“Loki, for your crimes against the realms of Jotunheim and Midgard, for your treachery against the House of Odin itself, I Odin Allfather—”
“—take from you your royal title; used to act in hatred and violence against a broken race that had no hope of defence from your machinations. You are a prince of Asgard no longer.”
Loki’s green mantle was ripped from him, his gold-and-leather armour falling from his shoulders and chest in pieces. All that remained were his vambraces, gripping his arms like shackles. He snatched at the torn fabric of his mantle before it fell, clutching it in one white-knuckled fist.
Odin’s single eye was grim. “I take from you your magic; power used to deceive and betray family and loyal friend alike.”
Light pierced deep into his body as the Odinforce pulled tight the reins of his magic, stealing it away from the marrow of his bones. Loki only allowed himself a single gasp of loss.
“Finally, I take from you the spells which bind your true form, that you may look upon yourself and see the very people you almost erased from all existence.”
“No, Father, NO—”
But with the words spoken it was already done; the shameful truth of him bared for all to see. He couldn’t survive like this. The warriors of Asgard would never suffer the sight of him for long.
“I take this from you, Loki Odinson, and I cast you out to Midgard, a world you terrorised with your wrath—”
Odin finally faltered. “Yes.”
Loki drew himself up tall, ignoring the shudder and shake in his raw bones.
“Castigate me for my lies if you must, Allfather, but don’t you dare deny your own.” He swallowed. “Punish me for my actions, punish me with the truth you kept hidden all these long years, until it could be best used to your advantage—”
“Look at what you’ve wrought! Your lies, your betrayal, not mine! I am the creature you made me, Father. Look upon your work. Am I not everything you wanted in a second son?” His own bitterness tore him ragged, but Loki knew that Odin saw in his crimson eyes every bright and vicious truth for what it was.
“Know your crimes,” his father said heavily, “and repent. Learn the value of the lives you would have so selfishly taken. Until then, you are banished.”
Loki barely felt the magic grip his body, though it burned hot where it touched his frigid skin; dark fingers of fire wrapping around him, dragging him back into the abyss—a different hel to the one he’d been saved from only hours before.
A broken bifrost. Thor’s outstretched hand. His own, reaching back.
The darkness took him, Odin’s own power sending him hurtling through the stars. Loki didn’t fight it.
Asgard couldn’t suffer a monster for long, after all.
Nor could its king.
Odin didn’t react as the raven landed on his shoulder, beating wings loud in the still night air. Hugin and Munin would not be suitable for this task. “Watch over him from afar. Never interfere. When he finds one that may show him the truth of himself, you will find me.”
“Majesty,” said Hescamar, “who might our Loki find, locked in the misty castle you banished him to? ‘Tis a prison for him.”
Odin didn’t lift his gaze from the space where Loki had stood. “Those grounds will open. But only with the right key.”
The raven was no stranger to Odin’s penchant for cryptic life lessons, but the wisdom of the words was beyond his understanding. Perhaps it was not for him to know.
“As my king commands,” the bird finally croaked, soaring high. A beat of his wings opened a portal that glittered with distant stars. “Hescamar will keep vigil. For however long it takes.”
Odin watched his third raven vanish into his own light, travelling to do his bidding.
Asgard’s laws would demand eternal confinement.
Jotunheim would simply demand his head.
Midgard was the only suitable alternative. They were oblivious; Loki, anonymous. Once again, the realm of mortals would foster one of his sons and either forgive him, shape him…or break him.
Only time would tell.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
It was one thing to discover Pepper had gone missing. Well, missing by his standards – the police didn’t think being six hours out of contact with Tony was a big deal. For Pepper, that was tantamount to ‘well I’ve committed a terrible crime and need to flee the country’ or possibly ‘kidnapped for money, pay ransom ASAP.’
It was one thing to go out searching for her, mapping her cell phone signal down to somewhere about twenty miles west of Solstice Canyon. Traipsing through the woods looking for your personal assistant was just what any good boss would do, especially one who was going slightly stir-crazy inside the house, trying to obey Obadiah’s orders to ‘rest up there, Son, you’ve been through a hell of an ordeal. You just let me take care of the business side of things.’
He was three weeks back from Afghanistan, standing in snow-covered woods at dusk wearing thousand dollar Italian leather shoes. Was that the weirdest part? No.
The weirdest part was that a castle, an enormous castle, complete with stone walls and what looked to be a goddamn moat was standing in a huge mist-shrouded clearing in the woods. The creepy, owl-hooting, covered-in-strangely-unseasonal-snow woods.
Pepper’s cell phone was pinging from somewhere inside the grounds.
Happy had found her car parked a mile back down near the road, broken down with the hood propped up in the universal signal for ‘my damn car’s busted.’ Tony had left him down there to order a tow, declaring that a refreshing nature experience was needed. Happy still thought he was going to have some kind of PTSD meltdown, and hell, Tony still might, but he’d given in easily enough rather than stress him out by arguing. After all, what was going to attack him in the woods? Rabbits? A rogue fox? Christine Everhart?
Tony had just decided to push open one twenty-foot iron gate when he heard the first wolf howl behind him. His survival instinct, a little frayed from recent events but still working just fine, threw him into action before he even really understood why he was moving.
By the time he’d kicked the gate shut, five impossibly large lupine shapes were already beginning to emerge from the mist. Fast. Tony took exactly one second to gauge the strength of the gates versus the size and speed of what looked like a pack of giant timberwolves—
Tony gave up and bolted for the castle.
The sound of animal snarling and his own heartbeat followed him as he raced across the drawbridge, heading for what looked like arched double doors at the bottom of the tallest piped point of the structure. It had to be a main entrance. Tony just prayed the doors would open – those wolves sounded pissed.
Skidding on the snow-covered stone, Tony barely caught himself before he slid face-first into the door. Slapping his palms against it, he yanked the iron knocker around, but the cold metal wouldn’t give. Shit.
On the other side of the drawbridge –an honest-to-god drawbridge!– the gates groaned open slightly. One of the wolves started howling again. Tony hoped to hell it wasn’t calling for more reinforcements. Furry bastards. He glared up at the entrance.
“Okay, there are some very literal wolves at the door. Open sesame!” He drove his shoulder into the door at the very same instant he heard wings flutter overhead. Tony glanced up to see the silhouette of an enormous glossy raven as it swooped in, landing on the ledge above the doors. It glared down at him like he’d stolen its roadkill, head cocked and golden eyes shining bright.
“Great. I’m in a Poe-themed nightmare.” He shoved again at the doors. This time, thank God, they opened just enough for him to squeeze through. Tony wasted no time in slamming them shut, sliding an ancient-looking bolt into place with both hands. “Safe. Possibly trespassing in Castle Dracula, but safe from snarling wildlife.” Still breathing hard –too hard for someone with decreased lung capacity, Yinsen’s memory cautioned– he turned and squinted into the surrounding gloom of the entrance.
It took a moment for Tony’s eyes to adjust, then a moment longer for him to remember why he was inside an extremely creepy castle in the first place. Pepper. Pepper was here somewhere, or her phone was. But why would she have come out this way? Tony had seen the kind of killer heels she wore. Nature walks would be all but impossible, even if there was a way to explain why she had wandered a mile into the woods after the car broke down.
Pulling out his phone, Tony checked the mapping signal.
“Shit.” The entire screen was a rippling mess. Electromagnetic interference? From what? Tony slipped it back into his pocket with a sigh. Apparently tracking Pepper would have to be done the hard way.
There didn’t seem to be anyone around; no staff, no lights, just chill and gloom. From what Tony could make out of the place, it was designed in an architecture style he’d never even heard of. It was some kind of ancient-gothic fusion, complete with arched ceilings and dark fireplaces taller than he was. Enormous receiving rooms boasted elaborate curving staircases toe the upper floors and exposed stone walls. Glass windows and sconces decorated the walls. Incredible candle chandeliers hung from the ceiling, completely wreathed with cobwebs.
The place looked abandoned. At best, it certainly didn’t look welcoming.
Castle Dracula started to have a real ring to it.
“Pepper?” Tony called out down a long hall, leaning back on a wooden bannister at the top of the stairs. Peering into the darkness wasn’t going to help; he was going to have to walk down there.
It was so quiet that his own footsteps echoed. Tony wasn’t really the fanciful, imaginative sort when it came to dark places and scary wilderness, but the ambience started taking its toll as he wandered. The smell of cold stone, of yellowing paper and polished wood saturated his every breath.
Polished wood. Maybe someone was in there after all.
“Pepper? Hello? Anyone?” He called, obnoxiously loud in the stillness. “I’m looking for a tall redhead, very slim, very attractive…I think she was wearing a business suit?” He wracked his memory. “She’s wearing red lipstick, definitely. Smells like clean laundry and Chanel No. 5. Is this ringing a bell to anyone? Hello? Hey!!”
Tony started getting angry. It shouldn’t be possible to just lose an entire woman. Not Pepper. Pepper was his; she was the only person he had that he didn’t have to share. Reliable, pretty Pepper Potts with her worried frowns and small hands. The only person in the world that didn’t think he’d gone completely crazy after shutting down weapons manufacturing at Stark Industries.
It shouldn’t be possible to just lose someone like that. Pepper should shine like a brilliant beacon, screeching at him to get back to the mansion before someone from the media saw him wandering around like a lost kid.
He breathed out into the silence and gloom, pressing a palm to the cold metal in his chest. Maybe it would be better to leave and find Happy, to get a search party out. If he could make it past a pack of hungry mutant wolves, anyway.
The trouble was, this castle didn’t exist on any map of Solstice Canyon. If it didn’t exist—he hadn’t actually had a PTSD meltdown, had he? Gone to a scary-happy place in his mind? It wasn’t completely out of the question. Maybe Happy was staring down at him right now, foetal position on the ground and muttering about wolves.
Tony was so absorbed in this new possibility that he almost missed the bobbing golden light at the end of the hallway. A person holding a lantern? He was racing down after it before he could think twice about who exactly might live in a spooky castle.
“Hey!” Tony yelled out. “Hold it, Tinkerbell!”
The light paused at the sound of his shoes pounding over cobbled stone, swinging to face him.
“Tinkerbell?” a man repeated incredulously. “Who the hell—”
“My name is Tony Stark,” Tony interrupted, squinting at the guy through the light. He was a little scruffy-looking, maybe early thirties. “I’m looking for a woman named Pepper Potts.”
The guy’s face creased. “You could try the kitchen pantry.” Seeing Tony’s expression he hastily added, “a woman came in here around noon, maybe a bit earlier. The boss took her to the tower.”
Tony swallowed. “Tower?” Boss?
Lantern guy nodded. “Yeah, but—“ he blinked, bringing the light closer to Tony’s face. His eyes were wide. “Wait, you came here looking for her? Just looking for her? Nothin’ else?”
“Why else would I be wandering through the Overlook Hotel? Look, just tell me how to get to the tower—”
“No, man, you don’t get it,” the guy insisted, looking strangely pale in the golden light. “People don’t just get here by looking for missing people. And—you can’t get out. Not ever.” A shadow seemed to cross his face. “Take it from someone who knows.”
Tony didn’t like the sound of that, but then again, he’d heard that same song not too long ago.
“I’ve been held captive before,” he said shortly. “It didn’t take. So, tower. Now.”
For a moment the guy just watched him with wide eyes, shaking his head like he couldn’t quite believe Tony was real. Then he pushed the lantern into his hand and pointed at a niche in the wall. Stone steps leading up in a curving spiral were all he could see.
“Follow it up. She’ll be in a cell.” The guy was already backing up into the shadows, looking about two seconds away from running for it.
“Thanks, Tink. I owe you one.”
“My name is Clint,” the guy called back irritably. “Clint Barton.”
Taking the stairs two at a time, ignoring the cold ache in his chest, Tony raced up the narrow spiral until he could see a single torch burning up ahead. So they’d left her with some light. Had that been the other guy’s work? Or was it that ‘boss’ he’d talked about?
Exactly what kind of boss ruled an old castle?
“Pepper?” he called. “I’m kind of desperately needing a sign of life right now—”
“Tony?!” Pepper cried, his name tearing on an almost-sob. Her hand stuck through an iron bar slot in the wooden cell door, warding him off. “Oh, Tony, you can’t be here! Get out!”
“Pepper, what—” Something seemed to rumble in the shadows behind him.
“Run, Tony!” she screamed. “Just go—you don’t know what he is!”
Tony stepped toward the cell door, fear clutching his throat like a vice. Pepper wasn’t just afraid; she was terrified. Time had just officially become of the essence. He set the lantern down on the floor.
“Shut up, Pep. I’m the boss of you.” Tony hooked his hands through the barred slot, trying to lift the door. Old-school hinges they might’ve been, but they didn’t give an inch. “I’m getting you out and that’s final.”
“Tony, Tony listen to me,” Pepper said hoarsely, her eyes tear-bright and fierce through the bars. “You just got free of the Ten Rings. This—this thing, the boss? He’s a monster.”
“Oh, that’s a little rough, isn’t it?” he replied glibly. Keep her calm, Tony. “Six hours of confinement and you’ve branded him a monster? What’d he do, confiscate your Bluetooth earpiece?”
“You don’t understand.” Pepper reached through the bars to grab his arm. Her fingers were cold. “No-one gets out alive, Tony. Those are the rules.”
Tony stared at her through the bars for a long moment. “I don’t care,” he said flatly. “I’m getting you out of this freak show—in fact, how did you even get in here?”
“I don’t know, I popped the hood and I just turned around—there was this bird and I…” Trailing off, she stared at him through the cell bars like she was really seeing him for the first time since he’d walked into the tower. “Tony, how did you get in?”
The draft in the cell tower turned icy at his back. In front of him, Pepper’s eyes started showing white.
“Oh God,” she whispered, staring at something over his shoulder. Her eyes glossed with fresh tears. Somehow, he didn’t think they were for herself. “Oh, Tony.”
A bestial rumble filled the stone room.
It was coming from right behind him.
Arctic air gusted across the back of his neck. Across the cell, the lone torch guttered and nearly went out. Shadows flickered in a frenzied dance upon the walls. The lantern-light at his feet shrank to a dim blue glow.
For the life of him, Tony couldn’t make his body turn around.
He had felt fear before. Fear of pain, fear of death, fear of being alone. But what he felt in that instant wasn’t fear. It wasn’t even terror. It was rigid, blank-eyed horror, and he couldn’t make his body turn around.
“I—just want to get her out of here. That’s all.” He spoke to the cell door. Inside, Pepper was shaking. Whether it was from fear or cold he didn’t know. “She’s all I care about. I’ve got no business with you.”
“She trespassed. She stays.” Displaced air rushed against Tony’s shoulders. The—boss, seemed to be pacing. His voice sounded rough, hoarse. There was no guessing his age.
“She got lost.”
“As some do. She stays.”
“She trespassed! She stays!” The words were roared at his back, followed by the sound of ice cracking deep. Destruction in a voice. Then, “You’re not of their kind. You don’t belong.”
“Neither does she.” Somehow, the words almost came out sounding like a plea. Tony watched his own fingers gripping the cell door’s bars tight enough to whiten his knuckles. “Neither of us belong here—wherever this is.”
For a long, tense moment there was no sound at Tony’s back. He knew that the creature, the boss was still there only by the dying light and the painful cold enveloping the room. If he let them go they could just forget about the whole ordeal. Stark Industries would keep them both so busy they’d never even remark upon it again. They’d never have to breathe a word of it to anyone.
As long as he let them go.
“I release you from my lands,” the creature said behind him. “You’re a mistake. But she remains. The lost belong to me.”
Inside the cell, Pepper’s face had turned bone white. Amazingly, she still managed a ghost of a smile. For him, probably. Brave Pepper Potts. It was the copper wire and the magnet all over again.
“Can you,” she started weakly, “can you water my plants? While I’m gone? And—tell Obadiah the report he wanted for the Jericho contract is with his secretary. JARVIS can figure everything else out from my voice memos.” Her smile wobbled. “I…that’s it, really.”
Tony felt a hard lump rise in his throat.
“Pepper, I’m not watering your plants.”
She flinched slightly, then squared her shoulders. Her hair was coming out of its clip in messy strands. Pepper never looked anything but perfectly groomed. A consummate professional. Too damn good to be his personal assistant. Always had been, really.
“No, of course you can’t. I mean, you can’t even remember to feed yourself most days—”
“You’re going to water your own plants,” Tony said flatly, riding over the top of her reply. “You’re not staying here, Pepper.” He glanced back over one shoulder, but he couldn’t see anything but darkness. “I am.”
Pepper’s head jerked up in surprise and fear. “Tony, don’t. Don’t do this. Not for me.”
Tony barely heard her, instead focussing on the rapidly pacing footsteps behind him. The thing was agitated. It hadn’t expected this. Maybe this really was the first time someone had entered the castle just to find someone they’d lost. Or maybe it was the first time a prisoner actually had someone who wanted to find them.
“I could keep you both,” the boss eventually snarled, but he sounded stiff. Odd. “Locked in winter and shadow for the rest of your lives.” The struggling torch on the wall finally extinguished itself, unable to stay alight in the face of the icy presence radiating behind him. Monsters and wolves and ice and castles that vanished. It was impossible. The whole place was impossible. “I have no use for martyrs.”
“How about it, Pep?” Ignoring the cold presence behind him, Tony just smiled through the bars. Pepper shook her head.
“No. You’re too important.”
He snorted. “To what, stock prices?”
“To your friends. To me.” A cold hand covered his, prying it off the bars, pushing it away. “If one of us is going home, I want it to be you.”
I want this. Don’t waste your life.
A heartbeat from freedom. A spent gun, a man bleeding out for him, discarded and broken-limbed on stale piles of ill-gotten supplies. No, Tony thought, dizzy with conviction. Not this time. Not Pepper. Not this cell, this castle, this captor.
Tony turned around and faced the creature prowling in the shadows. The wooden cell door against his back was all that held him up. “Let her go and I promise to stay here in her place.”
The light of the lantern at Tony’s feet didn’t stretch far enough to illuminate the broad shadow in front of him. It was only an outline, seething with ice and anger that replied.
“Such sacrifice.” The crackle of frost climbing stone was all that punctuated the silence for a long moment. “Lift your lantern. See if you can make your offer again after discovering exactly what you make it to.”
It was a direct challenge, sounding so maliciously confident that it instilled a sense of dread in Tony. This…creature thought that whatever he was about to see would change his mind about trading places. That wasn’t even a possibility anymore; Pepper was getting out of there no matter what. She didn’t deserve the kind of treatment captors liked to reserve for their hostages.
Tony could still feel the gritty desert water in his nose when he carefully bent down and caught his fingertips under the lantern’s handle, straightening by slow degrees. The light pooled at the creature’s booted feet, Tony’s eyes following it as it travelled upward.
The tattered edge of a green mantle caught his attention first. It fell all the way to his boots, which were fitted to knee height. Pants of some kind of leather followed—and then Tony saw his hands.
Clawed hands, their colour a deep and inhuman blue. Flakes of ice fell steadily from his fingertips. Another glance back down and Tony realised he was standing on a frost-layered circle of stone. He—it, could make ice with his hands. With his feet.
Tony’s heart started pounding painfully hard. The travelling light of the lantern continued. He needed to see. However terrifying he was, Tony needed to see.
Hands became arms, his forearms encased in some kind of decorative metal cuff. Pale scars caught the light at elbow and wrist. More blue skin—a lot of it, because his chest was bare bar a toothed necklace that had to be real. Raised lines scored his chest like scarification, curved and meaningfully placed.
When Tony’s eyes reached the bristling fur pelt that draped around his shoulders and back, his grip on the lantern froze. This creature was savage, bestial, impossible. He wasn’t human.
He wasn’t human.
“Lift your lantern,” the creature said. “Lift it and swear your oath to me. If you can.”
Behind him, he could hear Pepper breathing. Short, shallow breaths brushed against the back of his neck. Showing cowardice in front of her, letting this thing get the upper hand, it was all out of the question. Stupid risks were just part of his charm, even if they were probably going to get him killed. With a jerk of his wrist, he brought the creature’s face into view.
His eyes were red. A pure, bloody red and they reflected light like an animal’s would. Sharp white canine teeth flashed at him in a snarl. But what really struck a match to Tony’s horror were the horns. Two thick, curving ivory horns jutted out of his brow, arching back into long, tangled black hair. He was monstrous; demonic. And he was waiting for Tony to speak, watching him with the flat, dangerous gaze of a predator.
No, Tony thought, he wasn’t just waiting for him to speak. He was waiting for him to change his mind. To leave Pepper behind. To save himself. To run.
“Let Pepper go in my place,” he repeated. “I promise you, I’ll stay behind.”
The creature strode forward and snarled in his face. Ice cracked along the walls, falling down in sheets that shattered and skittered across the floor. The lantern shrank down to gaslight blue. So did Tony’s bravado. But he kept talking. He had to make it see.
“Whatever this place is, she doesn’t belong in it. It’s too dark for her,” he blurted out, hardly knowing what he was saying. “She’s the mistake, not me.”
Despite his nonsense explanation, the pang of sincerity rang in his own ears as much as it affected the creature. Tony watched it straighten slightly, red eyes narrowing in the low light.
“You will never leave this place,” it said suddenly, drawing the mantle in close. Tony watched as it—as he began to pace agitatedly once more. “The snow never melts. The wolves never leave. You would be doomed to walk the castle until madness or old age claim you.” Halting so suddenly Tony’s eyes had to catch up, the creature loomed over him. “You would trade your freedom for hers?”
Tony didn’t think. “Yes.”
Its face twisted in disbelief and fury. “Then you’re a fool.” It swung around toward the tower entrance. “BARTON!” The roared name reverberated in Tony’s bones, but before he had time to settle himself the man from earlier raced up into the cell, nearly tripping on the top step and skidding into the ice.
“Oh God, oh God,” he was chanting under his breath, eyes darting between the three of them. “Yeah, boss?”
The ‘boss’ looked like he wanted to kill something. Tony just pressed his back to the cell door, trying to focus on the palm cradling the back of his skull through the bars. Was she trying to comfort him?
“Push the woman out past the gates. She leaves.” A clawed finger stabbed in Tony’s direction. “Follow me now or I drag you.” Ice sloughed off his hands. “You do not want me to do that.”
That was it then. Prisoner, round two.
Pepper’s fingers twisted in his hair and pulled.
“Are you stupid?” she hissed in his ear from behind. Her grip was painfully tight. “I didn’t think you’d gone crazy, but this? This is crazy!” Across from him, the boss’s lip was curling in a sneer. The matching glare said his patience had worn thin a while ago.
“Pepper for the love of God let go of me,” Tony grunted, pulling her hand and a few perfectly decent strands of hair away from his scalp. “This is my choice, this time. Give me that much.”
Stepping away from the cell as Barton pulled a ring of iron keys from a hook on the wall, Tony was able to see Pepper’s eyes burning out at the creature with a kind of baleful promise in them he’d never seen before.
“You just try and keep him,” she said softly as the cell door creaked open. Her gaze didn’t break as she stepped out, standing taller than Tony had ever seen her. “I didn’t get a chance to help last time. I’ll find him again.”
Barton laughed strangely. “Yeah, get stuck in the rabbit hole again, that’ll show everyone you mean business.” He mockingly offered Pepper his elbow but she just pushed past him, pulling Tony into a crushing hug. Honestly, the woman had the grip of a python. He awkwardly patted her back and tried not to wince at the pressure on the arc reactor. No one had to know it still hurt.
“Keep Obadiah out of my workshop,” Tony murmured into her ear. “Please.”
“Oh, I’ll miss you too,” she snapped, giving him a dirty look. His mouth quirked in a crooked smile.
Tony was off and down the spiralling staircase before he could think twice about what he was doing. He wasn’t any good at saying goodbye, mostly because he hated them so much. There was no getting out of this prison, and the only alternative was that Pepper remain. Or if the castle’s master, that demonic thing upstairs kept both of them there. Which he could do just by commanding it, if that conversation was anything to go by.
Because magic and monsters were real. There was no refuting it; he was standing in it. He’d just spoken to something he thought the scientific world couldn’t possibly have room for.
Tony could deal with it. He had to deal with it. There was no Yinsen this time, no missiles to strip for parts. No forge. No desert. No deadlines or even any particular insurance that might mean Tony’s life was protected while he was there. It was just him.
He was alone.
Tony had never done very well when he was alone. But this was just another game of survival, one he couldn’t lose.
Heavy footsteps pounded down the last few steps behind him, and Tony turned to see a tall horned shape brush past him. Cloth flickered against his leg, making him start and pull away in surprise. The creature jerked the edge of his mantle away with a hiss.
“With me,” he snapped, stalking off ahead of Tony down the large hallway. He didn’t seem overly interested in whether or not he was followed, but given the size of the castle it was probably a good idea if Tony followed someone who actually knew where they were going.
Where were they going?
If he was going to be the new prisoner, it would have made more sense to just lock him up in Pepper’s cell. Unless it was all just a trap. Visions of being boiled on an enormous kitchen stove or hung upside down and flayed started to fill his mind. What would an ice demon eat?
Tony was so preoccupied by his own imagination that he startled when the boss began to speak.
“The rules of this domain are simple,” it stated, not bothering to turn. “Passing the gates and trying to leave will get you killed. That is not a threat. Attacking me would also be ill advised.”
“No arguments there.” That earned him a sharp red glance.
“The castle is largely yours to roam. The west wing is not. Trespass beyond those stairs,” it pointed at a wide staircase marked on either side by what looked like enormous claw marks, “and you will spend the rest of your miserable days in the tower cell.”
Interesting. It had its own territory inside the castle. Still, it was the second half of its explanation that drew Tony’s curiosity.
“That implies you’re not just giving me the tour while you kick Pepper out. Where are you putting me?”
They rounded a corner in the gloom, revealing the longest side of the castle, which had been vaguely rectangular in shape from what Tony had seen outside. Enormous carved wooden doors followed the hallway the entire way down, perfectly spaced and identically marked.
“Bedchambers, all of them. Choose one for your own.” Seeing comprehension light Tony’s face, it turned to leave. Apparently the tour was over. Here’s your room, don’t go into mine. The end.
“Hey!” Tony called out before it rounded the corner and vanished. “Do you have a name?”
The creature stopped walking. All Tony could make out was the hulking shape of its fur-cloaked shoulders disappearing into shadow. The edge of its horns were a pale curve above it.
