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The Ghosts of War

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He was so sick of war.

Steve swung his shield around, and it had been too long, far too long since it had been in his hand, but it still felt right. It felt like an extension of his arm, of his body, and he was well trained with the sword, even skilled. But it never felt right, not the way that the shield had.

Fighting with his shield again made him think that he might be able to win this damn war.

The last of the shadow beasts charged him, and before he could even bring the shield up, the light flicked through the murky depths of the forest, carrying a smell like air burning in the wake of a bolt of lightning. The beast went down, and Steve turned, knowing who it would be before he could even spot the figure emerging from the deep shadows.

It had been nearly a month since he'd last seen the phantom that haunted his steps.

The armor was the color of blood, perfect and unmarred. When the moonlight hit the metal, it rolled across the surface like a lick of flames. It was trimmed in gold, thin, delicate lines that marked every seam, every curve, and matched the gleaming, flat faced helmet.

Now, that empty face turned in Steve's direction. “Are you all right, your majesty?” The voice was muffled, and it echoed in an eerie way from behind the metal.

Steve rolled his shoulders, slipping the shield over his shoulder and onto his back. “Yes,” he said, the word tense. “You?”

There was no response. The knight turned, one hand coming up, above his head. A light curled in the center of his palm, a soft white glow that filled the shadows around them. “You should take more care with your health. Your people need you.”

Steve resisted the urge to say something unpleasant. “Why?” he said, already moving through the dense woods. “They have you. Always appearing out of nowhere to save the day.” He sounded bitter, and he didn't care. He'd chased the fighter, at first, before he'd come to realize it was a fool's errand. He'd spent enough time chasing ghosts in his life.

He's learned to just take the assistance the man offered, when it came. Which was never often enough. Steve was fighting a war, and he needed all the help he could get, even from a knight who came and went without warning.

“I am not what they need.” Despite the man's size, despite the heavy plates of his armor, he moved silently. Steve, in a heavy scale mail shirt painted a rich blue, felt awkward and oversized next to him. They were almost the same height, but the Iron Man moved easily, with no strain or obvious effort. “You have your shield again.”

Steve's hand came up, against his will, snagging on the strap, reassuring himself that it was there again. “Yes,” he said. “A friend fixed it.”

“I'm glad. Some things shouldn't be allowed to remain broken.”

Steve turned on him, his sword coming up, slicing through the air. The blade stilled, a bare inch from the side of the knight's neck. “Who are you?”

The Iron Man didn't flinch, didn't even move. Those empty, fathomless black slits in his helmet were impossible to see into. Steve wondered if there were eyes behind that helmet, or if the knight was in truth just a ghost, armor that had risen when its occupant fell, full of a need for vengeance or justice or both.

The Iron Man's head tipped forward. “I am the one who will protect you. No matter what the cost.”

The sword fell away and Steve took a step back. “I do not seek your protection.” He turned on his heel. “I do not have any need of a knight who hides his identity between a mask. Especially not one that appears only when it is convenient for him.”

“Your majesty.”

He told himself not to turn back, not to look. But there was something compelling in that voice, something both familiar and alien. Something that he wanted to identify, but couldn't manage. Something that haunted him. He turned, hating himself for it.

The Iron Man was still standing there, in a pool of light of his own making. “I will always come, when you need me.”

“Then stay,” Steve snapped out. “Stay and fight with us.”

The knight's head tipped to the side. “If I did that,” he replied, a note like laughter rolling through the words, “who would protect you from yourself?”

He flicked his hand up, and the light flared, streaking up towards the sky. “There,” he said. “Your men will be along, soon enough.”

Steve's teeth locked together. “One of these days, I'll have you clapped in chains.”

“I do not doubt it. But until then, I remain your most loyal servant.” The knight sketched a low bow, and straightened up, the light around him disappearing as he closed his hand into a fist. The darkness of the forest swallowed him in an instant, and he was gone. Steve, caught in a pool of moonlight, took a step forward, but he knew it was useless.

The Iron Man appeared when he needed him. But it was never for quite long enough. As soon as the crisis had passed, as soon as the tide had turned in the battle, the knight would simply disappear again. Steve had seen it so often over the last few years that he no long questioned it. But he didn't have to like it. Exhausted, frustrated beyond belief, he gritted out, “Damn you.” This time, there was no response at all. And Steve knew he was still out there somewhere.

It was more comforting than he liked to admit.

 

*Five Years Later *

 

“As matchmakers, you two leave a lot to be desired.”

Phil Coulson resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Sorry, sir, that is not my job.”

Counselor Nick Fury stalked across the floor of his office, heading for his desk. “Is that so?” There were pages all over his desk, piles of paper, each sheet filled with information. Fury glanced at them, his one good eye narrowed. “My job is to serve the king in any way that I can, as adviser and counselor. Your job is to assist me in that whatever capacity I deem right and proper.” He looked up. “In other words, Coulson, your job is whatever I decide it is.”

“Doesn't mean that we're good at it, sir,” Maria Hill said, her arms crossed over her chest.

“And yet, you seem to be attempting it.” Fury kicked his seat away from the desk and lowered himself into it. “Do either of you want to explain why?” He picked up a piece of paper, seemingly at random, but Phil had known him for too long to think that Fury did anything at random. “Don't you think we have bigger problems to worry about? Did neither of you notice the literally hundreds of people coming through the capital gates this week?” He waved a hand. “The camps being set up just outside the walls? Let alone the guests who are currently here in the castle.”

He looked up. “We are running a trade negotiation here. And yet, nearly every report I've gotten from the two of you has less to do with national assets and more to do with personal assets.” He dropped the page onto the desk. “I don't think you've noticed, but his majesty does not appear to be interested in acquiring a wife.” His eyebrows arched. “Or a husband, for that matter.”

Phil looked at Maria out of the corner of his eyes. She was looking back at him. Her shoulders rose and fell int the most minute shrug. Phil took that as his cue. “He needs one, though,” he said. “You know that.”

“Oh, I do?” Fury leaned back in his chair, folding his hands over his stomach. “Explain it it me. Because I'm not seeing it.”

Hill shook her head. "We need to make an alliance," she said, her voice quiet. "We're too tempting a prize, with too much land and resources, to stand alone for much longer. Everyone knows it. Do you think it's a coincidence that every royal on the continent is going to be in attendance this year? No one's sending a delegation, because they all know it. They all know that this is the year." She waved her had at the desk. “We have the information that you and the rest of the council need to advise his majesty on trade negotiations. But it is a time to start looking at an actual marriage contract as well.”

Fury rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don't see any reason to push it, people. This is not something that has to be done on a time table.”

“Isn't it?” Hill's voice was quiet. “Sir. King Steven is the last of the royal line. The fact that he sits on the throne right now means that there is no one else.” Her mouth kicked up in a faint smile. “If there was, he would've stepped down long ago. He is all we have.”

In the silence that followed, she looked at both of them. “If he dies without an heir, we are looking at a power struggle that will ruin us. We have a handful of noble houses, the Starks, the Storms, the Van Dynes, the Rands. But no obvious candidate to step forward and take the crown. So either we're setting ourselves up for a protracted battle for the throne, or an outside power will seize that moment to overrun the borders, and without him, I do not know if we could rally the people to withstand a concentrated assault.”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Time to start the wedding march, gentlemen. We need to at least have a line of succession, and right now, we have nothing.”

Fury studied her, his gaze hooded. “I do not think that I'm going to like what you're about to say.”

"We need to look at her."

"No," Phil said, shaking his head, "we don't."

Hill ignored him. She picked up set of papers, still rolled and sealed with wax. "She is coming. And she is the best prospect we have."

“No,” Phil said.

She gave him a look. “The Lady Natasha is female, unmarried, unencumbered, and the ruler of the largest kingdom on the continent. And one that shares a large chunk of our borders. An alliance between our people and theirs is beneficial for both.”

"We have been at war with them for decades," Phil pointed out. "Since our father's time, and before that. Not always open warfare. It ebbs and flows, but the wars have been...” He shook his head. “You're suggesting allying ourselves with the very people who have been seeking to wipe us from the face of the earth for at least the last fifty years, and more. The people who tried to overwhelm our borders just ten years ago."

Fury rubbed his forehead. "It does feel a bit like handing over the keys to the keep, Hill," he said. He considered the rolled papers, but made no move to open them. "At the very least, it would be giving them a foot in the door, and that's a prospect I'm not entirely pleased with. Any particular reason you're pushing this?”

