Long, long ago
Tony is so fucking done with everything. Why is he still alive when everyone around him keeps dying? First his parents, now Jarvis; give it a year and probably Obie will follow because that's just the way things seem to work out. His life is a morbid joke.
It's way beyond what he can deal with. After the funeral he picks up the bottle and doesn't put it down again. Rhodey tries to call, but Tony never answers him. He's done, he's spent enough time crying against Rhodey's shoulder. He just wants it all to go away. Some rational voice at the back of his mind tells him that he's slamming the self destruct button and needs to stop. It kind of sounds like Jarvis, and he doesn't want to listen to it. He drinks some more and eventually it goes away.
He's been at it for ... a few days? He's not entirely sure anymore, but one night, he starts hallucinating.
There's a monster in the room with him, shaped like a small man, but not really human, with scaly golden skin and big, dark eyes and messy wavy hair. Like some kind of a gnome or imp. He's wearing a vaguely historical leather costume that wouldn't look out of place in a fantasy LARP.
The imp smirks at Tony, revealing crooked teeth. "Tony Stark. What a pleasure to meet such a brilliant mind," he says, the snicker at the end making the greeting more sarcastic than polite.
"Fuck off, you're not real," Tony slurs, waving a lazy hand at his unwanted visitor.
The imp ignores that and steps closer, swaggering, his grin only growing wider. "I assure you, I'm very real, dearie, and you're going to want to hear what I have to offer."
"Whatever," Tony says, and rolls over on the couch.
The imp reappears in front of him with a puff of smoke. At least this hallucination has good special effects. "What would you give to bring him back?" the creature asks.
Tony doesn't need him to specify who he's talking about. Tony also really doesn't need this. The whole point of being hammered 24/7 is not to think about this so much. "My life, my soul, my left kidney, you name it. What does it matter? He's gone."
"But he doesn't have to be!" The imp lifts a hand with his index finger sticking up. "How about—" he pauses, as if considering—"your heart?" he asks dramatically, and points the finger at Tony.
"Yeah, sure," Tony says. Maybe this thing will go away if he plays along. "Might as well grab a spleen and a pancreas, while you're at it. Wouldn't recommend my liver, it's seen better days."
"I have no use for those. Your heart in exchange for Mr. Jarvis's return to life, and we have a deal," the creature says brightly, and pulls out a scroll of parchment from his pocket, letting it unroll in front of him. It's very long, with a lot of curly text in very small letters, and Tony is way too drunk to make any sense of it. The imp offers Tony a quill. "Sign on the line, please."
Tony's knows he shouldn't sign anything without knowing what he's putting his name on, but he's pretty sure that dealing with hallucinations doesn't count. Whatever. And hey, if this turns out to be real somehow, he'll happily give his life for Jarvis's. Jarvis was a good man, while Tony really can't figure out the point of his own existence.
He sits up on the couch, takes the quill, and signs with a flourish.
"Now will you leave me alone?" Tony demands.
"If you wish. Your part of the bargain will be fulfilled shortly. I will be collecting mine later," he points a sharp-nailed finger at Tony's chest. "More value when you're not quite so young, you see. I expect great things from you. Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Stark."
The hallucination vanishes as suddenly as it emerged. Tony shrugs at the empty room around him, and goes for the bottle again.
Days later, when he's sober for the first time, he finds the beginnings of the code for an extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence in a file named JARVIS. He half remembers writing some of it. It's a mess, like drunk coding tends to be, but there's definitely something there worth looking into.
A month later, he's got version 0.5 compiled, and he tests the voice interface.
"Good evening, Sir," JARVIS greets him, and a chill runs down Tony's spine. He doesn't know where the speech synthesizer is getting that voice from, because that was among the files he discovered initially and he honestly can't remember where he got them from, but somehow, it sounds exactly like Edwin Jarvis.
Not so long ago
After the rough start with Loki and the Chitauri and all that, the Avengers are slowly starting to resemble an actual team: living together, practicing together, and occasionally taking down bad guys ranging from ordinary criminals to actual fire-breathing dragons. The latter is what they're currently fighting, in some out-of-the-way forest in Maine.
Tony would be awestruck by the creature if he wasn't so busy trying to keep it from barbecuing his friends or knocking him out of the sky. It's every bit as formidable as a proper fairy tale monster should be, with glossy black scales, gleaming green eyes and demonic horns. It has wings as well, but so far, it seems content to stay on the ground, setting trees on fire here and there around it. Tony's repulsor blasts barely seem to draw its attention. Steve's shield, Natasha's stingers and Clint's arrows aren't doing much better.
"A Hulk would come in really handy right about now," Tony notes over the comms. "Too bad we left him at home."
"We'll just have to figure out something else," Steve replies. "It has to have some weak spots. The mouth, the eyes, something."
"Working on it," Tony says, making another pass at the dragon's snout. He doesn't get anywhere near close enough for a good shot, because the defensive flames flaring in his direction are much too hot for his liking. His armor can only take so much. He swerves to avoid the fire.
The others are still going on with the plans over the radio.
"Clint, do you have any arrows you haven't tried yet?" Steve asks.
"Yeah, but an EMP won't do much damage against it unless it's secretly a robot dragon," Clint quips.
"I wish," Tony mutters. That, he could easily deal with.
He's hovering in the air behind the beast, planning his next move, when it suddenly starts to shrink in front of his eyes, its wings disappearing, its scales turning to fabric. Tony dives down after it, landing close to the writhing, blurry form, which soon settles into a human figure. Where the dragon stood, there's now a woman, slumped on her knees. She has tangled blond hair and ragged black clothing, and she glares up at the Avengers defiantly.
A man in a decently tailored suit, leaning against a cane, appears from behind her. If he's been there all along, Tony's sensors really should've picked him up, but maybe the dragon's magic was playing havoc with them. His tech and magic are seriously incompatible.
"You've played your part admirably," the man tells the dragon lady. "Just let me wrap up my business here, and we can go home."
He turns to face Tony, his dark eyes seeming to lock with Tony's, in spite of the armor that hides them. The man has shoulder-length dark hair, and Tony thinks he can see a glint of gold on his teeth when his lips curl into a malevolent grin. Something about the man gives him a touch of déjà vu, though his features don't really look familiar. They've probably met. Some conference somewhere? A party? Considering that this person hangs out with dragons and has facial expressions that could give Loki a run for his money, Tony's not sure this is an acquaintance he'd like to renew.
"Mr. Stark," the man greets him.
Tony can feel the other Avengers' questioning eyes on him, even though he's just as confused as they are.
"That's Iron Man to you," Tony says. "I don't think we've been introduced."
The man takes a few steps forwards and stops right in front of Tony, almost in his personal space. "Oh, we haven't, though we have met. You can call me Mr. Gold. You have something that belongs to me."
Tony's still drawing a blank on why he should know this person, but he's spent most of his life dealing with all kinds of unsavoury types, and he can easily make a guess. "If this is about weapons, you're out of luck."
"Quite the opposite," Mr. Gold says. Before Tony has any time to react, he reaches a hand towards Tony's chest.
Towards the arc reactor.
The panic is sudden and overwhelming. His breath catches in his throat, his heart starts to race, and there's the entirely predictable, yet always terrifying memory of Obie crouched over him in front of his eyes. It's just a memory. He knows that. He's fine, he tells himself, he's safe, he's wearing the armor, he has no clue what Gold thinks he's doing, but—
"ARMOR BREACH" flashes on the screen in big red letters, and somehow, Gold's fingers have passed through the metal and the reinforced glass covering the reactor as if they weren't there at all—but when they brush against the reactor's surface, an electric jolt runs through Tony's chest, sparks fly, and Gold pulls back his hand as if burned.
The whole thing can't have taken longer than a few seconds; the other Avengers have just leaped closer, worried and defensive. It felt like an eternity in Tony's horrified thoughts.
"What have you done?" Gold growls angrily. "That's not possible! How are you blocking me?"
"I have no idea who you are or what you think you're doing, but if you value your life, you'll back away right now," Steve roars at Gold, raising his shield in front of Tony. On his other side, Clint has nocked an arrow, pointing it at Gold, and Natasha looks ready to leap into action at the slightest provocation.
"We have a deal, Stark, and you're not getting out of it. I will collect my due. Just you wait," Gold says, ignoring the other Avengers, his gaze going from Tony's eyes to the arc reactor.
Something clicks into place in Tony's mind, and from the depths of his memory rises the image of a drunken hallucination, of a bizarre deal he made with an imp that had an uncanny resemblance to this man standing in front of him—but that can't possibly have been real! Then again, if anyone had asked him a couple of years ago, he would've also said that dragons weren't real.
Gold steps back, placing himself next to the woman that was the dragon. "Until next time," he says, waves his hand, and he and the woman disappear in a puff of purple smoke.
Tony's still staring at where they stood when Steve places a hand on his armored back. "You all right, Stark? What just happened?"
Tony takes a deep breath, trying to will his heart rate back to a reasonable range. "No idea," he tells Steve. An accurate answer to both questions. "JARVIS? Quick diagnostics. Please tell me he didn't break anything."
"Everything checks clear, Sir," JARVIS announces. "There was a brief surge of an unidentified energy which requires further analysis, but no sign of any damage."
Tony analyzes the hell out of that energy surge later, but it remains unidentified and mysterious, and he can't replicate it no matter what he does. Neither can he explain how Gold's fingers went through gold-titanium-alloy and transparent armor. His every attempt to look for any hint of who Mr. Gold might be in every possible database he can access—a very comprehensive list—falls equally short, as if the man didn't exist at all, even though Tony has perfectly good video recordings of Gold from their brief meeting.
It's the sort of puzzle that he can either focus on and spend all his time on until it drives him nuts, or decide to ignore as best he can. In the end, he settles for the latter. There are plenty of other bad guys to fight, after all, and most of them are, in the grand scheme of things, more dangerous than a man that may or may not be some kind of a magical fairy tale monster boasting a claim to Tony's heart, in an entirely unromantic sense.
For a few months, he still keeps glancing over his shoulder, expecting to see either a scaly-skinned imp or a man with a cane, and his usual nightmares of space and falling and hordes of aliens come interspersed with others, with a gold-toothed smirk and a hand sinking into his chest, but Gold never reappears.
