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Heart of Gold

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Tony Stark was a Stark first and a human being with free thought absolutely last - at least as far as his father was concerned. There were few things he hated quite as much as his father’s ‘plans’ for him, which went a long way to explaining why he was staring out the window rather than actually listening to the man speak.

“- and two meetings with the Hong Kong execs on Friday morning. I expect you to be on your best behaviour, Tony. If I see anything about you drinking or spending time with Ms. Cho again we’re going to have a serious talk.”

“What if I don’t want to?” Tony sighed heavily, turning his gaze away from the window to look at Howard.

“If you want access to any company ‘assets’, then you’re going to do as your told and act like a responsible representative of this company,” his father responded, giving him a cool business-stare. As always. As though he’d seen any other expression from the man, ever.

“And what if I don’t want any of that?”

“What do you plan to do, exactly, without it?” Howard scoffed.

“I’ll go to the Sanctum-”

“Oh here we go again.”

“-I’ll become a dragon rider.” Tony continued as though he hadn’t heard the man speak. Tony meant most of what he said in part, but it was also an excuse to get Howard riled up. He knew his old man hated any mentions of the sanctum.

“You’ll become an obsolete waste of space, that’s what you’ll become. Is that what you want? How many times do we have to talk about this? There haven’t been any attacks in two centuries, and even if another one came, what Stark Industries is creating is far more effective and cost efficient than fantasy concepts of riding around on dragons. Here I thought you were beyond childish ideas like that.”

“Mom didn’t think they were obsolete.” Tony bit back sharply and Howard’s eyes narrowed but before he could get a word in Tony shoved himself to his feet and stalked off towards the door. “Mom gave a shit what I wanted. And you know what? I’m not out here to make you proud. I’d rather make mom proud.”

He slammed the door behind himself as he went. He had only about a year left until he’d be considered too old to submit himself as a candidate for a hatching, because apparently that mattered for some reason he never quite understood. What he knew was that his time was running out to live out his dream and damnit he wanted to do something for himself.

There was a tempest of emotions surging inside the founder's son. Much of his life he'd felt had been squandered, taken from him. With his age also came insurgence and Tony had just about reached the pinnacle of what he could stand when it came to his father's autocratic ways.

Howard ran the family less like a family and more like a fascist dictatorship. Money and weapons were all that really mattered in the old man's eyes and every mention of Tony proposing to abscond to the Sanctum would always be met with the same ice and ichor from his father.

Each time the fights ended the same way and had always since he was a child - lately with the peak of Tony's patience, he'd started to bite back. Howard's words affected him less and less with each berating and belittling and he was teetering over the edge on whether to run. Albeit he was emotional right now, and perhaps acting out of that emotion wouldn't prove to yield fair results for him.

So he did what he normally did when he needed time to think about his problems, he called up Rhodey, and the two of them met up to help Tony get his frustrations out.

"Thanks for coming Rhodey-bear, I've just about had it with dad and I know I've said that before but I really mean it this time!" Tony stated, regarding his best friend since childhood. They were at a small local coffee shop and he'd begun to divest himself of his frustrations to his best friend.

"I hear the same song and dance from you all the time Tones, I honestly think you should stick it to that old man and seriously," the man clapped a hand down on Tony's shoulders, "go for it, what do you have to lose?"

Tony focused more on his cup, but he was still solicitous to Rhodey's words.

"If not to show him up, then do it for you. It's been a dream of yours, hell - you always pretended to be a dragon rider when we were younger. Remember when we would play those games with Jarvis? This is something you can actually make happen if you just take that first leap." 

The young engineer finally regarded his friend with a very intent look. "Yeah, I know, I know… but man, talking about doing something is way easier than doing it. I was emotional and-"

"Tones, you're always going to find a million reasons not to do something, it only takes one good reason to go ahead and do it, and I think you should really do it." Rhodey, flashed Tony a half-smile and lightly shook squeezed his shoulder.

Tony hesitated briefly, and Rhodey offered a short smirk. “I’ll drive you if you want? I hear there’s a clutch about ready to hatch in the next week or so. I’ll hang out with you through it and if it doesn’t work out then I’ll give you a ride home, no harm, right? And if it does work out… then fuck Howard, you’ll be a dragon rider!”

He could feel the surge of excitement welling up within him as he looked at his best friend. “Really? A hatching soon? We… I mean we could just… go watch the hatching right? I don’t necessarily have to participate…” Tony began, fidgeting in his spot and contemplating the idea.

He’d only ever seen hatchings on TV shows - and what were the chances that he and Howard had their argument while there was a clutch already on the hatching sands? Opportunity… fate, maybe? At the very least he could see the hatching in person, but maybe… maybe he could ride a dragon.

Become a dragon rider.

For a moment he pondered the thought, before realizing Rhodey had continued to speak while he was lost in thought.

“-And you called it ‘Red’ because what else would you name a red dragon, remember? You wouldn’t listen to me when I told you dragons named themselves. ‘Who names themselves?’ you’d always argue…”

Excitement was a meek, docile creature that poked its head out of the safety of its dwelling to venture on a path to a potentially exciting future. Quick to scare, but determined and once set on it's path would not stop until it's final destination, obstacles or no. 

Either idea had no downsides to it, Tony could only come out on top , right?

If the plan didn't work out, he hardly doubted Howard was going to completely ostracize him from the household, though he would receive a rather stern talking to if not an out-right haranguing and potentially have to live with some pretty nasty smart remarks and belittlement.

For a dream? It was a small price to pay for the potential of true happiness.

Tony leaned on his arm and imagined himself flying on a majestic red dragon, he knew a lot about the different dragon types from what he'd seen on television, an ever-present fascination within the realm of his mind.

A realm indeed. 

Tony's mind was just so expansive and advanced, so formulaic that the engineer-slash-genius' drive and knowledge knew no bounds. He learned at lightning speed and should he put his mind to it, could have long surpassed his father's legacy.

But to be an heir to the company was no dream of Tony's and so his father always saw his talents wasted on flights of fancy, which Howard considered the Sanctum orders to be.

Still.

"Let's do it, I'll go home and pack, and we can go tonight." Tony had made up his mind, and Rhodes brandished a broad smile in response.

"That's the spirit!"

And so it was that eight hours later they were finally approaching a place he’d only ever seen in pictures or on the television. 

The massive structure that was something of a self-sustained city rose from amidst green hills, and Tony was glad Rhodey was driving the moment a green dragon swooped over their heads to carry off a cow.

“They’re… way bigger in person, holy shit,” Tony gawked without thinking about it. Rhodey only laughed a bit, even as Tony turned to stare at him. “If a green is that big, can you imagine how big a red or a queen are? Like, they must be massive!

“Well, I’ve never seen a queen, but I saw a brown once. Must’ve been a good 40 feet long. And the wings were a whole other story.” The other man gave a shrug as he headed along the winding road towards the Sanctum, before parking in the small lot at the end of a long bridge.

“We gotta walk from here. We might be able to get a ferrying back afterwards or something to collect your things if you’re good.”

Tony couldn’t even focus on what Rhodey was saying - not when he was seeing several dragons in the distance moving about and flitting between platforms of the Sanctum. It was picture perfect, exactly what he'd envisioned, seen on television and he was finally granted the chance to live one of his dreams for once.

It was the light at the end of his dark tunnel he considered life, which to this point hadn't felt so much like living, rather, existing. 

Tony had merely been clawing and scraping by, his potential held back by fantasies he could never decidedly seek out, so in a sense this was a chance for him to show his hidden potential, show the world what he was worth if it wasn't simply to sit in the shadow of his father's legacy.

"Alright, let's move!" he snapped out of his thoughts as they approached the ferry platforms. There was a horde of excitable green dragons all clustered on a single spire that jutted out of the ground with many different platforms shooting off from different directions.

Tony approached the base of the spire and looked up, some dragons playing with others while most rested and gazed down curiously at the newcomers. One of the dragon ferry masters approached and greeted both of them with a smile, wearing what looked to resemble a monk's regale.

"Would you two like to be ferried across to the Sanctum?" she inquired cheerfully, regarding both of them. Tony was still stunned from the splendour of seeing dragons in real life and they were about to get even closer to them. Rhodey was impressed, but not nearly as awestruck as Tony.

"Yes, my friend and I would like to cross over to the Sanctum to sign him up for the hatching."

The woman gave the two of them a curious look and a nod before turning away. “Loki. Aya. One to the sands and the other to observe?” She glanced at Rhodes who nodded a little as the two riders went to fetch their dragons.

“Once you reach the sands someone there can advise you of how the procedure goes. I’m fairly certain we haven’t seen you here before so I can assume you haven’t done this before.” Pulling a book from her desk she flipped a few pages to pull out a sheet before offering Tony a pen. “Please place your name and date of birth here, and you’ll want to read the page thoroughly. We do need you to be fully informed of the dangers involved in participating in a hatching before you go in.”

Tony procured the contract from her and looked it over, reading some of the warnings. Fatalities, dismemberment, permanent scarring - it was basically the equivalent of the running of the bulls in Spain, except with adorable and very excited baby dragons. While the idea was cute, the thoughts didn't sit well and he read the contract aloud to Rhodes who quirked a brow.

Still, this didn't change Tony's mind on things. He may have for a second paused to understand what the warnings were but outside of that, they'd come this far and he wasn't about to turn around and go back now.

Doing another read-through of the contract he signed his name at the bottom of the page. "You will need to hand that to the ferry master on the other side once across," she took the letter, stamping it with an emblem before closing it into an envelope and setting it in one of the saddlebags of the green dragon Tony was to ride.

"Sounds like it's going to be a real chicken run over there," the ferry master chuckled. "This is where a new adventure begins, and an old one ends. I wish you well Mister Stark"

"Heh, thanks!" Tony smiled. Both Rhodey and he were led to their respective dragons and a couple of helpers came out and aided them in climbing up onto the tacked up dragons.

The black-haired man who offered Tony a hand up gave him a short smile and a little wink. “There are two holds, or you can wrap your arms around my waist. If you’ve never been flying before, I’d recommend the latter.” Reaching back the man gestured to the two handholds. “Otherwise, here and here. You’ll have a better view if you use the handholds, but a lot of people panic their first flight. I promise Hela won’t let you fall.”

Tony had spent a hot moment ogling the drake. He only snapped out of his little stupor when the dragon-rider began instructing him.

"Uh, yeah! Sure, I got all that." He floundered a bit to climb up onto the green hide of the dragon, slipping into the saddle spot behind his ferryman.

The dragon let out a soft snort and seemed almost indifferent about the fact that there was a second rider climbing up onto her back.

"Let me know when you are ready and we will ascend," the other man spoke, his voice carrying an almost British sounding accent that Tony had to admit, was very nice on the ears.

"I'm good to go." 

He gripped onto the handles and took in a deep breath. The man smirked and he beckoned his dragon forward. The beast took off with a running start towards the edge of the wooden docks before her wings began to flap and with a hard spring from the ground, she launched herself skyward.

Tony's stomach was in his throat, it felt like he was on a rollercoaster and unsurprisingly his hands were immediately around his rider's chest, gripping on for dear life.

“So,” the black-haired man began easily, his voice carrying over the wind as the green’s wings spread wide, allowing them to glide towards the building, “looking to imprint on a dragon, are you? It’s going to be a rather exciting experience no matter how it goes. There are only about thirty eggs this clutch and a good hundred and forty-some people looking to imprint. I mean, better odds than winning the lottery, right?”

Tony wasn’t entirely sure that he could speak without throwing up, and the rider seemed to know full well given he kept talking, cool as a cucumber about the whole thing. 

“Better odds than when I was imprinting, you know. There were almost five hundred people at that and it was a mess.” The man’s hand rested on the dragon’s neck for a moment and the green turned her head slightly to look at them, before refocusing forward. “But Hela’s the love of my life. There’s nothing quite like being chosen by a dragon…”

The other man's voice was almost melodic, soft - unlike the wind, which was whipping through his hair as the dragon tore through the sky towards the Sanctum. Their speed, fast enough to make the wind feel like daggers against his skin, or perhaps that was just the cold from the speed they were flying at.

Their flight lasted an awfully long time. Longer than expected.

It didn't even look like their destination was really that far away. The dragon's path wasn't even a direct one and seemed to veer left and right for no reason, almost as if their rider was doing this on purpose.

One tight bank to the right and Tony yelped, squeezing his arms tighter around his rider, his face was buried in the back of the other man's neck and all he received were loud, boisterous laughs from the man in front of him.

"Having fun are we?" Temporarily abandoning his preamble about the dragons and the hatching process to make sure his passenger was alright with an almost mischievous grin.

Though, Tony couldn't see it.

“Don’t worry. We’re almost there,” the rider crooned, laughing softly as they descended swiftly, leaving his laugh caught on the wind before they rather suddenly seemed to come to a stop. 

The breeze disappeared and the area around them grew darker before Tony opened his eyes. “Here we are. Stephen, this is Mister Stark.” The black-haired man dug through the pouch at Hela’s side before offering him the paper. “His documentation.”

“Thank you Loki,” the other man, Stephen, took the paper to look it over briefly before nodding and tucking it away and offering Tony a hand down. “Mister Stark, let’s get you down and out onto the sands so we can talk about the process, shall we?”

Hela bellowed out a loud roar and stretched her wings. Her feet stepped to the stone and padded in place as she slid down on her haunches to idle and let her passenger down with ease.

Tony felt woozy when the dragon had landed, and he idled on her back a bit before his feet slid off and touched the ground. He almost doubled over, his stomach churning as he felt light-headed and needed a moment to regain his bearings before addressing the other man.

He looked from Loki to Stephen, straightened up his poster and held up a hand. "Oh god, I think I'm good. Yeesh, that was a ride." The poor engineer was ruffled from the flight and he heard a small chortle from Loki as he faced Stephen who didn't seem to display much emotion as he seemed to be sizing Tony up.

"Yeah, sure - let's go. Stephen, was it?" the engineer waited for the other to shake.

The other man gave him a once over then gestured towards a pathway that was lit with curious orbs, ignoring his hand entirely as he did. “This way. I hope your shoes are durable, the sands are quite hot as they help incubate the clutch.” The deep baritone echoed through the hall even as the green and her rider took off again out of the entrance.

Tony frowned and put his hand behind his back. He opted for sticking them in his pockets as he followed Stephen through the hall.

“Hatchings will take anywhere from an hour to three hours,” he began to explain, “during this time there is a high likelihood of injury and a low likelihood of death - but the risk is there. Even if a dragon imprints upon you that may not spare you from injury.” He raised the hand that he’d neglected to shake Tony’s with as they passed a light and deep scars showed down each of his fingers. “Medical personnel will be on hand, but be prepared for the potential violence.”

Stephen paused and gestured to a bin full of still flopping fish, his eyes catching Tony’s briefly. “The hatchlings will be hungry when they’re first hatched. Remember that a hatchling doesn’t necessarily imprint on the first person they see, but rather on someone they feel a certain kinship with - they will understand and intuit that without your help, so if you do not imprint on a dragon that does not necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with you, simply that you may not have been a match for any of the current clutch. Given your age, I would suspect that this is the only chance you’ll get to imprint, however, as the former queen has passed away, and the hatchling will take about five years to reach adulthood.”

This guy was really putting a sour taste in his mouth, he'd rarely met someone so formal and unwelcoming, it was almost as if he was dealing with the men his father associated with. All business and formality, it put a bad taste in Tony's mouth. He did, however, see the scars and opted to inquire about it - of all things to ask about as he's being shown the ropes and told of the hatching process.

"So did your hands get injured in one of the hatchings? Is that what I need to worry about or is that from something else?" He made a weird face as he inserted the question rather arbitrarily into their conversation with absolutely no shame whatsoever.

He was curious.

“Yes. There will be no one on the sands but those of you looking for a partner amidst the hatchlings. I was injured during my own imprinting. Levi was hungry and over exuberant in his desire to meet me. He crushed both of my hands and cut up part of my arm fairly easily. They’re babies, don’t forget that. They don’t know any better and they’re hungry and enthusiastic. They don’t realize that they’re strong and dangerous. Their claws tend to be the cause of most fatalities as they attempt to clamour over people seeking the one they’re feeling. If you don’t want to be hurt, do not crowd them. They will push and try to get through others to reach the person they’ve chosen and crowding them is the most likely to cause you to get hurt.”

The rider folded his arms as he turned to face Tony, looking pointedly at the bin of fish. “You are attempting to imprint on a dragon, aren’t you? You’ll need a fish. To feed them.”

Tony was a shadow as Stephen spoke, quiet and attentive as he was informed of the events to come. He'd deemed the answer he received to satisfy his concern as he stepped attentively beside Stephen. He regarded the bin of fish and made a discontented face at the sharp, sour aroma it seemed to waft.

"An ill-fated injury, but it sounds like someone really wanted to meet you." The corner of Tony's mouth quirked up in a wry smile. "So how much will a whelpling eat, how much will I need to have when the hatching starts?"

“There’s nothing ill-fated about it. I lost my hands, I gained wings and a friendship and bond that can never be replaced. Trading my hands for that? I got the better deal.” The man smiled softly for a moment, before shaking his head. “As to the hatchlings, they’ll require a lot, but for the hatching you only need one fish. Once imprinted and the hatching finishes, hatchlings and their riders will be taken for proper feeding.” 

"Right, ok so it's basically the running of the bulls and each and every one of the people out in the sands is holding the equivalent of a big fat target." The engineer chortled softly.

He understood the insides and outs of the process, now it was all a matter of waiting. "Maybe I'll get lucky and imprint on a big red," Tony's inflection sounded a bit cocky but was more supposed to be playful.

Stephen offered a smirk in response. “Hm. If you imprint at all I’m sure you’ll feel lucky. But you certainly sound like a red rider, talking like that. Take your fish, let’s get to the sands so I can explain the last of things.”

He turned and headed further down the hallway to where the stone became golden sands, and then finally into a massive cave. It was vaguely egg-shaped itself and while the entire first level of it was hot and covered in the golden sands and eggs, the full cavern had many things to look at.

Eggs lay mostly upright in one spot, gathered together like there was no issue, and off to the side a separate egg - larger than the rest - sat amidst a circle of young women who appeared to be anywhere from 16 to 25. Tony knew enough about dragons and hatchings to know that meant a queen was in the large egg that came up to the waist of the tallest girl in the circle. On the sands Stephen simply guided him to where others his age and younger were gathered, talking about the eggs or simply staring at them eagerly.

Unlike the queen egg, there was no real telling what the rest of the eggs might contain - they were all approximately the same size and had an oddly iridescent sheen to them that the television had never really picked up. They reflected back some of the gold of the sands but otherwise seemed to twinkle and sparkle in the light. 

The rider leading him stopped as he gestured to a spot. On one side of him a young man sat with his large fish across his lap, taking notes in a notebook about the eggs by the looks of it, and above them, circling the entire length of the room were balconies. On the lowest tier of them, he could see Rhodey sitting and waving wildly at him before giving him a pair of thumbs up. A few people in medical garb also stood in that tier, clearly prepared for those who may be injured in the process, and others were hanging over the edge - parents chatting to youths who were on the sands. They weren’t very high up, really, the tier itself was only about eight feet above the sands.

Tony's neck craned to look around the room. He'd waved back to Rhodey and flashed him a double thumbs-up as he started to blaze a trail through the sand.

The next tier he couldn’t exactly tell much about, but the people all appeared to be dressed in the garb of the Sanctum, robes of deep blue, green, red and brown as per various preferences. But it was the top tier that caught his eye most prominently: sparkling eyes twisted with various colours depicting the emotions of the dragons who loomed in their spot, their riders seated or standing near them to stare down upon the sands in interest.

More than anything else there seemed to be a collection of reds and their riders watching the queen egg and chatting amidst themselves - from this distance, it was hard to say how big the dragons themselves were, but when he saw them beside the blues it was a rather marked difference in size.

As he stepped farther from the arena entrance he could feel the heat rising, it hit like a wave all at once with how drastically different the air temperature was from the air on the exterior.

He continued through the sands, trudging over the dunes that he'd sunken into up to his ankles. He definitely wasn't dressed properly for this, and his shoes quickly became sand-logged by the time he made it to the crowd of people in the middle of the room.

His toes twitched uncomfortably as coarse sand seeped into his socks making his feet feel uncomfortably dry and chafed. "Great..." He mumbled sourly.

Stephen had long left his side and he stood around awkwardly though he did feel a strong somberness as he looked upon the many parents that had come to root and cheer for their young one's success and safety. It was all rather touching, but only dredged up his own feelings of anxiety towards memories of how his father was completely averse to his dreams and how his mother wasn't even around.

He saw what went on, and wished he had a family like that. All this time he'd been alone and he was mostly fine until he was presented so many different families, sisters, brothers that all loved each other and gave support to one another.

He shook his head, this wasn't the time to be down - plus he had Rhodey here. Rhodey was there to support him and this was potentially the beginning of a journey. If anything, he should be excited.

He soon found his smile, tossing his fish in his hand as he took his place on the sands and waited for the ceremony to begin, eyes focused on the opalescent eggs nestled comfortably in the sands.

It was nearly two hours and more people had filled the sands - there might have been about 200 of them there now in total, though there was enough space that nothing felt even remotely crowded. Tony was just beginning to find himself bored when it began. 

An egg rocked into another, and a hush fell over the crowd. He could peripherally see the shadows of the dragons above shifting, but Tony found his eyes fully fixed on the eggs.

In the quiet and stillness, the first crack of an egg hatching sounded impossibly loud - and then chaos broke out. A loud cry sounded as a brown nose pushed its way out of an egg and eagerly a large gathering of people shoved their way forward towards the hatching eggs. He couldn’t hear the cracking anymore, and while he could still see some of the eggs, they weren’t the first thing on his mind after a moment.

A blue hatchling’s claws caught on one of the crowded boy’s legs, tearing it dramatically open as the blue scrambled past the crowd and towards where Tony stood, still and surprised. He couldn’t help the disappointment when it wound up nosing at the boy who had been drawing beside him earlier, though the boy’s expression of awe and wonder was heartwarming enough to ease some of the ache.

Still, there were other dragons.

Screams sounded from the main crowd of hopefuls as other dragons pushed their way past the main crowd and towards those waiting in the wings as they’d been told. The sands in the middle were beginning to look uncomfortably red, and Tony took a few uneasy steps to the side, before jolting a bit as he saw what looked like it might have been entrails caught on one of the red hatchlings’ claws. He nuzzled up to a hopeful and began his feasting on the fish, and Tony could barely keep himself from throwing up as he twisted and made his way away from that particular sight.

Tony drew back, repulsed as he saw someone crying while a blue and a brown stepped over them. Others were knocked down in the cacophony of cheers and cries. It was almost a daze with the mix of screams as eggs began to hatch and burst by the second as if set off in a chain reaction. 

Tony feared maybe he was not close enough, he may not draw in a dragon - his anxiety spiking despite being told that the imprinting process was wholly reliant on the rider and the dragon bonding spiritually. 

Proximity favoured no one.

Tony Stark wasn't about to die to reach his dream, no, that wasn't what this was all about. He retreated from the masses entirely and fell back behind the crowd. 

Some eggs didn't hatch, they remained still while some gentler dragons nosed their way through the crowd despite grasping and grappling hands from some of the other hopefuls. A pair of reds broke free of their shells and Tony locked eyes with a brilliant ruby scaled dragon.

It began to slowly approach him and his heart skipped a beat. He took a step closer and the red began to charge towards him without any signs of stopping.

"Fuck this!" Tony dove out of its trajectory as it went to a rider who like himself, had the same idea of standing away from the epicentre. 

He'd fallen into the sand, looking up disheartened as the red was united with its new rider. Most of the eggs by this point had hatched, those that hadn't didn't move or make a sound.

Stillborns.

He picked himself up off the sands, arms chafed and burnt by the heat of the dunes and he brushed himself off, looking over the red streaks from his sustained injury of diving.

Guess that was that.

He sighed, the pit of his stomach sinking as he looked up to Rhodes and his best friend mirrored the melancholy expression he wore. The hatching was pretty much done and he had not imprinted on a single one of the hatchlings.

He would return to the city-empty handed. And as the rider from earlier had said - he’d be too old to partake in another such hatching. This had been his one chance - his only chance of breaking free from Howard’s grasp and living his dream.

The medical staff slowly began to descend into the sands to help the injured, pulling some onto stretchers, and others being wrapped up and bandaged on-site, with still others simply being corralled away. Those who remained slowly began to make their way up to the tier above where family and friends waited, but it took time and Tony saw no need to rush, watching the new riders with their young whelps and allowing himself to imagine what it would be like.

Some were clearly still injured and seemed perfectly unaware of that in their blissful states, touching the not-yet hardened scales of the young dragons. He was so intent on his observations that when it happened it came across almost surreal.

Heads seemed to turn quickly, the dragons first before the young riders followed suit, and the hush descended again, broken only by the pained noises of those being tended to, or unable to be tended to.

Then he heard it. Another crack.

Whiskey eyes turned to follow the direction of the sound and to his pleasure he at least had a good vantage point to watch as the large egg housing the queen rocked, cracking again. The young women gathered there looked nervously amidst one another after the display that had been put on before on the sands, but the moment the keening noise sounded from the egg they each moved in their own way. Some forward, others away, a couple holding out the fish at arm’s length as though it might appease the creature.

He could barely see the queen amidst the women and when he heard the girl nearest him give out a loud scream he winced, flinching in discomfort for her before the queen made herself plainly obvious, swirling, multifaceted eyes searching around the room. The circle of women was broken at the injury, some of the girls dropping their fish entirely, but Tony’s attention was focused on the golden beast who took a few awkward, rather adorably toddling steps towards him.

He didn’t know why at first - his hand raised and he offered the fish to the young queen, whose head cocked slightly, focusing on the fish before looking at him. And then everything hit him in a rush.

<I am Friday.> The feminine voice in his head stated clearly. < I am very hungry…> The words were a soft whine that seemed to echo outwardly, though it was hard to get a grasp on anything.

He felt the hunger. But also joy and contentment. She took the fish from him and sniffed at his hands before giving each of them a lick as though to clean them of the smell that had enticed her. < Is there more? I’m really very hungry…>

Tears welled up in Tony’s eyes as he felt the love and warmth flood through him, the complete trust and adoration. The wonder at how something so precious could have chosen him. A connection had formed, one that rivalled that of a mother holding her newborn child.