"Because it is time to think of this rationally," she said, her chin up. Her eyes cut around the room. "Something that we are not good at, when it comes to this particular topic."

Fury waved a hand. "What've you got?"

“You asking me to sell my case, sir?”

“You're asking us to push an alliance with someone who none of us trust.” Fury leaned back in his chair, her rolled pages braced between his palms. “If you can't sell it to us, then I'm not sure how we'll sell it to the people.”

“Point taken.” She took a breath. "There's been a shift in the map. In the power structure. Overt hostilities ceased five years ago. There has been no outbreak of violence since then."

"We've had patches of quiet time before," Phil said. He folded his arms over his chest. "Why do you think this one is different?"

"Because this time, they sealed the borders," she said, her voice quiet. "There's never been a time when we couldn't get spies through the gates, past the borders. We've always had people inside. They've always had people here. It's part of the game."

No one responded, no one acknowledged the truth of that. Phil shifted his weight, mentally cursing that they had to even consider this.

"And when they emerged from their self-imposed exile, the old regime had been wiped from their ranks, and they have a new ruler, one who rose from the ranks, who appears to have had a hand in that."

"Her own people call her the 'Black Widow,'” Fury said, eyebrows arching “And her last husband died rather prematurely, and under mysterious circumstances. Do you really think that makes her marriage material?”

"I think that makes her the ruler of the second largest country on the continent," Hill said. "And with one marriage ceremony, we have the chance to end nearly a century of war. Of death and suffering."

Fury steepled his fingers in front of his face. "Or set up a righteous man for an assassin's blade in the back."

“He needs to make a choice. We need to make an alliance, and the strongest one we can make is one through a marriage. If not of a ruler, then of someone of the royal line.”

"There are other options," Phil started, and she cut him off.

"Who?” Hill braced one hand on Fury's desk, leaning forward. She waved her other hand at the stacks of pages, the reports and the intelligence that they'd gathered. “Let's see.”

She stabbed a finger on one page. “Namor, the king of Atlantis? He is prone to outbursts, to extreme jealousy, neither of which his majesty tolerates. He has no interest in men that we can determine, and he cuts off members of his court, even his own family, the moment they displease him. Marrying his highness off to one of Namor's people is no promise of a lasting alliance.”

Hill picked up another. “The Queen Medusa, of the island nation of Attilan? All our information would indicate that she has a consort that she will not give up. Even if his highness would accept them both, her kingdom is so far removed from ours that it might as well be on the far side of the moon. We can't protect them, and they can do nothing for us. They don't even have the threat of military might; they tend to ignore the battles amongst the rest of the nations unless it directly involves them, and even then, they're slow to respond.”

Another handful of pages were tossed on the pile. “Thor, Prince of Asgard? He is headstrong and rash, quick to anger and quicker to rush into a fight. His brother follows him like a shadow, and I don't think we have any reason to trust him.” She stabbed a finger at the page. “If he stays here, we leave his brother to rule Asgard, either way, the second son sets himself up to rule, and I don't think that will end well.

“T'Challa, of Wakanda? This is one of the first time he's set foot outside of his kingdom in years. They haven't even bothered to send a trade delegation for the past decade. They are isolated, and that isolation is by choice. His first priority, his only priority, is his home, and his people. Any marriage there would lose us our sovereign.” She shook her head. “A member of his court might make an alliance, perhaps. But I doubt it.”

“The Lady Wanda Maximoff,” Phil said, handing over the pages. “A much better choice.”

“Unencumbered, she's not. She has twin boys, and no one seems to know who their father is, or what has become of him. They simply seem to have appeared, as if from no where. And her father is...” Her mouth tightened. “I don't know if he would permit the marriage, even if we were to push for it.”

“She's a grown woman,” Fury said, tapping a finger on his jaw.

“And her father is a very difficult man.” Hill flicked her fingers against the stack of pages. “The King of the Thieves? I doubt his majesty would be able to stomach that. The errant, exiled prince of Skrull? He's a child, and his highness definitely would not be able to stomach that. The Sorcerer Supreme? He's already aligned with the Queen of the Dark Realms.”

Hill straightened up. “The Lady Natasha is our best bet for making an advantageous, safe match.”

There was a moment of silence, then Fury said, “Right up until she poisons him.”

Hill's smile stretched tight. “Actually, poison isn't her weapon.”

“Or she hasn't been caught using it yet,” Phil pointed out.

“Actually, I'd say that she considers it too subtle.”

“I'm not sure if I find that reassuring, or worrying.” Fury rolled to his feet, his hands braced on his desk, his fingers spread wide. He pushed himself forward, just a bit. “We have guests,” he said, with a faint smile. “Here to negotiate new trade contracts, to make small alliances and make arrangements for the movement of our goods and our people across a whole bunch of new borders. We're looking for safe passage and financial stability, and that's why we're throwing this party of ours.”

He straightened up. “And if our liege happens to meet someone to his liking and make a more personal alliance? All the better. But we're not marching him to the alter with a blade to his throat.”

Fury looked from one, to the other. “Understood?” Phil nodded, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hill do the same. Fury gave them a smile. “Good. And good night. I have a couple of hundred merchants, royals and associated hangers on wandering around my city, and I do not like it. If we'd like to be up to dealing with them, to actually making trade agreements that are gonna do us any good, then it's time to get some sleep.”

He swept the pages into a massive stack and tucked them under his arm. Natasha's report, he picked up with his other hand. “Go to bed. Both of you.” And with that, he stalked out of his office, letting the heavy wood door close behind him with a final sound thud.

“Question,” Phil said. Hill looked at him.. “Are we not matching him to the altar with a blade to his throat because we wouldn't be able to pull that off, or because it's just easier to manipulate him to head there himself?”

Hill sighed, a faint breath of an exhale. “That's the problem with you, Phil,” she said, a ghost of a smile rolling over her face. “You always think it's one or the other. Sometimes, it's both.”

“Wonderful,” Phil said.

*

"This is ridiculous."

"So you keep saying." Tony hid a smile by bending his head over his book. "Repeatedly. Adamantly. But repeatedly."

Steve slumped a little lower in his chair, his head falling back. He scraped a hand over his face, disordering his hair. He'd catch hell for that, and for the way that he was wrinkling one of his best court outfits, but Tony knew better than to point it out. For a man who was usually the very model of a mild-mannered royal, when he got his back up, he was a handful.

Tony reached for the wine bottle. Without even looking, he filled a glass. "Heavy is the head that wears the crown," he said, his voice wry. He put the empty bottle aside and scooped up the glass. "Here," he said, offering it to Steve. "You need this more than I do."

Steve gave him a look, but took it. At Tony's knowing smirk, he gritted out, "It's just so you don't show up completely drunk."

Tony's eyebrows arched, even as he turned his attention back to his book. "I should not show up at all, Steve, and you know it."

"I know you're showing up, and if you try to avoid one of the few duties that you have, I will send the guards to drag you to the great hall by force," Steve muttered into his glass.

"No, you won't," Tony said, amused. "You have far more sense than that."

"One job," Steve grumbled, sounding for all the world like a petulant child.

Tony snapped his book closed with one hand. "One job? One?"

Steve's eyes rolled up. "And here we go."

"One job?" Tony repeated. "My lord, I am your chief smithy, I am your minister of armaments, charged with keeping the ranks of your army and your knights in fine fettle. I am your architect and your builder and your civil engineer, overseeing the building of your walls and your fortresses and your roads." He tossed the book onto an already overloaded table, and for a moment, the wood seemed to groan under the weight of its burden. "I am your scholar, and your jester, and your historian."

Steve was watching him, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "You really enjoy listing all of that, don't you?"

"I get few enough benefits from my many, many positions, my lord, so my joy in reminding you of them seems little enough." Tony swept a hand through his hair, ignoring the dust that unsettled.

"One job," Steve said, sipping his wine.

Tony threw his hands in the air. "Steve, you're hosting a banquet of potential marriage partners.”

“We're negotiating trade deals,” Steve said, stubborn in a way that only he could be. “And that is the only purpose of this gathering.”

Tony gave him a pitying look. He considered getting into this fight, but judging by the set of Steve's chin, he wasn't going to win it. Tony decided it was easier to ignore the whole interruption. “It is considered in bad form to bring your current consort."

Steve's brows snapped down. "I need you there."

"You really do not," Tony said. He dropped into the chair next to Steve. Steve held out the half full wine glass, and Tony took it, taking a sip. "Excellent vintage," he said, handing it back.

