The pressure between his ribs opens like a strongbox. If there is something precious hidden inside, kept away from prying eyes and the dirt and the ice hardening beneath Tony's fingernails, he does not know it. There's an image in his mind that he can't shake out — a nine-pointed flower, black and purple as a bruise. It opens and spreads outwards, balancing on the tip of one finger. He stares at it, and then looks down to find himself holding it. An itch develops behind one eye, and it spreads further, burrowing deep into his head. There's something important, he thinks, and the conviction hits him between the ribs, but he doesn't know what it is. He doesn't know what's important out here, where he's sitting in the snow and the stone, with the pillars of dead warriors watching him with solemn, serene faces.
A man is trudging towards him, forcing a path through the snow. The man is tall and blond, dressed in drab brown. He's handsome in a way that makes Tony ache, but then it makes him afraid, because there's something wrong with this. He can't name what it is, but this is not as it should be. This is an equation with the wrong variable, it's a design with the wrong dimensions.
Tony has a knife in his pocket, flat and cold against his palm when he draws it. "Don't come any closer!" he says as the man approaches. The nine-pointed flower falls from his finger and dissolves like a bloodstain.
"Tony," the man says hoarsely. "We've been looking for you. Come back. Our camp's not far."
Tony brandishes the knife more wildly. "I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about, or who the fuck you are."
"It's all right," the man says. He takes a step closer, trying to be non-threatening, but he's tall and strong. Tony can see that much. Tony grips the knife with his freezing hands, and the man falls back. He looks miserable, and his voice says so when he speaks again. "Tony," he says, "Tony, you've got to trust me. I'm your friend. I'm here to help you. I'm Steve."
"I don't know you," Tony says.
Steve has a date.
"Good for you, Cap," Tony says, and he turns around to study the very intriguing patterns of the olive frieze wallpaper in the living room. It's a new paper, it's great — even though it gives him some sort of Victorian psychosexual headache. When he turns around again, Steve is watching him with an openly curious expression.
"It is good," he says. "I like her a lot."
"You don't even know her," Tony feels compelled to point out.
"Maybe," Steve says, "but when has that ever stopped you?"
"Point," Tony says, and his mouth crooks upward in a smile. "But come on, hasn't Fury warned you against making me your role model? You should wonder what would Tony do and then you should run to do the exact opposite." He opens his arms in a magnanimous gesture, Tony Stark on top of the world, and he grins brightly at Steve. "But since you have come to me, my first executive decision is getting you out of those jeans."
Steve looks down. "What's wrong with these jeans?"
"No, they're not," Steve says. "They're normal."
Tony holds up a finger. "No." Steve opens his mouth to protest, but Tony cuts him off. "No," he says. "Tight jeans, a nice top, maybe a vest, some hair gel. Hey, wear whatever you want in your off time. I know I do. But this is date land, it's got different rules, and you don't have the excuse of being an eccentric billionaire playboy who really likes his sweatpants."
"I'm pretty sure Ashley isn't trying to go on a date with a... with a rent boy," Steve says, and then looks embarrassed and dismayed. He shifts his weight from one foot to another, before changing his mind and shifting back.
Tony smirks at him. "Rent boy? Really? Then what do you call half the guys wandering around SoHo?"
Steve rolls his eyes. "I just want some small bits of advice. What's a good restaurant? What are some movies we should watch? The rest of it..." He shrugs. "I'm not completely clueless, you know."
"How many dates have you gone on before?" Tony asks, smug.
"Three and a half," Steve says. Tony looks at him sideways, and Steve raises his hands in protest. "Two were double dates with Bucky, and another was with a girl from art class!"
"And the half?"
Steve's eyes dim. "Peggy."
Shit, Tony thinks, and he employs immediate emergency measures to drag this conversation back before it'll implode. Steve misses Peggy Carter — Steve will probably always miss Peggy Carter, with a sharpness like an electrical burn. Tony whips out his phone and starts scrolling through his contacts. "Right. Leave it to me. I'll be your maharajah of love. I'll pick out a good film and make dinner reservations. Relax."
Steve's smile is real this time, a brilliant wedge of teeth and mouth, mixed in with gratitude and relief, because this is hard for him, all these new world rituals — and forget what anyone says about dates being fun, for someone like Steve, dates are going to be more stressful than trying to diffuse a bomb at a cocktail party. At least bombs will only take your limbs. A date will take your dignity. Tony understands this intellectually, but he hasn't felt it since he was fourteen, in those yonder days when you could have said "Tony" and "uncertain" in the same sentence without busting a stitch laughing.
Sadly, not everyone can be Tony Stark quite like Tony Stark.
Tony already knows everything about Steve's date, down to her dental records. Her name is Ashley Wu, she's a social worker that Steve met during a hostile takeover at one of the city's youth centres, she has B.A in peace and conflict studies, and an M.S.W. She likes the opera, she likes Middle Eastern food, and she has no idea that Steve is Captain America, but she's smart enough that she'll probably guess it by the third date.
a decent person
has great hair (true).
What Tony is, is smart. Just like Ashley, but even better than that because Tony knows the price of things, the economics of being Steve's friend, possibly his best friend. Which isn't something he would have ever asked for during the beginning of the Avengers Initiative, but what the hell. Instead of maximum superhero time turning him into a world class badass, it's turned him soft.
Tony Stark is
ridiculous, out of his mind, riding the wagon to cuckoo town, going to make this work for Steve.
Steve leaves the room, and Tony tries to scrounge up the name of that great Egyptian diner Pepper took him to a few months ago. He can't remember, so he fires off a text to Pepper. She responds in a new record of about two seconds with the name, address, and phone number.
Going to ruin another woman's heart? she adds.
Tony's thumbs fly across his keyboard. nah this is for steve.
Oh thank God, Pepper says, and what does that even mean? Tony has no idea.
Steve goes on his date with Ashley that night, even if Tony can't quite convince him to wear the tight jeans. Shame. Tony's got plans too, a charity ball for cancer research that normally he'd find a date of his own for, but tonight he decides to play it different. He goes stag, and at the Rockefeller Center the lights strung from the ceiling look like tiny bells. They serve champagne in hand-blown Italian glass, and Tony actually takes the time to look at it from all angles, not that it makes much of a difference once he's finished five in a row. There are lots of people to talk to, important people, and Tony legitimately talks business with three of them, and mocks another three for their terrible ties and their slow cars.
All the while, he keeps an eye on the man in the corner, who moves in the peripheries of the crowd. The man is tall and muscular, with broad shoulders and extraordinarily pale skin, set off by his snowfall of dark hair. After the seventh drink, Tony finally makes his way to him, to where the man is standing alone against a wall, nursing a soy-honey-glazed amuse-bouche while watching the crowd. When he flicks his wrist, Tony can see that he has a prosthetic right hand.
Tony's not entirely sober when he sidles up. "Hey, I'm Tony Stark."
"Hi, I really don't care," the man says.
The desire Tony feels is quick and sharp-edged. This is his weakness, it's always been. The less they want him, the more he cares. It's the challenge that excites him, and there are precious few challenges left these days. Somewhere on a beach in Honolulu, his childhood therapist is crying into her margarita and she doesn't even know why.
"Cancer is bad," Tony says, waving an arm at the banner above their heads.
"Undoubtedly," the man replies.
"We should donate lots of money to sick people."
"Indeed," he says.
"Let's fuck," Tony says.
The man smiles behind his cool eyes. "I could be persuaded."
Tony licks his lips. "Then you're lucky," he says as he teeters forwards, not even caring that anyone might be watching, that anyone might see. "I'm not very good at subtlety, but I'm very good at persuasion."
He walks stiffly the next day, and Steve watches him quietly before saying, "Wild night?" He's at the kitchen counter, smearing butter over toast. When Tony comes in, he reaches into the fridge and pulls out a container of margarine — an unfortunate low-fat result of Tony's last physical and Pepper's dietary influence. Tony makes grabby hands for the butter, but no success.
"As wild as Darcy in an aisle of bear traps and pepper spray," Tony says, finally giving up the power play for breakfast delights. He perches on the island stool and tries to hide his wince. He's not exactly successful, not with Steve eyeing him so carefully, like Tony's a fourth grade science project that's finally churning out results.
It was a wild night, Tony thinks with satisfaction, accepting the mug of coffee that Steve hands him.
"So how was Ashley?" Tony asks. "Did you two crazy kids get down and dirty with it?"
"The restaurant we went to seemed totally clean," Steve replies. He doesn't feign ignorance well — there's a spot of colour on his cheeks, and his eyes keep glancing to the left. Steve tends to do that, and Tony's eyebrows start traveling upwards like trains.
"Oh," he says, relishing the sound of it, "it was like that, was it?"
"No," Steve says.
"Hey, you can tell me," Tony says. "I'm not going to judge. Believe me, there's nothing you could have done on your date that I haven't done twice and with top billing." He peers at Steve, whose face is growing blanker and blanker. "Was she kinky? She seemed sort of kinky. It was the, I don't know — the way she walked. She had a kinky walk."
"That's really — that's really not what happened," Steve says.
"You want to pinky swear on that, Cap?"
"I don't think she liked me very much," Steve says quickly, and there aren't many things that can make Tony hesitate — the majority of that list involve nuclear warheads, and the destruction of his Star Trek memorabilia collection —, but this, he learns, is one of them.
"Say that again?" Tony says.
"Do I have to?" Steve asks. He shuffles around the kitchen, making more buttered toast than any two armies could eat — so, basically he's making enough for Bruce then. "She was nice. Had a great sense of humour. But it was... awkward. We didn't have anything in common to talk about."
"Is this because you don't know who Madonna is?" Tony says. "We've been through this. You've got a cover story. You were an over-sheltered military brat who spent most of your life in sub-equatorial New Guinea—"
Steve interrupts him. "What's so hard to understand? Sometimes you meet a gal, and you just don't click. It happens to me all the time."
"It never happens to me."
Steve stares at him. "You're so... "
"Yeah?" Tony asks.
"You're so certain," Steve says. "How can you be that certain about anything?" His smile is skewed and fond, and Tony wonders if maybe he should pay more attention to his arteries because his pulse isn't supposed to go off-beat like that. Huh. But really. Tony likes to think he's completely correct on good days, and even better than that most other days, so the idea of anyone looking at Steve Rogers and thinking no, not for me, next in line please? is on par with attending a lecture on physics in MIT and not knowing what an electron is.
When Tony looks at Steve, he thinks: speed, velocity, pressure, hydraulics, kinematic chains. He thinks of the precise angle of Steve's wrist to his forearm when he makes a fist; he thinks of the dance of Steve's fingers, forming kinetic energy from an inertial frame of reference.
When he's sober, Tony thinks too much.
"You want to play Animal Crossing?" Tony asks.
Steve grins. "Yes."
Animal Crossing is the latest part of Clint's plan to distract Steve from noticing the increasingly suspicious packages that strange men deliver in the middle of the night, packages that may or may not involve the little garden Clint is growing on the roof of the Avengers Mansion. Tony doesn't give a fuck, but the last time Steve asked Clint curiously to see the state of his daffodils, Clint had shoved a Wii controller in Steve's hands and said, "Look, training simulations!" And it'd worked.
Steve loves gardening his little patch, and buying wallpaper for his little house, and chatting with his little animal friends more than some Buddhists love Nirvana. It's the most hilarious thing Tony has ever seen, Steve with his big broad shoulders hunching over his controller, tongue poking out of his mouth as he determinedly picks out his character's newest hairstyle. Steve's Animal Crossing character has a goatee and spends most of his time trawling town in a three-piece suit, which is only appropriate because his character is named Tony Jr., a fact from which Steve seems to derive an endless amount of amusement.
"Tony Jr. is broke," he declares, leaning back on the couch. "He's spent his last bell paying his mortgage to Tom Nook." He toggles the screens. "Tony Jr. has to wear a paper sack now. He's very sad, you see."
"Steve, you are the meanest third-grader I've ever met, and that includes Johnny Oh, who used to stick glue and spiders in my hair. At the same time," Tony informs him. "If you need more money, I'll hack the game and give you some."
"That's the last thing I'd want you to do," Steve says. "And who's this Johnny Oh? I thought boarding school children would be well-behaved."
"You're kidding me."
"No? They live with their teachers, after all."
"My father sent me to boarding school because I wasn't well-behaved. He thought it'd be a normal socializing influence, apparently."
"I'm very sorry to see it didn't work," Steve says, and Tony smirks at him. Steve adds, "And you can't just throw money at people."
"Works for strippers."
"Works for politicians."
"Worked on Clint's mom."
A coaster comes flying out of the kitchen, and hits Tony's head.
Tony has bruises on his hips from that guy he fucked at the party, and Steve starts going out with a personal trainer named Elisha. Wednesday comes along, and Tony's bruises begin to fade, and Steve has a second, and then a third date with Elisha — a fourth if you count them going to the animal shelter to help Elisha adopt a puppy, and in Tony's mind that counts, one hundred percent, because clearly puppy-shopping is a nefarious scheme to shatter all of Steve's defenses and make him swoon in love.
By Friday, Tony has built: a museum model Van de Graaff generator, a linear particle accelerator, a new remote control for the upstairs plasma screen TV, and a lighter that sparks flames in five different colours.
"What is wrong with you, Tony?" Pepper asks when she comes into his lab.
"I can't remember where I left my wallet. Pep, have you seen my wallet?" Tony twists and turns, and then starts rooting through the pockets on his leather apron. "By the way, I made you an electronic pooper scooper for your dog. Can you tell me the appeal of dogs, exactly? In ten words or less."
"Loving. Loyal. Doesn't make you work long hours," Pepper says dryly.
Tony stops patting down his apron and goes to his work bench instead to search for his wallet. "I like your hair," he says, suddenly. "Did you do something new with it?"
"No," Pepper says.
"It looks very — is there more of it?"
"I have the same amount of hair today that I did yesterday," Pepper says firmly. "Your wallet is probably in your coat pocket. And Tony? It's all right. Just because Steve has a girlfriend doesn't mean you're going to lose his friendship."
"I didn't say anything about that," Tony replies.
"You're emotionally needy. You think there's something terribly wrong if people don't give you the attention you deserve, which is ten times more attention than anybody else ever needs."
"Ouch," Tony says. "Objection to your argument: Rhodey has a girlfriend. I don't cling to Rhodey."
"That's because Rhodey wouldn't let you. Steve though — Steve is made of softer stuff," Pepper says, and then she walks over, reaches into his coat pocket — from where his coat hangs over a chair — and tada, Tony's wallet. Pepper has the skills of a homing pigeon in one delightful package. Pepper is magic.
The next day, while Steve is digging for fossils in Animal Crossing, Tony says, "Would you describe me as an emotionally needy egotist?"
"Uh," Steve says, "not that I've ever noticed."
Tony decides to test this matter. "Would you describe Natasha as cold, deadly, and likely to rip off your penis in horrifyingly creative ways?"
"Natasha's great," Steve says. "Natasha's going to take me to see Broadway musicals."
"Hmm," says Tony.
Steve doesn't need any more dating advice from Tony. "That's the nice thing about Elisha," he admits. "She's really straightforward. And bold. She tells me what she wants to do, and where we should go." Tony's starting to have the sneaking suspicion that this might be exactly Steve's type. Steve has authority issues. Steve probably likes being tied down in bed.
Elisha doesn't yet realize she's bossing around Captain America, and if Tony's calculations are right, she's 35% less likely than Emily to realize it, and 89% less likely to care. Elisha is a brunette but she dyes her hair apple red, she marches in Gay Pride parades in nothing but feathers, and she wears leather motorcycle chaps when she picks Steve up for dates. Tony can see her, sometimes, from his upstairs window — can see Elisha pull up in her old green pickup, and Steve will go out to meet her all eagerly. It's so high school romance that Tony's veins are dissolving in saccharine sweetness. When they do bondage, it's probably really loving and caring, he thinks hard to himself, and then he wants to shoot out his own brains, because come on. No.
"Elisha's going to help me get my motorcycle license," Steve says happily.
"You can barely drive a car," Tony replies.
"What do you mean? I can drive a car fine," Steve says, and Tony makes a sound of supreme disagreement because if Steve and the DMVs of the state of New York define 'fine' as 'moving along at the speed of a broken news ticker', then yes, Steve is a prince among drivers.
"You don't even have a motorcycle," Tony points out.
"Elisha's going to help me buy one," Steve says. "I cleared it with Fury. He doesn't have a problem with it."
"Who cares what Fury—"
"I care what Colonel Fury thinks," Steve says, and that is that. Steve uses his stipend from SHIELD to buy a Kawasaki W800, a retro midnight ride that Elisha claims is great for beginners. Tony makes sure to walk around it five times and examine it from every angle, and then to take it for a few test runs himself, because if Steve is starting to explore himself, it better be with top-notch toys.
"What's your verdict?" Steve asks, amused.
Tony waves his hand. "Don't die on the side of the road. If I'm in the middle of a Brazilian twin sandwich, I'm not picking you up."
And then the next day, Tony's life only gets progressively worse, because Steve and Natasha go out for what Tony thought was practice at the SHIELD facilities, but they come back laden with shopping bags, and Natasha's got this really frightening smirk on her face, while Steve is walking around in tight black jeans.
"Hey!" Tony says. "You won't take fashion advice from me, but you'll take it from Natasha? You're breaking my heart here, Cap." He's on the couch with Clint, in their boxers and their socks, playing Unreal Tournament on Tony's old Atari. Clint cleverly uses Tony's distraction to unload his clip into Tony's head.
Tony whips back around. "Barton, you are nothing to me," he says. "You are a worm. You are meat."
"You," Clint says, "are staring at Cap's ass."
"When it looks like that? Gregorian monks would stare at Cap's ass," Tony says, and Steve makes a face like he's not impressed but also kind of flattered at the same time. Natasha smiles.
"Besides," Clint says cheerfully, letting loose a reign of terror in Unreal, "it's obvious why Cap would rather go shopping with Natasha than with you."
Tony thinks about it. Then he thinks about it some more.
"I'm not coming up with anything," he says.
"Try harder," Natasha says. Before he can accuse her of corrupting Steve's sartorial style and probably also his ability to walk down the street unmolested, she's ushering Steve upstairs with all their shopping bags banging around their knees. Tony stares after them, and overhears pieces of conversation that include such horrifying phrases as I think Elisha will really like that leather jacket and how do you feel about eyelash curlers?
Clint pats him on the shoulder.
Tony narrows his eyes. "What was that for?"
"Your problems are so deep," Clint says. "I was moved."
He doesn't see much of Steve the following week, and this should be fine — it should be more than fine. Tony's a busy man, he's got a company to run, Pepper to harangue, and Rhodey to pester until Rhodey blocks his number. He's got miracles to invent and shareholders to betray. He's got charities to throw huge wads of money at, he's got Iron Man and the Avengers to blow up bad guys with. And yet he's aware, in a way that's unfamiliar and desperately annoying, of how many days it's been since he last hung out with Steve.
Here's the truth, the awful truth of it:
Sometimes Tony wakes up in the morning, and when he goes to brush his teeth and trim his goatee, he thinks, My life is really fucking empty.
It's such a ridiculous thought that he almost always dismisses it immediately. Even Tony Stark isn't immune from the Monday morning blahs. And it's not true, because Tony's life isn't empty. It's full. Tony's life is so full that he has to battle Pepper and the rest of the world for time he can call his own. Tony's life is so full that he double books on most days, and has to risk karmic retribution by skipping a very important meeting to sit on the roof of Stark Industries and sketch diagrams for his new Iron Man suit.
Tony's life is divided between colour-coded schedules and the rubber bands that hold together blueprints. Tony's life is lived in negotiations between bottles of Romane Conti and algorithms to keep his own heart from collapsing in on itself.
But sometimes, when Tony slides into bed at four a.m and makes JARVIS dim the lights, he'll bury his face in his pillows. It's in those quiet moments with New York moonlight slivering onto the dry patches of his skin — those moments, and he can count the spaces between his own heartbeats.
"So how are you and Happy?" he asks Pepper, stumbling into his S.I. office — he seems to remember leaving one of his diagrams here a few days ago. "Are you, you know — happy?" He snickers.
"Oh very funny," Pepper says, and she sounds irritated. Tony flicks her a glance, and tries to go over what he's done this time to piss her off. It's not her birthday, surely, and Tony's pretty sure he didn't run over her dog. "I've been trying to call you all morning," Pepper says, following him into his office. "You were supposed to have a meeting with the senior engineers at noon, but you didn't show up."
"Was that this morning?" Tony asks blankly.
"Yes, it was this morning! I've been reminding you for the past four days!" Pepper says. She glares at him. "Where's your cell phone?"
Tony takes it out of his pocket and peers at it. "I guess I forgot to turn it off silent," he says, and his thumbs slide across the screen, scrolling down through his 36 new text messages. No wonder last night seemed so quiet. He pockets it again. "No worries, Pep. I'll buy the engineers a new Ferrari, one each, and we'll reschedule for next week."
She frowns at him. Her lips, bizarrely, remind him of raspberry pie.
"You've been forgetting a lot of things lately," Pepper says.
"That's what I have you for, isn't it?" Tony beams.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Pepper asks, frowning. "You are getting sort of—"
"If you say old, I swear to God I will rip my clothes off and throw a tantrum on the floor," Tony says. "It's fine. Everything's fine. I've just been — there's been a lot on my mind lately." He locates the diagram on the corner of his desk, and he snatches it up. "That's what I came here for. I'll be on my way again, and look! My cell phone's set to ringtone again, so call me if anything else comes up." He waves, and then he scuttles along, out of the building and into the sunlight.
An alien named Hrrzak is trying to take over the world via TV networks. Steve slams Hrrzak into a pile of garbage cans behind the studio, and then smiles up at Tony from behind his Captain America cowl. "Are you busy?" he asks. "Do you want to go out for dinner tonight?"
"Hmm?" Tony replies. "Oh yeah, sure. Uh, you've got some — you've got some garbage slime on your cheek."
"Thanks," Steve says, and wipes it off.
"Puny earthlings!" screams Hrrzak.
"How does Thai sound?" Tony asks.
"I had Thai with Elisha yesterday," Steve says apologetically, defending himself from Hrrzak's next assault with his shield. "I wouldn't mind going for it again — it's very good. But I'm having a craving for sushi, is that all right?"
This, Tony thinks, is progress. When Steve first came out of the ice, and Fury first introduced him to the rest of the team, his indifference had been unsettling. He'd stared at all of them, and he'd barely blinked, his gaze always fixed somewhere near the right of their shoulders — he'd seemed like a Captain America action figure rather than a real man, plastic and still and lifeless. It was shock, Coulson had explained to everyone, and that made sense because it had to be pretty hard on the guy to be dropped into the twenty-first century like this. Only later did Tony realize it was grief too.
In those early days, Tony had decided to take Steve out because clearly he was the only Avenger who knew how to have fun in the city (what Clint and Natasha do cannot, under any circumstances, be labeled fun. Thor is fun but doesn't go anywhere without Jane and Darcy — three people might be a lot to take in at once. Bruce wasn't even around at that time). So he'd practically shoved Steve into his limo, and then had Happy drive them around, introducing Steve to some of the best eateries he knew. Way to a man's heart, etcetera, and he'd seen how much a man of Steve's metabolism eats.
Except every time he asked Steve what Steve wanted, Steve had just shrugged. It drove Tony crazy, but is probably also why they're friends now, because Tony hates people who don't respond to him — he'll chip away at them until they do.
"Sushi it is," Tony says, and Steve grins again as he sends his shield flying into Hrrzak's kneecaps. Hrrzak goes down with a yelp, and then Steve punches him in the face, and he passes out.
"And that's the world safe for another day of infomercials and softcore porn," Tony declares. "Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside."
"Baseball and hot dogs with all the trimmings," Steve insists. "Kids in the park and the clouds in the sky."
"Back alley murders and convenience store robberies," Tony says stubbornly. "Grannies' wallets stolen, and taking candy from babies."
"Tony, we did good," Steve says. The sound of his name on Steve's tongue is a slow burn. Steve so rarely uses it when they're out in the field. He prefers codenames instead, to safeguard them from the public, not that the entire planet doesn't know that Tony Stark is Iron Man. But Steve is Steve, which is to say, he doesn't budge on protocol, except when he does, and then he doesn't so much budge as roll down a hill with spectacular force and recklessness.
"Yeah, I—" His HUD starts displaying the aggregated battle data, and Tony takes a minute to read it. When he's done, he turns back to Steve. "What were we talking about again?" he asks.
"Pepper was right, you really are getting forgetful," Steve says. "Are you sure you haven't hit your head on anything?"
"With this tin can to protect me?" Tony knocks a metal fist against his head. "Worry about yourself. Worry if Elisha's going to dump you if you fall off your bike during your motorcycle test."
"Actually," Steve says.
Tony looks at him.
