She glided over the smooth ground, feet touching the floor so lightly she left no trace of her presence. She had cast a spell out before her to smooth the way, drowning the guards in the overwhelming urge to sleep, and to keep their failing to themselves. There were pathetically few guards protecting the Jess, though why she'd assumed these pathetic griffin riders would have the common sense to properly defend the building that housed all their treasures, she didn't know. Hidden deep within the Jess were records of all the riders to come before, secrets and stories known only to their people, artifacts that had made their history, and at the center of it all was the frozen corpse of Captain Steven Rogers.
The Captain had been crafted of magic beyond the skill of anyone still yet living, and the Sorcerer who'd made him had died with his refusal to ever make another like him. The Captain had fought a battle to the death against the abomination of magic he was created to destroy, and as his target lay dying, he cast one last spell against the Captain, trapping him in a pillar of ice, and killing him instantly.
Or so the story went.
The riders kept the Captain in his pillar of ice, tucked away in the depths of the Jess where, in theory, only the most honored were allowed to see him. (In truth, guided tours went through the building at least once a month, with a stop to try and chip away a piece of his ice to sell as a relic.)
Never had she seen the Captain in person, but she had always been curious, and that curiosity had paid off well for her. One night she stole a memory from the mind of a rider, a memory of the Captain trapped in his ice, and she knew, his heart still beat within his prison.
She used her powers as a sorceress to trample the will of many a rider until she found her way into the Jess, and stood uninhibited before the ice that held the Captain caged. He was a beautiful man, bright face still burning with the flush of youth, and for a moment she thought of keeping him for a time after he woke, taking a little pleasure from his frame still humming with magic. But he was far too perfect an ingredient to waste with waiting. His block of ice sat in the center of a room surrounded by layers of defunct protection spells made by lesser wizards. Some spells were shapes etched into the ground, and others were runes painted into the walls. But with the passing of time and the coming of tourists everything in its turn had been scratched out, leaving the good Captain unprotected.
Everything, that is, but the ice.
She sauntered forward, reaching out with her magic to get a feel for the weak points in the ice, stepping in a smooth circle around it until she found the perfect place that could give her a path through the block to where the Captain waited. She traced her finger along the ice, burning the grooves of a rune wherever she touched. When the mark was inscribed she rested her palm against the flat surface of the ice and chanted under her breath.
The reaction was immediate, as though the magic that created the ice had been impatiently waiting all this time for someone to give it the order to break. Within moments outer chunks of ice slicked off the block, like glaciers dropping into the sea. She stepped back, trying to keep out of the way of the sudden rush of water, but the spell was too enthusiastic, melting away the water and soaking the hem of her long, green skirt. She hissed in displeasure and looked down to shoot another spell to tidy her dress, and by the time she looked back up the Captain was already free of his icy enclosure, slumped down to the ground, taking in the long, slow breaths of deep sleep.
A quick flick of her magic banished away the rest of the unwarranted water, though she consciously left the Captain damp so his clothes would cling to the lovely planes of his chest for her own amusement. She knelt down beside him, and appreciated the view for a moment (a woman ought to have some pleasures before she killed a man in order to eat his heart).
She pulled a box from within one of the enchanted pockets of her skirt and cracked it open before setting the box down beside his body. The box was spelled to keep his heart fresh once she cut it out from within his chest, letting no time pass so that the organ might be as fresh as possible when she added it to her spell. She reached into the same pocket and withdrew a long, curved knife with enchantments so strong it glowed in the pale light of the room.
With a push of her magic she rolled the Captain on to his back, and put her hand upon his chest to open the clasps of his armor, only to pause when she felt the warm thrum of his heartbeat underneath her palm. She hissed in displeasure and dropped the knife to rip open the sturdy, enchanted fabric that gave him protection, and pressed her hand straight to his chest, getting a feel for his heart undiluted by the armored spells.
She cursed under her breath at this discovery. His heart was beating, yes, but it was tired. When the spell had hit him, preserving him well enough to be reached by her all these years later, the Captain had resigned himself to death. His heart kept beating, but the good Captain wasn't truly alive.
No, no, this just wouldn't do. Her final spell, for which the Captain's heart was absolutely vital, wouldn't do it's job well if his heart was not full to bursting. A heart like this, no matter what it may have done before being exhausted, would crumple under the pressure and ruin her chances.
She gathered up her skirt and stormed out of the room, leaving the Captain alone and alive on the floor where she'd put him. His heart needed to live again, to thrum with meaning and strength, and given her track record of dead lovers, she was not the person for the task.
But she knew precisely who was.
"You have need of freedom, Steven!"
"This isn't freedom Thor, it's kidnapping!" Steve objected, trying to sound forceful while hanging from the claws of Thor's griffin. It didn't really work since he could hear Thor laugh at his objection and feel Loki, the griffin, doing the same.
Steve had stumbled out on to one of the Aerie's many balconies, desperate for a breath of fresh air. The only time he'd left the rider's floating base in the month since he'd woken was when he had been taken from the Jess to the Aerie, and he'd been going steadily insane ever since. He aimlessly paced around halls that hadn't changed in over seventy years, looking for the long dead riders of his pride around every corner he turned. The loneliness and expectation tore at him, but Madame Hill had given orders that Steve was to stay concealed in the protection of the Aerie, leaving him trapped.
All of the riders kept Steve confined as they were ordered, save for Thor.
The second Steve stepped out onto the balcony for his moment of freedom, Loki dropped from his perch where he had laid in wait, and silently dove straight for Steve. Before he knew what hit him Steve was wrapped in Loki's talons, suspended over the countryside below and on his way to freedom. Communicating like all griffins, Steve could feel Loki projecting smug triumph at catching the rider unaware. Loki broadcast this emotion to Thor as well, and the rider came darting out an upper window, trying to see what his griffin was up to now. Steve felt the mental hum of the griffin and his rider having a conversation unto themselves, but instead of Steve being restored to his position on the balcony, Thor smirked and took a flying leap out the window as Loki darted over to catch him. Loki gave a burst of irritation at having Thor's bulk thump upon him from above, but didn't waste time complaining, and instead fluttered his wings for the nearest town.
Steve gave himself a moment to enjoy the thrill of flying, the wind rushing past and granting him the pure bliss of freedom before he started shouting up to Thor that he really should be getting back to the Aerie. Loki and Thor let this go on for several minutes, with Thor shouting back his own brand of logic, and Loki projecting a little louder each time that he thought Steve was being ridiculous.
Eventually Loki couldn't take it anymore and twisted into a barrel roll, waiting until the peak of his momentum to release Steve, and let him launch up into the air, free of the safety and restraint of the griffin's talons. Steve reached the top of his arc and floated there, weightless with his arms outstretched for one perfect moment, before the earth seized control again and pulled him back down.
Loki was a talented griffin, Steve had spent enough time over the last few weeks watching his fly to know that. (It was a small comfort to know that griffins were mostly the same as they had been all those years ago, though that was rather more soothing than the predictability of other things.) Now, just as then, there were griffins who had been trained to do nothing more than fly fast and dive hard, but whatever they taught in Thor's country had given Loki more agility than Steve had ever seen in a griffin (though Loki might have learned it all on his own to ease his mischief). Loki positioned himself under Steve, talons up to catch him, and tucked his wings into his sides to join Steve in a drop, close enough to Steve's speed that the griffin caught him without jarring, then rolled and again, with a spread of wings, raced back up into the sky.
The earth below them was thick forest slowly thinning into green fields as they moved away from the floating village that was the Aerie and closer to civilization. Steve vaguely recalled a village lying this way when he'd been a rider, but in truth he'd never been to see it. Steve felt Loki send him a burst of questions, and Steve had spent enough time around griffins to know that the emotion was meant to ask how Steve knew his maneuvers when no one else at his home in Aerie knew them. Steve shouted up, "My pride had riders from all over, and they taught me."
Loki paused for a moment, not sending Steve back into the air when he expected it and instead gliding while he sent another gentle pulse of questioning. Rather than use words, Steve let Loki in to his mind to feel the hollow ache of a bond that never was, all Loki needed to understand that Steve had never bonded with a griffin of his own to share the skills with. Despite how the other riders found Loki difficult, the griffin felt for Steve, and rather than pestering Steve with questions, tossed him back into the air, trying to make Steve laugh.
As always, Pepper was the one to roam into Tony's sunlit conservatory of a workshop, and point out that had he looked up from his latest project he would've noticed that Thor and Loki had come to visit. The griffin Aerie usually floated over the wild country that made up the kingdom's border, sometimes venturing closer to the town where Tony stayed when he wasn't on a bender in the capital, and other times, the Aerie would simply weave up and down the countryside, venturing nearer to the other villages.
The griffin rider's made a point of visiting the other towns alongside their route, and with all their disdain for anything that wasn't magic very deliberately kept away from Stark's town. Thor was the only rider Tony had seen in years, though he didn't care about science or magic, just about Jane. (She had gone to examine the workings of an Aerie in Thor's country, and when she came back, he had followed her. Thor did his duty by reporting in to the local Aerie and riding out with them when his gifts were needed, but then he spent every spare moment he could on the ground making Jane smile.)
After all these months, Thor and his griffin had become familiar guests in the town, but the man Loki had just let drop from his claws was new. Pepper gasped at the sudden drop, but Tony just turned and roamed outside. Before Loki even released the man, the griffin had changed the tilt of his wings ready to dive down and catch him. Tony had spent hours out by the lake watching Loki and Thor go through their maneuvers, and Tony's analytical mind had cataloged all of Loki's movements, working to incorporate them into his own designs. Tony roamed out into the bright day and down to the stretch of flat land that separated Tony's manor from the lake, where Loki usually came in for his landing.