His hand touched at her scales, surprised to find them considerably softer than he’d anticipated even knowing they wouldn’t have hardened yet. Her head easily met his height as a series of contented blues and curious greens flickered through her eyes, communicating worlds more than he ever could have expected.

His arms flung around her neck as he held her tightly and she gave a pleased and confused grumble at the action.

“Friday… it’s nice to finally meet you. I’m Tony…”

<Tony,> she responded easily, the grumbling in her neck feeling like a soothing purr, < it’s nice to meet you. Can we eat now? Please? I’m really so very hungry…>

Nothing else in the room mattered, but he found himself chuckling and nodding. “Yeah, let’s find you something to eat, baby girl… there was a whole bin of fish earlier, I bet they have something real nice around just for you…”

Tony pulled away from the gold but kept a hand gently perched on her front right haunch as he walked alongside the golden beauty. He looked up at Rhodey who had just as exuberantly cheered when the wonderful golden dragon had connected with him, taking pictures on his phone and hollering loudly. Though something about this seemed to be a little off.

Tony didn't quite know why, but a veil of silence blanketed the chamber and only Rhodey's excited pitch could be heard among the growing murmurs and soft mumbling among the people.

All eyes were on Tony and Friday, and he started to grow uneasy as he slowly led his beautiful queen forward. Something felt wrong, people weren't cheering for him and as he scanned the audience all he could discern was the look of disturbance, bewilderment and confusion on the face of the masses.

What happened? Had he done something wrong? Why the hell was everyone staring at him like that?!

Of all the people he saw fixated on him he specifically identified Stephen, Loki and another oriental looking male who was much more heavy set. 

Stephen had a look of stoicism on his face, while Loki simply looked as if he'd just witnessed an anomaly. The other man, however, had a stone disposition and he was now walking towards Tony to escort him over to the feeding room.

He stopped in front of Tony and looked the man up and down, then at the dragon. "I am Wong, let me show you to the feeding chambers." He said nothing more than that and turned to guide them.

Tony followed.

The silence was building up like an elephant in the room, strangling, asphyxiating and Tony could literally feel the air around him thick and palpable. He dared to ask, "Wong?" The man made a sound of acknowledgement slowing his pace.

"Yes, Tony?"

"Why is everyone… looking at me like I just desecrated a sacred monument?" Tony kept his words hushed as he tried to ignore the heaviness in the room but it was slowly becoming too overbearing.

"Your situation is quite peculiar, never has a gold, a queen, imprinted on a male before."

“Oh…” that was all he could think to say. He had no idea how else to respond to that. 

He was an oddity. 

And there was something special about queens, wasn’t there? Aside from them being the largest of the dragons and the only dragons who laid eggs… There was definitely something he felt like he’d forgotten.

< Food! > the voice chimed in his head and in moments Friday disappeared forward to sink her face into a large pond utterly teeming with fish. She made quite a sight splashing around, shoving her nose and foreclaws into the water to try and catch her meal.

Whatever he’d forgotten remained forgotten as he simply allowed himself to bask in the pleasure of watching the excitable young dragon.

 


 

Stephen’s brows furrowed deeply as he considered what he’d just witnessed. His hand rested on his dragon’s side for a moment before he climbed up onto him and shook his head. “The library please, Levi.”

< Unusual things are afoot, > Levi grumbled softly at him and adjusted to take off into the skies. < Are we not going to greet the newcomers? >

“We’ll greet them another time. The unusual things are more of a priority right now. You don’t have any recollection of something like this happening either, do you?” He inquired as the dragon ascended the Sanctum towards the library.

< No. Does it really matter that she chose a male rider? >

“You know I don’t like puzzles like this, Levi. There has to be something on the books… perhaps he’s in the midst of a transition? Did you sense anything like that from him?”

< You’re overthinking all of this, Stephen. Regardless of what you find, Friday’s rider is a male. You’ll have to live with that. >

“You still mean to mate her, naturally…?” Stephen sighed to himself a little.

< You’re asking questions you already know the answer to. The queen will rise. I intend to catch her. >

Stephen sighed to himself heavily even as Levi landed on the ledge outside the library. This wasn’t exactly how things were supposed to go.

Levi was right, of course. No matter what answers he found, it wouldn’t change the fact that the queen had chosen her rider. There was nothing more to be done about it. That didn’t sate his desire for answers. It didn’t diminish his curiosity.

It was an idea he’d just have to get used to.

Chapter Text

It had only been a week since Tony had decided to completely abandon his entire lifestyle in pursuit of becoming a Sanctum dragon rider. His father found it a fool’s dream while his friend was in full support of him. With a heavy mind, those seemed to be variables that weighed on his mind and often occupied his thoughts.

Wong had been the most prominent of the riders to show him the ropes after the hatching, and he was told that it was crucial to spend time with the dragon and bond with Friday just as a mother would with her newborn child. 

The odd looks people gave him as he waltzed through the halls with the queen at his side didn't seem to be as overbearing as it had been at the very start, but people still regarded him much differently than others and put distance between themselves and him.

Not only was he male, but neither was he Sanctum born, which was how Wong had put it. And he could come to understand the jealousy and outrage that hung over some of the riders' heads while those that were big enough, could look past it.

Still, Tony didn't have any friends here. Save for Friday.

Friday was his crowning jewel, the light of his life, she really was all that - a monarch of the highest order and he did everything in his power to care for her and make sure she had everything she needed. 

Spending time with her wasn't a chore but rather a blessing and honour, and he was absolutely in love with the dragon. She would discern when he was feeling dispirited and be right there to cheer him up, gaze up at him with those glass azure eyes of hers, and every time he looked back he felt the connection with his queen permeate his heart and fill him with nothing but pure unconditional love.

Tony was absolutely smitten.

For a whelp she had knowledge beyond her years, she spoke and communicated as if she was of his own age, but yet she was just newly hatched. It was beyond amazing how such a young drake could comprehend such extensive language at this age and the world around it. He was told that dragons had a very basic shared memory and that often they learned many things from their ancestors that way - such as how to communicate, how much firestone they needed, and many natural foods that weren’t good for their diets. They also had an innate sense of extradimensional and otherworldly threats and didn’t require nearly as much coaxing to learn to blink between locations as their riders.

Today, in particular, was the final day of the maternity rest for the dragons and their riders, and soon enough Tony would be introduced to the rider he would be studying under and he hoped to god he got someone that didn't have a stick up their ass about his situation.

“Your ride is here,” Wong nudged him with a look of amusement as the absolutely massive red dragon descended on their learning space, blocking out the sun with his wings before tucking them in against his side and bowing his head to nudge at Wong briefly.

With the sun no longer making him seem like a giant shadow creature, it was easier to appreciate the beauty of the deep ruby scales the dragon bore, glinting in the afternoon sun as his head dropped even lower past Tony to greet his queen, closing his eyes and laying down entirely as though in reverence. His eyes opened once more to inspect Tony, and though he didn’t lift his head there was much to take in.

His eyeball alone had to be the size of Tony’s ribcage, and yet for how big he was, he seemed far from intimidating. Almost docile. Friday gave a pleased chirp at the dragon lifting herself onto her hind legs to flap her still translucent wings at him and the large dragon responded with a low croon, before lifting his head.

< I like him, > Friday decided, settling back onto all four legs before sitting. < He is well-mannered. >

“This is Levi,” Wong stated once the dragons had finished their little introduction. “He’s the largest of the reds in the Sanctum currently. His rider will be instructing you on the things you’ll need to know about becoming a Sanctum leader when Friday rises. I will still be your primary instructor where caring for Friday is concerned, at least for the next little while, but they’ll fill you in more further once you get wherever Levi is taking you.”

"Whoah-WHOAH - slow down a bit, Sanctum leader? Where did this come from?! I just got here a week ago and already you're anointing me with some crazy future responsibility?!" Maybe Wong looked like he was squinting in displeasure at the response he'd gotten from Tony, but the engineer really couldn't tell.

"Did you expect to become a dragon rider and just fly around the Sanctum willy-nilly like it was some kind of dressage?" Wong paused leaving a moment for Tony to speak. Tony's mouth opened again to articulate his response but Wong cut him off before he could get the sound of his first word out. "You have responsibilities to the Sanctum, Tony, and as the queen's rider, the matriarch of all dragons - it is your responsibility to lead by her side, absolutely." The training master almost laughed.

"I..." Tony bit the inside of his cheek and was about to once again respond but soon enough felt the back of his robes cinch and he was lifted up off the ground. 

"Whoah- hey!" He looked behind him to see the proud red lifting him up, the thing almost looked like it was smirking. "This is not what I had in mind when you mentioned this was my ride, Wong!" Tony looked back at him and the master actually cracked a smile.

Friday was spinning around at Levi's feet, clawing at his ankles to be brought up, flapping her wings excitedly as she peered up with those adorable blue eyes and chirped excitedly.

<Me next! Me next! Tony, wait for me, let me up!> She'd jump up on her hind legs and spun, rolling around. Levi created a ramp out of his wing for her to climb up onto his back and she nestled herself into the divot of his spines, curling up and holding on as she peered up at Tony, her small belly breathing in quickly from the heightened heart rate at her excitement.

She looked just too damn adorable and as always - beautiful. Especially now that Levi's ruby-red scales reflected off her soft hide like a molten gold mirror.

Large wings spread out, spanning a massive distance across the training grounds and the dragon beneath him gave a low grumble before Wong waved, smirking to himself. “Hold tight! And good luck!”

In moments they were in the air and continuing to ascend the spire towards a platform near the peak of the Sanctum’s tower. It was a short flight - wings as large as Levi’s made the progress easy enough and the landing was fairly smooth. The wings spread out widely and bowed low to allow Tony and Friday to use them as a more dignified path to the ground than the method that had been used to lift Tony up to begin with.

Friday waited, watching Tony for a moment before sliding over the large dragon’s scales slightly and scooting carefully along the dragon’s wing to skitter a little awkwardly to the grass below with a quiet huff. <There’s a man here,> she informed him well before he was able to see the other, though the familiar man came into view as Levi lowered his head to greet the rider considerably more affectionately than he’d greeted them.

Stephen gave the massive red maw a couple of firm pats before offering a small bow to the little queen. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Friday,” he stated quietly, before straightening to focus on Tony, sharp features accented by the acute gaze of his eyes. 

“Tony. Welcome,” it didn’t sound welcoming in the slightest. “There’s a lot to learn, so shall we get comfortable and settle in?”

Stephen's voice sounded much colder than it had ever been. Unlike the first day when the man simply seemed detached and most of all, neutral - now he felt as if the rider had a chip on his shoulder and he could only assume that this pompous douchebag had a gripe against him because of Friday.

"Wow, I could really feel the love in that one, Stephen." Tony frowned and his arms were crossed over his chest. Friday dashed over to Stephen immediately, tripping over her own feet and tumbling but that clumsiness soon turned into grace when she rolled over her head doing a complete forward somersault and rolling back onto her feet again.

<New friend, who is this?! Did you say Stephen? > She squealed in a series of loud chirps and dashed around his legs, jumping up to pad her forepaws on the front of his tunic with an open maw that almost looked like a smile the way her mouth curled up. <Hi!>

Tony's scowl was unfortunately undermined by the bright little ball of gold that was his beautiful queen.

Stephen seemed briefly taken aback by the young dragon, even he wasn’t impervious to her excitement as he gave her a rather soft smile, looking to Levi for a moment in question as the large red gave a yawn and laid himself down, tucking his wings in against himself. The red rider took a moment before tenderly brushing at Friday’s cheeks a little and sighing.

“I’m sure you have questions. There’s a lot to talk about. Levi says you had inquiries about your role here as a Sanctum leader so I can only assume that means you don’t know what responsibilities come naturally to those who imprint upon a queen,” Stephen looked to Tony briefly. “We can remain out on the grass for this lesson if you’d like.”

A swirling blue dragon’s eye opened again as the red adjusted himself and stretched out his tail to create something to lean against. 

Friday was satisfied with the amount of attention she'd received and Tony just idly watched as the matriarch of the Sanctum scampered around a bit until she perched herself in the nook between Levi's arm and chest, curling up and attentively watching the master and future Sanctum leader. Every so often craning her neck to look up at Levi curiously. 

<I really like him!> she peeped at him and it almost sounded like a half bark.

"Naturally, yes. Wong tells me I'm the future Sanctum leader and I feel like I've been hit in the head with a cartoon anvil," Tony felt almost a little peeved off. Half from the fact that he was sprung this sudden information which he hadn't planned on and the second with how starkly different Stephen's attitude was towards the dragons and himself.

"I didn't sign up for this," Tony sounded more stressed out than angry at this point. "Can't someone else step in and lead in my place? Someone more educated and qualified than me who actually wants to?" Tony anxiously tapped his fingers along his arm.

Levi made some sort of rumbling noise in response to Friday’s peeping, curling his neck around to rest his head near where she’d tucked her head, his eyes watching her, colours changing with his various moods as he seemed to socialize with her in some manner that was inaudible to Tony. Friday’s continued chittering was the only indication he had that the two were socializing otherwise.

“The role will not be yours to handle alone,” Stephen assured him as he sat near the base of Levi’s tail and leaned against it, gesturing for Tony to join him. “A queen’s rider is always going to become a Sanctum leader. Their partner in that position is the rider whose dragon catches the queen during their mating flight - typically that’s the largest red dragon as they have the strength and endurance to keep up with a queen where others will not necessarily. In this case, that rider is me. 

“Friday is a few years off from rising however - it’ll still be at least a year before she’s able to fly, and about four or five years until she’s fully matured and able to mate. So you have about five years to get a handle on what’s going on around here. Queens typically choose women who are not Sanctum born as their riders and we have had many phenomenal Sanctum Leaders in the past, so I have faith you’ll grasp the fundamentals quickly enough.”

"Well, you sound sure of yourself on that one. No disrespect for your compadre over here, but what makes you so certain that you will be the leader? You're not the only red dragon rider here and from what I’ve heard, it's a race." Tony followed Stephen's lead and gave Levi a pat on his neck as he walked by. "No offence red, I like you." 

He took a seat down on the ground in front of Stephen, resting the weight of his head as he propped it up with his arm. "Five years doesn't sound too bad, but who says I necessarily want to do it?" he let out a steady breath, promptly switching the subject. 

“I’m not the only one educated in becoming a Sanctum leader around, but Levi is half a metre larger than any other dragon in the Sanctum at the moment. We’re also one of the better teams in the Sanctum. The largest dragon has the best chance of catching the queen as queens are larger than any other dragon. Most smaller dragons lack the speed and endurance to last a mating flight…”

"And what is this 'rising' you're talking about, or 'mating flight'?" Tony reached down to pluck a piece of grass out of the dirt and start rolling it between his fingers.

Stephen sighed a little, shaking his head as he looked away. “I’m surprised you came to imprint on a dragon without knowing about mating flights in advance… queen dragons, as you said, will have a race to mate, of a sort. When they ‘rise’ the race itself begins. All dragons, whether they’re likely to catch the queen or able to mate with her at all, will rise to join her. During these flights, most dragons will fall away. Greens, as the only other female dragons, will tend to hang behind and take it slowly as dragons who cannot fly fast enough or for long enough will seek out greens to mate during the flight.

“Typically only a red will mate a queen - the larger the dragon, the better their chances. That said, historically there have been a couple of rather large browns that have managed to catch a queen. It depends on both the size of the dragon and their intelligence.” Stephen cast Tony a rather pointed smirk, “and anyone in the Sanctum can tell you that Levi is the smartest red they’ve seen in generations.”

Tony cast an unrepentant look at Stephen, it almost felt like the rider was stroking his own damn ego with how many times he brought up how 'big' Levi was, and he could count three.

Three god damn times Stephen had talked about Levi's size.

It wasn't like he could argue though since he didn't know much about anything of the Sanctum’s inner workings. There were nuances to this place, details he'd forgotten about since he was a child.

This guy, I swear...

"So then what does that necessarily mean for us if your big ride does manage to catch Friday? I know we both get crowned king and queen of the prom, but does that mean we're basically corralled into some arranged marriage?" Tony's attention snapped to Friday as he heard a loud chirp. When he looked over she was on her back, flapping her wings while Levi was prodding her stomach with the tip of his snout.

He couldn't help but smile at that moment.

Stephen gave a small shrug at that. “Something like that. We fuck. We’re labelled Sanctum leaders. That’s about it. There’s no marriage or commitment to each other involved. Levi and Friday would remain mated until the next time she rises, though it’s common that mated pairs will remain together regardless. Still, if for some reason Levi cannot catch her again, then the process would repeat with someone else in my place.”

His hand rested on Levi’s tail for a moment and the dragon lifted his head briefly, giving a soft snort before looking at Tony and nuzzling Friday’s belly again with the end of his nose. Friday responded with a sense of glee that Tony could feel resonating in his heart despite not feeling gleeful personally.

“Of course, regardless of whether Levi catches Friday or not, the process is the same. Your position in it doesn’t change and I’m still uniquely qualified to teach you. I’m afraid the former queen rider is… no longer capable of mentoring you. So the duty falls to me.”

Tony frowned and turned his face a little as his eyebrows furrowed. He looked like he'd just bitten into a lemon.

"I'm sorry - what?" His nose scrunched up indignantly in response to how cooly the answer had been delivered. "You do know there are better, much more tactful ways of asking someone out. And while I like to wet my whistle as much as the next dude, the standard 'ritual' generally begins with a date and not just skipping to romping around like a couple of rabbits in spring." Tony let out a snort, staring Stephen down.

Stephen returned his stare rather coolly. “You really don’t know anything about Sanctum culture, do you? I guess it’s time to start with the very basics then, so you can get an idea. When Friday is old enough to rise for mating, you won’t have much of a choice in the matter. It has a big impact on why the Sanctums are so far away from towns, cities and villages, and we’re a mostly self-contained and self-reliant system.

“Dragons are telepathic, empathic, and capable of many more things besides but during mating flights their emotions are so strong and resonate so loudly that humans - riders and non-riders alike - tend to respond similarly. If the Sanctums were built near cities, there would be influxes of sexual activity amidst a wide variety of individuals and it would be a mess. The two villages closest to us are always informed prior to a mating flight so that they can prepare in the event that the flight path takes the dragons their way.

“For riders, given our natural connection with the dragons, one tends to… lose their sense of self. There’s a oneness that riders feel with our dragons in those moments. You stop being you. You simply act on their feelings. Sexuality doesn’t play a part in it, nor personal preferences. I assure you, you wouldn’t be my first choice, either.”

"Glad to know the feeling's mutual," Tony snorted in displeasure. 

Tony would consider himself bisexual with a strong female preference, but that didn't mean he was going to hop in bed with the next man that showed tail to him. Especially not this pompous asshole who really thought he knew everything and seemed to act like he was just all that and a bag of potato chips.

"So this all turns into one big sexcapade by the sounds of it, sounds like frosh week at MIT." The hair of grass he'd been rolling in his fingers tore and the corner of his mouth continued to sit in a scowl.

“I wouldn’t know about that. But it’s certainly a rather large sexual adventure that no one remembers details of in the morning. At least not the details of their own encounters. Regardless, this is nothing like a marriage. There is no dedication to one another, you and whomever it is are free to go your separate ways after. I suppose for you this is especially lucky as there’s no concern for pregnancy. You and the rider of whomever mates Friday will run the Sanctum, each of you with different duties. Currently, there are no Sanctum leaders. I’m simply a master, and everyone has their duties regardless. Wong has been a master for those with young dragons since before I was born. Your duties will, luckily for you, never change, as Friday will be the only gold in the Sanctum.”

Stephen shook his head as he turned his head to watch Friday and Levi playing. It was rather sweet how gentle the older dragon was being with her, nudging her belly, capturing her tail and allowing her to break free again, slathering her head in a full lick that left the young dragon chortling in amusement and pleasure.

Pushing himself to his feet Stephen brushed out his robes and turned to Tony. “I suppose you haven’t gotten the proper tour yet. We’re near where the Sanctum leaders’ quarters are now and thus where you’ll eventually be residing once Friday’s scales have hardened.”

Tony squinted at Stephen as soon as the man turned his back.

Ok, maybe it wasn't terrible, at least he wouldn't be married to some stranger. If it really came to it, he could deal with a one-night stand, especially if he wouldn't even remember it in the morning. It was akin to being blackout drunk and the only thing he'd have to worry about is that not-so-walk of shame they'd both have to do in the morning.

"So what are my responsibilities when that day eventually comes to pass?" Tony gave one more passing glance at Friday before following after Stephen. She was content to play with her 'betrothed' making soft squeaks and chirps as she got up on her hind legs and tried to nip at one of Levi's horns with his head down at her level.

He took a hop and a skip to catch up to Stephen, he didn't like the guy at all but he still needed to put up with him to be the best that he could be for this responsibility that was suddenly thrown on him.

“Immediately after will be a very different situation as Friday will begin brooding shortly after. Her scales will begin to shed and she’ll require a lot of care. Her belly will become somewhat vulnerable, and her mate will become highly protective of her. He will do the hunting to keep her fed and will gather water for her as necessary. But it will be up to you to maintain her cleanliness. This is all something I’ll teach you once her scales begin to harden. 

“The duties that will fall to you after that are more in line with the care and maintenance of the Sanctum. You will also be a representative of the Sanctum so it will be up to you to maintain certain appearances. Typically the gold rider will make appearances during events held at the Sanctum, while the red rider will make the trips away from the Sanctum as required. In the meantime, it’ll be important for you to familiarize yourself with the Sanctum. It’s quite large so I expect it to take a long while for you to get used to where everything is - plus it’s a long walk and Friday isn’t nearly ready to fly yet. I’ll show you what I can and we’ll see about whether Levi will agree to help you get places as necessary.”

The taller man stopped in front of a door and hesitated a moment before pushing it open and gesturing for Tony to follow as he moved into the surprisingly bright space. A large opening sat on the back wall - certainly larger than even the red dragon sitting outside - presumably to allow a dragon to exist inside the large space with it’s vaulted ceilings that could have easily been a good four tall floors high. Being fair, the quarters were massive in every meaning of the word. Massive windows, massive spaces, a massive bathing room with a massive heated pool. Even the bedroom had a slightly less massive bed - not dragon-sized, but still large enough he could imagine Friday at her current size sprawling across it and still leaving plenty of room for him to sprawl as well.

"So is this where Friday and I will be staying from now?" Tony looked around the room. He felt like he was standing in a cathedral, the room, in no better words was vast and expansive. It was nice to literally get the royal treatment but was kind of lonely on its own. Rather than sharing a ward or a dormitory with other riders, he was secluded here.

At least Friday would be with him.

"This place wasn't exactly built for someone to walk around in, I'd hope as the rider of the future queen I'd at least have some assistance getting around here considering I'm not 'Sanctum born' as people like to politely remind me."

“You won’t be staying here until Friday’s scales harden and she’s able to fly. It would take you hours to get here on your own,” Stephen gave a soft sigh, running a hand into his hair. “With that said, Levi has offered to aid you in reaching the various areas of the Sanctum until Friday is old enough to show you herself. He’ll be helping show us both around soon enough. But this is where you can expect to start staying eventually, yes. The bedroom is as large as it is to allow for partnered riders to share if needed, but the quarters expand into a second apartment that can be kept entirely separate if the riders so choose.”

"Thank god for that," Tony murmured as he followed the other on his tour.

Turning again, the man waved for Tony to follow after him as he made his way out of the quarters again and making his way along the long walkway back towards the grassy platform the dragons were playing on. Levi had risen to his feet and seemed to be playing some sort of game of tag with the smaller dragon, his tail lashing around in his excitement as he grumbled at the small, precious golden creature. Rather than joining the dragons, however, Stephen pushed open a door across the walkway from them and waved Tony in.

“This will be a place you’ll spend a lot of time, I’m sure,” and it was no wonder Stephen said that. This was the largest library Tony had ever seen. Five floors of shelves lined with books towered above them with vast openings that allowed for tables and chairs to be set around it. There were no openings for the dragons to get in here, instead the back wall boasted tall stained-glass windows displaying the various colours of dragons cast an array of colours into the room. It was well lit but still smelled musty and old. There wasn’t a computer to be seen.

“The first floor contains many texts about the care of dragons and the history of the New York Sanctum, though you can also find some books on the histories of the other Sanctums located here. The texts become more advanced as you ascend the floors, so do keep that in mind. This library is exclusive to riders, which is why it’s as high up in the Sanctum as it is. I’m sure you can imagine what a pain it would be to have to walk all the way up here to borrow a book. There’s another library elsewhere in the Sanctum that is more general access and contains more fiction and light reading.”

The room was much more serene than the living quarters had been. The light that filtered in through the mosaic stained-glass elegantly lit the reading areas and tables as if it was strategically set up that way. It carried with it the comforting musty smell of books and faint mothballs as he walked around the tables and eyed the cascading shelves of books all the way to the tops.

Reading wouldn't be hard, Tony was confident he'd be a master of dragon care in the first few days. He was an exceptionally fast learner, a prodigy if others were to be believed. He was ready to put his mind to the task and he could easily master any field he was diving into and invested passionately in.

"Quaint and rustic," the quiet comment came, but his voice carried through the barreled chambers up to his soft breaths. He turned back to Stephen who was gesturing to leave the library now. "I approve!"

“Good. As I said, you’ll spend plenty of time here. Come now, if you think you can manage another ride with Levi we’ve got a few more places we need to go. If you accept Levi’s offer to help you get to the various floors you’ll be able to instruct him where you’re headed. He knows this place as well as any Sanctum born.” Approaching the red, Stephen’s smile softened again even as the dragon took a pause from playing with Friday to greet his rider, hardly seeming to care as the little golden dragon attached herself to his tail and attempted to chew on it. The dragon’s scales apparently did the job of protecting him well enough that Levi didn’t seem to notice.

“Shall we spend some time today teaching Friday to swim? The dragons seem to enjoy the pool during the heat, and it’s a good place for her to bathe. You’re naturally welcome to join them but if you feel a need to change first we can swing around to the hatchling residence for you to grab what you need.”

Whatever irritation Tony had towards Stephen seemed to fade away in the presence of the other dragons. It was almost as if it was impossible to even be angry when he was looking at Friday, she just had that effect on him.