"I'd expect nothing less of your cellars." Steve's smile was a little easier, a little wider.

"This was from your cellars."

"Then I'd expect nothing less of what you'd choose to steal from my cellars," Steve said, his smile growing even broader. "Tony..."

Tony gave him a look. "Steve..."

Steve leaned forward, his arms braced on his knees, his head hanging down, the wine glass clasped between cupped palms. "You are my consort, my adviser, my best friend."

"This smacks of regal pressure," Tony said.

"No pressure," Steve said. He glanced over, eyes bright blue beneath the fringe of pale hair. He gave Tony a smile that seemed resigned somehow. "Just a request."

Tony squeezed his eyes shut. "It is difficult to convince a foreign noble of your marriage intent with your current lover standing next to you," he pointed out, exhausted already.

"We're not lovers. And I am not intending any marriage."

"But the world thinks we are lovers." And they'd had this discussion so many times that it felt familiar, almost comforting. "You know that."

Steve's eyes slid away. "You said you were fine with that."

"If I'd had any objections, you would've heard them by now." Tony kept his eyes on his outstretched legs. These pants were probably a loss, at this point, they were fit only for the fireplace. He brushed idly at the material anyway, trying to get rid of the worst of the soot. "However, if you hope to make a marriage match-"

Steve snorted, and buried his face in the wine glass again. "It's like he's not even listening to me,” he said to no one in particular. “This has nothing to do with what I hope will happen, and you know it."

Tony glanced at him. "You don't have to do this."

"You know I do." Steve pushed himself to his feet, pausing to hold the glass out to Tony. "I have responsibilities, too."

Tony took it from him, draining the last sip of wine with care. "You are our liege, our leader, our noble lord-"

"Laying it on a bit thick, aren't you?" Steve asked, his lips twitching.

Tony rolled the stem of the empty glass between his fingers. "All you have to do is rule, Steve," he said, his voice quiet. "But it's been years since Lady Peggy died. I think that everyone just wants you to stop being..." He paused, trying to find a diplomatic way of saying this. He gave up. "Alone."

"I'm not alone," Steve said. He leaned over, one hand braced on the arm of Tony's chair. "I have you." His head tipped forward, and he met Tony's eyes from under the sharp line of his brows. "Don't I, Tony?"

Tony poked a finger at him. "This. This is guilt."

"This is strategic use of my powers," Steve said with a faint smile. He straightened up. "I won't make you do anything you're uncomfortable with. You know that. But Tony-" He pushed a hand through his hair, disordering it again. "I would really appreciate having a friend in that room."

He held out for another moment, maybe two, before he broke. Pushing himself to his feet, Tony said, "Everyone in that room will be your friend, or be desperately looking to be your friend." He reached up, flicking Steve's hair back into place with a twitch of his fingers.

Steve made a face. "You're the one who can handle these sort of diplomatic functions," he said. He caught Tony's wrist when Tony would've continued fussing with his hair. His grip was firm, and familiar. "I could order you."

"Sorry, but as consort, I'm not required to obey you," Tony said, grinning. "The privilege of my position."

"But you do."

"Because occasionally, it amuses me to do so." Tony knew he should pull his arm from Steve's grip. He wasn't holding on with any force. There was no threat to it, no strain. Just the contact of warm fingers on the bare skin of his wrist, and it felt nice. Which was all the more reason that he should remove it. "I do not think this is one of these times."

Steve smiled. "Yes. It is."

Tony opened his mouth, a cutting reply hovering on his tongue, but a knock on the door interrupted him. "Come in," he said, tugging against Steve's grip. His fingers released, and Tony took his hand back.

Pepper opened the door, her pleased face getting tight and unhappy in the space of two steps. "I knew I would find you here," she said, and both men looked at each other, then back at her, both mouths opening, and Pepper held up a hand, holding them off. "Your majesty, you have matters to attend to."

"She's mad," Tony said to Steve. "She's calling you 'your majesty.'"

Steve ignored him. "I do have things to attend to," he agreed. "And this was one of them."

Pepper's cutting gaze moved to Tony, who winced. "I'll handle this," she said, with a pleasant smile. “You are needed downstairs, my liege.”

“I'll come,” Tony said, and Pepper advanced on him.

“You absolutely will not,” she said. “The guests have already begun arriving, and you look a proper mess.”

Steve gave him a smile. “I'll see you this evening,” he said, with that sort of regal approval that he adopted when he was getting his way. He got his way a lot. Such was the benefit of being the damn king.

Tony watched him go. “I am not doing this,” he said, reaching for his book.

Pepper took hold of the back of his shirt, and his elbow, and spun him on his heel, shoving him towards his bathing chambers. “You most certainly are. You will not leave him to navigate this particular battlefield alone, Anthony.”

“Why should I-” He gave up, letting her muscle him in the direction of his massive brass tub. “Horrid woman.”

“Obstinate man,” Pepper said, unconcerned. She pushed her sleeves back. “Strip. Or I shall do it for you?”

Tony's eyebrows arched, pressing a hand to his chest. “How forward of you.”

She rolled her eyes, but her lips twitched. "You're filthy," Pepper said. “What have you possibly been up to?”

"I was dealing with the repairs in the-" Tony choked on grit when she grabbed his shirt and pulled it off over his head. "In the catacombs."

"In the catacombs?" Her voice rose to a sharp pitch. "Today?"

"It needed doing!" Tony started unfastening his pants before she could do it. Some humiliations, he could still avoid.

"Today?"

He shoved his pants down and stepped out of them, kicking them towards the roaring fire on the hearth. "Throw the shirt in there, too, and yes, today."

Pepper scooped up his pants with the tip of the fireplace poker and transferred the fabric into the blaze. "What were you thinking? You knew you-"

"I thought he'd have the sense not to show up at what amounts to a marriage negotiation with his male consort!" Tony snapped. "I thought that I wouldn't have to deal with this. I truly thought I'd be-"

"You thought that if you got dirty enough and hid in the lower basements, you could get away with skipping this," Pepper interrupted.

He paused. "No," he said at last. It sounded weak to his own ears. "Pepper-"

“You had to know that he would want you there,” she said, turning to the tub.

“I was hoping that for once, he wouldn't ask.” Tony shucked the rest of his clothes as she filled the bath. The water pipes and heater had been his own work, and he was still a bit pleased with how it had turned out. Now, however, he wished she'd been forced to have water brought up from the kitchens. It would have been a reprieve, at least.

“But you knew he would.”

“I was hoping he wouldn't!” Tony filled the sink basin, splashing water on his face and hair, removing the worst of the grit.

“You have obligations. It's time to live up to them,” Pepper said, clearly having no pity for him. She dumped salts into the bathwater with a heavy hand.

“Those are expensive,” Tony pointed out.

“As the person who keeps the books for this entire keep, I am aware.” She gave him a tight lipped smile. “Nothing but the best for the king's consort.”

Tony's teeth locked. “The one benefit to his marriage, Pepper, is that I will be freed from this farce.” It wasn't much of a benefit. He hated the thought, the very concept of it. Of Steve married. Of Steve not needing him to keep the world at bay any longer. Of Steve having someone who loved him, who adored him, who could do that.

“It is not a farce. You're an excellent consort,” Pepper said, and not even she could maintain a straight face.

Tony stepped into the bath. “He is mad, you know that, don't you?” He sank down into the water, hissing as the hot, salt-laced water stung at a thousand tiny nicks and cuts in his skin. He always had some injury, somewhere. Usually more than one.

“He makes the rules work for him.” Pepper snatched a wash cloth from the basket beside the bath. She rubbed it with a bar of soap with a bit more energy than was strictly necessary. Tony recognized the signs of strain, in her face, in her actions. “The king has always had a consort, a personal adviser that is not part of the council, but is rather there for the king and only the king. No politics, no ulterior motive.” She slapped the cloth against Tony's shoulder. “There has always been a consort.”

“By which you mean, the king has always had a mistress, or a bedmate,” Tony said, his tone wry, “and everyone politely pretended that it was a 'personal adviser.'” He winced as Pepper's hands dug into his back. “Are you trying to remove the skin?”

“There is something black and sticky here,” she said, “and I do not want to know what it is, so do not tell me.” She pushed his head forward. “Steve has always done things his own way.”

“Steve,” Tony gritted out, “is the only ruler in the history of the kingdom who takes the damn job description at face value.” He took the soap from her. “So I get all the hell of being known as the king's personal whore, and not even the benefit of sleeping with the damn king.”

“Do you know how often I've heard this particular complaint?” Pepper asked.

