Steve woke up disoriented, something that only happened after a nightmare or when he got knocked out during a fight or got heavily injured.
He vaguely remembered being in battle with Loki and some sorceress - must be a Thursday, it's when the magic users come out - because Loki can't resist taunting Thor once a week. It's become so routine that the team had taken to avoid making plans and having dates on Thursdays.
Training kicked in a few seconds later. He assessed his current state without opening his eyes, staying perfectly still so as not to alarm anyone nearby that he was already awake, should they be one of this week's choice villains. Getting kidnapped, captured or taken hostage was often enough in their lives that The Avengers had made contingency plans and protocol for them. He seemed to be in pretty good condition, no injury, no pain anywhere that he might as well have just woken up in bed. Which, curiously, seemed to be where he's at judging by the thin and hard mattress he was lying on. He didn't even remember getting into bed.
His eyes flew open when a bell rang, followed by someone, no, several someones, screaming his name.
"That's not the Avengers alarm," he muttered and sat up, and only then realized he wasn't anywhere he recognized.
He took in the quaint decor, a hard wood cabinet in the corner, an old wooden dresser with a mirror attached, a trunk at the foot of the bed and the sun streaming in from the windows outside with a country side view. He was pretty sure he was in New York yesterday. Maybe that was yesterday. "What the hell..."
That was when he noticed his legs and his feet. He raised thin arms and long fingered hands to his face. "Oh, damn it, not again."
He was back to being fun size, as Tony called his pre-serum days.
He scrambled to his feet, ignoring the incessant ringing of the hand bell and the insistent screaming of his name and ran to the window. It was ironic how he couldn't say, 'You're not in Kansas anymore.' since he might as well be, what with the definite lack of smog and tall buildings around.
Was this a dream? An elaborate illusion? Whatever it was, he had to get out. Right now.
"Loki! If you're listening, you stop this right now!" He yelled out to the blue, blue sky.
"Now, now, Captain. Don't be hasty. We're just having a bit of fun."
Steve whirled around and spotted the demi-god in the mirror's reflection. For a second, he had the urge to say, 'Mirror, mirror on the wall' before he stalked over and snarled, "Fun's over. Where are the others?"
Loki smiled indulgently. "Having their own lovely adventures. You should thank me, Captain. It's not every day you get to live in a fairy tale."
"Fairy tale?" He could feel his heart beating faster in his chest, could feel the beginnings of an asthma attack coming on but took deep breaths through pursed lips to thwart it. He'd learned to manage the symptoms through the years, especially after that time AIM hit him with a suppressant that negated the effects of the Super Soldier Serum and he was stuck being fun size for almost a month. The serum finally overcame the suppressant in his system but that had been a learning experience for him. Apparently, the illnesses that hindered him in the forties weren't that much of a hindrance in the 21st century, thanks to the advancements in modern medicine.
"Yes, dear Captain. A fairy tale. One you live through and enjoy at your leisure." Loki smiled serenely. "But let it not be said that I am unfair as to not inform you of the rules of the game. Whoever dies here, dies for real. The longer you take to break the spell, the stronger the spell becomes. At midnight on the third day, this part of the world shall be mine."
His stomach churned with worry at the glee in Loki's expression. "How do we get out?"
"How indeed?" The devious glint in Loki eyes and the sly teasing smirk made Steve want to punch him. "Ooh. I must go. It seems the fair Natasha has awakened. This will be most entertaining."
"Wait! How can we get out?!" And what does he mean by, 'this part of the world?!'
"I suggest you ask yourself, how do fairy tales end, Captain?" With a wicked grin, the mirror shimmered green and went back to the reflecting the room.
Like a switch had been flipped, the ringing bell and screaming returned. Steve's nostrils flared, frustration and anger washing through him. He reigned it in, his body vibrating with it. No use triggering his asthma. He doubted Loki was nice enough to leave his inhaler. He didn't even have his shield!
He ran downstairs to see what the hell the yelling and cursing was about, angry that he was easily winded by the thirty something flights he needed to get down. He must've been sleeping in the damn attic! He paused a few minutes, hands on his knees to catch his breath. He was pint sized and frustrated with his body's limitations. No wonder he picked so many fights before the serum!
Steve looked up to the end of the hall where an older woman in a long sleeping gown stood with hands on her hips, a fierce disapproving glare on her face and the damn bell clutched in her hand. She looked familiar but he couldn't place her, his eidetic memory a little slow with the lack of the serum.
"I have been calling your name in the past half hour! Where is my breakfast?" Her cold calculating tone reprimanded and dripped authority at the same time.
Before he could reply, the door to his left was thrown open and a tall, skinny red haired man in long johns came out, throwing dirty laundry at him. Steve's arms came up to catch them on reflex.
"What the hell took you so long," the man demanded, glaring down his hooked nose at Steve. "And where the hell's my breakfast you free-loading bastard?!"
"Lil Stevie probably spent the night jacking off, 's why he's up so late," came the reply when another bedroom door opened and revealed another familiar looking face. This one had blonde hair and a muscular build. "'S the only way his skinny ass could get some."
The two men laughed uproariously while Steve seethed. He normally wouldn't mind so much, but being in his old body, the jibe hit too close to home.
"Boys, it's too early for this kind of humor. Have some class," the woman chastised and directed her beady eyes at Steve. "You get started on breakfast. Then the laundry and the cleaning. No more delays, Steven."
That's when it hit him. The woman was the owner of the diner he, Sam and Bucky frequented in Brooklyn. The men were her employees.
Shit. Loki had quite possibly trapped New York in an elaborate spell. Or part of New York. He couldn't be sure until he could check for himself.
Without a word, he threw down the laundry and was about to race for the stairs to the ground floor when a hand clutched his arm. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"
"Out," he replied. "Let go."
The man gave him a challenging look and tightened his hand. "Or what?"
Without a word, Steve slid forward, grabbed the man's wrist, ducked under his arm and twisted, over-balancing the taller man and pulled him down hard, careful not to hurt him too much, Loki's words now making sense in his mind.
Whoever dies in this world, dies for real.
These were real people. Ensorcelled. They weren't just illusions that could be waved away when things were done.
As the red-head lay stunned at his feet, the bigger man, Ben, he remembered now, moved to lunge at him. Steve gave him a pointed look, "Son, just don't."
That seemed to throw the guy off because he stopped and Steve took to the stairs and was out the manor doors as fast as his legs could take him. He screeched to a halt outside the house.
"Goddamnit!" He was in the middle of nowhere! Or a farm. He didn't even know there were goddamned farms in Brooklyn.
So maybe Loki altered the landscape a little, a lot, or whatever, who knows with magic?
This is why Tony hates it so much. It has no respect for the boundaries of physics, he thought as he raced to the back of the house to see if there was a horse he could use.
I have to find Tony, he thought, then felt guilty because even if Tony was his second in command, they were not the only people on the team.
But Tony could be in trouble, he reasoned. More trouble than the rest.
The other human members of his team were practically killing machines even without powers. Who knows what magic had done to Tony and his arc reactor?
"Oh, thank God!" Relieved to see a horse in the stable, he grabbed the saddle from the side of the stall, quickly outfitted the animal and took off to look for his team and civilization, or whichever comes first.
He guessed he'd been riding for at least fifteen minutes when he met another person on a stage coach. He scanned the driver's face to see if it was someone he knew but it wasn't, so he kept on and was soon at more populated area, possibly a marketplace, and what probably counted as a city in whatever fictional timeline this was. Old buildings and shops lined the streets, as well as little kiosks where people sold their wares.
He scanned the faces he met, hoping for a familiar face. He saw a few, mostly people from those shops and diners he frequented but no one recognized him. Apart from him being fun sized, the spell seemed to have made everyone part of the backdrop for Loki's weekly entertainment.
It was early in the morning still, but people were already up and about, much like modern New Yorkers, grabbing cups of coffee on their way to work. He wondered if Tony had gotten his morning coffee yet. The man functioned at less than fifty percent capacity in the mornings, making a beeline for the coffee machine and inhaling the bitter brew before he could even mutter a simple 'Good morning' to anyone. He smiled at the thought, until he remembered where he was and that he didn't know where the rest of his team were. Then he felt guilty again for worrying more about Tony when the rest of his team were just as trapped in this reality as he was.
Bucky, since his return from the Dark Side, had taken to covertly teasing him of his crush on Stark, much to Steve's chagrin. The asshole takes pride in his ability to embarrass Steve. Thankfully, Tony, who had become one of Steve's closest friends in the twenty first century, remained completely oblivious. And if he flirted, Steve tried not to take it seriously. Tony flirted with everyone and the coffee machine, it wasn't like Steve was special or anything.
Lost in thought and exhausted from the ride and his lack of leads, he led his horse to a well in the middle of the courtyard, thinking he might as well have a drink himself as he didn't have breakfast nor any money to buy anything to eat.
The arrow that thunked next to him on the dirt came out of nowhere and seemed unnoticed by everyone else. Hope bloomed in his chest as he raised his head, searching rooftops while keeping a firm hand on his horse's leash.
"Top of the bakery, Captain," said a voice from behind him.
He turned, sighing in relief. "Phil."