Eventually, other shit hits the fan, and he's got his hands full dealing with the Mandarin, Aldrich Killian, and Extremis. He makes it through without getting killed or losing anyone he loves, though it's all too close. Then, he gets rid of the arc reactor altogether, fixes things with Pepper only to mess them up again, and somehow simultaneously manages to fall head over heels for Captain America. Amidst all of it, he mostly forgets about the entire Gold incident.
The third time Tony meets Gold, he's not entirely sober, but not yet drunk enough to start seeing things, either. Besides, Gold still looks like an ordinary man, not like something that stepped out of a storybook.
It happens at a cocktail party arranged in the Avengers’ honor after a successful mission where they actually managed to keep the property damage to a minimum—something they could generally improve on. The whole team is present, save for Thor, who's in Asgard once again. The evening has been nicer than Tony was expecting: the sparkling wine is plentiful, the canapés tasty, the jazz band pretty good, and Tony's attempts at flirting with Steve have gained him a couple of chuckles and very cute smiles. Not that he presumes to ever get anything more than that, but a man has to try.
He's on his way back to the table Steve, Natasha, Clint and Bruce are standing around when Gold steps into his path. In the first couple of seconds that it takes for Tony's slightly tipsy brain to register how bad this could potentially be, Gold flicks his hand in Tony's direction, and a silvery mist of what's undoubtedly magic hits him square in the chest, right where the arc reactor isn't anymore.
Whatever it is, it feels like someone's stabbed him with a frozen dagger: a flash of ice-cold pain pierces his sternum where the blast hit. His breath is knocked right out of him. He gasps and struggles to stay on his feet.
Gold steps closer, and just like in all too many half-forgotten nightmares, reaches into Tony's chest, his fingers passing right through Tony's dress shirt—but then, Gold's eyes go wide, his brow furrowing.
"What? Where is it?" Gold exclaims, sounding nothing short of outraged.
Tony fails to come up with a sassy reply, because he has no idea what's going on, and because he's still sort of failing to breathe. It feels like there's a heavy weight on his chest, as if a steady pressure were squeezing his ribs from all around him. Whatever Gold has done, it's obviously not been good for his health.
Gold's confusion lasts for a few long seconds, and then he points an accusing finger at Tony. "I have no idea how you keep doing this, but I'm going to figure it out, eventually. And if I can't have it, you're not getting it back, either." He waves a hand at Tony again, and there's another flash of magic, though this one is light golden in color, and Tony doesn't feel it at all. Then again, it might just be he's already in so much pain that anything new is lost among the noise.
There's some kind of a commotion at the other end of the hall, loud enough to catch Tony's attention. As he moves his gaze away from Gold for a second, Gold turns on his heel and rushes the other way, fleeing the scene not in a puff of smoke, but at a quick limp.
Tony sinks to sit down on the floor, his hand clasping his shirt where the spell hit, where it feels like someone's plunged a shard of ice through his heart.
He thinks he can feel metal beneath.
Steve and Bruce have appeared by his sides, concerned hands on his arms and worried voices in his ears. Natasha and Clint are busy keeping back onlookers behind them.
"Tony? Who was that? What happened?" Steve demands.
Tony's trying to force his shirt buttons open with badly shaking fingers. His vision's gone a bit spotty. Bruce seems to have realized what Tony's up to, and pushes his hand away to take over. In seconds, he has Tony's dress shirt open, and pulls up Tony's undershirt.
Bruce swears under his breath, and Steve gasps in shocked disbelief.
It's just like Tony feared, like he instinctively already knew, as much as he was hoping he'd be wrong.
He puts his hand to his chest again, and as familiar as anything, right where it used to be, in the middle of his sternum, rests the round shape of the arc reactor casing—and it's empty. There's no reactor inside it.
This would be a good moment to pass out, and that feels like the right course of action, but unfortunately, Tony doesn't; instead he just continues to feel like he's drowning on dry land and like someone's immersed his rib cage in liquid nitrogen.
"Where's Gold?" a voice calls out behind Steve. Tony's eyes find a dark-haired woman in a smart-looking black dress. Next to her are two other strangers whose clothing sticks out more among the guests: a blonde woman wearing a red leather jacket, and a man in black leather, sporting eyeliner and a mustache and a beard that could do with more trimming.
"That was Mr. Gold?" Steve asks, and Tony realizes the others never even saw his face. He's surprised Steve remembers Gold. The fight with the dragon was ages ago, and Tony has avoided talking about the incident with the others afterwards.
"Yeah," Tony manages. "Went that way." He flails a hand in the approximate direction where he saw Gold make his exit.
"We must make haste after him!" Mr. Eyeliner announces, sounding ever so slightly like Thor.
"Regina, stay with the Avengers and help. We'll go after Gold," the blonde says.
"I should go after Gold, you're no match for him," the brunette—Regina—complains.
"I don't know enough about dark magic to help them," the blonde returns. "Come on, Killian! Let's go!" she tells Mr. Eyeliner, and they take off towards the direction Tony indicated.
"Clint, Natasha, go with them," Steve commands. "Find Gold, and don't stop until you've made him confess what he's done to Tony."
Steve feels about as panicked as Tony looks; he expects that sight of the empty arc reactor casing in Tony's chest is going to haunt his dreams. The ride back to the Tower seems to take absolutely ages, even though Steve is driving as fast as he dares to go. He's probably a hazard to road safety, far more focused on the people inside the car than the nighttime streets outside.
Since Bruce is the closest thing to a doctor they've got, he's sitting at the back with Tony, which leaves the mysterious woman who's supposed to be helping them riding shotgun.
"Who, exactly, are you?" Steve asks her as soon as they're out of the parking lot.
"Call me Regina," she says, and offers Steve a smile that somehow fails to look friendly. "All you have to know is that I'm someone who's familiar with magic, knows Gold, and doesn't want him to get what he's after."
That's hardly enough to make Steve trust her, but they do sorely need someone who's familiar with magic, because Steve knows neither Tony nor Bruce know how to deal with it. "What is he after, then?" he asks next.
"My heart," Tony says from the back seat, his voice barely audible.
"You made a deal with him, didn't you?" Regina asks, her voice biting.
"Maybe," Tony says.
"Wait, what?" Bruce splutters. "You made a deal to give him your heart? We aren't talking in the actual physical sense here, right? That's some kind of a metaphorical, magical thing?"
"Those aren't necessarily different," Regina says.
The more he hears, the more worried Steve grows. He presses the gas pedal even harder. He can't imagine why Tony would make such a deal, let alone why Gold would want Tony’s heart, whether in the physical or the metaphorical sense. Either way, he really, really doesn't like the sound of it. He very much prefers having Tony in one piece. He can't deny he's grown very fond of Tony over the years they've been on the team together. Fond enough that if someone cornered him and demanded him to tell the truth, he'd have to admit he'd very much like to win Tony's heart, in yet another sense of the word.
"Gold didn't get it, though, did he?" Steve has to make sure.
"I don't know. He might have," Regina says.
"Well, obviously he didn't, if you're claiming that the magical and the physical sense are the same thing. Tony's still alive," Bruce argues.
Steve glances at the rear-view mirror. Tony's slumped against the seat back, his face ghastly white in the dim light. Bruce is holding Tony's wrist, which Steve takes as a good sign. Surely it means he still has a pulse, which has to mean he also has his heart, whatever Gold has done to him.
"That doesn't really confirm anything," Regina says.
"Don't feel very alive," Tony says, sounding like each word is a colossal effort.
"Are we sure we shouldn't just be taking him to the hospital?" Bruce asks.
Tony and Regina reply at the same time, though Regina's emphatic "Hospital would be a bad idea" drowns Tony's much softer "No hospitals" almost entirely.
Steve is inclined to agree with them, considering that this clearly is a magical emergency as much as it is a medical one. Still, he needs to be sure. "Why's that?" he asks Regina.
"They won't be able to help, not when magic is involved," she says, "and it's generally better to keep these things under wraps."
That's decided, then. In a matter of minutes which feel like hours, they're finally in the underground garage beneath the Tower. Tony tries to step out of the car himself, but his knees start to fold immediately, and Bruce is only just able to catch him from pitching to the floor. Steve walks over, and, ignoring Tony's complaints, grabs hold of him and carries him to the elevator.
"JARVIS," Tony says as the doors close after them, his voice half muffled against Steve's shoulder.
"Sir," JARVIS replies. "Are you unwell? What's happened?"
"Long story. I need you to," he starts, then pauses to gasp, unable to speak a longer phrase without running out of breath, "put together a Mark V reactor. Emergency protocol."
"That model is not compatible with current armor specifications," JARVIS notes. Steve thinks he hears confusion and hesitation in the electronic voice.
"He's aware of that. Just do it, JARVIS, fast as you can," Steve says, sparing Tony the need for further words.
Once they're in the med bay, Steve sets Tony down on the exam table, and Bruce hands him an oxygen mask. They both help Tony shed his suit jacket, shirt and undershirt. He doesn't seem to be able to sit upright without support, and even with the extra oxygen, his breathing is clearly too fast and shallow.
Bruce busies himself with taking Tony's blood pressure, placing heart monitor electrodes, and staring at the readout with an extremely confused expression. He then spends what feels like an excessive amount of time listening to Tony's chest around the arc reactor, his frown growing deeper by the second. Steve's worry grows with it.
"You're not going to figure this out with science," Regina comments from her corner of the room. She's found a chair and is sitting on it with her legs crossed, looking entirely unimpressed by everything around her. "I could do it with magic, much faster."
"I don't trust you," Steve tells her bluntly. "Tony's in trouble because of magic. I'm not letting you cast any more spells on him."
Regina shrugs. "Have it your way. I'll be waiting."
Bruce casts a glare at them and makes a shushing motion. He helps Tony turn over so he's lying on his side, and spends an equally long time listening to Tony's back. By now, Steve is convinced that's the deepest frown he's ever seen on Bruce's brow.
"Tony," Bruce starts once he's finally done with his examination, and Tony's resting on his back again. "Does this feel similar to, you know, how it was earlier, when you had the arc reactor and there was still shrapnel in your chest?" Steve thinks he sounds apologetic, probably because he'd rather not remind Tony about the whole thing.
"No," Tony says softly. He's been uncharacteristically quiet since they got here, and his eyes are only half open.
