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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.”

Chapter Text

Tony sent word to the court of the Demi-Fey that he’d like to speak to the queen in confidence at her earliest convenience. He wouldn’t say he and Wanda were friends, though they had known each other a long time, well before Wanda had taken her throne. They had a mutually beneficial agreement, a long standing treaty between them.

The Demi-Fey were the perfect spies. They could be anything, any small bird or insect; they could be anywhere, most often overlooked because they weren’t considered powerful enough to do the Sidhe any harm.

Tony knew better. The Demi-Fey were some of the most powerful of the Fae, intimately connected with what made Fae essentially Faerie.

He turned to look at Stephen. “She’ll get back to me in her own time.”

“Aren’t you king?”

“Of the Unseelie, yes. The Demi-Fey aren’t Unseelie. They, like the goblins, are a Fae court of their own. Wanda and I have an agreement. She’s my ally and I am hers. I rarely ask to see her so out of the blue, though. She’ll get back to me just by being curious as to what I want.”

“And you think she can help me remember?” Stephen asked, bitterness lacing his voice.

Tony looked at him. “The Demi-Fey are better at glamour than any Sidhe or Fae in existence. If there is something keeping you from remembering, she’ll feel it.”

“So do we just wait here?”

Tony tilted his head, watching Stephen from his spot in the chair. Stephen sat across from him, pale and twitchy. Tony knew he had to be going crazy locked in these rooms.

“I still want to show you the forest,” Tony said. “We’ll just…go a different way. Jarvis, tell Winter and Rhodey we’re heading out again.”

Tony got to his feet and offered Stephen a black cloak. “Pull the hood up over your head. We’ll have to go through the halls that I haven’t blocked off.”

“Anyone could see past the hood to my face,” Stephen pointed out, lifting the hood anyway.

Tony gave him a ferocious smile. “Darkness is my friend and first lover, Stephen. No one will see past the hood.”

Stephen glanced at himself in the mirror. His face was covered in shadows, the only thing he could see was his own eyes glittering back at him from the darkness.

“Fancy,” Stephen said, making Tony smile. Tony grabbed his furred cloak and pulled it on, sparing a glance for the red one hanging so forlornly near the bed. Stephen wondered at it again. What did that red cloak mean to the king?

Tony strode easily from the room, Stephen following in his wake. Winter and Rhodey fell into step with them, no one saying a word. Stephen used the shadowed hood to glance around the halls of the Unseelie Sithen as they walked. Much of it was dark stone, black veins of marble twisting through it. Heavy doors were closed and he shuddered, pulling his cloak tighter around him. He didn’t want to know what was behind those doors.

He saw other Fae, things twisted in the shadows, things that chittered and chattered and slithered.

He saw a Sidhe woman ahead of them, her long blood red hair twisted in a plait over her shoulders. She wore what looked like a leather dress, a red belt around her waist. She stepped to the side as the king approached, lips twisting in a smile as she bowed.

“Your majesty,” she said, her voice hypnotic in a way that twisted something inside Stephen. Did he know her? No, of course not. It was impossible. He’d never met an Unseelie in his life.

“Widow,” Tony said, drawing to halt next to her. “Nothing from the Seelie?”

“No, your majesty,” she said. Her eyes darted to Stephen behind him, but nothing showed on her face. Tony’s shadows were doing their job. “The Seelie Sithen was locked to me, and none would see me. Who’s your friend?”

Tony gave her a winning smile. “Come now, my dear Widow, you know I don’t kiss and tell. Keep me updated on the Seelie.”

The Widow bowed to him, eyes on Stephen’s back as they continued down the halls. Stephen moved unconsciously closer to Tony. There was something about her that he didn’t care for, that made him wary.

Tony put his hand on Stephen’s lower back, guiding him silently through the halls. No one else stopped them and Stephen let out a sigh of relief. He fisted his shaking hands into the folds of the cloak. Tony’s hand was arm and solid on his spine, comforting in a way he never imagined an Unseelie could be.

“This way,” Tony said, opening a warped wooden door. Stephen was nearly overwhelmed by the scent of wet earth, flowers, living things. Tony pulled him through the door and Stephen stopped, staring in open mouthed awe at the forest spread out before him.

“Are…are we still in the Sithen?” he whispered.

“Of course,” Tony said, taking his wrist and tugging him deeper into the trees. Stephen stared, looking up at the sky. It was dark, a pregnant moon hanging low in the star studded sky. “Surely the Seelie Sithen still has its forests and living places?”

“They are empty of life,” Stephen said, inhaling deeply. He could feel Faerie here; every breath filled with the very essence that made them Fae instead of human. He didn’t see the worried look that Tony and his guards shared. “This is what you wanted to show me?”

“Kind of. Look deeper into the forest,” Tony said.

Stephen pulled his hood down, baring his skin to the moon. Tony stepped back, unable to take his eyes away from the Seelie prince standing in his kingdom.

Stephen heard a rustle in the trees and froze, fear curling inside him again. Goddess only knew what beasts filled the forest.

His breath left him in a soft gasp. Suddenly, he could see the forest teeming with life, creatures of the Fae, creatures of the Seelie.

“There are Seelie creatures here,” Stephen whispered, stepping closer. He could see Seelie songbirds flitting from branch to branch, hear the footfalls of wild creatures darting among the trees, and…

“Impossible,” Stephen whispered. Tony went completely still, eyes wide as the white stag walked from the shadows of the trees. Blood red antlers arched from his head, blue eyes wide as he approached Stephen.

Winter and Rhodey stood stock still, watching as the stag swayed his massive head from side to side. Stephen reached out a trembling hand, scarred fingers coming to rest on a white furred flank.

It was soft and warm under his hand, fur slick and smooth. Stephen fell to his knees before the great stag, weeping openly.

Tony stared, heart pounding beneath his breast. The old scars hurt and he couldn’t tear his eyes away. The white stag hadn’t been seen in over one hundred years.

The stag nuzzled Stephen’s hair, lips moving over the silver strands that had appeared at Stephen’s temples after the torture. Stephen cried silent tears, on his knees before the living symbol of the Goddess’ consort.

The stag lifted his head and let out that ringing, clarion cry. He took off bounding through the forest, unfettered and free.

Tony stared at the Seelie prince on his knees, looking after the white stag like the beast was a long lost friend. Who was this man? Who was he that heard the roses sing and brought the white stag from the forest?

Tony wanted to touch him, to hold him, to keep him safe from the horrors of the world that kept piling up on Stephen’s shoulders. He wanted to worship him and adore him and…

No.

Tony shook himself, trembling. He watched as Stephen got to his feet, tears on his face. Stephen turned to face the Unseelie Sidhe.

“You have shown me a wonderful gift,” Stephen said.

“I only meant to show you the forest. The stag came of his own accord,” Tony replied, voice soft. Stephen nodded, eyes distant.

There was a fluttering from the forest and an explosion of color as Demi-Fey appeared from their perches in the bushes and trees. Ranging from inches tall to a little over a foot, the Demi-Fey were what humans thought of traditional faeries. Many had wings, either of insects or birds, and those that didn’t rode mice and bats or had little carriages pulled behind them. They were the perfect spies; they could go anywhere and would only be seen as the birds or insects they emulated.

“King Anthony,” one of them said. Stephen looked closer and saw a beautiful Demi-Fey with long red hair and red and black butterfly wings.

Tony held his hand out and the Demi-Fey landed on his palm.

“Queen Wanda,” he said, raising his hand. Wanda leaned forward, wings fanning, as she pressed a kiss against the corner of Tony’s mouth. Stephen saw a flash of ruby red and watched as Wanda licked Tony’s blood from her lips.

“It is very rare for you to ask to see me outside of our normal rendezvous,” Wanda said, her voice slightly accented. “I knew that something must be bothering you, and then to see the white stag in the forest once again…” Her eyes landed on Stephen and he felt the weight of her gaze on him.

“And is this the man that has pulled your attention from the court?” Wanda asked, tilting her head. Her black eyes bore into Stephen and he shifted uncomfortably. “I have heard many rumors, but strangely enough, no one seems to know the truth. Even my most clever Demi-Fey haven’t been able to get close.”

“Queen Wanda, this is Prince Stephen Strange, of the Seelie court,” Tony said, holding his hand up so she could see him.

Stephen raised his scarred and shaking hands. “No longer of the Seelie court,” he said. “I…have no court anymore.”

“You are Faerie, so Anthony welcomes you. He gathers all of Faerie to him so we do not fade,” Wanda said, lifting into the air from Tony’s hand and coming to hover in front of Stephen. “Tell me, Stephen Strange formerly of the Seelie court, when was the last time you saw a Demi-Fey in those golden halls?”

Stephen frowned, thinking. He cast his mind about, trying to recall the last time he’d seen the brightly colored wings in the halls of white and gold marble.

“Two years,” Stephen said.

“When Steve Rogers took the golden throne, we were cast out,” Wanda spat. Stephen’s eyes widened in shock.

“The Demi-Fey are the core of Faerie,” Tony said softly. Wanda flew back over to him and landed on his shoulder, twisting her hand in the hair by his ear. “In the past, it was believed that wherever the Demi-Fey went, Faerie would follow.”

“We used to be abundant in both courts,” Wanda said, watching Stephen intently. “But as time went on and the Seelie started to change, we left. There were some that always preferred the golden halls to the black of the Unseelie, and they stayed. We spoke, we talked, we met beneath the stars and flowers to revel and speak to the Goddess. And then they were cast out, left homeless. Until Anthony took them in.”

Stephen glanced at Tony and then focused back on the Queen of the Demi-Fey.

“Most Sidhe ignore the Demi-Fey,” Tony said, not flinching as others landed on him, covering him in a colorful, living cloak of wings and feathers. “They aren’t Sidhe, so they aren’t worth talking to. Many have forgotten that they are Faerie. I only offered them a place to live.”

“You offered the Seelie Demi-Fey your gardens and forests. You offered all of us a home,” Wanda said, tugging sharply on his ear.

“And in return, you spy for me, my beauties,” Tony said. Wanda bared her teeth in a ferocious little smile.

“For a taste of royal Sidhe once a month, I’d do that and more.”

Tony threw his head back and laughed. It was a rich laugh, full of darkness and promise. It was the most Unseelie Stephen had ever seen Tony be.

“He is why you wished to speak to me?” Wanda asked, gesturing at Stephen.

“He was held in the Hall of Blood and Bone for a month,” Tony said. “He has no memories of how he got there, or of who put him there.”

“And that is unusual? Torture tends to fuck with memories,” Wanda pointed out.

“I have an eidetic memory,” Stephen said, tucking his hands into the black cloak. “I should be able to remember.”

“The Demi-Fey are the most powerful of the Fae at glamour,” Tony said. “I was hoping you could check him and see if there’s a reason he can’t remember.”

Wanda hummed, staring unblinkingly at Stephen. “I can, yes. But I expect payment.”

“You have tasted from me today, Queen Wanda,” Tony said, a hint of anger in his voice.

“I have, yes. But not from him. Royal Sidhe blood is a delicacy. You know that as well as I do. A taste of his blood for checking him over for you.”

Tony opened his mouth to protest but Stephen beat him to it.

“Seems fair to me. Just not from my hands.”

“Stephen,” Tony started.

“It’s fine,” Stephen said. “I need to know why I’m here, Tony. I need to know who put me here. If she can help me with that than I’ll gladly give up a taste of my blood.”

“So reasonable. I like him,” Wanda said, taking to the air again. She hovered in front of Stephen and he held his arms out. She landed on his forearm, only the edges of her wings brushing Stephen’s trembling hands. She was heavier than Stephen expected, a solid weight on his arm.

“Where would you feed from?” Stephen asked.

“The corner of your mouth, as I did with Anthony,” Wanda said. “A pity we don’t have time to explore more fun options.”

Stephen arched his eyebrow at that but didn’t respond. She walked up his arm and came to stand on his shoulder, wings fanning the air softly.

“Was it you that brought the white stag back?” she whispered in his ear. “I see the white roses mixed in with the Unseelie blood red. That must’ve been you. You’ve made my people happy to see those pure white roses amongst the darkness of Unseelie blood.”

He frowned. “The roses were red when they sang to me.”

“And they drank from you,” Tony said softly, “and Seelie white bloomed there.”

Stephen looked unsettled. He gave a helpless shrug, making Wanda rise and fall with the motion of his body.

“Perhaps you are the reason,” Wanda said. “We shall see.”

He turned his head and she leaned forward, kissing the corner of his mouth. He felt a sharp, stinging pain that bled away almost instantly into a buzzing pleasure. He knew it was her glamour.

Wanda reared back, hand covering her bloodstained mouth.

“Oh. No wonder,” Wanda said breathlessly. Stephen looked at her, confused.

“No wonder what?”

Wanda shook her head. “Not my place to tell. Yes, you have a very powerful, very clever, glamour laid over you, twisting your memories.”

“Can you remove it?” Tony asked.

Wanda nodded. “I can.” She looked back at Stephen, staring at him like he had looked at the white stag earlier. “You will not get your memories back all at once. If they all flooded back at one time you would go mad. They will trickle in. Things will trigger memories and connections will be made.”

“That’s perfect,” Stephen said. He couldn’t help but wonder at Wanda’s odd reaction to him.

Wanda nodded. “It will be best if you lie down.”

She took to the air while he spread out on the ground. The Unseelie moon looked down on him, his skin nearly glowing in the pale light. Wanda landed on his chest and walked up to his head. Other Demi-Fey fluttered around them, watching, rustling, whispering.

“This is probably going to hurt,” Wanda said.

“Pain is an old friend,” Stephen whispered.

Wanda nodded, resting her tiny, perfect hand on his temple. He took a deep breath and Wanda tore into his mind.

Stephen screamed, body arching off the grass. Tony had to hold himself back from slapping Wanda away from him.

Wanda grit her teeth, wings held rigidly behind her back. She untangled the glamour from Stephen’s mind. It was twisted and clever—nearly a living thing—but finally she pulled it all out, sending the energy that had created it back into the earth.

Stephen had fallen unconscious in the middle of it, chest moving shallowly, and Wanda collapsed across his throat, trembling and weak. She pushed herself up and felt a gentle hand lift her, bringing her to Tony’s shoulder.

Winter knelt at Stephen’s side, checking him over.

“He will sleep for a while,” Wanda said, voice barely above a whisper in Tony’s ear. “The glamour is gone. He will start to remember.”

“You’ve done me a great service,” Tony said.

Wanda looked at him, dark eyes serious. “No, King Anthony, it is you who do all of us a great service. You must protect him, cherish him. He is…he is more than he seems.”

“That much I’ve been able to gather,” Tony said, eyes falling to the Seelie prince.

Wanda kissed the corner of Tony’s mouth. “I will come by later to see how he is doing. I must sleep.”

Another Demi-Fey with silver hummingbird wings darted in close and Wanda let her brother lift her from Tony’s shoulder.

“The Goddess smiles on him, Anthony. Maybe the Fae have hope after all, if he can survive what put him here.”

The Demi-Fey took off, disappearing back into the woods, leaving the four Sidhe alone in the moon kissed dark.

:::

Tony stared at the man in his bed. Winter had carried him back to his chambers, resting Stephen gently in the bed that the man had spent so much time in. Bruce had come and gone, checking Stephen over. Physically he was no worse. Mentally, Bruce couldn’t say.

“Who is he, Goddess?” Tony whispered, reaching out and touching Stephen’s cool hand.

She didn’t answer him in words, but he felt her presence in the room with him, and he watched as Stephen’s breathing seemed to ease. Tony remembered Wanda’s words; Stephen was important. She had tasted something in him, had recognized him perhaps, and it irked Tony that he didn’t know.

He was old, damn it. He was used to knowing things.

Stephen’s eyes moved beneath his eyelids. Tony wondered if he was dreaming or remembering what had been taken from him.

He hoped they were peaceful dreams.

:::

Stephen dreamed. Flashes of color, sensations, a press of lips against his, a whisper in his mind, speaking to him of what they could do together.

He woke with a start, breathing hard. It was pitch black in the room and he let out a terrified little whine. He couldn’t hear anyone else in the room with him.

“Please,” he croaked. “Please I need light.”

He thought he felt a brief touch against his mind, a gentle reassurance, and then the room was lit in soft white light. He let out a shuddering breath, looking around the king’s chambers. He held his head in his hands, shaking.

He still couldn’t remember everything. He knew that Wanda had said it would take time, but he was frustrated. He wanted—no needed— to remember. The memories were there now, hovering just out of reach.

He sat up straight and swung his legs out of the bed. He was getting quite tired of being there. He stood up and started to pace, arms wrapped around his chest. It was cold in the king’s chambers and he stopped in front of the fireplace.

Tony had wanted him to try reaching for his magic, to bring something beautiful from his horrid, twisted, hideous hands.

He flicked his fingers at the fireplace and nearly fell over backwards when a fire roared to life, bathing him in warmth. He sat down on the thick fur rug right in front of the fire and stared into the dancing flames.

He rested his head in his hands, doing his best to ignore the feel of his scars against his face. He wanted to cut his hands off, get rid of the monstrosities at the end of his arms that gave him nothing but pain. He dug his nails into his hair, biting back a wail of anger.

He didn’t want to be alone anymore. He was so tired. He’d been in the Unseelie court for more than half a year and he’d hardly seen any of it. He’d been trapped in the king’s chambers and nice as they were, he wanted out. He wanted to explore, to see those sad, singing roses again, to run through the forest with the white stag at his side. He hardly had any interaction outside of the king, Winter, Rhodey, and Bruce. There had to be more to the Unseelie court than those four.

He lurched to his feet, scarred fists clenched at his side. He was going to explore, king of the Unseelie be damned.

He found his boots and crammed his feet into them, ignoring the shaking in his hands. He knew it was from more than just the damage. His heart pounded in his chest and fear unfurled inside him.

Stephen was so tired of being afraid.

He’d been afraid since he’d opened his eyes all those months ago and he wanted his life back. He wanted to be himself again.

He pulled one of the king’s black cloaks on and hustled to the door, nearly falling backwards when it opened on its own. He froze, waiting for someone to come in, but there was no one there. He thought he felt that gentle touch to his mind again and he took a deep breath, stepping forward.

The corridor was empty. Stephen wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but he had figured that guards would be standing outside the door to keep him in.

He was done being cooped up.

He walked down the hall, head held high. If he could just act like he belonged there, maybe no one would stop him.

He reached the first crossroads and looked back and forth. The Sithen was eerily quiet. Where were the rest of the Fae that called the dark court home?

Stephen decided to turn left and took a step towards that direction.

“Where are you going?”

Stephen nearly screamed as he flung himself back the direction he’d come, heart pounding wildly as he looked around for the source of the voice. It had come from…above him?

He looked up and promptly sat down on his butt, eyes wide. Hanging upside from the ceiling was a creature his brain couldn’t process for a few moments. It had eight legs and spider’s body covered in downy soft hair, but the upper body of a Sidhe. Two human eyes blinked at him from what would be a beautiful face if it wasn’t for the six other eyes that stared unblinkingly in every direction.

He vaguely remembered someone telling him about a half spider goblin that had found him all those months ago.

“You must be Peter,” Stephen whispered, staring up at the half-goblin.

Peter’s face broke into a wide smile and he dropped from the ceiling, landing soundlessly in front of Stephen. Stephen swallowed, eyes moving over his body.

He’d never seen anything like Peter. In the Seelie court, perfection and beauty were held as the most important things, and anyone who wasn’t beautiful or perfect was shunned. Those that weren’t pretty enough to be seen by others did servant’s work at best and were slaves at worst. A creature like Peter probably would’ve been killed the moment he was born.

“Are you okay?” Peter asked, staying a respectful distance from Stephen. “You look a little pale. Are you supposed to be out and walking around?”

“I’m tired of being locked up!” Stephen snapped, surprising himself with his voracity. He covered his mouth, eyes welling with tears.

Peter took a cautious step forward. “Do you want me to get anyone for you?”

Stephen shook his head, biting his wrist to silence his cries.

Peter reached out, resting his hand on Stephen’s head when the Sidhe didn’t rebuff him. “It’s okay to cry, you know. I still cry a lot and I’m old.”

Stephen rested his cheek on his knees, tears staining his pants. Peter’s hand was a comforting warmth on his head.

“What makes you cry?” Stephen asked hoarsely.

Peter folded his many legs and lowered himself to the floor. “I miss my aunt May. My mother, well, look at me. She didn’t want me. So Aunt May and Uncle Ben raised me for a bit, even though the other Seelie shunned them for it.”

Stephen lifted his head. “You’re part Seelie?”

Peter nodded, a twisted smile on his face. “I am a product of the last goblin war.”

Stephen sniffed. “You’re almost two thousand years old,” he said flatly. Peter looked like a teenage boy at best.

“Yeah. King Stark always says that growing old is mandatory but growing up is optional so.” Peter shrugged and Stephen chuckled. That did seem like something Tony would say.

“I…I remember a Seelie woman named May,” Stephen said. “She is a healer, correct?”

Peter nodded excitedly. “She is. We meet once a month for a picnic outside of the courts.”

“How did you end up here, if you don’t mind me asking?” Stephen asked. He was starting to feel a little better, but tears still stained his cheeks.

Peter kept running his fingers through Stephen’s hair. “My Uncle Ben was killed because the Seelie didn’t like that they were raising a monster like me in their beautiful court. May knew the goblins or the Unseelie would take me in, so she carried me to the edge of the Unseelie Sithen. King Stark, Tony, was there, waiting. It was like he knew she was coming. He took me in, raised me among the guards and the goblins. He offered to let Aunt May stay, but she is Seelie through and through. The fact that she didn’t turn away from me when her sister shoved me into her arms as a baby is amazing.”

Stephen nodded slowly. It seemed that the king of the Unseelie had a way of picking up strays from the Seelie court. Peter. Winter. Wanda’s Demi-Fey from the Seelie. Stephen. How could he have ever thought that Tony was a monster? Why did the Seelie spread such horrid lies about the king?

“What do you do for Tony?” Stephen asked.

Peter smiled and Stephen was struck by how young he really looked. He said he was a product of the last goblin war and Stephen took that to mean that Peter’s Seelie mother had been raped by a goblin, but it wasn’t his place to ask.

“I am one of the envoys to the goblin court,” Peter said easily. “The goblins like me well enough, though they say I’m not bloodthirsty enough for them. They do appreciate the extra limbs and eyes though.”

Stephen snorted. He realized he no longer saw Peter as a horrid combination of parts, but as a Fae like any other. Was this how Tony saw them all? Was that why Tony would take any and all in?

“So, where were you going?” Peter asked.

Stephen shrugged. “Anywhere. I just…I had to get out for a while. I just wanted to see something different than the same walls I’ve been looking at for months. The only times I’ve been out, weird shit has happened.”

“Winter said the roses drank from you?”

“Yeah, and that wasn’t so bad, actually.”

Peter tilted his head. “I don’t think King Stark wants you wandering around the Unseelie court alone.”

Stephen’s shoulders slumped. “You’re sending me back, aren’t you?”

“No! I’m saying if you want to explore I’ll go with you! I know a lot of back passages that won’t have anyone in them because I don’t know if he wants the court to know you’re here until you’re completely healed.”

“I’ll never be completely healed,” Stephen said, bitterness lacing his tone as he looked at his hands.

