Steve yawned, catching a glimpse of green and yellow patchwork outside the jet’s grubby window. He could easily imagine that the world below them had been built and worked over by ants instead of humans; he had never had an ant farm as a child, but he had seen the ads in the magazines the girls had brought out while they waited to preform, and they had always seemed nice enough. It was silly to be thinking about a kid’s toy all of a sudden, yet all he wanted to do now was pull out his sketchbook and get out a few idle doodles of ants wearing overalls and straw hats. He might even do a few of them working with farm machinery.
He poked around in his bag and then remembered that he had left his sketchbook at home for safekeeping. Oh well. At least it was safe where it was instead of off flying into the middle of nowhere with him in a prototype SHIELD jet that had had the words ‘wash me’ written smarmily on the side of it. He turned his attention back to the view, staring at the cotton candy clouds and the tiny shapes in the fields below, all of it pleasantly familiar. That was the nice thing about air travel; it never really changed all that much except to get faster, and maybe a bit more comfortable. Years could go by and farm country would always look just like farm country, at least from up above anyway. The trip was going exceptionally well, which was a miracle all things considered. Autumn wasn’t generally the best time for flights considering how icy things got once the cold started to roll in, but today there had been no problems getting off the runway and out of the city.
Normally he preferred ground transport to flying even in a nice enough jet like this one; he had lost his taste for air travel after crashing into the ice taking down the Red Skull’s bomber all those years ago, and he highly doubted that he would ever enjoy flying again. He begrudgingly put up with the way his stomach gurgling in displeasure, forcing himself to remember that the jet was getting them where they needed to be a heck of a lot faster than a boat or car ever could; the faster they got this over with, the faster he could get home after all.
Usually he didn’t have the time to look out the window like this; there were always a thousand and one different things to do, and most of the time he was in charge of making sure all of those things happened the way they were supposed to happen. Thankfully, today’s mission wasn’t frantic like most ended up being, leaving him plenty of time to think. Bucky always joked that thinking was for idiots; Steve could understand the sentiment considering how many unpleasant things his mind could get up to when left alone to mull things over like this. Still, he couldn’t complain. The change in pace was nice, almost like he was getting a holiday of sorts and god knows he hadn’t had one of those in years.
The changing landscape below was extraordinarily hypnotic, but that might have been because he was two blinks away from blacking out. He hoped to god that he wasn’t muttering things under his breath again; the last thing he wanted now was Bucky giving him shit about it. He knew that Bucky meant well, but sometimes it was nice to let things drop every once in a while. Steve looked to his right and saw that as expected, Bucky was busy taking his pre-mission nap sans boots, his white and green lucky spotted socks out on display; the other Avengers were going through their own rituals.
Natasha was busy sharpening her throwing knifes, mumbling something to herself in Russian. Bruce was studiously reading the tactical briefing they had been given by a very harassed looking Coulson; Thor was reading over his shoulder, having forgotten his at home. Clint was busy making fun of the both of them, as usual. It was nice to not be the only one reading the briefing in his off time for once; he always tried to make sure that he kept up to date, but some days it was harder than others to get motivated. As the leader of the Avengers, he felt that it was his duty to be as prepared as possible when heading out on any mission be it big or small. They might have teased him about his obsession with rereading briefings, but he was pretty sure they knew that he was doing it for a good reason. He had lost two night’s sleep this mission and he didn’t regret his decision; those lost hours had been spent poring over the documentation that the illustrious Doctor Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, had sent over to SHIELD as a favor.
According to the mission briefing a portal had sprung to life in an unspecified location in the Arctic, and from what Steve could gather it had appeared all by itself with no source or caster to be found – at least not in their plane of existence; the location itself had been wiped from the report, which made Steve sure that something was going in the background that SHIELD didn’t want them to see.
