“Wake up,” Tony muttered to himself, under his breath. “You need to wake up.”
His shoulder was bleeding badly; he could feel the last of his energy ebbing; swimming away from him like waves of radiation from an unstable element.
The blood was dripping down his bare chest from a long, narrow gash across his collarbone, his legs lying at gruesome angles that told him they’d certainly been crushed.
"Why are you doing this?" Tony asked, panting... "What..."
But the words were slipping away from him.
Ty grinned at him, teeth suddenly bestial: how had he not noticed before? But he was pinned under the collapsed column like helpless prey.
Wake up, Tony said to himself. Just wake up. He reached for his pocket, found it sewn into the folds of the bloodied loincloth that was his only garment, and fumbled for the disc he kept there, the tiny toy shield, and he rubbed his fingertip over the star motif imprinted in the plastic. He tossed it in the air, watching it intently.
But Ty laughed and kicked the shield away, bearing down on Tony with an enormous sword, resplendent in his golden armor.
And then the sword began to twist, opening into the head of a dragon, screaming and snarling fire as it descended upon its victim. But Tony couldn't look at it; he was transfixed by the gloating expression on his oldest friend's face.
Around them, the roars of the crowd swelled into a frenzy. The sun glanced off Ty's armor, momentarily blinding Tony.
In the brilliance, everything went white. This wasn't real; this couldn't be real. Dragons? A gladiatorial arena?
"This isn't real," he whispered to himself, and he thrust out an arm, catching at the tiny plastic shield that was still careening through the air.
But his skin contacted metal, cool and firm and fitting to his arm like he was born to carry a shield. A full, properly-sized shield, so that when the dragon struck, its flames glanced off harmlessly. Tony slammed the shield forward; the dragon reared back howling.
The crowd screamed for blood; the dragon pawed at the air, poised to attack. Tony, in that moment, fed all of his will into his damaged legs, into the heavy marble column that immobilized him. When the dragon roared, he pushed the column upright, and stood, and threw the shield, whipping it with all his strength. It spun through the air like he’d seen so many times in the pages of comics, whirling toward the dragon’s gold-scaled neck.
He couldn’t watch. He flinched, shying away from the impact, but he could hear the collective gasp of the crowd, and when he looked back at Ty, Ty stood aghast, blue eyes wide, jaw agape, fingers flexing into fists. He sneered, and looked pointedly at Tony’s new costume.
“Of course it would be Captain America,” he said in a derisive tone, eyes dropping from the star adorning Tony’s chest to the red and white stripes at his waist. “Still not over that pathetic schoolboy crush, are you?”
The shield returned to Tony’s arm as if by magic, and he held it close to his chest. “What are you doing, Ty?” he asked again. “Why are you doing this?”
The crowd, seeing the dragon defeated, were becoming restless. A few of them called for blood again, and others began to crawl over the barriers and into the arena-- Ty’s projections, certainly. Tony stepped back, cautious.
“For fuck’s sake, Tony, it’s just a game,” Ty answered. “You can’t really think I’d let you get hurt, can you? It’s all in good fun. We’re safer here than we’d ever be out there.”
Tony lowered the shield, but kept his distance. “I don’t know what to think, Ty. But this isn’t my kind of fun.” He pulled a revolver from the belt at his waist, holding it up to his head.
Ty smiled, but it was a thin, cruel smile, and he drew a sharp knife, the hilt a lion’s head with ruby eyes, raising it to his own throat. “Fine,” he said. “Go back. Deal with the lawyers, and the Board of Directors, and the paparazzi out for your blood.”
Tony fired the gun.
Tony woke up. He stared out at the ocean, deep grey-green and calm. The sun was beating down on his back; he pulled his knees to his chest.
Ty’s shadow darkened the ground before him, he looked up.
“Don’t be mad,” Ty said. “I was only trying to help.”
“Help?” Tony demanded. He stood up, picked up a smooth, flat stone, skipped it out on the calm water, so it skimmed and hopped four, five, six times. He smiled, impressed. “How do imaginary dragons help?”
“You’re not thinking about your parents,” Ty pointed out.
Tony turned and scowled. “Maybe I want to think about them.”
“That’s a lie,” Ty said.
Tony felt his throat close up, his eyes sting, threatening tears.
Ty stepped over, put his hands on Tony’s shoulders, drew him in closer. Tony let him, inhaling the scent of shaving cream and Ivory soap.
“Let me take care of you,” Ty said. “Let’s go inside. I’ll bring you dinner in bed; we’ll take all the phones off the hook.”
Tony sucked in a sob and nodded. “No more dreams, though,” he said.
“No more dreams,” Ty agreed. “I’m sorry.”
Tony felt for the plastic shield in his pocket, closing his hand around it as Ty led him up the walk to the house. He drew it out, turned it around in his fingers.
“Watch the--” Ty started, but it was too late. Tony was too absorbed in thought, he forgot about the jagged spot in the walkway where the stone path had broken. He tripped, stubbing his toe, and fell to the ground, just barely catching himself, scraping an elbow against the stone.
He lost his grip on the shield, and it bounced away from him.
“Shit, T,” said Ty. He dropped to a knee, offering Tony a hand up. “You okay?”
Bounced. Tony squinted at the shield. It had never bounced before. He picked it up, dropped it again.
“Come on, T,” said Ty, as he put his other hand on Tony’s back. “What are you…”
Tony snatched the shield, backing away from his friend. “Where are we?” he whispered.