Before it could start walking again, Tony decided to dig his own grave. “I need something to call you. Don’t I?”
“Do you?” it challenged shortly, almost bitterly. Then it—he, Tony reminded himself, it was most definitely a man—was gone, vanished into the gloom. Tony watched the space he’d occupied like he was going to come back, maybe even laugh and drag him back to the tower like it had all been one big psychological joke. Maybe beat him a little, drown him a little, threaten him a little. Tony pressed a palm to the arc reactor, feeling the familiar faint hum of it. Still alive.
Don’t waste your life.
“I did something good,” he told Yinsen’s memory. “I saved her. That has to be enough.”
Not that justification was something that mattered anymore. A deal was a deal – there was no such thing as escape. Tony pushed open the first door he came to and stepped inside. It was as elaborate and lonely and the rest of the castle. Everything was draped in dust sheets and cobwebs, including the bed and the curtains.
Home, sweet home.
Tony sighed and got to work.
It took a day and a half before the bedroom looked even remotely like something he could sleep in. It might have taken less if Tony actually knew something about cleaning and dusting.
He didn’t dare sleep before he was done, instead mentally shelving it as his reward for scrubbing every inch of the place. Whatever kept him busy and his mind off his circumstances, he reasoned. Curtains were dusted down, nails were prised free until grime-covered windows let the winter glare in from wall to cobweb-covered wall. He found a washbasin to drag around like a bucket and tore up a pillowcase to use as a rag, opening the windows eventually to suck the majority of the dust out of the air. After a while it stopped smelling like an abandoned basement and started looking like something he could actually use.
The attached bathroom had been a shock, though even with indoor plumbing it had nothing resembling a water heater. Tony had run the pipes until brown water had eventually poured clear, making a mental note to never use the ancient bathtub again. There was a reason for that wash basin and he was going to take full advantage of it.
No-one bothered him. At all. It was unnerving to have that much solitude and free rein over his own comings and goings, but Tony tried not to think about it too much. At least, not until his stomach attempted to eat itself and he was finally forced to wonder where the hell the kitchen was. Surely that other guy, Clint, had to eat somewhere. Or did they have to hunt? An impossible castle probably wouldn’t have a trade route or a supermarket nearby.
He still had no idea how it had appeared in Solstice Canyon. Considering that it didn’t exist on any map it was either cloaked and trapped in its own winter, or it wasn’t actually there at all. Tony busied himself thinking about portals and wormholes and teleportation as he traversed the castle, heading down onto the ground floor in search of the kitchen. According to his watch, it was around midday. The view outside was cloudy and snowing, but the sunlight pushing behind the clouds made everything bright with glare. There didn’t seem to be anything out on the castle grounds except snow-covered shrubbery, some indistinct statues and a defunct fountain or two.
Tony was just starting to give up on the idea of finding food when he saw a shadow pass by up ahead.
“Hey,” he called, picking up the pace as the person rounded a corner. “Hey, Clint, is it? Little help?” When he didn’t even pause, Tony picked up the pace to catch up, trying to round the corner before he got too far away. “Look I know I’m the new guy and there are probably all kinds of freaky hazing rituals in store, but starvation—oh. Hi.”
“Hi,” the woman said. “New guy.”
Tony had met a lot of people in his time, but none had looked as frankly unimpressed by his entire existence as she did. Even the boss had appeared generally furious with him, which had been something at least. Then again, Tony thought, anyone who saw that face in the mirror every morning would probably have some damn high expectations. She was stunning; a leggy redhead with narrow green eyes and a generous mouth that looked like it had forgotten how to smile. Then again, prisoner in a magic castle and all – not a lot to smile about.
While he pondered that, her eyes drifted from his expensive shoes to his tailored black dress pants, up over his favourite red shirt, hesitated strangely at his goatee –a shave was probably in order, no one could be offended by that goatee– and finally reached his eyes.
Tony stared. “Well after a once-over like that, the least you can do is show me where the kitchen is.” He hesitated. “Please tell me this place has a kitchen.”
With a barely-there sigh, she turned back the way she’d come, heading down past what had to be a great hall, considering the size of the bolted doors.
“For better or worse, the kitchen is inaccessible,” she said flatly. They halted beside a large stone countertop built into a wall, which was blocked off by a wooden pull-down shutter. It looked like an oversized dumbwaiter, or a takeaway stall. It seemed to have trouble deciding which it was. The woman pointed at a tarnished bronze bell hanging beside the closed shutter. “When you decide what you want to eat, ring the bell. Food happens.”
To demonstrate, she squinted in thought for a brief moment, then yanked the bell’s rope. The shutter flipped up, revealing a thick, unnatural darkness behind it. A tray laden with a bowl of meat cooked in a reddish sauce served with fried potatoes shot out, steaming perfectly. Cutlery and a glass of red wine followed close behind.
The shutter slammed down again.
For any one of a hundred reasons, Tony felt suddenly, deeply depressed. Of course the kitchen was magic. Everything was magic.
“I need a drink.”
Studying him a moment, she turned smartly and rang the bell again. This time, an enormous cheeseburger surrounded by golden fries was ejected from the kitchen. A second tray with two martini glasses, olives, a bottle of gin and what had to be vermouth arrived with a gleaming mixing glass. Tony brightened slightly; maybe the castle had some perks after all.
“Food first,” his mystery woman said after a decisive moment. “Come with me. Only a few of the rooms are functional, so the solar is best for eating.” She didn’t wait for him, which seemed to be a recurring theme, instead just pulling the martini ingredients onto her tray and striding off back the way they’d come. As Tony grabbed his own tray he wondered if he should be investing in breadcrumbs so he could find his way around.
He was reminded of the bird he’d seen on his way into the castle. Were there other animals on the grounds? The wolves seemed to be perimeter patrol for people who weren’t allowed to leave. But Pepper had been given permission from the boss so she had to be fine. Tony really hoped she was fine. Making a mental note to find Clint later and ask, he followed his fellow prisoner into the only brightly-lit room he’d seen so far.
The solar was large, like all the rooms were, but this one had a huge roaring fireplace and soft furnishings that were actually clean. The curtains were pulled back to reveal the snowy gardens Tony had seen from his own window, but from down there it looked far less forbidding. The whole room, from its lounges and low tables to the small metal candelabra overhead gave off an immediate sense of homey comfort.
Setting down her tray, the woman folded herself down onto a fat cushion and waved at him to join her.
“My name is Natasha Romanoff,” she said once he’d sat himself down across from her. “I’ve been here for over three years.”
“I’m Tony Stark,” he extended his hand, “and I’ve been here for two days. I have so many questions.”
“No doubt.” She gripped his hand in a firm shake. “Welcome to Winterheart.”
Lunch was spent eating on the floor beside the fireplace while Natasha fielded every question Tony could think to ask about the castle. While she generally lacked social niceties and eyed him like a beetle most of the time, she knew a surprising amount about the place and wasn’t hesitant to share it. Tony discovered he’d been mostly right about the rules, though the big blue boss had cleared up a few of the bigger questions on the first night.
Natasha had found the castle after a car accident in Washington. She didn’t give any more details than that, but she’d dragged herself to what had seemed like a light out the corner of her eye and found the castle. There was more to the story, Tony was sure of that, but probing personal questions were at least three martinis away. He hadn’t needed to tell his story; the other guy, Barton, had already spilled about his trade for Pepper’s freedom.
Clint Barton, Tony learned, had lived in the castle for the last fifteen years. Fifteen years meant he’d only been a teenager when he’d wandered in. Natasha wouldn’t tell him anything more than that, but he got the impression that they weren’t exactly close either. A prisoner castle full of loners. Great.
“So, you’re Russian?” Tony finally asked as the conversation died down into a comfortable lull. “Your name is anglicised. What is it then, Romanov?”
Her look was sharp. “It’s not your business, for one thing.”
“And for another?”
“Names don’t mean much here. Not even yours.” Pulling the ingredients toward her, Natasha began deftly mixing the martinis. Tony felt his heart sink a little. Three years ago when Natasha had been a free woman, Tony Stark had been something of a womanising asshole. Hell, even three months ago. He’d been nothing but money, women, alcohol and genius. Awards and rewards for doing nothing. Status and power. Obliviousness.
“Good,” he said finally. The seam of the arc reactor itched. He ignored her curious frown, pulling himself backward on the thick rug until he was pressed against the back of an old wooden lounge. “Now will you tell me what I really want to know?”
“Depends on what it is.” Shaking the mixer vigorously, she popped the lid and strained it into each glass. “But I can guess.”
Tony took the drink as it was offered to him. “The boss.”
She nodded, shoving herself back to join him. Her dress was strange, he finally noticed. It looked like it had been made out of one of the curtains if the matching deep blue was any indication. Were there no clothes in Winterheart?
“I don’t know much about him,” she warned. “What he is, where he came from, how old he is—he doesn’t talk. He never leaves the west wing except at night, and even then it’s just to walk a circuit of the castle. It’s the only time he seems to check on whether we’re alive or dead.” Her mouth pursed briefly, but whatever she’d been about to say was swallowed with a long gulp of her martini. Tony frowned at the snowscape outside the window.
“He’s a hermit that ignores everyone, but he won’t let people leave.”
Natasha shrugged lightly. “Sometimes it’s nice to have people around to ignore. It’s better than being truly alone, isn’t it?”
“Don’t talk sense to me,” Tony replied irritably. “I’m trying to get up a good head of angry prisoner steam here. What happens if you piss him off? Has anyone gone into the west wing? Can he get hurt?”
Natasha’s gaze sharpened in surprise. Either she hadn’t expected him to skip straight to violence or she expected him to try and bribe for freedom first. Wasn’t that what useless rich corporate titans did?
“Don’t hurt him,” she said finally. “If he didn’t kill you on the spot, Clint would shove you out to the wolves. He’s got a kind of Stockholm Syndrome loyalty problem.”
Tony winced. “Do I want to guess how you found that out?”
“I tried setting a standard oil trap on the grand staircase. The boss found it, then Clint found him.” Her mouth turned down. “Clint was hypothermic when I arrived. There’s still nerve damage to his hand where the ice trapped it against the wall. It’s a shame, really – I hear he liked archery.”
“Well, shit. So you and Clint don’t get on so well?”
“I avoid him,” she said matter-of-factly. “I avoid him, I avoid the boss, and if you’re lucky you won’t see me after today either.”
Whatever friendly thread of conversation they’d been having cooled pretty quickly after that. Natasha obviously had some issues. Tony could respect that easily enough, but it meant slim pickings for conversations in the future.
“Good talk,” he said finally, draining his glass and finishing the olive. “I guess you’ll see me never. Is this your room? Because it’s probably the only one I’ll remember how to get to.”
She shook her head. The motion revealed a thin white scar on the side of her neck before her hair fell across it again. “It’s just one of the rooms Clint restored. I think it’s his goal to do all of the big rooms.”
“Interesting.” That meant Clint would have access to all of the tools and materials the place might have to offer. “Thanks for the information.” He turned for the door, already wondering if there was somewhere he could use for a smithy when Natasha spoke again.
“Leave the boss alone, Tony. I don’t think it’s his fault that we’re here.”
He shrugged. “It’s still his fault we can’t leave.”
“Sure. But do you really have anywhere else to go?” She set her glass down unsteadily. “Or anyone you’d actually be good for if you did?”
The question was a sucker punch from nowhere. Worse, Tony didn’t have an answer. Embarrassed by that and angrier still for his silence, he left with a coldness in his chest and a sting behind his eyes. If they were all there for a reason then yeah, this one made sense.
Whether they were loners or lost souls, it was becoming pretty clear that they were all damaged goods.
Tony didn’t bother trying to find Clint afterward, instead retreating to his bedroom to ponder everything Natasha had said down in the solar. Exploration could wait for another day – he was heartsore and tired. The martini hadn’t helped matters any, either.
It wasn’t until he’d used the flint on the mantelpiece and started a good fire in his room, lighting the sconces for good measure that he looked at the bedroom with a realistic gaze.
As far as prison cells went, the bedroom itself was lavish. The bedclothes were clean and aired out, patterned in strangely intricate knots of gold and white. Huge wardrobes of carved dark wood stood against the far wall, looking like they’d probably take him to Narnia if he wasn’t ninety per cent sure he was already there. Heavy curtained windows covered the entire outside wall, and a mirrored dresser sat planted in the centre. Everything was empty, minus some spare blankets and old toiletries. There was a comb inside one of the drawers that looked like it was made of real ivory. Double doors adjacent to the bed led into a bathroom that, for the approximate time period of the castle, didn’t make a lot of sense.
Walking to the windows, Tony unlatched one and pushed it open just enough to step out onto the stoop, which acted as a miniature balcony wall rising to knee height. Coupled with the steady snowfall it was pretty damn dangerous, but the view of the castle grounds falling into reddish-gold afternoon light where it managed to pierce through the clouds was something to see.
It was a quiet moment out there in the cold. The noise in his head had been almost non-stop since before he could really remember, but the isolation of the castle, the silence and the otherworldly feel of the place left him in a rare moment of introspection.
Before Pepper had disappeared he’d been working on what he’d thought would be his Next Big Thing. The Iron Man project, even though it had only been in its burgeoning stages, had lit a fire under him. His life was supposed to be Stark Industries shut down for manufacturing, Obadiah trying not to stroke out over it, with Pepper worriedly looking on as he worked. Hell, even Rhodey, despite him pulling back, still angry that he wouldn’t be making weapons for the good people of America anymore. That was supposed to be his life for a while.
Then again, Tony had never planned on Afghanistan, either. The idea of control had become something of a pipe dream.
“I thought I was going to change things,” he murmured, rubbing his palm across the cold metal in his chest. “Guess I thought a lot of things.” Returning inside, he bolted the window shut and pulled the curtains closed, sick of the rolling snowy expanse already. The freedom the view teased him with was just a lie, after all.
Giving up on self-pity for the moment, he decided to put himself to rights. Small goals and distractions were what he needed for the moment. Clean the room. Find food. Gather information. It was all strikingly similar, for all the difference in circumstances. Familiar was still good.
Eventually mustering the bravery to take another bath, Tony spent all of ten minutes in there before the icy water scared him back out and into the heaped blankets on his bed. Really, he needed to come up with an idea for a water heater before he died the next time he had to wash his hair. Naked and shivering beneath the blankets, face buried in a full pillow, he eventually fell asleep for the first time in almost three days.
Tony woke up with a start, pleasantly warm but having no idea where he was or what had woken him. Reality was fast to remind him, though, and he slumped back against the pillows with a sigh. At least he’d gotten a few hours of solid sleep in, which intelligently was more than he’d hoped for.
The fireplace had burned down to muted coals and all but one of the sconces had gone out. In the warm, rusty light of the bedroom he breathed the scent of faint smoke and slightly musty blankets, listening to the silence of the castle press in around him.
His body went tight before he fully registered the footsteps coming down the hall.
If Natasha’s words were trusted, it was probably the boss out for his nightly walk. They sounded too heavy to be her, anyway, and something told him that Clint wasn’t really a night-stalker type.
If he pulled up the blankets and held his breath, the thing might pass by and think he was asleep. Eyes closed, not a movement, not a peep—
Disturbed by the intrusion of an old childhood prayer, Tony shoved the blankets back and yanked his pants on in the dim light, not bothering with the belt. He was a grown man, damn it. Fear didn’t look good on him.
As the approaching footsteps grew louder the idea to grab a poker from the fireplace and run it through the boss entered his mind. But would it do anything? If he couldn’t give permission for Tony to leave, if he died, would that mean they’d all be stuck there forever? There were too many variables to think about, but it didn’t stop him from picking up the poker and approaching the door anyway. If the boss tried to come in, he’d at least be prepared.
Heavy footsteps finally reached his door—and stopped.
Tony went dizzy with adrenaline, panting into his own shoulder to muffle the sound. Sweaty palms gripped the poker in anticipation of the handle turning.
Come on you big icy bastard. Try me.
Nothing happened. The flicker of shadows in lantern-light pooling under his door shifted slightly. Tony imagined the boss on the other side of the door, maybe two feet away from him. He could just fling the door open and do it—
The footsteps moved on. The light beneath the door faded back into darkness again.
He was gone.
Breath tearing in his throat, Tony sagged against the wall beside the door. The poker hit the carpet with a dull thump, his fingers aching. Safe. He was safe.
Tony knew what powerlessness felt like, knew that kind of slow rage it could stoke in your bones. Being taken, being used, being injured – all so that someone else could get what they needed from you in the smallest amount of time possible. This wasn’t the same, not even a little. Tony was just scared.
Fear was a terrible motivator. It made him do all kinds of crazy things.
Pulling the bedroom door open, Tony spotted the lantern around the corner of the balcony hallway and raced out toward it with hardly a coherent thought in his head.
“Hold it, sno-cone. I want a word.” The order blustered its way out of him in a rush, fuelled by bravado and not a whole lot of pre-planning.
The boss didn’t even bother to stop walking, let alone turn around and give Tony his attention.
Tony did the only thing he could think of and jogged to come up alongside him. If the boss wasn’t going to acknowledge him, well, they could just have a fun night-time walk together.
The only problem was that it was freezing cold and Tony was only wearing a pair of thin pants. His proximity to the boss made it harder too – cold radiated from him the same way it would from a refrigerator. But he was infinitely stubborn when he wanted to be, and since the boss wasn’t paying him any attention Tony figured he could use a proper tour anyway.
“So, I’ll start. If I was going to build a water heater to stave off death happening whenever I took a bath, where would I find materials for that?” Darting a glance up at the boss, he caught sight of a reactive blink. Well, progress was progress. “I was thinking just a basic old style wood-fired thing, since I’m guessing electricity is way out of this place’s league, and frankly I wouldn’t even know where to source wire from. I think I saw Natasha wearing your living room curtains earlier—” Tony definitely saw his lip curl in a sneer that time, “but we’re not going to talk about her ever again, okay. Forget I said anything.”
Maybe the oil trap was a sore spot for people other than Clint. Mentally filing that away Tony walked in silence, eventually dropping back a foot when they reached a literal fork in the road. The boss swung his lantern left, but seemed to correct himself and wheel right instead, his pace turning decisive. Tony followed suit and tried not to feel like a confused pet dogging his master’s steps. That was just plain unproductive.
The pace picked up rapidly, heading downstairs, crossing back the way they’d come and past the kitchen, the great hall and the solar. Tony began to suspect this was more than a tour and more of a finite destination.
When they reached an iron-barred door revealing stone stairs curving down into pitch darkness, Tony went still.
“Did I talk too much?”
Jerking straight, the boss held his lantern high and turned to Tony for the first time since the tower cell.
It was almost a given that his eyes would immediately zero in on the arc reactor and narrow into slits. The look he darted at Tony was almost accusatory.
“What is that light?”
“Oh, now you want to have a conversation?” Tony shot back, shaken. “Okay then, you can start – what’s down those stairs? Is it some kind of torture chamber?”
The boss looked at him like he was an idiot. “The boiler. It’s broken.” His clawed fingers tightened on the lantern handle. “I never had a use for it.”
Tony felt suddenly and inexplicably guilty for implying his jailor was going to beat the hell out of him. Watching him open the lantern and pull a thick candle down from the shelf beside the door, Tony frowned in confusion until he lit it and placed it back on the wall. For him, presumably. It was all very…distantly courteous, but more to the point it meant that with a light Tony wouldn’t need to follow the boss anywhere else tonight.
“I still don’t know what to call you,” he called as the boss stalked back the way they’d come, the pelt around his shoulders adding to the broad hunch of his silhouette.
“I have no name,” the boss snapped harshly over his shoulder. “Neither name nor history nor word can define me. Only deed.” The glow of his lantern was almost gone, already a hall away.
Tony had no idea what that cryptic little speech meant, but his attention did latch onto one important detail.
“So if I’ve only seen you drop ice everywhere, does that mean I get to call you Frigid Smurf?”
A thunderous, echoing snarl was his only answer.
Tony counted it as a win anyway.
Days came and went.
Being the prisoner of a huge castle stuck in a perpetual blizzard turned out to be surprisingly easy to adjust to, once Tony suspended disbelief and decided to simply roll with anything magical and/or related to ‘the boss,’ whom he’d privately dubbed Mr Freeze. The new name was mostly because he’d never had a boss in his life and wasn’t about to acknowledge one now, icicles or no icicles.
His time was consumed by small, single-minded projects that he knew would keep his attention focussed on being productive instead of thinking about Pepper and, more importantly, his own freedom.
The boiler had become his main source of fun, especially after he cleaned and serviced the entire thing and realised it not only ran on coal, but the coal stacked high beside it replenished itself with every shovelful Tony heaped into the boiler’s firebox. Coming up with an automated system to feed the boiler had taken him just under two days. Tony felt personally victimised by the shitty light sources and lack of JARVIS to run his calculations for him, but there was something organic and exciting about getting back to basics.
When he eventually emerged, sweaty, stripped to the waist and covered in black soot, Clint Barton was waiting for him.
“Why do you have a flashlight in your chest?” Clint asked bluntly. He was scratching at the neck of his shirt with one hand and holding a rag in the other. Tony just pulled it out of his hand and started wiping his face down with it. His skin felt itchy and weird.
“Nice to see you again too, Tink.”
“Whatever.” Tony handed him the grimy rag and raked his hair back, turning to eye the still-open door to the boiler room. “I think I made hot water, but I’m not completely convinced I cleaned out all the sediment build-up and fortified the pipes to improve efficient—”
“Hot water?” Clint’s eyes were wide. “Hot water for baths?”
Tony shrugged. “That was the idea, but it’s not—”
Before Tony could so much as scream ‘stranger danger!’ Clint had stepped straight into his personal space and kissed him full on the mouth. He had a brief impression of stubble and lips and no before shoving him back, wild-eyed and a little freaked out.
“Look, I’m flattered, really, but we’re just too different.” Clint didn’t stop to appreciate his humour, simply twisting toward the hall heading into the solar.
“Natasha!” he yelled, not even bothering to keep the serenity. “New guy made us hot water!”
Oh, great. He was branded. “My name is Tony.”
“Whatever,” Clint retorted smartly. They glared at each other for a moment before Clint broke into a grin and shoved his hand out toward him. “Good to meet you – again, I mean. So you can fix things? There’s a lot of shit that needs fixing here.” The handshake was strangely weak, but Tony didn’t comment on it.
“I fix machinery, generally,” he said. “I’m an—I’m in engineering. An engineer that dabbles. Sometimes I make things explode.” Sometimes people get exploded, he didn’t say.
“That’s cool. Do you know how to engineer some decent soap?”
That was how he properly met Clint Barton. He was slightly off-kilter with his humour and kind of squirrelly with his behaviour, but Tony put it down to twelve years of living alone with a big blue asshole in the ceiling. They hit it off pretty fast once they decided to abuse ‘Cook,’ as Clint referred to the enormous dumbwaiter in the wall, making it generate them every bottle of alcohol they could think of, including some truly terrible peach schnapps from Tony’s college years.
Natasha eventually crept out of the solar like a curious spider and used her ingenuity to bring out a tray of chillies, a lit candle and several different types of vodka. The afternoon was a bit of a blur to Tony after that, but he was pretty sure it was a good kind of blur.
The solar became their new base of social operations. Social operations consisted mostly of getting drunk and telling horrific life stories of no consequence, thinking up daring and untraceable ways to prank their landlord, playing sexy hangman and planning repairs throughout the castle.
The last one had been Clint’s idea, something about manual labour being good for the soul. Tony and his splinter-filled palms didn’t agree, but it kept him busy and the company was painfully welcome. Not that he was going to tell them that.
“So, what’s in there?” Tony asked after their third day of ‘restoration,’ which was really just cleaning rooms and scavenging for objects of interest. They’d been passing the same enormous bolted doors each time and the curiosity was getting to him.
“No idea,” Clint replied, shrugging. “The bolt’s too heavy for me. Whatever’s in there, it’s big and it hasn’t seen light in a couple of decades. I don’t think the boss even knows what’s in there.”
“Right.” They continued on toward Cook without another word. It wasn’t until they were halfway through an enormous Chicago deep dish pizza that Clint finally cracked.
“So, d’you want to—”
“I have a few ideas for a two-man lever that could get that bolt up.” Tony wiped his mouth. “Tomorrow morning?”
Barton grinned. “Fuckin’ deal.” They shook on it over eerily accurate flavoured cola and mind-pizza, and for the second time the hand Tony grabbed in his own had a weak grip that didn’t seem intentional. The look on Barton’s face as he sat back said he knew it, too.
“Got my hand iced real good a few years back,” Clint explained without preamble, turning his right hand palm up in the firelight. “Don’t feel too much in it anymore, but it gets me by.”
Tony just nodded, a little awkward with discussing a mild disability. People took their hard luck pretty hard sometimes, himself included.
“Natasha said you liked archery.” God damn it, Tony.
“Yeah,” he replied steadily. “Used to be pretty good at it, too.”
“Not his fault.” Clint’s tone was matter-of-fact. “I was stupid; I tried helping him up after he nearly broke his back slipping down the stairs on Natasha’s oil slick.” He swallowed and flexed his hand, blue eyes fixed on the awkward movement. “The boss doesn’t do touching. I don’t think he can. With people, I mean.”
“Because of the ice?”
Barton’s shrug was stiff. “I don’t think he means to hurt anyone when he’s angry, but the ice happens anyway. Happened all around my hand, and now look at me. Couldn’t thumb wrestle a five year-old. Live and learn, right?”
Tony was distracted by the memory of the edge of a mantle brushing his leg, and the hiss and snap of it drawing away. A candle lit for him and placed on a shelf so he didn’t have to accept it by hand. What kind of life could you have if you couldn’t touch another living being?
“No wonder he’s antisocial.” Tony surprised himself by saying. It felt a little too ‘sympathy for the devil’ and decided it was nuts but Clint only nodded, relaxing slightly.
“Fifteen years here and I’ve never really talked to him,” he admitted. “Hell, after he iced my hand we didn’t see him for three whole months.”
A jailer who felt guilty about abusing the prisoners. A captor that wouldn’t let anyone leave but avoided everyone in sight. Tony was no psych expert but the abominable snowman sounded like he had some real issues going on. He’d been prepared to treat the castle, magic or not, as a slightly more liberated, cushier replay of Afghanistan. Get threatened. Apologise. Remind those with the power that you’re indispensible. Work harder. Plot for escape. But when everything was said and done there wasn’t a lot for Tony to work with. Sure he could just straight-up try to murder the big guy, but contact hypothermia, nerve damage and a straight up deep-freezing didn’t really appeal. How did you fight something that wasn’t human and didn’t want to actually hurt you?