"Yeah, I'd rather change into something more appropriate for the water." The whelpling trundled over to her rider immediately when Tony and Stephen returned. She took a running charge at him and Tony held up a hand in panic. "Ah-ah-ah! Slow!" She didn't slow, and barreled into his chest, knocking him flat on his back and possibly the wind out of him.

He coughed and looked up at the golden dragon, now draped on his chest. <I missed you, Tony, where did you go?> she tilted her head, chirruping at him curiously with her big eyes. 

<Stephen was showing me around the Sanctum baby-girl. He also wants to take you swimming, you'll need to get off of me though.> He gently pet the sides of her stomach, her paws were sprawled straight out so his head was caged between them and pressed up against her breast.

She wiggled a bit and then moved off of her rider so Tony could stand again.

Nope, still couldn't be mad.

Levi laid down and Stephen climbed onto his back without hesitation, watching Tony and the young queen with a brief flicker of amusement as he hummed. “Shall we then?”

The red dragon extended his wing again to give them something of a ramp to work with once more, laying his head near Tony to help get him to his feet again with a soft grumble.

Tony used Levi's spines as holds to climb up onto the dragon's back. He took a seat in the saddle behind Stephen and Friday scampered up towards Levi's head where she perched on his very crown, wrapping her paws around his head.

"Yeah, let's go." Tony frowned, his arms twitched and he had a moment where he didn't know what to do briefly recalling his flight with Loki. He made a half gesture to wind his arms around Stephen's waist - then stopped. Instead, he settled for grabbing hold of the handles on the secondary saddle spot, hoping he wouldn't lose his cool like the last time. "I hope your flying is less erratic than Loki's."

“Loki is a shit disturber and a troublemaker, and Hela indulges him far too much,” Stephen grumbled a bit to himself, adjusting to help Friday settle securely in place on Levi’s back before giving him a pat. The red dragon dove from the platform into an immediate glide down towards the whelp residences in an easy motion. “He likes to create problems unnecessarily for the hell of it. Not all flying is quite so… distressing.”

It took only a little more than two minutes for Levi to touch down near Tony’s residence, laying himself down and extending his ramp of a wing in the meantime to let them down. “We’ll wait here until you’re changed and ready to go.”

<Friday, wait here with Stephen and Levi, I'm just going to grab a duffle of clothes to change into for swimming.> The whelp perked her head and looked over at Tony as he slid down the extended wing and jogged over to grab his things. 

<OK, I'll be right here!> she chirped loudly, wiggling her tail.

He only took about five minutes to roughly toss his things into the duffel, grab a towel and sling it over his shoulder. He came back out with a little bit of a huff and climbed back into his spot on the saddle, tightening the straps on his duffle and sitting it between them to keep it secure.

"Alright, good to go."

Stephen gave a short nod and the red dragon climbed back to his feet to take off towards the pool. Of course, in hindsight, calling it a ‘pool’ was really understating how large the body of water was - it was something of a manmade lake that was settled to the side of the Sanctum, water pouring down into it, and then out and down into the deep trench that surrounded the Sanctum. Several dragons were already there - mostly large ones, their scales shimmering and wet in the sunlight as they splashed about.

Levi sat them down on the platform that circled the water, waiting patiently as Stephen got down and gave both Tony and Friday a hand dismounting the dragon before he slid under the dragon to start unfastening the harness. 

“The outside edge of the majority of the pool is shallower and less affected by the dragon’s swimming - there’s a small dyke that separates the two swimming areas, and it’ll be safer for Friday to swim in the shallower pool as well. That said, I’m sure Levi would be happy to teach her to swim and he will certainly not fit in the shallow pool,” the man explained as he unlatched the last of the fastenings for the harness, allowing Levi to lift the thing up and set it aside on his own. Lucky thing, too, since the whole saddle was considerably bigger than Stephen himself.

It was moments before the big red barreled off into the deeper water, making a rather large splash and flitting his wings with a deep grumble, disappearing under the water line for a moment before paddling back over and resting his head on the edge of the dyke. “Oh, I see. He says he’s happy to show her how to swim over there. She can stay in the shallow area and he’ll demonstrate where the water’s deeper.”

Tony lost his own robes and shirt to reveal the pair of very modern looking swim trunks he had underneath, Friday watched him undress.

<Tony!> she chirruped, <hey Tony, are we going in the water? Tony!> She circled around him, he had his tunic over his head and took a step forward, foot catching on Friday's tail causing him to trip. <-Tony!> He managed to catch himself on his hands.

<Hey!> He felt paws on his back briefly before they left his shoulders and she circled around his front to prod at his face with her little snout.

<Yes, Friday?>

<I want to go into the water, can I go in the water now? Levi is calling me over.> Tony pushed himself up onto his knees and discarded his tunic so he was only in a shirt, exposing a large scar in the center of his chest. 

<Yeah, yeah, go join him. I'll be there in a moment.> She hopped on spot, flaring her wings before her body turned and swivelled towards the body, head still stuck looking at Tony before she turned and crashed into the water, charging off towards the red.

Tony shook his head with a grin, though it was lost when he turned to Stephen. "What will you do?"

“Swim,” the other responded simply. He’d divested himself of his own robes in the time it took them to sort themselves out, his clothing folded and resting atop the saddle as he padded barefoot along the paved edge of the pool. “Depending on how long they decide to splash around and sunbathe I might read later. I expect you’re more interested in swimming at this point than discussing duties and history. Once the dragons are quite finished, we’ll resume showing you around the Sanctum. So go ahead and enjoy yourself.”

Unlike the rather inelegant displays the dragons put on, with Levi even now raised partially up on the dyke and watching Friday with attentive concern to make sure she could make it to him without issue, Stephen sunk himself into the water with an unsurprising amount of grace, sitting himself along the edge to observe the dragons with a small smile fixed on his features.

"Huh, catch some rays and you might just end up with my skin tone, or are you the type that just burns as soon as they catch a lick of sun, huh?" Tony teased. "We can talk while we swim, Friday will be preoccupied." He got to the edge of the water and stepped into his ankles.

Cold.

He waited a moment, stepping a few times before he started to advance in a little further. It was slow, he'd forgotten how cold lake-water could be but his body was slowly adjusting to the temperature as he went in deeper, waiting for Stephen to follow.

“I don’t tan. I burn and then I stay pale. That’s all.” The other man shrugged, slowly pressing away from the edge and extending himself out to swim before twisting to lay out on his back and float there.

For weeks things were the same - he’d get up in the morning and he and Friday would be greeted by the big sweetheart that was Levi, who would bring them to wherever the lesson of the day took place. After lessons the dragons would disappear into the water and paddle around and Friday was growing increasingly comfortable in the water. Stephen and Tony would swim on days that were warm and sunny and converse about the goings-on of the Sanctum, Tony’s expected duties, and some of the history of the Sanctums.

At first Tony expected that Stephen would grow warmer towards him over time, especially since apparently there weren’t weekends off of lessons, and yet the rider remained distant and impersonal. He was a master, and he kept that mentorly distance, which didn’t make the idea of them eventually having any kind of sexual relationship seem any more appealing.

And that wasn't to say that Tony hadn't tried to extend the olive branch. In most cases, Stephen remained cool and prickly (probably the best way to describe him) and it was a surprising contrast to the kindness and happiness his companion dragon radiated.

Tony still hadn't managed to befriend any others either, mostly holed up in the library aside from times when Loki had come to keep him company - and the trickster's idea of keeping him company was thoroughly distracting him from his studies or flirting with him, which hey - Loki looked good, but Tony simply wasn't interested despite the slender man's enthusiasm.

He could safely say the black-haired man was his only friend here and as annoying as the guy could be, it was nice to have someone to talk to other than Friday, even though they were close.

Speaking of the charming lass, her scales had long since hardened and Tony had taken up his duties with pride of cleaning her and brushing her scales daily. He went so far as polishing her crown and her claws at least once a week on weekends and moisturizing the membrane of her wings.

He'd picked up a lot of information from the library and he'd familiarized himself with a lot of seasonal rituals, duties and manners along with knowing everything there was to know about caring for gold dragons and dragons in general.

Oddly though, despite the distance between mentor and mentee, Tony's mind was always coming back around to Stephen and how the guy could be so cold, he would literally be the last person Tony wanted to sleep with in the Sanctum and half bared ill-will upon the flight and hoped that Levi didn't win despite loving the redwing almost as much as Friday.

And so it was that he and the raven-haired green rider wound up sitting with feet dangling over the ledge of one of the platforms, far higher up than anyone should be, staring at the night sky with drinks in hand. Friday had fallen asleep well before he left and despite letting her know he was going out, she gave only the sleepiest of responses before returning to her slumber.

“-and then he says to me, ‘you’re a green rider, you can’t treat me like that!’” Loki mimicked someone’s voice beside him, taking a long swig of his mead and laughing a bit to himself. “God, some people are so hoity-toity about how big their damn dragons are you’d think they were talking about their dicks. I wouldn’t trade Hela for the world.” Taking another sip of his beer he sat it aside and stretched, laying back on the grass to stare at the moon.Tony took a swig from the tin flask he'd brandished, but not before clacking the tip against the brim of Loki's flagon.

"I just… yeah, I don't get him, dude walks and talks like he owns the Sanctum. He has the sweetest dragon I've met, but I seriously can't handle how prickly and egotistical he is." He folded his hands around the flask. "Not to mention I can't seem to do a damn thing to get him to warm up to me, we see each other daily and it's as if he hates my guts for some unknown reason. That, or his ego is so big he can't get over the whole situation that I imprinted on Friday and not some lass," he huffed.

Tony could admit he was slightly inebriated, and he leaned over into Loki's shoulder. "This sucks."

“Hm? You mean Stephen? Stephen’s just like that though. Has been for… well, I guess about a year now. I mean, longer about other things, though,” Loki gave a small shrug. “He doesn’t like things he can’t understand. You’re an anomaly. He doesn’t understand you. I wouldn’t take him too seriously, Tony. Don’t let him get you riled up. Plus, a lot of the red riders seem to be like that. They ride a red dragon and assume that makes them the most amazing thing to ever exist. And the non-riders treat them like they’re the best thing ever, too.”

Loki took another swig of his drink with a grumble. “Honestly, I know you haven’t met him and it’s safe to say Thor’s friendlier, but Thor’s the same way. All ego. He’s a red rider, so he’s the best thing ever. He’s just as sure Mjolnir is gonna catch Friday as Stephen is about Levi. I dunno which way would be better though, Stephen’s absolute disinterest in the ensuing relationship, or Thor’s over-interest. I’ve been trying to keep him away from you for a reason.”

"Yeah but the idea of sleeping with that guy… he's so emotionless and cold like… come on, it's kind of revolting," Tony grimaced, hanging off of Loki's shoulder. "I've got the queen, but you don't see me walking around like I own the Sanctum, honestly people don't really seem to like me because of it and I should be the hottest shit here!" He took a sloppy swig from the canteens and let out a whiskey-laden breath, pushing up off Loki to sit back up straight.

"He was so… medical about the way he spoke about it like he doesn't even care for people. Tch."

“You are the hottest shit here,” Loki teased, nudging him with an elbow. “Don’t let anyone forget it. And Friday is the sweetest little dragon I’ve seen in a long time! You two deserve each other and a much better guy than Stephen,” the raven-haired man sighed after a moment. 

“Maybe there’s some way to fix the flight? I mean, I can introduce you to some of the other red riders, maybe you’ll hit it off with one of them? Maybe there’s a way to get Friday to let one of them mate her instead? Lots of the red riders are kinda boastful dicks, but if you decide you can tolerate one of them, there are six of them in total in the New York Sanctum currently, plus the three from your hatching. Some of the former reds moved to London after they lost some dragons to illness, which is what happened to our former red leader…”

"Having to hang around one Stephen is bad enough," Tony groaned and threw his head back. "The thing is, I like Levi a lot! Friday is absolutely smitten with him as well - it's the rider that's the problem. I'm not sure if all the red dragons are as nice as Levi is, but when it comes to being a good parent and looking out for what's good for my baby girl, I know Levi's a good match." 

Tony kicked his feet a little and took another swig. "As easy as it is to think I only have to sleep with the dude, I feel like my pride would take a blow to give that asshole exactly what he wants."

“I’m not totally sure if that’s what Stephen wants. As a leader Stephen is very capable. There are worse things for the Sanctum than for Stephen to be leading and managing us,” Loki shrugged as he glanced at the gold rider thoughtfully. “But if it’s Stephen’s lack of warmth that bothers you, some of the other red riders are at least a little warmer. As I said, Thor’s a big boastful dolt and duller than a bag of hammers, but no one would deny that he’s passionate. Mordo’s a pretty interesting guy? Very set in his ways, but he’s a looker… Erik is more free-spirited and fun-loving, but he always seems like he has a chip in his shoulder. Maybe he just doesn’t like me.”

The man took another sip of his drink before looking at Tony. “Or if tall, dark and handsome is less your thing, there’s Steve? He’s about as noble and sweet as they come. Blonde hair, blue eyes, you know. That sort of thing if that’s your type. Also? Solid muscle. Not my type, but I can appreciate that physique for damn sure. Or there’s Quill, you might get along with him. I don’t think he’d make a great Sanctum leader since he seems easily distracted, and he’s kind of a man whore… but he loves music, dancing, people in general.”

Loki wrinkled his nose a bit thoughtfully. “On the part of the dragons, Thor’s Mjolnir is a bit of a scrapper. He seems to enjoy asserting his dominance which can naturally be a bit of an issue, so I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want Friday anywhere near him. Mordo’s Valtorr is very dignified if Hela’s to be believed. But he does come across very regal and elegant. He’s a beautiful dragon. Steve’s Howler is very proper, but does seem a little edgy around the younger dragons, and spends a good deal of time with Bucky’s brown, Winter. 

“I don’t know Milano well, but he’s Quill’s dragon. He seems quite like his rider in many ways, playful and just happy to enjoy himself and have a good time. I imagine he’d do well with Friday, but whether either of them would be suited to the role of Sanctum leader is… questionable. As for Erik, he only came to the Sanctum recently and I don’t know much about his capabilities or about his dragon I’m afraid.”

"Maybe I'm just spoiled rotten, or I'm honestly not and I'm having a hard time adjusting to this whole culture shock behind mating flights..." Tony trailed off with some contemplation, but he was looking at Loki, cheeks red with a grin on his face. 

He had to admit after a couple drinks the man was attractive, and there was some energy between the two.

It was true that most of his life he had been handed a lot of stuff just due to his status. At the same time, he by no means squandered any of it and he worked hard for everything else, all that he had amassed.

"But yeah, I'd be down to meet some other people by your recommendation, I get the feeling a lot of the folks have their own cliques, plus it's hard to get around the Sanctum with Friday when I don't have Levi around as my personal chauffeur. Don't get me wrong, that dragon is the sweetest I've met and he's been good enough to help me get to places in the Sanctum I can't otherwise get to by foot. But he's still Stephen's dragon, and that's the part the fucking sucks," he groaned.

"Do you get me?"

“Culture shock can take some time to adjust to, or so I’ve heard,” Loki sighed softly, leaning against the shorter man. “You should at least meet the other red riders. It might give you a better idea of what you’re dealing with, you know? Plus, you’ve got a few years before worrying about how it actually goes down. There’s time. Who knows? Maybe by then things will be different. But regardless, you could use more people to talk to. I mean, I love keeping you all to myself and all but… You need to get to know people as a Sanctum leader, too.”

"You've got a good point there… alright, how about tomorrow after my lessons with Oscar the grouch ? You can take me around to hang out with these friends you're talking about and Friday can get a chance to meet up with some of these other riders?" Tony smiled, his cheeks flushed from the alcohol but he was happy and he was enjoying his night with Loki.

“Consider it a playdate! I’ll see what I can arrange. You’ll see! Tomorrow you’ll get a new lease on life in the Sanctum!” Loki grinned widely.

It was still a couple of hours before Hela, their very sober driver, dropped Tony off at his room with Loki promising to start introducing him to people the next day.

Chapter Text

The next day’s lessons brought new information, but there was a part of Tony that was anxious and distracted thinking about what came after - anticipation at the idea of meeting more people and maybe shaking off the feeling that somehow not everyone hated him. 

Even as Stephen gathered things up after their lesson and started up onto Levi’s back, preparing for their usual flight to the lake, Tony was sorting out how to get to the canteen from here.

Tony hadn't exactly planned to be picked up straight from his lesson but a series of exchanged text messages and he had a lift. Loki was scheduled to pick him up after his lessons with Stephen, and he wasn't short of excitement at the prospect of meeting the green rider’s group of friends.

His displeasures forgotten, he started packing his things a minute to finish and rather than going to the reservoir with Friday he'd be meeting and mingling with other riders.

Stephen gave him a tilted look as his pupil seemed to be all but listening to the last bits of information that he was reviewing. Tony had been distracted by his phone, looking at his phone as it vibrated in his pocket.

L: Be there in two, be ready at the plateau to the library.

T: Got it, just finishing up with Mr. tight ass over here.

L: If only you knew...

T: What's that supposed to mean?

L: Nothing, almost there, be ready!

He stuffed his phone into his pocket and slung his bag over his shoulders, kicking his chair out from underneath him ready to dash off. As far as he was aware, Stephen was still talking but Tony paid no mind and was just ready to leave. Class was done and he didn't need to hang around the grinch of a man any longer.

<Fri, let's go, girl, we're going to introduce ourselves to some of the other riders today.>

<Alright, Tony! More friends? I'm excited!> The not-so-little welp bounced excitedly on her haunches.

“Tony!” the voice called from behind him, but the door was closed before the red rider could do anything about it as Loki landed.

Levi seemed a bit taken aback as Tony came rushing out and was dragged up onto the small green rider, giving the dragon and humans a perplexed look before glancing towards the door Tony had come from and back again. He lowered his head and gave a soft whining grumble as Friday was helped up onto Hela’s back before Loki waved at him.

“Send Stephen my love will you, Levi? I’ll get them both home safe and sound,” the green rider grinned at the clearly perplexed red, before making certain Tony and Friday were secure, and nudging Hela enough for the green to dive from the platform.

Tony blew a kiss to Levi and the dragon seemed to look a bit crestfallen as he watched Friday hobble up onto the green's back.

"I know you like to fly like a maniac but for Friday's sake, you think Hela could take it a bit easier this time? If you want me to put my arms around your waist, I'll do it. Think about your future queen though." 

Friday took a seat at the back, where there was a bar at the back of the saddle for her to hold onto with her jaw should she need to given how much more turbulent flying on a green's back tended to be.

"Oh my, how could I resist such an offer?" Loki purred as Tony fastened his arms around the dark-haired man's slender form. Tony gave him a choking squeeze which caused the trouble-maker to wheeze and he rolled his eyes.

"Alright, set and ready."

"Very well, Hela darling would you do the honours. And be gentle for our young guest again." The green cocked her head with a side glance and a smirk before taking off, thankfully honouring her rider's request.

Stephen had just run outside the library to see Tony take off with Loki and Friday, with Levi looking back just as puzzled as his rider for having not been granted the pleasure of a swim with his to-be mate.

The flight to the canteen didn’t take long, but there was a notable difference between the speed of the red he’d grown accustomed to riding and Hela’s - and also a difference between the smoothness of the flight. Although it was considerably less bumpy and frightening than his first flight, the green was almost half Levi’s size, and between her size and the strength of the wind there was only so much that could be expected of her.

As they approached the larger platform outside the canteen, two large reds made themselves known by calling out towards them. The larger of the two displayed a silver throat as he trumpeted a greeting, while the slightly smaller red lashed his tail around excitedly, making a deep crooning noise that sounded mildly melodic. By the time Hela touched down, the reds had been joined by a pair of tall, blond men that Tony could only assume were their riders.

“Brother! You made it!” The taller man - Thor, Tony assumed - gave his red a pat as the dragon tried to nudge the other red aside, extending his head out as though to sniff at the gold dragon, only for Hela to growl and nip at him. The red retreated with an indignant huff and Thor chuckled a little. “And you must be Tony! Welcome to the Sanctum, it’s nice to finally meet you! Stephen’s been hoarding you all to himself.”

“Yo!” the other man waved once he’d snuck out from nearly being crushed between the two reds, offering a hand to help Tony down from his spot. “Hi, I’m Quill.”

"You know this is the welcome I was hoping I would have gotten the first day. It's nice to meet you Thor, Quill." Tony took his hand and shook it and he noted the strength of his grip and enthusiasm in the shake. 

Thor shook his hand but then yanked him in for an even more enthusiastic and bone-crushing hug causing Tony to unexpectedly squeak from how tight it was. He was eventually let go and Tony took a step back just as soon.

Thor offered him a smile and Tony returned it, just as soon offering his hand to Quill as he regarded the other rider. "Tony, nice to meet you, Quill." The grinning red rider was less bone-crushing with his gesture and they released after a brief shake. 

Tony was thankful for that at least.

"Brother has told me much about you, it's nice to finally get to meet you. Where is our fair damsel this evening?" The reds were already peering at Friday like she was fresh meat and the gold was reluctant to stray from Hela. 

"All good things, I hope?"

Thor simply flashed him a toothy grin and let out a throaty chuckle. "Very good, we've all been dying to see you in person." Tony turned around to Friday who was still back with Hela.

<Come on Fri, they won't hurt you.>

<They are big and intimidating Tony… Are you sure? I could just stay with Hela.> Friday chirped a little quietly from her spot. Tony made another gesture for her to come forward and she slowly padded over. Nowhere near as enthusiastic as the first time she'd met Levi.

“Ah, of course, our manners. Forgive us,” Thor cleared his throat a little and reached to pat the great red beside him. “This is Mjolnir.”

“You’re gonna overwhelm the poor guy with names, he’ll figure it out Thor,” Quill shrugged a little. “In the meantime, come on in. There are a few people inside that have been waiting to meet you and their new queen!” Despite his words, however, the curly-haired blond crouched down a bit to offer a hand to Friday with a rather excitable smile. “Hello, gorgeous.”

“The others seemed to be busy at the moment, but Steve and Bucky and their wing should be joining us later on,” Loki clarified for Tony as he cast a look at Hela.

The green watched Friday carefully before giving another warning growl to Mjolnir who huffed and stamped a foot before finally laying down to attempt to make himself less menacing. The other dragon - Milano, Tony thought Loki had called him - was happy to make himself even less menacing than that as he rolled onto his back and continued to wiggle his tail like a rather excited pup, crooning enthusiastically at the little gold.

Tony watched as the two reds put on their best behaviour for their matriarch and Friday slowly trotted up to each of them, sniffing lightly and prodding their cheeks with her snout which received soft churrs in response from either of the dragons. 

Though, due to their size, they came out more like bellows and rumbles of content as their eyes watched the tiny gold whelp inspect them quickly, her azure eyes looking on them before she padded after Tony to come inside.

As soon as she was at Tony's side the reds began to snap at each other with teeth bared, loud indignant hisses as they batted at each other seemingly arguing amongst themselves.

This caused Friday to jolt forward and huddle up against Tony.

<They are very possessive and territorial Tony, I don't like them as much as Levi,> she shivered slightly against him and Tony slung his arm over her as he led her with him into the tavern.

<It's okay, baby girl, just come inside with me. You don't need to stay with them,> Tony directed a frown towards the bantering males and slipped inside, Loki had been holding the door open for the two like a gentleman.

"You best keep an eye on that daughter Tony, every dragon here will want to court that little treasure," Loki reached down to scratch the underside of Friday's neck which got him some soft purrs from the dragon in response.

“Loki’s not wrong,” a woman’s voice interjected from the side, where a tall, strawberry-haired woman stood, carrying a couple handfuls of drinks over to a table - the one Loki seemed to be leading them towards. “She’s a beautiful little one. Does she like chicken? We’ve got a few running around in the back if she decides she’s too overstimulated in here and wants to chase one down.”

“Virginia,” Loki grinned, “I didn’t expect you to be here. Tony, this is one of my fellow green riders. She can easily tell you what a pain in the ass reds are-”

“-the riders and the dragons,” Virginia added, watching Thor and Quill follow them in after apparently having settled their dragons down to some extent. “I also manage the pub in the evenings.”

"Hey! There is nothing wrong with us madam!" Quill quickly interjected as he walked in and caught the rest of that conversation. "The boys just got a little excited meeting their future queen."

"Why yes, the dragons are just excited, all is well now," Thor added dumbly as if growing a bit defensive. He cleared his throat and trailed off a little less bashfully as he took up a barstool beside Tony.

"You boys aren't making a good first impression on the new ones," the bartender added flatly.

Tony waited for the ruckus to sort itself out before he held a hand out. "Pleasure, Virginia. Friday is comfortable where she is, for now, I think she got a little startled after that tiff the dragons had outside. If it's all the same for you, I'd rather keep her inside if she's not in your way." Tony nodded his head and Friday took up a spot at his feet near the wall so she was out of everyone's way, huddling in the corner like a scared kitten.

“Not at all,” the woman smiled a bit as she set the drinks on the table for them and looked to Tony. “Can I get you anything to eat or drink? Or anything for the little one? The other hatchlings tend to get overwhelmed easily and people are bound to want to come and say their greetings to the little queen, so if I can do anything to help her relax, just let me know, alright?” 

Taking his hand with her free one, she offered a pleasant smile. “And you can call me Pepper if you want to. Virginia makes me feel like I’m much older than I am,” she laughed.

<Fish!>

Tony glanced down quickly at the gold and back up at Virginia. "Well, Pepper, fish and chips for me with a glass of whiskey on the rocks, and some fish for the little one." Friday chirruped happily, tail wagging excitedly. Tony reached out and took Pepper's hand and gave it a gentle shake.

“Virginia here came to impress a queen and found out there were no queens at her hatching,” Loki explained, not seeming to mind the woman’s comment about the name making her feel old as he took up the seat beside his brother. “She imprinted on a very mild-tempered green herself and is one of a few of our lady riders.”

“Honestly, when you put it like that it sounds very gay, Loki,” she sighed at that, but her lips quirked in amusement nevertheless.

Quill took up the spot across from Tony with a rather scruffy smile. “So how are you adjusting to things? Stephen can be an absolute drill sergeant I heard, are you holding up okay? He’s not pushing you too hard is he?”