“I meant mentally,” Peter said gently. “Queen Wanda tore a powerful glamour from your mind. That leaves a mark, Prince Strange.”

“Stephen,” he said. “I’m no prince. Not anymore.”

He was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure the Seelie ever considered me a prince, if I’m being honest with myself.”

Peter squeezed his shoulder, giving the Sidhe a moment. Stephen took a shuddering breath and looked up.

“I’d like to go exploring with you, Peter, if the offer is still open.”

Peter beamed at him and unfolded his eight legs. He gripped Stephen by the forearms and pulled him to his feet.

“Let’s go!” the half spider goblin scurried down the hall and Stephen smiled, taking off after him. It was hard to be sad in the face of Peter’s unfazeable optimism.

:::

The door to Tony’s rooms opened and he looked up as Stephen and Peter stumbled in, both laughing. Tony felt the tight knot of worry that had settled in his chest since he’d realized that Stephen had gone wandering disappear. He let his hand fall from the red cloak hanging by his bed and offered them a smile when they realized he was there.

“King Stark!” Peter said.

Tony rolled his eyes and got to his feet, tipping his glass of whiskey back. “I’ve told you to call me Tony countless times, Pete.”

“I can’t do that! You’re the king.”

Tony arched his eyebrow and ruffled Peter’s hair. He glanced at Stephen, noting how the Sidhe was backing up, trying to hide behind Peter almost.

“Did you two have fun?” Tony asked, pouring another whiskey and offering it to Stephen. Stephen took it, ignoring the shaking of his hands as he took a sip.

“You’re not mad, are you?” Peter asked, puffing up protectively in front of Stephen.

Tony tilted his head, eyes moving from Peter to Stephen and back again. “Should I be?”

“I left the room,” Stephen said flatly.

“And I told you I wasn’t holding you captive,” Tony said. “I am sorry you felt…feel…that way. I only want to keep you safe, Stephen. If someone other than Peter had found you…”

Tony turned away from them and Peter and Stephen shared a confused look. Tony walked over to the red cloak and rested his forehead against the soft fabric.

Stephen walked carefully around Peter and set his half full whiskey glass on the small table. He stepped up to Tony and rested his hand on the king’s shoulder. He was pretty sure it was the first time he had initiated contact between them.

Stephen smelled roses and his magick rose up to meet Tony’s, a blue butterfly sparking into existence where his hand rested on Tony’s shoulder.

“I know you want me to be safe, Tony,” Stephen said gently. The king still wouldn’t look at him, face pressed against the red cloak. “And I appreciate it so much more than I can say. I do feel safe here, in these rooms. Perhaps safer than I ever felt in the Seelie court, but I can’t hide away forever. I’m never going back to the Seelie court and if I’m going to make a home among the Unseelie, I can’t do it from your chambers.”

Tony spun to face him, eyes wide. Stephen stared into those tri-colored whiskey eyes and let him see how honest he was being.

“Home?” Tony whispered, voice hoarse.

“I hope so, at least,” Stephen said, hand still on Tony’s shoulder.

Tony smiled at him. It was watery and weak and Stephen thought it was beautiful.

“You’ll always have a home here, Stephen. No matter what.”

Stephen smiled at him, hoping the king could see just how much he appreciated that.

:::

Tony still wasn’t comfortable letting Stephen out on his own. The former Seelie prince was slowly regaining his memories, though nothing really made sense to him yet. He still didn’t know why the Seelie court had turned him out and left him to rot in the Unseelie king’s torture chamber.

Every morning, Peter came to collect Stephen and the two would explore, sticking to Peter’s secret passages. Jarvis kept Tony apprised and together Tony and his Sithen made sure to keep the nastier aspects of the Unseelie away from them.

Most days found Stephen eating lunch with the King’s Guard, at first flanked by Winter and Rhodey but soon he was comfortable enough to eat with others. He finally met the Unseelie named Happy and found him to be a steady, calming presence. He was introduced to Thor and Loki, former Seelie princes themselves. Thor was loud and boisterous, joyful and colorful where many of the Unseelie weren’t. Loki was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, skin moon pale with iridescent scales running up his neck and over his temples. Loki lounged back in his chair and told Stephen that he was half snake goblin and half Sidhe, and wouldn’t answer any more questions about it. When they learned that Stephen had been trained by Frigga, their mother, the two hounded him until he told them everything he could remember about her.

Once a week or so Queen Wanda visited him. She watched him intently but never told him what she had tasted in his blood that day.

Memories were slowly starting to come back, but he couldn’t piece them together into anything that made sense. He kept getting flashes of a comforting voice in the back of his mind and sometimes he swore he felt something similar in the Unseelie Sithen. He never asked anyone about it. Even among the Fae hearing voices no one else could was not a desired gift.

Nights belonged to the king. They played chess or Stephen watched him work on armor, amazed that he could shape metal to his will. Most Fae couldn’t touch metal but it seemed the king was a silversmith of the highest caliber. It certainly explained Winter’s arm.

Another month passed. Stephen felt less like he was trapped and more like he could make this place a home. He still hadn’t seen the court at large, though, and wasn’t sure what he would think of it.

“Tomorrow is the solstice,” Tony said one night as they played a game of chess.

Stephen’s eyes went wide. “Has it really been that long?”

Tony nodded slowly. He tipped his king over, surrendering to Stephen’s play.

Stephen stared into the distance, forehead crinkled in thought. He jumped when Tony gently touched the back of his hand.

“There is a ritual to the Goddess to mark it,” Tony said. “I’d like you there with me.”

Stephen’s eyes went even wider. “Me?”

“Yes?” Tony said, looking around like he expected someone else to appear. “It is a time of death and rebirth, of renewal and hope. I can’t think of a better time to introduce you to the machinations of the full court.”

Stephen gently took Tony’s hand in both of his. “What must I do?”

“Surely the Seelie observe the solstices,” Tony said.

“I do remember the past few years that it became a private thing. Only Steve and his closest advisors were permitted to attend it after his crowning.”

Tony tilted his head. “And no one complained?”

“The lesser Fae held their own ceremonies that didn’t concern the Sidhe. The rest of noble houses were allowed to join the feast after, but as to the ritual itself and what went on there, no. No one complained about it, at least where they would be overheard.”

Tony watched him thoughtfully. “You almost seem bitter about Rogers and you not being an advisor.”

A hint of a blush spread over Stephen’s face. “Steve…Rogers and I were lovers for a number of years. We…” Stephen took a deep breath. “We loved each other. I thought I would spend a very long time with him and be happy for it. We were as different as two Sidhe could be. He was a warrior and I was healer, but we worked well together. We fit together. When he was chosen as king…he stopped talking to me. He wouldn’t even look at me most of the time.”

Tony squeezed Stephen’s hand. “I’m sorry.”

Stephen offered him a sad smile. “He certainly wasn’t the only lover I ever had, but he was the only one I was in love with. Losing that, losing him…hurt.” He looked down, a little surprised at his honesty even with himself.

“Is that the first time you’ve said it out loud?” Tony asked.

Stephen thought about it for a moment and finally nodded. “Yes. I never wanted to admit it before. He was always one of the favored princes, blond and big and perfectly Seelie in every way. But after Lord Zemo became his advisor…”

Stephen shrugged, clearly shoving thoughts of his former lover away. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Now, about this ceremony tomorrow.”

Tony nodded, dropping the subject of Steve Rogers and Stephen’s past. Stephen would tell him more when he was ready. Tony would wait as long as Stephen needed.

Tony leaned forward, their hands still connected over the chessboard. “It takes place in the forest. Much of the court will be there. The Demi-Fey and goblin court have their own ceremonies separate from ours, but all are welcome at the feast afterwards. As to the ritual itself, it is a sacrifice to renew the land and our connection to the Goddess and Her consort. I would have you stand beside me when I make the sacrifice.”

Stephen swallowed. “I’m not going to be the sacrifice, am I?”

Tony barked out a startled laugh. “Goddess, no! The Consort has always provided us with a stag to sacrifice.”

Stephen offered him a smile. “I just wanted to make sure!”

Tony laughed, tilting back in his chair. He quieted down, serious as he watched Stephen. “It’s important that you stand beside me. I don’t know why exactly, but I feel that the Goddess is telling me that you need to be there.”

Stephen bowed his head. “Then I will gladly stand at your side, my king.”

Tony’s breath caught in his throat and his eyes widened. Stephen had never called him that before. My king.

Stephen lifted his head and their eyes met across the distance. Tony nodded to him, unable to speak through the lump in his throat.

:::

Stephen stared at himself in the mirror. Bruce stood behind him, tugging on the tunic that Stephen had just put on to straighten it out. It was a dark blue and fell to his thighs. He wore a burgundy shirt under it and watched as Bruce expertly wrapped his waist in more belts than any one man needed. His legs were wrapped in the softest pants Stephen had ever felt, a blue just slightly darker than the tunic. He had knee high boots on of some soft leather that felt like they were made exclusively for him.

“Turn around,” Bruce said, looking over him with a critical eye. Stephen turned slowly, hands out to his sides.

“Do I pass?” Stephen asked. “And where did these clothes come from? Winter?”

“Tony had these made for you,” Bruce said, adjusting one of the belts to lay flat against Stephen’s waist. “And yes, you pass. Wear this as well.”

Bruce handed him a silver cloak with fur around the collar and helped Stephen clasp it at his throat. Stephen glanced at himself in the mirror and barely recognized the Sidhe staring back at him.

He no longer looked like he was close to true death. His hair was swept back, one persistent strand hanging over his forehead. The silver at his temples stood out starkly against the black of the rest of his hair but Stephen had decided long ago that he’d earned that silver. It had shown up after a month of torture and he was still alive. His facial hair was immaculate, accentuating his lips and cheekbones. He held his hands out before him, watching as they trembled.

“Oh right,” Bruce said, pulling out the black leather gloves Tony had made for Stephen what felt like years ago. “Tony’s made some improvements to them.”

Stephen took the gloves, tracing the seams with his finger. He could feel the magick pulsing through the gloves, ready to steady his hands and hide the scars from the others. He took a deep breath and lifted his head, setting the gloves on the nearby table.

“I don’t need them,” Stephen said. “I have nothing to hide.”

Bruce smiled and he bowed slightly. “Then we should leave. It is almost time.”

Stephen turned and walked out of the room, Bruce two steps behind him. Winter and Happy fell into step in front of them, leading them through the halls.

Bruce stared at the back of Stephen’s head and couldn’t fight the smile that crossed his face.

He had no doubt in his mind that Stephen Strange was Goddess-touched, and he had a feeling that they would have more answers by night’s end.

:::

Stephen paused as they walked through the gate leading to the Unseelie forest. Snow crunched under their feet and he looked around curiously. The last time he had been here the leaves had been turning and no snow had covered the ground.

“This way,” Winter said, guiding Stephen through the leafless trees. Before them he could see a hill rising out of the forest, glowing in the light of the crescent moon above. Tony stood alone at the peak, head tilted back and eyes closed. Before him was a stone altar and Stephen frowned. Hadn’t he seen that altar, this hill, somewhere before?

Winter stopped at the base of the hill and released his gentle grip on Stephen’s arm. “Go,” Winter said, pointing up the hill.

Stephen looked at him in surprise. “What?”

“You are his partner for this ritual,” Winter said, giving Stephen a gentle push. “Go, call down the Goddess and Consort and help us renew the land.”

Stephen turned, looking up the hill to Tony. Tony seemed to feel his eyes on him and looked down at him, eyes glowing with power in the dim light. He held his hand out to Stephen, a beckoning call.

Yes, Stephen thought, I belong up there. I belong next to that man.

He didn’t question the thought as he started up the hill, silver cloak spread out behind him. He rested his hand in Tony’s as he reached the crest, ignoring the way his heart stuttered at the pleased smile on the king’s face when he realized Stephen wasn’t wearing the gloves.

Tony wore all black, from the high collar of the tight shirt to his pants. He was barefoot, standing on the snow like it didn’t bother him at all. Out of the corner of his eye, Stephen swore the crown of shadows that graced Tony’s head curved up into the antlers of the Consort. An intricate dagger hung at his hip, startling silver against all that black.

Below them, he could see countless Unseelie weaving through the trees, circling the hill. He could hear the sad song of the roses in their voices, the whisper of wings and the slither of scales against the snow. He distantly thought he should be afraid. This was the first time he was seeing them and the first time they were seeing him. He should be worried.

But he wasn’t.

Tony stood at his side and he could feel the Goddess all around them.

Stephen looked into the forest, half expecting to see a red doe darting between the trees.

Tony smiled at him and lifted their joined hands. The Unseelie immediately fell silent, staring up at their king and the man next to him.

“The longest night of the year. Darkness has spread her wings across us, the sun has turned his face from us. We huddle in the cold, the dark, whispering prayers that the sun will return. The Goddess waits with us for Her Consort to return to her arms, spreading life as they fall into one another’s embrace.

“We are creatures of darkness and shadow, night and nightmares, but even we turn to the Goddess. This is a night of renewal and rebirth, of death and life, of joy and sadness. With the passing of this night comes a new dawn.

“Change is coming. We have felt it, denied it, embraced it, run from it. One of our biggest flaws is our inability to accept change. We have watched the mortals change and we have raged against them, hating them as they advance, outbreed us, strangle our magick with their iron and technology.

“This is a night of reflection. Think about how we must change if we are to survive. Sometimes, letting go is hard. Sometimes, you find what you needed where you least expected.”

Tony glanced sideways at Stephen and his lips quirked in a smile.

“We know the stories,” Tony continued, his voice reaching every member of the Unseelie court. “The Horned One, the Consort, sleeps beneath the snow, leaving the Goddess bereft of Her partner. Tonight we offer a sacrifice to The Horned One to ask him to return, for the rebirth of the sun and of our lands. Tonight we offer a prayer for the Goddess to embrace Her partner and to watch over us for another year.”

The Unseelie in the forest below parted, shocked whispers threading up to the stars like a message on a breeze. Stephen’s breath caught as he watched the white stag pace regally through the gathered Fae. Many reached out to touch the stag, hands falling just shy of his fur. His hooves touched the edge of the hill and he started to climb, blue eyes locked on the men at the top. The stag’s fur made the snow seem dull in comparison, so white it glowed in the faint light of the moon.

The stag drew to a halt in front of Stephen and Tony. Tony swept them both into a low bow.

“You honor us, my lord,” Tony whispered, not looking directly at the white stag. He had a feeling the stag wasn’t here for him, and he was more than okay with that. The white stag had once been seen throughout Faerie. He was the lord of the forest, the Consort made physical. Tony hadn’t seen him in more than six hundred years, though he’d heard others had seen the stag up until a hundred years ago or so.

Tony felt the stag’s muzzle brush over his head and when he glanced up, he saw Stephen on his knees in front of the stag, tears on his face.

Tony stared as the stag stepped forward, curling his magnificent head over Stephen’s shoulder in an embrace. Tony felt like he was intruding in a private moment as Stephen’s hands came up to tangle in the thick fur of the stag’s throat.

Stephen rested his head against the musky fur in front of him. The stag was warm and solid against him. He didn’t know why the stag had come, but he knew the stag was here for him.

He lifted his head, unmindful of the tears on his face. He looked into the blue eyes of the stag and felt nothing but love and acceptance.

“Are you certain?” Stephen whispered in the white stag’s ear.

The stag lifted his head and let out a bell-like cry. Tony looked down the hill at his gathered people, all kneeling, all staring up at the white stag in awe. He saw the goblins slinking between the Unseelie, watching silently. He saw the Demi-Fey fluttering between the branches and he knew that Faerie was here to witness the rebirth of one man, one Sidhe.

Stephen got slowly to his feet, one hand still buried in that white fur. He looked at Tony and held his hand out to him. Tony unsheathed the dagger at his hip and handed it to Stephen hilt first, staring up at the man and stag.

He swore that a pair of silver antlers carved from Stephen’s forehead for just a moment.

Stephen’s hand shook as he laid the blade against the white stag’s throat. The stag blinked at him, no reproach in his eyes.

“In the darkness of the night, we are reborn from the womb of the earth,” Stephen said, his voice carrying to the Fae gathered below.

“In the darkness of the night, we are reborn from the womb of the earth.” A thousand voices repeated his words back to him.

“Go in peace, my friend,” Stephen whispered. The blade bit into the stag’s neck, crimson staining that white fur. The stag fell to his knees on the altar, blood pouring into channels carved into the stone.

Stephen stepped back, coming to stand next to the still kneeling Tony.

Stephen’s skin glowed like he’d swallowed the moon, his eyes were pools of molten blue and emerald. Power crept over his skin, the scent of roses blowing on the breeze and wafting over the gathered Unseelie.

“Hear us, O Goddess!” Stephen cried, throwing his arms wide. “The white stag offered himself willingly to renew our bond with You and Your Consort. Take him into the Summerlands and accept him with joy and love.”

Tony got to his feet slowly, his own skin starting to glow as his power reached out to caress Stephen.

“Hear us, O Consort!” Tony said, voice echoing across the forest. “With your sacrifice the land is renewed! The bond between Faerie and Goddess, Faerie and land, is renewed for another year. Join your lover in embrace and spread fertility and joy throughout the Fae.”

“We are Your children,” Stephen said, “in darkness and light, we are all one in Your eyes.”

“With death, new life follows,” Tony said, lifting his hand. The altar burst into flame, white fire devouring the stag’s body.

Silence fell over the forest, all eyes on the altar and the two men standing before it. The Unseelie swayed in the power that rose from the Sidhe king and the man at his side.

Tony looked over them. Somewhere among his people there was at least one traitor. He was no closer to discovering them. He thought he saw a flash of red fur in the trees but he didn’t concentrate on it. There were many Fae creatures in the forest, drawn to the power of the ritual.

He took Stephen’s hand as they closed the ritual.

Tony hadn’t raised that much power since his long dead queen had been his equal in every way, her voice calling down the Goddess while he let the Consort inhabit his own body. He hadn’t seen the white stag since the year she had been killed. He had heard rumors that others had seen him, but he hadn’t. Tony had felt abandoned by the Consort, by Pepper, by the Goddess, and now the white stag was back, a willing sacrifice at Stephen’s hands.

Stephen smiled at him, more at peace with himself than he’d been in the long eight months he’d been in the Unseelie court.

If Tony whispered a silent prayer to the Goddess to help him root out the traitors, no one would be surprised.

If Tony’s silent prayer was for Stephen’s happiness and health, no one needed to know.

:::

Following the ritual was a grand feast. Stephen stared at Tony in surprise when the king mentioned that Stephen would be joining him.

“In front of everyone?”

“Stephen, you just sacrificed the white stag in front of the entirety of the Unseelie, Goblin, and Demi-Fey courts and you’re worried about a little feast?”

Stephen opened his mouth and then closed it. “Alright, you have a point. But I was far away from them during the ritual.”

He wanted to be out among the court, but suddenly the thought of being surrounded by a press of warm and cold flesh, of scales and horns and appendages that had no name scared him.

Tony squeezed his arm. “You’ll be with me the entire time. Winter and Rhodey will be up with us as well.”

Stephen looked at him. “Did you know I had never taken a life before?” he asked softly.

Tony’s eyes widened and he stepped closer. “Oh, Stephen. If I had known…”

“Shh,” Stephen said. “I was a healer. Frigga said I was one of the most gifted healers she had seen since Loki. I never wanted to take a life, be it Fae, mortal, or animal. It caused a lot of strife between me and some others. Steve was, is, a warrior and had fought in the wars. Even Frigga was a fighter. I am not. I do not mind what I did tonight, Tony, because the white stag gave me a choice. Renewal and rebirth, Tony. I could’ve let you do the sacrifice, but how much have you given up for your court? I could do this one thing for you. I felt the stag’s acceptance as I have felt acceptance from you. With the white stag’s death, my last ties to the Seelie are severed. I would pledge myself to you. I am no warrior, no guard, but I would stay in the Unseelie court.”

Stephen dropped to his knees in front of Tony, unaware of the king’s wide eyes. He felt a gentle hand on his head directing him to look up.

“I am honored, Stephen,” Tony whispered. “But before you pledge yourself to the king of monsters I would have you see the full court.”

Stephen offered him a smile. His mind wouldn’t be changed, but he appreciated Tony giving him the chance.

“As you wish, Tony.”

“Come then,” Tony said, grasping Stephen by the forearms and dragging him to his feet. “I am hungry.”

They joined Winter and Rhodey in the corridor and the four headed off to the great hall.

Stephen tried not to gape as they walked in. The ceiling was vaulted and high, winged beings flitting from rafter to rafter. He saw flashes of color as the Demi-Fey darted between shadows. Fires roared in multiple fireplaces, throwing shadows across the faces of those seated at various long tables. The rich smell of roasting meat reached his nose and his mouth watered.

The shadows reached out for Tony as they walked, embracing him like a long lost lover returning for the first time. Stephen felt the eyes of the court on him and he took a deep breath, holding his head high. He would not shy away from them.

He couldn’t stop the smile that flashed across his face when Peter waved at him happily from his spot on the wall. Stephen lifted his hand and waved back, chuckling at the half spider-goblin’s exuberance.

He saw Thor and Loki sitting shoulder to shoulder, Thor in a loud conversation with Bruce. Loki arched his eyebrow as they passed and offered Stephen a slight bow in acknowledgment. Stephen nodded back, making sure not to fall too far behind Tony.

Tony walked easily through the hall, ignoring the whispers that followed in their wake. Stephen saw they were heading to a dais at the far end of the hall. A dark throne edged in silver sat central on the dais, well above everything else. As they got closer, Stephen could see images of the Wild Hunt etched in the silver. One step lower than the central throne was a smaller, simpler one.

Tony offered Stephen his hand and led him to the second throne, making sure Stephen was seated before sitting himself. Rhodey took up his post to Tony’s right while Winter stood to his left.

Stephen stared out over the court. This was not a view he ever dreamed of seeing in either court. He was a prince of a lowly noble house, not a king. He watched quietly as the ghostly shapes of the White Ladies floated through with platters of food. Tony was served first, followed by Stephen, and then the rest of the court.

Tony ate lazily, chin propped on one hand as his eyes moved restlessly over the court. Somewhere out there was one of the traitors that brought Stephen to his court. He clenched his fist and let out a long breath when Rhodey touched his shoulder.

“I’m fine,” Tony whispered.

“Uh huh,” Rhodey said, arching his eyebrow. Tony offered him a tired smile. The full rituals always seemed to take a lot out of him, especially when he had to hold court immediately after.

Stephen looked out over the assembled Sidhe and Fae as he ate, grateful as always for the forethought of the chef for cutting his food into manageable pieces for him. He felt eyes on him as the night progressed, various Fae and Sidhe stepping forward to entertain the king. Some of the performances made Stephen blush with how sexual they were, making things deep in his stomach tighten with want.

After being tortured and spending so much time recovering, he thought he’d never feel sexual desire again. He had never wanted for a lover. Male and female, Sidhe and Fae, and even the occasional human, he never had a problem finding someone to share his bed with.

He glanced sideways at Tony, letting his eyes run over the king’s slouched form. Tony seemed bored out of his skull as he watched but he noticed Stephen watching and smiled back at him. Stephen smiled back, hoping his desire for the king was masked.