The question begged another question: Did Tony even want to go home?
Home was pity and media and stock prices. Home was empty a lot of the time. Home—it was a personal assistant to manage his life. It was a best friend who relied upon him to use his ingenuity to kill people better than before. Home was a father figure he wasn’t sure he could trust.
Without Stark Industries, none of those people would have a use for him. Rhodey, sure. Rhodey was his friend and he’d eventually get over the sting of Tony’s decision to close down weapons manufacturing. Obadiah would probably drift – he was a businessman, and he needed business to survive. And Pepper. Without her on the payroll, there was no real excuse to use up her time.
Tony went to bed that night wondering what she was doing with her days now. Obadiah would find a place for her in the company, no doubt. He’d be a moron not to: Pepper was worth her weight in gold. She was efficient, tolerant, clear-sighted and she talked straight no matter the circumstances. Employment without Tony Stark wouldn’t be a problem for her.
It was sobering to mentally fill the gap he’d leave in death or permanent absence and find it filled well. Maybe he was getting too good at it.
The thought troubled him more than it should have; after all, he’d chosen his fate this time. It was selfish, probably, to mentally rebel at the idea that he was replaceable, or that his friends might move on from the loss of him. Rhodey hadn’t – he’d stayed looking for him for the entire three months Tony had been held captive. But would he do the same for three years? Ten? Thirty? Of course not – Tony had never given anyone enough of himself to be that precious to anyone. It was generally accepted that there wasn’t a whole lot to give under the IQ and the money. Just a lot of chipped edges, self-involvement and expensive alcohol.
He tossed and turned in his oversized bed for a couple of hours before he overheated himself and got up, feeling the crawling itch of inactivity swarm beneath his skin. Times like those, when his head got too loud and his shoulders too heavy he’d wake JARVIS up and create something new and insane and amazing. Since there was no sound in the halls outside his door, Tony contented himself to light a lantern and tire himself out with a walk.
He wandered for an hour and a half through those cold, dead halls, smelling dust and feeling cold stone under bare feet. When he finally found himself back in front of his bedroom door, tired and chilled to his bones, Tony tried to pretend he wasn’t disappointed that he’d made it back in complete solitude. The knowledge that the only person who’d be up at that hour would be the boss sank strangely into his gloom. But then, there was something uplifting about keeping company with someone who was possibly even more miserable than you were.
“Ready when you are, said Clint. “But for the record, this feels like breaking and entering.”
“If everything goes according to plan, it’ll just be entering.” Tony shifted his balance on the table he was standing on. “All right, on three. One, tw—dammit!” Clearly feeling a little trigger-happy, Clint threw his weight down on the lever early. The beam jumped up from its cradle on one side, nearly smacking straight into Tony. “Really, Barton?”
“Sorry. I got excited.”
“No kidding,” Tony grunted, quickly wedging a rock in the space the beam had vacated in the bolt so it wouldn’t fall into place again. “Whatever’s in here had better be worth it. Okay, lower and try again. Slowly this time.” Clint pumped the lever again, giving Tony a chance to raise the beam’s position higher with pretty much every small object they had on hand.
“If there’s treasure we split it fifty-fifty, right?” Clint stared at his hand, wincing. “Blisters. Great. Why am I the manual labour guy?”
Tony scowled. “Oh I’m sorry, am I not doing manual labour right here, what with the supporting of the beam you just heaved at my unsuspecting face?”
“It was an accident!” Clint complained, pulling the rag out of his pocket and wrapping his hand with it. “But keep it up and the next one won’t be.”
“That’s it,” Tony announced. “Treasure is being split seventy-thirty. Hazard pay for working despite threats and incompetent hired muscle.”
“Fuck off,” Clint snorted.
“Can’t help you. You know, imprisonment for life and all.”
Clint laughed again, but this time there was an edge to it. “Imprisonment? Dude, you volunteered. You practically begged the boss to stay here.”
On the other side of the beam, Tony stared at his partner in ambiguous crime. It had been his understanding from what Natasha had said that Clint was happy to stay at Winterheart, but the bitterness in his voice didn’t quite match that story. This time Tony felt no urge to pursue the topic. Clint had been, what, sixteen when he’d been trapped? If there were rules to being given admittance to the castle, what the hell had he been through? Who had he left behind? Shaking off the questions, Tony turned back to the task at hand. Personal questions could wait another day. Or week. A week was good, too.
Abrupt movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. Glancing up at the hallway balcony that overlooked them, Tony thought he’d seen a flash of green. But by the time his eyes properly focussed, there was nothing there but dusty old paintings and flickering sconces barely spluttering to life again.
There was only one thing he knew of that could gutter a flame that easily. Interesting.
“Okay, bear down on the lever one more time,” Tony said, picking up a small iron candelabra to wedge underneath this time. “If we can’t get it high enough we’ll have to try making a saw instead.”
Clint remained silent, simply throwing his weight on the lever again. The ‘lever’ was actually just four metal curtain rods strapped together, but with their limited supply of materials it was the best they could manage. Tony tried to pack the space under the beam as it was lifted, but it just wasn’t going high enough. Clint was all but bending the lever to the floor, too. The beam was just too heavy, the lever too weak and the distance to the ground too short. Working the beam up and over the cradle it rested in had been the original plan, but it just wasn’t happening.
“God damn it,” Clint sighed, slowly releasing the lever as Tony removed his hands from under the beam. “I thought we were getting somewhere. Guess whoever barred the door really wanted it kept closed.” He looked so damn forlorn over it that Tony’s visceral need to impress briefly overrode his good sense.
“So how strong is the snow queen, anyway?”
“The who?” Clint asked blankly. Tony just waited. When the penny finally dropped all the blood drained from his face. “No, no, no, man, leave him alone. Even if he can, it’s not—asking just ain’t right, okay?”
Clint’s disbelief was almost palpable. “Shit, because he’ll freeze you solid? Because he doesn’t like people? Because he’s probably the one who barred the doors in the first place? Take your pick!”
Tony was already heading down the hall. “Can’t hurt to at least ask,” he said, mentally plotting his path to the west wing. “We’re all living under the same roof, right? It’s just like Full House, except—I think that came after your time here, actually. But my point is, sharing is caring.”
“Sharing is death,” Clint called back, sounding almost panicked. “Come on, Tony, let’s just forget about the damn room. It’s not worth it!”
Tony just waved him off. This was a project, and projects were important to stave off things like introspection and madness. Even if big blue threw down with him over it, it probably wouldn’t be through physical violence. At least not the kind involving skin contact, since by all accounts he avoided it like the plague. All Tony would have to do was avoid the ice. Though provoking him into using it would definitely be something to see. Leaving Clint back at the doors, Tony headed deeper into the castle, looking for a familiar staircase landing scarred by claw marks.
Going up into the west wing was definitely out of the question, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t ask Rapunzel to let down her scary, potentially violent hair. Staring up the stairs into the gathering gloom at the top, Tony tried to think of a suitable carrot to dangle in front of the bo—in front of their hermit landlord.
Finding out what was behind the barred doors downstairs wasn’t really a burning question. Discovering more about him was far higher on Tony’s list of priorities, and if he used the locked room as an excuse, well, Clint would never suspect. The idea that anyone would willingly seek that guy out seemed to be alien to him.
Tony loitered on the landing for a few minutes, pacing back and forth with no idea of what to use as bait. It kept crossing his mind to just take a few steps up there and get a better look, but something about it smelled a lot like suicide.
“So you possess a sense of self-preservation after all,” a hoarse voice commented behind him. Despite himself, Tony went rigid with fright before whirling around to meet a familiar red glare.
In brighter light of day, his jailer was even more otherworldly than he’d been the night he’d shown Tony the boiler room. With grey fur draped across his shoulders and the mantle falling beneath it he looked almost regal. But the long tangle of black hair spilling over his shoulders, his curving ivory horns, demonic eyes and the curved markings in his skin – it all told him that the clothing was nothing more than a silk ribbon tied around a dagger. The guy was dangerous whether he wanted to be or not. Tony tried to reel his train of thought back in to the present.
“Commenting on my self-preservation implies you’d have killed me if I went upstairs.” Tony crossed his arms beneath his arc reactor and hoped to hell he couldn’t read body language. “Is that what you’re saying?”
The –hell, okay, it was obviously a nickname that was going to stick in his mind– the boss cast a glance up at the staircase. “Perhaps.”
Tony had no decent reply to make to that. Did he just toss a coin when someone pissed him off?
“I saw you up on the balcony. They said you only come out at night.”
Trying to get a reaction out of him was like pulling teeth. Tony decided he was definitely off his game if that was a problem, because it sure hadn’t been a shortcoming of his in the past.
“Why did you put Pepper in a cell when everyone else has the run of the place? Did she try to come up here?”
The boss just turned away. Bored with the conversation or simply unwilling to answer Tony wasn’t sure, but the burst of frustration under his ribs was strong enough for his hands to shoot out and grab the edge of a green mantle as the boss started to ascend the stairs.
“I’m talking to you,” Tony said, and pulled.
Caught between mortification and cold dread, he watched the boss’s back arch like a cat’s, sleek and fluid as he readjusted his balance, nimbly leaping backward onto the landing and whirling to meet Tony’s gaze with blazing red eyes. But Tony refused to let go.
“You dare,” the boss seethed, breathing sharp and hard against Tony’s cheek. Caught in the short tangle of the mantle and Tony’s grasp, the boss stood far too close for either of them to stand. Stubbornness was all that seemed to hold them in place. “You dare touch me?”
“Technically touching your clothes, but sure, I dare,” Tony replied steadily, drilling him with a flat stare. “You don’t get to pull the kind of shit you have and walk away without an explanation. I’m not your damaged servant and I’m sure as hell not an angry Russian woman. Why’d you lock Pepper in a cell? Who are you? What are you? Give me a real goddamn answer here because if you’re going to own my freedom until the day I die, you owe me that much.”
Odds were strong that Tony was going to be frozen solid on the spot for mouthing off like that and he knew it. But every instinct beneath the facts said that this cold bastard didn’t actually want to lay a finger on anyone. And if he was stymied in that respect, maybe Tony could even the playing field verbally. He was an expert in bravado and bullshit, after all.
Tony’s fingers burned with friction as the mantle was ripped from his grasp, leaving his palm tingling and sore. But neither of them retreated, and after a few long seconds Tony watched the boss’s mouth pull into a tight line of displeasure.
“The castle is a prison and a sanctuary,” he said, slipping his arms back beneath concealing folds of green. “Your woman tried to leave the grounds. You know what waits out there in the white.”
“The wolves,” Tony said slowly. “You locked her up so she wouldn’t run out into them. But why the hell didn’t you just let her do it? Because you sure don’t look like you’re keeping us for the company.” He took an instinctive step forward as the boss’ expression closed down. “Why doesn’t anything about you make sense? Forget the magic, the ice, even the damn horns sticking out of your head. I can compartmentalise with the best of them. This place, you, why do people come here? Why do you keep them?”
“Is it a power thing?” Tony persisted. “Control? Are we pets to you? Sacrifices, playthings, food? What use could you possibly have for keeping three broken humans stuck in this goddamn rat’s maze—”
“Because I need you!” the boss roared, and the words were anguish and fury. Ice cracked and fell from clawed fingers as he flexed them, like he was reaching for something that wasn’t there anymore. The boss bared sharp canines in a snarl, but his eyes were full of pain. “He never told me why.”
“He?” Tony breathed, floored by the display. He—the boss wasn’t angry, he was grieving something. Something lost? Someone? “You need us? What does that mean?” He received only a desolate headshake in return. The boss looked like he was about to leave again, and Tony didn’t think he had enough nerve to try the same trick twice.
There was just so little information to work with. Every scrap of insight budded into a thousand outlandish scenarios, except anything really was possible. Anything at all. Tony knew he could go insane trying to think of all the reasons why his jailer might need three people.
Then the boss turned away, heading for the staircase again and Tony’s eyes focussed again on the heavy grey fur draped around his shoulders.
“That’s a wolf pelt,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
The boss stopped dead in his tracks.
A prison and a sanctuary, he’d said. Where the wolves only attack if you’re not allowed to leave. Tony knew exactly where he’d gotten that steel grey pelt from.
“This isn’t our prison, is it?” he asked, something bitter and ugly twisting in his stomach. “It’s yours.”
A reeling glance told him everything he needed to know.
“An impressive deduction,” the boss replied, his voice somehow even more ragged and hoarse than before. “Ultimately meaningless, but impressive.”
“You selfish asshole.” Tony was seething. “You selfish, hateful bastard. No wonder you were dumped here.” He spun on his heel and strode away with impotent fury pounding in his heart, ignoring the crystalline shatter of ice and the crack of boots pulling free of it. It was a good show, but he wasn’t sticking around to watch.
The boss had been the prisoner the whole time, keeping them there so he had an audience. So something more pitiful than he was could scurry around to make him feel better. What the hell was Clint going to think about that?
Tony got as far as the grand staircase before the air at his back gusted like an arctic storm.
“You have no idea,” the boss snarled, “no idea of what you speak.”
“Yeah? Prove it,” Tony challenged. “Let us go.”
Something flickered across his alien features at the dare; a desperate tension where anger should reign. For a split second, Tony thought he read panic in those blazing eyes.
“You won’t, will you?” A smile twitched his mouth but there was nothing remotely pleasant about it. “You know, the last time I was held captive I could at least understand why. You? You’re just pathetic.”
“You—” Ice exploded from clawed blue hands, bristling out at him like deadly knives. Tony lurched sideways to avoid them – and his feet found nothing but air.
The staircase seemed to stretch downward for miles, each marble step a jagged tooth in an endless mouth. Tony’s heart gave a single, terrified throb as his balance tipped him headfirst and pale stone rushed toward his face.
A flash of blue crossed his vision. Hands pulled him, but not to safety. Tony slammed against a wall of cold, felt something press his head tight against it and then he was tumbling hard, rolling over and over in a thumping, jarring slide that should have hurt more than it did. Almost in answer, his ankle screamed as it struck the lip of a step. Tony gave a single gasp of pain before the air was knocked out of him from the sliding impact of the floor, leaving him gripping tight to cloth and cold as vertigo rocked his senses, feeling like it was tugging him up into the ceiling.
As Tony was thinking about vomiting, the body –the body– under him rattled with a painful cough. Pressure released from the side of Tony’s head, but didn’t disappear. His eyes sprang open, the room still unsteady but he pushed himself up slightly anyway. He had to see.
The boss was under him, sprawled brokenly across the marble. Dark blue blood was spilling from a cut on his forehead, just below one horn. Something shifted through his hair and Tony realised why he’d never hit his head on the way down. Arms. Arms and hands and fingers had wrapped around it like a cage, and every blow that Tony should have felt had been absorbed by a body far more resilient than his.
The fall would have killed him, Tony realised with absent fear. It should have killed the boss, too.
“Oh, God, hang on,” he shook out as he pushed himself up into a kneeling position. The boss was as still as the stone beneath him. “You can’t die before I even figure out your name.”
The limp figure below him didn’t respond. Unthinkingly, Tony reached out and pressed two fingers to his neck, feeling for what should logically still be a pulse point, even for suicidal blue prisoners. The skin that he touched was startlingly cold, but nowhere near the level it had been before they’d fallen. His fingers didn’t turn to ice, either, but they did register the steady beat that said his dubious hero was still alive and kicking.
Tony was still trying to decide whether that was a good or bad thing when the boss opened his eyes.
For a long, silent moment they just stared at each other, measuring, calculating but most of all Tony got a sense that the boss wasn’t entirely aware of what had just happened. Symptoms of head trauma manifested pretty quickly, didn’t they?
Grabbing the corner of his mantle, Tony tugged it up and pressed it against the bleeding cut to try and staunch the flow, grabbing a clawed hand and pressing it to the material so he’d hold it there himself. It was about then that the boss focussed on Tony’s hand wrapped around his and bolted upright, ripping his hand free with such force that Tony felt a wayward claw scratch clean across the meat of his palm.
“You fool!” he spat, shoving Tony away with all his might. The blow landed squarely on the arc reactor, agony exploding in his chest, but it wasn’t until he’d stopped sliding face first across the marble that he realised he couldn’t take a breath.
He was heaving for air, but nothing was happening. The arc reactor had finally caused what had always been a risk. Yinsen had warned him, and in the realisation of it Tony’s mind fed him the data at light speed in a chittering torrent of black panic and pain.
lungs at seventy per cent capacity plus pressure and force take into account approximate space between reactor baseplate and trachea, trachea and spine, pressure and force on ribcage bonded around reactor, sternum flex plus pressure plus force bending inward, baseplate shoved into trachea, trachea shoved into spine, tissue crushed causing tracheobronchial injury, collapse, collapse causing asphyxiation causing death causing death causing death
He was panicking, he knew he was panicking but he couldn’t stop, the reactor had smashed backward into his windpipe and he was going to die after almost dying and yeah, yeah there were only so many times he could cheat death with or without help—
Green cloth settled around Tony’s shoulders, wrapping tight around him as hands hauled his body up into a sitting position, bending him forward so he could brace his palms on the stone.
“Slower,” a voice like broken glass said in his ear. “Through your nose. Try to relax the–the inside of your chest.” The words were clumsy, like he was trying to translate something, but the palm that pressed over his diaphragm said enough. Tony focussed on it as he tried to pull a decent breath into his lungs. It burned deep and hot, and he tasted copper somewhere low in his throat but there was a whisper of oxygen and with it, relief followed.
“Better,” the boss whispered, sounding haggard. The hand under his chest withdrew but Tony grabbed it, squeezing brutally hard and pulling it back.
“It’s—crushed—I’m—” He exploded into a series of wracking coughs that brought tears to his eyes. Making an odd, almost mournful noise, the boss dipped and pressed his ear to Tony’s back.
“No,” he said after a moment, but his voice wasn’t entirely steady. Tony thought that he sounded as scared as he was. Which— “I hear no blockage. The wind was knocked out of you and that metal disc pressed on something, but nothing is crushed. You panicked.”
“I’m,” Tony started, but it was all he could wheeze out. Humiliatingly, the moisture in his eyes wasn’t owed entirely to the pain. He wasn’t going to die. Not so soon after Afghanistan. Not even when he thought he’d already given his life away. He was okay. He was okay.
They sat there for long minutes, Tony trying to get his breathing under control and the boss trapped in a crouch behind him, tense and skittishly trying not to pull his hand out of Tony’s grip. It was cold, his hand, but whatever emotion triggered the icicles wasn’t one he was feeling just then. Irrationally, Tony felt like letting go would bring back the airless torture, the tight aching panic of suffocation. The memory of dark water, the memory of a fist in his hair pushing him down into death. He thought he’d dealt with that already.
“Let’s never fight again,” he croaked out some time later. His ankle twinged warningly as he shifted. Behind him, a huffed breath was his only reply.
Tony blinked, turning to look over his shoulder. “Bless you?”
The boss grunted in annoyance. Blood was still dripping down his face.
“My name,” he said tightly. “It was Loki. Once.”
Tony thought that one over for a while. Loki. Quick and sharp. It also kind of rhymed with his name, which made it an instant hit. Tony wasn’t sure why he’d suddenly told him though, unless he’d really been awake after they fell.
“Hi,” he said finally. The bo—Loki seemed to sag a little, like something had disappointed him. He tugged his hand away again and this time Tony let him go, trying to awkwardly push himself to his feet. His ankle didn’t feel broken but he was going to have the mother of all bruises to deal with soon.
When Tony was confident he had enough balance and lifted his head, Loki was staring at him closely.
“Never touch my skin,” he said, taking his mantle back. “The ice could kill you.”
“Maybe.” His windpipe still burned, giving his voice a breathier edge than usual. “But if I don’t sneak up on you, piss you off or try to fight you, I’d say we could arm-wrestle til sundown without a problem.”
“You would lose,” Loki said flatly. The concern of moments ago was gone, replaced by something hard and unkind. “I’m older, stronger and more dangerous than anything you’ve ever set eyes upon and I will be obeyed. Do not seek me out again, Tony Stark.”
His name sounded interesting in Loki’s mouth. Whatever accent the guy had put a new spin on old syllables. Tony was surprised to find he liked it.
“All right. On one condition.” He shifted beneath the glare directed at him, but held his ground just fine. “Since you’re so damn strong –which I have my doubts about, but let’s not go there– do you think you could get the big doors down past the main hall unbarred? We can’t lift the beam.”
Loki frowned, his head tipping back slightly. The movement exposed the smooth blue of his throat in a distracting way Tony tried not to look at.
“The ballroom is naught but dust and darkness. What use have you for it?”
“It’s a secret.” He didn’t need to know that the secret was that Tony haven’t even realised it was a ballroom in there and that he had, in fact, no use for it whatsoever.
Loki looked alarmed by his response. “Then I refuse.”
“Come on. Consider it your apology for knocking me down the stairs.”
Ice shot out of Loki’s hands, hitting the marble like great long knives. Tony swallowed.
“I’ll figure something else out.” He hobbled away at speed. Something told him he’d pushed big blue way beyond his usual social boundaries. Joking could come later. Or never.
Whichever left him in a state of reasonable health the longest.
Tony didn’t go back to the ballroom doors after his altercation with Loki, instead choosing to head back to his room for the rest of the day and think about everything that had happened. Everything he’d learned.
The ice, Tony thought as he soaked in the bathtub, the ice had to be a defence mechanism of some kind. Activated by strong negative emotion? It was possible. An unconscious reaction, definitely. He had a reasonable amount of education in the field of biology and physiology, but blue ice devil guys were outside his realm of experience altogether. Experimentation of any kind was completely out of the question. He didn’t have the equipment for it, anyway.
He was still mulling it over when his bedroom door burst open, slamming against the wall with a loud thump.
“Tony?” a very familiar, very tense voice called out. “Oh shit, Nat, he’s probably dead. I knew I should’ve gone with him.”
“His own idiot fault for taking on the boss.” Natasha sounded like she was by the window of his room. Don’t stand on ceremony, he thought dryly.
“The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he called out. “Though my ankle almost makes me wish they weren’t.”
They both charged into his bathroom with the exact same lack of social courtesy, so it served them right when they copped an eyeful of him chest-deep in hot water without so much as a modesty cloth.
“Good evening?” he offered as they stood silent in front of his tub. “Natasha, tell me you know first aid or something. My ankle has gained four pounds since lunchtime.”
Hip-checking Clint out of the way, Natasha pushed her long hair back over her shoulders and pushed her sleeves up, pulling his calf out of the water so his foot hung off the edge of the tub. In the course of five hours it had gone from painful to black and swollen with bruising.
“I need to feel the bone,” she warned. Tony just nodded.
“Thought you might say that. Be gentle with me.” Turning to Clint, he was about to ask for a distraction when he noticed exactly what he was staring at. It sure wasn’t the arc reactor. “It’s common courtesy to sneak a glance at my dick, Barton, not ogle it exclusively.”
“What? I haven’t seen one for a million years.” Clint scratched his stubbly chin. “Well, I mean, I’ve seen mine. Obviously. Shut the hell up.”
Whatever joke Tony had been about to make was overridden by the hiss of pain that escaped as Natasha’s careful fingers felt their way around the bones of his ankle, rotating the joint and clucking grumpily at the restricted movement he was able to manage. By the time she’d finished he was sweating into the warm water of the tub and had to dunk himself under again to feel clean.
“Not broken,” she said crisply when he resurfaced. “Keep off it tomorrow. Clint, get him a bag of ice from Cook when you get up in the morning.” Her green eyes flickered up to the arc reactor. “You’ve got some bruising there, too.”
“It’s fine,” Tony said easily.
“It’s a handprint.”
“Yes, it is.”
Natasha glared at him. Tony smiled back. She was absolutely dying to know and he was loving every second of it.
Clint was staring at the bruise with an expression that really sapped the fun out of the moment. His right hand was flexing.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “You’ve been here ten seconds. I’ve been here for ten years. Longer. But he hurt me and not you.”
Tony understood, and the parallel of their situations wasn’t lost on him. A tumble down the stairs, skin contact, yet he was fine and Clint had been permanently disabled in one hand.
“You were right,” he said simply. “I don’t think he knows how to control when it happens. I grabbed his hand and it was fine. Five minutes later there was ice all over the floor.” He didn’t add what had triggered the ice. Somehow he didn’t think Clint would appreciate it. “Speaking of your hand though, I’ve been having some ideas about a bow.”
Natasha flashed him a dangerous look. Protective of Barton? Or guilty? Clint just sat himself on the rim of the tub, not minding the water splashed across it.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can lock your elbow, can’t you? What if I installed a handle-type attachment beneath the sight so your grip strength wasn’t as important? Or, hell, we could start from scratch and swap hands completely.” He shrugged as Clint stared at him. “Plenty of ideas, plenty of materials. Say the word.”
Clint swallowed hard and nodded, his jaw tight. “Yeah,” he choked out. “That’d be good.”
“Offer’s off the table if you cry in my bathwater, though.”
“Fuck off,” he retorted, but he was laughing. Tony grinned back.
“Okay but seriously get the hell out of my bathroom.” He didn’t have a lot of modesty, but being naked in a room with two people he wasn’t sleeping with still came with its own baggage load of weird.
“Jesus, okay.” Clint left in a hurry, patting at his wet ass as he went. When he was gone Natasha turned to him with one impressively raised eyebrow.
“A bow, huh? I thought you specialised in other kinds of weapons.”
“I specialise in a lot of things.”
“Is that an electromagnet?”
“Yes. Are you a spy?”
“There’s no-one here to spy on,” she replied. “I’ve never seen technology like that. What does it do?”
“It keeps me in good health. Did you used to be a spy?”
“What makes you think I’m a spy?”
Tony hauled himself out of the bathtub awkwardly, dripping water all over the tiles until Natasha kicked a ragged towel under his feet and handed him another. He took his time mopping at his face and hair before replying.
“You’re protective of your name.”
“You have a garrotte scar on your throat. Your accent never slips. You know how to make a ‘standard oil trap’ as you so nicely put it. Your footsteps never really make a sound unless you want them to. You knew my face at a glance and my eating habits to boot.” Tony smiled at her. “You’re a goddamn Russian spy.”
