"First hand, Mr. Stark," Pepper ranted in his ear. "If you can take me along on your adventures, you can take me to war so I can do some proper reporting!"
"Miss Potts, while I wouldn't dare question your resolve," Tony said, grunting as he had to bank hard to the right. "I do question your timing. We are a bit busy."
He flew straight at the fighter plane, hearing the clang of bullets bouncing off the armor. He was very glad they had thoroughly tested the new armor to make sure bullet holes wouldn't be a problem. The new suit was working fine, the smaller size only adding to his agility in the air. He shot a missile, inwardly cursing as the Hydra plane went up at a rate that had to be hell on the pilot. It also meant the plane was now out of his line of sight.
"Busy enough that you can hold a competition and place bets with Rhodes over who wins this dog fight?"
"She's got a point there, sir," Rhodey said, and Tony could hear the traitor grinning. "Also, that's five for me. You're falling behind, Mr. Stark."
Tony cursed again, trying to maneuver into a place where he could find that plane he lost. He found another one, if not the same, and he flew into its blind spot. It was a terrific amount of G's to get there, but Tony resisted blacking out from the blood rushing to his head. He shot out the engine of the plane and tried to focus back on the conversation without sounding breathless. "Four. And the underdog will triumph with a flash-bang ending."
"Less chatter, more finding out what the damned Krauts want. Keep an eye out for this 'Madame Hydra' we keep hearing about," Fury growled over the comms.
"Talk to Jarvis, Miss Potts," Tony said, completely ignoring the general's order. "He's the one you must convince, not me. I'd have let you have a suit weeks ago."
"He said 'Women aren't fit for war,'" Pepper mimicked in a pretty fine impersonation of Jarvis's throaty bellow. "You talk with-"
Tony cried out as something hit him square in the back, hard enough to throw him off balance. Damn it all to hell, there was his missing plane.
"Tony!" Two voices called out. He was vaguely aware of a third yelling "Stark!" but he never paid Fury much attention anyway. Tony twisted the suit as much as possible, trying to get a visual on the bastard. That was a trick the Germans couldn't do. Tony smirked as he let loose a missile aimed right at the cockpit. He had the satisfaction of watching it blow up before the velocity of his movement caught up with him and he blacked out, falling from the sky.
* * *
Tony took his first waking moment to sit there and breathe, because that hurt like the dickens. His chest hurt like it hadn't since before the War. That was bad. So was the aching in his ribs and the intense pain in his left leg, but his chest was currently the most worrisome.
He groaned as he opened his eyes. It was completely dark, of course. It's not like visual acuity would come in handy when his heart wasn't beating properly or when Tony would have felt a little better for the light. Still, Tony was used to the universe conspiring against him. There was a flashlight in the survival kit Jarvis had insisted on building into the suit, and Tony was ridiculously glad he had, just that once, listened to the old man's suggestion.
But first he had to actually get out of the suit.
It was painful to roll the suit over, but thankfully his arms weren't hurt. The suit was damned heavy though, and Tony made a slightly hysterical note to do more weight-lifting when he got home. When the War was over.
Lying on his back now, Tony spared a brief thought for home as his head swam and he failed to catch his breath. It was almost a dream now, a mythical place spoken of reverently in hushed whispers along with soft prayers of 'when the War is over.' Tony had never been that attached to New York, spending much of his time traveling, but the War was long in ways no adventure could ever be. What he wouldn't give for the smell of fresh coffee and the chair down in his workshop, surrounded by the smell of gunmetal. The only thing he'd have to worry about would be his next invention...
The pain in his chest reminded him he didn't have time to wallow in nostalgia. He allowed himself one last shallow breath as he chided himself for that terrible vice, then he raised his hands, searching for the hidden catches that would trigger the emergency release. Rhodey had insisted on that one, and Tony hadn't even put up a token protest. The last thing he needed was the suit to become a coffin.
Ow again. But at least this time the suit opened up and Tony was able to wiggle free of it. The exertion left him gasping for breath and the intense pain in his chest doubled. He really needed to fix that.
As quickly as he could, Tony ran his fingers over the inner edge of the suit. He found the catch and various items came tumbling out. He searched until he found a long cylinder. "And let there be light," he said, his voice rough as he turned on the flashlight.
Once he could see, the problem was clear. If he had the breath he had just wasted on being dramatic, Tony would have cursed. He grabbed a few more tools now that he could see them and carefully reconnected the orichalcum with shaking hands. Then he grabbed the extra flashlight battery, shucking the casing as quickly as he could. He closed his eyes and didn't bother to attempt a deep breath, connecting the charge.
Tony woke up a second time with intense pain in his chest, but at least this time he could breathe. Electrocuting himself was terrific fun up till the screaming started. "Jarvis won't be happy about that," Tony muttered hoarsely, grateful that this time he had a light to wake up to. He couldn't have been out that long if the battery still worked, but he didn't want to think about what he'd do when that one ran out considering he'd just killed the extra. Thankfully the orichalcum only needed a very small charge. The lingering pain was probably more from over-charging than from the burns.
He was sorely tempted to just lie there in the dark cave. Getting up meant finding a way out. Finding away out meant going back to the War and Hydra. He'd been fighting for so long that the thought of just waiting, resting, was almost enough to keep him there on the cold ground. But the others would worry and he knew far too well how wasted time cost lives.
"Well," Tony said to himself as he gingerly sat up. He ignored the aches of his body and the soul deep exhaustion, shaking his head to clear it. "What Jarvis doesn't know, he can't be angry about."
The pain in his chest receded to a stinging burn, which was promising. Now all he had to worry about was a sprained ankle and a few aching ribs. Without the pain of his heart running out of power, he would venture to guess his ribs were just bruised, maybe fractured.