Tony considered that. “Once or twice,” he admitted.

“Add a few zeroes on the end of that,” Pepper said. “Wash your hair.”

“It's not just that Steve isn't sleeping with me,” Tony mused, ignoring it when Pepper moved away. She was going to pick him something horrible to wear, he just knew it. He sank low into the bath, pouting. “It's that because everyone else thinks his majesty IS sleeping with me, and thus, no one else will sleep with me.”

“You life is full of suffering and woe,” Pepper called from the other room.

“You are mocking me, and I do not care.” Tony took a deep breath, and sank under the water. He came up a moment later, just in time for Pepper to slap a steam cloth against his face. “Are you trying to kill me?” he muttered through the hot cloth.

“You need a shave,” she said. “That beard of yours is getting a bit rough. It's a formal occasion, let's pretend that you're presentable.”

“Pepper?” he mumbled through the cloth. He peeled it away. “He's bringing his whore to the party.”

“Oh, Tony.” She leaned over, cupping her hands on his cheeks, smoothing her fingers through his wet hair, over his head. “He isn't. He's bringing his fake whore.” She straightened up. “I've laid out clothes for you, see to it that you don't ruin them before you reach the main hall.”

He sighed. “Pepper? Will you sleep with me?”

“We did that, Tony,” she said, her lips twitching. “I love you. But when I'm sleeping with you, I want to kill you.”

Tony winced. “Not when we were-”

“Oh, when we were actually making love, I adored you.” She leaned over and kissed his forehead. “It was when we stopped that I remembered that you were determined to drive me mad.”

Tony considered objecting, but it didn't seem like he was fated to win any arguments today. “He's going to get married, isn't he?” he asked.

“I think he has to, at some point,” Pepper said.

Tony nodded, his fingers rubbing at the scars that knotted the skin over his breastbone. They ached in the heat sometimes. “Good. Then, this will be over.”

He told himself he was glad about that. It wasn't particularly effective.

*

“Having second thoughts?”

“Had second thoughts a week ago,” Clint said, without looking away from the window. “Think I'm on about six hundredth thoughts.”

“Is that a thing?” She settled down on the cushion beside him, sleek and lovely and sharper than any blade he'd ever held. She tucked her legs up on the bench, letting the sweep of her black skirts run over the edge like water.

“Might not be a thing,” Clint said, crossing his arms over his chest. “But it's my life. Guess I'm kinda used to it by now.” He looked at her. “You're sure about this?”

She stared out the window. “No,” she admitted, as the breeze caught her hair, brushing it back from her face. The sun was setting on the horizon, and the last, fading rays gilded her skin. “You have no obligation to stay, Clint.”

“Do you really think you can do this alone?” he asked.

“You're not nearly as important as you like to think you are,” she said, sounding amused. “And I'm not alone. I brought a small army with me.”

“As benefits your position,” Clint agreed. “They're all idiots, though. You know that, right?”

“I'd say, you should go tell them that, but you probably would.”

“I can hit from a distance and run faster than the devil himself, what do I have to fear?” Clint said, grinning.

She shook her head. “This isn't your fault, or your fight,” Natasha said, and Clint shrugged.

“I'm just a mercenary for hire,” he said, leaning his shoulder against the wall. His foot hooked his bow, bouncing it into his hand with a flick of his ankle. “I'm only here because you're paying me.”

“Keep working at that. Someone will believe you one of these days,” Nat said, smiling, and Clint bit back a smile of his own.

“It's not your fault, either,” he said, smoothing a thumb along the length of his bow. “I understand wanting to save someone you love, but-”

“Love is for children,” Nat said, as she stood. “This isn't about love. This is about ending a war before it can begin.”

Clint knew better than to try to argue. “And for that...”

Her head tipped down, just for a moment, then it came back up, her face a mask, her eyes brilliant. “We find what needs finding. We retrieve what belongs to me.”

“I”m always eager for a good losing fight,” Clint said. He shouldered his bow. “That being the case, I'm going to go get the lay of the land.”

“By which you mean, find the lowest bars in the city proper?”

“M'lady, you wound me,” he said, grinning. “I already found them. Now I just have to see what I can pick up by drinking at them.”

“Be careful,” she said. She looked at him. “Be invisible.”

“Is that your way of saying to leave the purple cloak at home?”

“It's a bit ostentatious,” she agreed, a faint smile sweeping over her face. “Try to blend in.”

“These people have sharp eyes,” Clint said. “But I'll do my best.” He scooped up his quiver.

“Don't take risks you don't have to take,” Natasha swept her skirts out. “And Clint?” He looked at her. “Don't get arrested.”

“You have a lot of requirements,” he mused. He headed for the door. “Don't stab anyone at the diplomatic dinner.”

“Now who has unrealistic expectations?”

*

“What, did no one tell Namor's people that pants are considered customary for our state gatherings?”

James Rhodes, resplendent in court armor in shades of black and gray, gave Tony a look out of the corner of his eyes. “Maybe he's taking his cue from you,” he said, his lips barely moving. “Seem to recall a time or two that you didn't follow dress code.”

“I was seventeen, I was drunk, and it was not a state dinner,” Tony said, arching an eyebrow. “I blame you for that one, anyway.”

Rhodey's head rolled in his direction. “Oh, I cannot wait to hear how this is somehow my fault,” he drawled. “Please, do tell.”

Tony smiled at him around the rim of his wine glass. “You were the one who brought me to the city,” he said. “I trusted you. You were older. Wiser. Familiar with the ways of the court.” He shrugged, putting on a sad expression. “I was just a poor, lost child who'd recently lost his parents.”

“You were a bad tempered drunken flirt, and as much trouble as you gave me on the journey here, you're lucky I didn't sell you to a traveling troupe of actors as a fool.” Rhodey paused. “You already had the wardrobe.”

“That hurts, darling, really, that...” Tony shook his head. “I like to think I've improved.” He smoothed a hand over the his perfectly tailored shirt. “My wardrobe certainly has.”

“It's slightly less-” Rhodey's eyes trailed from the top of his head, down to his feet, and then back up. “Dirty.”

Tony grinned. “I give and I give and I give, and this is what I get in return.”

“Call him 'darling' one more time, and you'll be getting a little something,” Carol Danvers said, coming up on Rhodey's other side. Her court armor was gleaming in shades of red and midnight blue, an eight pointed star in gold leaf in the center of her breastplate.

“What would that be?” Tony asked, grinning at her.

She gave him a sweet smile. “The back of my fist.”

Tony winced. “Jealousy does not become you, my lady.”

“Someone has to protect his virtue,” Carol said. She looked at Rhodey. “Time for the changing of the guard.”

“Is that your way of telling us that you're taking off for the night?” Rhodey asked, his eyes dancing.

“I think I deserve it,” she said. “Did you see what King Namor is wearing?”

“I saw what he is not wearing,” Tony mumbled into his wine glass. “Pants. He is not wearing pants. It seems a questionable choice.”

“If he snaps his fingers at me one more time, I'm going to cause a diplomatic incident by breaking them. Perhaps by breaking them off,” Carol said. She looked at Rhodey, her eyes faintly pleading. “I'll deal with the watch?”

“You're going to leave me here? With him?” Rhodey asked, rubbing his mouth to hide a smile. “I deserve better than that.”

“He promises to be on his best behavior,” Carol said, her voice flinty. “Don't you, Tony?”

“Not at all,” Tony said, craning his neck. Namor had brought three very lovely women with him, and they were wearing almost as little as he was, long, curving legs bare down to their jewel covered feet. Carol dug an armored elbow into his solar plexus, and he nearly dropped his wine. “On second thought, behaving seems like a fine choice for my health.”

“Your continued survival might depend on it,” she said. Her hand ghosted over Rhodey's bicep. “Send for me if you have trouble with him.”

“No, you'll kill him, and I like the man.”

“I know, I keep trying to break you of the habit,” Carol said. With a nod and a wave, she strode off through the crowd, leaving stunned and covetous looks in her wake.

“I love that woman,” Rhodey said, grinning.

“You are both horrible people, how are you my friends?” Tony smiled at the girl who appeared at his elbow with a jug of wine. “Thank you,” he told her, as she filled it. “These people are horrible.”

“So are you,” she said, smiling at him as she handed him his glass back. “So you're in good company.”

“I am highly respected in some circles,” Tony told Rhodey.

“None of them involve the many women you've flirted with,” Rhodey said. He shook his head when the girl looked at him with polite inquiry. “No, thank you, mine's just for show.”