He turned back to his food, fork stopping halfway to his mouth. He felt eyes on him and unlike the mild curiosity he’d felt from the rest of the court, this felt hostile.

Stephen swept his eyes over the nearby nobles. There was Thor and Loki, the lines of their bodies touching as they ate. Bruce sat next to them, chatting with Happy. The guards that Stephen was slowly coming to think of as friends wandered the hall, pausing to eat.

His eyes landed on the red headed Widow of the court and his fork slipped through his fingers. A stabbing pain went through his head and he turned away, breathing hard. He covered his eyes, trying to take deep, even breaths.

Oh Goddess, he remembered.

“Stephen?” a voice said in his ear. “Stephen, can you hear me?”

He tried to focus, but memory after memory washed over him. Flashes of color, of taste, of pain.

Stephen glanced up from his desk as Lord Zemo and Lady Natalia walked up to him. Natalia’s hair hung around her head in a gold cloud, her eyes smiling in her sun-kissed skin.

“Prince Stephen,” Zemo said, bowing shortly. Not as low as he should, but Stephen let it go.

“King Rogers wishes to see you right away,” Natalia said, resting her hand on Stephen’s shoulder. She was truly beautiful and they had tumbled into bed together more than once. Stephen couldn’t help the wave of anticipation that swept through him. Steve hadn’t wanted to see him privately since his coronation. Stephen missed him. He missed his strong arms and his warmth, his earthy scent, his laughter. Stephen got to his feet, hands shaking in anticipation.

She went up on her toes and brushed her lips over his. He returned the kiss, opening his mouth when she swiped her tongue over the seam of his lips. She had been a comfort to him in the months since Steve had turned him away. He didn’t love her; he didn’t think he ever would, but her body was a comfort, a port in the storm of his broken heart. She tasted…odd. He couldn’t identify it. Her mouth was bitter and sweet at the same time.

His lips tingled and he pulled back, touching his mouth.

“Natalia?”

His vision swam and his knees buckled as he reached for her.

“He’ll be unable to resist any commands in a few minutes,” Natalia said, her accent curling around him.

“Good,” Zemo said, locking iron cuffs around Stephen’s wrists. Stephen moaned, pain streaking up his arms. “Rogers will forget him soon enough. You organized the rest?”

“Rumlow is meeting us in two hours.”

“Lovely. Let’s move.”

“Stephen, sweetheart, I need you to talk to me,” Tony’s voice said in his ear. He felt Tony’s cheek against his own, hot puffs of breath against his skin.

“I remember,” Stephen whispered, tears on his face. Tony tensed against him, one hand coming to rest against Stephen’s cheek. Anyone looking at them would assume they were sharing an intimate moment.

“What do you remember?” Tony whispered.

Stephen closed his eyes, matching Tony’s breathing. “The one you call the Widow…”

Tony froze, heart twisting.

“She went by the name Lady Natalia. She was one of Zemo’s advisors and was instrumental in getting Steve on the throne,” Stephen’s words tumbled out of his mouth, coming faster and faster as he tried to control his panic.

Tony let out a shuddering breath, eyes slipping closed.

“She and I…”

“Shh,” Tony whispered. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“I swear, I’m telling the truth!” Stephen said. What if the king didn’t believe him? Why would he? He had only known Tony for less than a year, and who knew how long the Widow had been in his circle.

“Easy, Stephen, I believe you,” Tony said, his forehead against Stephen’s. “I wish I didn’t, but I do.”

He did believe Stephen. He could feel it, deep inside him, that Stephen was telling the truth. The Widow, Natasha, had been one of his best spies. He had sent her into human lands, deep into the Seelie court, and wherever he had needed eyes he could absolutely trust.

After the death of his queen, she had become distant. Once, he, his queen, and Natasha had been close. He’d thought that Natasha had pulled away because she mourned as he did. He had mourned for a long time. He still missed his queen like an ache in his heart. Tony had made mistakes after her death, had slipped into a depression that he hadn’t seen his way out of. Helping Winter had begun the long process of pulling him back into the court, into life.

It wasn’t until Stephen had fallen into his court and his heart that he truly felt alive again. After over six hundred years of self-imposed loneliness he felt like he was finally taking the right steps and doing right by his people. He just had to do right by Stephen.

“I believe you,” Tony said, sitting back in the throne. He sat like the king he was, straight back, eyes hard, hands curled over the arms of the throne. Stephen trembled in his chair, trying to fight down the wave of nausea washing over him. A cool hand brushed his shoulder and he looked sideways. Winter’s silver hand rested on his shoulder, offering comfort and strength. Stephen covered the hand with his own, still trying to stem his body’s reaction to the rush of memories.

The Widow seemed to have noticed Tony sitting back and stood up, slipping into the shadows and heading for the main doors.

She was running.

“Lady Natasha,” Tony’s voice cracked across the great hall, silencing everyone with the power behind his voice. Eyes darted between the king and the famed Widow, one of the deadliest members of the court.

Natasha turned, her blood red hair spinning around her in a halo. A wicked smile crossed her face as she sashayed across the floor, dropping to her knee in front of the king.

“My king,” she said, her voice dripping with sincerity.

Tony stared down at her, sitting so still he seemed like a beautifully carved statue. The hall seemed darker than it had been, flames guttering as shadows creeped down the walls.

“Do you know the man sitting next to me?” Tony asked, gesturing lazily at Stephen.

Natasha’s eyes swept over Stephen and he shrunk back into the throne. Winter’s hand tightened on his shoulder and Stephen let himself lean into him a bit.

“I’m afraid I don’t. New friend of yours?”

“Oh, Natasha,” Tony said, leaning forward. “The Fae do not lie.”

“I am not lying, your majesty,” Natasha said, lifting her head. Her eyes were hard, fingers curled at her side. Stephen had no doubt that she could summon weapons in an instant. Guards moved to flank her, Thor standing at her back. He couldn’t see Loki but he had no doubt that he was nearby and keeping a close eye on the proceedings.

“You’re not?” Tony said, his voice lilting softly. Stephen heard a hint of an old accent, something from a long dead language.

“So you do not know him. You have never seen him before?”

“I have seen him before. He stood at your side and sacrificed the white stag.”

“And that was the first time you had seen him?”

“Of course.”

Tony’s lips quirked in a rather wicked smile. “Is that so, Lady Natalia?”

Stephen would’ve missed the brief flash of shock across her face if he hadn’t been looking for it.

“I have gone by many names in my time as your spy, King Anthony.” Tension ran through her body, eyes darting side to side.

“But never Natalia. Swear by the darkness that eats all things that you do not know this man.”

Gasps and whispers ran through the gathered Fae. That oath was the most serious and solemn any Fae could take. Going against it meant being devoured by things even the Fae had forgotten.

Natasha opened her mouth and closed it.

“You can’t, can you?” Tony said. “Because you do know him.”

She was silent, looking for an exit.

“Tell them his name.”

“No.”

“Tell them. His name.”

Stephen swallowed hard, looking down at her. Natasha met his eyes and they stared at each other. Her lip curled in a sneer.

“His name is Stephen Strange, Seelie prince.” Shocked murmurs rose from the court at Natasha’s words.

“And how did he come to be here?”

“I do not know,” Natasha said, eyes still locked on Stephen’s. He felt a thread of fear uncurl in him. She was a deadly warrior and he was a wounded healer. If she attacked him he would not be able to fight back, even if he wanted to kill another Sidhe.

“Liar liar,” Tony whispered.

Natasha leapt to her feet and darted for the exit. A long howl echoed from behind the door and she froze, going pale as the doors flung open and the howls grew louder. None of the guards moved to stop her, none of the gathered Unseelie or Fae moved to assist her as she staggered back, fear written clearly on her face.

Shadows writhed through the door, spilling out and running along the edges of the room. Stephen swore he saw eyes and heard chittering laughter coming from the darkness. He couldn’t look away from it. It called to him and he wanted to fall into it. He wanted to stand up and run into the darkness, letting it carry him away on a tide of shadows.

“Do not look into the darkness,” Winter whispered in Stephen’s ear. “That way lies madness.”

Stephen saw shapes in the darkness, hounds and horses, falcons and other flying things, mortals and Fae, souls lost to the darkness. He couldn’t tear his eyes away as black hounds with glowing green eyes took shape.

“Close your eyes, Stephen,” Loki’s voice said from his side.

Stephen closed his eyes.

The hounds drove Natasha back towards Tony.

“Take the oath, Natasha,” Tony said, voice so hard Stephen was certain it could cut glass.

“I challenge you to a duel!” Natasha cried out, voice cracking as one of the hounds bit at her knees.

“Oh, Natasha, you should know better than that,” Tony said.

He stood up, staring down at her. Stephen opened his eyes a crack and glanced at Tony. The crown of thorn and shadows graced his head, and Stephen saw a hunting horn hanging from his belt.

Where had that come from? Had he seen it before? He wasn’t sure, but something about seeing Tony with the horn scared him more than the day he’d realized he’d woken up in the king’s chambers.

He kept his eyes focused completely on Tony as the man sauntered down the dais steps, drawing to a stop before Natasha. The hounds darted around them, howling and yipping in excitement. Stephen let his eyes drift over the hall. The Unseelie seemed afraid of the hounds, of the darkness that inched closer and closer to the king.

Natasha spun, a dagger in her hand as she lashed out at Tony. Tony deflected her blade, a ferocious smile on his face as he met her attack for attack. Stephen stared. He had watched Seelie warriors practice against each other often—Steve in particular had enjoyed showing off for him—but he had never seen anyone move with the lethal, sinuous grace that Tony had.

“Try harder!” Tony barked, grabbing Natasha’s wrist and twisting it. One of the hounds leapt forward, nipping at her heels. She stumbled forward, hitting her knees before Tony and glaring up at him.

“You are a failure as a king!” Natasha spat, wiping blood off her face.

“So we come to the root of the problem,” Tony said. His free hand rested on the thick black ruff of one of the hounds, fingers curling into that night dark fur. “Why did you bring him here?”

“I won’t tell you,” Natasha said.

“Oh, Natasha. You will.”

“You think to tie me up with Rumlow? Cover me in the tears and leave me aching and empty? I still will never speak to you.”

Tony tilted his head, eyes hard and calculating. “No. That way is not for you. You forget who I was once. You swore an oath to me, Natasha. You swore fidelity to me and took a blood oath on it. And you know what I can do with blood.”

Tony lifted his hand and twisted his fingers. Blood started to trickle from Natasha’s hairline, her eyes, her nose. She coughed, blood spattering the front of Tony’s boots.

Stephen stared in horror. He knew, intellectually, what Tony’s title of King of Blood and Darkness meant, but having the evidence of it shoved in his face was shocking. It was difficult for him to reconcile this man, this king, with the one he’d come to know through long nights of playing chess, discussing mortal books, and watching him create wonderful things.

They were like two different men.

“I loved you once. Pepper and I loved you. Tell me why you did this.”

Natasha glared up at him, wiping blood out of her eyes. “When she died, you did too. You should’ve just faded and left the court to find a new king, a better king. The Seelie had lost their king so I went to see what they were doing. But you didn’t fade, and the Seelie didn’t have a chosen king. I did what I had to do. When his body was found in your chambers, the Seelie would wage war against you.” She pointed at Stephen and he drew back, wishing he was anywhere but here.

“I didn’t mean that much to the Seelie,” Stephen said, his voice quivering. Winter’s strong, silver hand on his shoulder offered strength.

Natasha sneered at him. “Steve loved you. He wanted you to rule at his side, but we couldn’t allow that.”

“Why?” Tony asked swiftly, pulling her attention away from Stephen’s pained expression. Yes, Steve had loved him and Stephen had loved Steve. He had thought they would spend eternity together. Had Steve’s decision to turn away from him not been his own?

Until Steve had been put on the throne.

At first he had been one of Steve’s advisors but then…

Then what? What had happened between the time Steve had taken the throne and Natalia and Zemo had turned him over to Rumlow’s tender care?

Natasha spat blood at Tony, red tears rolling from her eyes as she glared up at him. “Steve is easy enough to control, but him?” she gestured at Stephen and he recoiled like she attacked him physically. Her laughter echoed across the hall, getting swallowed by the writhing darkness in the corners of the room.

There was a loud crack as Tony backhanded her, her head snapping back with the force of his hit. Her laughter never stopped.

“We couldn’t control him,” she said, spitting a tooth onto the bloodstained cobblestone beneath her. “Steve, for all his years, wears his heart and emotions on his sleeve. He still misses Bucky, even after Zemo had him exiled from court.”

Winter started and it was Stephen’s turn to offer some small comfort to him, covering his silver hand with his scarred one. Winter squeezed his fingers gently, gratefully, taking a long breath.

“But Strange, Strange we couldn’t control,” Natasha finished, smirking at Stephen and Winter.

“So you had to get rid of him. Why leave him in the Unseelie Sithen?”

“War.”

“We all made an agreement with the infant American government when the old world kicked us off their land,” Tony said, burying his hand back into the fur of the black hound at his side. “We swore an oath that we would never wage war against each other again. The Fae wars of old destroyed land and killed countless mortals.”

“You killed countless mortals with your rage and grief!” Natasha snarled, trying to get to her feet. Thor and Happy pushed her down again.

A strange look crossed Tony’s face and it was gone before Stephen could decipher it. “I did, yes,” Tony said, voice soft. “I am well aware of that. What I do not understand is why the Seelie court would want to go to war when this is the last country that would have us.”

“If the mortals saw what monsters you truly are, they would destroy you, your court, and we would be left to pick up the pieces. They would adore the Seelie court, worship us as they did long ago. We were gods, you fool, and we would be gods again!”

“You were never worshipped as a god, Natasha. You were nothing more than a pretty face,” Tony said.

“I could’ve been a god,” Natasha said. “Of course, we should’ve realized you’d go off and ruin our plan by rescuing him and nursing him to health. I knew something went wrong when Rumlow disappeared and you appointed Logan as your loyal attack dog.”

“Logan never did like you,” Tony said. “Weren’t able to sleep with him to get him to talk, were you?”

She growled at him, struggling briefly against Thor and Happy’s grip.

“I found out what you did to him,” Natasha said. “Does your pet Seelie prince know what you do to those who wrong you? Does he know you leave them chained up, covered in Freya’s Tears, sobbing for completion? Does he know that you reach into their minds and send them into darkness that there is no escape from? Does he know what a monster you truly are, your majesty?” she spat the last, ruby lips twisted in a wicked smile.

Stephen sat rigid in the throne, Winter’s hand tight on his shoulder. He shook, unable to tear his eyes away from Tony and Natasha. He had been told multiple times that Tony was Unseelie through and through, but this was the first time he was really seeing it.

Tony scared him. He was suddenly and completely terrified of the man he had truly been coming to like, maybe even more than that.

Tony glanced over his shoulder at Stephen, a flash of sadness crossing his face. The king wiped it away quickly, the haughty mask sliding back into place like it hadn’t cracked when their eyes had met.

“He was going to find out eventually,” Tony whispered, turning back to Natasha. Natasha laughed in his face, blood still streaming from her eyes and nose.

“You are a fool,” Natasha said.

“Maybe,” Tony said.

“You should’ve just laid down and died with your queen,” Natasha said. Tony stared down at her, unmoved by her vitriol.

“Perhaps,” Tony whispered, snapping his fingers. Chains of shadows lashed out and wrapped around Natasha’s body, pinning her to the ground. Thor and Happy stepped back, no longer needing to force Natasha down. Tony turned and walked back up the dais, dropping onto the throne. One of the black hounds lay at his feet, ears up and focused on Natasha. Stephen cringed into his throne, shaking nearly uncontrollably.

“I name you Oathbreaker,” Tony said. Natasha struggled against her dark bonds, eyes wide and breathing panicked. “You turned against your sovereign king, betrayed me, and destroyed a good man. Your life is forfeit.”

“You’ll just lock me up,” Natasha panted, straining against the shadow chains. “Like you’ve done with Obadiah and Rumlow. You aren’t king enough to actually kill me.”

Tony tilted his head. “I don’t like death for no reason. Stane’s continued lock up is because I am a monster. I like knowing he’s still alive nearly two thousand years after he tried to kill me. I like knowing that he is bricked into the very walls of my Sithen, screaming where no one can hear him. As to Rumlow, I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with him yet. But you…I can use you to secure my treaties.”

Natasha’s eyes widened and for the first time she looked well and truly afraid. “Please, your majesty, do not give me to the goblin court.”

“No, not them,” Tony’s voice was hard. “Queen Wanda!”

Stephen saw a flash of red and the Demi-Fey queen flew down from the rafters, coming to a hover in front of Tony.

“Unseelie king?” Wanda asked, her voice high and melodious. She had been enjoying the show that Tony had been putting on. Her wings fluttered in excitement, dark eyes wide in her pale face.

Tony gestured to Natasha’s restrained body. “I offer you Sidhe flesh and blood in exchange for cementing our treaty for the next year. And yes, you may still taste of me once a month.”

“How far are we to go to appease you in this, King Anthony?” She flew forward, coming to whisper in his ear. “How much are we to take?”

Tony looked at Wanda, whiskey eyes like brown chips of ice. “I do not want her back, Queen Wanda. Take your time.”

Wanda’s face split into a hungry smile, showing a row of needle sharp teeth. “You have a deal.” She pressed a kiss against the corner of Tony’s mouth and flew back, wings buzzing so fast Stephen couldn’t make out more than a blur. Wanda let out a bird like cry and Stephen watched in horror as a rainbow waterfall of wings and feathers poured from the ceiling, covering Natasha in a cascade of beautiful colors.

Stephen jerked back when the first loud scream broke the strained silence of the great hall. He covered his mouth, eyes wide in horror.

Tony looked at him, still crowned by thorn and shadow. He jerked his head at Winter and Loki, both men still flanking Stephen. Bruce had joined them at some point, standing behind them and trying to look as small as possible. Stephen thought his skin had an odd green tint to it.

“Get him out of here,” Tony ordered gruffly, hand clenching the silver arm of his throne.

“Yes, my king,” Winter said. Loki and Winter helped Stephen to his feet, Loki wrapping a strong arm around his waist. Winter led the way to a secret door at the back of the dais, one that only the king and guards had access to. Bruce followed them, breathing slowly and evenly through his nose. Stephen leaned heavily on Loki, biting back a cry as the pain filled screams rose in pitch behind them.

Tony watched them go, heart twisted and heavy in his chest. He turned back to watch the Demi-Fey feast on someone he had once counted as a friend.

His fist clenched against the hunting horn hanging from his hip. Would Stephen even be able to look at him after this? He had been so careful with the wounded Seelie. He had been so careful not to show his darker side. He hadn’t wanted to scare Stephen any more than he already was.

He couldn’t get the horrified expression on Stephen’s face out of his mind. Natasha had been right; he was a monster and he’d been hiding it from Stephen. He wanted the broken Seelie prince to like him, not to be terrified of him like so many others were. He let his mind go blank and watched the Demi-Fey fan their wings, some rubbing against each other, fucking as they devoured the blood and flesh of a Sidhe noble. It was a powerful feast and they glowed with magick.

He would stay there until the feast was over. He would stay and watch, because Natasha had been his friend and lover once, and he deserved to have her screams added to those he heard whenever he closed his eyes.

It took a very, very long time for the screaming to stop.

:::

Stephen didn’t say a word as Loki and Winter led him through the Sithen. He trembled in Loki’s tight embrace, tears on his face. He looked up as they reached the king’s chambers and Winter unlocked the door, leading them in.

Bruce paused at the threshold. “I’m close to losing control,” he rasped out.

Winter looked up. “Let me help Loki and Stephen and then I’ll join you in the gym. We can work out some aggression together.”

Bruce nodded and hurried off, pulling his shirt off as he went. Stephen swore that Bruce’s muscles were straining in his skin and his flesh was turning green. It didn’t matter; he couldn’t concentrate on that right now.

Loki and Winter helped Stephen out of his formal robes from the ceremony, specks of the stag’s blood dried stiff on the dark fabric. Loki helped him into a pair of pajama pants and a loose shirt, sitting him on the bed. Winter busied himself pouring Stephen a drink and Loki knelt in front of him, taking Stephen’s shaking hands in his.

“Winter and I have been where you are,” Loki said softly. Stephen looked at him, eyes wide and panicked. “We were both Seelie. Winter was born Seelie, raised as one of the perfect warriors. I was…adopted,” Loki’s voice dripped with disdain and bitterness. “When we joined this court, we both had that experience of watching the true darkness of the king come out.”

“They ate her,” Stephen said, voice faint. Winter pressed the tumbler of whiskey into his hand and Stephen tossed it back.

“Flesh, blood, sex, it’s how treaties and agreements are made,” Winter said, sitting next to him. “Tony and Queen Wanda have had an agreement for centuries. She feeds off him once a month and her people are his best spies. Goblins prefer flesh or violent sex.”

“Many forget that the Demi-Fey are just as violent and bloodthirsty as us,” Loki said, taking the empty whiskey glass from Stephen’s hand. “A Sidhe noble is a literal feast for them.”

“Ton—the king…let them…” Stephen’s voice shook and a shiver wracked his body. Winter pulled the heavy blanket from the bed and wrapped it around Stephen’s shoulders.

“He has been incredibly careful to show you his best behavior, Stephen,” Loki said. “He doesn’t want you to be afraid of him.”

Stephen let out a half hysterical laugh. After that he was terrified. Winter squeezed his arm and stood up.

“I have to go to Bruce,” he said. “He and Natasha were lovers too, for a bit. This will have hit him close to home. Loki will stay with you.”

Stephen felt a thread of terror uncurl in him. Were there more traitors out there? Was Tony rooting out the rot in his court?

Winter dropped a comforting kiss on Stephen’s head and squeezed Loki’s shoulder as he slipped out of the room.

Loki hummed, staring into the distance. “Let me tell you a story, Stephen. Do you know what that red cloak is hanging beside the bed?”

Stephen glanced at the limp red cloak that had been there since he woke up with his hands destroyed all those months ago. He remembered how Tony would reach out to the cloak when he needed some kind of reassurance, running his hand up and down the seams.

Stephen shook his head. “I assume it belonged to his queen.”

“In a way,” Loki said. “It is a relic.”

Stephen’s eyes widened and he looked back at the cloak. It seemed like a normal piece of fabric, if worn and frayed at the edges. Relics were generally imbued with magick and power from the Goddess or Consort, things of great beauty and power. The cloak looked nothing like a relic.

The Seelie had few relics left. They had vanished as the golden court turned away from the love of the Goddess. Steve’s shield was one of the last Seelie relics, emblazoned with a star and surrounded by flowers. Stephen knew that the sword that he’d seen Tony carry sometimes was a relic. He could feel the power of it reaching out to him every time he was near it, although he had no desire to touch that blade.

“The myth goes that the Goddess tore the corner of her own cloak off and draped it around a Sidhe’s shoulders, offering Her protection even when She wasn’t there,” Loki said. “The cloak is…was…sentient. It chose its master or mistress, as fickle as a cat. Its last mistress was Pepper, Queen of the Unseelie. When she…when Odin murdered her, it stopped moving. It hasn’t moved since.”

Stephen looked between the cloak and Loki. Loki gave him a twisted smile. “Yes, Odin, the man that raised me, murdered Anthony’s queen. Do you know what happened next?”

Stephen shook his head. He had been too young to participate in the last war between the courts.