The Sorcerer Supreme had seemed surprised by the sudden appearance portal, although it was debatable as to whether he was actually surprised or not; Steve had never met the man, but according to Fury he was a tough guy to understand. Of course Fury hadn’t used those exact words, but Steve had gotten the gist of it. Strange was acting as a consultant on this case, unable to directly attend to the situation as he was currently fighting something called a Dormammu. Steve wasn’t sure what that was, but he assumed that it was something dangerous if it had warranted Strange’s full attention.
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. He looked down at the printouts spread across his lap, wishing that the font was just a teensy bit bigger; it was getting harder and harder to read all the magical mumbo-jumbo, although he didn’t really need to reread it. He had memorized most of the information the first time around, so it wasn’t like he was going to miss anything. It was certainly something he hadn’t seen before.
The portal was connecting Earth to a demonic world occupied by lust demons – Incubi and Succubi, creatures who had no real contact with the human world outside of magical intervention and dreams. It was certainly a change up from their normal enemies; not that they were enemies at the moment. SHIELD could have probably dealt with the woefully underdressed Succubus and Incubus cast-outs on their own, but he suspected SHIELD didn’t really want to have to deal with them anymore than Steve did. Oh well. At least it wasn’t Hydra screwing around with forces they couldn’t control again; he would take naked lust demons over Hydra miscreants any day. SHIELD had at least had the presence of mind to tell them that they were around strictly for protection and observation, nothing else. The demons hadn’t been aggressive or attacked anybody, but you never knew what would happen when strange demons wandered abroad without supervision. He supposed that was why they had been called in at any rate; the Avengers made cheap babysitters considering Howard Stark picked up their tab.
The pictures SHIELD had included in the briefing were grotesque bordering on obscene; Steve had a hard time believing that the creatures would be much of a danger to anyone. It was clear that they weren’t coming through willingly; someone on the other side was pushing them through. Everyone who had come through the portal was severely wounded. Some had died days before anyone could even get close enough to offer help. If a nearby scientific convoy hadn’t come upon the frostbitten bunch of survivors on a routine scouting mission they would probably have died just like all the others; Steve thought it was a little odd that the scientists had showed up at the same time the demons had, but so far he couldn’t tell if they were doing anything wrong. At least they had called it in before anyone else had suffered unnecessarily.
So far the scientists had rounded up thirty seven living Succubi and three Incubi and none of them were talking. It wasn’t like they were unwilling to speak; most of them were just too broken down and injured to spit out the words. Their language was modeled after the Allspeak – or at least that’s what Thor had assured Steve – and while the scientist had reported a few words being spoken, there was nothing of value in them. Most of what came out was mumbled names, curses and on the rare occasion, battle commands. Some of the survivors were being kept sedated or in medically induced comas; those placed in comas were considered unlikely to survive. They were going to have to go through the portal if they wanted to find out what was going on. Steve didn’t like the idea one bit, but he didn’t see any other options available.
“Quit reading and rest your eyes,” Bucky muttered, trying to get comfortable in his seat. He cracked an eye open, looking none too pleased when he saw that Steve was still trying valiantly to read. “We’re only going to be in the air another few hours. Get some rest Steve. You’re no use to us if you’re dead on your feet.”
Steve sighed and gathered the briefings up, setting them on the floor. He rubbed his eyes. “I guess I’m as prepared as I’m going to be.” He rolled his shoulders and then leaned back into the filthy, ridiculously padded seat letting his eyes close. “Alright. A few minutes and then I’ll be good to go.”
“Sure. I’ll wake you up in a bit,” Bucky murmured.
Three hours later the jet touched down, and Steve woke with a start. He cursed, finding the rest of the team already up and about readying themselves to disembark. Bucky squeezed Steve’s shoulder and mumbled a quiet apology as he fumbled with his boots; Steve tried to hurry himself into his winter armor, zipping his parka up on top of it all before the cold could dig too deeply into his bones. He had never been good with the cold even before he had woken up from the ice. When he had been young the floor in his bedroom had liked to freeze over in the morning if the mercury dipped below zero. Getting up and ready for school had been a real pain; to this day he still kept a spare pair of shoes beside his bed even though he knew damned well that the heater wasn’t going to give out and ice the place up during the night anymore. Bucky teased him about it all the time, but Steve knew for a fact that he wasn’t the only one with a pair of emergency shoes hiding by his bed.