“I'll drink it later so it doesn't go to waste,” Tony told her. She walked off, giggling. “And I don't know what you're talking about, Rhodes, women love me.”

“Anthony!”

Tony swung around. “Lady Van Dyne!” he said, laughing as Janet swept through the crowd, directly into his arms. She was laughing, even as she hugged him tight. When she pulled away, Tony took her hand and bowed over it, his lips brushing against her knuckles. “It's amazing.”

“What is?”

He gave her a smile. “You grow more clever by the day.”

“And how would you know the state of my mind?” she asked, but there was a bright, puckish smile hovering around her lips.

“I can make an educated guess,” Tony said, his tone arch. He tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “And you're so lovely that compliments to your looks must be commonplace by now. I like to be different.”

“You could try being sincere,” Jan said, her eyes dancing.

“Now, that's just insulting. I'm always sincere, even when I'm lying.”

“You are a menace,” she said, smacking him lightly on the arm. “I shouldn't introduce you to my friends.”

Tony glanced over, catching sight of the women hovering just behind her. He gave them his most charming smile. “Oh, you absolutely should.”

Laughing, Jan tugged Tony forward a step. “Your majesty, may I present Lord Anthony Edward Stark, one of my dearest friends.” She inclined her head. “Tony, may I introduce Her Royal Highness, Queen Wanda of Genosha.”

She was lovely and strangely serene, her mouth curved in a faint smile, her big, dark eyes framed by thick black lashes. There was a hint of melancholy to those eyes, to her smile, and to call her lovely was too bland a phrase. She was elegant and regal, her curly hair pulled back to the nape of her neck and her red gown a sweep of glittering silk. Her only hint of a crown was a tiara formed of a thin thread of red metal that wove through her dark hair and curled around her head at her temples, framing her face. She offered Tony a hand. “Lady Jan speaks highly of you,” she said, and there was an odd note to her voice. “We are honored to make your acquaintance.”

Tony bowed, his lips not quite touching her knuckles. “The honor is mine, your majesty.”

Jan waited until he had straightened, before adding, “He is not to be trusted.”

“How unkind,” Tony said, laughing. “Neither are you.”

“Then we are a matched set.” She nodded at the two women with Wanda, one a statuesque woman with a sweep of hair as white as snow and dark brown skin, and the other a pale brunette with dancing purple eyes. “This is Lady Ororo and Lady Elizabeth.”

“Betsy,” the brunette corrected with a faint smile.

“Your entourage appears to be quite dangerous,” Tony said to Wanda, who arched a brow at him.

“Well, we have heard this is dangerous country,” she said, laughter rolling through the words.

“I can't imagine who'd tell you this.” Tony turned. “This is Captain James Rhodes, a personal friend and Captain of the Knights of the Realm. Your safety is in his hands.”

“I'll do my best to keep him in line,” Rhodey said, bowing. “But let me know if he makes trouble for you.”

“The cruelty involved in this conversation,” Tony said to Ororo, who arched an eyebrow. “I've done nothing to deserve this. I want you to know this.”

“It is far too late to try to convince us of that, my lord,” she said. “We've known Jan too long.”

“That is unfortunate,” Tony said, and Jan smacked him on the shoulder.

“So you are the one they speak of down in the city,” Betsy said to Rhodey.

“My lady?”

“The Captain, they say, or just-” She looked at Ororo.

“Cap,” Ororo filled in for her.

Rhodey was already shaking his head. “No-” He smiled. “No, that's not me, my lady.”

“It's King Steven,” Tony said, smiling. “An old nickname.”

“Not one befitting a king,” Betsy said, her eyebrows arching up.

“No, but it was given to him before he took the crown. It's a sign of affection, and he knows it. He treasures it.”

Her head tipped to the side, curiosity lighting her features. “Why?”

Tony grinned at her. "Did you come all this way without knowing the legends and lore of our kingdom?"

Betsy gave him a flirtatious look from under the sweep of her lashes, her cheeks dimpling as he lips curled up. "Let's just pretend I enjoy hearing a good story."

He shook his head, pulling a sad expression. "It's a shame I have no talent for the telling of such tales." From behind him, he heard a rather impolite snort, and he grinned. "Unless you'd prefer to entertain us, Rhodey?"

"No, please, enlighten us," Rhodey said, and Tony didn't even have to look in his direction. He could hear the grin in Rhodey's voice. “I always thought you'd make an excellent storyteller for the city's children.”

“Well, if my lands, skill and bloodline fail to keep me in the manner in which I've become accustomed,” Tony said, grinning wide and sharp, “It can't hurt to have another profession to fall back on.”

“You do seem to enjoy the sound of your own voice,” Ororo commented, and Wanda hid a smile behind her hand. Betsy didn't bother, laughing out loud.

“My lady, you wound me,” Tony said. He set a hand against his chest. “I fear we can no longer be friends.”

“You're better off,” Jan said, hugging Tony's arm when he gave her a look. “Tell the story, or I'll do it for you.”

“You make things up,” Tony said, and ignored her gasp of outrage. To Betsy, he said, “King Steven was very sickly as a child. His mother was a distant cousin of the old king.”

“King Phillips, yes?” Wanda asked.

“Yes,” Tony agreed. “She came to the court after her husband died in the wars, seeking a safe place to raise her son. She was a healer, and her skills were valued, but I suspect the old king would have given her a place, even without that. I'm told he had a gruff face, but a soft heart.”

“You didn't know him?” Ororo asked.

“No, I came to court after his death.” He smiled. “The only king I've known is the current one. But King Steven grew up here, along with the king's heir, Prince James. They shared an education, but while James was a natural fighter, strong and tall and big for his age, King Steven was-” He paused. “Well, the determination was made that he would never be a soldier.”

They were all listening in rapt silence, now, even Rhodey, who knew the story as well as Tony did. “But he was clever, even as a child. He might not have had the body of a soldier, but he had the mind of one. So he was called the little Captain, and later, just Cap.” Tony grinned. “When his body caught up to his mind, the name stuck.”

“I find it difficult to believe that he was ever so small,” Ororo said, her eyes dancing.

“He was,” Rhodey said. “And he was prone to sickness.”

“Even after a doctor was found that could help him,” Tony said, “King Phillips worried about him. That's why he gave King Steven the shield. Other high born fighters, when they joined the ranks to fight, were given a ceremonial sword, or another well crafted weapon that suited them. King Steven, he felt, was more in need of protection.” Tony pointed, to where the shield hung above the central fireplace's mantel. “That shield. He's used it, ever since.”

It was a perfect circle, gleaming and smooth, the colors brilliant in the firelight. It gleamed, a field of red and blue with a single perfect star in the center. “It is his symbol, now,” Tony explained.

“It is stolen.”

Everyone fell silent. Tony's head slid around, not too fast, keeping his violent reaction carefully under wraps. The man was tall and lean, with dark brown skin and brilliant black eyes. He was dressed all in black, the cloth perfectly tailored to his broad shoulders and chest. There was no crown on his head, but he didn't need it. There was no mistaking him for anything but a king.

“King T'Challa,” Rhodey said, inclining his head. “It's an honor, your majesty.”

T'Challa nodded, but his eyes were locked on Tony, sharp and brilliant. “You are Lord Anthony Stark. The king's-” He paused, and Tony waited, unconcerned. “Smith and armorer of the realm.”

Tony's lips kicked up on one side. “Among other things,” he agreed. “And the shield was a gift from King Phillips.”

T'Challa didn't so much as blink. “It is stolen,” he repeated.

Tony gave him a faint smile. “I'm sorry,” he said, his voice quiet, “but I fear you're mistaken. My father crafted that shield. I watched him do it, when I was just a boy.” Which wasn't exactly the truth. He'd seen Howard create the prototypes, one after another after another, learning and relearning how to do it. Tony, hiding in corners and under tables, and at the top of the stairs that lead to Howard's smithy, had learned along with him.

He took a sip from his glass. “He made it for the king. It is in the hands that its creator intended.”

T'Challa's head tipped to the side, considering. “And the material it is made with, is stolen. It was never intended for hands such as yours.”

Tony's shoulders rose, just a sliver of a shrug. “Spoils of war, I'm afraid. I'm told the metal came to us through a captured war camp.”

“It was taken from one of my people.”

“Not by us,” Tony said. His lips twitched. “Unless, of course, one of your people was where he or she should not have been.” He drained his glass, and rolled the crystal stem between his fingers. “Since you claimed neutrality throughout the entire war. Did you not?”

