It rained the day they buried Rhodey.
Tony hung back rather than approach Rhodey's family. Just like he'd done at Aunt Peggy's funeral, he remained an unobtrusive presence at the back of the church during the service. He followed the mourners to the gravesite because he couldn't help himself, but still kept his distance. The press, many of whom had shown up because they thought Tony would be there, lost interest when they realized he wasn't - but not before Rhodey's little sister had a screaming fit at them for ignoring her brother's privacy. The press were promptly escorted out by military officials and Tony...
Tony just felt numb.
The gravesite service was very short. In less than an hour, the mourners were walking away and the coffin was being lowered into the ground. Tony waited until everyone was gone before he approached the grave. It was pouring so he was soaked to the skin in seconds, but he didn't care. He looked down at the coffin, which was the best that money could buy. Literally. He'd paid for the funeral and had made sure that no expense was spared. Rhodey deserved to have the best because he'd been the best friend anyone could ask for.
He should've said something, but for once in his life words failed him. What was he supposed to say? The Avengers were torn apart. Steve, Sam, Clint, Wanda and Scott had run off to Wakanda (and who the fuck did they think they were fooling?). Natasha was in the wind. Vision had been spending a lot of time at Xavier's, learning about the world from people who could actually teach him. Pepper was off being the successful CEO of Stark Industries; they weren't together anymore, so she was keeping her distance because Tony was a piece of shit boyfriend who couldn't make anyone happy.
He stood there for a long, throat too tight to allow a single word to pass through, alternating between looking at the grave and the tombstone (Loving Son and Brother, Honored Colonel, James Rhodes, 1966 - 2017). There was no sun to go down, but it did start to get dark. Two men came holding shovels, and that was what finally broke Tony out of his trance. He didn't want anyone to recognize him, so he left the grave - and his best, last, friend - behind.
Tony went back to the tower because there was nowhere else for him to go. He bypassed the communal floor that the Avengers used to share - because tonight, of all nights, he couldn't bear to sit there and remember how things had been two months ago, when the Avengers were still a team - and went straight up to his personal floor. FRIDAY tried to talk to him, but Tony muted her. She tried but she wasn't JARVIS, and most of the time that realization was more than Tony could take.
He should've gone down to the workshop. Working was the only thing that he was good at anymore. Instead, he sat on the couch with a glass of whiskey and stared at the city until, thanks to the alcohol and a week without having slept, he passed out.
That was the night he had the first dream. And really, Tony wasn't even sure you could call it a dream. It was all sensation more than anything else, fleeting images of hands stroking his bare skin and voices whispering praise and compliments. In the dream, he soaked it up like a sponge and wanted more, and they gave it to him without holding anything back. Kisses were pressed to his hair and face, and then he was invited to kneel at someone's feet and then praised for obeying. Simple, short but sweet, and Tony woke up craving more of it.
"What the fuck was that?" he asked out loud to the empty room, and because FRIDAY was on mute she couldn't even answer. He sat up from where he'd been slumped back against the couch and rubbed his neck, expecting it to be aching from the weird position he'd slept in. It didn't hurt, though. Actually, it was just the opposite. For the first time in weeks, nothing hurt and he wasn't tired.
Bemused, he got up and went downstairs to get to work. He spent all day in the workshop.
That night, in the dream, he was spanked for not eating anything all day. Then he was pulled into warm arms and soothed, until they coaxed a promise out of him to eat at least once a day. Tony gave the promise readily enough, stuttering the words out as a hand stroked his hair in praise.
He woke up with his ass still warm from the spanking.
It wasn't right. Tony knew that. Of course he did. Dreams shouldn't be having an effect on his real life. He shouldn't dream about being fed strawberries and wake up with the taste of the juice on his lips. He shouldn't dream about a metal hand stroking his chest and stomach and wake up with the chill of the metal present on his skin. He shouldn't dream about spending hours on his knees and wake up to find that his knees were pleasantly sore. He shouldn't dream about his hands being bound and wake up to find red marks around his wrists.
They were more than dreams.