"Dude always has a case of resting bitch face, not so much a drill sergeant but the man's never happy with himself or anything I do. It's like I'm constantly hanging around a rain cloud. Sometimes he's a bit much but I'm not having any problems with the workload - not to brag but I'm a quick learner and I think I have that going for me considering I'm not Sanctum born." Tony picked up one of the napkins resting in front of him and began to fold it. "I don't think he was too pleased when I took off today to come here with Loki instead of going to the reservoir. His red has been teaching her how to swim but she already knows and is a strong swimmer."

"Pah, screw him then, Tony, you're a free man! You can do as you like!" Thor boasted happily slapping a hand down on his back.

"But not quite literally," Loki added with a smirk which got a look from Tony.

"Yeah, and to be fair, mingling with other riders technically counts as Sanctum duties. You know, getting to know the place and the people as well." Tony decided not to mention the part about coming to meet Thor and Quill for the sake of looking for marriage material for Friday.

"I'll be back with your drinks in a second, food will be out in 15." Pepper smiled at the group and retreated to submit the order.

"Thanks, Pep."

A quiet kerfuffle outside the establishment lasted for a good minute before a tall, dark-haired man made his way into the pub, starting to head towards the bar before catching sight of the gold and swiftly seeking out the Rider. Dark brown eyes stared contemplatively at him for a long minute, before he followed after Pepper towards the bar, leaning against it to speak rather quietly to the woman, before sitting there to wait.

“As you can see this is sort of a hub for a lot of Riders at various hours. But it’s also a safe space from Stephen. He doesn’t seem to like the crowds or drinking in public,” Loki explained around his brother, shoving the blonde out of the way to do so, but speaking a bit lowly as he kept his eyes on the figure clad in deep, rich greens. He returned his attentions to Tony soon enough. “As in many places, the higher up you are in the Sanctum, the higher the likelihood of running into Riders. Next time I can bring you down to the bar to meet some of the non-Riders.”

“You really ought to meet the rest of the red Riders at least,” Thor stated rather firmly, his voice carrying despite that he’d lowered his voice to match Loki’s for whatever reason. “After all, one of us will be your partner eventually!”

The man that waited near the bar seemed a bit taken aback as he was handed a platter of fish, but after a moment he inclined his head to Virginia and made his way to their table, not interrupting their conversation or reaching to touch Friday at all, simply kneeling in front of her and setting the fish down. Even after he had, he inclined his head for a long moment to her and murmured quietly, inaudible over the din of the pub, before giving Tony a curt nod and returning to his spot by the bar.

Friday immediately dove into the food, not even taking the time to chew the fish as she snatched them up piece by piece and swallowed them whole.

Tony watched carefully as the stranger moved away, he nodded his head in response, eyes sticking to the man's back as he retreated.

<What did he say to you?> Tony's head twitched from Friday and then again back to the retreating form.

<He was nice, he just said he was happy to meet me and has high hopes.>

"Hmm!" Tony's defences immediately fell and he regarded his drink again. He'd kind of zoned out when Thor mentioned the rest of the reds, slightly out of the conversation but right back in again soon enough.

"Yeah - yeah, who else is there? And I'd honestly like to meet more than just red riders," Tony smirked at Thor's enthusiasm.

"Naw man, we're the only ones that matter - trust me!" Quill boasted with a grin holding up his flagon of beer. Loki rolled his eyes, fingering at the crystal wine-glass as he watched the equivalent of a mating dance from the two males that sat on either side of Tony like bookends.

“Tall, dark and quiet there is Mordo,” the raven-haired rider supplied as he shook his head. “One of the red riders.” The man in question collected up a couple of large bottles and gave Virginia a polite nod before making his way out of the pub again without a backwards glance. “He teaches hand-to-hand combat to some of the youngsters and newcomers. Naturally, no one is expecting you to fight, you’re job is to look pretty and be smart,” Loki added with a wry smirk.

Thor rolled his eyes. “I could best Mordo easily.”

“You haven’t yet.” Loki quipped in response, earning him a small glare from Thor that only caused his smirk to widen.

“Eh, Mordo’s a bit of a stick in the mud. It’s no wonder he and Stephen get along,” Quill shrugged a bit. “Erik’s doing an international thing at the moment, passing on the information about you and Friday, and making sure everyone who’s transferred has done so successfully.”

“And Steve and his wing, as I mentioned earlier, are doing rounds at the moment. I expect they’ll be by in an hour or so,” Loki added with a smile. 

Pepper made her way over again to give Tony his drink and meal, offering a small smile and looking as though she might say something else before a couple of the men elsewhere started some sort of shoving match, leaving her to stalk over that way to deal with it - rather hilariously yanking each of them by the ear towards the door and giving them the boot.

"The keyword is 'yet', brother! I will best him and show all of you that I am a very capable fighter." Thor adjusted his posture so his chest was sticking out more than usual as if he was trying to show-off in front of the group.

"Yes Thor, we already believe you are. You don't have to beat Mordo to prove that." Quill rolled his eyes and Tony had by this point leaned down on the bar top on his hand to watch the exchange.

Tony turned to his drink and took a sip. He felt the immediate stress release once the liquid hit his tongue and the rush of endorphins from even a small sip as if he'd been absently craving it.

He picked up his utensils and sampled his dinner, it was delicious. "Damn this is good, totally beats the stuff I get down in the ward. My compliments to the chef!" Tony hooted as Pepper finished scolding the fighting men, leaving her to toss a cheerful smile back his way as she returned to the bar.

He leaned over to Loki. "She's cute."

"Second that," came Thor's response.

"She is, but not my type." Loki tapped his chin.

"That's because everyone knows you're dipping into the dude pool," Quill jabbed, pointing at Loki with a fork full of chicken. Loki grinned, leaned over and snatched up that piece of food before Quill could draw his fork back.

"Quite so!"

"What, hey! Get your own meal dude!" Quill frowned.

Tony grinned as he watched the exchange, he enjoyed the company of this lot and it was really nice to have friends and people to talk to again. Despite the warnings, he could see himself with this social circle.

As the evening wore on, Quill bid them goodnight and made his way off to do his own errands, and as a small group of men and women entered the room, Thor gave a heavy sigh. “Guess it’s my turn for guard duty.” He grumbled a little, clapping Tony on the shoulder. “It was good meeting you. We’ll speak again soon, I hope!”

“Bye, brother!” Loki called cheerfully, before scooting over into the seat Thor had vacated, waving to the group, many of whom had already caught sight of the gold dragon and were looking rather surprised. “And we trade one red for another. The big blonde there at the head of the group? That’s Steve. With him are Bucky, Sam, Natasha and Bruce.” He clarified, pointing around, and the group definitely noticed.

The blonde, Steve, turned his head to murmur something unintelligible to the one-armed man standing beside him, and something else to the redheaded woman, before he and the remaining two - Sam and Bruce - made their way over. He offered a fairly boyish smile and a hand. “You must be Tony. I’m Steve, it’s good to finally meet you.”

Friday had been napping as the men filed out, curled up in the corner beside Tony. He checked on his gold before looking back at the group that walked into the canteen. He tilted his head as Steve approached and slid off of his chair to stand and greet them.

Ok, he was hot, now hopefully the man was as nice as he looked. He was just as Loki had described, blond hair, blue eyes, built like a brick but with a much more tapered waistline. 

He extended his hand to Steve. "Tony, it's nice to meet you, Steve." The man's handshake was firm and professional and those pure blue eyes stared him down like he was sizing him up. "I'd introduce you to Friday but she's asleep and I don't want to wake her up." He smiled at each of them who reflected the mirth right back.

"I'm sure we have all the time in the world to meet the miss." There was certain electricity between Steve and him, Tony found the man drop-dead gorgeous and thank god he got the feeling the man was just as equally a sweetheart.

Loki stood to the side, grinning as he watched the exchange as if he could see the fireworks between the two men.

“Don’t mind me, I’ll just catch up with the wing and see what’s going on,” the raven-haired rider hummed as he scooted away to herd the rest of Steve’s companions towards the bar, leaving the blonde to chuckle.

“Am I being set up here? Must be a setup. Should I join you, Tony?” He gestured to the seat beside Tony, not sitting but patiently waiting regardless, even as Pepper popped over briefly to offer Steve what Tony could only assume was ‘his usual’ given the exchange was more looks and nods than anything. Including the looks from the wing Loki had joined. 

The redheaded woman, Natasha, had a little smile on her face that he couldn’t exactly make any assumptions about, and beside her the one-armed man and the man Loki had called Sam exchanged the grins of old friends being let in on some kind of secret. All of them quickly refocused as Pepper came around to take orders, and Tony and Steve were left in a quiet bubble, with blue eyes focused on him, curious and appraising, but not judgemental. Not like Stephen’s.

Tony had looked over to Loki with momentary panic but quickly turned back to Steve when he was well enough away.

"So… That happened. Yeah, I can kind of agree with you on that one there." Tony swivelled in his chair to face Steve and leaned against the bar, reaching for his glass and taking a much larger sip from it this time.

There was an awkwardness between them as Tony fought to articulate something. He was having a hard time finding his words, distracted by how good looking Steve was and the fact he was now the stoic man's center of attention.

"So I heard you're not from around here, must have been a tough first few weeks not knowing the ropes, especially since you've gotten paired with one hell of a stickler for your mentor." Steve's voice wasn't scrutinous, but empathetic.

"Hah! Yeah… believe me I've made my fair share of mistakes at the start not knowing anything about the place." Tony fingered his glass

"I can imagine, I know what you must be going through considering I was basically in the same boat when I first started out." He let out an amused breath.

"Wait, you're not Sanctum born?" Tony tilted his head.

"Not a lick of blood in me that runs from this place, but I eventually adjusted."

"It's nice to feel like I'm in my own environment here. This is the first time I actually got a chance to escape the study and go out and meet some riders. Plus, I'm still a bit reluctant to go socialize outside of the riding sector, there's still some stigma floating around about the fact that I imprinted on Friday here and my first few weeks felt alienating and unwelcoming."

“Don’t worry about it too much. The Sanctum is in desperate need of a queen, eventually, they’re going to have to adjust. There’s nothing they can do about it, after all,” Steve smiled warmly. “She chose you. What’s done is done. And there are no other queens to replace her in the Sanctum, not since Tao passed. So it’s just a matter of time before people come to terms with it.”

Taking a sip of his drink, Steve gave a soft hum. “How’s the adjustment going? I used to get lost a lot when I first started out here, especially when Howler was too small to start flying. I felt the most out of place at that point, because I wasn’t a general citizen of the Sanctum, but I also couldn’t fly to where I needed to be like the other Riders. I mean, there was naturally the rest of my hatching group, but they all separated off into cliques based on who was born in the Sanctum, or who had what coloured dragon. My best friend was hospitalized for a while after, too. Lost his arm during the hatching,” he gestured towards Bucky at that.

“But none of that can even come close to what you must be going through. There were two other reds during my hatching, after all - Quill and Stephen. But there hasn’t been a gold hatching in almost two decades from what I hear. At least not in New York.”

"As much as Stephen's been riding me hard, he's been helpful just, prickly," he frowned. "He was kind enough to offer Levi to me to help become adjusted with the Sanctum, took me on tours, showed me the ropes - made sure I knew everything and had what I needed. I don't know if this special privilege was bestowed upon me because Friday imprinted on me, I can only imagine not every rider had this kind of luxury treatment," Tony sat back on the stool.

"Can't say I was quite as fortunate as you Tony, but hey - I'm glad you do have the resources to get around and if you ever need a ride I'd be happy to offer my services if I'm available, I'm pretty sure Howler wouldn't mind either. We gotta look out for one another me and you." He winked and clapped a hand down on Tony's shoulder that lingered just a little longer than usual.

His shoulder tingled and he regarded Steve with a broad smile.

"I feel like I know the devil and the angel of Stevens here," he quipped softly, it was a dumb joke and he ended up turning away a little flustered at his tactless wordplay.

Despite Tony’s embarrassment, however, Steve gave a bright laugh at that and shrugged. “He didn’t used to be like this if it helps? He’s really not a bag guy…” He swished the water in his cup and stared at it for a moment, then gave a little shrug as he sipped at his drink.

“I think he’s just coping, the best way he knows how. He ended up with a lot of responsibilities foisted on him when Daniel and his red left. None of the other reds here had been trained the way Stephen had so he’s become something of a de facto leader. It puts a lot of pressure on someone to suddenly have all that responsibility. He and Thor used to butt heads a lot because Thor seemed to think it was his right to step up despite lacking the training.” 

The blond wrinkled his nose. “It was ugly for a while there, but things are starting to settle now. I’m not sure that guy ever takes a break. The Sanctum comes first. I don’t envy him, but I can’t help but respect his dedication. I can’t think of a better person to teach you, but I can totally understand not feeling welcomed by him.”

"Yeah, I hear the same thing from everyone," he took another swig and finally finished off his glass. "Dude's like an iceberg, he never warms up and I've been studying under him the entire time. It would be nice to at least get a break for once," Tony nudged his glass away and Pepper came by to scoop it up with a smile.

"Why don't you take me out to see big red, I'm getting a bit tired and I think it's about time I turn in." Tony wasn't lying, he'd been about ready to go back after the other crew took off and right now he was running on empty, especially with the alcohol in him.

"I'd love to introduce you, you can meet the rest of the wing." Steve stood up and Tony woke Friday with a gentle tap on the shoulder.

The gold opened her eyes with a wide yawn, letting out a soft squeak as she unfurled herself from the ball she'd curled up into in the corner, looking a bit groggy.

"Hey gang, I'm just going to show Tony the wing, probably take him home since he's tired - I'll be back." Bucky waved an arm, Sam nodded and then kind of just glanced at him. "If you need a lift?" he then turned to Tony.

Tony smiled, nodding. "Yeah, that would be great." He caught a wink from Loki as the two of them headed out the door.

He’d heard of a dragon wing before, but this was the first time he’d really seen one in person. The dragons remained gathered together on the platform, a green, a blue, two browns and a red all sitting in a line, though they came to attention fairly quickly at the sight of the small gold dragon. The larger of the two browns, in particular, got to his feet, making a low growl of uncertainty, and the other brown echoed it in his spot. All eyes were on the little queen as she approached, and the green and blue both gave low grumbles as they laid their heads down, seeming to wiggle a little across the grass to come closer. The red was the only one of the dragons who stayed remarkably still, even as Steve looked around at each of them.

“What are you all on about? She’s your queen. Where are your manners?” The larger brown gave a deep whine, his maw opening wide as he did so and finally the big red dragon took a couple of steps forward to establish himself at the head of his wing.

The bellow from the brown grew louder and teeth were bared with a hiss from the two browns. They continued to encroach on her and Friday began to back off.

<Tony I don't think I like these ones,> she spoke with a small voice in his hand and despite Tony stepping in front of her they still approached, breaking their formation. None of them made any quick movements but they did try to slink forwards and scare her backwards with loud indignant bellows.

<It's ok, they won't harm you, I promise. I wouldn't let them.>

"Steve, what the hell is going on with these guys? Do they have behavioural issues or something?" Friday continued to back up, shaking in her spot with a wide-eyed stare.

"I don't know Tony, this hasn't happened before!" Steve was just as distraught from the commotion.

"Well can you call them off?" Tony's head snapped to Steve.

"They won't listen to me, they aren't my dragons." Tony stepped up and tried to calm the wing but they continued to exhibit aggression.

One of the browns boldly stepped forward with another warning to the gold before it was cut off by a blur of red slamming into the ground like a meteor hitting the earth.

Levi had interjected, flaring his spines, wings spread and head cocked letting out a throaty roar, he responded to the group with his loudest pitch. Friday immediately scampered in between Levi's legs and pushed up against his back-right foot trying to remain as close to him as possible.

"Shit... Stephen's not going to be happy about this," he ran a hand over his temple but had to admit there was a sigh of relief from the intervention.

"Never mind Stephen, his dragon is pissed," Steve sighed.

That was a fair assessment. 

Tony had never seen Levi like this, nor heard him be so loud. The roar he’d given still echoed around the Sanctum in stark contrast to his usually low and soft grumbles and croons. There was no denying that Levi was asserting his dominance here and while the red in charge of the wing immediately sat back on his haunches and tucked his head in obedience, the brown that had initiated the engagement dared to continue another slow, purposeful step forward. The rest of his wing did nothing to join him - and it was just as well.

Levi’s maw caught the brown by the throat, clearly not biting him in a way that damaged him, but exerting enough pressure to shove the brown’s face against the ground, growling deeply at him, his eyes flitting to each of the other members of the wing who one by one tucked their own heads in submission before he released the brown in question, watching him with a fixed anger. His eyes had shifted in colour to a deep, agitated red and it took no time at all for the brown to simply roll onto his back, submitting his belly to the considerably larger red.

“-Very pissed,” Steve added, running a fretful hand into his hair before slowly making his way around Levi - slower still the moment the aggravated dragon’s focus settled on him - before he reached a hand out to the red. Levi’s tail lashed about for a moment before he lowered his head to press his nose to the hand, seeming to accept Steve’s apology.

His head swivelled around immediately after to nose gently at the little gold dragon tucked underneath him, sniffing at her in several places and checking for injuries, before giving a soft croon and looking to Tony, extending a wing in a familiar gesture. He didn’t need to say it for Tony to get the picture. Levi wanted him and Friday to climb on.

“I’m so sorry about this, Tony. I’ll speak with the others and figure out what happened here.”

"Don't worry about it Steve, neither of us could have expected that and trust me when I say there isn't much more I could do to really piss Stephen off more than he already is - if he ever finds out about this." He found himself somewhat disheartened that he wasn't going to get his chariot ride home with prince charming.

"I'll text Loki to get me your number so we can plan another pub night," he lifted a hand with a meek smile before turning to Levi who impatiently curled his tail around Tony and started corraling him up onto his back. "Yeah, yeah I'm going." Friday had returned those gentle licks to Levi's face, giving him a series of headbutts on his cheek before she climbed on.

<I didn't know what else to do, I had to call him,> she curled up on the back of the saddle.

<Don’t worry, better he was there than not. I don't know what those dragons would have done and I would have rather not taken the risk.> Tony reached over to pat Levi on the neck and the dragon took off, flying towards the terrace to drop Tony and Friday off.

"Sorry about that bud, we didn't mean to bother you." The red dragon side-glanced and gave a soft bellow in response, gliding all of a couple of minutes before he landed upon the terrace again and deposited his riders in front of the ward.

Tony slid off of Levi's back and Friday followed, the red dragon canted his head to bump Tony's stomach affectionately and the man's hands landed on either side of his hooked maw to give him a half hug.

<Stephen knows doesn't he...> Tony frowned.

<He does.>

Tony sighed and started walking towards the door of his ward. Friday stayed with Levi, the dragon laying down on the ground still eyeing up the gold to double-check there were no injuries.

<You coming Fri?> Tony looked over his shoulder, smiling at the two. Levi was a really good fit for her, and the dragon went well above and beyond his responsibilities to her and Tony as well.

<He wants me to stay for a bit and spend some time with him, I'll follow after.> Tony nodded, he opened the door to the apartment, leaving it open a crack for her.

<Just close the door when you come in, ok sweet thing?>

<Sure, Tony!> she chirruped his direction, laying down on the ground beside Levi and pressing into his side.

“Is she alright?” The voice startled him at first, though why he hadn’t noticed the light was on could have easily been explained by the attention he’d paid to Friday. “There’s a reason I didn’t introduce you to the other red riders yet.”

Stephen sat at the small table meant for meals, his fingers curling and uncurling in some degree of agitation.

"Fucking hell, Stephen!" Tony flinched when the other man spoke up and he let out a huff of air.

"She's fine - what the hell are you doing in my room like this? You know there are better ways to get a guy in bed with you." He was half-joking, half irritated from being startled. "She's fine," was all he said, going over to his desk and dropping his bag on the floor.

“I was worried.” The man responded shaking his head. “Levi doesn’t get aggravated like that easily. I assumed she might have been hurt and came to offer assistance.” He gestured to the bag at his feet - a medical bag, of all things - before picking it up and standing.

“In the future, if you’re going to disappear before lessons are concluded, it’s generally considered polite to let someone know.” The man wavered slightly in his spot as he stood, bracing himself on the table for a moment before looking Tony over. “You’re unharmed?”

Tony frowned, taking his coat off and setting it on the chair, he wasn't even giving Stephen the courtesy of making eye contact while the spoke.

"Our lesson was done, I left as soon as the time rolled over, I had plans." He finally turned around and crossed his arms. "I'm fine." He rolled his eyes, at least he could deal with the chastising now and not later.

“You left without warning,” Stephen corrected. “I had no knowledge of you making other plans, or I could’ve made other plans of my own. Instead, Levi spent the last several hours moping around, thinking he had done something wrong and you’d decided he couldn’t swim with Friday anymore. Only for whatever happened to happen, leaving him to go from sulking to furious faster than I’ve ever seen.”

"I don't remember signing my life over to you, I don't need to fill you in on every intricate detail of my day. Our relationship extends as far as the classroom Stephen, and no further. You've been pretty candid about wanting to keep things as so and I'm just trying to make some friends here because it's pretty goddamn lonely being the black sheep around here." Tony sneered, frustration bubbling under his skin.

"I like Levi, and I'm sorry - but I can't say that I'm nearly as much a fan of you."

“You’re my responsibility,” Stephen bit back, scowling in return. “Keeping you and Friday alive and well is my responsibility. Otherwise, you could go do whatever the fuck you wanted. But that little gold dragon is the future of this Sanctum, and whether either of us likes it or not, so are you. So guess what? You’re stuck with me until she’s old enough and you’re wise enough that you can manage to not get either of yourselves killed.”

"You can't keep me holed up like some hunchback, I'm old enough to make my own god damn decisions here, Stephen. How the fuck was I supposed to know the other dragons would threaten her?! Is that not your responsibility to teach me? So instead you just kept me up in the topmost part of the Sanctum like some princess, sheltering me away without a word of warning and when I went out to try and mingle, actually have a fucking life we had some dragons threaten us - you then sit back holier-than-fucking-thou and say 'I told you so' like you’re my god damn father. It's your responsibility to teach me these things and you've done a lousy fucking job." 

Tony balled his fist, the nerve of this man!

“I kept you separated for Friday’s protection. I didn’t stop you from spending time with Loki - or stop you from spending time with anyone else. One on one. Away from large gatherings of groups. I figured it would be common sense, but I suppose I keep giving you more credit than you deserve.” The other man responded, leaving the list he’d apparently been writing on the table.

“So go ahead. Go out there. Figure it out on your own since you’re so clever. Because guess what? I never asked for this job either. I’m not your father. I never asked to run a Sanctum on my own and I sure as shit didn’t ask to have to deal with you. You know where to find me if you decide you want to be a responsible part of this Sanctum.” Stephen’s tone wasn’t as cool as it had been during his lessons - in fact, this might’ve been the most emotion he’d seen from the man - but he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and made his way out the door, apparently done with the situation.

Levi made a displeased noise that Tony could hear from within his ward, but soon enough there was only the sound of beating wings and a soft yowl from a distressed Friday as her companion was made to leave. Tony could hear Friday's crestfallen yips from the plateau as she called out to her red guardian. 

Tony, on the other hand, turned his back, furious. Stephen had edicts and expectations and treated him like he should comprehend all these things a Sanctum born or even a gold rider should know.

But no, Tony didn't know these things, and Stephen hadn't even allowed him to learn to right the things he was getting in trouble for. Every lesson and every pass, nothing was ever good enough for the other man and Tony frustratingly threw a pillow over his head and curled up in his way-too-large bed. Stephen was becoming more and more like his father to him, and he resented that given he'd come to the Sanctum to get away from just that.

There was a soft creak at the door and Friday slowly slunk inwards. She nudged the door shut with her tail and slowly climbed up onto the bed beside him.

She was sad; sad because Levi was gone, sad that Tony was angry, and sad that Stephen was sad. Her empathetic abilities stretched beyond her own understanding and she was miserable right now because everyone around her was.

She curled up in a ball behind Tony, pressing up against his back and letting out soft crestfallen whistles. 

Tony slowly turned around when the gold laid down beside him and with a sigh, turned over and slung his arm over her head, bringing it into his chest.

< He doesn't understand what it's like to be an outcast, I'm sorry Friday, I blew up at Stephen... >

< Does this mean I won't be able to see Levi anymore? > she let out a sad sounding chirp.

< No, it doesn't mean that at all. But Stephen and I are going to be on some pretty rocky roads for a bit. We don't exactly see eye-to-eye. >

< I hope you two makeup, I like Stephen and I like Levi. I'm sad that you two are fighting. >

< I know, I'm sorry Fri... >

 


 

 

The sun hadn’t yet risen when he took to the sky. The first patrols of the morning were only just assembling in the early hours of dawn when the sun glinted off a red hide for the briefest moment, but there was no one to see when the brief shimmer blinked out of existence.

Chapter Text

For the first few days after Stephen left, Friday spent her time sulking and trying to get in contact with Levi. Tony heard endlessly about how cruel he was and how all of this was his fault that Levi and Stephen had taken off. She didn't want to be around him and holed herself up in the ward, only leaving when Tony brought food and even then she wouldn't eat around him. 

It was harder than anything for Tony, his dragon wouldn't speak to him, Stephen was gone and he was left with a guilty conscience from the constant reminders Friday would give him whenever he tried to talk with her.

He was miserable and Loki would stop by every now and then to keep him company, though most of their chatting was left to text messaging which even still, Tony took his time to respond.

Rather than sulk, Tony holed himself up in the library day-by-day to research and learn. He'd show that he didn't need Stephen as a mentor and that he was perfectly capable of learning on his own. Friday eventually got lonely after the fourth day of giving Tony the silent treatment, she was young after all and eventually came to him after separation anxiety had gotten the best of her.

Tony assured her that Levi wasn't ignoring her but Stephen was probably far enough away that they couldn't speak with one another - he would come back sooner or later, he had duties to the Sanctum. This put the little gold's mind at ease but didn't stop her from being sad at the absence of her to-be mate.

There was no ceremony when Stephen returned after two weeks of absence and he might not have known the man had returned if it weren’t for Friday’s sudden response to Levi’s return. There was no sign of the man, but Levi sat outside the library and gave a steady whine in his attempts to reach his queen. 

