There were days when Tony was glad to be alive, if his current existence could be called that. They were rare, though.
He was never mad at Yinsen. How could he be? The alchemist had been a prisoner, just like Tony, and the first words he’d ever said to Tony when he awoke had been an apology. Yinsen had done what he’d done at gunpoint, had been horrified it had worked against all odds, and then he’d died during their desperate escape, when Tony hadn’t yet learned to wield his new powers.
Tony blamed their captors, those Hunters who’d imagined they could use him to gain new tools for their war against unnatural beings. The irony didn’t escape Tony that they had actually created yet another one to forward that goal.
They had not pulled their punches when they’d attacked him. Though his memory of before was patchy at best, he could still remember the attack as clearly as if it had been yesterday. Remembered how the explosion had torn him apart, and the excruciating pain that seemed to last forever before he lost consciousness, knowing without the slightest doubt that he wouldn’t wake up again.
It was a miracle that his head had remained in one piece. Nothing else had.
Of course, Tony also blamed himself. There was a poetic justice in it, he had to give them that. He’d built his career on war, on the very same explosives and guns that the Hunters had used against him and his military escort. There was so much blood on his hands that he’d never be able to wash it away.
Now, he was made up of the remains of his victims.
He didn’t know how many parts there were, or how many people they originated from. Aside from his head, he was quite sure his right hand was his own. The left, definitely not, nor his legs. And his chest was such a sad patchwork that he wouldn’t even begin to guess. Of course, the blue fire at the very center of it, a fusion of technology and magic, was very much Tony’s creation. Though the alchemist had reanimated Tony, keeping that fire burning had been something Yinsen had not been able to do on his own, his talents limited to his own, gruesome discipline.
Tony would’ve been spared so much suffering if he hadn’t bothered. He would have faded away in a matter of weeks, and he would be at peace now. But no, he hadn’t wanted to die. Still didn’t. Not yet. There were still days, every now and then, when he thought that there must be a reason he’d been brought back. A reason other than spending his days exacting his revenge on Hunters and ordinary terrorists alike, hoping in vain that with enough good deeds, he could somehow balance all his past mistakes, and find a feeling that wasn’t hatred or bitterness. Days when he believed that he could regain his humanity, somehow. There were rumors that it could be done, and although Tony was always quick to say those modern-day Pinocchio tales were urban legends and a load of crap, on the rare days when he felt optimistic, he clung to that distant hope.
Every single day was the same for Steve.
He woke up, and he went to the pits. He fought.
In the beginning, he lost every time, but he got better. After each day, his Master had him patched up, and the next day, he fought again.
A few times, when he was still new to it all, he refused to fight, because the men and women and creatures he was fighting were others just like him who had done nothing wrong, but that did him no good. He’d only get beat up worse, and even though he knew his injuries would be healed soon enough, it still hurt. And he’d still have to fight the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
Days became weeks, months, years—decades? He couldn’t tell. At first, he tried to keep track of them, to draw tally marks on the wall of his cell, but he kept forgetting whether he had already done it that day, and finally, he stopped caring.
Whenever Steve saw his reflection in a mirror, he could barely recognize himself. Before, he had been nothing but skin and bones, a sickly, scrawny man, who had participated in that fateful ritual because they had thought it could give him powers that would make him a better soldier. In a twisted way, it had worked. The days in the fighting pits of the Fair Folk had left their mark, and turned him into that muscular brute who stared back at him from the looking glass.
He’d tried to escape, of course. He wasn’t the first or the last to try, and sometimes, so he heard, there were people who succeeded. Not Steve, though. Never. His Master, that terrifying creature with red skin and a skull-like face, always found him. Always brought him back, to another day of fighting.
He would still try again. They could make a fighting dog out of him, but they could never destroy his spirit. Which was, of course, exactly why they liked him so much.
Sometimes, he dreamed of home, although he no longer even remembered what home looked like. His memories were fleeting things, and he couldn’t be sure which ones were real. He couldn’t even remember his mother’s face anymore.