The list of people that could give him dreams like that was pretty small. At the top of the list was Xavier, Jean Grey, Wanda Maximoff, Vision, Loki, Thor, and Stephen Strange. They were the only people Tony could think of who used magic like that. He crossed Thor and Wanda off the list pretty quickly. If Wanda were giving him dreams, they would not be pleasant (Tony still regularly had nightmares about the last vision she'd given him, after all), and if Thor had come back from Asgard, the whole planet would've known it because nothing Thor did was quiet or stealthy.
A quick phone call told him that it wasn't Vision, Xavier or Jean. Vision, it seemed, was thoroughly enjoying his experience at the Xavier Institute, and Tony suspected that Vision hadn't given much thought to him over the past couple of months. That hurt, but he couldn't exactly blame Vision for that either. And Xavier, well... Tony was used to talking to him, because he and Xavier had been distant friends for years, but it would never stop being weird for Xavier to answer a question that Tony never actually asked. Especially a question like this.
That left Strange and Loki on Tony's dwindling list. It seemed very unlikely to be either one of them. But Tony took some time out of his busy (hah!) day, put on a heavy coat to shield him from the New York winter, and went to see Dr. Stephen Strange at the New York sanctum. Walking into the building was a little creepy; Tony was no sorcerer and magic made him nervous, so the otherworldly feel of the air inside of the sanctum made the hair on his arms lift. Something about it felt wrong, like he wasn't supposed to be there, but he couldn't put his finger on why until Strange came down to meet him.
"You've been touched by another sorcerer," were the first words of Strange's mouth.
"Hello to you too," Tony said, extending his hand for a handshake - he could be polite, because someday he and Strange might have to fight together, and he'd rather not make an enemy if he didn't have to. He had enough of those.
Strange eyed him, then delicately took his hand. Something fizzled between them. Tony yelped and hastily withdrew his hand, taking a step back and flexing his fingers. It felt, momentarily, like he'd dipped his hand into boiling hot water. When he glanced at his hand though, it looked normal. The feeling faded quickly, but not so quickly that Tony wanted to risk trying again.
"Fascinating," Strange said, holding his own hand up. To Tony's eyes, it looked no different. But Strange must have been able to see something because he looked at once delighted and concerned.
"It's not a sorcerer. This is old magic."
Tony froze. "How old are we talking?"
Strange looked him up and down assessingly. "Very old, and not of Earth... though I've felt it in the air of New York in the past couple of years."
"Shit," Tony said under his breath. Suspicions confirmed. Apparently he'd been spending his nights cuddling up to Loki.... and someone else, someone whose name Tony didn't really want to think about right now. And worst of all, this discovery wasn't making him want to stop.
"Is there something you'd like to share?" Strange asked, turning serious. "Do you need help?"
"I don't know," Tony admitted. Did he need help? It wasn't like his nighttime visitors had ever hurt him beyond spanking him three times - twice because he hadn't been eating, and once because he'd drunk himself into a stupor after a particularly bad panic attack. He'd been punished for the drinking, they'd explained, not the panic attack. In fact, he'd been cuddled for hours because of the attack.
Truth be told, it was the kindest anyone had ever been to him. And it was the only time that Rhodey and the other Avengers weren't constantly on his mind. The other eighteen hours of Tony's day were either tied up with hiding in the workshop, trying to handle Ross, trying to handle the media, trying to handle the government, trying to handle... well, everything.
It was, frankly, exhausting. The public didn't trust the Avengers anymore, and that included Tony. Because Steve and the others were in the wind, he was getting the brunt of the rage. Stark Industries' stock had plummeted, which meant that Pepper, the shareholders, and the Board were all furious. The United Nations, Accords Council, and Ross were all collectively pissed off; it was, apparently, all Tony's fault that he hadn't been able to bring the rogue Avengers in, and that so much damage had happened during the battles. Not to mention the break-in at the Raft... you'd better believe that was Tony's fault too, even though he'd been in the hospital at the time.
His name in the media was basically mud right now. Everyone hated Tony Stark. And it seemed like the more Tony tried to do, the deeper he dug this hole. It was getting to the point where the only good thing in his life were the dreams. Everything else was just bullshit. He had no one to turn to and no one to lean on. Just immense pressure from every side. They all expected him to do something, to magically fix things, and Tony could feel himself starting to crack under the pressure of it all.