Though, for all his familiarity with Loki, Steve hadn't been expecting the griffin to drop the man a second time, this time with no intention of catching him.
Tony could hear Thor shouting in a panic, but judging by Loki's mental vibrations of pleasure, the dropped man wasn't wounded. Whatever other analysis Tony might have done of the situation was swallowed up by the sight of Loki's cargo bursting out of the water, sending up a storm of drops. The man slogged his way out of the lake, blonde curls tumbling into his eyes, and his non-uniform white shirt clinging to the lines of his chest in a way Tony planned on daydreaming about later on.
When the man looked up to see Tony staring at him with interest in his eyes, he turned a shade of red that Tony had thought you needed to be a young maiden to reach. Tony smirked and the man gulped out a, "H-Hello."
"Remind me to gift wrap some sheep for Loki."
"Huh?" The man stumbled, still calf-deep in the lake.
"He deserves a reward for bringing me a present like you."
The man's eyes widened briefly before he looked away in embarrassment, and Tony shared a smirk with Loki while the griffin landed. Thor jumped off Loki's back and ran straight into the water, wrapping the soaked man into a hug. "Steve! Are you well?"
Steve laughed, and patted Thor on the shoulder, "I'm fine."
"Did you finally find a rider you like, Thor?" Tony asked.
Thor wrapped his arm around Steve's shoulder and dragged the man on to dry land. "Tony, my friend! This is Steven Rogers, my fellow Rider thought lost to a spell of ice."
Tony smirked like he expected Thor to let him in on the joke, but when Loki didn't chime in with his own teasing, Tony paused and stared at Steve for a long moment before he breathed out, “How did that happen?” Tony pulled out a small piece of mostly clear glass that he tapped with a pulse of magic and spread his fingers to expand to several inches. He began to wave it methodically all around Steve, who could see lines of runes appearing like writing the more Tony held it near him.
"What are you doing?" Steve asked.
"You're the Captain. You're the Captain, and you died, but apparently you didn't because you're here and you're gorgeous, and I want to know why."
Loki had a spark of amusement that obviously meant, 'Know why he's gorgeous?' and Tony muttered, "Shut up, Loki."
Steve was quiet for a moment, watching Tony's work worn hands move smoothly over the glass, shifting it so he could could see the whole of Steve within the glass edges, and with a quick tug from Tony's magic, an outline of Steve appeared at the center of the runes. Tony ignored how Steve was watching him, and how Thor was pestering Loki that Jane was waiting for them. The intensity of Tony's stare, looking at him but not quite seeing him, made Steve interrupt, "I was at the Jess."
"I know. Everyone who could, went to see you. Though most people thought it was a little morbid that we kept your ice-covered body as a statue."
Tony shrugged, "You were dead. I figured you would've rather been useful instead of a statute."
"They said someone melted the ice."
Tony tilted the glass, tapped, and skimmed quickly over what it was he had found before. "Yup. Looks like a variation on the preservation spell." Steve tried to ask, but Tony went on, talking to himself now. "Tailored to melt the ice, but to preserve the freshness of whatever's inside of it."
Loki sent a question and popped up beside Tony, nudging him until Tony tilted the glass so the griffin could read along. "I recognize some of these markers from the spell used to preserve food."
Steve couldn't take it anymore, "Markers?"
Neither Tony nor Loki looked up, so Steve prodded again, and Loki nipped at Tony until he answered, "Spells effect things, changing them from their natural state.But if you know how to look, you can see where those changes were made, and if you're very, very good, like me, you can recognize what those changes were meant to do from where they are.”
"So, they tried to preserve my freshness because…?"
"So you'd be just as delicious when you came out of the ice as when you went it. Why they wanted you edible however, I have no idea." Tony's gaze flicked up from the glass and gave Steve a look that made him flush again, "Other than the obvious."
Thor clapped one of his massive hands against Tony's back, and declared, "Come, Tony! Put away your device and walk with us. The day is bright, Steven is free, and my lovely Jane waits for us!"
Loki gave an amused snort, but he didn't take off like Steve had expected him to. Tony leaned up against Steve, his hot breath against his ear as he whispered, “Loki likes Jane.” Loki nudged Tony, sending him stumbling forward, but didn't deny Tony's statement.
Thor tossed his arms wide, and declared, "All adore my Jane! She is light, and joy, and genius personified!"
They all laughed good-naturedly at Thor's enthusiasm before heading up from the shore and into the town proper. It was clean and well organized, and despite the town being relatively small, judging by the workmen who occasionally roamed by them, it was still growing. The houses looked different than from what Steve remembered, some of them brick, while others were made of metal, unlike the wooden homes Steve had been accustomed to. And many of the houses in town weren't just homes, but also had a barn-like structure built along side of them. Tony stepped away from whoever he'd been exchanging pleasantries with when he caught Steve staring and explained, "They're labs. It's dangerous to conduct experiments where you live, so most of us have another space."
The more Steve watched the houses, the more he realized nothing was quite the same. There was a dog chasing a mechanical cat down the street, ("Henry likes having the dog but hates to walk it," Tony explained) another yard had short metal windmills turning beautifully in the slightest breeze, ("Bruce makes stuff as part of his meditation."), and a hovering carriage with no need for horses ("I don't really ask why Clint makes what he makes."). All the changes were subtle, just enough that if you weren't looking for the difference, you would never have come across them. Tony could see the questions flickering over Steve's face, and always tried to intervene before confusion set in.
"That house over there," Tony said, pointing passed Steve to a large manor at the outskirts of town up on a hill, "That's Charlie's. You know how magic is divided up into four main categories?"
"Fire, water, wind, and air," Steve replied.
"Exactly. Well, over the last few generations, witches and wizards have been getting more diverse in the way those categories are expressed. It used to be that a fire wizard would just be better at spells that involved heat, but then a few generations ago, people started popping up with different kinds of abilities."
"Like, their fire was stronger?"
"Some. But there were others who were actual fire starters, or fire controllers. And others who didn't have a lick of magical ability, couldn't cast a proper spell to save their life, but they could control fire."
"But, that's impossible," Steve retorted.
"Nope. Charlie's even got a student who can create ice, another who can cause windstorms, and one who can cause small earthquakes. Charlie studies what makes it possible to have all of these different expressions of magic, and why they've been cropping up more often." Thor caught sight of one of the labs, and started up the hill. Tony laughed, "And then, of course, there's Jane."
"My lovely Jane," Thor crooned. "She studies the intricacies of the heavens."
"So, you're all… scientists."
Tony tried to pretend the question didn't give him pause, but Steve caught the slightest hesitation before he replied, "Most of us study the world through wholly un-magical science, but there are still plenty of scientists here who also practice magic. Charlie, the one who's trying to figure out why powers have been mutating, he's a Reader."
"So," Steve puzzled out, "you don't mind magic?"
"Of course not. Sometimes magic is the best way to get things done, and sometimes its holding us back."
Rather than let Tony take Steve on a tour of everything magical in the town, Thor grabbed him by the back of his shirt, and ushered them along. "Didn't they have non-magical stuff when you were around the first time?" Tony asked.
Steve rolled his eyes at the question, "Of course they did, it's just, it's all so different."
"Of course it's different. It's been seventy years."
"But it's not 'of course'. The Aerie hasn't changed at all."
"When you say 'at all,' you mean—"
"Everything in the whole building is exactly the same as it was when I…" Tony let him trail off rather than try to come up with a vague euphemism for 'mostly died'. "I thought it was just the way of the world, but everything down here is different."
Tony snorted, "Of course the Aerie hasn't changed. They refuse to. The riders here are all wrapped up in their traditions and their magic, and they refuse to do a thing any different than they ever have."
"How do you, I mean…"
"No, I wasn't a Rider. When I was young, I went to the capital to study as a wizard. They wanted me to stay on as a sorcerer, but I couldn't take it anymore."
Steve set aside his ingrained impression at people with magical skills like that, especially considering how powerful Tony must have been to be asked to become a sorcerer. Standard practitioners of magic were called magicians, while those who went to school were called wizards, and only the absolute best were known as sorcerers. "What happened?"
"All the school cared about was keeping the traditions alive. There were new ways, better ways, to do the magic they were doing, but no one wanted to listen. No one cared about innovation, or involving the whole new realm of science. Just doing things with the same blind faith they always had."
"So you left."
"Came back home and started my own practice of magic. And I made the village a place where other scientists, and other innovators could come and work without getting told they were heretics."
"Isn't heretics is a little harsh?" Steve asked, and a woman's voice interrupted him.
"If anything, heretics isn't strong enough."
"Jane!" Thor shouted, and spun the woman around in his arms.
"It's only been three days!" Jane protested halfheartedly, still pressing herself into Thor's chest and smiling at the sight of him.
"Any time apart from you is too long."
Tony smirked at the display and headed into the open barn Jane had been in, skirting past Thor who was making heartfelt declarations of eternal love. "Come on, they'll be doing that for a while." Steve smiled, believing him completely. Tony leaned in a little closer, speaking to Steve in a soft voice, "Jane is a scientist, not a drop of magic in her. Well, unless you count what Thor leaves behind.”
Steve blushed furiously and proceeded to whack Tony on the shoulder. "You can't say that about a lady!"
