It all begun exactly six months after the Battle of New York.
It felt like liquid fire had been splashed against his back, and Tony's knees gave out at the surprise. He fell to the floor with a choked off yell, twisting around in anticipation of an attack.
Only that, there was no one else in his workshop.
"Sir, are you all–" JARVIS' inquiry was cut off when another yell tore from Tony's lips; this time his hands were being boiled, and he watched in shock as they shook and let go of the pliers he'd been grasping just now. The skin didn't even redden despite the agonizing sensation.
"-the fuck?" was all he could whimper before he had to gasp for air and scream again. He vaguely heard JARVIS announcing he'd call for help, and soon he felt hands on his shoulders.
"--ny? Tony!" Bruce, who'd been the first one to move in to the renamed Avengers tower after its repairs, called him, and Tony tried to focus on his dark brown eyes. They were slightly green on the edges.
"H-hey, Big Guy–" He couldn't hold back the scream that followed. Cracking his eyes open, he caught Bruce biting his lip and the next thing he knew, he was being carried out of his workshop by two sets of strong hands. Steve and Clint.
"Tony, what is it?" Steve tries to ask him, but Tony's mind is unfortunately occupied by the soaring pain currently ripping up his abdomen. "Tony!" the Captain presses, but the inventor can't bring himself to focus; the pain is too intense. He hears incoherent muttering from above him, as the three talk about something – presumably Tony. When the next pang of pain hits him in the back again, he tries to smother his howl, but only ends up choking on his own tongue and crying out anyway.
Steve tugs him against his chest tightly, and they exit the tower and into the quinjet. Clint gives him an urgent pat on his knee, before quickly running off to the cockpit. Tony's scream turns into a whimper once the quinjet is on the air, and he mercifully loses consciousness.
He woke up in a hospital bed, hooked up to a heart monitor and an IV attached to his hand.
"Hey, shush, now," Bruce says from his right, and Tony turns his head to look at the man.
Not a good move.
"Ow." His muscles were aching like crazy. "What the hell happened?" he asks Bruce, who glances briefly behind him; Steve is standing there in his Captain America posture, eyeing the curl-haired scientist back with worried eyes.
"Uh, we were kind of hoping you'd know the answer to that," the brunette replies finally, turning back to look at Tony. The engineer frowns at him.
"No fucking idea. But I sure hope it won't happen again." He attempts to swing his sore legs over the edge of the bed, but hands snatch his ankles.
"Like hell you're going anywhere," he hears Clint's voice state. He turns his face to glare at the archer.
"I'm not staying here, Katniss," he says with narrowed eyes. Clint answers his glare with equally narrowed eyes.
"Tony, I'm not watching you scream like that a second time. It scared the crap outta me. You're staying here until we or the docs figure out what's wrong." The calm stubbornness in his voice catches Tony offguard. Clint must have really freaked out about his episode. He glances around the room. Steve and Bruce are looking at him with concern and equal resolve in their eyes. Tony relents with a sigh.
"Okay, your puppy dog eyes worked this time," he grumbles as he leans against the mattress again. "I'll stay here, but only for a little while longer." He tries to avoid looking into the relieved faces of his teammates; they know that 'a little while' is the best they are going to get from Tony when it comes to hospitals. Tony hates hospitals.
Wait, where is he even?
"Where are we?" he asks and scans the room with new interest. It's close enough to a normal hospital room, but somehow doesn't have the same feeling. And it definitely isn't the tower's medical bay. So, "SHIELD?"
Clint hums, "Yeah, that's right. We thought that you'd be most safe around here if it was some sorta attack. JARVIS said that it wasn't, though." Tony jerks a nod and grunts his acknowledgement.
"Tony," Steve says from his post behind Bruce, "Do you have any idea–"
"No, I don't," the engineer interrupts, wiping a hand over his face. God, he feels horrible. His hands are stiff and his back is pulsing painfully and his muscles are hurting. Also, his patience is running thin.
"Maybe you should sleep some more, alright, Tony?" Bruce interjects, probably sensing Tony's mood. "We'll stay in the waiting room. Do you need something for the pain or to help you sleep?" Tony looks back at his friend, wanting to argue but deeming himself too tired. And clearly Bruce isn't giving him any other options.
"No, thanks, buddy. And you all can get back home, I'm a big boy, I can handle myself," he says and tries to relax against the pillows. It's hard with the knives poking at his back.