She watched him sharply as he dried off and pulled on his white undershirt and pants, mostly because he didn’t want to die naked if she decided he was a risk. Raking wet hair back from his face, he was peering at his overgrown goatee in the mirror when she replied.
“I was a spy,” she said, and her voice relaxed, her mouth curving around familiar sounds as some of the American slipped out of her, letting some of the Russian back in. “I came here half-dead, running from your government. My agency deemed me a danger and burned me while I was on assignment in Washington. They left it to your people to run me into the ground. I was driving too fast and hit a tack strip on the road. Came off the steep side of a hill.” Her mouth twitched. “I broke half my ribs and crawled on my belly until I realised it was snowing heavily in spring. I’ve been here ever since.”
Well, that sure beat his story. “I think that makes you the most badass woman I know.”
Natasha smiled before she could help it, surprising the both of them. For a moment the hard-bitten sceptic vanished, revealing someone Tony would have liked to get to know better. Maybe in another lifetime, he thought ruefully.
When she had left him as well, Tony spent the remainder of the evening hobbling around his room using the fire poker as an impromptu walking stick, trying to pace off his thoughts. The castle had brought in a spy, an engineer-slash-weapons-manufacturer and an archer. Presumably, anyway, since Barton seemed to define himself by that one skill. Was there a pattern? But no, Pepper had come first. Pepper was fierce and precise but she was compassionate and efficient and she’d never have belonged with people like Natasha. Well, he amended, there was that moment back in the cell tower that he’d been a little worried about her capacity for homicide, but that had been an isolated incident. Extenuating circumstances.
He slept soundly through the night, waking up startled and sore across the chest when his door was pushed open by a wide-eyed Clint Barton.
“Got your ice,” he said by way of good morning, setting what looked like an old flour bag down on his bedside table. “You’re never gonna believe it.”
Tony rubbed the heels of his palms into his eyes, trying to wake up. “You brought me breakfast?” he yawned.
“Later. Guess again.”
“I honestly have no idea. I think I’m only fifteen percent conscious right now if you really want—”
“The beam’s gone.” Clint thumped himself down on the edge of the bed so hard it jarred Tony’s ankle, but he barely felt it.
“Yeah. Whatever you said to the boss must’ve worked, because I saw it leaning on the wall beside the doors this morning. There’s a big dance hall in there, Tony, you should see it. It’s dusty and there’s cobwebs and sheets on everything but it’s enormous.” He hesitated, then burst out with, “we should totally clean it out.”
Tony pulled the blankets back up over his head in disgust, ignoring Clint’s assurances that they’d at least wait until he could walk. But in the soft darkness of the sheets Tony couldn’t help but allow himself a triumphant smile.
Things were starting to get interesting.
Interlude: The Office of Obadiah Stane
“I’m not saying he’s not out there somewhere. What I am saying is that we’ve looked everywhere. There’s no trace of Tony out there, Pepper, and I have a business to run. The police are looking—”
“The police will never find him. He disappeared in Solstice Canyon, Obadiah, but that’s not where he’s imprisoned.”
Obadiah sat back in his chair, frowning. Pepper Potts wasn’t a woman given to flights of fancy, and she’d handled the Afghanistan situation well enough. This should be familiar ground for her. But instead of moving on with her life and leaving the search party to the big boys, there she was in his office, looking about as strained and determined as he’d ever seen her.
“You told me the story,” he said mildly, “and I heard you out. I even sent a security team out there in the wilderness looking for the snow. But the truth is I can’t act without proof, and I can’t spend company money looking for a loose cannon.” He put up a calming hand to forestall her protests. “I know, I know. This is Tony we’re talking about here, but even I can admit that he came back a changed man. The board is antsy, the stocks are dropping, and the jewel of our company has just gone missing—again. There’s only so much I can do right now.”
Pepper’s head lowered. In her lap, her hands remained perfectly folded.
“I can’t just leave him out there. I—I’ve seen the master of that castle. He can do things I’ve never seen before, and Tony pushes buttons like no-one else alive.” She looked up, meeting his gaze. Her eyes were glittering with tears. Pepper Potts, the consummate professional. Pepper, who never let her emotions get the best of her.
Obadiah repressed a sigh. This felt like a trap.
“All right, all right. Say I believe all this talk about a disappearing castle and an ice monster. Say it’s all true. Break it down for me again.”
Pepper smiled brilliantly. It was about then that Obadiah noticed the thick sheaf of paper beneath her clasped hands.
“Well, I took the liberty of breaking it down into a thirty page analysis divided into geographical locations it has appeared in, what I know about the people kept inside and the figure they call ‘the boss’ who I think is some kind of new species of human—or a very old one.” She handed him the bound documents, standing to lean on the edge of his desk. “I’ve also hypothesized on who the grounds allow access to and why. It’s incredibly rough, but I think it might help us. I worked with JARVIS to draw up some rough sketches of the other prisoners…”
Obadiah felt a headache coming on. “How long did you say you were kept there?”
Pepper blinked. “About seven hours.”
“You’re something else, you know that?”
Obadiah flicked through the pages she’d given him. It was comprehensive, all right, but the hard copy analysis said volumes more than he’d originally allowed himself room to think about. Had Pepper and Tony stumbled onto something big? A secret base? Human experimentation? God only knew what the government got up to in their secret nooks and crannies – people from the Strategic Homeland something-or-other had been sniffing around lately – but this didn’t look like something they’d had their bureaucratic hands all over. Still, it was one more red flag to contend with. Obadiah Stane didn’t like red flags getting in the way of good business.
Besides, the Iron Monger prototype was coming along very nicely. All it needed was a heart.
Maybe when it received that heart, it could also have a cloaked fortress and an ice monster to guard it.
“All right, Pepper. I’ll throw my weight behind it. Let’s bring our boy home.”
It was a stupid idea. It was definitely a stupid idea.
Well, no, Tony reasoned, his ideas were never outright stupid. But it was definitely risky and so far his track record with Loki the Unfriendly Icicle Man was spotty at best.
Clint had already told him he was a moron. Natasha had threatened to break his ankle out of concern for his life. Since said ankle had taken three weeks to properly heal the threat had given him pause, but those three weeks had been spent wondering where in the hell Loki was. Tony had last seen him nursing a freely bleeding head wound and threatening to injure Tony if he went near him again.
Three for three. No-one thought he should go after Loki again. Hell, even his own common sense was wagging a finger at him.
But it was driving him nuts.
Clint had said with the experience of fifteen years living with him that the boss was up in the west wing, probably avoiding everyone like he’d done the last time he’d hurt a member of the household. Tony liked his wording there – prisoner would have been far more accurate. But Clint’s white lies to himself were probably one of the few things that kept him sane for the last fifteen years. Twelve, if you didn’t count Natasha’s arrival, but Tony wasn’t sure how she could be conducive to anyone’s mental health. The chilli in the vodka thing had burned for days.
In all honesty, it was getting lonely. Tony had been confined to his floor for most of the last few weeks, after his ankle swelled up and refused to be forced into a shoe, let alone support him down some stairs. Clint and Natasha alternated bringing him meals, even after he’d begged to be carried down to the solar to live out the rest of his crippled days within easy reach of booze and grease, if not a toilet. They’d left him in his room to heal and left each other alone. Tony had guessed that last by Clint’s doleful face, even while they were putting their heads together for a new bow prototype that would work with Clint’s significantly weaker right hand. They didn’t have materials yet, but it was a start.
Now that Tony’s ankle was much better, the mystery of Loki’s absence was all he could think about. He was, for better or worse, interested in him. Scared of him? Sure. That was just survival instinct. But his origins, his abilities, his insane durability—Tony needed to know. But when all he could remember was dark blue blood running down the side of his face and a few distinctly out of character displays of physical contact, Tony had to wonder – could a guy like that succumb to a critical head injury? Because if he was dead, maybe they had a chance to get out of there.
If he wasn’t, well…that was where the idea of entering the west wing became horribly risky.
So it was with determination in his heart and nausea in his stomach that Tony stood at the entrance, wondering if he had the guts to take a step up into the one place he’d been expressly forbidden from going. But if Loki was injured –and really, that fall should have killed them both– then he had an excuse if he got caught. Concern and curiosity. That was all it was. Nothing malicious. Nothing that would warrant being tossed in the tower cell forever. Right?
Pulling in a quick, fortifying breath, Tony started up the stairs.
It was late in the afternoon, but the staircase was almost completely lightless, the air smelling like dust and damp as he ascended. The walls were scored with claw marks: long ones, deep and curving. You had to be strong to make marks like those with nothing but the claws Loki had. Nervousness fluttered low in Tony’s gut as he kept going, wondering whether it was a good time to call out his intentions. Surely he’d made enough noise to be noticed. He wasn’t trying to sneak, no – concerned prisoners had no reason to sneak. This was just Tony trying to ascertain if their big blue bastard was in a coma after cracking his skull on marble and then lifting an insanely heavy wooden beam off a ballroom door while still gushing blood. Completely legitimate reason.
He just needed to convince himself of that.
Reaching the top of the stairs almost panicked him enough that he left again. Tony hadn’t really thought he’d get that far without being discovered. Was Loki asleep? Gone? Or actually injured?
The landing opened into a medium-sized hallway lined with doors in varying stages of wear and tear. There were six rooms, three on each side with a small alcove at the end that opened into a grime-covered window seat with half the stuffing falling out. A ragged blue curtain hung in shreds across it. The window was blacked out with what looked like soot.
“Nice, friendly atmosphere up here,” Tony murmured. “Real cozy.”
It was also cold. Not exactly sub-zero temperature cold—was there a breeze coming from somewhere? It didn’t seem like the radiating chill he’d felt standing near Loki, but there was a definite drop in temperature. Rolling the sleeves of his shirt down from his elbows, he paused to wince at the creasing and lack of cufflinks but buttoned them hastily anyway. Style was a non-issue lately.
Nothing stirred up ahead. Gingerly, Tony moved forward into the west wing.
One thing was for certain, Loki wouldn’t hurt him if he got busted. That was a huge comfort. Loki was completely averse to the idea of physical injury and violence – not that he strictly needed either to get his way, but his face on the stairwell when Tony had challenged him to let them go, when he’d tried to help after the arc reactor had almost crushed his windpipe – that had been real fear. But a fear of what?
Walking past each door, hearing nothing but his own careful breathing, Tony’s shoulders relaxed a little. Maybe no-one was ho—
Something creaked inside the room to his left.
There was no time to think or retreat. Sucking in a panicked breath, Tony raced down the end of the hallway and jumped on the window seat, pulling the curtain across to shield himself from Loki’s view.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, he thought blindly, teeth clenched and head down. He didn’t know how much of his body was still visible through the torn curtain but if he moved there was a huge chance that Loki would hear him. The guy had to have some amazing senses, given all his other abilities, but if he stayed still and said nothing and—he couldn’t sense heat signatures, could he? If Loki had some kind of thermal sensing ability as an ice creature then Tony might as well kiss his ass goodbye right then and there. Trying not to breathe and suddenly desperate for the bathroom, he froze up as a door in the hallway opened with a low creak.
For a long moment there was no sound at all. Tony had visions of himself pulling the curtain aside and finding himself face to face with the boss. Being shoved through the dirty window at his back and falling two storeys to his death. Red snow. Icicle pincushion. No, he reminded himself fiercely as a drop of cold sweat trickled down his back, Loki wouldn’t hurt him. Something else maybe, but not that. Maybe. Hopefully.
Footsteps again, this time heavy and sure—and moving away toward the stairs. Away from Tony. Counting each fading footstep until it was completely silent in the hallway again, he waited another full minute before taking a creaking step forward on the window seat and peering around the edge of the curtain.
His personal horror movie moment fading, it took him only a moment to realise he had a whole new opportunity to poke around in the west wing while Loki was out. Maybe he could find some answers in that room. He didn’t seem like the type to lock his doors, probably too secure in his knowledge that everyone was scared shitless of making him angry. Still, Tony had never let a little fear get in the way of progress.
The door had been left ajar, giving him just enough room to slip in sideways with minimal creaking. Once he was sure there was still silence in the hallway outside, Tony turned and faced the personal chambers of the master and longest prisoner of Winterheart.
If he’d had longer to deliberate over his plan he might have had an idea of what to expect inside the west wing. Really, the state of the hallway should have given him an indication, but it still didn’t prepare him for the ruin and disrepair that he was confronted with.
The place had been completely torn apart. It was dark and cold, with no fire or sconce in sight. Every item of furniture had been broken down into pieces of wood and twisted metal. Yellowing couches had been flung into the corners of the room, their stuffing and wayward scraps of fabric littering the stone floor. Chairs were strewn about in pieces. Rugs had been slashed apart, rumpled and shoved aside in favour of dull grey stone. Curtains hung in ribbons, when they weren’t simply torn down and dumped with the rugs. A fireplace ran half the length of the wall, littered with what looked like balled-up parchment and broken glass.
As Tony wandered deeper into the room, he smelled snow and damp as it blew in from a balcony. The doors were both missing; half the stone surrounding the frame looked like it had been yanked out and hurled away, leaving an open hole in the room that would probably blow the entire winter’s freezing payload of snow straight inside.
Holding his breath, fascinated but more than a little scared by the devastation of the room, Tony turned in a careful circle and took stock of his surroundings. There was a bed shoved up against the wall, its legs broken off or hacked away so it rested on the floor. It was covered in enough dust that he knew it hadn’t been used in a good long while. Was sleep something he just didn’t need, or was the bed something he didn’t like to use? Judging by the room, it almost looked like Loki was trying to deprive himself of everything that would be considered an ordinary creature comfort.
As Tony turned he finally saw it: a large and faded gold wing-backed chair pushed back from the open balcony. Facing its frigid chill, it probably gave a great view of the woods outside. There was a small wooden table beside it, miraculously untouched despite the catastrophe that surrounded it. There was a sheet draped over something sitting on it. It was rounded, probably around the size of the Mark I helmet, whatever it was.
Tony stopped himself at the thought. Mark I – that was funny. There was never going to be a Mark II. But the item on the table had his interest regardless and he crept closer to it in the dying afternoon light, keeping an eye on the door to the hallway as he moved. The last thing he needed was to trip over a piece of furniture and alert the boss that he was snooping. It was that careful concentration that left him completely unprepared for the accusatory ‘caawww’ and flutter of wings on the balcony.
His old friend the raven was back, golden eyes gleaming as it flared its startling wingspan on the railing, jerkily dipping its head. It almost looked like a mocking bow. The little asshole.
“Piss off,” Tony hissed, waving his arm at it. “If you blow my cover I’ll be sleeping with the fishes tonight.” The bird, being a bird and therefore of no particular use whatsoever, took a shit on the balcony and hopped two steps in his direction. Great. “Are you his pet? Is that what this is? Watching the fort while he goes for a jog?”
The raven fluffed up its feathers.
“I’ll take that as a no.” Giving the bird his back for the moment, he approached the small table with caution. It looked like—was something glowing faintly underneath the sheet? Tony wasn’t sure his scientific brain could handle the sight of actual, visible magic within touching distance of him. Still, whatever was under there looked important. It had to be, since it was the only thing still in one piece in the entire room. And a clue was a clue. He had to know.
Holding his breath, Tony whipped the sheet away and jumped backward in the same motion, his free arm flung up like a shield. But nothing happened, nothing moved. Even the raven seemed unwilling to disturb the moment this time.
It was an apple.
A golden apple. Flushed with light, it hung suspended inside a bell jar like it was floating in its own gravitational field. It was beautiful, and it—
It was rotting. One side of the fruit was sunken and shrivelled, the skin dull and soft with decay. It wasn’t a natural process of decomposition, whatever it was. Nothing natural rotted by halves. The rest of the apple was perfectly firm and glowing a muted gold.
“This is incredible,” he breathed. It was quick work to pull the glass dome up and over the apple. It didn’t even waver. How the hell was it floating? If he could harness that kind of science, or translate it into something he could base a prototype off, hell. It would change the world.
He knew he shouldn’t, he knew it wasn’t safe and he might end up radioactive, but he had to. Tony had to touch it. Reaching out with one shaking hand, he brushed a fingertip against the smooth side of the apple.
His vision blanked out. The world bled gold and green and cold—
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
Something grabbed the back of his collar, hauling him away so hard he felt a button pop on his shirt. Still reeling from the vision, Tony staggered backwards across the room, trying to find his balance before he fell. Cold stone slammed into his back—just the wall, but it knocked the breath out of him. Tony gasped harshly, deciding then and there that he was a little sick of oxygen deprivation.
Loki was on his knees beside the table, shaking blue hands cupped around the hovering fruit. He wasn’t touching it; he was just staring at it in horror and fear. Tears were brimming in his unblinking red eyes. Tony realised that whatever he was seeing, it was more than an apple. Much more.
“The rot has spread so far,” Loki whispered, his voice thick with something like shame. Like loss. “I tried. I did everything I was supposed to—” Pulling away from the apple like he was dangerous to it somehow, he stared down at his clawed hands. “The illusion of freedom. Hope. For nothing.” Blue lips lifted away to reveal a sharp-toothed snarl. “For nothing!”
The room started to get very cold. A circle of ice began growing outward from Loki’s hunched form, a spreading, crackling ring of white. Stalagmites started peaking inside the ring, jutting like icy spikes in an ancient trap. Tony started to edge for the door, but Loki’s head whipped around at the movement, his eyes snapping to him. In the gloom, he was nothing more than a shadow bearing white teeth and blood-red eyes.
“Long have I pondered the meaning of his words. Long have I trusted in his wisdom.” Loki rose to his feet unsteadily, limbs jerking awkwardly. Tony could see the ice falling away from his legs. Too much ice, enough that it was building on his own body in layers, crawling over the floor and walls like a crackling cold carpet of rage, heading straight toward Tony.
“Long have I protected the scurrying vermin that infests my cage—” The wind howled and whistled behind him. Snow whirled into the chamber. Loki slashed a hand at it and found his entire arm encased in a vicious blade-like extension of ice. Tony started to panic as he watched Loki fight with his own powers, the rage and torment mounting as the room started to close in as ice covered everything in sight.
Loki had lost control of his own power. He was too angry. And if he was angry at Tony—
“I shouldn’t have come, I know I shouldn’t have trespassed,” Tony started, struggling to keep his voice even, “and I’m sorry I didn’t keep my word, but don’t do this—”
“You do not order me, human!” Tony let out a cry and dove aside as protrusions of ice shot out of the wall he’d been leaning on. Loki followed him with his free palm outstretched. Ice began to grip his shoes, trying to hold him in place. Loki was panting harshly, his breath rasping into fog as he snarled through the drifting snow falling between them. The entire room looked like it had been carved from ice.
“I’ve been generous with your kind for far too long.”
Ripping his legs out of the ice with a crunch, Loki stalked toward him with the movements of something that was too entrenched in violent instinct to be reasoned with. The ice was climbing over half his body; what was it going to do to Tony?
Tony couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe. All he could see was the curving jut of horns and the icy sword he’d made of one arm. Claws that could rend wood and strength that could haul stone. Eyes that held nothing but wounded rage.
Tony knew he was about to die.
But even then, with all of that certainty, he knew he couldn’t go without a fight.
Grabbing the ice-crusted leg of a broken chair, Tony threw it as hard as he could. But not at Loki – at the apple left unprotected on the table behind him. Then he bolted without looking back, the furious roar of a predator denied its kill dogging his footsteps.
There was nowhere to hide from him in Winterheart. He knew every room and floor and stone and Loki would find him and tear him apart for what he’d just done. He was too strong, too fast—but there was something even stronger than him.
The magic of the prison itself.
Maybe he was going to die, but at least he’d have company.
Tony’s ankle ached as he jumped down the stairs, chest burning on every breath as he sprinted through the halls. Natasha and Clint were nowhere in sight. Good. Somewhere in the back of the castle, something crashed. Loki. Jesus, he was fast.
The main doors loomed ahead. Tony barely even hesitated before ripping them open and bolting out into the storm. The drawbridge was still down, like it had been when he arrived. The gate, he just needed to get to the gate.
A dark shape speared through the air, a wedge of feathered wings arcing overhead. Tony barely heard the raven’s harsh cry over the squeal of cold metal. The gate gave easily in his hand, like it wanted him to escape from Loki.
Slipping through the iron gates, Tony ran into the woods.
Visibility was almost non-existent. Everything was white and cold, the kind of bone-deep cold that hurt like knives with every gust of wind. It was whipping up into a true blizzard, and if he didn’t find some kind of shelter soon it was going to kill him sooner rather than later. Kicking his way through shin-deep snow, Tony tried to find a path. One hand pressed to the aching cold of the arc reactor, trying to warm it, his other shielding his face against the bitter wind, he struggled into the trees and prayed the over-reaching branches would stop at least some of the onslaught.
Tony wasn’t sure how far he got before he had to stop. There were no markers, just trees and snow and gathering darkness. All he knew was that his fingers weren’t moving properly and his feet were nothing more than frozen lumps of agony. But hypothermia was better than whatever the boss had been about to dole out. If nothing else, he’d fought. Kind of. Running away was a type of fighting, he was sure of it.
He sank against the snow-dusted trunk of a tree, huddling down. It was getting dark. Dark meant more cold. Dark probably also meant death.
“C-c-c-could be worse,” he told himself and the frozen woods. “C-could’ve died in a desert.”
That was when the first wolf started to howl.
After Afghanistan, Tony had decided he possessed a latent talent for survival in tough conditions. Shrapnel to the chest? Didn’t die. Captivity for three months? Built a suit and escaped. He’d faced the kind of situation that would break most ordinary people and overcame the odds. He was awesome.
But just then, crouched alone in the snow with the echoing howl of a wolf pack filling the evening air, Tony didn’t feel like much of a survivor. He felt like dinner.
He had no weapons. He had no idea where he was going and he was so cold he was losing sensation in his feet and hands. This was bad.
Staying put was death either way. By wolf or cold, it would kill him. Pushing himself to his feet, Tony started to run as best he could. Maybe he was a moving target, his red shirt like a bullseye in the snow. Could wolves even see colour? Tony couldn’t remember but the thought distracted him enough that he almost fell into an obscured ditch, a snow-dusted embankment leading into a smooth path of what had to be a frozen stream. Crossing that was going to be risky—
There was a wolf standing on the other side, a great big silvery-grey bastard with the brightest golden eyes and longest damn teeth Tony had ever seen. It stood perfectly still between the trees, watching him like it had all the time in the world to take him down. He was soft and scared and prey and in one leap it was going to clear that frozen stream and rip his throat open. Maybe the next guest of Winterheart would find him and wonder about the stupid corpse of Tony Stark, who chose the lesser of two evils and still had his guts strewn in the snow for his troubles.
Holding his breath, Tony took a cautious step back from the embankment. There was a shiver rippling up his spine and adrenaline in his veins; he could try to run, maybe climb a tree. Could he break the ice on the stream? Drown it, freeze it? Anything? He wasn’t—he couldn’t die.
The wolf threw its head back and howled. Throat long and teeth sharp, it sang for its pack, filling the air with the sound of Tony’s impending death. What a way to go.
Tony turned and ran. He ran for his life and he didn’t stop for fear or rage or helpless panic. He didn’t think. Instead he pulled his legs through the snow, tuning out the rough growling breaths and the heavy thunder of the pack closing the distance behind him. Breath burning in his lungs, he saw the rise of a hill ahead and picked up his pace. Over it, there might be something he could use, somewhere to hide. It was a goal. It was hope. He just had to make it—
Teeth snapped at the back of his neck, a rush of fetid breath blowing against his skin. A crushing weight slammed into his back, forcing Tony down into the snow. Crying out hoarsely as a wolf stood on his back, Tony pulled his face out of the suffocating cold and tried to breathe. He didn’t know why, but he tried to breathe.
A vice closed on his shin; teeth sinking into the meat of his calf. He couldn’t muffle his scream as agony splintered up his leg, trying desperately to kick the wolf in the face as he turned over. It didn’t really work. Three of them had surrounded him, but there were more eyes glowing in the shadow of the woods, watching on as the largest took the kill.
A bloody muzzle lifted from his leg. The wolf’s eyes shone round and too-bright in the gathering darkness, strangely empty as they stared at Tony. There was no hunger or intelligence or mercy in those eyes, and nothing had ever terrified him more. Because they weren’t just wolves. They were perimeter patrol. They were magic and orders and they weren’t going to kill him because they were hungry animals. They were going to kill him because he tripped the wire on his way out. Because he escaped.
They were going to kill him because he’d known the punishment and done it anyway.
The wolf’s jaws opened, teeth shining reddish-pink with blood. His blood. Tony saw its legs tense—
—it surged toward his exposed throat—
—and the woods shuddered with a roar so loud and so full of rage that the alpha hurled itself backward into the pack, cowering in the presence of a predator so terrible that whatever survival instinct it had overrode its need to kill Tony.
Above him, the blizzard shrieked anew.
For an instant, Tony didn’t know whether he’d been saved or if he’d entered a new kind of hell. But the wolves regrouped just as heavy cloth was dumped over Tony’s body and a voice snarled against his ear.
A hand pressed his shoulder into the snow and vanished. Tony couldn’t help it; he ignored all sense and pushed Loki’s cloak away from his face. Before him he was greeted by a sight he knew he’d remember for the rest of his life.
Loki stood tall in the shadows between Tony and the wolves, arms outstretched and claws long, frost climbing over his skin in a glittering lacework that turned the blue of his skin into something almost pearlescent. But that was where the beauty stopped; before six wolves, each half as tall as a grown man Loki was every inch as feral and bestial as they were.
For a single suspended moment in time the wolves cocked their heads and lowered their bellies, and Tony wondered just how much of a master of Winterheart Loki actually was.
The wind blew in a curtain of swirling white, shattering the moment as it pushed Loki’s dark hair away from his shoulders. Tony’s breath caught at the sight of the scarred ruin of his back, and he knew.
The wolves wanted the only prisoner of Winterheart who had been sentenced to stay.
“Bring me your teeth and your claws,” Loki spat. Ice jutted from his arms like spiked pauldrons. “You will leave your lives.”
The wolves attacked. All of them.