Steve makes an expression that Tony can't quite read, and that in itself is enough to set off the warning bells, because usually Steve is pretty easy to read. There's Steve being all stoic and quiet (early Steve), there's Steve when he's happy, there's Steve when he's focused, there's Steve when he's confused or embarrassed, and there's Steve when he upset. This isn't any of those other Steves. This is Steve with his eyes going hooded and his mouth pressed into a pink line. "We decided we're not seeing each other anymore," he says finally.
"You're kidding me," Tony says.
"No?" Steve offers.
"Why not?" Tony says. "The two of you were—" He makes a gesture that's meant to be fluid, but on Iron Man's hands, just looks clunky. "I thought you two were great for each other." And it's true, he did, that was never the problem. "She made you laugh," he says.
"Yeah, she did," Steve says. He lets out a breath, and Tony hates himself all of a sudden, for making Steve's voice waver. Just a little bit, barely enough to notice, but Tony notices. When it comes to Steve, Tony's got a magnifying glass close enough to see Steve's pores. "But she's a free spirit, and she doesn't want to settle down," Steve says. "I'm the opposite, it turns out."
"Captain America wants to settle down and have babies, what a surprise," Tony says. "Hey, hey, don't look like that. We'll go out for sushi, and it will be good sushi. We will sushi our way across town, you got that?"
Steve smiles. "That's what I hoped for."
And so it doesn't make any sense, when, four hours later, Tony's tinkering in his lab when JARVIS says, "Sir, Captain Rogers on the phone for you."
"What's up?" Tony says, answering the call.
"Hi, it's Steve," Steve says, and Tony can tell that he's confused. "We said to meet at Nanashi at seven. Did I get that wrong?"
Tony looks at the time. It's eight.
"Shit," he says. "Shitshitshitshit." He tears off his welding mask, and grabs his coat and his wallet. "I can't believe I forgot. Must have lost track of time. Hang on, I'll be there in about fifteen minutes."
"You don't need to come," Steve says unhappily. "You're obviously busy tonight. It's — I understand. And I already started eating. We'll meet up another time."
"No, I'll be there, I'll get the chopper—"
"Tony, it's fine," Steve interrupts, and he's such a good man that Tony wants to hit something until it breaks. "Do not, under any circumstances, get the chopper. Go do whatever you were doing. I'll just finish up here myself." Tony pictures it in his head, Steve sitting at that table alone, in post-break-up slump with boats of sushi around him, maybe some miso soup — and a pair of chopsticks in his hands, the way he holds them so respectfully but awkwardly, and the empty chair across from him. A stone sinks into his stomach, and he swears under his breath.
This isn't right, he thinks, strange in his own skull. It feels like a fever spreading across his brain, making him dizzy. He has to sit down. Something's happening to me, and I have to figure out what it is.
It's not true, what they say. Tony doesn't have a computer for a brain, not for lack of trying. Even so, he uses it in the same way, takes it for granted that it can crunch numbers and perform dazzling tricks. Because that's him. Tony Stark is his mind. There's no separation.
"JARVIS, I'm not dying of brain cancer, am I?" he asks as he sets up the equipment to run his own medical tests.
"Nothing in your latest medical records indicate it, sir," JARVIS replies. "Though your likelihood of dying of liver cancer, I might add, is significantly higher—"
"Not a word," Tony says.
"Would you like me to call a physician, sir?" JARVIS asks.
"These tests you're preparing are medical in nature, and would likely benefit from the supervision of a trained professional, of which there are several in my database, thanks to Ms. Potts' latest software update."
"Unnecessary," Tony says airily. "I aced a biochem course at MIT."
"One course, sir."
"And by the end of it, I knew more than the professor," Tony says.
He takes the Stark Industries Neurohelm, patent pending, the latest in their recent attempts to break into the biotech industry. After making sure that all the wires are connected in the right place, he puts it on. He lies back in his chair and waits, watching a 3D image of his brain appear on his computer, and then watching as the chemicals swim through, lighting each vein up like a supernova, burning bright and blue.
Then he sees a flourishing of red.
"There is a foreign chemical component in your hippocampus, sir," JARVIS says. "Your hippocampus is one of the primary parts of the brain that controls memory."
"Give me a molecular breakdown of that substance," Tony orders.
"One moment, sir."
Tony closes his eyes. A few minutes pass, during which he tries to think about nothing in particular. He opens his eyes again. "JARVIS?"
"One moment, sir."
"What's the holdup?" Tony asks.
"Sir, the foreign chemical component does not seem to be made of any molecular structure that I can determine. My data stores are insufficient in identifying it."
"JARVIS, I would insult you, except that'd be insulting myself," Tony says. He swings his legs over the side of the chair. "I'm going to head over to S.I. and grab the latest model of the Neurohelm from our labs there. Keep my seat warm for me."
"Yes sir," JARVIS says.
Happy's called in sick today, but Tony won't let Pepper bring in a substitute driver. He can take a damn taxi — he's rich enough that they're a novelty to him. When the taxi pulls up in front of the Avengers Mansion (and the driver looks relieved that he's not Thor), Tony climbs in. "Stark Industries," he says.
"Sorry, can I get an address for that?" the driver asks. "I only know where that is generally."
"Sure," Tony says, but then his mind goes blank. His head feels heavy and woollen, like it's wrapped up in too many bandages. He hears himself rattling off an address to the driver, who nods and pulls out of the mansion grounds. I do know the address, Tony thinks in relief, and he feels sleepy as they drive through the streets of the city — he didn't go to bed at all last night. But when the driver pulls up in front of the address that Tony gave him, Tony doesn't feel sleepy anymore. He sits up straight and says, "No, this isn't it."
It's a goddamn pet store, is what it is.
"Yeah, doesn't look like Stark Industries to me either," says the driver, who either doesn't recognize Tony or is pretending politely. "Don't worry. I'll call dispatch and ask."
But Tony feels it like the coming storm — first the laughter, the hilarity of it, that he can't remember his own company HQ's address. And then the worry, the thin tremor of unfamiliar fear that runs through his hands. He gets out his cell phone and looks it up. Yeah, he thinks, that's the real address. But he doesn't show it to the driver. He just sits there, staring at the numbers and the letters on his cell phone screen, and he feels cold, tundra cold, cold in his nerves and in his bones.
I'm forgetting, he thinks.
I'm forgetting, he thinks.
I'm sick, he thinks, his skin prickling in goosebumps. This is worse than being held captive by the Ten Rings, because this is his own body turned traitor on him, and there's no Yinsen here to be his calm and reasonable ally, no villagers to save except himself. His arc reactor seems to grow heavier and heavier inside the cage of his chest, and Tony winces, clutching at himself, feeling his breath come out in quick, sharp bursts.
"Hey, man, you okay?" the driver asks, craning around in the front seat. Everybody seems to be asking that these days, and for the first time Tony realizes it — he's really not okay.
"I'm getting out," he says. He throws a bunch of bills at the driver before stumbling out of the cab and towards the awning of the pet store, where he ducks into a side alley and braces himself against the wall. The stones are cool to the touch, and they only make himself feel colder. He thinks of the blue veins in his brain growing red, the colour of war. He thinks of Steve sitting alone in that restaurant, waiting for the friend who never came. He thinks of his mother, suddenly, in the way that he always thinks of his mother when he feels most unhinged — and he can't remember her face.
Pepper finds him there, an hour later, crouched in the alley with his head buried against his knees. "Tony!" she says, flying towards him on her heels. "Tony, get up, we're going to the hospital."
"Hi Pep," he says, and surprises even himself with the hoarse stretch of his voice. His tie is crumpled in his pocket — his shoes are smeared with dog shit in the alley. "Don't mind me, I'm just having a crisis over here." He grimaces. "Pep, I don't want to forget you too."
"You're not going to," she says furiously, dragging him towards her car. "We will fix you. Whatever this is, we will fix you."
Hospitals, Tony thinks — the Devil's hotels.
"This is stupid," he tells the doctors working on him. "You don't think I haven't done all these tests already? Come on. An MRI? Are we going to be playing with Legos and coloring books next?"
"Can you make him stop talking?" asks one of the doctors, a harried middle-aged man who reminds Tony a bit of Coulson, and just as deadly with a syringe.
"I've been trying for years," Pepper informs him.
"I am going to remember you," Tony tells the harried doctor. "Trust me, I am going to spend the last of my brain resources remembering you. And if you screw me up with one of your medieval torture machine tests, I will sue you to the ground."
"He's scared," Pepper explains apologetically.
"I'm not scared," Tony says. "This hospital gown's giving me a wedgie."
"I'm going to call Rhodey," Pepper says.
"Don't," Tony says sharply. She looks at him. "Rhodey's busy trying to maintain the good name of the American military. He doesn't need to be bothered," he says.
"He's your friend," Pepper says.
"And that's why I don't want him to see me like this," Tony says.
"I'm sorry if I have to question your judgement, seeing as how you're probably brain damaged," Pepper says, but she doesn't call Rhodey. Instead she holds out her hands, and he takes them. She squeezes.
"My mother had brown hair, right?" Tony asks. This seems very important to him — he has to know. "You've seen photos of her. Did she have brown hair?"
Pepper's voice is gentle and tender, and it twists up his lungs until it's hard to breathe. "Yes, she had brown hair," she says. "I can — I can find some photos for you, if you want."
Tony nods, and then the doctors wheel him to the MRI, where everything is quiet and still and he feels like a corpse.
He can keep Rhodey and most of the American politico-military establishment from finding out about his trip to the hospital (I bet they're going to think it's rehab, Tony thinks. He damn well hopes they think it's rehab). But he can't hide it from SHIELD. Steve arrives at the hospital after Tony gets out of the MRI, looking beautiful and disheveled, with his leather jacket hanging crookedly over his shoulders, a bad fit from how quickly he tugged it on.
"Not dead," Tony says grumpily from the hospital bed. "Stop looking like I defaced the flag."
"You wouldn't deface the flag," Steve says immediately.
"I don't know," Tony says. "I got dizzy and defaced this floor earlier. Twice."
Steve looks alarmed. He turns to Pepper, who shrugs helplessly. "The doctors don't know what's wrong," she says. "They think it might be early onset Alzheimer's, but he's still too young for that, and there's this chemical substrate in his brain that none of the tests can identify. Tony's tests, at least," she adds accusingly. "The real doctors are running real tests now."
"They're not going to find anything JARVIS can't," Tony calls from the bed. Steve comes down and sits beside him. He smells like leather, and spring rain, and cupcakes.
"You smell like cupcakes," Tony accuses.
"I do?" Steve sniffs at himself. "Oh, it must be the special soap Natasha bought me. What'd she call it? Body wash?"
"I want a cupcake," Tony says. "Can you believe they won't let me eat proper food in this hospital? They wouldn't even let me have caviar." Steve stares at him in disgust, as if he can't believe Tony is the sort of person who would sit in a hospital bed eating fine grade Russian caviar, but Tony totally is. Nothing says my life is coming to a horrible and tragic end than non-fertilized fish eggs.
This is how the rest of the day passes in the hospital: the doctors run more tests, Tony flirts with the nurses, Steve sits by his side and reads a baseball magazine, Pepper leaves later to handle S.I., Tony refuses to eat his hospital grade crackers and yogurt, Steve sneaks him a chocolate bar, Natasha and Clint visit and are thrown out promptly when Clint and Tony get into a shouting match over the relative sexiness of Starbuck versus Caprica Six, and Tony tries very nobly not to have a second mental breakdown.
He's still forgetting things at an alarming rate. Little things, including where he put his spoon, or where Pepper said she was going to go. And then a few big things, including the name of the doctor who introduced himself just a minute earlier, and at one point, what he's doing in the hospital entirely.
Steve has to remind him, slowly and patiently, until Tony's breathing evens out.
Thor is the last person to visit him, and just like Tony expected, he brings along Jane and Darcy. "This is cool," Darcy says. "This is a very nice hospital room. I can't believe what money will get you."
"If the sheets aren't silk, then I'm not impressed," Jane says. She smiles at Tony, and Tony smiles back in spite of himself — he likes Jane. "Hi Tony," she says. "I'm sorry to hear about your sudden, debilitating memory loss."
"It sucks," Darcy agrees. "This one time, I woke up and I couldn't remember where I was, and there were these five guys in Speedos—"
"That's called a hangover," Jane says.
"Riiiight," Darcy says.
Thor has been suspiciously quiet so far, which so unlike Thor that Tony goes on alert. "What's the matter, big guy?" Tony asks him. "I know this isn't exactly falling on my shield, but you get sick people in Asgard, I bet."
"We do," Thor says slowly, and okay, Thor speaking slowly and precisely is even more frightening than Thor being subdued. "We have many sick, and more and more as of late."
"What do you mean?" Steve asks.
"There is a reason for my delay," Thor says, troubled. "When I heard what happened to Tony, I wanted to come straightaways, but what Colonel Fury told me about Tony's condition — it struck me as familiar. So I went to speak to a friend, and that friend made me believe even more strongly that I have seen Tony's condition before. A hale, hearty man in the prime of his life beginning to forget what should be perfectly ordinary?"
Tony preens at the hale, hearty part until Steve glares at him.
Thor continues. "There has been a sickness in Asgard for the past several months. A sickness just as what has struck Tony here. Whole towns and settlements have been overcome by the loss of their memories. It begins innocently, a few misremembered details, but it is a ravaging sickness. The victims worsen and after some time, lose all recollection of their loved ones and their own lives."
Steve pales. Tony refuses to think about what Thor is suggesting, so he seizes upon the one part that doesn't make him want to blow things up. "You think I have some sort of Asgardian virus?" Tony asks. An unpleasant suspicion creeps on him. "Are you saying that the chemical substrate in my brain might not be chemical at all. It might be magic?"
"What Midgardians would consider magic, yes," Thor agrees. "Though it does have a chemical basis — only, its chemical basis is Asgardian. Jane tells me there's quite a difference."
"It's like a smartphone versus a telegraph," she agrees.
"How does this disease spread?" Steve asks.
Thor smiles brightly, and then looks uncomfortable.
"Sex!" Darcy says.
"What?" Steve blurts.
"It's like an STD. We know that much," Jane explains. "It's a fluid-borne enchantment, both in origin and transmission. Frigga tells us that from what her best physicians have observed, the disease appeared to be transferred through shared blood and venereal fluids. You've been doing it with any Asgardians lately, Tony?"
"I wish," Tony scoffs, but then he remembers the man at the party, dark-haired and icy-eyed, with the prosthetic hand. "Wait, there was this one sort-of mysterious guy. I didn't get his name," he adds, and Steve looks appalled. "Oh, don't judge me," Tony snaps. "He was good looking and he insulted me. It was a match made in heaven."
"I'm not judging you," Steve says, in his I-am-judging-you tone.
"Well, that is one mystery solved!" Thor says, trying to sound relentlessly amiable, which is normally Thor's default state, his prime ambition in life being to kill you with his pleasantness first and his battle prowess next. But right now it's not working at all. There's guilt in his voice, which Tony doesn't get. It wasn't as if Thor himself passed on the STD (now that's an interesting mental image). "I am ashamed of my countrymen," Thor says. "This is a matter of Asgard. It should not have passed to Midgard."
"What was an Asgardian doing in Midgard?" Tony asks. "I thought you and Loki were the only ones slumming it here."
Thor frowns. "No, there are others. There are those who have been exiled here in years past, and there are those who choose to — to travel freely, by dispensation of Heimdall and the Bifrost. I don't know the arrangements they have made. My father could tell you."
"Yeah," Tony says, "when I think about how to get out of this mess, words I never want to hear include Thor's daddy."
"You shall not hear from him, for he is in the Odinsleep," Thor says. "Indeed, if this is the Asgardian memory illness, then perhaps this is a welcome turn of events for us."
"What do you mean?" Steve asks quietly. "Is there a cure?"
Thor looks him in the eye. "No," he admits. "But with my honourable father in slumber, there may now be a way to find one."
"Not we," Tony says. They all turn to him, and Tony shoves irritably at the blankets around his legs. "If this is magic, and if Asgard hasn't already found a cure — that means it's the kind of magic you've never dealt with before, am I right?" Thor allows a small nod, and Tony continues. "So when you say we are going to cure it, and that your father won't be around to hinder us, you don't mean we at all. You mean he is going to cure it."
"You understand me," Thor says. "I can think of no other Asgardian alive with that amount of arcane knowledge."
"Loki," Tony says.
In his past dealings with Loki, Tony has been thrown into:
4) the lap of a very startled senator's wife
To say he's not looking forward to deepening that relationship is saying that Steve has very nice muscles — and is just as hard to wrap his mind around.
"Look at it this way. It's one benefit to being an amnesiac," Tony says. "If he tries to kill me again, I'll probably forget it."
"Don't talk like that," Steve says, with a hint of his field command voice even, but whereas Tony's perfectly willing to listen to Steve in the field (usually), it doesn't apply here. Tony talks like rivers. Tony talks like rain. Tony talks because otherwise he's going to be parched.
SHIELD begins running triangulations to find Loki's location. They have a software program devoted entirely to the task of Loki-finding, Tony discovers. It crunches data on recent sightings and overall behavioural patterns, trying to hone in on a geographic location. But the equation it's running on is so clunky and ugly that when Tony gets his hands on the code, he rewrites it entirely. Fury scowls at him the next time they meet, but doesn't say anything because it's not Tony's fault he makes the SHIELD programmers look like idiots (surprisingly not hard at all).
The final spread creates a model that puts Loki somewhere near San Antonio, Texas, with a probability range of 45-50%.
"Not great," Jane says when she takes a look at the data, "but he's a god of chaos, so what can we expect?"
"My brother," Thor says, "is not a god."
"To us, he kind of is. You too," she says, smiling up at him. Usually Thor is delighted to be reminded that on Earth, he's mentioned in books and taught in comparative religion courses — he gets almost more fan mail than anybody else on the team, except Steve, and generally Steve's fans don't talk about building a temple for him. But right now Thor's just frowning, and even Tony feels bad about that, like kicking a unicorn in the gonads.
"Let's stop standing here talking about it," he says. "San Antonio, baby. Let's go."
"What, are you just going to wander around the city looking for him?" Jane asks in disbelief. "Are you going to put up posters at the community centre?"
"No," Tony says slowly. "We're going to take this very shiny machine that I helped develop, and we're going to divide the city into quadrants and scan for magically-influenced electromagnetic signatures. Loki's got such high levels of magic that he affects the areas he's in."
"Neat." Jane stands up and wraps her arms around Thor, who nuzzles her cheek. "Come back in one piece, all right? Preferably without tentacles."
In San Antonio, Tony sits on the back of a SHIELD Jeep as they tackle the business of scanning the city. He supposes he should feel flattered that SHIELD is putting so much energy and resources into finding a cure for him — if only he could make himself believe that this was for him at all, and not his wallet. Fury doesn't have to worry. If Tony dies, or goes the way of an invalid in a mental institution, his money's already tied up in the Maria Stark Foundation, so the Avengers will get their funding no matter what. He's never going to tell Fury that, though.
In the back of the car, where it's cool from the sun, he puts on his shades, drinks single malt Scotch whiskey, and waits.
When they find Loki, it's in a tattoo parlour on the west side. Loki is lying on the chaise, naked from the waist up, his back exposed in a long pale arch as the tattoo artist goes over it with her needles. There's a half-done design of swirls and whorls, black and inky and winter bold. Tony walks into the parlour with Steve and Thor, and the receptionist just melts away at the sight of them, doesn't even stop them from heading to the back. Loki looks up when they enter the room, and he smiles.
"Can you wait another half hour?" he asks. "I'm almost done here."
"No," Steve says, but Tony stops him.
"Whatever, it doesn't bother me," he says. "Half an hour, an hour — hell, go get a coffee if you want. I'll be right here." He sits down by the door.
"You aren't taking this seriously," Steve practically hisses at him, trying not to let Loki overhear. But Loki's got magic. He hears anyway.
"Did you know we were going to come?" Thor asks his brother warily.
"Half of SHIELD descends on the city? I had my suspicions," Loki says. He twists slightly to show off his tattoo-in-progress. "Do you like it?"
"It suits you," Thor says.
"I've developed a taste for them," Loki says. "Every year or so, I wipe my skin blank and I get a new one." The needle continues to prick into his skin, and he lowers his eyelids like he's a tiger considering whether to run, or whether to hunt. Loki's gotten the better of them before, Tony reminds himself — but they've beaten Loki in the past too. They're even here. And then Loki opens his eyes more fully and looks straight at Tony. "So you're sick," he says.
"That's what I'm told," Tony replies.
"It's the Asgardian memory sickness," Thor says. "I'm sure you've heard of it, even on Midgard. You talk to the same people I do."
"Expatriates and murderers and killers all," Loki says. "But what are you doing with them, brother?"
"Sometimes," Thor says, "I miss home." He leaves it at that, and Loki's expression doesn't change.
"Your father is in the Odinsleep," Loki tells him.
"And Muninn is missing," Loki says.
Thor visibly starts. "But that cannot be," he says. "Huginn and Muninn travel afar from our father, but they have always returned. That is why the humans here call him Raven-speaker."
"They also call him Allfather, but that is hardly true either," Loki responds, and this is the first time they see some emotion on him — his lips pull back slightly, in the hint of a snarl. "Nevertheless. Odin is in slumber, and Muninn is gone, and that is the cause of the sickness. Huginn is Thought and Muninn is Memory, and now there is Thought but there is no Memory."
"I'm sick because of mythology?" Tony demands. "Jesus Christ, if I knew, I would have been nicer to Namor. Maybe not try to take him out for sashimi."
"Stories are all around us, Stark," Loki says. "Most of the time, they've even real."
"Yeah, but I prefer the stories that end in sexy times, and not with avian bird flu," Tony says. He crosses his arms. "What next?"
"We go to Asgard," Loki says. "We find Muninn."
Steve speaks. "So you're willing to do this," he says, and Loki gives a slight nod. "Why?" Steve asks. "You haven't exactly been champing at the bit to help us before and you and Tony aren't — you aren't friends."
"I could care less whether Tony Stark remembers his own name," Loki says evenly. "Midgard would probably improve if he didn't. But as we have said, Muninn has never gone missing before. Such a sickness has never touched Asgard before. And I am curious."
"You're not just curious," Thor says. "No, it can't be just that."
"You're much smarter than you were before — should I congratulate you for that?" Loki lowers his head as the tattoo artist starts working up his back, and his voice comes out more muffled and dreamy. "I am interested in the practical applications of the memory sickness. I want to see it for myself, and it is easier to travel through Asgard with an officially sanctioned party rather than try and sneak about on my own."
"This isn't a good idea," Steve says out loud. "We let Loki into Asgard with us, we're setting ourselves up for a new biological weapon attack in the future."
"I'm right here, you know," Tony says. Steve goes tense and cold. "Okay, that sounded pretty selfish, but I'm thinking of the options — and in a few months I won't even remember what the options are." He only notices that he's digging his fingernails into his kneecaps when there's a burst of pain.
Steve flinches. "I know," he says. "That's why we're going to do this. Even if it's risky."
Loki watches the both of them sardonically, and where the needle pierces him, his skin turns red with blood.
"What does one pack for a trip to an alien planet?" Tony asks. "I used to think I had everything, but right now I could really use a Lonely Planet Guide to Asgard."
"When you get back, you can be the one to write it," Pepper says. She sits on the edge of his bed and watches him pace his electronic walk-in closet, inputting commands on the screen. A robotic arm brings out his selections. He assesses them, and tosses most back. The few he does keep go into his wheeled luggage. "If I were you, I would remember that Asgard equals Norse, and go less on the Armani suits, more on the sweaters and winter jackets," she says.
"What if they have a party? I'm a celebrity. They're going to want to throw a party for me."
"No," Pepper says.
Tony smirks at her. "You mean S.I. hasn't expanded its marketing campaign that far yet? What are we paying our execs for, anyway?"
Pepper laughs helplessly. "Tony, this isn't an off-world meet-and-greet. But you already know that. I can see you freaking out."
"I'm not freaking out," Tony says right away. He walks to the bed and slides down beside her, flopping backwards so that his head hits the middle of the king-sized mattress. "Okay, I'm freaking out a little bit. Viruses and contagions, I get. But what am I supposed to do when they tell me it's because of a raven? Polly want a cracker?"
"You say, 'Give me my life back,'" Pepper replies solemnly. She hands him a checklist. "Here, I've made this to help you. So you don't forget any supplies."
"What if I forget the list?" Tony asks.
"I won't let you forget the list," Pepper says, and suddenly he wants to do everything for her — wants to give her a raise, wants to buy her flowers and take her dancing. He's fully aware that he doesn't deserve Pepper, but only on certain days does he realize that's a bad thing. He groans and rolls over, just as there's a knock on the door. "Come in!" Pepper calls, and Steve pokes his head inside.
"Am I, uh, interrupting anything?" he asks.
