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A Crown of Thorn and Shadows

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Anthony Stark, King of Blood and Darkness, ruler of the Unseelie court of Faerie, moved his chess piece.

“Check,” he drawled, waggling his eyebrows at the man across from him. Winter growled, leaning forward and resting his chin on his silver hand. He picked up one of his pieces and moved it, grinning unrepentantly at his king.

“Checkmate.”

“Damn it,” Tony muttered, tossing back the rest of his wine. Winter grinned and held his goblet out to the king. Tony filled it and handed it back.

“Your wine, my Winter Solider,” Tony said.

“Much appreciated, your majesty,” Winter said. Tony shook his head, waving his hand. There was movement at the corner of their eyes as the White Ladies, barely more than ghosts, moved forward to put away the chess board.

“You’ve won how many times since we started playing?” Tony asked, propping his feet on the table once the chess board was out of the way.

“Well, not many.”

“Exactly,” Tony said smugly. Winter rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair. The two Sidhe sat in a comfortable silence born of centuries of friendship and sometimes more. There was a knock at the door, drawing the attention of both men.

“Enter,” Tony said.

The door opened and Peter skittered in. Tony smiled at him, setting his feet on the floor.

“Hey there, Spider-kid,” Tony said, ruffling Peter’s hair.

“I’m older than Winter,” Peter said with a huff.

Winter laughed, sipping his wine again. Peter hunkered down on his eight legs, fingers tapping nervously against Tony’s knee. To a mortal, Peter would be a horrifying combination of man and spider, some kind of twisted centaur with a spider’s thorax and the upper body of a young man. Of his eight eyes, only two looked human, the others refracted light and showed him the world in a shattered prism. Besides his eyes, his face was that of a young man; soft brown hair—the same color as his spider body— flopped over his eyes, which burned with intelligence.

To the Unseelie, Peter was beautiful. The Unseelie found beauty in every body type. Tony had taken Peter in nearly two thousand years earlier.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asked, leaning forward. He could tell Peter was nervous about something.

“I found something near the Hall of Blood and Bone,” Peter said. Winter sat up straight, focused intently on Peter.

“What were you doing there?” Tony asked.

“The Sithen changed, so I was exploring a new hallway,” Peter said excitedly, four legs tapping a rhythm on the black marble floor of Tony’s bedroom. Tony would have to check the new hallway; it was unusual for the Sithen—the Faerie mound they called home—to change without his knowledge. He felt a thread of unease curl through him.

“I found this,” Peter said quietly, pulling something out of a spider silk pouch around his waist. He handed it to Tony, human eyes blinking rapidly.

Tony took the scrap of fabric, turning it in his hands. It was a handkerchief of some kind, silk and embroidered with a horribly familiar design; the crest of the Seelie court. There was a spot of blood on it.

He handed it to Winter, face set.

Winter looked at the crest, turning it between one flesh and one silver hand. “This is from the Seelie Court. That heraldry is from an old house,” he said quietly.

“Fuck. The missing prince?”

“Highly likely,” Winter said. Tony snatched the handkerchief back, his fist clenching around it. Tony got to his feet, pacing around the room.

He slammed his fist against the wall. “Nothing from the Seelie?”

“Not since he went missing a month ago. Of course they’ve publicly blamed us for taking him.”

“I’ve never even seen this prince,” Tony snarled. “Damn them for setting this at our door.”

“If the prince is here…”

“Then someone betrayed me,” Tony said, voice flat. The Seelie and Unseelie had had an uneasy truce for centuries, since the courts had moved from Europe to the Americas. They couldn’t wage war against each other, although what the mortals didn’t know would terrify them. Humans thought the Fae were creatures of beauty and they often tried to be like the most beautiful of the Fae, the Sidhe. They didn’t know about the other Fae creatures, the goblins and the nightmares and The Wild Hunt. The humans called the two courts of Fae the Summer and Winter courts; the Seelie preferred to call Tony’s court The Nightmare Court.

The shadows seemed to reach for Tony and Winter watched his king warily. Tony rarely lost his temper like this, but the threat of war with the golden court was looming.

Tony ran his hand down a seam in the wall, grabbing a black sword as the night black wall rippled at his touch. Winter stood up, his hand on Peter’s shoulder.

Winter hadn’t seen that blade in Tony’s hand since he fought for the Seelie in the last Fae war; before he’d become Winter. Gwir Farwolaeth, one of the few things that could strike an immortal Fae dead. Tony sheathed it, slinging the belt around his waist. Winter watched as the crown of thorn and shadows graced Tony’s head, and in a moment his friend was gone and his king stood before him.

Winter got to his feet. “Shall I call the guard, sire?”

“Only you and Rhodey. Have the others stand by. You two are the only ones I trust implicitly.”

“You really think someone betrayed you?” Peter whispered, scuttling back and forth along the floor.

“I think if someone is holding the missing Seelie prince in my torture chamber there’s going to be hell to pay,” Tony said. He glanced at a red cloak hanging forlornly from a hook in the wall. It hadn’t moved in more than six hundred years, since the death of his queen.

Tony’s face contorted in anger as he spun away.

“Take me to this hallway, Peter,” Tony said.

“Right away, your majesty,” Peter said. His spider feet made no sound on the floor as he hustled out the door, Tony behind him. Rhodey seemed to melt from the shadows as they walked, bringing up the rear. Winter nodded to him tensely, both Sidhe nervous.

Peter crawled along the ceiling, keeping to the darkness. Tony strode behind him, silently commanding the Sithen to keep everyone away from the Hall of Eternal Torment. Blood would be shed this night.

The double doors of the hall came into view and Peter dropped to the floor in front of Tony.

“Peter, stick to the shadows,” Tony said tersely, running his hand along the door. He felt it greet him, the Sithen singing to him in his mind.

“How many?” Rhodey asked, his hand on his gun. While most Fae eschewed modern technology, the King’s Guard fully embraced guns. Many carried both guns and blades in their duty to protect the king. Tony glanced at his best friend—known as the King’s Darkness. Rhodey had been with him for nearly all of his very long life.

Tony asked the Sithen and got a flash of what awaited them inside. In private, he jokingly called the Sithen Jarvis.

“There are many in there. Multiple serving out their sentences, Lord Rumlow, and one that Jarvis says is hidden from view.”

“How can someone hide something from the Sithen?” Rhodey asked uneasily.

“Someone,” Winter said. “They’re hiding someone from Jarvis’ view.”

“Magick,” Tony growled. “Jarvis, open the door.”

He felt the Sithen agree and the doors swung open. Tony walked in, looking around quickly.

His eyes fell immediately on the man hanging from the wall, blood dripping from his eyes, nose, and mouth. Dark hair fell over his eyes, and Tony could see that the man’s hands were pulverized. The man, the Sidhe, didn’t scream as Rumlow cut a new wound into his body.

“Enough!” Tony bellowed. The room seemed to grow darker as he walked deeper into it.

Rumlow spun, eyes wide.

“My liege,” he started.

“Silence,” Tony snarled, waving his hand. Rhodey and Winter grabbed Rumlow and forced him to his knees.

“What have you done?” Tony whispered, eyes drawn back to the noble Sidhe hanging from the wall. The Seelie noble twitched, lifting his head. Tony stared into the Seelie’s eyes, a rainbow of color like he’d never seen.

“I have done what was necessary,” Rumlow said, staring up at the king. “For too long you have hidden what we are in the shadows. It’s time for the mortals to know the true face of darkness, and they will know what a monster you are when I am finished with this Seelie weakling. The mortals will destroy you for what you’ve done.”

The Seelie coughed, blood spattering the front of his already blood stained shirt. He looked at Winter, face clouded with pain and recognition. Winter nodded slowly at him, hoping that the Seelie understood that they, at least, were not here to offer him more harm.

“Peter, help me get him down,” Tony said, stepping up to the man. The prince didn’t make a sound as the two unshackled him, lowering him to the ground. Peter cradled him carefully against his chest, looking up at Tony worriedly.

“The Seelie gave him to me to play with, to make sure that we could make it look like you were the one that killed him,” Rumlow said, glaring at the king. “Then we could take our place as perfect gods to the humans. Where we should be.”

“You know we are fading,” Tony said, stepping forward. “Children are a rarity, the half-Fae grow in numbers. To top it off, war between the courts is forbidden. It was one of the caveats from the infant American government when we moved to this country. What were you thinking?”

“We are gods,” Rumlow said, “and yet the mortals do not bow before us. We could rule them!”

Tony unsheathed Gwir Farwolaeth, staring down at the noble that had been part of his court for almost three thousand years.

“Jarvis, bring me Logan.”

He felt the Sithen call for another member of his guard, his eyes locked on Rumlow’s.

“Are you going to kill me, your majesty?” Rumlow asked, voice dripping with mirth.

“Not yet,” Tony whispered. The blade darted out and kissed Rumlow’s cheek, drawing blood. Rumlow stared, fear finally leeching into his eyes.

The door opened again and another Fae walked in. Logan knelt before Tony, long, narrow blades sliding in and out of knuckles.

“You summoned me?”

“I find myself in need of someone to take over the Hall.”

Logan jerked, looking up in surprise. He met Tony’s eyes and the two stared at each other. They had never been friends, but he thought Tony was a fair and good king. He’d managed to keep the mortals from hunting them down and killing them, and he kept the in-fighting in the noble houses to a minimum.

Logan was one of the few Sidhe that had willingly gone out into the world every hundred years or so, mingling with the mortals. He knew of the world, and Tony had always appreciated that. Logan’s hair was wild, the blades that sprang from his hands twitching with every breath. He had been nearly killed centuries ago, and Tony had rebuilt him with magick and metal. Logan was grateful to him; he was much stronger now.

“Why me?” Logan asked.

“Because you are loyal. You’ve been a strong and treasured member of my guard, and you aren’t needlessly cruel. You’ll do what’s necessary.”

Logan nodded, taking in the sight of the unknown noble in the spiderling’s arms, Rumlow—the man who’d been Tony’s torturer for centuries—on his knees between the two most trusted members of the guard.

“I would be honored, your majesty,” Logan said.

Tony nodded to him, cutting his eyes back to Rumlow. “Lord Rumlow, I strip you of your title. Your house will spend the next one hundred years in exile until I deem them worthy to return. You, on the other hand, will spend the next one hundred years in the Hall of Blood and Bone. You will face the same tortures you have driven against our Seelie guest, and you will be covered in Freyja’s Tears.”

One of the downsides to being immortal was that torture could last a very, very long time.

“No! You cannot do that!” Rumlow screamed, trying to rise. Winter’s silver arm shoved him back down, a ferocious smile on the long haired Sidhe’s face.

“I am the king!” Tony barked. “I can do what I want.”

Freyja’s Tears were one of the worst punishments Tony could think of. The tears heightened sexual desire, the need to be touched, kissed, loved. It could make a mortal Sidhe for a night, their skin glowing with the magick that was inherently Faerie. It could drive a Fae mad.

“Strip him,” Tony said, stepping back and watching as Winter and Logan manhandled Rumlow to the now vacant chains. “Chain him up.”

They tore his fine clothes from his body, chaining him to the wall naked. Rhodey walked to a locked shelf, touching it lightly. It sprang open and Rhodey grabbed a vial of thick, blue liquid.

“The tears,” he said. Logan and Winter pulled on thin latex gloves and Winter took the vial from him. He cracked the seal and the scent of flowers filled the hall.

Rumlow stared in horror at the innocuous vial, shaking in his restraints.

“Your punishment starts now,” Tony said.

“Kill me! You are a merciful king!”

“I was merciful once. It led to the death of my queen. You deserve no mercy. Do it.”

Logan carefully dipped a brush into the vial, the thick liquid clinging to the bristles. He lifted it, touching it to Rumlow’s chest. Rumlow screamed, body arching as the tears clouded his mind with desire. His cock hardened instantly, his screaming growing louder and louder as Logan continued to coat him with the tears.

Tony dropped his eyes to the Seelie noble, unconscious again in Peter’s arms.

“Bring him to my room,” Tony said shortly. “Lord Winter, when you and Logan are finished please join us. Logan, the Hall is yours.”

Both men bowed to him, turning back to their assignment. Rhodey followed Peter as the half spider goblin easily carried the Seelie down the hall. The shadows seemed to caress Tony as he walked, drinking his anger and the magick that soared under his flesh.

“Rhodey, please bring Bruce to my chambers. We will have need of his abilities.”