A small smile greeted him even as the older man - if not counting his time as a Capsicle - gave him a once over. "Everything all right? No injuries, asthma attacks, allergies--?"
"Yes. And no. No injuries. I'm fine." He spotted Clint quickly moving towards them, bow in hand and a quiver on his back. He looked around but no one seemed to find that odd, so, yeah. "Did you get a meet and greet with Loki too?"
"I think everyone got one," Clint replied as he neared them. "We didn't even need to call him. He got pretty pissed when his game barely started and Phil ruined the plot."
Steve eyed the archer's well-worn but practical clothing. "Are you Robin Hood?"
Clint snorted. "I wish. I'm just a good ol' hunter. Didn't get to kill anyone though, Coulson wasn't so happy with the prospect of being wolf fodder. He killed it before I even got there."
"Wolf?" Steve didn't know whether to laugh or be terrified. "As in the Big Bad Wolf, from Little Red Riding Hood?"
Clint grinned. "Yeah. Figured that out when I saw Phil rockin' Granny's clothes."
"I thought we agreed never to mention that again," came Coulson's long suffering response.
Clint just grinned wider, "Now, boss. This is practically a debriefing."
"So if you're Granny and Clint's the Huntsman, who's Little Red?" Steve asked before both SHIELD agents digressed into their usual banter.
"Pepper," Coulson replied. "We met her along the path to the cottage. We hightailed it out of there to find the others after that. We got here a few minutes ahead of you."
"Where's Pepper," Steve asked. One more accounted for. "You didn't meet anyone else? Was anyone with Pepper? Tony?"
Clint shook his head. "No. Mrs. Arbogast, I think, was acting as her mother. But we didn't go back for her since she's under the spell. She'll probably snap out of it when we break it. Pepper's in the bakery waiting for us."
"We need to find a way to contact the others," Steve told them. "Loki said, the longer we stay here, the stronger the spell gets. Deadline's in three days."
"We could split up..."
"No." Both Phil and Steve said at the same time, cutting Clint off.
"No." They both glared at him.
Coulson fixed the archer with a look. "We don't know the lay of the land. This isn't an ordinary place, Barton. This is an elaborate illusion or alternate reality based on magic. If we split up, who's to say Loki won't change the terrain to fit his whims? It's too risky. We'll stick together to find the others."
"Phil's right," Steve agreed, leading his horse that had stopped drinking, a bit away from the well. "Maybe we could wait for night time and send a sort of flare. A beacon to show them where we are. If you guys found me and Pepper pretty quick, maybe the others aren't so far away."
They went to the bakery to get Pepper, who was as elegant in her red hood and cape as she was in her fashionable modern ensembles.
"Steve! Oh my god. Are you okay?" were her first words when she saw him de-serumed, again.
Steve tamped down his embarrassment and frustration. They were friends. She was just concerned. No need to get his hackles up. "I'm fine, Pep. Don't worry about me."
She looked like she wanted to say something else but bit down on it and instead offered him bread and pastries from her basket. For that, Steve was grateful.
They kept to the marketplace all morning and afternoon, waiting for someone else to turn up. When nobody else came, her worry increased, especially for Tony.
"I know he can take care of himself but what about the reactor?" She gnawed at her lower lip, clearly agitated. "I hope he has someone from the team with him..."
"Don't worry. He's perfectly capable of taking care of himself," Steve replied even as his brain added, And even more talented at getting himself into trouble. But he didn't say it out loud. He was pretty sure the others knew that already.
By past four in the afternoon, just as they were planning to look for somewhere to bunk for the night, a man on horseback came into the courtyard, ringing a bell.
Again, with the bell. It was starting to piss Steve off.
The man, wearing a red coat with gold trim went straight for the town's announcement board, yelling, "Hear ye, hear ye!"
He looked official, and there was something to be said about the colors he wore, so the three of them moved forward to hear him better.
"His Royal Highness, Prince Anthony Stark, is holding a ball in three days! All eligible maidens are invited to attend--."
Clint groaned. "Here we are fighting off wolves and shit and Stark gets to be royalty even in this damn reality. Where's the justice in that?!"
Coulson patted him on the back in a 'there there' gesture. "At least now we know where he is."
Steve nodded even as he tried not to feel disappointed that he wasn't a maiden. "Let's go then," he said. "Clint, go ask for directions."
"Just follow the Town Crier." Pepper pointed at the man who had just finished his announcement and was tacking a piece of parchment on the board. "Bet he knows where the palace is."
Turns out, the Town Crier lives in town, duh, and wouldn't be going back to palace for the night. It was getting dark too so they either had to bunk for the night or brave the road which according to people were littered with bandits and wild animals.
"Dude, I have a bow. Which, in this reality is actually pretty useful. And Phil can kill things with his bare hands. Besides, I bet either of you could take down a bandit or two." Clint eyed Steve and Pepper critically when Steve voted to settle for the night to be on the safe side.
He was more concerned with Pepper's safety than he was of himself. Tony would probably skin him if Pepper got hurt on his watch.
"The palace can't be that far. A few miles, they said, we can't miss it," Clint reasoned again. "I really don't want to be stuck here, man. The sooner we assemble, the faster we'll be outta here."
It was almost totally dark now. Steve couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the stars in New York, but tonight they littered the sky like diamonds.
Great. Not even a day in, and I'm waxin' poetic. Like a dumbass.
As if to drive Clint's point home, a shining light cast a round glow in the night sky with a familiar looking A in the middle.
Steve grinned in amusement and wonder as a warmth spread in his chest. Trust Tony to find ways to bring their team together.
Coulson smiled. "That's our cue. Be glad it's not the Bat symbol."
"Or Cap's shield," Clint supplied grinning.
Pepper mounted her horse and faced them. "Well, boys. It's time to go. Mr. Stark's waiting."
Steve couldn't get on his horse fast enough.
It wasn't far. Really. Not even an hour in and they could already see the tops of the palace spires illuminated by the bright glow of the huge round light at the top of one of the towers.
So Steve was surprised when Clint called for them to stop. "Hawkeye? Report."
"I saw something," Clint replied. "Could be one of ours."
Steve and Coulson flanked Pepper as they looked around. He didn't like stopping in the open but if it was one of the Avengers, it was worth the risk. "What is it? We're sitting ducks here."
"Pietro, is that you?!" Clint called out.
A blur whizzed past Steve and stopped in front of them, white hair bright in the middle of the road. "Oh, thank God, it's you people. Wanda and I have been walking for hours! We saw the signal..."
"Holy shit. You're tiny!" Clint exclaimed and started laughing.
"Ha ha. Very funny, old man," Pietro, all of maybe twelve years old replied. "I'd have gotten us there earlier but I couldn't exactly carry Wanda right now and her powers isn't very powerful at this age."
Upon hearing her name, young Wanda came out from behind the trees, one hand held aloft, glowing red. "Hello. It's good to see you all. Oh my, Captain, again?"
Steve rolled his eyes. "Yep. Seems people like shrinking me every few months."
"What crazy adventures have you been in, knucklehead?" Clint asked, raising an eyebrow at Pietro.
"We slayed a witch."
"After Pietro ate her out of house and home," Wanda side-eyed her brother.
"Slayed? You killed someone? But it could've been someone innocent!" Steve exclaimed, spooking his horse. He hurriedly patted it down.
"Relax, Cap. We didn't kill her. Wanda zapped her and I tied her down."
Steve could almost hear the collective sigh of relief.
"Alright, hop on, Wanda," Pepper held out her hand. "The faster we get to the palace, the better."
"Pietro, can you go on ahead and inform Prince Anthony that we're coming? Don't want any of his minions stopping us at the gates," Steve said as Wanda mounted behind Pepper.
Pietro gave him a mock salute. "Aye, aye, Captain Squarepants."
Clint opened his mouth but Coulson raised his hand in time, "Barton, don't."
The archer pouted. "Killjoy."
In typical Tony fashion, he met them at the courtyard, all but bouncing on the balls of his feet. He ran forward to help Pepper and Wanda from their horse, exclaiming, "Pepper!" like a kid who found toys under the tree in Christmas morning.
"Tony!" Pepper hugged him back. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine! What about you? Wanda, your brother's eating his way through the palace. Are you guys okay? What the hell took you so long? Agent! And Legolas. Why am I not surprised you're here first? Steve! Holy crap, buddy! They tagged you again?!"
While talking a mile a minute, he had moved from hugging Pepper to clutching Steve's shoulders in his hands. He was taller than Steve by a few inches now. It was actually the only time Steve felt kind of happy that he was short. But other than Tony being bigger than he is right now, the advantage of being big and strong outweighed his Pavlovian response to seeing Tony's hands engulf his bony shoulders.
"Are you okay?" Even as he asked, Tony seemed to be checking him for injuries.
Steve was torn between wanting to keep Tony's hands on him and the frustration that everyone seemed to think he was so weak that they needed to check on him. "I'm fine. Is anyone else here with you? Good job with the beacon, by the way."
Tony grinned and slung an arm over his shoulders. "Figured it was that or the Bat signal. Rhodey's here holding the fort. Come on, you guys must be hungry. Let's go eat before Pietro finishes everything. That kid goes through food as fast as you, Cap."