Tony rolled his eyes, and moved on, "She's not a lady, she's a scientist. And being a scientist got her in trouble with the Aerie."
"What kind of trouble?"
"She's got a theory, something about stars and griffins and their relationship-"
"Something?" Steve smirked.
"Hey, I don't do stars, I do mechanics," Tony retorted. "Anyway, Jane wanted to go to the Aerie and study their magic, but your friends floating ten minutes away refused to let her in."
"So she went to Thor?"
"Thor's homeland, but yes. They invited her into the Aerie to study, and Thor was smitten."
Steve just laughed because that was the moment Thor shouted that they needed to come see what Jane was working on.
Steve spent the rest of the afternoon being dragged by Tony to meet any scientist Steve might find interesting, only to get distracted by playing with the children, and laughing while Loki kept interrupting Thor in his pursuit of Jane. At one point Loki paused mid-lunge (some brave child had tagged him 'it'), and turned to stare in the direction of the Aerie. Steve felt Loki grumble, and Thor called out to them both that they were being summoned back to the Aerie. Thor dropped a fiery kiss on Jane's lips, and Tony gave Steve a brief peck of his own, Steve stood there in stunned silence before he was snatched up by the ascending griffin.
By the time they made it back to the Aerie Steve was still red, and Loki was loudly projecting smug triumph about how perfect the day had gone. The trio landed at the Nests in the Aerie only to find Maria Hill waiting there to glower at them. Loki paused for half a breath so that Thor could slip from his back and Steve didn't drop face first to the ground, and then stormed off, closing down his emotional projection and leaving the humans to deal with Hill all by themselves.
"You took him to see Stark." Hill spat at Thor.
Thor paused for just a moment while Loki gave him directions, and Thor adopted an innocent expression. "No Madame. Loki wanted to take him flying, and I wanted him to meet my lovely Jane. Meeting Tony was entirely coincidental."
Hill glowered at him, "You're going on a ride with Fury's pride in half an hour. Go report to him. Now." Thor gave Steve a pat on the back and stepped away, leaving Loki to send Steve a thrum of solidarity. Hill waited until Thor had moved out of range before she turned and fixed her most disdainful glare on Steve. "You will be given leniency because of the position you used to hold Rogers, but that won't get you very far in this day and age. You would do well to remember that in this Aerie, you're nothing more than a nomad." Steve flinched, a whole world of pained memories rushing back at the derogatory term for a rider without a griffin.
Hill stomped off, the other riders doing their best to avoid looking her in the eye. Steve stood there in shock, ignored by the other riders who had overheard their conversation, but were unwilling to make it right.
Clint, an occasional friend of Thor's, waited until everyone's attention was elsewhere before sliding up to Steve, silently guiding him away from the middle of the room, and over to where his own griffin, Hawk, was curled up in her nest, keeping track of everyone through heavy eyes. Clint leaned close, and in a hushed breath said, "Let's pretend I'm giving you the run down on why Stark is supposedly so dangerous."
Steve gave him a brief smile of gratitude, "And what will we really be talking about?"
Clint smirked, "How you learned to fly like that, and maybe why we're supposed to stay away from Stark."
Thor spent the next week on a ride with Fury, and Clint took it upon himself to be Steve's defense. With Clint's approval came Natasha and Phil, and since they were the most talented riders in the Aerie, everyone else either warmed up to Steve, or at the very least, got far more tolerant. Apparently, the good will of those three was enough to counteract Hill's obvious disdain, which grew more and more pointed with each passing day.
With Clint's help, Steve spent most of his days shifting from one griffin to another, trying to teach them all some of the skills he'd picked up from his Pride during the war. He helped the griffin's through trick moves, which Widow, Natasha's griffin, excelled at, and moves to make a griffin float, which Clint and Hawk took to immediately. Phil though, Phil and his griffin, Cole, were the biggest surprises of all. Phil was was Hill's right hand, and Steve had been prepared for the same sort of disdain from him as she had shown, but Phil was the complete opposite. He quietly made a teaching rotation for Steve, and pulled in riders from each all over for lessons. By the end of Thor's week away, Phil had Steve so well integrated into the rest of the Aerie that the riders had started approaching Steve all on their own for battle plans and formation techniques.
But still, Steve wasn't allowed out of the Aerie again.
Steve tried to tell himself that he wasn't secretly looking for a chance to sneak out to see Tony, but he should have guessed that Tony wouldn't let silly things like orders, or Steve living in the atmosphere, keep him from what he wanted. Three nights in to his reimposed isolation, Steve looked out his sliver of a window only to see a small mechanical bird hovering outside. Steve pushed open the window and the machine, a large hummingbird, zipped in and hovered impatiently in front of Steve, who just stared at it in confusion. "Um, hello? May I help you?" He tried, but the bird still hovered, and if anything, buzzed its wings a little harder in irritation. Steve tried to think of a password, or a magic phrase that might satisfy the little creature, but when nothing came to mind he simply stuck out his hands as a perch for it to wait on.
Apparently, that was the right move, because the creature hovered gently down to Steve's upturned palm, and tucked away its wings. The odd hummingbird opened its beak, and with a slight whirring, pushed out a rolled up letter before it clicked off. Steve set the machine down on his bedside table, assuming it would stay off until Steve had a letter of his own ready to send back. Steve unrolled the thin, but sturdy piece of parchment and read.
I'm guessing that since Loki has never once in his life followed orders, and that Thor would tell the whole Aerie to screw themselves if he thought it would make a friend happy, there's a reason none of you have been back down. I expect Loki at least will lose his temper before long, and I'll be seeing you, but never let it be said that I'm a patient man. The kids have all been demanding you come back down to see them as I've been told that that was apparently the best game of tag they've ever played.
I figure Hill is upset that Thor brought you down to see me, so I thought it would better for you if I sent my letters incognito rather than through the usual service. This hummingbird is designed to go straight from you to me, and if someone else should catch it, it has instructions to destroy the letter. Write back to me, roll the letter up, and hold it in front of the hummingbird's beak and he'll bring it straight back like a good bird.
I'd like to write something racy that will leave you aching and plotting to steal someone else's griffin so you could come to me (or for me, either way), but Pepper is standing over my shoulder, tapping her foot in a rhythm completely contrary to my own writing, and insists that I finish the letter so that I can get some sleep. Apparently she finds something wrong with me staying up three days straight to make this contraption.
Let's see, the kids miss you. Write me back. I plan on kissing you until you're too addicted to me to ever return to Aerie. I'm pretty sure that covers everything.
Loki should have been exhausted. He'd been riding with Thor for a week straight, doing ridiculously inefficient patrols and trapped with griffins who couldn't carry on an intelligent conversation if their wings had depended on it. Terrible was the day when Loki anticipated having conversations with humans over his own kind. There were interesting Griffins back in Asgard, with their own griffin culture and magic. Service to a rider was expected among every young griffin, a way to give service back to your homeland and continue the symbiotic circle between griffins and humans. Each term of service to the Asgardian rider was two years, and Loki hadn't anticipated staying with a rider for a moment longer than he had to, until Thor, infuriating Thor, had bonded with him. Thor would be his rider until his dying breath, and once Thor had passed, Loki would bond with no other. Such a tragedy then, that Thor seemed determined to venture far beyond the bounds of their homeland and deal with such wretchedly annoying riders.
The groundlings in this land were the best, which is why Loki pulled back from landing while the rest of their temporary Pride went straight for the nests. Loki let out a sharp burst of impatience—the best, though slightly vague, way a griffin could communicate with any rider that wasn't their own—as a call to Steve. Steve was interesting, not for any of his magical skills or mental capacity, but because he talked to Loki like he was an equal, a trait severely lacking in this part of the world. Steve stuck his head out the window and waved hello. Steve looked ready to dart back inside and come down to the nests to meet them, but Loki put on a burst of speed to gather him from the window instead. Another thing Loki liked about Steve was his apparent inability to realize when anything was impossible or ridiculous, which is why Steve smiled while he launched himself up and out the window, aiming straight for Loki's waiting talons.
Thor shouted down a hello to Steve, "My friend! Tonight is the night for the midsummer celebration! It is a perfect night to come home to!"
Steve just smiled at Thor and spread his arms wide, flying along with Loki, not bothering to try and tell Thor that he already knew all about the party from Tony's letters.
Loki dropped down with a screech on a field outside town where the villagers were gathering, and the people called up with a cheer that made Loki preen. Steve went up on his toes, twisting around and trying to catch a glimpse of Tony when a bundle of children from the other day came darting up to Steve to drag him off into their games. Halfway through the first game of tag, Steve caught sight of Tony moving seamlessly through the crowd and grinning at Steve like a fiend.
The main attraction for the afternoon was a maypole, where all the children held a ribbon and with a lot of bounding (and more than a little adult interference) danced around weaving the ribbon. Because Steve was apparently the best adult ever, the swarm of children dragged him into the circle with them. So Steve spun in around, dropping low to weave under their outstretched arms, and then popping up far higher than he had to go to make them laugh. All while diligently ignoring how Tony's eyes tracked him around the field, glowing with a thought entirely inappropriate for a man surrounded by children.
Eventually, the children roamed back to the village proper, some back to their own beds, and others to a pile of blankets and pillows for a sleepover in the town hall. The moment the final child was clear of the party, Tony came out of nowhere and pressed himself against Steve's side. Tony leaned in even closer, his hot breath against the tender skin of Steve's neck and murmured, "A week. You left for a week only to come back and spend the whole night on the opposite side of the party."