Rhodey bowed and took off to find the healer. Tony pushed the door to his chambers open and gestured Peter through. “Set him on the bed.”

Peter gently set the Seelie down on Tony’s massive bed.

“Is he going to be okay?” Peter asked, voice soft. Even at over two thousand years old, he sometimes seemed so young to Tony.

“I don’t know, Pete, I don’t know.”

:::

Bruce Banner had been a regular human once. He’d fallen in love with a Seelie woman, followed her to the Seelie Sithen. He spent so much time among Faerie that he ceased aging, magick sinking into his body. It enraged some of the Seelie, those who had been losing power and magick over the centuries as modern technology took over.

They cursed him. He turned into a raging monster, tore parts of the Seelie Sithen down, and accidentally killed the woman he loved. The Seelie court threw him out; they had no place for a former mortal who couldn’t contain his emotions. They had no place for someone as hideous as the creature Bruce Banner turned into.

Tony took him in. Raging green monster or mild mannered human, he didn’t care. The human had been a doctor, the monster was perfectly Unseelie. Tony got along with both of Banner’s aspects, jokingly calling his green rage monster the Hulk.

Now, Bruce was one of the main healers in his court. Healing wasn’t a strong ability in most Unseelie; their magick ran more to tearing a body apart than stitching it back together. Tony sometimes thought that Bruce was too mild mannered for the Unseelie court, but he was respected by nearly everyone for his ability to heal, and no one wanted to piss him off.

Bruce eased into the king’s chambers, noting Tony pacing angrily back and forth. Peter hung from the ceiling, human eyes wet. Rhodey took up a position by the door, closing it behind Bruce.

“Your majesty,” Bruce whispered, eyes drawn to the Sidhe in the king’s bed. He knew that Tony sometimes enjoyed pain in bed, but he had never seen it go this far. His eyes widened as recognition struck him. “This is the missing prince!”

“Rumlow had him in the Hall,” Peter whispered. Bruce looked at the half-spider-goblin swiftly.

“Do what you can for him,” Tony said stiffly, stopping before the red cloak. He ran his fingers down its seam, resting his forehead against the soft fabric. He inhaled deeply, wishing he could remember the scent of his queen. She was six hundred years dead and the cloak was the only thing he had to remember her by.

Bruce looked over the unconscious prince without touching him. Most of the wounds seemed superficial, but his hands worried him. He could see bone and tendon, twisted fingers, skin peeled back.

“What was used on his hands?” Bruce said, opening his old leather medical bag.

“Cold iron,” Winter said, walking in. The Sidhe guard had clearly just showered, damp hair hanging around his shoulders.

“Did he say why?” Tony asked, arms crossed over his chest.

Winter looked at his king. “You know as soon as we coated him in the tears he wouldn’t be coherent. He’s not as strong as he likes to think. He’ll break within a month.”

“Good,” Tony said viciously. Bruce handled the Seelie prince’s hands as gently as he could, the magick that had seeped into his flesh curling gently around his fingers.

“Cold iron means he won’t heal well,” Bruce muttered.

“Just…do what you can,” Tony said, dropping into the chair he had sat in hours earlier. Rhodey walked up to him, gently touching Tony’s shoulder.

“This isn’t your fault.”

“He was in Rumlow’s tender care for a month,” Tony snapped, watching Bruce work. “He was in my Sithen, my kingdom, for a month and I had no idea. How is that not my fault?”

Rhodey didn’t answer. He knew better than to try to talk sense into Tony when he was in a mood.

“I’m going to keep him in a magickally induced coma,” Bruce said some time later. He had cleaned up the prince’s hands as best he could, carefully stitching skin back together over battered tendons and half shattered bones. He covered them in an ointment that worked well on wounds caused by iron and wrapped them carefully.

“He’ll stay here,” Tony said. His chambers were the safest in the Sithen, quite possibly the world. “No one knows about him except those in this room and Logan. Logan will keep his counsel; he hardly speaks to anyone anyway. Until the prince wakes up and can tell us what happened, no one knows about this.”

“Of course, your majesty,” Winter and Rhodey said.

“Yes, your majesty,” Peter and Bruce said, bowing slightly.

Tony stared at the man in his bed, taking in the sharp cheekbones, the clean shaven face, the dark hair, the moonlight pale skin. He thought the man would look better with facial hair, but the Seelie preferred their men with no hair on their face.

He was unaware of the others leaving. The shadows reached for him, caressing him, offering him comfort. He felt the touch of the goddess in the dark and he could only offer a prayer for the broken Sidhe prince in his bed.

:::

The Seelie prince lay in his enchanted sleep, his body healing slowly. Tony slept on a pile of furs on the floor next to the bed, listening to the shallow breaths of the other Sidhe. He knew he needed to make an appearance, appease the court, but he was still so angry that this had slipped by him that he didn’t know if he could keep a handle on his temper.

Bruce checked on his patient multiple times a day, tactfully not saying anything about the dark mood of the king.

“He’s healing as well as can be expected,” Bruce said gently, checking the prince’s hands.

“Is there anything we can do to speed it up?” Tony asked.

“Pray,” Bruce said with a shrug.

Tony nodded. Perhaps Bruce was right.

He called for Rhodey and Winter and the two guards joined him.

“Rhodey, please stay with the Seelie prince,” Tony said swiftly, strapping a short dagger to his calf. “Don’t let anyone in except Bruce or Peter.”

“Where will you be?” Rhodey asked, watching as Tony grabbed a long cloak. The collar was covered in soft black fur from a long extinct Fae creature, the fabric curling around Tony like living darkness.

“The lake. Winter will guard me.”

The two guards nodded and Tony strode through the door, sparing one last look to the Sidhe in his bed.

Rhodey sat in Tony’s empty chair, staring at the moon pale prince. He hoped that Tony found whatever answers he was looking for.

:::

Tony walked through the rose garden, offering his wrist to the slithering mass of flowers. Winter watched as the thorns pricked his skin, drinking royal blood. It still unnerved him even after seeing it for six hundred years. He was glad the roses didn’t want anything from him.

The roses finished drinking from Tony and the king continued to the gate. The roses parted and Tony and Winter stepped through.

The lake at the center of the Sithen was quiet, the Fae moon shining brightly down on them. It always amazed Winter that the courts had their own sun and moon, stars that constantly changed. They walked to the edge of the dark lake, the wind quiet.

“I will wait for you here,” Winter said.

Tony smiled, putting his hand on his friend’s shoulder. He quickly stripped until all he wore was the cloak and the dagger. Winter folded his clothes and sat down, eyes closed.

Tony stepped out onto the water. If anyone chanced upon seeing him, they would think he walked on water. In truth, there was a path just under the surface. Tony walked to the center of the lake, to the small island that only he could step foot on. He fell to his knees in the soft grass, running his fingers over it.

He slid the dagger out of its sheath and drew it across his arm. He watched as dark blood welled up, dripping into the grass.

“I offer my life to you, Goddess,” he whispered.

All I ask is you live your life well, Anthony. It is all I ever ask of my children.

Tony felt Her presence at his side and felt the stress bleed away from him. He glanced up at Her; she wore a blood red cloak with the hood over her face. He couldn’t see her face clearly; one moment she was a beautiful young woman, the next a wise old crone, then a warrior goddess.

Your soul is heavy.

“I have been betrayed. A prince of the Seelie court lays wounded in my bed. They won’t take him back.”

You know this for certain?

“He is no longer perfect in their eyes. Rumlow destroyed his hands.”

The Goddess was silent for a moment, and Tony basked in Her presence. He had always had a close relationship with the Goddess and Her consort. The Unseelie court was blessed by Them, their magick still strong even in the modern day. He had his spies in the Seelie court and from what he could tell, they had a much harder time reaching magick.

Tony sat in silence, soaking in the Goddess’ love.

I can no longer see into the Seelie court. They have turned from me.

Tony jerked, eyes widening. “You let them?”

The Goddess took Tony by the chin, her hand wrinkled and old one moment and smooth and young the next. She tilted his head back and he looked into the shadows of Her hood. He saw flashes of faces; his queen, Wanda of the Demi-Fey, other familiar women. The Goddess was every woman and no woman.

What is the one thing I gave all my children, Anthony?

“Free will,” Tony whispered, dropping his eyes. He felt Her lips graze his forehead and he felt Her love for all her children, even the Seelie.

“What do I do?” Tony whispered.

You are a wise king, Anthony. You will do what feels right.

“What if I mess up?”

She laughed softly, but Tony didn’t feel that She was laughing at him.

Your Seelie prince will awaken soon. You should return to him.

He felt Her lips brush his head again and when he opened his eyes, he was alone. He could still feel Her presence in him, in the Sithen around him.

He stared into the dark water surrounding his little island. As usual, he didn’t feel that the Goddess had actually answered any of his questions, but he felt more at peace than he had since Peter told him he’d found something strange near the hall.

He got to his feet, silently thanking his Goddess as he walked back across the secret path just under the water to Winter.

Winter watched as Tony walked closer, looking for all the world like he was walking on water. He got to his feet as Tony’s feet touched the sandy beach.

“Did She give you answers?” Winter asked, helping him dress.

“In a roundabout way,” Tony said, smiling at him. “She did say that the prince is going to wake up soon.”

Tony didn’t want to think about the Seelie court turning away from the Goddess. What did that mean? Why would they do that?

His spies in the Seelie court had been quiet. He’d speak to Queen Wanda of the Demi-Fey to see if she or her people knew anything.

Winter fell into step next to Tony as they left the lake, the roses covering the secret gate again. He could tell Tony was distracted and kept silent, offering his support to the man that took him in when the Seelie court turned him away.

:::

Stephen stood on a hilltop, a dark forest spread out beneath him. There was an old stone altar before him and he swore there was dried blood on it. He felt that he should be concerned, but he couldn’t bring himself to worry about the blood on the stone, not when he lifted his hands and saw them broken and bloody.

He reared back, a shocked cry tearing from his throat. His hands shook and he sobbed, watching as fresh blood welled from his wounds.

Goddess, what had happened to him?

He lowered his head into his bloody hands and sobbed, shoulders shaking. He was afraid, fear and dread and hatred fighting inside him.

He felt something brush his head and he froze, going completely still. He didn’t know where he was, but he knew he had never seen this place before and he didn’t know what kind of creatures haunted those woods.

Slowly, he lifted his head and came face to face with a beautiful red doe. Her liquid black eyes took him in, her fur a deep red. He felt the fear rush out of him as he stared at her and he lifted a shaking hand.

He drew back before he touched her, unwilling to soil her fur with his blood. The doe huffed and folded her legs, lying down beside him. He found himself leaning against her, her flank warm under his head. She touched her nose to his temple and he let himself drift off, surrounded by the red doe’s love.

Stephen woke slowly. His mind felt muddled and his whole body hurt. Pain ran from his hands up his arms like fire, burning into his nerves. He made a pathetic noise, fingers trying to clench.

“Easy,” an unfamiliar voice said. He felt calloused hands on his bare shoulders, gently helping him to sit up. He kept his eyes closed as the hands helped him settle against soft pillows behind him, his breathing rapid and shallow.

“Water?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“Of course,” the man said. Stephen felt those hands drop from him and heard the person rustling around. A few seconds later one hand was back on his shoulder. “It might be easier if you open your eyes. The lights are low.”

Stephen blinked his eyes. The lights were dim, but he could see that he was in an unfamiliar but well-appointed bedroom. His lower half was covered by rich furs. He didn’t look at his hands; he wanted to get a drink first.

He focused on the crystal goblet in the man’s hand. It was beautifully crafted; he could see creatures of The Wild Hunt etched so lovingly into it that it seemed like they were moving. He swallowed hard; The Hunt was an Unseelie thing. He was in the Unseelie court.

“Drink,” the man said gently, cupping Stephen’s head and holding the goblet to his lips. Stephen drank the water, nearly groaning at the taste. It felt so good running down his parched throat.

Stephen focused on the man as he set the now empty goblet on an ornate bedside table. He was shorter than most Sidhe, broad shouldered and well-muscled. He wore a simple shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Black Sabbath’, which Stephen knew was a human band. A Seelie Sidhe wouldn’t be caught dead in human trappings.

The man had brown hair, kept short in a no nonsense cut, and a darker goatee sprinkled with silver. His eyes were the typical Sidhe triple iris in three shades of brown; the inner circle was a whiskey brown, surrounded by a lighter amber edged in gold. Stephen took a shuddering breath; the Sidhe looked familiar but Stephen couldn’t place him.