Not unlike a dog trapped outside and wanting in, Levi continued his soft whining until Tony got to his feet to discover the source, being met with a big nose trying to stick itself in a doorway not made for dragons his size.

The moment Friday skittered excitedly outside, the dragon withdrew and crooned happily at the young queen. Nuzzling her gently, the red made his way to the grass to check her over and make sure she was doing alright, lifting his head to look at Tony briefly before curling protectively around the little gold dragon.

Tony wouldn't have referred to Friday as a dog, she was practically his daughter. But what happened was very much akin to letting the dog out of the house so she could go play with the others.

He waved to the red drake and just as soon closed the door to the library to get back to studying again. Though seated back in the study, surrounded by mountains of books both closed and open - Tony's mind fell to formulating what he'd possibly say when Stephen showed his face again.

The steam had long since cooled off but there was still ill-will born to the man who took his baby girl's best friend far away without a word. He could honestly say a lot to Stephen for storming out that night, their fight never really finished and he'd indirectly put both he and Friday through some pretty rough times in their absence.

Formulating and sifting through all the points he had - of all of them though, he would probably opt for saying nothing at all and just growing past the events of two weeks ago. Maybe he could be the better man for once.

Friday had curled up with Levi outside of the library and she was happy again, happier than ever. Her little heart was beating as quick as anything and her happiness in part brightened his mood a bit. She was currently laying down with Levi, curled up against his massive head with his tail curled around the both of them.

The red’s rider made an appearance hours later, though when he did he said little, briefly scanning Tony’s stack of books before wandering off and adding two others to the pile, before taking a couple of books himself to sit elsewhere in silence. He seemed to have little and less to say as he curled up with his book, flipping through a few pages to resume reading.

The silence stretched between them. If it was uncomfortable before, now it was something else entirely. Stephen seemed to decide that it was best to simply hand him what reading material he required and gave no indications whether he cared when Tony showed up or when he left. The red rider kept one schedule and Tony kept another. For months there were less than five words a week spoken between them and more often than not it was simply short nods between them of acknowledgement. It was hard to say if they were even polite, they simply… were.

It might have driven Tony crazy if it weren’t for the fact that he had others he could rely on now. Others who would chat with him, help him talk over materials, others who were happy to socialize or go out. Levi’s return made Friday happier and meant that Friday could stay safely and comfortably with Levi if Tony decided to spend time with some of the other riders so that no incidents happened like the one that had happened before.

It wasn’t as though he enjoyed leaving Friday behind but there was a certain security in knowing she was safe and cared for - and no matter what he thought of Stephen, he knew in his heart that Levi would never allow Friday to be endangered. In the end everyone seemed happier on the whole. Levi, Friday, Tony certainly felt happier…

But there wasn’t much to be said for Stephen. It seemed he saw him in the library, or not at all - which worked fine for him.

In the months that followed Friday had grown exponentially. Where she started as a whelp about the size of Tony, she now towered over him at eight feet and still growing, nearly the size of a full-fledged green. Much too big to go inside the canteen with him, but still small enough to occupy the bed with him. Not like he would bring her around after that all happened.

The lack of interaction between student and mentor was noticeable - still after the times, Tony refused to address Stephen or go out of his way to ask him any sorts of questions. If he had any, he would go out of his way to find the answers to them or seek out other Sanctum masters for help.

Eventually Tony had questions he needed answers for that even the masters couldn't elucidate, he'd hoped to find a gold rider somewhere in one of the nearest neighbouring Sanctums and ask them some questions. However, travel meant he needed wings and given that Levi was only on retainer for strictly Sanctum travel, he'd see if he could ask Loki to take him instead.

T: I need to ask a big fat favour of you

L: The answer is yes!

T: I haven't even told you what I need.

L: Easy, you want to relieve some stress and I'm the man to do it ;) You had me at the words ‘big’ and ‘fat’

Tony sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

T: No… I need you to help fly me to one of the neighbouring Sanctums, I need to talk to one of the gold riders. I'll do anything for you, except sexual favours.

L: Well you're no fun, I'll see - bar tonight? I'll pick you up after studies?

T: Yeah sure.

L: Steve's been asking about you.

T: Well, I'm sure I'll see him there too.

L: Still not speaking with Stephen?

T: I really need to get back to my studies, pick me up at five, we'll talk then. 

L: It's a date!

T: No it's not.

L: ;) XOXOXO

Stephen left the library well before 5PM, which was unusual enough for the man’s typical schedule, though odder still was the fact that Levi remained on the platform outside the library when 5PM did roll around, curled around a snoozing gold dragon who was just a little larger than his face now. 

Hela arrived promptly just after five, causing Levi to open an eye for a moment before grumbling a little and nestling in against his queen, watching Tony for signs of whether he was bringing Friday along with him or not.

Loki waved cheerily from the back of his mount, smiling brightly. “Hey, handsome! Need a ride?”

Tony smiled, raising his hand to wave, but first headed over to see the dragons off.

He walked towards the two drakes, the tip of Levi's tail thudded anxiously against the ground as he approached but stopped when the rider put his hand on the round of Levi's snout and gave him a pat.

"Going to the canteen, watch Friday for me bud?" The red let out a soft throaty bellow and closed his eye once again, tail stilling as Tony walked towards the green. "I'll be back later. " The only indication Levi was listening was another thud of his tail lazily raising and thumping against the floor.

He walked up to Hela and she nudged his chest rather roughly, pushing him back a bit. "And hello to you too beautiful!" The dragon opened her maw happily and bobbed her head like a bird.

"My, Tony, I'm so flattered!" Loki grinned as he hopped up onto the saddle behind him and loosely put his arms around Loki's waist.

"I was talking to Hela, not you." He rolled his eyes.

"Oh how you wound me, it's alright - they always do say love is blind."

Tony playfully shoved the other man's shoulder and Loki chuckled before Hela took off towards the canteen.

“So you wanna meet another queen rider, huh?” Loki mused as they flew. “You’re in for a treat if you’ve never seen a fully grown gold in person. It’ll give you good insight on what Friday might look like when she’s full grown. Of course, the dragons of different areas look quite different, too, despite that we’ve exchanged queens and reds now and then in order to promote greater genetic diversity.”

Hela touched down at the canteen soon enough and Loki hopped off her back with familiar ease, reaching to offer Tony a hand down. “You’ll definitely want to make sure you let little Friday know what’s going on, though. Most of the non-Sanctum born riders seem to be aware of only the two other Sanctums - Hong Kong and London - which makes perfect sense since the final Sanctum is sort of sacred ground. But all of them are going to be too far away for you two to communicate telepathically, and you don’t want her to panic while you’re away. But until all of her scales are fully hardened, I can’t safely blink her between locations. It could stunt her growth or otherwise cause her harm.”

Tony took his hand and slid down onto the ground, he gave Loki a curious look. "What do you mean by blink?" Part of him knew this was going to be a long journey but there were things he needed to know that Stephen hadn't or otherwise couldn't teach. He needed an experienced gold to give him insight.

“Ah, of course, you wouldn’t know about blinking yet. That makes sense.” Loki hummed as he gestured towards the pub and began walking. “Blinking is a form of teleportation, I guess. Dragons are capable of it. It allows them to travel long distances in a very short time. However, like when humans blink, there seems to be a space between spaces that dragons appear in. It’s very cold, silent and isolating. It can cause young dragons permanent damage to their scales and may cause them to panic. We have clothes to wear that protect against damage during blinks.”

"Huh, so it wouldn't be a massive voyage around the world then, we'd be there at the snap of our fingers?" Tony grinned walking into the pub, holding the door open for Loki.

They both took a seat at the bar and Tony smiled to Pepper who brought over a couple menus.

"So we could be there and back realistically before anyone knew it and it wouldn't be hard to get back in case Friday needed me." He started looking through the menu, despite being partial to getting the fish and chips again.

“But Friday can’t reach out to you while you’re that far away. If her empathy is strong enough she might be able to signal her distress to you, but that’s about it. You’d have to rely on someone else to alert you otherwise. I can only imagine this is why Stephen hasn’t taken you to another Sanctum yet. She’s still young, the separation anxiety could be an issue,” the raven-haired rider reasoned.

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Stephen about this ahead of time? Are you two really still just not talking? It’s been months now…”

"I would really prefer not to. This is just how things are between us. We had a massive fight and he made his points very clear." Tony flagged down Pepper as she came by and Tony ordered himself a bourbon neat this time.

"Tony… It's not my place to say but he's your mentor, shouldn't you at least try to speak with him? This is a big leap you're taking here and it could potentially be risky." Loki's uncertainty was vivid in his features.

"Things are working out better than they ever have been, we see each other but we don't speak, he handles my reading materials so it's not like I'm not being mentored. Besides, I would only be gone a few days, and I can let Levi know." Loki still didn't look entirely confident in the answer but he wasn't about to argue.

"I'll do the best I can to help you, I won't stop you but I still can't say its the best idea."

A silence fell between them as Tony contemplated Loki’s words, but the room around them grew steadily louder with the conversations around them. Snippets of things here and there met his ears amidst the drone of the room, with some riders discussing their wings, others talking about things they were watching or reading, and the quiet enthusiasm of a few people discussing their crushes in the corner.

“This seat taken?” a familiar voice inquired beside Tony, and Steve’s warm smile settled on him as he helped himself to the seat regardless, waving to Pepper as she brought over his drink.

Tony felt his heart flutter as he turned to see the familiar red rider. He flashed him a welcoming smile immediately turning away from Loki like some infatuated teen. "Hey! Yea- I mean no, it's all yours." Tony managed to stumble over his words. He could hear the soft chortles from Loki behind him.

"Haven't heard back from you since you took off that night, is everything alright?" Steve looked over to Loki and nodded his head to acknowledge the green.

"Yeah, everything's fine… Stephen and I had a big fight, needless to say, we haven't been speaking since." Pepper swung by with their drinks and already with Steve's usual as well.

"Tony, that was months ago, how can you be ignoring him for that long?" Steve nodded to Pepper and mumbled a quiet 'thanks'.

"I'm not ignoring him, just not talking to him. He still hands me books or rather leaves me reading the material, then disappears," Steve took a sip from his glass and there was an equally unimpressed look.

"I said the same thing." Loki piped up.

Steve offered a half-smile as he shook his head. “And here I thought it was just me you were avoiding. I wanted to apologize for what happened that night. Winter got defensive of the wing I guess, I had a talk with everyone and Bucky’s had a few talks with Winter since that about what happened. Apologies only mean so much, though, so… if you’re up for it, I’d like to make that whole thing up to you - and to Friday - at some point. I was thinking of hanging out at some point, but if you want I can have a talk with Stephen? See what’s going on there?”

“Kick his ass?” Loki suggested from behind Tony and Steve shot the man a look and shook his head.

“I’m not going to kick his ass. But if he’s mistreated you…”

"I-" Tony stopped for a moment, his cheeks flushed sheepishly "You don't have to apologize for anything, it is what it is, shit happens. You honestly couldn't have predicted it would happen and I didn't know Stephen would have reacted that way.

"It's fine, if anything I think I owe you an apology for disappearing for a few months, I was just caught in some sort of funk."

"So, let me get you a drink then and let me take you home tonight like I promised before." Steve looked hopeful at the prospect.

Tony looked over to Loki and the green rider grinned with a nod.

"Yeah, that sounds great - pick up where we left off!"

“Dinner first, though, at the very least. I’m famished,” Steve chuckled a bit, taking a peek at the menu and ignoring Loki’s laugh.

“Hmmm, am I the third wheel? Should I let you two have your date?” he hummed as he gave Tony a smirk. Steve’s face flushed slightly as he just concentrated on his reading. 

"Whoa-whoa! Date, hold on a sec there..." Tony matched Steve's face colour as the man began to slink away and join some other friends of his that were conveniently at the canteen as well.

Tony shot him a desperate look and the man only continued to grin as he slunk away.

They all chuckled and shot some glances their way as Steve and Tony were left alone in each other's company.

"Well then… If that's the case then we might as well treat it as such?" Steve seemed to poke lightly. And Tony's eyes were averted for a moment.

"I guess it couldn't hurt..." He added a bit shyly after.

“I mean, it’s a little bit of a blind date. I guess. A tiny bit. But uh… getting to know each other over dinner is a thing people do on dates, right?” the blond glanced at him with a little smile. 

"That or try to schmooze the other person into bed with you, but I get the feeling you're a little more classy than that." Tony quirked a brow with a smirk and stirred his drink. 

“Well then, whereabouts are you from? What made you decide to drop everything to be a dragon rider?”

"I'm from New York, so it was a far drive, but probably not as far as some people. Dragon riding had always been a dream of mine when I was younger, my friend actually was the one that pushed me to take the first step." Tony smiled. "What about you?"

“Oh! Where in New York? I’m from Brooklyn myself,” Steve grinned a bit at that. “But chasing your dreams and managing to accomplish them is really impressive! Good for you! We all need that friend who gives you the final push, right? I had a similar story, I guess. Bucky and I… we’ve been friends for years. I was pretty sickly when I was a kid and dreaming of what it would be like to ride a dragon kept me going through hospital trips and the like. When I was well again he kept pushing me and eventually the two of us looked up whether there was a hatching and made our way over. We were giddy, idiot teenagers, but we had dreams of glory. Neither of us expected we’d actually imprint - never mind both of us, but…” He gave a small shrug and a smile. “Howler’s the light of my life. He always makes me want to do better and be better.”

Tony had a soft smile at Steve's little life tale. "Upstate New York here, but the family was always moving around so it's hard to really say if I had a place I called home. I guess I came in with the opposite impression, I honestly wanted to imprint on a red, kind of had a crummy family life and I came here to get away from it all. I never expected to imprint on a gold of all of them - it was a little crazy." Tony laughed nervously trying not to come off as bragging. "I can't say I'd take it back for the world, I love Friday, I'm with you there, I don't know what I'd do without her now that I have her."

“I’m glad you have a place here. Hopefully, you’ll feel more welcome over time. It’s odd how dragons change you though, isn’t it? They’re like best friends and siblings and children all rolled into one. At least, it’s how I would imagine having kids to be,” Steve chuckled. “I completely understand the gold thing, though. I thought maybe a blue if I was lucky? A green seemed more likely, and even that I would’ve considered luck! But here I am riding the second biggest dragon in the Sanctum and I’m… honestly humbled by it all.”

The man fell silent as he took a long sip of his drink, watching Tony for a moment before smiling warmly again. “I think Tilly would’ve liked you, though. You’ll make a great Sanctum leader, I’m sure. I’ll be proud to call you mine when it’s time.” After a long moment, Steve looked immediately flustered, “my Sanctum leader that is, not mine like - not like you’d be mine or anything like that I just…”

Tony sputtered. He was mid-sip and he had taken in a mouthful that was possibly a little too big considering the comment. He put the glass down with a light thud, cheeks cherry red either from the drink or the comment.

Who knew?

"Well, that's mighty forward of you, though it's not like it was anything new. Every red rider around here's been flaunting around treating me like Friday and I are some sort of trophy, didn't expect that from you," Tony grinned and quirked a brow, enjoying that he caught the other’s slipup.

“No, I didn’t - I really didn’t mean it like that. I meant-” Steve rubbed at his face and took a few deep breaths, clearly embarrassed by his slip. “You’re a human being, not some prize to be won dammit. I really didn’t mean it like that - context! Context matters! I mean, it’s an entirely different thing if you chose me, but that definitely wasn’t how I meant it! A-and frankly I’d like to get to know you better before we made any kind of long term plans. Maybe I’m still a bit old fashioned but the way the Sanctum does things is still weird to me.”

Tony sat back on the barstool and watched Steve stumble over excuses. "Relax Steve, it's fine. For the record, you're one of the sweetest guys here and probably also the best looking as well… If I had a choice in the matter, I would honestly say I'd prefer you." Tony averted his gaze like a shy schoolgirl.

God, get ahold of yourself Stark.

He cleared his throat. "Erm - anyway, it's not up to me though. It's any man's, well, dragon’s..." He fingered the crystal glass. "Yeah, I don't really understand the whole flight thing… I remember asking Stephen when we were still talking, and he was just… so sure, that asshole - that Levi was going to win. He said we'd wake up having slept with one another, but he was a little crasser in explaining it."

“... I wasn’t talking about the mating flights.” Steve gave him a concerned look for a moment, a touch of red still on his cheeks as he turned to face the man. “You do realize that you can choose a partner separately from how things turn out during the flight, right? Did no one explain that to you? The sex and relationship culture of the Sanctum is pretty weird but… I mean I can… explain if it helps?”

"I mean Stephen did go over it, but still..." Tony trailed off. "I've heard it, I think I mostly just have trouble wrapping my head around it all since it's such a culture shock not being born in a Sanctum, you know?" Tony took another swig, a little flustered. "I know I'm well within my right to see someone outside of the mating flights," he smiled.

“Oh, good. For a few minutes there I was worried that Stephen had somehow… painted it really weirdly. I was concerned I really did need to have a talk with him,” Steve sighed heavily at that, before reaching to pat Tony’s shoulder. 

“Anyway, just don’t forget that despite the mess that comes of mating stuff, you’re still free to choose. Find someone you love and don’t let mating stuff get in your way, alright?” The blond looked sheepish as he withdrew his hand, waving down Pepper to order his dinner, leaving her to refill his drink and look to Tony in question.

“Know what you want?”

"Yeah, whiskey sour," he sat there with that shy smile on his face not much more to say on the subject.

The two continued to chat through the night, they stayed to the bar until Friday had reached out to Tony asking when he was coming home and that's where he had to call the evening.

Loki had left an hour earlier to go flying with Steve's group leaving Tony with no other way than to be flown home by Steve.

"The babe is calling, I think it's about time I get home." Tony smiled "Shall we?" He was bold enough to offer his arm to Steve.

"It would be my pleasure." The man hooked an arm around Tony's and that was the first real bit of physical contact they'd made outside of arm pats and handshakes. It was like stating when Steve had touched him and Tony was sure at that point he definitely had a thing for him if his feelings weren't clear to him before.

Steve led him out to where Howler waited and the dragon lowered his head to greet Tony with a curious sniff and a soft crooning noise. Unlike Levi, the dragon didn’t extend his wing as a means of easily climbing aboard - but it seemed there was no need as Steve tugged down a small rope ladder and looked to Tony.

“Do you figure you’ll be able to climb up okay? I can go first and give you a hand up if you need, or I can stay here to catch you if you’d rather,” the blond smiled warmly as he watched the other. Howler tilted his head a little, keeping his wing tucked tightly against his side to allow the ladder to fall fairly flat against his side.

"C'mon Steve, I appreciate the chivalry but I'm no woman. I do have that baby muscle you know," he chuckled and climbed up onto the saddle, with a little struggling but he did it none-the-less. Definitely a lot more effort to climb a red than a green, that was for sure.

"I didn't mean it like that Tony," he laughed and hopped up after him, though putting Tony in front of him rather than behind like he usually rode on Hela or Levi with Stephen around.

Tony grabbed the handles of the saddle, peering over his shoulder at Steve, "I think I'm in the wrong seat here." He regarded Steve as the man unexpectedly put his arms around Tony.

"I think we'll manage?" The blond rested his chin on Tony’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze of his arms. “You’ll have to learn what it’s like to fly like this eventually anyway. Where is Friday? At home already, or are we going to pick her up first?”

Tony felt the butterflies in his stomach and he regarded Steve whose head was right next to his, breath hitching. "A-ah she's at home, I'm afraid I'll have to call it a night here since I can't stay away from her too long," he tried to relax against Steve but he was damn well nervous.

"I'm just reluctant to turn you in for the night, I might be getting ahead of myself but I thought we were having a really good time," Steve spoke softly over his shoulder. He instructed his drake to take off towards Tony's ward, familiar where the Sanctum leader stayed.

"Yeah well, I do have a young one to look after and I can't be away from her too long, or keep her up too late either."

"Fair enough, there's always next time," he smiled, giving Tony another squeeze.

Levi greeted them with a small growl at first as Howler landed, before spotting Tony and watching the other red simply lower his head as he laid down to let Tony off. The lack of aggression from the red seemed sufficient for Levi to relax a little, though he kept most of his body between Friday and the other red dragon.

Steve was quick to slip down the ladder, offering a hand to Levi who gave a small snort before nudging his hand and then waited for Tony to come down. “Well, I’ll walk you to your door at least?”

"This is good, I want to spend some time with these two before I go to bed," Tony smiled and slid off of the dragon’s back with help from Steve. They were alone and it didn't matter if he went inside or not.

"Are you sure?" The red rider asked though it seemed he had something else in mind by walking Tony to the door of his ward.

"Yeah, thanks for the evening, it's been lovely. Do this again?" Steve still had his hands on Tony's hips, his back against Howler. He averted his gaze at being nearly caged in against the drake.

Steve hovered in his space a moment before leaning in to peck Tony on the lips. He didn't linger, a quick kiss that conveyed his interest but gave Tony enough room to move away and time to think on it.

Tony didn't return it but smiled nevertheless and moved away from him, though Steve's hands were reluctant to let go. "I'll see you again soon?"

"Yeah!" Steve laughed nervously. "Hopefully I don't have to wait a month and a half to see you again," he joked, climbing back onto Howler's back.

"Oh, I promise that won't happen again," he grinned, stepping back from the dragon.

“Alright, I’m holding you to it. Goodnight, Tony, Friday! And you too, Levi!” Steve offered his greetings all around before the red took off and disappeared into the night.

Levi gave a soft grumble as the others disappeared before prodding at Tony with his nose, sniffing him and seeming to check him over some as he slowly relaxed in his spot, before resting his head on the ground near Tony and giving a long, dramatic sigh. Friday peeked her head out from around Levi before scrambling her way to Tony and nudging at him, excited but clearly sleepy based on the way she stumbled over her own feet on her way over.

Tony gently ran his hands over the red's face, petting him and showing him some affection before wrapping his arms around Friday's neck and embracing her. "Missed you two, I'm heading to sleep, you’re welcome to join us Levi, the room is big enough for you and Friday so long as your master isn't worried about where you are.”

Friday was licking Tony's face, towering above him in such a short time. He scratched her soft scales, they were only half hard but still soft enough to massage her. Levi gave a low grumble, before slowly getting to his feet and stretching himself out some, wings flaring and maw opening in a large yawn before he settled again to nose at Friday and her rider both.

<He can’t, he says Stephen will be expecting him when he’s done.> Friday informed him even as the larger dragon sniffed at Tony’s hair for a moment and turned to leave. His wings spread once again and the dragon disappeared just as the one before him had, leaving Tony and Friday alone.

<What took you so long? Did you have fun? Did you make a new friend?>

<Yeah, I did! I'm sorry I took so long, I hope Levi was good company?> Tony closed the door behind them as Friday followed him inside.

<He was, I enjoyed spending the day with him, I really like him, a lot.> Her tail wagged excitedly, she perked every time she talked or heard about him.

<I have a favour to ask of you Friday, and this is something that will benefit us both,> Tony dropped his bags down at the door, too lazy to actually put his things away.

<Oh? What is it, Tony?> she shadowed him over to the bed.

<Loki said he can take me to see one of the other gold riders in London, it would be a night affair, I wouldn't be gone long but I wanted to talk to them about you and get some advice on your kind. I know books can only do so much but having an actual gold rider to talk to would be so much more insightful.> He sat down on the bed and began to stroke the gold's head softly as she placed it in his lap.

<We’re going away?> the gold inquired softly, settling in but staring at him curiously. <Not for too long? I’ll miss Levi. Can I say goodbye before we go?>

<You're not going away, I am - just for one evening. I was hoping you would be okay with staying here with him while I was gone.> Tony continued to gently stroke the gold drake’s head as she turned her face into his stomach for affection. <I need to speak with one of the gold riders from another Sanctum, I'd be back before you knew it!>

<I might get lonely with you gone though!> she whined softly.

<I know. I'd take you but Loki tells me it's dangerous for young ones to travel that kind of distance through blinking,> he rested his hands on her cheeks.

<Alright, as long as you are only gone one night - I'll miss you!> she climbed onto the bed and laid down on him, knocking him over with her weight.

<I'll miss you too Fri.>

The pair cuddled close, with Friday nearly suffocating him under her weight with her desire to be near him for the night, but it didn’t stop either of them from getting comfortable enough to sleep. Friday, in particular, fell asleep with ease, but Tony was awake a good hour after she’d fallen asleep, lost in his thoughts.

Tomorrow, he’d meet another gold rider. Tomorrow he’d learn, and prove he was capable of educating himself without Stephen’s input. Tomorrow he’d have to leave Friday, but it would be for her own sake. As he was falling asleep his fingers moved to touch his lips as he thought about what the day had brought, however. Many a sweet promise about what tomorrows of the future might hold.

 


 

The next day passed without incident, with Tony spending much of it reading outside in the sun with Friday sprawled across his lap and Levi acting as a backrest, and by 6PM Tony was fully outfitted and ready for his trip to London - since that’s where Loki had informed him they were going.

“You’ve let Friday know what’s going on?” the raven-haired rider inquired as he tucked a couple of things away into the satchel attached to Hela’s saddle.

"Yeah, she's aware of the plan, I told her I'd be gone for the evening and at most, the night." He finished packing his bag, Friday buzzing around restlessly as they tacked up the green drake and got ready to leave.

He turned to her and gave her neck one final hug and the drake propped her paws up onto Tony's shoulders in a mock hug, nosing his shoulder and face all around and licking him.

She then trotted up to Hela and Loki to give them some affection, bumping noses with the green and then nuzzling into Loki's side.

Tony walked over to Levi and gave him a few gentle pats and a few scratches at his jaw, the drake bellowed softly in return and nudged Tony. "Thanks again big guy, I know I've been asking a lot but this is for the betterment of all of us." He left the drake's side to hop up onto Hela's saddle, Friday going to Levi to watch the two take off.

<I'll be back before you know it baby girl.>

<Be safe Tony, I'll miss you!> she chirruped as Loki got up on Hela’s back.

"Alright, good to go." He had his arms fastened around Loki's midsection and the rider smiled. 

"Hang on tight, this isn't like anything you've ever experienced!" The green drake pushed off, and in the blink of an eye, vanished.

For a moment that felt like forever, it was cold. 

Isolating. 