“Surely you’ve heard of the Black Death?”

Stephen frowned. “The plague that hit the humans so hard?”

“Exactly,” Loki said. “Before he was known as Anthony, he was a death deity. In his grief and rage, the mortal world was ravaged.”

Was that what Natasha had meant when she’d told Tony that he had killed countless mortals in his rage and grief?

“Why are you telling me this? This isn’t helping me not to be afraid of him…”

Loki cupped Stephen’s face, thumb tracing his cheekbone. “The look on his face tonight, when he looked down at Natasha and offered her to the Demi-Fey. I have seen that look only once before. Do you know when?”

Stephen shook his head and Loki brushed a tear from his face.

“When his queen was killed,” Loki whispered. “He would burn the world to keep you safe, Stephen. I hope you do not hold it against him.”

Loki leaned forward and kissed the corner of Stephen’s mouth, standing up. Stephen stared up at him, eyes wide. Loki smiled and turned to the door, slipping out just as the king entered.

Tony leaned against the closed door, face like granite as he looked at Stephen. Stephen went still, like a rabbit sensing a wolf, and they looked at each other. Stephen took a moment to really gaze at Tony.

The king looked worn. His eyes were red rimmed and Stephen was sure he’d been crying. The crown was gone. There was no sign of the hunting horn that had oddly appeared on his hip. He just looked…tired.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Tony said, voice hoarse.

“You are the king,” Stephen said carefully. “You don’t need to apologize to me for anything.”

A bitter smile crossed Tony’s face. “I wanted to introduce you to the court on a night of love and celebration, of rebirth and renewal. I didn’t…”

Stephen just watched him, unable to tear his eyes away from the sad shell of a king before him. He shrugged. “It was a piss poor time to remember.”

Tony shook his head but made no move to step closer to Stephen. “I knew I had traitors in my court. I just…”

“Wasn’t expecting it to be someone you counted as a friend?” Stephen asked gently.

Tony nodded wearily, sliding down the door and wrapping his arms around his knees. He looked so small and young, curled into a tight ball.

“She wasn’t the only one. I’m fairly certain I got them all.”

Stephen was silent for a moment. “Are they dead?”

“Not all of them,” Tony whispered, eyes closed. He didn’t want to see the judgement in Stephen’s face. “What happened…what I did to Natasha was warning enough. Most stepped forward of their own will. Logan will be busy for quite some time.”

Stephen swallowed. “Logan is your torturer?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “I gave him the post after discovering Rumlow’s betrayal.”

Silence fell over them. Tony took a shuddering breath.

“After the ritual and the sacrifice…what you did renewed the court with power that I haven’t felt in centuries. You renewed the land, our bond with it, with the Goddess and Consort. The Sithen sings with power, and I just wanted to show you how beautiful the Unseelie could be. Instead…I showed you how monstrous I truly am.”

Stephen didn’t know how to respond. He wasn’t sure he could say anything to wipe that sad, broken look off Tony’s face. Tony stared past him, eyes focused on the red cloak hanging on the wall.

Stephen had seen that shattered, hopeless expression before; in the mirror every morning for the past eight months. He wanted to fix it, to heal the king, to chase away his demons.

The two Sidhe sat there, neither saying a word. The silence grew heavy, a tangible thing between them.

Stephen didn’t like it. Even when he’d first woke up and met Tony, the silence between them had never been tense or awkward. When he’d realized just who the short Sidhe was and how powerful he truly was, Stephen had never felt threatened.

With a start, he realized he didn’t feel threatened now. Even when Tony had been so Unseelie Stephen had barely recognized him, he hadn’t felt like Tony was a danger to him. He’d been afraid, yes, and maybe even afraid of him, but he had never once felt that Tony was going to lash out at him.

He felt safe with Tony. He felt safe in the inner sanctum of the Unseelie king, the monster that the Seelie said would murder them all if given half a chance.

“Tony,” Stephen whispered.

Tony lifted his head and Stephen was surprised to see tears in the king’s eyes.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Stephen said.

“I shouldn’t have made you see that,” Tony replied. “That…I shouldn’t have made you watch.”

“You didn’t. You had Winter and Loki bring me back here, where I feel safe.”

Tony looked surprised but quickly schooled his face into neutrality. “And do you still feel safe with me? The monster of the Unseelie? Death was my first and most intimate lover, Stephen.”

“Loki said you were once worshipped as a death deity,” Stephen said.

Tony nodded sharply. “The Fae used to call me the Merchant of Death. That wasn’t what the humans called me.”

“What did they call you?”

Tony shook his head. “When I shed that identity I took an oath to the Goddess not to speak it. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Stephen said. He stood up and Tony’s eyes tracked his movement. He walked closer and held his hand out to Tony. Giving him a cautious look, Tony reached out and carefully took his forearm. Stephen started to pull and Tony scrambled to his feet, careful not to put pressure on Stephen’s injured hands.

“And to answer your question, yes, I feel safe with you.”

Tony looked up at him, mouth parted and eyes wide. “What?”

“I feel safe with you. I feel safe here, in the Unseelie court. As long as you are here, I feel safe. You did what you did to keep me safe. Since the moment you took me out of that hell that my own people put me in, you did everything in your power to keep me safe. You gave me access to your personal chambers. You trusted my body with your most trusted guards. You listened to me when I said I felt trapped, and even when things got very weird and your roses drank from me and the white stag appeared, you never made me feel unsafe.”

Tony looked surprised, staring up at him in quiet shock. Stephen rested his hands on Tony’s shoulders. He couldn’t deny it; something had been growing between them these past months. Looking down at Tony, he knew the older Sidhe would never make the first move. Tony wouldn’t want to pressure him, to scare him, into anything he didn’t want.

Stephen brushed shaking fingers over Tony’s face, memorizing the contours of it. Tony didn’t move; he hardly took a breath. It was like he didn’t want to spook Stephen.

Stephen didn’t think anything could spook him at this point. He still didn’t know why the Seelie had thrown him out, but at least he knew how he’d gotten to the Unseelie court. It was a small comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. He cupped Tony’s face. He loved that Tony—that the Unseelie—never shied away from his scars, his hands.

He didn’t know why the Seelie had turned from him, but he knew that Tony would never turn him away. He welcomed all Fae, as long as they didn’t betray him.

“I will never betray you, Tony,” Stephen said. Tony blinked back tears and looked away. Stephen turned his head back to face him, bringing their foreheads together. “I am safe with you.”

With that, Stephen brought their lips together in the ghost of a kiss. Tony let out a soft, heartbroken noise and lifted onto his toes, seeking Stephen’s lips. Stephen smiled, opening himself to Tony. Stephen was no stranger to kissing. In fact, he quite enjoyed kissing with his various lovers.

He’d never had a kiss like this. He’d never felt that he was on truly equal footing with those he had been with in the past, but with Tony…

He pulled back, their foreheads still together. Their breath mingled and Stephen felt Tony’s hands on his hips, thumbs tracing circles over the silk pajama shirt.

“I feel safe with you,” Stephen said again, his breath ghosting over Tony’s lips.

Tony smiled at him like he’d handed him the moon and Stephen couldn’t resist kissing him again. Tony let out that soft, broken noise again and Stephen hauled him closer, arms tight around him.

“Stephen,” Tony whispered, shivering in his embrace.

“Shh, Tony, I’ve got you. You’re so strong. Let someone else carry you for once.”

Tony’s knees nearly gave out at that, body sagging against Stephen’s. Stephen steered him back to the bed, gently helping him sit on the edge. Tony shivered occasionally, although Stephen wasn’t sure if it was from the cold or a delayed reaction to what had happened earlier. He flicked his fingers at the fireplace and shared a conspiratorial smile with Tony as flames roared to life, fed by his magick.

It was easy, far easier than it had been, and Stephen wondered if it was a side effect of the ritual, of the power of sacrificing the white stag of the forest.

It didn’t matter. Tony was the only thing that mattered at the moment.

“I would help you out of your boots, but I don’t think my fingers are steady enough for the laces,” Stephen whispered.

Tony managed a smile and bent over, fingers fumbling at the long laces of his knee high boots. He finally managed to get them off, collapsing against the bed. Stephen tapped his shoulder and Tony lifted his arms, letting him pull his bloodstained shirt off. He went to set it aside to be cleaned later but Tony grabbed his wrist.

“Burn it,” he said, voice cracking. “I’ll never wear it again. Not after tonight.”

Stephen nodded and stood up, standing before the roaring fire. He wadded up the shirt and tossed it in, watching as the greedy flames devoured it. He turned back to Tony and they looked at each other. Stephen’s eyes roamed over that broad, scarred chest, eyes lingering on the scar that looked so much like a handprint right over his heart.

Tony had had his heart broken so many times over his long life. Stephen swore that he would do his best not to add to that heartbreak ever again.

Stephen shrugged out of his pajama top and Tony’s sudden intake of breath seemed loud in the otherwise quiet room.

“Stephen…”

“Shh,” Stephen whispered, kneeling next to him on the bed. He ran trembling hands over Tony’s shoulders, his chest, splaying his hand over that old scar.

“I think I have kept you out of your bed long enough,” Stephen whispered, lowering his head and brushing his lips over Tony’s. Tony let out a quiet moan and opened his mouth to Stephen’s, letting the Seelie set the pace.

“Kiss me, Anthony,” Stephen said, nipping at his lips.

“I don’t want to scare you,” Tony whispered, staring up into iridescent tricolored eyes.

“You won’t. If you do something that frightens me, I will tell you, and I know you will stop. I trust you. Do you hear me? I trust you.”

Tony let out a hungry roar and surged upwards. They crashed together in a clash of teeth and lips and snarls, Tony’s fingers brands on his hips. Stephen surrendered to the king’s frantic pace, losing himself in the feel of muscle and flesh beneath his hands.

Tony rolled them, his solid weight pushing Stephen back into the bed. Stephen laughed into the kiss, his hands roving over bare back, feeling the play of muscles and spine with every move Tony made.

“Tony!” Stephen whispered, throwing his head back. He could smell roses as Tony kissed his way down his neck, over his shoulders, down to his hands. When Tony lifted his head, his eyes were glowing like amber in the sun. Stephen knew his own eyes would start to glow in return as he pulled Tony down for another searing kiss.

Stephen wasn’t sure when they’d both lost their pants, the long, nude lengths of their bodies sliding against each other in the fire lit darkness of the room. The scent of roses filled the room, their ragged breathing the only sound besides the crackling of the fire. Stephen could feel the Goddess watching over them, cradling them in Her arms.

Tony pulled back, staring down at Stephen with lips parted in awe. Stephen’s pale skin glowed like he had swallowed the moon, his eyes two iridescent pools among the silver of his skin. Tony held out a hand, his own magick rising to meet Stephen’s, his skin glowing like honey, dark compared to Stephen’s light.

Stephen smiled up at him and pulled him back down. His head fell back as Tony spread his legs, his length pushing at Stephen’s entrance. His body gave willingly to Tony’s and their voices twined together as their bodies joined as one.

They didn’t know when rose petals began raining down around them, too wrapped up in one another to notice the fragrant, soft rain. They moved together, riding the waves of pleasure as it crested through them. Stephen’s body arched as he came, his seed dark against the glowing white of his skin. Tony cried out softly as he spilled into Stephen’s body, tears scalding the Seelie’s skin.

They breathed together, still joined as one, as they came back to themselves. Tony grabbed a handful of the white and red rose petals and let them slide through his fingers.

“The Goddess has blessed us this night,” he whispered, voice hoarse.

“She has,” Stephen agreed, pulling Tony back down to him. Tony curled against him, the glow in their skin fading as the magick receded. Sweat and seed gelled on their skin, sticky and real, but neither one of them made a move to clean up. The spell would be broken if they moved, and neither one of them wanted to risk losing the connection they had.

Tony pressed a kiss against Stephen’s temple.

“Sleep,” Tony whispered. “You’re safe here.”

Stephen smiled, turning his head for a gentle kiss against Tony’s lips. “I know.”

Tangled together, they fell into a deep slumber, the scent of roses still lingering in the air.

:::

Stephen stood behind the altar, the white stag beside him. The stag nuzzled his hand and bounded down the hill, running unfettered through the trees. Stephen smiled, watching the flash of white as it got smaller and smaller. He ran his hands over the altar, feeling the power in it from the earlier sacrifice.

He looked up when he saw a flash of red in the trees. The red doe he had seen in his pain induced dreams during his coma bounded through the forest, hooves silent on the ground. She disappeared and Stephen looked back to the altar. He heard soft footsteps behind him but he wasn’t worried. He was safe here.

“Hello, Stephen,” a soft, feminine voice said. He stood up straight and turned to face her, expecting to see the Goddess.

A tall Sidhe woman stood on the hill next to him, the wind blowing back red hair. He felt a heart stopping moment of panic at the red hair until he realized it wasn’t the blood red of Natasha’s, but flame red. His eyes widened when he noted that she wore the red cloak he’d seen in the king’s chambers. It curled around her, ignoring the dictates of the wind. Its collar waved at him and Stephen dazedly waved back.

Not the Goddess then.

The woman smiled and cupped his cheek. “It is good to finally meet you,” she said.

“And you,” he said, voice cracking. He felt like he had known her forever and yet he knew they had never met. “I’m afraid I don’t…”

“You can call me Pepper,” she said gently.

Stephen’s eyes widened. This was Pepper, Tony’s beloved queen.

“Walk with me,” Pepper said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. They started down the hill, listening to the sounds of the forest around them. Stephen heard the lilting song of birds fluttering from branch to branch, the call of insects rising and falling, the cries of larger, more dangerous beasts deeper in the forest.

Yet he was not afraid, not walking next to this woman.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted. Where had his seven hundred years of courtly training gone? His cheeks flushed red at her soft smile.

“For what?”

“Tony and I…we…”

How could he just come out and say ‘I let your husband fuck me?’

Pepper seemed to understand. She squeezed his forearm gently. “Tony is an easy man to love, no matter what he thinks. He has always been loved by many, myself included. There was no doubt that you two would come to love each other.”

“Is this real?” Stephen asked, touching a tree as they passed it.

“What is real, Stephen? Is this a tangible thing? Maybe. But the Goddess has granted me this little bit of time to speak to you from the Summerlands. So in that aspect, yes, I am real.”

“Oh,” Stephen whispered.

They came to a halt on the shores of the lake, the water lapping at their suddenly bare toes. Looking out over the water, Stephen saw a man curled up on the island, sobbing and alone. He twitched in Pepper’s grip, desperate to go to him.

“No, Stephen,” Pepper said softly, “this has already happened. You can do nothing but watch.”

With a jolt Stephen realized that the man on the island was Tony, hunched over Pepper’s body. He watched in horror and sadness as the king staggered to his feet. It wasn’t the Tony Stephen was used to seeing; this man had long hair tied back in a messy braid, armor that moved with him, and a sword and hunting horn on his hip. He couldn’t hear the enraged scream from the shadow man on the island.

“What is this?” Stephen asked, watching as shades seemed to flow past them, all heading to the lake and the man, horn to his lips.

“The past,” Pepper said, voice laced with sadness. “The future, perhaps.”

She reached up and touched Stephen’s cheek, directing his attention back to her. He blinked and the shades were gone, the lake was gone. They were back by the altar where they had started.

“If that is the future how do I stop it?” he choked out.

He couldn’t let Tony become that anguished man, surrounded by the shadows of the dead.

“Embrace who you are,” Pepper said.

“I’m nobody,” Stephen insisted. “Just a prince of a lowly noble house.”

“You and I both know that is not true,” Pepper said sternly, staring at him intently.

“It is true,” Stephen said, desperation in his tone. He was no one.

“Why did the Seelie betray you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do know. You’re just afraid to admit it.”

Stephen reeled back like she’d struck him, his eyes wide in his face.

“Tell me why they betrayed you,” Pepper said.

“I started hearing a voice,” Stephen said.

“Before that.”

Stephen closed his eyes. His heart hurt. He didn’t want to do this.

“Tell me, Stephen,” she whispered.

“I wandered into a place I shouldn’t have. It was the rose garden, long dead. Lady Frigga had tried to keep the roses alive after Odin’s death, but they didn’t drink from her. They wouldn’t drink from anyone. Frigga said they were waiting…”

“For what?”

Stephen swallowed and opened his eyes. “For me.”

“Tell me.”

Stephen looked away, unable to stomach the beautiful compassion in her face.

“As a child, I remember spending time in the garden during my lessons with Frigga. I spoke to the roses and Frigga encouraged it. She told me the roses were lonely and sometimes I thought I could hear them singing to me, like Tony’s roses did. Only the Seelie roses were happy to see me. Tony’s roses sang a sad song when they saw me and I don’t know why…”

“Keep going,” Pepper whispered.

“I told…I told Steve. I told him that the roses sang to me and we went to find the garden. The roses drank from me. It was the first time they had ever done that. Steve…oh Goddess…Steve…”

“Tell me.”

“Steve bowed to me,” Stephen choked out. “He bowed and laughed and hugged me, and we made love in the shade of the roses. I felt…I felt a presence in my mind that I had always felt, but it was stronger. I felt it and…”

He shook his head, his eyes wide.

“You know what it was, don’t you?”

Stephen shook his head again. “It can’t be.”

“Tell me, Stephen. Let go of your fear and tell me.”

“It was the Seelie Sithen,” he choked out. “I could hear the Sithen.”

She nodded. “And the roses drank from you. You know what that means.”

He wanted to deny it. It couldn’t be.

His knees buckled and she caught him, lowering him gently to the ground.

“You’ve felt it a few times since Queen Wanda tore the glamour Zemo placed on you from your mind, haven’t you? A gentle presence, one that listens to you.”

Stephen nodded.

“That’s Jarvis,” Pepper said, lips twisting in a wry smile.

“The Unseelie Sithen is talking to me?” Stephen said weakly. He shook his head, terror lacing through him.

“I am not a king, Pepper. I don’t want to be king, not if it hurts Tony!”

“Shhh, Stephen,” she said, thumb tracing the razor edge of his cheekbone. “Keep going. Tell me how Natalia and Zemo got their claws into you and left you to Rumlow.”

“I don’t want to,” Stephen whispered, tears on his cheeks.

“I know it is hard, but you must. If you truly wish to be free of what they did to you, you must speak of it.”

Stephen let out a soft cry and rested his head against her stomach. Thin, strong arms wrapped around him, offering him strength and comfort.

“Steve was so excited,” Stephen whispered. “After…after we made love in the rose garden I told him about the voice and he was even more excited. He said…he said that the Seelie had waited for me for so long. He was a prince of another noble house, and many figured he’d be the next king. He never wanted it. He said he was happy…he would be happy as my right hand. He…we…we told our closest friends and advisors. Zemo and Natalia, Sam and Scott and Hope. I don’t…”

“Keep going. I’ve got you,” Pepper whispered in his ear.

“Zemo and Natalia just smiled. They said that they must get ready to tell the rest of the court. That night, after Steve had fallen asleep, Natalia came to me. She kissed me, and then...I passed out. The first time she poisoned me,” he said bitterly. He took a deep breath and forced himself to continue past the lump in his throat.

“When I woke up, I was alone. They announced that Steve was the king and…I couldn’t remember why that was wrong. Steve’s eyes weren’t right when he looked at me. They were so blank. We hardly talked after that. Zemo and Natalia were his right and left hands, and I was nothing but a healer. I couldn’t remember the roses or the voice of the Sithen. I couldn’t remember what had happened.”

“What about the other three that you told?”

“Their eyes were the same blank slate as Steve’s,” Stephen whispered, choking on a sob.

“Remember that,” Pepper whispered. “Remember that there are those who did not choose their actions in this horror. Be sure to tell Tony that, because as Loki said, he would burn the world to keep you safe. Do not let him raze the Seelie court to the ground, because he is more than capable of it.”

“How am I supposed to stop him?” Stephen asked. “He is far more powerful than I can ever hope to be.”

Pepper bent over and kissed him squarely on the mouth. Her lips were soft on his, gentle, and the kiss felt like a benediction.

“Love him,” Pepper said. She cupped his cheek and they looked into each other’s eyes. “Love him, and be loved by him.”

“He will hate me when he finds out who I really am,” Stephen said.

Pepper smiled, shaking her mane of flame red hair. “He will not. I swear to you, he will not.”

The living cloak around her shoulders fluttered at her and she nodded. “Yes, old friend. It’s time.”

Stephen looked up at her, eyes wide, as the Cloak squeezed her in a hug and let go, floating on its own next to both of them. Pepper held her hand out and the Cloak wrapped its edge around her wrist in an affectionate handshake. Stephen let out a shout as Pepper turned and started walking to the west, into the setting sun.

“Wait, Pepper, please!” Stephen called, trying to get to his feet and chase after her. “Don’t leave me alone here!”

You are never alone, my beautiful one.

Stephen staggered to a halt, touching his head. That hadn’t been Pepper’s voice.

The Cloak fluttered next to him, collar waving as Pepper’s form grew smaller and smaller. Stephen thought he saw the white stag join at her side and then he saw a red doe running beside the stag.

There was no sign of Pepper.

Tears rolled down his face and he let out a shout when the Cloak engulfed him in a tight embrace, saving him from collapsing to his knees.

He thought he heard the call of a deer in the distance and then he woke up.

:::

Stephen woke with a start, eyes flying open in the dark room. He felt the solid warmth of Tony at his back and relaxed back into the other Sidhe, breathing shallowly. He saw something move in the darkness and he sat up cautiously. Should he wake Tony? What if it was an intruder?

Oh Goddess, what if it was another traitor here to finish him off?

“Jarvis, if you can really hear me, I’d love some light right about now,” Stephen whispered so quietly his lips barely moved. He felt that gentle touch in his mind again and the room slowly filled with soft light.

Stephen barely managed to cover his shout at the sight that greeted him.

The Cloak hovered next to the bed, undulating in an invisible breeze. Tony mumbled in his sleep and curled into a tight ball, but Stephen’s focus was on the Cloak. He reached out a trembling hand to the red relic as he had seen Pepper do in his dream and the Cloak reached back, wrapping firmly but painlessly around his hand.

“Oh,” he whispered softly, getting out of the bed carefully so he didn’t disturb Tony.

The Cloak flew around him and Stephen had the feeling it was studying him. The Cloak rushed him, wrapping around his shoulders and shaking itself out. Stephen froze as the golden clasps at the shoulders came around him and he felt a rush of power, a burst of the scent of roses filled the room and Stephen’s knees went out from under him.

The Cloak’s edge caressed his sides, its collar flipped itself up, wiping tears from his cheeks. He felt like he was wrapped in the hug of an old friend he’d forgotten he ever had.

“Stephen?” Tony’s voice came from the bed, sleepy and confused.

Stephen felt a rush of power again and let out a quiet moan, head falling back in the Cloak’s embrace. Tony sat bolt upright at the sound, looking around for the man missing from his bed.

Tony froze the moment his eyes landed on Stephen, his eyes getting impossibly wide. He stared at the Cloak, a soft whimper escaping his mouth before he managed to slam his hand over his lips. The Cloak waved its collar at him, the edge of it reaching out for his hand.

“You’re moving,” Tony whispered to the Cloak, holding his hand out. The Cloak wrapped around his wrist and ran its seam over his fluttering pulse point. Tony choked back a sob, sliding naked to kneel next to Stephen.