Tony brought up the flashlight to check over the suit with a critical eye. "Not bad for the beating she took," he said, checking for any major fractures. He pulled out the rest of the survival kit, strapping on the guns and spare clips. Jarvis was certainly prepared for going down in enemy territory. "Looks like the suit is better built than me to withstand that. Hm... More buffering in the next version. Damn, that'll throw off the weight for the rockets and still doesn't solve the air pressure problem..."
As he worked through the math, Tony debated the pros and cons of putting the suit back on. It would put a strain on the pump, and he had been working towards being less reckless lately. Tony raised the flashlight to look around and whistled softly. "Well, well, well. What do we have here?"
He slowly shone the light around the cavern after locking down the suit, fascinated by the detail on the wall. It was a mural of bright colors and fantastical creatures. Taking care of his bad leg, he limped over to the nearest one, running his hand over the smoothed stone. "Dragons, huh? I'll be. Or should I say, by George?" It had to be what Hydra was after. He directed the light to the ceiling to check if he could expect company, then bit his lip. Those were a lot of rocks that he was surprised hadn't fallen on top of him. "Not getting out that way. Then let's see what we have here?"
The mural itself was carved in the stone, the color painted on the sinuous mineral curves. The dragons in the picture were fighting men, and Tony traced a painted spear thoughtfully. The armor the men wore looked like it couldn't be too far from when humans stopped hanging out in the trees. That didn't make the weapons any less deadly, however. Tony always had a healthy respect for weapons made by people who killed to survive every day, and they appeared to be working exceedingly well against creatures twice the size of humans.
Tony moved on to the next mural, the bright red of the dragon's blood a contrast against the emerald green of the scales. He gave a passing thought for what kind of paints must be used to get that sort of color, but most of his attention was on the dragon's final moments. It repulsed him a little, though he couldn't say why. Dragons were always the monsters in fairy tales, but now, looking at the dragon with its head raised off the ground and the mortal wound in its side, Tony couldn't help but wonder if it were otherwise.
The next wall showed dragons of all different colors flying to a great opening - a cavern? - with the last dragon flying up to the sun one last time before heading down.
After that, Tony felt like he was reading a Jules Verne novel. If that was a cave, then the next mural showed a paradise under the earth, lush and green. Tony snorted at the thought. He didn't know what was under the earth, but he was pretty darn sure it wasn't utopia. He'd gotten his hopes up at the first two pictures, but now he knew it was just a farce. Whatever Hydra thought was down here, it had to be a dead end.
The murals went on, showing the dragons building cities and warring against each other, but Tony lost interest quickly in favor of conserving his light source and finding a way out. He stayed close to the wall, since the lack of walking sticks made it difficult to move on his bad leg. He felt like he was going further down, but he couldn't get out the way he came in. And maybe...
He turned off the flashlight, grinning to himself. He hadn't been going down, and that was a light up ahead.
He limped the rest of the way, the light getting brighter as he went. It was also getting hotter, but not unbearably so. There was a break in the murals, and Tony slowed to a halt in front of what looked like a gate where the light was coming from. He drew his gun, ready to shoot if there were any Hydra goons on the other side.
There were sounds, but not those of soldiers' boots. They sounded like birds and other bugs, things he might expect in a jungle or a forest. Carefully, he peered out around the gate.
Jarvis had all kinds of rules when Tony was growing up. With his mother taken by consumption when he was a child, Jarvis raised him after his father.... Well, Jarvis had a lot of rules. One of them was never drop a gun. When loaded, it's dangerous. When empty, it was still potentially useful to the enemy, or could be used as a blunt object. That was the rule, simple and concise, and Tony saw it as pretty decent common sense. It was one rule he always followed.
What he saw on the other side of that wall nearly caused him to drop the gun, even with Jarvis's remembered voice screaming at him about it in his ear. It was only reflex that stopped him.
On the other side of the wall was Milton's lost paradise. Putting the gun away, Tony rested a hand on the wall, staring at the lush jungle. He doubted even Rhodey would recognize half of the flora Tony saw, and they were all most certainly beyond him. Was this where the heat came from?
He took a halting step forward, looking around in wonder. There was a city in the distance, which could be what Hydra was after. The thought made his blood run cold despite the heat of the jungle. For him to have fallen down here, Hydra couldn't have been too far from finding it before the cave in. The thought of Hydra with their tanks and guns down here, destroying everything in sight that wasn't a weapon... It was all too easy to picture.
He picked up a walking stick on the ground near one of the big canopy trees, trying to make out more of the city as he tested it. What wonders could be in such a city? Or indeed, if Hydra was interested in it, what weapons? There were things flying over it that weren't quite birds. Big things. No, it couldn't be-
Tony only had a moment when something caught his eye coming from the sky. Instinct took over, and he rolled to the ground even before he figured out the danger. Something that wasn't quite metal clanged against the stone he’d just been standing on. Ignoring the pain in his ankle, Tony forced himself to run without babying it. He drew one of his guns, pivoting as he fired.
There was a loud roar of pain, and Tony saw...
'By George' was right.
Tony didn't allow himself time to marvel at the fact he'd just shot a dragon. He dodged the claws, wincing in pain at his ribs. Why was everything always trying to kill him? He was charming, good in bed, and had more than enough money to make friends with everyone, yet he always managed to find enemies wherever he went.
He fired again, but the shot went wide and the nearest tree was too far off for any proper cover. The dragon was blocking the tree he'd gotten his walking stick from. Clever bastard. He only just managed to duck behind a rock as fire spewed from the dragon's mouth.
He started to sweat as the air heated, but he held steady. All he had to do was wait for the dragon to take a breath, then he could-
The fire stopped as Tony winced in pain. Who ever just spoke was loud. But his ears weren't ringing, even if it felt like they should be.
"There's an army out there," a male voice said, strong and clear. A commander if Tony had ever heard one. "He's human. You know what the last one did!"
