moving to clean the wound with their medical supplies. Tony hadn't even seen him get them out.
"Hold still," Steven said gently. "He will be confused. You must calm him."
"Still angry with you," Tony said, though there wasn't much heat to it as he was still sending calming colors to Astron. He hissed as the medieval equivalent of an antiseptic was slathered across his shoulder, but automatically murmured reassurances to Astron's chirp.
Finally, he could feel the normal love flowing through the link, and Astron came out of the red haze he'd been in. The dragon blinked up at him, bafflement in his eyes. He took in the state of Tony's shoulder and chirped a question.
"I'm okay. You didn't hurt me too bad," Tony said.
Dark blacks and browns filled Astron's eyes. "No, it wasn't your fault, honey. It's okay, shh..." Tony sent what love he could through the link, and all the forgiveness he had. Astron looked miserable, his head hanging low against Tony's arm, but at least he wasn't angry anymore.
Which meant Tony could go back to the conversation at hand, though this time with a very tight control over the emotions he allowed through the link. "When were you going to tell me this could happen?" he asked, feeling calm despite the fury coursing through him.
Steven applied a bandage to Tony's shoulder, wrapping it tightly. "It won't need stitches," he said, shaking his head. "He should have needed years of development and the bond to come to that point."
"Is there anything else that should take years or months and would be useful to know?" Tony snapped, before sending more love and calming thoughts to Astron. Damned if that meant keeping his own temper too.
"Plenty," Steven said, his lips set in a grim line. "But we're sitting outside the dragon's doorstep and we don't have time. If you survive, I'll tell you the information you need to know."
"And when were you going to decide I needed to know the dragon I'm fighting is Isern?" Tony said, finally having the time to link the two together.
Steven closed his eyes, but not before Tony caught the look of open grief shuttered behind them. "All that remained of the Isern I knew died when he changed from gold to red."
All at once, what Tony had said earlier came crashing back to him. Wow, yeah, Tony had... That was beyond crappy. He held Astron a little too tightly, but Astron just chirped, his sad eyes still swirling with guilt as he tried to nuzzle against Tony. Tony's own guilt had a choke hold around him, and he couldn't look up to meet Steven's eyes.
"I would give anything to go in there with you," Steven said quietly, his voice breaking Tony's heart and words driving home the guilt. "He would... I owe him that much, to finish him myself. But I cannot enter that cave. The spell that brought you here binds me as much as him. And I have kept things from you. He would call me a hypocrite, and rightfully so. But there is power in belief, and my own power is no longer enough. Now all I can do is await the result and give you what aid I can. And for that, there are no amount of apologies that could make up for my failure."
"I'm sorry," Tony said, not sure if he was apologizing for his behavior or for Steven's grief. Because what he'd said earlier had been inexcusable, and Steven was right. He hadn't known all the details before lashing out. He should have known Steve better than to assume that.
Steven helped Tony back into the leathers without a word and Tony ignored the pain of having to raise his arm up instead focusing on Steve's hands lingering along his shoulder. "You were right," Steven said finally. "There are many things I should have told you. And there are some things I will not tell you now, because the magic in balance is too fickle for me to say. But I hope you will forgive me this transgression, as I have forgiven you."
"Steven, you weren't-"
It occurred to Tony belatedly that Steven hadn't meant the secrets when he'd been talking about transgressions. Mostly the only reason it did occur to him was that Steven's lips were pressed against his, soft and inviting in a way that Tony could not refuse. He didn't know why, but he wanted this so badly that it hurt, and he was willing to yield, to let it happen, despite the pain it brought.
But it wasn't only his pain and betrayal.
"Astron?" Tony said as he pushed Steven away, looking down at the dragon in his arms. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?" The dragon hadn't been crushed between them, but Tony may have been holding on too tight.
Tony didn't get a response of physical pain though. The hurt and betrayal was being covered up by Astron's usual unending love and affection. There was a forced happiness on top of that as if the dragon were smiling at something painful.
"No, something is wrong," Tony said. He got a stronger pulse of love and happiness. "Astron? Silver Bell, what's wrong? Did I hurt you?"
He looked up to see that Steven was kneeling down until he was eye to eye with Astron. "It appears my foolishness has hurt more than the two of us," Steven said, reaching out to scratch Astron's eye ridges. "I owe you my apologies as well, little one. It was my weakness that has caused you such pain."
The weirdest part was that Astron let Steven close. Sure, they didn't have the animosity Astron had started out with any more, but Tony had always gotten the impression the 'friendly' rivalry was only there because he hadn't wanted Astron to hurt Steven. Now Astron was leaning up into Steven's touch like he did with Tony, and Tony was very obviously missing something here.
"What's going on?" he asked plaintively. "Why is Astron hurt?"
"That was my fault, not yours," Steven said. "And perhaps you will handle it better than I. I do not claim to understand the pace of your bond's growth, but it may yet give you insight I was blind to."
"That doesn't answer my question," Tony said, attempting to send love though the link. Why wasn't Astron telling him what was wrong?
"Perhaps one day he will be able to tell you himself," Steven said. "It appears Astron can rush many things, but learning human speech is not one of them. You will have to wait until he is ready."
Maybe Astron couldn't tell him what was wrong? But that had never stopped Astron from trying before. But Astron just chirped and sent the same happiness that was overshadowed by sorrow. Tony didn't know what to do with it other than to send as much love as he could back. That at least got him a real flash of happy blue as Astron climbed up to his good shoulder.
"I wish you'd agreed to actual armor," Steven said, changing the subject as he critically eyed the holes in Tony's leather.
"They weren't that deep. More scratches than anything," Tony said, allowing the shift. The wound stung like a bitch now that he was thinking about it, but he could still use his arm and the bleeding had probably stopped by now. The claws hadn't dug in that far.
"But Astron's claws went right through the leather," Steven said, and yeah, point.
Still, Tony wasn't used to moving in actual armor. He missed the Iron Man armor, mourning the fact he only had one gauntlet. "The dragon didn't exactly let me keep my regular armor," Tony replied with a shrug. The leather would have to do.
Steven sighed as he stood, looking at the cavern with longing. Tony felt the guilt returning. "Steven-" he started.
"You should go. Be careful," Steven said, turning away from the sight.
"Am I really going to kill your..." Tony couldn't say it. This was the dragon that killed his Steve, and he was still furious and grieving, but thinking about someone hurting Astron made his stomach lurch painfully and chip away at his need for revenge. The way Steven described Isern was that the dragon had been kind and intelligent. Was there really no hope?
"This is why I tried to keep it from you," Steven said, closing his eyes. "He has become something that would have repulsed him, and it was my fault. He has become the monster I accused him of being all those years ago. I must ask you to end things, as I have lost that right. If you do not, many more people will die."
"This is a tragedy of our own making," Steven said, reaching up to pet Astron, who once again let him. "We were both foolish and have paid a high price for it. My one regret is needing to bring you in to end it for us. You did not need our troubles."
"Neither did Steve," Tony said. It didn't matter who the dragon was. Isern had killed his Steve and now... Now Tony didn't even have the chance to start what they could have been. He hadn't even known they could have been more until it was too late, and the loss left him feeling empty in a way even Astron's love couldn't quite fill.
"Be careful," Steven said, his hand moving from Astron to Tony's cheek. "Do not make our mistakes. I... I do not wish for you to repeat our tragedy."
"You haven't exactly told me what those mistakes are," Tony said, feeling the frustration rise.
"After," Steven said quietly. "But if we stall any longer, he will know I am here."
"Alright then," Tony said, turning to leave.
"Take this," Steven said.
Tony turned back to see him holding out Steve's shield. When Tony didn't reach for it, he slipped it on Tony's non-gauntleted arm. "I can't-"
"You can," Steven said firmly. "If nothing else, you should take it back to your world with you."
Tony swallowed and nodded, despite the sick feeling of separating the shield from wherever Steve's body had ended up. Even if he couldn't bring home the body, he could at least see to it that the shield was cared for. Steve had cared for the shield like it was an extension of himself.
He looked away as Astron chirped curiously at the shield, fascinated with it in a way Tony didn't quite understand. It felt awkward on his arm, a constant reminder of who should really have the shield.
"Don't look back," Steven said, stepping away.
Tony didn't say anything, walking towards the cavern opening. He had a gauntlet, the shield, and Astron on his shoulder, who hummed softly to calm his nerves. This wasn't going to be easy, but he would avenge Steve and end things for Steven. He owed them that much.
It was a short walk down to the cavern, and when he looked back to see Steven one last time, no one was there.
* * *
The cave was much better lit than Tony would have expected a cave to be. The stones in the walls glowed with what Tony was going to assume was some scientific process rather than magic to keep his own sanity. Because magic sucks. So obviously, science at work here. He was sure he could come up with a theory if he had the time to study them.
Astron snorted, not the least impressed with Tony's deductions.
Astron, in the very least, had recovered. The guilt was gone, since he took Tony's forgiveness at face value and past/present/future was a harder concept for Astron than some other things. He was still a little subdued, but his mood didn't feel as forced and he was alert, sitting on Tony's shoulder as he watched the shadows for danger.