"How does it feel, then?"
Tony's eyelids open a little, but his gaze doesn't seem to focus on Bruce or anything else around him, and there's undeniable terror in his eyes. "Cold. Dark. Airless," he whispers.
Steve has seen Tony frightened before, has seen his eyes go wide and his muscles tense when he's facing something that brings up bad memories, but this unrestrained horror is a far cry from that. Instinctively, he reaches to take hold of Tony's hand. "It's okay. We'll fix this," he assures Tony.
Tony turns his head towards Steve, though he looks straight through him. "Help," Tony mouths. It's like the last word of a drowning man before going under.
Tony's eyes close, and his hand goes limp in Steve's.
"Tony?" Steve squeezes Tony's fingers, then moves his hand to Tony's shoulder, giving him a gentle shake. "Tony, come on," he tries, but Tony's eyes remain closed, his face expressionless.
"Bruce?" Steve asks. He's scared, too, now.
"He's still breathing," Bruce says, and moves in to shine a penlight into each of Tony's eyes.
Bruce is right: Tony's chest is rising and falling, though it's barely perceptible. The knot in Steve's own chest doesn't really loosen, but at least the situation isn't quite as dire as he thought, for one terrible moment. His gaze falls on the arc reactor casing, which he's kind of avoided so far, the gruesome sight that it is. Now that he looks, though, he notices something odd. He crouches closer.
"Bruce—there's not supposed to be moisture in there, right?" It's just a few droplets here and there, something that's only noticeable with the light reflected from the correct angle.
Bruce drops what he was doing to take a look at the casing. "Definitely not. Let me get a sample of that." He fetches a sterile swab to catch some of the liquid, and seals it in a sample bag. He then goes on to carefully dab away the rest of it with a clean wipe. He wrinkles his nose at it as he works. "It smells like sea water."
"That doesn't make any sense," Steve says.
"None of this makes the least amount of sense," Bruce says, and stands up straight, finished with what he was doing. "I'm going to run some scans. Not convinced that'll help, either."
Fifteen minutes later, the scans finished, Bruce sags into the nearest office chair, his elbows on his knees, his hands covering his face. Tony doesn't seem to have gotten any worse, but he's still completely unresponsive.
"Well? What's wrong with him? What can we do?" Steve asks anxiously.
Bruce looks up at Steve, resigned despair on his face, and shakes his head. "I honestly have no idea. I'm not a cardiologist, I'm not an engineer, and I'm sure as hell not a wizard. I have absolutely no clue how this is possible, let alone what to do."
"Can you at least try to explain it to me?"
"Not really, but I can show you," Bruce says. "JARVIS, bring up the baseline scan."
A holographic diagram appears in the air near to where they're standing. Even without medical credentials, Steve can easily recognize what's in it: the lungs in orange, the heart in red, with the lines of the major blood vessels snaking here and there, and the faint outline of the rib cage around everything.
"That would've been Tony's chest this morning," Bruce says. "The last time he still had the arc reactor, it would've looked like this—JARVIS, if you please."
The image shifts, the shape of the arc reactor appearing in light blue in the middle of it. It looks pretty much like Steve would expect it to, considering that the arc reactor casing is in Tony's chest again. He's confused, though, by Bruce saying that this scan is from the past. "So, that's not how things are now?"
"That's nothing like how things are now," Bruce sighs. "Show the latest scan."
The image changes again, but—that can't be right, because there's no heart on it at all.
"His—he doesn't—" Steve stammers. "Did Gold get his heart after all?"
"I think it's more complicated than that," Bruce says. "It's not that he doesn't have it anymore. It's as if it wasn't there to begin with." He stands up and steps closer to the hologram to turn it around in the air, so Steve's looking at the side profile of the arc reactor, and he realizes it looks like it dives a little deeper into Tony's chest than it used to. "See where the blood vessels connect to the casing?" Bruce points out.
Steve tries to wrap his mind around that, and doesn't quite manage. He's almost glad Tony is unconscious and not hearing this, because he probably wouldn't take it well. "You're saying that the arc reactor somehow is his heart, now?"
"That's what it looks like," Bruce says, shrugging, spreading his arms. "See, that, I could almost accept. Okay, so the arc reactor is now an artificial heart. That's weird, but not entirely unimaginable. What I really don't get is, the reactor's not even in his chest! There's no power source! How the hell is his blood still circulating? Because it is, and that just isn't possible. Clearly he's not doing great—I'd call it a coma at this point—but he's not dead. I don't get it. I really don't. It makes zero sense. I can't even begin to guess how to fix it."
"Is now the time when you'd be willing to listen to me?" Regina speaks up, her voice dry as a desert. She's actually managed to sneak up on Steve, because Steve was so preoccupied with Bruce's disconcerting explanation.
Bruce crosses his arms. "Please. Enlighten us," he says.
"You could've spared yourself a lot of trouble if you'd just let me take a look at him in the first place," Regina adds. "The first thing you need to realize is, if you know the right magic, you can pull someone's heart out of their chest, just like that." She makes a grabbing motion with one hand.
"You expect us to take that at face value?" Steve asks, skeptical.
"Would you like a demonstration? I know from experience it's not pleasant." She stretches her hand towards Steve, her manicured fingernails touching his chest, and—Steve must be imagining it, but it looks and even feels like her fingertips actually sink right through his dress shirt and his skin.
Bruce grabs Steve's arm and pulls him away from her. "I think we're good. So. Stealing hearts with magic. Assuming that's a thing, why would anyone do that, and what happens to the victim?"
"When you hold someone's heart, you hold power over them," Regina says, a dark glint in her eyes. "You can make them do whatever you want."
"But they don't die?" Bruce prompts.
"Not unless you want them to. The heart remains magically linked to the body, and as long as it's intact, they'll live, but it's oh so easy to crush, and when you do that, they're gone for good." The way Regina speaks makes Steve uneasy; it sounds as if every word comes from experience. As if she's done all of this herself. Unfortunately, she's also the only one with any answers, so Steve can't just kick her out of the room.
"Why did Gold even want Tony's heart, in the first place?" Steve asks. "To mind-control him? To kill him?"
"Most likely neither. I think he needs it for a spell he's working on, but we'll have to wait for the others to catch him to be sure," Regina says.
"Whatever the reason, none of what you're saying entirely fits what happened to Tony," Bruce points out. "If I'm interpreting those scans right, Gold didn't just take his heart. What it looks like to me is that Gold somehow merged his heart with the arc reactor, and may have taken that. Why?"
Regina shrugs. "I don't know anything about that device, so I really can't tell. Maybe it has some specific magical properties."
"There's nothing magical about the arc reactor," Bruce says, sounding almost affronted.
"Things that have special value to us can be magical even if they haven’t been purposefully enchanted," Regina says.
Before Bruce can come up with any further questions, JARVIS speaks up, interrupting the conversation. "Captain Rogers, Doctor Banner, the Mark V arc reactor Sir requested has now been manufactured. You can pick it up in his workshop."
Steve hadn't even thought about that. "He ordered a reactor that fits the old casing. Do you think it'll fit now? With the… changes?"
"The external measurements are a perfect match," JARVIS says.
Regina doesn't look convinced. "I doubt you can just replace the one that was taken from him with a copy."
"We don't lose anything by trying," Steve says. "I'll go get it."
Steve rushes to the elevator and tries to will it to move faster. It's only a few floors down to Tony's workshop, and once he's there, JARVIS directs him to the correct corner of it to pick up the shiny new arc reactor, the light gleaming in it just the same shade of blue as the ones that still power Tony's suits. He grabs it and heads back. Holding the device in his hand, he wonders if it really does have some magical properties—and if Regina is right in saying this is pointless.
He's just sprinting along the corridor from the elevator to the lab when his phone beeps: Natasha. He stops outside the door to take the call.
"Please tell me you have good news," he says before she can get a word out.
"Can't say that I do. Sorry," Natasha says. "How's Tony?"
"Alive, for now, but in a coma," Steve tells her gloomily. "We think we've figured out at least some of what's going on. He really needs that arc reactor back. Did you get it from Gold?"
"He doesn't have it," Natasha replies.
That can't be right, that can't be true! Steve feels sick to his stomach. "How can he not have it? Are you sure he's telling the truth?"
"As sure as I can be. We weren't exactly kind to him," Natasha says. Steve sure would've hated to be in Gold's shoes for that interrogation. "Not to mention he seemed genuinely angry about failing to get his hands on it."
"But where is it, then?" Steve cries out. "It can't just have disappeared without a trace!"
"Wish I knew. Gold was convinced it was never there in the first place. And that's not even the worst of it." Natasha's tone is hard to interpret, but it's definitely not hopeful. "I think you'll need to ask Regina, though. She's getting the low-down from her friends right now."
"You think we can trust them?"
"I haven't seen any reason not to, and they're definitely not in league with Gold," Natasha says. If she thinks they're trustworthy, that's a high recommendation for them. "Anyway, we're done here," she adds. "We'll head back to the Tower now."
"You do that," Steve says. "I'll talk to Regina."
Already dreading what she'll have to say, Steve puts away the phone and steps into the med bay, the newly manufactured arc reactor clasped in one hand. Regina is still on the phone, listening more than talking, her expression exasperated.
"Do you have it?" Bruce asks.
Steve raises his hand, offering the device to Bruce. "Might as well try this right away. You want to do the honors?"
"Sure," Bruce says. He accepts it from Steve, and walks back to Tony's bedside.
Tony looks the same as when Steve left: awfully pale, dark smudges under his eyes, and the gaping metal hole of the empty casing barely moving with his weak breaths. Bruce carefully slots the new reactor in Tony's chest, twisting it to lock it in place.
Steve wants this to work so, so badly; since they don't have a clue where the original arc reactor might be, this is the best shot they have.
He glances from Tony's chest to his face, hoping to spot any slight change: more color on Tony's cheeks, his eyelids fluttering, a deeper breath, anything. But there’s nothing at all, aside from the glow of the reactor, which seems deceptively reassuring. Bruce checks the monitors by the bedside and shakes his head.
They leave the new reactor in Tony's chest, anyway. It doesn't seem to be hurting him, either, and if nothing else, at least it covers that deep hollow, giving an impression of things being slightly better.
"Another chance for me to say 'I told you so'," Regina comments, her phone call finally finished.