Tony got a feeling. Flashes of color - red, white, blue - art, and a glowing light spoken of only in legends. The feeling of calm after the rain and the stubborn of a rock that refused to move. Strangest of all, that brief mix of feeling felt like a name.
"He's on the mural," the first voice said, female, just as commanding as the male. "This is foretold. He is needed."
"He's human." Tony felt the anger in the voice, the betrayal. "He was thinking of an army razing the city to the ground!"
Keeping his gun steady, Tony peeked out from behind his rock. There were no humans there, but two dragons. The first, the one that attacked him, was dark blue with two horns on its head and a long, spiked neck. Two giant wings spanned out behind it, obviously agitated and the dragon had a truly frightening set of claws that Tony didn't want to meet personally. In the center of its chest was a silver star made of some sort of stone ornament.
The second dragon was deep red. It didn't have horns and instead had a rose-pattern ornament, but otherwise looked the same. A little smaller, perhaps, and without a bleeding shoulder, but Tony didn't fancy fighting two of them without his armor. He could maybe take out one of them now, while they were-
The red dragon turned to glare at him, sharp brown eyes holding a surprising amount of fire as she looked him straight in the eye. "Oh, for pity's sake. Men. Do you ever stop to think to talk to strangers first, rather than attacking them?"
Funniest thing was that the dragon's mouth wasn't moving, but it felt like she was definitely the one talking. "No offense, Ma'am," Tony said, thinking it didn't hurt to be polite. "But the last dragon I fought with wasn't so friendly. And this one did attack me first." Not that Fing Fang Foom had been much of an actual dragon, but it was still a legitimate concern.
"The last 'dragon' you fought was a human who was dressed like a lizard and sensationalized in your stories," she said, then turned to the blue dragon leaving Tony baffled as to how she knew that. "And you-" That name-feeling from before was repeated again. "Attacking first when he's already wounded! What good does killing him do?"
The blue dragon flattened closer to the ground, folding his wings against his back in a posture that looked like shame. "He was thinking of armies! And others that would follow him down to see the city!" the male voice said, apparently coming from the blue dragon. "You know what happened the last time we let a human in. He killed-" another name-feeling: Green, Gray and Brown. Curiosity and wonder as wide and big as the cavern sky. The scent of wind on a summer day, and the tang of sweet spices and minerals from the earth's secret places. Deep magic that was as malleable as a branch in the wind.. "-and..."
There was a half-cut-off feeling. Tony only got a sense of a deep relationship. The red dragon's posture softened, her wings fanning out to touch the blue dragon. "This one seems reasonable."
"So did the other one," the blue dragon said, a light growl beneath his words.
"Doesn't matter," a third voice said, deep and warm. Tony was startled to find a third dragon joining them. This one was brown, with horns, and some kind of bird's crest on his chest. When had he snuck up?
The brown dragon looked at him, and Tony had the impression the dragon was amused. Amused and listening to Tony's thoughts, which would probably explain how they spoke without talking. Small wonder the red one had known about Fing Fang Foom. It unnerved him, to know they could hear what he thought, and he took a step back, only belatedly remembering his bad foot. He winced, then tried to cover it.
The brown dragon turned back to the blue one in what was definitely a shrug. Another name feeling: scarlet, magenta, fuchsia. Both the sunrise and sunset. Chaos of an oncoming storm, but the calm and quiet of the silent woods. Dark and mysterious, deep magic. "-said if he is killed, it will disrupt the magic. She saw the mural as it was carved and had a premonition flash. He's important, whoever he is."
That didn't sound ominous at all. Still, the ancient prophecy was working in Tony's favor for once. That almost never happened. It was nice to have it saving him, rather than condemning him to death. Heard one, heard them all...
The blue dragon didn't look his way, ignoring Tony all together. "Come on, man," the brown dragon said. "Let's leave the human to-" Bright red and navy blue, passion and flame, dancing and music. The rose that blooms in adversity and the immutable constant of the sea. "-and get that wound seen to."
The strangest thing was that Tony could feel the blue dragon wavering. He didn't like this mind-reading business. It felt too open. Too vulnerable. But if it meant anything... "For what it's worth, I'm trying to stop the army that has been looking for this place," Tony said, wincing as he tried to take a deep breath and remember his ribs.
"You are wounded as well," the red dragon said.
Tony waved it off. "There was a firefight in-" Tony looked at the sky to get his bearings by the position of the sun, but he was startled to realize there was no sun. There was no sky. Only an extremely large cavern that must span for miles. "How-"
"You're underground, human," the brown dragon said, amusement once again lacing his voice. "The stones and moss light our sky, and magic darkens it."
"Magic..." Tony didn't know if he should scoff or be amazed. 'Magic,' in his experience, tended to be science that idiots didn't understand. But he was currently under the earth and talking to telepathic dragons, so he wasn't discounting anything right now no matter how skeptical it made him. He did want a closer look at those stones and the moss though. That was on his to-do list. That, and getting back to the others, because the long War was still on-going, and they needed to keep Hydra from finding this place.
That thought sobered him, killing his curiosity. As much as he'd like to explore, he wasn't an adventurer any more. And the War was so long...
Name-feeling: crimson, white, onyx. Soaring through the sky and flexible as branches in the wind, but sturdy as the deeply grounded roots. Healing and a gentle stream under the flickering light from under the trees. "-take-" Blue dragon name-feeling, Good God, he needed proper names for them all. "-to the city. I'll take care of the human."
The blue dragon looked about to argue, but was quelled by a strong sense of disapproval from the red one. His head hung low, and Tony was reminded of a kicked puppy. Despite the fact that the dragon had attacked him, Tony felt a bit of sympathy for being on the wrong end of that stare.
"I'm... sorry," the blue dragon said, looking at Tony finally. Then he launched himself into the sky in a way that must have hurt his shoulder where Tony had shot him.