The cave was smooth, obviously man - or dragon - made. The completely scientifically-based lights were placed every few feet and emitted a warm glow. The walls were unadorned otherwise. There weren't even any bodies or blood around, just the Spartan-like halls. Tony had thought that dragons were supposed to hoard gold or something, but this was practically barren. "Cheerful place," he muttered, earning him a soft bite on his ear from Astron and a stern warning to be quiet. Astron was getting to be just as bad as Steve on the comms when-
Tony cut off that thought. He needed to keep a clear head if he wanted to avenge Steve.
It was a long corridor, but thankfully there was only one path. It finally opened up into a bigger chamber. Before Tony could get a good look around, he fired at a movement out of the corner of his eye, just barely managing to get the shield up to block a pair of red claws. "Son of a-" he said as his knees buckled under the weight of the dragon.
Astron flew off his shoulder, using his claws to scrape along the bigger dragon's back. There was a loud roar as Isern moved back, allowing Tony to roll away as Steve had taught him. Then as Natasha had taught him, he fired the repulsor at the nearest bit of dragon he could find, because Natasha liked to say that there was no such thing as fighting dirty when the goal was to stay alive.
He must have hit something, because there was another pain-filled roar. Except that when Tony peeked out from behind the shield, what he saw nearly stopped his heart.
Isern himself was beautiful, a blood red color tipped with gold along his wing bones. Tony wouldn't have said any dragon was particularly beautiful at the start of this, but now his aesthetic had changed, no doubt due to his own dragon. Even with a missing eye, Isern moved with a sensuous grace that was mesmerizing to watch. Or would be, if he weren't snapping a pair of powerful jaws as his long neck snaked after Astron.
Tony moved into the dragon's blind spot, shooting at the more frail-looking wing. It didn't punch through like he'd hoped, but it did leave a nasty-looking burn that made the wing twitch in pain. And then the single red eye was focused all on him.
Well, that could have been planned better. He stepped back as the dragon's claws dragged across the shield with a high screech. He couldn't afford to be pinned again, not when he was a normal human in terms of strength. Astron didn't give him super-strength as part of their bond, sadly.
He ducked under Isern's body, shooting at the dragon's belly as he was slammed into the cavern wall by a large claw. The shield took the worst of the blow, but Tony was still badly jarred.
He grit his teeth against the pain, struggling to his feet. He heard Astron screeching, feeling the little dragon's fury. Struggling to look up, he saw Astron hovering between him and Isern just as the red dragon reared back in a position Tony remembered Astron taking in the forest with the dead rabbit.
Tony swore, praying he wouldn't hurt Astron as he grabbed the silver dragon by the wing and huddled down so that the shield would cover both of them as scorching fire erupted around them.
He could feel the sweat dripping at his temples as he tried to do a quick mental calculation of how hot vibranium had to be to burn him. "Do you realize how much bigger he is than you?" Tony shouted at Astron over the fire's roar.
He got a distinctly unimpressed feeling along with a picture of a very small Tony next to a very large dragon.
"I have a weapon," Tony groused. "And I didn't ask for your sass. Dragons are not allowed to be sassy."
Astron didn't bother to answer that, instead shooting out from the cover as soon as the stream of fire stopped. Tony didn't have time to wipe the sweat away, firing with the repulsor to turn Isern's good eye on him and not the stupid little silver dragon with a death wish.
Thankfully, Isern was ignoring Astron for now. Not so thankfully, it meant Tony found himself on the other end of Isern's claws. Tony grunted in pain as he was pressed against the cavern wall, pinned once again. He'd only barely managed to bring the shield up to block the claw that threatened to impale him. One of the talons grazed across his cheek, but he had more pressing matters to deal with. Literally, as the dragon pressed the shield against his chest to crush him. Damn it, he wasn't supposed to let Isern trap him again.
The repulsors weren't working. Tony gasped as it pressed harder, his vision swimming as he reached for the dagger at his hip. Looks like he was going to have to use the damned magic knife after all, because fucking magic.
He couldn't reach it though, not pinned as he was. Tony struggled to gain some leverage to dislodge the claw, but he couldn't breathe.
And then Astron was there, hissing and scratching at the giant claw that dwarfed him. Tony fell to his knees, coughing and gasping for breath as Isern released him. He forced himself to ignore his burning lungs and climb to his feet, drawing the knife with his gauntleted hand. Blinking back the tears of pain, Tony searched for Astron.
The little silver dragon was in the air, eyes whirling a defiant grey and brown. He darted in and out, attacking Isern with a single-minded focus on Isern's good eye. But Tony could see Isern pulling back for - "Astron!" he called out, unable to get to the dragon's side while he was that high in the air.
Instead of breathing fire, Isern's eye blinked, blue seeping into the red. The larger dragon jerked back as Astron flew to Tony's shoulder, both of them overwhelmed by the sudden fear coursing through the cavern.
Isern moved to the far side of the cavern, his head low to the ground as if trying to make himself smaller.
What the hell just happened?
Fighting back the fear that was being pressed against his mind, Tony cleared his throat. "Uh, did the fight just end? Because that was anti-climactic," he said. While Tony had no compunction against hitting an opponent who was down, something didn't feel right about hitting one that had stopped fighting all together. He sheathed the dagger, freeing up his hand pet Astron and reassure himself that the silver dragon was still there.
Shame replaced the fear, almost staggering in its ferocity. 'End it,' a voice said in his head. It was a startlingly familiar voice. That was...
Tony felt his hands curl into fists. Yet another thing Steven hadn't seen fit to tell him. "Yeah, no. That's not how this works. I'm not just... What did you do to my Steve?"
The dragon lifted its head, one swirling blue eye staring unnervingly at him. Tony was not a short man by any means, but he felt small next to the dragon, and as Astron trembled against his neck, Tony took a step forward, feeling his own anger this time. "Yeah, this shield. The guy who had it. I know you know what happened to him. What did you do?"
'He took my eye,' the voice said, the scar glistening in the glowing lights.
Tony thought back to the blood that had been on the shield. He was both glad to know it wasn't Steve's and a little repulsed to know he'd cleaned off bits of a dragon's eye. "What did you do to him?" Tony demanded.
'Fail the trial and you will learn his fate.'
"And the 'trial' is to kill you," Tony said, feeling furious. "That's why you brought me here, to kill you. What happened? When you brought my Steve here and he refused, did you just toss him aside?"
Isern roared in anger, his tail lashing out. For a moment, Tony thought he would attack again, but Isern's eye was still blue. It was unnerving, seeing a solid color that didn't match the dragon's emotions. Isern calmed after a moment, and Tony was able to trace lines of gold down his wings as they folded at his side.
'I did not bring your friend here. That was the King's magic at work.
"What?" Tony asked, feeling betrayed. Steven had...
'The King has wanted me dead for a long time,' Isern said, the voice inside Tony's mind ringing with bitterness. 'It comes as no surprise he would save up his magic to call another version of himself here. I decided I would choose this time. If he wishes me dead even after all these years, then he should have his wish.'
"So you brought me here," Tony finished for the dragon. It made a sick amount of sense. "But he said that there was nothing left of you. That you were-"
'I am a monster,' Isern said, cutting him off. 'The King was right on that account, even if he refused to admit I still have some reason.'
"But why?!" Tony asked, feeling Astron nuzzling at his cheek. He knew the little dragon was confused and Tony himself wasn't faring much better. "You're obviously still aware? What the hell were you doing, killing all those people?"
'The madness comes and goes,' Isern said, resting his triangular head on the ground as he closed his single eye in weariness. 'It comes more often now, and my lucidity less. When the King.... When Steven broke the bond, I became unstable. The madness will continue until there is nothing of me left.'
"Why would he do that?" Tony demanded, feeling Astron's tail wrap around his neck. He couldn't imagine trying to break the bond between them. The thought made his stomach twist in knots, and Astron gave a distressed chirp. Tony responded with all the love and reassurance he could muster. A week ago, he would have thought such a bond to be ridiculous. Now he couldn't imagine a life without Astron. He couldn't see how Steven could be that cruel to Isern either.
'Because of my choice,' Isern said. 'There was no other way. It was a choice between killing hundreds or watching millions die. I could not let Steven die. He never forgave me for my choice.'
Judging by the guilt Tony could still feel pressing against his mind, he doubted Isern had forgiven himself either. He didn't know the details, but Tony knew the dread rolling around his stomach. He hoped he would never have to face that kind of choice, because he didn't know what he'd choose.
Tony swallowed. "Could you reform the bond? I think Steven's willing to listen at this point."
'You do not know of what you speak,' Isern said, but he didn't sound angry like Steven had. Just tired.
"Why not? If you offered, I'm sure-"
'He hates me to this day, enough to give protection and aid to many who would try to kill me,' Isern said, opening his eye. He was struck by how strange it was again, that the eye was only one color. Astron always had at least two or three, and usually of varying shades. But Isern's eye was always blue, one solid color, with none of the emotion Tony could feel.
This whole situation was starting to make Tony angry.
"Have you tried talking to him?" Tony snapped, annoyed at Isern's unwillingness to even try.
'Would you?' Isern asked shrewdly.