Stephen stared at him, waiting. He wondered if Tony would be mad that the Cloak had woken for him, but had been silent to Tony’s pleas for more than six hundred years.

He didn’t want Tony to look at him with pain in his eyes.

Tony’s eyes lifted to meet Stephen’s and if possible his eyes got even wider. He reached a shaking hand up to Stephen’s forehead. Stephen frowned. He didn’t like the sudden shuttering of expression on Tony’s face.

“Oh,” Tony whispered, his hand falling to the side. “That explains much.”

“What?” Stephen asked, suddenly scared. “Tony, please.” Stephen reached out for him and felt a shudder of relief when Tony took his hand. The look on Tony’s face was sad, heartbroken, like he’d had something wonderful only for it to be taken away from him.

Tony gave him a smile and Stephen couldn’t help but see the sadness in it. Tony helped him to his feet and directed him to stand in front of the mirror.

The first thing Stephen noticed was the Cloak, wrapped around him and hanging from his shoulders like it belonged there. He met his own eyes and let out a soft cry, staring at the crown of flowers on his head.

The crown of the Seelie king.

Chapter Text

Tony guided Stephen to the chairs before the fire, the Cloak steadying him as he half collapsed into one. Tony was still naked but completely unmindful of it. Tears rolled steadily down Stephen’s face as he clung to the Cloak, shaking with quiet sobs.

“I’m so sorry, Tony, I’m so sorry,” Stephen said, trying to get control of himself.

Tony gave him a look. “For what? You’ve done nothing wrong, Stephen.”

“Don’t turn me out, please, they’ll never accept me, even with this,” he said, gesturing to the flower crown still on his head.

“Stephen, I’ve told you that you’re always welcome here,” Tony said, voice soft and gentle. “You being the chosen king of the Seelie doesn’t change that fact.”

Stephen gave him a watery smile. “I swear, I didn’t know. I didn’t know all these months, Tony, please, you have to believe me.”

Tony knelt in front of him, taking his hands in his. His thumbs gently ran up and down the scars lining his fingers. “Stephen, deep breath, sweetheart…I promise you, I believe you. I have known there was something different about you from the moment I saw you, but I never expected this.”

He brushed a strand of hair out of Stephen’s face, cupping his cheek gently. “Do you remember, then?”

Stephen nodded. “Yes,” he croaked. “I remember everything.”

“Tell me, if you can,” Tony said, shifting closer to him.

Stephen took a deep breath and began to speak, telling him everything he’d told Pepper. Tony was an attentive listener, never interrupting.

When Stephen’s words finally ran dry, Tony got to his feet and pressed a kiss against Stephen’s forehead. Tony stood in front of him, naked but every inch a king, and Stephen wondered if he’d ever be able to live up to that kind of expectation.

He didn’t think so. He didn’t want to be king.

He remembered how excited Steve had been when he’d realized what the signs meant, how the Seelie were finally going to have a true king again. He remembered the laughter and love beneath the roses, and then he remembered the blank faced stare Steve had given him after he’d been declared king, how their friends had turned away from him, except of course, Natalia.

She had stayed with him, loving him—picking up the broken pieces of his heart— or so he’d thought. He could see now that she had only ever been conditioning him, weakening him with whatever poison had been placed upon her lips. She stayed with him right until she handed him over to Rumlow outside the Unseelie Sithen.

He shook his head when Tony touched his shoulder, looking up at the man standing before him.

“What do you want to do, Stephen?” Tony asked.

Stephen frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Stephen, you were betrayed. But it wasn’t only you. Members of your court, your lover, your friends, they were betrayed and forced to do things against their will. The Fae, the Sidhe in particular, have always been about consent. I know Odin had problems with it, but he never once tried to take someone’s will away. He generally just didn’t listen to people who expressed an opinion other than his own. You are the true king of the Seelie.”

Stephen recoiled at those words, hunkering down in the Cloak’s embrace. Tony grasped his chin and forced him to look up.

“You are the true Seelie king, Stephen. I will defer to you when it comes to the Seelie court. What do you want to do?”

Stephen sat there, staring blankly up at the king. He was no king. He had no desire to rule, and never had.

But Steve…Steve and others didn’t deserve what had been done to them. If he could set them free, then he needed to try.

There was another reason he didn’t want to go, though. He reached up a trembling hand and covered Tony’s.

He didn’t want to leave Tony. He felt whole with Tony in a way he had never felt before, and he didn’t want to lose that.

“What do you want to do?” Tony asked.

“I want to break Zemo’s hold on the Seelie court and set them free,” Stephen said.

He would have missed the flash of pain and sadness in Tony’s eyes if he hadn’t been looking directly into them.

“It shall be done,” Tony said, power pulsing in his voice. He turned away from Stephen and walked to the door, pushing it open. Stephen heard him talking quietly to whichever guard was on duty and then Tony closed the door.

“Come here, Stephen,” Tony said, helping him to his feet again. “Let’s get you dressed, then we need to make a plan.” Stephen nodded and forced himself to move. He felt like he was floating in a haze, like everything was distant and didn’t really matter.

“I’m sorry,” Stephen mumbled again as Tony helped him into pants.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Tony said, batting the Cloak out of the way as he helped Stephen shrug into a shirt. Tony carefully didn’t look at the Cloak and Stephen wondered if it hurt to see it moving again. The Cloak cuddled him again as soon as he was dressed and Stephen watched numbly as Tony dressed, not in the casual wear he expected but in clothing that screamed king.

Or hunter.

Stephen couldn’t decide which; Tony looked magnificent and terrifying either way. He wore black deerskin breeches, tucked into knee high boots. A black shirt clung to his upper body, the top opening just low enough to show a hint of the scars on his chest. He threaded a belt on and Stephen saw that it had a place for a hunting horn and a sword.

He wished he knew what the horn meant.

“Getting all your memories back must be disorientating,” Tony said gently, standing in front of Stephen. Gone was the man Stephen had made love to the night before. Tony was all king before him now. “We can wait longer if you need.”

Stephen blinked at him, trying to get his mind to run correctly again. “Wait for what?”

Tony sighed, offering him a tired smile. “Stephen, as Goddess chosen king I cannot let what happened to you stand. I have the traitors in my court handled. It is time to clean up the Seelie mess and get you back where you belong. Your help would be appreciated, but I understand if you need time. I am concerned if we wait too long it will only be more difficult to get into the Seelie court.”

There was a brisk knock at the door, breaking Stephen out of his reverie. He watched as the door opened and Winter walked in first, followed by Tony’s closest guards and friends.

Winter froze when he spotted Stephen standing in front of the fire, the Cloak moving around him slowly.

“That explains much,” Winter said, echoing his king’s words from earlier.

“That’s what I said,” Tony said, gesturing for them to come in. Stephen recognized them all; Winter and Rhodey, Bruce, Thor and Loki, Peter and Wanda. Wanda fluttered closer to him, studying him intently. He stared back at her.

“You knew what I was,” he said.

“Yes. I could taste it in your blood when I tore the glamour from you.”

“You couldn’t have told me?”

“It was not my place,” she said, landing on Tony’s shoulder. “You had to remember on your own. You had to want to remember. If I had told you, you would’ve just run away.”

Stephen opened his mouth to protest but he couldn’t. He would’ve run. He didn’t know where he would’ve gone, but he would’ve run as far and fast as he could.

“You’re the Seelie king?” Bruce asked, stepping around the chair and looking Stephen up and down.

“Apparently,” Stephen said with a shrug. He wished he felt as nonchalant as he tried to look.

Tony gave them a brief rundown of what Stephen had told him. Winter’s face clouded when he found out Steve and Stephen had been lovers and Stephen couldn’t help but wonder if he was about to be attacked by the former Seelie warrior. Winter took a deep, shuddering breath and when those slate grey eyes met Stephen’s across the table they had found themselves around, he saw sadness and forgiveness.

“I’m sorry,” Stephen whispered to him.

“Don’t be,” Winter said. “Steve always thought he knew what was right. He was…is… very rigid that way. He thought it was right to tell your friends about you being king, and it only caused so much heartbreak.”

“It would’ve still happened if they had waited,” Wanda said, holding onto Tony’s ear.

“Wanda is right,” Winter said. “I remember Zemo. He’s always been a wily little rat with delusions of grandeur.”

“He was like that in Odin’s court as well,” Loki said, pressed into his brother’s side. Thor’s face scrunched up at the mention of their father but he didn’t contradict Loki.

“Loki is right,” Thor said, voice rumbling. Stephen swore he could hear thunder in his voice. “Zemo was a lowly toad in my father’s court, whispering vile plans in Odin’s ear. I was surprised to learn that he had moved up the ranks so high after Odin’s death.”

Stephen wondered at the way Thor switched between calling Odin ‘father’ and by his name. He didn’t know the full story of how the two brothers had ended up swearing allegiance to Tony, and it wasn’t his place to ask. He only knew that Tony had told him that Loki had been born Unseelie, and the scales running down his face and neck could attest to that.

“Was he powerful?” Peter asked, hanging from the ceiling. Stephen wondered why he was there but didn’t ask.

“He was always good at glamour, on himself and others,” Winter said. “He could make even the most powerful of us forget things.” Winter’s eyes met Stephen’s and Stephen nodded.

“He made me forget,” Stephen said, tucking his hands into the fold of the Cloak. “Pretty sure he made us all forget.”

“Why would he make Rogers king and not just take the throne himself?” Bruce asked.

“Zemo’s reputation is known well enough that most aren’t going to follow him,” Thor said. “Not willingly anyway. But if Steve is nothing but his mouthpiece…”

“And the Seelie adore Steve,” Stephen said. “He’s the ideal Seelie in their eyes.”

Winter, Loki, and Thor nodded in agreement.

“What are we going to do then?” Peter asked. “I mean, if the man sitting on the throne is under someone else’s control, what does that mean for us?”

“Add to the fact that we can’t get into the Seelie Sithen and it makes this trip rather difficult,” Winter added.

“What do you mean we can’t get in?” Stephen asked, frowning.

“It’s sealed off,” Tony said. “After Nat—” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “After the Widow’s betrayal, I sent Thor and Queen Wanda to see to if they could gain entry. The Sithen is sealed. I imagine once they stopped getting intelligence reports from the Widow they sealed and warded it to keep me out.”

“Couldn’t Stephen walk right in?” Bruce asked. “If he really is the chosen king?”

“Most likely, but I’m not sending him into that pit of vipers alone,” Tony said.

“Hey, don’t insult snakes by comparing them to Seelie,” Loki said, arching his eyebrow. Tony managed a smile at him and bowed.

“Forgive me, snake prince,” he said, lips twisted in a smile. Loki barked out a laugh and nodded.

“So what do we do?” Rhodey asked, speaking up for the first time. His intelligent eyes looked between Stephen and Tony and Stephen felt like he knew. Rhodey knew that they had made love the night before.

Tony rolled his neck and a wicked smile crossed his face. Stephen wanted to step back for a moment as he saw the man that had fed one of his friends to the Demi-Fey appear. Tony held his hand out in front of him and flexed his fingers.

The black hunting horn appeared in his hand. It was the best look Stephen had gotten of the horn; it had clearly come from the head of some great beast, curled at the edge and gilded in silver.

“Oh yes,” Thor said, grinning widely. Stephen could suddenly see the bloodthirsty Unseelie storm lord he’d heard rumors of. Loki stilled, a predator seeing its prey and getting ready to pounce.

“The Hunt needs a target to follow,” Rhodey pointed out slowly.

The Hunt? Stephen thought. Surely not…

Tony hummed, hanging the horn on his hip and caressing it like he had Stephen’s skin the night before.

“You’re right, of course. Jarvis, bring me Logan.”

Stephen startled when he felt the Sithen reply. It wasn’t as clear as the Seelie Sithen’s voice had been years ago, but he could still feel an intelligence behind it and almost hear a voice.

They waited and a few minutes later the door opened and Stephen got his first look at the mysterious Logan. He looked wild and unkempt, grizzled and gruff. At first Stephen thought Logan was holding long, wicked blades in between his fingers and then he realized that the blades were coming from his skin.

“You wanted to see me?” Logan asked, glancing around at what was clearly a meeting of the king’s closest and most trusted people. His eyes widened a fraction of an inch when he spotted Stephen in the Cloak, still crowned with flowers.

Stephen felt rather ridiculous in the crown, truth be told. He felt like the flowers didn’t belong in the Unseelie court. He felt like he wasn’t pure enough, perfect enough, to wear them.

“Wash Rumlow clean of the tears,” Tony said briskly. “Take him outside the Sithen and turn him loose.”

Logan’s bushy eyebrow climbed up. He glanced at the horn hanging from Tony’s hips and a flash of excitement crossed his face.

“Right away, your majesty,” he said. He slipped out of the room and closed the door behind him.

“Wanda, will you ride with us?” Tony asked, glancing at the Demi-Fey queen out of the corner of his eye.

Her wings fanned slowly and she smiled. “You have my people for a whole year, Anthony. We would be honored to hunt beside you.”

“Peter, what about the goblins?” Tony asked, turning to face the half-goblin.

Peter tilted his head. “I am only the envoy to the goblin court. I cannot speak for them, but there are many who remember the Hunts and would gladly join in just for the chance to ride again.”

“They’ll hear the horn,” Tony said. “Any who wish to join may, and those that are compelled to will have no choice.”

“What are you all talking about?” Stephen finally asked, confusion lacing his voice.

Tony turned to face him, hand curled over the horn on his hip. “We’re going hunting, Stephen. I declared Rumlow Oathbreaker, and the Hunt loathes and devours Oathbreakers.”

“The Wild Hunt?” Stephen asked, suddenly breathless.

“Yes?” Tony replied, tilting his head.

“Anthony is the Huntsman,” Thor said, smiling widely.

“The…Huntsman?” Stephen whispered.

Tony gave him a smile and Stephen could just see that it was tinged with sadness. “It has been a long time since the Hunt has ridden. A very long time indeed. It is the part of me I never had to give up, no matter what name I went by.”

Before Stephen could say anything in reply, Tony lifted the horn to his lips and blew.

Stephen expected to hear something, but there was nothing. Nothing audible at least. He felt it in his bones, deep in his very soul. It rattled him and he touched his chest, rubbing idly as the vibrations ceased.

“Come,” Tony said, spinning on his heel. The doors flew open and he walked down the hall, the others on his heel. Stephen was swept along in their wake, surrounded on all sides by warriors as they followed the king. He could feel the excitement building, hear chittering and chattering in the darkness, howls and barks and the restless snorts of horses.

They reached the great hall and Stephen stumbled when he saw the gathered force there. Warriors and hunters and goblins and Sidhe and lesser Fae, all milling together, black hounds darting in and out of their legs.

Logan strode into the hall and dropped to one knee before Tony.

“My king, he is outside the Sithen and on the run,” Logan said.

“Good. Join the ranks,” Tony said, jerking his head. Logan rose and fell in next to Happy, his blades flexing.

“Tonight the Hunt rides again!” Tony said, his voice ringing across the hall and making silence fall. “If you join the Hunt, you know the risks you are taking. The Hunt may require your presence for longer than you want to give. The Hunt may not give you back. Remember, if you have broken any oaths, tonight is not the night you want to be around. Go back to your room and hide, hide for we are coming and we will show no mercy to liars and Oathbreakers.”

He turned and took Stephen’s hand, pulling him forward. Stephen stared at him, eyes wide.

“You are the one that has been betrayed most of all tonight,” Tony said, looking him dead in the eye. “You are within your right to lead the Hunt.”

Stephen shook his head. “I…I…”

“Ride with the Hunt, Stephen,” Tony said.

“Am I even allowed?”

“The Hunt does not discriminate Seelie or Unseelie, Fae or even mortal,” Tony said. “The Hunt is the oldest, wildest parts of Faerie. We were all part of the Hunt before we became more civilized. Ride with us. Ride with me.”

Stephen looked at him. There was a sad desperation to Tony’s face and Stephen didn’t like it. Tony looked like he was already saying goodbye to Stephen and he didn’t know why.

“Why the Hunt?” Stephen finally asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Because the Hunt is not constrained by laws and treaties,” Tony said. “There are no kings or queens or commoners in the Hunt. We are all equal there. Equally mad, equally sane. The Hunt can either bring blessings to the land, or be a portent of war. Who knows what the mortals who will see us this night will say. This is the surest, fastest way to gain entry to the Seelie court and burn away the rot from within. Help me restore Faerie, Stephen. We have been fading, dying, trapped. This is the opportunity we need. You are the opportunity we need.

“I know you are afraid, Stephen, but I swore to you when you woke up that you wouldn’t come to harm by my hand. I swear to you now that I will keep you safe during the Hunt, no matter what happens tonight no harm shall befall you.”

“You can’t promise something like that,” Stephen said. “Not with what we’re about to do.”

Tony smiled at him, wicked and full of teeth. “Oh, Stephen, I can promise it.”

Stephen remembered Loki’s words to him. Tony would burn the world to save him. Tony would set the Hunt free upon the earth if it meant that Stephen stayed safe. What could Stephen do but ride with him then? If just to make sure that it didn’t come to that, of course.

“Then I shall ride with you, Tony.”

The smile that flashed across Tony’s face was beautiful and heartfelt, tinged with sadness. Tony squeezed his hands and brushed his lips across Stephen’s cheek. He stepped back and whistled sharply, the sound shattering the silence that had gathered after his speech.

Stephen watched in awe as great black horses formed from mist and shadow, surging out of the darkness to stand before them. Their eyes glowed with ethereal green fire and shadow feathers curled from their hooves.

Tony smiled, stepping up to the massive beast and running his hand over its nose. “Hello, old friend. It has been some time.”

The horse lipped at his face and Tony laughed. The sound didn’t match the seriousness of the Hunt, but it made Stephen smile. He jumped when he felt hot air waft over his head. The second horse that had walked out of the shadows with Tony’s sniffed at his head, nostrils flaring.

Looking around, Stephen could see the others with horses as unique as each of them. Thor’s had great antlers curving from its head like a jagged lightning bolt. Loki’s was covered in iridescent scales, its pupils slit and its tongue forked. Rhodey’s seemed to be made of shadows and Stephen swore he could see through it. Bruce’s looked like a very normal, very mortal horse. Winter’s was positively skeletal, bone white and vicious looking.

Stephen reached out a trembling hand and touched the nose of the horse in front of him, gasping when he felt magick rise from him and twist and dance between him and the horse. The horse was engulfed by shadows for a moment and when it cleared away, Stephen’s mouth fell open.

“Very Seelie,” Tony said dryly, staring at the white charger prancing in front of Stephen. The horse was the white of the moon, the same flowers that crowned Stephen’s head braided into its mane and tail. Little bells jangled cheerily from where they hung from the horse’s mane and tail, out of place in the dark court. The horse nuzzled his hand and Stephen patted it, confused.

“What did I do?”

“Nothing,” Tony said easily, swinging onto his great black beast’s back. The horse spun, eyes glowing green with fire. Tony sat it easily, spinning the stallion to face Stephen. “Faerie steeds change depending on their rider. She is your mount, Stephen. No one else will ever be able to ride her.”

Stephen looked at the mare with wide eyes. Her eyes were Seelie blue and she blew over his face, reaching out to him. She knelt in front of him and he scrambled onto her back, sticking his feet in the silver stirrups that hung from the black saddle. His head fell back as a strange compulsion came over him. He turned his head and was vaguely aware of the rest of the Hunt doing the same.

“The Hunt has commenced,” Tony whispered. “We cannot stop until it is complete.”

“They will die for what they have done,” Stephen said, his voice surprisingly loud in the silence. Stephen had never been a bloodthirsty man—he’d never even taken a life until he’d sacrificed the white stag—but the Hunt had him in its grasp. He had no choice but to see this through to the end. Zemo would die. If he ran, the Hunt would follow. Distantly, Stephen hoped that Steve wouldn’t be a target of the Hunt, but he wasn’t sure it differentiated between a choice freely given or having choice taken away.

He turned to look at Tony and a Hunter looked back at him. Stephen didn’t think he loved Steve anymore; time and Steve’s utter indifference after taking the throne had cured him of that. He still didn’t want him to die. Steve’s free will had been taken just as sure as his own memories had been.

Tony smiled at him, whiskey eyes nearly black as the power of the Hunt rode over him. He lifted the horn to his lips and blew.

This time Stephen heard it. It was beautiful, a clarion of bells, the horn signifying the end of days, Tony’s voice whispering loving words in his ear.

Tony’s horse reared, holding steady on its back legs. Tony’s sword swung through the air.

“We ride!”

The Hunt surged through the Sithen, yipping hounds and churning hooves and spilling darkness seething around them. Stephen sat his horse easily, right there in the front with Tony.

They were outside and he couldn’t remember how they got there, but it didn’t matter. The horses ran faster and faster and Stephen belatedly realized their hooves no longer touched the ground.

Stephen twisted his fingers through the mane of his mare, turning to face whatever would come.

:::

An unnatural storm rolled across the land. Mortal and beast took to cover, shivering in a long forgotten terror as the Hunt flew overhead, calling doom to any who heard it, bringing death to any that ran.

:::

Steve Rogers’ blue eyes were blank as he stared straight ahead. Zemo stood to his right, whispering frantically in his ear, one hand on his shoulder.

The doors to the hall slammed opened and Brock Rumlow staggered in, eyes wild, hair matted. He was skeletally thin and naked, his body covered with sores and his penis rubbed raw from over eight months of frantically trying to find release.

“Lord Rumlow,” Zemo said, his voice dripping with distaste. “How the mighty have fallen.”

“He knows,” Rumlow said, collapsing in front of the golden throne. Steve didn’t even bother to pull his feet out of the way. The effort wasn’t worth it. Rumlow coughed blood over Steve’s silk breeches, staining the white fabric with scarlet.

“Then you have failed us,” Zemo said, staring down at Rumlow with disgust. “Where is the Lady Natalia?”

“Dead,” Rumlow gasped out. “As are many others. He is not a merciful king.”

“Then how did he come to free you?”

Rumlow laughed, the sound grating and twisting. Steve flinched, one hand moving slowly to touch his head. He felt like he was moving through molasses and he didn’t know why.

“You think I am free?” Rumlow said, staring straight at Zemo. “The Hunt rides this night and they are coming for us, my lord.”

“The Hunt hasn’t been seen since the king of the Unseelie lost his nerve along with his queen,” Zemo said. The three men were alone in the great white and gold hall, dying flowers crawling up the pillars in a last attempt to reach sunlight.

“Then he must’ve found his nerve along with the Seelie prince you had thrown into my torture chamber,” Rumlow spat.

Steve frowned, shaking his head. Seelie prince? Yes, they were missing a Seelie prince, weren’t they? Did the Unseelie have him? Zemo touched his shoulder again and the fog rolled over his mind and he sank back into the throne.

“When we heard nothing from you we assumed all went to plan.”

“You assumed wrong,” Rumlow snarled, voice cracking. “He’s had me chained up for months, covered in Freyja’s Tears, and tonight they set me free. He broke me, Zemo! Me! He reached into my mind and twisted his darkness up there. He declared me Oathbreaker and then he freed the Hunt and they are coming and we are all going to die.”

“We will fight,” Zemo said, but there was a thread of fear in his voice.

“No one fights the Hunt,” Steve said, voice completely flat.