"You could have come over to me." Steve teased.
"You were surrounded by children not even I'm that terrible."
Steve smiled, "You would have stolen me from the children."
"I admit, if I wasn't afraid of some of their parents, I would've."
Steve twisted his head slightly, forehead to forehead with Tony and breathed back, "So what happens now?"
Jane came out of nowhere and grabbed Steve by the wrist, pulling him away from Tony and into the circle of dancers already forming around the unlit bonfire. "Now, we dance!"
Steve looked back at Tony in confusion, and the man gave him a smirk with no sympathy once so ever. Steve sputtered at Jane, trying to protest, but before he could form a coherent argument, the woman jumped with him into a circle of people spinning around the fire to the steady rhythm of drums.
Steve had vague memories of a party like this back when he was boy, long before he'd joined the Aerie or met Sorcerer Erskine. The people on his tightly packed little street would have a celebration of their own, musicians crowded under one of the overhangs of the shopfronts, and small barrel fires lit up and down the street. He would dart through the people with the other children, playing games, and bobbing along to the music while the old women told tales about midsummer and the street's only magician would give them warpaint for the games they played.
Spending the holiday with adults felt pretty much the same. There was just the one fire, billowing high and hot like the noonday sun with a circle of adults dancing around to steps that Steve couldn't quite master, and so he gave up and just tried to make Jane laugh. Outside of the circle there were more people, some chatting in little clusters, others pulling food out of nowhere, and a few sprawled back on the grass just watching the show. (Of course, Tony was in that last category, surrounded by a circle of young magic-doers who seemed frantically interested in him.)
Jane grabbed Steve's hand and whipped him around in a circle, pressing close as she said, "Keep your attention on me, Cap. Nothing makes Tony interested quite so much as being ignored."
"But I don't want to ignore him." Steve replied innocently.
"Just when I thought you couldn't get any more adorable." Steve furrowed in confusion and with a laugh Jane explained, "With Tony, people either bend over and hope the sex is good enough that he'll keep them around, or they play games with him and hope the thrill of the chance will be enough."
"But, if they don't know Tony then why are they trying to…"Steve let his blush fill in the end of that sentence.
Jane laughed. "Steve, you know who Tony is, don't you? I mean, you're the Captain, so I think out of anyone alive you might win that competition, but to everyone else, he's kind of a big deal."
"Because he's a Stark, or…"
Jane paused for a moment, staring at Steve like she wasn't sure whether or not he was teasing her before she replied, "He's supposed to be Sorcerer Supreme."
Steve stumbled to a halt, one person behind him in the circle lobbing into him before grinning and changing the flow of the circle so he and Jane could stand there uninterrupted. "What?"
"He was trained to become the next Sorcerer Supreme. The second he entered school to become a wizard the magical hierarchy told everyone that the second he was properly trained, Tony would be the one to take control. They knew from the time he was young that he was the most powerful magic wielder we have. Didn't he tell you?"
"He told me that he dropped out of school because he didn't like the way they did things."
"Well, that is the truth. He walked out on them and declared that this town, Tony's hometown, was going to be a sanctuary for people like him. The leaders of the magical society don't like what we're doing here, combining science and magic, but Tony's too powerful for them to make a fuss. He really didn't tell you?"
"We've talked about your town, and that he hated school, but none of this." Something flickered across Jane's face and Steve asked, "What? What's wrong?"
Jane bit her lip and just stared at him hesitantly before she said, "Tony usually likes to show off."
Steve paused for a moment, "No, he doesn't. It's not about showing off, it's about doing what people expect of him. And I don't expect that." Jane just smiled at him, finding some sort of subtext that had never crossed Steve's mind. Steve grinned and tugged Jan off her feet, spinning around to join the rest of the dancers. Steve went on like that for longer than he could count, spinning from one partner to another as the evening wore on into night. Sometimes he would lean back, gulping in a fresh breath of air, and there he would see Tony, sometimes dancing, sometimes rambling, but always just out of reach.
The fire was roaring high, and by the time Steve finally stopped moving, he was covered in sweat from the heat of it and the warm press of moving bodies beside him. Steve's latest partner spun out of his arms, swinging off to another companion and he turned around to finally, finally find himself chest to chest with Tony. "You look like you've been enjoying yourself." Tony grinned.
"We never did this on the Aerie." Steve breathed.
"I think bonfires aren't meant for a mostly wooden structure."
"I mean, we never danced, never really sang, I'd forgotten how much I used to enjoy it."
"I know the riders are no fun, but they really don't celebrate Midsummer?"
"Some prides do, but never the whole Aerie. My pride, they were like my brothers, and we'd celebrate quietly, but we'd all be together and that's what made it good." Steve looked off into the distance for a moment, "They would've loved this."
Tony wrapped an arm around Steve's waist and pulled him closer, "Who wouldn't?" Steve smiled, caught up in Tony's energy, practically humming with life. Tony pressed closer and tilted his head back the few degrees that would align his mouth with Steve's and breathed out, "Dance with me."
Whoever was in charge of the music must have been on Tony's team, because the music slowed then, a meandering steady pace that let Tony pull Steve close to him and just sway, somehow managing to come closer with every movement.
After several minutes of the quiet motion, Tony pressed a kiss to Steve's jaw and whispered,"Stay with me tonight." Steve paused, unsure of himself. "Just here. Half the town is sleeping out here tonight, stay with me."
Steve ran a hand through Tony's dark hair, the light of the fire making it glow with hints of crimson and he desperately wanted to say, “Always,” but it was too soon. Steve gave Tony a bright smile and restrained himself to, “Of course.”
Steve woke the next morning with his head cradled on Tony's chest and refused to open his eyes. He could feel the gentle warmth of the barely risen sun spreading over the field, and the beating of Tony's heart under his cheek. Steve tilted his head and burrowed into Tony's chest, smiling softly to himself, remembering why a lifetime ago mornings had been his favorite time of day, all soaked in potential for beauty. Steve stretched and finally opened his eye to see Hill staring down at the two of them. "Hill!" Steve shouted, shifting to put his bulk in between Hill and Tony, and startling the other from his slumber.
"You didn't come home last night," She sneered.
Something in Steve snapped and decided he was done quietly taking this. "No, I didn't go back to the Aerie last night. There's a difference."
Hill actually reeled back at that, shocked at Steve's blunt response. "You mean to tell me you've decided being with land dwellers is your home now?"
"It's closer to home than what you've got up there."
"Nomad! You will not speak to me like that! Magic made you what you are, and I am magic's representative in the Aerie."
Tony snorted, not at all concerned by the fact that he was warm and rumpled, latching on to Steve's hand to pull himself to his feet. "If you're the best the Aerie's got then I'm surprised it hasn't fallen out of the sky yet."
Hill blistered, "I am a sorceress!"
Tony actually laughed at that one. "No you're not."
Hill all but had a stroke at that, and pressed forward into Tony's space, her hands starting to glow. Steve tried to dart in between them and protect Tony, but before Steve could even move, Hill was sent flying backward head over feet. Tony spared a moment to straighten his shirt a little, but otherwise looked completely unfazed. There was a slight shimmer to his skin where Hill had tried to touch him, and when Steve reached out to touch Tony's shoulder the air just above his skin rippled and repelled Steve's hand.
Tony looked at Steve with a smirk. "Just because I didn't train as a sorcerer doesn't mean I'm not brilliant. That, and Hill has no sense of subtlety." Tony didn't even bother looking at the woman charging him as he flicked his wrist and stopped her in her tracks.
"You're backing the wrong horse, Stark. He's a nomad with no authority in the Aerie. He won't be able to get you want you want.”
Tony harked a laugh at that, and gestured towards Steve, "He's The Captain!”
Hill tried to argue back, but Tony was already bored. He clenched his hand into a fist and Hill's words died on her lips. Steve tried not to laugh at the way her eyes enlarged in a panic all the while she scrambled to free her voice, but she wasn't successful. Loki was far less subtle than Steve, and cawed out a laugh while he nudged the frantic Hill up onto her embarrassed griffin's back.
Tony huffed, "Well that was a terrible way to start-" but Steve's hug cut him off.
"That was amazing."
Tony preened slightly, "If that impresses you, I can't imagine what you're going to do when I start pulling out the big magic."
Steve pulled back to look him in the eye, and fixed his most brilliant smile on Tony, "I think right now you could make me a sandwich and I'd be happy." Steve pressed his forehead to Tony's. "Thank you."
Tony ran grateful but slightly confused hands up and down Steve's back, "Hill's full of shit."
"Still, people listen to her."
"So long as you don't, I don't care."
"It's still difficult to hear them talk."
"They've got nothing to do with us."
"Tony," Steve paused, "what are you talking about?"
"I was talking about, wait, what are you talking about?"
"That she calls me a nomad."
Tony snorted. "That's just nonsense. Thor told me how you've been teaching everyone at the Aerie. By this point, you're more in charge up there than she is."
Steve blushed. "Then what were you talking about?"
"How I might be using you to get a foothold in the Aerie."
"But that doesn't make sense. Why would you care about them?"
"There are specific spells that are passed down from one Aerie sorcerer to another."
Steve cocked an eyebrow. "Would that really stop you if you wanted them?"
"Of course not." Tony paused for a moment before he looked at Steve like something brilliant had just struck him. "You don't like being called a nomad."
Steve grinned, humoring Tony. "No."