Tony’s breath sobbed in his throat as they swarmed Loki in one snarling, surging wave of fangs and fur, only to be thrown back in a massive defensive block that sent at least two wolves reeling back into the trees. This was—they were going to—
Loki spun like a dancer, horns catching the last of the afternoon light, eyes slitted and jewel-red as he slung sharp spears of ice off his fingertips. Flowing forward on his left foot, the impact of it into the snow sent a curving crescent of ice shooting up in spikes. It was the west wing all over again, but this time there was no mindless uncontrolled attack. This was destruction with purpose and Loki made it look like art.
The wolves were scattered again and again, each forward attack thwarted by the ice. One got close enough to bite at the golden cuff on his wrist – Loki snapped his leg up in a kick so hard the wolf slammed into a tree with a sickening crunch.
For a single, awed moment Tony thought they were going to be okay.
Loki turned on the backstroke of another blow and caught his gaze as he spun—and the alpha wolf bounded forward in one strong leap, sharp teeth tearing viciously into Loki’s unprotected side.
Tony watched on in horror as Loki staggered, crying out hoarsely as the wolf bit deep, sinking to one knee as he tried to prise its jaws open with both hands. It was a delay that cost him as the pack converged on his hunched body. They were going to tear him to pieces and Tony would have to watch them do it.
Chest tight, he made an aborted movement toward the pack, but a snarl erupted from beneath the snapping jaws and golden eyes of the wolves, followed by high, panicked yelps of pain as ice shot up from the snow around Loki’s fallen form in a spiked circle, pin-cushioning a few of the wolves and sending the rest running back into the woods.
Running. From Loki.
Amazingly the alpha stayed, its jaws stained blue and red – their blood, smeared across its muzzle. Blood also dripped from an injured paw, looking black in the gathering darkness. It watched them both with the same empty patience Tony had seen in its eyes from across the stream.
Loki tried to push himself to his feet for one last attack, but Tony could see it was useless. He was bleeding heavily from his side, clawed hands shaking with exhaustion. Every panted breath sounded wheezy with pain. Still, somehow, seeing Loki try anyway gave Tony enough courage to lurch forward, still clutching the heavy mantle that had been covering him.
Something with wings fluttered overhead as Tony limped toward the boss, his eyes on the wolf as he navigated the ice surrounding him. Its eyes shone like golden coins. There was something familiar about those eyes, but the thought was gone as Tony reached out and placed a shaking hand on the back of Loki’s lowered head. Hunched in on himself, one knee to the snow, he looked like he was swearing allegiance to his own death. Icy strands of black hair met his palm. Loki didn’t stir.
The wolf, on the other hand, cocked its head.
Something fluttered again in the tree above them. The wolf’s ears pricked toward it, but it never tore its gaze from Tony’s hand.
You know what waits out there in the white.
Long have I protected the scurrying vermin that infests my cage…
Nothing changed. Nothing had ever changed—and maybe that was why Loki had lost his mind when he found Tony in the west wing. Loki looked after them because it was what he thought he had to do. But the wolves wanted him, not Tony. Tony was just duty. Loki was their prey.
But that wolf never stopped watching Tony’s hand, resting carefully against the back of Loki’s head. Loki, who wasn’t even conscious, still bleeding steadily into the snow.
“You can’t have him.”
The words were half statement, half stunned realisation, but they were true and Tony knew it the moment he spoke them. He just didn’t know what they meant to Winterheart’s magic and Loki’s imprisonment.
Goals. Goals and projects and mysteries. Didn’t he thrive on those?
Something rustled in the branches again, and the raven loosed a rough, craggy cry that sent the alpha wolf pelting back through the woods without so much as a parting growl. Around them, the biting wind slowly calmed and with it, so did Tony’s pulse.
Of course, the relief and the adrenaline wearing off brought its own problems. His bitten leg started screaming as the pain came back, and the idea that he might actually freeze to death started looking a lot more like a certainty. Pulling the mantle on around his own shoulders, he tied the fanged clasp with fingers that felt like they were carved from Loki’s ice. It was a heavy sort of comfort around his shoulders and it kept the worst of the winter evening at bay.
“Now, to wake you up,” Tony murmured to the kneeling knot of horns and hair and scarred blue that sat hunched at his feet. “We need to get home before you bleed out.” Wrapping his hand in the green cloth, he reached out and shook Loki’s shoulder slightly. Nothing happened. But the cloth didn’t frost over, either, which meant he was touchable. For better or worse, it meant Tony could at least drag him, but that was going to take more time than they had. Once full dark descended, they’d be screwed.
Time to pull out all the stops then. Tony sucked a finger into his mouth, pulled it out and stuck it in Loki’s ear.
The reaction it drew had some similarity to mild electrocution, especially as a visible shudder tore its way up Loki’s spine and his head jerked up in confusion. Tony felt a little bad for him as he jarred his wounds, hissing a controlled breath that sounded like Loki was trying not to turn the air as blue as his skin. Once he had some composure back, he lifted his gaze to meet Tony’s.
“The wolves,” he rasped. “What happened?”
“You scared them off with the ring of death here.” Tony waved at the spiking circle of ice surrounding them both. “You also killed those two over there while you were…” protecting me “…getting mauled. C’mon, we need to get back before the big one decides to man up and come find us.” He held a hand out to Loki, who ignored him in favour of examining the wound in his side. The fingers that swiped around the bite came away slick with dark blue blood. Red eyes narrowed calculatingly at the sight.
“Come on,” Tony repeated. “First aid later.”
“I’ve lost too much blood,” Loki said. “I can barely stand under my own strength. Just keep walking. All paths lead to Winterheart. If the wolves return, it will be me they come for.”
He wanted Tony to leave him behind. Not in a grimly heroic sense, not so Tony could save himself. This was matter-of-fact and oddly detached and Tony hated it all the way down to his bones.
I want this. I want this.
Don’t waste your life.
Maybe the spells would all break if Loki died out in the snow. Tony could go home and live and build his new suit, he could annoy Pepper and impress Rhodey and get drunk and talk about Howard’s failed designs with Obadiah. He’d let JARVIS insult him and infect his system with a virus that made him speak like a southern belle until he cleared it. He could go home.
All he had to do was leave Loki behind, just as he’d asked. He could buy Tony some time…until he didn’t have to anymore.
The mystery of Winterheart could remain just that. A fairy tale remembered only by a few.
Unbuttoning his shirt to expose the arc reactor, Tony tore his undershirt open and placed a palm over the blue glow of the upgraded reactor, turning it until a quiet hiss signified the release. Pulling it halfway out of his chest, it was quick work to increase the reserved power output. It wouldn’t help the shrapnel any, but the light it gave off slowly increased until it illuminated the clearing. It was almost too dark to see and if the lantern Loki carried around through the castle was any indication, he probably wouldn’t be able to see either.
Kneeling down, Tony grabbed Loki’s wrist and hauled it over his shoulder, catching it with his other hand and holding it down like an anchor.
“I’ve got one good leg and no sense of direction. You’re coming with me.”
Loki stared at him, his gaze flickering. The hand Tony was grasping flexed slightly, claws pressing into the fur across his shoulders. But he did rise to his feet in short, jerky movements, unfolding until he stood at his full height again. The look he gave Tony was exhaustion and pain in equal measure.
“You could kill me. You could take your freedom and give me mine.”
“You’re right, I could.” Tony grunted slightly as he turned them, starting out toward the direction he’d come. At least going down the hill would be easier than running up it. Hoping that was the last word on his motivations, Tony started limping back toward the castle with his captor in tow.
Their trek was hard. Loki was a crushing weight on his shoulder no matter how they tried to manoeuvre through the snow. He looked like it was all he could do not to drop into the snow and pass out. For Tony’s part, he just tried to hold him up and control his shivering. Despite the cloak, he was freezing. He wasn’t sure how heavily his leg was bleeding, since everything was getting a little numb from the knees down. Frostbite would be a terrible way to become Winterheart’s first amputee.
It really would have been easier to leave him behind. It would have made sense to leave him behind. Loki was too strong, too angry, too bitter. The way he’d lashed out in the west wing had been horrifying. He’d only saved Tony’s life after first putting it in danger. He’d only saved him because that was what he thought he had to do; why humans were even there in the first place. He was selfish and broken and Tony was about to willingly lock himself up again with all that torment and rage.
But would he have been the same?
Replace a cave with a castle, replace Yinsen and his wise calm with—with no one willing to even look him in the eye. Trade three months for more than fifteen years. A reason for imprisonment for questions and loneliness. What might he have become? Would he have even lasted that long? Absently, Tony tightened his grip on the cold wrist hanging over his shoulder, keeping his eyes on the bobbing light of the arc reactor. Knowing him, he might have become something even worse.
Besides, Tony had already seen one person die so he could have his freedom. Yinsen’s death was all the weight his conscience could take.
Then there were the wolves. The pain in the ass raven that kept stalking him. The glowing apple. There was a secret to Winterheart, and letting Loki bleed out in a blizzard wasn’t going to reveal it. He still didn’t know why he’d been allowed access in the first place, or how Pepper had gotten lost. There were too many unanswered questions to bail out now. For the moment, it would be enough just to find the trail that led back to the castle.
By some miracle, some magical blessing that Tony didn’t want to think too hard about, they actually did find the castle again. Together they managed to cross the gates just as full dark descended around them. Just seeing the arching walls and enormous doors made every bone in Tony’s body hurt anew, as though his relief at being safe had finally sapped whatever strength he’d had remaining.
Loki managed to stir himself enough to walk on his own two feet unaided, giving Tony a chance to stand up straight and think about how injured his leg might actually be. It wasn’t every day he got bitten by a magical guard-wolf. Did they carry rabies? The amount of germs in their fangy mouths would at least be some cause for concern.
The door was as heavy as ever, but Loki reached above Tony’s head and pushed it hard enough that it flew open. Inside, someone squawked in surprise and came running. Clint, charging forward with his lantern and a lot of worry.
“Christ on a unicycle, Tony, what the hell are you doing outside with that messed-up ankle?” he asked crossly, yanking Tony inside by one wrist. His eyes almost bugged as he registered his skin temperature. “Fuck! You’re almost hypothermic and…that’s the boss’s cloak.”
“Yeah.” Limping into the entrance, Tony turned back as Loki staggered inside behind him. In the golden light of the lantern his strange blood had painted a wide streak all the way to his knee. The bite looked grotesque, deep punctures creating a half-circle in the muscle of his side, just below his ribcage. He was a sickly pale blue, swaying on his feet, and Clint still lurched away from him in fear.
“I’m…” Clint trailed off before he could even start a sentence. His right hand was pressed hard to his side and he was staring at the boss, at Loki, like he was seeing a nightmare.
Oh, shit, Tony thought despairingly, of course he couldn’t handle this. Last time Loki had been injured this badly he’d nearly killed Clint by accident.
But then the lantern bobbed in Clint’s hand slightly, swaying as he rubbed his hand over his face. His blue eyes looked a little wild and he kept swallowing like he was going to be sick, but he seemed to haul himself back in the game.
“Get to the solar,” he managed. “I’ll get Natasha.” At the mention of her name Tony saw Loki jerk slightly at his side, but he was too late to do anything but watch Clint haul serious ass toward the grand staircase.
That still left Tony shivering in wet clothes and damp fur, trying to walk on a leg that felt like it had been set on fire. The solar was down a long hallway, but the wall was enough of a support that Loki walked himself, though Tony suspected it was more of a pride thing. He’d almost bitten clean through his lip to hold in any sound of pain as they’d made their way back.
They’d only barely collapsed on the fireplace lounge when Natasha shoved the doors open with her shoulder and came charging in with a tray stacked with what looked like cloth napkins and a suspiciously unmarked bottle of moonshine. Clint was right behind her with two jugs of hot water and a stack of...
“Chamber pots,” Clint nodded at Tony’s expression. “Unused, man, I swear. Take off your clothes.”
“Look, I’ll keep,” Tony argued. “It’s him who needs help.” At the far end of the lounge, Loki was hunched in on himself again, head bowed as he pressed a hand to the bite.
Natasha ignored him, already unbuttoning his shirt and squinting against the light of the arc reactor. Tony was quick to turn it back down to normal output, ignoring her burning stare as she got an up-close view of how deep into his chest the port actually was.
“The boss isn’t going to let me treat him,” Natasha said softly, for his ears alone. “And Clint physically can’t make himself touch him. He wants to, but he can’t and you won’t ask him to do it.” Tony had nothing to say to that.
He ended up stripped to his underwear and swamped in a scratchy wool blanket, each foot in a chamber pot of warm water while Clint cleaned the bite on his calf with an alcohol-soaked napkin. Blood had turned the water in the pot a nauseating red.
“The bite wasn’t that deep, probably more of a taster before it went for the real kill,” Clint said helpfully from his feet. “There’s a lot of indents but most are just gonna mark you up a bit. Good of the wolf to go for your bad leg though.” The quirked smile Clint gave him was strained. “You’re a fuckin’ idiot.”
It wasn’t a guilt trip, but it hit Tony like one all the same. They were all they really had and he’d gone running out there like a moron and almost gotten killed. If Loki hadn’t come bolting out to save him he’d be just a frozen corpse out in the snow.
“Sorry,” Tony said, meeting Clint’s terrible smile with one of his own. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, man, I just want the damn bow you promised me.”
“I’ll deliver it up your ass next week.”
The exchange was interrupted as the familiar crack of ice sounded at the end of the lounge, where Loki was snarling at Natasha like she was holding a knife and not a handful of clean napkins to use as bandages. For her part, Natasha was rigidly tense, standing on the other side of the low table.
“Take them. Clean your own wounds.”
Loki didn’t reply; the ice that broke away from his fingers as he flexed them said more than enough. Tony hazarded a guess that maybe he really hadn’t forgiven her for the oil trap thing. Or he just didn’t like her much.
“Fine. Enjoy your massive infection, your fever, your—”
“My flesh doesn’t sicken so easily,” Loki spat, lifting his gaze to meet hers. Oh, if looks could kill. “Nor am I fool enough to allow you a second try.”
Natasha smiled. It wasn’t a very nice smile.
“Don’t tell me you’re still angry that wide-eyed, innocent Natalie was a fiction.” She let the napkins fall to the table and batted her eyelashes. “Or are you just angry that you believed it?”
Loki shot to his feet.
“Ohhh,” Tony blurted out, pointing at her with one reddened fingertip. “Jackpot. There it is. You dirty, low-down, double-crossing, rapport-building genius spy. You man-eating predator. I let you strip me!”
Natasha shrugged. “I had five broken ribs and a busted ankle,” she said smoothly. Her eyes didn’t warm in the firelight. “Emotional connection was all I had until I could kill him. Can you really blame me?” Her gesture at Loki, standing there so injured and furious, said everything she needed.
Clint winced and ducked his head as he stood, heading for the door.
“Well, goodnight,” he muttered.
“Clint, that’s not what—you weren’t collateral,” Natasha insisted, strangely shamefaced for all her femme fatale posturing. He just waved her off without looking back, busted hand flexing at his side.
“Goodnight,” Clint repeated and then he was gone, the door clicking shut behind him.
Natasha actually seemed to flounder for a moment, staring at Tony like he had some kind of advice or wisdom to impart. As if he had any idea what the hell had even just happened. Clint thought Natasha had, what, lied to him as well? Got in his good graces? Used him? Or maybe he thought she’d meant for him to get hurt by the ice. Maybe he thought she hadn’t cared. He could hypothesise over the scenario for weeks.
“Go fix him,” Tony suggested. “Pride first. Try to be honest. Take food with you.”
Natasha’s mouth turned down. “He’s not an animal.”
“No, but he’s a guy. Food is an important bribing tool.” Hesitating, he decided to just come out and say it. “Stop acting like you don’t give a shit, Romanoff. He’s probably the best friend you’ll ever have.”
For a few long seconds she just stood there in the firelight, all rippling red hair and handmade dress and hurt green eyes. Natasha didn’t look like a master spy or a cold-hearted professional. She looked like she’d royally messed up. Tony was familiar with that look.
“I can’t do anything more here anyway,” she muttered. Then she was off, moving toward the door and…leaving Tony there mostly naked with an angry blue ice demon. He watched the door snap shut again, his toes curling in the cooling water. He was fairly certain he only had a case of frostnip, given he hadn’t been out there more than an hour or so. His leg still hurt though, even wrapped in fraying makeshift bandages.
He looked over at Loki, who was struggling to sit again without falling hard into the chair. There was still ice clinging to his hands but it was old now, melting off his fingertips in the firelight. Was the warmth uncomfortable for him? Probably not as uncomfortable as the bite, Tony thought with a mental slap at his own stupidity. Pulling his feet out of the water, he padded them dry on the rug and stood, fastening his blanket around his waist so it wouldn’t fall off as he moved. It felt a little skirty, but the ventilation wasn’t too bad. The room was kept pretty warm by the huge fireplace.
Tony had arranged the stack of napkins Natasha had dropped and torn some into pieces by the time Loki lifted his head to study what he was doing.
“You’re injured elsewhere?” he said hoarsely, a frown creasing his brow. He looked like he badly needed to sleep it off. Whatever the non-human equivalent of anaemia was, he was likely bordering on it.
“No,” Tony said, tearing another long strip with his teeth. “You are.” He carefully tied a decent length of fabric together, knotting it hard enough that it wouldn’t break apart as the edges unravelled. “Please don’t give me any of that crabby patient attitude. That mess needs some antiseptic at the very least.”
It was awkward, trying to find a decent way to access the bite without standing and putting pressure on his leg. Loki wasn’t helping matters either, pulling back from him and knocking his hands away, hissing various excuses and threats despite being weak as a kitten. The ice was nowhere to be seen, either, an interesting clue Tony filed away for later. Apparently he wasn’t the same kind of threat that Natasha had been.
In the end Tony lost his patience, shoved Loki’s thighs open and knelt between them, pressing a napkin soaked through with alcohol straight against the bite.
The pain must have been excruciating but all Loki did was let out an anguished, bitten-down roar and hold his hands out from his sides as ice built and shed off them, falling onto the floor. On either side of Tony’s knees two booted feet were suddenly encased in a thick layer of frost. Too far to do any damage, but it was enough to scare him.
“Please don’t freeze me.”
“I’m trying,” Loki grit out, breathing harshly through his nose. His eyes were squeezed shut with pain. “I don’t know how.”
“Okay,” Tony breathed, “then I’ll just have to settle for you not touching me with your icy bits. I’ll try to be fast. Hang in there.”
Loki didn’t reply, but the light caught the moisture gathering on his eyelashes as Tony resumed cleaning the wound. Given the amount of alcohol he’d all but splashed straight into the punctures, it had to be agonising. Maybe it was even worse for someone like him. Tony went through three rags before he was anywhere near done, eventually shuffling forward to reach behind Loki’s back and clean the bite marks the wolf’s lower jaw had made there.
He was gingerly sponging away old clots of blood when Loki rested his head on Tony’s shoulder.
Going still, he waited a few seconds to listen for breath. It was there, blowing against his collarbone in a gentle rhythm. Loki hadn’t passed out, not completely. This was just…leaning on him for support. Tony decided he could do support.
“You really are wrecked, aren’t you?” he murmured, feeling the roughness of horns press into the bone of his shoulder. The skin that touched his was cold, but no colder than his own had been in the snow. “I thought you were going to kill me, you know. I should have been more…” More what? Careful? Stealthy? Drawing the blood-stained rag away, he dipped it in the jug of water at his feet and wrung it out, careful not to jostle Loki too much. When he dipped it in the alcohol and pressed it against the bite, he felt the breath on his chest stutter a little. “I shouldn’t have gone up there.”
Deciding the bite was clean enough now, Tony pulled back and picked up the length of bandages, pressing a square of cloth back against the wound in case it began bleeding again. It was awkward, trying to wrap it and hold the cloth in place and keep still enough for Loki to remain resting against his shoulder, but he was determined to make it work. People didn’t really lean on him, not ever. It was usually the other way around. Literally or figuratively or whatever, Tony was not the person people turned to for comfort or help. So this…this was good. He could do this much.
“I wasn’t going to kill you.” The words were rusty, they were tired, but there was a note of sincerity in them that stopped any sarcastic protest Tony might have made. “When I’m angry or threatened, I lose control of this cursed power. Seeing you there with the apple…” Trailing off, Loki lifted his head and blinked slowly, letting out a small sigh that revealed his sharp canines.
Tony just dipped his head and continued passing bandage from hand to hand, wrapping his middle with overlapping white until he could split the end of the bandage and tie it off neatly. For an amateur job, it actually didn’t look too bad.
“That should do it.” Patting one leather-covered knee, Tony got to his feet with a wince. Knees on stone. He was getting too old for that kind of abuse. Tensing, he grunted slightly as his calf spasmed, the damaged muscle making itself known once again. It was all he could do to snag the bottle of moonshine or whatever it was and sit on the lounge beside Loki. There was at least a half foot of space between them – that was a safe distance, right?
Tony drank in silence for a while, wishing he had something to eat but also too tired to move. It had been a long afternoon and this new almost-understanding with the boss was scaring him a little. Was he becoming Clint? Identifying with his captor too much, learning to like him in order to accept his confinement? He didn’t think so. It had only been a few weeks and he’d never had this problem with Raza and his men. Not even that Abu guy, who mostly just wanted someone to do his laundry.
A prison and a sanctuary. Maybe Tony had just stopped thinking of it as a prison. For a while at least, despite all the lies he told himself, it was good to be somewhere else. Somewhere the name Stark had no meaning. There was something peaceful about that. He felt like a secret. He felt like nobody and it wasn’t all that bad.
“So,” he said sometime later, blinking out at the pop and crackle of the fireplace, “what is the apple, anyway?”
At his side, Loki let out a quiet, bone-tired kind of sigh.
“It’s my heart.”
Tony thought about that seriously for a while. Eventually taking a small gulp from the bottle, he handed it across to Loki. The hand that took it didn’t brush his own.
“And I thought I had problems.”
It was a long time before Tony could muster the urge to break the silence in the solar. Sitting there, tired and hurting, it was nice for a while to just sit and listen to the fireplace crackling, knowing that all of the ice and cold was outside.
Well, most of it.
Loki was a study in exhaustion at his side, but he didn’t seem inclined to neither move nor sleep. Instead he just sat in that strange hunched way, the nameless bottle of spirits loosely clutched in one hand. The firelight flickered oddly across his blue skin, touching his long dark hair and curving horns. It cast strange shadows on his face that Tony couldn’t decipher.
Curiously, his eyes traced the scar-like markings that decorated Loki’s skin. They were clean lines, all of them. They appeared to run mostly parallel to each other in pairs, with others marking his brow like mirrored twins. Two of them reached from hairline and ear, closing the gap to each other and running down Loki’s cheek to his jawline. Whatever they were, they obviously stretched his entire body in pale, raised trails.
When Tony’s eyes returned to Loki’s face he found tired red eyes looking back at him.
“Ask,” he said, coughing slightly. The movement caused him to tense with pain. “You’ve lived half your lifespan with no idea that anything like me could possibly exist. If you have questions, I would hear them.”
Tony swallowed. The keys to the kingdom, or a trap in disguise? Either one, he knew exactly what he was going to say. Too much had happened for him to keep his mouth shut now.
“What are you? How does ice come out of your hands? Why can’t you control it? Is it part of the curse? I’m assuming there’s a curse. And what’s the deal with the apple being your heart?” Questions upon questions tumbled up onto themselves in Tony’s mind, each as important as the next. He’d been trying to just sit back and accept that everything was crazy and magical and that it was just his lot in life to have no idea what was going on, but he needed more. So much more. If he could get even a tenth of the answers he wanted…
Loki lifted one hand, but it wasn’t to silence him. He just stared at his upturned palm for a moment, his gaze pensive. Tony watched his throat bob slightly with a careful swallow.
“I am a frost giant.”
Tony tensed with surprise but it was Loki who looked absolutely stunned by the words.
“What is it?” Tony asked.
“I’m a frost giant,” Loki repeated, a tremble of emotion lending some unknown meaning to the words. “I’ve never told anyone that.” His hand closed into a loose fist, dark claws pressing their tips into his palm. “Not even myself.”
Tony thought long and hard about that. And then he didn’t.
“Frost giant?” he scanned Loki again. He didn’t bother to hide his doubt. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re a leggy six foot something with shoulders a sculptor would dream about, but unless you hail from The Shire it’s not really that accurate a name.”
“I was the runt,” Loki said flatly. The dark curtain of hair falling over his cheek and shoulder couldn’t hide the steel of his glare. “My progenitor tossed me into the snow soon after I was born.”
Tony swallowed. “Sorry.”
“I have little use for your sympathy. I was found by their enemy and kept as a war trophy.” Loki’s mouth turned down. “They let me believe I was trueborn of their bloodline. I was their pampered second son until peace frayed into war, until my brother took me back into my true father’s domain.”
Tony listened raptly as the tale unfolded in stilted, rusty confessions, painting a story of a foundling raised in contempt of his own people, with no idea of where he came from. Bigotry upon lies upon neglect. Jealousy and secrecy. A father, a great leader, who had no interest in Loki until he finally discovered why.
“When the time was right, I brought peace.” Red eyes glinted in the firelight. “I chased my war-mongering brother into a corner of this world and hunted him as prey. I turned a key and it burned a hole clean through the vicious host of my birth father’s people.” He smiled slightly, or was it a snarl? “I ended the war before it truly began. I saved countless lives—”
“You tried to kill your own people?”
“They’re not my people.” Frost began to climb over Loki’s hands in a thick crust of white. Tony said nothing as he brushed it away, setting the bottle down at his feet. “I did everything right.”
The story made a twisted kind of sense; a horrifying, half-maddened kind of logic stringing everything together. Tony wasn’t great at reading people, but something smelled off about the tale. Frost giants killing other frost giants? The runt of an enemy raised as a son? And the brother in the story, barely mentioned. A mother spoken of only in passing. But before Tony could question it, a thought occurred to him.
“I know I’m stating the obvious here, but…” Tony spread his hands, “if you did everything right, why are you locked up?”
Loki flinched. The motion jarred his side again, this time forcing him to hunch forward and breathe. He sat like that for long seconds, one hand pressed to his bandaged wound, his face covered with the other. Ice crackled over his fingers and crawled across his cheek. He didn’t seem to notice, lost in whatever dark train of thought Tony’s words had led him down.
With his head bowed like it was, Tony was able to see the curve of Loki’s spine as his long hair slipped forward over his shoulders, revealing the long scars that ran down his back in jagged, badly-healed welts of scar tissue. These weren’t the elegant markings that cut paths everywhere else. These were wounds that hadn’t been stitched or tended to. Old ones, clearly, and Tony knew where they’d come from.