"Yes," Tony says, head buried in his pillows. "Pepper was just about to give me a fantastic, dirty—"
She swats at him.
"—sleeping bag," Tony finishes. "Are we really going to be roughing it in Asgard? What happened to the nice cities? What happened to the fountains of mead and golden-haired Valkyries? No offense, but that sounds better than trekking around in the wilderness with you, the Family Dysfunctional, and no showers."
"We have to find Muninn, and they've already searched the cities," Steve says. He pauses for a second. "Thor's not coming."
Tony sits up quickly. "Let's tazer him."
"What? No," Steve says. "Thor wants to come, believe me, but Loki isn't letting him. He says if we want his help, then we can't bring along Thor."
"Brotherly rivalry," Pepper says.
"I wouldn't know, I'm an only child," Tony says. He flings an arm over his eyes. "This is going to be what it's like for the next few weeks, isn't it? Loki says this, Loki says that. If only there was a way to suck the magic out of his body and put it in me instead — a metaphysical blowjob." Steve makes a strangled noise, and that reminds Tony. He says, lowering his voice, "You don't have to come either, you know. The Avengers will need you."
"I'm not going to leave you and Loki alone," Steve says firmly. "We've discussed this before."
"We have?" Tony says. He doesn't remember, and that's more sobering than a dozen A.A. meetings put together — his stomach rolls, and he wonders what else he's missed.
"We have," Steve confirms, "and you're not going to change my mind. I'm coming along. You're my friend. I'm not leaving you to the wolves."
"There's another benefit too," Pepper adds lightly. "Sending Tony as the sole representative of Midgard? That'll never happen."
"Hey, I'm great at kissing babies," Tony complains. "I've calculated the perfect combination of pressure, duration, saliva production, and non-creepiness." But the stone weight in his chest eases somewhat, the lid twisted off a tightly sealed jar. He removes his arm and looks up at Steve, bright-haired Steve who stares back at him, determined.
Tony thinks, with an unfamiliar certainty, Something will happen. But as prophecies go, it's less than useless. And he's still not done packing.
Opening the Bifrost feels like having salt thrown at his face. There's a sharp, sudden sensation, a spray of frost that hits him across the cheekbones, and then the burn. He's standing in the middle of a Texan cornfield, with SHIELD having set up impromptu headquarters all around him — their military tents arranged in a semi-circle, their Humvees parked like lions guarding a den, their uniforms of a smear of black and grey — and in the midst of it all, Fury in his black coat, watching him implacably, seeing if Tony will fall apart.
Tony's not going to fall apart. The science of the Bifrost doesn't make any sense, because there's huge portions of it that aren't science at all and resemble religious iconography when Jane sketches the Yggdrasil-entwined branches on her tablet. His dazzling intellect does not accept it, or understand how it manages to work in real life application testing. But the principles do have their own elegant internal logic — it better be enough, he thinks. It has to be enough.
The light comes streaking down the sky, typhoon furious, and then all of it is gone. The tents, the agents, Fury — he can hear Thor shouting, his words fading into fragments that Tony can barely hear. "Be... mindful... of... him!" is what Tony makes out, and then he sees supernovas behind his eyelids. There's that constant burn the whole while, the sensation that his skeleton is shaking inside his skin, melting down into their molecular birthplace. He is a mass of electrons, a magnetic force distilled into its purest form.
When Tony was six years old, he wanted to be an astronaut.
His father, being his father, had bought him astronomy books and physics monographs, and he'd left Tony to read them all — and Tony did, and when he returned, Howard sat with him on the couch and talked to him about black holes and the orbit of Mars and even string theory, which he demonstrated with veins of finely grated cheese. Tony had loved him then, fiercely and without complications — loved the way the wrinkle on his father's forehead disappeared when he told his son about all the laws of space.
But what about pirates? Tony had asked.
And Howard had said, What about them?
That was where his mother came in, because it was his mother who changed out of her pearls and Coco Chanel pantsuits and wriggled with him on the floor of his playroom, pretending they were experiencing G-force. It was his mother who set aside her society correspondence and built communication towers with him out of scraps of wires and metal. It was his mother who dabbed her favourite perfume behind his ears, and then took him to Central Park where his bodyguards watched stonily as they ran around like Pluto monkeys, like interstellar superstars.
When the reporters ask, Tony always says, I had a happy childhood, and it isn't a lie.
He doesn't know why he thinks of this when he's jolted from Texas to Asgard, when the Bifrost glitters in front of him, a starry river. He doesn't know why, except that this is a boyhood dream come true, and he isn't even happy anymore.
Heimdall is there waiting when they arrive, a tall, stoic presence who looks at Loki with unmistakable distrust. Loki smiles at him mockingly.
"She has come to escort you," is all Heimdall says.
"She?" Tony asks.
"She," says Sif, who appears behind Heimdall like a silver shadow.
"Ah, my lady," Loki says. "I should have known you would come."
"You don't know anything," Sif replies, and she barely even looks at him. She turns her eyes towards Tony and Steve instead. Steve is standing as if his spine is made out of adamantium, and something about that must please her, for she smiles at him with a crook of her mouth. Then she looks at Tony, and her gaze flickers to Tony's feet. "What is that?"
"This?" Tony gestures. "This is my luggage."
"It is a box on wheels, how peculiar," she says. Then Tony spends the next few minutes showing it off to her, unzipping it and letting her look inside. Because this is what his life has become now: hey, welcome to another planet, let's show very attractive women your underwear. Well, maybe it's not so strange after all.
Finally Sif straightens. "Enough," she says. "We go to the city."
Asgard: chrome and polish. A city that gleams bronze as they enter it, snatches of light that play tricks on Tony's vision. The main bulk of it juts out from the rock like the pipes of an organ, and they have that same jagged quality, building up and down until Tony's eyes are drawn to the very top, to the heavens. It's a sky city, he thinks, a city of stars, with towers floating mid-air, but it's also a ground city, with buildings and tenements hugging the cliff face. The ground is cold when he walks, and he sees that Steve feels it too — but neither Loki nor Sif seem to notice at all, their gaits unchanging as they bring them through the palace.
He glances at Steve again and catches the open wonder on his face.
Steve notices. "I've just discovered one new world, and now here's another," he explains. He looks up at the ceiling of the arch they are passing under, and watches it move with metallic starlight.
"You should get Frequent Flyer points for that," Tony informs him, but then even he stops talking because the next hall they enter is larger than any architectural space Tony has ever seen. Carved out of a meteor, it could contain worlds in and of itself. There's so much of it, too much almost, and his ears are still ringing from the Bifrost and his head — his head hurts.
Asgard, he thinks. Asgard, Asgard, Asgard. But that is just a name, and this isn't a name. It's a place where he can feel its echoes, can taste its history in the altitude of its air.
For a moment, staring up at a waterfall that cuts through the walls like a guillotine, Tony can't remember why he's come.
Frigga, lovely and golden, in her boudoir of needles.
"Mother," Loki says. His voice contains a brand of exquisite emptiness, the last drops in a finished wine bottle. She rises and glides towards them, her handmaidens watching them from the walls with thimble-grey eyes. She holds out her hands to Loki, and Tony sees him swallow. Or maybe that's what he wants him to see — with Loki, you can never be too sure, and Tony's no longer so willing to see sentimentality where none is, when it's just a pretense that Loki wears, a mask to cover all the other masks.
"It is unfortunate that we must do this behind your father's back," Frigga says. "You have not endeared yourself to him as of late. I am not so sure he would have let you cross the Bifrost, not even with good intentions."
"If they are good intentions," Tony says.
Frigga looks at him. "We shall have to see, then." She walks to the window, where her boudoir breaks into an open solar. She extends her arm, her long sleeve a glimpse of shimmering fabric. Then there's a sound of wings, and a black raven comes flying through the window, landing on Frigga's forearm. She strokes its head, and it caws, once. "This is Huginn, whom we call Thought," she says.
"How long has Muninn been missing?" Loki asks.
"Four months," Frigga replies. "And nearly as long since the memory sickness first appeared in our lands. In the beginning, we heard of it in the eastern reaches, by the Himinbjorg. Then it began to spread, from east to west, until it came to our city. It strikes quickly, through intimacy." Her voice grows lower and more frank. "It has been a long winter in Asgard. People wish to grow warm, in whatever way they can."
Steve makes a little coughing sound. When Tony looks at him, he finds Steve carefully examining a tapestry on the wall.
"The court magicians have studied it the best they can," Frigga continues. "We know now that the origin of the disease is indeed Muninn, or rather, it is Muninn's wound-blood. He is Memory personified, and so any illness borne from him will affect those very faculties." She moves without sound across the tiled floor. "Muninn is wounded somewhere in these lands, dying possibly, and his infected blood must have entered a stream or a source of drinking water, where it continues to spread. Water to water, vein to vein."
"But what could wound Muninn?" Steve asks. "Sorry, I don't know too much about Norse mythology, but I thought Huginn and Muninn were Odin's ravens. They've got to be pretty strong in their own right."
"They are more powerful than any of us can understand," Sif says.
"Yes," Frigga says. "The list of things that could wound Muninn is not long."
"I assume you have already sent warriors after him," Loki says.
"I have sent several expeditions," Frigga replies. "But none of them have returned." She strokes Huginn again, and Huginn rustles his feathers — a quiet, sibilant sound that shakes the entire boudoir in whispers. "The court magicians believe that if we find Muninn and heal him, we can make an antidote from his blood."
"That makes sense, in a mumbo jumbo sort of way," Tony says. "If his blood's been affecting us, then his antibodies might be able to reverse it." He runs his hands through his hair. "But none of the warriors coming back? That's the makings of a horror story. That is a bad sign, my friends."
"I wish Thor could have been here," Frigga says with some disapproval.
"I will not go where Thor is," Loki says.
"Which explains why you've attacked the Avengers three times in the last year," Tony points out. "I'm sensing some hypocrisy here, and some really obvious attention issues."
"I am perfectly willing to attack Thor," Loki says coolly. "I am not so willing to go on a journey with him, and fight by his side like when we were children. Those times are over."
"Oh my son," Frigga sighs.
"This is not a matter of might. This is a matter of magic," Loki says. "What can Thor do that the warriors of these halls cannot?" His mouth twists. "If we need someone to flex his muscles and protect us, why, we have the good Captain."
Steve turns red.
"He's a villain," Tony says. "Stop that."
"And what will you do if you succeed in finding Muninn?" Frigga asks Loki. "Will you wash the poison from his blood and bring hope back to Asgard? Are your motives so altruistic?" As Frigga speaks, Tony sees Sif's eyes narrow. She takes a step forward, her hands moving to her weapons, as if preparing to strike Loki down should he give the wrong answer.
"I want what I have always wanted," Loki says. "Knowledge. The rest can come when it will come." He smiles with supernaturally white teeth. "Am I not known to be a trickster? How can you expect me to make up my mind now?"
"I won't let you do anything funny," Steve warns. "We're going to find this bird, and then we're going to get a cure, and that's it."
Tony raises his hand. "I second that motion."
"I will join you," Sif declares. "I have many years' experience in dealing with Loki's tricks."
"Here I thought you had always rather enjoyed my tricks," Loki drawls, and Sif looks ready to strike him, her temper hot and fast like a poisoned serpent. But Frigga draws her arm away before it can do harm, and Frigga's calm envelopes the entire room, a golden light shining from her hair, particles of air and dust and magic woven into her skin.
"No arguments," she says. "I grow weary of arguments. You have a long winter journey ahead of you. I suggest you get some rest."
What's the point of resting, though, when you've got an entire alien civilization to explore? Tony isn't one to waste his chances, so he ditches the guest chamber he's been assigned to and wanders through the halls of the palace, ignoring the looks he gets from the puzzled Asgardians, most of whom have never seen a Midgardian before, except in picture books. Well, let them look — Tony's a damn nice specimen, if he does say so himself, and he strikes up a conversation with a handmaiden until she giggles and draws him a rough map for the rest of the city.
Call me, he mimes as he backs out of the alcove, and she blows him a kiss farewell.
Moving through Asgard the city seems to require the ability to fly — everything is built so high up, gravity a suggestion rather than a rule, which might be the case considering the different gravitational forces on another planet. Tony wonders why his body is acclimatizing so well then, why he hasn't exploded from the force of the planet pushing down. But it's probably the same reason why Thor and Loki don't crumple up and die after entering Earth's stratosphere, which is to say, magic, and Tony hates thinking too much about magic.
Asgardians don't actually fly, as it turns out. The city compensates for it by having a helluva impressive transit system, where silver pods rigged on invisible lines shoot up and down the mountain vista. Getting on them seems to require some sort of money, which Tony sees Asgardians exchange. Their currency looks like seeds with golden lettering burnished into the sleek curves. He can't get on the pods without them, and he thinks, Holy shit, I'm poor.
He laughs so hard, he winds himself.
It doesn't really matter. He forgets what he's doing fifteen minutes later, and finds himself leaning on the edge of a cliff railing, looking up at a floating blue-grey dome, with spires sticking out of it like dragon scales. He's seen them all over the city, in various neighbourhoods, and pods go in and out of them.
Steve and Sif find him eventually.
"I wonder what those are," Tony says, pointing at the domes. Steve looks relieved to see him. He has a tawny scarf wound around his neck, and the loose end of it dangles as a brief distraction. Steve should fit in among the Asgardians, tall and muscular and blond, but he doesn't. Tony could see him a mile away, a solid figure of earthy browns and blues. He's wearing wool rather than plate armour. He looks like your average guy coming out of Starbucks on a blustery New York December. If your average guy was Captain America, but still. He doesn't look Asgardian at all.
Sif raises her gaze to the sky. "Those are healing halls. For the memory-sick."
"Healing halls?" Tony asks, draping his arms over the railing. It's a long way down, and he can imagine himself going splat if he falls, which he considers with scientific curiosity for probably a beat too long. Tony's therapist on her Hawaii beach has gone from tears to wailing. "What's there to heal? I thought there wasn't a cure."
"The name is not quite accurate," Sif says. "But in those halls, we take care of our sick. As the disease progresses, and those afflicted lose more and more memories, they become unstable. They wake up surrounded by strangers, and they are scared. So we provide for them." She says it clinically, and Tony appreciates that, not being included among the dreaded 'they' for once.
The three of them look at the healing halls for a while longer. Then Sif speaks again. "You cannot trust Loki."
"We've kind of noticed that," Steve says.
"But we will need to depend on him during the journey," Sif says. "If anyone can find Muninn, he can. We may grow confused because of it. We listen to him on one matter, we may listen to him on others."
"Steve can tell you: I don't listen to anyone," Tony says.
"Be mindful, is all I mean," she says, and then she draws away from the railing. "I am returning to the palace to prepare supplies. Food, drink, shelter. We will leave tomorrow morning, at sunbreak."
"By any chance, we can't bring one of those pods and just zip along the snow?" Tony asks hopefully.
"I'm guessing the answer is no," he says. "What's the point of all this tech if you don't use it?"
"Magic and tech don't mix that well," Steve says. "That's probably why." He moves to stand closer to Tony by the railing, and if Frigga gives off a sense of peace, then Steve gives off heat. Plain human heat, and Tony wants to crawl all over him and do things that will probably get them arrested for public indecency — though he's heard Asgardians think about sex differently than Midgardians. Doesn't matter. He's not going to get the opportunity to test that out, because Steve remains friendly and loyal and so not interested in the contents of Tony's pants.
The longing grips Tony by the throat, a dialect of homesickness.
Then he cranes his neck around. "Hey, where'd Sif go?"
It's not a great start. When Tony wakes up, it's still dark outside his window. The sun isn't anywhere to be seen, and he stumbles around looking for coffee before remembering that Asgard and coffee beans is a relationship that probably doesn't exist — cue import business opportunity in the future. He manages to wash and get dressed without being too much of a predawn zombie, but then when he goes for his luggage, he blanks out. His luggage in its wheeled case should be at the foot of his bed. He remembers it being at the foot of his bed, which of course means that it isn't.
He finds it in a camping backpack inside the armoire. Steve has to come in and explain to him that they transferred it to the backpack because it'll be easier to travel with than the luggage case. "We decided it last night, you and I," Steve says. Tony has no recollection of that conversation.
And later, over breakfast, Tony runs a finger over the network of straps that holds Steve's shield to his own backpack. "Custom made, is it?"
To which Steve says, "Yeah, by you," and looks sorry for him. Tony's mood sours immediately.
Therefore not a great start, and it doesn't get better when they leave the palace to find the edges of the city. Tony grits his teeth against the winds and his own fucking backwards memory. He's hungry too — breakfast had been a single slice of bread sweetened with honey, and a handful of berries. Apparently Asgardians only have two meals a day and neither of them are breakfast. Eating this early is a custom only for journeys and war, Sif had said, and the bread had been too sweet for Tony's stomach anyway.
The beginning of the journey, and Loki reaches into his satchel, pulling out a sackcloth pouch. From that pouch he removes a few pinches of black dust. He sniffs it between his thumb and index finger, and then he throws it into the air where the dust flies and settles into a translucent line ribboning eastwards.
"The traces of Muninn's last flight," Loki says.
"Did you make that powder yourself?" Sif asks suspiciously. "How long have you been waiting to use it?"
"We can talk, or we can walk," Loki says.
"I don't see why we can't do both," Sif replies, but when they start to walk, she no longer wants to talk, slipping to the back of their procession. Steve doesn't seem to get that, at first. When they start walking, Steve asks all sorts of questions — about the landscape, about Asgardian culture, about the logistics of where they are going and how they will get there. They'd all been briefed beforehand by Sif, who knows these things, but Steve appears to have a million and one new questions once they get going. The further they draw from the city, the more curious he grows — until finally Sif's informative but stilted answers, Loki's silence, and Tony's bad mood makes Steve shut up.
Now they're walking in silence, and Tony can see his own breath pearl in the air. Every now and then, they stop because the black dust in the air will have faded. Loki reaches into his pouch and throws another pinch above his head, where it spreads and spreads like pollution. Loki smiles every time he does this. Loki, Tony notices, smiles at nothing, which is supremely creepy. But just as creepy is when he gets a dark look for no reason at all. All Tony can tell is that he's examining his own toes. Worse even is the cunning, the little glances backwards at his companions, and that shrewd expression — like he's thinking of something, and it involves Tony and a very deep abyss.
It's a good thing Sif's so hyper-guarded against Loki. Every moment they stop, she seems ready to lunge between Loki and the rest of the world to do battle to the death. It's incredibly disturbing, and it gets on Tony's nerves after a while, but anyone that willing to clock Loki in the face is someone who has his vote.
The sunlight peels the sleep from Tony's eyes. No matter how much he squints at it, it won't go away. It's not a dream. He's really here in the Asgardian winter with Steve and Loki and Sif, moving through land as hard as frozen glaciers, and on top of it banks and banks of snow. The sunlight turns the snow a painful white. It dices across its surface until he slaps on the goggles that Sif brought for them, even though they're as ugly as a hangover, sitting heavy on the sensitive space between his brow and his eyes.
Loki is at the forefront, carrying only a small satchel, a smoky figure who moves nimbly through the snow until Tony's not sure his feet are even touching the ground.
Then Steve, with the heaviest cargo strapped to his back, and his shield on top of even that, tied securely to his Midgardian camping backpack with velcro bands.
Tony follows a few steps behind Steve, not because he wants to. If he could, he'd walk right beside him. But because traveling through these conditions is harder on him. He doesn't have the excuse of being Asgardian or a super soldier. He thinks of himself as being pretty in shape. He's an Avenger and goes to the gym as much as he can. But he's just an ordinary human, all right. An ordinary, filthy rich, unbelievably brilliant human — who, despite his many vast talents, isn't used to these temperatures or the drag of snow against his ankles. Tony's carrying a lot of equipment too. Not as much as Steve or Sif, but he asked to — he's not an invalid.
Sif brings up their ragtag group, and she pulls a sled that contains their heaviest equipment, their tent and their sleeping bags. If her muscles ever strain, or if she ever feels the pain of the cord that binds her to the sled, she doesn't show it. She walks with purpose, looking both forward and behind.
He loses track of time. His feet go numb, even inside his fur-insulated hiking boots. The land starts to look all the same, and every mile they walk feels identical to the mile beforehand. Even the little differences such as rivers and outcroppings of rock blur together in his mind. This is why he loves cities, with all their asymmetrical wildness. Tony is just not cut out to be a nature boy.
It makes it even more grating that Steve is so determined to embrace it, because Steve's a city kid just as much as Tony. But then again, Steve's a soldier too, and maybe that's why it feels like Steve can adapt to anything. When they stop for a late dagverðr (or as the Midgardians call it, lunch), Steve goes ice-fishing with Sif, even before Tony can stop scoffing at the concept of fishing for their lunch. In the ice.
The fire's already been set up. Loki sits down on a rock and starts whittling his fingernails with an icicle.
All right then.
Tony stumbles after Sif and Steve. He finds them by the edge of a frozen lake, beyond a clearing of pine trees. Steve is crouched over a hole in the ice, staring intently into it while dangling his rod. Sif is further away, where the lake bends towards the forest, occupied with her own fishing spot.
"You can dangle my rod any time," is how Tony chooses to announce himself.
"Hi," Steve says without looking up. "Sif showed me a special way to catch fish quickly. I'm trying to get the hang of it."
Tony huddles beside him. "Why are we fishing in the middle of the tundra? I thought the point of packing a thousand tons of dried meat was so that we can avoid these situations."
"We should save our dried foods for later," Steve says dully. "When there's fresh meat available, why not take it? Sif says the further we go east, the less wildlife there is."
"When we get through this, I'll build them a petting zoo," Tony promises, rubbing his hands together for friction. "Hear that sound? It's my teeth chattering."
"We'll get used to it," Steve says. "We'll acclimatize." Yet his answer doesn't seem quite right; evident in the way Steve hits the consonants, biting down on the hard Cs. When Tony narrows his eyes at him, he sees that Steve doesn't seem that comfortable either. It's not the cold. Steve's teeth aren't chattering, and he isn't imitating Tony's fidget-dance-fidget ballet he's got going. But Steve seems tense, and no one should be staring at a piece of ice with that much focus. Tony only ever sees Steve look at enemies that way.
"Oh," he says. "The ice." All of Steve's earlier questions, his insistence on knowing everything and being prepared for all eventualities — it suddenly makes more sense.
"It's stupid," Steve says, but he holds onto the fishing rod more tightly. "I thought, I should help with lunch, but when I saw the lake, it felt... but I couldn't say no either..." His voice trails off.
"Hey, no, stupid is 90% of what most people say, but that wasn't stupid," Tony says. "You know what, if we go down in this ice, at least you won't be alone this time. We'll wake up in the future together, and the scientists who dig us up will say 'what a pair of smoking hot gentlemen they are' and all the lab babes will fight each other to defrost our perfectly preserved genitals."
"That's not how the process goes," Steve says, but he's smiling slightly now.
"How would you know? You were in a hunk of ice at the time. I was there," Tony says magnanimously. "I personally defrosted your genitals. It was my greatest scientific accomplishment."
"You weren't there."
"Then why can I name your dimensions? I know you're exactly—"
"Is this how you charm your gals?" Steve interrupts.
"The ones that have penises, sure," Tony says, and Steve chokes into his scarf. Then his line starts jumping, and Tony grabs Steve's forearm, squeezing. "Look," he says. "Fish!"
They sleep under a custom-sized DRASH provided by SHIELD, a Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelter of polyester and nylon that moves against the force of the winds, when the winds pick up at night — which they do. The DRASH is small enough that it doesn't take forever to set up, and that when it compresses, it doesn't waste valuable space in their bags. But it's big enough to fit four people with plenty of space apart, which is pretty thoughtful of SHIELD because there's no way Tony wants to sleep curled up next to Loki. He chooses the sleeping bag furthest from Loki, which means Sif and Steve stare meaningfully at each other until Steve does the noble thing, and he becomes Loki's sleeping bag neighbour.
Tony's not sure that Loki even sleeps. When they settle in for the night, Sif crosses her arms over her chest and goes to bed vampire-style, her blades under her pillow for easy access. Steve wriggles around in his sleeping bag a bit, but then he's out too, soldier fast, catching his rest whenever he can. Loki sits in his sleeping bag with a book, reading by the lantern they've set up near him. He's the last thing Tony sees before he too succombs to exhaustion — Loki, flipping a page carefully, licking his index finger first.
Loki's not there when he wakes up in the middle of the night, and he's not there when Tony wakes again in the morning. Sif goes out to search for him, and she comes back with Loki in tow. Loki has a hare slung over his shoulder, bloodstains on his hands. "Breakfast for the Midgardians," he says, and Steve goes to cook the rabbit.
"Give me something to do," Tony says, trudging up to him by the campfire. Steve has a knife, and he's skinning the rabbit like he's not sure how to do it, but he's going to kill himself trying.