He dropped his eyes, finally looking at his hands. He let out a quiet whimper, immediately silencing himself. His hands were wrapped in white cloth, but he could see them trembling.

“Take off the wraps,” he said, voice harsh.

“I need to talk to the healer first,” the Unseelie said.

“Take them off!” Stephen gasped, scratching at the wraps. The Unseelie took his wrists in a gentle hold, easily stopping him. Stephen froze, staring at those honeyed hands against his moon pale skin. He’d never been touched by an Unseelie before, and he half expected the touch to burn.

The Seelie court told awful stories of the dark court; they were all monsters, hiding behind glamour to appear beautiful, they turned away from the Goddess, worshipping dark things, they ate other Sidhe and had public displays of sex during feasts. The king of the Seelie said that his counterpart was the most hideous of all, forcing anyone and anything that took his fancy to his bed, cutting them, holding them in his torture chamber and keeping pieces of them as souvenirs.

The doors opened and two men entered. One was tall, with pale skin and dark brown hair tied back in a knot. He positively bristled with weapons and was clearly a guard. The other was shorter and Stephen felt a shock of recognition. It was Bruce Banner; once beloved of the Seelie court and then cursed for falling in love with a Seelie woman.

Bruce stepped closer, kneeling on the bed next to the Unseelie man. Stephen’s breath came rapidly and his hands trembled.

“Take them off,” he said harshly, looking at Bruce instead of the Unseelie holding his wrists.

Bruce hummed, gently taking Stephen’s hands. The Unseelie Sidhe let go, sitting back slightly and giving Bruce room to work. He started to unwrap Stephen’s left hand, broad fingers exceedingly gentle. Stephen could feel magick running over his skin, checking his wounds. He watched Bruce’s face, remembering when he was cursed and went on a rampage in the Seelie court.

He could feel the eyes of the Unseelie Sidhe on him but he didn’t want to meet those whiskey eyes.

Stephen whimpered when the wraps fell away. He closed his eyes, unable to look. He felt Bruce’s hands unwrapping his right hand and he forced his eyes open when he was finished.

His hands were ruined, twisted and lined with scars. They shook, trembling no matter what he did to stop it. He stared at the dark scars across his skin, tears welling in his eyes. He was ruined. He was useless. He wasn’t perfect.

“What happened to me?” Stephen asked, lifting his head.

“We were hoping you could tell us,” the Unseelie said. Stephen looked at him, dropping his hands to the furs, hoping the support would stem the shaking.

“I…I…I don’t…remember,” Stephen said, a frown marring his face. “That shouldn’t be possible.”

“What do you mean?” the long-haired guard asked. Stephen didn’t look up from his hands; they looked like pale, broken spiders against the dark furs covering his legs.

“I have an eidetic memory. I remember everything. I can’t remember what happened to me,” his voice was flat. He did his best to keep his emotions under control. It wouldn’t do to show weakness in front of the Unseelie.

He had vague memories of the Unseelie Sidhe in the Black Sabbath shirt striding into a room and stopping someone…but he couldn’t remember how he got into that dark room. He stroked the soft fur under his hands, fear rushing through his body.

The Unseelie Sidhe sat next to him, resting one hand on Stephen’s bare shoulder. Stephen gasped, head snapping up as the smell of flowers filled the room. His own magick reared up to meet the Unseelie’s, dark blue butterflies sparking into existence around them.

“Who are you?” Stephen gasped. The Unseelie was clearly Goddess-touched; he could almost feel Her presence in the Sidhe. It had been so long since he’d felt Her that clearly that he couldn’t help but lean into the Unseelie Sidhe.

“My name is Tony,” the Sidhe said gently, holding his hand out as one of the butterflies crawled over his knuckles.

Stephen stared at him for a moment and Tony stared back. Stephen couldn’t take the compassion in his eyes and he looked down at his hands, nearly recoiling from them.

Goddess, they were hideous.

“They’ll never take me back,” he said quietly, holding them up and watching them shake. Bruce kept quietly checking Stephen’s hands, gently rubbing them with an ointment.

“No, they won’t,” the long-haired guard said, drawing Stephen’s gaze to him. Stephen’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open.

“Bucky Barnes,” he whispered.

“Once,” Winter said, “though I don’t go by that name anymore. Bucky was Seelie, and the Seelie turned me out. It’s Winter now. I thought you had recognized me before.” Stephen frowned, dropping his eyes. He remembered hanging from a wall, bloody and broken, and he remembered seeing Winter. He thought he had recognized him, a vague memory of Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers trying to teach a very young Stephen sword play hundreds of years ago floating to the surface.

Winter moved forward, taking off his jacket as he walked to the bed. He sat down next to Stephen, holding his silver arm out.

“But…” Stephen stared at him, barely aware of Tony’s hand on his shoulder. “They said the Unseelie king kidnapped you.”

Winter snorted, resting his silver hand on Stephen’s thigh.

“I was cast out after the last war,” he said gently. “Because I lost my arm. I was no longer perfect in the eyes of the Seelie, so I could no longer be a part of the court. The Unseelie king didn’t kidnap me, he took me in and offered me a safe place to heal, and then he built me this.”

“But…”

“The Unseelie king isn’t a monster, Prince Stephen,” Winter said. “He took care of me, offered me a home in Faerie. The Unseelie find beauty in everyone and every creature, not just the perfect ones. He is a far better king than anything the Seelie have to offer.”

“Rogers,” Stephen murmured, eyes drawn to the silver hand on his thigh.

“What?” Tony asked, squeezing Stephen’s shoulder.

“Two years ago Lord Steve Rogers took the Golden throne.”

“What?” Tony asked, rearing back. He leapt to his feet and started pacing, cursing quietly. Had his spies truly been that compromised? How had he not known that the Seelie had a ruler? The human media had said nothing, and the Seelie court tended to give glowing press releases to those journalists they took a liking to.

“Steve took the throne?” Winter asked.

Stephen nodded, a bit confused by Tony’s reaction. He watched the smaller Sidhe pace across the black marble floor.

“The Sithen chose him?” Tony whispered, running his fingers through his. “Him?”

Stephen tilted his head. “The Sithen? No, a majority of the noble houses agreed and sat him upon the golden throne.”

“The noble houses?” Tony spat. “The noble houses? The Sithen chooses the ruler, not the noble houses.”

“The Sithen has been silent for six hundred years,” Stephen said. “Your Sithen talks to your king?”

Tony went completely still, whiskey eyes glowing with magick. Stephen felt magick swirl around the room, swore he could hear things chittering in the shadows. The lamps in the room guttered, darkness growing more complete.

“Six hundred years,” Tony growled, spinning to face a red cloak hanging on the wall. He slammed his fist against a mirror, shattering it. Six hundred years since the death of his queen, six hundred years since the Seelie had had a true ruler.

“Yes,” Winter whispered, his hand moving to rest on Stephen’s shoulder. Stephen glanced at him quickly, eyes wide. “The Sithen speaks to our king.”

Stephen looked at Tony, the smaller Sidhe crowned by shadows and darkness. He swallowed his fear. He was in the private chambers of the Unseelie king, the monster that the Seelie said haunted their dreams, twisted their forms into hideous monsters, stole their children from their beds.

He had never seen anyone so beautiful in his long life.

:::

The King of Blood and Darkness had stalked from the room moments after Stephen realized who he was. The room seemed brighter without him, the shadows clinging to the Unseelie King as he left. Stephen trembled, staring at the door.

“I don’t…” he whispered, looking down at his hands again. He recoiled, turning his head.

Bruce gently took his hands and started wrapping them again. “King Anthony won’t hurt you.”

“Unless you do something to deserve it,” Winter added. Bruce glared at him and Winter shrugged. “Tony is a fair king, but he is Unseelie through and through.”

“Fair enough,” Bruce murmured, finishing with Stephen’s hands. Stephen felt a pulse of magick from Bruce and the pain eased slightly.

“What will become of me?” Stephen asked hoarsely. Winter leaned over and grabbed the crystal goblet, filling it with water. He helped Stephen drink, steadying the shaking cup.

“That’s up to you,” Winter said with a shrug. “He won’t turn you out. The Unseelie welcome all Fae, no matter their origins.”

Stephen stared at his bandaged hands. “The Seelie will never welcome me again,” he said.

“No. The Seelie are all about physical perfection,” Bruce said, bitterness lacing his tone.

“You don’t remember anything?” Winter asked, setting the goblet back down.

Stephen shook his head, unable to look away from his hands. They’d been beautiful once. The pinnacle of perfection. He’d been able to bend magick to his will, deft fingers pulling forth wonderful creations. His hands had made lovers moan his name, brought pleasure to all he’d been with.

He let out a broken sob, trying to stifle it. He didn’t want to show weakness, especially in front of Bu—Winter.

He had vague memories of Winter from before. He had been very young, but he had memories of Bucky Barnes, Lord Steve Rogers’ right hand man. The two Sidhe had grown up together, Barnes’ mother taking Steve in when his own mother had been killed in the last goblin war. They had been inseparable, never apart. They had been lovers for centuries, Seelie warriors of the highest caliber.

Until the last war, over six hundred years ago. Stephen had been only a child at the time, but he could remember the horror of it. He didn’t know what had prompted the Unseelie king to declare war on the Seelie court, but he remembered the aftermath. Many Sidhe and lesser Fae had been killed.

Bucky Barnes had lost his arm.

The Seelie said that the Unseelie king had kidnapped Bucky, warping his mind and violating his body to get revenge on Steve Rogers, the Seelie’s golden prince. They said he was turned into a mindless killing machine, Unseelie glamour wiping his mind and making him a living doll for the pleasure of the king.

Stephen glanced at Winter. The man seemed relaxed, at ease in the darkness of the king’s chambers.

“You said you weren’t kidnapped?” Stephen finally whispered.

“Nah. After I lost my arm, I tried to go back. Ste—The Seelie told me I wasn’t welcome. I was hideous, and couldn’t taint their hallowed white and gold halls. They turned me out. I think they were expecting me to fade, like many of the other mutilated Seelie Sidhe did.”

Stephen took a deep breath, watching Bruce clean up the mirror the king had shattered. The Sidhe were immortal. Theoretically, they’d live forever, although Stephen was fairly certain the death of the sun would spell the end of the Fae. They couldn’t die, not of natural causes, but they could fade; simply give up on life and disappear.

Winter tilted his head, strands of hair falling into his eyes. “But I didn’t fade. I was pissed. I wandered. A mortal found me. She knew what I was and nursed me back to health as best she could. I stayed with her a long time.”

Stephen brought his attention back to Winter at the wistfulness of the other man’s tone. “You loved her?”

“I did. Her name was Maria Hill. We had two children.”

Stephen stared, his eyes wide. There was only one possible outcome for Sidhe and mortal relations. Winter smiled at him, pulling a necklace out. A bone charm hung from the end of a leather thong. Stephen leaned close, getting a closer look. It was simple, a heart carved out of bone with the words Maria, James, Edwin, and Ana on it.

“She lived a long and prosperous life with me. She joined the Goddess in the summerlands peacefully. My children lived full and long lives. I still visit their descendants to this day.”

Stephen startled when Bruce set a tray with some light food next to him. “Eat,” Bruce said gently. “I’ll leave you and Winter and see to the king.”

Winter nodded and waited for Stephen to take a bite.

“How did you end up here?” Stephen finally asked.

“Maria,” Winter said. “As I watched her and my children age while I remained the same, I seriously considered ways to kill myself. She begged me not to. Said the world would be a darker place without me. I didn’t realize that our little house was on the edge of Unseelie land, but she did. She always set out milk for the wee folk. We’d lived in the Unseelie’s backyard for decades. The king was well aware of me living there, a former Sidhe lord roughing it with the mortals.

“He showed up the day Maria died. Goddess touched as he is, he took her body into his arms and escorted her into the arms of Goddess. Eddie and Ana were grown at that point, both married and living their own lives. I had only been outside the Seelie court for forty years. I was convinced he was going to kill me. There I was, a Seelie noble who had been living on the edge of Unseelie Sithen, and he was the Unseelie king, the monster in the shadows, the thing Seelie parents frighten their children with.