"How about you keep the snide remarks to yourself and try to be helpful," Steve tells her, letting his voice to drop to a threatening growl. "This is about our friend's life."
Regina actually looks a little apologetic at that, grimacing. "Sorry. So. The latest news is, Gold doesn't have the device, and he never did, because it was missing when the spell came into force. He thought that was because of something Stark did. From what Miss Swan told me, I understood Gold has met you earlier—an incident involving a dragon—and back then, that device was a fixed part of Stark's ribcage?"
"Yes," Steve admits. "I think he tried to take Tony's heart back then, too, but failed, for some reason."
"And, correct me if I'm wrong, sometime after that meeting, Stark got rid of the arc reactor," Regina goes on.
It only now strikes Steve that they've, out of necessity, given complete strangers some highly private medical details on Tony, but that can't be helped. They need to understand what's going on, and hiding information would make it much more difficult.
"Yes, that's true," he tells her.
"Well, Gold wasn't aware of that. Earlier, he couldn't get Stark's heart because the reactor somehow blocked his magic," Regina says. This time, the 'I told you so' is only in the glance that she casts at Bruce, who returns it with an eye roll. "The spell he cast today was supposed to get round that. Clearly, it didn't work like he expected, because Stark didn't have the device in his chest anymore."
"All right. The reason for this freakish arc reactor-heart-fusion is a misguided spell. How does this get us closer to actually helping him?" Bruce asks. "I'm worried we're on a timer here. Tony might seem stable for now, but we don't know how long that'll last."
"You're the one who was asking for explanations earlier," Regina reminds him. "Anyway, considering what happened, I expect that if you want to help him, you'll need to get your hands on the specific device he had when he met Gold the last time."
"JARVIS? Do you know the location of the last arc reactor that was in Tony's chest?" Bruce checks.
"I'm afraid I don't, Doctor Banner. I know he deactivated it and disposed of it, but I don't know how or where. He never told me," JARVIS says.
"I'm sure someone must know. Maybe Pepper does. We can find it," Steve says. "Is that all?" he has to add, since so far, none of this has sounded as worrying as the additional complications Natasha was vaguely implying at.
"There's one more thing. Gold cast another curse, an entirely petty one, to make sure that if he can't have that heart, Stark won't, either." Regina pauses dramatically, clearly preparing to spill the bad news: "Only his true love can put it back."
"His true love," Steve repeats, dumbstruck.
"This is getting beyond ridiculous," Bruce huffs. "How exactly do you define that?"
"Does that really need to be defined? His true love. His soulmate. Someone who'd give their life for him, and who he'd give his life for," Regina describes. Steve imagines he sees a hint of sadness in her eyes.
Steve swallows, and tries not to think of how badly he'd like to be that person for Tony. He knows he's not. He would give his life for Tony's, without a second thought, but he'd do the same for any other Avenger—and so would Tony. They're teammates, not soulmates; good friends and nothing more. The deep affection he secretly holds for Tony is one-sided, for sure.
"Does everyone have one?" Bruce asks. As if he didn't believe Tony would.
"Not necessarily. It's the most powerful light magic there is, strong enough to break any curse. It's not a mundane thing," Regina says.
If Steve could feel more dispirited, he's not sure how. They don't know where that arc reactor is, and even if they find it, there might be no one who can help Tony. As much as Steve wants to be that rare True Love, he knows he's not. It's pretty obvious who's the best hope they have.
"I think we need to call Pepper," Steve tells the others.
It takes a few minutes before she picks up, and when she does, she looks half asleep: wearing a dressing gown, her hair messy. Steve checks the time: it's not quite midnight yet. The room behind her looks like a hotel room. She must be on a business trip, probably out of the country, and probably wouldn't have received the call if it hadn't been on the emergency line.
"What's up? Is Tony okay?" Pepper says as she takes in the anxious faces of the Avengers who've called her.
Steve and Bruce exchange a glance. They haven't really planned ahead what they're going to say, and maybe they should've, because it's not going to be easy; starting from the top, from Gold attacking Tony, it's a series of more and more unlikely details.
"No, he's not. It's really complicated," Steve says, and decides not to even try and tell her the whole story. "For now, the important thing is, he's unconscious and unwell, but we think we know how to help. Do you know where Tony's last arc reactor ended up? The one that was removed from his chest?"
Her eyes narrow. "Why do you need to know that? He doesn't need that anymore!"
"He kind of does," Steve says. "There was a spell that changed things."
"Oh my god," Pepper says, covering her mouth with her hand. "You should manufacture a new one. That old one is in the bottom of the ocean, close to the Mansion."
The bottom of the ocean. Cold, dark, airless, Tony said. Salt water in the casing. Suddenly, the way Tony felt before he passed out makes much more sense. Steve raises his eyebrows at Regina. "Would he feel that?"
Regina nods. "I expect he would, yes."
"He feels the arc reactor being deep underwater? Who are you, anyway?" Pepper demands. Regina is standing behind Steve and Bruce, so she probably can't even see her very well.
"She's someone who knows things about magic, and we're glad to have her, because we're really out of our league here," Bruce joins in. "I know what we're saying sounds nonsensical, but honestly, I have no better explanations to offer."
"We need to get to Malibu," Steve says. "Pepper, where are you right now?"
"Rome," Pepper says, crushing Steve's hopes of her joining them anytime soon. "If I hop on the first possible flight, I can be there in around twenty hours."
"I don't know if he has twenty hours," Bruce says glumly.
"If you can't break the second curse Gold put on him, getting the device won't help," Regina notes. It's all too matter-of-fact considering what she's really saying is that Tony might be beyond rescue.
"What second curse?" Pepper asks.
Steve grimaces, tries to think of how to go about this without it sounding ridiculous, and fails. No way around it. "Would you call you and Tony true love?" he asks her.
Pepper lets out a chuckle that sounds almost like a sob, shaking her head, her expression incredulous. "True love? That's—why would you—he hasn't told you we're currently on a break, has he?"
"Doesn't mean anything," Regina says in a low voice, so only Steve and Bruce hear it.
"You broke up?" Steve blurts out. He thought he was already desperate, but now, the rug has been pulled out from under his feet yet again. If Pepper can't do this, then they have no one at all.
"Something like that." Pepper looks away from the camera, clearly struggling to keep her composure. "He said he gave up the suits, and then he didn't, and—things like this, someone calling me at five in the morning to tell me he's dying because he's made the wrong people angry again—I can only do it for so long." Her voice is stifled as she speaks, her eyes still turned away from them. "I thought he was serious about wanting things to change, but then what he actually does says something else entirely. I'm—no, I wouldn't call us true love. Whatever that means."
Bruce glances at Regina over his shoulder. "Isn't there any other way around the curse?"
"No. A spell evoking true love is binding, and can't be broken in any other way," Regina says, like it's an irrefutable fact. "Of course, it doesn't have to be romantic love. It could also be, say, a mother's love for her child."
"Not much luck on that front, either, when Tony's involved," Bruce mutters.
"I still think you should get to the Mansion as fast as you can. Maybe you're wrong. We can't know for sure if we don't try. And if it doesn't work out..." Steve lets his voice trail off, expecting Pepper to fill in the rest. That if they can't fix this, then she'll probably want to come just to say goodbye.
"I will," Pepper promises, her forlorn gaze meeting Steve's. She understands. "Have you called Rhodey?"
"Not yet, no," Steve admits. They haven't really considered that this might be the time to let the people closest to Tony know he might not survive, but it's starting to look like they should.
"I'll do that," Pepper says. "You focus on helping Tony. I'll let you know when I have my flight schedule. Keep me posted."
"We will," Steve says.
Wasting no further time, they head for the quinjet bay. They're in the elevator, with Tony in Steve's arms again, Bruce carrying medical supplies and Regina tagging along, when JARVIS notifies them Agents Barton and Romanov as well as three others have arrived. Steve tells him to send them to the quinjet, too.
Half a minute after they reach the bay, Natasha and Clint appear, followed by the other woman Steve saw in passing at the party. "Emma Swan," Natasha introduces her. "She's been very helpful."
"Where did you leave Gold?" Regina asks.
"In the car. Killian is keeping watch over him," Emma says.
"That's Killian Jones, AKA Captain Hook to you," Clint adds, with a crooked grin.
Steve shakes off questions about whether Clint means the man's supposed to be the actual villain from Peter Pan. That wouldn't be entirely surprising taking into account all the bizarre magical things happening around them. It's also not relevant right now.
"Are we taking them with us?" Bruce asks, eyeing Regina and Emma.
"I have no plans to fly to Malibu, thank you," Regina announces. "We should return to Storybrooke and make sure Gold stays put."
"All we need to do is just, find the reactor and have Tony's true love put it back, right?" Bruce checks, as if that were a simple practical task. "We should be able to handle that on our own."
"Yes, it should be straightforward," Regina confirms.
Steve realizes they've so far ignored the most crucial question of all. "Is Tony going to go back to normal, then? The way he was before?" He can't quite make himself ask the actual questions: will the arc reactor be gone? Will Tony have his heart back? If he wakes up just as dependent on the arc reactor as he used to be, or even more than before—that must be his worst nightmare.
"I expect he will, but I can't promise that. I don't know the exact spell Gold used," Regina says, leaving Steve uneasy about the matter.
"If you need advice, you can always call us. Natasha has my number," Emma says. Her smile is more open than any of Regina's have been, the sort of reassuring expression Steve often aims for himself.
The magicians head back to the elevator. Steve knows they can trust JARVIS to see them out even if they try something, although he doesn't expect them to. Aside from a few creepy or snide comments from Regina, they've been nothing but helpful. Still, he's not sad to see them go. Now it's just the Avengers, taking care of their own.
They take off and set out towards the West Coast at top speed. The quinjet is much faster than any commercial plane, and they should be able to traverse the continent in less than three hours, but that's still far too slow for Steve's liking.
Clint offers to take the helm, and Bruce stations himself by Tony's bedside, keeping an eye on how he's doing. Steve hovers close by as well, and Natasha joins them after sitting next to Clint for some time.
"We know what the deal is that he made," Natasha notes, her eyes on Tony. "Gold told us."
"Oh? I admit I'm curious," Bruce says. "I can't imagine what could compel him to do something like this."