He couldn’t feel the dragon below him or the man he was holding - there was a profound nothingness and it felt as though the very air had been pulled from his lungs. For a moment he thought he saw something in the vast emptiness, and the more he tried to focus on it, the more it felt like was there was staring back…

It wasn’t so much as sight, or seeing something, but knowing something was there, the presence of being so entirely alone yet at the same time not. The deep abyss of darkness seemed to grow around him if even possible, as if he was a momentary spec in an ocean slowly drowning.

There was something there, and he could detect it far more easilythan the very dragon and rider he was with. For a moment a hazy object blurred in his vision, flashes of colours, purple? It was hard to make out, it almost seemed like a tendril, or a figure moving and undulating in the blackness. Tony narrowed his eyes, fixated on it and trying to discern what he was looking at. 

The deep darkness sucked the breath from him, strangling him, heart palpitating, panic-filled him and absolute dread beyond any he’d experienced before. His eyes flicked this way and that, restlessly moving behind Loki as he thought he might just be going out of his mind.

And just as the feeling began to overwhelm him, the sun broke through overhead, bright and welcoming, its warmth caressing his skin with the gentle touch of a lover as they swooped down towards an island that bore vast green fields and a towering building along a cliff edge. This didn’t look like London, but there was no mistaking that it was a Sanctum, and given what he’d been taught about Sanctums being built away from the main civilization, it made perfect sense to him that London’s Sanctum was perhaps not in London itself.

“How are you faring?” Loki asked him as their descent slowed and the wind ceased blocking out his ability to hear anything.

"A little woozy but I'm fine, that was… unexpected," Tony pressed his face into Loki's shoulder blades and the man laughed.

"First time blinking? Get used to it, because you're going to be doing it a lot as a Sanctum leader in the future," he chuckled, landing on one of the plateaus at the top where the gold riders ward was.

There was a massive red dragon perched outside of the ward and it eyed them curiously as Hela landed, obviously familiar with the dragon. Loki nodded to the red and it let out a soft snort as they landed and dismounted, walking up to the doors of the ward to knock upon the large wooden doors.

"Hopefully she's in, I honestly have no idea where to find her. But if that red dragon is who I think he is, then the red's rider is close and he will easily be able to tell us where she resides."

Tony adjusted his bag on his shoulder, looking around at the interior of the Sanctum. It was much different than the New York Sanctum, much more open to the outside yet everything seemed to be built into a mountain similarly to the New York Location.

“You’re looking for me?” A dark-skinned man approached them from one side, pausing for a moment as he observed the pair. “Ah, Loki. What brings you to London? Who’s your friend?”

Loki glanced up for a moment and offered a bit of a smile. “Ah, good. Daniel. This is Tony, he’s-”

“I know who he is,” Daniel interrupted, giving Tony a quick once over and a small frown. “Why didn’t Stephen bring you?”

“Well, that’s because-”

“I wasn’t asking you, Loki.” The man responded sharply and it seemed enough to silence the green rider as the man’s eyes settled on Tony again. “Why didn’t your mentor bring you?”

"Stephen and I haven't spoken in months, I needed to meet a gold rider for aid which is why I'm here. I took it upon myself to have Loki escort me here." Tony crossed his arms, this guy sure was welcoming, and they'd only just arrived.

Loki stayed quiet, hands folded behind his back as he stood back and watched the exchange.

“Months?” Daniel echoed, looking at Loki who simply nodded and shrugged. The man’s gaze focused on Tony again firmly. “I’ll bring you to the gold rider, but not until you explain to me what’s going on with you and Stephen. I left him in charge for a reason. What did he do?”

Tony frowned at the man's abrasiveness. "Let's just say I don't agree with his choice methods of teaching. I'm constantly looked down upon by him for not understanding things a Sanctum born would when I'm not even Sanctum born. He has no patience whatsoever so I've taken it upon myself to pursue learning on my own, without his aid."

“The Sanctum will be in good hands with a leader willing to take on the pursuit of education without being directed, but without any kind of guidance at all there’s no guarantee you’ll be adequately informed of the things you need to know by the right points in your training.” Daniel stroked his chin thoughtfully. “And you say you two haven’t spoken - is that since your fight?”

Tony narrowed his eyes a bit. "Yes, well, that's how it's been for the past few months. Wait, how… do you know about that?" Tony crossed his arms, looking back once again to Loki and then back at Daniel again.

“He sought me out for advice on the matter. He stated that he was feeling inadequate as a de facto leader and that he was concerned that he was ineffectual. He didn’t know how to approach you better on the subject of your training,” Daniel explained without hesitation. “I advised that you might need some time and space before accepting an apology and that he ought to wait until you approached him before he tried to apologize. I didn’t anticipate that it would be so… drawn out.”

Tony was quiet for a moment.

So that was why he hadn't said anything? All this time Tony had just assumed that Stephen was some egotistical prick with a superiority complex the size of the Sanctum, and boy was he wrong.

"I see… well, I came here to meet the gold rider of this Sanctum, I was hoping she might have some insight or advice for me. Not being Sanctum born, I've had a lot of struggles to deal with, especially since I'm not a woman."

“Hm, yes, I quite noticed,” Daniel gave a small smirk at that before turning away and waving. “This way. Maria is aiding with moving a variety of supplies around the Sanctum. She should be in the supply room at the moment. Please don’t comment on her pregnancy or offer to assist her, I assure you all that will do is earn you a glower of frustration. She hears it enough.”

Tony nodded and looked over to Loki, nodding and following Daniel down to the supply room. They both accompanied the red dragon rider and Tony nodded as he led the two men into the storage room where Maria was.

Though Tony couldn't shake the thoughts that maybe he'd been in the wrong with Stephen for a while after hearing what Daniel said.

 


 

The night was quiet. There were any number of beds he could’ve fallen into to ease the aching he felt, and any number of people who would have happily touted his virtues rather than his failings, but the fact was Tony had left without a word to him. He’d left to speak with others because as a mentor Stephen had failed him… and there was little Stephen hated as much as this overwhelming feeling of failure.

His arms curled around the head of the small dragon in his bed as he tugged up one of the blankets to cover her, feeling soft scales against his exposed chest and arms and at least finding her low rumbles soothing. Levi curled around the bed with his head resting on Stephen’s other side and he took comfort at least in their presence.

He supposed he was lucky that at least Friday didn’t seem to share Tony’s utter distaste of him. It wasn’t as though he’d been good with people before now anyway, but this was something altogether different. People were depending on him to get this right. People were expecting him to know how to deal with others.

People were expecting everything, and it felt like he hadn’t even been allowed the space to breathe before everything became his responsibility.

<You should sleep, Stephen,> Levi suggested quietly from his side and it was only the fear of waking Friday that kept him from scoffing.

<I wish I could.>

<You’re not a bad person,> the precious beast informed him, nudging at him until Stephen moved a hand to rest on his nose. <You’re a good man.>

<I’m letting the Sanctum down, Levi. I’m letting Friday’s rider down, I’m letting Tilly down…> Warm tears pooled in his eyes and he squeezed them shut tightly. <It doesn’t matter how good you think I am. I’m failing them.>

<I love you.>

<I know… I love you, too, Levi. But I need to do something to fix all of this.>

Friday's nostrils flared at the scent of salt from his tears and she roused slightly, tongue flicking out softly to lap them up off of his cheeks, her crest flaring somewhat. 

Stephen was curled half around her neck, with an outstretched wing covering his lower body. She sensed the distress in her temporary companion and began to let out soft saddened whistles as her eyes cracked slightly and she nosed her way closer to Stephen.

<Just because one single human in the Sanctum hasn't come around to you, doesn't mean you've let all of us down,> the red breathed and likewise nosed at his rider's back.

Friday was half awake, intent on trying to soothe Stephen.

<You know it’s not just him,> Stephen responded. <It’s not just him. But even if it was just him, if I’m not teaching him properly, then I’m letting him down, I’m letting Friday down, and in the end that means I’m letting down the Sanctum on whole. He’s too important to this place to not make sure he’s at his best.>

The man removed his hand from Levi’s nose to gently pet Friday and smooth down her crest as he sighed softly, whispering. “It’s okay, Friday. I’m sorry to have distressed you. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine…” He stroked her gently as he pressed a soft kiss to her nose. “Get some rest. I’m sure Tony will be home soon. He must miss you immensely.”

<Stephen-->

<I’m going to sleep now, Levi. I’ll try and rest some, okay?>

<... yes, Stephen. Goodnight.> The dragon let out a low noise as he nudged the man’s back once more and fell quiet, watching over his rider sadly.

Chapter Text

Tony had kept his word, he was gone for about five hours into the night. Needless to say, it was lonely sleeping alone when he'd returned and Friday wasn't there, but it was only fair given that he'd left her alone the entire day a couple of times.

The routine went as scripted, Tony showed up to the library to study and just as he assumed, when Stephen had shown up, he brought Friday along with him. Tony had his reading material splayed out in front of him and he couldn't help but turn to greet Friday outside as the trio landed.

He was immediately mowed down by a streak of gold as Friday barreled into him excitedly, knocking him down and licking his face. She smelled a little different today, but that was probably because she'd stayed with Stephen.

He greeted Levi as the dragon took up his seat outside the library and once inside, it wasn't long before he'd taken up his seat, considering what Daniel had told him and how he would break the ice with Stephen once the master walked through the door.

Regardless though, he owed it to Stephen with the knowledge that the man had apparently been struggling and seemed lost at sea in how to handle things.

The older rider seemed to take his time joining him, or perhaps Tony was just anxious thinking about things. Regardless, Stephen slipped into the library in his own time, murmuring a quiet ‘welcome back,’ before sitting himself in the chair he often took up, well away from where Tony tended to study, but not so far as to be unreachable. He opened a book in his lap and with that it seemed as though Stephen was content to allow the silence to stretch on between them once again.

"She's a great sleeping buddy, but soon enough she's going to be too big for the bed," he commented almost flatly, though there was the slightest hint of amusement in Tony's voice. He had his book drawn up, scanning the pages, still not mustering the courage to actually look Stephen in the eye. "I hope you didn't let her stay up too late."

Stephen seemed to take a moment to realize he was being addressed, slowly turning his head to glance at the other man before dropping his eyes back to the book. “She slept at a reasonable hour. I’m afraid I might’ve woken her in the night, but she settled down again soon enough.”

His teeth caught his lip for a moment before he opened his mouth, as though about to add more, before his hold on the book tightened and he simply closed it again, clearly struggling. It had been months since they’d had any kind of sustained conversation, it almost felt strange to have opened up to any kind of dialogue at all, but just when he thought Stephen had decided he was content with the silence between them, after all, he spoke again.

“I’m sorry, Tony.” It was short and there was no mistaking that it was hard for the man to say, but the words came out. “About before. I was out of line, and I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I didn’t mean to take out my frustrations with others on you. I really am… very sorry.”

Did he hear that right?

Tony put the book down, folding the pages over on his thumb as he directed all of his attention to Stephen. "I think we both were a little out of line that night." He started, heart rate speeding up nervously as he tried to find the words to say. "I may have let my own personal problems affect how I responded to you as well." His fingers fidgeted with the book.

"I guess I owe you an apology too," he held out his hand to Stephen to shake. "Let's put this all behind us then?"

Stephen hesitated for a long while looking at Tony’s hand, his fingers curling into his palm before his own hand reached to take Tony’s in return, shaking in his palm. “I will do my best to guide you so long as my guidance is what you want. Otherwise… I’ll stay out of your way and let you take what initiative best suits you.”

Tony merely bumped the palm of his hand in Stephen's, hooking a finger around the space where his thumb and index were and mostly let Stephen lead the gesture given his disabled hands. "And I'll do my best to let you know where I'm running off to after lessons. I do feel like today Friday would appreciate spending some time in the water with Levi." The corner of his mouth quirked up in a momentary smile and he almost saw the same mirrored expression for Strange before he nodded and turned back to his reading material.

 

 



 

Tony had grown exponentially with his studies under Stephen's continued tutelage. They'd managed to sort out their differences in the classroom but that didn't stop the two from wildly bickering at times and getting into small verbal scraps with one another.

Tony had grown to be easily the most progressive of Stephen's students, yet difficult to work with. He questioned every lesson Stephen had and quite often disputed facts in search of full understanding if there was a lick of doubt in the teachings and it drove Stephen up the wall.

Friday had grown to about three-quarters of her true size and had finally learned to fly with the help of her red dragon companion. Given that the drake had taught her everything she knew they generally shared flight patterns. Though she started to grow wild just as her rider, racing off and challenging the red drake often enough to miniature games of cat and mouse where despite her size, she would give Levi a real run for his money.

It wasn't the speed of her flight however that gave her so much versatility but the quick wit about her and how rather than focusing on speed which she was clearly disadvantaged at to this point, focused on prowess and aerial acrobatics to worm her way out of the red's clutches in games of keep-away they both delighted in.

She never lost her wild streak and unlike how a human queen should carry herself, she was wild and free-spirited, often stepping up to challenge Levi in play combat. He generally lost to her on purpose, but there were times where she genuinely outsmarted him and even shocked their human riders.

She was becoming a lot like Tony, the two were almost seamlessly the same in personality and ferocity. Daring, intrepid, curious, driven, motivated and never shied away from a challenge.

Friday could easily make short flights to get Tony around the Sanctum, outfitted with her own temporary saddle and Tony had been so excited when he was finally able to ride his queen. Unlike his first time on a dragon where the turbulence of flying with Hela spooked him, he was daring the skies with Friday and the two of them behaved rather unconventionally for a to-be leader and his matriarch dragon.

He was to meet at the canteen with Loki and Steve after his lessons today. Loki, still his long-standing friend, close if not closer than ever before had become an integral part of Tony's life, and so had Steve and his wing.

Tony and Steve would see each other on and off, mostly due to the workload Tony had, which made dating much more difficult now that his studies had advanced by tenfold. It was less about learning about dragons now and more-so about the politics of the Sanctum and leadership, so his time wasn't nearly as expendable as it was when he'd first come to the Sanctum.

Tony often ended up standing Steve up, dick move - but for the most part, it wasn't his fault. Friday was growing into the respected matriarch that she was, dragons didn't try to assert themselves with her or scrap with her - rather most tried to flatter and woo her which drew more ferality from her supposed-to-be mate.

"So I had this idea - I wanted to go home and visit an old friend of mine, and I was thinking of taking Friday on her first long flight. It would be a total surprise."

"Oh Tony, I don't think Friday would be ready for a trip like that." Loki sipped at his mug looking to Steve.

"Yeah, she may be a gold but she's still not even grown to her full size yet. Even in adolescence a dragon still has trouble travelling long distances like that, you've only been able to get her to blink at most a three-hour trip, let alone trying to get her to go across the state. Let Howler and I take you." Steve offered up with some concern.

"I'm hearing you guys, but she's grown and she can almost fly circles around Levi, plus this is something I want to do alone and teach her..." And he wanted to show his old man up.

"Yeah but it's not the same," Steve started, putting his drink down. "Think of it like this, despite the distance travelled, blinking is still exhausting on the dragons. The longer the distance they blink, the more taxing it is on them mentally. Think of it like driving a long trip, say the longest trip you've ever driven was an hour, and now you want to plan to travel eight hours in a car." Steve paused gesturing with his hands, Tony was still listening.

"You start to get tired at the fifth hour into the trip because you've never driven the distance before - think road hypnosis or driving fatigue. The dragons go through the same thing and you risk having Friday fall asleep and getting stuck in a blink or she falls asleep and you both fall to your death or get seriously injured," Steve's mouth formed a flat line.

"I couldn't have put it better," Loki added, "Tony, this is a big risk. We aren't supposed to take our dragons out for long flights until they are fully matured. It will be much too taxing on her." The concern bled through Loki's voice.

"I can see we're clearly not going to be able to talk you out of this, at least let us know before you do take this trip so we can be ready if you two have any trouble." The two men seemed on edge as if it was a big risk and Tony didn't seem to comprehend it.

"Yeah, I'm confident we'll be able to do it, Friday's not your usual dragon. She's stronger than the lot and still has some serious hidden potential," Tony grinned, confidence bleeding off of him.

Loki and Steve looked at each other with unease.

“Just… consider whether it’s a risk you want to take with Friday. It’s not just you who’ll get hurt if something goes wrong.” Steve warned with a sigh before returning to his meal.

“Upstate New York then, huh? You know you can always invite your friend here. He’s the one who came with you to the hatching, right?” Loki finally asked, no longer trying to talk him out of it directly, but clearly trying to present other options.

Despite spending a while at the back and forth, neither of the riders had managed to change Tony’s mind or his confidence in his dragon, but he wasn’t exactly unaware of the looks they exchanged as they were all saying their goodbyes. Once Loki had disappeared, Steve stayed with him a moment to hold his hand carefully, pressing a light kiss to the back of it.

“Please let me know when you’re planning on doing this. I’m worried about you both. I want to trust in you, but it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want anything to happen to you, or to Friday…” he murmured softly, his clear blue eyes as earnest as ever.

"Hey, yeah I'll send you and Loki a text just before we head off, and then I'll let you know when we get there safely, how about that?" Tony smiled and he reached forward to wrap his arms around Steve's midsection in an embrace he held for a few moments.

The other man had seconds to return it before Tony pulled away, placing a hand on his face and turning back to Friday who was anxiously waiting behind him.

"Have a good night you two!" Tony waved as he climbed up onto Friday's back and she padded the floor a few times, bobbing up and down before she took a running leap towards the edge of the plateau. She launched herself into the air and with a few strong wingbeats she was soaring up to the ward.

Levi was waiting for her, unsurprisingly. He'd still been a constant in both their lives, just like Stephen and acted independently enough that one would think he had no rider.

Friday touched down and Tony slid off of her back and she remained outside, bobbing her head and dancing with Levi as he returned with his own strut enthusiastically.

"Get a room you two," Tony called as they bumped noses and Levi bellowed softly in response, focused on Friday as he churred softly and crooned at her.

The brunette went inside, packing his bag for tomorrow and got ready for bed, leaving the two dragons to their own devices. Friday was a big girl and didn't need Tony putting her to bed.

Laying himself out on his bed, he stared at the ceiling for a long moment imagining his father’s face when he showed up riding his beautiful dragon. The outrage on his face making his features turn entirely red, the jealousy, the way he’d start to mouth off just in time for Friday to intervene and scare the shit out of him.

He wouldn’t be bullied this time. This time he’d have back-up. That was the dream he fell asleep to.

The one he woke to was an excited gold dragon padding back and forth beside his bed, nudging at his face and flaring her wings to give them little flaps. Groggy though he was, the rider couldn’t help but smile at her antics, even as she grabbed the blanket to drag it off of him.

<Let’s go, Tony! We’re flying today, right? We’re taking a trip! Let’s fly, let’s fly!> It was altogether too much energy for so early in the morning, but Tony couldn’t keep himself from smiling at her enthusiasm.

<Soon. We should both eat before we go, and I have to write a note for Stephen so he and Levi don’t get mad.>

<Ohhhh Levi would be very upset if we left without telling him,> Friday sat back on her haunches, agreeing with a little nod. <I can tell him now?>

<If you tell him you know he’s going to stop us. Or tell Stephen, and there’s no way Stephen would let us go.>

The dragon gave a low grumble at that before resting her head on the bed, watching as Tony got up to get dressed. <I suppose you’re right.>

He reached to give her head a gentle pat at that, smiling a bit. <So, what do you want for breakfast?>

<... can I have the big tuna? I’d love the big tuna!>

<Anything for you baby-girl.> Tony got up and went to the basin outside of the apartment in just his boxers, there weren't many riders up in the section of the terrace so it wasn't like he had to worry about his decency as much.

He came back with a basket full of tuna, bass and a few nice fatty salmon for her, setting it down before fixing himself some leftovers from the night before. There was half of his burger and chips left in the take-out box and he settled for eating that, too anxious to take his time to make anything else.

They both ate in silence, the excitement a tangible force in the room before Tony pushed his plate back and stood up.

<I'm going to hop in the shower, won't be more than ten minutes and then we should be good to go.>

<Hurry Tony! I want to go!> she looked up at him with a mouth full of fish before throwing her head back and letting it slide down her gullet.

Tony showered, got dressed and scrawled out the note. When Friday was done he tacked her up and they made a stop by the library to leave the note on the table. Once that had been done, Tony sent a couple of messages out to Steve and Loki to let them know he was leaving and that he'd also alert them to when he landed. With all the necessary preparations made and errands out of the way, he tucked his phone away and gave her a pat on the back.

<Alright babe, you ready?>

<Yes, yes! Let’s go!>

<Onward and upward! Let’s go!>

They took off like a shot the moment he was fastened in, and he could feel Friday’s glee at being airborne washing over him, adding to his own joy. There was so much to do - so much to see! And there was no time that either of them felt as free as when they were flying. Friday dove and rose, and twisted through the sky, breaking through the clouds briefly before dropping back down low with Tony’s whoops of excitement lost on the wind.

<Ready to blink?> Friday inquired briefly, and with a smile, Tony exhaled.

<Ready.>

The black overtook them, cold and foreboding and deeply uncomfortable feeling settled in his chest as it always seemed to. He felt watched. He felt as though something hungry was staring at him. He felt like prey in here - he always felt like prey here, as though something was lurking in the darkness and waiting, biding its time.

The sun broke through again before Tony could even inhale. He wasn’t entirely certain where they were, but given Friday hadn’t been very far from the Sanctum he knew the rest of the flight would at least lack the discomfort of blinking. He patted her neck and she gave a pleased grumble beneath him as they passed over a couple of small towns, with Friday asking questions every so often as they did.

A giant ice cream cone, in particular, gave her a moment of pause as she tried to determine whether she could eat it - Tony promised her ice cream one day, but it wasn’t the time now, leaving her to shrug that off.

So far so good as far as Tony was concerned - and his phone seemed to agree. They’d made it almost half way there and Friday was showing excitement and enthusiasm, and no signs of fatigue.

<How are you holding up, baby girl?> he asked a good five hours into the flight as he noticed her beginning to dip.

<I’m okay! Are we almost there?> she inquired, though there was an edge to her emotions that he was starting to feel.

<We’re still a little ways out… Do we need to rest?> His concern must’ve been enough to bleed through as she twisted her head to look at him, drooping a little further before straightening out a bit.

<No, I’m okay…> she insisted, moments later proving herself quite wrong.

Her right wing seized and buckled, and before either of them quite knew what was happening they were plummeting towards a lake beneath them. Tony’s mind was shot with panic as they began to spiral, knowing full well that she wasn’t going to be able to spread her wings at this pace and getting her to pull up was going to prove an issue. If they hit the water at this speed it would be no different than hitting concrete…

Friday’s heart pulsed quickly under him, or perhaps it was his own heart racing that he felt so strongly, he didn’t know. <Friday? … C’mon sweetheart, you have to pull up some…> he tried to encourage her, and with a short yelp she managed to flick her wings out enough to steady their descent, dragging a little over the top of the water before crashing into the shoreline with a sickening snapping sound, and enough strength to throw Tony from his saddle despite the fastenings around his legs that should have kept him in place.

He felt a sharp pain in both of his legs and heard the soft cry of his dragon as the blackness overtook him.


 

Friday attempted to bend her wing closed but there was too much pain. Her back left leg was similarly in just as much discomfort and she let out a loud cry that echoed over the mountains. She felt dizzy, light-headed and nauseous, she was disoriented and didn't know where they were - heart-pounding, terrified and stranded far from home.

They had crashed somewhere in a mountain range and there was nothing around them but trees and the small basin that by some miracle managed to dampen the brunt of their fall. She couldn't spot any roads or signs, no small towns either.

Friday looked around, dazed as she kicked her sore foot and dragged herself closer to her rider. There was a smattering of gold scales littering the ground behind her in the wake of her crash, her body bruised in some places, bleeding and lightly scratched in others.

<Tony!> She bellowed loudly and pulled herself up, limping over to him slowly. She managed to get to his unconscious form and turn him over on his back.

<Tony! Wake up!> She nudged the unconscious man with her nose, dread growing inside her.

<Levi! Are you there?! Levi!> Another loud roar and birds scattered from their perches as she sank down beside Tony trying to wake him, fear gripping her at the state of her rider.

<Please wake up!> Her bellows lowered to soft groans and she lowered her head beside him to rest, it was difficult to keep her head aloft, too exhausted to move any further. Too dazed to comprehend everything right now.

<...Help...>

<Friday!> A rush of warmth washed over her and in moments two familiar red dragons landed, Levi beside her with his rider quickly dismounting and moving to Tony’s side, and Howler and his rider to the other side, with the blond man Tony was so friendly with joining Stephen soon enough. Two more arrived, and finally the last pair of reds with their riders arrived on the bank.

“Mordo, Thor, I need you both to retrieve some medical supplies from the Sanctum,” Stephen ordered rather sharply and there was no denying in that moment that he sounded like a leader, at least to Friday’s exhausted and frightened ears. The men mounted their dragons once again and disappeared to retrieve what they were ordered to gather.

<He’s alive. Stephen will take care of him,> Levi soothed beside her, draping a wing over her without making contact, even as Stephen continued to dole out instructions to the humans. <Your wing is damaged. Does anything else hurt?>

<My head. My heart…> she added after a moment, whimpering softly and tilting her head to keep a wary eye on Tony.

Levi gave a low, soothing purr as he rested his head beside hers to nuzzle her gently. <Stephen will need to check you over once he makes sure Tony is taken care of, okay?>

<Yes that's fine, just make sure Tony is ok...> She craned her head to nudge Levi's nose but the sudden rush of nausea caused her to lower it again and rest back on the ground. <I don't think I'll be able to fly, there’s too much pain right now, and I can't see straight,> she chirruped sadly.

There was a wash of relief knowing Tony was alive and everyone was here to help them. With all the warnings, maybe they should have paid closer attention to what her friends were trying to say.

She was in such a rush to go exploring, to go adventuring, that they had overlooked all the warning signs.

In an instant, the absent red riders reappeared with the requested supplies. Thor moving immediately to Stephen's side while Mordo focused on taking care of Friday's open cuts. They weren't deep, just some scratched scales on her hide and claws, chipped scales that would eventually grow back with the next moult so all the surface level damage didn't seem to be too serious.

She didn’t know what they’d done with Tony, but soon enough Stephen made his way over to her, brushing at her head some gently. 