"I can try to stop them," Strange added, when nearly a full minute of silence had gone by without Tony saying anything else. "But I'm not sure if I'd succeed. I'm still learning, and this is very old, advanced, alien magic."
If people, if anyone, found out about this, Tony would be hated even more than he already was. The smart thing to do would be to say yes.
"No, don't bother," Tony said. "I want to know what he wants first."
Strange didn't argue, just said, "Don't do anything stupid, Stark."
"Haven't you heard? That's all I seem to do now." Tony forced a smile, nodded to show his gratitude, and left. The moment he stepped outside the sanctum, he could feel a little bit of tension dissipate. He rubbed his arms and shivered, telling himself that it was just because of the chill in the air.
That night, he laid down in bed at his usual time. But sleep didn't come as easily as it usually did. Tony laid awake for hours, staring at the ceiling and wondering if he'd made a huge mistake. Maybe the dreams would stop now. Maybe he shouldn't have gone to see Strange. Because he honestly didn't know what he would do if they stopped. If he had to resume life the way he had before Rhodey's funeral, back when the whole world felt like it wanted to swallow him whole and Tony had no idea what to do to keep his head above water... He squeezed his eyes shut, as though that would make sleep come faster.
Maybe that was why he didn't see them appear. It was pretty hard not to feel the way the temperature changed, though. A familiar sensation by now, bringing to mind cold fingertips tracing across his back and shoulders. Tony sat up, eyes flying open. The room was dim, but there was still more than enough light to see the two new visitors: Loki and James Barnes.
A chill shot down his spine. His hand went instinctively to the watch-gauntlet he always wore, but he didn't pull it down over his palm just yet. Neither one of them were moving to attack, and - against his better judgment - Tony wanted to know exactly what they thought they were doing. So he remained quiet, examining the two of them. Loki looked pretty much the same as Tony remembered, but his hair was longer and his eyes were piercing green now, not blue. Barnes, on the other hand, had a new metal arm and didn't look quite as thin or haggard.
Barnes spoke first. "I'm sorry about your parents. I wasn't in control of myself, but it was still my hands that killed them. Steve might not understand that, but I do."
Tony blinked at him, surprised. That... was not what he was expecting to hear. "Thank you," he said cautiously.
"If you don't want me here, I get that," Barnes continued. "But you should know that Steve has no idea that I'm here. As far as he knows, I'm still in that cryo chamber in a room in the basement of the Wakandan castle. Loki was kind enough to create a duplicate to take my place."
"I'm not sure Loki and kind belong in the same sentence," Tony said. It was a little bit of a relief to hear that Steve wasn't a part of this, though he didn't know if he could believe what Barnes was saying. It was pretty unlikely that Clint would agree to work with Loki, but then again, Tony reflected bitterly, it wouldn't be the first time that Steve had hidden something from a teammate for their "own good".
"Come now, Pet," Loki purred. His voice sounded exactly the same as it had in Tony's dream. So did Barnes, now that Tony was letting himself think about it. He could remember the dreams a little more clearly now. In spite of himself, he lowered his hand. His body ached to be touched as much as the rest of him wanted to be praised. He wanted to crawl out of bed, across the floor, and put his head in Loki's lap. He wanted Barnes to wrap around him from behind, Tony's back snug to his chest, and croon in his ear.
Loki smiled widely, as though he could hear Tony's thoughts. "Are you not tired of them?" he asked, waving a hand to indicate the world below. "Don't you want to rest? I can feel the weariness in your soul. You're so exhausted."
Tony blinked slowly. Damn it but Loki was right. "So what?"
"You don't have to be tired anymore. You could join us," said Loki.
"Join you?" Tony repeated, incredulous. He should've guessed. "That's what this is all about? Reindeer Games, if you wanted to try and take over the world right now, I'm not really sure I could stop you. I'm the only Avenger there is right now, and while I like to think that I can stand up to a hell of a lot, I doubt I could hold the floor against you." Because it was true. Bruce had run away and Tony couldn't find any sign of him. Thor was off-world doing god knows what. The rogue Avengers would probably stand up against Loki, but Cap would crumble like wet tissue when he found out Barnes was standing with Loki.