"Edwin Jarvis," Natasha says.
"But he's dead," Steve says, confused. "Died years ago, not long after Tony's parents." He knows this well, since he regularly visits Peggy, and Peggy was good friends with the Starks' late butler. "Besides, even if the deal was made before that, you can't possibly claim that Jarvis somehow forced him into it."
Natasha shakes her head. "No, of course not. That's not what I meant. Jarvis was already dead when Tony made the deal. He was hoping to undo that."
"He promised his heart in exchange for Jarvis's life?" Steve's eyes flit to Tony's unconscious form. That does sound like something he might do, even if he hasn't always been as obviously heroic as he now is.
"That was the contract he signed," Natasha says.
"But Jarvis stayed dead," Bruce points out. "How does Gold think he's still entitled to his part of that bargain?"
"I asked the same thing. Apparently, Gold's deals aren't always what you think," Natasha says. "Edwin Jarvis might not be alive, but Tony does have JARVIS."
"That really isn't fair!" Steve cries out.
"No, it's not," Natasha agrees, "but according to the contract Tony signed, that fulfills what Gold promised, and apparently, as the rules of magical deals go, that makes it valid and unbreakable."
And Gold still doesn't have what he's after, Steve realizes. "So, even if we sort this out, Gold might try again later?"
"The people who know him seemed to think so," Natasha says.
"Unless we can fix the current situation, that's the least of our worries," Bruce says sullenly.
They fall into a tense silence for a long while. Steve sits down on the bench across from where Tony's lying, resting his back against the wall. He can't shake off the awful feeling that this is all for nothing, because even if they find the reactor, there might be no one in the world who can return it to Tony.
Natasha moves over to sit next to him. "We'll sort this out, Steve," she says, probably guessing what's going through his head, maybe feeling the same herself. "We'll find a way to break that curse."
Steve isn't about to give up, he never does, but nothing they've heard so far gives him hope for alternative solutions. "There's only one way to break it. That's what Regina said."
"Well, I talked about it with Swan, and she said true love comes in many forms. It doesn't have to be romantic, and even if it is, it doesn't matter if it hasn't been acted upon. It's enough that it's there." Natasha looks into Steve's eyes as she speaks, and it's a gaze that seems to pin him in place. Has she somehow figured out how Steve feels about Tony? She might've; as much as he's tried to hide it, even if he hasn't even entirely come to terms with those feelings himself, he knows she's uncannily good at reading people.
Whatever his feelings, though, it really doesn't even matter. "I'd still expect that to count as true love, it has to be mutual."
"I don't know about that, but keep in mind that for all his showy antics, Tony tends to hold his true feelings close to his chest," Natasha says.
She can't mean what Steve thinks she does. Tony doesn't have feelings for him. Steve is not going to get his hopes up based on that. Even so, he wants to ask her if she's serious, if she really means what he hopes she’s suggesting, but before he can work out a way of wording it that doesn't sound pathetic, an alarm from the medical monitors Bruce has set up interrupts their conversation. They get up and cross the floor to Tony's side in a few long strides.
"Bruce?" Steve asks, even though he can see himself that the screen that was previously showing a slow pulse rate now reads a hopeless zero, and the oxygen saturation is falling as he looks.
Bruce checks the pulse-ox clip on Tony's finger, then takes hold of his wrist. After a tense moment, he shakes his head. Clearly, the depressing numbers aren't because of measurement error. "I don't know what to do! There's nothing I can do!" Bruce cries out.
"Can't you try drugs? Epinephrine?" Natasha suggests, her voice unwavering, her worry more contained than Bruce's.
Bruce looks like he's on the verge of turning green, glaring at her in frustration and despair. "To achieve what, exactly? The arc reactor doesn't have adrenergic receptors!"
For lack of anything better to do, Steve leans over Tony, grabbing hold of his shoulders. "Tony! Come on, you have to hold on. We're going to get the reactor back, I promise. Just a little longer. Please."
Another few seconds tick by, but then, almost as if in reaction to Steve's words, he sees Tony draw in a breath. Steve moves his hand to Tony's throat, where he can just feel a faint, slow beat, and the numbers on the screen are climbing correspondingly.
"He's back," Steve says, the relief so overwhelming that he has to lean on the fuselage for a bit.
"Any thoughts on what could've caused that?" Natasha asks Bruce cautiously.
"Your guess is as good as mine. I hate this. Give me a problem I can measure and reason out, not this magical bullshit." Bruce sighs, rubbing at his forehead. "Maybe his body can't take the strain of this completely unnatural situation. Maybe the arc reactor is malfunctioning because it's been sitting on the seafloor for months. I was afraid he might start deteriorating, but that was just a hunch. I was hoping I'd be wrong."
"Clint, how far are we?" Natasha raises her voice so it reaches the front of the quinjet better.
"Not far. Twenty five minutes, plus the time it takes to find a landing site," Clint tells them.
Twenty five minutes is too goddamn long—Tony's dying. They have no time left.
Steve spends the remainder of the flight by Tony's side, as if he could somehow keep Tony alive by sheer strength of will. Natasha never takes up the conversation that got cut short, and Steve is glad for that. He's trying not to think about it too much. Even if Tony did share Steve's feelings, as unlikely as that is, he doesn't think a mutual crush is the sort of magical, all-powerful, undying true love that can break curses.
He wishes he had talked to Tony when he had the chance. If not to ask him out, just to let him know how much their friendship means to him. How Tony has helped him to make some sense of this future he still doesn't quite feel at home in, and how much he values Tony as a teammate. He's not sure Tony has realized any of this, and now, he might never get a chance to tell him.
He wants to brush back the stray curls from Tony's pale forehead, to press a kiss on his brow, but that wouldn't feel right. Maybe Tony wouldn't want that. Natasha could be wrong.
Whatever the reason, Tony remains stable through the rest of their flight, and Steve is thankful for it. They slow down to glide over Tony's impressive mansion, recently rebuilt just as it was before, on dramatic cliffs dropping to a narrow strip of beach below. The lights are on in the building, probably thanks to JARVIS.
"JARVIS thinks he's located the reactor," Clint says, and points out a light blue holographic dot with bright orange text, overlaid on the moonlit view in one window.
"Put us above it," Steve commands.
"Will do, Cap."
"Wait, we need a plan for retrieving it," Bruce points out. "I'm sure there are some armors in the workshop that could be operated remotely, or other tech that we could use."
Steve has already kicked off his dress shoes, and as they descend towards the waves, he goes on to shrug off his suit jacket and unbutton his shirt.
Bruce's eyes go wide as he realizes what Steve is up to. "Uh, that's not a good plan! It's close to a hundred feet deep, it's the middle of the night, and this time of the year, the water's as cold as it ever gets!"
"If you can think of a faster way, feel free to suggest one," Steve says. Any technological solution will take more time, and Steve is certain he can make the dive.
In a matter of seconds, they are hovering over the dark, but thankfully not stormy sea, and Bruce hasn't come up with any good suggestions.
"Right here, JARVIS?" Steve asks.
"The energy signature matching Sir's last arc reactor is directly below us," JARVIS confirms.
"And nothing but water there? No hidden rocks or other hazards?" Steve checks.
"Neither maps nor scan show any obstacles," JARVIS says.
"Good. Open the ramp."
Without waiting for further comments, Steve crosses the quinjet to the ramp, and dives into the awaiting waters headfirst.
Cold darkness envelopes him.
Bruce was right: the conditions aren't good at all. He can barely see a thing, and the water feels much colder than he expected, as if it's leaching all the warmth right through his bare skin, the temperature falling even further the deeper he goes. He struggles to push back memories of ice and all-encompassing cold. This isn't arctic chill. He can handle this.
He tries to aim straight down, avoiding currents that threaten to take hold of him. He must be close to the bottom already, but he can see only darkness around him.
A few more kicks and strokes, and suddenly, there's a single bright spot in the middle of the darkness: a familiar, beautiful, pale shade of blue. It's not as close as he thought it would be, but somewhat to the side and some twenty feet below him. He makes for it as fast as he can.
He's still a few feet away when the light disappears.
He can't be too late. His hand hits the ocean floor, and he gropes around in the dark, desperate, feeling nothing but silt and rocks, for what feels like all too many minutes, until finally, finally his fingers touch something warm, an unmistakable metal surface. He grabs it, clutching it close to his chest, and starts kicking furiously towards where he thinks the surface must be. There's nothing to guide him, the moonlight far too faint to penetrate this deep.
He's moving in slow motion, the surroundings unchanged no matter how he tries to hurry, nothing but dark water everywhere around him. His lungs ache for air, he's chilled to the core—and it strikes him that this must've been how Tony felt, before he passed out. He's only been underwater for minutes. Tony had to endure it far longer. But he's going to be all right, now. Steve has the arc reactor. He just has to make it back. He keeps going.
The change in light is so gradual he doesn't realize it's happening at first. Around and above him, the water turns ever so slightly paler, and then, all of a sudden he breaks the surface, gulping in cool night air.
Thankfully, he's surfaced much closer to the shore than he expected. As soon as he has his bearings, he starts swimming towards the quinjet's light. He can only use one arm, with the other hand clasping the reactor. There's a small figure holding an even brighter point of light on the shore. As he approaches, it turns out to be Natasha, a flashlight in one hand.
As soon as his feet reach something solid, Steve takes off at a jog, water splashing around him. Natasha walks up to him and offers him a towel as he steps onto dry ground. He grabs it and keeps moving, at a brisk walk now.
He finally looks at the arc reactor again, fearing what he'll see, but his fear is unfounded. He may have seen it go out earlier, but now, its light glows as brilliant as ever, without the slightest flicker. He wraps the device in the towel and tries to dry off the sea water as carefully as he can.
Clint is waiting right at the entrance ramp, while Bruce hasn't left Tony's side.
Bruce's arms are crossed, his face pinched, his eyes fixed on the medical readouts. He only turns to look when Steve is right next to him. "His—whatever we're currently calling his heart stopped for a second time, for almost two minutes," Bruce says, his voice subdued. "That was some ten minutes ago. I'd almost given up hope when he bounced back again."
Almost two minutes. That isn't long enough for brain damage to set in, is it? Tony will be all right. He has to be. "I saw the arc reactor go dark, when I found it down there," Steve says. "It looks like it's working now, though. He's still got a chance."