“I’m going to take a look at your wing and your leg… this is going to hurt sweetheart, I’m so sorry…” He stated softly. “But I need to make sure you’re okay, alright? You let Levi know if anything hurts in particular. He’ll make sure I know. We’ll get you all braced up and then we’ll all go home, okay? We’ll be able to take better care of both of you at home.”

Friday gave a soft noise at that, nudging at his hand, fully aware that the man couldn’t hear her anyway, but he seemed to take that as the approval it was given as he moved towards her wing.

“Steve, bring the splint please?” He requested as he knelt by her wing and Levi nuzzled in against her side to try and offer what comfort he could. Friday watched as the blond pressed a light kiss to Tony’s forehead before getting to his feet to carry the splint over, resting her head against the red dragon at her side and watching Stephen and Steve both, yowling in pain as they shifted her wing.

<You’re okay?> Levi checked as Stephen glanced over, and Friday gave a softer whimper.

<It hurts… but… they’re helping?> she couldn’t help that the words were a question. She trusted them, but how could something that hurt so much be helping?

<They’re helping. They’re setting the bone in place and bracing it so that it will heal properly, otherwise, you might not fly again,> Levi explained softly. < Stephen is sorry it hurts. The same will happen with your leg, I’m afraid.>

There was another loud yowl as they clamped the splint down on the boney part her wing, she immediately felt the stiffness, the appendage now rigid and immobile. Her heart rate sped up and she flinched, trying her best not to move as they finished fastening her wing.

<I can't move my wing, Levi what's going on?!> She made to turn around and the red dragon stopped her from looking, keeping her head in place with his own.

<They need to splint it, let them help you, Friday.> He licked her cheek as the two finished and moved over to her back leg.

<Stay calm for me my queen, they are going to do the same with your foot now.> She tried to keep her head down, Levi's words the only thing comforting her through the pain, agony, all of it! Her Tony was unconscious, her wing and leg hurt, she wished it could all be over.

They began to set her foot and she let out another pained cry, just as loud as the last, the pain this time was constant for a good five seconds, causing her to thrash this way and that until the bone was set and she nearly passed out from the pain.

Mordo instructed Thor to bring over the second splint and Thor managed to keep her foot still while they tied it off.

With all of her wounds properly and temporarily tended to, Stephen nodded to Levi and he nosed his way under her belly so he could prop her up onto his back, her legs and paws caging his wings so she was jet-packing him.

<Can you hold on? Tight?>

<Yes, I can. Please get me home as fast as possible.> She cried softly, her head falling over Levi's shoulder. <I want to be with Tony...>

“Friday, sweetheart…” Stephen approached her head again, giving her a gentle pat. “Keep holding tight, okay? We’re going to get you and Tony home. It will be quick, but blinking is going to make the spots that hurt ache really badly. Once you’re home we’ll give you something to help you rest and make the pain go away. Tony will be with you the whole time. I promise,” his hand moved over his heart, “I won’t let him be away from you. I’ll take care of him, and you’ll both fly again soon…”

There was something in his face, a deep pain, a sadness she’d seen once before a long, long time ago as he gently pet her arm, before stepping away to climb aboard Howler. “Levi… take her home. Bring her to Christine.”

The red dragon nodded even as Howler lifted Tony in some sort of cloth up to Stephen to allow the man to cradle him. Steve joined the two men on Howler’s back as Levi spread his wings and rose into the air.

<I’ll make this quick, Friday. I’m sorry for any pain it might cause you,> Levi lamented as they entered the cold and dark, and the freezing of it penetrated her wing and leg, though there was no way to express her pain in the silence of the blink. The moment they came out the other side, her head swivelled around in search of Tony, even as Levi took her somewhere she'd never been before.

Howler appeared above them just as Levi touched down, and the remaining red riders slowly blinked in and dispersed.

Levi instantly took her towards the medical bay. It was an open hollowed out archway exposed to the plateau where the riders landed. Her eyes darted around at the people with her, constantly keeping Tony in her sights, stressing and yelping every time her wing and leg were moved.

Christine ran out towards them, some human Friday had never met before, she was directing them to put her down on a cot that was ready in an open stay area and she let out a loud howl once again as her limbs were moved and shuffled around so they could place her on the cot.

<Tony - bring him to me, where's Tony!?> she started to panic, although within her vicinity, he was out of eye-sight and the rider and dragon had been separated enough in this dire time that she began to panic from the stress of separation anxiety.

<Just a moment, he's on his way. I need you to stay calm my dear,> Levi crooned softly, trying to settle her down, staying by her side.

Howler had lowered Tony down onto an awaiting stretcher and a few nurses carted him quickly over to an awaiting hospice bed next to Friday. They laid him down and began hooking him up to the machines to run a diagnosis on him.

<Tony… Wake up,> she mewled softly, trying to reach out and nudge him with the tip of her snout.

<Rest, he’ll wake in time,> Levi continued to try to soothe her, giving a low rumbling noise as Stephen joined them, looking anxious and uncertain as he watched the humans who swarmed around Tony. He looked how she felt, she thought for a moment as the man’s hand rested on her nose.

“Christine will take care of him,” the man murmured softly, “I’m going to give you a shot. It’s going to pinch a little bit - like when your scales catch on something - but after that you won’t hurt as much, alright? Will you let me do that? Tony will be close, but both of you need to rest. You need to sleep to get better.”

He showed her something she was unfamiliar with as he spoke but made no move to do anything with it as he did.

Friday nodded and Stephen administered the injection. It was just as he'd promised, a small pinch that elicited an intermediate yip from her and then nothing.

Everything was still in pain, and she was about to mewl and whine again to Levi when she experienced a headrush and her body started to go completely numb. Her heart began to palpitate in panic as she couldn't feel anything, but soon enough came the release of dopamine in her brain and she relaxed, slowly setting her head down beside Tony's bed and easing. Lastly, her lids felt incredibly heavy and a calming blackness overtook her as the corners of her eyes began to darken and she was lulled into a peaceful rest by the sedatives.

Levi stayed by her side, curling his tail around her form and extending a wing encompassing her. He nestled his head down beside her and laid there on the floor, only his eyes open, moving around and watching as her rider was tended to with great care.

 


 

Like her rider, Friday slept for a lengthy amount of time. Tony was still passed out without even the need to have any sort of anesthesia or gas to put him under.

The doctors determined he had a mild concussion as well as a broken leg - his femur to be exact. They needed to set the bone and operate on him, installing temporary stainless steel rods and screws within his leg to drill the bone in place while it healed and then a plaster cast overtop which had been marked and signed by his various friends that stopped by to check on him. Even Stephen wrote a small 'Get well soon' as plainly as he could on the side of it, slightly out of direct eye-shot.

Steve, Loki and Stephen had all taken turns visiting and looking over him. Stephen spent the most time, only leaving when he had to mentor other students or attend meetings. He generally brought reading material with him into the ward so he could work while he watched the rider and his dragon sleep. 

Loki came around after his duties for the day were fulfilled, but he could only shirk his responsibilities for so long. Finally, Steve spent the shortest, his duties called him away as much as he tried to take the time off he simply couldn't, but as soon as his shifts were over he would come around. He brought a vase brimming with red and yellow marigolds and set them on his bedside table.

Stephen had returned for the last shift just as meals were being served, a basket of fish set down, one for each of the drakes and sandwich, some diced veggies and an apple juice left on the tray of Tony's bedside table for in case he woke up.

The man took a long moment to look Tony over, checking his chart for any changes and speaking briefly with an exhausted Christine, before moving to check on Friday as well. < How’s she doing? > he inquired of her sentinel, and the dragon gave a soft huff.

< She hasn’t woken. Neither of them has. I can feel her pain still, she keeps aching for Tony. She’s afraid in her dreams… > Levi explained as he curled around her more protectively. < Christine says she wants to administer another painkiller, but that it will cause Friday to sleep longer. She also said that if Friday wakes and starts fussing too much she could make her healing time longer. >

Stephen gave a sigh at that as he ran a hand over the gold’s nose gently. < She was fairly fussy when we tried to put it on. And I don’t want her to panic about Tony being asleep, either. It might be best that we keep her under until she’s healed… or at least until Tony wakes up. >

<Y ou’re sad… > Levi nudged at his rider, and Stephen rested his head against the red’s muzzle.

< Of course I’m sad. I don’t want either of them hurt and I expect Tony’s going to be angry and defensive despite that he and Friday both deserve a stern scolding for this. This was foolish and they were warned but they didn’t listen. What if one of them had died? >

Levi gave a low growl at that. < They didn’t. > Clearly the dragon wasn’t pleased with that line of thinking.

< But what if they had? > Stephen insisted. < It’s not as though I expect Tony wanted anything to happen to either of them, and I’ve mentioned the effects of Riders dying and dragons dying before but… it might be time that he saw it for himself. >

The red dragon tilted his head a little, watching his rider carefully. < Do you plan to introduce him to Tilly…? >

< It might be time, > Stephen reiterated, stepping away from the dragon to take a seat at Tony’s bedside. < He needs to understand. And it’s not as though I don’t think he’s going to feel like shit anyway when he sees the state that Friday’s in, but he deserves to have a full understanding. >

< Are you going to be okay? >

< It doesn’t matter. He needs to know. >

The two exchanged a long stare, but there was an understanding in the sombre silence of the room. Levi laid his head back down again and Stephen continued to gaze down at the two of them as he watched the red gently preen her crown of scales with the tip of his beak.

Christine brought in another injection by request of Stephen and Friday slept through the night, and though her body slept, her mind was at war with the happenings of today despite Levi being there by her side to offer the comfort she so desperately needed.

 


 

The night passed and morning came. The nurses made their rounds and Loki and Stephen both stopped by together in the morning with a few of Steve's wing to sign his cast, but it was late afternoon when Tony finally began to stir.

His head was pounding and the first thing he did was open his eyes to late afternoon sun, bleary-eyed and disoriented as he looked around and identified by all the white that he was in a hospital ward. He vaguely recalled the crash, standing up and then falling right back down as his vision went black, and now he was here.

There were attempts to move but those were hindered and an agonizing pain shot through his leg as he attempted to sit up. He clenched his teeth and looked down seeing the long white cast around his left leg, cringing.

He couldn't see Friday from the angle he was reclined at, and instinct made him call out here name rather than thinking it. "Friday...?" He murmured the inquiry weakly as he tried to lift his head, dizzy to look around. The gold was still sleeping on the cot, and Levi at her side, stirring when he heard the faintest sound.

“She’s asleep. Recovering,” a woman’s voice murmured as she made her way over and offered him a smile. He didn’t know her, but she had a kind smile and as she approached she maneuvered the bed Tony was laying on so that he could see the faintest bit of gold that showed from amidst where Levi had curled.

The red lifted his head and gave a trumpeted greeting, stretching his neck out to nuzzle Tony tenderly and offering a quieter croon before withdrawing his wing from over her to allow the man a better view of the sleeping gold.

“Levi’s taking good care of her. She has a broken wing and leg, and a mild fracture in her forward paw, but she’ll recover. We have her sedated for the moment because we didn’t want her to panic at your continued sleep, especially while she’s injured as well. From what I hear she was rather fussy when they were attempting to set her up for safe transport back here,” the woman continued to explain as she brought over a cup of water with a straw and offered it to him. 

“Drink up. There’s some food prepared for you, and it’s going to be a little bit until you’re walking, as well.”

Tony placed his hands on Levi's snout and gave him a few tender strokes. "Thanks for looking out for us Levi." With a weak nod, he appropriated the glass of water and regarded Christine with a weak smile. "Thanks." He fumbled around for the controls on the bed so he could incline himself into a sitting position to make it easier to speak and drink. 

The red simply rumbled softly and laid back down, curling around Friday once again and lowering his wing atop her protectively.

Friday looked so tranquil curled up with Levi, but he could sense her distress deep in his chest despite her sleep, it saddened him to know that all this was his fault. He'd been warned by everyone not to do this and because of his stupid god-damn ego, he nearly got the two of them killed. He put her in danger and felt a pang of overwhelming guilt overtake him - but he was surely going to eat crow from Stephen when he got here.

"Ugh… How long was I out?" He regarded the doctor and sipped at his water, a small sip and then his body truly registered how thirsty he was and the entire glass had been downed in a matter of seconds, so quick he coughed as he choked mildly on the last sips of his water.

“About three days. You’ve had company most of that time, though I expect Stephen will be here any time now that Levi knows you’re awake. If you want my advice? Play in to how much you’re worried about Friday. It’s kind of taking advantage of a weak spot for him, but it’ll make your first days awake easier,” Christine advised as she took the glass to get him some more water.

She’d barely left when Stephen arrived, the expression on his face filled with an unfamiliar wash of worry. That wasn’t a look that Tony was used to on that face and as the man approached he glanced briefly to Friday before taking up a seat beside Tony.

“Hey… how are you feeling? How are you holding up?”

For a brief moment, Tony could only chuckle weakly. “Did you… run all the way here?”

“So what if I did?”

"I guess you got your exercise for the day then, who knew flexing all those brain muscles made you so good at cardio..." His response tapered off as if he'd lost the gusto to jest with the other mid-sentence.

The smile just as soon faded and there was a sensation deep within his chest, a void as he thought about playing up his concern. It wasn't something he needed to really play up since he had a lot of mental baggage at the moment surrounding that.

He didn't know how he felt about Stephen rushing over when he'd first seen him, but he felt the ice in his veins like he was preparing for the lecture of his lifetime, dreading it.

He didn't need someone to tell him something he already knew, he'd learned his lesson and the price to pay for his mistakes was costly, so costly that another suffered for it.

“She’ll be okay,” Stephen seemed to read the room easily enough, reaching to touch Tony’s wrist lightly and dropping his eyes to the bed for a moment, though the hand retreated quickly as Christine returned to offer Tony his water. “She helped us find you, she’s spirited and strong. The break in her wing was clean, so it should heal quickly enough, but she’ll likely take a bit longer before she’s walking comfortably. We thought it was best to keep her under so that--”

“He knows, Stephen,” the woman offered a little smile. “I already told him why she’s asleep.” She touched Stephen’s shoulder and the man’s hand rested on hers for a moment as he exhaled a slow breath, before she left once again.

“Your femur,” Stephen began again, clearing his throat and folding his hands in his lap, “is broken in two places. You’ve got a hell of a scar where they put in a rod to help that heal straight, but that seems to be the worst of your injuries. You had a concussion but there were no signs of any major brain damage so…”

Tony didn't interrupt Stephen, he accepted the glass and kind of gazed blankly at it. He couldn't help but fixate on Stephen's words, gaze averted half due to not wanting to meet Stephen's face and confer to him the shame laden in his features, the other half a product of the concussion as he had trouble keeping his gaze focused on closer items. His voice was almost echoey in his ears and he felt his body start to stiffen, wondering when Stephen was going to just let him have it.

"Yeah… One hell of a scar. I can't imagine I'll be walking for months," he laughed dejectedly at his condition.  A punishment to fit the crime, it was all so awfully perfect. He didn't know what to say next, so to fill the silence he lifted the glass to his lips and took a sip.

“At least you’re both alive,” Stephen responded, and Tony winced at the hint of an edge to it. “It could be a lot worse than being grounded for a while. So are you going to tell me why this was so important that you felt the need to ignore the warnings of your friends?”

He could feel the man’s eyes on him, hear the tremble of the man’s voice as he fought to remain calm. “Because if you wouldn’t listen to them, then I can’t imagine I would’ve been able to talk you out of it. So what was so important?”

And there it was.

Tony continued to stay quiet, the glass lowered and he continued to drone out, staring at his lap. His fingers clenched around it, capillaries going white under the pressure.

"I've got nothing for you, I don't make excuses Stephen. I did what I did, and that's all there is to it." No matter the answer, it wouldn't lessen the blow, so why even bother defending himself? He'd taken a risk and he'd put two lives in danger. There was no possible excuse he could give to belie a reasonable response.

So why even bother?

Stephen remained silent for a few minutes after that, before getting to his feet again quietly. “Get some rest. Tomorrow we’re going to go visit someone,” the other man sighed softly. “And eat something, okay? You’re both alive and if you’ve learned something from this… then there’s little more I could ask of you.”

Visit someone? In his condition? 

Tony was hard-pressed to figure out how disability worked in the Sanctum and just how he'd be able to get around. He finally tore his gaze away from his lap to watch the master retreat. His mouth was a flat line on his features and he sat there quietly just holding the glass as Stephen stalked away.

He was off the hook for now, but he knew deep down he surely hadn't heard the end of it.

Chapter Text

The morning was a bit of a mess but Tony found himself settled into a wheelchair with the help of both Loki and Christine. At first, in his groggy state, he wanted to make a comment about how Stephen was simply standing there and not helping, but as wakefulness came over him (along with a hot cup of coffee) Tony realized that Stephen likely couldn’t have helped much with his hands as they were. Of course, that was why it surprised him when he waved the others off and held the wheelchair himself to begin moving Tony.

“Friday is still likely to sleep most of the day but we shouldn’t be away too long anyway and we won’t be far in case she does wake. Levi will let me know and we’ll make our way back here,” Stephen explained quietly. Tony’s hands curled around his cup of coffee as he listened and heard so much more than the man was saying.

There was some apprehension in the man’s voice and it wasn’t helping Tony’s nerves any to think that whoever it was he was supposed to be meeting made Stephen nervous. If there was something else to it, it was hard to say.

“Who are we meeting?” He finally asked as they turned a corner into another part of the hospital, this one quieter than where they’d been before and much too small for a dragon to fit.

“The former queen rider,” Stephen responded, his tone softening considerably. “Her name is Tilly.”

“Isn’t this someone I should have met a while ago then?” Incredulity filled him for a moment. He’d thought the woman was dead. People had made it clear that her dragon had died and there had been no suggestion that the former leader was still alive and yet…

And that was when it struck him.

Her dragon was dead. He’d been told that riders became… different after their dragons died. Was this his punishment? To see what might have become of them?

“I wasn’t ready to share her with you,” the red rider admitted quietly, his voice unusually gentle and laced with shame. “Perhaps if I had sooner you wouldn’t be injured now. But we can’t live our lives on what-ifs, so… now is as good a time as any, I suppose.” 

He felt the breaks on the wheelchair click into place and Stephen moved around him to open the door with trembling hands. Something told him he wasn’t going to like what he saw when they entered the room, the bright morning light met him and a woman dressed all in yellow sat staring out the window overlooking the fields that surrounded the Sanctum.

“Tilly… I brought a guest,” Stephen greeted softly, though the woman gave no indications that she’d heard him as Stephen once again unlocked the wheelchair to bring Tony into the hospital room, closing the door behind them and guiding Tony over to where the bald woman sat, silently.

Tony was starting to feel incredibly uneasy in the room. The woman hadn't even acknowledged their presence when they both opened the door, nor now that they'd come into the room and settled.

He watched Stephen walk to her side and lay a hand gently on her shoulder, it was unlike the man he'd gotten to know - a side he was witnessing of his mentor that he'd not seen before and there was a slight ache in his chest for some reason at the idea of how closed-off Stephen was around him and why it took such a dramatic turn of events to prompt seeing Stephen's full range of colours.

Tony peered at the lady, distinctly uncomfortable in her presence. She seemed like a hollow shell and no one needed to be told that the lady was basically empty inside. The way she stared out the window with her crystalline eyes, looking but not really seeing anything as if she was stuck in a trance.

A shiver ran down Tony's spine and he wanted nothing more than to leave the room, but this was probably just another form of punishment he'd have to face for his unrepentant venture. Stephen planned this, though he wasn't sure if he was supposed to perceive it as a slight or a warning.

The discomfort was laden in Tony's voice as he finally cut through the veil of silence, looking from Tilly to Stephen. "What the hell is wrong with her?" It was explicit but all of this was haunting, her blank eyes, that pale skin, her motionless form. 

Had she not been breathing he would have thought her a statue.

“She lost a part of herself,” Stephen responded as he adjusted the blanket over her waist and tried to encourage the woman to have a sip of the water that was set on a table beside her. “She used to be so serene and calm. It seemed like she knew the answers to everything… an endless pit of wisdom. She was a mother figure to me and to many other Sanctum born. About four months before you came to join us, Tao, her dragon, died of an illness that swept through the dragon population. Many of the riders took their own lives rather than being faced with the emptiness of being without their dragons. Others became like this. Hollow, empty vessels that used to be people.

“In my heart I know she’s not really here anymore. I know she’s not going to come back and I think I knew that when Daniel left. But I can’t… lead this Sanctum on my own and if she’d died I don’t know if I could’ve managed any of my responsibilities. Daniel couldn’t handle being here without her, though. They loved each other, I think. He couldn’t stand to see her like this. We argued. He told me he would have rathered she’d died as well and I was furious with him for it. After the last few months I’ve had to realize that there’s nothing left here, not really.”

The woman sipped at some of the water before Stephen set the cup aside and took a seat between her and where Tony’s wheelchair sat. “If you had died, Friday would have blinked and never come back from that space in between. If Friday had died… this could’ve been you. The idea that I somehow might have let you down enough that this could have been your fate is… intolerable. I will do better. But I need your help with that.”

So this was why he was here. It all made sense now.

He couldn't stand looking at the woman, he couldn't even look in her direction either. The idea that this was the life he'd lead if he had somehow gotten Friday killed? The light of his life - she meant the world to him and he felt an overwhelming sense of dread at the idea of her taking her own life if he had passed, or worse yet, turning into what this woman had turned into if she had died instead.

Tony gripped the arms of the wheelchair and he felt his heart palpitate raggedly in his chest, his breathing began to speed up and he didn't realize that he couldn't breathe out his nose anymore and instead had to breathe out of his mouth.

It was hard to breathe, why was it hard to breathe?! There wasn't enough oxygen in this room, he needed to get out!

Tony looked around frantically, his face sheet white almost as he looked for some means of escape.

"Steph-" he panted, heaving in large breaths of air, his head was dizzy, he felt light-headed, the walls were closing in on him. "I need to get out of here, I need to get to Friday." He blurted out hysterically. His head was snapping around and his hands shook as he tried to spin the wheels of his wheelchair towards the door so he could leave.

He needed to get out of here, he needed to see Friday, make sure she was ok!

How could he have done this to her...

He was a lousy partner to her, she deserved better.

He didn't have the strength to move, not now. He put his hands over his face and balled up in his wheelchair, shivering uncontrollably, hoping if he blocked himself off from the world it would all stop - maybe this was all a nightmare, maybe he was delusional.

“Tony… listen to me… hey, listen.” Arms curled around him, fingers brushing into his hair before skin touched his forehead, firm and warm, and real. “Friday is okay. You’re okay. Everything’s going to be okay. You’re safe and I’m not going to let anything happen to you again, do you understand? I’ll take you to Friday, but you need to breathe for me first.”

There was something soothing about the voice, though it felt like it was coming from down a long tunnel. His body shook and trembled, and the hand in his hair brushed over the side of his face, his cheek and his jaw. “I need you to take a deep breath for me, okay? In through your nose…” he demonstrated slowly, “and out through your mouth… Take it nice and slow for me.”

It took him a few minutes. There was a ringing in his ears that made it hard to focus, he didn’t know where it was coming from and the ocean that stared back at him when he opened his eyes again almost made him withdraw. He didn’t know when hands had taken his own, but when his eyes dropped away from the ocean of sympathy he found scarred thumbs brushing over his knuckles, holding his hands gently as the soft baritone continued to encourage him to take a few deep breaths in and out, and he eventually echoed the demonstration, his breathing shaky and his stomach seemed to tremble and jump as he attempted to follow along.

He just wanted to see Friday. Nothing else mattered. This wasn’t getting him any closer to Friday, and his deep breaths faltered as he gave a soft whimper at that. “Friday…” he gasped out, and the presence in front of him disappeared. The lights changed around him, dizzyingly, making little sense to him, but soon enough his vision was flooded with a familiar gold and his hands reached out to touch the soft scales, to feel that large chest rise and fall with breaths that left him simply sobbing.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered between sobs, his hands petting her though something kept him in the chair despite his desire to crawl up against her and cuddle close. “I’m sorry, Fri… I’m sorry, baby girl, I’m so sorry…”

His hands scrambled to claw at the empty space he saw before him, but rather than reaching her he met resistance and everything snapped back to reality again.

He felt a firm chest pressed to his cheek and his arms were around someone, he didn't care who. He curled them up along the person's back shoulder blades and they hooked in between at the base of Stephen's trapezius and clutched for dear-god-damn life as his fingers held desperately into the fabric of his tunic.

He wasn't thinking right, he was so disoriented, the visage of Friday faded away and he was back in the hospital room with Tilly and Stephen again. One of Stephen's arms were around his shoulders while the other cradled his head against his chest, fingers in his hair soothing softly.

"It's okay Tony, breathe, nice slow breaths in and out. Everything is fine, trust me." Stephen was so sure of himself as he coaxed Tony out of the episode he was having. When the brunette had finally calmed he gave the back of his head a gentle pat and pulled away.

"Let's get you back to Friday," Stephen soothed with a husky voice and Tony nodded, allowing his mentor to move away from him to push the wheelchair out of the room with one final passing glance at Tilly.

Tony was quiet the entire trip back, it wasn't long but he simply sat as Stephen wheeled him down the hallway with his face in his hands, the memory of what he saw branded into his mind. He knew he wouldn't feel satisfied until he saw Friday awake, and even still the image of their old leader might haunt him further as a fateful reminder.

“What happened?” a voice asked sharply over his head as Stephen settled him near the sleeping gold again.

“He had a panic attack,” Stephen explained calmly enough, clicking the breaks into place so that the brunette was within hand’s reach of Friday.

“What did you do?” the woman’s voice - Christine, he thought - inquired sharply. “Where did you take him?” There was a quiet shuffling behind him as they moved away and the voices became quieter, though not inaudible.

“I took him to see Tilly-”

“You what? Why on Earth did you think that was a good idea? Friday hasn’t even woken up yet!”

“He needed to know! I was- I was trying to apologize!” Stephen insisted.

“He needed to know, yes, but he didn’t need to know right this moment! Did you think any of that through? Really think it through? He’s still recovering himself! You know he hit his head, you… god! You’re so insensitive, you know that?”

“I’m trying-”

“If you were trying you would’ve thought this through better! For the love of… Stephen, please leave.” She sounded exhausted as she spoke, fed up perhaps.