Tony got a sense of a shrug and exasperation from the brown dragon. "I'll look after him," the brown dragon said before flying off as well.
Tony took a moment to admire the dragon's aerodynamics. They were elegant creatures in flight, but he had a feeling the brown dragon excelled at it. And the fact he knew that felt both strange and intrusive.
"The mind bond bothers you," the red dragon said.
"It's... very invasive," Tony said thoughtfully. "Like I know things I shouldn't, or that you know things that should be secret."
"You are very guarded for a human," the red dragon said. "I can only read your surface thoughts, but nothing below them. One would think you're hiding something."
"Or that I value privacy," Tony said, but he was honestly a little relieved. At least they couldn't comb through his life.
"The last human to come through was also like you - guarded. You'll have to forgive-" dragon name, the blue one "-for his rashness. He lost a mentor and a dear friend because of that human."
Tony shrugged. He knew about revenge and grief well enough to know it doesn't always make one rational. "I'm willing to make amends with old blue if... Say, you don't happen to have actual names, do you?"
He got the impression the red dragon was laughing at him. Though there was no sound, he could hear a musical chime that belonged to the dragon's mental voice. "We do not have names as you know them. We call each other by the reflections of our souls. Is it difficult for you, human, not to have names?"
"Only if there's more than one of you of the same color," Tony replied.
"The other human gave us names as well, but I think this time I would like to choose. May I?" the red dragon asked.
"May you what?" Tony asked, baffled by her seeking permission to name herself. She quite frankly didn't seem like the type.
"Take a look inside your mind for human names?"
He felt the red dragon's mind brushing up against his and shivered. It felt like a hand was brushing over the heart pump, too close and too terrifying. "How about I think of different names and you choose from those?" he asked, taking another step back despite his foot, feeling unsettled.
"Very well, guarded-one," the red dragon said, and Tony held back a relieved sigh as the pressure in his mind faded. He started to think of names, listening to the dragon's mental voice to see which ones she liked.
"You know many female names," the red dragon said slyly.
"I have a very fine appreciation of the fairer sex," Tony said. "They tend to have a lot more sense than we do."
The dragon's eyes were disapproving, but he could feel the amusement rolling off of her. "You're a scoundrel, that's what you are," she said, bowing her head and touching his cheek with a careful claw. Tony tensed, but relaxed when he realized it was a light touch. "But you may call me Peggy."
"Tony Stark," he said. Her head was low enough that he hesitantly returned the bow and touch. The dragon's scales were softer than he thought they would be, and Peggy gave a pleased chirp. Then he took her front claw that was still touching his cheek and kissed the back of it, smiling up at her rakishly. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Again, he got a disapproving look, but followed with a sense of amusement. Good to know his charm worked on other species. "Definitely a scoundrel. Now, you are also wounded, so let's get you to the healers."
"Healers?" Tony asked skeptically as he looked around for another walking stick since he'd lost his other one in the fight. Either she meant a doctor and Tony already knew time was the best healer for his particular injuries, or herbs that were generally more of a placebo than anything. Rhodey was great with herbs, but Tony was much more skeptical of eastern medicine that practiced that sort of thing.
Peggy's nostrils went round in what Tony assumed was draconic body language for smiling. She moved a little ways off, then returned to Tony with a sturdy looking-branch. He took it gratefully. "You will not believe me, I see," Peggy said. "I'll just have to take you so you can understand for yourself."
She crouched down low to the ground, fanning her wings out. "Come on, up you get."
"Ma'am?" Tony asked, limping closer with the help of the make-shift cane. "Even I usually wine and dine a girl before riding-"
Tony yelped as Peggy's long tail thwapped the ground next to him, sharp spikes on the end gleaming in the light. "Too crude?" he asked once he found his dignity again.
"Hurry up or I might decide you're too heavy half-way there."
"Yes, Ma'am," Tony said, hiding a smile as he slowly walked around her wings. He hesitated when he got to her neck, wondering how to do this. There were spikes up to the joints in her shoulder blades that he could hold on to, but nothing after that. It wouldn't be comfortable either. He'd been bare-backing before and it usually never ended well for his rear end. He had a nice rear end, but he refused to go without preparation in general.
"More than I needed to know about your sexual preferences, Tony," Peggy said mildly.
"Now who's being crude?" Though he figured he deserved that one. He hid the thoughts of his innuendos as quickly as he could, because with the telepathic link he wasn't sure how much got through. His other affairs were...
"Love is love," Peggy said, curling her tail about Tony's feet comfortingly as she proved he hadn't hidden his thoughts quickly enough. "Do humans not agree?"
"Depends on how it's done," Tony said, though the tension in his shoulders eased at the lack of condemnation. Very few people knew about his dalliances with men. It wasn't respectable for an adventurer, though given his money and position in society, it was tolerated. That didn't mean it was easy.
"I begin to understand why you are so guarded, Tony Stark," Peggy said. "Come. Let us go to the healers."
"I'd hate to say no to a lady," he said. Her tail tightened briefly before letting him go, and Tony eyed her back warily. Then with a sigh he slid the walking stick through the suit harness straps on his back and swung his bad leg over. Once sitting, he tried to find a semi-comfortable position between two of her spikes.
"Hold on tight and try not to impale yourself," Peggy said.
"What do you-"
She took off in the air without further warning, her powerful legs springing her upward and her wings taking care of the lift. Tony clutched at the spike in front of him as his stomach dropped out.
He would be angry, but he probably deserved that one too. He would not give her the satisfaction of yelling though. Or, at least, he tried not to yelp.
Once they evened out, Tony relaxed and leaned against the back spike. Peggy's powerful wings kept them aloft, and he could appreciate any kind of flying, even if it wasn't in the suit. He started to laugh, leaning forward to see the jungle. Then he closed his eyes to enjoy the breeze. He could feel how pleased Peggy was at his reaction.
"You enjoy flying?" she asked.