Arcadia, the realm of the Fair Folk, was not a place for humans. It did things to your head. Some said it took your soul. Steve didn’t know what it’d feel like to lose his soul, but he did feel like he had lost a lot of himself, no matter how much he tried to rebel. Deep down, he was starting to believe he’d never get away. Not after so many days and years and so many failed escape attempts. And even if he should manage to get out, what would he do then? Who was he, now, if he wasn’t the champion of his Master?
“Sir, you have visitors,” Jarvis’s metallic voice echoed over the intercom. “They’re waiting for you in the lobby.”
“I’ll be right there,” Tony replied, and started unbuttoning his shirt, still gazing at the mirror in front of him.
Unlike the brightly glowing blue arclight and the vessel that held it, the stitched seams criss-crossing his body were not visible if you didn’t know to look for them. He always saw them himself, but only because he knew exactly where they were. When he used his powers, though, those seams would glow on his skin with the bright electric blue of the arclight, clear for everyone to see. That was why he never did that without the armor to cover his true nature.
Even Pepper had no idea, although unlike most humans, she did know it was Tony inside the armor. He had tried to tell her the whole story, once, but he just couldn’t figure out how to put it into words. “Oh, by the way, Pep, did you ever read Mary Shelley’s book? Yeah, I’m the monster.” No. She was better off not knowing. Safer, as well. As his personal assistant, she had already learned a fair bit about the hidden unnatural horrors that most people thought existed only in stories. Tony owed it to her to protect her from the worst of it.
She knew, of course, that there was something wrong, something different about Tony. That he was no longer the man he’d been. People tended to notice it, sooner or later. When they spent too much time with him, they started growing restless, with this nagging feeling that something was off, though they had no idea what it might be.
And the vampires knew everything.
Tony wasn’t a big fan of vampires, but for some odd reason, they were big, fanged fans of his. He had never told them a thing about himself, but soon after his reanimation and return, and that whole fiasco with Obie and the golems, he’d been contacted by Prince Fury of the Covenant of the Shield, in all his ridiculous shady pretentiousness, eyepatch and long leather coat and all, a veritable archetype of the modern vampire.
Fury had been the one to initiate Tony into the supernatural world that he would’ve adamantly refused to believe in before he’d become a part of it. As it happened, they had been keeping an eye on him since he was a kid, because unbeknownst to Tony, his father had been more than just a genius engineer—he had also been dabbling in magic, and working together with the vampires of the Covenant.
Here they were, again, the leeches, standing in the tastefully decorated lobby of his mansion, looking as suave and confident as they would in a crypt or a graveyard. They were eyeing Jarvis’s mechanical form with their disinterested, dead eyes. Animated metal was of no use to vampires. Neither was reanimated flesh, but that didn’t mean Tony was safe. Vampires were dangerous creatures, and he had absolutely zero trust in them.
There were two of them this time, a man and a woman. Tony already knew Natasha, as frightening as she was beautiful, the contrast between her coppery hair and her alabaster skin as striking as ever. The man had a bow slung across his back, and he almost looked like a human, though a handsome one, and clearly aware of it, too. That was one thing about vampires: they were always even more egoistic than Tony had been, which was a damn impressive achievement.
“Stark,” Natasha said, spitting the name out like something gone sour. “The Prince wants to see you. Clint and I are here to make sure you’ll be there.”
“I’m honored he sent his children instead of what’s his name, Ghoulson the ghoul? Must be something really important this time. What do I need to bring? Chalk and salt? Power tools? My armor?”
“Better be prepared for everything,” the other vampire, Clint, said. “Don’t know the details, but I heard portals will be involved.”
“Fucking Hell,” Tony said, making a face. “Nothing good ever came out of a portal.”
It was a day like any other for Steve.
He woke up to the bright sunlight filtering in through the bars on his window, tinted green by the leaves of the surrounding trees. The view was actually beautiful, as most things in Arcadia tended to be, but it was always a deceptive beauty. He had learned that the hard way: when you tried to run through the woods to escape, the paths would lead you in circles and all the plants would grow thorns and thick vines to trip you, tear your clothes and skin, and slow you down.