“We have sealed off the court,” Zemo said. “They can’t get in.”

“Nothing stops the Hunt,” Steve said, his voice still curiously flat. There was an almost-smile on his lips as he stared straight ahead, like he was waiting for something.

The doors opened again and many of the Sidhe rushed in, faces pale and voices high with fear. Steve’s eyes picked out his closest guards, Sam, Scott, and Hope and something distant tugged in his mind. He felt like he hadn’t seen them in a very long time.

They could feel it coming, coalescing for the first time in over six hundred years. The Hunt was coming.

“You fool!” Zemo cried, stepping forward and staring down at Rumlow. “You led them right to our door.”

“I’m not the only one they’re coming for,” Rumlow said, lifting his head and giving him an insane smile.

Zemo roared at him but his outraged shout was cut short when a long, high pitched howl echoed through the hall.

Steve’s head rolled forward, pain pounding through the fog in his mind. “They’re here,” he whispered, a high pitched laugh tumbling out of his throat.

Zemo grabbed Rumlow by the bicep and hauled him up, dragging him away.

“You will leave and you will run. Take them away from here. You have ruined all of our hard work!”

“You thought the king of the Unseelie a fool,” Rumlow said, yanking his arm out of Zemo’s grip. “He is no one’s fool.”

Another howl broke through the hall and the Sidhe huddled close to one another, weeping and screaming, begging their golden king to save them. Steve didn’t move, fingers clenching the golden throne beneath his hands.

Let them come.

The hall, always airy and full of light, darkened. Shadows creeped from the edges of the room, slinking in and amongst the gathered Sidhe. The lesser Fae were smart enough to hide from the Hunt, not gather in one place. Howls and yips and chittering laughter seeped through the hall, echoing off marble halls.

“Run, you fool!” Zemo cried, shoving Rumlow away.

“I’ve come for you, Oathbreaker.”

Silence fell as the doors flew open and the Hunt rode into the hall, filling each empty space with bodies. Hounds and horses milled around, the hunting hounds baying and circling through the gathered, sobbing Sidhe.

“I’ve come for you, Oathbreaker,” Tony whispered again, his voice carrying through the hall easily.

His black horse strode forward, Tony sitting on his back like the king he was. The crown of thorn and shadows graced his head and the hunting horn rested on his hip. He drew Gwir Farwolaeth and rested the flat of the blade against his thigh.

Steve’s attention had been focused on the dark king on the dark horse at the head of the Hunt until a flash of white drew his gaze. He frowned. Why was a Seelie charger riding with the Hunt? He heard the soft jingle of bells as the horse stepped forward and he felt like his head was going to split apart.

He gave a silent cry and doubled over, grasping his head and begging it to stop.

Stephen’s mouth tightened in a frown at the sight of Steve sitting the golden throne, fingers twisted in his gold hair as he rocked back and forth. His horse followed Tony’s, the ringing of the bells in her mane echoing loudly in the sudden silence.

“Take him and get out of our court,” Zemo said, his voice wavering.

Tony gave him a ferocious smile.

“He is not the only one we hunt this night, my dear Lord Zemo.”

Rumlow lunged forward, fingers curled into a claw as he grabbed Tony’s foot. His hand of power, his magick, flared to life and he tried to bring the king down.

Tony kicked him squarely in the face, the cracking of bone bringing that joyful, horrid smile back to his face. Stephen’s horse pranced out of the way, bells ringing as she deftly avoided the blood.

Tony stared down at Rumlow as he staggered to his feet. Tony sheathed his sword, a grim smile on his face. His face was ruined, nose pushed into his face and blood gushing from the hole where his nose had been.

“Winter,” Tony said, his voice lilting and almost musical in the court.

Winter kneed his skeletal beast forward, a mask pulled over his lower face.

“Yes, my king?”

“You have an iron blade on you, correct?”

Winter reached into his boot and pulled it out, flipping it easily and handing it to Tony.

Tony reached down from his horse, wrapping his fingers in Rumlow’s hair and dragging him up. A harsh scream tore from Rumlow’s lips and the Seelie Sidhe gathered in the hall wailed, covering their eyes and ears and yet unable to look away.

Winter swung off his horse and grabbed Rumlow’s hands, holding them out to Tony.

“My Winter Soldier,” Tony said, smiling sharply at him. Winter smiled behind his mask and lifted Rumlow’s hands higher. Rumlow tried to scream through the ruin of his face but the sound was cut off.

Tony let go of Rumlow’s hair and nodded to Winter. Winter turned Rumlow’s hand and Tony laid the edge of the iron blade against his palm. Rumlow struggled, but even immortals grew weak after months of imprisonment and starvation.

They just didn’t die.

Tony had a brief thought of Obadiah Stane, walled up in the Sithen alive for more than two thousand years, still alive, still screaming.

He smiled as he drove the iron blade into Rumlow’s hand, Winter’s grip strong and unyielding around Rumlow’s wrists.

Rumlow screamed and howled, trying to break free. Winter’s grip never flagged and Tony never faltered, drawing jagged, bloody lines on Rumlow’s skin.

“Your blade,” Tony said, handing it back to Winter. Winter let go of Rumlow and let him collapse to the ground, still sobbing. Rumlow cradled his ruined hands to his chest, hate shining in his eyes. They were surrounded by creatures of the Hunt, keeping well-meaning Seelie warriors back.

“There is a part of me that wants to let you live,” Tony said, voice harsh. “To live with the pain that you inflicted upon Stephen. To live everyday with the scars of cold iron in you flesh. But I won’t. The Hunt doesn’t let Oathbreakers live, and you are an Oathbreaker, aren’t you?”

Tony unsheathed Gwir Farwolaeth and ran the edge of the sword under Rumlow’s chin. His face was already starting to heal, bone and flesh knitting back together.

“Once, long ago even by our standards, I was not a king,” Tony started, his voice easily heard by every ear in the hall, Seelie or Unseelie, Sidhe or Fae. “I was Death personified, Death worshipped. It was my honor and duty to ferry to those who died to the next world. It was not an easy task, but I performed it. I did as my Goddess bid me, judging those who deserved it so She did not have to judge Her own children. I was tired, and she granted me respite. I became king, and let my old name fade to forgotten memory. I led the Hunt when called to do so, the last remnants of my old life. As Huntsman, I can pass judgement on those we ride against.

“I judge you, Brock Rumlow, Oathbreaker, traitor, murderer, and find you wanting.”

He lifted his head. His eyes glowed with power and he raised Gwir Farwolaeth.

“Hear me, O Goddess! Your oldest son calls out to you! Ban this man from the Summerlands. May he not find peace in Your arms, may he walk the shadows between realms, never finding rest, and may his name never pass our lips again.”

Rumlow screamed and Tony swung the blade, the black metal biting into the meat of Rumlow’s neck and severing it cleanly.

Rumlow’s body seemed to take a moment for true death to register. His knees buckled and his body collapsed, his head rolling through the hooves of the gathered horses.

Stephen swallowed back bile and the Cloak tightened its embrace around him. He felt curiously blank. Rumlow, the man that had tortured him for a month, the man that had destroyed his hands, was dead. He couldn’t hurt anyone ever again and Stephen felt nothing but a wave of gratefulness for Tony.

Movement out of the corner of his eye drew his gaze. His eyes landed on the dowager queen of the Seelie, Frigga. She inched closer to the Hunt, her eyes on two hunters on the edge. Stephen watched as Thor and Loki saw their mother approach and both smiled at her. Tears filled Frigga’s eyes as she reached a hand out and touched Thor’s leg and then Loki’s. She did not fear the Hunt.

The Seelie warriors stood in front of Steve, blocking his view of him. He saw Hope’s eyebrows furrow in brief recognition as she looked at Stephen. A flash of red from the center of the Hunt drew Stephen’s eye as Wanda flew to Tony, landing deftly on his shoulder.

Tony tilted his head closer to Wanda and she took his ear gently in her grasp. “There is a glamour over those warriors and the king,” she whispered. “Zemo is holding the magick reins here.”

“Will it disperse with his death?” Tony asked.

“Most likely,” Wanda said. “There is one sure way to find out.”

Tony smiled at her and she kissed the corner of his mouth, taking off and hovering near Stephen.

“If his death doesn’t fix them, can you help them?” Stephen whispered.

Wanda watched him, black eyes unfathomable. “We shall see what happens. Zemo is Oathbreaker and the Hunt will not end until he is dead.”

Stephen nodded and turned his attention forward.

Zemo stared at the remains of Rumlow, eyes wide with shock. He never thought it would come to this.

Tony lifted his head and watched as goblins inched closer and closer to Rumlow’s body, snatching it and dragging it back to begin their feast. The goblins were very efficient at cleaning up after a battle.

Zemo stared in horror and the Seelie court echoed with the crunching of bones and the devouring of flesh.

“Attack them!” he cried, spinning to run. He had to get away.

Horses and hounds surrounded him, pushing him back towards Tony. Tony sat his horse, waiting, Gwir Farwolaeth still dripping blood onto the white marble floor.

Tony swung off his horse and strode forward, grinning at the terror on Zemo’s face.

“You’ve always been a nobody, Zemo,” Tony said. “Thor and Loki remember you from before. As does Winter.”

“Thor and Loki are dead,” Zemo spat, tripping over one of the black hounds and landing in an undignified heap on the floor in front of the throne. Tony rested the tip of Gwir Farwolaeth against his throat and looked back.

Thor and Loki dismounted their beasts and walked easily through the Hunt, standing on either side of Tony.

“You think the Seelie will accept Thor as king?” Zemo snarled. Thor’s booming laugh echoed around the hall.

“I never wanted to be king, Zemo.”

“You were Seelie. You could’ve had everything! Odin wanted you to be king.”

“Odin was a fool,” Thor said. Shocked whispers from the Seelie rose and fell like waves, mixing with the sounds of the Hunt. Stephen sat silently on his horse, his eyes moving slowly between Tony and Steve.

“Clearly you are just as unclean as the scaled beast next to you,” Zemo said, glaring at Loki. “You don’t belong in the beauty and perfection of this court.”

“You’re right, I don’t,” Thor said with a shrug. “I am Unseelie. I am Thor Stormbringer, Lord of Thunder and Fertility. And you are nothing.”

Loki hissed at Zemo and Stephen thought for a brief second that his pupils were slits and his tongue forked. Zemo scrambled back, his back hitting Steve’s leg.

Steve sagged at the touch, fingers kneading at his skull. He felt like something was trying to break free of his head, burst his forehead apart and fly to join the hunt.

“Fight them, King Rogers,” Zemo said, dragging himself up Steve’s body. Steve jerked, eyes blank. “You are the king of the Seelie. Only you can stand against them.”

“Don’t listen to him, Steve,” Stephen said, kneeing his Seelie horse forward. Zemo spun, eyes widening as the Hunt finally revealed Stephen to him.

“You!”

“Me,” Stephen said, hiding the shaking of his hands against his horse’s neck.

Steve stared at the Seelie prince on the white horse and felt an indescribable heartache in his chest. He knew that man, didn’t he? Why was he with the Hunt?

And why did he look so sad?

“Where Rumlow and Natalia failed, I will succeed!” Zemo cried. “Kill him, Steven Grant Rogers.”

“Shit, full name,” Tony muttered.

Steve went rigid and stood up, picking up a sword and round shield and walking forward.

“Steve, stop,” Stephen said, holding out a trembling hand.

“He won’t listen to you,” Wanda whispered. “Zemo has used his full name. Names have power and he has Rogers so wrapped up in his own mind he won’t be able to find his way out.”

“Winter, Rhodey, subdue him. Don’t kill him if you can help it.” Tony’s voice was solid, unwavering. He would kill Steve if he had to.

Rhodey and Winter nodded and leapt forward, meeting Steve in a clash of blades. Zemo used the sudden ringing of steel on steel to try to make a run for it.

He didn’t make it far before a short dagger was pressed against his throat and he found himself face to face with the dowager queen of the Seelie court.

“Unhand me at once, Lady Frigga!”

“No,” Frigga said, her voice hard as she steered him back towards Tony.

Tony’s eyes followed the dowager queen but he made no move to assist her. Steve was still trying to get to Stephen, the white horse dancing and dodging out of the way as Rhodey and Winter struggled to disarm and subdue the Seelie.

Frigga’s dagger lashed out, cutting Zemo’s cheek. He touched the blood as the cut healed itself and he snarled at her.

“Enough,” Tony said, hand shooting out and fisting in Zemo’s hair. Frigga stood back, watching. Tony gave her a short, half bow and dragged Zemo back. He called his darkness forth, shadows writhing as they wrapped around Zemo’s extremities, holding him to the ground.

He looked up at the melee going on in front of the throne. Winter had Steve’s shield on his own arm and Steve fought like a beast, still trying to get to Stephen.

Tony looked back down at Zemo and sighed, eyes slipping half-closed. He could kill Zemo now and hope that it ended the glamour that had broken Steve’s mind, or…

He looked at Stephen, his heart breaking.

Stephen belonged here, among this golden court. The crown of flowers on his head, the red Cloak that had always belonged to a Seelie, his gentle manner.

Tony would have to be content with the one, perfect night they’d had. When had he fallen irrevocably in love with the Seelie prince? When had he decided he wanted Stephen at his side, not as a friend or a guard but as an equal?

He hadn’t had a true equal in his heart since Pepper.

He shook his head. It didn’t matter.

He was going to lose Stephen to the Seelie.

“Stephen,” he said softly and Stephen heard him, their eyes meeting above the ongoing battle.

Tony held his hand out and Stephen swung off his horse, the white mare staying between him and the battle of the three Sidhe warriors. Steve’s battle cry tore through the hall and Winter lunged, metal arm wrapped around his throat.

“C’mon, Stevie,” Winter snarled in his ear. “You’re stronger than this. Break free, you idiot.”

Steve seemed confused, struggling weakly in Winter’s grip. It gave Rhodey the opportunity he’d been waiting for to disarm the Seelie and hide the blade. Even unarmed, the Sidhe were still dangerous, but without his weapons they stood more of a chance of containing him.

The rest of the Hunt milled around, focused on Zemo, waiting, anticipatory. As Stephen moved through them step by step, getting closer to Tony, he saw flashes from around him. There was Wanda, perched on Winter’s shoulder as he kept his grip on Steve’s neck. There were Thor and Loki, embracing Frigga as the queen held them both tightly, weeping into their arms. There were Sam, Scott, and Hope, three Seelie warriors who surrendered to the Unseelie guards, on their knees and waiting for whatever would happen, their eyes just as blank as Steve’s.

And there was Tony, beautiful, sad, perfect Tony. The Unseelie monster that hid a heart behind his callousness, that took in Fae strays and gave them a home without question, only asking for loyalty in return.

The man that Stephen loved.

Stephen nearly stumbled when the revelation washed over him. He stared at Tony’s face and all he wanted was to wrap the smaller Sidhe into a hug and hold him. Why did Tony look so sad as he walked closer?

Zemo struggled against his shadow chains as Stephen stepped carefully around him.

“The Unseelie have tainted you,” Zemo cried out to him.

Stephen stopped, looking down at him. “The only thing that has tainted me is what you did to my mind. What you’ve done to Steve and the others, and to this court.”

“I have saved this court from the darkness you brought!”

Stephen didn’t bother to reply.

Tony looked up into Stephen’s iridescent eyes. He rested his hand on the knife blade of Stephen’s cheek and gave him a horrible sad, tired smile.

“Take the throne, Stephen. Break the hold of madness on the Seelie.”

Stephen looked at the golden throne. He had vague memories of Odin sitting upon it, lording over them all. It had sat empty for centuries, cold and empty and nothing more. It loomed above the hall, cold and imposing.

Stephen could take the throne. He could sit there. He was chosen. From the moment the Hunt had surged into the Seelie court, he could feel the Sithen’s happiness in the back of his mind. She was happy to see him, to have him back.

He stared at the throne.

He didn’t want it.

“Stephen,” Tony whispered, drawing his attention back to him. “Do it. You…you are a king. You belong here.”

Stephen flinched inwardly. Did he, really? He looked at his scarred and trembling hands.

“You can free them,” Tony said, like he knew that those words were the only ones that could prompt Stephen to take the throne. “I haven’t been here. I don’t know how deep the rot of the Seelie court goes. You can cut it out in one go, Stephen. Only you. Zemo’s death will free some of it, but you can fix it.”

Stephen took a deep breath and Tony gave him that strained, sad smile again.

“You did say you were a healer, didn’t you? You can heal the entire court, Stephen.”

Stephen closed his eyes and nodded sharply. Tony smiled at him and stepped back.

“Plus, I want to see the look on Zemo’s face when you take the throne,” Tony said, hiding behind the flippant mask he showed the court. Stephen smiled wryly and took a deep breath, turning to face the throne full on.

The Cloak flowed around him as he walked slowly up the stairs, fanning out majestically. Silence fell over the entire court; Seelie and Unseelie, Hunt and lesser Fae that had crept out of the shadows, called forth to witness.

Stephen turned and sat, gripping the arms of the chair as tightly as he could with his ruined hands. The smell of roses filled the air. Stephen closed his eyes. He could feel the power of the Seelie running through him. He could feel how weak and rotted it was.

Tony had been right. He could fix this. He could heal the court.

“Goddess, help me,” he whispered. He hadn’t reached out to Her in what felt like ages, but he felt Her soothing presence all around him.

His head fell back as his skin started to glow with swallowed moonlight. Zemo screamed in rage, struggling against his shadow bonds.

“Look,” Tony whispered, grabbing Zemo by the hair and forcing him to watch. “Look at your king, Zemo. The chosen king of the Seelie court. Chosen by Goddess and Sithen, he sacrificed the white stag only a day ago. Do you know what that means?”

“No!” Zemo whispered, feeling his hold on the Seelie court shatter like a glass mirror.

Sam Wilson, Scott Lang, and Hope Van Dyne felt the tethers on their mind fall away, memories rushing back in. Sam looked around wildly, eyes landing on Steve still fighting valiantly in Winter’s unforgiving grip.

“Why isn’t Steve better?” Scott asked.

“Is that Stephen?” Hope asked, eyes widening as she took in the sight of Stephen sitting on the throne.

“Oh, Goddess, I remember,” Sam whispered, covering his mouth.

“What have we done?” Scott asked, trembling.

Stephen didn’t move as magick poured through him, sinking into the Seelie court and burning out the rot. Those that had worked in concert with Zemo collapsed in front of the Hunt, weeping and screaming.

Tony walked among them, touching their foreheads, pushing the power of the Hunt into them. He didn’t think Stephen would want him to kill them so he conscripted them for the Hunt. They would be forced to ride with the Hunt until he decided they deserved to be released.

Maybe he would never release them. He’d been told he was petty and vindictive before, and they had hurt Stephen.

He would burn the world to keep Stephen safe and happy.

The new Hunters stood up and moved, mounting riderless horses. Tony caressed the hunting horn on his hip.

The Hunt was almost complete. Only one remained.

Tony walked back to where the shadows held Zemo and stood there, looking up at Stephen. He looked so beautiful sitting on that throne, a crown of flowers in his hair, the Cloak wrapped around him. He looked every inch a king.

“King Stephen of the Seelie court,” Tony said, his voice ringing across the hall. Stephen opened his eyes and focused on Tony, his skin glowing with power.

“This man betrayed you, brought a cancer onto your court and raped the minds of many of your people. You have the right to pass judgement on him.”

Stephen looked at Zemo, pale and angry and wrapped in chains of shadow. He could be merciful and let him live, try to get him to open his arms to the Goddess again. He felt the Goddess right next to him, heard Her voice in his ear.

What is the one thing I give my children?

“Free will,” Stephen whispered.

Zemo would destroy all of Faerie if given half a chance. Stephen looked at Tony.

“King Anthony, Huntsman, judge and executioner,” Stephen said. Tony didn’t flinch at the title, his whiskey eyes full of power.

“Zemo is a doom upon Faerie,” Stephen said, voice echoing with finality. “He cannot be allowed to live.”

Tony nodded and drew Gwir Farwolaeth one last time. He pressed the tip against Zemo’s heart and stared down at him.

“Stephen is far more merciful than I would have been,” Tony said lightly. “If it were up to me, you would spend the next one thousand years screaming for mercy for what you’ve done. But Stephen is kinder than I. I am a monster, Zemo. You are hereby banished from the Summerlands to wander in shadow, never to find rest, never to influence anyone again. Scream for me.”

Zemo stared up at him defiantly until the black blade bit into his flesh. One touch of Gwir Farwolaeth could bring an immortal Sidhe true death. Her blade burned with righteous fury and dripped with the death of millions.

“Scream for me,” Tony said, pushing the blade deeper.

Zemo’s sudden scream was abruptly cut off as Tony shoved the blade into his heart, twisting the sword and tearing through meat and bone. Zemo’s body went lax, eyes as blank as Steve’s as death took him.

Steve hung limp in Winter’s arms, eyes still unseeing. Stephen glanced at him and stood up, walking down the dais and approaching Winter and Steve. He noted the grief filled expression on Tony’s face as he walked by, but he didn’t stop.

Steve strained to reach him, Zemo’s last command still imprinted deep into his soul.

“Why isn’t he better?” Stephen asked. “Zemo is dead. His hold over him should be broken.”

Wanda looked at Steve from where she’d moved to Rhodey’s shoulder. “He was compelled with his true name. That isn’t glamour. It isn’t something that can be broken. He is done.”

“I refuse to believe that,” Stephen said, getting closer.

Winter grunted as Steve’s struggling renewed.

“Winter, let him go,” Stephen said.

“Stephen!” Tony said, lunging forward. Stephen held up one shaking hand.

“Trust me, Tony,” Stephen said, lips curled in a smile. Tony took a deep breath and nodded sharply, hand tight around Gwir Farwolaeth’s hilt. He would cut Steve down without a thought if he thought Stephen was in danger.

Winter stared at Stephen like he was crazy. “This is such a bad idea.”

He let go.

Steve lunged forward, colliding with Stephen and taking them both to the ground. Stephen didn’t fight back as Steve’s hands curled around his throat. Stephen looked up into the blue eyes he had loved so much and reached up a scarred hand, covering Steve’s with his own.

“I forgive you,” Stephen whispered, barely able to get enough breath to speak. “I free you. This isn’t you. You might be a hard headed son of a bitch, but this isn’t you. I free you, Steven Grant Rogers.”

Steve let out a heart wrenching wail and collapsed like his strings had been cut. His body laid across Stephen’s, face pressed into his shoulder.

“Stephen!” Tony said, rushing forward. He and Winter rolled Steve’s limp body off Stephen, Winter cradling his lover from many centuries ago.

Stephen’s eyes were closed, the pale skin of his throat already bruising. For one terrifying second, Tony thought he was dead. Tony let out a relieved breath when Stephen’s eyes fluttered open. He reached down and helped him sit up, letting Stephen recline against him.

Steve groaned, head back on Winter’s shoulder. Once Stephen reassured Tony that he was fine, Tony reached out and poked Steve in the chest.

“Wakey, wakey,” Tony said.

Steve’s eyes flew open and he struggled, confusion clear on his face.

“Calm down, will ya?” Winter said.

Steve froze at the familiar if muffled voice, looking around wildly. The Hunt milled around the hall of the Seelie court, hounds lolling on the white marble floor and Fae horses crunching on dead roses. Blood was startling crimson against the white and gold.