"It's different like this," Tony said, opening his eyes to get a better look. In a plane or in the suit, Tony was only exceeded by Rhodey as a pilot, but this was a level of its own. He could feel the wind running past him and if there had been clouds, he'd have been able to touch them. It was freeing in a way he hadn't felt since before the War.
There was nothing he liked better than flying.
"Think of male names," Peggy said, her voice in his mind. It was easy to hear over the wind, if he was really hearing at all.
"Why?" Tony asked, knowing his voice was definitely lost, but figuring she would hear it anyway.
"I wish to name the others," she said, and he could sense a mischievous glint to her thoughts.
"Who am I to deny a lady?" He compiled a mental list. He may not date as many men, but he remembered enough and he had a knack for faces and names.
"We're entering the city, if you'd like to look. We're landing soon," Peggy said, and he grabbed hold of her spike. As much as he didn't want the flight to end, the city was fascinating. Dragons flew across the city sky, darting between buildings or flying lazily in circles. There were rounded towers that held stones aloft at their peaks that made Tony burn with curiosity. He wanted dearly to study the gravitational device used. There were other buildings too, with long chimneys and wide balconies, decorated with myriads of colors and ornamental patterns that reminded Tony of the east. Did dragons use similar ways to make pigments or did they have other ways to make the vivid colors? They had to, for them to still be so bold when he wasn't given the impression that they were newly painted. Or maybe it was the fact it was underground, lacking in the elements that darken and erode human colors.
He barely felt the landing, mind whirling with questions. "How many of there are you here?"
"About a hundred in this clan. I originally came from a much larger clan of three hundred," Peggy replied, bowing down so that Tony could dismount. "You are curious."
"There's so many things I could learn if I could apply this to-" Tony cut his curiosity short. As much as he would love to understand, there was a war going on. A war that threatened the very existence of this place. The gravitational effect might be useful, but the rest...
Peggy lowered her eyelids in an expression that felt like a frown. She didn't say anything, however, leading him into the building. He was grateful for the walking stick now, as dragon buildings were huge and probably required a lot of walking.
It was almost unbearably hot when they went inside. He saw why when they got further in - open pits of molten earth acting like Roman pools. He stayed away from those, and Peggy's wing automatically came up to block him from the worst of the heat. "We don't like the cold," she said by way of explanation.
Tony nodded, wiping away the sweat from his brow. Under her wings, it was only as bad as a desert, and he'd been in plenty of deserts before. There was another dragon sitting on a dais, a deeper red than Peggy and also lacking horns. Did the horns denote sex? This dragon was also lacking a crest that he'd seen on the others.
"This is-" Scarlet, magenta, fuchsia. Both the sunrise and sunset. Chaos of an oncoming storm, but the calm and quiet of the silent woods. Dark and mysterious, deep magic. "-one of our strongest magicians. You may call her Wanda," Peggy said. "Wanda, this is the human who was at the south wall, Tony Stark."
"Human names?" the dragon - Wanda - said, proving she was definitely female. "How quaint."
"You are the one I owe my timely saving to, I assume? Thanks for that," Tony said, with a loose salute. "Though I don't believe in-"
"It does not matter if you believe in magic," Wanda said, though there was no anger about her. "It is around you in great quantities. I can see the chaos magic shifting and pulling at everything you touch. You will cause great disruption of the balance."
"I'm sorry?" Tony said, not sure if he was apologizing for being a disruption or not following her meaning.
"You are guarded," Wanda said, standing and coming closer. She lowered her head until she was staring directly into Tony's eyes. They were a dark brown that made Tony think of the stars, though he doubted she had ever seen them, living down here. "There will be a time when those walls will harm you. If you wish to survive, you must break them down."
"I'll keep that in mind," Tony said politely, wondering if he was required to do the cheek greeting he had done with Peggy.
"You won't," Wanda said, this time with underlining amusement, not mystery. "But remember those words, Tony Stark, when you need to be found. You are taking him to the healers?"
Abruptly, she turned to Peggy and Tony couldn't help but feel relieved. There was something unnerving about Wanda, and the way she looked at him made his skin itch. She had a presence about her that Tony could only describe as raw power. She seemed kind though, even if a little nutty.
"I am," Peggy said, though her head was cocked to the side. "I thought you said he wasn't dangerous?"
"Not to us, not directly. But the chaos clings to him. He is a nexus of what must come," Wanda said, moving carefully away. Her tail swished after her as she walked. "I must consult the mural again."
Peggy pulled Tony closer with her tail as Wanda went to the balcony and took off, shielding him from the gust of hot air.
"What was that about?" Tony asked as he peered around Peggy's wing.
Peggy's tongue flicked out, hissing softly. "I'm not sure. It doesn't appear to be good, whatever it is. Wanda has always been a bit... eccentric, but her warnings are wise. This worries me."
"You're not going to think the blue guy was right to kill me now, are you?" Tony asked.
"Well, you are guarded," Peggy replied playfully, some of her unease dispersing in the banter. "But Steve can sometimes be stubborn. He'll come around. Just let him sulk for a little while."
"Steve, huh?" Tony hid a smirk at the thought of sulking dragons. He didn't think 'Steve' would appreciate the name either.
"And the other dragon you met is Sam," Peggy said with an air of finality as she led him down the stairs.
They were hard for Tony to get down, but not bad enough that he had to actually climb them and the walking stick helped. "Do all dragon buildings have stairs?" he asked, wondering why dragons might need them at all.
"Only usually to the healers," she replied, taking the steps easily. "Or if the old or wounded have problems flying."
"Thoughtful," Tony said, letting them fall into a companionable silence as he limped down. Thoughtful, but damned inconvenient in this case. These stairs simply weren't meant for humans, especially not one with bruised ribs to make breathing difficult. He was, he supposed, not their usual wounded.