Steve offers the reactor to Bruce, who raises his hands in front of him, palms up, in refusal. "Whoa, whoa, I may be his lab partner, but I seriously doubt I qualify as true love."
"I don't expect any of us do," Steve says. "You might as well try."
Bruce doesn't look convinced, but accepts the device nevertheless. The newly manufactured but useless reactor is still in Tony's chest, and Bruce removes that first, before lowering the old one towards the casing. Before its base is even inside the hollow, there's a shimmer of pale golden light that seems to cover the casing.
Bruce lifts away his hand, huffing. "If this was science, I'd call that a force field. I guess that'll be the second curse, then."
"Try again," Steve commands.
"Maybe you should do it, instead," Bruce says, holding the reactor on his open palm in front of Steve.
"It won't be any different. I'm no more his true love than you are," Steve insists.
"You might as well try," Bruce says in Steve's own words.
Rationally, Steve knows he can't do this any more than Bruce can, but still, there's the tiniest glimmer of hope at the back of his mind that maybe he's wrong, that maybe what Natasha was hinting at will turn out to be true. That the feelings he has for Tony are mutual, and strong. He doesn't want the concrete proof that they're not. A very slight hope is better than none at all, though, since it's not just his feelings that are on the line.
This is about Tony's life.
Steve picks up the reactor, and swaps places with Bruce, to crouch by Tony's side. Slowly and carefully, he moves it towards the casing, expecting every moment to run into the same magical barrier that Bruce encountered—but he never does.
Without a hitch, he sets the arc reactor in Tony's chest and twists it like he's seen Tony and Bruce do to lock it in place. The moment he hears it click, there's another wave of golden light, a beautiful, bright one that seems to ripple in every direction.
Steve has done it. If he could do it, that must mean he and Tony—
Tony's eyes fly wide open and he sits up, one hand instantly going to pull the oxygen mask off his face.
Bruce aims a look almost as wide-eyed as Tony's at Steve, then steps in to place a steadying hand on Tony's arm. "Tony, stay put, try to relax. You've been through a lot."
"Yeah?" Tony asks, his eyes roving around the surroundings, flitting from Bruce to Steve, making Steve suddenly realize he's dripping wet and wearing nothing but soaked trousers. "Why are we in the quinjet? Did you go swimming? What the hell happened?"
Steve is still so flabbergasted he can't hope to give a coherent reply.
"We're in Malibu. We had to get your old arc reactor for you," Natasha says.
"No," Tony says, raising his hand to his chest—and Steve realizes that in his joy over breaking the second curse and what that must mean, he missed the cruel fact that the arc reactor is still there. Steve may have broken one curse, but the first, ghastly spell Gold cast is still in full force.
"No, no, no, no, no," Tony repeats, gasping, shaking his head. "Not this. Not again."
"There's a few more things you need to know about this, Tony," Bruce begins, then stops, because Natasha is gesturing at him to shut up. She's probably right. They can't just tell Tony right away; he's just woken up from a coma, and he's already too worked up. They need to be careful with how they handle this.
"It'll be all right," Steve tells Tony, his attempt at reassurance sounding like false cheer in his own ears. "You'll be okay."
"Easy for you to say," Tony snaps with such resentment that Steve recoils a little. Tony's hand is pressed over the arc reactor in a white-knuckled grasp. "I think I'd like to be alone now," he adds, in a softer voice.
"Just let me make sure you're okay, and you can," Bruce promises.
After Bruce has done a cursory check and declared that Tony doesn't seem to be in any immediate danger—clearly choosing his words carefully and referring to neither heart nor arc reactor—they fly the quinjet up to the helipad by the Mansion. As soon as they've touched down, Tony stomps out. The other Avengers follow him to see him descend the stairs towards his basement workshop.
Steve desperately wants to follow Tony, to grab him in a tight hug and to tell him everything about how he feels, to convince him that they'll get over this together, but it's probably too soon for that. He joins the others in the living room and waits.
Tony stares at his image on the desktop screen in front of him. It looks all too familiar.
He thought this was a thing of the past. Something he'd only have to face in nightmares and flashbacks.
He runs his fingers along the smooth, round edge of the arc reactor casing, and it feels just like it used to, as does the scarred skin around it. As if it's never been gone; as if the months he's lived without it have been some kind of a daydream.
It looks the same, and on the surface, it also feels the same, but underneath, it's different, somehow. Like something's missing, like his chest is hollow. It doesn't hurt, but he doesn't like it.
He zips up the hoodie he found lying around, covering the reactor, though he's still constantly aware of it: a background hum he thought he'd never have to feel or hear again.
He doesn't know half of what's happened, doesn't know what Gold's spell did to him, and he's not sure he even wants to know, though he'll have to, sooner or later. Might as well get started on it.
"J, you have logs of what went on in the Tower med bay since I passed out, right?"
"Of course, Sir," JARVIS says. "Shall I play them?"
JARVIS starts the playback on the screen closest to Tony, and as requested, it's apparently from the exact moment when he lost consciousness. It's kind of uncomfortable to watch. He's surprised to see how worked up Steve seems to get; he's clearly more agitated than Bruce. Must be because Bruce is in medic mode and focused on data.
He leans closer as Bruce brings up the scans. They're too small and too far to make much sense of, but he can hear the despair in Bruce's voice, and see Steve's frown.
Then, Steve drops the bombshell. "You're saying that the arc reactor somehow is his heart, now?" he asks.
No, that's not possible, that can't be right.
"Pause," Tony gasps at JARVIS. "Show me."
Obedient as ever, JARVIS brings up the holographic diagram the others were looking at, floating in front of Tony. He's spent enough time looking at these to know the details intimately, and this one is all wrong. Ribs, arc reactor, lungs, aorta, venae cavae—but no heart.
No wonder he feels like something is missing.
Terribly dizzy all of a sudden, he plants his palms against the table, leaning on it, heaving for air, and—now that he knows what's going on, the rapid thrum he can feel reverberating through his ribs is decidedly nothing like an actual human heartbeat.
"Sir? Would you like me to call for someone?" JARVIS's voice is unmistakably concerned.
Tony shakes his head, not trusting himself to manage words. JARVIS can see the gesture just fine.
He didn't think things could get worse than before. Worse than with the shrapnel that was trying to kill him every minute, just barely kept at bay.
Fuck his life.
He wonders what'll happen if he pulls out the arc reactor now. Will he just drop dead right away? He's half tempted to give it a go.
"I'd like to point out that regardless of the highly unusual circumstances where it came to be and the unconventional design, for all intents and purposes this new iteration of the arc reactor seems to be functioning flawlessly," JARVIS says, and damn it if that voice isn't soothing. The same voice that was always telling him things would be okay when he was young.
The voice that's there because of Gold and that stupid deal. Fuck Gold.
"Flawless, my ass," Tony snaps. Of course JARVIS sees it like that. JARVIS doesn't have a body, and doesn't really recognize the huge difference that this makes, emotionally, on a visceral level. Like he's simultaneously less human than before, but also more vulnerable than he's ever been.
He has no clue how he'll get over this. "Is this all? Any other nasty surprises in store?" he asks, with trepidation. If there's more—he can't take more. This is already too much.
"No nasty surprises, Sir, though I do recommend you watch the rest of the recording," JARVIS says.
He should finish this. Then, he can go on with the nervous breakdown. Tony crosses his arms, tucking his hands in his armpits. He's shaking all over. "Okay. Bring it."
The scene goes on on the screen, with Regina, whom Tony vaguely remembers following them to the Tower, giving a lecture about magic and hearts which sort of explains the deal he made with Gold, and makes him feel even dumber for doing it. Then Steve runs out to get the new reactor, Regina gets a phone call, they stick in the reactor with no results, and it's time for a second magic talk from Regina.
She explains that Gold didn't get the reactor and that the current sad state Tony's chest is in wasn't necessarily what Gold intended, which is so goddamn ironic he wants to scream, but he keeps watching. Regina goes on talking for some time, until she takes a dramatic pause and says, "Only his true love can put it back."
"My what?" Tony blurts out.
JARVIS pauses the playback again to answer him. "True love, Sir. The concept is discussed in more detail afterwards."
"My true love," Tony mutters, the confusion deep enough that for a moment, he forgets about everything else. "Continue." He waves a hand towards the screen, distracted.
He listens to the rest of the conversation, and the rather painful phone call they make to Pepper, and it doesn't make him any less confused. Earlier, he might've just dismissed a concept as nonsensical as 'true love' without further thought, but he's got very tangible proof of how concrete Gold's brand of magic is. It's not just empty words. It means something.
Pepper isn't here. Pepper can't have replaced the arc reactor.
The person closest to him, right in front of him when he'd woken up, had been Steve. It's definitely not a sight he's going to forget: he's rarely opened his eyes to witness anything as perfect as a shirtless Steve whose skin glistens with moisture, his trousers clinging to his skin.
There can only be one logical conclusion, but it doesn't make any sense.
He has to be sure. "JARVIS. Who replaced the arc reactor?"
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS says.
Even if Tony had already figured that out, hearing it in plain words almost makes him fall off his chair. Only his true love could return the reactor to him; Steve returned the reactor; therefore, Steve must be his true love.
Steve can't possibly be his true love. That's wishful thinking, that's bullshit.
He's not entirely ready to admit he loves Steve. He has a crush on Steve, definitely. He likes Steve a lot. Love, though? It's a big word. Then again, if someone asked him to go through everything he's gone through today to save Steve—if Steve's life depended on him making another deal with Gold—he wouldn't even have to think twice.
Anyway, whatever he's calling his feelings for Steve, it doesn't matter. Steve certainly doesn't feel the same way. Steve may have recently started to tolerate him instead of opposing everything he says just out of habit, but that's a long shot from love.
No, there must be another explanation.
"Replay what Regina said about true love," Tony says, and JARVIS does.
Towards the end, she mentions that it doesn't have to be romantic love, but it could be close family, too. Hearing that, it finally makes sense.
It's not that Steve loves him, it's that Steve loves his team. That must be it. Captain America is such a perfect human being and cherishes his dear teammates so deeply that it's equivalent to the most powerful light magic. It's like another superpower. He could've done this for any of them, except that the others wouldn't be foolish enough to end up in such a situation. Or foolish enough to imagine that they might share true love with Steve.