Tony flushed. No, he would definitely not want to talk to Steve if he'd done something that terrible. The look in Steve's eyes might very well kill him. He'd do it in a heartbeat right now though, if it meant Steve was alive.
'End this,' Isern repeated. 'Finish what I brought you here to do while I'm still myself.'
"I can't just kill you," Tony said. Astron chirped beside him, projecting support. Isern had... He'd killed Steve, but this? This situation was so fucked up Tony didn't know what to do anymore.
'You can,' the red dragon said. 'And you will. Or more people will die once the madness takes hold.'
"No. I'm going to go out and drag Steven in here, so you can work things out," Tony said, crossing his arms over his chest. Or he tried to, but the shield made it a bit awkward.
'He cannot come here.'
"Then you can go out!" This was getting ridiculous.
Astron thought so too. He took off from Tony's shoulder, chirping angrily at Isern. It was almost comical, seeing such a little dragon scolding one that filled half the cavern.
'I warned you against tying yourself to these mortals, small one,' Isern said. 'He will not love you like you love him. You will always be a child to him, and he will never understand what you've given him.'
"Astron?" Tony asked, feeling a great sorrow coming from the silver dragon. It was the same thing he'd felt when Steven had kissed him. With it, the same steady flow of love and affection that never ceased started to pulse through the link. But what Isern said meant...
Astron chirped, wave after wave of unconditional love rolling off him as he hovered in front of Isern, clearly broadcasting his choice as his eyes swirled a stubborn brown.
'Foolish child,' Isern said, looking away. 'You will only know pain and suffering from this.'
"Hey, speak for yourself," Tony said, sending what love he could through the link. It wasn't the pure love Astron could send, but it was all he could give. Some of the sorrow was replaced with a light, happy feeling as Astron glided down to land on Tony's shoulder, rubbing his head against Tony's cheek. He didn't exactly know what to do with what Isern had implied, but he could figure that out along the way.
'Your meeting is ill-fated,' Isern said, and Tony could feel the anger building up behind the words. 'You will regret this choice.'
"Do you regret yours?" Tony asked. He didn't get a reply.
He was about to press more when the air was suddenly knocked out of him by a red tail, and his world erupted in pain as he crashed into the cavern wall. Again. This time without the shield between him and the rock. Astron hissed, anger coursing through Tony strong enough to dull the pain. He looked up frantically, seeing the silver dragon's eyes gone completely red. "No," he said, trying to think calming thoughts.
But Astron ignored him, the fury growing. And if Tony wasn't mistaken, Astron was getting bigger. "Astron, don-"
Tony's vision nearly blacked out as he felt his soul ripped in two. He was paralyzed, and the feeling was worse than when Obadiah took out the arc reactor. This was more than the arc reactor being ripped out of him. His heart was being torn out this time, and he couldn't breathe. All he could feel was the horror and blind grief that he was left with that could barely begin to fill the hole.
"Astron?" he called out, his voice choking on the name as he fought to clear his eyes, to deny what had just happened. He stumbled forward, ignoring the pain in his knees from when he'd fallen.
His vision was blurry as he made his way to Astron by instinct more than anything, and he kneeled again when he got to where Astron lay. He pulled the little dragon into his lap, careful of the way Astron's neck seemed crooked. There was no color in the silver dragon's eyes, only white.
"Astron," he said again brokenly, searching the void for where the endless source of unconditional love should have been. But there was nothing but blackness. Tony was alone.
The thought sent Tony into a panic. Astron had to be there somewhere. He was missing, but he would come back. He had to. Tony couldn't go back to being alone, not the way he was before. He was alone, and no one would be here if he-
Tony gasped, his eyes shooting open as he felt a mind brush against his. A mind that wasn't Astron's that was filled with guilt. "What did you do?" Tony asked, barely keeping his head above the water.
'It was a mercy,' Isern's voice said in his head.
"You didn't become a monster when you got bigger. What Steven said wasn't true. So why..." Tony said, cradling the tiny, limp, and broken body against him. "What have you done?"
He had never felt so empty in his life, not even in that cave in Afghanistan. "Astron," he said again, curling around the silver dragon's body. He couldn't do this. He couldn't be alone again. He-
"No, what are you doing?" Tony asked as he felt Isern's mind in his. It was dulling the raw edges, making Astron's love a distant haze no matter how desperately Tony tried to cling to it.
'The broken bond will drive you insane,' Isern said. 'I am easing the memories so you can bear them.'
Tony recoiled, pushing as much as he could with his mind at the touch invading him. "Don't-" he said, firing the repulsor at Isern as he held tighter to Astron with his other hand.
Isern roared and Tony could feel the anger and rage. They weren't his, but he was willing to use them to push away the empty, raw pain. He could think a little clearer now too, but he wasn't going to dwell on that. He pushed love through the now torn bond as he gently set Astron down, then got to his feet. He fired again at Isern, whose eye was becoming redder and redder.
'End this,' Isern said in his mind. 'Before it is too late.'
"It's already too late," Tony said, unsheathing the dagger again. Isern may not have started out as a monster, but he was one now. First Steve and now...
Tony dodged to the side to avoid a claw, firing the repulsor at Isern's wings as he switched the dagger over to his other hand. There was nothing but rage now, but that suited Tony just fine. He rolled down between the dragon's legs to miss the torrent of fire as he shot at the underbelly. A few more inches...
A claw pushed him away. Tony only barely had enough time to bring up the shield to avoid getting clawed to death. The dragon grabbed on to the shield and started to pull it up, likely to throw it (and Tony who was attached by the straps) across the room. But Tony was within reach now, and he slipped out of the shield's straps. He knew where to push the blade into the dragon's chest. It was the same spot that he had felt Astron's heart beating when he'd held the little dragon at night.
Using both hands, the dagger pierced through Isern's hide easily, the golden blade digging in right up to the hilt. It sparkled in the glowing lights, gold against blood red.
Tony clapped his hands over his ears as the dragon screamed, not hearing the clank as Steve's shield hit the ground. He was going to be crushed under the dragon's weight, but Tony found he didn't care. He didn't move or dodge out of the way, instead standing as he waited for the inevitable. He didn't believe in the afterlife, but he could at least follow after Astron and Steve.
The inevitable never came. The cavern became silent, the only sound the ringing in Tony's ears. He opened his eyes just in time to catch a very human-looking man as he fell over, a golden dagger lodged in his heart. Tony let out a yelp of surprise as he stared into his own face.
Tony set his look-a-like onto the ground, noting the differences. The man's goatee was cut slightly different, and there was a touch of grey on a much blacker head of hair. He had a thicker build with the kind of broad shoulders that belonged on a soldier like Steve. He was wearing a wine red tunic that looked expensive even by Tony's standards, with golden adornments. There was even a solid gold earring in one of the man's ears. The pants were jet black and form-fitting in a way that made Tony a little jealous in comparison, and they were topped off by thigh-high boots. Tony was not going to think about how the dragon was fully dressed, because that required magic and seriously, fuck magic.
The man's most distinguishing feature was the deep gash across his left eye. His right eye was a stunning blue that Tony had only ever seen in Isern's eye and his own arc reactor.
"You look so surprised," Isern said with a cough, a trickle of blood sliding down from his lip. "You knew I was you."
"I didn't..." There was a difference between knowing the dragon was him and seeing the dragon in human form. "How are you human?"
"I couldn't change back into the golden dragon," the Isern replied with a bitter smile. "But I can use what little magic I have left to return to this form. Steven liked this form, even if it was only as a friend. I want to die in a form he would have looked kindly on."
"You should be dead now. Your heart-"
"Has Steven's dagger thrust into it," Isern said, a bitter smile on his lips. "That's fitting. I gave it to him, you know. But don't worry. I'll be dead soon. The magic will realize eventually that I am a corpse, and will leave me be."
"Why?" Tony asked, his voice breaking on the word. "How could you..."
"I'm sorry," Isern said, coughing weakly. "I never meant to hurt... But there's a way to fix everything. There's a cup behind the big rock over there. Fetch it and I will tell you how to save Astron's life."
"What?" Tony asked, the word feeling thick on his tongue. Astron could be...
"Astron... what a fitting name," Isern said, his good eye going slightly unfocused. "Hurry. I haven't much time left."
Tony stood, not sure how his legs were still working after all the battering he had put them through. But he somehow forced himself to move, finding the cup where Isern had promised. It was a plain wooden cup with no carvings, but it would obviously do for whatever Isern had planned.
He stumbled as he brought it back, seeing Isern use his sharpened finger nail to cut his wrist. "Catch the blood in the cup," Isern commanded.
Tony did as told on autopilot. To save Astron... The cup was half-full when Isern pulled away. "What now?"
"Drink it," Isern said, smiling at Tony's disgust. "But know this - if you don't, you will return to a normal human. But in drinking my blood, you will remain as Astron was changing you. Your magic won't be as strong, but you'll have it. And you will live longer than normal humans. That is, most often, not a gift for mortal races."
Tony's mouth went dry, looking down at the cup. "It'll save Astron?" he asked.
"You must drink it quickly, before it loses its magic," Isern said, not bothering to try to convince him more.