"Well then, lets go find you a Griffin." Tony strode off for his lab, like he hadn't just said something earth shattering.
Steve just good there, rooted to the spot as he stammered out. "Wait, what?"
"We're going to go see the griffins." Tony called out.
"But… we can't." Steve stumbled after him.
Tony snorted. "I thought we covered how I feel about 'can't', Steven."
"It doesn't matter how you feel about it, Tony. It's disrespectful to just turn up at the Den." The double-doors to Tony's ground-level lab swung open at his approach, and Tony went straight for one of his machines, ignoring all of Steve's objections. "Tony!"
"Steve." Tony consoled, "Rider-griffin relations may be tense, but they actually like the rest of us."
Steve stubbornly stayed away from the transportation machine that Tony had mounted. "Why wouldn't they like the riders?"
Tony huffed and climbed back off of the machine and crowded into Steve's personal space, bracketing his face between his palms. "You don't get it do you? You're unique." Steve tried to shrug Tony off. "No, Steve. You're special. You treat griffins like they're your equals, like your friends."
"That's what all riders do!"
"No, it's what they're supposed to do. Haven't you noticed that Loki shuns everyone else in your Aerie?"
"But Clint is best friends with Hawk, and Phil-"
"They're the exceptions, not the rule. You, in the infinite luck that seems to follow you around, managed to find the only riders in your Aerie with any real sense. The young riders get taught that their griffins are nothing but a tool made out of inferior magic, something little better than a horse. Then the kids go on peaceful patrols and never come to understand what their griffin is actually capable of. Clint and Natasha, they've been in battle with their griffins, and they've learned better."
"No buts. Get in the CAR and let the griffins tell you themselves."
Steve grumbled about it, but settled in to the spot behind Tony. He'd seen this machine on his tour of the lab, thinking it looked like a long sort of saddle held up by two oddly shaped wheels, but seeing the shiny silver machine didn't quite prepare Steve for what it did. Steve sat straight and uncomfortable until Tony reached back and grabbed him by the hips, pulling Steve forward until the whole front of him was pressed to the back of Tony. Steve blushed and Tony just grinned. "Hold on tight."
"What—" was all Steve got out before Tony twisted a nob and the machine took off. They soared through the air, halfway outside the town limits before they even had a chance to breath. Steve plastered himself against Tony's back and wrapped his arms around Tony's waist, burying his face in between Tony's shoulder blades. Steve could feel Tony's laughter rumble through him, and Tony shifted his arm, trying to nudge Steve so that he would look up. Steve refused, it was one thing to go this fast on a griffin he knew, and entirely different to trust this scrap of metal.
Suddenly, the wind tunnel around them cut out and Steve looked up, foolishly thinking Tony had stopped for him to adjust, but instead, the world was still whirling by, but with no wind. Over his shoulder Tony said, "When I'm not in the mood for the wind I put up a bubble." Steve couldn't really see the bubble, but he could hear the faintest humming sound from the wind rushing across its surface. He stretched out his hand, and just a few inches off the surface of his skin there was something resilient. It moved with his fingers when he pressed in, and vibrated with the pressure of the wind. Steve laid his head down on Tony's shoulder and watched as the world went by.
Their trip was over in less than half an hour thanks to the obscene speeds of Tony's machine, bringing them to a stop on the far side of a long and winding lake with crags framing the sides that grew in height as the lake went on. Tony dismounted, and grabbed Steve by his elbow to pull him onto the soft sand that lined the head of the lake. "Are you just gonna leave your machine here?" Steve asked, trying to conceal his nervousness.
"The griffin watching the entrance will keep track of it for us."
Steve twisted around, trying to locate where said griffin was. Tony smirked. "You didn't think the griffins would leave the entrance to their den undefended did you?"
"Frankly, I'm surprised there's not more than one."
Tony snorted and pointed up to the highest point of the first turn down the lake where a griffin was taking off and coming towards them, a griffin so large it looked like it could blot out the sun. "The general belief is that Panther can guard the entrance himself."
Panther landed before them with only a few beats of his massive wings. This griffin was black, not the glossy black of Loki that drew everyone's attention, but a matte black that would make him all but invisible at night. A human dressed in black slipped off the griffin's back, just as lethal as his charge, but instead of bulk the man was warrior lean, and every movement smooth and sleek. Steve was reminded of Natasha's stealth, and Steve stepped in front of Tony out of pure instinct.
The man pulled off his hood and gave Steve a quiet smile. "You need have no fear in this place, Captain. No harm will come to you or yours while you are in the protection of the Den."
"You know who I am?" Steve asked, not quite believing.
“You are The Captain. There is no child among us, human or griffin, who does not know your story.” He dipped into a bow. “It is my honor to welcome you to the Den. I am T'Challa, keeper of the way and chief of the guards, and this is my companion, Panther.”
Steve blushed, but dipped into a bow of his own. "It's an honor to be welcomed. I assume you already know Tony Stark."
Tony grinned tauntingly. "Yes, yes, everyone knows everyone else. Now, T'Challa, take us to the hatchlings."
Steve placed a hand over the back of his neck, rubbing slightly as T'Challa quirked a brow, obviously accustomed to Tony's antics. "Tony," Steve stressed, "You can't just demand to see the hatchlings."
"Why not? T'Challa, Steve needs to see the hatchlings because it's finally time the Aerie step aside so that Steve can find a griffin of his own."
T'Challa chuckled. "I see nothing wrong with his statement, Captain. Come, one of our couriers is on the way, and he shall take you to the hatchlings." A young griffin landed and allowed Steve and Tony to climb on his back, carrying them off over the lake while T'Challa stayed behind on duty. The young griffin was very nearly shaking at having one of this childhood heroes as a rider, which caused Tony to tease Steve mercilessly.
Though the ride was slightly turbulent, it was still beautiful. They rode low over the clear water, the occasional griffin soaring passed and screeching a “hello” before they dove for something in the water to eat. The deeper in they got, the higher the red and gray crag walls rose around them until finally, they reached a deep valley in the crag, with small green islands scattered around and a waterfall at the far end feeding the entire system. The young griffin took them up, passed the valley walls that housed dozens of griffins' nests in their outcroppings, past the series of connected pools that spilled over into a staggered waterfall, and up to the very top. The fall's highest point had been built up, massive rocks heaped so that there was a large landing pad and a deep but mellow pool on the far end.
Beyond the pool was, for lack of a better word and despite it's odd placement, a meadow. The valley walls stretched ever higher there, safely bottling in the warm place full of grass at the deepest part of the Den. The river that lead to the fall cut across the edge of the meadow, slow and peaceful before it reached the pool and then its drop, and there was where the griffins kept their precious hatchlings, as safe from the outside as they could make them.
The young griffin landed, and Steve offered his thanks while they dismounted, trying to pay adequate attention to the obviously excited griffin instead of the frolicking hatchlings he was aching to see. The youngling looked like it was planning to stay, but he stiffened at a call from someone else and took off immediately.
“You're late.” Steve whirled around to see a lean female griffin, fur and feathers silver from a long life, and gifted with the ability to speak to all humans on behalf of her people. But it was the softening of her brown eyes that caught Steve's attention.
"Peggy," he breathed. "In my defense, I didn't mean to be."
"No, you never did meant for any of the interesting things that happened to you."
Steve darted forward, and wrapped strong arms around her neck while the griffin nuzzled him back. "They told me he didn't kill you, but I still can't believe it."
"You're the one who spent 70 years on ice. I'm positive I'm the one who gets to be shocked."
"Uh, care to explain?" Tony interrupted.
Peggy nuzzled closer. "He's my rider."
“What? Steve, I thought you didn't have a griffin."
"Peggy was the griffin I was paired with most often. She was with me at the final battle."
Steve twisted a little, taking in Tony's expression and knew he was trying to respect their moment but didn't want to be left out. "We never bonded," Steve explained. "Even when Peggy and I tried with all the spells that are supposed to be impossible to fight. But I… couldn't."
Peggy nudged him gently. "We weren't meant to Steve. There's nothing wrong with you, we just weren't meant to be." Steve buried his face in Peggy's fur and she accepted the affection offered for a moment before nudging him back and declaring, "That's enough of that. Come along, we've got hatchlings to meet.”
As seemed to be Steve's gift, he went down to run amok with the hatchlings, leaving Tony to sit in the sunshine with Peggy. Tony maintained silence for a whole 30 seconds before he demanded, "What's up with Steve?"
“Leader Peggy, he freaked when I said we should come look for a griffin. Why would he do that?"
"Perhaps, sorcerer, you should be asking him."
"You honestly think Steve has changed all that much since you last saw him?"
"If he won't tell you—"
"He won't tell me because deep inside, he's still that skinny little kid who would rather let himself get beat up if he thinks it will help someone else."
"And you think he avoids griffins for the greater good?"
"I think someone told him it was for the greater good."
Peggy turned her attention back to Steve who was busy helping untangle one of the smaller griffins, running a soothing hand over the boy's feathers, straightening them out. Tony waited, impatiently, but he waited for her to speak. "They told him he would never have a griffin of his own."
Tony paused for a moment, and Peggy could almost feel the hum of Tony's mind whirring away, tossing aside unlikely interpretations and landing on, "The spells they did to make him different. They said that would keep him from bonding with a griffin?"
"A point he takes as proven fact after all our failed attempts."