The parka Steve had brought home the first week they had moved in together had gotten more than its fair share of mockery too. Steve had stubbornly refused to take the thing back to the store, content to have it sitting in his closet until the end of time if necessary, a safety precaution just like the shoes. It wasn’t like he was going to outgrow the thing after all, he had reasoned; the serum had taken care of that all on its own. He was glad he had thought to bring the parka along that morning. The look on Bucky’s face was priceless. He could spot jealousy from a mile away and boy did Bucky look cranky.
“I guess the parka isn’t looking quite so bad now, huh Bucky?” Steve teased, zipping up the front of his parka and tugging the hood up over his head.
“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky muttered, fidgeting in his SHIELD issue winter uniform. It was a whole lot tighter and thinner looking than Steve’s parka, and it didn’t look like it was all that much warmer even if it had been designed to withstand blizzard-like conditions; SHIELD’s R&D team had been so proud of it too. It was a real shame. He may have mocked Steve earlier for looking like a giant blue golf ball, but it was clear that he would have stolen the parka away in an instant if he had known he could get away with it.
Bundled up nice and tight like this, Steve figured that the cold might not bring his usual nightmares with it; that would be a nice change. He had woken up in a cold sweat shivering frantically for the past few months, every nightmare getting steadily worse. He was so tired of waking up half out of his mind, his body dripping with cold sweat, his muscles cramped from flailing about in his sleep. He could still taste the water even now. He was sure that there wouldn’t ever be a day in his life where he wouldn’t hear sound of ice cracking above his head as he dropped off to sleep. They weren’t little nightmares; they were full-blown events.
Bucky had ordered him to keep the door open after the last few, afraid of what might happen if Steve woke up trapped in a room he couldn’t recognize in his sleep addled state. If Bucky hadn’t come storming into Steve’s room with a gun drawn a couple of months ago, thinking that Steve was being murdered, Steve was sure he would have smashed his way clean through his bedroom walls to escape the ghastly phantasms that had chased him through his dreams. The nightmares themselves weren’t exactly new additions to their lives. Both of them had their nightly terrors to keep them company and after the ice, and the time Bucky had spent as the Winter Soldier, they both couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep unless sedated; Steve couldn’t even manage that for more than an hour or so. The serum metabolized everything too fast, and sleeping pills lasted mere minutes. He had been tempted to ask them to make him something stronger at first, but the thought of them finding something that could really knock him out had made him nervous. If they could find it and had it lying around, anyone could get a hold of it, and he didn’t even want to think of what the Red Skull or Hydra would do with that kind of information about him.
“So who’s our contact here again?” Clint asked, stretching out, cracking his knuckles one at a time. Natasha flicked him in the ear, scowling at him. “If you read the briefing, you would know.”
“Yeah, but that takes the fun out of it. This is an escort mission.” Clint grinned at Bucky, as if trying to get him in on the joke.
Bucky glowered in his direction and followed Natasha and Thor off the jet, ignoring the archer like he might ignore a piece of inconvenient lint on his shirt.
Clint gave Steve a mournful pout. “Those two wouldn’t know a joke if it bit them in the ass.”
“Oh,” Steve said, pulling out the thermal gloves he had stashed in the parka’s deep front pockets, “I wouldn’t say that.”
“He taped my gloves together while I was asleep again, didn’t he?” Clint sighed in despair. He pulled his gloves out of his pocket to check them over; they were indeed taped together, and expertly so. He would have a hard time getting them apart unless he had scissors, and even then it would be pretty easy to accidentally butcher them. When Bucky did something, he did it well.