There were the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Strange too, of course. But Tony wasn't sure how well any of them would fare against Loki. Strange had as good as admitted that his magic was no match for Loki's. And it was unlikely that X-Men or the Fantastic Four would fare well against Loki and Barnes. Thor and the Hulk were pretty much the only ones who'd ever been a match for Loki, and it wasn't like Tony could pick up a phone to call either one of them.
"I am aware. But it would be much easier if you were to join us. You have money, power and connections, and I enjoy having the right friends," Loki replied, as though it were all that simple. "You know what's coming, don't you?"
Against his will, Tony's eyes flicked out the window. It was a calm, peaceful night. The city was surprisingly quiet, and above the New York skyline was a picturesque expanse of stars. Way too easily, Tony's brain filled in the image of portals. Of an invasion. Of dozens of alien spaceships and the accompanying aliens and their weird dragon like creatures, all bent on destroying the Earth. Just like he'd seen in Wanda's vision. His throat tightened as an immediate jolt of panic raced through him.
"Tony. Tony, darling, look at me. Look at me."
At the barked order, Tony tore his eyes away from the window. Barnes had somehow gotten a lot closer. He stared straight into Tony's eyes as he took Tony's hand with his flesh hand, rubbing his thumb across Tony's palm. The touch was shockingly grounding; Tony couldn't remember the last time someone had touched him without malicious intent. It had definitely been before Rhodey died.
"I can't let you kill people," Tony said weakly.
Loki shrugged one shoulder and approached the bed. "Have you considered what will happen to the Earth if Thanos arrives and the world is in the state that it is now?" he asked. "Your people are so busy fighting each other that they are completely unprepared for an external enemy. Your precious Avengers" Tony flinched "are no longer a team. Thanos will have no trouble killing them one by one. But if Earth was united under my hands, you might actually stand a chance. And," he added, as though sensing he was gaining ground, "I have no interest in killing humans for the sake of it. I want to rule, and ruling an empty planet is boring."
"So you're telling me no one would die?" Tony said. He was still holding hands with Barnes. It was stupid, but he couldn't bring himself to let go.
"Not at all. Some would die. Some would live. If you're with us, you could have a say in who survives."
Tony took a deep breath. "You expect me to believe you would listen to me? And all without asking anything in return?"
"All I would ask for is your devotion," Loki said. His eyes flashed with magic. "And in return, my pet, you would be coddled and praised. Except for me, no one would ever hurt you again. I take care of my possessions. You can ask James."
"It's true," Barnes said quietly, before Tony could ask. "He's helped me a lot with my brain. Those code words? Burnt outta me. He's never asked more of me than I could do. Knows me better than I know myself." He smiled for some reason, a small quirk of the lips. "Knows when I want to go belly up and when I need to be in control."
"And that's when you came to me," Tony said, because he was man enough to admit that he definitely had not been in control during those dreams. No, he'd folded into their arms with barely a hesitation. And he was smart enough to know that pattern would not change if he agreed to this. Part of him felt like he should say no just based on that alone. Tony Stark went to his knees for no one.
Except that wasn't quite true, was it? They might have been dreams, but Tony had known what was going on. He'd consented to kneeling, to letting himself be fed, to allowing himself to be spanked. He hadn't once fought against them, not even once he started getting suspicious about who, exactly, was visiting him in those dreams. And he'd enjoyed every moment of it. He'd woken every time feeling calmer, safer and more fulfilled than he had in years, possibly ever. How many times had he thought to himself that those dreams were the only good things he had in his life now?
"Yes," Loki said, drawing Tony's attention back to him. "I can see into you. I know exactly what you need."
"Fuck you. You don't know me," Tony snapped. It was a stupid thing to say - more reminiscent of those idiots who went on daytime talk shows than something a billionaire superhero should be saying - but it was the first thing that came to mind. He didn't like being told that someone else could see through him that easily. He wrenched his hand away from Barnes and went to get up.