The excitement he felt only moments ago fades away, leaving him feeling even more hollow than before. Of course Steve doesn't love him. Steve was just doing his duty.
Tony stands up, leaning on the table. His legs are shaky, and he's all too aware of the background buzz of the arc reactor, like a persistent ringing in his ears, like nails on a chalkboard. Something nauseating and wrong.
"Sir? May I suggest—” JARVIS begins.
"No, you may not," Tony says. "I'm good."
He crosses the room to the kitchenette, and grabs the first bottle he can find. He kind of thought he was done using this particular coping mechanism, but really, it's what the occasion calls for. And hey, at least he's not going to have to worry about drinking being bad for his heart.
Tony's barely gotten started, halfway through the first bottle, still way too sober, when JARVIS interrupts him.
"Sir, Captain Rogers is at the door."
Just the man he doesn't need.
"Go away, Rogers," he shouts. He's sure Steve can hear it.
"At least come say that to my face," Steve returns, his tone almost as vehement as Tony's.
Tony gets up from the floor, and okay, even if he's not drunk enough, he's a little drunk, his legs wobbly. Paying a great deal of attention to his feet so he walks straight and doesn't sway, he crosses the room to the door, where Steve's standing behind the glass.
Steve's arms are crossed, which makes his biceps look even more impressive than usual. He's swapped the wet clothes for a light gray t-shirt and cargo pants that must've come from the quinjet. Could be from Tony's wardrobe, too, he doesn't exactly remember everything that's in there. They're very tight, either way, and look nice, even if nothing can match the 'freshly out of ocean' style he sported earlier.
"There's no pep talk in the world that you can give to make me feel better," Tony tells him. "I'd rather just not hear it. Shoo."
Steve doesn't budge. "Not here to give a pep talk."
"Why are you here, then? I kind of figured out the whole true love thing already. You don't need to tell me anything." Tony can't hide the bitterness creeping into his voice.
"As a matter of fact, I think I do," Steve says, with full-on stubborn Captain America defiance. He lets his arms hang by his sides, and steps even closer to the glass. Tony half expects him to try and punch his way through it.
"You really don't. I don't need you to tell me you're not my true love, I can picture you doing that just fine in my head, the sad, sad voice, the apologetic puppy eyes and all," Tony begins, gaining momentum as he goes on. The booze is probably making him say more than he should. Well, whatever. He'll speak his mind. That should get rid of Steve. "I may have a massive ego, but I'm not entirely removed from reality. I do realize that even though I've got the hugest crush on you and would like nothing more than for you to be my magical white knight, you're actually not, and that it was your wholesome and entirely platonic love for your fellow Avengers that allowed you to rescue me. Which I'm very grateful for, by the way, but I really don't need you to rub salt into the wound, I already feel like crap, thanks for asking. Oh, wait, right, you didn't. Because this isn't about making me feel better, this is just about you feeling less guilty, isn't it? Well, fine, apology accepted, no hard feelings, all sorted out, you can go now."
Steve doesn't try to stop him as he talks, doesn't confirm nor deny, just stares at Tony. It's an incredibly intense look, with perhaps a hint of hurt and disappointment, and it's kind of making Tony nervous. Even after Tony's finished his rant, Steve remains silent for what feels like at least a full minute, staring some more. Tony tries not to squirm.
When Steve finally speaks up, his voice is unnaturally steady, like he's struggling to keep it under control. "Has it occurred to you that maybe you don't need all this convoluted reasoning to explain what happened?"
It's Tony's turn to stare, trying to decide if he actually heard what he thought he heard and parsed it correctly, or if he's way more drunk than he thought and somehow misunderstood the words.
"I'd rather not have this conversation through the window," Steve insists. "Can I come in?"
"Okay, okay," Tony says. "JARVIS. Unlock the door."
Steve steps into the room, and stops just short of being in Tony's personal space, his hands on Tony's arms. "Tony. The reason I'm here is, I really, really wanted to tell you that, from where I'm standing, it looks like the reason I could help you was that I'm in love with you."
Tony blinks at Steve. He must be incredibly drunk. Steve would never say that. That's just not possible. "No, you're not. That's ridiculous. Why would you be?"
"Do I actually need to tell you how smart and good-looking you are? I thought you already knew," Steve says, with the flirtiest eyes.
"Sure do," Tony says, failing to come up with anything more clever. Somehow, his smarts seem to have left him altogether.
"Not to mention generous and selfless," Steve goes on.
"Now you're talking about someone else," Tony says. He's been told often enough how self-centered he is. "Selfless? I'm more prone to causing trouble than helping anyone solve it. Hell, I spend my days cleaning messes I've caused myself. Just look at what happened today."
"What happened today just made me more convinced that you're a good man," Steve says, unwavering. That doesn't make the slightest bit of sense.
"I heard of the deal you made that caused all this," Steve explains, moving closer so that he's definitely in Tony's personal space, his hold on Tony's biceps even tighter. "That you were ready to give your life to get Edwin Jarvis back."
Tony shakes his head. "You've got it all wrong. That wasn't some selfless act. I was drunk and desperate. I—"
"You could've also said no," Steve says.
"Well, okay, I guess I could've," Tony admits. "I probably should've. That deal doesn't mean I'm a good person, it just means I'm an idiot. Look at where it got me. Jarvis is still dead, and I'm literally heartless. How's that for making me more loveable?"
"You're not!" Steve snaps, and lets go with one hand to hand to take hold of the zipper of Tony's hoodie.
Tony freezes in place, not sure what's going on. His gut reaction would be to push Steve away and run, because having other people's hands anywhere near his chest is universally a Bad Thing, but he knows that Steve would never hurt him. Steve's also saying things that he really likes to hear, and he doesn't want that to end.
"I'm not going to lie, I was hoping that breaking the curse would make the arc reactor go away," Steve continues, his voice softer now. "But that was for your sake, not mine. I know how much you hate having to depend on it again. I don't mind it being there. It doesn't make you any less loveable. You'll never be heartless, whether that heart is flesh and blood, or metal and magic."
Steve opens the zipper, just enough to reveal the upper edge of the arc reactor, and bows to kiss the metal.
There's a sudden flare of something warm and joyful inside Tony's chest. Something more than the happiness of having Steve kiss him; it's like sunshine that somehow reaches deeper than skin, a pleasant, comforting warmth, the opposite of what he felt when Gold's spell hit him at the party. He even thinks he sees some kind of a wave ripple outwards from the point of contact, traveling through the air, like haze over asphalt on a hot day, though that must be just his imagination.
The next thing Tony realizes is that he can feel Steve's lips, that familiar feeling of something touching the scarred skin where the arc reactor used to be.
Where the arc reactor isn't, anymore.
"It's gone," Tony breathes.
Steve steps away, his eyes wide with amazement, his mouth slightly open. He runs a finger along his lips. "True love is strong enough to break any curse, Regina said," Steve quotes, his voice low and reverent.
For what must be the tenth time today, Tony brings his hand to his chest, because even though he can already tell that the weight of the reactor and its background hum are gone, he still can't fully believe it. He runs his fingers along his sternum, and the rough skin beneath them is just like it used to be, before Gold's spell. His heart is doing a kind of wild, skippy beat that might, in any other context, be a little uncomfortable. Right now he doesn't mind, because it's the polar opposite of that terrifying emptiness that was there just moments ago.
"True love, huh?" Tony says. "I think I'm starting to believe that's a thing."
"And that thing I was trying to tell you?" Steve asks, a cautious smile on his lips. "Starting to believe that, too?"
"You make a pretty convincing argument," Tony admits.
Steve's smile grows wider, all wariness gone. "It's not just me. The forces of magic are rooting for us."
Tony makes a face. "I'd prefer if they just left me alone. But, so you know, in case I didn't make it clear yet, I also like you. A lot."
"I think I already got that," Steve says, and moves in for a proper kiss on the lips.
Tony's been wanting to do this for so long, he's sure as hell not going to hesitate when he gets the chance. He slides a hand to Steve's back, and oh yeah, muscles, wow. It feels just as amazing as he thought. Not wanting to miss anything, he slips that hand under Steve's shirt, and adds a bit of tongue to the kiss. Steve responds in kind. He must taste the booze on Tony's breath, but thankfully, he doesn't seem to mind. Steve's hand is on Tony's hip and he really hopes it's about to get more adventurous sometime soon.
Tony lets go of the kiss to trail his lips along Steve's spectacular jawline and to his ear. "How about taking this to the bedroom?" he whispers, letting his breath ghost over Steve's earlobe.
That seems to be the wrong thing to say, though. Goddamn it. Steve stops, and pulls his hands away from Tony's waistband. "Yeah, we should go to bed, so you can sleep."
"Aw, come on! Sleep couldn't be any further from my mind right now," Tony complains.
"You almost died, Tony," Steve says, very serious all of a sudden, his eyes fixed on Tony's. "You should be resting. It's past three in the morning, and it's been a long day. Yes. Now that you brought it up, bed. Definitely."
Tony's disappointment is tempered by the fact that he knows there should certainly be more making out in store in the near future. He follows Steve's lead upstairs, and points the way to his bedroom, where he's never ever in his wildest dreams imagined he might some day take Steve.
They curl up in bed together, and there is a fair amount of cuddling, but maybe Steve wasn't entirely wrong, because it doesn't take that long until Tony drifts off.
In the morning, or rather, closer to midday, Tony wakes up with his head on Steve's shoulder and an arm flung over Steve's stomach, and for a while there, he's not sure if he's really awake. The next few minutes he spends marveling at his luck, at Steve's amazing figure stretched out in bed right next to him—he needs to trace a finger along the abs to confirm they're real.
He's almost willing to say that if it took making a deal with Gold to get here, it was well worth it. Thinking of that deal, though, he suddenly realizes something he didn't even think about yesterday that makes his mood plummet instantly. He rolls around to lie on his back, staring at the ceiling.
"Shit," he swears aloud.
"Tony? You okay?" Steve asks sleepily.
"No. The deal. It's still in force, isn't it? Gold didn't get his payment," Tony says. He's all awake now, and starting to feel anxious.
Steve's fingers find Tony's hair, combing through it soothingly. "Yeah, afraid so. Natasha and Clint tried to force him to cancel it, but he refused, and he's the only one who can do that."