"You want to help?" Steve asks.
"Oh, that's nice," Tony says, and Steve bites down on the side of his cheek.
"Sorry," he says. "It's just, I've seen you try to boil water before."
"I was distracted," Tony says. "Come on. If I can design a nuclear warhead with nothing more then the contents of my basement, I think I can manage to boil water and make tea." So Steve points him towards the heavy iron teapot, which Tony rigs over the fire — clumsily, with his hands in gloves, but he gets it done nonetheless. The water boils, and he finds the tin of Irish Breakfast in Steve's bags, but it's loose leaves and he has no idea how much should go into each cup.
Steve looks preoccupied with cutting the rabbit into pieces, so it doesn't even occur to Tony to ask him. Tony doesn't need to ask Steve — Tony's got an A.I. for this very purpose, and so he snaps his fingers and opens his mouth to address it, except he doesn't remember. The name of his A.I., he doesn't remember. Then he realizes where he is and what he's doing, and that there's no A.I. here at all.
They eat the rabbit, and they take down the DRASH, and when the sun is steady in the eastern horizon, they pack up. Tony bites down on his tongue, trying to rack his brain as they resume their trek, following Muninn's last path. What was its name? he thinks, and he understands, now, what it means to have something on the tip of his tongue. It's never been a problem before because what Tony Stark thinks, Tony Stark says. He's never practiced self-restraint. But that's exactly what it feels like, stubborn unconscious restraint, the name perched there like a secret, like a piece of sugar that he can't quite swallow.
He asks Steve when they stop to recast Loki's black powder. "Trick question," Tony says. "What's the name of my A.I. back home?"
"You mean—?" Steve begins, but Tony gives him a hard look. Just try it, buddy.
"JARVIS," Steve swallows. "Its name is JARVIS."
JARVIS, of course! Brilliant, helpful JARVIS. Clever, snarky JARVIS. JARVIS who obeys Tony's every command, save for those moments when his algorithm allows for fluidity and he doesn't. Tony feels ill, and he blinks up at the cold sunlight before saying, "I need you to test me. Every day. Ask me questions about my life, about people that I know. Make sure I can answer them."
"Of course," Steve says gratefully, and this is what they do. As they walk, Steve throws out questions to Tony like fastballs:
What's the colour of Pepper's hair?
Where did you first meet Rhodey?
How many board members are there at S.I.?
Red, Tony says. I threw up on his shoes. Twelve — no, wait. Ten.
Steve grins at him and slaps him on the back in congratulations. "How did we become friends?" he asks when they stop for the náttverðr, the evening meal.
"You mean when was the moment you stopped thinking I was a just an overgrown frat boy trying to get into your pants?" Tony quips.
Steve looks confused. "You were trying to get into my pants?"
No, Tony would have said, if they were back on Earth. Tony may be a philanthropist, but he doesn't give away anything he doesn't have to. Yet there's the matter of stars and galaxies and black holes, the sheer amount of space that separates him from home. He feels different here. Maybe it's the hypothermia creeping on his brains, maybe it's the damn Muninn sickness frying his neurons, because it doesn't seem so important now, all the secrets. Steve might as well have them anyway, to hold onto when Tony can't. Steve protects his country; what's a few memories of Tony's to add to that?
"Yes," Tony says. Steve ducks his head and says nothing.
As the sun sets, they retreat to their tent. Sif zips them up, a meager protection against the night winds. Then she goes to light the lantern, and when she finishes that, she sits on her sleeping bag and mends the tears in her coat, using thread for the cloth and a strange hexagonal device that Tony doesn't recognize for her armour. Loki sits away from the rest of them, but Tony watches anyway as he opens a wooden box full of vials.
"What are those?" Steve asks.
Loki takes one out from the leather bindings with the copper buckles. It's a green bottle the colour of rain forests. "Potions. Medicine. Powders. Things which may be of use when we find Muninn."
"Do you have anything that might help Tony?" Steve says. "Obviously you wouldn't have a cure, but is there anything that might slow down its progress?"
"I don't need, not from him—" Tony begins, but Steve cuts him off.
"It can't hurt to explore our options," he says firmly.
"As it so happens, I do," Loki replies. He puts away the green bottle and reaches for a purple one, butterfly iridescent in the low lantern light. Sif looks up from her repairs, but Loki hands the bottle to Steve. "This will provide a temporary clarity of mind," he says. "I have used it on delirium previously, but it may well apply to memory loss. Two drops when he wakes up, and two when he goes to sleep."
Steve uncorks the bottle and sniffs it.
"Oh, I should mention. No one who's used it has survived," Loki adds.
Steve drops the bottle, and then quickly picks it up and screws the cork in, shoving it back at Loki. "What is wrong with you?" he demands.
"To start with?" Loki asks silkily. "I was born."
Tony is a fast learner, and here in the vast emptiness that separates the cities from the towns, he learns to read the snow. He learns to recognize soft snow, newly fallen snow, safe snow, wet snow, and then its opposites: hard snow, deceptive snow, snow that becomes ice, snow that covers crevasses so deep that he could drop a mountain inside them and never get it back out. He doesn't always remember his findings the next day, but it's a good thing there's so much of it — he gets to learn it anew every single day. Hooray.
"Here's an obvious question," Tony says. "Why don't you develop roads?"
Both Loki and Sif stare at him blankly.
"I'm sorry," Tony says. "I forgot. Asgardians like to fall down holes and break all their bones. You probably see it as a rite of passage, don't you? Tough guys."
"We do have roads," Sif says. "We have not used them, is all. There is often little point in using any but the most well-traveled during winter, when the snow and the ice cover the stones. And where we are heading, I doubt there are any roads that will so easily lead us to Muninn."
"Where are we headed, exactly?"
She shrugs and glances at Loki. Loki looks at the air thoughtfully, as if communing with the spirits of frost and quiet. He says, "In the long run, I'm not yet sure. But if we keep going in this direction, we will be arriving at the village of Lundr by tomorrow night."
"Lundr," Sif says. "They breed good horses there." This is how Sif understands the world: through the mechanisms of war. Horses to ride on, swords to wield, shields to shatter under the force of her blows.
The next time they make camp, Sif disappears into the darkness to hunt, leaving Steve to start the fire. Tony catches Steve bent over the circle of rocks, with pieces of stick kindling fetched from nearby woods, most of which seem dead and solemn when they pass through; the skins of the trees are as dry as bones. "Good news," Tony says. "Tomorrow: civilization." Steve grunts, and Tony sees the metallic object Steve's holding in his hand; he sees it more clearly when it sparks blue flames, and then sputters, dying out.
"Is that mine?" Tony asks incredulously. "I made that, right? It's my lighter that starts fires in five different colours."
"Yeah," Steve says. "I thought it might be useful, so I took it with us."
"It's a toy," Tony says, "and it won't work here."
Steve's eyebrows pinch together, giving him that stubborn look. "I'm not joking, Cap," Tony says. "The physical and chemical makeup of Asgard is different from Earth, so our more complicated tech doesn't work here. Why else would I not bring my laptop? I could be watching episodes of Jersey Shore right this very moment."
"It's a lighter," Steve says. "It's not complicated tech."
"I made it," Tony says smugly, "ergo it is."
"Fine," Steve huffs, pocketing the lighter. Then his eyes go wide and he whips around, staring in horror at Tony's face. Tony backs away a little. "Your arc reactor. It's not going to work either."
"Give me some credit," Tony retorts. "Thor and Jane and I worked on that before we left. We replaced the reactor's fuel cells with an equivalent Asgardian compound, and used the power of the Bifrost to fuse it." He bangs his knuckles against his chest. "Not planning on suffering heart failure on top of losing my mind, thanks."
Steve's relief is a sweetness that Tony almost never names at the right moment, because he's just not used to it. He sees it now, though, and his body flushes hot, his nerves jumping like a stuck cog in a factory production line. Steve, he thinks, but there isn't really an answer to that. Of course Steve worries about him. Steve's a caring guy. Steve worries about everyone. He'd travel to alien worlds and survive through snowstorms for strangers on the street, because that's what Captain America does; that's the creed Steve has written for himself among the pieces of melted ice. Tony's not special because of it. He can't let himself think otherwise, because down that road lies
happy hour at the Midnight Rodeo on East 54th Street.
Tony hands Steve a pack of matches, and Steve starts the fire that way.
In the morning they reach a part of the land that drops sharply, thousands of feet into an icy river. A wooden bridge brackets the space between one river bank and the other; the cliffs on the other side spread out in feathered shapes, the rock face veined with blue and grey mineral deposits. "There may be damage to the bridge," Sif says. "I will cross first." She hands the sled reins to Steve, who is about to object — only Loki gets there first.
"No, I will," he says.
Sif stops and turns. "You?" she asks coolly.
"If the bridge collapses, who do you think will be more likely to survive: you or me?" Loki says, spreading his hands. There's a glimmer about him and then he rises from the ground, three feet in the air. "I can float, and you cannot."
"And you're light enough that even if you make it across, it won't tell us how the bridge supports our weight, or the weight of what we're carrying," Tony says.
"I can make myself heavier," Loki says, and he drops, abruptly, sinking grooves in the rock.
"If you want to," Sif says in that same cool voice, "be my guest."
"Your guest? Were we not friends once?" Loki asks. He doesn't wait for an answer. He strides forward, no longer floating or sunk deep into the ground, and takes the first steps onto the bridge.
"You be Indiana Jones. I'll be over there, sitting on that rock," Tony says. He moves away from the rest of the group, trudging towards the remains of their morning campfire.
That's when it happens: Tony hears the rattling moan. It comes from the salt caves to his right, a low sound, a dying gasp. It repeats itself over and over in the span of a few seconds, and then Tony can see a creature emerge from the caves and run straight for him. A human-shaped creature, but with thick white skin, as tough as hide, and eyes that burn coal-black, except where the eyelids drip blood. "Draugr!" Sif shouts, and Tony is aware of several things all at once. He knows that Sif is readying her weapons and Steve is unbuckling his shield, but Tony's some distance away now. They won't make it in time. The draugr moves fast, so Tony shakes the surprise out of his head and takes action. He doesn't have the Iron Man suit with him, but he's not helpless.
The gun is holstered inside his coat where he's created a flap for easy access. It was his last project before he undertook this journey — it was designed using the McKegney-Chau transference principle to withstand Asgardian conditions. He whips it out in time for the draugr to slam into him. He goes down, down, down where his back crumples against the cold ground, and there's teeth on his neck, and he's undoing the safety and shooting: bang, bang, bang.
The draugr's head explodes all over him, blood and guts and tissue, and Tony's hands are soaked with it.
"Tony!" Steve shouts. He's at Tony's side now, grabbing him by the collar.
"Hey, hey, not so hard," Tony says, wheezing. Steve helps him stand up roughly, trying to wipe the creature off Tony's face. It doesn't work, and Steve ends up smearing more of the blood over Tony's cheekbones. Tony bat his hands away. "I'm fine," he says. "I'm absolutely fine. I'm cool. I got it handled. God, this smells."
"What was that?" Steve asks.
"A draugr," Sif says, appearing with Loki. "Of the nár-fölr persuasion. We call them 'those who walk after death.' They populate the eastern reaches. I'm afraid we will only find more the further we go."
"There was a war here in ancient times," Loki says. "The War of the East. Many of the warriors who did not return home died and turned draugr."
"Yes, because a sorcerer cursed them," Sif states.
"It was before our time," Loki replies. "It has nothing to do with us."
"Ancient zombies, my favourite sort of welcome," Tony says. He spits onto the snow, gagging. Steve looks even more alarmed. "Now I'm really glad we're reaching a village soon. I need a fucking bath."
Past the bridge and down a series of craggy slopes cut out in the shapes of stairs, but so old and ruined that moss and ice hide the stepping stones, they see the village of Lundr. Longhouses of plank, wattle, and daub surround the central village square, and beyond them is a network of smaller wooden houses, stables, granaries, and slaughterhouses. Beyond the main village there are flattened fields fenced in by rocks, and Tony can see farmsteads rising among the dirt paths, grimy with snow and water and broken barley stalks.
As they approach the village, there's a shift in the air, a smoky smell, and then when Tony looks at Loki, he sees a woman instead. A slim-hipped woman with long, curly black hair, and Loki's eyes, which give it all away.
"Nice party trick," Tony says.
"I prefer to draw as little attention as possible," Loki replies. "It is easier to be this than an exiled prince."
"I hear you," Tony says dryly.
Sif rolls her eyes and doesn't break stride as they enter Lundr. A few scattered villagers look up from their work to see them coming. There's a forge near the outskirts of the central square, red with coals, and so wonderfully warm that Tony immediately heads over and takes off his gloves. The blacksmith eyes him warily, but Tony waggles his eyebrows and holds up his hands in the universal sign of I am not dangerous, I will not steal your daughters or your sheep, unless you ask first. "Ahhh," he says, rubbing his numb fingers together. "Steve, check this out. It's better than a Swedish massage."
"When was the last time you had a Swedish massage?" Steve asks, another test question.
"How the hell should I know?" Tony replies. "They throw one into every business trip I take. Hello, Mr. Stark, welcome to Whitman Engineering, can we lock you up in a dark room where we don't have to deal with you for a while? You know, the usual."
"Where was the last business trip you took?" Steve asks, persistent.
Tony thinks about it. "Hawaii. I think."
"Actually, it was Malaysia," Steve says. "Close guess though."
"How do you remember so clearly?" Tony picks at a callous on his thumb. "Don't tell me you stalk my schedule."
"As team leader, it's my job to know where all the Avengers are at any given time of the day," Steve says primly. "That way, I know team capacity for when we assemble."
"Team capacity, right," Tony says while Steve goes over to deliver his hellos to the blacksmith, who is still watching them like they're the mud that's floated to the top of the barrel. It's an isolated village, Lundr — they probably don't see travelers much. Turning around, he can catch Sif cornering a girl and asking where best to negotiate for supplies. He doesn't see Loki at all, which is always a bad feeling, so he tugs his gloves back on and goes supervillain-hunting.
He finds Loki by the main longhouse, watching a group of kids kick around an iced-over pig bladder. They've got a game set up, two teams and two goalies. Loki's hair curls softly around the edges of his face, and as a woman his face seems much more pointed — gamine even, his mouth the shade of raspberries. If Tony didn't know who this woman was, he would have hit on her.
"What are you doing?" he says. Loki does not startle. Loki never startles, even when people sneak up on him, which Tony has tried many, many times for shits and giggles.
"Have you noticed there are many more children outside then adults?" Loki asks.
"Uh, now that you mention it, yeah," Tony says. There was the handful of adults thatching roofs and making alum-tawed leather from outdoor aluminium salt baths, and there was the blacksmith, but the rest of the villagers seem to be prepubescent at best. "I'm assuming all the grownups are doing the smart thing and staying inside where it's warm."
"The cold does not bother us as it does you," Loki says. "The adults stay inside their homes not out of fear or laziness. They do so because they are sick."
Tony pauses. "We're not talking about the flu, are we?"
"They are memory sick," Loki says. "Muninn's tainted blood has passed through this village. The children are spared only because they are too young yet to pass it amongst themselves."
Tony looks away. He can feel the wind inside his lungs. "Poor blacksmith guy," he finally says. "Now everybody knows he's not getting any."
Loki's laughter is a song inside his throat. "I can see why Thor likes you. You're just his type."
"Brave and handsome, I know, I get that a lot."
"Crude," Loki says. "Driven by animal passions and impatient desires." He makes a sharp hawkish gesture with his right hand. "I see the way you look at Steve Rogers."
This is something Tony has begun to realize lately, a lesson like falling on his head and rattling everything inside: there are times and places to fight, and there are times and places to do your best impression of a stone. "Steve Rogers sees the way I look at Steve Rogers," Tony says. "Doesn't mean anything."
"Really?" Loki mocks. "And every spell I cast at our camp, every enchantment I sew into our belongings, every charm I make to protect us from our enemies: they soak in our presence, and at night when I go to check them, they stink of love."
"No, that's me and the draugr."
"Love?" Sif interjects. If Tony can never sneak up on Loki, Sif can always, always sneak up on Tony, stepping around him soundlessly. "Why are you two talking about love?" she wants to know.
"Why wouldn't we talk about love?" Loki asks. "I hear it's rather in vogue." He fixes her with his dark eyes. "Tell us. What do you love, fair Sif?"
She smiles without feeling.
"That's easy," she says. "Cold steel."
They leave Lundr with a few loaves of bread and three bundles of dried pork preserved in sour whey. "She says it's all they have," Sif explains, pointing towards a gangly girl with braided blonde hair who watches them hungrily as they pack their bags and depart. "It's the children running the village now, mostly, and they don't have the strength to do the butchering."
"How dare they skint us," Tony says with a straight face.
Steve can't stop looking backwards. "I wish we could help them. I remember what it's like to be... small and feel like you can't do anything important."
"If we find Muninn and a cure, then we are," Sif says resolutely. "Come. If we make good time, we can leave the mountainous ranges and reach the Long Plains by dark."
Tony looks up at the streak of black film hanging in the air, a cloud that precedes them everywhere they go. It resembles gunpowder, he thinks, not for the first time. When Loki first casts it, there's charnel smell to it, which makes Tony wonder just how and why it was made. Why would Loki happen to have a piece of magic on him that could track Odin's messengers? But maybe that answer is self-explanatory in and of itself.
"If you know where Odin's ravens go, then you know where his mind is," Tony says casually to Loki. "You know what his goals are."
"I don't need his birds to tell me that," Loki says. "Odin's goals are peace and armistice. He means to broker a truce with the Frost Giants — as if he thinks it will be as easy as that!" He laughs and then walks faster, increasing the distance between him and the rest of the company, until Loki is a solitary speck in the snow, following a trail of blackened sky.
The land flattens as they head east — though only for a while, Sif warns. There are more mountain ranges ahead of them, scraggly rocks and granite valleys, with the Cliff of the Kings and the Eagle's Peak, all of which lead in the end to Himinbjor, Heimdall's domain from before he became the gatekeeper of the Bifrost. "But I don't remember such a time," Sif confesses. "It was a long time ago, ancient sagas ago, when Heimdall was just one lord out of many."
They find more draugar, some traveling alone and some others in packs. The single draugar are easy to take care of. It's when they come in numbers that it's trickier, because they'll attack in clusters, in a v-shaped formation with shields and swords instead of just teeth and nails. The draugar that travel in groups have residual memories of their human lives, shades burned into their heads like photographic negatives. They don't remember who they were, not really, but they can approximate awareness so they're smarter and more vicious. Tony learns to spot their iron-tempering fires in the distance. They're easier to see on the Long Plains, but so are travelers.
Good, Tony thinks. Something to do. Steve will never admit to it, but Steve cheers up when the draugar appear, releasing his shield and dropping his backpack to the ground. Sif moves as quick as the pox, and Loki's hands will flutter in complex motions, opening the ground beneath them or summoning a hail of fire.
Then one afternoon a draugr manages to pin him to the ground. Tony does his civic duty by blowing out its brains, but not before the draugr takes Tony's face into its wormy hands and slams him down, skull crunching on red rock.
It hurts like a motherfucker, and his vision goes spotty for a moment. Then something shifts, and a veil falls in between what he sees and what he knows.
Where am I? he thinks, standing up shakily. What am I doing? Who are these people? What's going on?
There's three people dressed like him, in coats and furs and gloves, fighting off the undead. There's a tall blond man with broad shoulders and a shield; there's a smooth-moving woman with dark hair and wicked knives; there's a man with a silver smile and power rolling through his every breath. And Tony doesn't know them. He doesn't know them.
Is this New York? It can't be New York, because there's absolutely nothing except fields and winter. Maybe it's New Jersey then, he thinks, stumbling backwards, trying to sneak out of the fight before anybody notices. But what the hell is he doing in the middle of Jersey after a blizzard, in what looks like farmland? And why are there zombies?
It doesn't make any sense to him.
Avengers, he thinks, but he doesn't know where that word comes from, and it leaves quickly enough, sliding slippery out of his mind.
Need to put in distance between him and the dangerous-looking fighters. Need time. Need energy. Need a fucking bandage because he's pretty sure that's blood oozing out of his head and not herbal shampoo.
Where's his car? Where's his laptop? Where's his cell phone?
He doesn't remember any of this, but he does remember what it was like to be scared. There was a time and a place, he thinks, though the details are becoming blurry with the pain. There was a desert. There was a cave. Yinsen. He remembers what it was like to feel himself dying, spread out slowly and so thinly, his life reduced to schemata and promises of bombs. Here passes Anthony Edward Stark, he thinks with a rising giddiness as he watches the woman execute a perfect backwards strike, stabbing two zombies at the same time. Then she turns towards him.
Need to get out of her line of vision. Don't know if she's friend or if she's enemy. (Out here in the middle of nowhere, with those knives? Likely enemy).
She says something out loud, and the blond man turns too. His face falls when he sees Tony, and Tony winces because his chances of getting out of here unnoticed have just rapidly fallen to zero. Where's a distraction when you need one?
The blond man starts heading towards him. Tony calculates the odds of running, and then decides doomed plans aren't even worth the energy. He stands there defiantly as Blondie approaches. "Tony?" he says hesitantly, and Tony gives him his most unimpressed look, the one he normally saves for tabloid reporters and S.I. protesters.
"Yeah?" he says.
"Who am I?" Blondie asks.
"You're probably a figment of my imagination," Tony says. "Because I can imagine being drugged and kidnapped by a trio of armed lunatics, sure. But the zombies are kind of making me question it."
"You're not asleep," Blondie says. His hand reaches forward, but Tony takes a step back, dodging it. "I'm Steve," Blondie says more urgently. "You remember me. I'm Steve."
Tony thinks then, of blue, and red, and white. Of champagne on his tongue, and video games in the lounge, and the soft feel of denim, and a single smile.
When it hits him, his knees tremble, and he grabs onto Steve for balance. Steve catches him without hesitation, while Tony tries to climb out of his own traitor skin. "Jesus," he says. "Jesus, I can't believe — a fog came over me. I can't believe I forgot." This isn't like forgetting what he ate for lunch, or the amusing anecdote Rhodey told him the other day, or even his lab pass codes. This is like forgetting how to breathe.
Loki says, "I suggest we move faster. He is obviously getting worse."
Steve thinks after a lapse like that, accompanied by a concussion, Tony needs to sleep. They should make camp early and Tony should take a nap to recuperate. But Tony surprises him by agreeing with Loki. "I want to go on," he says. "I want to find Muninn as fast as we can, and then I want to go home. Got it?"
"But your head," Steve protests.
"I'm sure Loki's got medicine for that," Tony says. "One that won't kill me even."
Loki's salve is sticky and smells of pine needles. Steve smears it on the back of Tony's head, fingers gently prying the wound where the draugr slammed Tony down. "I feel so absolutely useless," Tony says flatly, bowing his head forward. "Forget the children in Lundr. I'm like the little kid you drag around, the one who has a million problems and needs to have his diaper changed."
"It's not your fault," Steve says.
"Sure it is," Tony replies with a humour he doesn't feel. "I didn't need to bang that guy at the party, but guess what? I couldn't keep it in my pants, so I did."
"There's nothing wrong with... sexual expression." Steve's voices sounds strangled, and any other day this would mean Tony's endless gleeful mockery. But Tony's tired, and he aches, and he's an amnesiac out of a soap opera, so he just grunts as Steve applies one last swipe of the salve and then leans back. "It's what you do," Steve says, and Tony blinks because for a moment there he'd forgotten what they were talking about. "You're handsome and charming, and everybody wants to be with you."
"Flattering. Very flattering. Just for that, you're excused from the next Tony-has-a-brain-lag moment. Let Sif deal with me instead." He narrows his eyes. "Wait, which one is Sif again?"
"I'm just messing with you, Cap." Tony stands up and stretches his legs. "Now, mush. Loki says we're not far from Hyrssa, and Frigga thinks Hyrssa may be where the original sickness started. So we might be at the end of this."
"You don't sound very hopeful," Steve accuses.
"Like you said. I'm handsome and charming and everybody wants to be with me. What have I ever needed to hope for in my entire life?" Tony gives him an empty smile and then wanders away to join Loki and Sif, who are arguing. They stop when they see Tony. He's obviously not welcome there.
Instead he wanders away on the pretense of taking a piss. He ducks behind a scraggly tree and debates the merits of taking up smoking if he gets the chance. If his body is going to do this, then he might as well say 'fuck you' right back at it. Because losing his memory after the draugar attack shook him. It's still shaking him. He won't let Steve know, however, and he doesn't need that damn rest, because what good will it do? There's only two ways out: a cure or a death.
Maybe it's a good thing he doesn't have a cigarette. His hands are developing an unforgivable tremor, anathema to engineers. He stuffs them in his pockets and closes his eyes.