T'Challa's mouth curved in the smallest hint of a smile. “Your petty arguments have nothing to do with me, or my people. We will not be pawns, or weapons for the fight of another.” He stepped forward, the cape swirling around his legs, his footfalls silent. “Anyone, with the smallest hint of talent, can forge a shield as your father did.”

Tony's teeth locked together, but he merely arched his eyebrows. “My father would be pleased with your praise, I'm sure.”

T'Challa ignored that. “What is difficult, what is nearly impossible, is the reforging of a broken shield. That, takes careful training, years of it, to even come close to accomplishing in any manner.” His eyes were slits now, black and fathomless. “To reforge vibranium is a task left to only the master craftsmen of my people.”

His head tipped to the side. “And yet, you managed it.”

There was silence, and Tony stared him down. “That shield has never broken,” he said, his voice quiet. “As you said. Reforging vibranium is impossible. Once it breaks...” He shook his head. “The metal will always carry the flaw.” He smiled. “There's no way to fix that.”

“There is. But not a way known to your people.”

Tony nodded. “Then, as you said. Impossible. For my people.”

T'Challa leaned in. “And yet, you did it.”

Tony smiled at him, not ceding ground, not ceding space, fuck this, fuck this royal fucker in his face. “I am sorry, your majesty. But I don't know what you're talking about.”

"Forgive me," Wanda said, her eyes sliding between Tony and T'Challa. "Metalwork isn't my specialty, but I was under the impression that any metal could be reforged."

"Beating plowshares into swords, all that, yes," Tony said, never dropping his gaze from T'Challa's. He smiled, just a little. "Vibranium is different. Perhaps his majesty would explain, as the expert?"

"No, please continue." T'Challa's smile was dangerous. "I am interested to know just how far your understanding extends."

Tony knew he was being goaded. He knew, and he found he didn't care. Despite the interested eyes of everyone around them, despite Rhodey's presence just behind him, he found he really did not care. He was rapidly getting sick of this royal shit, and he really wasn't interested in playing nice.

"Vibranium is one use," he said, directing his explanation to Wanda. "There's a magical property, that isn't fully understood. The ore itself is easily worked with, easily forged. But once it takes form, it's..." He paused, looking for the right word. "Locked. It isn't metal in the shape of a shield. It is a shield. The essence of what it is, what the creator forged of it, that's part of that particular piece of metal, for the rest of its existence.

"Which means, if you forge a sword, and that sword breaks, it can't be put back together. It can't be melted down and reforged, made into something else, or even into another sword." His smile got tight. "Once made, it cannot be unmade.”

"It is the ultimate test of a creator," T'Challa said. He rolled the stem of his wine glass between his fingers, the red liquid inside shifting with the motion. "Mistakes are not forgiven by Vibranium. Flaws in the creator become flaws in the creation. Only the most skilled can create, and it is an honor that my people convey only after years of study and apprenticeship."

His eyes were hooded as he stared at Tony. "Your father's work was flawed. He did not understand the severity of the test he undertook. His work was tried. And it failed."

Tony's smile was easy now. "My father had his flaws," he said. "So did his work.” He drained his glass. “But he made that shield. And that shield is as strong, if not stronger, as it was the day that he finished it.”

T'Challa's lips curved up, and this time, his smile looked real. “That, I suspect, has everything to do with you, and nothing at all to do with your father.”

Tony met his eyes without flinching. “If that is your opinion, your majesty, there is little I can do to change it.”

T'Challa took a step forward, definitely well into Tony's personal space now. Tony held his ground. “One would think you would at least attempt it.”

“T'Challa, this is why you aren't invited anywhere.”

The words, amused and distinctly feminine, broke the stalemate. Tony took a step back, the move instinctive, as T'Challa's head turned. One eyebrow arched. “In that, you are mistaken, Medusa,” he said with a faint smile. “I am invited everywhere. I am just seldom welcome, and that is why I do not come.”

The queen was tall and graceful, wearing a gown of heavy magenta velvet that should have clashed with her bright red hair, but somehow didn't. The mass of her hair had been worked into an elaborate hairstyle of curls and braids that left her the ivory skin of her shoulders and back bare. Her crown, by contrast, was a thin twist of silver threads curling like vines around a cluster of jewels. She had an easy smile and stance, and she leaned into the side of a tall, sober looking man dressed in black and silver. She shook her head. “How do you expect to make friends, if you are always picking fights?” she asked T'Challa.

“I do not seek friends,” he explained, but he was smiling at her. “Merely the possibility of trade.” He nodded to her companion, who returned the gesture. “Blackagar.” To Medusa, he asked, “It's not like you to travel with so small a retinue.”

She laughed. “The Lady Sersi is seeking to make a better impression on King Steven then you have made on his royal armorer.” She gave Tony a smile and a wink, and he smiled back. He had always liked her.

As she greeted Wanda and the others, Tony took a moment to look around for Steve. It wasn't hard to find him, despite the crowd. He was taller than almost all of the guests, with broad shoulders and pale hair that shone in the low light. Despite Fury's protests, Steve had chosen a simple crown of balanced silver that matched the star that hung over his breastbone. His shirt was the blue of a late dusk sky.

He looked regal, and more than a little uncomfortable. Probably because of the willowy, pale brunette that hung on Steve's arm without a trace of self-consciousness. She was beautiful in a dress of green velvet that was cut low on her shoulders, but Steve didn't seem to notice. Or perhaps the strained smile on his face was because he was noticing a little more than he wanted to.

Tony did his best not to hate her on sight. It was not particularly effective.

“So did you make the armor of the Iron Man?”

His head snapped back around, caught off guard. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Rhodey's face get tight. Tony gave Wanda a faint smile. “I had no hand in the forging of that armor,” he said. T'Challa was watching him with narrowed eyes, and Tony ignored that as well. “With all due respect, that individual is little more than a tale told to children.”

“You don't believe he exists?” Medusa asked, her tone curious.

“What they say he has done?” Tony shrugged. “What man could do even half of that?”

“One aided by a great magic,” T'Challa said. “And a very talented smith.”

“He might have some basis in reality,” Rhodey said. “But the Iron Man is a rallying cry more than a man.”

“He is real. I have seen him.”

The words brought utter stillness, and Tony turned. And found himself looking into a face that he knew. She was small, smaller than he remembered, but she was unarmed and not splattered with blood. That probably changed his view of the situation.

She smiled at him. “I fought him, once. Or at the time, I thought I was fighting him. Now, I'm not certain.”

“Lady Natasha,” Tony said.

Her smile was sweet and feminine. “You have me at a disadvantage, sir.”

“This is Lord Anthony Stark,” T'Challa said.

Her eyes widened, just a fraction. “Ah. So you are the king's consort.”

In the strained silence that followed, Tony gave her an easy smile and a bow. “I have that honor, yes, my lady.”

She nodded. “I was wondering who the competition was.”

And with that, she turned and walked away again, leaving Tony gaping at her back. Before any one could say anything further, the bell tolled, calling them all to dinner. As everyone began moving in that direction, polite chatter breaking out amongst the others, Tony gave Rhodey a sideways look. “If she kills me on her way to clearing a spot in Steve's bed,” he said, his voice pitched low, “I will expect you to avenge me.”

“If she kills you, she'll find that bed less than welcoming,” Rhodey said. “But I'll see what I can do.”

“Thank you.”

*

The flare of light made him curse and throw an arm over his eyes. Tony swore, his voice rough and raw. “What the-”

“Tony?”

“I will kill you,” Tony mumbled, his head aching, his throat on fire. He rolled to the side, trying to dodge the light.

“Sorry, Tony, but we need you.” Rhodey's hand caught Tony's shoulder, giving him a light shake. “Are you awake?”

“Unfortunately.” He pried his arm away, ignoring the way any hint of light made his head pound. "You could have at least had the common courtesy to knock," he grumbled, squinting against the light.

"I did," Rhodey said, his voice tight. "You didn't wake up."

"I had a few drinks last night. This night. Tonight. What time is it?" Tony asked from between gritted teeth. He glanced towards the nearest window. There was no sign of light at the edges of the heavy curtains, no hint that it was morning. “Pretty sure that disturbing the consort's beauty rest is punishable by a sudden, one-way trip to the dungeon.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Or death.”

"Just about anything involving the consort is punishable by death. Insulting you, assaulting you, accidentally bumping into you," Rhodey said, his tone wry. "You may be the most well protected person in the kingdom, after the king himself. Luckily, you will never file a complaint, and even if you did, the king knows you too well to take it seriously."