Steve sat up, stretching. His skin felt a little too tight between the shoulder blades, where the healer had regrown it over the bone-deep gash yesterday’s monstrosity had given him. He had won, of course, but it had been close, one of the more difficult fights he’d had in a while. The creature had been all claws and teeth and scales—and most likely it had also been an ordinary person, at some point in its life. Steve had been lucky. He looked different, sure, but at least he still looked like a human being.
Food was waiting for him on the table, as always. In the early days, he’d spent a few nights awake trying to find out how it got there, because he’d thought it might offer an opportunity for escape, but there wasn’t one. No one opened the door, no one came in to bring it. One moment it wasn’t there, and then it was. The first time, he’d thought he must’ve just fallen asleep and missed it, but it had happened again, and again, no matter how steadily he stared at the table. Another example of fae magic.
It was the same food he always had, a bowl of surprisingly tasty porridge and a big chunk of meat. The latter came in a variety of shapes and sizes, and Steve tried not to think what sort of an animal it was from. He had never seen a pig or a cow here. Today, it was charred. Sometimes, it was raw. He ate it anyway, because the next time he’d see food would be tomorrow morning, unless his Master was in a bad mood.
Right on schedule, as soon as he had finished eating, the door opened, and one of his Master’s many servants came for him. Steve wasn’t entirely sure about it, but he suspected most of these servants were also like him, ordinary men and women who had spent immeasurable years in this place, barely anything of their original selves remaining.
Others joined the usual procession, both fighters and servants, the Master himself coming last, keeping watch. The path they took was, as they tended to be, entirely different from yesterday’s: instead of an autumn scene of colorful maples, they walked through a forest of giant redwoods, the ground covered with ferns.
The arena was in the middle of this forest, and it was rustic compared to the many elaborate constructions Steve had fought in, not much more than a large clearing, the terraced rows of seats surrounding it made of unpainted wood.
Steve’s opponent for the day turned out to be a little girl.
She stood opposite to him in the clearing, a delicate thing less than half his height, with long black hair and a simple white dress. The gathered fae and slaves in the audience were murmuring to one another excitedly, waiting for one of them to make the first move.
Steve stepped closer. He didn’t want to fight her. He never wanted to fight anyone. Still, he knew that surrendering would do neither of them any good, either.
The girl lifted her eyes from Steve’s toes, and looked at him—and of course, she was no vulnerable child. Her eyes were bottomless pools of silver, so cold that Steve felt a chill run through him just looking into them, like icy claws sinking into his chest.
She raised a hand towards him, and he had to act before it got any worse. He leaped forwards, struck her hand aside, and aimed a punch at her face. She dodged it, whirling to the side like a wisp of glacial wind.
It turned out to be a long fight, with the ice elemental he was facing clearly aiming to tire him. He didn’t go for that, but kept holding back. He could tell she was making the mistake many had done before her when it came to Steve: assuming that since he was so big and muscly, he must also be stupid. He’d come into this place a much smaller man, used to relying on his wits. In the end, it was the elemental who began flagging first, and Steve was able to finish the match with a brutal and inelegant knockout.
All in all, it hadn’t been a bad fight. He wouldn’t even need to see the healer today.
“How is that a fairy?” Tony blurted out in disbelief. “I've seen demons that look less demonic than this guy.”
The skillfully drawn, detailed picture Fury had placed on the meeting room table in front of Tony was the archetype of something straight out of Hell: a red, skull-like face with entirely black eyes. All that was missing were horns.
“There's a reason we call 'em fae and not fairies these days, Stark,” Fury replied in a long-suffering tone. “Personally, I call them a menace and a pain in the butt.”
“Fair enough. I'm still going to stick with fairy, though. I like the mental image of that thing with little pink wings. So, you're absolutely sure Red Fairy here has Rogers?”
Fury replied with another drawing, this one depicting a blonde man, human-looking with really impressive musculature, his shirtless state emphasizing that nicely.
“That doesn't really look like—” Tony began.
Fury set a third picture next to the beefy guy, this one a faded black-and-white photo. It was one that Tony remembered from his dad's notes, the ones Fury had handed him when he'd been trying to read up on the supernatural world. The man in the photo was the opposite of the one in the drawing: skinny and slouched, dressed in baggy clothes. Still, there was an undeniable similarity to their faces.