Tony brought the cup to his lips, tasting a light, sweet tang that was nothing like normal human blood he tasted whenever he got a bloody lip. It was almost addictive, heady in a way that kept all the good parts of drinking a fine wine without any of the negative effects. He should be weirded out by the fact he was drinking blood, but it didn't taste like blood at all.
He didn't feel any different when he put the cup down. But then, he hadn't felt any different when Astron had done his age-regression trick either. He looked up expectantly at Isern to see what to do next, but the man had closed his eye.
"Isern, wake up!" Tony said, shaking the dragon-man. "You can't die yet, you bastard. Tell me how to save him!"
Isern's eye opened, though it was a struggle. "Don't call me that," Isern said. "Isern is the dragon. We can't let the others know that it's me. In this form I'm..."
"Anthony." Tony's head shot up at the voice, the anger from earlier returning.
Isern tensed in Tony's arms. "Come to make sure I die for certain this time, my King?"
Steven flinched, but came forward. Even though he was angry at both of them, Tony still curled protectively around his other self. "Please," Steven said, a wetness about his eyes that Tony couldn't deny. "A moment with him. That's all I ask."
The blue eye turned up to stare at Tony as Isern gave him a brittle, blood-splattered smile. "Let him come," Isern said, the non-bloodied hand coming up to touch Tony's cheek. "And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for what I've done to the both of you because I was too weak to fight against the madness. I... You have other matters to attend to. Go."
"What do you mean?" Tony asked, not letting go.
Isern slowly lifted his hand from Tony's cheek and pointed to something off to the right. Tony followed his hand to see-
"Steve," Tony said, his breath leaving him. The cup fell from his fingers as he scrambled over to Steve's side.
Steve looked just like he'd been sleeping. His uniform was in mint condition, like he'd just gotten it back from Tony's custom-made cleaning bots. But when Tony reached him, there was something very, very wrong.
Tony reached out with a trembling hand to Steve's cold neck. His chest wasn't moving, and his heart wasn't beating.
Steve Rogers was dead.
Tony took Steve's hand, threading his fingers through Steve's cold ones. Steve wasn't stiff, rigor mortis had yet to set in, but he was as cold as ice. Steve would have hated that. Tony automatically tried to rub warmth into Steve's hand before he stopped himself. Steve didn't need warmth any more.
"I am as good as dead, my King. You don't need to stay," he heard Isern say. Tony reached for the shield that had fallen not too far away, placing it on Steve's chest. Then he turned to look at the king and his dragon, feeling a numbness settle over him that he could only assume was shock.
Isern's head was in Steven's lap, his one eye closed. "Or do you despise me that much?" Isern asked.
"I never hated you," Steven said, caressing Isern's cheek.
"Then why are you here?"
"I didn't want you to be alone," Steven replied.
"I'm always alone," Isern said, his voice getting weaker.
"I know," Steven said, closing his eyes. "I am sorry. That was my fault."
Isern laughed, but it wasn't a kind sound. "'Twas no one's fault but my own. I became a monster. That was my choice."
"No," Steven said quietly. "You did monstrous things to save people, but it was I that pushed you into becoming a true monster. I do not agree with what you did, but what I did was far worse."
"That wasn't what you said before," Isern said, something akin to hope in his eye.
"I have had many years to think on this," Steven said. "I don't know if I could have forgiven what you did, but I isolated you and cast you out. What happened after was as much my fault, if not more. It is my great regret that I did not see this sooner."
"I loved you," Isern said, tears streaming from his good eye. "I always loved you. It wasn't your fault, but mine. I'm sorry. I-"
"Shh," Steven said, and Tony unconsciously gripped Steve's cold hand as Steven leaned down to kiss Isern's forehead. "Hush now. Sleep. I'll stay, and I'll be there when you wake."
Isern sighed, closing his eye for the last time. Tony felt the presence in his mind lift, freed from the chains of so many years of being alone. Tony gasped as he really was alone this time, looking away as Steven wiped away the tear trail on Isern's cheek. He curled around Steve's hand, unable to contain the grief any more. He was empty, truly alone, and there was nothing between him and the pain.
He didn't look up as he felt a hand on his shoulder. "Are you happy now?" Tony asked, flinching away from the contact. He couldn't move too far though, not without leaving Steve, and he couldn't do that.
"Let me finish easing the bond," Steven said, his voice so similar to Steve's, but not similar enough.
This time Tony slapped Steven's hand away. "No," he snapped, still not moving from where he sat. "Don't. You took all of this... They're all dead because you two couldn't make up after a fight - because you couldn't do this yourself! You are not taking my memories of them away."
He heard Steven's sharp intake of breath, but he didn't care. He understood why Isern had called him here now. Tony wanted it to end.
"Please," Steven pleaded softly. Tony felt his chin being pulled up and he blinked until he could see clearly. Steven's own eyes were filled with tears, but there was no shame in them for that. "Please," Steven said again. "I'll not take the memories away. Only dull them, as time would. It will drive you mad if I don't. I cannot bear more tragedy here."
"What's one more? What fucking difference does it make!?" Tony didn't want this. He wouldn't stay here with Steven. He couldn't. Nothing could make up for the emptiness that nearly consumed him.
"You're not thinking clearly because of the bond," Steven said. "You can save them, but only if you're whole. Please. Let me atone for this."
Tony closed his eyes, cradling Steve's hand against his chest. He didn't fight as he felt cold hands at his temples, and a gentle brush against his mind. He started to cling to the memories of Astron's tail around his neck, but a soft "Please" made him let go. The raw, brittle edges of the bond were eroded away until only a dull ache was left.
He uncurled from Steve's hand, wiping away the tears that now made him flush with shame. He'd really lost it there. It scared him a little, how out of control he'd been.
Steven's hand brushed through Tony's bangs as he pulled away, and that was when he knew. Steven's hands were cold too.
"You're dead," Tony said, his voice hoarse. He felt like he'd been screaming, but he pushed himself to keep talking. "That's why you wouldn't let me look back at the castle. Why you couldn't do this yourself."
"I died centuries ago," Steven confirmed. "The castle where I lived is in ruins. It was only a glamor that made it livable when you first arrived. I was killed shortly after breaking the bond." Steven touched his scarred shoulder, looking into the distance without really seeing. "The healers never got to me in time. But I was tied to this realm as long as Isern was still alive, no matter how broken the bond was. And I could do nothing but watch as the bond drove Isern mad, instead of dying together as we should have."
"He wasn't a monster," Tony said. Because Isern had done a lot of unforgivable things, but he hadn't been bad. The genuine guilt Tony had felt proved Isern had killed Astron when his lucidity slipped.
"I know," Steven said, the words a painful admission. "And the blood of so many innocent people is the cost of me not realizing that soon enough."
Tony swallowed, his parched throat barely having enough moisture. "Astron and Steve. You said I could save them. Both of them?"
"You know better than that," Steven said, a small smile on his lips. "Why haven't you sought out Astron's body? You may not acknowledge it, but you know the truth."
Tony started, nearly falling in his haste to look around. Where was Astron's body? And why had he forgotten it?
"Peace, Tony," Steven said, his voice cutting through Tony's panic. "They are the same. Astron is Steve."
"What?" Tony said intelligently.
"I had some suspicions after we couldn't find your friend's body," Steven continued, as if Tony hadn't spoken. "The bond between you was too strong for you to have just met, and that was why Astron developed so fast. He'd known you before, and was probably in love with you before that."
"But Steve didn't... He was never in love with me," Tony said, searching back through his memories of Steve. Sure, Steve had started to try to hang out more, but Tony had figured with Sam having his own life outside of the Avengers, and Barnes being, well, still mentally unstable and not wanting to see Steve, Steve had just been lonely. There was nothing, no looks or lingering touches which would have clued Tony in. "And how...?"
"He was in love with you," Steven said gently. "And it was strong enough to get through the repressed memories of the transformation. Isern..." Steven's voice broke on the name, but he kept going. "Isern may have fought off the insanity after your Steven had been hurt. It was probably the only thing Isern could do to save him."
Steve was Astron. Tony sank back to the floor by Steve. It had been Steve's unconditional love that Astron had given. Steve's comfort when Tony was grieving. Steve's tail that had wrapped around his neck as the little dragon proclaimed his choice. No wonder Astron had been fascinated with Steve's shield, when he'd never given Steven's shield a second glance.
And it was Steve who Tony had started to love too.
"You and Isern," Tony said, finding that he was clutching at Steve's cold hand again. "You keep saying I can save him. How?"
But when he looked up, Steven was ghost-like and fading, sitting with Isern, who was also transparent. "Wait, don't - You can't go yet. You have to explain."
"You said it yourself. This is like a fairy tale. You were always smarter than me. I'm sure you can figure it out," Steven said, his voice fading as if he were moving further out of reach. "Don't make the same mistakes we did. No matter what happened, you were always... my dearest friend."
Then Tony was alone again. He hated being alone.
He took a shakey breath, his ribs screaming in pain as his hands shook. He didn't know what to do. Whatever the fuck kind of clue that had been, Tony didn't get it. He didn't know how to get home or how to bring Steve back.