"Hyper speed metabolism equals super appetite," Coulson replied as he handed the reins of their horses to the stable boys.
Steve took a moment to take a look at the palace, with it's towers and spires and all the trimmings. He's only ever seen the ones in Europe and those were tame and kind of old compared to this. "Wow. It's huge."
"Yep. Must be a bitch to clean and the upkeep's probably eating through the kingdom's coffers but hey, this was Loki's idea." Tony shrugged and steered Steve along with his arm still on his shoulder.
"It looks like the one in Disney World. Only bigger. A lot bigger," Clint supplied.
"Cinderella's castle," Tony replied. "'s why Rhodeybear suggested the ball. Probably figured I'd have a better luck finding her that way. With my luck though, it'd probably be some super villain or Madam Hyrda or Justine Hammer. Holy crap. I hope it's not Natasha. She'll flay my balls and I like 'em where they are."
Steve was laughing even as he envied all those eligible ladies in the kingdom. He was glad he didn't need to put on glass slippers though.
On Day 2, Tony and Steve went out riding on the kingdom grounds. They had nothing to do but wait so they all figured they might as well have fun. Or actually, Rhodey pushed Tony out the door since Tony was driving him nuts.
Pepper and Coulson had taken charge of the preparations for the ball, because they were both frighteningly efficient people in whatever reality, while Clint and the twins had taken to exploring the castle and causing random shenanigans.
Tony kept staring sadly at the Ironman armor, which was now just a normal red and gold knight's armor, standing sentry at the side of the throne, while being randomly frustrated by the lack of technology. Steve couldn't blame him since the genius had nothing to do and didn't want to start building things that would become irrelevant when they inevitably break the spell.
"When we get out of here, I will have Hulk slap some sense into Loki until he sees all the goddamn stars in the nine realms!" Tony griped as he slumped on one of the plush chairs in the dining room. "I am sick of all this fucking magic bullshit."
Steve smiled indulgently as he observed Tony in one of his snits. It was pretty amusing and kind of adorable as long as it wasn't directed at him.
"I need a drink," Tony announced but when he moved over to the liquor cabinet, Rhodey intercepted him. "Aw come on! It's a fictional world, Rhodey. How bad can it be?"
Rhodey glared. "Oh, you did not just say that. Why would you say that? That's like the mother of all disaster phrases!"
"But I'm bored. I miss the internet and JARVIS and my brain is rotting, Rhodey! Do you know how many brain cells I'm losing everyday here?"
"You'll lose more brain cells by drinking, Tony," Rhodey countered. "You've been doing so well these past six months."
Steve had noticed Tony's lack of drinking of late. He hadn't realized it's been that long. He still had been going to galas and parties for SI or the Maria Stark Foundation so Steve didn't really know that he'd actually quit.
Tony sighed. "I just really hate being idle."
"Why don't you go riding with Cap or spar or just go outside and get some sun. We can't do anything else unless everyone gets here anyway." Rhodey suggested and pushed them both out the door with a firm order to, "Get him outta my sight, Cap, before I strangle him."
So now here they were, racing each other on horseback like some crazy Midwestern movie set in the eighteen hundreds sans gunfire for which Steve was thankful for.
He was having fun. Tony was laughing and actually enjoying himself. And by the time they got to a stream a few miles from the palace, they were both out of breath, faces flushed and grinning like idiots.
They flopped down on the grass after leading the horses to drink and having a drink themselves.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Steve asked smiling, chest light as he looked at Tony who was sprawled on the grass, looking content and bemused.
"Not bad at all, Cap."
"Better than being cooped up inside?"
"A lot better," Tony agreed. "Aside from beating shit up or schmoozing people for donations, I don't get to do a lot of going outside for fun things anymore."
"You should make time. All work and no play makes Tony, Captain America."
Tony snorted, chucking. "You did not just say that. You are not dull. Well, Captain America can be a little uptight but Steve Rogers, well, that guy's a little shit."
That surprised Steve into laughing. He was pretty glad Tony didn't find him dull, if only to not make him feel bad.
"Besides, if I could make time, I already would have. Sometimes I'm tempted to make an LMD to go to all those boring meetings for me so I could stay in the lab to play with my toys. Everyone needs upgrades to everything these days." Tony cocked his head, raising an eyebrow, "What do you think, Steve? Should I make an LMD? Make him more likeable, less abrasive and more charming?"
"If you got any more charming you'd have birds, butterflies and squirrels flocking over you like a damn Disney Princess. We already have to beat villains and women off you with a stick. We don't need to add goddamn animals into the mix."
Tony burst out laughing, slapping his knee. "There's the little shit we know and love."
Steve felt his cheeks heat but kept smiling in amusement, glad to see his friend so carefree and happy. Tony was always so busy lately that Steve had taken to camping out in his lab and sketching there just to find time to hang out with the other man.
They spent a few minutes in companionable silence. Steve was a city kid at heart, he was sure Tony was as well, but he could appreciate the beauty of the countryside, especially one as perfect as this, with its blue skies and fluffy clouds and all the trees and grass and nature around that would look really good in a landscape photography book. He could get lost in the picturesque view and forget that this wasn't real, especially with Tony so happy beside him. But then Tony would probably rant all day about the lack of goddamned technology and drive them all crazy.
"Share the joke, Steve."
"Just appreciating the view," he replied, not even realizing he'd smiled like an idiot as he looked at the other man.
Tony raised his eyebrows and for a moment, Steve thought he was going tease him for staring but instead Tony had shrugged. "Yeah. We don't get this kinda view every day. I'm sure I have property out there somewhere with this kind of view. It even has wifi. We should go sometime. Get Reed and Xavier to stand guard on New York while we take a day or two," he suggested, then his eyes kind of widened then narrowed, backtracking. "I meant the team. We should all go. Team building activity slash vacation or something."
Steve's lips quirked even as he tamped down the pang in his chest upon seeing that Tony felt the need to clarify that the invitation had been for everyone and not just him. "Sure, Tony. That'd be swell."
Tony smiled at that and looked relieved. He slapped Steve's shoulder. "Just let me know. We'll set it up."
Then he stood up and looked around. Walking a ways away. Steve could almost hear the gears in his friend's head turning. "What is it?"
Tony turned to face him, hands on his hips, brows drawn in contemplation. "I'm wondering how far the spell goes. I mean, obviously it covers a part of New York. It must use a damn lot of power to keep it up and not even Loki would be powerful enough to do something this on his own. It's pretty elaborate and the scope is too wide."
"You think he's working with someone else?" Steve asked. "It's possible. Though I don't see him as someone who plays well with others unless he's calling the shots."
"Like me?" Tony asked and burst out laughing before he could reply. "Oh god. Your face, Steve! You looked so indignant and ready to defend my honor. I'm sorry." He tried to get his laughter in control, raising a hand in the universal 'wait' gesture. "Sorry. Okay. That was a bad joke. But thank you."
He was torn between smacking Tony upside the head and smiling in amusement. He figured it wasn't a good idea to encourage the man and settled for crossing his arms over his chest and raising an eyebrow instead.
"Okay. Sorry." Tony cleared his throat, eyes still dancing with mirth. "Anyway, you remember the Norn Stones? And the reality gem? He could be using something like those and probably working with others to keep this up. Do you think we could find the sources of power?"
"We could ask Wanda to see if she could sense them," he suggested. "But she's not a hundred percent right now. I'd really prefer that she's not worn out in case we need her later."
"Yeah." There was no hiding the disappointment in Tony's expression before he masked it.
Steve had seen it though and felt bad that he was as powerless to end all this as Tony was. "Do you think we could find the edge to this place?" He asked instead and at Tony's curious expression, he gestured with his hand. "You know, maybe it's like in that movie... The one where the guy was being filmed twenty four hours a day in a dome and he didn't know his life was a TV show..."
"The Truman Show!" Tony exclaimed, lighting up, pointing finger guns at Steve. "That's possible. Though it could also be possible that they'd just move the edge back the closer we get to it."
"We could ask someone else to go in a different direction so they'd have to be forced to spread it even wider. At worst, we'd need to fight. At best, we could weaken the spell."
"Or you'd meet an invisible barrier that you can't get through," came a different voice that made them turn toward the clump of trees to their left.
"Bucky!" Steve could feel his grin split his face as he saw his friend emerge from between two massive trees.
"Hey, punk. Out on a date with Stark, huh? Did I interrupt something?"
The teasing smirk on his best friend's face, though irritating, was a welcome sight. "Shut up, Buck."
"Did you find anyone on the way here?" Tony asked as Bucky approached.
"Tasha," was Bucky's reply. "She was getting down from a tower via incredibly long red hair when I passed by, on horseback mind you. I had no idea what the hell I was doing on horseback. For a second I thought I got mind wiped again."
"Buck..." Steve said sadly, wanting to reach out and reassure his friend.
"Its fine, Steve. I'm okay. I spotted the tower pretty quick and Tasha dropping down. She filled me in when she saw me."
"You didn't get a personal visit from Loki?" Steve asked.
"Nah. Probably reserved them for you guys. Tasha got one from a mirror in the tower."
"I got mine from a mirror too," Steve said.
"Me three," Tony chimed in. "Oh hey. A pattern!"