“The thing about Arcadia is that it changes you,” Fury explained, as if Tony wasn't aware of that already. “The nature of the change depends on many things and is widely debated in the mage community, but trust me, it's Rogers.”
“How did you even get these?” Tony asked, motioning at the two drawings. “From what I understand, the Fair Folk aren't exactly welcoming towards your kind.”
“That they're not, which is why I recruited one of theirs,” Fury said complacently.
“No offense, but I'm not going to believe any self-respecting fairy would ever agree to work for you.”
“They wouldn't. A changeling did.”
In the standard nomenclature, changelings were those poor souls who had somehow escaped from captivity by the fae. If this mission to rescue Rogers would succeed, that label would apply to him, too. From what Tony had heard, most changelings were more than a few fries short of a Happy Meal. That could explain the willingness of such an individual to strike an agreement with Fury. Spying on the powerful and unpredictable fairies was a really dangerous thing to do. Almost as dangerous as openly assaulting them.
“Isn't that against your rules, hiring creatures that aren't fanged or blood-bound?” he asked, mainly out of curiosity. It wasn't usual for vampires to work with those below themselves, which pretty much included everyone else on the planet.
“The stupid-ass rules of the stuffed-up geezers, yeah. The way I rule my Covenant, we've never paid too much heed to those. You're sitting here, aren't you?”
“Well yes, but I am doing this pro bono, because it's dad's fault the guy got stuck there in the first place, and because I'm kind of curious about Fairyland.”
Fury raised his one visible eyebrow. “Does this mean I can count you in?”
“Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what I just said,” Tony confirmed. “When are we leaving, and who else is on the team?”
They were on their way home through the woods, the procession just like it had been in the morning: three fighters, the other two a little more beaten up than Steve, and two handlers flanking each of the fighters, with the Master keeping the rear.
They were perhaps halfway back when something broke the routine that had been repeated so many times Steve had lost count years ago.
They were waylaid.
A group of beings cut off their path, and it was instantly obvious to Steve that they were neither fae nor their servants. He wasn’t quite sure how he was so certain about it, it was a feeling, as if something was missing. Perhaps that touch of madness that came with this place. Most of them looked like humans: five figures dressed in black leather, stepping with the grace and purpose that Steve had often seen in the fighting pits, like predators.
The sixth individual was different, both in looks and how he—it?—felt. This was a being that appeared less out of place in this twisted fairytale realm, clad in a suit of armor that was pure gleaming gold from head to toe, with a glowing disk of bright electric blue in the middle of its chest. But though the appearance might have been fitting, there was a strange aura of the unnatural about the armor-clad figure. The fae, as demonic as they were, held a strong connection to nature, and this being was utterly against that. There was also, somehow, a sadness, a feeling of loss.
Steve didn’t have much time to dwell on his odd premonitions concerning this golden figure, because the situation was moving forwards.
“We only want one man,” one of the human-looking beings, a red-haired woman, declared in a cold and commanding tone. “Steve Rogers. Give him to us, and the rest of you can go on with your despicable lives.”
That took Steve by surprise. All the servants and fighters around him were looking at him curiously. Their Master made his way past the rest of the procession, stepping in front of them to face this unexpected threat.
“I happen to like him a lot, but I am always willing to negotiate. Perhaps we can come to an agreement,” the red-skulled fae said, his smooth voice an odd contrast to his looks.
“Cut a deal with the fae? What do you take us for?” a man holding a bow groaned, and his grimace revealed a pair of sharp canines. Not a human, then, but a vampire, and from the depths of long lost memory, Steve realized he knew the emblem these assailants wore on their sleeves: the Covenant of the Shield, the people who had orchestrated the ritual that stranded him here. Why would they want him back now, after so many years?
“Surely you wouldn’t be foolish enough to pick a fight with the fae in our own land?” the Master said. To Steve, his confidence seemed feigned. Was it possible that the Master was worried that these vampires could do him harm?