Tony froze at the commanding sound of Loki's voice. He wanted to keep moving, but something in him kept him exactly where he was. And he couldn't even claim it was mind control, because he still felt like he was in complete control of himself. He chanced a look at Loki and saw that Loki didn't even seem that angry. If anything, he looked like he'd expected Tony to react this way and had already decided how he was going to handle it.
"Come here," Loki ordered, gesturing to his feet.
Tony hesitated for a moment, conflicted. He wanted to storm out of the room, but another part of him wanted just as badly to go to Loki. Because what was waiting for him outside this room? A world where he was the one that everyone blamed for everything. A world where no one appreciated what he tried to do. A world where, no matter how hard he tried, he would never be good enough, smart enough, strong enough. A world where he would always be left behind; a world where no one actually cared about him.
Slowly, he slid off the bed and crossed the room. Loki was at least half a foot taller than him when Tony wasn't wearing his lifts. He had to look up into Loki's eyes. "Why are your eyes green now?" he asked, unaware that he was going to ask the question until it was already out.
"Because I'm not being brainwashed by Thanos," Loki said. "Kneel, Pet."
Brainwashed? Loki? Confused, Tony carefully slid to his knees. He was annoyed that he felt better as soon as he was kneeling. Loki moved then, shifting to the side. Tony should've been prepared for the impact of a hand against his ass, but he wasn't. He cried out in surprise, immediately biting his lip. Loki spanked him a second time, the sound loud in the otherwise silent room. It hurt. Loki wasn't holding back. Tony kept biting his lip to keep himself silent as Loki spanked him three more times over his boxers.
"You are lost, Pet," Loki said into his ear, slender fingers sliding under his boxers and cupping Tony's ass. He massaged the irritated skin, taking some of the sting away. "You are confused. You've been abandoned by those who should have loved you. I understand what that's like. I would not wish that fate on anyone." He sounded a little angry, but mostly sad. "You can belong to someone, to me, if that is what you wish. I meant what I said. I will give you everything you need. You will have a firm hand to keep you in line. You will be given affection and praise and touch. And at the end of your mortal day, you will sleep knowing that you are loved."
Tony couldn't catch his breath. He ached with how much he wanted everything Loki was saying. The part of him that knew this was wrong was being smothered by Loki's promises. "Loki," he whispered.
"James," Loki said, just as sharp and commanding.
Barnes rose immediately from the bed and came over. He folded to his knees in front of Tony. "I don't like nicknames outside bed," he said, either knowing or guessing what Tony was wondering. "I didn't have a name for a long time, and it took me a while to be okay with being called 'James'. I... please don't call me 'Bucky'." He looked kind of pale.
"I won't," Tony said. He didn't think he could bring himself to say that name anyway. Not after everything Steve had ripped apart in reverence to it.
Loki removed his hands from Tony's boxers and stood, towering over them. Barnes linked his hands behind his back and closed his eyes, face turned up towards Loki like a flower following the sun. Tony watched him for a moment, amazed. This was not the same person who'd been running around with Steve three months ago. That person had been disjointed, confused, and not really there, blindly following whoever was willing to give him orders. This person was much more focused. Anyone who told this Barnes to do something was going to get a punch to the face unless it was Loki.
"Pet," Loki said. "Your decision?"
The world would hate him for this. Then again, Tony realized, they would hate him no matter what. He was the scapegoat and he always would be. Why was he trying to fight for people that hated him so much? Why was he pouring everything into a world that would just as soon as see him burn? He never gave in. Never. Not in Afghanistan, not against the palladium poisoning, not against the Mandarin, not against the first alien invasion, not against Ultron, not even against his own team. Not even when his best friend on Earth died.
He was tired of fighting. He didn't have anything left in him anymore. They'd taken everything he had to offer. If Loki and Barnes wanted the empty husk that was left, Tony wasn't going to deny them. He slowly put his hands behind his back, clasping them loosely. But he didn't shut his eyes. He couldn't. Not yet. He looked up at Loki, heart pounding furiously in his chest. That meant he was in the perfect position to see the smile that broke out across Loki's face. That smile settled something in Tony that had been off-kilter for years, and he relaxed into the position without really thinking about it.
"Excellent," Loki purred approvingly. "My good, strong boys. Together, we shall rule."