Clint scoffs at him, but leans over to ruffle his hair anyway, despite Tony's protests. They leave the room with a few 'sleep well' wishes and 'good bye's. Tony waves them off, and sleep finds him surprisingly easy.
The following day, Tony wakes up again to scream and trash on his bed. It continues throughout the week, Tony starting to feel phantom pain in different parts of his body once or twice every 24 hours, causing him to howl his lungs out and claw everything that's accessible from his spot on the bed.
They decide to keep him in the SHIELD's medical facility for monitoring, and Tony's too exhausted to even whine about it. And that makes his teammates even more worried.
After one and half weeks of lying half-dead in the hospital, Natasha gets back from her mission. She comes to visit him, deems him to be in a very poor condition, and comes up with a different kind of an idea.
"With what you've told me, I've gathered that it doesn't seem to be random, if he starts feeling pain always around the same hours of the day. No known illnesses have such extreme symptoms as his, the doctors have checked him over for any brain dysfunction, bio devices that could cause pain or super viruses, and he hasn't been attacked at any point.
"So, I'm thinking, since no one can help him here on Earth, then maybe it isn't something of Earth," she concludes.
"And 'he' is gathering from this conversation that you want to ask Thor for help?" Tony snarks from his hospital bed at the other four Avengers standing on the concrete before it. Natasha sends an unimpressed look his way.
"That's right, зайка." Tony frowns at her.
"Don't you зайка me, young lady."
"Ohh, look who's getting cranky over staying holed up in a hospital for so long!" Clint quips and comes to pinch his cheek, grinning. Tony bats his hand away.
"Shut up, birdbrain." Then he addresses the whole team, "Just go and try to reach Thor, maybe he can help." The team members shake theirs heads or roll their eyes at him, already too used to the shit Tony gives them to take it to the heart. Bruce squeezes his hand and Natasha kisses his forehead before they all, sans Steve, who's currently on 'Tony duty', leave the room.
Steve grabs his sketchbook and moves over to the couch as Tony flips on his tablet. He tries to catch up on some work from SI and SHIELD, all the while waiting for the next painful episode to emerge.
It's another week before Thor finally returns to Earth, though it's no thanks to any of the Avengers or Jane (whom they'd consulted), but an act decided on a mere whim of the blonde god. Or not, but Tony couldn't really care right now.
The billionaire's lost around eight pounds in the roughly two and half weeks and is nowadays to exhausted to do even the lightest work on his Stark Pad. The rest of the team is also tired from staying up with him at the hospital and constantly on edge from watching him suffer and scream daily.
SHIELD scientist have done all kinds of tests and scans on him, and once that didn't provide any answers about Tony's condition, the team has become overly protective and now only a handful of doctors are allowed near him. Also, there's always at least one teammate with him, a gesture which he is secretly grateful for.
So, when Thor walks through the door, Tony has his hopes up for answers and preferably for a cure.
"Hi, Hot Shot. How are alien affairs?" It's always fun to see the god's confused face. Bruce, sitting on the chair next to his bed, rolls his eyes good-naturedly.
"They are...fine. What is this illness of yours that our shield-brothers speak of? They tell me you have been in pain." Straight to the business then.
"Yeah, that's right. No one knows why, though, which is kinda shame. Begun about two and half weeks go. You happen to know anything useful? Some alien diseases or some shit like that?" But Thor ignores his questions.
"...two and half weeks, you say?" he asks sharply, instead, and stalks closer.
"Um, yeah, that's what I said." Thor is silent for a moment, presumably in thought.
"Thor?" Bruce prods politely.
"Hey, Thunder!" Tony prods more, not so politely. "Care to let us in?" He tries to keep his voice cheery, but it's getting harder. A drop of sweat slides down the side of his face and he reaches to wipe it away, before Bruce notices and makes him lie down again.
"Do you experience these pains at a certain time of a day, my friend?"
"Actually, yes, I do, but how's that–...do you know what–" He's cut off when Thor suddenly takes the final step up to his bed and pushes his hands against Tony's chest, right above the arc reactor. Tony's breath catches in his throat and the heart monitor blares.
"Thor!" Bruce addresses the god, getting up to his feet, but Thor is already pulling his hand away and backing up from the bed.
"...I need to leave to Asgard immediately." It breaks the spell and Tony looks up at him with a gasp.
"What? Why?! Thor, wait, get back here! Wait, you're not going anywhere–" But it's already too late; Thor is out of the door, and Bruce is holding Tony so that he can't spring after him.