"But that's credibly stupid." Peggy glared at Tony, and rather than be abashed, Tony launched back. "Hey, it is stupid! Whatever magic Erskine ended up using on him wasn't the kind that would corrupt a person's soul to the point where they couldn't make connections. If Steve had been messed up like that, then he would've destroyed himself by now."
"How?" Peggy demanded.
"If he was really unable to bond with a griffin, it would mean he'd be unable to bond with people, too. And if he couldn't bond, couldn't feel love for anyone, then he wouldn't have been able to risk his life for all of us, he wouldn't be able to care."
"So, why didn't we bond?"
"If you didn't bond when both of you wanted it, it's because magic knew better."
"What does that mean, Anthony?"
"It could mean the two of you would've ended up driving one another crazy, or that when he was trapped in the ice your bond would have broken, and then you would have wasted away without him, and would have never been in charge of your people. And who knows what would've happened then."
"Or, his griffin could still be out there. The one he was meant to bond with."
Thor and Steve stumbled into the Aerie late that night, both still on a happy buzz from their time outside. But the building obviously hadn't had such a wonderful day. The nesting area was in shambles, grass strewn everywhere, deep holes gouged in the wood from where claws had dug in, and the surface outside pockmarked with blows from an unseen force. Steve twisted out of Loki's claws before the griffin even landed and went straight to Clint, who was fending off Natasha nursing a cut that ran the length of his forearm. "What happened?"
"We were hit." Clint grunted.
Before either could respond Hill took her place at the center of the room, and all the riders stilled. "I do not yet know who attacked this Aerie. I do know that much of the damage done to the exterior of our building was an enchanted cyclone, carrying with it projections in the form of Kree."
"You mean those Kree we fought were just projections?" One of the riders questioned.
"Considering their bodies dissolved upon destruction, yes."
"But—" the rider tried to ask again, but Hill glared him into submission. Hill went on in her explanation while Clint leaned closer to Steve and whispered, "We got our asses kicked."
"To prevent the same thing from happening again," Hill's voice carried over the crowd, "we will establish constant patrols in a perimeter around the Aerie, giving us all forewarning."
Hill moved to walk away, and Steve couldn't help himself. "That's it?"
Hill froze before turning on her heel to face Steve, glowering at him while every one else in the room stiffened. "Nomad Rogers, you have no opinion here."
"My apologies for interrupting Madame," Steve said as Hill went to turn, "but someone should. We were attacked today by a magic we couldn't properly fight, and though advanced warning is good, it's not enough. We need to do something different drastically different."
"Until I better understand the magic used against us, that is the only step we can take, Nomad."
"If it's magic you don't know, then why not ask for help?"
"Yes, Tony could-"
Hill laughed, "Stark? You want me to turn against the strength of this Aerie and seek assistance from Stark? Who, for all we know, was the one who sent them after us!"
"Tony would never do that!"
"You forget your place Nomad. And you would do well to remember it." Hill stormed out of the room leaving Phil behind her to clean up the mess. Steve went to press on, but Phil raised his hand to stop him, and waited a moment for her to pass outside hearing distance when a sharp spike of surprise came from Loki, interrupting the conversation. Thor twisted around to look at whatever had stolen Loki's attention from what was sure to be a fight of epic proportions and paused before he said, "Steve, I think you should look at this."
Crouched down just inside one of the landing windows was a small, gasping griffin. From beak to tail he was a plain, bottle brown, with wings that spread no further than a meter across, but the very tips of his wings were beginning to turn white, meaning he was more than a few summers old, and old enough for Steve to tell that he was small for his age. Ignoring the group behind him Steve dropped to his knees and began running soothing hands over the little one's furred and feathered head, checking for damage. "Are you all right? What are you doing all the way up here?"
The little thing butted his head against Steve's hand, silently demanding that he keep petting while the small griffin all but crawled into his lap. Young griffins couldn't project their emotions the way older griffins could, a way of keeping the younglings protected from the outside world. So it was Loki, and by extension every other griffin in the room, who paused at the gentle purring of the little griffin, and Loki who was relied upon to give a translation to Thor. "He says he knew he would find you."
"Was I lost?"
"He says he's been looking for you for a whole month at the human village, but you never came. But when you did come down, he wasn't able to get there before you left. And then you came to him, and you played with him and the other hatchlings, but then you left without him." The little head popped out from its spot burrowed into Steve's chest, and he pressed his small beak to Steve's nose and stared him straight in the eye. "So he followed you. And he says you are not allowed to leave him behind ever again."
Steve ran a long, soothing hand down his back again and replied, "But you're a hatchling."
Loki snorted, "He says, 'what does that matter? when you know, you know.'"
Steve wrapped the little griffin in his arms, willing to trust him despite the fact that a creature so small had his mind closed off to everything not griffin, meaning it would be years before Steve would be able to feel whatever bond was tugging at the little one and know for himself.
What Steve didn't notice was the loaded looks being exchanged between all the riders in the room while each of them had a silent conversation with their own bonded griffins. Over the last few weeks, Steve had proved himself as invaluable to their Aerie, skilled and driven in ways that had apparently been forgotten over the last several decades, and they all trusted him implicitly in a place of authority over the Aerie. Already they were having trouble following Hill when Steve was in the room, but she was right in her objections that a griffin-less rider could never be the one to lead them into battle. But this recent hatchling, no matter how unready, changed everything.
Steve dropped to his stomach beside James and said, "Here, like this," and crawled along in his best version of a prowl. James crouched further down on his legs and pulled his wings tight against his back while he tried to stalk just the same. The two of them were cooped up in one of the far corners of the nests, safely hidden from view of the main entrance, and diligently guarded by Loki at the mouth of the alcove.
James made it a few steps before he popped up with a sense of pride and mental shouted to Steve in emotion that Steve could almost hear as the words, "I did it!" Steve laughed and gathered the little griffin in his arms, spinning him around with proud laughter. It would take James months to put human words to his bursts of emotion, but for now Steve was content to translate everything that he heard. Rather than simply delay James' education until Hill had been dealt with, Steve had taken it upon himself to teach the little griffin all he could about griffin skills, including this rather amusing lesson on prowling.
Loki laid near them, his head on his paws and his tail twitching in unwilling amusement. The little griffin had spent the last few days hiding out here, not yet strong enough to defend himself but unwilling to leave Steve for safety. James stared out his window and badgered Loki with questions (who, for all his protests to the contrary, had refused to turn James over to someone else's care), and slept in the cradle of Steve's shield. A few times a day Phil would drop by with updates on the Aerie's security, advice Tony was giving the magicians through the modified hummingbird, and questions about the best defenses. Steve answered them all with a warm smile and honest determination, smart enough not to question why Phil was coming to him instead of Hill.
Natasha strode onto the scene trying desperately to look like she wasn't in a rush. Widow took a quick glance around the room and sent a controlled burst of warning to the other griffins scattered around the nests. The griffins all shifted from where they'd been relaxing and fanned across the room in a pattern that covered all the exits and put a wall of their fiercest griffins in between Steve and what Natasha was coming from. James froze in the midst of stalking with Steve and twisted around to watch the other griffins move, vibrating with their shared worry before Loki reached out and tapped a paw to his head.
Steve could feel the mental hum of Loki explaining to James before Natasha slid next to Steve, grabbing his arm and steering him towards the open window. "Hill figured out our defenses and where Phil came up with the plan. She's upstairs screaming new orders at everyone and the second she's done she'll be here to scream at you."
Steve used his considerable bulk to stop Natasha, "She can't hurt me."
"It's not hurting you that I'm worried about. It's what happens to the rest of us if you get tossed in a cell. We're being attacked from the outside, we don't need a revolution right now."
Steve put a soothing hand on her shoulder, "No one here is looking for a fight, Natasha."
She stared at him like Steve had to be far more stupid than she'd given him credit for. "You're The Captain. There's not a rider alive today who wouldn't follow wherever you went. You could take power in every Aerie of this country if you tried, and Hill has never been one to give up her power. We're all on edge from the attack and Hill has half of the riders bribed into listening to her instead of their griffins. If you move now we'll be at war with ourselves, vulnerable to whoever it is that sent those Kree projections and it won't go as well next time. We can't have that. Not now."
"So you want me to run?"
"Phil will keep up the defenses and the magicians will keep up their correspondence with Stark. You're of more use if you stay someplace where we don't have to worry about you."
Steve nudged the pile of blankets in just the right way and his shield flipped up into his hand. "I'm The Captain, I don't need protecting."
Natasha gave him a surprisingly gentle smile, "You don't, but what about your griffin?" Steve looked over to James, who thankfully was wrapped up in an argument with Widow. (Though James was doing more of the arguing, flapping his little wings to violently dart up and around Widow's head in objection to being told he was leaving, while Widow just raised one smooth crimson eye ridge in amusement at all the fluttering.)
Steve gave Natasha a sharp nod and called to James, who immediately left of his argument to come to Steve. He pressed a warm kiss to the the still fuzzy feathers on James' crown and poured out calm while he whispered, "We're going." James' feathers drooped, but he nudged his beak along Steve's chin in solidarity. Steve tossed his shield over his back and grabbed a blanket to wrap around the little griffin as extra insulation against the cool night air, but they weren't fast enough.
Hill stormed through the main door, shouting, "Nomad! Where are you!"
On the far side of the room one of the larger griffins stretched up his white wings, distracting Hill's attention for long enough that Steve was able to cradle James to his chest and slip to the window ledge. "Go!" Natasha hissed. "We'll tell her you're on a long patrol." Steve hesitated half a second longer and she pushed him off the ledge, "Go!"