The healer's room was a large, open space with several stone daises. A hornless, light blue dragon and a phoenix chest plate came up to them, calling the dragon name-feeling. Tony translated it to 'Peggy' after a moment's thought.
"You're back! Is that the human everyone is talking about?" the dragon asked, her voice young.
"Yes," Peggy said, twining her neck around the smaller dragon. They both closed their eyes, rubbing cheek to cheek as Tony watched curiously. Were all dragons this tactile? "This is Tony Stark," Peggy continued, moving away, but still within wing distance, and her wing spanned over the smaller dragon's. "And this is-" Discipline and dedication. Light blue and dark brown. A warrior's spirit burning bright as a bon fire on a winter's night. Golden yellow rose, just blossoming, and a deep, running river with water like ice. "Sharon. She is my younger sister. Are you on duty at the moment?"
"First aid practice," Sharon said, a little shyly as she looked up at Peggy. "Sharon?"
"Human names for the poor human to say," Peggy said, amusement lacing her tone. "Do you like it? I picked it out just for you."
"Yes! It's pretty," Sharon said, and Tony got the impression of bright happiness. He wondered what it would have been like to have a sibling he adored that much. Would things have been less lonely after Dad...?
Peggy's wings wrapped around him as well, pulling him closer, and Tony immediately thought of walls. Walls were what Wanda had called them. Walls would probably be a good mental projection to keep the others out. He was rewarded by Sharon's confusion and Peggy's rumbling sigh.
Sharon leaned in close to him and Tony just barely remembered not to flinch when her claw came up to his cheek. He reached out and touched hers, then kissed her claw as well, because a beautiful lady deserved to be flattered. He was pretty sure she was beautiful for a dragon. He knew from Pepper not to imply otherwise.
"Well, Sharon," Peggy said. "Do you feel up to healing a human, or should I get the head healer?"
"I can do it, I think." Crimson, white, onyx. Soaring phoenix in the sky. Flexible as branches swaying in the wind, but sturdy as the roots buried deep in the ground. "-said first aid was important, so I've been practicing," Sharon said, looking at Tony. Her head bobbed slightly as she took him in from head to toe.
"That's Sam, by the way," Peggy said helpfully, earning a grin from Tony. Her joy in the human names was endearing.
When Sharon finished looking him over, Tony carefully did a spin, using the walking stick to take the weight off his bad leg. "Would you like to see the rest of me?" he said, waggling his eyebrows over his shoulder at her.
Sharon giggled, a sound like soft chimes. Peggy just lightly cuffed him on the shoulder with her wing tip as a reminder to behave.
"It looks like just a slight bone fracture and some muscles that need mending," Sharon said, ignoring his pass once she controlled her laughter. "I should be able to do it."
"Sharon has just been made part of the-" Another dragon name-feeling, but this time it was an aerial image of the city and a sense of home that made Tony ache just a little. "-protection. That is what these crests mean," Peggy said, nodding to the stone crests they each wore.
Tony sat down on the dais after Peggy led him there. The stone was warm, but thankfully not scorching, and he took off his boot and rolled up his pants with a wince. His leg was swollen from all the walking he'd been doing, and it was a relief to not be on it. He held it up for Sharon to see.
"And what do dragons need protecting from?" he asked, thinking back to the city walls. They'd been high.
"Other dragon clans, though that sort of war is less common now," Peggy answered, sliding behind him and watching Sharon closely. "There are other dangerous creatures under the earth as well. Some sleep, forgotten by time. Others are more common. You should consider yourself lucky that Steve attacked you and not a manticore. They are less willing to be reasoned with."
Tony was about to reply when Sharon poked at Tony's pant leg with one of her claws. "What are these... clothes?" she asked. "Why do you have them?"
Aside from the stone crests, Tony hadn't seen dragons wearing anything else, so he supposed it was a fair question. "Clothes protect me from the elements. Also, my dignity. All humans wear them."
"How strange," Sharon said, focusing on the swollen leg.
"You should see the fashions in-" Tony cut himself off with a gasp, a brief flash of pain going through his leg. There was a golden light in Sharon's claw that Tony hadn't been paying attention to. But it faded as the pain did, and Tony gazed at his leg in shock. It was no longer swollen and it felt...
"Well, are you going to walk?" Sharon asked proudly. Peggy wrapped her tail around Sharon's, beaming at her sister.
Carefully, because his ribs still hurt, Tony put his walking stick down and stood up. His foot felt fine. "I'll be damned," Tony said, breathing out in a rush, which hurt, but there were more important things to focus on.
"See? Humans aren't that different to heal," Sharon said.
"Magic," Peggy replied, and there was a hint of laughter about her wings as they fanned out behind her.
"Life energy transference of some sort to accelerate healing time," he said, thinking back to the Chinese concept of Chi. Were they related? He needed to study the phenomenon more, because the potential was endless and-
Tony closed his eyes and sat back down on the dais. While this could have a huge impact on the War, he also suspected it would take a life time of studying. A life time he didn't have to waste if the Nazis won before that. The War sometimes felt like it would never end.
He smiled as he reopened his eyes. Sharon and Peggy touched their wings together, not looking at him. "You got one of those miracle cures for my ribs too?" Tony asked, getting the impression they were talking about him.
"I... yes! I can help with those." Sharon raised her claw again, and this time Tony paid close attention to the light as she healed his ribs. He may not have time to study what he wanted to down here, but that didn't mean he couldn't try to learn as much as he could now. Also, it meant a distraction from the sharp pain that accompanied the healing, and Tony needed that when he could feel his ribs mending.
When she finished, Tony hesitated, then opened his shirt. "You wouldn't happen to be able to do anything for my heart?" he asked, laying the pump bare. His heart wasn't a pretty sight, scarred and ugly. While it was true the pump didn't have to be charged any more so long as the orichalchum was connected, the muscle itself would give out in a few years. The machinery could only do so much.