"Come on, Tony, you know you can't get out of the bed," Bruce sputters between puffs of air, as he tries to maneuver Tony to lie down. It has been increasingly hard for Tony to get up recently, nearly all dexterity leaving his limbs, pain and exhaustion taking place in them instead. Tony gives up with a broken huff, and lets Bruce talk him into taking the sleeping pill.
Surprisingly, Thor returns the next day, with no other with him than his mother, Frigga, The Queen of Asgard.
Seriously, was this even Tony's life.
"Is this the man you told me about?" the queen asks Thor, as they enter the room. long robes trailing after them. Clint stands up and eyes them suspiciously. The rest of the team follow Thor and his mother inside.
"Aye, he is. What do you see, mother?" She takes a few light steps towards Tony, and Clint stiffens next to him. She turns her eyes to him.
"I mean no harm, little one. I am here merely to help." They stare at each other for a while, before Clint nods tersely, dropping his eyes to Tony instead. The queen then looks into his eyes.
"May I?" she asks as she extends her hand and lets it hover above his chest. Well, at least Tony knows who Thor didn't learn his manners from.
He nods, keeping eye contact, and Frigga lays her delicate hand on top of the reactor. A warm feeling courses through the area she touches, and Tony gasps slightly, making his team jerk. Then the queen retracts her hand and nods grimly. She turns her upper body to Thor, but stays halfway turned to Tony, also.
"It is as you feared, my dear," she says, and then looks at Tony again. "He has bonded with Loki."
"I have what?!"
"Thor, you must return to Asgard immediately. Loki's punishment is to be put to an end at the utmost urgency. We cannot harm innocent souls at the same, much less a mortal one."
"Aye, mother." Tony watched in shock as Thor turned and left, his traveling robes flapping after him. He turned to look back at the blonde's mother still standing there, all regal, as she pressed her fingers into her brow, much like Tony did when he was trying to prevent a headache. And failing.
"Um, I'm sorry to interrupt, but could you please elaborate on what the fuck is going on?" He ignored Steve's hissed 'Tony!', in order to meet Frigga's even gaze.
"Of course, my fierce mortal," she answered patiently, then snapped her fingers, forming a chair behind her, and took a seat. Tony looked at the scene with wide yes, snapping out of it only at Frigga's gentle, "Anthony, isn't it?"
"Tony, actually, but yeah, sure." She smiled at him, and then turned her face to the other Avengers, all except Clint still cramped near the room's entrance.
"Please, do all take a seat," she urged, and waited until everyone was sitting or at least leaning against some surface with feigned ease.
"I am under the impression that your world doesn't hold the knowledge about 'soulmates'," the goddess begins and Tony groans softly.
"Oh, fucking hell, please, don't tell me Loki's my soulmate," Tony pleads tiredly and pushes his fingers into his eyes, pressing at his eyelids. She just smiles at him ruefully, and all Tony wants to do is cry.
"Soulmates are extremely rare in the Nine Realms. Midgard reportedly has had none thus far, since the bond is made through magic, which your kind holds no control over. You are the first mortal to ever soul bond with another being."
"Hooray for me," he answers bitterly, probably in shock and not quite swallowing the whole thing just yet, still waiting for someone to suddenly cackle at his horrified expression and tell him it's just a joke. A bad one at that. But, looking at the faces of his teammates, it isn't likely to happen.
He turns his face back and stares at his hands in his lap, anxiety filling him up. Then the it hits him what Frigga had just said.
"Uh, but I don't have any magic crap or anything, so how could I have–"
"Every being holds magic inside, my child," the goddess corrects him. "Others merely know not how to control it, as others do, or alternatively learn how to. As have you done." At Tony's confused face, she points one finger into the direction of his arc reactor.
"...what? So, you mean that this–" he flails one hand around his chest, "–is some kinda magic? I'm sorry to disappoint, but–"
"I am not a fool and I know magic when I see it," Frigga interrupts him, with a sharpness to her tone and Tony knows to drop it (which is kind of remarkable, since when has Tony known when to drop something).
She soon continues, "A soul bond cannot form without the touch of the soulmates' magics. I can clearly sense my son's magic on you, and it tells me that he indeed is your bonded." Tony screwed his eyes shut tightly, be it rude or not.
This wasn't happening.
"When was it?" Steve asks from behind Frigga's back. "I-I mean, when did they...bond?" Dear lord, the way he says that word. Tony wanted to sink through the floor.
"Do you know how it happened, Anthony?" Frigga asked, interrupting his inner turmoil.