Tony gripped Steve's hand tighter. It was so cold. Almost like ice, and he couldn't stop trying to rub warmth back into them this time.
"I don't want to be alone," Tony said, holding Steve's hand to his chest as he leaned down and kissed his cold lips.
This time, Tony felt the power rush out of him, not stopping the kiss even when Steve started to get warm. Would it kill him if all the power left him? Tony couldn't say he'd have minded that much if it did. The numbness and the bond had faded, but so much of the raw grief remained that it was still hard to keep in check. So he kept giving until Steve pushed him away.
That was the last thing he heard before he blacked out.
* * *
'Don't hide things from him. No matter how much he'll hate you for it or how big it is, don't hide it. Don't make our mistakes. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry...'
* * *
Tony woke up with a start at Isern's words, gasping to fill his lungs. He reached out for Astron automatically, only to jerk back when his mind ran along the link to find nothing there.
"Hey, take it easy, Tony. I've got you."
Tony felt familiar hands trying to push him back into his own bed in his bedroom, and he didn't fight it. But he must have done something, either with his face or a small noise, he didn't know, because seconds later Rhodey was pulling him back up and hugging him tightly. He leaned into Rhodey's shoulder, trembling as he tried to take in the familiar faint traces of Rhodey's cologne.
Rhodey didn't say anything, just holding on like he needed the comfort as much as Tony did. "You're not allowed to be kidnapped on my watch again, you understand?"
Maybe Rhodey did need the comfort as much as Tony did after all.
Rhodey didn't comment on how little Tony was talking. Instead of asking about what happened, he talked about what Tony had missed while he'd been gone as Tony silently checked over the stitches on Rhodey's forehead. He and Steve hadn't been gone for too long, a few hours at the most since Tony was taken, but Tony still felt the jarring disconnect now that he was home. He didn't even feel the cracked ribs he knew he should have, or how wrecked his knees should have been. He could only assume that more magic had happened.
He could feel Rhodey looking at him, marking the differences and never letting Tony be more than a foot away. Rhodey hovered when he was allowed to, and Tony allowed him this time instead of kicking Rhodey out to go back to the job he was probably ignoring. He knew it made Rhodey worry more, but Tony didn't want...
He didn't want to be alone.
"Cap told us a little about what happened," Rhodey said, eventually broaching the subject. "He said he woke up after you collapsed, and the world shifted, and suddenly you both were back in the workshop, which is when JARVIS called us."
Tony nodded, not looking up. Because if he looked up, he'd see the laugh lines and wrinkles around Rhodey's eyes, reminders that age was now a problem Tony would have to deal with, but not the way he expected he would have to.
Rhodey's solution was to pull Tony into another tight hug. "You gonna tell me what really happened?"
"Fighting dragons sucks," Tony replied.
That got a laugh out of Rhodey. "Tell me about it."
Tony leaned against Rhodey's shoulder, reminding himself that he wasn't alone despite the dull ache in his chest. "Does it count as suicide if you kill another version of yourself?"
"The me in that world. He was the dragon. And Steven was a ghost the whole time and didn't tell me. And Steve was... He died too, for a while."
Rhodey nodded. "Cap said you two were connected through some sort of mental link."
Closing his eyes, Tony told himself not to chase after the now fleeting memories of Astron's love. "It's like... those soldiers I make prosthetics for, the ones that are missing an arm or a leg? They sometimes tell me that they can still feel the old leg. Like a-" Tony stumbled over the word 'ghost', hurrying on. "But it's more than that. I could feel Astron's mind in mine, and I... Now it's gone."
"Cap's alive," Rhodey said, probably trying for reassurance.
"Astron is still gone." Even knowing that they were the same person didn't stop the ache.
They fell into a silence after that, Tony on his tablet trying to catch up, and Rhodey reading quietly from an e-reader he must have had while waiting for Tony to wake up. They didn't just sit like this very often any more. They used to, when they studied together in college, or when Rhodey studied and told Tony to shut the hell up because not everyone was a genius. But with their jobs, they hadn't done this in years, and Tony found he kind of missed it.
Then Rhodey stretched, looking at the time. "I should get us something to eat or Pepper's gonna-"
Rhodey paused as he was standing up. Tony flushed when he realized that he'd grabbed hold of Rhodey's sleeve, immediately letting go. He could handle being alone. He could. He'd been alone most of his life, and even now he still had JARVIS to talk to if things got bad. He could handle this.
That didn't mean he wasn't pathetically grateful when Rhodey sat back down. "Hey, JARVIS," Rhodey said, not commenting on the fact that Tony was suddenly engrossed in his tablet again. "Can you order us some pizza? I hear there's a new place down the street that just opened up."
"Of course, sir. Shall I order the usual?" JARVIS replied.
"What do you think, Tone?" Rhodey asked, poking him in the stomach to get his attention. "Do you still want to worry about cholesterol?"
Tony blinked. He hadn't thought of that. A slow grin crossed his face. "Think you can keep up, honey bear?"
"Meat lovers with extra everything, JARVIS," Rhodey said, instead of answering, ruffling Tony's hair. "And a tub of Neapolitan ice cream."
"I'm going to win this one," Tony said, licking his lips. Rhodey always managed to best him in the past, but this time the strawberry middle was going to be his.
"You keep thinking that," Rhodey said. "I'll even put it on your grave stone. 'Tony Stark: the man who thought he could out eat a military officer."
Later, when Rhodey was in a meat coma on the couch and Tony was licking the last of the strawberry ice cream on his spoon, Tony let the victory glow fade a little. "JARVIS?" he asked quietly so as not to disrupt Rhodey. "What tests can we do to figure out just how..." - how human he was - "How I've changed?"
"Dr. Banner has run a few tests already to make sure you did not require medical assistance. Would you like me to send the results to your tablet, sir?"
"Yeah," Tony said, watching the file load with a sense of resignation. "Thanks, J."
"Dr. Banner also asked to relay that you are welcome down in his lab to run more detailed tests and he is glad that you are home," JARVIS added.
Tony closed his eyes, smiling lightly. "I'll keep that in mind."
He put the rest of the ice cream away, only to realize that he was suddenly alone in the kitchen. Rhodey was still on the couch, maybe five feet out from the kitchen doorway, but he was out of sight, and Tony felt the panic rising up. He was not that paranoid, he reminded himself. He could just go back out and see Rhodey for himself, because Jesus, this was not worth a panic attack. All he had to do was...
"Sir, if I could make a recommendation?"
Tony forced himself to stand up straight, though he couldn't quite unwrap his arms that were curled around himself. JARVIS wasn't a warm heartbeat against his neck, but Tony wasn't alone. He just needed to remember that. "What's that, JARVIS?" he said, not quite up to the snarky response he usually came back with.
"Colonel Rhodes may appreciate a glass of water and two pills of ibuprofen for his eventual hangover when he wakes up."
Tony breathed a sigh of relief, unwrapping himself. Something he can do. Something that would give him a real reason to go back in the living room and closer to Rhodey, then all he had to do was get his tablet back and stay there. That was a great plan. "Yeah, that sounds good. Good call," he said as he automatically moved for a glass of water.
"It's good to hear you follow at least some of my suggestions, Sir."
"Only because I feel like it," Tony said with a small smile. He didn't relax until he'd walked back out to the living room though, and he gripped at the tablet in his hand instead of going down to the work shop as he tried to push the grief out of his mind.
* * *
After another day of mother-henning, Tony kicked Rhodey out to go back to his job. Technically, Rhodey was still recovering from the head wound, but they both knew that wasn't serious and people needed the Iron Patriot more. (And no, Tony didn't snicker as he said that name.)
Pepper came by soon after Rhodey left. Tony had the feeling Rhodey called her, but they hadn't spent a day together since they'd broken up and Tony was willing to jealously guard whatever attention she would still give him.
"You should talk to Steve," Pepper said, saving Tony's pancake from burning when he got distracted.
"I don't know what to say to him," Tony said truthfully.
Pepper just smiled and hugged him. "That's why you should get it over with soon. And if you don't flip that pancake, you're eating the burnt ones."
Tony burnt his finger on the grill, but at least the pancake was saved.
"We can turn up the heat, you know," she said thoughtfully. "Though I don't know how you're not hot already, standing in front of the grill."
Tony froze, the irrational urge to pull the scarf around his neck tighter, even though it wasn't enough, it wasn't near enough to make up for the lack of Astron's tail. Rhodey had just raised an eyebrow when he put it on, not commenting.
"Tony?" Pepper asked, coming to stand by him and putting a hand on his back.
"You're right, it's hot," he said, unwrapping the scarf and sliding it across the counter. He didn't need to show more signs that he wasn't over this. He could survive without having something around his neck.
Pepper didn't say anything, just slipping her arms around his chest and hugging him from behind. Tony let out the breath he'd been holding, forcing himself to relax against her as he flipped the pancake onto the plate.
Pepper he didn't have to kick out (he couldn't even if he tried), because she was much more responsible than he'd ever been running the company. She went back to work the next day, telling him to call if he needed anything, and then Tony was alone.