“He looked at me. I must’ve been a mess, but it was like he saw through all that. He told me that he had a place for me if I wanted it. That I could visit my children whenever I wanted. I loved Maria, and my children, but I had missed being around the Fae.”

“We get starved for others like us,” Stephen whispered.

“Yes. I took his offer. I knew I could never go back to the Seelie court. He took me in and built me this arm out of silver and magick. It took me a long time to get comfortable in this court. It is so different from the Seelie, and there were aspects of Faerie that I had never seen before, but Tony never pushed. After my children died, I decided that Bucky Barnes would die with them. I became Winter. Tony called me his Winter Soldier.”

Stephen was silent, stomach settled after the food. “The Seelie said you became a brainwashed monster, the killing hand of the king. A monster.”

“Even monsters are beautiful, Stephen,” Winter said. “Plus, Tony doesn’t need anyone to do his killing for him. He’s quite capable on his own.”

Winter went silent for a moment, staring at the limp red cloak.

“Maybe I am a monster,” Winter said, holding his silver hand out and clenching his fist. “But I am Unseelie now. I am part of a court, close guard and confidant of a good king. I get to see my children’s descendants, and I have Sidhe and Fae lovers. I am happy in the Unseelie court, my prince. Far happier than I remember being in the summer court.”

Winter stood up, grey eyes locked with Stephen’s iridescent ones. “I know it feels like your life is over, but you could find a place here if you wanted. Think on it. I’ll leave you to rest.”

Stephen felt a thread of terror at the thought of being alone in this room, but he didn’t say anything as Winter left, the door clicking shut behind him. His head hurt and he rubbed at his face, hissing when his bandaged hands hit his skin.

He slumped back against the mass of pillows behind him, eyes burning with tears. He thought of what Winter had said. The Seelie were held up as pinnacles of perfection and beauty, particularly by mortals, but no Seelie would ever publically admit to sleeping with a human.

Stephen knew it happened. Sidhe had a particularly robust sexual appetite and humans loved sleeping with pretty people. Hell, Stephen had slept with his fair share of human men and women in his seven hundred years, though love had never been part of it.

Stephen wasn’t sure what to think. He rarely saw love in the Seelie court. Relations were entered into for political prowess or a quick fuck, not for love. His own parents hadn’t loved each other. Stephen had loved his sister, but she’d been abducted and murdered when he was young.

He couldn’t get the wistful sound of Winter’s voice out of his head. His relationship with Maria was doomed from the start. Winter was an immortal Sidhe, Maria had been a human woman, but Winter had sounded like he’d been happy during those years with his human lover, the mother of his half-Sidhe children.

Winter sounded like he was happy now, in the depths of the Unseelie court.

Stephen covered his face with his hands and wept, his soul as broken as his hands.

:::

Stephen wasn’t sure when he fell asleep, but the next thing he knew he was waking up to the sound of someone else in the room. He opened his eyes and his breath caught in his throat. The Unseelie king stood in the room, which made sense; it was his room, but Stephen still felt a thread of fear staring at the Sidhe.

“I can feel your fear,” the king said softly.

Stephen remained silent, forcing himself to sit up. The shadows seemed to reach for the king and he remembered his full title: King of Blood and Darkness.

“Winter says I have nothing to fear from you.”

The king, Anthony, turned to face him. “From me, no.”

“Swear it,” Stephen said.

The king arched his eyebrow, eyes twinkling in amusement. “I swear by the darkness that eats all things that you will not come to physical harm at my hands.”

Stephen stared in shock. That was the most serious oath a Sidhe could offer. If the king harmed him physically, he would be forsworn and could be turned out. The Fae did not lie, though they could twist the truth better than anyone.

Stephen also noticed that he’d said physical harm, and only at his own hands.

“Oddly specific,” Stephen said. Anthony’s lips quirked.

“I cannot vow to keep your mental state unharmed, nor can I swear that the rest of the court will not harm you for some slight. You are under my protection, but I am king of the Unseelie first and foremost.”

“I understand,” Stephen said.

He did feel better now that he had that oath.

“Your majesty,” Stephen started.

“Ugh, Tony, please. I only make people address me like that if I hate them or I’m doing, you know, fancy king stuff.”

Stephen blinked. This Sidhe was nothing like he expected.

“Tony, then,” Stephen said. Tony flashed him a smile and dropped into one of the chairs in the room.

“How are you feeling?” Tony asked.

Stephen shrugged, not looking at his bandaged hands. “I’m not sure, honestly.”

“Makes sense. You woke up in the bedroom of the monster the Seelie court scares their children with.”

Stephen smiled wryly. “And you were quite the terrifying monster to me.”

Tony tilted his head. “You’re not very old, are you?”

Stephen sat up straighter. “I am seven hundred and six, I'll have you know.”

“A literal baby,” Tony said.

“How old are you then?” Stephen asked, crossing his arms briefly before realizing that the motion hurt his hands so he rested them back on the furs across his lap.

“I can’t give you my exact age,” Tony said with a shrug, “but I have fought in every war of the courts, including the goblin wars, and I remember a time when the courts were one.”

Stephen stared in shock. If Tony was mortal, he’d put him in his late thirties or early forties. Sidhe were immortal; they could technically live forever. He knew there were some old Sidhe in the Seelie court, but he’d never met one as old as Tony.

“The last goblin war was two thousand years ago,” Stephen said faintly.

“Was it? Yes, I guess it was. Peter is about that old and he’s a byproduct of that war…I fought in the one before that too.”

“That was over three thousand years ago.”

“So, I’m over three thousand years old,” Tony said with a shrug, putting his feet up on the table in front of him. “I know you have nobles in the Seelie court that are as old as I am.”

“No we…” he closed his eyes, pain lancing through his chest. He was no longer Seelie. He wasn’t part of that court anymore. He let out a slow breath. “No, they don’t. Not really.”

Tony frowned at him, fingers tapping a rhythm on the chair. “What happened then?”

“They faded,” Stephen said softly. Tony went still and Stephen’s breath hitched as the shadows seemed to grow darker. He felt that thread of terror unfurl in him and he did his best not to move.

“When?” Tony finally asked.

“Lord Erskine faded when I was a child.”

“I remember him,” Tony said softly. He was silent for a moment. “What about Lady Frigga? Will I have to break the news to her sons that she has left for Summerlands?”

Stephen shook his head. “No, she is the last of the old ones.”

Tony nodded, resting his head back against the chair, watching Stephen through unfathomable eyes.

Stephen didn’t know what to say. He had spent years with Frigga, learning magick and healing at her knee, but he had never really had much interaction with the old ones outside of his lessons, and now here he was in the presence of a being as old as Faerie itself.

Tony let out a huff and stood up, scrubbing his face. He cast a critical eye over Stephen.

“I imagine you want a bath or something.”

Stephen blinked, suddenly realizing how very dirty he felt. How long had it been since he’d been able to bathe? He wasn’t sure how long he’d been in the Hall of Bone and Blood, and he wasn’t sure how long he’d been unconscious before waking up here.

“That would be greatly appreciated,” Stephen whispered, looking at his bandaged hands. His face felt weird with the very scruffy beard that had grown in. Seelie tended to run clean shaven, and many were incapable of growing facial hair.

Tony gave him a wry smile. “I’ll send Bruce if that would make you more comfortable.”

Stephen looked down, curling his fingers through the thick fur as best he could. “I…I don’t know.”

He started when he felt a calloused hand on his shoulder. When had the king gotten so close to him?

“I am reluctant to leave you alone. Bruce is a good healer, a good man.”

“I know. I spent a lot of time with him when he was with the Seelie,” Stephen said, voice soft.

“If you’re more comfortable with a woman, I can find…someone.” Tony scratched at his goatee. “Maybe. Really, healing and caretaking isn’t exactly an Unseelie trait.”

“You seem to be doing a remarkable job,” Stephen said.

“Rude. You can’t tell anyone. They’ll never take me seriously as the King of Blood and Darkness again.”

Stephen couldn’t help the small laugh that escaped him. “I don’t think taking care of a broken Seelie prince will tarnish your reputation, your majesty.”

“True. I can always cut off someone’s toes if they think I’m going soft.”

Stephen stared at him. “You’re joking, right?”

Tony grinned and headed for the door. “Am I?”

Stephen really hoped he was joking, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t.

A few minutes later, Bruce let himself into the king’s quarters, offering Stephen a smile. “Tony said you wanted a bath?”

“That would be nice,” Stephen said. He did feel a little more comfortable with Bruce. He remembered the man from before. Bruce had been a doctor at the turn of the century and had spent the better part of the last one hundred years in the Seelie court, until they cursed him. He remembered the destruction of parts of the court after Bruce had transformed into a rage monster.

Bruce helped him to his feet. Stephen swayed alarmingly and Bruce wrapped an arm around his waist. Stephen leaned on the smaller man, breathing hard.

“Easy, your highness,” Bruce said, easily steadying him. “You were tortured for a month and in a coma for another. You’re weak.”

“Goddess, was it really that long?” Stephen moaned, his voice breaking.

Bruce’s arm tightened around his waist. “I’m sorry.”

Stephen gave a listless shrug, trying to get his legs to cooperate as Bruce walked them slowly into a spacious bathroom. Stephen took a moment to just look around and gape, because the bathroom was massive. A black marble tub was set into the floor and a shower large enough for six men of Winter’s size stood in the corner. A toilet and sink were side by side, with a large vanity taking up most of one wall.

“Goddess,” Stephen muttered.

“Yes, that is the reaction most have to the king’s privy,” Bruce said dryly, helping Stephen sit on the toilet. “Do you think you’re strong enough to stand for the shower or would you rather sit in the tub?”

Stephen gave the question serious thought. “The tub would probably be safer,” he finally said.

Bruce nodded and started filling the tub. Stephen struggled to get his shirt off, but his hands hurt so much that he couldn’t seem to grasp the thin hem.

“Here, let me help,” Bruce said gently. Stephen sagged, blinking back angry tears. “You are not helpless, no matter what you’re feeling right now. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal, Stephen, and Rumlow did horrible things to you. It’s going to take time.”

Stephen nodded, getting to his feet with help as Bruce helped push his loose pants down. Stephen stood in front of him, completely naked. He felt like he should cover himself but he was just too weak to care. Plus, it wasn’t like Bruce had never seen him naked before.

“You are far too thin,” Bruce murmured, putting his arm around Stephen and helping him into the tub. Stephen moaned as the hot water embraced his sore, thin body. There was a ledge at the perfect height for him to recline on, the water up to his clavicle.

Bruce scooped some of the water into his hands and Stephen watched as he held it up to his face, whispering to the water. He spread his fingers and the water fell, splashing into the tub. The water flared a deep blue and Stephen couldn’t hold back the moan as magick spread through the water.

“A minor healing spell,” Bruce said, standing up and digging through the vanity until he found shampoo.

“It feels wonderful,” Stephen admitted. He was silent a moment, watching Bruce contemplatively. “You seem stronger here.”

Bruce hummed, gesturing for Stephen to dip his head under the water. Stephen complied and felt strong hands scrubbing at his hair. He resurfaced, water dripping down his face and off his beard.

“I guess I am, in a way.”

“Are the Unseelie so much more powerful than the Seelie then?” Stephen asked, a thread of bitterness in his voice.

“I don’t think so,” Bruce said, squirting shampoo into his palm and gently working it into Stephen’s hair.

“The Seelie court has been weakening for years. Almost since we moved to America. And yet here I have seen shadows reach for the king and have felt the magick curling through him. And you. You never would’ve been able to do that with the water before.”

“You’re right. In my time among the Seelie, I rarely saw anyone speak to the Goddess or the Consort. Here, the king is beloved of the Goddess, chosen long ago to lead us.”

Stephen was silent, ducking back under the water when Bruce asked him to.

“The Goddess has turned her back on the Seelie court,” Stephen whispered.

Bruce tilted his head. “Has She turned her back on the court, or did the court turn its back on Her?”

Stephen couldn’t answer. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.

They remained silent after that, Bruce helping Stephen when he needed it. Finally, he helped Stephen from the water, wrapping him in a thick towel. He sat on the toilet, thoughts chasing each other in circles in his mind.

“Do you want to get rid of the beard?” Bruce finally asked. Stephen stood and looked at himself in the mirror. He felt stronger after the bath and knew it was part of the magick Bruce had imbued the water with.

He touched the dark hair curling from his cheeks, eyes caught on the red and angry scars on his fingers.