"Pietro said they got one at the back of a frying pan but only after they got rid of the witch." Steve added, and looked warily at the stream before turning back to his friends. "So, reflective surfaces, maybe? Also, there's probably twenty four hour magical surveillance in this place so let's assume they already know what we talked about."
Bucky gave them a nod. "Noted. And confirmed the dome barrier theory. Me and Tasha rode all morning in one direction away from the tower and met a barrier a few hours in. We couldn't see the other side but there definitely was no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow."
"What was there then?" Tony asked curiously. "I don't suppose it's a wall. That'd be easier to go through."
"Nope. Something like solid energy. Some kind of force field. It looked like the sky meeting the horizon. From a few steps back, you won't even notice until you smacked right into it."
Steve had the mental image of Bucky smacking right into it and landing on his ass and suppressed a snicker. "So with that confirmed, we should check with Wanda and get to looking for the others."
"Okay," Tony agreed and gave him a sheepish smile. "Looks like playtime's over, Steve. By the way, where's Nat?"
"She took the horse and went out looking for the others. She said if she doesn't find anyone, she'll find us by nightfall or tomorrow morning," Bucky replied and slapped Tony on the shoulder with his metal hand making the genius wince. "Nice job with the nightlight, Stark."
"Well, you know," Tony shrugged, nonchalant. "I've always wanted my own Bat signal."
"You sure can pick 'em, Stevie." Bucky teased, slinging an arm over Steve's shoulder. "I kinda miss you in this size, by the way. Isn't he cute like this, Stark?"
Tony grinned. "Caps always cute at any size, Barnes."
Steve rolled his eyes even as his ears burned. "Shut up, both o'you."
Tony grinned wider, pushing him on the shoulder and into Bucky. "Learn to take a compliment, Rogers."
"Stuff it, Tony."
Both assholes just laughed in his face.
"Are you sketching in the dark?"
Steve looked up from the page full of sketches he was working on, mostly little Tony heads or Ironman, and found Tony striding through the library doorway. Steve had settled there after dinner when he couldn't find anything to do. Bucky had gone off to one of the castle's towers to 'survey the land' and light the beacon. The others had gone to do whatever it is that they did when they weren't in each other's hair. The last he heard, Clint and the twins were sampling dishes in the kitchen while Pepper, Rhodey and Coulson were playing poker with Tony. Apparently, that's not true anymore as the latter was wandering about.
"Are you done playing?" Steve asked instead of answering while internally debating whether or not to flip the page on his notebook. This one was especially full of Tony's different expressions. When did he get addicted to drawing the guy? Sheesh.
"Agent's on a roll. I now owe him a new taser and a bottle of wine from my personal stash and we both owe Pep new shoes. If I didn't get outta there, I'd be buying shoes and making non-lethal weapons until I'm old and gray." Tony sank down the edge of the sofa Steve's sitting sideways on even when there were three other plush armchairs nearby.
Steve rested his bent his knees at the backrest and leaned back on the sofa's arm to fully look at Tony. "You're betting weapons and shoes."
"Yeah. It's better than betting gold from the treasure room and a lot less scary than betting favors. Though certainly less entertaining than strip poker." Tony leered. "I'd be totally down with that but only if you join."
He thought of Tony losing one clothing item at a time and squashed the thought down with his imaginary shield. "I'm pretty good at poker."
Tony wiggled his eyebrows comically and suggestively. "Lookin' to get me naked, Cap?"
Well, there goes his fair complexion turning tomato. Good thing the lamps in the library aren't all that bright. "Nothin' I haven't seen before, Stark. Just last week, Molecule Man gave us quite a show with you. Again."
"Heh. It's all in the context, Steve." Tony grinned, patting Steve's foot and letting his hand rest there.
Steve ignored the tingly warm feeling of Tony's callused hands on his foot. "I think, Molecule Man's got a thing for you. He's always trying to get you naked."
"A lot of people's got a thing for getting me naked. Magazines and new sites pay the paparazzi big money to see Tony Stark's latest shitfest."
Steve's distaste must've shown on his faces because Tony was quick to squeeze his foot. "Don't worry your pretty head about it, Cap. These days, it's pretty much all Avengers related and people tend to forget about it pretty quick. I'm used to it."
"Even if you're used to it, it doesn't mean you should let them do that to you, Tony." It galls him that people make money out of humiliating others. He hated bullies - whatever shape or form they take. And it made him really angry that people would do that to Tony who does his best to help and risks his life again and again to save others.
"You can't help the way people are, Steve. Scandal sells." Tony gave his foot another squeeze. "We just have to do what we can and ignore the shit other people say. If we spend all our time trying to please everyone, we wouldn't get anything done."
"Hush," Tony said and tugged on his foot until he stretched his leg and it rested on Tony's lap. "Relax, Cap. You're gonna trigger your asthma. Come on. Feet up."
There was a squirmy feeling at the pit of his stomach as he put both his feet on Tony's lap. As much as he liked having Tony being so casual with his touches, he hated how it got his hopes up even if he doesn't want to. He knows it doesn't mean anything to Tony. He just couldn't help himself and he couldn't bring himself to tell Tony off. He would take whatever physical contact from the man that he could.
He told himself he wouldn't feel guilty about it but he did. It felt like betraying Tony's trust, lusting and wanting more from the man who was being a good friend. But damned if he was going to give it up.
"What are you doing?" Even to himself he sounded amused.
"Relaxing you. You're too wound up. Chill, Capsicle," Tony told him and followed it up with rubbing and massaging his feet.
He was mortified at the groan and whimper the pokes and kneading of Tony's hands did to him.
Tony laughed. "Glad you're enjoying yourself."
He willed his blush to go down. "It's so good. Never had my feet massaged before."
"Aww, I took your foot massage virginity. I'm honored," Tony lifted a hand to his heart solemnly, then grinned when Steve narrowed his eyes. "Relax. I learned some of these reflexology stuff from a lady at a spa. It's supposed to stimulate your body and help you with a lot of things."
Tony had one hand cradling his ankle and the other pressing and prodding at his foot. If the hand on his ankle got a bit higher, Steve was in danger of his body responding to being stimulated too. When Tony's thumb pressed on a particular spot, Steve involuntarily groaned and promptly blushed.
"That sounded absolutely pornographic," Tony commented, chuckling.
"Took me by surprise..." Steve sullenly tried not to impersonate a tomato.
Tony winked. "Feel free to voice your pleasure."
"Am I interrupting something? Should I come back later?" came Natasha's voice from the doorway.
"Oh hey, Nat! You're here! Nice haircut." Tony turned his head to the door but didn't let go of Steve's foot. "Come in. Steve's getting a foot rub and making the hottest sounds."
Steve winced when Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. He promptly changed the subject. "How are you? Did you find anyone?"
"I found Betty Ross wandering in the forest. We wanted to look for Bruce but didn't know where to start so when the beacon came up, I convinced her we needed to head back here," Natasha replied, walking to one of the armchairs and sitting on it. Her eyes flicked to Steve's foot and then caught his eyes. There was a knowing look there that made Steve want to beg the ground to swallow him but he didn't because that was ridiculous. And also, if Loki was listening, the floor might just open up and eat him. Not good.
"Have you eaten yet?" He asked and noted that he kind of liked her hair. It had been chopped short and unevenly. Knowing it was previously meters long, Natasha probably went crazy with the scissors.
"No. I came straight here," Natasha replied.
Steve met Tony's eyes. Tony cocked his head and shrugged.
"Find a room. Get cleaned up and settled. Then get some dinner. We'll debrief in an hour and a half at the dining hall. Tell, everyone," he said.
Natasha gave him a nod and stood up. She didn't say anything about Steve's size, just passed behind him and gave him a quick squeeze on one bony shoulder. Whatever she did behind him that had Tony grinning, he didn't know.
When he raised his eyebrows at the other man, Tony just lifted his hands and shrugged, still grinning, before going back to massage his feet.
They've been doing that a lot these past couple of years, kind of just knowing or guessing what the other is about to say. Years of friendship and working together had made that possible. It was one of the things that made Steve keep his feelings to himself. Their relationship was at its best. He didn't want things to change. He didn't want to impose on Tony and make him uncomfortable.
He knew about Tony's equal opportunity policy. He still remembered his shock when he saw him kissing a man during the Avengers' early years. His one night stands were often women though and they out-numbered the men by a LOT. This past year, tony hadn't been dating much and if he did, he didn't bring them back to the tower. When Steve asked him in passing, --no he wasn't fishing at all damnit - Tony's answer had been, 'Too busy.' He didn't want to point out that Tony hadn't been 'Too busy' before but since it sort of benefitted his mental and emotional health not to see Tony half naked and cavorting with someone else, he just went with it.
"Do you think you'll finally meet your princess at the ball?" He asked.
Tony's incredulous look was hilarious. "Where the hell did that come from?"
Steve shrugged, trying not to sound worried or affected. He was succeeding. Probably. "Well, since you're having a ball and you're a prince, there must be a princess out there for you. She might even be the one, Tony. You probably know her too, since everyone who's not under the spell is someone directly in contact with us."
Tony snorted, chuckling. "If that's true, I only have a handful of people left and none of them are women. Unless it's Maria Hill or your girl, Cap."