“Why is the Hunt here?” Steve said.

“Steve,” Stephen said. Steve’s eyes snapped to him and his face went white.

“Stephen,” he whispered, launching himself at the younger Sidhe. Stephen barely had time to brace before he was engulfed in a tight hug. The familiar, earthy scent of Steve’s skin filled his nostrils and Stephen wrapped his arms around him.

Steve pulled back and noticed Stephen’s hands for the first time. His eyes widened and he reached out, taking them gently. “What happened?” he asked, his voice soft.

“Zemo,” Stephen said. “And Natalia. And Rumlow. And countless others.”

Steve frowned, large fingers running over the scars. “Oh Goddess,” he whispered, bending over and pressing his forehead against Stephen’s hand.

“Do you remember?” Stephen asked. It was important that Steve remembered.

Steve nodded, face twisted in shame and horror. “Goddess, I approved of sending you away. I thought…no…they said they only meant to exile you but I couldn’t remember why. What did they do to us?”

“They tried to destroy us,” Sam said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“They damn near succeeded,” Winter said bluntly, mask still firmly in place. Steve frowned up at him then looked back at Stephen.

Steve let go of Stephen’s hands and covered his face, unable to look at anyone for the moment. He let out a long breath.

“I wish I didn’t remember, oh Goddess, I wish I didn’t.”

“Why?” Tony’s voice cut through the Seelie and they all looked at him, an Unseelie monster in their midst. Steve took a moment to really look at him. He hadn’t seen the king of the Unseelie since he’d joined Thor and Loki on a diplomatic mission to the court over seven hundred years ago. The failure of that mission had led to the last Fae war and the death of the Unseelie queen and Odin. It had led to the exile of Bucky. Steve quickly shoved that thought away.

Tony looked severe and unforgiving, standing there dressed head to toe in black, that wicked blade at his side and a hunting horn on his hip. Crowned by thorn and shadows, he looked like he would destroy all of them without a thought.

He also looked faded, sad, and resigned.

Steve swallowed. “I did terrible things.”

“Zemo was controlling you,” Scott pointed out.

“It was still my hands that killed many of our own when their ideas didn’t match up with Zemo’s.” He looked around, eyes landing on Zemo’s corpse. He shuddered, wrapping his arms around himself to stave off the cold that emanated from within him.

“What happened to Natalia? She was always with him,” Steve said.

Tony tilted his head, looking down on the Seelie Sidhe with dispassionate eyes. It chilled Stephen to see him like that.

“So it turns out that your Natalia was a double agent. I knew her as Natasha, the Widow of the Unseelie court, and she’s dead.”

Steve jerked back, eyes wide. His shoulders slumped and he sighed. “How many others were traitors?”

“To your court or mine?” Tony asked, fingers curled around his hunting horn. “When Stephen cleared the rot out of this court, the traitors were forced to step forward. They belong to the Hunt now.”

“All of them?” Stephen asked, meeting Tony’s eyes.

Tony gave a sharp nod. “It was either death or the Hunt. They belong to the Hunt now, and will ride there until I decide they have made recompense for their treachery.”

“Will that ever happen?” Steve asked.

Tony shrugged. “I have been told I am a cruel and vindictive man, Lord Rogers. They hurt Stephen, a king chosen by Sithen and Goddess. I would torture them for the rest of their very long lives if I thought it would make Stephen happy.”

“He wouldn’t want that,” Steve said.

“I know,” Tony snapped. “Thus, the Hunt. The traitors of my own court have been dealt with.”

He spun on his heel and walked away, breathing hard. Stephen wanted to get up and follow him, but he wasn’t sure he was wanted.

Tony walked to his horse, resting his head against the stallion’s warm neck. The black steed turned his head and sniffed at Tony’s hair. Tony couldn’t look at Stephen. He couldn’t see him sitting so pretty among the Seelie, right where he belonged.

Goddess, his heart hurt.

Steve frowned as the Unseelie king walked off but didn’t say anything, turning his attention back to Stephen. He reached out to touch the Cloak and drew his hand back in surprise when it smacked him, ruffling threateningly.

Stephen stared at it, a blush on his cheeks. “I’m sorry, it’s never done that before. To be fair, it’s only been awake a few hours.”

Steve’s smile was a bit strained. “It suits you. I never thought we’d see it again after…”

“After the death of Tony’s queen,” Stephen said, running his fingers down the edge of the Cloak.

“Yes,” Steve said, following Stephen’s gaze to the Unseelie king. “Did he…”

“He never once hurt me,” Stephen said, voice soft but firm. “He healed me as best he could since my hands were ruined with cold iron. He gave me all the time I needed to remember and when he realized that I, well, that apparently I’m supposed to be a king he didn’t hesitate to set things right.”

“That’s good,” Steve said. “Stephen, I never wanted to hurt you.”

“I know,” Stephen said.

“We can’t go back, can we?” Steve’s voice was sad, but there was a thread of acceptance there.

“No, I don’t think we can,” Stephen said.

Steve nodded and looked around the court again. He got to his feet slowly, groaning as he realized he had been wounded in the scuffle with Rhodey and Winter. His eyes took in the haunted looks in the Seelie’s faces, the strain, the sadness, the horror at the atrocities they had witnessed.

“Zemo’s glamour was tightest over you and your guards,” Stephen said, nodding to Scott, Sam, and Hope. “But there was a rot in the entire court.”

“The Seelie have been dying,” Hope said, arms crossed over her chest. “The Seelie have been dying and we allowed it.”

“How do we even begin to make up for what we’ve done?” Sam asked.

Stephen looked around, noting the lack of some of the older noble houses. He didn’t need to ask what happened to them, not judging by the looks of shame and horror on Steve and the other’s faces.

“It was by my hand,” Steve said, tears in his blue eyes as he looked around. “I have destroyed the court I love so much. Maybe you should’ve killed me, Stephen.”

“I don’t want to kill anyone,” Stephen snapped.

“Death only gives you a means to escape what you’ve done,” Loki said carefully. Steve’s eyes flew to him and he stared at the scales with his mouth hanging open. Loki smiled, stepping closer. “Yes, you’ve done terrible things, but we all have. We are old, Steve, you know that. You can’t run from what you’ve done. You’ve got to learn to accept it. You don’t have to embrace the darkness within you. That is a little too Unseelie for you, but you need to accept it.”

“The Seelie aren’t perfect, Steve,” Stephen said. “If my time in the Unseelie has taught me anything, it’s that blood is red whether it’s on black or white marble, and the monsters aren’t what you think they are.”

“Zemo continued Odin’s teachings,” Steve said, drawing his gaze back to Stephen. “That perfection was the only way to reach the Goddess and if we weren’t perfect we would be shunned.”

“There is no such thing as perfect,” Stephen said, holding up his shaking hands. Steve’s face clouded at the sight and he looked away.

“Ugly, aren’t they?” Stephen asked, voice surprisingly light.

Steve made a protesting sound but it died in his throat.

“It’s fine, Steve. You can’t change who you are. Over a thousand years of Seelie perfection being drilled into your head can’t be changed in one night. But changes need to be made.”

Stephen’s voice was hard, unforgiving.

He didn’t see the way Tony’s shoulders slumped at his tone, the way Thor reached out and rested a comforting hand on the king’s lower back.

“I don’t know if I can stay here,” Steve said, looking around the hall. “There’s too much in my head. I can’t…I can’t see past what I’ve done these past couple of years. I look around the hall and I see those that have died at my hand only because they questioned Zemo.”

“You can’t run away from your problems,” Stephen said gently.

“I don’t want to run, not really. I need time, I think. I need time to let the parts of me come together again. I need to find my way back to the Goddess, and I don’t think I can do that here.”

“Can I make a suggestion?” Winter’s voice made them all turn. He tilted his head, long hair falling over his shoulder. He pulled his mask down and Steve’s eyes widened. He swayed on his feet and Sam held him up.

“Buck?” Steve asked.

“It’s Winter now,” Winter said easily. “James ‘Bucky’ Barnes is buried next to his wife in the old world.”

“Your…wife? You had a wife? And your arm. That’s…new.”

“Well, it’s not new anymore. Tony built it for me when he brought me into the court. Pretty, isn’t it?”

Steve got a good look at it. At first he had thought it was just plain silver, but upon closer inspection he could see that snowflakes and stars engraved on it, shifting every time Winter flexed his arm.

“Beautiful,” Steve whispered.

“Anyway, my suggestion for you, Steve,” Winter said, hooking his mask on his belt. “Go out there. Spend time away from the courts. You never liked spending time with mortals, but maybe you should. My time with Maria remains one of the brightest spots in my long life. Mortals, mortals are bright flashes of light compared to the long slow burn of a Sidhe’s life. Living among them helped me immensely. Many of the Unseelie go out from time to time and interact with humans, even the less human looking. You don’t have to stay in the court, and I would say it’s probably better for you not to, but you don’t have to fade because you can’t handle what you’ve done.”

“I wasn’t going to fade,” Steve said and Winter laughed.

“There’s that stubborn punk,” Winter said. “The look on your face and the sound of your voice made it seem like you were pretty close to giving up. Yes, you’ve done bad shit. Own up to it. Go out there, get away from the political machinations of the courts because they suck. Go get a coffee, have wild sex with mortals, take up surfing. Don’t wallow.”

“You sound like you’re speaking from experience,” Steve said, staring at the man who had once been his lover and oldest friend.

“I am,” Winter said. “I wanted to fade after I was exiled from the Seelie. Maria found me and nursed me back to health and we built a wonderful life together. When she died, I wanted to fade then, but Tony rescued me. I have stared into the abyss of death and death answered back. Are you prepared for that?”

Steve shook his head slowly. He looked at Stephen, staring at him and really taking in his appearance. He wore black clothes under the red of the Cloak and the white flower crown was stark against his hair. He had grey at his temples that hadn’t been there before and a goatee that rivaled the Unseelie king’s. His hands shook but he looked calm standing before them. Steve looked at him and felt regret well in his chest.

“I loved you,” Steve said.

“And I loved you,” Stephen said, voice soft.

Steve smiled at him and leaned forward, brushing his lips over Stephen’s one last time. Stephen closed his eyes and took comfort from the kiss.

A hello, an apology, and a goodbye. Steve tasted of tears.

Steve thought Stephen tasted of shadows and life.

Tony turned away when they kissed, pressing his face into Thor’s shoulder. Thor stroked his back gently, resting his cheek on Tony’s head.

Steve pulled back and they looked at each other. They shared a sad smile and Steve let out a long breath, turning to face Sam.

“Hey, Sam?”

“Yeah, Steve?”

“Hang onto this for me, would you?” Steve asked, picking up his round shield and running his fingers over the crest on the front. A star and a stag.

Sam took it with wide eyes. The shield, like the Cloak, was a relic of power. “You sure?”

“Yeah. Winter is right. I need to get away from all this for a while.”

“Doesn’t feel like it’s mine,” Sam admitted, running his fingers over the star.

“It is,” Steve said simply. He squeezed Sam’s shoulder and turned to face Stephen again.

He dropped to one knee, lowering his head. “My king,” Steve said. “I would ask you for your pardon and for your permission to leave the court and spend time among the mortals.”

Stephen took a shuddering breath. He could still feel the ghost of Steve’s farewell on his lips. “Granted,” he whispered.

Steve looked at him and rose to his feet. “Thank you, your majesty. Your ability to forgive our faults has always been one of your best qualities.”

Stephen jerked. “You of all Sidhe should know to never thank a Faerie.”

Steve smiled wryly. “Because they think that it means you are admitting to being lesser, and admitting to being in your debt.”

“Among other things, yes,” Stephen said.

“Thank you, Stephen,” Steve said again. “I do owe you, and nothing I can ever do can make up for the hurt and pain I have caused you. If you ever need me, I’ll be there for you.”

Stephen stared at him in surprise, finally nodding his understanding.

Steve turned and started walking away, the Seelie moving away from him and clearing a path to him. He heard a soft whistle from behind him and jumped sideways when one of the black hunting hounds materialized at his side, tongue lolling as it looked up at him.

He turned, seeing the Unseelie king staring at him oddly. Tony shrugged. “You’ve never been away from the court. Being separated from Fae is hard on any of us. Take the hound with you. He is a part of Faerie.”

Steve bowed again, eyes burning as he rested his hand on the hound’s head. Magick shivered between them and the black hound melted into a spaniel, ears flapping as they walked to the intricately carved doors of the Seelie great hall and walked out.

Silence fell as the doors slammed shut behind them, flower petals falling from the ceiling. The Seelie stared in awe at the sign of favor from the Goddess, not seen in years in the white and gold hall.

“What would you have us do now?” Hope asked, turning to face Stephen. Scott stood next to her, eyes glued to the floor. It seemed that none of them knew what to do. The Seelie were lost and adrift and they wanted a leader.

They needed a king.

Stephen glanced at her. He could see her desperation and confusion on her face, echoed by the rest of the Seelie court. Could he do this? Could he really be king?

Did he want to be king?

“The courts haven’t truly communicated since the last war.”

“With good reason!” one of the other nobles said. Stephen vaguely recognized him as Clint Barton, one of the best archers in either court. “The nightmare king killed our king!”

“After Odin murdered his queen,” Frigga said, stepping out of the shadows of the Hunt. “Odin murdered the queen of the Unseelie court and my sister and King Anthony took his vengeance.”

“If she had come back—”

“She didn’t want to and we shouldn’t have tried to force her,” Frigga said. “Odin was cruel and driven by perfection. We have only allowed that cruelty and hatred to fester in this court. I for one can think of no one better than Stephen Strange to lead us back from the brink of the death we brought on ourselves.”

“Him?” Clint asked, staring at Stephen with disdain. Stephen stared back, unfazed by his scrutiny.

“Him,” Frigga said, gesturing to him. She commanded the attention of everyone in the hall, drawing their eyes and ears as she spoke. “For too long we have held up the ideal of physical perfection. If we were beautiful, perfect, then the Goddess would surely love us. How many of you have heard the voice of the Goddess lately? Open your eyes and look around. The Seelie court is dying. It has been dying for a long time.”

“So you would have us follow a broken man tainted by the touch of the Unseelie court?” Clint asked, incredulous.

“We are all broken inside, are we not?” Frigga asked. “I stood aside and did nothing while my husband, your precious king, exiled one son and refused to stand down when the other followed his heart. I stood there and did nothing when Odin murdered my sister, the queen of the Unseelie. You think I am not broken? You think Zemo did not wriggle his way into the broken spaces in all of us and make it worse?”

“So you’re saying a broken man for a broken court,” Clint said. “Any of us could be king.”

“Do you see the crown on his head?” Hope asked, waving her hand at Stephen. “The Cloak around his shoulders? He was chosen. He was chosen years ago and we were forced to turn him out.”

Stephen lifted his head, letting the arguments of the court wash over him. He was surprised to see Tony standing with Thor, the smaller Sidhe’s face buried in Thor’s broad shoulder.

He realized with a jolt that Tony expected him to stay. Stephen fingered the Cloak idly, ignoring the rising voices of the others.

He turned on his heel and walked back to the throne, sitting on it and closing his eyes. He was unaware of the silence that fell when he took the throne, of the burst of magick that traveled through the court. Long dead roses shivered with life, dead leaves falling to the floor as they woke.

Stephen let out a long breath and called out to the Goddess.

He missed the screams of the court when he vanished, the scent of roses the only thing left in his wake.

:::

Stephen stood next to the altar of the Unseelie, dried blood still visible on it. He could see a red doe in the forest, the white stag at her side. He rested his palms on the altar and bent forward, letting out a slow breath.

“Goddess,” he whispered.

My beautiful man.

Stephen smiled, turning to face Her. She wore a red cloak and Stephen could see that one corner was shorter than the other. He remembered Loki’s tale about how the Goddess had torn off a piece of her own Cloak to shield a Sidhe. His Cloak waved excitedly and the Goddess laughed. He could hear birdsong and the wind in her laughter and it made him smile. Her hood was pulled up and in the shadows it cast Stephen saw flashes of his mother, of Pepper, of Hope, even of Natalia.

The Goddess was all women and no woman.

“I do not want to be king of the Seelie,” Stephen said, bracing himself for the Goddess’ disappointment.

What do you want for the Seelie?

Stephen took his time, giving the question its proper due. “I want them to heal. I want them to leave behind their old beliefs and step into the new century like the Unseelie. I want them to exist in Your love.”

Would you have the Unseelie king lead them then? Join the courts into one again?

Stephen shook his head. “No. Tony was right when he said that the Seelie would never accept him. The courts have been separate for far too long to be folded back into one. I don’t think anything could bring them together, not after all the loss and bloodshed between us.”

And yet you found it in yourself to love an Unseelie. Do you think the others could?

“They would not see past the monster they’ve heard about for so long. He wouldn’t let them.”

What do you want for yourself, Stephen?

Stephen let out a long breath and reached up, grasping the flower crown and lifting it from his head. He stared at the beautiful white and pink flowers, braided together with magick and power.

“I want to stay with Tony. I feel complete with him. I love him.”

He couldn’t see the Goddess’ smile beneath the shadows of Her hood, but he could feel it.

“I can…I can be the ambassador between courts. I grew up among the Seelie, but I have found solace and love in the Unseelie. The two courts cannot afford to ignore each other and we can’t afford to squabble and we absolutely cannot go to war with one another. Not again.”

The Goddess bent forward and kissed his forehead.

Go in grace and love, Stephen.

She stepped back and Stephen watched as the flower crown crumbled in his hands, petals falling to the bloodstained altar.

Stephen smiled and opened his eyes.

:::

Stephen came back to chaos. The Hunt and the Unseelie were gone, Zemo’s body and the ravaged remains of Rumlow the only sign that they had been there.

How long had he been gone? The rest were standing there. Hope was arguing with Clint, other Seelie huddled together, frightened and crying.

Stephen stood up and silence fell, broken only by the ragged breathing of those around him. He looked around, noting dispassionately that some of the Demi-Fey were still there, though he didn’t see Wanda. He did remember that she had said that there were those among her people that had never liked the Unseelie court.

His white charger stood near Zemo’s body, tossing her head when his eyes landed on her. Her bells rang and she pranced sideways. Stephen let himself smile; she had waited for him.

“Enough,” Stephen said, walking down the dais to join the others. “For too long the Seelie have allowed themselves to be governed by greed and the drive for perfection. For too long we have hid, convinced that the world would never move forward because we did not move forward. We have been stagnant since Odin’s death. We need to move forward, to embrace this new world that has been shown to us.”

“We will go where you lead,” Sam said, adjusting the round shield on his back.

“No,” Stephen said.

Shocked whispers filled the hall, sounding like a breeze on a summer night.

“No?” Scott said, clearly confused.

“No,” Stephen said. “We all know the Seelie will not follow me, Goddess chosen or not. Not with these.”

He held up his hands, the tremors making him shake and the scars livid against his flesh. He noted the way the Seelie looked away, disgusted and horrified by the scars.

“Then what are we to do?” Hope asked.

“Step out of the shadows of the Seelie court and form it into something new,” Stephen said. “Work with the Unseelie. Work with the humans. Reach out. Talk with the lesser Fae and the non-Sidhe, because they truly make up a majority of the court. I think you will be surprised at how few you will find in your halls.”

“What do you mean?” Scott asked. Stephen glanced at him.

“Many Seelie lesser Fae and Seelie creatures live in the Unseelie forests. The king opens his Sithen to all who need it and only asks for loyalty. You don’t have to partake in the darker aspects of the court if it makes you uncomfortable. He only wants Faerie to continue, to be strong.”

“It’s true,” a high, musical voice said. They turned and Stephen held his arm out as a Demi-Fey woman landed on his forearm. She was a solid weight, her sparrow wings fluttering lightly as she settled. “When Lord Rogers, Zemo, took over the court, we could feel it begin to die. But we were not listened to. We are not Sidhe, so we were not taken seriously. So we left. King Anthony opened his Sithen to us, rearranged his gardens for our comfort. We were not the only Seelie to go there. The forest is full of Fae creatures that used to call this Sithen home.”

“The old legends state that wherever the Demi-Fey go, Faerie goes with it,” Stephen said.

The Demi-Fey smiled up at him, sharp teeth flashing against her skin. “Not many Seelie remember the old legends, King Stephen.”

“I learned at Frigga’s knee,” Stephen said, looking around for the dowager queen. He frowned briefly when he didn’t see her but turned his attention back to the Demi-Fey on his arm.

“And Queen Frigga has always been one of the wisest of the old ones,” she said.

“I do not know what to call you,” Stephen said.

“You may call me Melinda,” she said.

“Melinda,” Stephen said, bowing his head slightly. “Will you be staying in the Seelie court then?”

“Yes, some of us,” Melinda said, feathers brushing his fingers.

Stephen nodded and looked around again. The Seelie looked ragged and exhausted, scared and huddled. Even with the Hunt and the Unseelie gone from their gold halls, it seemed like they waited for the executioner’s blade.

Melinda took to the air and Stephen watched as other Demi-Fey joined her. Certainly not as many as he’d seen in the Unseelie court, but the fact that the Demi-Fey were willing to come back was a good sign. Maybe there was hope for the Seelie yet, if they had the right leader.

Stephen knew without a doubt that he wasn’t that man. He wasn’t hard enough to be king and the court knew it. Even if he had wanted to be king, he would always be looking for the knife in his back.

He had been betrayed enough.

“Hope,” he said, glancing up at the ceiling. Living roses curled up the pillars, dead leaves littering the floor.

“Yes?” Hope asked, confused. Stephen smiled at her and held his hand out. Frowning, Hope reached out and took it. The two of them had never been lovers, though they had been good friends before Zemo had gotten his claws into their heads.

Stephen looked at her small hand in his; hers pale and perfect against the ragged scars of his own.

“The Seelie court needs you,” Stephen said, making Hope frown. “The court needs hope for the future. They need someone who can lead them without hate, without deception. They need someone to lead them into the future.”

Hope’s eyes were wide, mouth hanging partway open. Scott stood behind her, grinning like a loon.

“The courts can’t afford to ignore each other. They need someone who is willing to work with the Unseelie, to embrace all of Faerie, not just the pretty parts. Are you willing to be that person?”

“Me?” Hope whispered.

“You,” Stephen said, squeezing her hand gently. “I am not a king. I have found where I belong, and that place straddles the line between the courts. I will be ambassador to both, I will help facilitate conversations and meetings, but I am not a king. I never wanted it. Three years ago, I would’ve taken it if Zemo and Natalia hadn’t betrayed us. I would’ve gladly ruled the Seelie with Steve at my side. But I have looked into the darkness and been embraced by it, and I do not want to give that up. You will make a fine queen for the Seelie, Hope. You’ve always had a level head on your shoulders, and I trust that you will make informed decisions.”

“You think I can be queen?”

“I do,” Stephen said. “They will follow you. You can lead them into a future I cannot. But it is your choice.”

Hope looked over the court, dark eyes watching the Seelie that stared up at her. She could see the looks of yearning and desire in their faces. She knew Stephen was right; they wouldn’t follow him, not after he had spent time in the Unseelie court, not with his hands scarred and twisted.

She looked back up at him. “What about Frigga? She should’ve taken the throne after Odin’s death.”