"I will have you executed, I swear to god I will." Tony swung his legs off the bed, scrubbing his hands over his face. "Why are you waking me? At whatever unforgivable hour that this is?"

"We have a problem. One of the scouts got ambushed"

Tony's head snapped up. "Shit. Who, is he- Or she-" His pants were where he'd dropped them when he'd come stumbling to bed last night, and he slipped them on. "How bad?" He grabbed for his boots, jamming his feet into them.

Rhodey crossed to the closet, pulling out a shirt and tossing it to Tony. "Sam," he said. "Not bad. His injuries are minor, and he was nearly home when it happened. But his armor's locked in place. We can't get it loose, and we're reluctant to cut him out of it, since we're not sure how it'll let go."

"Shit," Tony repeated. "No. Don't do that." He yanked the shirt over his head. "I'll get it free, but if something lets go in the wrong way, they run the risk of hurting him." He rolled to his feet. "He's in the hospital ward?”

“No,” Rhodey said, shaking his head. "We took him to the smithy, figured if you did need to work on the armor, you'd need your tools. Carol and Bruce are down there with him.”

“Good call.” Tony shoved the tail of his shirt into his pants, giving up halfway and heading for the door. “Let's go.”

It was too late for the revelers to still be up, but too early for the staff. Only a handful of people were up now, moving through the cool air of pre-dawn. Tony nodded to a few of the guards and the watch who patrolled the corridors and the main courtyard. He smiled at the kitchen maids who yawned behind their hands and hustled to their work. He thought he saw a familiar silhouette pacing along the battlements, the edge of a black leather cloak disappearing into the shadows before he could be sure.

It was a quick trip, and both of them were in a hurry. In a matter of minutes, Tony was pushing the door open, catching the attention of everyone in his workshop. "What have you done to my armor?" he asked, stalking across the floor. Bruce stepped aside, moving out of his way, and Tony clapped the doctor on the shoulder.

Sam grinned, perched easily on top of the main workbench. He was breathing slowly, shallow little inhales and exhales. "Field tested it," he said. "It failed."

"You made it back, despite being dumb enough to be caught off your guard. I'd say that's a resounding endorsement of my skills, and my craft." Tony brought the lamps up. "Where's the problem?"

"The chest plate and right arm," Carol said, her arms crossed over her chest. "Something's caught, or bent in a way that I can't get to."

Tony glanced at Bruce. "Any sign of blood?"

Bruce shook his head. "Not that we can find. But he's having trouble breathing. Might be a broken or cracked rib or two."

"It hurts when I breathe too deeply," Sam admitted, as Tony ducked under his arm, running careful fingers over the seams of the armor. "Don't know if it's because something's digging in, or if it's because I'm hurt."

"Think it's the former." Tony frowned. "Rhodey, can you stoke the fire? I might need a heat source."

He nodded. "Got it."

Tony glanced at Carol. "You've got better hands than him," he said with a faint smile. Better, and smaller. He had a feeling he was going to need smaller at this point. "Can you get a grip under here and brace him?"

She leaned in, her eyes narrowed. She looked tired, her hair pulled back from her face in a tight braid and dark circles marking the pale skin beneath her eyes. "Can you do this?" Tony asked, and she gave him a cutting look.

"Tell me what to do," she said, pushing her sleeves back.

“Bruce, come here and brace his arm,” Tony said, reaching for a hooked blade. “Up, and back.”

“Tell me if this hurts,” Bruce said, and Sam gave a quick, sharp nod. His brown skin had a sheen of sweat, and his head was canted forward.

“Sam,” Tony said, bringing his head up. He waited until Sam's eyes came into focus on him. “When I give you the cue, I need you to take a deep breath. Take it slow, and tell us if the pain gets worse. But breathe in, slow and steady, until you've filled your lungs.” Tony looked at Carol. “Soon as he gives us the nod, slide your fingers under here.” He ran his knuckles along the seam. “Get under as much as you can. As soon as you've got a grip, we're going to have Sam empty his lungs. You need to hold the space he's made, I need to get under there.” To Bruce, he added, “If he's hurt-”

“I'm ready,” Bruce said, with a faint smile. He had a pad of folded cloth in his hand, an array of bottles and tools spread out next to him, in neat, precise rows.

Tony took a deep breath “Everyone ready?” He waited for the round of nods. He reached for a leather cutter, a short, heavy blade with a wicked hook to it.

Sam eyed it, his mouth pursing. “I think I changed my mind,” he said.

“Too late, should've thought of that before you let yourself get jumped,” Tony said, grinning. He braced a hand on Sam's side. “Ready? Inhale.”

It went off perfectly, and a moment later, Tony's fingers slipped beneath the metal. He didn't even have to look, there was no way he could've seen, but he didn't need to. This was his armor, he'd designed it, he'd forged it, he'd built it and set it on Sam's shoulders himself. He didn't need to see. Blind, and confident despite it, he slipped the knife under the leather strap that had tangled with a bent buckle, and twisted.

The armor came apart, and before Tony and Carol could even pull the breastplate free, Bruce was there, hands smoothing up Sam's side. “Anything?” he asked.

Sam took a breath, shallow at first, then deeper. “Hurts,” he admitted, his head falling forward. “But I don't think anything's broken.”

“That's where you're wrong,” Tony said, holding the armor up. “This is definitely broken.” He made a sad noise. “Did you even try to avoid getting hit?” he asked, disapproving.

“Believe it or not, that was the result of me doing my absolute best not to get hit,” Sam said. He glanced at Bruce. “Am I gonna make it, Doc?”

“Long enough to pay me for my services, and I think that's all that matters,” Bruce said with a faint smile.

Tony heard the familiar footfalls on the stairs, and shook his head. “Now you're in for it,” he said, grinning as he reached for a hammer.

“Don't I know it,” Sam said, wincing as Bruce wiped away a trickle of blood. He glared at Rhodey. “Who told Cap?”

Rhodey looked at Carol, who rolled her eyes. “I'd guess we have Fury to thank for that.”

“He doesn't miss a trick,” Rhodey agreed, a faint sigh coloring the words.

“Dammit, Sam,” Steve said as he stormed into the workshop.

“I'm fine, Cap,” Sam said, and he was grinning as he said it, that same, familiar grin. He leaned back, his breathing still shallow, but not as labored now.

Steve ignored him, his eyes cutting towards Bruce, who nodded. “Minor cuts and scrapes,” he said, with a slight smile. He shifted his stool closer to the workbench. “Bad bruising. But nothing all that dangerous, and nothing lasting.” His body rocked forward, his spectacles slipping forward on the bridge of his nose. “A good meal and a good night's sleep, and he'll be on the mend in no time.”

“Could use that meal now, not gonna lie,” Sam said. “It was a hell of a trip home.”

“What happened?” Steve asked Rhodey.

“I was-” Sam started, and stopped when Steve put a hand up.

“Not talking to you right now,” Steve said, his tone dangerous. Sam just grinned, leaning back against the wall so that Bruce could finish swabbing out the cut on his side. Tony, hiding a smile of his own, went back to work on fixing Sam's armor.

Rhodey, used to Steve's moods, even if he was too good a soldier to ever question them, shook his head. “We're not sure. He got ambushed on the road home. Managed to hold onto the information he was carrying, and his goods, but it was a near thing. If he'd been any further from the main gates of the city, it's likely we would've lost him.”

“They underestimate my speed,” Sam said to Bruce. “Also, Redwing's speed. He got off completely untouched.”

“Having seen your armor,” Bruce said, his eyes tipping up. “I'm surprised you made it.”

“I make a fine suit of armor,” Tony said, flipping the breastplate over. “Still.” He let out a low whistle. “This was a hell of a blow. Mace or-”

Sam was already shaking his head. “No weapon I could see. I couldn't see much. He came out of the trees, fast, and he was wearing a heavy cloak and a-” He held a hand over his face. “A helmet, or a mask, it was hard to see. It was dark. But there was something over his mouth, over the lower part of his face.” He leaned forward, bracing his hands on the edge of the workbench. “I'll admit it, he came in so fast and so hard that I was not trying to get a look at his face, I was just trying to keep a knife out of my throat.” He tipped his head back, showing off a very thin, very long cut from just under one ear down to the hollow of his throat. “It was a close thing.”

Tony held up the breastplate, swinging it so that the light played off of the metal. Everyone could see the fold in it, where the impact had creased it. “This wasn't done with a knife.”