How fair is it, that he can go an entire lifetime accumulating knowledge, so much of it that he's built computer systems to store it for him — and now one puncture, one mistake, and it's leaking out. Water and history spilling over his hands.
He feels closer to the death than the cure right now — when they find Hyrssa, Tony thinks it again. Hyrssa is a dead town, where black water seeps over shards of broken mirrors on the street, and he can count the thigh bones of animals among the wild rushes. The town curves alongside a lake, with boathouses that echo with the silence of extinct dinosaurs. There's no sign of a living person, and Tony wants to think that it's because the townspeople packed up and moved elsewhere, but the somberness in Sif's face dashes those lovely fantasies. As she picks through the leftovers and waste, and the carcasses of pigs, she says, "We think this is where the disease originated because it is where it has hit the hardest, and where the memory sickness has deteriorated minds the fastest. A few months ago, this was an ailing but surviving town. Then its people forgot each other, and there was a fight, and they turned on each other. Civil war."
Steve looks stricken.
"Good thing I brought along handcuffs," Loki says. "A present for you, Tony, when you do the same."
"Don't even joke about that," Steve snaps.
"What?" Tony says. "Guy's right. I've already forgotten you once. Who's to say I won't do it again and turn violent?"
"You wouldn't attack us," Steve says, and his conviction makes Tony go cold.
"I'd do a lot to be free," Tony says.
His desire to stay overnight in Hyrssa is about same as his desire to find a piece of fermented shark and serve it at his wedding, but they have to be practical. A storm is moving in, and Hyrssa has strong buildings and ready hearths for them to use. There aren't too many bodies around either; Sif tells them a rumour of a lonely gravedigger, wandering through the town fighting, taking no sides until she too was shot through with an arrow. Tony wonders where her grave is — who buries a gravedigger? In the meantime they perform the time-honoured art of looting from the dead, who are hardly going to need what few supplies there are to be found around town: salt, and sharp knives, and flints for starting fires.
There's an actual bed to sleep in with warm furs. They settle in the chief's longhouse, in the quarters the chief once occupied with his family and closest retainers. But comfortable as it is, Tony doesn't sleep well. He wakes in fits and starts, the moonlight too bright under his eyelids, prickling there like a rash. He plays harsh games with himself, memory games. Do you remember? he shouts at his brain, and when he can't scrounge up the answers, he only doubles the efforts until his hands are clutching at his blankets, his knuckles bloodless.
He throws on his coat and goes walking.
Never mind the subzero temperatures, never mind the threat of draugar and the unnamed threat of ghosts. He goes walking.
The storm hasn't come in yet, but he can see the heavy clouds gathering over the plains. That's the first thing he notices. The second is the sound of something hitting hard ground, and because Tony is nothing if not wildly reckless, he follows it. He slides his hand alongside his gun, because he's not stupid, but he follows the sound down the skeleton streets to the little Hyrssa cemetery. He sees Loki bent over, digging at the foot of graves.
"What are you doing?" Tony asks sharply. He's short on patience.
"Hello, Tony," Loki says. "I'm doing exactly what it looks like I'm doing. I'm grave-robbing."
"What the hell for?" Tony moves to Loki's side. He thinks of the kids in Lundr, of that girl with the braids watching them go. If the disease continues to run unchecked, this is going to happen to her too. "Can't you give these people some peace? They were sick, and then they died horrible violent deaths at the hands of their neighbours. Isn't that enough?"
Loki continues digging. "I want samples for my collection. I want to see what the memory sickness does to their brains and their bones."
"Pardon me?" Loki asks.
"I said no," Tony says. He forgets, for a moment, that Loki is a powerful villain with cunning and magic, and here on Asgard Tony doesn't even have his suit. Tony has a muddled head and a perpetually runny nose, none of which are enough to take Loki out. Even the gun won't do much good unless he manages the element of surprise, which he's just blown. But Tony has anger, and it builds in him deep as a wound. When I die, when I'm gone, whichever comes first, he thinks. "These aren't your lab rats," he says out loud. "Their bodies aren't for you to play with."
"Funny words coming from a man of science," Loki says, "and a man who once constructed weapons of mass destruction."
It's the obvious argument to make, and Tony expects it. "You know what? People change."
Loki's eyes gleam in the dark. "No they don't," he says. "Smart people don't need to change. They make other people change."
Tony stares at him, jaw clenched. He looks Loki up and down, the entire length of this traitorous brother-hating bastard, and then he says, almost in wonder, "You can't understand it, can you?" A pause. "I feel sorry for you." That's a novel feeling right there — Tony Stark is actually wiser than someone else on two interdimensional planes. He wishes Fury could see this.
Loki moves, fast as a wren. Tony's knees lock together and he hits the ground, the rest of his body slowly following the same path: he feels paralyzed, stone thick, his hands and his fingers tingling before they too stop moving. But he looks up at Loki, who seems furious, silhouetted in the night with all the sharp confines of his magic, and Tony has enough voice left in him to laugh, and laugh openly. It's such an unpleasant noise that he'll be hearing it in his dreams later — the strange new monsters that his body has learned to make.
A pulse flickers at the corner of Loki's eyes, and he moves again—
Except Sif and Steve are there, and Sif grabs Loki by the wrists. "Don't even think about it," she hisses. "Let him go."
Loki hesitates, but then he does. The weight lifts from Tony's body.
"Why do you always do this?" Steve asks him, helping him up for the umpteenth time. There are several scenarios in which Tony can imagine lying down because of Steve, but when it happens, it always seems to involve draugar attacks, fainting spells, or Loki. Not very sexy, that. "I mean it. Why do you always go looking for trouble? You shouldn't taunt him."
"Why do you assume I taunted him?" Tony demands.
"It's not my fault Loki isn't in touch with his innermost feelings," Tony says, glaring at Loki, who seems stiff and sullen under Sif's restraints. We can't take the bones, he thinks but doesn't say. No way. Don't you see, Steve? This sickness takes and takes and takes. Loki shouldn't be allowed to take more.
"You're so pale," Steve says. He glances down and sees Loki's dropped shovel, and the dirt lifted from the grave lying in gritty clumps. "Was he—?"
"Yeah," Tony says.
"Then I'm glad you stopped him," Steve says. "I'm glad."
And that in itself, Tony thinks grimly, is worth the price of the night.
East of Hyrssa, the lake twists into a river, and among the pebbled banks and the muddy water lurking beneath sheets of grey ice, they find blood. There are swirls of it, dark and muted, like tattoos over the water but beneath the ice, and when Loki breaks at the ice with a branch, the blood comes through even more vividly. Sif watches over Loki, a steadfast soldier after the incident in the cemetery, but she doesn't need to be worried — Loki is too focused on the blood to think of causing any mischief.
He sprinkles a few fingers of that black powder into the water, and the powder melts into the blood, turning it the colour of corroded metal.
"It is Muninn's," Loki says, straightening. "Frigga was right. Muninn's wound-blood must be bleeding into a tributary, infecting the Hyrssa water. This is how the disease began."
"Then we've got to be close," Tony says. The blood doesn't look fresh, but it's still something they haven't seen until now. Until now, the memory sickness has been invisible, a language passed from one person to the next, but here they see its biological substrate, its very chemical physicality exposed to the winds and the ghosts. It's made uncomfortably real, a world that exists outside of his body as well as within — Tony wriggles out of his gloves and presses his fingers to his wrists. Some of that blood is inside me, some of these cells, its hemoglobin, he thinks. And that's one more diseased piece of himself laid out in the open for others to gawk at.
It's like a really bad acid trip, like frosh week at MIT when he'd been fifteen and had everything to prove to the world, coming out of a life of S.I., boarding schools, bodyguards, and his mother's protection. He knew how to play the precocious rich kid, and how to act as if nothing ever bothered him, because he and Janet van Dyne used to practice that. They used to sit on the edges of society parties and stare all the guests with their best fuck-you expressions, clutching their virgin drinks (the virgin drinks were when the adults were around, the other drinks they smuggled in Jan's purse).
Then he'd gone to MIT, alone, and someone had yelled, "Hey Stark, catch!" and Tony had said, "Yeah, cool, whatever."
He thinks of this now, the blood and the bright colours, the sense of standing on an axis and then feeling the entire structure shift. Losing his balance. Throwing his boyhood behind to become the Tony Stark. He should probably consider it a success that he remembers this at all. Memories from before MIT are growing fuzzier and fuzzier. He's answering fewer of Steve's questions correctly.
The blood is leaving a trail in the water the way the powder leaves trails in the air. They follow it.
Two miles along the river, they find a forest. Dark, sharp trees bleed into the landscape, and Tony can feel the coldness from the heart of the forest, like a box that has never been opened. They've come across forests in their travels so far, but none like this one. None that can match it in size, or in the heaviness of its canopy, or in the glittering malice of its snow, hard banks of it that break underneath their footballs, deceptively twisting their ankles over hidden roots. "I know this place," Sif says. "This is the Forest of Erlingr. This is where Odin ascended to Yggdrasil and hung from the tree nine nights and nine days."
"Nine nights and days, for the nine realms," Loki intones. "And they call him Hangatýr, the god of the hanged."
"This forest is full of tricks," Sif says. "I would not feel comfortable leading Midgardians through it. Let me go as a scout. I will find what I can."
"We're not helpless," Steve says. "We've fought alongside Thor. We can handle anything that comes."
Sif gives him a look akin to pity. "You have fought alongside Thor on Midgard. This is not Midgard."
"And you don't want me to come with you either?" Loki asks with hooded eyes.
"I need only fear one enemy, not two," Sif replies, and she looks at the blood on Loki's fingertips from where he trailed his fingers through the river. She picks up her bags and her blades, and without any goodbyes, she heads into the woods.
"Anyone up for Texas Hold'Em?" Tony asks.
It's obvious that Steve's frustrated at being left behind. His hands get that twitchy motion they do sometimes, like the Super Soldier Serum is punishing him for not being bold, and brave, and whatever the hell else they trained good old-fashioned American soldiers to be. Tony doesn't care about being left behind. Tony loves glory, but he'd rather it not come at the price of his head, and he might not be an expert on magical mumbo jumbo, but even he knows that those woods are bad news. There's something in there, he thinks, cold and predatory. Something that has managed to reach into the sky and take down Muninn, who is gods-touched.
He busies himself as they wait. He helps Steve set up a campfire. Then Tony shows that even though he's an amnesiac, he's an amnesiac who's making progress, because he can actually provide lunch for them now. It's isn't exactly three-star Michelin dining, but that's not his fault. They're running out of fresh fish, and if he overloads the fish they do have on salt — it's better than tasting whatever is underneath the salt, let's just put it that way. He slaps four hastily sliced strips on the gridiron over the fire, while Steve repairs the wind damage to their DRASH and sets up hunting traps.
He doesn't hear Sif's return, but he never does.
She says, "I have found Muninn," and he practically jumps out of his skin.
"Jesus Christ," he says. She presses her lips together in a sign of unhappiness. "You're going to tell us there's a complication, aren't you," he guesses.
"A rather large one," Sif says. Steve and Loki gather around to hear. "The river travels through the Erlingr, to a glen with golden leaves. I saw Muninn lying there, at the mouth of the river, his blood as wretched as anything I have ever witnessed, bleeding into the water. I made to fetch him, but then I saw it." She pauses. "Fenrisúlfr. He came out of the trees."
"Fenrisúlfr," Tony repeats. "Fenris. That sounds really familiar, but lucky me, I can't remember exactly what." Pepper had put a book of Norse mythology on his desk a week before he'd left, and he'd read it, but a whole lot of use that's proving right now.
"He is the fen-dweller and the monster of the river Ván," Sif replies. "We should have expected this. We said from the very beginning: there are few things that could wound Muninn. He is one of them."
"He's a giant wolf," Steve says suddenly.
She turns to him. "Yes."
"I read that book Pepper left you," Steve says to Tony. Tony throws his hands in the air. Well, at least one of them got something out of it. "He's a very big and dangerous wolf," Steve continues, "but he's not a god. He's a monster. He can be defeated."
"What, are you saying you're scared of him?" Steve demands. "Think of all the things the Avengers have fought, the things you've unleashed on us. We've battled entire armies of ogres and giants. This is just one wolf."
"It is one wolf prophesied to kill Odin," Sif says.
"I don't get it," Steve replies. "You're a warrior."
Sif doesn't flinch, but it's a close thing. Steve has that effect on people. It's not that he's being mean, or he's trying to belittle you. But when he's Captain America and he's speaking what he thinks are self-evident truths, he has the force of his convictions. "You are a stranger to these lands," Sif finally says. "You have not grown up with the stories of Fenrisúlfr. You have not seen the bodies brought back from wars."
"I'm not asking that you come with me then," Steve says stubbornly. He hoists his shield. "I'll go."
"No," Tony says.
Steve stares at him. "This might be your only chance."
"Yeah, I realize that, Cap," Tony says. "I'm losing memories here, not IQ points. But if even Loki is hesitating, that's a sign. Because Loki has done some pretty reckless shit. You remember that tiger in Manhattan?"
"There's got to be another way," Tony says. "A clever way. If you can't defeat them, then trick them."
"I think," Loki says, "this may be the first time I have ever respected you, Stark. Don't worry. I'm sure it's only a temporary aberration." He crouches down on his haunches and uses a branch to start drawing in the snow. Six lines he draws, six lines all coming together at the very end, like the branches of a tree. Sif watches him, and then she jerks her head to the left, sharply.
"You mean Gleipnir," she says.
"Yes," he says simply.
"What's Gleipnir?" Steve asks.
"It is the only weapon we know that can contain Fenrisúlfr," Loki replies. "It is a chain forged by the dwarves of Svartálfaheim, when we did battle against Fenrisúlfr in the past and none else could hold him."
"A chain that can bind the wolf," Tony says. "Why didn't you say so earlier? Let's go find the dwarves and get it. It'll be like The Hobbit. You can be Gandalf."
"The dwarves fashioned Gleipnir out of six impossible things," Loki says, admiring his sketch in the snow. "The spittle of a bird. The sinews of a bear. The breath of a fish. The roots of a mountain. The sound of a cat's footfall. The beard of a woman. And it is not the dwarves who have it any longer. The dwarves gave it as a gift long ago, and it was the warrior Tyr who bound Fenrisúlfr, losing his right hand in the process."
"I'm sensing a 'but' here," Tony says. "Because from what Sif is saying, Fenrisúlfr? Not exactly tied up and helpless in the woods."
"Tyr the Traitor," Sif spits. "Tyr who bound the wolf, and then set him free."
"Why?" Steve asks.
"Who knows why?" Loki says. "Tyr is fickle and wrathful, and those are never good character traits in combination." He brushes his hands on his coat, briskly. "In any case, Tyr has Gleipnir now. If we want it, we must go to him."
"He is in exile in Midgard," Sif says. "Last I heard of him."
"That is what he wants you to believe," Loki says. "Tyr spends some of his time in Midgard, but he spends some of time in Asgard as well. Oh, don't ask me how he does it, when Heimdall will refuse him passage on the Bifrost. Tyr is the warrior who made Fenrisúlfr kneel at his feet! He is Thor's only equal," Loki adds dryly. "I'm sure he has his ways."
"He was your friend," Sif remembers. "I never had much to do with him beyond the occasional sparring match. He didn't like that I was a woman. But you would spend time with him."
"He tried to break all of my bones and frame me for theft of Odin's best ale," Loki muses. "Yes, I suppose that is what passes for friendships in the royal court." He stands up and drops the branch. "I do know what you are suggesting, however, and the answer is yes. Yes, I know where Tyr lives in Asgard. Yes, I will bring you to him."
In the time it takes for a bird to fall out of the sky, Tony forgets.
It starts like this: they're on their way to the village of Asketill, where Loki believes Tyr is hiding. Tony should feel annoyed by this, because they were this close to finding Muninn and finding a cure — they were standing on the edge of Erlingr, close enough to reach in and grab the damn raven. But instead he feels relieved, and maybe hopeful, because they can't just reach in and grab the raven, but they have an actual plan, a plan that will probably work. For the first time, the endgame is one he can see and understand. It's not buried underneath the eastern reaches and promises of black powder. It's a name, and a fight, and Tony is an Avenger. He's an Avenger and he trusts Steve. They can do this.
Tony's in a good mood, and Steve isn't, which is a shame because all of Tony's good moods should be accompanied by Steve's good moods. He hates seeing that particular tightness to Steve's mouth, because it reminds him of those early days, and Steve yet unthawed from the ice — physically, sure, but not in his head, not where it counted. Steve used to look at him with that tight mouth, and Tony was sure he saw only Howard, and not even a decent facsimile of Howard either.
"Cheer up," Tony says, jostling him in the ribs.
Steve sighs. "How can I be cheerful? You're sick and Loki is leading us to who-knows-where."
"How is that different from yesterday?" Tony points out. He rubs at his raw nose. "You know what I do miss though?"
"A guy like you?" Steve's smile is small but affectionate. "Silk sheets, I bet. Centralized heating. 900 channels on your TV."
"Tequila," Tony says.
"And you're doing all this to make sure I stay that way," Tony replies. "Ever thought about brainwashing me? When I forget — ever thought about telling me that I'm a kind, caring man who devotes all of his spare time to orphans? I'd probably believe it if I've got nothing else to base it on."
"I would never—"
"See, you're better than me already," Tony grins. "Because if it was the other way around, I would totally consider it. I would say 'Steve, you are a professional stripper, here is your g-string and here are your work hours."
Steve makes a sour face. "I would never believe that."
"No," Tony says thoughtfully, "you probably wouldn't." Because Steve has such a sure sense of himself. Even before the serum, even before the Avengers. Steve knows what he wants, and he doesn't doubt.
Tony grabs a handful of snow and shoves it down Steve's collar in revenge for Steve's Steveness. Steve lets out a high-pitched yelp that cracks Tony up, and then Steve's eyes are shining as he grabs Tony and flips him into the snow. "You!" Tony begins, but Steve is on him, straddling his hips, shoving snow down Tony's shirt while Tony squirms and shouts and tries to push Steve off. He's laughing in short bursts the entire time. Loki and Sif watch them skeptically.
"Midgardians," he hears Sif say, as if that one word will contain all of her feelings on the subject.
"You attacked me first," Steve says, grinning down at Tony.
"Excessive force! Excessive force!" Tony shouts. "I think there's snow in my crotch."
"I didn't go anywhere near your—"
Tony slides two cold fingers against Steve's neck, and Steve gasps in shock. "That's right," Tony says. "Fear me."
And then he forgets.
It's different from before. He forgets not only the then but also the now, because it's as if time passes and he blinks from one frame to the next. One moment he's lying in the snow with freezing water melting down his back, and the next he's shoving at this big, muscular guy lying on top of him, trying to breathe, trying to get free.
"Get off me," he hisses, and Muscles obeys quickly, scrambling to his feet.
"Did I hurt you?" Muscles asks. "I didn't mean to—"
"Who are you?" he asks coldly. He looks around himself and sees the two other people watching him: a man and a woman, both dressed strangely. They're all dressed strangely, he realizes, like they're on an Arctic expedition, which frightens him with the extremity of it.
"Tony," Muscles begins.
He interrupts him. "Your name's Tony?"
There's a moment when he thinks something has happened, someone has crept up and slid a knife between Muscles' ribs, because the guy goes still and shocked, and then his face twists in a painful grimace.
"Five minutes," he hears the man in the background say to the woman. "I give him five minutes before he remembers."
"This isn't a joke," the woman retorts.
The guess is wrong, though. It doesn't take five minutes for the world to reorient itself and the memories to return. It takes fifteen, fifteen minutes in which he quickly realizes he can't run far from these people, whoever they are, and they don't seem inclined to hurt him either. Instead he separates himself from them, going over to sit underneath a tree and consider his options. He finds a gun inside his coat, and that's hilarious, that really is. He might not remember his own name, but at least he has a gun.
Fifteen minutes, and then Tony sucks in his breath until he's overcome by vertigo.
He hates this, he thinks. He hates this, he hates this, he hates this. He hates the cold, and he hates the endless journeying of it, and he hates how it feels like he's being destroyed each time, ground into dust and then resurrected. Each time it happens, he feels like there's a part missing, some fragment left behind. He hates that there are all these holes inside him. He hates the growing meaninglessness of his own name. Tony Stark, Tony Stark, Tony Stark — what does that even mean anymore? There's a new Tony Stark every time his memory resets, and he can't be sure it's the right one.
Tony sits there on the rock, hoping against hope that he'll just forget the rest of it as well — that the next time he regains his memories, they'll have found Gleipnir, found Muninn, and he'll be home. If he forgets all of this, then it'll be like he's asleep. A sleep for a thousand years, or just long enough.
"I... figured this would happen," Steve says cautiously. Tony doesn't look up. "It's not your fault. But I, uh, I thought I might help."
"How can you help more than you have?" Tony asks angrily. "How can you be more of a white knight than you are already?"
"I made cue cards," Steve says. He holds them out, a neat shuffle of blue-rimmed cards, slightly damp from the climate. "Before we left New York — I don't know how helpful they are, but they're better than nothing, right?"
Toast, Tony thinks without reason. Toast with margarine, and dirty socks in the living room, and vintage baseball cards, and everything, everything that he's forgot.
He takes the cards and looks down at them, at Steve's neat writing within the boundaries of the factory-print lines.
My name is Anthony E. Stark, says the card labeled simply as 1. I call myself Tony. My parents were Howard and Maria Stark. I built my first circuit board when I was four years old. I am the CEO of Stark Industries. I am Iron Man.
The rest of the cards are all like that, lists and lists of everything Steve knows about Tony, facts about Tony's friends, his hobbies, the places he's been, the people he's been with. Tony only remembers about half of it, and sifting through the cue cards is information overload, an injection of supersaturated data right into his brain. There's a photo taped to the card numbered 6., and it's of him and Steve together, grinning into the camera, Tony making devil horns behind Steve's head.
"So you have some proof that we know each other," Steve explains, and Tony only smiles wryly at that, because Steve's assuming that during his next memory lapse, Tony will even remember what he looks like. He might not be able to identify the guy with Steve in the photos as himself. There aren't a lot of mirrors where they're headed.
"Thanks," Tony says, shoving the cards into his jacket pocket.
Later that night, after they make camp by the river, Tony waits until everybody else is asleep. He isn't completely sure about Loki, but he doesn't care on that front. He waits until Steve is snoring and Sif has her back turned to them, her shoulders rising and falling rhythmically. Then he takes out the cards again and crawls over to the lantern, letting its light wash over the thick paper.
I think the burgers at Stack Shack are the best in New York (I'm wrong on that account).
My first kiss was with Jenny Ishiguro. We were ten and hunting frogs.
When I wear my Iron Man armour, the best part is that I can fly.
How does Steve know all this? Tony must have told him over the years, or during the tests they've devised since Tony got sick, the back and forth volley of question and answer. That's almost as terrifying as the memory loss: the idea that he's opened himself up, right down to the stuttered poetry of muscle and tech holding him together. He's opened himself up and let Steve peek inside. He should have learned the lesson with the shrapnel: what gets embedded there, stays, and after a while you've got to talk damage control.
Poor Steve. He doesn't realize. He's chipping his way in, but Tony's slowly slipping out. Every day he becomes that most worthless of possessions: an empty house.
Tony isn't the only one who's gone too far and searched too wide. There's a small comfort in that, when they come across the circle of statues, one for each of the twelve kings of the Eastern Reaches, who ruled these lands before Odin came and brought the kingdoms together into a single unified Asgard. The circle stands as monument and altar, however, moss and ice cracking wrinkles into the stone faces of dead kings. There have been travelers here recently, as evidenced by the dead kindling littered at the feet of the statues, in the concave space that dips slightly below, into the ground, carving into solid rock. Whoever these travelers were, they're now long gone.
They rest, and Steve pores over maps of the reaches, trying to see how long it will take until they reach Asketill. Sif has already explained her best judgement to him, and it's not as if Steve doubts her — but Steve likes to see things for himself, if only because it gives him a sense that he's doing right. As Steve sits by the campfire with the maps, Tony goes off to piss in the bushes.
He spies Loki and Sif in the bushes as he's zipping up. They'd left earlier to see if they could scrounge up any small game by the monument, but it doesn't look like they're hunting, at least not in any way Tony understands that word. Sif's standing with her arms crossed and her face slightly tilted away, her default body language when it comes to dealing with Loki. Loki is leaning forwards, his face shuttered and calm, but there's a plaintive quality to his voice that strikes Tony with its foreignness.
"Are you really going to ignore me for the rest of time?" Loki is asking. It speaks to how focused both he and Sif are, that they don't notice Tony lingering. Or maybe they do notice, and they just don't care – what does privacy mean, out here in the wilderness?
"I have nothing in particular to say to you," Sif replies.
"So distant," Loki observes. "I don't remember you being so distant to me before." He reaches out for her, but Sif steps aside swiftly, dodging his caress.