He thought of Winter, once Bucky Barnes, who had said that Bucky was dead.

Maybe the old Stephen was dead too. He couldn’t go back to the Seelie. They would never take him back, and even if they did, he would never truly be accepted there.

He didn’t know if he wanted to be part of the Unseelie court. He didn’t know if he could be. Bucky—Winter—had been a soldier in the Seelie court. He’d been a fighter and killer, side by side with his golden other half.

Stephen was none of those things. He’d been better at magick than many of the Seelie, leading to jealousy by some. He abhorred killing and the court politics. Yes, he was a noble, but he rarely felt like it. He preferred to be out in nature, speaking to some of the lesser Fae. He had been a remarkable healer. His hands had been able to channel healing magick better than anyone in the Seelie court.

He held his hands in front of his face. They trembled, shaking and twitching. He swore he could still feel the crush of cold iron on his fingers.

What could his hands do now?

“I’m not sure I should shave yet,” he said, clenching his fists and ignoring the sharp bite of pain.

“I can help if you trust me too,” Bruce said.

Stephen met his eyes in the mirror. Bruce didn’t have the triple iris eyes distinctive of Sidhe. It had disturbed Stephen at first, but now they were just Bruce’s eyes.

“Yes, please.”

Bruce nodded and got the stuff out to shave Stephen’s face. “You want it all off?”

Stephen closed his eyes, thinking. An image of the king flashed in his mind, his well cultivated facial hair, the turn of his lips.

“Maybe leave a bit, around here,” he said, dragging his fingers around his mouth. Bruce’s lips curled in a smile but he didn’t say anything. The drag of the razor over his skin was comforting, loud in the silence of the bathroom.

:::

Tony moved silently through the shadows, the darkness curled around him like a lover. He’d given the slip to his bodyguards, needing some time to himself. He found himself before the Hall and he rested his hand on the door, reaching out to Jarvis with his mind.

Logan was gone for the moment, eating or sleeping, perhaps, and the only beings in the room were those that were there for punishment.

He pushed open the door and walked past those that were there for lesser offenses, heading for the back of the Hall, where the worst offenders were kept.

Like Rumlow.

He could hear Rumlow’s breathy, needy, desperate moans as he walked deeper into the Hall. It had been a month since he’d stripped Rumlow of his noble title and had him sentenced. A month under the effect of Freyja’s Tears, new layers of it getting painted on him once every other day.

He came to a stop in front of Rumlow, staring at the man. He no longer hung from the wall, but he was curled in a tiny ball, fist working frantically as he tried to bring himself to completion.

He could come over and over again, but it would never offer any release. It was almost crueler that Logan had let him down from the wall to let him touch himself. He’d be screaming with desire, begging to be touched, yearning for completion and unable to touch himself otherwise.

Tony would have to offer Logan a raise.

“Hello, Rumlow,” Tony said, voice low. The shadows behind him chittered excitedly, dark laughter echoing off the walls.

Rumlow’s back arched off the wall as his eyes snapped up to meet Tony’s. Tony could see the way his skin glistened with the tears, glowing softly with magick. Rumlow, like all Sidhe, was beautiful, but Tony felt nothing for him as he stared down at the man.

Rumlow’s pupils were wide with desire and he reached a shackled hand out for Tony. His wrists and ankles were raw, the iron of the shackles burning his flesh and fettering his magick. His dick was red and throbbing, blood leaking from the slit and from where Rumlow had rubbed himself raw in his attempt to bring himself to orgasm.

“My king,” Rumlow slurred, reaching for Tony again. Tony stood just out of reach, watching impassively as Rumlow moaned and wrapped his hand around himself again, starting his desperate jerking once more.

“Who brought Stephen to you?” Tony whispered. It had been eating at Tony since he’d found Stephen in Rumlow’s tender care. How had he gotten a Seelie prince in without Jarvis’ notice? It would’ve taken a powerful glamour to hide from the Sithen. Rumlow moaned, panting Tony’s name, hand moving faster and faster. Tony stared at him.

“Help me, please,” Rumlow cried, hips jerking as he came over his fist. He never stopped his movements.

“Tell me who brought Stephen to you and I’ll help you,” Tony promised.

Rumlow laughed, hips stuttering as he kept stroking his cock.

“Answer me!” Tony barked. The darkness writhed behind him, caressing him. His eyes glowed with power and Rumlow screamed.

Tony pressed his hand against Rumlow’s head, the tears in the man’s hair sinking against his skin. Tony hissed, arousal spiking through his body but he ignored it.

“Tell me!” Tony roared, darkness roiling down his arm.

Anthony Stark was the King of Blood and Darkness; both called to him. He could call blood forth from his enemies, making them bleed out from a papercut. He could sense blood connections, relations. But his true power lay in darkness and shadows. It was said that if someone spoke his name in the dark he would hear it, no matter where they were. He could vanish in darkness, travel through it with ease, and he could shove it into the minds of his foes.

Magick poured over Rumlow, black shadows slithering across his naked body. Rumlow’s panicked screams got louder and louder until a shaft of darkness plunged into his mouth, silencing him.

The shadows cut his skin, Freyja’s tears seeping into his wounds and his bloodstream. Brock Rumlow had once sworn allegiance to Tony, mixing their blood in an ancient ritual. It gave Tony access to his mind and Tony took advantage of it.

He tore into Rumlow’s mind, searching for the answer he so desperately needed.

He saw flashes of Stephen in the Hall, how he screamed when Rumlow drove cold iron into his fingers, shattered his bones, tore the flesh from his back. He saw flashes of Rumlow with his lovers, Sidhe and lesser Fae alike. Multiple times with the Widow of the court, her blood red hair spread across Rumlow’s pillow.

A flash of Rumlow meeting people outside the Sithen, but they were cloaked and Tony couldn’t see past the hoods of their cloaks. Stephen stood between them, eyes blank, hands held in front of him, shackled together. Blood dripped from his nose. Rumlow took the chain from the taller of the cloaked Fae’s hands and tugged Stephen after him.

One of the cloaked ones pressed their hands against the outside of the Sithen and Tony knew they were confusing it, cloaking Rumlow’s actions.

Tony screamed in rage and pulled back, staring down at Rumlow with disgust. Blood dripped from his nose, his eyes were as blank as Stephen’s had been in the vision, yet his hand never ceased his motion on his cock.

“You betrayed me,” Tony whispered. “You betrayed me and you betrayed my court. I doubt you remember who I was before I was king, but I do, and the Goddess does. I name you Oathbreaker.”

No response from Rumlow, but Tony wasn’t expecting one. He’d seen it before; darkness could break even the strongest Sidhe warrior.

“Remember this, Oathbreaker, because I know you can still hear me. You swore yourself to me, and you betrayed me. I could kill you now, but I won’t. This…this is better. You will suffer, and when your sentence is complete, well…” He leaned forward, his lips grazing Rumlow’s ear. Rumlow shuddered, letting out a soft moan at the feel of Tony’s lips on his skin.

“I will hunt you, and I will enjoy it.”

Tony spun on his heel, lips glistening with Freyja’s Tears from Rumlow’s skin. His pants were tight, arousal coursing through his body. It was mostly an effect of the tears, but he was Unseelie through and through; sometimes he found the screams and the sound of flesh parting beneath his hand to be quite arousing on its own.

Rumlow’s desperate screams for Tony followed him from the Hall, but Tony didn’t stop.

He never looked back as he left Rumlow to his fate.

:::

Tony strode through the halls, quivering with rage and arousal. He needed to wash off the tears and he needed to rub one out, not necessarily in that order. He headed straight for his rooms, desperate.

Rhodey seemed to materialize out of the shadows, blocking Tony’s path.

“You went to see Rumlow,” Rhodey murmured, staring at the king’s glistening lips. Winter stepped up behind Tony.

“I questioned him,” Tony said, voice tense.

“Did he give you anything?” Winter asked. Both he and Rhodey avoided touching the king, not wanting to be contaminated by the tears.

“I tore into his mind. He didn’t get Stephen here alone. There were at least three others, but they were cloaked and I couldn’t see them.”

Tony closed his eyes, swaying on his feet. He lurched closer to Winter, reaching for him. Winter grabbed him with his silver hand, knowing the tears wouldn’t affect him through the metal.

“You need to wash off,” Rhodey said.

“That’s where I was heading,” Tony snapped. He was still angry, enraged, that he was no closer to answering the riddle that was Prince Stephen Strange of the Seelie.

“If you charge into your chambers covered in blood and Freyja’s Tears, half aroused and enraged, you will terrify the prince,” Winter said.

Tony looked down at himself. He hadn’t even realized he’d been spattered with Rumlow’s blood. He hadn’t realized he’d torn into him that much with the shadows.

“I don’t care,” Tony snarled.

“Yes you do,” Rhodey said.

Tony snarled and tried to shove them off, but Winter’s metal arm didn’t let go of him.

“Bruce helped the prince clean up and got him to eat. He’s sleeping again,” Rhodey said.

Winter leaned close. “Come with us before you go terrifying the poor prince.”

“You weren’t scared of me when we met,” Tony gasped out, another spike of arousal shooting through him.

“I was terrified, actually,” Winter said simply. “Stephen has been through enough and isn’t ready to handle you in all your Unseelie glory.”

Tony sagged between them, the fight going out of him in an instant. “Fine.”

Rhodey and Winter walked the king to Winter’s quarters, near the royal suite. The guards all shared a wing and they passed some of the other guards in the common room.

“Shower,” Winter said, shoving Tony to the bathroom. Tony staggered away, disappearing into Winter’s private bathroom.

“I’ll go grab him some clothes,” Rhodey said. “He’s going to be here awhile.”

“Good plan,” Winter said.

“He’s going to go mad trying to figure this out.”

“We all are,” Winter replied, taking up a guard position outside the door. “If what Rumlow said when we found him is true, the Seelie are trying to instigate a war with us.”

“That would be bad,” Rhodey said.

“As ever, you remain the master of understatement.”

“Do you think Tony will go to war over him?”

Winter was silent for a moment. “I have seen the way he looks at the prince. There is a sadness in him.”

Rhodey squeezed Winter’s shoulder and walked out, leaving Winter to listen to the king’s desperate moans.

:::

The times Stephen spent alone were the worst. He had nothing to distract him from the pain, from the darkness. He knew the king’s chambers backwards and forwards, from the outrageously appointed bathroom to the little library off to the side that had a surprising amount of mortal books, to the little kitchenette in the corner. There was another room that seemed to be a workshop of some kind, with a forge in the corner. That room seemed to be the most lived in of the king’s suites.

Before coming here, Stephen would’ve figured the room to be all black with nothing to relieve the darkness, but the room was surprisingly open and rather normal, much to his surprise. The bed had deep red sheets and thick furs that covered it, and the furs were a mix of blacks and browns from whatever animal they’d been taken from. The kitchenette had black marble countertops but the rest was silver. The library was filled with mahogany bookcases and a fireplace with a comfortable chair in front of it.

Stephen spent most of his time in the library. The king had some truly strange reading habits, but even the adventures of a boy wizard weren’t enough to distract Stephen from the pain and the utter uselessness that overwhelmed him every day.

He stood in the workshop once, staring at the half finished suits of armor. He could feel the magick in the room, in the armor. He ran his finger down the chest plate, staring at the blue light that came from its chest. He didn’t know how it was forged, but he could see the beauty in it.

He wondered if Tony had forged any weapons that would be capable of ending his life.

He wondered if the king would kill him if he asked.

:::

Stephen didn’t see the king for what felt like weeks after Bruce helped him bathe the first time. Bruce still helped him shave, but Stephen could nearly do it on his own now. He felt better physically, though he still couldn’t remember how he’d gotten here. The last two years or so were hazy, like he was trying to gaze at them through opaque water. It frustrated and scared him. He had an eidetic memory and he remembered everything.

So why were the last two years since Rogers’ coronation muddled in his mind? And the three months before he’d woken up in the bed of the Unseelie king were completely blank. He remembered nothing and he hated it.

Bruce spent quite a bit of time with him and Stephen was grateful for it. The human was a calm presence, using healing magicks on his hands every day. Stephen knew they would never stop shaking, but he was getting to the point where he could at least hold a cup without dropping it. Bruce ran him through physical therapy every day, and never seemed to get angry when Stephen got nasty with him, lashing out in pain.

He fell into dark, maudlin moods and he considered ways to end it. He thought about just…giving up and fading away, but Bruce never left him alone long enough for him to really try it.