"Aunt Peg's niece. Sharon."
Steve made a face. "She's not my girl. We dated a few years back. We're just friends now."
"You still go out though."
Steve choked back a whimper when Tony's fingers poked a particularly sensitive spot. "Yeah. We're good friends."
Tony gave him a knowing look and he gave Tony an impassive face. One he reserved for annoying senators and nosy reporters.
"Oh well," Tony said and kept massaging his feet and calves through his pants. It was very distracting but damned if Steve would say anything to stop it. "I've never been lucky when it comes to this true love bullshit. But getting lucky at parties is kinda my shtick so we'll see how it goes, Cap. "
"Yeah." Steve nodded and tried to sound enthusiastic but it fell flat.
Tony gave him an encouraging smile. "Don't worry, Steve. We'll get out of this."
He was helpless not to sadly smile back.
"So Pepper, Clint and Coulson were in Little Red Riding Hood. Natasha is Rapunzel and I'm just assuming Bucky's supposed to be the one who rescues her but he was late."
"I'm a prince and Rhodey's my right hand man but I have no idea what kinda story I'm in. I'm assuming Cinderella unless there's some sleeping princess somewhere I need to rescue but I'm not leaving here until everyone else is present and accounted for, sleeping beauty or no."
"What's Steve then?" Bucky asked.
"Maybe I'm a footman for Tony or something," Steve replied, shrugging. "He'd need one if he's going to look for the lady who fits the glass slipper. What? Not all of us can be Prince and Princesses. Some of us are just regular folk."
"Amen to that," Rhodey replied and toasted them with his teacup. "So what's the plan, Cap?"
"Betty's not sure where Bruce is but he must be out here somewhere. Assuming Loki put him here with us. If he doesn't get here by tomorrow, someone should get out there and look," Steve suggested and nodded at Bucky who raised his hand to volunteer for the search. "You go first thing tomorrow, Buck."
"I'll come with." Betty interrupted when they were about to protest. "If he Hulks out, I'm the fastest way to calm him down."
"Alright," Steve conceded because she had a point. "You leave at oh seven hundred tomorrow and be back at eighteen hundred, regardless of whether you find him or not."
Upon receiving confirmations, he turned back to the task at hand. "We still have Sam, Vision, Thor, Scott, Jan, Carol and Jess unaccounted for. That's not counting Fury and Hill and Thor's team. The Ball's tomorrow night. If we leave in different directions early tomorrow, we should be back before it starts."
Tony unrolled a map on the table and smirked as the others stood up to look at it. "It was in the library. You gotta give Loki props for authenticity."
The map was on aged parchment but not so old that it looked brown. They figured this reality was an amalgamation of seventeen to early nineteen hundreds. They haven't seen any cars or electricity but there were other semi-modern amenities around the palace and each of them had pocket watches.
"It's a little too Lord of the Rings, but it's better than nothing," Tony said as he swept his hand across the surface. The map itself was simplified, showing different areas of supposed landmarks. "The entirety of the dome isn't all that big. We could probably go from end to end in give or take twelve hours on horseback." Tony pointed to somewhere in the middle. "We are here."
"Judging from the direction we came from, Natasha's tower was here." Bucky pointed south of the castle.
Together, they figured out where they had been and organized the directions of the search.
"We'll go in teams of two. Sweep the area in different directions. Rhodey and I will take the North," Steve said as he pointed to the direction of the forest. "Pietro will be able to cover more ground but in his condition, he should have a partner."
"It's okay, Cap. I can do this alone," Pietro assured him. "If I take someone else, they'll just slow me down. No offense."
"None taken," Steve replied. "Still, it's better to have back-up so we'll stick to a two person team."
"I will go with my brother," Wanda volunteered. "We are stronger together."
"Alright. Try and steer clear of too many adults. They won't be too keen on seeing children travelling alone even in daytime." The twins nodded. "You take the East from here to here since you've covered some of those parts already." He pointed to the area which they needed to check. "Clint and Coulson will take the West area. Bucky and Betty will take these parts here. Natasha the South."
"I thought we were supposed to be in two person teams?" Tony asked. "Why's Nat going alone?"
"She's already covered most of it previously, it shouldn't be a problem," Steve replied.
"But what about me?" There was definitely protest in Tony's voice now.
"You should stay here with Pepper in case someone comes up--"
"If this is a dig about me being useless without my armor--"
"Tony," Steve cut in. "You're never useless with or without your armor. If anyone is useless right now, that'd be me."
"Steve--" Bucky and Tony objected in unison.
He gave them a wry smile. "Anyway, if you really wanna go, Tones, I could team up with--"
"Me." Tony supplied. "Rhodey can go with Natasha. Either of us will only slow her down."
"Okay. So that's set. Pepper, you hold the fort. Alert the guards in case anyone arrives. Also, it'd be nice to have some food and water for the trip tomorrow." Steve told her.
"I'll handle it," Pepper replied, ever efficient. "Everyone will have their horses ready after breakfast and the palace will be lit before you arrive. Someone should make a flare or something to alert the rest if anyone finds someone."
Tony raised his hand. "I'll whip something up."
When they've made sure that everyone was done, they adjourned to get some rest.
On one hand, Steve was relieved that only a few people appeared to be under the dome in Loki's control. He didn't know where the rest of the population were and just hoped they were alright. He wasn't even sure the rest of the team were inside. They could be outside the dome fighting to get them out. There were so many unknown variables and he couldn't do anything but work with what was in front of him now.
Steve stared at the map and hoped that they found the rest of their team tomorrow. He startled when a hand clapped him on the shoulder.
"Don't worry, Cap." Tony squeezed his shoulder, jostling him closer. "If they're in here with us, we'll find them."
He forced a smile and nodded at Tony, wanting to lean more into his solid warmth.
"Get some rest. See you tomorrow." He yelped when Tony slapped him on the butt. Tony grinned widely at him when he narrowed his eyes. "Good night, Cap."
Steve secretly smiled as he walked back to his room, his left butt cheek still stinging a little from Tony's palm.
"You know, I didn't fucking sign up to be a lumberjack and--"Tony grunted as he swung his sword down at the thick vines curling around the even thicker trunk of the huge beanstalk that went all the way up to the sky. "I am not a fan of chopping down trees. Have I told you I'm not a fan of chopping down trees?"
"Time and again, Tony," Steve huffed as he hacked at the vines with his not so considerable strength and tried his best not to start wheezing.
"I am an advocate of clean energy, Steve! Chopping down trees is not a thing I encourage," Tony punctuated the words with a mighty swing of his sword to the trunk.
Well, Steve thought it was mighty, though it hardly dented the beanstalk. He was biased. "I know, Tony. But I think having a giant coming down the beanstalk to eat us is enough encouragement to chop it down."
"Sad but true," Tony panted as he hacked another piece of the beanstalk. "Scott!!! Get down here quick and help us!"
"I'm trying!" Scott Lang yelled from a few feet above them, the giant not so far behind. Or maybe it was just the size of the giant that was making Steve think that it wasn't far behind. It was big and ugly and thankfully not human. He didn't think he could kill it if it was a fifty foot tall mind-controlled human.
"Steve, get the dynamites from my pack," Tony pointed to his horse a ways away from their frantic hacking and chopping. "I think this is deep enough to plant them in."
"You have dynamites in your pack?" Steve asked incredulously.
"Yes." Tony flashed him a grin. "You never know when you might need to blow shit up. Like right now, Steve! Go!"
Steve scrambled to get to the horse just as Scott dropped down from what might be a great height for a normal human-- those parkour skills come in handy - and joined Tony in hacking away the beanstalk with a golden ax he had strapped on his back. He had to give the guy props for stealing something useful and not stupid, like a golden harp that ratted you out when you tried to take it.
"Steve, buddy, hurry!" Tony yelled as he carved a chunk of sap and fibrous plant material -he didn't know what it was called okay - out of the beanstalk.
Steve grabbed dynamite sticks from the pack in both hands and ran back into the fray.
It had been a peaceful morning, until they came upon the beanstalk and Tony cursed a blue streak. Because really. Of all things to walk into, it had to be The Beanstalk. It deserved all the capital letters. It was huge.
Then they spotted Scott climbing down like Spiderman, yelling to them to 'Cut the tree! Cut the fucking tree, Stark!'
Steve shot a green flare - it was fireworks really - up the sky to signal Pepper at the tower that they found someone and then ran back to help Tony hack at the beanstalk.
"Stick 'em in there, Cap!" Tony moved aside so Steve could plant the dynamite into the little cavern he carved out of the beanstalk then quickly went to work on the fuse. "Get back guys!"
Scott was still hacking at the trunk from the other side. "He's halfway down, Stark! Come on!"
Tony grunted in reply, stringing the fuses together with nimble fingers only semi-clean of tree gunk.
The giant roared from above and if possible descended faster. "Tony..."
"I'm gonna light 'em up! Move guys, move!" Tony ordered, flailing his arms to wave them away.
Steve saw him produce a box of matches from one of his hip pouches and cursed when the first one died before he could touch the fuse.
Steve's breaths quickened, his heartbeat sped up at the thought of Tony getting blown up with the beanstalk or the giant reaching them. He did his best to not make it worse but his body was an asshole and wouldn't listen.