Sharon and Peggy looked at each other again, and Peggy's tail curled around his waist comfortingly. "There is too much metal. Metal resists our magic and makes it harder to heal. I do not think even our best healer could do much for you, not without killing you or the healer first."
Tony hid his disappointment behind a carefree smile, though he didn't think either of them were fooled when he buttoned his shirt back up. With the War going on, he had never expected to live past it, not really. But his heart... All those adventures looking for a cure. He almost wanted to laugh that even here with magic and talking dragons, his heart still couldn't be healed. "Well, then, I should-"
He cut himself off as he tried to stand, vertigo making him stumble. Peggy caught him with her tail, setting him down as the dizziness receded. "The healing takes energy from both parties, Tony. You need rest, even after light healings."
"I'll keep that in mind," Tony said, this time standing up slower and with some assistance from Sharon. It passed quickly enough, and Tony suspected a bit of food would set him to right.
He spent the afternoon learning more about dragon culture and not thinking about his failing heart. Dragons didn't really cook food, so much as slice it and marinate it with spices Tony could only half-recognize. Which made eating interesting, as Tony had to stick to non-meats. He'd tried raw fish in Japan (before the War, before everything was complicated and the world wasn't as dark; the relations between countries had been strained, but things had been brighter), but the red meat the dragons favored probably wouldn't sit well. Peggy promised a better selection tomorrow, since dragons took their guests' comfort seriously.
They could all 'speak' English because it was mind to mind, rather than with words - apparently last time they had been 'speaking' in German, but Peggy liked English names better. Dragons lived for around a thousand years, and Sharon was matured, but still very young in dragon terms. Dragons lived in clans that occasionally visited, sometimes fought, but mostly left each other alone due to distances and travel dangers. There were ancient legends about the sky and traveling underground due to the dangers of humans, and Tony wondered if there weren't some truth to the old stories of dragons that he had grown up with. They never ended well for the dragons.
He told some of his adventures at dinner, as dragons valued stories and art. It was interesting, retelling his own stories rather than letting Virgil or Pepper do it. He was no wordsmith, but he could tell a tale well enough, and the dragons that joined them ("Dum-dum isn't really a name," Tony said as Peggy introduced him. "It suits him," Peggy said as she went on to introduce Gabe.) seemed to enjoy the telling.
They also had no use for cloth in dragon society, as Sharon had pointed out earlier. Tony realized the implications of this when he was shown to a bed, a large stone dais that was a little too hot and too uncomfortable. Tony pretended to be agreeable, hiding behind his mental walls to lie, and waited for his kind hosts to leave.
He snuck out to the roof after that. It was closer than the ground as the stairs he had gone down earlier hadn't even gone a third of the way down the building. But it was colder up there, and after the heat of the building it felt fantastic. Tony stared at the darkened 'sky', seeing the moss's faded glow reflecting in the crystals in a way that made the shadows dance. He tried to think of its potential uses and the science behind it, but his mind kept drifting back to the problem of his heart. He hadn't even been looking for a solution, not since the War started, but there was still the crushing sense of disappointment. It wasn't like he really needed much now with the orichalcum, but what would it feel like, to have this hunk of metal out of his chest?
Tony missed the times when he could have just been searching for new things or new ways to cure his heart. When it wasn't just about the War. When he could be thinking of ways to use that light for energy in homes or hospitals, not to keep the troops safe. The US had only been in the War for three years, but Tony had been fighting longer than that. And he was just so tired of it all...
It was so tempting, to stay down here and start a grand adventure again, just to get his blood pumping. Like the good days Rhodey liked to talk about, quietly now, over the campfire while Tony stared into it like it could burn all the death away. Even Pepper was weary, worn around the edges like the frayed paper she took notes on in the cold nights between missions. The war was long and if there was an end in sight, Tony was too much in the dark to see it. There was too much horror, too much death. Too many camps where they arrived too late, with pits of bodies stacked high. He was just...
Tony turned around, surprised to see the blue dragon who first attacked him. There were what looked like leaves held in a sling around his left shoulder, but otherwise he looked the same. Big, intimidating, and bulky. He should have made more noise than that arriving, and Tony found himself reaching for his gun before he knew what he was doing.
The blue dragon reared back, but Tony forced his gun arm down. He closed his eyes as he tried to calm his racing heart. "Sorry," Tony said, waiting for the pump to regulate his heartbeats once again. "I... It's not a good idea to sneak up on me. I've seen too much fighting recently."
"Are all humans this jumpy?" the blue dragon... what had Peggy called him? Steve. Steve said warily, folding his wings but watching him closely.
"Only when people try to kill you on a daily basis," Tony said, putting the gun back in its holster. He took the holster off, folding it and setting it to the side, a little too unsettled by his nerves to wear it now. "That's what they do, during wars."
"I saw," Steve said, looking away. "What I could see in your mind was..."
Tony tightened his own mental walls, but Steve didn't appear to notice. "It's no fairy tale," Tony said, leaning against the rail of the balcony and trying not to shiver. What had felt nice when he came out was quickly becoming just the wrong side of cold.
Steve crooked his wing in agreement and let the conversation drop. Tony was privately grateful. "I wanted to apologize for attacking you earlier," Steve said, his voice soft in Tony's mind.
Tony waved it off. "You were protecting the city. From what I hear about the last several humans, they weren't so friendly."
"I've only seen four," Steve said. "One of them brought diseases from the upper world, and it killed many of us. The second and third wouldn't listen, calling us monsters and trying to kill us. The last..." Steve trailed off, his head lowering closer to the ground.
"Like I said, no blame," Tony said. "I'll let bygones be bygones. Sorry for shooting you." He looked at the still-covered wound and felt vaguely guilty, despite the fact it had been self-defense.
Steve came closer, his claws clicking against the stone of the building. "It will heal," he said, looking out into the night. "Is it too hot for you to sleep?"