Steve sent James a mental image of keeping his wings pressed tight to his body so the wind from the sudden drop wouldn't damage any of his feathers. Steve twisted in the wind looking for Loki, who had made himself scarce the moment Widow assumed control over James. Loki swooped into range just as Steve's blood pressure started to rise, coming out of the dark like a shadow and sliding into perfect position to catch him with no pain of landing at all. James popped his head out of the blanket once they started to slow, looking around with wide eyes like he couldn't quite believe Loki had caught them.
James gave Steve a rush of astonishment and Steve leaned down to whisper in James' pointed ear, "Look at his wings. See how they're spread straight out, the front titled up just a little?" James pulsed an affirmative, "He's catching the wind, using it to coast, keeping him airborne. Loki has long wings with long feathers, and that keeps him up."
James cocked his head to the side and sent Steve a mental image of Widow and her short, but broad wings, wondering if that made a difference. Steve grinned, proud that his little griffin had even noticed and explained, "Widow is built for agility flying, darting and swerving through places that other griffins can't go."
James shimmied out of the blanket and stretched out one of his wings, twisting so Steve could examine them. Loki twitched his wings slightly, slowing their descent so no updraft would catch the small, sensitive feathers. Steve 'hmm-ed', stroking warm fingers along the wings, "They're beautiful, James." He fluttered his wings, as if to say 'that's very nice, but get to the point.' Steve grinned, "Your wings are still growing, little one, there's no way for me to be sure until they get a little bigger."
James seemed content with that, gently stepping forward to the spot between Loki's shoulder blades and spreading his small wings to match whatever the other griffin was doing. Steve took in the sight for a moment and then twisted around to look back at the Aerie, which had already faded into night. He hoped none of the riders were getting into trouble on his behalf.
Tony hammered out long strips of metal, using steady nudges of magic to strike his magic at precisely the right place. He could've shaped them completely done with his magic, but there were spells that unwound whatever magic had been done, and Tony didn't want his special project suddenly transformed into the heaps of metal that it had started as.
Tony leaned back from his forge and looked up to see Steve and Loki standing in his doorway. Wait… no, Steve, Loki, and a bundle of brown fur that was staring at Tony over Steve's broad shoulder.
Steve had a hatchling.
Tony's brain stalled on that detail for a moment, busily trying to figure out where in the world Steve would've gotten a hatchling when he hadn't found one at the Den. Steve ruffled his fingers through the fur on top of the hatchling's head and said, "James, this is Tony Stark. He's, well…" Steve trailed off, but whatever emotion he was sending the griffin as explanation was enough to make the griffin's ears perk up. Steve blushed a little and continued, "Tony, this is James. He's my griffin."
"But, not that I'm complaining, but weren't you dejected two days ago from not bonding with anyone?"
James wrapped his tail around Steve's shoulder, giving him an almost hug while he slowly shifted up from his spot to get a better look at Tony. "James says he's been feeling me every since I woke up, and he's been looking for me. He sensed me at the Den when I didn't sense him, and he decided he was done waiting, so he followed me home to the Aerie."
Tony grinned, "My kind of griffin."
The little one perked right up at that and came out from behind Steve with a flap of wings, heading straight for Tony. He dropped the hammer and tongs he'd been using on the metal plates just before James crashed into his chest, nuzzling Tony's jaw and almost purring. Tony could feel the little griffin reach into his mind a start projecting warm contentment, like he never meant to leave Tony's embrace if he couldn't help it. "Um, hey buddy." Tony tried to pretend he wasn't a little panicked, but it wasn't really working.
Steve just grinned and gave a Loki a pat on the neck before the griffin took off back into the night. Steve stepped into the lab, the slightest trace of worry in his eyes, but that faded at James trying to burrow into Tony's chest. "Not that I'm complaining about any of these sudden developments, but what's up?"
"Phil and I have been making preparations to protect the Aerie in case of another attack."
Tony started to scratch behind James' ears, "Yeah, I got that from the frantic messages from your magicians."
"Hill found out."
Tony paused, "Did you get thrown out?"
"No," Steve grumbled, "I would've preferred it if we had. Natasha snuck us out."
"Now is not the time for me to be picking a fight over control of the Aerie."
"Is there ever really a good time for an uprising?"
'When we're facing an external threat that none of us are sure we can stop it's really not a good time."
"So, you get forced out of your home and you come running to me?" Tony had been expecting a blush from Steve, but instead the man just shrugged his shoulders, "I knew you'd keep us safe."
Tony fed Steve and his griffin and put them to bed for the few remaining hours of the night, grabbing a mountain of coffee for himself and heading out to the town square to meet with the magicians and wizards who'd come out of their labs to meet with him in the early morning light. (Tony didn't remember calling a meeting, but never let it be said Pepper wasn't absolutely brilliant at her job.) Tony divided up responsibilities based on their strengths, getting the children gathered behind the wards at Xavier's mansion, checking that everyone had their homes safe from violent magic use, and appointing someone to constantly monitor the Aerie.
Tony had assigned on of their youngest magicians to the task of Aerie-watching, a girl named Wanda who seemed to think studying under Tony was better than going to school in the capital. She climbed to the top of a tree at the corner of the village square and had been watching the Aerie for a about seven seconds before she called down, "Uh, Tony!"
"We've got incoming riders!"
Everyone in the town paused while Tony called up, "Any thoughts on who's coming?"
She muttered a change to the farsight spell, zeroing in on the lead griffin and sighed, "It's Loki."
"But, is Loki getting chased?"
"No, he's just on a straight shot here, not being hunted."
Tony dashed out to the field at the edge of the town where the griffins usually landed. Steve came crashing out of Tony's house, trying to toss back on his shirt while he and James scrambled out the door at the mental feeling of other griffins. They ran together to the field and got there just as Thor was landing. Rather than exchange pleasantries Thor declared, "Hill has lost her mind."
"Phil attempted to reason with her after your departure, but she would not hear of it. She attempted to mount an expedition to find you, and when no rider would agree, she snapped. She has spent the better part of the last few hours hunting every man, woman, and child through the Aerie with her magic and trying to punish them. We have just finished the evacuations."
Phil, Clint, and Natasha landed behind Thor, having kept a more diligent eye on their trail than Thor had done. Phil went straight to Steve to report, "The riders have been divided up into parties, the more experienced looking after the younger and civilians. We gave them orders to scatter for the next three days then return to this town on the assumption that by then this will be handled. Though, since Stark is their hero I'm sure some of the magicians are ignoring orders and are already on their way here."
Phil pulled out a stack of papers and handed them to Tony, "Before everything went to hell the magicians intended to get these to you. They're the results of their readings."
Tony immediately started rifling through the papers and turned his back on the the little collection of riders, assuming Steve would handle their placements now that the town was the most likely target of whatever was coming. He tried to skim over the data, getting a sense for all the tests they'd run and put everything in order.
Steve did as expected and issued orders before he caught up with Tony back in the lab, where Tony had the papers spread out in front of him, organized in some manner that only made sense to Tony. While he jotted down notes on his piece of glass. James curled up on the end of the table watching Tony buzz up and down the table's length, the little griffin occasionally hopping down to grab whatever scroll or device Tony called for, pick it up with his nimble, spindly tail and handing over before resuming his position. Steve smiled at the two of them for just a moment before he slid up next to Tony and asked, "Any progress?"
"I've been at it for less than five minutes."
"Aren't you supposed to be a genius?"
"There's only so much a genius can do with notes like these."
"Are they that bad?"
"They're not bad, they're just extensive. Filled with all kinds of information I don't need."
"Then why give it to you?"
"It might be because this is what Hill would ask for, or they're just guessing about what I might think is useful. Hill's the only sorcerer at the Aerie and everyone else is a magician, so there's a gap in experience and training. I should be able to cobble together what I would've done from this, but it'll take me time." Steve paused just long enough that Tony got concerned and asked, "Do I have time?"
"Honestly? I have no idea. We still don't know why the Aerie was attacked in the first place, so we don't know when they might attack again. And I'd like to think Hill wouldn't try to lead an attack against a town they're supposed to be protecting, but she hasn't been doing anything the way I expected."
James carefully stepped over the papers and nudged against Steve's chest, silently consoling him. Steve buried his hands in the little griffin's fur, trying to offer him what comfort he could without actually being able to speak to one another. James flicked out his tail and wrapped it around Tony's wrist, dragging his hand to the fur. "Heaven forbid a woman be predictable," Tony teased, trying to lighten the situation.
Steve pressed a grateful kiss to Tony's temple and scratched behind James' ears before he stepped away. "I better go help Thor get the town prepared for the worst." Tony pulled Steve back to his side and pressed a long kiss to his lips before letting him go.
The earth was just entering the warmth of true day when Tony came bursting out of his lab with a shout, and James came soaring straight for Steve. The human and griffin collided with Steve simultaneously and Tony shouted, "It's you!"
The people still running about the town on their watches stepped and stared at Tony indulgently while Steve asked, "What's me?"
"The traces of magic on you, the ones that took you out of the ice, they're the same ones that attacked the Aerie."
A few of the wizards took on panicked expressions, but Steve had no idea what was going on. "Tony, what does that mean?"
"It means the same person who woke you up is the one who attacked the Aerie."
"Does that, does that mean they want me?"
"I'd say yes, if you hadn't spent the last month hanging out at the Aerie unattended. If they wanted you they could've taken you then."
"Unless they just figured out how to get through the Aerie's wards."