"Tony!" He called just as Tony exclaimed, "Got it!" and started running towards him. "Run, Steve!"
The three of them raced as fast as they could away from the beanstalk, Steve's heart pounding so hard in his ears he almost didn't hear the explosion.
"Fuck! Fuck!" He vaguely heard Tony chanting before Steve felt a hard blow at his ribs, sending him flying to the side, hitting the back of his head on the ground and rolling on the grass just as a huge chunk of beanstalk came crashing a few inches away from him sending dirt and rocks and sap raining down.
Steve's ears were ringing, his entire body ached, his vision blurred and his ribs throbbed so hard he thought it might be broken. Dust and dirt kept falling from where the beanstalk and the giant had dropped. He wasn't one to wish death on anyone but he fervently hoped the giant was dead. He didn't think they'd survive if they had to battle it now. Plus, he couldn't stop his ears from ringing.
"Tony!" he called even as his ribs protested. "Scott! Ironman! Antman! Report!"
"Here, Cap! Just need a second!" Scott yelled from somewhere.
Steve tried to stand and winced at the sharp pain at his ribs. "Tony!"
Steve pushed himself up, willing his battered body to move. You'd been beat up worse than this! Don't be a fucking wuss, Rogers!
He walked -more like hunched and dragged himself- to the direction of Tony's voice, clutching his ribs. Tony was just over the huge vine that almost crushed Steve and was still sprawled on the ground, blinking dazedly up at the sky. He looked a little worse for wear, his tunic and vest stained and dirty and his hair sticking up in all directions with grass in them. Dirt and grime stuck to his face and the bloodied gash on his forehead looked like it would be an awesome bump soon.
"You look like shit," Steve said, instead of dropping to his knees and kissing Tony saying, 'You're okay!' over and over again. He patted his stubborn self-control on the back.
Tony chuckled. "Thanks, Cap. So do you. Help me up. No wait, don't--"
Steve whimpered - he will vehemently deny it later - as the pain flared in his ribs and spots bloomed in his vision then he fell face first onto Tony. Sprawled gracelessly right over him with their limbs tangled and his face buried in Tony's neck and he couldn't even enjoy it because his entire ribcage was on fire and his ears were ringing, again. And he couldn't breathe.
He felt Tony's arms circle his back and rub comfortingly. "You okay, Cap?"
"Uh, guys. I don't think this is the time for that. But if you want, I can just look away and um-- I'll be over there--"
Steve's face would be a tomato now if he could find shits to give about anything except trying to breathe and keep himself from passing out from the pain.
"Goddamnit, Scott! Help me out here!" Tony yelled urgently.
Then hands were moving him and Tony was sitting him between his legs and damn that fucking hurt his ribs but the pressure on his chest eased a bit.
"Breathe, Steve. Come on, Avenger. It's just the dust and dirt and excitement. Nothing to worry about. Just breathe. Please. Don't pass out on me."
Tony's hand rubbed up and down his back. Steve could feel him breathing with him like Tony was willing him to follow his lead and Steve did. Eventually his vision cleared and he could breathe more evenly even if his ribs still hurt like hell.
"I'm fine. I'm okay," he assured in between labored breaths. He gave them a pained smile. "Sorry about that."
Scott gave him a strained smile in return. "Not your fault, Cap."
"Let's have your ribs looked at then we need to get you back to the palace," Tony said even as his palm rubbed distractingly up and down Steve's back like he wasn't aware he was still doing it.
"I'm fine," Steve insisted but gingerly got up and let himself be checked out. His ribs were mottled in bruises and tender to the touch. His head throbbed and he was sure there was bump at the back of his skull.
"There might be a fracture," Tony said as he did his best to bandage his ribs. "And maybe a mild concussion, your eyes are kinda glassy. Best not to aggravate it. Sorry I pushed you so hard."
He blinked at Tony's guilty expression. It then dawned on him that it was Tony who pushed him out of the way of that vine. Tony had saved him from being crushed by a vine and felt guilty because he may have cracked Steve's ribs. Of all the stupid idiotic things to feel. "Better a fractured rib and a concussion than a Captain America pancake, Tony."
Tony flinched and Steve had to reach out and squeeze his arm in reassurance. It was either that or hug him. He figured the hug would be too much and his ribs wouldn't thank him for it. Or Tony.
He smiled at Tony. "Thanks for saving my life, again."
Tony smiled back, a little lopsided like he didn't think he deserved it. "Anytime, Cap."
"We should probably go," Scott, with his usual impeccable timing, chimed in before things got awkward. "I'm kinda scared that the giant will get up. I don't exactly have the strength of fifty men right now."
Steve was glad for the reprieve and let Tony lead him back to the horse while telling him to let them know if they needed to stop or if he felt dizzy and wanted to puke.
Steve thought that at least now he had an excuse to skip the ball and not have to watch Tony find his princess.
It was almost night time when they got to the castle. The beacon was up and there were a few carriages pulling up the front entrance. They circled to the side, avoiding the guests. They didn't want to people seeing Prince Anthony battered and dressed like a commoner.
They slipped in through the kitchen, startling the cooks and servants into curtseying and fussing over Tony.
"I'm fine," Tony waved them away. "Just had a bit of fun. No need to worry. Carry on."
Pepper rushed into the kitchen, followed by Rhodey, who ushered them to a passage to the upper levels where the bedrooms were. "Tony! What happened!?"
"The giant and the beanstalk happened," Tony replied, unconcerned. "Who's back? Steve needs to get checked out."
"I'll go get Bruce." Rhodey volunteered and was out of Tony's bedroom.
"Bruce is back? That's great! Who else?" Tony asked and when he spotted Steve still lingering by the doorway, waved him in. "Sit down, Steve! You too, Scott."
"Actually, I just need a bath and a change of clothes. And food," Scott replied from the door. "Preferably in that order."
"The room next door is empty, man. I'll get you a change of clothes. You probably fit in Bucky's or Sam's." Rhodey told the other man.
"Thanks, man. I'll see you guys later." Scott waved at them and went off to find his room, greeting Bruce along the way.
Bruce hurried into the room, followed by Bucky. Bruce looked from Steve to Tony and Pepper, probably trying to decide who to check first.
"Tony, first. He's got a party to attend," Steve said.
"Nope. Steve first, Brucey. I'm fine. He's got a concussion and cracked ribs." Tony insisted. "I'll just take a bath. Be back for my check-up in a bit."
Steve sighed, looking at Tony's retreating back. He was still a bit dizzy from the travelling and his ribs still hurt. "Hey, Bruce. How are you?"
Bruce chuckled. "You're the one with broken ribs, Steve. We're all fine. Take off your shirt, please."
"Buck, report?" Steve requested as he took off his shirt. Pepper excused herself and went after Tony. Steve had been in too many physical exams to be embarrassed by this body but that didn't mean he liked how under-nourished and sickly he looked whenever he was shrunk down to his original self. He usually gets less sickly looking after a few weeks of good food and medicine but with only three days of being fun size, he hadn't had the time to build muscle and acclimatize.
Bruce quietly checked him, poked and prodded at his battered torso and asked him to follow his finger with his eyes as Bucky ran him up to speed.
"Every one's back except Thor. We got Jane and Darcy and her boyfriend. They were from a different kingdom and their castle didn't have towers as high as ours, probably why they didn't see the beacon. They got the invitation for the ball though so they got here early," Bucky explained. "We also found Dr. Selvig. He was Gippeto and Vision was Pinocchio which is all kinds of mind fuck. Sam was the cricket, they said. But they got turned back when he and Vision saved some folks on their way back."
"Does Vision have his powers back?" Steve asked. "We need him to scan for energy signatures."
"Nope. He's a real boy now," Bucky said dryly. "Don't ask. This place is weird."
"Okay..." Steve hedged and actually didn't want to ask about that right now. "The rest?"
"Carol, Jessica and Jan are fairies. I think Jan's Tinkerbell. She's glowin' and everythin'. They had to fight some insect things to get here but they're all fine. In fact, I think you guys were the only ones to get hurt."
"Wow. I feel so special," Steve said wryly.
"Betty and I found Bruce, Hulked out in a castle up North. But Betty calmed him. I think he was supposed to be Beast, in the Beauty and the Beast," Bucky continued. "No one's heard or seen Thor, not even Jane. Maybe Loki left him out."
"It's possible," Steve shrugged, "Maybe he kept Thor as an audience. That guy's a diva."
Bruce had just finished inspecting Steve's ribs when Tony wandered into the room in only a towel, his chest smooth without the arc reactor. The lack kind of bothered Steve but not as much as his sudden reaction to naked Tony. Almost naked Tony with his tanned skin damp from the bath and his hair wet and sticking up, his lean toned muscles all on display. Naked, gorgeous Tony with warm brown eyes smiling at Steve when he saw him still in the room. It was too much for him to stick around and not start hyperventilating while popping a boner.
"Okay," Steve started. "I'll get out of your hair, Bruce. Gonna take a bath and relax for a while. Best not to jostle my head too much right?" He asked, but didn't wait for a reply before grabbing his shirt. "It's Tony's turn for a check-up. That gash needs help if he wants to rake in all the dames."