He looked into a mirror, staring at the stranger who had a young face. He'd been avoiding mirrors since he'd gotten back, but now that he was looking, it was almost like looking at a photograph of himself when he was younger. He would have been fooled, if not for the eyes. Brown eyes that were far older than such a face should have, more wounded than he'd ever seen them be before.
He forced himself to look in the mirror and to keep looking. He could handle being alone. He really could. He just needed to not think about stars, or space, or aliens, or drago-
"JARVIS, put on playlist 4," Tony said, going down to the workshop as fast as he could manage. He could work on the repulsor he'd been fixing when this whole mess started. Thor's stone was gone, but he had to get it reattached to his normal armor anyway. "And JARVIS, can you... can you keep talking?"
"Of course, Sir. Would you like the current news or the results of your latest code for the Starkphone?"
To his credit, Tony lasted about three hours.
It wasn't that JARVIS and the bots weren't company, but it wasn't the company he needed. He couldn't feel the tail around his neck or the bright colors of unconditional love. He just needed... He needed someone he couldn't have.
He wasn't even consciously aware that he was leaving the workshop, though he told JARVIS to stop as he left. He had a vague notion of hunger, and his feet started moving despite himself. But instead of going to the kitchen, Tony found himself in the gym.
It wasn't like Tony never went to the gym on his own, because he did have training with both Steve and Natasha, along with his own personal trainer at various times throughout the month. Before Afghanistan, working out had been a vanity practice. Now it was a precaution because the fitter he was meant he was less likely to hurt himself. He wasn't exactly a spring chicken anymore and...
Well, he was now. He doubted that would be a good enough excuse to get out of Natasha's lessons though.
He never really went to the gym without a reason though. He knew Clint and Steve made good use of it, and Thor occasionally dragged whoever was nearest for sparring, but Tony wasn't really the 'working out for fun' sort. So it was odd for him to come here, instead of the kitchen. His subconscious usually made some amount of sense.
Then he heard the sound of fists hitting a punching bag, and he realized that maybe his subconscious hadn't been that off the mark after all.
Tony slowed to a halt, not quite in or outside of the training room and feeling like he was intruding. He didn't leave, however, watching Steve pound at the bag mercilessly. Tony had never really looked before, at least not with the intent of actually enjoying the view. But now that he was... well it was a very nice view. How had he never noticed this before? Seriously, there had to have been something wrong with his eyes. He'd been vaguely aware that Steve was an attractive man, but it was different now that..
Tony pushed the thoughts of kings and dragons aside, focusing on the movement of Steve's muscles on his back. Occasionally, he let his eyes drift to the movement of Steve's shapely backside as well. Shame was for people who weren't Tony Stark.
Finally, Steve hit the bag so hard that it went flying across the room. Steve used to apologize for that, but then Tony built him a bag fabrication unit that used the recycled remains of the old bag, and Steve had just looked at him in relief. Right now though, Steve hung his head, breathing slowly.
"I know you're there," Steve said.
Tony still couldn't bring himself to move into the room. He stood in the doorway, wondering what he was doing here. "Pepper says we should talk," he said.
Steve didn't turn to look at him as he started to unwrap his hands, though Tony sensed some anger in the room that hadn't been there before. Tony was a little glad Steve wasn't facing him, because seeing Steve's face right now would bring back all the memories of Steven. "Probably," Steve replied sharply, his shoulders tensing. Then, more bitter, "If Pepper said to, then we obviously should."
Tony didn't get more to go on, which meant he was left to flounder. He'd said the wrong thing, somehow, and he didn't know how to fix it. "So then why don't we talk?"
"Are you going to tell the truth?" Steve snapped.
Tony flinched, almost taking a step back before the anger took over. Of course Steve would want to pick up the fight right where they'd left off before this whole mess started. "We're doing this now?"
"You were the one who wanted to talk," Steve replied.
Tony grit his teeth as he seethed quietly. "I thought we had more pressing things to talk about. Like, I don't know, dragons."
"So pressing you sought me out immediately."
Tony clenched his hands into fists, staring at a spot on the ground rather than at Steve. "Sorry," he said in his most conversational 'fuck off' voice. "I was a little messed up after I had to clean up what you couldn't do right the first time."
That got a reaction out of Steve. Tony didn't have to look up to know that Steve had spun around to face him and that he'd struck a nerve. It wasn't the link anymore, but he'd been in Astron's - in Steve's - mind, and he instinctively knew that would hurt.
"At least I didn't resort to murder," Steve said coldly.
Tony laughed, a cold, brittle sound that rang through the gym. "I prefer to think of it as assisted suicide," Tony said. "Not to mention the fact I was saving your life. You know, Pep was right. It was a great idea to come down here. Thanks for the talk, Cap. Maybe next time the patriotic stick won't be shoved so far up your ass."
"Leave, Stark," Steve growled. "Walk away from this conversation."
The unmistakeable threat of 'while you still can' was loud and clear. Tony wasn't cowed by threats, not when the armor was only a few seconds call away, but he was done with talking, and he didn't want to look up and see Steven's face. That might make him lose the will to fight. "With pleasure," he replied, before pivoting and making his way out.
As soon as he was out in the hall, he felt his shoulders slump. Arguing with Steve had always been bad, but now... It was both a slap and rejection. He closed his eyes, dragging in a labored breath.
"Real smooth, Tony," he heard Natasha say.
Tony didn't look up. "Just what I needed. Honest Russian disapproval of my life choices."
He flinched as he felt her hand in his hair, but she just smoothed it down and kissed him on the cheek. He opened his eyes to see sympathy in hers. "Never said he wasn't being an idiot enough for the both of you too," she said. "Go and see Bruce, kotyonok. He wants to run some tests and you need company. I'll take care of Steve."
By the time he got down to Bruce's lab, he didn't need Russian disapproval. He had his own guilt to deal with. He really should have checked in with Steve sooner. He'd asked JARVIS for updates, but that wasn't enough, not when Steve was probably still hurting from the broken link too. And the things Tony had said...
Bruce didn't touch many people. He didn't allow himself to be touched either, not after years of being hunted. Tony, on the other hand, was like an attention-starved cat, constantly touching and prodding. Bruce adjusted instead of complaining, eventually relaxing and even letting Tony curl up against his shoulder during movie night every so often. But he never initiated the touch. It always had to come from Tony first.
So when Tony walked into the lab and Bruce saw him, he figured he wasn't hiding the guilt terribly well. Because Bruce took one look at him and gave him an awkward hug. "Is this okay?" Bruce asked hesitantly.
Tony closed his eyes. "Yeah," he said, burying his face against Bruce's neck. Bruce pat his back stiffly, and what did Tony even do to deserve this? He hadn't deserved Astron either, and now... "Why do I always fuck things up?" Tony asked.
Bruce gave a short laugh, relaxing a little. "Everyone messes up, Tony. You just do it with more flair than most people."
Tony let himself be led over to a stool as Bruce continued talking. "We should - Let's start the tests. Then you can tell me about your armor upgrades. I promise not to fall asleep this time. Does that work?"
What Bruce didn't say was that Tony could talk about other things as well, which Tony was grateful for. He didn't want to talk. He wanted to go back to the status quo, even if he was just pretending. He nodded, letting Bruce talk.
He missed Astron.
* * *
Tony managed to spend more and more time by himself. It wasn't as hard as he thought it would be to fall back into old routines. It was sleeping he couldn't figure out how to do. He'd fall asleep in Bruce's lab, or in the common rooms, but his own bed was too empty. Which was ironic, since a little dragon wouldn't have filled it much more, but it would have been enough.
Really though, waking up with his head in Natasha's lap or curled against one of Thor's biceps (Jane didn't mind, as long as she could have the other side, and she was totally willing to cuddle down in the lab when Bruce had an experiment going) was not exactly a bad thing. He could get used to this. Even Clint only kicked him off the couch to lead him back to the archer's own room with a futon.
Steve had moved out entirely, and according to Natasha he was bunking with Sam Wilson. Tony tried not to think of how much that hurt. Sam was at least sending Natasha updates, which she would share with Tony.
That was why he was surprised to see Steve in the kitchen two weeks later, staring into his cup of coffee morosely. "I thought you moved out," Tony said, before he could check himself.
Steve looked up, and Tony was shocked to see a rueful smile aimed at him. It reminded him of Steven. "Left all my stuff here, so I wouldn't call it moving out. I needed a place to get my head screwed on straight."
Oh. Well, that wasn't as bad. Now Tony felt a little foolish for assuming. Natasha had only said that Steve was staying with Sam, and Tony had done the rest himself.
And Steve was still smiling. Not like, bright and happy or anything, but the smile was still there. It set Tony off balance. "What are we doing here?" he asked, not sure of his footing.
"I'm here to apologize," Steve replied.
Tony blinked. "You are?"
"Yeah," Steve said, standing up to walk over to Tony. He paused a few inches away. "You haven't been sleeping," Steve said instead of an apology.
"Neither have you." Not that Steve showed it, but Tony knew Steve hadn't been sleeping any better than Tony had.
Steve's hand came up to touch Tony's cheek, and Tony jerked back, the memory of a triangular head where those fingers were now still too fresh in his memory. "What are you-?"