"Loki," she says, and she's trying to sound stern but her voice is rough. She sounds like a fish caught in a hook, struggling for air. "What passed between us was long ago. I might have — I might have considered your offer once, but then you proved yourself unworthy of my affections and my trust."
"That was never my intention," Loki says quietly.
Sif's temper flares. "What did you think would happen? You betray our people, our values, your brother. How did you think I would feel after that?" She laughs, brittle. "Wait, I know. You did not think of me at all."
"I think of you," Loki says.
"You think only of yourself," Sif says.
"I think of you," Loki insists. "Do you remember when we were young, and I cut off a lock of your hair? It used to be blonde then, but ever after it turned dark." He starts removing his coat, his plates of armour, and Tony sees the pale dullness of Loki's skin, exposed underneath the moonlight. The grooves of the tattoos stand out brightly, and Loki twists around, staring at Sif. "Do you see these?" he asks. She nods, and then he touches his fingers to the edge of his tattoo. He pinches it, and Tony watches as the tattoo lifts from Loki's body. Where it leaves his skin, it turns dark and wild, into locks of hair.
"What is this?" Sif asks, in fear and in hope.
"I don't forget," Loki says.
Tony doesn't know what happens next. Tony doesn't know, because Tony turns and walks away, moving through the night with sounds ringing in his skull, and his lips numb from frost and from where he's bitten it to bleed.
Steve looks happy to see his return, the way Steve always looks happy to see him in one piece these days. It's kind of insulting, is what it is, and it makes Tony feel like he's being congratulated for remembering to wipe his ass. Tony smacks him on the shoulder and then moves over to the fire, where he starts boiling the water for tea. He sees Loki and Sif return later, quiet and withdrawn. When they sit around the fire, with the statues watching them silently, lean silhouettes in the dark — Sif chooses the spot furthest from Loki.
In the morning there are draugar. More of them than they've ever come across, at least thirty, swarming out of the hillside and descending into the monument, catching them as they wake from a restless sleep. Steve bursts into action with his shield, a swirling, magnificent sight, even without his costume. Sif unsheathes her blades, and Loki summons fire before multiplying himself into dozens of clones, taunting the draugar as they attack the camp.
Tony unholsters his gun and feels the pressure of the trigger underneath his finger. He squeezes, one shot after another, perfect trajectories calculated against the variables of elemental weather. He can't get them all right, but he comes closer than anybody without magic or Stark-designed weapons-grade armour. Where his finger touches the trigger, his skin grows red and shiny before long, a slight soreness that sends a visceral thrill through his nerves, sparking them into life — and this, here, is life. Life counted in bullets, in breaths before the draugar reach him, edging him closer to disaster.
Tony puts a slug between a draugr's eyes, and he watches the red sunrise.
"There is a flower," Sif says while they are walking. She stays closer to them now, no longer the silent watcher bringing up the rear. "We call it the victory-flower. It has nine points, and when we see it before we go into war, or before a wedding, or before a king's coronation, we know that our actions are blessed."
"What if someone has an allergic reaction to it?" Tony asks. "The more mucus the better?"
"I know you take great pleasure in deriding—"
"No, no," he says generously, waving a hand. "I like flowers. Flowers are great. Do go on."
Steve looks on curiously while Sif continues. "It is a tradition, before an important event, to send a child hunting for the victory-flower. Usually a young boy or girl. They will leave at dawn the day before, and they will search the streets, or the fields, or the rivers. They are not always successful, but when they are, we know that is a good omen. There was a victory-flower growing in the royal gardens the day Thor, as an infant, was presented at court. There was a victory-flower on the streets of Asgard, near the Grand Hall, when Odin returned from being the hanged god."
"Do you think we'll find one at Asketill?" Steve asks.
"I would keep your eyes peeled," Sif replies. "This isn't to say we will fail our mission if we don't find one! That is not what I am suggesting at all. But if we do see a victory-flower... well, our path may be smoother work than we think."
"In my experience," Tony says, "by the time it comes to flowers, the situation is usually beyond repair. Just ask my ex-girlfriends." Actually, he's not sure. None of his ex-girlfriends' names are coming into mind, but it seems like the kind of thing he should say. He's trying to hold on to the person they think he should be — if he no longer has the template to create himself, then he has to use theirs.
"Nine points," Steve mutters to himself. "Roger that."
No one really expects Tony to keep an eye out for the victory-flower. Nobody expects much of Tony these days other than remembering not to lose his backpack, or fall down a crevasse and sprain his ankle. Tony used to think, back when he was a kid no older than the children who hunt the victory-flowers, that no expectations would be a great thing. If no one ever expected him to follow in his father's footsteps, to be a mechanical genius, to bring S.I. into the next golden age — he used to think fondly of the idea. But now the most anybody expects of Tony is to remember his own name on a daily basis, and he's starting to fail at even that much.
Fifteen minutes that one time, and the next: thirty minutes. Then it takes two hours for him to remember, and six hours, and by the time they cross the river Ván, it takes an entire day. They don't make any progress that day — they're stuck by the jagged-ice waterfall, Steve and Sif trying to lure Tony into accepting their food and water, because when Tony forgets, he also forgets how to trust. They're strangers to him, these two, and he has no idea whether or not their food is poisoned.
He drinks the snow, and his stomach goes hungry until the moon passes through the sky, and he remembers.
The cue cards help, somewhat. Tony doesn't always believe them. The handwriting isn't familiar and doesn't look like his — though how he knows his own handwriting, he isn't sure, because it's not like he's got a pen and notepad out here in the snow. But he will read them, if only because Steve coaxes him into it, and the words will strike small bells in his head.
My name is Anthony E. Stark. I call myself Tony. My parents were Howard and Maria Stark. I built my first circuit board when I was four years old. I am the CEO of Stark Industries. I am Iron Man.
The cards don't work miracles. But they speed up the time. He doesn't want to think of how long it would take to shake off the forgetfulness if he didn't have them.
Twenty-four hours is Tony's new record, and the day after that, Loki looks into the sky and says, "The storm is going to hit today."
They've been waiting for it. The clouds have been thick and the air rattles, icicle-thin. The winds pick up in the afternoon, howling into their ears and chapping away at their skin. Tony is starting to forget what it felt like to ever be warm, literally, and that's frightening too, because he's always depended on his senses when he's got nothing else. Even when he forgets his own name, he remembers the grit of sand in Afghanistan, the burn of coffee on the back of his palate. When the storm descends on them, and they're huddled inside the DRASH with a deck of cards, Tony stands up.
"I left my cue cards on the sled," he says.
Steve frowns at him. "You're supposed to carry them on you all the time."
"Sorry," Tony says flippantly. "I forgot." Before anyone can stop him, he pushes out of the tent, bracing himself against the blast of wind that strikes his face. He slides his googles over his eyes and starts trudging over to the shadowy lump that he imagines is the sled — the visibility in the storm isn't that great. He fumbles his way through, holding his hands in front of the rest of his body, and then his hands are touching the sled and the cargo bags on top of it, running his fingers over the familiar shapes. Familiar — that's good, he thinks, with a violent thud of relief. His cheeks sting with cold and his fingers are barely moving, but he manages to go through the front pockets of the bags and find his cue cards.
This is the last thing he remembers.
When he comes to his senses, he's wandering in the snow, and the winds blow in full fury against him, causing him to lose his step. He can't see anything beyond his own hands when he holds them up, and the occasional dark animal shape. Wolves? he thinks.
The fear is acrid in his mouth. He struggles against it. It's his own demon that he wrestles down into some semblance of calm. I've been in dangerous situations before. He doesn't know how he knows it, but he does. He holds the thought to him like a bulwark. He takes a deep breath and walks on.
His memories tumble from his pockets. A hundred yards in the blinding snow, and he no longer remembers where he's trying to go. Two hundred yards and he's no longer sure where he is. Three hundred yards and the fear has grown into a palpable presence in his throat, a cancer. He stops and searches his baggy coat for something, anything to help. Goddamn, why doesn't he have a compass on him? But what he has is: pieces of string, a gun, cue cards, salve for chapped lips and skin, and matches.
I can build a signal fire, is his first thought, but then he looks at the uncontrollable winds, and knows it's not going to happen.
He's not sure who would come for him even if he did light the fire. He doesn't know if there is anyone out there except for himself. He can't rely on it. He has to think. He has to make good decisions, because in this kind of weather, the difference between a good decision and a bad one might be a sharp fall down a mountainside and a broken neck. But even good decisions need data, and there isn't any out here, not when visibility is so low and his teeth are chattering violently. He does the only thing he can do: he keeps on walking.
Pushing through the snow, the winds, the animal-shapes lurking in his vision. It hurts. Everything hurts, like his body is one broken bone, fighting through infection and stiff limbs, and the blood on his cheeks from where the wind cuts him harshly.
Five hundred yards out, a cave.
He doesn't know what it is until he stumbles inside. All he knows is that it's a big shape, and he hopes that big shape doesn't signify a predator. But what is he going to do, not stumble towards the only landmark in sight? When he realizes what it is, and that he's standing at the foot of cliffs with an honest-to-God cave in front of him, he nearly kills himself in giddy laughter. Hypothermia, she's a bitch.
He doesn't know why, but after he crawls into the mouth of the cave and manages to get a fire going from the piles of dry grass inside — he starts looking for flowers.
Then he gives up and curls into a ball by the weak fire, with his knees pressed to his chest. He tries to sleep, but anxiety keeps him up, because he might have shelter now, but he doesn't have food, and he doesn't have a clue what he'll do when the storm gives out. The storm feels unfamiliar to him — he gets the sense that he's not from this area, the most obvious clue being that he was wandering around in a blizzard without any proper supplies.
The situation he's stuck in now might as well be outer space for all that he's comfortable with it. Thinking about outer space makes him pause, because it causes a memory to tickle the back of his head. He used to want to be an astronaut, he thinks. An intrepid explorer.
Someone used to play astronaut games with him.
Someone he loved?
The storm gives no answers. He tries to remember. He tries, and he tries, but he can't come up with a single name. He's throwing himself against walls at this point, and that's what makes him so stupid and useless. He can't even stop.
He falls asleep. He knows this much because sometime later he wakes up to the sight of a stranger kneeling above him, shaking him by the shoulders. "Thank God, Tony," the stranger says. "Thank God I found you. You didn't come back and I thought, I was so stupid for letting you go by yourself."
He blinks fuzzily and comes to two realizations. The first is that the storm hasn't died yet, because he can still hear it wailing outside the walls of the cave. The second realization is that even though this panicked stranger is wrapped up in some very unattractive winter gear, when he unrolls his scarf, he resembles nothing so much as a toothpaste ad. Blond, perfect teeth, great cheekbones, wholesome good looks.
Tony (which is apparently his name) flips over. His earlier fear feels dull now. It burned itself out, and now he feels like he's walking through the spaces of a dream. Everything has that surreal quality, a muted blur inside his eardrums and behind his retinas. It feels better to think of it that way — he can do so much in dreams.
"Let me sleep," he groans in his dream. "I don't care who you are. Just don't eat me, and let me sleep."
"Your fire is almost dead," Toothpaste Ad says.
"That's one thing we have in common," he mumbles. He watches from lowered eyelids as Toothpaste Ad starts moving around the cave, finding more stalks of dried grass to feed into the fire. When he's managed to get it to a decent size again, he reaches into his backpack and pulls out a sleeping bag.
"Use this," he says, handing it over to Tony, who rubs his own face blearily and struggles inside the bag. It's much warmer now, he thinks, and he immediately falls asleep again, woken up only when he feels Toothpaste Ad unzip the sides of the sleeping bag and crawl in with him.
"Uh," Tony says, "these are some liberties you're taking, mister."
"I only brought the one," Toothpaste Ad mumbles against Tony's neck. "We're going to have to share. And you're freezing. You need body heat. Can I — can I put my arms around you?" He doesn't wait for Tony's response. His arms slide around Tony's torso, and Tony yelps at first because damn, Toothpaste Ad's hands are freezing. But then they too warm up, and pleasure spreads through Tony's body. This is one of the best dreams he's had in... actually it's the best dream he remembers, period.
"I'm going to assume we know each other, and that you don't go around in storms looking for strangers to cuddle," Tony yawns.
"We know each other," Toothpaste Ad says stiffly. Tony can't imagine why he sounds so pained when he's got an octopus grip on Tony's body. Tony doesn't smell that bad, probably.
"I'm sure in the morning I'll be properly paranoid and demand to know who you are and what you're trying to do," Tony says. "But right now, you're warm, so I don't care. You could be Jack the Ripper for all that it matters."
"I do hope you're not a serial killer though."
Toothpaste Ad sighs. "I'm not a serial killer. I'm Steve, your friend."
"Steve sounds like a serial killer name."
"It does not," Steve says.
Tony's floating in a hazy world that's nudging up against sleep. He doesn't know what he's saying, except that he enjoys the sound of it — and Steve's voice, the cadences of his breath. He's willing to believe they know each other, because what sense memories he has left seems to remember this. His body reacts, saying safe to the curve of Steve's forearm underneath Tony's elbow. Tony burrows closer and says, "You woke me up."
"Help me get back to sleep again. The dream within a dream. Wait the storm out." Tony stifles another yawn. "Tell me a bedtime story."
"I don't know if I'm up to your usual kind of bedtime stories," Steve says. "I can tell you a story about a princess and a dragon though."
"No," Tony says sleepily, "tell me a story about yourself."
Steve is silent for so long that Tony nearly does fall asleep then. But then Steve speaks, and his voice is a warm rustle against the nape of Tony's neck. "There was a boy," Steve says quietly. "A scrawny boy in Brooklyn..."
Tony interrupts. "A story about yourself, I said. You aren't scrawny."
"I used to be," Steve says, and then he goes on to tell the story, which sounds like a fantastical adventure: a boy who wanted to be a soldier, and a boy who achieved his dream, only to lose his princess and find himself sleeping for years and years, waking up to a brand new world. Tony shivers at the sound of Steve's voice when it goes husky, lingering on the syllables of Peggy's name. He can feel the grief in the tale, and the wonder. When it's over, he feels the press of Steve's fingers against his hair, the slow strokes, and then Steve's shaky exhale.
"Tell me something else about yourself," Tony demands.
"I like warm milk before I go to sleep."
"That's disgusting," Tony says.
"You always tell me that," Steve replies.
"Tell me another thing."
"I'm always losing my socks." Steve's laugh is rueful. "I don't know what it is. I can keep top-secret confidential files perfectly organized, but I drop my socks everywhere I go."
"Tell me something else."
"I want to go back to art school."
Tony turns around, shuffling awkwardly in the sleeping bag until he faces Steve. Steve has beautiful eyelashes, he thinks, and a perfect peach mouth. "You love me, don't you?" Tony asks, and Steve's expression goes embarrassed and horrified in the span of a few seconds. Steve tries to look away, but there isn't much else to look at when they're huddled in a cave together.
Steve swallows. "Yes."
"It's okay," Tony says. "I won't remember it in the morning."
"I know," Steve says. "It's all right. I know you don't feel—" But Tony never manages to catch the rest of that sentence, because sleep falls on him then: quick, quiet, merciful.
The town of Asketill is built around the carcass of an abandoned longship, a snekkja that rests in the heart of the field, graceful and narrow and as dead as hollow stones. The oars jut out from the longship in the manner of broken teeth, and on each of them is painted a pair of unblinking eyes, blue and grey and unmoving, staring out at the town when the travelers arrive.
The memory sickness isn't as rampant in Asketill as it is in the eastern towns. Tony can tell as much because of the adults in the fields, whose eyes are as opaque as the painted oars. They look neither happy nor unhappy to see them, but they don't look surprised either. Tony watches as a woman in a leather apron bends down to deliver a few commands to a slim young boy, who goes running into the winter bushes, up a path that twists beyond the longship and into the part of the town that Tony can't yet see.
"They know who we are here for," Loki comments. "They have gone to alert him."
"You mean they know Tyr lives among them?" Sif asks.
"Oh yes," Loki says.
"To harbour Tyr — that is treason," she says angrily.
"What does treason matter, when Tyr is brave and strong and helps with the hunt?" Loki asks. "You must know. The further we go from the capital, the lesser Odin's influence, and stronger is the will to simply survive."
"Let's just get this over with," Tony says. He's tired and his head aches with the force of ten blacksmiths' hammers. All he knows of yesterday is that he had another lapse, and he wandered off into the blizzard, finding a cave where he stayed the night. Steve found him sometime in the twilight hours, and Tony had woken up tucked against Steve in a too-small sleeping bag, their thighs and their elbows jammed together. Then Steve had woken up and acted as friendly polite as he always did, which makes Tony think that if something did happen... but nothing happened, he reminds himself. There's nothing to remember because there's nothing worth noting. Steve kept him warm to conserve body heat. It's practically in the Boy Scout manual.
"The villagers... what are they doing?" Steve asks. Tony refocuses because yeah, the villagers are acting weirdly now, moving from their work to crates and barrels positioned alongside the longship. Then there's the flash of knives underneath sunlight, and the sound of a notched crossbrow, and Tony knows that today, whatever else is going to happen, is not going to be a good day.
The woman in the leather apron steps forward, bow in hand. "We won't let you bring him to Odin," she says.
"That is not our intention," Loki says smoothly. "We have personal business with your patron. Odin is not involved in this."
"Then why is she here?" the woman asks, looking at Sif.
"I am here as his guard and protector," Sif responds. "As are these two men. Go. Summon Tyr and ask him. He will want to see us."
"You presume much," says a voice from the winding path, and they turn to see a tall man with broad shoulders appear from the midday shadows. His hair is coal black, a startling contrast to his fair skin, which looks as if it has never seen sun, as if it has never been touched by a pair of searching hands — but that's not true. Tony startles when the man approaches, seeing that when the man raises his right arm, there's a prosthetic hand in place of flesh and blood.
"You're the guy from the party," Tony says. "You gave me the sickness."
"Sorry," Tyr says mockingly. "I don't remember."
"You and Lord Tyr," the woman with the crossbow begins in disbelief, but Tyr holds up two metal fingers and shushes her.
"It may be true, Oleif," he says. "It may be that this Midgardian does have reason to seek me out and demand answers. Or he may just be a filthy liar." He smiles at Loki, a cool river smile. "If so, he is in good company."
"I do so enjoy these reunions," Loki says. "And for the record: it doesn't matter. I don't care if you've fucked Tony Stark ten ways to Sunday on top of a bearskin rug. What matters is that you are ill as well, and so you should have no objection into lending us Gleipnir and sending us on our way. What we do benefits you, after all."
Tyr snorts. "Give me one good reason to believe you, Loki Snaketongue, Loki of Jotunheim. Why are you so interested in what happens to the sick?"
"I'm not interested at all," Loki says. "I don't care about the people. People are stupid, and fickle, and their voices are mosquitoes in my ear. People sing and plead and worse than that: they babble. Can you stand the babbling of people, Tyr? I find it difficult."
"Because knowledge is a weapon," Loki says. "Because when we defeat Fenrisúlfr and rescue Muninn, who is to stop me from controlling access to the cure?" He flicks his gaze at Sif, at Steve. "Her? Him? I don't think so." Steve looks two seconds away from protesting in outrage, but Sif gives him a conflicted look. He stops.
"And none of this is convincing me why I should help you," Tyr says.
"I will give you the cure."
"Will you?" A cruel smile plays along Tyr's mouth, a mouth that Tony has kissed, a mouth that Tony has bitten. Tony feels sicker than ever. "What guarantee do I have of this?"
"Absolutely none," Loki shrugs. "But what else do you have? You are forgetting. You are losing yourself. You think you are safe in Asketill, with all these loyal retainers to protect you, but soon enough the disease will come here — and then you will have no one."
"What do you have to lose?" Tony interrupts. He pushes forward, and there really is no recognition in Tyr's face at the sight of him, no spark of memory. To Tyr, they are strangers. "You don't have any use for Gleipnir, and soon enough you'll forget about it entirely. You'll look down at this chain in your hands, and you won't know what it's used for, what its history is. It'll be garbage to you — so why not give it to us? We have three healthy people," he says, pointing. "We'll remember what it was for."
"I promise we will come back to cure you," Steve adds. "I swear it on my honour."
"What does your honour mean to me, stranger?" Tyr scoffs.
Steve goes quiet. Then he says, "Do you prefer glory instead?"
"What?" Tony asks. "What are you talking about?" But Steve is staring directly at Tyr with a defiant glint in his eye that means he's going to do something off the book, something that back on Earth would make Fury gnash his teeth and call for his dentist.
"You are a dying warrior," Steve says. "Dying in the sense that you're forgetting who you are. It doesn't matter that you'll forget Gleipnir. It doesn't matter that you'll forget the people of Asketill. That doesn't matter to you. You don't care." He punctuates his words with jabs of his hand. "But you've lived your life in blood and battle. When you forget what it was like to hold a sword, or to shoot a bow — you'll care then."
"What are you suggesting?" Tyr asks coldly.
"Glory. A battle that will live on through the bards. You and me. Single combat."
"You mean to duel me for Gleipnir?" Tyr says. "A hólmganga? On my own ground, in my own world?"
"Yes, a hólmganga," Steve says simply, while Tony makes a sound that even he doesn't recognize, a sound that cracks from the chambers of his throat. This is a bad idea. (If it was Tony's idea, that would be different. Tony's more than willing to punch Tyr out a few times for the good of his health, and his blood pressure. But he doesn't want it for Steve — not Steve). When it's Steve involved, nothing good has ever come out of an Asgardian duel. This isn't fucking Marquess of Queensberry. But he can see the tectonic shift in Tyr's expression. He's thinking — and that's more expression than anybody else has gotten out of him yet. Steve's notion intrigues him.
"You are shrewder than you appear," Tyr says. "Now if I say no, I will appear cowardly and craven, and they will remember me in song for that: Tyr, who feared to face a lowly Midgardian."
"Don't disregard us Midgardians," Steve says. "That's your first mistake. So what do you say? No one else has to get hurt, no one else has to get involved. We'll settle this, you and me."
"I say..." Tyr looks up at the sky, at the sun, at the ashy smoke pluming from the chimneys of the longhouses. They colour the sky like smears of grease on wax paper. He looks at Steve again. "I say yes."
Nothing says hospitality more than your imminent grisly demise in the morning. "I will give you tonight to make your arrangements and say your goodbyes," Tyr tells Steve while casting a speculative eye at Tony. "Oleif will provide you and your companions with food and shelter, anything you might need. We are not a large village," he adds with a glance at all the upturned faces, all the townspeople with their knives and bows, ready to defend him. "But we know how to do a proper hólmganga."
"I will send my son to butcher a pig," Oleif promises.
"I do miss bacon," Tony says.
Oleif gives a command, and one of her sons trots off to pig pens while another, the slender young boy who had run messenger for Tyr, takes them to a longhouse and shows them their rooms. "This is where my family lives," the boy announces. "But we will stay with others for the night. Here, this is the water jug and this is the brazier. If you need anything else, my sister-in-law sleeps in the room beside yours."
"Thank you," Steve says politely. There are no beds, but there are blankets and furs spread over the ground, and the boy goes about warming up the braziers, trying to make them comfortable. Tony looks at Steve, who watches the proceedings with mild curiosity, looking for all the world like he's just checked into the Hilton.
"I would rather find my own lodgings," Loki says.
"Hypocrite," Tony says. "You seem okay with sharing the DRASH with us."
"Enduring your company is a necessity in the wilds," Loki replies with brows raised. "Enduring your company when there is no necessity is a sign of great mental deficiency."
"Ignore him," Sif instructs. She looks thoughtful. "But I think I too will find my own lodgings for the night. Not because I don't enjoy your company," she says with a graceful tilt of her head. "But you need your focus, Steve. You do not need the rest of us bickering into the late hours, distracting you from your rest."
"So why we are leaving Stark with him?" Loki asks sardonically.
"I'll make sure Steve gets loads of rest," Tony says. "I'll knock him out if I have to." He raises his fist to show Steve what's what. "Cap, I know you're tempted to spend the night out on the town, boozing and whoring and looking up the skirts of all the dancing girls, but that's just not going to happen. I will very manfully assume that duty for you."
After Sif and Loki leave, Tony drops his hands. "No, seriously. I can think of fifty-one ways in which this whole thing will go horribly wrong."
Steve begins unpacking. "It's the most efficient solution," he says reasonably. "This way, we don't have to drag the townspeople into it. This way, we can satisfy Tyr's ego and have a chance at getting Gleipnir."
"We're also increasing our chances of getting you killed," Tony says. "This isn't like the Avengers. This isn't even like the war. You don't have the other soldiers — you don't have the calvary to ride in if something goes wrong. It's just you, and really nice hair aside, Tyr doesn't look too merciful."
"No," Steve says, "he doesn't."
"Are you going to kill him?" Tony asks.
"I'll try to avoid it," Steve says.