They played chess and Bruce told him of his time in the Unseelie court. The first time he’d lost his temper in the court and destroyed part of the great hall he expected to be put down like a rabid dog. It was what the Seelie would’ve done. But the king had seemed utterly delighted by the destruction.

“Tony’s one of the few that seems to truly like both my aspects,” Bruce said, moving his chess piece. “He says my rage monster is always up for a good smashing and that I’m smart enough to keep up with him when he goes on one of his tangents.”

“Is he a good king?” Stephen asked, studying the board.

“I think that depends on your definition of good. He’s been the king of the Unseelie for more than two thousand years. He has led them to victory in the goblin wars and the wars against the Seelie. Few have tried to overthrow him, and they have paid for it with their lives. The Unseelie thrive under his rule, and he has treaties with the goblins and the queen of the Demi-Fey. Even those smaller courts of the Unseelie have grown and thrived. Is he a good king? I guess, yes. He was chosen by the Sithen, by the Lord and Lady, and we all know it. Those who don’t love him, fear him, and he’s more than okay with that.”

“And what about mortals?”

“He has a fondness for them. He says they live their lives in the moment, a flash of brilliant light against the slow burn of a Sidhe’s lifespan. He spends time among them, though they don’t seem to recognize him. I think he likes it. I know he goes with Winter to visit Winter’s descendants.”

Stephen moved his piece and pulled his plate closer. Bruce was quite insistent that he eat to get his strength back, even if Stephen didn’t particularly want to.

“So Winter really fell in love with a human?”

“Yes,” Bruce said, a smile crossing his face. “His descendants have done quite well for themselves, though most part Sidhe do. I believe his many times great granddaughter calls him Uncle Winter though. He says his face is too pretty to be called grandfather.”

Stephen arched his eyebrow and watched as Bruce studied the board.

“You fell in love with a Sidhe,” Stephen said, tilting his head.

Bruce nodded, finally moving his piece. “I did. And as far as I know, Betty loved me. It was her father that disapproved.”

“Lord Ross,” Stephen murmured, lip curling in distaste.

“Yes,” Bruce said dryly. “He’s the one that cursed me. I lay the blame for Betty’s death at his feet, even if it was by my hands.”

“I did not mean to bring up painful memories,” Stephen said carefully. “I remember you and her. You both seemed happy.”

“I appreciate that,” Bruce said, waiting for Stephen to make his move. “It’s less painful thinking about her now. Tony actually sent me to therapy, believe it or not. He’s got a human therapist on retainer for the Unseelie.”

Stephen stared. “He doesn’t seem to be anything like the horror stories I’ve heard all my life.”

“Don’t let his nice side fool you. Tony loves his friends, yes. He does anything in his power to make them happy and take care of those he cares for. However, he is king of the Unseelie, King of Blood and Darkness. He has older titles that we cannot speak. He can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. If he is betrayed he reacts swiftly and without prejudice.”

“He’s also beautiful,” Stephen pointed out. “The Seelie never mentioned that bit.”

“Of course he’s beautiful,” Bruce said carelessly. “All Sidhe are beautiful. Physically, at least. I was surprised too. It took me awhile to be able to look at some of the less human looking of the Unseelie without freaking out when I came here.”

“Less human?” Stephen knew of the lesser Fae, but those that appeared in the Seelie court were always beautiful, always perfect.

“The goblins, the nightflyers, the lesser Fae. The Sidhe are humanesque, they are easy to look at. There are things that haunt the shadows, things that should never be seen by light.”

“I haven’t seen any of those creatures yet…” Stephen said.

“Of course you haven’t. Tony has shut down this wing of the Sithen to keep people away from you. He wants you to be as healed as possible before he subjects you to the court.”

Stephen frowned. It just seemed to be another example of the kindness of the king of the Unseelie. It didn’t make sense to him.

“Then why hasn’t he come to see me lately?” Stephen asked, realizing that he sounded a bit like a petulant child.

“He nearly killed the Sidhe that tortured you,” Bruce said, locking eyes with Stephen. “He was trying to get answers and Rumlow gave him nothing. Winter and Rhodey managed to convince him to stay away for a few days. When he is deep in his rage he is not a man you want to be around, especially if you’ve never been around an Unseelie Sidhe full in their power.”

Stephen dropped his eyes, looking at his scarred hands. The name Rumlow meant nothing to him and he felt it should spark something, some recognition.

There was nothing.

“What other Seelie rumors are true of the Unseelie?” Stephen finally asked, lifting his eyes.

“Well, they have a much more open view of sex than the Seelie. The Seelie are more…human with their views of sex. It is something that happens in private, something to hide. The Seelie hide their pleasure, but the Unseelie take joy in it.”

“So what, the rumors of massive orgies are true?”

“Depends on what you think of massive,” Bruce said, half grinning. “But yes. The Unseelie don’t hide their pursuit of pleasure, but consent is always sought out. That’s important, especially if you ever decide to lay with a goblin. They cut bits off as foreplay between each other, but you can negotiate beforehand.”

Stephen looked at him, horrified. “Have you…”

“Had sex with a goblin? Yes, but not in this form. The Hulk, as Tony calls my green rage monster, likes the goblins. He looks a lot like a goblin, big and green that he is, although they do lament the lack of extra limbs.”

Bruce smiled at the shocked expression on Stephen’s face. “The king took me to bed when I first arrived.”

“The Seelie say that the king forces everyone to have sex with him and that he enjoys inflicting pain on his partners.”

“Have you seen Tony? He doesn’t have to force anyone to have sex with him. When his queen was alive, he was very loyal to her. He loved her fiercely. Rhodey and Happy—”

“There’s an Unseelie Sidhe named Happy?” Stephen interrupted incredulously.

Bruce chuckled. “Yes. He and Rhodey have been with the king the longest. Anyway, they said that sometimes the king and queen would invite others to their bed, but they were true to each other.”

Stephen frowned. He didn’t remember anything about an Unseelie queen.

“What happened to her?”

“Died,” Bruce said, eyes flicking to the limp red cloak that hung near the bed. “Killed, actually, but that is not my place to tell that story. It happened well before I was alive, at the end of the last war.”

Stephen did quick math. He had been a child at the end of that war, innocent of the knowledge of what the war had truly done to the courts.

“After that, Rhodey said the king went one hundred years without touching anyone before he invited Winter to his bed. They’ve been lovers off and on since then, though they aren’t exclusive to one another.”

“And the stories of him inflicting pain?”

“True, I guess, but only if his partner asks. He has a torture chamber for a reason, Stephen. He can get his rocks off there if he needs to inflict pain just because. He is a very thoughtful lover, and will do his damnedest to bring his partner or partners pleasure.”

“He seems to be nothing but contradictions,” Stephen muttered, finally moving his chess piece.

“He is over three thousand years old, Stephen. He doesn’t even know his exact age. He saw the rise of the pyramids, met Alexander the Great if you actually believe that story, watched the fall of the old gods and the rise of Christianity. He’s seen kings and queens fall, countries join together and split apart. He remembers a time when there was only one Fae court. He is old in a way I can barely fathom. Of course he’s nothing but contradictions. I’m amazed he isn’t completely insane.”

“Who says I’m not?” a voice came from the door.

Stephen spun, heart pounding in his chest as Tony stepped into the room. Centuries of being told of the Unseelie king’s temper rose in his mind and he drew back, trying to become as small as possible. Tony glanced at him, then did a double take, eyes moving over Stephen’s face. Through the flood of terror in Stephen’s veins, he realized that Tony hadn’t seen the new facial hair. Tony nodded appreciatively.

“I like it, Stephen,” he said, closing the door behind him. He walked deeper into the room and noticed how tense Stephen was. He drifted around Bruce, glancing at the chess board between them.

“I interrupted your game,” Tony said, making sure not to step too close to Stephen.

“Stephen was about to kick my ass anyway,” Bruce said with a shrug.

Tony looked Stephen up and down. “You look better,” he said. “Great, actually. Digging the facial hair. It suits you.”

“Bruce has been taking good care of me,” Stephen whispered, his hands folded on his lap. Was he blushing? He felt like he shouldn’t be blushing from a throwaway compliment from the king.

“Brucie does that,” Tony said, stepping around them to one of the free chairs.

“Any word from the Seelie?” Bruce asked.

“Nothing. They’ve gone quiet. I sent Natasha as an emissary to try to meet with the king, but she says the Sithen is closed and no one will come see her.”

“Odd,” Bruce said.

“One word for it,” Tony mumbled, stretching out on the chair.

“The Goddess say anything about it?”

“The Goddess speaks to you?” Stephen asked, surprise in his voice.

Tony arched an eyebrow. “Every day. You haven’t heard Her voice?”

Stephen opened his mouth and then closed it. “Not for a long time,” he whispered.

“That a Seelie thing or a you thing?” Tony asked, tilting his head.

Stephen’s shoulders lifted in a shrug. He didn’t entirely know.

“I…I used to be a healer. Like Bruce.”

“Better than me, actually,” Bruce interjected. “I watched you mend bones, bring lesser Fae back from near death. You were certainly goddess touched for healing.”

“What does it matter anymore?” Stephen said, bitter as he stared at his hands. “I’ll never be able to heal anyone again with hands like these.”

“Have you tried?” Tony asked, getting up and moving to a black cabinet that blended into the wall. He opened it, pulling out a bottle of whiskey. He held it up, offering a drink to Bruce and Stephen. Bruce shook his head but Stephen shrugged, so Tony poured the drink into two tumblers, only half full, and dropped some ice in. He carried the glasses over and set one down in front of Stephen.

Stephen took it, staring at the trembling liquid as his hand shook. He felt a wash of anger flood over him and he wanted to throw the glass, but he didn’t. He drank it instead, throwing it back in one go. Tony arched his eyebrow and sat back down.

“I ask again, have you tried?” Tony said, savoring the good whiskey instead of slamming it back.

“No,” Stephen said shortly. “The only time I’ve been able to get any magick to come to my hands was when you touched me.”

“The butterfly. Very Seelie, very pretty,” Tony said. “But have you tried?”

“What do you want me to do?” Stephen snarled, half standing up. Tony tilted his head back, honeyed eyes watching him intently.

“Find the will to live,” Tony said.

Stephen reared back like Tony had slapped him, staring at him with wide eyes. “What?”

“I’ve seen it before. You think you’re the first Seelie Sidhe to find themselves here? Not all handle it. Many lose the will to live and fade. I don’t want to see that for you.”

“Why? You barely know me.”

“Maybe I want to get to know you. Maybe you intrigue me. You’re something different, and as Bruce said, I’m old. I’ve seen a lot. But you’re different and I want to know why.”

“Because I somehow ended up in your torture chamber without you knowing?”

“That’s part of it. I want to know how they got you in without Jarvis knowing. I want to know why the Seelie threw you out before your hands were ruined. What defect did they see in you? I know you’re not like Loki.”

“Loki?”

“Loki was born Unseelie, but the old king of the Seelie stole him when he was baby. Lokes grew up in the Seelie court.”

“He left. I remember this story.”

“He most certainly did not leave. Odin threw him out for his less than Seelie-like proclivities. Couldn’t get the Unseelie out of him. Odin just didn’t expect his golden son to leave and follow him here. And then…well, I cut off Odin’s head and got two fine Sidhe lords. Win-win for all.”

Stephen looked a little confused. He wasn’t sure what the truth was, but he decided he didn’t care. He didn’t know Loki, and he didn’t remember Thor.

“What do you mean I’m not like Loki?”

“You weren’t born Unseelie like him,” Tony said, watching Bruce clean up the chess board. “You are Seelie through and through. Unlike Winter, you didn’t get time outside the court before joining mine. You were forced into this, quite against your will. I mean, I’m assuming you didn’t ask to be stuck in the Hall of Blood and Bones.”

“Fairly certain I didn’t even if I don’t remember the last three months.”

Tony leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “So yes, Bruce has been reporting to me the past week that I’ve stayed away. You’re depressed, which is completely understandable. You’re lashing out. I don’t want you to fade, Stephen.”

They sat in silence, Stephen unaware of the tears rolling down his face. Tony kindly didn’t say anything about it, the hand not wrapped around his mostly empty glass of whiskey reaching out to pet the red cloak hanging from the wall.

Tony gave Stephen the illusion of privacy as the two sat there, Bruce having left unnoticed. Tony nursed his whiskey and stared wistfully at the cloak.