This was a chance unlike any Steve had had during his years of captivity.
His wrists and ankles were bound with massive manacles, but they weren’t too heavy for him to lift, not with the strength he had gained in this place. He swung his arms, smashing the metal straight into the face of one of his handlers.
All right, that was something Tony hadn’t been expecting. He’d been sure that Rogers would be a broken man, a husk of a human, his spirit and his sanity long gone. This Steve Rogers was definitely the man from the drawing, not the one from the photos: tall and broad in the shoulders. Shirtless, too. Very pleasing to the eye. And clearly not beaten to submission, since he was fighting for his freedom.
With Rogers taking the initiative, any chance of an agreement with his fae Master was gone. Not that it had ever been a realistic option. Personally, Tony would’ve made a deal with the Devil himself rather than one of these slippery fiends.
Natasha, Clint and the rest of Fury’s lackeys leapt into action, targeting the group of not-quite-humans behind their Master. Red was going to be Tony’s problem, first and foremost, because none of the vampires had talents quite like his.
He raised both hands, focused, and put everything he could muster into one overwhelming wave of wrongness, aiming it straight at the fae.
For what felt like ages but can’t have been more than seconds, the fae hesitated, frozen in his spot, eyes nailed on Tony.
Tony saw that behind his captor, Rogers had broken free of his handlers, but instead of making his way towards the rescuing troupe of vampires, he headed off the path, straight into the woods. Bad idea.
He had just enough time to see Natasha break apart from the fray and go after Rogers when the Red Fairy shrugged off Tony’s magical strike, and lunged towards him, ramming straight into his chest and knocking him over.
The minutes after that were a blur. Fighting the fae was different from fighting any other supernatural being Tony had faced so far: it wasn’t just that his opponent was stronger and faster than he was, armor or not, but he was also somehow twisting Tony’s perception, giving him a feeling like vertigo, and making half his punches and bolts miss their mark. He tried to project his true nature at his enemy again, but it did no good with the element of surprise gone.
He was losing the fight, and he knew it. When he heard, somewhere far in the distance, Clint’s voice calling “Goldie! We have Rogers! Retreat, now!” he was only too happy to oblige.
Unlike their arrival, which had been a slow, stealthy march through these woods, their escape was a mad, desperate rush. Tony had no idea how the vampires were navigating towards the spot where Fury’s pet mage and his protectors were waiting, but despite all the stories he’d heard of the treacherous nature of these lands, they soon reached the site, and the awaiting open portal.
They stumbled through the rift in the fabric of the realms, back into the real world, into the hall imbued with protective magic that Fury’s Covenant has set up for the occasion. Behind them, the portal closed with a whoosh.
Tony looked around, checking whether everyone had made it. There was the mage, Selvig, looking surprised at their success, and Fury’s vampires—all seven of them, looking a little ruffled, but no injuries to speak of. Natasha was holding Steve Rogers’s hand.
Rogers raised his head and looked right into Tony’s eyes.
Tony froze, a strange shiver running through him.
Rogers had the bluest eyes, and there was an amazing depth to that gaze: so much tenacity, such a fighting spirit, that Tony could easily understand how Rogers had made it through all those years in captivity, and compassion, despite of all the horrors he must have seen. It felt like he was looking straight into Tony’s long-dead heart, and knew how Tony was struggling, which was ridiculous, because obviously he had no idea who Tony was; Tony was still wearing the armor and Rogers couldn’t even see his face. It was almost frightening.
There, in the cold concrete room, surrounded by vampires, in those few seconds that passed, Tony actually felt something that he hadn’t felt since he had awoken into this wretched not-quite-life: a strange warmth that he couldn’t even name. He felt—hopeful?
The moment passed all too soon, with Natasha tugging at Rogers’s hand to lead him out of the room. No doubt Fury had a welcome reception of some sort planned for him, but Tony hadn’t been invited to it.
Coulson the ghoul met him at the door, to tell him that Fury would like his written account of what had happened, but other than that, he was free to go. There were probably a few more words there, but Tony was barely listening.
All he could think of was that he needed to see more of Steve Rogers.