“No,” Sam agreed. “It was done with a bare hand. Or, I don't know, I saw metal, so a hand in armor. But I didn't see a weapon.” He shrugged. “Just the cloak, and armor. And...” He eyes narrowed. “A flash of brown hair.”

Steve's eyes squeezed shut. “Red star on the arm?”

“The Winter Soldier?” Tony asked, even as he tossed the breastplate onto the anvil. “C'mon, Steve, that's a tale told by soldiers on the front lines to scare the new ones.” He snorted. “Like the Iron Man.”

Rhodey gave him a look out of the corner of his eyes, and Tony ignored him. He'd had enough practice at that, at least.

“I didn't see a star,” Sam said. He winced as Bruce dabbed at his throat. “But don't know if it was there, and I just couldn't see it.” He took a deep breath. “He was scary fast and scary strong. That's all I know.”

“And he was within our borders,” Carol said, bringing every eye to her. She had her arms crossed over her chest, her hip braced on a bench. “Where he got ambushed. It's well within our borders.” She shook her head, her lips going to a thin line. “Nearly to the capital.”

“We've dealt with bandits before-” Rhodey started, and Carol cut him off.

“We have, but these aren't bandit raids. These aren't scattered outlaws, out for a handful of coin, or a something they can sell.” She pushed herself upright. “Four groups came through the gates in the hour before Sam did. All of them merchants, all of them unguarded. One was just an old woman and a young boy driving a farm cart.” Her fingers beat a rapid tattoo on her bicep. “Not a rich prize, but easy pickings.”

Her eyes canted up. “This isn't bandits. This is something different.”

Steve took a deep breath. “Any other scouts unaccounted for?”

Carol's head dipped to the side, her eyes narrowing. “Ours? No. Johnny and Jessica both made it home today. Sam was the last one back.”

“In my defense, I did have the farthest to go,” Sam said, grinning.

“And you took a couple of unauthorized side trips,” Rhodey said.

“Not my fault you didn't anticipate how much I could get outta a handful of farmers and innkeepers along the road,” Sam shot back, unconcerned. He shifted, giving Bruce access to wrap his torso in bandages. “Traffic's on the road is way up. We have movement like nothing we've seen in years. People notice.”

“The trade delegations have been driving movement. From all of the kingdoms,” Tony said. He pried a leather strip loose and tossed it to the side. “If someone was looking to move unseen over the borders, now would be the time to do it.”

Steve huffed out a sigh, his mouth going tight. “Just what we need,” he muttered.

“The negotiations are going to go well, and you know it,” Tony said, his hammer rolling over the surface of the metal in a rapid tattoo. He flipped the breastplate. “We just need to hold it together until we clear the court, then we can deal with this.”

“Holding it together is what we're best at.” Steve's hand settled on the nape of Sam's neck. “You all right?”

Sam grinned at him. “Tell you what, Cap. Take me down to the kitchens and convince them to feed me, and I promise I won't die.”

“I'd appreciate that.” Steve's eyes went to Carol and Rhodey. “Take him off the duty roster for the next few days.”

“I'm fine,” Sam started, and Steve ignored him, tugging him to his feet, and bracing him with a hand on his back. Sam grumbled under his breath, but he leaned into Steve's hand.

“I think we can get by without you. For a few days,” Carol told him. She pushed herself upright. “I'm going to go see what Fury has dug up on our latest problem.” She looked to Rhodey. “You coming?”

“I'm going to go speak to the watch,” Rhodey said. “Make sure we have a few extra eyes on the road tonight.”

“Double the watch,” Steve told him. To Carol, he added. “Tell Fury that I want a reporting of all border incidents for the last six months. And anything that struck him as unusual for a full year.” His eyes pinned Tony. “You, go to bed.”

“My orders are always worse than anyone else's,” Tony said to Bruce, who laughed.

“You're the only one who never follows them,” he said, adjusting his glasses. “Sam, come see me in the morning so I can check you out in better light.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Sam said. He leaned against Steve. “Let's go, my liege!”

“Don't push your luck, Sam,” Steve said, but there was nothing but affection in his voice. “Bruce? Something to eat? Since we're going to be waking the poor kitchen staff anyway?”

“I could do with a cup of tea, to be honest.” Bruce looked up from packing his bag. “Thank you, your majesty.”

Carol looked at Rhodey, one pale eyebrow arched. “I'll be right behind you,” Rhodey said, and Carol's eyes snapped towards Tony. She didn't say a word, though, just slipped her fingers along the line of his jaw and kissed his lips. It was a brief, affectionate gesture, and Rhodey grinned against her mouth.

“Don't kill him,” she said, striding for the door. “We need him.”

“Not that much,” Rhodey said. He leaned against the workbench, his arms crossed over his chest, until the were all gone, until even the echoes of their footsteps had faded. Then he stalked across the smithy and shut the door. “Don't even-”

“Here we go,” Tony said, smiling.

“Don't.” Rhodey's voice lacked humor, lacked even the anger that Tony had been expecting. It was just still and stern and quiet. “You nearly died.”

Tony's shoulders rose and fell in a slight, almost invisible shrug. “I got better.” And better at it. He kept that to himself.

Rhodey scraped a hand over his face, his fingers lingering over his mouth and his jaw. “You are pushing your luck, Tony,” he said. “If his majesty finds out-”

“He won't.”

“He will if you keep rubbing his nose in it.” Rhodey's hand slammed down on the workbench with enough force to rattle Tony's tools. “Promise me,” he said, a bit quieter now. “Promise me you won't use the armor.”

Tony smiled at him, even as he shoved the stripped breastplate into the fire. “Armor's my business, Rhodey, and the reason why your people are still alive.” He grinned, and felt the heat on his skin, on his teeth. “Armor is what I do. And you're asking me to give it up?”

Rhodey shook his head. “Tony-”

“I won't, Rhodey, I know what it costs me. I won't use it,” he said. He reached for his hammer. “Unless I don't have a choice.”

“Your idea of 'no choice' is very different than most people's definition of the concept,” Rhodey said. He let out a sigh. “I don't know why bother trying to pound something approaching self-preservation into you.”

“It's a losing battle,” Tony said, rolling the handle of his hammer in his palm. “Your favorite sort.”

Rhodey was silent for a while, content, it seemed, to watch Tony work. And Tony was content to work, reworking the metal even as his brain buzzed with ways to make it better. To make it lighter, to make it stronger, to change the angle of the plate to deflect blows. Only half of his attention was on his work, and that was enough.

“The Iron Man,” Rhodey said, “served his purpose. But the war is over. And you're too valuable to risk, Tony, for this sort of a game.”

Tony paused, his hammer raised. His fingers tightened on the familiar wooden handle, but he kept going. “I haven't. Didn't I promise you? I stopped.” The hammer rang on his anvil, a brutal blow that carried a lot of frustration behind it. “But...”

“But?”

“I'm closer to him than anyone else,” he said, at last. “If anyone comes after him, Rhodey, and it comes down to it?” He glanced back at his friend. “There's nothing I wouldn't risk to keep him alive.”

Rhodey was silent, his face still. “What are you going to do when he gets married?” he asked at last, his mouth kicking up at the corners.

“Move in with you and Carol,” Tony said, immediately, and Rhodey laughed.

“No.”

“It's my house!”

“And you told us we could use it for as long as we'd like,” Rhodey said, smiling now. “As we are still residing there, I'm afraid there's no room for you.”

“Well, then, guess I'll sleep down here,” Tony said. “Isn't there something that you're supposed to be doing right now?”

“I've kept your secret,” Rhodey said. “I have lied, to my king, and to a friend, to hide your secrets, Tony.” He headed for the door. “If you don't see any point in protecting your own neck, how about you consider mine?”

He was gone before Tony could work up a response. Which was probably for the best. He wasn't really in the mood for this fight, not tonight. If he was being honest with himself, which he desperately tried to avoid, he wasn't in the mood for this fight ever.

He tossed his hammer aside and held up a hand, considering the rough skin of his palm, the callouses on the fingers, the raw tips. He took a deep breath, and pushed. The red light formed, slick and malleable, like liquid on his skin. It took a moment of concentration, of thought, and the armor gauntlet settled into existence, solid and hard.

Tony flexed his fingers, and the armor gleamed in the firelight. The metal moved in perfect harmony with his muscles, his bone and sinew. It was like a second skin, perfectly formed for his hand. Without a moment of pause, he thrust it into the fire, retrieving the red hot metal of the breastplate.

He barely registered anything more than a slight warmth as he got a grip on it, and went back to work.