"Excuse you," Tony interrupted. "This gash makes me look dashing."
"If you say so, Stark," he quipped already heading out the room, Bucky at his heels.
"Come see me after your bath, Steve," Bruce called. "I need to bandage your torso."
"Sure. No problem," he replied, waving at Tony and dragging Bucky with him.
When they slammed out of the room, Bucky raised an eyebrow at him and opened his mouth to speak--
"Not one word, Buck."
Bucky, the little shit, just waggled his eyebrows and smirked.
Steve could hear the music and the laughter from inside the castle as he sat in the garden looking at the fountain without actually seeing it. He was using the light from the outdoor lamp next to the bench to sketch. He started with Natasha in her red dress dancing with Bucky. It made him smile. He sketched in Sam and Clint. Then it started going downhill from there. Sketches upon sketches of Tony in his suit. Some dancing with faceless women, all of them wearing elegant dresses and hinting how beautiful they were.
"You gonna hide here mopin' all night, punk?"
Steve glanced up from his sketchbook at Bucky then went back to staring at the fountain in the middle of the garden. It wasn't like he was hiding, he just didn't want to see Tony dancing with all the pretty ladies at the ball. He certainly didn't want to see Tony find his one true love. Love sucks.
"I can't dance," he said instead. "Besides, Bruce said to relax and not aggravate my ribs or my concussion."
"When did that stop you before?"
He gave Bucky a wry grin. "Not exactly Captain America right now, Bucky."
"Please," Bucky scoffed, standing next to the bench he was sitting on. "You're always Captain America. You're the stubborn asshole who doesn't know when to give up, even when he was a four feet tall righteous ball of rage with too much courage than sense."
He just smiled at that. In the field he could be that but he doesn't feel like that right now. Not when so much is at stake. When everything rides on Tony finding his princess.
"Here," Bucky tossed him a flask. "Contraband."
"Don't tell Bruce." He grinned and took a swig. And another. A few minutes later, the warmth that slid down his throat and into his belly, spread to his limbs. "Go back to the party and dance with the Natasha, Buck."
"Eh. Needed to knock some sense into you first. We're all gettin' tired of your pinin'."
He rolled his eyes and tossed the flask back to Bucky. "Go back to the party. Don't make me beat you up. My ribs can't take it."
"Stark's lookin' for ya', by the way. Might wanta' get back in there before he goes lookin' and he misses his dance."
"Yeah, yeah. I'll be there in a bit," he waved Bucky away.
He sat back, mindful of his ribs and leaned his head on the backrest of the bench, closing his eyes. It's only an hour til midnight. Tony's probably met his princess by now.
Oh wow. Ouch. That fucking hurts to think about. The ache sat on his chest like it won't ever go away, reminding Steve that Tony wasn't ever going to be his.
He was startled into opening his eyes when a bright light penetrated it and was confronted by Nick Fury, in a sparkly gown with matching eyepatch and heels, holding a wand.
Steve had two seconds to ask himself if he'd fallen asleep before Nick glared at him and drawled. "So I was sittin' in SHEILD with Hill tryin' to figure out how to get the fuckin' dome off half the city when I get a visit from goddamned Loki, telling me to suit up because he was losing a bet with Amora. Apparently, Cinderella wasn't even close to bagging the Prince even though said Prince was an easy mark."
"What?" Steve didn't understand half of that. "Do we need to find Cinderella? Are you the fairy godmother-- father?"
Fury's uncovered eye twitched. "That was Marlon Brando. Now you, get up off your skinny ass and do your thing before this damn dome becomes permanent at midnight."
"What do I need to do?" He asked, standing up, suppressing a wince at the twinge in his ribs.
"Well, first, you gotta get dressed for the part. You look like a hobo compared to those people inside."
Steve looked down at his shirt and vest and was about to protest that he looked okay when Fury brandished his wand and pointed it at him.
"What's that damn line again?" He muttered, rubbing his beard. "Oh yeah. Bippity bobbity boo!"
Steve yelped as his clothes changed into formal wear and he was suddenly dressed to the nines. With glass... Shoes. That were probably magical because they felt like leather and didn't break when he jumped about a foot in shock. "What the hell?"
"I know," Nick rolled his eyes and generally looked like he was disappointed in the world for surrounding him with idiots. "Of all people, you and Stark had to have a mad-on for each other. I don't even wanna ask why. Just go and don't fuckin' fail me, Cap. These heels are killin' my feet."
"What?!" Steve was still reeling.
He whipped around when he heard Tony's voice from behind. Then sucked his breath and clutched at his ribs in pain.
Tony was at his side in an instant, hands on his shoulders, steadying him. "You okay?"
"Yes," he breathed out, tuning out the pain.
"Why are you out here? Was that Fury? In a dress?" Tony asked. He held Steve at arm’s length and whistled. "Very dashing, Cap. Wait... Are those glass--"
"Oh." Tony breathed, meeting Steve's eyes. "It's you."
He swallowed, throat dry and heart hammering in his chest. "What?"
"It's you," Tony said, almost in a whisper. He was close, so close that Steve could feel the warmth of his body though only his hands were on Steve's shoulders. "I wanted it to be you."
"Tony..." He didn't know what to say. He didn't want to hope too much. This could just be the spell working.
"Maybe it's just the spell," Tony said, mirroring Steve's thoughts. "I wanted it to be you so badly maybe Loki thought it'd be fun to mess with me like this. But if this is all I will ever have with you, I'll take it."
Steve didn't know whether to laugh or cry. This was all he ever wanted. But he didn't even know if it was real. "Tony."
"Have you turned into a Pokemon? Did Loki zap you into just saying my name over and over?" Tony asked worriedly.
That got a laugh out of Steve. "Tony, shut up. You didn't even give me a chance to say anything!"
Tony chuckled and looking like he was about two seconds from hugging him. Steve wouldn't object, really, cracked ribs be damned.
"So, um. Yeah. In the off chance that I am hallucinating, I would really like to kiss you. If you're okay with that," Tony added, biting his lip and looking sheepish.
"Yes. I'd like that too. Also preferably before midnight. Because we have a deadline." Steve replied, laughter bubbling in his chest. He could feel the warmth spreading and the giddy feeling making him want to gasp for breath. Stupid asthma.
"Not a fan of deadlines. Just ask Pepper," Tony babbled, even as he moved a bit closer and their bodies met and Steve had to look up to meet his eyes. "Deadlines suck. They make me stressed. They're the mmph--"
Steve kissed him. It was-- not perfect. Their teeth clacked and their lips mashed and their noses bumped and they pulled back snickering. And Steve couldn't be happier. He just hoped this wasn't a bad dream. "Try again?"
"Yeah. Just--" Tony tilted his head and slowly dipped down and brushed their lips softly, making Steve's lips tingle, before slotting their lips together. And then it was perfect.
Well, it'd probably get even better with more kissing but it was perfect for now.
When they pulled apart, breathless and giddy, thunder and lightning lit the sky, and a frog, twirling a miniature of Thor's hammer descended from the sky. "Friends! I am overjoyed to find that you finally realized your love for each other."
"Uh." He and Tony stared at each other and back at the frog.
Tony made a face. "I got nothin'."
Thor -the frog- landed on the fountain and smiled at them. It was kind of creepy. "I apologize for intruding on such momentous occasion but have you found my beloved Jane? I have been searching for her in all of the lands but have not been able to fly before this day. I had to defeat several foes to prove my worth to Mjolnir. Alas, I vanquished the treacherous rodents and am once more able to wield my hammer! And just in time too!"
"Thor, buddy," Tony interrupted before the demigod started spouting tales of glorious battles and they missed the deadline entirely. "Jane's in the great hall. You should probably hurry. You only have about thirty minutes to midnight."
"Aye! I shall make haste!" Then he was off, twirling that mini-hammer.
Steve and Tony watched him go. When he was far from earshot, they both burst out laughing.
"Aren't you glad you didn't turn into a frog?" Tony asked snickering.
"You're the one who would turn into a frog, Prince Anthony," Steve teased, grin splitting his face.
Tony laughed and snagged him by the upper arm, reeling him into an embrace. "You owe me a dance, Cinderella."
Steve smiled, loving how well they fit together. He wondered how they'd fit when he gets his buffed up self back. Tony leaned their heads together, hands circling Steve's lower back. "We're gonna be smiling like idiots for a long time, aren't we?"
Tony chuckled, swaying to the music from inside the castle. "Probably."
Steve grinned at that. He couldn't seem to stop grinning like the idiot he was. He wound his hands behind Tony's neck, scratching the prickly hair at his nape.
Tony shivered, eyes darkening. "You probably should wait until we're alone before you do that..."
"We're kind of alone," Steve replied, swaying with Tony. God. He wanted to lick Tony's upper lip and his goatee.
"After all this shit's done, I mean. I'd really hate to be interrupted--"
An explosion rocked the castle. Followed by people screaming.
"Goddamned sorcerers," Tony muttered. He set Steve away from him. "Stay here. I'll go help the others."
"What? No! I'm not stayin' here!" Steve protested indignantly.
"You're injured, Cap!" Tony yelled as he ran for the castle doors.