“You tried to escape once, didn’t you?”
“Of course.” The words were quiet.
“Then I’m guessing you got the wolf pelt on your cloak the same day you got these.” Boldly, he ran a fingertip down the edge of the largest scar. Claw marks. Too deep for any human to survive. As if he needed more proof that Loki was old and strong and vicious. That he was something to be feared.
Turning his head slightly in the direction of Tony’s hand, Loki seemed to shudder.
“Be careful,” was all he said, and the words were barely any protest at all. Maybe he was just too tired to care—or he’d given up hope that protecting them would set him free one day. The sight of the apple had snapped something in him, that much had been clear. But even after that, he’d come for Tony in the woods.
What kind of ice-crafting mass murderer fought wolves to save one human? When it was clear that he thought only his kind, only his specific kind were worth anything? Loki had spoken as though he was superior, but his actions told the opposite.
Taking the risk, Tony slipped his hand through the gap Loki’s bent arm created, pressing his palm against the cold muscle of his chest. Loki went rigid with surprise, breath hissing between his teeth but all Tony could focus on was the heavy gallop of the heart beneath his hand.
“You know, I’ve never felt an apple do that. That must be some fruit.”
“You’re too literal.” Loki gave the back of Tony’s hand a quick tap with his fingertips. “That wasn’t the heart I spoke of. The apple reflects the…the core of me.” He slid Tony a dry glance. “Pun certainly not intended. When it rots, so have I. It’s the hourglass of my soul.”
Tony swallowed. “That is some Dorian Gray shit right there. What happens if someone juices your apple?”
Leaning back into the cushions, Loki spared him a shrug. “Take an educated guess,” Loki rasped, wincing as he shifted. “Why do you think I reacted so harshly to the sight of you trying to touch it?”
“So you admit you overreacted?”
“Did you not hear the woman? My guests have a habit of trying to kill me. Considering past experience, my reaction was justified.” His brow knit in an uncertain frown. “How was I to know you would be different?”
Tony opened his mouth, a witty reply ready on his lips, but the raw honesty in Loki’s expression, in those striking eyes stopped him dead. Somehow, Tony got the impression that this was the most that their lonely warden had said in years. Words without anger or brutality driving them. Truth, maybe, even if it wasn’t all of it.
If he was mistrustful of Natasha, if he avoided Clint, what did make Tony different? Because he’d asked to stay in Pepper’s place?
Because he’d had the chance to kill Loki and take his freedom and he’d refused?
“I wanted to hurt you, to scare you so badly that you would never intrude upon my chambers again,” Loki said abruptly, turning his attention back to the fire. “When the ice came, I didn’t care. I wanted you to cower before me. And when you ran into the snow, into death, I was sickened.” He blinked at the fire. “I thought I stood above monsters. As it so happens, I am one.”
As far as statements went, it was simple; a lightly spoken bloom of regret with roots that probably went down as deep as his half-rotted heart. For Tony, they struck the guilt that had crystallised into cold determination, into righteousness and duty – and they fractured it into pieces. Had he stood above monsters when he designed and mass produced the weapons that could kill and kill and kill? No. He’d given them the means to wage war and called it a good day’s work. Washed his hands of the blood and the body count. He hadn’t even bothered to find out how the Ten Rings had gotten their hands on his weapons.
Had he stood above monsters?
No, he’d just closed his eyes as the blood pooled around him.
“Give me that bottle there, would you?” Tony asked, his throat tight. When Loki didn’t move he reached for it himself, but a hand like an iron manacle closed around his wrist. Not roughly, but with enough casual strength that Tony immediately went still, like a kitten with teeth on his scruff.
Interestingly, Loki had frozen too; his eyes fixed on the contrast of their skin like he’d never seen it before. His claws pricked lightly, reflexively, against the fragile skin of Tony’s inner wrist. There was a strange, almost fascinated light in his red eyes that owed nothing to the flickering fire in the hearth.
Carefully, unsure what weight the moment carried but unwilling to destroy it, Tony turned his hand palm-up, feeling the cool graze of Loki’s hand on his arm as he allowed the movement. The thumb that stroked over the pale blue veins of his wrist was so light it was almost reverent, but there was nothing but sadness in Loki’s face.
“Reach for sleep instead,” he said finally, releasing Tony’s arm. Then he tried to stand up.
“Whoa, no, I’m not carrying you anywhere else tonight,” Tony said hastily, clutching his blanket to his hips with one hand and slinging an arm around Loki’s chest with the other. He made a pretty shitty anchor though, and ended up actually being hauled to his feet right alongside Loki. “Okay, oh God, my leg. Please stop moving.”
Loki just detached him, wincing slightly as he deposited Tony back on the lounge like an unwanted barnacle. Then he stiffly walked the five steps it took to get to one of the armchairs and eased himself into it. Blinking, Tony glanced from the empty space beside him to Loki’s new seat.
Too much skin contact? Sick of talking, or just sick of Tony? Come to think of it, for the supposed hermit demon that was really just a messed-up prisoner, the day would have to be socially exhausting on a few levels. Why his skin had been the final straw though, that was interesting all on its own. Frost giant racism? He snorted to himself at that one. Maybe he really was tired.
Arranging himself on the lounge, Tony stretched out under his enormous blanket and shoved a cushion under his head, blinking up at the iron candelabra that hung from the ceiling. He couldn’t hear Loki breathing, even in the silence. From the angle he was positioned at, Tony couldn’t even see him beyond a booted foot in the corner of his eye.
Tomorrow’s agenda would have to be working on Clint’s bow. Drawing up plans, getting him to source materials from the castle that they could use. Depending on how well he could walk, maybe they could chop a decent branch off one of the trees outside to carve. They were probably going to make the world’s worst bow and arrow, but somehow he didn’t think Clint was going to be that picky about it. He seemed like a ‘simple pleasures’ kind of guy.
Then again, had he ever had it better than Winterheart? Was there a family out there somewhere looking for a scruffy teen that wandered off fifteen years ago and never came home?
Disturbed by the punch of sadness that came with the thought, Tony pushed the blankets down to his chest and tried to give himself over to a decent sleep. At the very least it might stop him thinking sentimental thoughts. What the hell did he know about family, anyway?
Sleeping for what felt like years upon centuries, he was pulled to the very edge of sleep by the familiar bubbling panic of tepid water in his throat, by the hard cage of fingers on the back of his skull, pushing him under even as he promised he’d do it, he’d make the Jericho, he’d do it—
“Rest.” A cold hand pressed to his burning cheek, suspending him on the edge of terror and oblivion. “Your horrors cannot reach you here.”
My horrors are all inside , he thought, caught in the twisted fever of caves and water and coals reflected in wide dead eyes. But the hand on his cheek slid up into his hair, brushing the ghost of fingers away as it travelled on its too-careful path, slipping through dark strands and down over his brow. If fingertips circled where horns might have jutted, he couldn’t really say. All he knew was that he was dry, he could breathe, and if he opened his eyes the new dream might vanish back into clutching darkness.
So Tony did the only thing he could: he lay there in tired gratitude and relief, and didn’t move as feather-light fingertips minded their claws and mapped his bones and laugh lines, thinking him asleep all over again.
Somewhere during that cautious exploration the lie started to become the truth, and Tony eventually drifted back off to the sensation of a light fingertip endlessly circling his arc reactor.
Somehow, it helped.
Morning came, and with it, solitude.
Loki had retreated back into the west wing. He didn’t come out.
A week passed. Tony’s leg healed again, Clint and Natasha avoided each other, and nobody said anything about his escape attempt. If it wasn’t for the bite mark under his bandages, Tony would have thought nothing had changed at all.
So much for a turning point, he thought crankily one afternoon, sketching out plans on baking paper with a stick of charcoal. Tricking Cook into providing him with food items that weren’t actually food hadn’t been too difficult, but the second-rate materials were frustrating and he wasn’t going to start drawing on toilet paper just yet. Not for the first time, he thought about re-pulping it into something bigger, but there was desperation and then there was playing with toilet paper.
Besides, he was already on his hands and knees in the wide entrance hall, where the best of the morning light fell onto the stone floor. It was the only place where he could roll out a three-by-four length of paper and not end up with eyestrain.
It was shaping up to be the bow to end all bows – if he had access to current technology and materials. Drawing a laser sight and an array of multi-use arrowheads in a remote-operated rotating quiver was fun, but it wasn’t feasible. He kept those drawings anyway, torn off and tucked in his back pocket. Maybe he couldn’t make them, but he was a weapons designer and it was a cool idea.
The traditional bow blueprint was sleek and simple and elegant. It was either going to be a self bow or a composite bow, depending on the quality of the wood they found and the grain. Bowstring was going to have to come from Cook, maybe Natasha if she knew anything about weaving rope and could adapt her skills. Unravelling the silk threads from one of the tapestries might work, if they weren’t too brittle from age.
It was cleansing work. Tony sketched and erased and edited and cleaned up lines, ideas forming plans in his head as he worked. He added to the list of potentially salvageable items they could use, ordering them from most useful to ‘in case of emergency’.
He was sitting back on his hands and thinking about lunch when a bread roll bounced off the side of his head.
“Two points!” Clint hooted, jogging over with a precarious tray of assorted food and drink piled on it. “I brought food so I could spy on your drawings.”
“It’s not spying when you tell me what you’re doing,” Tony told him, reaching for an enormous ham salad roll. He pulled a pickle out of it and ate it first. Cook’s magic pickles tasted even better than soggy burger ones. “But I’m susceptible to bribery, so I guess your plan was still a success. Take a look.”
They ate their way through salad rolls, a small mountain of french fries, two pre-mix cokes that tasted like they came from McDonalds and a random selection of out-of-season fruits while they chatted about the bow and traded ideas. Clint knew a hell of a lot about archery as it so happened, including the composition and structure of the kind of bow he used to work with, tension of bowstring, weight of bow and arrows, the whole shebang. Tony could tell by the way his eyes lit up as he spoke that it was his happy place, in the same way that designing and inventing was Tony’s.
“I used to shoot apples off people’s heads and stuff,” Clint grinned, his eyes lost in memory. “Scared the fuckin’ shit out of the crowd. Some know-nothing kid in bright spandex shooting arrows at one of the circus babes. As if I’d even have gone up there if I didn’t think I could shoot the seeds clean out of the thing. They loved it. I loved it.”
Tony was fascinated. “You worked in a circus?”
Clint nodded. “Yeah, a travelling carnival. Carson’s. Me and Barney –that’s my brother- we joined after we shot through on the whole orphanage thing. I got trained up real nice there. I was so good at it, man, I’d never been that good at anything in my life.” His smile wobbled and faded. “I thought we’d made it, but it was all bullshit in the end. I ended up on the wrong side of an embezzling job. I got the shit kicked outta me and my brother said I had it coming. But I mean, how do you shut your mouth and look the other way?”
“You don’t,” Tony replied, glancing away. “Smaller men might, but not you.”
Clint snorted. “Some good it did me. I picked my bruised ass up off the floor and somewhere between there and my bed I ended up here.” His mouth quirked in a strangely fond smile. “It’s supposed to be a prison, isn’t it? But I—like, I had a big bed and all the food I wanted, and no-one smacked me around or called me Barney’s rat-faced kid brother. I pretended this whole place was mine and the boss didn’t give a shit about what I did. He just walked laps at night when I was in bed.”
Tony tried to imagine it, being in his mid-teens and all alone, surrounded by everything and nothing. Too much freedom and not enough company. Disillusionment and the idea that maybe other people weren’t that great after all. He surprised himself by barking a small laugh. He’d just described his own childhood.
“You made it work,” he said, smiling. “Then came Natasha.”
Clint grinned. “She was like Christmas, with all that red hair flying around. Even the boss came down to talk to her while she was recovering. We set her ribs together, did anyone tell you?” He leaned forward guiltily. “I had my eyes closed for most of it, but I might have snuck a look.”
“You sick bastard.”
“I know!” Clint tossed a stray fry into the air and ate it. “Then I went and did it to you. Maybe it’s some kind of psycho-whatever problem. Maybe I look at you while you’re sleeping.”
“Hey, if I don’t know it happened, it didn’t.” Tony watched Clint crack up laughing at that, though his mind was on someone else who’d been watching him sleep. Someone who’d vanished back upstairs and probably wouldn’t come down again.
“Are you done for the day?” Clint eventually asked, waving a hand at the paper. “It looks like it’s done. The planning stuff, anyway.” Tony nodded; it was as finished as it’d ever be. There wasn’t a lot to traditional bow design, really. It was going to be a pretty primitive job. And speaking of primitive jobs…
“You want to go source some wood?”
“What, outside? There’s trees behind the castle that are still on the grounds, but…” Whatever argument Clint had been about to make in favour of staying inside dried up. “Sure. Fuck it, let’s go outside. I haven’t been out the back in years.”
They rolled up the prototype sheets and took the tray back to Cook, who sucked it back inside the roller-door of food magic and shot back out a flask of scotch for Tony.
“What?” Tony said to Clint’s questioning expression. “We’re going out into the snow. It warms the blood.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Don’t ruin the placebo effect.”
“I’ll ruin your face,” Clint muttered, but it was mostly to himself as they shook out the heavier blankets and swung them on like cloaks. “Don’t go in the deep snowdrifts. Your fancy shoes ain’t worth shit out there.”
“Figured that one out last time, cotton candy.”
Clint was still laughing at possibly the worst circus-related nickname in existence when Natasha hopped down the servant’s staircase by the back entrance to the laundry, picking her skirt up like a proper lady.
“What are you boys doing?” she asked, eyebrow cocked in question. “It’s cold out there.”
Clint held up his blanket-cloak. Tony held up the flask of scotch. She rolled her eyes.
“Give me those.” Before either could respond, she flung the blanket around her own shoulders and snagged the scotch, taking a long drink of Tony’s counterfeit Macallan 1928.
“That’s fifty thousand dollars a bottle,” Tony told her. “You can work off your debt in foot rubs and body slides.”
Clint’s eyes lit up. “Body slides? You know, Nat, you still owe me for the frosty hand.” To illustrate his point he held up the right hand in question and flopped it forward sadly. “You said you did, you said it last week in fact—”
“Consider the icy hand as late payment for staring at my breasts while you bound my ribs,” she said coolly, taking another pointed chug from Tony’s flask. Clint looked horrified. “You two are the loudest confidants I’ve ever had the pleasure of gathering intel on.”
Their trip out into the snow-covered expanse of Winterheart’s grounds was punctuated by Clint’s frantic backpedalling and Tony’s laughter. It was cold outside but not freezing, with the wind gentle and the snow still a heavy load waiting in the cloud cover. Inside the castle grounds it felt like there were layers, entire drifts of it waiting above a dull grey curtain of clouds. The weather was no more a natural occurrence than the wolves were, Tony was sure of it.
Still, while it all held off, the grounds were the closest thing to a real winter wonderland that Tony had ever seen. Wide expanses of snow, gentle hills and hulking shrubbery dusted in white, with overhanging trees weighed down with their payload of freezing powder. Natasha leapt up and grabbed a branch as Tony walked beneath one, sending the whole lot cascading down on top of him.
“Man down!” he shouted, spluttering a little as he pulled himself out of the snow. “Oh my god, that went places it shouldn’t have.” Shaking out his blanket, he wrapped it around his shoulders. Grinning at him, Natasha took another –another– sip of his flask and handed it back, nimbly hopping around the deeper patches of snow and heading off to examine a boulder that had been covered in ice, way up the back of the grounds.
“You two never came out here?” Tony asked as Clint generously brushed snowflakes out of his hair and beard. It was definitely becoming a beard these days. Maybe it would be a good look on him? Who was he kidding, everything looked good on him. “I find it hard to believe that you two weren’t friends before I came along.”
“Oh, we almost were,” Clint said earnestly. “But she took it pretty hard when the oil trap thing failed and the boss iced me by accident. I kinda—I guess I did think I was collateral damage. To her, I mean. She never talked to me after that. She’s not great at apologising.” Leaning in conspiratorially, he added, “she didn’t even bring me food when she came to say sorry.”
“That amateur,” Tony said, feeling vindicated. “I’d have brought you popcorn, battered processed meat and cheap toys.”
“Oh my god, stop with the circus jokes. It was years ago, man.”
Tony shrugged. “Okay, then how about we just wipe the slate clean? No pasts. Just Winterheart.”
“Just Winterheart,” Clint repeated, sounding it out. He shrugged back at Tony. “Sounds good to me. Even though you’ve been weird and secrety—”
“—secretive about what you did before you were here. Or who that Pepper woman was. Or what happened after I left that night in the solar. Or why the boss ran out to save your life.” Blue eyes narrowed at him. “Or why I haven’t seen him in a week.”
Tony held his hands out, letting go of the blanket for a moment. “I fully expect that he’s just up there licking his wounds,” he protested. “But I’m not going to go check. Last time I did that, I ended up out in the snow with a wolf chewing my leg. So if you want to play nurse, be my guest. But I’ve got enough things on my plate right now.” Enough things to recover from.
Clint looked almost offended by Tony’s lack of concern, but he didn’t say anything. Truth was, Tony was concerned. But he’d learned his lesson. No more west wing. Not ever. Not even if he’d woken up three nights in a row imagining fingers brushing his hair, where before it had only been a palm pressing him into water. Beneath his shirt, the reactor seemed to pulse strangely. He was pretty sure it wasn’t actually the reactor.
Across the snowy landscape, Natasha was waving an arm at them.
“What’s she found?” Clint muttered, picking his pace up into a jog. “There’s nothing but weeds and rocks out here.” Tony followed him, curious about the flailing. This wasn’t really a woman who looked like the flailing type. There was something strange about the way she stood—
As they came closer, Natasha cried out.
“Stop, stop, stop! Stop running!”
“Whoa,” Clint said, startled into stillness by the scream. “What’s going on?”
Natasha was breathing rapidly as she stared at them, her green eyes huge and still.
Beneath her feet, something cracked, low and soft and dangerous.
“Thin ice.” Clint stepped back, pulling Tony with him. “There’s water under here. Natasha, can you—”
“No,” she said, her voice low, like it might upset her footing. “It cracked deep. Trust me. I can’t move or I’ll go under.” Her chest heaved once, twice. “If I do go under, there’s no guarantee there will be another hole for me to escape through. If I go under and the current pulls me outside Winterheart’s boundaries—”
“Wolves,” Tony breathed, eyeing her feet. It looked like she was standing ankle-deep in soft snow. “Do we have rope? Is there rope?”
“I don’t know,” Clint said, his eyes darting. “There’s never been any need for it.” Turning his head back to the castle, he blinked. “I—shit, not even a curtain rod would reach her. She’s too far out.” His expression was crushed as he turned back to Natasha’s still form, tall and lonely on the ice. “I know what we’ve got, Nat...it wouldn’t be enough. You’ll have to jump.”
“If I tense, it breaks,” she said through gritted teeth. Her eyes were fixed on Clint like they were the only thing she could see. “If—if I think about jumping, it’s going to break.”
“No, that’s not right,” Clint said, but his voice was weak. “You’re not going to fall.”
Tony watched her there, standing in the centre of a frozen river no-one had ever noticed, just as forgotten as everything else in the ruin of the grounds. Natasha still had the strength to smile.
“Who says it isn’t my turn to fall?” Her foot changed pressure with her stance, and Tony heard it clear and true; that ice was going to break clean. “Who says this hasn’t been coming for a long time, Clint? I’m an assassin. Not a spy. I kill people because I’m told to. And when I finally stopped and thought about it—I was here. Busted up and angry and lost—”
“I won’t let you go under.” Clint was shaking, but his eyes were furious. “So shut your goddamn mouth and stop moving. I won’t let you go under.”
Then he turned and ran. But not toward the doors they’d come from. Clint ran hard and dangerously fast through the snow, his form turning small as he gained on the castle, curving around the side of the grounds. Had he gone nuts?
“What’s he doing?” Natasha asked, her voice strangled and thick with emotion. “There’s nothing, Tony, he said it himself.”
“It’s okay,” Tony found himself saying as he turned back to her. “He’s—if he won’t find anything, he won’t find anything. There’s nothing we could make in time. You’re twenty feet away. What you need to focus on is cold shock. When you go under, you’ll panic. You might need to break through but if the current is too strong—”
“Tony. Enough,” she said softly. “I’m…I’m going to break it. While he’s gone. It’s better if he doesn’t see.”
He hadn’t even summoned the right string of words together to describe why that was the worst idea ever when he heard glass smashing in the distance. Clint was throwing rocks at one of the balconies.
Natasha’s eyes were huge. “What is he doing?” she breathed, but the dawning shock in her face said more than enough. She knew exactly what he was doing. Slowly, Tony turned to face Winterheart’s longest human resident.
Clint Barton. That son of a bitch.
“I don’t care if she tried to kill you!” Clint was roaring up at the west wing’s only surviving balcony. “I don’t care if you hate her and I don’t care if she hates you.” Rearing back, he threw a palm sized rock with such pinpoint accuracy it went sailing deep into the ice-ruined chamber. The crystalline sound of ice shattering said everything. “She needs your help and you’re going to help! You owe me this! You owe me!”
Breathing so hard it sounded more like the heaving sobs of the bereaved, Clint threw another rock. And another.
No sound echoed from the chamber. Just rocks. Just ice.
“He’s an idiot,” Natasha whispered behind Tony. When he glanced back, she was smiling. “I guess he really was the best friend I’ll ever have.”
“No, no, no, come on Romanoff, this isn’t over. No graceful sacrifices today, please.” Tony’s mouth trembled. “Please.”
At her feet, the ice cracked again. She hadn’t even moved this time.
“I don’t think it’s going to be left up to me, Tony.”
“Just jump,” he rapidly, arms out like he could reach her across all that distance. “Don’t tense. Throw yourself toward me. You made it out this far just fine, so the ice must be thick enough this way to support you.”
“I won’t make it in time.”
Tony wanted to punch something. “Do you even want to live?”
“Of course I do!” she shouted back, blazing and furious. “I haven’t lived in years—all I want to do is live! Isn’t that what this place does? It takes us when we’re at a crossroads, Tony. It takes us and it lets us decide.” She gasped a single breath, and when she looked up from her feet he could see the sheen of moisture in her eyes. “I don’t think I measured up.”
Behind them, Clint was hurling stone after stone up at the balcony. From the distance Tony stood at, his shoulders looked like they were starting to sag. Turning to Natasha, he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
“If that moron is willing to risk his ass for you, I daresay you’re worth it.”
Whatever Natasha had been about to say was swallowed up by a shout at the other end of the grounds. Whipping back around, Tony gaped up at the balcony.
Standing there, bent over the low stone railing was a familiar green-wrapped figure. His long hair was blowing back from his face, but Tony couldn’t make out his expression. Far below, Clint was pointing at them. At Natasha. Whatever he was saying, Tony couldn’t make out a word of it but he pointed back anyway, signalling Natasha’s plight.
Loki couldn’t control the ice, Tony knew he couldn’t control the ice, but…there had to be something. Didn’t there?
Tony was halfway to doubting Loki’s physical health when he jumped clean over the balcony railing, his cloak a fluttering banner of green behind him. He landed with a thump and a cloud of snow, but the form that straightened and stalked toward them said nothing of the plunge he’d just taken. But his face? His face contained pure murder.
“Bozhe moi,” Natasha whispered. Tony’s grasp of Russian was a little rusty, but even he knew a prayer when he heard one.
When Loki came near, his eyes assessed the situation with clinical calm.
“You haven’t moved from the original fissure?” he asked Natasha, his eyes scanning the snow like the could see the ice beneath it. Could he? Was that a power too?
“No.” Natasha was pale but resolute. Good on her, Tony thought, stepping aside carefully. That face looked like Loki didn’t know whether he wanted to savage or save her.
“Good. Stay still.” He smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “Or fall. It’s up to you.”
“No, it’s not,” Tony interrupted, casting an arm at the frozen stream. “She didn’t know it was thin—” He caught a mouthful of wolf fur and choked, pulling the cloak off his head. Why was the cloak always in his mouth?
When he drew it away Loki was yanking his boots off, revealing fine-boned feet with long clawed toes. Tony thought he saw more markings there but yanked his gaze away as Loki moved toward the snow-coated ice.
Natasha looked like she wanted to shrink back, but her steel spine and clenched fists said she wasn’t going to do anything of the sort. Loki pressed a foot into the ice. No pressure, judging by his raised thigh, but contact.
The breath he pulled into his lungs was calm and clean and it made the snow fall in a silent, gentle flurry of white.
“Can you save her?” Clint blurted out, his hand actually clasping Loki’s gold-encased forearm. “If you can, I’ll—I’ll—I don’t even know.”
“Calm down, Barton. And let go.” Loki’s gaze touched Tony’s and flickered away. “I’ll do what I can.”
Clint jumped back, clutching Tony’s sleeve instead as they both watched Loki step out onto the ice, walking like he knew just where to step even though he couldn’t, he couldn’t possibly know. Natasha swallowed and held herself as still as a statue, barely breathing.
“What’s he gonna do?” Clint whispered in Tony’s ear, too close and afraid.
“He’s going to help.” Probably. Maybe. Clint or no Clint, Natasha was still the woman who’d caused a lot of bad blood in the castle. Who’d probably set Loki’s sentence back a fair way after he accidentally froze Clint’s arm. What if Loki decided to simply kill her? He’d decided the apple didn’t matter, after all. What did you do when you were angry and you’d given up?
Had he given up?
“Stay still,” Loki said to Natasha, “and I’ll reach you. The ice cannot crack under my feet.”
“It can crack under mine. It already has.” She tilted her head. “Is it because of what I did? Is it punishment? A week after we spoke, and now this…”
“It’s not my doing,” Loki said sharply. “You’re a vicious thorn in my side but I can’t fault your actions.” His hands clenched and relaxed at his sides. “After all, I once did the same. I came to one as a friend. When he believed me, I killed him.” The sigh was almost nostalgic. “Of course, he was my father, but one mustn’t let details get in the way of a good story.”
Natasha jerked in surprise, her foot slipping back on the ice. With that small movement, her balance was lost and her knee cracked hard against the ice.
The last thing Tony saw was huge green eyes and a flag of red hair. It was a lot like their first meeting, really.
Natasha vanished under the ice—
—and like a blurred comet-tail of blue, Loki dived in after her.