Tony snorted and started waiving people back, clearing out a space for him to work his magic. "Steve, my hummingbird broke through those wards and I wasn't even trying. And the person who cast this spell has powers like mine."
Wanda darted out of one of the shops with a bag of supplies that she anticipated Tony would need. He riffled through the contents, giving her a brief grin before he uncapped a bottle of sand and started pouring it in a circle. "Um, Tony, what are you doing?"
"A seeking circle."
Steve sighed, and Clint roamed up to mutter to him, "It's the focal point of a big magical net that he'll spread around the town. Now that he knows what the magic of our attacker feels like he'll tune the net to look for that and warn us when they're on their way."
"Think he should make it watch for Hill too?"
"Frankly, I don't think Hill has it in her right now to make that necessary. At the Aerie it was like she'd completely lost control of her magic."
Steve stared at Clint for a long moment, looking straight through him while his tactician's mind put the pieces together in a way no one else could keep up with. After a long moment the light broke across Steve's face and he grabbed Clint by the shoulders and almost shook him. "Where are the magicians?"
"The magicians! I need a magician who's been around Hill lately, scanning her, or reading her, or whatever it is they do!"
After a lifetime of reading between the lines Clint was able to figure out what Steve was asking for and called over Vision, one of their younger but more talented magicians. Steve grabbed the boy by the arm and dragged him up to the edge of where Tony was working before he decided crossing the circle would probably be bad. "Tony! Can your scanny thing look at Hill through Vision's eyes?"
That actually got Tony to stop what he was doing and look up at Steve. "My. scanny. thing."
Tony quirked an eyebrow and looked at the rather shellshocked boy for a moment before saying, "I've got tools that can read what he's read from other people, yes."
"Perfect. You need to read Hill from him and tell me what you see."
Tony set down the rocks that he'd been placing at the cardinal points of the circle and stepped outside, making sure not to smudge the lines. "You know that this is going to be a little invasive, right?" He asked Vision.
"I'm aware of what the process entails."
Tony didn't think the boy really did, but Tony took his hand and tugged him close anyway. "Just think about Hill, about the last time you saw her, and I'll do the rest."
Tony whispered the necessary spell and skimmed into Vision's mind and found the boy surprisingly focused. Tony had anticipated needing to sift through countless unnecessary thoughts about how talented the boy was and how Tony should train him before eventually finding what he needed, but instead the last time Vision had seen Hill was neatly packaged at the front of his mind with the mental equivalent of a bright red bow on top. Tony ignored the context of the dream, (Hill trying to curse one of the old healers for keeping Steve alive), and instead focused on Hill's aura. Reading was blurrier through another person, like trying to read a book through foggy glass that didn't quite understand the language, but the picture was clear enough that Tony saw exactly what Steve wanted him to see.
Tony pulled out abruptly and muttered, "Well, shit. Hill's a puppet for whoever attacked you."
"So, going postal and attacking people…" Clint pondered.
"Probably the result of failing in whatever her orders were. Her magic reacted to the magic controlling her and she snapped."
Wanda called out from her place up the tree, "Tony! We've got incoming!"
Tony paused, "Or it could all be a subtle plan to get us all the same place so she can attack."
The scientists scattered, all of them going to the most heavily warded parts of town. Tony very calmly picked up James and handed the griffin to Vision, who had called up his own magic and obviously looked like he meant to make a stand next to Tony. Tony gave the boy orders to get Wanda down from that tree and take her and the little griffin to the safety of Tony's lab and stay there until he came for them. Steve turned to Phil, who was directing the last of the civilians into hiding, and the rider explained. "Amora is a powerful sorceress. Stronger than Stark because she has no moral compass. All the wizards who meant to help will only get in the way of fighting her. Loki has some powerful magic of his own, so he and Thor will help all they can, while Clint, Natasha and I will wait for a chance to help without getting killed."
Steve nodded and took his place next to Tony, who for the first time since Steve had met him, was absolutely still, marshaling all his energy for the fight about to come. Steve readied his shield and silently wished he was wearing something a little better for fighting than borrowed pajamas. With closed eyes Tony asked, "I suppose there's no point in asking you to go wait in my lab with your griffin while I handle this?"
Steve just snorted and took off at a run for the green blur quickly streaking towards them. Steve tossed his shield at her in a wide arc, not trying to hit, but trying to throw her off course. Steve hadn't been expecting it to work, but he'd been hoping it would take her attention and give Tony a free moment to fire something of his own, but Amora swerved violently out of the path of Steve's shield and Tony actually had the gaul to giggle before bothering to launch a burst of blue light.
Amora tossed up a hand and reflected Tony's power at a house (thankfully warded so the magic sizzled out), and erupted a blast of green light of her own.
Steve's shield wasn't quite back to him when the wave of power hit, sending him skidding back towards Tony. Steve pushed to his feet, putting himself between Tony and the intruder, his head still ringing with the force of her magical blast. The woman was tall, with beautiful features and blonde hair that vaguely reminded him of Thor, but all that beauty turned loathsome with her smirk. "Life seems like it's been good for you, darling. You're far more lovely than when you first awoke."
Steve stared in confusion for a moment before he realized it was him she was talking to and he replied, "Why did you wake me?"
She smirked, "Ah, isn't Anthony the clever boy? Why did I wake you, not what am I talking about." Steve had ever been one for bantering with villains, so he clenched his shield tighter and refused to speak. "Come now Steven," Amora sauntered forward, "there's no need to be difficult."
"My level of difficulty depends on what you're here for."
"For the harvest." Steve stared at her completely baffled, and did his best not to react when Tony started tracing lines along his spine.
"Did you know, dear Captain, that you're perfect?"
"I believe perfect is a matter of opinion."
Amora tilted her head ever so slightly to look around Steve's shield and catch Tony's eyes, "Is he always this self-depricating?"
"Yup. I haven't decided if it's great or terrible yet."
Amora smirked, "Personal opinions aside, that is what the spells were designed to create: perfection."
"And you're concerned with my hypothetical perfection, why?" Tony's nimble fingers were to the small of his back now, and Steve assumed that meant tony was nearly done with whatever he was scratching.
"Because you're beautiful, soaked in magic, and exactly the ingredient I need for my spell."
Tony stiffened behind him, his hand leaving off the writing and fingers clenching in the scruff of Steve's shirt. Steve pretended like that didn't make him nervous and without taking his eyes off Amora asked over his shoulder, "Want to translate, Tony?"
"She wants your heart."
Steve furrowed, "Attacking my friends isn't the way to win me over, Miss."
Amora chuckled, "I don't want your romance, Steven. I want to pluck your still beating heart out of your chest and eat it."
Then Tony, powerful, reckless, beautiful Tony laughed and said, "I actually have a problem with that." Tony grabbed Steve's shoulder and wrenched him out of the way while both sorcerers erupted with magic. Steve pulled his shield over his head and tried to get out of the way of the torrent of raw power they were flinging at one another in place of trying to cast actual spells. Amora chuckled, "Oh, Anthony, you've done so well. When I plucked Steven out of that ice his heart was so tired, so lost and dejected that I despaired of ever fixing him. My darling Hill fought so valiantly against my control over her that instead of fixing the man like I told her to, she tried to break him, making him useless. But then there was you. My lovely Anthony. The Captain and his heart are practically glowing all thanks to you."
If you wanted to get technical about it, Steve and Tony had only known one another for three weeks, but despite that scant amount of linear time, Steve felt like he knew Tony. Which meant he didn't need to see the flicker of Tony's power or see how Amora's stream of light lurched forward against him to know that Tony was upset by the concept that he'd somehow exposed Steve to this.
Rather than get out of the way like any other good little non-magic user, Steve cranked back his arm and tossed his shield at the woman. Amora shrieked at the sudden presence of shield in her stomach and before either man could respond she sent another burst of raw power at Steve. He braced himself to go flying again, but when the spell him full on... nothing happened.
Steve looked around, baffled, and Amora launched another blast at him, this one Steve caught on his shield and reflected it back at her, forcing her to dart out of the way instead. Steve looked to Tony, who had an unbearably smug grin on his face, which was al the explanation Steve needed. "What did you do?"
"There's a spell that enhances a person's normal abilities, the kiddie version of what Erskine did to you. Since you're already mostly invulnerable, I just made you… more."
"That's what you were writing on my spine, runes that made me invulnerable?"
Tony grinned, which was all the answer he got to give before Amora shrieked and launched a fireball at Steve, assuming pure magic wasn't going to do the trick anymore. Steve caught the spell with his shield while Tony launched a stream of attacks of his own, driving Amora back.
Steve just grinned while she was busy with Tony and charged at Amora, launching his shield ahead of him to throw her off balance before he crashed his whole weight into the slight woman. Amora shrieked and pushed back at him with a rush of power, but the magic just sizzled off his skin, leaving Steve untouched. Amora had spent so long relying on her magic that she had no defense for someone outside her touch. Steve gently but thoroughly brought the shield down on the back of Amora's head, forcing her unconscious.
The second Amora hit the earth James came blasting out of somewhere he certainly wasn't supposed to be hiding and smashed into Steve's chest, his emotions a tangle of concern and pride. The other riders came from their positions with congratulations, and Steve ignored them all to press a kiss to Tony's lips (who was surrounded by his own fan club of scientists).
"You were going to do that all along, weren't you?"
Tony smirked, "I don't know which answer would get me in less trouble."
Steve rolled his eyes and kissed Steve again, too happy to care.