Steve ran after him, ignoring the pain in his ribs and yelped when of all the stupid times, his glass shoe fell off his foot. "Goddamnit! Really?!"
"Well, there's much to be said for authenticity, Captain."
He glared at Loki who materialized a few feet from him. "You turn us all back! Right now!"
The demigod raised his hands, palms up. "Can't. Thor hasn't kissed his beloved mortal yet. Amora's a sore loser. I believe she has turned herself into a dragon."
As if to confirm this, a loud roar sounded from within the castle. "Well, give me back my strength so I can help my friends!"
"Alas, the rules require that you all fulfill your quests for the super-humans to regain your full potential," Loki reasoned.
"And you can't break the damn rules? How come Amora's out there all dragoned up?" Steve wanted to punch Loki in the face but he will probably break his hand.
"Because she did not bet on you mortals being able to break the spell before midnight. I did," Loki replied, bemused. "And while she is allowed to interfere at the last half an hour, I am forbidden to oppose her in combat."
"Well, what the hell can you do then?!" Steve demanded as he ran to the castle, almost breathless. Loki, the bastard, was keeping up with him, long strides leisurely eating up the path.
Loki pursed his lips, considering, like he had all the time in the world. "I can aid you mortals, within said rules."
"Tony!" Steve exclaimed as he saw Tony get swatted away by the fire breathing dragon.
Tony raised his hand and got up again. "I'm okay, Cap! Stay back!"
He could see the rest of his team trying to contain the dragon as people ran out of the castle. Steve tried to remember which of the damned fairy tales had a dragon in it. Thor - the frog- hit it with Mjolnir but it bounced off the scaly beast. Carol, Jan and Jessica were stinging its eyes while Sam, Rhodey and Scott were doing their best to get closer without getting fried. Natasha was using a spear to fend it off while Clint was shooting arrows at it. He managed to get some stuck in between the scales but with the size of the dragon, that didn't even slow it down. The rest of their friends were on crowd control.
"Where's the Hulk?!" He called out.
"Bruce fell asleep a few minutes back and we couldn't wake him up!" Coulson answered from a few feet away, trying to keep debris from hitting civilians.
Steve glared accusingly at Loki, who, irritatingly enough, didn't seem to be visible to the rest of the team.
"Don't blame me, Captain. Amora cast a spell to make the Hulk's vessel fall asleep in the final minutes to ensure he does not interfere."
Steve glanced at his watch. Only five minutes left. He looked at Loki. "If you're going to aid us, aid us! Or Amora's gonna win!"
"Oh well. I do so hate losing." Loki smiled and pointed his staff at Tony. The Ironman armor that had been standing sentry at the throne flew towards him and encased him in seconds. "No flight. Just a fraction of the Ironman strength."
Steve saw Tony pose for flight but couldn't lift off. Steve could almost see him frowning. But when he picked up a chunk of rubble with ease and chucked it at the dragon, he quickly ran into the fray, picking up his sword along the way.
He and Bucky scaled the dragon's back.
"Tick tock, Captain," Loki reminded, smiling. The asshole was enjoying this.
God of Mischief. Right.
Steve looked around for Jane and saw her herding civilians out the gates.
"Thor!" Steve yelled, waving his arms. "Thor! Kiss Jane!"
The frog’s eyes widened, as if only realizing that it was the way to break the spell and sped towards his girlfriend. Only to be slapped by the dragon's tail.
"Shit!" Steve ran towards Jane yelling, "Jane! You gotta get to Thor and kiss him! Go go go! Everyone get the dragon away from Thor and Jane!"
The Avengers moved to corral the dragon as Jane ran towards Thor who was flying towards her. Steve saw the dragon open its mouth, preparing to breathe fire at them. "Tony! Bucky! Mouth! Snap it shut!"
Tony raised his sword and plunged it in the dragon's snout. Bucky followed it up with a heave burying the sword deep. The dragon roared, fire flaring everywhere. Rhodey and Sam made platforms with their arms and tossed Natasha in the air. She thrust her spear at the soft underside of the dragon's neck, skewering its mouth shut.
It flailed and thrashed, smoke billowing out of its nose, red hot flame trapped in its throat.
"It's gonna blow!" Someone yelled.
Steve saw Loki grin before disappearing in a shimmer of green.
"Steve!" He heard Tony yell, then he was scooped up, bridal style as Tony ran them out of the castle.
The explosion was loud and rocked the pavement like an earthquake and smelled of grilled chicken.
Magic is weird. He thought vaguely as Tony hunched over him, protecting him from the worst of the grime and rubble.
When the smoke cleared, Tony stood, still holding Steve in his arms. He grinned cheekily at Steve. "Hey, handsome. Fancy seeing you here."
"Goddamnit, Tony. Put me down," he griped and smacked him upside the head with the glass shoe that he had forgotten he was still holding. Ugh.
Tony laughed and they both looked up as the starry sky above dissolved, revealing the bright but starless New York sky.
Buildings around them changed and repaired themselves, as if there wasn't an explosion and an epic battle with a dragon seconds ago.
"Well, at least magic has its uses," Steve muttered.
Tony stared at him like Steve had personally offended all his ancestors.
"Friends! I have returned!" Thor boomed from above them, flying with Jane in his arms.
"Hey, Bud! Glad to see you back!" Tony called out. Even as he said it, his armor changed into his real one, the helmet forming over his head. "Oh hey!"
Steve grinned as the faceplate lifted, revealing Tony's face. "Hey, Shellhead."
"Hey, Cap." Tony replied, smiling.
"I'd really like to get down, now." He wondered if he should be worried that he hadn't turned back yet.
"I don't know..." Tony smirked. "I kinda like you like this."
Steve glared. "Tony--"
Tony grinned and kissed him. He felt the soft rasp of his goatee and the light teasing of his tongue against his lips before Steve parted his and let the other man in.
It was so good. He couldn't get enough. He reached to cup Tony's face in his hands and pulled him closer, wanting more.
"Uh, guys. People are staring." Sam's voice sliced through Steve's muddled thoughts.
"Get a room, you two!" Rhodey yelled but it was laced with laughter.
When Tony pulled back, he was still grinning dopily at Steve. "Hey, Winghead. You're back."
Steve looked down at himself, in his Captain America uniform. He even had his shield right next to Tony’s foot. He was back to his serumed self and his ribs were healing rapidly judging by the twinges he felt when he moved. He pushed at Tony's shoulder to let him go. "Let me stand, Tony. We have to see to the civilians."
Tony pouted but let him down. "They're fine. No one's hurt too badly. I think."
Steve looked around. Ambulances and SHIELD agents were now swarming the place, helping the civilians. The other Avengers were helping out too. He sighed in relief and picked up his shield, comforted by its familiar weight. "We should go help and make sure everyone's okay. Avengers, head back to the Tower when you're done."
"Pizza party in an hour." Tony called. "You there, J?"
"Welcome back, Sir." JARVIS replied on the comms. Steve could hear the relief in the AI's voice. "It is good to have you home."
"Damn right, it is. Order us two dozen boxes from the usual. We'll be home in an hour."
As JARVIS confirmed, Steve moved to meet Nick Fury, sans glittery dress and back in his billowing leather trench coat. "I'm gonna take my team back to the tower, Nick. It's been a long three days."
"I need you to debrief--"
"Nope! Not right now, Godmother Eyepatch," Tony protested, flanking Steve's side. "We're going back home and debriefing tomorrow morning," he said in a tone that promised things will get seriously fucked up if Fury refused.
Fury's eye twitched but he seemed to consider his options. "Fine. Go. Debrief at oh nine hundred tomorrow."
"Thanks, Nick." Steve clapped him on the shoulder and put his shield at his back.
When he turned, Tony was holding out an arm. "Step right up and fly Ironman Airlines. Fast, sleek and smooth sailing. Satisfaction guaranteed."
"Uh-huh," Steve said dryly, as he stepped on Ironman's boot and slung an arm over the neck plate.
"I promise." Tony grinned and the faceplate snapped down. "Hang on."
Steve smiled, his chest tight and warm as he and Tony soared to the skies. He knew they still had a lot to work out and a lot to talk about. But he had a good feeling about this. They had a great team. A family forged through friendship, loyalty, trust and respect. He didn't usually believe in 'happily ever after' but he knew he and Tony will be okay.
"Hey, Steve. Look." Tony paused in mid-air, high above New York.
Steve looked down in awe. He was a city boy at heart and the lights of his city never ceased to amaze him. Even when he knew the things that happen each day down below, the things they fight hard for and the things they fight against, up here, everything was beautiful. He appreciated that.
Tony lifted his faceplate up, his eyes worried. "I'm gonna fuck this up. I just know it."
"Then we'll work things out," Steve replied. "And when I fuck up, we'll set things right again."
Tony searched his face, like he could find all his answers there. "You really believe we can do this?"
"I know we can do this." He really believed that. "Like Wanda said, we are stronger together."
Tony gave him a tentative smile. "If you say so. I believe you."
"Good." Steve leaned in and kissed Tony's lips then smiled goofily. "Take us home, Ironman."
Tony grinned back. "You got it, Cap."
The faceplate snapped down and they soared the rest of the way to the tower.
Yes, Steve thought. We're going to be okay.