Barely a ripple remained to show that Natasha and Loki had fallen through. The black water beneath the ice had drank them down, leaving nothing but their footprints in the snow.
For a single, incredulous second Tony stood there in silence with Clint, his eyes locked on the jagged hole in the ice. Both of them gone in a second.
“Oh God, oh God, Natasha.” Lurching forward and breaking the stillness, Clint ran for the hole in the ice like he was going to dive as well. Tony barely caught him, fingers tangling in his shirt and pulling so hard Clint spun back into his arms. He was shaking so much his teeth were almost chattering, breath wheezing out of him as he fought Tony’s awkward embrace. “No, I've gotta, we should break the hole open wider or—”
“You’ll fall in too,” Tony said harshly, surprised by the difficulty with which he spoke. Clint’s hands gripped at his back, completely at odds with his attempt to escape. “We’ll wait. He might get her in time.”
“What about him? Who gets him?”
Tony swallowed. A week ago, he had. Across the snow, the water beneath the broken ice was utterly still. Undisturbed. The cold would shock Natasha’s system into panic, but it was the current and lack of oxygen they had to worry about. With no break in the ice, even Loki would die.
“Have faith,” Tony said bleakly.
“Why? You don’t.” Twisting his way out of Tony’s grasp, Clint picked his way toward the frozen stream. His eyes were wet with tears as he stared at the ice, his gaze burning brilliant blue as the glaring afternoon light slanted across his face.
One minute ticked over into two. No-one surfaced.
But nothing else happened, either. Clint and Tony just stood there like spare parts, waiting, completely useless.
Have faith, he’d said. In who? Loki? Loki had no love for Natasha, not really. But he’d dived in anyway. Duty was a son of a bitch: now both of them were probably going to drown under there.
Tony was just thinking of how to coax Clint back off the stream when an armoured blue forearm punched its way up through the ice, sending chips of white flying back in their faces. Clint slipped and fell on his ass, scooting away as Natasha’s limp body was shoved up and sent rolling along the snow-dusted expanse, pushed with so much force she almost ended up at Tony’s feet.
“Fuck.” Grabbing her under the arms, Tony yanked her back onto safe ground and turned her over, dragging wet hair off her face and checking for a pulse, for breathing. “Barton, get over here!”
“In a minute,” Clint grunted. Tony glanced over and swore; he was pulling Loki out of the ice. With his bare hands. “Is she breathing?”
Natasha was as still as a porcelain doll in the snow, just a sprawl of limbs wrapped in sodden red and blue. Her pulse was weak, but her chest didn’t move. Respiratory arrest.
“Ah, crap.” Tony got to work.
Resuscitation was something he’d generally always had a passing knowledge of, filed away as a ‘just in case’ measure. Yinsen had taught him a little more in their dank little corner of the cave system, because ‘just in case’ had become a lot more important when you were building weapons for men who got a laugh out of sticking hot coals in terrible places for incentive. With Tony’s heart the way it was, he’d been taught a thing or two about saving a life.
The first two tries were the hardest. Tilt head, pinch nose, seal mouth. Breathe. Chest didn’t rise. Tilt head again—
“Pistol grip, Stark, and adjust the head like so. You won’t save anyone by breathing into their stomach .”
“You know, television has a lot to answer for.”
—breathe again. Her chest didn’t move.
“Goddamnit,” Tony swore, shoving snow out of the way and flattening Natasha’s body out further. He checked her pulse again. Still there.
“Oh my god,” Clint said, watching on as Tony adjusted her head again. “Do you even know what you’re doing? Don’t you have to press on her chest?”
“Her heart’s working,” Tony bent again, mouth wide over hers, and breathed. Her chest rose. Yes. “Her lungs just need a bit of help. You can check a pulse, right? Tell me if it stops.”
“Okay.” Clint laid two fingers beside Natasha’s windpipe, pressing firmly beneath her jaw. Straight for the carotid; he’d done that before. Then he realised he was in the way of Tony and switched to her wrist. Together, they tried to get Natasha Romanoff breathing again.
There followed two long minutes of five second breaths, of Clint finding her pulse and losing it and finding it again, of Tony’s sweat-slick grip shifting and correcting. Loki crouched on the other side of them, watching on in silence. Frost climbed over his hands, thickened into ice and fell to the snow in an endless cycle.
‘Wait I can’t—I lost her pulse,” Clint said tightly. “Hang on, I think I fucked up.”
Tony glanced over, his own fingers reaching for her neck to confirm, and in that precise moment Natasha seized up and started vomiting fluid out of her mouth and nose.
“Oh, halle-fucking-lujah,” Clint said, falling back in the snow. “I hate all of you.”
It was Loki who pushed her onto her side, pulling her hair out of the way and digging snow out of the path of her mouth and nose. Tony grabbed the blankets they’d thrown aside when she’d stepped onto the ice.
“Get that wet dress off her,” Tony said, laying the blankets out one on top of the other. “And get her on here.”
Natasha was barely conscious, wheezing and covered in scotch-scented water, but she was shaking and shuddering with cold and her lips had turned a strange shade of purple. Clint stripped her of her dress, fingers flying over laces as Loki peeled it away from her arms with careful fingertips. Clint didn’t watch it happen, he just balled up the dress and used the sleeve to wipe her mouth clear of obstruction. What a team.
But it shouldn’t have worked. Not that easily, at least. Still, Natasha was breathing, she was alive and breathing and she’d coughed up all her insides. Did the details really matter just then?
“Take her inside,” Loki rasped, wrapping her tightly in the blankets. “You know how to treat this, Barton. Go.”
Hauling Natasha up into his arms with a strength Tony wouldn’t have credited him with, Clint adjusted his grip on her and headed for the back doors as fast as he could.
Maybe he was being too suspicious. Maybe it was a miracle, maybe he’d just done everything right. Natasha was alive and kicking. They both were. Turning, Tony studied Loki.
“Are you okay? That was a pretty spry move for a guy with a bite mark in his side.” With no bandages to cover his wound the punctures were still visible, if unfairly faded.
Crouched in the snow, Loki was casting an eye about for his boots and cloak. He was covered in frost; even his hair had white woven through it, hanging stiff and dishevelled over his brow and shoulders, woven about his horns and eyes. Those eyes though, they burned red and clear as they snapped back to Tony. His teeth were a flash of white behind parted blue lips, one sharp canine indenting his lower lip slightly.
“I heal faster than you,” Loki replied, pulling one boot on. “I’m more durable.” He yanked the other boot up over his frost-covered pants, paying no mind to the way the water from the stream had frozen on his cold skin. “I’m quite fine.”
“You still could have drowned.” Not only that, but there was a tremor to Loki’s hands that couldn’t have anything to do with the temperature. “Are you okay?”
“Go inside,” Loki muttered, standing and turning away to retrieve his cloak. Tony had dropped it in the snow. Classy. “Your leg can’t have healed yet. Why were you all out here in the first place? It’s nought but snow and old trees.” Grabbing at the fur, he slung the length over his arm and turned back to frown at Tony.
“Exactly. Trees.” He smiled. “I need wood to make a bow. It’s kind of an essential material, you might say.”
“I promised Clint I’d design him one that would compensate for his hand,” Tony replied, getting up and brushing snow off his legs. The chill had sunk well into his skin a while ago, but he was really starting to feel it. “I should still look around.”
Tony blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
Loki glared. “You’re unbelievably accident prone. You’ll tumble into the water or something equally ridiculous and unlikely. I’m sick of saving your hide, yours and theirs. Return inside and get off that leg.”
“Look, I’m not asking for your permission or your help,” Tony argued, crossing his arms protectively as the breeze picked up again. “Maybe you’re content spending your days in the dark, licking your wounds and feeling sorry for yourself, but I need something constructive to do. It’s what I’m good at.”
Maybe he was pushing it a bit with that response, but there was being a prisoner, there was being told where not to go and then there was being ordered about because it suited Loki. There was only so much of that bullshit Tony could grin and bear before it started to chafe.
“And your constructive goal is to build a bow,” Loki scoffed. There was an angry glint in his eyes. “Do you often build weapons to pass the time?”
Tony nearly laughed himself sick. He wasn’t sure why. There was nothing funny about it anymore.
“I used to,” he said eventually, wiping the corner of his eye with a knuckle. “Yeah. I used to. Not much to build with around here, though.” He half expected Loki to stomp out of there or try the aggression on for size again, but all he did was drop his gaze to Tony’s chest, where his arc reactor glowed beneath his red shirt. Half of it was visible when his shirt parted now. He’d lost a button and his undershirt because of that day out in the snow, leaving the reactor and a good wedge of his chest on display. Still, there was no reason to hide it from people who’d already seen the whole show. No one was going to kidnap him for the tech, not anymore.
“You built that.” It was more statement than question, but Tony nodded, waiting for the inevitable. What does it do? How did it get there? Doesn’t it hurt? Where is your heart? All the same ones Pepper had asked on the car ride back to civilisation, barely two months ago.
“Are you ill?”
Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “No. Yes. I’m…damaged.” He meant to add more, a little more explanation before he could get hit with a dry agreement or a laugh and a nod, but his words dried up in his mouth. Maybe it was a symptom of avoiding self-analysis like the plague; he surprised even himself with the truth sometimes.
Casting his eyes back at the castle, Loki seemed to struggle with himself. His hands were still shaking finely, coated with frost, and the sight was bothering Tony more than it should.
“Are you sick? What’s wrong? You’re freaking me out here, c’mon. Did you overdo it?” Zeroing in on the healing wound in his side, Tony stepped forward and reached out to examine it more closely. Maybe he’d torn something. “There’s no shame in telling me I’m always right—shit!” The skin his fingers brushed was chemical-cold, burning but not burning at all and the sensation went straight up Tony’s arm with a white-hot shock of pain.
“Don’t!” Loki moved to slap Tony’s hand away and aborted the motion before he could do more damage, swinging his hands out by his sides like he didn’t know where else to put them. Fury and fear crossed his face. Panic, Tony realised. It was panic. “How many times must I tell you, you fool?!”
“Sorry,” Tony forced out, breathless with pain. But his fingers were stinging and alive with some really upset nerve endings, not numb. There wasn’t any ice on them. “I thought it was just your hands and feet that did the damage.”
Loki was panting now, fangs out, lurching away from Tony like he was about to bolt.
“They do.” His eyes fluttered shut briefly, then opened again. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” He scraped ice off his chest, staring at the accumulation of it in his hand like he’d never seen it before.
“Well, uh, okay, let’s work through this,” Tony said, trying to hide his nervousness. “Are you feeling angry? Threatened?”
“No,” Loki whispered. His voice had roughened up into the bass rumble Tony remembered from the tower cells.
“Are you scared?”
“No.” Then he grimaced, shaking his head. “Or I wasn’t.”
“But this didn’t happen until after Natasha started breathing again.” Tony thought hard. What had changed? What had changed when she started breathing? They’d been relieved, Clint stopped freaking out and they’d tried warming her up— “Huh.”
“What is it?” Loki asked urgently.
Tony thought about it. “Open your mouth for me.”
“Just trust me. And don’t bite.”
Loki looked like he didn’t know whether to throttle Tony or cling to him like a panicked cat. It would have been humorous under other circumstances, but there was something oddly endearing about it all. Loki didn’t even realise what had happened to him. If Tony’s suspicion was correct it would spark a lot of questions.
Tony pressed a fingertip against Loki’s teeth, pressing lightly so that his lower jaw opened wider. Reaching up, Tony gingerly touched one of Loki’s horns and felt nothing. Bone didn’t conduct the ice. It was just his skin.
“Bear with me,” Tony murmured softly—and slid his finger beneath Loki’s tongue. The interior of his mouth felt hot and wet, not icy. Bingo. He was out and had his palms up in apology before the boss could even choke out a curse. “So, I think you’ve probably got a chill.”
Loki stared at him in disbelief. “I’m a frost giant.”
“And I’m pretty sure you’re endothermic.” Tony shrugged, brushing his fingers on his pants. “Warm-blooded, in arguable layman’s terms. I guess it would make sense, since your people live in the freezing dark and all. This ice might just be a sign of your body trying to regulate temperature again, or maybe expelling the cold in a way it can manage.” At the stunned look on Loki’s face, Tony felt it was probably prudent to sound a little less confident about his potentially bullshit theory. “Not that I’m a medical doctor or anything.”
Loki flinched as Tony reached toward him again, but it was just to grab the cloak from where it hung over his arm. Shaking the length out, Tony decided it wasn’t too damp and flung it around Loki’s shoulders, taking care to keep the fabric between his skin and Loki’s. Tugging the edges in toward his chest, it only took a moment of fumbling with his sore fingers to tie the fanged clasp to the eyelet on the other side.
With the ice gathering on Loki’s bare skin like it was, the fur and mantle weren’t going to do a lot for warmth. Mostly it just made Tony feel better to see it back on him. Loki just watched him with a steady gaze, not even bothering to tug his hair out from under the fur. Maybe he didn’t want Tony to see his hands still shaking.
A slightly awkward silence descended. Tony, feeling pretty damn chilled himself, gave up on finding a suitable branch to use for Clint’s bow and decided to head back inside. He needed to check in on Natasha anyway. There was always something he could do to help. Fetch food, maybe. Or casually feign apathy.
Loki, seemingly at a loss, followed him.
It was a small walk back toward the castle, but Tony managed to step in every shallow hole and trip on every hidden stick on the way. Loki’s head was bowed in thought and he didn’t seem to be paying much attention, though Tony had seen him twitch instinctively the first time he’d stumbled. Tony wasn’t really a physical contact, hands-on kind of guy most of the time but the danger irked him in the same way that being told he couldn’t do something absolutely made it top priority on his list.
“I saw Clint pulling you out of the water,” Tony said abruptly, fed up with the silence. “That was big. It’s probably a good thing you weren’t icing up until after that.”
Loki made a sound of agreement in his throat, but he didn’t appear to be listening.
“You did good out there, you know,” Tony persisted. “You could have just let Natasha die. God knows she expected you to.”
“Even monsters make mistakes.” It was dry humour at its finest, but Tony didn’t like it.
“So how’s your apple these days? Any worms?”
“It’s rotting. How is your leg?”
“It’s healing. Did your room thaw out?”
“No. Have you drunk yourself into a stupor yet?”
“Almost. Could you stop being an asshole?”
Loki’s sidelong glare was dark. “I could.”
Irritated, Tony intentionally picked up his pace so he pulled ahead slightly. When Loki matched him, he slowed back down. Childish, sure, but it took one to know one. Calming down tantrums wasn’t his thing. If he was tetchy about the ice then he could damn well do some breathing exercises and deal with it.
“You know, I don’t even know why you’re in such a tizzy about your skin. For someone who avoids us and hates people touching him, you seem mighty concerned that you’re going to be physically isolated.” Tony waited until Loki spun and snarled at him before smiling his best smile. “Newsflash, snowman: you’ve been managing that just fine this entire time.”
Tony reconsidered his tone as Loki came striding back toward him, ice cracking off his hands. Was he ever going to leave well enough alone?
Standing at his full height, Loki seemed to tower over him, a hulking shape of horns and fur and blue. His sharp teeth looked more dangerous than ever as he bared them at Tony.
“I’d made my peace with knowing my skin only brought pain and suffering. I understood my powers caused hurt and fear whether I wished for it or not. You were insistent that it could be different.” A clawed hand shot out and clutched Tony’s wrist through the edge of green cloth, shaking it so his fingers unfurled. They were bright red at the tips, still throbbing with the shock of cold. At the sight of them the anger appeared to leave Loki all in a rush, leaving only that strange grief behind. “Now look at you. The price of my hope.”
Tony blinked down at his hand. “It was a warning shot at best. Stop being so dramatic.” His words were light, but guilt was swarming in his stomach. Had he done that? Had that much effect? It wasn’t humility that made him wonder; he’d mostly assumed he was an amusing irritation at best. A curiosity. He’d never set out to change Loki. He’d just wanted to test his limits. Prod and poke tender areas. Challenge him. Loki was fearsome authority and an introverted self-loathing creature of ice. What else was Tony supposed to do?
“Heed the warning, then.” The grip on his wrist loosened and slid away. Soft green brushed his skin as it fell. There were snowflakes in Loki’s eyelashes.
“I’m not great with orders.” Reaching up with his sore fingers, Tony brushed the back of his hand across Loki’s eyelids, sweeping them away. Nothing happened. The frost on his skin wasn’t melting, his skin beneath was like ice, but nothing burned him. Loki’s body had adapted.
Loki went rigid at the touch, but his wide eyes said he realised what had happened. He grabbed Tony’s hand as he pulled it away, claws pricking lightly at the pale skin of his wrist. Again, nothing but cold. No pain.
It was on the tip of Tony’s tongue to say ‘I told you so’ but it felt a little redundant, given the painful relief on Loki’s face as he stared at the spot where their skin touched. It wasn’t supposed to mean so much, but maybe the isolation Loki had imposed upon himself hadn’t been out of his own desire for solitude. Maybe he just hadn’t wanted to get his hopes up that someone would bother taking the risk. Or Tony was just completely overestimating his own importance altogether.
Either was likely, but all the thoughts blew clean out of his mind when Loki leaned forward and brushed his lips against the painful tips of his fingers, warm breath gusting over the reddened skin there. The alien, crimson eyes that met his were sorrowful but sincere.
Tony was speechless. It was an apology; it was an endearing, awful, heartbreaking kind of apology and he didn’t know what to say. So he said nothing, nodding and tucking his fingers away inside a fist when they were released. He’d felt in over his head before, but this? This was a different kind of risk.
The continued walk back to the castle was silent, but somehow warmer for it.
Thirty seconds later Tony tripped on a snow-buried rock. This time, a pair of clawed hands reached out and steadied him.
Predictably, Loki withdrew to the west wing once they were inside.
Determined to be unbothered by it, Tony spent the rest of the afternoon in the solar with Clint and Natasha, who for some unfathomable reason weren’t speaking to each other again. Who the hell needed television when Tony could just catch up on the recent ups and downs of two mentally deranged prisoners trying to be friends?
While Natasha simmered grumpily on the lounge beneath a mountain of blankets, Clint was looking miserable and guilty as he picked at her leftovers, sitting on the floor with his back resting against her lounge.
Amused, Tony just watched them over his scribbled notes, making changes and cleaning up designs as he propped his feet up on the other lounge. In another lifetime it would have been the repulsor technology applied to a wearable gauntlet that took its share of power from the arc reactor. The Mark II armoured suit. The project before Winterheart had snatched him up and derailed his life. A few weeks back Tony would have been angry just thinking about it in those terms. But sitting there in the firelight with grumbling friends that liked him despite their strange differences, warm and comfortable and well-fed, alive and safe…he wasn’t even close to unhappy. The catch of being unable to leave the castle was starting to simply become part of his life. Not a barrier. A normality.
Of course, he missed his friends back out in the world. The difference was that they had lives. Selfishly, Tony liked that he knew Natasha, Clint, even Loki were always around somewhere when he wanted them. There was nowhere else to go, and so they’d become a family that clicked in the important ways. It was hard to bitch about a prison when Winterheart was feeding something in him he hadn’t realised had gone hungry for so long.
Of course, some things were going hungry, Tony thought as he studied the pair across the room. Natasha’s hair was coppery-red in the firelight, falling over one creamy shoulder where the blanket had fallen away. Clint’s jaw was a straight line of determination as he prodded at a piece of cold potato, his mouth softened from its earlier frown as he concentrated. He glanced up and saw Tony watching.
“Dude, what?” Clint rubbed at his stubbly cheek self-consciously.
“Are you a virgin?” The question was so unexpected that even Natasha’s eyes snapped open, pinning Tony with something both startled and interested. Clint, on the other hand, just went red.
“I’ve done some stuff,” he muttered. “Before I was here. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Tony agreed, looking at Natasha’s speculative frown. “So no-one gets laid at Winterheart. Check.”
“Well, it’s not like we couldn’t,” Clint said awkwardly. “But we’re all so…”
“Us,” Natasha said succinctly. Her voice was still hoarse. “We’re us. No-one’s that hard up.”
“Exactly.” Clint paused. “Unless we’re completely shitfaced.”
Tony filed that one away for future reference. “So you two never…” His vague wave between them said everything.
Natasha frowned. “I’d never have sex with Clint,” she said flatly. “I like him.”
Tony raised his eyebrows at that. There was definitely a story there. That, or she ate her partners after sex. Given it was Natasha, that probably wasn’t an impossibility.
“It’s my curse,” Clint said sadly, cramming half a potato into his mouth. He pushed it into his cheek, chipmunk-like. “I’m too adorable to fuck.”
“Yeah, that’s absolutely your problem.” Tony smiled over his notes, spinning his makeshift pen over his knuckles and back again. “If it helps, I don’t think you’re adorable at all. Seduce me.”
“No way,” Clint said around his potato. “What are you, fifty?”
Natasha proceeded to lose it at Tony’s offended expression, bursting into peals of laughter that led to a predictable coughing fit. Not that he was concerned; seriously, fifty? They could both go to hell. Flipping the bird at Clint and getting a dirty wink in return, Tony folded his notes up and got to his feet. He didn’t have to take that kind of abuse.
“I hope you choke on it, Romanoff,” he said cheerfully. “I’m turning in early.”
“Hey, Tony,” Natasha wheezed, wiping her mouth. “If you see the boss, tell him I said thanks.”
“Unless he’s hiding under my bed, I really doubt I’ll be seeing him anytime soon.” Heading for the door, Tony glanced back over his shoulder at her. “You two should probably kiss and make up already.”
Leaving with the sound of Clint’s choking in his ears, Tony headed out down the darkened hallway. His leg was aching a little. Not enough to limp, but the muscle was hurting near the bite. Maybe a soak in the bath was in order. After dinner, anyway. Maybe also after he played with Cook enough to get the ingredients for moisturiser. He’d managed to put together a lemon-baking soda paste for multi-use soap and it hadn’t killed him yet. Maybe he’d missed his calling as a vegan body product specialist.
“Fifty,” Tony muttered to himself, scowling out at the gloom. “Like hell.” The lack of shaving was probably aging him, too. What had been a roguish dusting of stubble was threatening to entirely engulf his goatee and turn into a full beard. Images of turning into Obadiah filled his imagination. Distinguished, sure, but it wasn’t his look. Not for another thirty years at least.
He was still thinking vain thoughts when he reached Cook’s wide bench, the shutter slammed down like always.
“Surprise me,” he told Cook, giving the bell’s rope a sharp yank.
The shutter flung itself up, revealing pitch darkness inside. A tray slid out boasting a heel of hard bread, a wedge of pale cheese and a goblet of water.
“Surprise me again,” he told Cook, shoving the tray back inside. “Asshole.”
The same tray was spat back out at him. Had he pissed off the magic kitchen? Shoving it back inside again, he hesitated and tried to think of a properly delicious meal. A real challenge for it.
Settling on a menu he deemed worthy, Tony rang the bell.
Two trays emerged. One held a dozen plump, juicy oysters in a half shell and bed of rock salt, each shell drowning in piping-hot mornay sauce and topped with a crust of golden-brown cheese. Crisp greens surrounded them, drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar. The other tray contained a wide plate of medium-rare sirloin steak topped with mushrooms and sautéed onions, coupled with a side of buttered vegetables and creamy potatoes. It was the same meal he’d had the night before he’d flown to Afghanistan and he’d spent months dreaming about it.
After a brief pause, a third tray followed, almost grudgingly shooting out a bottle of red wine. Tony hadn’t asked for any wine, but upon inspecting the label he had to salute Cook’s taste. An array of silverware jangled its way out in reply and the shutter slammed down again.
With too much food to take back to his room Tony just levered himself up onto the bench, figuring Clint and Natasha weren’t going to take their dinner for a while yet. Maybe it would be worth just dragging a table out near Cook’s delivery window. At least then he wouldn’t step in bowls of cold soup when Clint left them on the floor of the solar overnight.
He was in the process of eating his second oyster when he saw a golden glow out the corner of his eye. A lantern, swinging faintly in the blue evening light.
“Two appearances in one day?” Tony asked Loki, sucking cheese off his fork. “Easy there, party animal.”
“I come with a purpose.” Approaching the bench, Loki set his lantern down on the other side of the shutter. The light it cast across his face made his eyes glow like coals. Figuring he meant dinner was a thing even he took part in, Tony scooped up a third oyster with sauce, cheese and all and presented it to Loki with a small flourish.
“Give me a hand eating these, will you?”
Loki blinked sharply. “I prefer to eat alone.”
“You’re always alone,” Tony countered, holding the tiny oyster fork out. “I won’t tell.”
Clearly disapproving of the idea, Loki reached out and pinched the edge of the fork between thumb and forefinger, bringing it to his mouth. Something dubious crossed his face at the scent, and for a minute Tony wondered if he had an allergy, but Loki cleared the fork without so much as a grimace. He rolled the flavours around in his mouth for a moment, his throat bobbing slightly as he swallowed.
“Well?” Tony asked as Loki passed it back to him. “Let me guess: you’re more of a steak man.” Dragging over the other tray, he quickly cut a neat, prime piece of steak, making sure to load it with mushroom and onion. Loki took the offering without hesitation, chewing thoughtfully. When he passed back the dinner fork, Tony’s fingers accidentally slid around Loki’s before grasping the silver.
“I’ve had few occasions to dine on such tender meat. My…people, they used to cook everything until it begged for mercy.” Loki tilted his head. “The last time I ate an oyster I was only a boy. I hated them.”
“Oh,” Tony said, abashed. “Sorry.”
“My tastes have changed.” Plucking the oyster fork from the edge of the tray, Loki took a shell straight off the platter. His glance was speculative. “It seems a lot is changing, Tony Stark.”
“For the better?” Tony ventured, his eyes on the steak as he cut himself a piece. Sharing cutlery with the big bad boss. Talking like real people. The day had officially become utterly surreal.
Loki ate the next oyster before answering, swiping his thumb discreetly across his lower lip to catch an imaginary drip of sauce.
“Yes. For the better.”
They ate in relative silence; Tony attacking the steak with gusto, Loki cleaning the oysters and at one point executing a flawless potato heist from Tony’s plate. It was comfortable, the quiet, with no need to be filled with chatter and unnecessary noise. Definitely surreal.
Twenty minutes later they were each nursing a wine glass, neither really bothering to drink. Pondering the idea of dessert, Tony was ultimately distracted as he heard claws ring lightly against glass, drawing his attention.