"But if you have to," Tony presses. "If he's going at you and there's no way out than to smash his head in, then do it. Don't play the hero." He grimaces. "If there's one thing Asgard has taught me, it's that being alive is worth more than being glorious. Just look at me. I'm a mess. But I'm still here." He goes to Steve and stands behind him. Steve falters in the unpacking, but he doesn't turn around.
"What is it?" he asks.
"I want you here too," Tony says.
Steve's breath catches. Tony thinks, Am I brave enough for this? He doesn't know what the answer is. Tony Stark, who got out of Afghanistan alive, who could walk into boardrooms and make decisions that will rock industries — and he doesn't know if he's brave enough to do this. The old Tony might have known, in all his indolent glory and swagger, but he left the old Tony behind the day he crossed the Bifrost. The old Tony had all of his memories intact, had everything. It's easy to be confident when you have everything.
There are no windows in the longhouse, but the brazier plays shadow games over Steve's cheekbones, pooling into the groove above his upper lip. Tony wants to lick that groove.
Instead, he shoves his hands inside his coat pockets, his fingers tracing the familiar edge of his cue cards.
He's being stupid. He's being unfairly addled by the memory sickness. Even if sometimes he gets the sense that maybe he's not alone, that maybe Steve wants it too — the circumstances are all wrong. This isn't like the ex-girlfriends, decisions Steve made when his life was at baseline normal. Any decision Steve makes here is going to be affected by the variables of cold, tension, danger, anxiety, even the different atmosphere conditions of Asgard. And Tony's the expert at poor romantic decisions made in the heat of the moment. He has the fucking STD to show for it.
He can hear his own breathing in the cramped space, unbearably loud. Why is he breathing so shallowly?
Steve notices it too. "Tony," he says.
"Forget it," Tony says. "I'm going to check on the pig." He turns to leave, but Steve speaks. The sound of Steve's voice — Tony will always stop for it.
"Maybe you're right," Steve says. "Maybe this is a bad decision. Maybe I'll die tomorrow." Tony shudders involuntarily. "I can't help it. All I can think is, I want this to be over. I want this to be the end of it. No more wolves, no more ravens — just a cure, and then you."
"What about me?"
"Isn't it kind of obvious?" Steve asks ruefully. "But I guess that isn't fair. You don't remember."
"Remember what?" Tony says. "Remember what I ate for breakfast? Remember where I left my extra pairs of socks? Remember my favourite song on the radio? Remember my birthday? You've got to give me a clue here."
"I've told you—" Steve flushes and falters. "I've told you how I feel. More than once. At least three times by now. By the tree, when we were crossing the lake, and then the last time in the cave — you noticed it in the cave, even before I said it. Even before you knew who I was."
Tony's breath catches on the insides of his throat, a sharp tug. "What did you tell me? What did I notice?"
"It's so embarrassingly obvious," Steve insists. "I follow you around everywhere, I make flimsy excuses to spend time with you, I wear tight jeans just because you said they would look good on me—" He stops abruptly and shakes his head. "What good is this?" he mutters. "We go in circles. Over and over again."
"Wait," Tony says.
Steve looks up, full of hope.
"You wore tight jeans? How did I miss that?"
Steve's entire face crumbles — he doesn't move away fast enough for Tony not to see. Tony thinks, I have to rebuild myself all the time, and I can't even do it right, nausea rolling in his stomach. "It's not real," he explains, but his voice comes out funny, so un-Tony Stark that he has to clear his throat and tries again. Steve's shoulders look like they have a yoke clamped onto them, they're so tense. "It's not real," Tony repeats. "Whatever I may or may not have known inside a cave. If we were back home, you wouldn't be saying any of this."
Just a few moments ago Steve was looking crushed. Now he just looks annoyed. "Have you even been listening to what I'm saying? I wanted — even before—"
"I'm pretty sure I would have noticed," Tony says archly.
"Except you didn't," Steve says. He looks like he's thinking, and then the moment passes. He comes to a decision. He steps forward, moving into Tony's space. Tony takes a reflexive step backwards, but Steve's hand touches the curve of his shoulder, and then Steve's fingers move up his neck, warm fingers against chilled skin. Tony's breathing grows even more erratic. "I thought you knew," Steve confesses. "I thought you knew and you just didn't care."
"I didn't know," Tony says.
"Well, that's got to be a first," Steve says with a crooked smile, and that's it — Tony's not brave, and he's not strong either. His resolve falls to pieces like melting fjords, and he might not remember a lot of things right now, but this is what he does know: tomorrow Steve's going to duel Tyr, tomorrow Steve's going to pick up his shield and face their enemy, tomorrow Steve's going to walk out of the door and all Tony's going to keep of him is the sight of his back. Steve's back, an empty map, terra incognita, except Tony wants to write all over it, drawing continents and oceans that will lead them home.
Who kisses who is a mystery they'll never solve. It happens so quickly, like forgetting your own name. Remember this, Tony tells himself. Demands it, really. Don't you dare forget this. But then Steve's hands are cupping his face, and Steve is pressing in even closer, making barbaric noises that short-circuit every single part of Tony's brain until remembering is no longer even an option. Thinking is difficult enough.
Steve's lips are red and icy, and Tony wants to swallow every part of him down. He pushes Steve down onto the furs, because finesse, what the hell is finesse when he has Steve underneath him, bright eyes, curious hands, and a mouth that sucks bruises into Tony's throat while Tony groans his appreciation.
"Have we done this before?" he asks.
"No," Steve says. "Those others times I told you — you didn't say anything, or you walked away."
"Oh," Tony says. Then Steve is on him again, kissing him and holding him down. Tony kisses back with plenty of tongue and then a sharp application of teeth. Steve shudders. He goes dark and wanting, licking a wet stripe on the inside of Tony's wrist.
"I'm getting the feeling you know what you're doing," Tony says behind heavy eyelids. "I'm not the first one to debauch you, am I?"
Steve shakes his head. "Sorry."
"What are you apologizing for?" Tony says, straddling Steve's hips. He doesn't even bother with Steve's coat, or his scarf, or even the goggles pushed awkwardly up Steve's head. Tony knows that a good piece of engineering gets to the function first, and he unzips Steve's jeans. "It's your history," he says, tenderness welling up inside his throat. He strokes the backs of his knuckles against the bulge in Steve's jeans. Steve gasps.
"Tell me again," Tony commands. He reaches inside Steve's boxers and wraps his hand around Steve's erection, feeling it jump in his hand. Steve squeezes his eyes shut and squirms, his hips making little jerky motions. Tony kisses Steve's jaw. "Tell me for every time that I forgot — and I hate that I forgot, Steve. I can't even tell you how furious it makes me, that I could forget anything about you, much less—" His throat closes up, and he wants to blame it on allergies.
"Tony," Steve rasps. "It's not your fault."
He thinks, My name is Anthony E. Stark. I call myself Tony. My parents were Howard and Maria Stark. I built my first circuit board when I was four years old. I am the CEO of Stark Industries. I am Iron Man. One day, out of the ice, I met Steve Rogers.
This is his history, and it's slipping out of his grasp too fast to catch. But for the first time, staring down at Steve while he moves his hand up and down Steve's cock, feeling the slipperiness of Steve's precome (and seeing the colour on Steve's cheeks, the overwhelmed expression, the joy) — for the first time, Tony is making a new history.
"Tony," Steve says again in a strangled voice. "I don't think I — you're too —"
Tony kisses him, deep and hard. Then he moves his hand faster, trying out different angles and different rhythms, learning the perfect gadgetry of Steve's body, what Steve likes best, what will make Steve groan, what will make Steve bite down on his lip until there's blood. Tony kisses him again, licking that blood away, and Steve says his name over and over again, until it's a broken chant that falls apart entirely when Steve comes. Steve's orgasm is a violent mess, and Tony can't take his eyes off it. He feels stunned into wonder.
He licks the come off his fingers.
"Damn," Steve says weakly. "I think we should skip the feast."
"To stay in bed and fuck?" Tony asks. Steve coughs and looks embarrassed, like his come isn't currently smeared across Tony's tongue. "Tempting, if you want them to remember us as the Two Harlots from Midgard. Not a problem for me, but, uh, wouldn't want to tarnish your sterling reputation, Cap." Steve gives him the side eye.
Tony adds, more quietly, "Besides, there's only so much we can do. I don't want to pass the sickness onto you. The Asgardian physicians say it's a fluid-borne disease. We shouldn't even be kissing."
"But saliva is much less likely to carry pathogens than... other fluids," Steve says. "Kissing should be okay?"
"Those are some big words."
"Jane told me."
"Who's Jane?" Tony wants to know.
"Uh." Steve dodges the topic by wrapping an arm around him and pulling him down. "I want this," he says. "We'll be careful."
"You also need to get ready for tomorrow," Tony murmurs against Steve's chest. The braziers are starting to kick into effect now; he feels warm down to his toes. "For the record, I have never cockblocked myself this badly. At least I think I haven't. I'm not sure. But you've got Tyr in the morning. So you should."
"Later," Steve whispers, and starts undoing Tony's coat.
The first hint of bruised sunlight on the eastern sky, and Oleif announces the beginning of the hólmganga. The entire village has turned out to watch, and they press against the sidelines, jostling Tony and Sif and Loki for space — at least they do until Loki cuts them a glare, and the closest villagers back away nervously, finding other spots in the stands.
Steve and Tyr are shadowed underneath the longship, tattered pieces of its once-magnificent mast hanging down now in torn strips. Tyr: stern and intimidating in his black armour, with a two-handed broadsword and no expression of kindness on his face. Steve: in jeans, shirt, and boots, his shield tucked against his body, alert and wary. Tony wonders just how cold Steve must be, but Steve won't wear bundles and layers for this. He doesn't want anything that might slow him down.
"These are the laws of the hólmganga," Oleif says in her clear, clean voice. "The warriors will fight until death or surrender, whichever comes first. If Steven Rogers of Midgard should be victorious, then Lord Tyr shall give him possession of the chain Gleipnir, forged by dwarves to hold the great wolf Fenrisúlfr. If Lord Tyr should be victorious, then Steven Rogers and his companions, including Loki the Trickster and the Blade Sif, must leave Asketill and never encroach on us again. Do you agree to these terms?"
"I agree," Steve says.
"Yes," says Tyr.
It's the warmest day they've had yet in Asgard, and that seems cruelly unfair to Tony, that if he should have to watch Steve fall, that it will be under bright sunlight and clear skies. So Steve can't fail. Tony spent all night lying in the furs with Steve, listening to Steve sleep and thinking about this. He doesn't want to think about it anymore. Steve can't fail.
Tony has teeth marks on his thighs and bruises on his back. Steve can't fail.
A child was sent out hunting for a victory-flower during the night. She returned this morning, empty-handed, scratches on her ankles from a den of foxes. It doesn't mean anything, Tony thinks. It's just a story, and who knows whose victory she was looking for anyway — Tyr's, probably. He doesn't care.
Steve raises his shield. Tyr tightens his grip on his sword. They look at each other, these two, but what they're thinking, no one can say.
Then Tyr moves, as fast as a hare, and his sword comes arcing downwards. Steve meets him squarely with his shield, and they can all hear the force of impact when steel bites down on vibranium.
"They call you Captain America, do they?" Tyr grunts. They spring apart and begin circling each other, looking for weaknesses, for opportunities to attack. "I have spent some time in Midgard. I have never heard of you."
If it was Tony who was his opponent, that trick might have worked. But Steve isn't like Tony or Tyr — he doesn't care for glory.
Tyr takes another swing, and this one is heavy. It crashes down on Steve's shield with the force of earthquakes. Steve heaves and throws Tyr off, briefly, but then Tyr is back again, swinging his sword in a scythe-motion. Steve leaps out of range.
"He is fighting very defensively," Sif says. "That is not good."
"Do you really think Tyr might be better?" Tony asks flatly. "You've seen Steve fight. You've seen what the Super Soldier Serum can do."
"I have," she says, "but we are in Tyr's territory, and Steve has been traveling for so long that he must be tired, and —" She pauses. "I don't know. Honestly, I don't know."
Tyr lunges, and Steve sidesteps him quickly.
"He is not trying to be merciful, is he?" Loki asks in surprise. "Please tell me he isn't that stupid."
"He better not be," Tony says.
Tyr and Steve move back and forth, back and forth, jerked into a continuous rhythm that nearly falls into a lull after a while — Tyr attacks and Steve blocks, his shield absorbing the force of Tyr's aggressive blows. The villagers start murmuring. They don't understand what Steve is trying to do. Tony hears whispers about Steve's lack of skill, which makes him so viciously furious that his breath feels hot in his mouth — he wants to breathe fire. But then he sees Steve do it all over again, dodging Tyr's blows without initiating any of his own, and it hits Tony then. Steve knows. An entire night of Tony lying beside Steve, thinking, and somehow Steve knows what Tony means to do, even without Tony telling him.
"Where are you going?" Sif asks sharply, but Tony shrugs her off as he slips away from the crowd. Nobody else pays any attention to him, and he pushes through the throng of Asketill villagers until he's in the clear, breathing in the painful morning air. He walks quickly at first, heading up the path towards Tyr's house — but then he hears the sound of another furious crack, followed by a cheer, and so he starts to run.
He knows which house is Tyr's, because Oleif's son pointed it out to him when he asked, and also because it's grander and more ostentatious than the other longhouses. There are banners of white and black hanging over the door, decorated with the sigil of a single hand — the right hand that Tyr lost during the first binding of Fenrisúlfr.
There are no locks, because no one in Asketill would dare steal from the Lord Tyr. If there were locks, they wouldn't be much of a hindrance anyway, because Tony had a wild time at MIT and picked up plenty of tricks. He's thankful, though, for the time that he doesn't waste jimmying the door. He slips inside Tyr's home effortlessly.
A chain that can hold a monstrous wolf has got to be of a certain size, unless it can magically shrink. But Tony starts looking with the appropriate dimensions in mind, trawling through Tyr's longhouse. There's a trunk at the foot of Tyr's massive bed. This has got to be it, Tony thinks. He kneels in front of the trunk and discovers that unlike the house, it has a lock.
There's no keyhole either. It's a combination lock, where the elements are runes in the shape of a square, a circle, a triangle, and a diamond. These shapes are painted onto bronze wheels that slot into eighteen grooves. Eighteen different elements of the combination, and Tony immediately sets about brute-forcing it. He draws up a diagram in his mind of all the possible combinations and works methodically, trying to keep his itching fear and worry under check.
He can't think about how Steve is doing. He can't think about how, as he's trying to break into Tyr's trunk, Steve might be bleeding out in the snow. He can't distract himself by thinking of any of it — but how can he not?
Then he looks at the etchings on the trunk, huge swirls of squares, circles, triangles, and diamonds.
It reminds of him a pictographic code. Now that he examines them, there's a mathematical quality to the trunk's surface decorations, a sequence that might mean something. Or might mean nothing. Can he afford to waste time trying to crack the code, or should he continue brute-forcing the lock? Sweat runs down Tony's hair, gathering at the nape of his neck. His fingers begin to feel clumsy, stumbling over the rune wheels.
Then he remembers: This is what I'm good at. They think he's useless here. Oleif didn't even mention his name during her speech, like he was inconsequential — and compared to the combined force of Steve, Sif, and Loki, he is. He's not Iron Man anymore. He doesn't have money or his family name to impress people. He's just an obnoxious amnesiac with bad lapses, who can't cast spells, who can't fight Tyr, who can't even find his way from the tent to the sled sometimes.
But this? This, he can do. This is math. This is pattern recognition. This is cryptography. And this is what the cue cards in his pocket say:
I have designed some of the most advanced technology in the world.
I won the Intel Science Talent Search when I was thirteen.
I have Nobel laureates on my speed dial.
Yes. All of that. Yes. He needs to be that person again. He
is was Tony fucking Stark, and this is not going to defeat him.
He looks over the patterns, and he makes his brain (his traitorous, forgetful, deteriorating brain) — he makes it work.
Square diamond circle triangle triangle diamond square triangle square square circle triangle square triangle square circle circle diamond.
Watching the gears click into place and the trunk pop open, it's the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
He reaches his hands inside and Gleipnir, woven out of six impossible things, burns to the touch.
When he returns to the longship, Tyr is hacking away at Steve. Steve glances up, sweat flying from his hair, and he sees Tony.
That's the beginning of it. Tony watches as Tyr makes for another blow, except instead of dodging Steve steps right into it, and uses the force of Tyr's movement to return the blow against him, his shield slamming Tyr onto his back. The crowd gasps, but Steve doesn't waste any time. He's on Tyr, fast as anything, and his shield swings out — once, twice, three times — slamming into Tyr's face with machine-gun accuracy.
Blood pours from Tyr's nose. He comes at Steve again with his sword, and Tyr gets him, right in the shoulder, opening a gash that makes Steve fumble. But Steve is pure concentration now. Steve is golden fury and deadly intent. Steve aims his shield at Tyr's knees, and there's the sound of bones cracking.
Stunned silence rushes through the crowds.
Blood welling out of his face and no longer able to stand. Tyr hits the ground with an ugly thump, and Steve straddles him, pressing the rim of his shield to Tyr's neck, cutting off his breathing. "Do you surrender?" Steve asks, while the crowd begins to howl in dismay. Tyr spits at Steve, a glob of saliva hitting his cheek, but Steve is unearthly calm. "Do you surrender?" he repeats.
Tyr's fist clenches and unclenches. His sword clatters to his side. "Yes," he groans. "The Dread Wolf take your bones. Yes."
Then he happens to look right at Tony, who is standing some distance away, having pushed to the front of the crowd. He has Gleipnir arranged over his shoulders like strings of pearls, and everybody is staring at him now — Tony begins to exist for them. "You," Tyr says, and Tony fingers the smooth, delicate chain, feeling the texture of its magic.
"It's not quite the bling I would choose," he says, grinning, "but it'll do."
They run them out of town.
Tony shouldn't be surprised. The only reason they haven't burned him at the stake for stealing Gleipnir is because technically Steve won it, fair and square. Tony's sin was merely that he got his hands on it prematurely. "I was concerned for its safety. I was going to hold it in safekeeping," he says, but nobody believes him. The villagers chase them out of town with their crossbows, and Tony laughs and laughs and laughs.
"Why did you steal it?" Sif asks when they make camp. "Did you not believe that Steve would win?" She looks at Steve. "And why did you let him?"
"I believed that Steve would win," Tony says. "But I didn't know if I trusted Tyr."
Sif is shocked. "But the laws of the hólmganga are binding! He would have had to hand Gleipnir over, should he lose, or face the shame of being an oath-breaker."
"I wasn't going to take that chance," Tony says. He knocks his knees against Steve, and Steve smiles at him, goofy. "How did you know what I was going to do?" he asks. "You were buying me time, right?"
"I didn't know what you were going to do."
"But I knew you wouldn't just stand there and do nothing," Steve says. "Whatever you were going to do, I wanted to give you the time to do it."
Tony stares at him in open awe. "You trust me that much?"
"Yeah," Steve says, ducking his head.
"If you two are going to kiss, do it where we don't have to watch," Loki says. "Some of us are trying to eat." He picks at his piece of rye bread, and then he gives a curious sliver of a smile. "Deciding not to blindly trust Tyr was a wise decision. Odin trusted him to keep Fenrisúlfr and look where that got him."
"You approve of something I did," Tony says. "My heart just grew three sizes there."
"I am only sorry that we didn't kill Tyr," Loki says frankly. "That would have made my day."
"He isn't that bad," Steve replies.
"Are you kidding me?" Tony demands. "He unbound Fenrisúlfr, betrayed his people, and then, when he held the one thing blocking a cure for the memory sickness, he refused to give it up. I'd say that's pretty high on the asshole scale."
"He was your lover," Steve mumbles.
"He was a guy I screwed at a party while drunk," Tony says in exasperation. He gives Steve a meaningful look, which makes Steve's cheeks go pink. It's really too bad that they're still sharing the DRASH with Loki and Sif, but Tony's never going to let something like public nudity stop him from getting his hands on Steve. Later that night, he drags Steve over to the bushes and pushes him down in the snow to kiss him. He doesn't hold the kiss long, for fear of infecting him, but he takes what he can get. And what he can get is pretty damn fantastic.
"Do you want another handjob?" Tony asks, thinking fast.
"I — do I want another handjob?" Steve stutters. "Yes."
"Okay, good, good, because I give great handjobs." Tony starts shimmying against Steve, careful not to put pressure against his wounds. He pauses when he feels Steve's hand on his cheek. "What is it?"
"You look really happy," Steve says, smiling. He strokes the skin from Tony's chapped lips to the corner of his right eye.
"It's been a good day," Tony tells him.
"It's not over yet though," Steve says, sobering. "We can't celebrate too early. We have Gleipnir, but we still have to defeat Fenrisúlfr. He's going to be a tougher enemy than Tyr."
Tony stretches up. The snow is melting into the collar of his jacket. He shivers. "I know," he says. "But can we — can we not think about that for tonight?" He wants to believe in happy endings. Like the stories Steve swears he tells him, when he forgets who he is. He wants those stories to have happy endings.
"Okay," Steve says, pulling him closer. "We won't think about it."
They aren't the only ones who've made good use of a chance for privacy. When they stumble back to the DRASH half an hour later, freezing and teeth chattering and bumping into each other because they don't want to let go, Sif greets them with wild hair. "I see," Tony smirks. When she realizes where he's looking, she quickly tries to straighten her hair, while Loki watches smugly from the other side of the tent.
Sif finally gives up on the pretense. "Wipe that look off your face," she tells Loki.
"My lady, I have no idea what you are talking about," he replies.
They go to sleep early that night. Exhaustion claims all of them, but restless dreams wake Tony up at odd hours. He slides out from the protective curve of Steve's arm, and he finds Sif, in the dark, cleaning her knives.
"Hey," Tony says sleepily.
Sif examines her smallest knife, which is the size of a hummingbird. "Does he treat you well?" she asks.
Midnight conversations are the strangest. But Tony doesn't pretend to confusion he doesn't feel. "He's great," he says, looking down at Steve, who chuckles sometimes in the middle of his sleep for no reason. He does it now, making Tony smile. "What about him?" Tony asks, gesturing at Loki, who sleeps curled in on himself, prickly and untouchable. They've made progress from the days when Loki wouldn't let them catch him sleeping at all. At the same time Tony's certain there are at least fifteen spells on Loki's body that will wake him up if anyone makes the wrong move.
"Loki doesn't know how to treat people well," Sif replies.
"And yet you love him," Tony says.
"Like a death," she sighs.
He wakes up, and his first thought is: This is wrong. Because he doesn't know where he is, and it's not in that smashed-but-satisfied way after a wild night of partying. It's in the way that, when he was thirteen years old, a group of armed men swiped him on his way out of a public library, killing his bodyguard with a 9mm shot to the head. He remembers that incident, thinks of it when he wakes in the tent with the three strangers sleeping around him — but that's the only thing he remembers, because everything else in his head feels loose and unscrewed, even his notions of himself.
His name is as impermanent as the winds he can hear outside the tent, but what feels more permanent are these: the bruises on his body, the ache that travels right to his marrow, the pain in his lower spine. Whatever has happened to cram him in the tent with these three people, it hasn't been an easy ride. Before he even stops to think about it, he's creeping around, gathering supplies, trying not to wake anybody up.
He needs to get away. He doesn't know if these strangers are friendly, if they're captors or fellow prisoners, or maybe this is some tricked-out party where they drank too much vodka. (If so, then why are they camping? In what feels like Siberia, from the temperature).
He only gets about halfway through when the woman wakes up. She has long dark hair, and she reminds him of a Valkryie. "Tony?" she asks, rubbing at her face. So that's his name, apparently. When she sees that backpack he has in his hand, and the clothes he's trying to stuff inside, she goes, "Oh. It is happening again." She reaches over and shakes a blond man's shoulder. "Wake up," she says. "Tony is having another incident."
The blond man wakes immediately.
"It's okay," he says. "We're not here to harm you. We're your friends."
Tony learns something about himself then. When he's startled and panicked, he can keep it from showing. He can smooth his voice out until there are no more wrinkles, no hint of his rattled thoughts. "I'd ask you to prove it, but I don't see the friendship bracelet on my wrist," he says in a blase voice that doesn't sound like his — but what does he know on that subject of himself? Nothing, except this ability to fake calm.
"You're right. We can't prove it," Goldilocks replies. His voice is trying to be as level as Tony's. He's luring him off the ledge, but he's not as talented. Tony can hear a vein of despair underneath — interesting, that. "But look, we're not trying to harm you."
"Then why am I covered in bruises?"
Valkyrie leans over and whispers in his ear, but Tony can make out what she's saying. "Tell him the truth," she says.
Goldilocks hisses back. "If I tell him that now, it's too much to process. We've got to keep it simple."