"...there was a moment when he tried to use his mind control mojo on me, and his scepter touched my reactor." Tony avoided the surprised looks his team sent his way. He hadn't told them that one interesting tidbit of information. "The control thing didn't work though, obviously." Frigga nodded slowly, eyes growing distant.
"Yes...that could be it. The scepter holds the Mind Stone, which is the force that Loki used to control the minds of others. The scepter itself though, operates through the magic of its wielder, therefore through Loki's magic. Altough, it usually requires a month's time for the bond to begin functioning normally, I believe that to be the moment it was first formed."
"So, how does all this explain the pains Tony's been feeling? It's been already six months since the whole Battle of New York." Clint interjects from his spot near the windows.
"Six months has passed since Loki was defeated and brought back to Asgard for captivity. The trials begun three months ago and ended two and half weeks ago." The queen paused for a small moment, her face visibly paling as she mulled over her thoughts. "The disciplinary actions were started immediately." She met Tony's gaze evenly, pain, sadness and regret residing in her gunmetal-blue eyes. Tony's own widened at the realization.
"You were torturing him," he stated, already getting uneasy shivers up his spine at the thought. The atmosphere in the room tensed. Frigga's downcast look was all the confirmation Tony needed.
He knows torture, knows how it can break you so thoroughly and how deep scars it can leave. The pain he'd been feeling these few past weeks had been horrible enough by itself, and presuming it to belong to Loki, coupled with emotional torture and neglect Tony was sure they were also utilizing, he felt ill to his stomach just thinking about it. He had had his friends to pull him through when it had sometimes gotten too bad, but he doubted Loki'd had had the same privilege. Torture was an ugly thing, and no one deserved it.
"That's sick," he said, and was proud how steady he managed to keep his voice, although his hands couldn't stop shaking. Frigga merely nodded, and they sat in silence for a while.
"What are we supposed to do about this?" Tony asked when he found his voice again. The goddess blinked slowly at him.
"We cannot continue the execution of Loki's sentence, not with a soulmate involved. The two of you must be reunited as soon as possible, so that you may heal with more efficiency and the bond shall begin to strengthen–"
"Whoah, whoah, hold you horses, ma'am!" Tony interrupts, holding his hands up to halt her. "I might feel some small amount of compassion for your son, but that's it. No way, I want this 'bond' to strengthen or some shit like that–"
"It is no option, Anthony. Once formed, the bond will not break, only strengthen if allowed, no matter how much you stretch or violate it. It will only cause you and your bonded harm or an early grave, were you to attempt to somehow severe it. The more time you two spend apart, the more ill you shall feel. Although, I am sure you have noticed that already, your health gradually worsening during these six months. Am I wrong, Anthony?" Tony held her gaze steadily, feeling like a child as he did. She wasn't wrong.
"Tony?" Bruce pressed when he didn't answer her right away, and Tony turned to eye his team – all were looking either super worried or downright pissed at him.
"Alright, maybe I haven't been feeling all that great. So what? I have been dying before, I just assumed I was getting old or my liver was finally failing or that the reactor had some minor malfunction or–"
"Tony, why didn't you tell us?" Natasha asked sharply, purposely interrupting his rambling and locking her steely and hurt eyes with his. Ouch.
"I...I'm sorry, Tasha, everyone. I guess I just didn't know how to put it." Tony scoffed mentally. Hey guys, guess what, I'm dying again! And it wasn't like he had been certain about it. His symptoms had basically just been: 1) dropping all the shit he touched from coffee mugs to screwdrivers, 2) increasingly frequent throwing up, for no apparent reason, 3) night sweats and tremors, which he had never experienced before without a nightmare involved, and 4) overall lassitude, massive headaches, small fevers and nausea.
Okay, maybe he should have said something.
"Maybe you should have just opened your mouth," Steve said, and it was like he'd just read Tony's mind, so he didn't dare argue back. He raised his eyes from his lap when a gentle hand touched his shoulder.
"Not to worry, dear. I shall see to it personally that Loki will do no harm to you or any other, even as it pains me deeply to do so. However, I do not believe him to be someone who'd willingly hurt his intended." Tony nodded and even attempted a wavery smile, even if her sentiment did nothing to reassure him. She squeezed before retreating her hand.
And that's when Thor decided to reappear.
"Mother," he boomed, once again forgetting his inside voice. "We shall return to Asgard now, we are greatly needed for the hearing." He turned to look at Tony. "And The Man of Iron shall come with us, also."
Fuck his life.