Tony swallows, trying to hold back the panic. "He could show up again, anytime, anywhere."
"I won't let him hurt you again," Steve declares, placing his hand over Tony's heart, as if to keep it safe.
Steve's touch is reassuring, and him acting so protectively makes Tony feel all warm and fuzzy. He'd love to think that's enough, but he knows it won't be. "You won't always be around. I realize we haven't done the talk about what this relationship is going to be like, but if you assume the kind of symbiosis where we never do anything without the other…"
"Of course I don't," Steve says, sounding like the whole idea is ridiculous. Not that Tony expected anything else. They're both too stubborn and too set on doing their own thing to be that codependent.
"And you're right," Steve adds. "We should sort this out, once and for all."
"How, though? I'm all out of ideas. I don't know anything about magic, except that I hate it and it hates me right back." Usually, when Tony runs across something he doesn't understand, he studies it until he does, but he's pretty sure there is no published literature on magic, except for some moth-eaten tomes buried in dusty libraries that none of his database searches will locate.
He didn't even read that contract. He doesn't know what he's up against.
"I don't know anything about magic either, but luckily, we've got a few new friends who do," Steve says.
Tony has faced some really weird shit since he became Iron Man, but this still ranks pretty high on the list. A month ago he wouldn't even have believed he might some day go out on a date with Captain America. Now, he's on a double date with Cap as his partner, and they're seated across from a man who calls himself Captain Hook and his girlfriend, Emma Swan. They're at Granny's, which apparently is the only diner in the town of Storybrooke, Maine, a hotspot for fairy tale weirdness.
"So, what story did you walk out of? Swan Lake?" Tony asks Emma. He barely remembers seeing these two at the party—he'd been kind of preoccupied at the time—but Natasha and Clint seemed to think they're all right.
"Ha ha," Emma replies, rolling her eyes. "None, really. Not any you've ever read."
"But you know magic?" Steve checks, his hand grasping the mug of hot chocolate so tightly Tony worries he's going to break it.
And yeah, it's not really a date. They're here to try and puzzle out a way around that stupid deal, and these people are their best hope for help.
"Aye, she knows magic!" Hook says, placing a hand on Emma's forearm. "She is the Savior!"
"Killian," Emma says, casting a glance at him that seems both embarrassed and fond at the same time.
"Don't worry, you're in good company for pretentious alter ego names here," Tony tells her. "Anyway, if we're skipping the small talk: you know magic, I have a major magical problem. Any ideas for getting Gold out of my hair?"
For some reason, Hook lets out a kind of a bitter chuckle at that. "You might have set out on an impossible quest. The Crocodile is not someone you can just get rid of."
"Crocodile?" Steve repeats, confused.
"Long story. Luckily, I'd say your situation is less complicated," Emma says. "I've thought about this since you called me. The problem with Gold's deals is, he's very good at writing the terms and conditions so that there are no loopholes for anyone but himself. Still, you could ask him to show it to you. When we know what the details are, we can try to figure out some way to revoke it."
"If I just walk up to him and ask, what's to stop him from plunging his hand into my chest again?" Tony asks. The memories of the two times Gold's done that still make him wince.
"He's usually open to civilized conversation, because he can gain more that way. But you're right, it's not without risk," Emma says thoughtfully. "You're going to have to ask yourself. He certainly won't let anyone else see the contract, because it's a private matter."
"You could cast a protection spell on him, couldn't you?" Hook suggests.
"Yeah, I could do that," Emma says, her face lighting up. "That's a good idea. It won't break the deal, but it'll keep you safe."
"A protection spell? What would that involve?" Steve asks suspiciously.
"It's pretty simple light magic, should prevent anyone from getting hold of his heart," Emma explains. "But I don't think I can cast it in a way that Gold won't be able to dispel eventually, so it's not a permanent solution."
"Well, if it gives us enough time to knock him out before he gets what he wants, that's a start," Steve says.
"Yeah, sounds fine to me," Tony agrees.
"Okay, let's do it, then," Emma says, and stands up.
"Wait, right now? Here?" Tony looks around. There are plenty of other people in the diner, and they look perfectly ordinary, talking in low voices, sipping their drinks and chewing their food.
"Oh, they see far weirder things every day," Emma says cheerfully.
Even if the audience wasn't an issue, not knowing the first thing about magic, Tony would've thought a spell like this would require some preparation. He's already suffered the consequences of one misguided spell targeting his heart. He really, really doesn't want to go through that again. "You're sure you know how to do this?"
"Don't worry, mate, she knows what she's doing," Hook says with a winning smile.
"Just turn to face me," Emma says.
"Look, maybe we should think about this some more," Tony says. He hates that he's letting it show, but seriously, this makes him nervous as hell.
"I'm sure it'll be okay," Steve says, a hand on Tony's shoulder.
Tony sighs, and turns on the bench, putting his legs over the side, facing Emma. Steve's hand stays in place, warm and supportive. He's glad it's there.
Emma reaches a hand towards Tony's chest. He really needs people who are not Steve to stop doing that. It takes all the strength of will he can muster to stay still and not shrink back.
She stops just short of touching Tony's shirt, frowning. "What's this?" she says.
"If you're going to tell me something's wrong again…" Tony groans.
"No, not wrong," Emma says, actually touches Tony, and there's a flash of warm, golden light where her fingers connect.
Her lips curl into a wide, surprised smile. "I don't need to do anything. Someone's already done it. There's already a protection spell in effect."
"What? Who?" Tony stammers.
Emma looks over Tony's shoulder, right at Steve. "I think I know who."
"But I don't know how to cast spells!" Steve exclaims, his hand leaving Tony's shoulder as he crosses his arms.
"Maybe you do and don't realize it, or maybe it was just true love and the remnants of Gold's spell," Emma says. "Whatever happened, Gold certainly can't touch him now. I don't think he ever can, not anymore. This is far stronger than my spell would've been."
Tony turns his head to give Steve his widest grin. "You weren't kidding about not letting him hurt me again, were you?"
"Well, I still have no idea how this happened, but I'm glad it did," Steve says.
"My Prince Charming," Tony says, and pecks a kiss on his cheek.
Emma snickers at that, and Hook lets out an amused hum.
"Actually, Prince Charming is her father," Hook says, with a nod towards Emma.
Mr. Gold's shop has a sign that reads "Pawnbroker & Antiquities Dealer", but really, it seems more like some sinister curio shop. Tony's pretty sure it's not just his history with the owner that makes the place seem creepy as fuck. Most of the items on display, from jewelry to tableware and toys to hats, probably have some magical properties to them. Still, Tony's embarrassingly nervous about being there. He's happy to have Steve by his side. Hell, he half feels like grabbing Steve's hand, but he resists that urge. He's dealt with worse villains than Gold. He's faced invading aliens. He can face one fairy tale creature.
They're doing this. It'll be fine.
"Mr. Gold?" Steve calls out, as unfazed as ever. If he feels at all anxious, he's hiding it way better than Tony.
Gold emerges from the back room, taking his place behind the counter as if facing perfectly ordinary customers. "Ah. Mr. Stark, Captain Rogers," he greets them with the sleaziest smile imaginable. "Come to try and renegotiate our contract?"
"Not really, no," Tony says. Thanks to decades of practice, he manages to keep his tone casual.
"Good, because I have no intention of changing the terms," Gold says. "Why are you here, then? Surely not to pay up voluntarily?"
"We're here to tell you the deal is off," Steve announces, in his sternest Captain America voice.
"You don't get to tell me that, Captain. You had no part in the deal," Gold growls.
"He does, now," Tony tells Gold. He takes a step closer to the counter, facing Gold to speak what must be the most ridiculous—not to mention sappy—phrase to ever come out of his mouth. "See, the deal is now obsolete. You're never going to get my heart, because it's no longer mine to give."
Gold's face has grown openly annoyed by now. "That's nonsense. That's not how this works."
Steve puts an arm around Tony's back, his hand on Tony's bicep in such an openly possessive, protective gesture that Tony might feel annoyed in some other setting. "We're not asking you. That's just the way it is," Steve says.
"It's a funny thing about true love," Tony says. "Seems to come with all kinds of interesting side effects."
"You—you and him? The two of you? True love?" Gold stutters. He didn't see that coming, that much is obvious.
Gold walks around the counter to stand in front of them, looking sharply from Steve to Tony. Tony's sure he's going to try and call their bluff. Good thing it's not a bluff.
"If you don't believe us, you're welcome to put it to the test, but be warned," Steve says, his voice low and menacing. "We're not going to take it lightly if you try to lay a hand on him again."
It'll be fine, Tony tells himself. He feels Steve's fingers tighten around his upper arm. His heart is pounding and he really, really wants to make a beeline for the door, but he won't. They have to see this through. Gold won't believe them if he doesn't have concrete proof. He's not in any danger. Gold can't touch him.
Tony still cringes when Gold's fingers brush against his shirt, only to be met with the already familiar warm light.
Gold pulls back his hand, his face twisted into an incredulous grimace, and takes a step backwards. "It's true," he says, sounding almost awed.
Tony offers Gold his most charming grin. "Told you so. True love's a bitch, ain't it?"
Steve takes the shield he was carrying off his back to hold it in front of him, ready to strike. Tony pulls his hand out of his pocket to reveal the lightweight repulsor gauntlet he's wearing, aiming it at Gold's face.
"I trust that you won't be bothering us with this deal anymore?" Steve asks.
"Actually, if I were you, I'd consider tearing the contract apart, unless you want to test if you're fast enough to teleport away before I can blast your brains out," Tony adds.
"I assure you, threats of violence against me are entirely pointless," Gold says, but when he backs away, he walks cautiously, without any sudden moves, his hands raised in surrender. "The only reason I'm doing this is that there's no way around that protection spell, and because you, Stark, are way more trouble than you're worth. A redeemed heroic heart is a fine thing and a useful component for some very powerful spells, but yours isn't the only one in the world."
Gold steps behind his counter, opens a drawer, and pulls out a scroll that he unrolls. Tony can't claim to remember very much of the last time he saw that contract, but he can easily spot his own signature at the bottom of it.
With a final, annoyed glance at Tony and Steve, Gold takes hold the parchment with both hands, and rips it in half.