"Sorry," Steve said, pulling his hand back like he'd burned it. A lost look was quickly replaced by a chagrined expression. "Got so used to - Guess I'm still not used to being human again, not around you."
Tony had let Astron in his personal space almost constantly. But this was different. This was Steve, and Tony didn't know where they stood. They stood there looking at each other awkwardly as Tony tried to figure out what to say and Steve looked at his hand blankly.
"I'm sorry," Steve said quietly after what felt like an eternity. "What I said in the gym, that was..." Steve closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I was angry and lashing out, and you didn't deserve any of that, especially not after what you've been through. I was just... When you said Pepper told you to come and talk to me, all I could think of was that you'd never want to come talk to me on your own. It was like I was just coming out of the ice again, when everything I did just made me feel alone."
"Steve," Tony said, once again floundering. "It wasn't like that. And you didn't do anything-"
"I know. It just took a few times of Sam telling me that to sink in. And I did a lot. I assumed the worst of you because I was wound up," Steve said, guilt in his voice. "You did what you had to, I think. I don't know exactly what happened after..."
"Isern went mad again," Tony lied, because it was easier to believe than the alternative.
"You don't really believe that," Steve said.
Tony took a sharp breath. No, he didn't. Isern's chest had been too unguarded, too open. When he'd been angry before, Tony hadn't even been able to get close. The anger, the red eyes, that had been deliberate this time. Isern was giving Tony the push he needed to kill him.
"He wanted to be himself when he died. He'd killed you and Astron. I... killed him, to stop him from hurting more people. There was no other way."
"I wish there had been," Steve said, his voice choked.
Tony's own throat was pinched painfully, and he refused to think about why. "I'm sorry," he said, both for what had happened in the other world and in the gym. "I should have come to talk to you before, but-"
"You were hurting just as much as I was," Steve said. "I should have kept my head instead of lashing out. I'm sorry."
The memories of Isern's final words rang through his head. "I shouldn't have lied-"
"No," Steve said, cutting him off. For one brief second, Tony felt relief that Steve was letting it go. Then Steve kept talking. "You shouldn't have. You put people in danger because you weren't one hundred percent, and you lied to me about it."
"I don't know if you noticed, but I actually have a full time job on top of Avenging. There's going to be other times I'm pulling double shifts and not sleeping. It's not like I can't work without sleep either," Tony said bitterly.
"I know." Steve rubbed at his forehead, sighing softly. "I shouldn't have blown up at you for that. But you should have told me."
"You needed me," Tony said, raising his chin as he crossed his arms over his chest. "If I had told you, you would have benched me. And more people would have died."
"You're right, we needed you," Steve said. "But we didn't need you in that position. I could have switched out you and Thor, had you clearing out the civilians that were trapped in the building. It's still important, and you can do that with less danger. There was no tech that needed you there, where I would have had to send you in anyway. If there had been anyone in that building you brought down because you weren't awake enough to be on top of things, someone would have died. What happened could have been avoided, Tony."
"You don't know that," Tony snapped, not looking down. "There could have-"
Tony cut himself off as Steve gripped Tony's shoulders, surprised by the touch. "Of course I don't know," Steve said, shaking him slightly. "You won't tell me. We just saw how well that worked out in the other dimension, Tony!"
"I don't know if you noticed, but Isern wasn't the only problem," Tony said, bringing up his hands to push Steve off.
At this, Steve took a step back and a deep breath. "I know," he said simply.
Tony didn't know what to do with that, or with the fact Steve kept moving so easily into his personal space. He stood, not sure of what was going on. He hated not knowing. He needed to apologize, because Steve was right, he shouldn't have lied, but it was so much harder than apologizing to Astron. "I..." he said, not quite able to force the words out.
Steve seemed to understand, and it was thankfully enough for now. He moved closer to Tony again, this time he keeping his touch on Tony's arms light and Tony didn't brush him off. "There's things we both need to work on for this to work."
"And what is 'this'?" Tony asked, shifting uncomfortably, knowing he would have to properly apologize later. "How much of 'this' is dragon induced? You might not even really feel this way." Despite the kiss and everything else, Steven had never answered Isern's confession in the end. How much of that was pity?
The grip on his arms tightened fractionally for a second before Steve relaxed. Tony didn't want to hear the answer - he wasn't even sure what answer he wanted - but he needed to hear it all the same.
"This is whatever you want it be," Steve said finally. "I know what I want it to be, but if you don't agree then being friends is okay too." Steve quirked a lopsided smile that was a little painful to see. "Might take me some time to get over you, though. Hope you won't hold it against me."
"I wouldn't-" Tony started. He stopped when one of Steve's hands lifted from his arm. Steve pressed his index finger across Tony's lips lightly, before bringing up his thumb to massage them gently. Tony swallowed, and Steve pulled his hand away, remembering himself. "Sorry. As a dragon I got really used to touching you. And you still haven't said yes, so it's pretty unfair of me to keep doing this. But let me finish?" Steve said, clearing his throat awkwardly.
Tony nodded, half afraid that if he spoke, he would ruin the spell. He missed the warmth against his lips, wondering what would have happened if he'd kissed Steve's fingers.
"As to the feelings being 'dragon-induced', I've felt this way for a while," Steve said.
Steve gave him another of his rueful half-smiles. "Never could tell if I fell a little bit in love with you the first time when you woke up after falling from the portal, or when you smiled as you shook my hand."
Tony stared back in shock. "That's-"
"A while, I know," Steve said. "You were with Pepper, so I didn't say anything. But when you broke up, I wanted... I wanted us to be friends before going deeper."
The pieces started falling into place. Steve bringing him dinner when he missed meals while he was caught up in the workshop. Steve dragging him out for sparring or to get himself caught up on the twenty-first century. Steve coming down to the workshop to draw, or asking Tony what books he'd recommend to read next. Tony knew they'd been getting closer, but he'd never seen why.
"Natasha didn't guess either," Steve said, a hint of a true smile on his lips. "She watched me like a hawk when I told her I already knew someone I wanted to pursue, and she didn't put it together for at least two months."
"But why?" Tony was baffled. Honestly baffled. "We're not... We're completely different. Even getting to this point was hard. We fought every other week, and you always seemed to disapprove of everything I did."
Steve winced at that, sucking in a breath. "Yeah, that's one of the things I need to work on," Steve admitted. "Being clearer. I'm not... I've never been very good at this sort of thing, talking. Especially when it's about things that matter. But you... I think this is worth trying for, even though it's hard. And I want to give it a try."
That didn't answer why. Steve must have realized Tony wasn't getting it. The hand still on Tony's arm trailed down, and he brought Tony's hand up, capturing it between his own hands as he rubbed gently at Tony's palm. "I've always loved your hands," Steve said, caressing Tony's fingers. "Howard never bothered, but you take care of your hands. It's a beautiful contrast, your kept nails and soft fingers, with the nicks, burns, and callouses from your work. Though I'll admit, I've gained a new appreciation of your neck while I was a dragon."
Tony flushed. That was not... Astron hadn't been thinking the decidedly impure thoughts that were clearly going through Steve's mind right now. He wasn't entirely opposed to the impure thoughts, but it would take some adjusting to.
"The king, he kept saying how quick our bond was formed," Steve continued. "I think that was because I was already half head over heels for you."
"You were angry with me," Tony said, very much aware that Steve was still holding his hand captive.
"I didn't remember that. I didn't really have any memories beyond being a dragon. But I knew you. And I knew that I had to protect you from the ghost that was with you."
"You knew Steven was a ghost?" Tony felt his heart jump, before twisting into a dull ache.
"I didn't know you thought he was real when I was a dragon," Steve replied, shaking his head. "I thought you could see it too. Mjölner told me he wasn't a threat, but you were so... You were so bright, and he was getting close to you. I didn't trust him."
The last words came out a little petulantly, and Tony started piecing Astron's behavior and Steven's comments together, feeling like a bit of an idiot for not seeing it before. "You were jealous. Like, actually jealous. I thought Steven was just teasing."
It was Steve's turn to blush, rubbing at the back of his neck as his ears turned red. "A little," Steve admitted.
"You were going to drop eggs on his head," Tony said.
At this, Steve grinned. "And it'd have been hell to get out of his hair too."
That was more than just a 'little' jealous. Tony started laughing in spite of himself, and Steve kept rubbing Tony's palm between his hands, his smile growing. "I've always loved your smile," Steve said.
Tony didn't really mind Steve's smile either. But one thought sobered him up. "So when Steven kissed me, you..."
Steve's smile slid off his face. "You kept thinking of me as some kid. Someone you had to take care of. I thought I could change that. But when he kissed you, I... I realized your happiness was more important."
Steve brought Tony's hand up to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to his knuckles. "It's still true. I'll stop if you want me to. I only want this if you do. If you don't, then I'll get on with my life. Not saying it won't be hard, but I will." Steve looked so earnest when he said that, squeezing Tony's hand gently. There was hope in his eyes, but also caution. When Tony couldn't respond, Steve went with a different question. "What happened after I died?"