“What…? Christine…”

“No, I want you to leave. I’m not going to have you upsetting my patients. When he’s well again and ready to see you, I might reconsider. But for now I want you out of my ward.”

“Levi--”

“Levi isn’t causing a problem, you are. If you’re supposed to lead us, Stephen, for the love of all things good, you need to figure out people, because you’re really shit at this you know that? A Sanctum leader should at least know how to handle people, how to deal with them, how to talk to them. Maybe take this time to figure that out. Now go, before I have to ask someone to remove you.”

There was silence after that before Stephen came into view, just long enough to brush his hands over Levi’s neck on his way out, offering Tony a regretful smile as he went. “Get well soon.” He offered quietly, before slipping out the door with the red dragon lifting his head to look after the rider.

The conversation was a blur to Tony. He didn't even say goodbye, just curled up in the wheelchair as the man left. He was too busy lost in his own mind about the idea of losing Friday despite her being well and in front of him. When the cold veil of fear finally relented, he managed to pull his shaking hands away from his face.

Friday's brilliant gold scales caught his eye and he reached out to place a hand down atop her head gently stroking her crown. He murmured almost hysterically, “everything is going to be fine baby, you’re good, you’re safe, I'll look after you,” quiet enough for simply himself. Brief flashes of Tilly in the hospital bed riddling and interrupting his affirmations.

He'd thankfully come down from his panic attack and as Christine saw that Stephen left the ward, she came back over to him and knelt down next to his chair. She ran a couple of tests to make sure Tony was fine, checking his pulse, strapping the sphygmomanometer to Tony's arm to making sure everything was in check.

Tony's heart rate was mildly elevated, but there were no serious concerns, just some increased stress and that wasn't conducive to a recovering patient who was both mentally and physically unwell at the moment.

“Do you want to stay in the chair, or shall we get you back into bed? We can bring the cot over so you can still be close to Friday if you want,” the doctor soothed as she brushed at his inner wrist with her thumb gently. “I’m so sorry about all of that. I thought he was going to take you outside for a little bit or something sensible ...” she sighed, looking to Friday briefly herself.

“Friday should be waking up sometime later today, tomorrow at the latest. We’ll keep a close eye, but it’ll be important that you keep her settled so she doesn’t jostle her injuries too much. It’s hard to put a cast on a wing, naturally, so that’s something, in particular, she’ll need to keep steady while she heals.” Christine offered a warm smile. “But for now, can I get you something to eat?”

Tony continued to simply stare down blankly at Friday, his hand stroking her head. He offered Christine a slight nod. "Uh… thanks, here's fine. I'm not terribly hungry," he uttered softly. He didn't want to lay down, laying down in the middle of the day made him feel sick and like he was sleeping in, which usually was accompanied by the feeling of lethargy.

"I might just need some water, but that's about it." She nodded, looking a little disheartened as she reached for the pitcher on the bedside table and passed it to Tony.

"Call me if you need anything, or if Friday wakes up. We'll need to check on her just to make sure everything is fine." 

She lingered a moment. "Tony, she will be fine. She is not in any life-threatening condition, don't worry," she assured him softly, giving a gentle squeeze to his shoulder before she gently pet Levi on the head as she left the area.

 


 

As promised, Friday woke the next day and it took a little time for her to settle down enough to realize that Tony was fine. She was like an excitable puppy seeing him awake again, requiring a great deal of reassurance before she finally relaxed and accepted that Tony was okay.

They were both released from hospital almost a week and a half later, though trying to minimize Friday’s mobility was an issue. As soon as they were let out of the hospital she became rather more difficult to settle, especially given she couldn’t simply use a wheelchair or crutches the way Tony could. More often than not it led to Levi carrying her around from place to place, and the gold looking rather miffed and indignant about it all as she was encouraged to remain as still as possible despite her rampant energy.

He saw much less of Stephen even after he was released from the hospital, with another man - a brown rider who introduced himself as Kaecilius - taking over aiding him in some of his lessons, teaching him more particularly about the political workings of the Sanctum, it’s legal standings, and how much power and freedom they had when it came to working with others. It was all very sound, important information, but it was hard not to wonder where Stephen was in that time - and Stephen, on the occasions he did show up, didn’t seem interested in explaining his absences. Levi stayed with Friday constantly, so there was no indication that the man had left the Sanctum, and Tony got the distinct impression that the man was trying to avoid him.

Unfortunately for Friday, she was still in her splint and cast the day that the cast on Tony’s leg was finally removed. Steve’s wing made it out to see him as it came off, along with Loki, Thor, and Quill, who had brought a cake to celebrate. The dragons, unlike before, were calm as they settled themselves near Friday to offer their own support, though it may well have had something to do with Levi’s consistent presence. There was no doubting that he wasn’t going to let anything further happen to his injured queen.

“It’s good to see you on your feet again!” Loki greeted quietly, though he was quick to make way for a widely grinning Steve, as always.

“Congratulations! How are you holding up? How’s Friday feeling?”

"Great, I honestly felt like I could have gotten out of this thing sooner but you know, Christine really wanted to be sure I was ready, so she kept me in about three weeks longer. That didn't stop me from hobbling around on it like it was a peg leg. Needless to say, she wasn't too pleased." Tony lifted his glass up, his usual whiskey on the rocks with a boyish laugh. 

Steve was there at his side, arm around his shoulders, nestled into his side as he enjoyed the tavern cheer. Even Pepper put her shift on hold to have a toast with them, though for her it had to be a glass of water because of work policy rules and whatnot.

It was nice to see everyone again, to feel like he was missed. He kept the cast when it came off, stowed it in his ward as a memoir for a mistake he would never make again.

Things with Steve seemed to be great, but he couldn't help but shake that thought about the morning in the hospital ward when Stephen had brought him to Tilly. It was a worm in his brain, burrowed deep with the haunting memory of the hollow rider like a perfect balance. The memory cut deep like a cold knife, while the thought of Stephen there, his strong arms wrapped around him protecting him was a salve for the frost burn.

He couldn't say he entirely forgave Stephen for that, but he didn't exactly let on that it was some sort of open resentment either - even in any of the times he did see him. He'd come to understand that like his own mistakes, Stephen was paying the price with his own guilt of realization. He had his own penance to front.

Stephen had seemed so gentle, so loving that morning. It wasn't the first time he'd seen that from the rider. The normally prickly man had shown a side of him that Tony did not often get to see, and it was something that stirred confusing feelings deep inside him that would often make Tony question everything he knew about the man, and everything he knew about himself as well.

He looked up to Steve and the man flashed a bright smile down at him, broad smiles all around and the red rider leaned down to plant a soft peck on his cheek. Everything was amazing, perfect - more perfect than it ever was.

But then why was there this gnawing emptiness, small but pronounced enough that he couldn't quite get into the festivities without often zoning out from time-to-time and thinking on how Stephen wasn't around, and how he felt in general about the man?

“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Loki asked quietly while the majority of the group was focused on some story Thor seemed intent on telling. The raven-haired rider watched him carefully as he refilled Tony’s glass and set the bottle aside. “You look like you’re somewhere far away from here. I know Thor’s not the most entertaining, but you’ve had this look on your face most of the evening…”

"Oh, you know… just, so happy and all, and I might just be a little worried about Friday. Just worried parent stuff." Tony raised a glass to reassure Loki and take another sip, Steve squeezed his shoulders as he reinserted himself into the conversion, turning away from Sam and Clint for a moment.

"Everything alright Tony?" Steve had some moderate concern in his voice as he hovered and for some reason, Tony was starting to feel a little smothered.

"Yeah! Yeah, I'm peachy. I just kind of zoned out for a moment." He plastered on that smile and Steve nodded but Loki saw right through it. He let Tony go and moved back to Thor, his brother getting a little rowdy with Quil.

Tony felt his pocket buzz and he shrugged Steve's arm off. "I'm going to run off to the washroom, I'll be back in a moment." Steve nodded and Tony did just as he said, slipping into one of the stalls and pulling out his phone.

L: Do you need to talk? You've seemed off lately - I can see through your BS Tony so don't even try

T: I have a lot on my mind.

L: Did you want to talk about it after?

T: Not really? But I have a feeling you won't let me off the hook either way.

L: You know me so well.

T: After Steve drops me off, swing by?

L: You got it.

Tony flushed the toilet for added effect, washing his hands before drying them off with a towel. He returned to his spot beside Steve and the man laid his arm around him.

The blond pressed a soft kiss to his temple and offered him his drink back. Loki offered a little salute with his glass, and Tony was swept up into the excitement of things as several gifts were offered to him (rather unexpectedly!), though eventually people slowly retired. Being the well-behaved and upstanding gentleman he was, Steve seemed more than willing to get Tony back to his place at a reasonable hour, offering to carry Friday and finding Levi rather adamant about caring for the gold on his own.

Steve didn’t seem insulted by that in the slightest as he gave Tony a hand up and brought him back to his quarters with Levi and Friday just behind them.

“I’m glad you’re getting back on your feet. I’m sure Friday will be doing well in no time,” Steve smiled as he helped Tony back down from Howler’s back. “The wing has decided we’re going to go fishing and find her some nice fish for when she gets all of her fixings off as well. If there’s anything in particular she likes, let me know and we’ll see what we can do. Howler loves to fish,” he added with a soft chuckle before raising Tony’s hand to kiss the back of it gently.

"Fri loves tuna, and if you can find any escolar I know she'd love that too. Salmon would be her second favourite but I know whatever you bring back for her she'll appreciate." Tony leaned up and pecked Steve on the cheek.

"Thanks for the evening, I had a wonderful time. I'll text you when I'm free, I probably have a lot of duties to catch up on now that I'm out of this cast and I don't think Kaecilius is going to go easy on me. He's pretty good at playing off how much of a hardass he really is," Tony laughed.

"I just hope he doesn't overwork you then, just because that cast is off doesn't mean you don't need to still take it easy.”

Levi touched down beside them and the red nodded at Tony as the drake carried Friday into the ward's open archway.

"I'll be waiting, you know me," he grinned and hopped back on Howler. The dragon stomped on the ground with a loud below before turning to take off.

“You two look cute together,” Loki chimed from within Tony’s apartment, sidestepping out of Levi’s way as the red gently set Friday down and nuzzled at her affectionately. Rather than settling himself around her, however, the red nudged at Tony slightly as he made his way out again, diving from the platform before heading off towards where Tony assumed was Stephen’s residence. 

He didn’t know, he’d never really been there.

“C’mon, I made some tea. Need a hand with any of that…?”

"Just a slight limp every now and then, it's nothing." He plopped down on the couch with a sigh, looking towards Loki as he leaned into the couch.

"Well, you're having water anyways because you, my good friend, need to hydrate after those five glasses of whiskey." Loki brought Tony a large glass of water over to the sofa and set it down on the coffee table. Likewise, he had a mug of tea in hand.

Tony groaned loudly looking at the water like it was somewhat of a repellant.

“I’m not having that. Drink up and let’s talk.”

"Things have felt weird since the incident. I don't think I ever told you what happened when we went to the hospital ward, where Stephen took me the next day," Tony draped his arms over the sofa and just decompressed.

“What happened? I thought you guys were just going for a walk or something, did something else happen? I stopped seeing him at the hospital and stuff, I figured he was just busy…” Loki sipped at his tea and watched Tony with entirely too knowing eyes.

"No, he took me to see Tilly, I didn't know she was still alive but..." Tony picked up the glass if only to have something to fidget with. Thinking about it always made him uncomfortable despite having thought he worked past it. Talking about it was even harder.

"Everyone thinks she's dead, everyone talks about her like she is - but she's not." There was a grave look on Tony's face as he regarded Loki, and the man looked shocked.

At first he assumed it was because Loki likewise didn’t know that Tilly was alive, though after a moment Loki rubbed at his face with his hand, muttering something under his breath. “Really? The idiot took you to see Tilly then of all times? You know, for such a smart guy that man is an idiot when it comes to people. That must’ve been rough, I’m sorry. It’s never easy to see any of the riders that still live without their dragons… there are like, nine or ten of them in the ward right now I think after the dragons got sick…”

"Yeah. I had a meltdown… and I… Don't know, it still kind of haunts me. The reason Stephen stopped seeing me afterwards was that Christine kicked him out of the ward after that," Tony fidgeted with the cup. "It made me think of all the horrible things that could potentially happen to Friday and I was terrified."

“As important as the lesson was, he handled it all wrong. Of course you had a meltdown. Friday was still unconscious and… geez.” Loki groaned a bit. 

“Look, the point here is that you’re okay. Friday’s okay. You’re both going to be fine and you learned from it, right? It’s not worth dwelling on right now and I know that’s hard to hear - I know it really well, since someone else refuses to listen to me about it - but it’s important to remember. You’re okay, she’s okay. And maybe if I’m warning you not to do something it might be worth listening,” he added with a wry smile. “I don’t offer those warnings for no reason.”

“Yeah, I got you. I can't say I was happy with what happened, it felt tactless. But when I had my meltdown I saw a side of Stephen I'd never seen before. He was… nice and it felt like just for the briefest moment there was something, I don't know how to explain it, but it's like we finally connected in some way." Tony ran a hand through his hair and sighed.

"I know it kind of seems dumb, but I kind of spaced out today… and I hate myself for thinking of the potentials the… what if's," Tony nodded his head as if he didn't need to say anything further with his implications.

Loki gave him an odd look at that, taking a long moment before folding his legs up on the couch. “Sorry, so you weren’t zoning out earlier worrying about Friday and thinking about Tilly… you were zoning out thinking about Stephen? ” The green rider tilted his head for a moment. “I mean, he is pretty hot, but I think we’ve established he doesn’t exactly… people well. We used to be friends, though… so I mean, if I can help you sort out whatever this is, I’m happy to give it a shot.”

"That's the thing, I don't really know. Part of me resents him for what he did, and another part of me has seen a side of him I don't think a lot of people know about. I've got this weird dichotomy of emotions at war in my head and on top of all of this, I really care about Steve, I like him, like a lot. But I get these thoughts from time to time… and I know Stephen's been avoiding me since the fiasco and in a way… I kinda miss him, but I'm angry at him too." Tony ran a hand through his hair with a sigh, he didn't know what to think.

"I'm a mess right now, just after I thought everything was on the incline and getting better."

“Plus side, you’re a hot mess.” Loki gave him a grin at that, before shrugging slightly. “So these what-ifs then… what do you wanna do about them? I mean, I still remember when we were first getting to know each other and you wanted nothing to do with him. But you and Steve have also been taking things like… glacially slowly. Do you really like him? Or are you trying to substitute him for something else? Do you want me to set something up for you to talk with Stephen, or… I mean, how do you wanna deal with this? There are options. We can talk about it. I don’t have anywhere I need to be tonight.”

"I definitely don't want to talk about this to Stephen, and I..." he groaned, having a hard time articulating his thoughts. "I don't know… what do you mean there are options?" He tread cautiously with his inquiry, as good of a friend Loki was, the raven-haired rider was renown for using rather unconventional methods to 'help' out.

“I mean there are options. You have options. If you like Steve and what you guys have going, you two are cute together, if gross and sappy is what you’re going for. If you like Stephen though, then there are other things to consider, right? I mean, you and Stephen are from really different worlds and he kinda sucks at people and relationships, but he’s really not the worst. He cares… he used to anyway,” Loki sighed a little and slumped in his spot.

“Before stuff happened with Tao passing away and Daniel leaving, we used to be friends, you know? He didn’t have a lot of friends, but there were some people whose company he enjoyed. It wasn’t until after that when he started to shut people out and isolate himself. He was never good at the whole socializing thing, but he wasn’t like this, either. If you don’t wanna talk to him, especially about this… I can try and see if he’ll talk to me? I don’t know if he’ll open up to me anymore but… I guess it depends on you and what you want and what you’re looking for in a relationship. It’s not like you don’t have time to sort all of that out.”

"I'm happy with Steve though, he's sweet, considerate and if I had to choose between Steve, and Stephen I have to say I'd go with option one. I just wanted to get it out because you noticed, and you asked. It's not something I planned to really act on since the feeling is just… a flicker I guess?" Tony was starting to struggle and fumble over his words.

"Tilly isn't dead though, just because Tao is doesn't mean she's a lost cause… she's just not there and part of me wonders if there's an out somewhere, some sort of cure for her that we all just don't know about."

“Now you sound like Stephen,” Loki chuckled a little, shaking his head. “What do you figure Stephen does in his free time? He’s not giving up on her because he wants to find a way to fix her. To bring her back. But she’s still not going to be the same as she was, Tony. No matter how things go, no one can bring Tao back to life, Tilly’s always going to be missing that part of herself.”

"That won't stop me from trying, and as a Sanctum Leader it's my job to solve problems, not make them, and that seems to be all I've been doing since I got here." Tony laughed, basking in his own self-deprecation. "Hopefully, whatever this spell or flicker is, it passes." 

Tony finally stopped glaring at the glass of water and started to sip at it. Friday crawling her way over and chirring softly as she poked Tony with her nose, the distress causing her to finally check on him.

"I'm good, Fri. Don't worry about me."

“You’re not a Sanctum leader yet, Tony. You have time. And no one’s expecting you to be perfect right away. Even Stephen’s not perfect and he’s been training for this a hell of a lot longer than you. You’ve still got time to learn, and Stephen could use all the help in the world in dealing with people, clearly.” Loki smiled a bit, getting up and kissing his forehead. 

“Just… try and relax some, alright? Things will work out how they’re supposed to work out. If not, we’ll meddle and it’ll be fun. But you’ve been drinking, so I want you to finish off that water and get some rest, you hear me? You keep an eye on him, Friday. Make sure he sleeps. Grab him by the pants and haul him into bed if you have to.”

Tony's expression was of mild surprise before he grinned and waved Loki off. "Yeah, thanks for talking to me about this, I really am just a big hot mess at the moment." He waved to Loki as the man retreated, closing the door behind him on the way out.

Tony slowly stood up, reaching for the lamp and shedding his clothes to curl up under the covers, and Friday crawled over and occupied the other half of the bed with her head resting on the pillow beside him as her body stayed on the floor.

 


 

A couple more months lapsed and Tony failed to act on those ideas. It was nice to get them off of his chest, and they would crop up every so often during his study periods when Stephen wasn't there and either Mordo or Kaecilius had stood in for him.

At least today they had a small little event planned for Friday, today was the day she was going to have her cast removed and the gold had been even more uppity and excited than ever. She'd been anxious to fly when the pain had stopped, and like Tony they had opted to keep her cast on longer just to make sure when it came off, she would be ready to fly.

Levi had continued to be a constant in Tony's life, and it was such a normal thing for the red to fly them around that one would have thought Levi was his dragon. He always did want to fly a red, but he had something much better than that.

"Hey Levi, after Friday's party, you think you could reach out to Stephen and invite him for a swim? Friday needs some water therapy to help strengthen the muscles that atrophied in her wings, we could use some help." The red dragon nodded his head with a happy bellow, skipping around and bumping Friday's nose as she settled in front of the medical ward. Loki, Thor, Quill, and Steve had all come for the small little party each bringing a specialty fish for her.

It was easy enough to keep her distracted with the fish as the cast was removed and then the splint on her wing, and to her credit Friday only twitched a couple of times during the process, happily burying her nose in the baskets of fish, and at one point pausing to hold up a fish by the tail to offer to Levi. He seemed rather confused by the whole offer, simply nuzzling against her and rejecting the offered fish. Taking the rejection in stride, Friday finished off the fish on her own, and the moment her wing was free of the splint, spread it out and crowed happily to the skies.

Getting up to trot around a little, she hobbled on her weakened leg only slightly as she fluttered her wings in excitement and with a clear desire to fly, though she showed manners enough to nudge at each of the riders who had brought her gifts of fish first. Turning on Tony, she gave a wiggle of her butt and lowered her torso to the floor excitedly.

<Can we fly now, Tony, please? I want to fly to the water! Can I fly? Levi says he’ll fly underneath me so that he can catch me if I get tired…!>

"Hah! Looks like Friday is anxious to fly again." Tony thanked Christine and walked over to Friday giving her a few gentle caresses on her neck. "Thank you, everyone, for coming, Friday thanks to you all for the wonderful gifts.”

"Tony, aren't you forgetting something?" Steve quirked an eyebrow with a wry smile. The brunette looked a bit dumb as he ran over and pecked Steve on the cheek before running back to his dragon. Loki simply shook his head and gave Tony a look which the others thankfully missed.

"We're going to test out the wings, we'll have Levi to safeguard us in case she gets tired." He smiled and Steve nodded. 

"Alright, just be safe, we can't have another accident or I don't know what I'll do with you." He laughed and Tony was already climbing up on Friday's shoulders.

"Will do, we'll be careful this time, I promise," he smiled and before he could relish the moment Friday stuck her tongue out like an excited pup, running towards the edge of the plateau and leaping into the air. Levi let out a distressed noise as she took off without warning and dove down underneath her to follow.

Flying on Friday’s back again felt refreshing. A new saddle had been made for her after the other had been damaged in their crash and was specifically adjusted so that the band didn’t sit over the same place on Tony’s leg that it had before, which helped reduce the little bit of aching that he had at times. Levi flew close enough that Friday could reach out and touch him where she flew, and his wings were easily apparent to Tony as they flapped before Friday gave a soft noise and finally simply settled on the other dragon’s back, allowing him to guide her the rest of the way to the pool.

It was a beautiful day and several other dragons were splashing about in the water happily as they approached. Levi moved out from beneath her as they drew nearer to the ground and he touched down just ahead of her, scooting out of the way as she stumbled just slightly, favouring the legs she hadn’t injured just in case. She settled herself down to let Tony down before waiting for the other to unfasten her saddle so that she could dive into the water, even as Levi paced a little bit.

< Levi says he asked Stephen to come swim, > Friday conveyed as Tony’s fingers worked at the straps of her saddle. < But Stephen isn’t feeling well. He says to have a good swim… Do you think Stephen is still mad at us? > she added with a low grumble, seeming rather unhappy with the idea. < I miss when we all used to swim together. >

<I know Fri, I do too. But I can come in and swim with you since Oscar the grouch isn't coming. I think I could use the workout just as much as you. He'll come around eventually... > He ran a hand over her scales and then gave Levi a similar stroke on his neck. He ditched his shirt and tunic, pants discarded as well so he was just in his boxers and he dashed off towards the shoreline.

"Race you!" Tony laughed, and  Friday bellowed loudly looking at Levi before she bounded off after him, Levi was right on her tail. He could easily overtake her but let her hold the lead as they walked to the shoreline of the pool and charged into the gradual beach-like incline sending a wave over to Tony.

"Hey!" He splashed her right back, running in further before he tried to push her over (with all the good it would do) and she lightly swept her tail into his chest knocking him into the water entirely.

Levi yipped and tackled Friday, lightly butting his head into her shoulder, making her bellow out the equivalent of a laugh before she went right back at him, sweeping water at him and jumping on his back to lightly bite at his neck in a pseudo wrestling match.

Making sure he was out of the way of the wrestling dragons, Tony couldn’t help his smile as he watched the pair. 

They really were good together and as gentle as Levi was with her, Tony couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if Howler did catch her instead. The idea broke his heart. Levi and Friday clearly loved one another tremendously and maybe he’d never loved someone quite as much as they loved each other, but he could imagine how much of a loss he’d feel if something came between them that way.

As he swam, he wondered what it would be like if he was that in love with someone. He definitely liked Steve, they wouldn’t have been together so long if he didn’t, but even after two years there was something about the idea of saying he loved Steve that sat wrong with him. He was satisfied with their relationship. Steve treated him kindly and well, and he enjoyed their time together usually… but if Levi and Friday’s relationship set the bar for love, his feelings for Steve fell far below par.

“... I’m sorry I’m late.” The voice brought him to attention, tearing his eyes away from the wrestling dragons to see Stephen sitting on the shoreline, his eyes avoiding Tony’s as he watched the dragons play. “She seems happier now. I’m glad.”

"Fashionably late I see, I didn't know if you actually still existed or not." Tony cracked the quip yelling to Stephen from the water. He waded out of the pool up to his waist feeling his chest flutter with excitement when he saw Stephen. He didn't know why, maybe the idea that a long lost friend was finally found or the idea that he had more company to join in on the excitement, or even possibly more?

If Tony was holding any resentment towards Stephen it never showed, especially the way he lit up. Resentment was the last thing on his mind as he crossed his arms with a cocky smirked and watched the man set his things on the artificial shoreline of the pool and start to remove his outerwear.

"The least you could do is put on a show, Stephen," he yelled over the commotion of growling and grunting as Friday went down next to him sending him under with a tsunami. At the mention of Stephen's name Friday's head snapped around until she locked on to the other man and now the two drakes dashed through the water towards him and all Tony could do was smile widely.

Stephen was about to be tackled by two very sopping wet drakes.

“Don’t you dare-” the red rider warned, and Levi eased up, flaring his wings and splashing the man with the momentum of the water he’d moved. Friday wasn’t quite so graceful, skidding to a stop just at the edge of the water and extending her nose out to lick up the side of his face without a moment’s hesitation.

< He came! Tony! Look! Stephen came to swim! > she squealed in delight, looking between an amused Tony and a non-too-delighted and thoroughly soaked Stephen. Given the wave of water, the clothes he’d rid himself of and those still on him were completely drenched, leaving Stephen to sigh heavily as he finished undressing himself and found a spot in the sun to lay them to dry.

“You two are incorrigible, I swear.” A hand came up to pet Friday’s muzzle as the gold crooned happily at him. “All three of you, really. It’s nice to see you, too, Friday.”

Levi crowed his victory before splashing his way back into the water to swim some, with Friday turning to follow quickly on his tail once she was satisfied that she’d greeted Stephen well enough.

“Good to see you too, Tony,” he added quietly enough as he finally got into the water, but unsurprisingly the man didn’t look at him as he spoke. Tony sighed to himself and resolved to at least appreciate that the man had made an appearance.

“Friday’s real excited to see you. She was pretty sad when she heard you might not make it.”

“I definitely got that impression,” Stephen gestured to his rather wet frame and shook his head a little before diving in further.

So it was awkward and maybe not as enthusiastic as he might have hoped, but he’d take what he could get. It was nice to hang out again… anything else would take time.