“I don’t want to fade,” Stephen finally whispered. Tony’s eyes snapped to his face and he let the cloak slide through his fingers. “I don’t. I just…it hurts so fucking much. My hands. My head. My heart. I just want it to stop hurting.”

Tony stood up and crossed over to Stephen, kneeling in front of him. Stephen stared in something like shock. The king was kneeling in front of him. That shouldn’t be possible. It didn’t feel right.

“You shouldn’t kneel in front of me,” he gasped, wringing his hands.

“Stop,” Tony said, gently taking Stephen’s hands in his. Stephen went completely still; it was the first time the king had touched him since that day he woke up. The king’s hands were rough, callouses on his fingers and scars on his palms. They were the hands of a Sidhe who was used to work, who worked with his hands. So different from the soft hands he was used to feeling of the Seelie, of his own hands. He felt that magick spark across his skin again and blue butterflies seem to spark into existence, fluttering weakly on their hands.

Tony watched the butterflies, not saying anything for a moment.

“I understand pain,” Tony whispered, rocking back on his heels. He glanced up at Stephen then at the door, apparently checking that they were alone. He let out a breath and let go of Stephen’s hands. Stephen immediately felt the loss, barely swallowing the pathetic cry he wanted to make.

He watched as Tony’s deft fingers pulled his shirt off and Stephen felt the breath leave him in a rush. Tony’s chest was a mass of scar tissue, cutting across his sternum and down below his pecs. He knew that whatever had happened had to have been awful; Sidhe healed incredibly fast and for him to have scarred that much meant that the wounds had been near fatal. He thought one of the scars looked oddly like a hand print, and he knew that another Sidhe was the cause of that one.

“What…” Stephen whispered, his hand trembling violently as he reached out. He stopped just short of touching Tony’s chest. Tony gently grasped his wrist and pressed his hand against his chest. Stephen stared at his hand pressed over Tony’s heart, his own tripping away under his breast.

Many Sidhe could only affect others with magick through touch. It was one of the reasons Sidhe duels were so brutal and short. The fact that Tony trusted him enough to allow him to touch old wounds made Stephen feel odd, a bit like he was floating. Tony either trusted Stephen, or believed in his own ability to shut Stephen down if he tried anything.

Stephen didn’t know what option scared him more.

“Some of these happened in battle,” Tony said idly, looking Stephen dead in the eyes.

“And this one?” Stephen whispered, covering the handprint with his own hand. He couldn’t feel as well as he could before his hands had been destroyed; it was like touching everything wearing a pair of eternally cold gloves. He could feel that the flesh was raised, smoother than the rest of his chest.

“That one…” Tony let out a breath. “Someone I trusted literally tried to tear my heart out. It was thousands of years ago, Stephen, and I wanted to fade after he tried to kill me. He wanted my throne, and he wanted my power. I had just ascended to the throne a few decades earlier. I was still learning and I leaned on him for a lot.

“I was chosen by the Goddess and the Sithen. Anyway, I made some foolish mistakes back then, did some things as king that I’m not proud of, but I thought Obie had my back. Until the day he pinned me down and used his magick to try to tear my heart from my chest.”

Stephen’s breath came in shallow pants, his own heart twisting in pain.

“He tried to turn my flesh inside out, tried to force me to shift forms. I have never felt such pain as that, and not just the physical. I had loved him as a father, as a brother, and he betrayed me.”

“How did you survive?” Stephen whispered, fingers tracing the outline of the scar. He was acutely aware of how warm Tony’s chest was beneath his palm.

“Obie forgot who I was before I was king,” Tony said, shaking his head before Stephen could ask. “And I cannot tell you, not yet. But I hold power over blood and darkness, and I used it against him. He is still in the Hall of Blood and Bone.”

Stephen reared back, horrified. That made it sound like this Obie person was still alive. Being immortal did have a few very serious consequences. Tony squeezed his wrist and stood up, still shirtless.

“I wanted to give up after Obie quite literally broke my heart. We didn’t have healers, though a young Seelie Sidhe came to me and helped as best she could. She showed me a love that I had only ever received from the Goddess. She loved me for me, not because of who I had been or that I was now the king. Pepper was the most beautiful creature I had ever met. I wanted to give up, to just fade and join the Goddess. Every day brought nothing but pain. Every day the court watched me for weakness, waiting for their own chance to strike, and part of me wanted to let them. I can’t tell you the number of duels I fought after that, how many were vying for my throne.”

“Why didn’t you give up?” Stephen whispered.

“Spite, mostly. If I gave up, Obie won. They all won. Every single one of them who had said that I wouldn’t make a good king, that I’d lead the Unseelie to ruin. They would’ve won and I didn’t want that. So I forced myself to get up every day and face them. I forced myself to talk to a Goddess I thought had betrayed me by letting Obie nearly kill me. I had people there for me; Pepper and Rhodey and Happy and countless others, and one day I realized I didn’t want to do it out of spite. I just wanted to live. I wanted to be king because I knew I could be a good king. I wanted to talk to them because they are my court, my family. I wanted to speak to the Goddess because She loves us, loves me, even with all my faults.

“I want that for you, Stephen. I don’t want this to break you.”

Tony bent over and pressed his lips against Stephen’s hair. Stephen thought he could smell flowers and felt a warmth he hadn’t felt since waking in the Unseelie court wash through him.

“Rest, Stephen. We will speak more in the morning.”

Stephen’s eyes felt heavy as he lay back on the king’s bed, the phantom touch of chapped lips burning against his forehead.

He thought the king stayed in the room, but he couldn’t be sure.

When he awoke, he was alone, but he could still feel the beat of Tony’s heart beneath his hand.

:::

Stephen often thought about what the king had told him in the following days. Winter or Rhodey or Bruce stayed with him, playing chess or cards or just offering him companionship. He couldn’t keep Tony’s words from his mind.

If he gave up, if he faded, whoever put him here won.

He was quite surprised to realize he didn’t want them to win. He wanted to know why he’d been turned out of the Seelie court, his home, and left to be tortured in the darkness of the Unseelie court. He wanted to know who was behind it, and he wanted his damn memories back.

“Winter?” Stephen asked, looking up from his book.

Winter closed his copy of A Kiss of Shadows and looked at Stephen. “Yes, Stephen?”

Stephen stared into Winter’s tricolor grey eyes and swallowed. He always felt like Winter was staring right through him, seeing every secret laid bare.

“I have…I want…I’d like…to see the sun again.”

Winter’s eyes widened slightly and he bowed his head. “Of course. You haven’t stepped foot outside these rooms since you woke up three months ago.”

“Please don’t think I’m ungrateful,” Stephen said, holding out a shaking hand.

Winter shook his head. “Of course not. You are healing, albeit slowly. I would go crazy if I wasn’t allowed to leave. I must talk to Tony. Your existence is still a secret from the court at large.”

Stephen’s eyes widened. “If the Unseelie are anything like the Seelie, gossip flows faster than wine.”

Winter’s lips twitched in a smile. “This is true, but the only ones who know of your existence here are myself, Bruce, Rhodey, Tony, Peter, and Logan. Logan took an oath not to say anything about your existence, and Peter practically thinks Tony shits rainbows and sunshine, so he’s not going to say anything.”

“I’ve never met Peter or Logan…” Stephen murmured thoughtfully.

“Logan took over as Tony’s torturer when we realized that Rumlow had you. Peter is actually the one that found you.”

“How come I’ve never met Peter then?”

“He is half goblin. Most Seelie find him hideous. He has been asking after you, but didn’t want to scare you. He might be roughly two thousand years old, but he still acts like a boy.”

“How did Peter find me?” Stephen asked.

“He found a handkerchief that had your crest on it outside the Hall and brought it to Tony. Tony charged right in and saved you. I’ve been with the king for just under six hundred years and I’ve never seen him so angry before.”

The two sat in silence, the only sound the crackling of the fire.

“Do you think I could leave the room?”

“As I said, I need to speak to Tony first. Most figure he has a new human lover that he’s hiding from the court in here. But I’m sure he’ll be amendable. He wants you to get better.”

“I’m hoping that getting out will help clear my mind,” Stephen admitted.

“Your head still hurts?”

“Every day. I try to remember and nothing comes and I hate it.”

Winter leaned over and squeezed Stephen’s knee. “I will speak to my king.”

Stephen nodded his appreciation and picked up his book again. Winter squeezed his knee again and stood up, leaving him alone in the dark library.

:::

Tony strode into his quarters some time later, startling Stephen into dropping his book.

“Winter says you’re going bug nuts and if you don’t get outside you’re going to start crawling the walls.”

Stephen’s eyebrow shot up. “I’m one hundred percent certain he did not say those exact words.”

“Okay, he didn’t say those exact words but that was pretty much what he said.”

Stephen nodded slowly and let out a breath. “Yes. I…feel trapped here. Every day the walls get a little closer and it gets harder to breathe.” Admitting it felt like admitting to a terrible weakness, but Stephen felt lighter than he had in weeks.

“I wish you had said something earlier,” Tony said. “I never wanted you to feel like I was holding you against your will. I dare say you’ve had enough of that.”

“I didn’t want to be a bother.”

Tony waved his hand. “You’re not. I’m not sure you should leave the Sithen, though. We still don’t know if whoever put you here is watching and if they see you they may try to kill you for real this time.”

“So I’m stuck here?” Stephen asked, shoulders falling.

“In the Sithen, yes. But I have something to show you.”

Stephen looked up, hope sparking in his chest.

“C’mon, we gotta get you some real clothes first,” Tony said, walking over to his closet.

Stephen had been wearing loose linen pants and tunics since he’d woken up. He looked down, studying the crimson clothing.

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing? Plus, I don’t think I’ll fit in anything of yours.”

“You calling me short?”

“Yes.”

Tony grinned at him and Stephen was struck again by how utterly beautiful the Unseelie king was. Stephen had always thought the golden hair and blue eyes common in the Seelie court to be the most beautiful in existence, but none of the perfect Seelie Sidhe compared to the man in front of him.

“Eh, when you’re right, you’re right. I guess there’s really nothing wrong with your clothes. If you’re comfortable you’re comfortable. You do need shoes though.”

Tony dug around for a minute before pulling a pair of shoes out and tossing them at Stephen. He recognized them as his own, though he was fairly certain they hadn’t started out that color.

“There was blood on them,” Tony said with a shrug.

Stephen pulled them close and put his shoes on, curling his toes in the well-worn leather.

“You’ve had my shoes in your closet this entire time?” Stephen asked.

“Well, to be fair, you weren’t using them. The rest of your clothes were too soiled to save.”

Stephen nodded and stood up, fingers twitching. He stared at the big black door leading out of the room like it would devour him. He suddenly didn’t want to leave. He was safe here. Nothing could harm him in this room.

He jumped when Tony’s hand touched the small of his back. Stephen turned to him, eyes wide and face pale.

“Hey, deep breath. Winter and Rhodey are going to be with us. Jarvis is keeping everyone way from the path we’re going to take. It’ll be fine.”

“Who is Jarvis?” Stephen asked. The question had been bothering him for some time but he’d never worked up the nerve to ask. He’d only heard the name in passing a few times.

“Oh, right, Jarvis is the Sithen.”

Stephen stared at him then glanced at the walls. “Your Sithen has a name.”

“I mean, he didn’t come with one, but you spend most of your life with a mostly sentient voice in the back of your head that is actually a core part of Faerie, you want to give it a name. So, Jarvis.”

Stephen thought Tony might be more than a little crazy, but he decided not to say anything.

Stephen tried to hide his hands as they approached the door. He didn’t know if they would meet anyone out there but he didn’t want them to see the ruin of his hands.

“Ah, here,” Tony said, holding out a pair of black leather gloves. Stephen looked at them and took them, pulling them on slowly. He gasped as he felt magick in them, sinking into his broken flesh and alleviating some of the constant pain.

“You like them?” Tony asked, tilting his head.

Stephen nodded, flexing his fingers.

“Been working on them since you landed in my bed. They’re still not done, but I figure you can wear them if you need a break. Can’t wear them all the time though. The magick will burn your hands up if you do.”

“This is a wonderful gift,” Stephen whispered. The king of the Unseelie had been working on a gift for him since he first saw the state of his hands? The gift humbled and honored Stephen.