“And yet she didn’t want to,” Stephen said gently. “I believe Frigga would agree with me that it’s time for a new guard to take over the Seelie court, not one of the old ones.”

Hope stood silently before them, thoughts churning in her mind. Stephen didn’t interrupt her thoughts, standing before everyone with an ease he had never shown.

Stephen had made his decision and was at peace with it, with himself.

“Yes,” Hope said, lifting her head and meeting Stephen’s eyes. “Yes, I believe I can do this.”

Stephen’s face split into a smile. He gently let go of her hand and cupped her cheeks, lowering his head to hers. Their lips brushed and Hope smelled roses and thought she heard joyous laughter in the breeze.

Stephen pulled back and smiled down at her. He took her hand and turned her to face the court.

“Seelie, I present to you your queen, Hope Van Dyne, Goddess chosen.”

Hope lifted her hand when she felt something on her forehead, fingers brushing the petals of the Seelie crown. She watched in mute awe as the Seelie court kneeled before her, fisting their hands over their hearts.

Hope stared over them, her heart pounding in her chest. She could smell roses and feel the Goddess at her back. She looked at Scott, grinning up at her from his spot on his knees, and Sam, the shield of the Seelie on his back and a smile on his face. She wasn’t alone. She could do this.

Stephen guided her to the golden throne and helped her sit upon it. She gasped as she felt the Sithen reach out to her, caressing her mind. Stephen knelt beside her, the Cloak spreading out behind him.

He closed his eyes and she could feel him in her mind as well, talking to the Sithen, asking her—the Sithen felt decidedly female to her—to accept Hope as queen. She could feel the Sithen’s sadness at loosing Stephen, her friend for so many centuries, but she could feel Stephen’s fond amusement as well.

“You aren’t losing me, dear one,” Stephen whispered. Hope wasn’t sure if he was really talking or if it was all in her head. “You can choose to speak to more than one. I will spend my time between the courts, and I believe your brother says hello.”

Hope stared at him with wide eyes. She had known, distantly, that the Sithen was a conscious part of Faerie. She hadn’t realized they were sentient.

“She will help you if you ask,” Stephen said. “Don’t ignore her, don’t lock her away like Odin tried to do when she tried to offer suggestions to him. It took me a long time to realize who the voice in my head was, and by the time I did, she was taken away from me by Zemo. If there’s one thing I’ve learned by watching Tony these past months it’s that being king or queen is not a solitary thing. Tony keeps his advisors and friends close, asks for their support. Do not try to shoulder this burden on your own. There are those who will help you.”

Hope nodded, reaching out with her mind to touch the Sithen. She felt the Sithen respond joyously and she smiled, sinking into the happy sensation and the bubbling magick.

She turned to face Stephen. “You’re not staying, are you?”

Stephen smiled. “I am not. I will help you when I can, but they will listen to you far better than me. I was always the odd one, if you remember.”

“I do,” Hope said, smiling wryly.

Stephen nodded, glancing around the court. His eyes moved over Zemo’s bloody corpse and locked on his white Seelie charger, waiting for him in the middle of the room.

“If you need me, call. There are these amazing things called cell phones,” Stephen said. “But you can use magickal means as well. But do not call me for every little thing. I am not king. I will be there to help conversation between the courts but it is up to you to start the process.”

Hope nodded, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “I understand, Stephen.”

“Perhaps the courts can come together to celebrate the spring equinox,” Stephen said thoughtfully.

“A night of new beginnings. I’d like that,” Hope said.

Stephen smiled and stood up, the Cloak billowing around him majestically. He looked over the court that had been his home for his entire life. He had learned magick at the knees of the dowager queen, had found love and lost it right in this room, he had danced with the dying Seelie roses and listened to their song. He stood there and he realized it wasn’t home anymore.

With a wide smile he trotted down the dais, the Seelie splitting before him like water parting around an unmovable stone. They stared after him, whispers following in his wake. He didn’t let it bother him. He only had one man in mind and he was not part of the golden court.

He stuck his foot in the stirrup of the saddle and swung his leg over his horse’s back. She pranced under him, shaking her head and making her bells ring. He lifted his hand in farewell and Hope raised hers in return, a soft smile on her face as Stephen spun his horse around and galloped to the door.

Stephen clung to the mare’s back as she ran, powerful strides eating up the ground beneath her hooves. They had left the Sithen and ran across the forest surrounding the home of the Seelie. He heard more hoofbeats and turned his head, a smile on his face as another white Seelie horse slipped through the trees in pursuit of his. He slowed down, bringing his horse to a walk as Frigga reined her gelding in next to him.

“Hello, Lady Frigga,” Stephen said with an easy smile.

“I do think we’re quite beyond titles, don’t you, King Stephen?”

He threw his head back and laughed, feeling light and free. “Of course, Frigga. And tell me, what is the dowager queen of the Seelie doing out here? I’m sure the court would greatly appreciate your help in this suddenly trying time.”

Frigga smiled at him—a viscous flashing of teeth—and he was reminded that she had been a warrior of the highest caliber before she had married Odin. “I have spent too long away from my sons. I stayed in the Seelie court because I could not bear the thought of seeing the man that my sister left all she knew for. I could not bear to see the man she loved, even when he took my sons in and they became trusted members of his court. I saw him tonight, and I see why Pepper loved him.”

Frigga’s smile softened and she reached out, resting her hand briefly on his arm as their horses walked steadily side by side. “I see why you love him.”

Stephen felt a flush spread across his cheeks but he didn’t deny it.

“You said that the Unseelie king takes in any Fae who comes to him and asks for only loyalty in return. I am tired, Stephen, and I want to see my children again. I want to embrace the Goddess and dance in the moonlight like I did eons ago. I don’t think I’ll find that in the Seelie court for a while, although I have no doubt that Hope will be a wonderful queen and lead them better than any Seelie before.”

“I’m sure Tony will be glad to have you,” Stephen said.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Frigga said easily. “I imagine it won’t be easy for either one of us. The last time we saw each other before today was on the battlefield as I stood aside and let him murder my husband. There is much between us that King Anthony and I will have to discuss one day, but I do not think that will happen today. I have a feeling that he would rather spend his time with you than with a dowager queen.”

Curse it all, Stephen was blushing again.

“Seeing Thor and Loki with the Hunt today woke the Sidhe I used to be, Stephen. I was never passive, I never let anyone run roughshod over me, not until Odin. I had started to fade and hadn’t even realized it. I was a warrior. I was one of the two best magick users in the Seelie court and I let that person die. No more. When I had Zemo at knife point today, driving him back to the Huntsman, I felt so very alive. I could hear the Goddess again, Stephen, and I feel that the time is right for me to move on from the Seelie court.”

“Then the Unseelie will welcome you with open arms. Thor and Loki will be delighted, I’m sure.”

She smiled mischievously. “Or they’ll be horrified to have their mother looking over their shoulder again, but I do believe they’ll get used to it.”

Stephen laughed and the two horses picked up the pace, two streaks of white across the skies as they rode home.

:::

Tony stared in horror as Stephen ascended the golden throne and sat down, disappearing with a loud crack. He swayed against Thor and fought back nausea. This was it, he’d lost him. Tony shook his head.

No, Stephen had never belonged to him, had he? Stephen had always been Seelie, and nine months among the dark court and one night in Tony’s bed would not change that.

He turned from Thor and lifted his arm, letting out a shrill call. The Hunt started to disperse, disappearing back into shadow like they had never been there.

The Seelie watched them leave, huddled together. They wailed and cried and it drove spikes of pain through Tony’s skull. He just wanted to go back to his chambers, the chambers where his bed still smelled like Stephen, and wrap those blankets around him and forget.

He wanted to forget the taste of Stephen’s lips on his, forget the feel of his lithe body under his, forget the way their magick moved together, skin glowing with power as they found release together.

He wanted to forget how the Hunt called to him, filled him with such power that he could tear all of Faerie down one stone at a time. He wanted to forget how much he missed the Hunt, the power, the taste of death on his tongue and rage in his heart.

Tony shook his head, trying to ignore the tears that welled in his eyes. Thor didn’t say anything as he mounted his antlered horse, staying near his king. Tony was vaguely aware of Thor and Loki telling their mother goodbye and Tony felt another stab of pain looking at the dowager queen.

They had never spoken, but he remembered the look in her eyes when Odin had murdered Pepper. He remembered the look in her eyes when he had killed Odin, ending the last Sidhe war. He remembered Pepper speaking fondly of her sister and he shook away thoughts of his dead queen.

What would Pepper think of Stephen? He had a feeling she would’ve adored him. Stephen had made him happy for that one night.

It would have to be enough.

He took one last look back at the empty golden throne and spun his black horse. He expected Stephen’s white mare to follow the Hunt but she stood still, ears twitching. Fine, she was a Seelie creature through and through, like Stephen. She didn’t belong in the darkness of the Unseelie court.

“Let’s go,” Tony said. He didn’t want to be here when Stephen came back from wherever the Goddess had taken him. He didn’t want to see him in that floral crown sitting on the golden throne, every glance a reminder of what he couldn’t have.

The ride back to the Unseelie Sithen was quiet and seemed so much longer than the ride out had been. Tony felt like he was riding through a dream. Snow covered the ground, reflecting the pale moonlight back into the sky. He felt the welcoming cry of the Sithen as they rode into his hall and he dismounted. His horse lipped at his face before trotting away, melting into the shadows.

Tony sighed, shoulders sagging as the events of the night caught up to him. Being the Huntsman was powerful but when the magick of the Hunt dispersed it left him shaky and exhausted.

“C’mon,” Rhodey said, his hand gentle as he took Tony by the bicep. Tony’s feet dragged as he followed his oldest and closest friend to his chambers. Tony didn’t look at the rumpled furs and blankets on his bed. He didn’t look for the stains that were proof of the night he’d spent with Stephen. Rhodey didn’t comment; he just pushed him down into the chair and knelt before him, taking off his boots and helping Tony out of his sweat and bloodstained clothes.

“You okay?” Rhodey asked, sitting across from him. Tony looked up at him, whiskey gold eyes tired and lined with exhaustion.

Tony shrugged. “It’s been a long time since I’ve let the full power of the Hunt and who I once was ride me like that.”

Rhodey tilted his head, reaching out to put his hand on Tony’s. Tony stared at their joined hands, Rhodey’s fingers dark against his. He laced their fingers together and let his head fall back.

“I was an idiot, Rhodey,” Tony said.

“Certainly won’t be the first time,” Rhodey said. Tony looked around for something to throw at his friend but came up empty so he kicked his knee instead.

“Be nice to me.”

Rhodey moved to sit next to him, his arm around the king’s shoulders. Tony leaned against him, his head on Rhodey’s shoulder.

“Why were you an idiot?” Rhodey asked, resting his cheek on Tony’s hair.

“I fell in love,” Tony said.

“With Stephen. I know. We all saw it.”

“I didn’t,” Tony muttered. “Not until I stood next to him on that altar, not until I realized what I would do to keep him safe.”

“Why is that a bad thing?” Rhodey asked, squeezing Tony to him. Tony looped his arm around Rhodey’s waist. “I know you love me, Winter, Thor, Loki.”

“This is different,” Tony whispered. “I…I feel for him what I did for Pepper.”

“And that scares you.”

“It scares the shit out of me, Jim. I remember what I was like after Pepper…the thought that Stephen has that much power over me terrifies me. I would’ve gladly destroyed the Seelie court for him tonight. I would’ve taken all of them for the Hunt or set them in the walls of my Sithen to join Obadiah.”

“Do you regret loving him?”

“No,” Tony said. “I regret that I fell in love with someone I can’t have. He’s king of the Seelie. You saw him with them, sitting so pretty among the perfection of that court. He belongs there, not here among the nightmares.”

He was silent for a minute. “Seriously, who would want me when you could have Steve Rogers?”

Rhodey shook Tony a little, forcing him to meet his eyes. “First of all, Rogers left, Stephen isn’t with him anymore. Second, the perfection of that court is more nightmarish than anything in the Unseelie halls. It’s not like you’ll never see him again. Maybe the courts will be able to come together now with him at their head and you leading the Unseelie.”

Tony gave a mute shrug, eyes closed as he took in Rhodey’s warmth. “I didn’t want to see him sitting on that golden throne again so I left. I took the Hunt and ran. I am a coward, Rhodey.”

“You’re not,” Rhodey said firmly, shaking Tony again and kissing his hair.

“I’m old. I shouldn’t be subject to emotions like these anymore.”

“Tony, the fact that you are as old as you are and can still feel emotions is what makes you a great king. Never disparage that fact. Your emotions make you powerful.”

“I just feel weak right now.”

“I know,” Rhodey whispered. They sat in silence in the king’s chambers, leaning on each other. Rhodey held him until Tony slipped into a restless sleep. He spread him out on the couch, figuring Tony wouldn’t want to sleep in the bed yet.

“Goddess, watch over him,” Rhodey whispered, pressing a kiss to Tony’s forehead. He slipped out of the room and walked back to his quarters where Winter waited for him.

They would all need to be held this night.

:::

Tony woke up alone and tried to squash the well of sad loneliness that welled inside him. He sat up and scrubbed at his face. His eyes fell on the empty hook where the red Cloak had hung for centuries and he felt tears burn his eyes.

His last remembrance of Pepper was gone, hanging from the shoulders of the man he’d somehow fallen in love with.

He got slowly to his feet and found a black, fur lined robe. He shrugged it on and tied it at his waist. He couldn’t stay in this room. If he concentrated, he could still smell Stephen. Stephen had lived in this room for eight months, had lain comatose in his bed for a month before that. The room felt more like Stephen’s than his own now.

He opened the door and slipped out. The halls were quiet, dark, most in their rooms recovering from the Hunt. He kept to the shadows, letting the darkness hide him from any who did chance upon him.

He drifted through the Sithen, silent and unseen as a ghost. Finally he reached the intricate gate leading to the forest and he opened it. His bare feet hardly left an impression on the snow as he walked. He didn’t feel the cold as he moved through the trees. He moved with the Fae creatures of the forest. They didn’t run in fear at the sight of him. Some ran with him for a time, others simply watched him pass by.

He reached the lake and sat on the shore, staring out over the still black waters. He was well and truly alone here, except for the creatures of the forest and the Goddess all around him. He allowed himself to relax and stretched out on the ice cold sand of the beach. The snow had melted away here, but the ground was still cold.

He heard rustling in the trees and turned his head, going completely still as a red doe stepped out of the forest. Her large ears were focused on him but she didn’t seem afraid of him. She stepped closer and closer, liquid eyes never leaving his.

He watched as she walked up to the lake, lowering her head to drink. She lifted her head, water dripping from her muzzle as she looked at him again.

Tony had always enjoyed watching the deer of the forest. He long thought that he’d like to be one, running through the trees unfettered.

The red doe before him was beautiful and yet made him want to cry. He reached out a trembling hand, biting back a silent cry when she pushed her nose into his palm. She was warm and real beneath his hand and he felt love and peace and acceptance from her. He felt like he knew her, like he had known her forever and he didn’t know how.

She turned her head, ears focused on the forest. He saw a flash of white and the white stag stepped out from the trees, the snow dulling in the presence of his fur. Tony dropped his hand to his lap and the red doe flicked an ear at him.

Even though Stephen had sacrificed the white stag only a day earlier, Tony knew that the white stag before him was the Consort reborn, renewed in the death and fire of the longest night of the year. The stag stared at him and lifted his head, bugling a cry. The red doe responded and bounded over the snow to join him. Both deer stopped to look at him before disappearing into the trees.

Tony’s breath caught in his throat when he realized that neither one had left hoof prints in the snow.

“Magick indeed,” a voice said from behind him.

Tony rolled, immediately on the defensive. He felt like he’d been punched in the gut when he realized it was Stephen standing before him, still wearing the clothes he’d worn for the Hunt. The Cloak waved at Tony and he surged to his feet, eyes wide.

“What are you doing here?” Tony said, running his hands over Stephen and checking him for injuries. “Did the Seelie throw you out? What happened? Are you hurt?”

Stephen covered Tony’s hands with his own and Tony froze. Goddess, he was real. His hands were flesh and blood over his own, slightly cool to the touch and trembling.

“I am not hurt, Tony,” Stephen said gently. “And no, the Seelie did not throw me out. I am here of my own free will.”

“But why?” Tony asked, looked at their hands. “And how did you get here?”

The forest was one of their most sacred spaces and Tony had wanted to be left alone. No one would be able to get in without his permission.

“As Frigga and I rode closer to the Sithen, we couldn’t find an entrance. It was dark and cold, and we thought we had failed. Then the red doe appeared. She led us to an entrance and Frigga rode in, but I could tell the doe wanted me to follow her. She led me here.” Stephen tilted his head. “And I’m here because I can think of nowhere else I’d rather be than right here with you.”

“But…you are king of the Seelie. I’m sure they need you.”

Stephen shook his head. “I’m not king.”

Tony frowned at him. “I remember the crown appearing on your head. You took the throne and the Goddess whisked you away.”

“That’s a normal thing?”

“I mean, yeah? Happened to me when I took the throne a long ass time ago.”

“Oh. Well, I did speak to the Goddess. But I’m not king. I gave it up.”

Tony stared at him like he was crazy. “What? What about the Seelie?”

“I left them in good hands.”

“Frigga’s?”

“No. Frigga is here, actually. I believe she went to find Thor and Loki. I do hope they’re decent.”

“Frigga is here. In the Unseelie court,” Tony said, disbelief coloring his voice.

Stephen nodded. “Yes. She decided she had lived by Odin’s rules for long enough.”

“Oh,” Tony said faintly. He’d have to find her. They would have much to discuss.

“Then who is in charge of the Seelie?” Tony asked.

“Hope is queen of the Seelie now,” Stephen said. “Goddess chosen and Sithen approved. She will be a good queen, I think. Better than I would’ve been as king.”

“I don’t…you were meant for that throne, Stephen.”

“Maybe once,” Stephen said. “Maybe if Zemo hadn’t used his glamour to twist us to his twisted game, maybe if I hadn’t been tortured. Maybe I would’ve been king then. I would’ve ruled gladly beside Steve and maybe I would’ve done a good job. But I am not that man anymore. I found something in the darkness, Tony, and I don’t want to give it up. Not for a crown, not for a court that wouldn’t follow me.”

Tony swallowed hard, staring up at him. “What did you find?”

Stephen smiled, tracing the lines of Tony’s goatee with his thumb. “Acceptance, friendship, beauty.” He dropped a kiss on the corner of Tony’s mouth and pulled back.

“Love.”

Tony stared at him, breathing hard.

“I love you, Tony. I don’t care that you’re king of the Unseelie. I wouldn’t care if you were a goblin or a nightflyer or one of the other monsters of the dark. I wouldn’t care if you were a mortal man. I love you and nothing will change that.”

Tony blinked back tears and lifted his hands to cup Stephen’s face. “You gave up your crown for me?”

“Yes,” Stephen said simply. “I would stay with you. I have told Queen Hope that I will be ambassador between the courts, that I will work with both monarchs to heal the wounds that have festered between us for centuries. But I will not be king. The Seelie might have followed me, but I would’ve spent my days waiting for a knife in my back. I have been betrayed enough. They have their queen. The healing process will be long, but I trust Hope to lead them well.”

Tony swallowed. “She is a good choice. Was…was the Goddess disappointed in you?”

Stephen smiled at him. “No, I do not think so. She kissed me and wished me well. Free will, Tony. It was my choice to give up the crown. It is my choice to stay with you, if you’ll have me.”

Tony pulled him into a bone crushing hug, burying his face against Stephen’s shoulder. Stephen wrapped his arms around Tony, the Cloak slithering around them both.

“I thought I would have to be happy with the one night we had together. I thought I would only get the memories of you,” Tony whispered.

“We have an eternity to make new memories, Anthony, if you can handle having such a young lover.”

Tony laughed, arms tightening around him. “You make me feel young again, Stephen. I don’t feel the weight of my millennia bearing down on me when I’m with you.”

“Good,” Stephen said. Tony pulled back just enough to wrap his arms around Stephen’s neck and pull him down for a searing kiss. Stephen leaned into it, his hands resting on Tony’s hips. Tony licked into his mouth and Stephen opened for him, breathing into his mouth, sharing air with him.

Stephen laid Tony on the cold ground, the Cloak spreading out under them. Their skin glowed and the smell of roses filled the air. Their bodies moved in perfect sync, finding that most ancient rhythm as they came together, their voices rising to the heavens as they proclaimed their love for each other.

Stephen spilled into Tony’s body, gasping his name as Tony held him. They curled around each other, fingers exploring every rise and valley of their bodies, legs tangled together as they pressed as close as they could to one another.

They drifted to sleep on the shore of the lake, Tony’s robe draped over their bodies and the Cloak spread out under them. The sounds of the forest rose and fell around them as the Unseelie moon began to set.

Tony woke when he was too cold to stay asleep, looking at the man still sleeping next to him. He brushed his knuckles over his cheek and Stephen’s eyes fluttered open. He smiled down at him and lowered his head for a kiss.

Stephen hummed into the kiss and magick sparked across their bodies, the scent of roses nearly overpowering. When Tony pulled back, rose petals of Seelie white and Unseelie blood red surrounded them. Stephen reached out and brushed his fingers over Tony’s forehead, the crown of thorn and shadow taking shape at his touch.

Tony tilted his head and touched Stephen’s forehead, his eyes widening when a crown shimmered there. It wasn’t the Seelie crown of white flowers. Tony had never seen a crown like this before.

“Look,” Tony said, tugging Stephen to his feet and pulling him closer to the lake. They walked through the soft petals, the cold no longer bothering them as they knelt next to the still black waters. “Look,” Tony said again.

Stephen looked. A crown rested on his brow; a crown of thorn and flowers, Unseelie and Seelie woven together in one crown.

Stephen looked at their reflection in the water. They were both naked, both crowned.

“What does it mean?” Stephen asked, reaching up to touch it.

Tony held his hands out and Stephen took them. “It means that the Goddess loves us and approves of our love. It means you are King Consort of the Unseelie, Ambassador to the Seelie court, and the man I love above all others.”

Stephen touched the crown again and then pulled Tony close. Their lips met and they laughed, arms tight around each other.

“Let’s go back to our chambers,” Tony said. “I’m freezing here.”

Stephen smiled at Tony’s words. He liked the way ‘our’ chambers sounded on Tony’s tongue.

They got to their feet and dressed quickly, the Cloak settling over Stephen’s shoulders. They held hands as they walked back to the gate that would lead back to the dark hallways.

Stephen saw a flash of movement in the trees and paused. The red doe looked back at him, ears up. Stephen lifted his hand to her and bowed slightly. Tony turned to look at what Stephen was doing, eyes easily finding the red doe in the forest.

He felt that he knew her and he didn’t know why.

Stephen squeezed his hand and bowed more deeply to the doe.

“Stephen?” Tony asked.

Stephen turned and smiled at Tony, eyes bright.

“Let’s go home,” Stephen said. Tony smiled and pulled him close, walking through the gate.

Stephen took one last glance over his shoulder and saw the doe bound away into the woods, the concerns of Fae and man beyond her.

He let Tony pull him along and he smiled at the back of the king’s head.

Yes, he was home.

He tugged Tony to him for another kiss, their love as unfettered as the red doe dancing through the woods.