"Astron died," Tony said, not quite meeting Steve's eyes. He was still having trouble putting them together. Steve didn't correct him, waiting for him to continue. "I... I killed Isern. But he... If I drank his blood, all this would be permanent, but I could save you. I really fucking hate magic, so I still don't know how, but I..."
"You drank it," Steve said, his eyes widening. "So this is permanent for you. You won't-"
"I won't change back," Tony cut him off, not wanting to talk about age. He pulled his hand away.
"You won't age," Steve said anyway, and damn him for having to say it out loud.
Tony closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. "I will. But slower. A lot slower. I don't know how much, but Steven and Isern... they were both really old." He hadn't thought about it at the time, but if Steven had been dead for centuries... and Steven had been much older than that too, even before he'd died. He had a maturity that his Steve didn't. That most humans didn't, because they could never live that long.
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "You could have..."
"I really couldn't," Tony snapped, not wanting to think of the alternative where Steve hadn't been saved.
"You'll have Thor," Steve said, wisely not bringing that up again, though his eyes looked suspiciously wet.
"And... How much have they told you about the serum?" Tony asked, not sure if Steve knew.
"They weren't sure how much I'd age, if that's what you're asking," Steve said, nodding. "So I'll be here too, if that's true. I'm..."
"Don't," Tony said, not wanting to hear another apology. He decided it was time to keep going with the original topic. They could discuss (or preferably not discuss) this later. "Steven came as Isern was dying. He... He forgave Isern. He dulled the edge of the broken link, so that I could think again."
"The link," Steve said, swallowing hard. "You were..."
Another sentence Tony didn't want to hear the ending of. "He told me what happened, after," Tony said quickly, desperately not wanting to remember the time he'd spent before the edges had been dulled. "Steven broke the link between him and Isern after Isern turned big and some choice that Isern made. Then Steven died, but Isern couldn't follow since the link was broken. And Steven couldn't leave, because Isern was still alive. He said... He said not to repeat their mistakes."
"I got a similar message," Steve said, looking away at a spot on the wall. "Before I met you again, Isern would come and talk to me sometimes. It was a lot longer there than it was here, I think, because I remember being a dragon for a while. He told me to never make a bond, and that humans would betray me. Then as we were leaving, the king, he... Well, he told me a few things to work on. And after what Isern told me, I can sort of see why I need to."
"We could just end up repeating it," Tony said, looking down at his hands. "We hurt people in that dimension. Are you sure we should..."
"I'll admit, it was easier when all I had to do was love you," Steve said, reaching out again before he pulled back, keeping his hands to himself. "But I like to think we can learn. And I don't want to start this out thinking we'll fail. And I know the fact that all I had to do was love you was draconian, but the fact I loved you was always just me. That hasn't changed at all. And even if you do say no, and I get over you, I won't ever stop loving you, Tony. That won't change."
All that love that Astron had given him - that had been Steve all along? Steve loved him that much? And he was waiting for an answer, Tony realized. That realization made him panic. "You said... You said I was bright? What does that even mean?"
"You don't see it, do you?" Steve said, not pressing for an answer. "The arc reactor, it always seemed like a beacon. Even after you took it out, you always showed me the way back. When Bucky..." Steve visibly packed the emotion away, shaking his head. "You told me I had a home after the Battle of New York, and a place to stay after SHIELD fell. Every time I was lost, you reached out and found me. You were-"
Tony found himself kissing Steve. He didn't know how, but the surprised sound Steve made told him that he had started it. He certainly wasn't going to stop it either. He licked into Steve's mouth, desperately trying to find the truth to Steve's words.
Steve's arms fell around him, holding him close. He kissed back with a passion that lacked art, but Tony didn't care. It was different from Steven's kiss, less experienced, but more real. He had Steve all around him, Steve's arms closing him in, Steve's tongue being coaxed into Tony's mouth, Steve's shoulders in Tony's hands as he gripped hard enough to bruise someone without the super-serum. For the first time since Tony had come back, he was at home and things were right. He could feel that he wasn't alone. He automatically reached along the bond, because he could fix it. Things would be good again. The fringed edges started to grow, stretching out to Steve and -
Tony jerked back, encountering momentary resistance before Steve let him go. Tony's hand went to his chest where he could feel his heart beating rapidly. He panted lightly, his lips just a little swollen from the kiss. Tony already regretted pulling away, wanting Steve to come back and finish the job.
Steve looked mussed, but the alarm on his face killed the mood. "Tony, are you alright?" he asked, half stepping forward again before freezing in place and finally moving back to give Tony space. "What happened?"
Tony still felt phantom lips pressed against his, but he couldn't tell if it was Steven's or Steve's he wanted. Though he knew what he wanted really.
He wanted Astron back.
"I..." Tony said, knowing he needed to say something, but he was too raw. He couldn't just babble his way out of this one. Something important would slip out.
Steve's eyes shuttered down, before settling on a neutral expression. "It's the king, isn't it?"
Tony could let it go. He could blame it on Steven or Astron, and Steve would buy the excuse because they were also true. But Isern's words rang through his head. They both had a lot to change, if they wanted to make things work.
His first instinct was to hide it. Instead, he swallowed. "It's the bond," Tony said.
"I miss... I miss Astron." Which hadn't been what he'd meant to say at all, and Tony backtracked immediately when he saw Steve's eyes soften. "I was following the link, and I... I can fix it. Make it whole again. I nearly did."
Steve's breath hitched, his mouth falling open. "The bond, it can be fixed?"
"I think so," Tony replied. Steve looked gutted, and Tony realized he'd just pulled back from offering it. "Do you want it? I could-"
"No," Steve said, and Tony reeled back as if Steve had punched him. "No, Tony, not like that," Steve said, stepping forward and catching Tony's shoulder. "Please listen? I didn't mean it like that."
"How did you mean it?" Tony asked dully.
"I meant that you were right to pull away. Right now, I don't think the bond would be a good idea," Steve said, sounding reluctant. Then he smiled. "Besides, I don't mind it so much if you're missing Astron. You need some time to get used to the fact that we're the same. And you... you have a lot more than me that you're mourning for."
Tony leaned forward, resting his forehead against Steve's shoulder and breathing, letting Steve pull him closer. "But later?" There was a hesitance in Tony's voice that he hated, but he needed to hear the answer. This was why he shouldn't have said anything in the first place. If Steve said no...
"If we get to that point, we'll see. I'd... I'd like the bond back, someday. I..." Tony looked up to see the lost expression on Steve's face. "It feels empty without it. As a human, part of me is terrified by how invasive it was, but I could... I could feel you."
Steve raised a hand to Tony's cheek, tracing his goatee lightly. He stared at Tony like he could see right through him, and Tony couldn't help the shiver that went down his spine. "Your mind was beautiful," Steve said. "I wish there was some way to draw it, or to put it into words, but it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen."
"It's a dark place," Tony said, not quite meeting Steve's eyes.
"It was vivid and a constant motion of rich, deep colors," Steve replied. "I didn't always understand what you said, but your mind was so vibrant that I could drown in it, and gladly. I could feel... I felt how you loved me, even if it wasn't in the way I wanted. And that was one of my most treasured things."
"Steve..." Tony said breathlessly. He had half a mind to kiss Steve again, but he was a little afraid of offering the bond again after hearing all of that.
"So yes, I do want it," Steve said, a deep longing in his voice that Tony couldn't deny. "But I think we should take things slower. And that's an awfully deep connection. I think I should get dinner and flowers at least once, before you propose."
Well, Tony supposed that was one way of looking at the bond.
"Slow is... Slow is probably good," Tony said. It was going to take a while to get over the deaths of Steven and Isern. Tony had to do some adjusting for the dragon blood in his veins now too. And Astron...
"Astron and I are the same, ya know," Steve said, as if sensing Tony's thoughts. "I'm not dead, and neither is he."
"But it's different," Tony said. The love wasn't unconditional anymore, not given freely where Tony could feel it and the constant connection. There wasn't a little silver dragon to curl around at night, or a tail wrapped comfortingly around his neck.
"I know," Steve said, hugging Tony against him. "I'm sorry."
Tony closed his eyes, leaning into Steve's warmth. He was shaking lightly, but right now Tony didn't care. This wasn't the same, not by a long shot, but Tony could get used to this type of different. "This is a bad idea," Tony said, breathing in Steve's scent. He didn't wear cologne like Rhodey did, but it was a combination of old leather and the faint scent of Steve's soap that was just a little endearing.
Steve stiffened, but didn't pull away. "I think it's worth trying for. We don't have to repeat their mistakes now that we know."
Tony didn't know if he could do it, to keep his promise not to repeat their alternate selves mistakes. This time being honest hadn't hurt, but the next time he might not be as lucky.
But he wanted this. It was a pale shadow of what he'd had, but it had the chance to grow, and for Steve, he felt like he could be better. "Okay," he said.
"Yeah." Tony lifted his head from Steve's shoulder to look Steve in the eye. "We can go out with a bang."
"You do love your explosives," Steve said, and Tony could see a smile tugging at Steve's lips. "But it's not gonna end that way for us. We'll change it."
Tony kissed him again, savoring the moment. He didn't know how long this would last, but he was willing to follow Steve to the end.