“You deserve it,” Tony said, just as soft. Stephen met his eyes and there was a softness to those brown orbs that confused him. Tony just smiled at him and opened the door. Stephen followed him tentatively out of the room and was almost disappointed that it was just a corridor.

The floors were black stone, and the walls were a dark grey with some kind of silver ore shot through them. Lanterns hung every fifty feet or so, casting long shadows and somehow making everything seem darker than it was. Winter and Rhodey stood on either side of the door, waiting for them.

“Where are we going?” Rhodey asked. Stephen noted that both men were positively covered in weapons; Winter had more blades on him than any one creature should carry as well as guns strapped to his thighs while Rhodey wore a single long sword over his back and a pair of long knives on his hips.

“The forest,” Tony said. He started walking and Rhodey fell into step in front of him, Winter taking up position behind them. Stephen looked around as they walked, although he didn’t see anything worth noting. It just seemed to be an incredibly long corridor. There were a few doors here and there, but he felt no desire to look behind them.

He heard a strange slithering noise coming from behind a door and moved a bit closer to Tony. He didn’t know what horrors awaited him in the Unseelie court. A small part of him screamed that they were leading him into a trap, that they were going to kill him or worse, leave him in the Hall for eternity.

He shook that voice away. He wasn’t sure if he trusted these men, but he liked them. He wanted to trust them, but he had a feeling that he had trusted whoever had put him here.

Tony stopped in front of the door that he heard the slithering coming from and opened it. Stephen half expected some hideous scaled creature to leap out at them and eat them, but there was nothing. He could still hear the slithering, but it sounded more like wind rustling in leaves than some scaled monster moving over stone.

Tony gestured and the room brightened, shadows retreating into the corners. Stephen stared in open mouthed awe.

It was a rose garden. A wall of roses reaching into the darkness. The roses seemed to sway and dance, even though there was no wind.

He recognized them. The Seelie rose gardens had once been the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He remembered running through them as a child, dancing with roses. He had still been young when they’d started to die, and last he had seen them, the roses were withered and dry, never moving.

“Your roses are alive,” Stephen croaked, a gloved hand reaching out to touch a blood red petal.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Winter said, gently grasping Stephen’s hand. Stephen stared at him, eyes wide and tears rolling down his cheeks.

“They’re alive,” Stephen whispered again.

“From your reaction, I’m guessing the Seelie roses aren’t,” Tony said, pulling up the sleeve on his long sleeved shirt.

Stephen shook his head. “They started dying centuries ago,” he whispered, twisting out of Winter’s grip.

Tony and Rhodey shared worried looks. “Centuries?” Rhodey asked.

Stephen nodded, swaying back and forth in front of the roses. The other three men went completely still when the roses seemed to focus on him, swaying in time with Stephen.

“The Seelie knew you had more magick than them, but they didn’t say anything about the roses being alive.”

The roses were said to be an indicator of the health of the courts. If the Seelie’s roses had been dead for centuries…Tony shuddered to think what it meant.

Stephen reached out again and Winter went to pull him back, only to have the roses lunge forward, wrapping around Stephen in a tight embrace.

“Fuck!” Winter snarled, leaping back. He had a cut on his cheek from the thorns, blood dripping over his pale skin. Rhodey drew his sword, prepared to hack the roses apart to get Stephen out.

Stephen didn’t cry out, his body suspended by the roses. They ran over him, the living sign of the Unseelie court embracing him.

“Stephen,” Tony said, stepping closer. He held his wrist out to the roses, offering them a drink. “He is not your enemy. Let him go.”

The roses tightened their grip, making Stephen moan. A thorn pricked the skin above the gloves, a drop of ruby blood glistening against his white skin and the black leather of the glove. Tony tensed, watching as the roses started drinking from Stephen’s body.

“What the fuck?” Rhodey asked, fingers tightening on his sword.

“The roses only drink from royalty,” Winter whispered, eyes darting between Stephen and Tony.

Tony stared as his roses drank from the Seelie prince, heart pounding in his chest.

“Tony, they’re not letting him go,” Rhodey said, eyeing the roses warily.

“That’s enough,” Tony said, stepping forward. He could reach up and touch Stephen, but he didn’t particularly want the roses to react violently to him. He didn’t think the roses could kill Stephen, but he’d rather not find out.

The roses tightened their grip around Stephen, rustling as they drank his blood. Tony watched as new roses started to bloom, Seelie white among Unseelie blood red. The roses lowered Stephen to the ground and Tony caught him in his arms, kneeling in front of the roses.

Stephen had trouble focusing on Tony as the king traced Stephen’s face with his fingers.

“Stephen? Stephen, you with us?” Tony asked.

“Let’s get him out of here before they decide they’re not done with him,” Winter said. Tony nodded and gathered Stephen close, standing as carefully as he could. The roses parted as they walked through, heading for a vine covered gate. Rhodey opened it and they stepped into a forest, the Unseelie moon hanging full and bright above them.

“Tony?” Stephen said, voice slurred slightly.

“Hey, Stephen, you back with us?” Tony asked, setting him carefully on the ground.

“The roses…”

“Yeah, they’ve never done that before,” Winter said.

“That’s not entirely true,” Rhodey said, staring hard at Stephen. Stephen stared up at the moon, a soft smile on his face.

“What do you mean?” Winter asked, half watching as Tony tried to get Stephen to reply to him. “I’ve only ever seen them feed from Tony. He’s the king.”

“And before you were here…they fed from the queen,” Rhodey said softly, eyes on Stephen.

Winter saw the brief flash of pain across Tony’s face but it was gone in an instant. Stephen’s eyes were closed and he seemed to glow in the soft light of the moon.

“Stephen, Stephen, come on, open your eyes for me,” Tony said. Stephen just hummed, his wrist still bleeding weakly.

Tony tore off a strip of his shirt and peeled the black leather glove off, quickly wrapping the wound.

“I’ve never seen them drink that much from you,” Winter said.

“I can get them to stop. He seemed…enthralled by them.”

“Was he?” Rhodey asked. “Do the roses have that power?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but if the roses in the Seelie court are dead, then who knows.”

“They seemed to find him tasty,” Winter said, glancing back the way they came.

“They did,” Tony said, tugging Winter close and rummaging through one of the many pouches on his belt. Winter stood there and let him search, looking at the Seelie Sidhe laying on the grass. Tony pulled out a flask of liquor and propped Stephen’s head up, tilting some into his mouth.

Stephen coughed as the liquid touched his tongue, his eyes abruptly focusing on Tony.

“What the hell is in that?”

“Vodka. Winter loves the shit,” Tony said.

“That’s awful,” Stephen said.

“You back with us?” Rhodey asked.

Stephen looked around. He was on grass, surrounded by trees with a heavy moon hanging low in the sky. Tony knelt near his head and he realized that the pillow beneath him was actually the king’s thigh. Rhodey and Winter stood on either side of him, Rhodey’s sword still naked to the air. Winter looked worried, his lips pinched as he kept looking back towards the distant rose gardens.

“What happened?” Stephen asked, blinking at the king.

“The Unseelie roses took a liking to you and drank from you,” Tony said, looking at Stephen oddly.

“I…remember…” Stephen said, touching his wrist. Tony tensed, looking at him intently.

“You remember something from before? From the blank spots?”

Stephen shook his head. “No, not that. I remember the roses singing.”

“You can hear them?” Tony whispered, eyes wide.

“They sang such a sad song, Tony,” Stephen said. “They were sad when they saw me. Why? I don’t want them to be sad…”

Stephen went limp, falling into unconsciousness. The three Unseelie stared at him, unease and shock in their expressions.

“Let’s get him back to your chambers,” Winter said, bending and lifting Stephen easily into his arms. Tony scrambled to his feet.

“We’re not taking him past the roses this time,” Rhodey said, leading the way to a different gate.

“Jarvis, clear the way for us,” Tony whispered. He felt the Sithen’s quiet agreement in the back of his mind and he hurried to keep up with Winter’s long strides.

It seemed like no time at all and they were back, Stephen laid out in Tony’s bed, pale against the dark sheets. Bruce was on his way to check him, though Tony didn’t think Stephen was truly hurt.

Bruce checked him quickly. “He seems fine. He’s just sleeping. The roses drank from him?”

“Yes,” Winter said, watching as Tony sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at Stephen’s face.

“They didn’t do any permanent damage. I think. I’ve never seen the roses drink enough to knock someone out. He’ll need to eat and drink, but he should be fine.”

“I appreciate you looking out for him, Bruce,” Tony said. “All of you.”

“He’s a good man, Tony,” Rhodey said. “Though I plan on keeping a closer eye on him until we know just what’s going on.”

Tony nodded, brushing a strand of hair out of Stephen’s eyes.

“Who are you?” Tony whispered.

:::

Stephen woke and sat up, looking around. Tony was sprawled in the arm chair, legs spread, head back, breathing heavily as he slept. Stephen took a moment to just watch him.

He vaguely remembered what happened, rubbing his sore wrist in thought. He remembered the roses whispering to him, such a sad song. They had been saddened to see him, lamenting his pain. They drank and he felt euphoric.

He focused on Tony. The man truly was beautiful, though Stephen noticed dark circles under his eyes and knew he wasn’t sleeping. He felt a spark of guilt; he had been sleeping in Tony’s bed for months and he never heard a complaint from the king. Where had the king been sleeping? Most likely with Winter or Rhodey, Stephen figured, but he wasn’t sure. He knew that Tony had slept on the floor a few times, and had heard from Bruce that he had slept on the floor the entire time he’d been in a coma, but Tony had never asked for his bed back.

“Tony?” Stephen whispered.

Tony jerked awake, blinking rapidly at him.

“Oh, thank the Goddess, you’re awake. How do you feel?” Tony asked, getting to his feet and perching on the edge of the bed.

“Thirsty,” Stephen said honestly. Tony nodded and grabbed a goblet. Stephen recognized it as the one with the Wild Hunt on it, the one Tony had let him drink from the very first time he woke up.

He drank deeply, throat working as the cool water ran down his throat. He nodded as Tony pulled the goblet away, setting it back on the bedside table.

“You remember what happened?” Tony asked, offering him a chocolate. Stephen took it, popping it into his mouth and letting it melt on his tongue.

“The roses. Your roses are alive and they…drank from me.”

“Yes,” Tony said.

“Why?” Stephen asked. “I don’t remember the Seelie roses ever doing that before.”

“Long ago they would’ve drank from Odin, when he was king. The roses are connected to the heart of Faerie, and they drink from the rulers to…share power. It cements Faerie’s bond with the king or queen and their bond with Faerie. They sip from me every time I walk by. They haven’t drank from anyone else since…” Tony looked at him like he was a puzzle he had to solve.

Stephen looked horrified. “What does that mean? I don’t…I’m not…I’m not a ruler!”

“Stephen, calm down,” Tony said, taking his wrists carefully. He turned the wrist that the roses had drank from, thumb running over the completely healed mark.

“Strange things are happening in Faerie,” Tony started. Stephen snorted, half rolling his eyes.

“What?”

“Did you forget my last name is Strange?”

Tony smiled, bowing his head. “So I did. Forgive me. There are…mysterious things happening in Faerie. What you’ve told me of the Seelie court worries me immensely.”

“I would’ve thought you would be okay with the Seelie fading,” Stephen said quietly.

“While I do not agree with the Seelie about, well, anything to be perfectly honest, they are a part of Faerie. Faerie as a whole has been weakening since the last war. Children have become rare. Humans outbreed us and throttle our magick with iron and technology and from what you’ve told me, the Seelie are dying. That terrifies me. They’ve turned from the Goddess, they’ve lost their roses. We were one court once, a very long time ago, and I remember those days.”

“Would you make us one court again?” Stephen asked, unable to look away from how his hands looked in Tony’s.

“I doubt it would work, even if I wanted to. The Seelie are too entrenched in their ways, and would never accept an Unseelie ruler. No, there are two courts, and that’s how it will always be.”

“I don’t know why they would drink from me, you have to believe me.”

“Stephen, calm down. I believe you.”

Stephen let out a shuddering breath, letting himself relax against the pillows.

“Are…are you going to keep me in here until you figure out why they drank from me?” Stephen whispered.

Tony tightened his fingers around Stephen’s. “No. You are not my prisoner, even if it feels like it. I still want to show you the forest, but I think we need to have someone better at problems of the mind look at you.”

“Bruce’s therapist?” Stephen asked.

“No. Queen Wanda of the Demi-Fey.”