"Down there, yes," Tony replied. "Up here, it's a bit too cold. You wouldn't happen to have any blankets?"
"Dragons do not use 'cloth'," Steve said apologetically. "The last human slept on the ground level with a make-shift shelter."
It was late and the thought of making a shelter made him weary, but Tony nodded. If it was the only way he could get some sleep, then he'd do it. "Where can-"
"You could sleep up here?" Steve said hesitantly. "I don't need as much warmth as the others do because of..." There was a half-feeling of a name, wisdom and age and trees, but it was cut off.
"Are you offering to keep me warm?" Tony asked, knowing some subjects were best left untouched.
"If you like," Steve said. He laid down on the roof, holding his wing out in invitation. "As an apology."
This was definitely one of the strangest invitations to bed that Tony had ever received. But he was exhausted and the thought of making a shelter in the dark held no appeal. On the other hand, Steve had tried to kill him earlier and he'd set his guns down...
"You already apologized," Tony said. "What's the real point of this?"
"I still don't trust you," Steve said. "Or your weapons. I can keep an eye on you like this, but on the ground it's easier for you to sneak off."
"Fair enough," Tony said. "Though I'm currently unarmed. How do I know you won't turn on me?"
"You could pull down your walls and see for yourself," Steve challenged.
"I think I'll trust Peggy to keep you in line," Tony said wryly, backing away from the dare.
"Uh, the..." He tried - and failed - to think of the dragon name-feeling. He could only think of it in pieces, not as a whole. He could feel Steve's confusion. "The red dragon who brought me into the city," Tony said finally, giving up.
Bright red and navy blue, passion and flame, dancing and music. The rose that blooms in adversity and the immutable constant of the sea.
"Yes," Tony replied. "Peggy. She said you're Steve, by the way."
Tony couldn't have said what it was, either Steve's eyes or the line of his wings, but something made Tony think that the dragon was affronted, and Tony had to stifle a laugh. "That is not my name," Steve said with a definite pout.
"I can't exactly say your other one," Tony pointed out as he walked closer. He might as well take Steve up on his offer. He ducked under Steve's wing, feeling warmer already. Steve's body put out a lot of heat on its own.
"Alright," Steve grumbled, watching Tony as he tried to make himself comfortable against Steve's flank.
It was a little awkward, but he found a position half-sitting and leaning against the dragon. Steve's scales were soft and the muscle under them was hard, but not the worst sort of bed Tony had ever slept on. And when he leaned back, he could see the cavern's ceiling high above them. The crystal growths that hung from it reflected the soft white of the now dimmed moss. Not quite a full moon level of light, but enough to semi-see if the building's lights were turned off.
"Strange to sleep outside but not to see the stars," he said, covering a yawn. Even when London's pollution had made it hard to see, he could still see the moon. Especially the last time he was there, when all the lights were turned off to hide from German bombs.
Steve shifted underneath him, raising his head to look at the ceiling as well. "What do they look like, the stars?" Steve asked. "They're in some of the old stories, but all we have is the pattern like my crest. Do they really look like this?"
"You've really never seen them? Never snuck up to the outside world to look?" Tony asked, surprised in spite of himself. The gate Tony had come through had been small, but surely the dragons could go up top in other ways if they wanted to.
"No one has been up top in over a thousand years," Steve said. "We're weaker up there now. We've been under here so long that the magic in the upper world is too weak to sustain us. The others would sometimes try to take a quick peek when we were younger, but I was always too sick and too small to go."
Tony wondered what it would be like to never see the stars, the moon, or to never feel the sun on his back. He shivered despite the warmth of Steve's body. "The stars they're... They're distant. Just like small lights in the sky. Sometimes I look up at the stars and I feel... small. But they're also comforting. They look a little different depending on where you are, but they're always in the same formations. A lot of sailors use them to navigate."
"They sound nice," Steve said, lowering his head to the ground again, a slightly wistful tone to his voice.
Tony hesitated, then lowered the mental wall he constructed, just a little. He didn't know if Steve was listening, but he pictured the stars as well as he could. The North Star, ursa minor, Orion, Andromeda, and Draco, just for kicks. He pictured them on a clear night in Lucerne from before the War. Rhodey and Virgil fixing a meal while Giulietta curled against his side on the terrace as he told her about the constellations. He should take Pepper there when the War ended. She wouldn't be impressed, but she deserved to be pampered a little after all the grief he'd put her through. When the War ended...
Tony raised the wall again, hiding behind the mental construct and feeling too exposed. He wasn't a nostalgic soldier. There was no one waiting for him back home, and he had a heart full of problems to deal with if he managed to survive.
He looked over at Steve, who was staring at him, blue eyes wide and full of wonder. "They're beautiful," he said, his voice a bare whisper in Tony's mind.
"We can see them," Tony promised impulsively. "You can survive up there for a little bit, can't you? You don't look all that sickly now. I'll show them to you. Jarvis used to tell me the stories about them, so I know most of them."
"I'd like that," Steve said, though it sounded like he knew it was an empty promise.
"We got off on the wrong foot," Tony said with a grin. "I'm Tony. Tony Stark."
He held out his hand and Steve snorted, lowering his head so that Tony could touch his cheek. Tony did so, and allowed Steve's claw to touch his.
"I'm-" Red, white, blue - art and a glowing light spoken of only in legends. The feeling of calm after the rain and the stubborn of a rock that refused to move. Stars were part of Steve's dragon name, but he'd never seen them. Tony resolved to make that a promise he wouldn't break.
"I'll stick with Steve," Tony said, patting Steve's arm. "But it's nice to meet you when you're not trying to kill me."
Steve snorted softly, a small puff of smoke coming from his nose. "Go to sleep, Tony," Steve said.
Now warm and surprisingly comfortable, Tony did so easily.