There was something different about Loki when he was bathed in firelight. It had been the same the night Tony had bound his wounds. The danger, the sharp edges and ferocity were softened somehow, replaced by something that was more thoughtful than frightening. He was leaning back against the bench, slouched slightly as he gazed into the dark red wine. His hair, usually a flying tangle of black, was swept over his other shoulder. It revealed an impossibly vulnerable few inches of his neck, soft and blue before it vanished into the engulfing grey fur. Tony didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, but there was something entrancing about him standing there whole and healthy, his guard down and face relaxed.
“My purpose when I ventured down here was not to dine,” Loki said eventually, his voice low. “I came to show you something. Will you follow me?”
That pulled Tony straight out of his thoughts. “Lead the way.”
Pushing their trays and glasses back inside Cook’s shutter, they turned and made their way across the main hall and up the grand staircase. Loki moved with easy grace despite his still-injured side, walking neither too fast or too slow. If he knew Tony’s leg was hurting, he made no mention of it.
Tony was absolutely burning with curiosity over what he was about to see, but his feet still stopped him dead at the next staircase.
Loki was leading him back up into the west wing.
“Uh…” Tony started awkwardly. The darkness at the top of the stairs seemed to yawn deep and wide at the edge of the lantern’s light. “I’m not entirely comfortable going up there again. Strictly speaking.”
Loki swung his gaze from the stairwell to Tony and back again.
“Take my hand, then.”
Part of Tony wanted to protest that he wasn’t a scared kid, that it wasn’t the darkness that might freeze him solid and roar about his insignificance and mortality, but there was a hand reaching down to him from three steps up and it wasn’t scared to touch him.
Tony decided could be brave, too.
Reaching out, he took the outstretched hand in his and clasped it tight. It was barely even cold.
“Lead the way,” he said again, taking his first step back into the place that had sent him running out into death. There were secrets up there and he’d just been given a direct invitation to explore them. Besides, if things were going to keep changing then Tony was damn well going to change with them, fear or no fear.
The uncertain wonder on Loki’s face was more than worth his heart rate, anyway.
When Tony took Loki’s hand, he was thinking about trust. Trust and leaps of faith and ignoring ordinary human reservations about things like fear and fleeing even though really, honestly, Tony had been the one to burst into the west wing in the first place. Not one to let the truth get in the way of some perfectly ordinary flawed reasoning, he’d walked up those stairs thinking about trusting Loki enough to follow him back up into the dark.
As he stood in the hallway of the darkened wing, the one place he’d been told not to go, Tony started thinking about something else.
The last time Tony had seen it, he’d been throwing a broken chair straight at it in the hope it would buy him enough time to escape. Had something happened to it?
Loki’s grip didn’t loosen as they walked down the hallway, tugging Tony along with each stride until he had no choice but to draw even with him. The darkness ahead seemed to suck the light out of the lantern, leaving it to illuminate dust motes in the cold air and not much else. Ideas of hauntings and devils started to edge in on Tony’s imagination, annoying him. Ghosts were bullshit, and the scariest thing up there was holding hands with him. In reality there wasn’t a lot to be scared of.
So why was he so nervous?
“Here,” Loki said, turning to a set of double doors at the very end of the hall, just before the window seat Tony had hid on. It was on the opposite side of Loki’s messed-up room. Not the apple, then.
Putting his lantern on a stone shelf embedded in the wall, Loki released Tony’s hand and turned to him. His expression was mostly in shadow, but there was something tense and almost angry in Loki’s frame that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
“This chamber has been a secret since my first years inside the castle.” Pulling an ornate iron key out of the base of his lantern, Loki slotted it into the lock beneath the door handle. “In addition to the golden apple and my own privacy, this room is the reason why I forbid all from entering the west wing.”
“Why?” Dread and curiosity were roiling in Tony’s stomach. “I mean, why show me?”
Loki scanned Tony’s face, looking none too pleased by what he read there. Whatever was inside that room sure was freaking him out. And if he was nervous…
“I’ve grown weary of licking my wounds.” The lock tumbled with a dull clang as Loki turned the key, leaving Tony to absorb his own insult as the doors were unlatched and pushed open. “And you have something you need to build.”
Light flooded Tony’s eyes from every angle of the chamber. Every wall sconce was lit, the fireplace was roaring and lanterns hung in every corner of the room. Even the overhead candles were lit to give maximum illumination of the contents of the room.
For a moment there was so much gold that Tony thought it was a treasure chamber. Then he realised what he was seeing was the reflection of firelight on steel.
It was an armoury.
Or the contents of one. Every single wall was decorates with gleaming metal axes, maces, swords and spears. Even knives shone dully in elaborate curved sets on a stone table in the centre of the room. Parts of an honest-to-god smithy were packed into the far corner, stacked beside a wide window. Furnace bellows sat on a large lump of metal that looked like an anvil. Tongs of various sizes were stacked inside a quenching barrel. Leather-wrapped metal bars peered out from under a battering ram. A spiked war-hammer sat buried amidst hundreds of fletched arrows.
Everywhere Tony looked there was a weapon of some description. Old, ornate, in pieces or ready to swing. There was enough for a small army. With that many weapons, long and short-range, in a defensible position you could kill almost anything.
Tony went still, blinking off the afterimages of fire and metal.
Loki was still hunched in the doorway, his fur-draped cloak tugged in around him like he was cold. There was a wretched kind of defiance in his face as he stared at the weapons surrounding him. It didn’t take a genius intellect for Tony to understand.
“You locked these away so that no-one could use them against you.”
Receiving a stiff nod in reply, Tony turned back to the weapons and frowned. The room wasn’t an armoury, no. It looked like a regular meeting chamber; large and rectangular, with a long table to sit twenty pushed against a wall and stacked with weapons. No one would put an armoury on the second floor amongst bedrooms and staircases. Which meant that Loki had moved every item into the room by hand and locked the door behind himself, years and years ago.
“Isn’t this a little…much?”
“Look at me,” Loki said stonily. “Upon our first meeting, would you not have picked up a weapon if you’d known there was one readily at hand? Monsters need killing, Tony Stark. All of the tales say so.”
Remembering a fireplace poker and sweaty hands, heavy footsteps echoing in his ears, Tony swallowed down a sudden burst of guilt. It dropped into his stomach like lead.
“You did a decent job of playing the part, you know.”
“Fear was my only weapon. Fear and ice.” Stepping into the chamber, Loki swept a hand at the sword rack. “You would have had many. So I took them all the night Clint Barton wandered into my keep and locked them away somewhere no sane person would ever set foot.” The glance he shot Tony said volumes.
Tony walked the walls of the chamber slowly, examining each item where it was stacked, hung or unceremoniously dropped. It was good to know that Loki was strong enough to haul around things like anvils and battering rams, but Tony still didn’t know why he’d been brought up there. A trust exercise, maybe. To show him that Loki didn’t see him as a threat to his life. But then, when had he ever been? They’d established that much after the wolves had attacked.
“The end weapon rack,” Loki said quietly, watching him explore. “The wide wooden one behind the spears. Open it.”
Spotting it leaning on the wall behind a mound of tasselled spears, Tony cautiously made his way over and cleared a space big enough to pull back the hinged doors keeping the rack protected. He had a sneaking, terrible, wonderful suspicion about what he was going to find inside.
There was more than enough light to illuminate the contents of the rack, but Tony still had a hard time accepting that after all his planning and notes and ideas he was staring at three beautiful bows in varying shapes and lengths. With a composition of gleaming dark wood and engraved metal, they were hanging on the rack beside coils of bowstring and a leather quiver. They were all covered in dust. If Tony could take just one of those, modifying the grip would be simple. He’d have it done in a couple of hours. If Loki gave him enough time to use the forge and apply the parts to a bow, Clint would be kissing his feet for months.
“This is perfect,” Tony said, lifting the top bow out of its cradle. “Can I work on one of these tonight?” At Loki’s immediate frown, a galling thought took hold. “You are giving me one of these, aren’t you?”
Was it over-reaching their fragile trust to ask for a weapon to take from the secret armoury? Probably. Hell, almost certainly. But Loki had brought Tony up there, he’d directed him to the weapon rack. Loki knew Tony had something to build.
Approaching him carefully, Loki studied him for a long moment. Eventually he just shook his head.
“I’m not giving you a bow, Tony Stark.”
“Oh, come on—”
“I’m giving you the entire room.”
Reaching into his cloak, Loki pulled out the iron key and held it out to Tony. His eyes were hooded, his mouth pulled into a tense frown, but his hand didn’t waver as he offered Tony the very literal key to the kingdom.
All the weapons. Everything. The forge, the metalwork tools, the leather gear…the entire room. It was all his?
Slowly reaching out, Tony took the key from Loki’s hand. The end he’d been holding was coated with ice. What did Loki think that he was going to do with access to the room? Attack him in the night? Maybe not; they’d already been over that. But Loki was acting like he was doing the absolute opposite of what he wanted to. Was it a trust exercise or a punishment for himself?
Tony’s expression must have conveyed some of his doubt, because Loki’s hands started shedding ice. It clinked quietly against the stone floor as it fell.
“You don’t want it,” Loki surmised, retreating a step. His expression was tight. “I had thought this would please you. Does the weapons master not require materials to smith?”
“Hey, I want the room,” Tony replied quickly, setting the bow back down. “Don’t get me wrong, I want everything in here. I want to build Clint’s bow and I’m dying to play around with the forge and check everything out. It’s great, it’s perfect, it really is.”
A frown creased Loki’s face. “Then why do you look disappointed?”
Disappointed? Yeah, maybe that was how he’d looked. But after the revelations earlier in the day, the sense that Tony was really starting to understand who Loki was under all the growling and bitterness, that he was good enough to talk to…Tony didn’t know if he wanted to accept the room if it would make Loki avoid him like the plague.
Tony flipped the key across his fingers, thinking about projects and keeping busy. Things he’d sustained himself on for years. Keeping busy to cancel out the noise in his head.
“I want the room,” he repeated. When he lifted his gaze, Loki’s eyes met and held his. “But I think I’d rather have you.” He held the key back out.
Loki stared. He stared for so long that Tony almost flushed under the scrutiny. Tony was not a man who blushed easily. The look he was given was some mixture of disbelief and confusion, magnified in a face that Tony had only ever really seen drawn in lines of sadness and anger. But he didn’t know how else to explain it. No, he didn’t want the armoury if the compromise was that Loki would be too mistrustful to seek him out again. Yes, he’d rather hand back the key than look on from a distance, wondering about mysteries that might never be solved.
Was Loki, Loki and all the secrets he kept worth more than the satisfaction of making something with his own two hands, spending his energy in hot hours at work by the forge? Of silencing the commentary inside his mind, exhausting himself beyond dreams and memories of the caves, of Raza and bubbling water in his lungs? Blood on bullet-ridden supplies and promises and life wasted—all of it. All of the things he could ignore when he had something to make.
Tony Stark built great things. It was who he was—all he was, depending on who you talked to. Loki was giving that escape back to him. Why wasn’t he taking it?
“See, I…” Tony cleared his throat and forced himself to continue beyond the hoarseness of his voice, “I like to build things. I’m great at it. But I’m not—just that. I was, god knows I was an engineer and a walking, talking cash cow that played the crowds like a master. It’s what I was comfortable doing. I had that purpose and I was raised to want it.” Squinting against the sting in his eyes, he tried to focus on Loki and exactly what he was trying to say. “Out on the ice, Natasha said this place takes us when we’re at a crossroads. When we’re on the edge of becoming something. You’re a part of this place and I want to know more. But I think if I take the key to this room you’re going to disappear.”
Loki’s eyes dropped. A long-fingered hand lifted, but it was only to tug the wolf fur down around his shoulders a little more. He stared at the key for a long moment, considering. Then he reached out and curled his fingers around the teeth of the key.
Tony didn’t let go.
Loki blinked, actively pulling on it. Tony clenched his fist so hard the cold metal bit into his palm. Loki scowled at him and yanked, which had the entirely predictable outcome of Tony stumbling across the small distance, barely stopping himself before he bounced off Loki’s chest. Small mercies.
“You know, that was the part where you’re supposed to tell me I get to have both,” Tony told him. Might as well go for broke. “Way to miss your cue. You were supposed to be touched by my sincerity and tell me you trust me not to split your skull with that big hammer over there.” When Loki’s eyes narrowed dangerously, he added, “Also, that I’m your favourite.”
With neither of them willing to relinquish the key and Loki strong enough to keep it they made an interesting shadow on the weapon-lined walls. Tony was only the key’s length away from Loki, who was watching him across that small distance with an inscrutable red gaze. Cold drifted from his skin, almost pleasant where they stood so close to the fireplace.
“You are greedy, to ask so much and give so little in return.” Leaning forward until they were almost nose to nose, Loki studied Tony with hawklike intensity, as though he could discover secrets if he read his features long enough.
Tony expected to be unnerved by the sudden proximity, but all he could summon was curiosity as he watched Loki’s pupils bloom and contract in the shifting firelight, deepening the darker red iris that surrounded it. The sclera was actually a slightly different red, he realised, leaning in slightly to catch a better view.
“Be careful,” Loki said, catching Tony’s shoulders and holding him in place. “What are you doing?”
Tony blinked, trying to reel himself back in. “Sorry, I—did you call me greedy? That’s offensive.” He hesitated. “True, but offensive. I’ve got nothing to give you. Well, there’s two broken cell phones. But I didn’t even bring my wallet here.” Pocketing the key, Tony spread his hands. “I’ve got nothing you want.”
“There’s this,” Loki replied, and tapped on the metal surround of the arc reactor with one long claw. “You’re human; I know that much by the warmth of your skin and the fragility of your form. Why do you need the light?”
It had only been a matter of a time before he was directly asked about the arc reactor, but Tony always thought it’d be Clint who did the asking. Maybe he’d misjudged them both. Loki though…he was as curious as a cat. Mysteries would drive him nuts the same way they pulled at Tony. He liked holding all the cards. Problem was, Tony wasn’t sure he could give him this one, even if he wanted to.
Maybe Loki was a master of reading expressions, because he didn’t push or say a word. He simply settled back as the silence stretched, absently pushing his hair back over his shoulders. It drew Tony’s attention to the dull gold arm guards that clamped around his forearms – and the pale scars that twisted his blue skin at wrist and elbow. Old scars, made years and years ago. Maybe in a few years the arc reactor would be nothing but scar tissue and lights to him, too.
Loki followed his gaze to his arms. “Ceremonial vambraces,” he said unnecessarily. “They used to unbuckle.” Lowering his arms for inspection, Tony was able to see the metal had bonded together in an unnatural flow, distorting the precise engravings so that they stretched around to cuff his entire forearm. “Beautiful shackles, aren’t they?”
“What are they for?”
“You see? Greedy.” His mouth curved down into a frown, but he didn’t seem angry. “You pick at my wounds without mercy, but you hoard your own like jewels.”
Tony glanced away. “Sorry,” he replied, not sure if he was or not. He rubbed a palm over the face of the reactor. “It’s stupid, isn’t it? Keeping the worst of things that close to our heart.” His own laugh surprised him. “Literally, in my case. I’ve been trying to forget what happened out there, but I’ve got a piece of that nightmare surgically bolted to my ribcage. There’s no getting away from that.”
“You told me outside that you built it yourself.” Loki nodded at his chest. His expression was clouded, but there was no mistaking the confusion in his eyes.
Maybe it was the careless, blunt curiosity that did it. Maybe it was the scars presented to him like offerings, still held out between them. Loki knew the desperation of captivity.
“I did build it.” Tony took one good, deep, slightly unsteady breath. “But before that, a guy named Yinsen sawed through my sternum and put a magnet in my chest, so the pieces of metal inside me couldn’t infest my heart.” He swallowed back a rush of sour saliva, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I was awake for some of it, til I passed out. They wouldn’t let him put me under. But you know what the worst part is? It’s the water I always dream of. The water and Yinsen bleeding out. He always talked about seeing his family again when we got out, when we killed the bastards and both went home.” His eyes were stinging furiously again, Loki’s face just a smear of blue. “I always thought he was one hell of an optimist.”
Silence filled the room, thick and unbearably heavy. Tony swiped at his eyes and cleared his throat, turning toward the fireplace. Eventually Loki spoke.
“You were held captive with him by the Ten Rings.” When Tony flinched in horror and spun around, Loki caught his shoulders again. “It’s all right. You’re all right. Your woman spoke their name in the tower cell.”
Tony mind was racing. Had Pepper said that? Maybe she had. “…yeah. But she’s not my girlfriend. Pepper works for me.”
Loki’s grip squeezed punishingly tight. Wincing, Tony watched his expression morph from controlled concern to abject, thunderstruck disbelief.
“You sold your freedom to me for a servant? After all you’ve endured?” Pulling Tony up by his shoulders, Loki held them eye-to-eye. “Are you a fool? You would waste your life?”
“I survived it once; I knew I could do it again,” Tony countered, tensing at the pressure on his arms. “How the hell would I be worth anything if I left one of the best people I know trapped in a goddamn prison with a—”
“Monster?” Loki interjected, sharp teeth bared. Tony shoved his hands away, dropping back down on his heels.
“Yeah,” he said brutally, his eyes clear. “With a monster. Because before I knew you, that’s exactly what I thought you were. Which is exactly what you’ve believed of your dad’s people this entire time. So don’t you dare judge me for making your mistakes. I’m learning. You’re the one still sulking about your horns.”
The blow that Tony’s jaw took was enough to spin him on his feet, slamming him painfully against the stone bench full of daggers. It stunned him more than it actually hurt, but it took him a moment to get his bearings all the same. It had been a while since there was blood in his mouth.
Strangely enough, Tony wasn’t afraid. He didn’t reach for a weapon or cower away; he straightened his shoulders and turned back to face Loki. His hip stung from the knock but it faded into an absent ache once he saw the look on Loki’s face.
He’d expected anger again, expected ice and rage and the reminder of who exactly was the master of the castle. What Tony got was a tear-blind, furiously devastated frost giant – and not a single shard of ice to be seen. He was clutching his fist to his chest like it was a grenade with the pin pulled.
“If you knew what they’d done,” Loki grated out, “done to your kind: conquest through the brutal savagery of winter itself, the death of innocents and children over nothing more than expanding territory to amass power—”
“Boring,” Tony declared, licking blood off his teeth. “We kill each other for less than that. School shootings. Home-made bombs. Terrorist attacks. Serial killers. I personally hand-built weapons that could level a city at the push of a button. Don’t talk to me about war. Everyone, everyone finds a way to justify their bullshit so it doesn’t keep them up at night.” He shrugged jerkily. “Even me. Maybe you need to own the fact that you’re just doing the same.”
Loki’s lips parted, but nothing came out.
Then his wide eyes simply spilled over, tears streaking crooked paths over the markings on his face.
Tony was mortified. He’d only meant to be an argumentative prick, not—that. But it was hard to be sorry when everything he’d said was true. Not just true, but important. Even he was still learning that there was no such thing as a clean kill. It was just a little hard to hold onto that conviction when Loki looked like he’d just had his heart broken. Was this what penitence looked like?
Maybe not, Tony thought, watching Loki angrily dash the tears from his cheeks, hunching his shoulders as he turned away. But it was definitely something.
“I’ll leave you alone,” Tony said, supremely uncomfortable. No-one wanted an audience for that. Careful not to brush Loki’s cloak as he passed by, he almost missed the blue flash of a hand emerging to grasp his wrist. The grip wasn’t tight, but it was enough to stop him in his tracks.
For a moment Tony thought he was going to ask for the key to the armoury back and started reaching into his pocket for it. Instead he was anchored there just long enough for Loki to turn and face him again. His eyes were still brilliant in the firelight, but he didn’t look Tony dead in the eye.
“I shouldn’t have struck you,” he said hollowly, his eyes fixed on the reddened corner of Tony’s mouth.
Oh. “I’ve had worse,” Tony said reasonably, but Loki’s head just lowered and turned away. Right, comparing him to Raza probably didn’t help matters. “I could have phrased things a little better. You’re not going to jump off the castle roof or anything, are you? Smash your apple? To be honest you’re kind of scaring me with the lack of icy retribution.”
Loki sighed, long and deep. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”
Tony was relatively sure he had a great retort on his lips when Loki’s arms wrapped around him, engulfing him in an hug so genuine and all-encompassing that something clutched low in Tony’s throat. It held him quiet and still in that strong circle of cloak and cold arms, his chin pillowed on a fur-draped shoulder. He wasn’t sure if he was giving comfort or receiving it, but standing there and feeling Loki’s curved horns bump against the side of his head, cool fingers splayed wide on the hot planes of his back, it didn’t really matter at all. Tony hadn’t been hugged like he was needed since Rhodey had found him in the desert.
It might have been guilt, or maybe it was the raw memories of Afghanistan still eroding his defences. Maybe it was just tiredness from an emotionally exhausting day. Tony didn’t chalk it up to any of those reasons when he squirmed his arms free and ducked them under Loki’s cloak. Tony just quietly looped his arms around scars and cold skin, dragging his palm over the line of his spine and back up again. And—of all things, Loki relaxed against him, even as he tugged Tony in further, as though there was any more room between them that could be erased.
Loki smelled a little like ozone. No, not ozone. He smelled like a storm, or water and dust. Tony wondered if the scent came from the ice, or his power to generate it. He’d sure never met anyone else that smelled like the weather.
“Do you suppose we have much to learn from each other?” Loki asked quietly, his mouth moving close to Tony’s neck. “More and more it seems that way.”
“Well, I know I still have questions.” Tony blindly followed the raised path of claw-scars with his fingertips, his other hand squeezing lightly where it rested against Loki’s bare hip. It didn’t seem strange until he had the sudden thought that he’d never been this shamelessly affectionate with anyone in his entire life – at least, not outside of a bottle. He almost dropped his hands and pulled away, but something told him that Loki really needed it. Anyone would, wouldn’t they? Twenty long years without anything—even the media’s Tony Stark, with his nameless one-night stands and their casual disposal would cling like a lost kid and never want to let go. By that measure, Loki was actually pretty damn reserved. Tony respected that.
“The armoury remains yours. Access it and the west wing as it pleases you. I owe you that much for all that has transpired.” Claws brushed the nape of his neck; Tony ducked his head to expose it and felt a thumb stroke over the faint ridges of bone in response. “I suppose I might like to watch you work, on occasion.”
Drawing back, Tony smiled at Loki. He didn’t even blink as cold fingertips pressed to the tender corner of his mouth, soothing the throb of it with one careful touch.
“Watch me work?” he repeated, enjoying Loki’s confused frown. “Sure, or you can help. I like to think that we’ve just made some serious progress here. If physical violence, yelling and horrible secrets doesn’t make us best friends then I don’t know what does.”
“Friends,” Loki repeated, nonplussed. “Precisely what would you have me do? The ice doesn’t come on a whim, Stark.”
“Hey, just call me Tony. And forget about the ice; you can help me by finding a whetstone for those straight razors tucked under the daggers over here.” He shrugged at Loki’s surprise. “I really need a shave.”
Loki huffed his disgust—and didn’t let go for an instant. During their exchange his fingers had been shifting restlessly along the curve of Tony’s shoulder blades and the winged bones of his spine, firm enough that his muscles sighed with the pressure.
“Modify the bow, Tony,” Loki said finally, “and I’ll sharpen you a razor that could bleed a man dry before he even realises his soul has departed.”
“Okay,” Tony agreed, refusing to be disturbed by the mental image. “But in that case you’ll have to do the honours. I’m not going to be the guy who accidentally opened his own jugular.”
“You would give me your throat?” Loki asked, his brow knitting in a frown. “Why?”
Tony shrugged, letting his hands drop away.
“I guess I think you’ll give it back.” Disentangling himself from Loki, Tony headed for the weapon rack with the bows again. “There’s leather in here for me to destroy, right? And a good bar of steel I can hammer into a hand-grip? I’m thinking something like a knuckleduster, but a little bigger so Clint can disengage the bow quickly. Leather could bind it to the bow itself, just under the sight.”
“You’ll have to compensate the extra weight on the other side,” Loki warned, turning toward a large stack of assorted oil canisters and supplies. “Cramping his arm is no gift, I assure you.”
“I’m hearing words but they’re not making sense,” Tony shot back, hefting the bow to test its weight. It seemed in line with the general specs Clint had given him. “It’s like you’re forgetting I’m a weapon-building prodigy. Is that what’s happening here?” He received a face-full of leather in reply. Good cured brown leather, in fact. Easily good enough to slice into binding straps. “Nice find.”
“I did put everything here,” Loki reminded him, a hint of irritation in his voice. “Credit where credit is due, if you please.”
“Uh-huh,” Tony said, removing the last items from the forge and striking the flame to light the coal. It caught quickly, the bellows helping to fan the heat into a glowing red. The fire pit would have to be hot as hades to soften the steel out of its cold bar form. Slinging a black leather apron and gloves over the adjacent table, Tony tugged his shirt out of his waistband and unbuttoned it. He’d worked with less protection, and that shirt was the only one he owned in Winterheart. If he lost it Clint might never stop staring.
Tying the apron and tossing his shirt over a sword rack, Tony was reaching for a suitably weighted hammer to use later when Loki straightened up, planting a whetstone down on the middle table and following with a small jar of clear oil.
“You know, whetstones don’t actually need any moisture,” Tony said idly as he spun the hammer in his hand. The weight of it was pretty decent for his purposes, if a little on the heavy side. Maybe he needed to work out more. He froze as a small dagger flew past his eyes, pin-wheeling until it slammed hilt-deep into the stone wall beside him.
“This is an oilstone, not a whetstone. It takes a blade quite well and sweeps away the swarf,” Loki said calmly, shining fingers slicking across the black stone in deft, angled strokes. The look he shot Tony was fiercely amused. “Do keep to your dull banging and leave me the finer work.”
For lack of any other reply, Tony nodded. “You’re the boss.”
As he turned back to prime the forge and push a window open, Tony caught himself wondering why he felt like he was standing on the edge of a cliff, instead of at the centre of Natasha’s imagined crossroads.
Tossing the steel bar from hand to hand, he slanted a glance at where Loki stood with the oilstone, running the blade back and forth in practiced sweeps. A rasping rhythmic song punctuated his work. Steel on stone.
Definitely a cliff, Tony thought as he turned back to his work, feeling the echo of fingertips on his mouth.
Maybe he was in a bit of trouble.