"Simple," Tony repeats. He shoves another shirt into his backpack. He doesn't know if it's his, but it looks about the right size, or the best he can estimate, lacking a mirror. His recollection of his own looks is hazy. "All right. Let's start with the simple then. Where are we? Who are you? What do you want?"
"We're in Asgard," Goldilocks begins.
"Where the hell is Asgard?" Tony interrupts. "Is it in Russia?"
"Oh, well, this is entertaining." The second man's woken up now, and he's lean and pale, and Tony wants to call him Snaketongue, though he doesn't know why. "We're back to playing this game already — and here I thought he was doing so well lately."
Valkyrie climbs out of her sleeping bag and moves towards him. "Let us not be hasty," she says in what she thinks is a cajoling voice, but Tony spies the knives on her body, and he freezes.
"Back off," he warns, holding the backpack in front of him like a shield.
She looks down and sees what's spooked him. "These aren't to hurt you," she explains. "They are to protect you."
"From what?" he asks. "What is so important about me that I apparently need three bodyguards and a trip to the North Pole to be safe? That I needed it when I was thirteen? Am I in the mafia? Am I in a witness protection program?"
"You have cue cards," Goldilocks says suddenly. "In your coat pocket. They'll explain it to you."
"That won't work if he's not wearing his coat right now," Snaketongue says. "How is he to know which coat belongs to him?"
Goldilocks gives Snaketongue a look of such venom that Tony becomes even more convinced there is nothing worth trusting about these people. They are lying to him, or attempting to lie to him. They are spinning stories that he can't verify, and there are bruises on his wrists like he's been held down — they're in the shape of fingertips.
"I'm leaving," he says. "Don't any of you follow me." He doesn't know what will make them obey, when they're clearly armed and he's not. But he says it anyway, spits it out in a hard voice. He reaches behind him blindly, keeping his eyes on the strangers if they should attack — his hand gropes for the coat that he saw, slung over a package of dried food. He takes the coat, and he takes the food. In his mind he's running over the things he's already stuffed into the bag before he was caught: matches, first aid kit, his sleeping bag.
"How are you to survive out there on your own?" Valkyrie asks. "If you don't remember your own name."
"I'm a smart guy," Tony says. "I'll figure it out. I'll take my chances. I have the feeling I've done it before."
Goldilocks makes to speak, but Valkyrie drags him in for another hushed conversation. "Remember what we discussed earlier," she says. "Remember what Tony asked us to do."
"I didn't like the idea then, and I don't like it now," Goldilocks hisses.
"He told us that when he gets bad enough, to let him go," she says, grabbing Goldilocks by the arm. "He will only worsen, and we waste time in stopping to cope with his lapses. If we travel without him, we reach Erlingr faster. We can come back for him when we are done. Such was his plan."
"He didn't know what he was saying!" Goldilocks yanks his arm from her. "He forgot about his plan the very next day. I brought it up in Asketill and he had no idea what I was talking about!"
"He was of right mind when he proposed it," she says. "He made you promise, Captain. His exact words: 'Promise me, even if I don't remember. Remember it for me.' Will you renege on your promise?"
The look on Goldilocks' face is pure and terrible, guts wrenched and worlds smashed. Tony doesn't know what they're playing at now, if it's genuine or if they're trying to trick him with an elaborate endgame. He'll be sorry if they mean it. If they do turn out to be friends, he'll apologize later. But for now, he's not taking his chances.
"I'm leaving," he says. "If you want to stop me, well, you're going to have to fight me."
"We shall give him everything he needs," Valkyrie continues, as if he hadn't spoken. "We are not far from a village. We will have Loki send a message to the village, and have the village keep an eye out for him. The weather is supposed to be fair for the next week — he should be able to make it."
Goldilocks grinds his teeth together.
"Are you going to fight him, like he says?" Valkyrie asks.
Tony tenses. Goldilocks is a big guy, but maybe, maybe — he runs through all the possible scenarios.
Goldilocks pins him with a desperate gaze, like if he stares long enough Tony will suddenly remember who he is. It must work like that in stories, but Tony's mind stays blank. He doesn't recognize him. Finally Goldilocks stands up, and he does it slowly, laboriously. "What do you need?" he asks Tony. "We'll give you everything we can spare."
Tony tells him warily. Goldilocks moves around the tent, throwing supplies together. He never comes close to Tony's orbit — he puts the requested supplies on a pile in the middle of the tent, a safe distance of armistice. "Do you think you'll be able to carry all of that?" he asks.
Tony eyes the pile.
"Take the sled then," Goldilocks says.
"Fantastic," Snaketongue says drolly. "We are the ones off to slay a monster, and he gets the luxury of not having to carry everything on his back." Goldilocks cuts him another glare. Snaketongue shrugs. "You really are spoiled, Stark, no matter what world you're in."
Tony has no idea who Stark is, so he ignores him.
Goldilocks puts a gun in the pile. "Take this too. You made it."
Tony approaches carefully, watching for signs of a ruse. Nothing happens — he slides the gun inside his coat pocket. He'll test it later to see if it really works. "Won't you need it?" he can't help but ask. "If you're going monster-killing, whatever that means."
Goldilocks looks away. "Killing the monster means nothing if we come back and you're not there."
He's very sincere, this one, or he's a very good actor. Tony (if that even is his name) isn't going to stay and find out. He puts all of the proffered supplies into the backpack, and then he lugs the backpack out of the tent, where there's a sled. He clears the sled and puts his own things on it. He wraps his hands around the sled reins. It's cold, he thinks. The very opposite of Afghanistan (and why is he thinking about Afghanistan? Is that where he's from?).
Goldilocks follows him out. "Tony," he says again, his voice thick with emotion. Tony can't bring himself to look at him, so he averts his gaze. The quicker he does this, the quicker he gets away, the clearer his head will be. The better to think. Goldilocks is beginning to make him doubt, and doubt ruins more lives than it saves. "Tony, we will come back for you," Goldilocks says. "Don't do anything stupid. Don't try to be a hero. Just find the village. You have the map. Find it and stay put, and when this is all over — wait for me."
Tony rolls up his coat sleeves and examines his bruises. "You made these, didn't you?" he says, and he knows this to be true.
"I'm not your enemy," Goldilocks says roughly.
Tony smiles dryly, sympathetically. "That's what we all like to believe," he replies. "Don't worry. You won't miss me at all when I'm gone." And then he takes the sled and starts pulling.
He hopes that leaving the tent behind will jog his memories, but it doesn't. Instead he takes the compass and the map that he's been given, and he starts walking southeast, because there's nowhere else to go. He can't be sure that the map isn't rigged, that it isn't just part of a ploy that will lead him to a deeper trap. But he doesn't have too many options when he can see nothing but snow and slate, and his coughs are the only sound for miles.
He second-guesses himself. As time passes and he trucks along, watching one moment blend into the next without any real differences, he questions his own logic. Did he make the right choice, leaving those people behind? They could have hurt him, but they didn't. They tried to help him, even. But what does that mean, really, when he can feel the bruises on his wrists and the sores on his feet. He's been traveling for a long time, because those aren't the kinds of sores you get from casual strolling.
What could they be doing in frozen wastelands, walking that much? Why don't they have a car?
There's only one reason he can think of: they don't want to be noticed. They're keeping a low profile, probably on the run. What makes Tony even more suspicious is that he doesn't have his cell phone on him, or any sort of communications device. Even on the run, Tony would never go without his cell phone. Either he's lost it (ha) or they've taken it away from him (more likely).
The chances of people who make you walk long distances in extreme temperatures, and strip you of your most beloved possessions — those aren't friends.
He doesn't trust the map entirely, and he hates that he's following it anyway. Even more than that, he hates the second-guessing. Those are the moments that creep into his head where he thinks, But Goldilocks looked actually distressed. Sure Goldilocks looked distressed. He's probably a failed theatre actor with an MFA the other guys have picked up, because they've done the research and they know Tony's type.
He walks. He walks until his feet scream in pain, and then he walks some more. When he arrives at the village on the map, there are already people to greet him, which sends up the alarms in his head. He turns around and decides to head another way, but two children run out into the fields and cut him off.
"The Lady Sif sent an air-message," a girl says, her head bobbing up and down. "We don't have much, but any friend of the Lady Sif and the Court of Odin is a friend of ours."
"I shouldn't stay," he says, but they're kids, and he can only imagine how warm those longhouses are with their big, burning fires, sealed inside windowless planks of wood. Atrocious fire hazard, of course, but warm.
He risks it. He keeps his gun close at hand, and he stays the night at the village, which is suspiciously overpopulated with children. He doesn't see too many adults around — most of them seem to be locked behind rooms, or sleeping off deep illnesses. The children are efficient, though, and have constructed their own economy in the adults' absence. Their leader, a girl of fifteen, sits him down and feeds him smoked fish and oat cakes.
He goes to sleep in a tangle of grubby children, all fighting for the fire. When he wakes up, he sees that someone has refilled his supplies — his water bottle is full to spilling, and he has a collapsible tent of raw leather hide tied onto his sled.
"Thank you," he tells the children, and he means it. They gather at the gates of the village and wave him off.
There's another town nearby, and the same thing happens. When he arrives, there are children who greet him in the name of the Lady Sif, whose message is apparently spreading faster than whatever mysterious illness seems to be occupying the adults. The children show him exceptional generosity, and in a town by the river he finally sits down with a freckled boy in armour, the self-appointed guardian of the village, and explains his situation. "I don't know who I am," he says, frustrated. "I don't know where I should be going. I keep on asking to see a police station, or find a phone booth, but there aren't any. What are you all, Amish?"
The boy blinks. "You don't know any of those things because you have the memory sickness, of course."
"Of course," he drawls.
"Well, do you deny it?"
"I guess I can't," he says. "Tell me more about this memory sickness."
The boy tells him. He writes it down on a little notepad that he tucks into his coat pocket, to remind him should he forget. Then the boy says, "As to where you should go, that's a harder question to answer." He speaks solemnly, with an age beyond his years. "You are not from here. You need to go home. The only way you can do that is from the capital."
"What's a Moscow?" the boy asks.
He makes another note on his writing pad: not in Russia, possibly Canada? what the fuck is this Asgard everyone keeps mentioning? He underlines the last part twice.
Even though the boy looks at him with utterly humiliating pity, he gives him clear directions to the capital. "The weather is good," he decides. "There may be draugar, however. You'll have to watch out for them."
"What are draugar?" Tony asks, but he gets an answer quickly enough when one of the younger children starts shuffling forward, imitating a ferocious scowl.
"Ah," he says. "Gotcha."
Goldilocks packed for him pretty well. There's all the supplies he needs in his bags, and any of the trivialities he wants, he can usually find them in the villages he passes through. But one of the majors tools he lacks, and begins yearning for, is something to tell the time. He doesn't have a watch, and the villagers don't use mobile timepieces, so as he follows the directions that will lead him to the capital, he loses track of time.
At first it's the loss of hours. The monotony of the landscape lures him into a state that feels like sleepwalking. Then it's the loss of half-days, when he will remember seeing the sun in the east and then the next thing he knows, it will be in the west.
Then he begins to forget the days.
He doesn't even notice when it happens, except that at one village he will see the villagers preparing for a solstice festival to take place in a few days' time. Then he'll set out for the next leg of his journey, crossing through a thatch of needled forest, and he thinks it only takes half a day, but when he arrives at the next village, the solstice festival will have already passed.
At first this unnerves him.
Then he stops caring.
That's the dangerous part. He can feel it creep on him, but he doesn't know how to stop it: the loss of time, the frustration, the complete and bone-deep exhaustion, which makes him lie in his sleeping bag in the mornings and want to never get up. He's tired, and even more than that, he's starting to feel like he'll never not be tired. The capital, once a reasonable goal, begins to seem an impossible feat of magic. He starts wondering if they're not all tricking him after all, and leading him deeper and deeper into nothing.
He knows when his breaking point is — the problem is, he pushes past it. Then he pushes past it again, even though his heart is beating erratically inside the fuel cell mechanism that he doesn't recognize. It keeps him alive, presumably, and he doesn't even remember how or why — you'd think you would remember what it was like to die.
His legs give out before his mind does. He's at a part of the map denoted with a single ambiguous symbol for 'landmark', and when he looks up, he sees a circle of stone statues towering over a small, roughly carved amphitheatre. The faces of the statues remain unmoved when he collapses in weariness at their feet.
He's sick. Not just in his memories, but in his throat and in his sinuses and in his forehead. With shaky hands, he sets up the tent and struggles into his sleeping bag. He should eat, but starting a fire and cooking seems desperately difficult, and he can't find any of his dried foods — did he drop them somewhere? Did a bandit steal them?
That night, he has a fever. His body shakes in sweat, and he groans into the too-hot touch of his own arm. He tosses and turns, trying to find a comfort that keeps on eluding him. He can't fall asleep, but he can't bear to stay awake either.
His arms windmill out, his nails scratching marks into the ground, and his fingers brush a flower growing out of the dirt from a hole in his tent. He grasps at it wildly and brings it up to his face to peer at it. His eyes feel unfocused, but the flower looks purple and black, and there are — count them — nine points. His fingers tremble over the nine petals. He crushes one of them, and the scent that fills the tent is sharp and acrid, reminding him of the lemon-fragrant floors of his childhood, after the maids came through and his mother would lift him onto her lap, admonishing him for ruining the wax on the floors.
The memory comes to him in the midst of the fever — but then it tumbles away, lost.
He doesn't get better.
The one thing he knows about himself (his ability to stay cool, to fake confidence he doesn't have), and he loses even that.
He begins to panic.
When he left the strangers in their tent, he was mostly optimistic. It's a globalized world, and even in the middle of nowhere he can't be too far from a radio station or a telecommunications signal. But now in the audience of statues, which are so old that the stone has begun to crumble, faces eroding and majesties lost — the world seems impossibly savage. The breathtaking beauty of the land has wiped away every last trace of civilization, until he doesn't remember what was the last village he saw, or if it wasn't a dream to begin with.
He dreams about villages. He dreams about a place he calls home, and those are the worst dreams, because they are dreams about nothing. He closes his eyes and he sees static. This is the only home his mind can conjure, and that's when he knows that his amnesia isn't just a temporary bump in the head. He's so fucking ill. He's never going to recover.
He's being erased. In the easy way you can erase data from a computer — he never thought you could erase humans like that, but you can. Backspace backspace backspace, he thinks, where his thoughts are being replaced by the brackets of white margins.
He feels feral, and frightened, and gone, gone, gone.
What he knows next is this: there are hands clawing at his tent, and they are not his own. There is a sound of a howl, and there are faces of dead kings, and there are four of them, all at once. Draugar, he thinks, and one of them strikes him across the face, sending him spiraling to the ground where his chin hits a rock, and he can taste his own blood filling his mouth.
It takes him too long to remember that he has a gun. But remember he does, and he counts out his bullets like prayer beads.
His aim is shaky, and the world becomes very messy. When all the draugar are dead, he finds a river to wash his hands, and when he returns to the circle of statues, he sees that more have come.
He shoots again.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
The machine inside his chest makes an angry sound. He spends much of an indeterminable afternoon trying to examine himself by hand-held mirror, using the end of a razor to prod the hollows of his heart.
But what's the point? He can't stop asking himself even as he slides the razor in deeper, to dangerous depths. He doesn't have the equipment to fix what's broken, and he doesn't have the technical knowledge either. He thinks in binary and machine code (01001010010000001001100010011), but it's just language, and his tongue is the only thing he has left that still works.
He falls back into the snowbanks. Nothing to do except—
He can't finish that thought.
One morning, he tries to pack up and make to the next village.
He gets about five yards, and then throws up the lunch he didn't have.
He finds the flower again, where he dropped it on the ground. There are only six petals now, but he can see the broken places where the other three used to be. He picks it up and tries to breathe it in, but the lemon scent is gone. All he smells is the stomachs of the draugar he last killed, still littered around the statues.
I look like a madman, he thinks. He can picture it: the sight of him, dirty and unshaven, sitting among corpses with a single flower clutched in his hand, the colour of plums — there's a good chance by tomorrow he won't even remember what plums are.
He misses the taste of fruit.
He dreams of blonds.
One day, there is a girl by the statues. She has dark hair, long enough to be tied back at her waist. She watches him silently, and he stares back. She's a ghost, he thinks, here in this temple of ghosts. Or she's a hallucination, which is like a ghost but worse, because ghosts only hurt his eyes. Hallucinations hurt his head. She doesn't move for the longest time, watching him the way a toymaker watches a recalcitrant toy.
Then she disappears, and in her place is a basket of food and a pouch of herbs.
He dreams of ships drowning in melted glaciers.
He tries to brute-force his memories. If pushed to the absolute limits, human bodies are capable of extraordinary feats. He takes what's left of his supplies and hides them in snowbanks. Then he sits in the middle of the ring of statues and stays there, sleeps there. When he wakes up, he reasons, he'll go hungry if he doesn't force himself to remember.
He lets that hunger drive him later on. Faint-headed and weak, he moves in the cold, searching for his food and matches. At first he recalls the rules of the game, but then he doesn't. When his searching is useless, he begins to think about predators, about spies, a thousand possibilities tumbling into his mind — then he thinks not of the past, because the past is closed to him, but of the future.
Someone's stealing from me, he thinks. I need to set up a trap for them.
His restless stomach churns, but it's empty, so he dry heaves onto the ancient stone.
He never does manage to get a trap working. When the girl returns the next day with a fresh basket, she doesn't understand why he's missing so much. "Where did your food go? Did you eat all of it?" she asks. When he tries to explain that someone must have come and stolen it, she shakes her head.
"There's no one here but you."
"There's something here," he insists. Her denial makes him furious. "Why aren't you listening to me? Look at all these signs, these footprints! You think I did this? Why would I try to screw myself over? There was someone else here."
"There is nothing," she says.
Later, when it happens again, and he's ruining the nubs of his nails digging through the ice, he realizes that she's right.
He designs people. He might have designed other things, once, or he might not have — but now he designs people. He draws them with unreliable hands onto his notepad, scores of people: tall, short, thin, fat, large eyes, small mouth, broad shoulders. Anything he can think of. He draws, over and over again in twitchy intensity: a man in a snappy three-piece suit, with a goatee and a pair of aviator shades. The man is always caught mid-motion, too volatile to pin down. His eyes are hidden.
His sketches never look quite right — capturing the details is two steps forward, and then backslide. He snaps the tip of his pencil in fury. When he calms down, he takes them and stares at the faces he's put down on paper, trying to crack his own code.
He's waiting for that one spark.
People, as it turns out, are difficult and uncooperative. He retaliates by breaking, in no particular order: his fishing rod, a bowl, and the straps of his backpack, with a vicious satisfaction that soon empties into the ever-present nausea of fear.
He begins designing machines instead.
He dreams of metal, and of flight.
One time, the girl approaches close enough to touch. He scrambles away from her, flinching at the feel of her palm on his forehead. She still says nothing. He is out of bullets. He won't survive another draugar attack. She places an object in his hand, flat and sharp, and tries to show him how to use it.
Whatever the object is, she seems satisfied by how quickly he learns, because soon enough she's packing up and leaving him alone. He thinks about chasing after her and begging her to stay, but then he thinks about how she might push him aside — humiliation sears into his lungs, and he's paralyzed by indecision. I'll remember what she taught me for next time, he thinks, hoping to impress her.
Whatever it was she gave him, whatever it was she taught him — he loses it in the snow. His palms turn up empty, and he has the ferocious feeling of irreparable loss. He falls to his hands and knees.
He tears his tent apart, his sleeping bag, his backpack. He starts tossing meaningless junk, trying to get to the precious gift within. He cuts his hands on pieces of flint, burns his fingers on fumbled matches. Then rage overtakes him, the cleanest of all the emotions. He starts ripping everything apart. It's all junk, it's all worthless, it's pieces and fragments of things that belonged to another person, a person who isn't him.
— and he loathes that word because it's come to mean nothing. There's no him. There's no self when there isn't any thread bridging one moment to the next.
— and he thinks, I could have been anything I wanted.
— and he thinks, All I want is to be him again. Whoever he was, whoever he thought he was, all the spaces and constructs and longing for his own imagined splendor. He wants to know if he ever went to school, if his parents ever let him crawl into their bed when he had a nightmare, if he ever walked through the rain without an umbrella, if he ever got a speeding ticket, if he ever burned the roof of his mouth on the sear of hot coffee, if he ever wrote a poem, if he ever woke up in the morning with somebody that he loved.
— and the anger stops being clean. It turns muddy, dirty. He falls into a frenzy, kicking baskets and smashing tents, the destroyer of worlds. He has a body, for what good it does him. Let his body do what his body is best at, which is to unmake.
He'll raze this place to the ground if he has to.
He wants to.
The girl says, "They found a cure, you know."
"For what?" he asks.
He is sitting with his back against one of the statues, in the shredded remains of his own ruins. He feels desperate for sunlight, his skin too dry and thick over his weak bones. He twists towards the sky every which way, while his parched mouth sips from the inch of water left in his bottle, the bottle that the girl refills for him. She isn't here. He has learned that she is from a local village, and that she comes to help him every day because she bears great affection for the Lady Sif. He wonders who the Lady Sif is, and why she should take an interest in him.
He hopes the girl doesn't return. If she does, she will fix his tent, and replenish his water, and rekindle his fire — a tenderness that confuses him.
The sunlight glitters strangely. A shadow moves across the sky. He straightens, his back protesting, in time to see a raven flying across the plains. The raven is fat and black, and with every beat of its wings, he can see the shadows of the statues warp and morph.
The raven passes directly overhead, flying westward. Wait! he wants to scream, if he had any voice left, if the fever hadn't wiped it out of him, leaving only empty throats and phantom pains. He finally manages to make his vocal cords work, but the raven doesn't stop. He stands, ready to stumble after it, chasing the last living thing to the ends of Ragnarok — and then the sunlight glitters strangely again.
There's a shift of a second motion, an object falling from the raven's claws and into his outstretched hands.
A red stone, smooth as mirrors.
He swallows it, gagging, and maybe it's just his delirium — but he swears he can taste honey.
Which leads to this, with the pressure against his ribs and the remains of the nine-pointed flower on his fingertip. He watches it bloom in dry-eyed trance, opening itself up in a way that he can't imagine existing anywhere else — nothing so delicate and so beautiful could ever survive, except here in the snow. He can taste the residue of the honey-stone in his mouth and in his throat. He's giving it time to digest. He might have eaten it an hour ago, or days. He hopes it isn't years.
A movement on the plains. The girl, he thinks, standing up to greet her. But it's not the girl from the village with her compassionate offerings and her raspy voice. It's a man in a plain brown coat, with blond hair like golden Roman coins.
He feels like he should remember him. His brain tugs at the sight of the approaching stranger. He might have seen him in a drawing. He licks at the honey inside his mouth, trying to remember. He does this every day, try and try and try — and then the stranger is in front of him, tall and blond and gorgeous, looking at Tony with a million languages composed in the shifting moods of his face. He smiles, and then he frowns, and then he takes a step back, like he's afraid of what Tony will do.
"I came yesterday, but you threatened me with a knife," the stranger says.
"I did?" Tony says. He does have a knife. He found it buried in the snow the other day — strange place for a knife to be. But he doesn't remember the stranger's visit, or any incidents with knives. "Did you deserve it?"
"I was trying to get you to come home," the stranger says. "You saw Muninn, didn't you? A few days ago. You swallowed the blood-cure."
Blood-cure? But it doesn't taste like blood, he wants to say.
"Maybe it's just taking a long time with you," the stranger continues. "You always did have to be the most pigheaded person possible."
Tony's been carrying so much fear in him, it's become an armour. It's gelled into his skin and bones, into the framework in which he understands his own closed-off schematics. But when this man speaks, the honey taste deepens and begins to spread. Inside his stomach, he can sense the warmth of the stone as it melts back into life-blood. His arc reactor feels heavy and full, nestled in a bed of heat. He takes a shaky breath, and then, abruptly, he smiles.
It's the first smile he can remember. It's the first smile of his entire life.
"You have dried blood on your coat," he points out. The stranger looks down.
"Fenrisúlfr. I haven't had time to wash it out."
Tony thinks, then, of three things: of a city full of lights and sound, of a kiss in the dark, and of how he feels right now, standing here in the sunlight while a man returning from battle looks at him like he's the key that will open all the locked boxes. Tony dares to advance forward, and the snow melts step by step, until the warmth goes from his stomach to his heart to his throat — and then to his head, where he feels dizzy and drunk, caught between too many experiences flooding in at the same time.
He reaches for the man, who seems hopelessly stiff at first, guarded against despair, but then he wraps his arms around Tony. He breathes out against Tony's neck, and it's the sound of walls falling, empires collapsing. Tony spreads his fingers over the smears of dried blood, and then he kisses him, their mouths pressed together, tasting of winter and memory and the answer to all the questions Tony has been asking, the answer to which is yes.
"Steve," he says.