“Well to be fair, you did duct tape him to his chair last week when he was drunk. You kind of brought it on yourself,” Steve said.
He took pity on Clint and ripped the tape apart with his bare hands, holding his own gloves between his teeth. He tried not to chuckle at the way Clint looked a bit like a kicked puppy when he took his newly liberated gloves back.
Howard Stark was waiting for them on the impromptu airfield SHIELD had set up.
Clint and Steve delicately made their way down the frosty steel ramp. Steve kept an eye on Clint, moving slow despite the fact that he was wearing some of the best work boots available; it was one thing to have traction walking on cement, but on slippery metal all bets were off. The last thing they needed was someone breaking a hip before they even got where they were going. Everything was frozen here, not a thing untouched by winter’s grasp; ice glittered in the light no matter where Steve looked and he had to shield his eyes or else be blinded by the glare. There were already a couple of centimetres of snow on the ground despite the fact that it was early in the season. It wasn’t supposed to stay that way for long; the weather reports said that they should expect at least ten more centimetres within a few days, maybe even a foot or two if they were spectacularly unlucky. It was still early in the season, but up north there was no telling what the cold might drag in.
Clint was shivering away, looking suspiciously hurt by the fact that no one had warned him about the cold weather beforehand. He hadn’t had the pleasure of enjoying the biting cold in quite some time having been stationed in the desert and South America while the Avengers were unneeded.
Steve patted Clint on the shoulder and got a glare for his efforts. “You should have read the briefing.”
Thor scanned the almost barren landscape with Mjolnir dangling from his belt. He grinned widely. “This place reminds me of Asgard in summer,” he said, raising his hand to his brow to peer off into the distance. “The air is heavy with magic here. My brother would delight in such a place.”
“I’m sure,” Howard grumbled. He was dressed in a Stark International parka although it didn’t seem to be keeping him all that warm. He was wearing so many layers underneath it that he looked a bit like a disgruntled walrus out for a stroll. “I haven’t been up here in over thirty years, and it hasn’t changed one bit. There’s got to be something magical about that.” He rubbed his gloved hands together and waddled over to Steve, bumping sociably against his shoulder. “So what’s the deal here? Are we going to bag and tag things or what?”
“I’d say that’s highly unlikely. We’re just here for the handful of Succubi and Incubi who have come through the portal they found out here. No bagging and tagging necessary,” Steve said dryly.
Howard looked distinctly disappointed with the news. “Well that’s a bit of a letdown.”
Steve shrugged. “I’d take a letdown any day compared to what might be coming our way. The first Succubus mentioned something about a civil war, but she died before she could tell the doctors anything else. From what I gather, it was quite brutal – a war zone with no war.” Steve hoisted his backpack up onto his shoulders and strapped it in place. His shield he kept on his arm, ready in case of trouble. “I’m hoping they’re not going to bring their war over here.”
“A civil war amongst lust demons? Who would have thought it possible?” Howard snorted, shaking his head in disbelief. He brushed at his moustache, trying to knock away the light layer of ice that had built up there; despite his best efforts it stayed iced over. He gave up, scowling at his gloved hands. “I’ve seen them a few times you know, but they’ve never looked well… warlike, at least not to me. They’re usually just running around buck-naked seducing anything with legs.”
“So they say,” Steve agreed. “SHIELD’s reports are usually pretty accurate, so we’ll just have to take their word for it I suppose.” Howard sighed. “Still, I don’t see how their Queen let this kind of thing happen in the first place.”
“What did you come out here for? No offence, but this seems a little out of the way for you. Weren’t you on vacation?” Steve asked. He gave Natasha the go ahead to start setting up their comm system, and then realized that Howard wasn’t paying attention to a word he was saying.
Howard was busy staring rather blatantly at Natasha’s chest as if she was walking around topless; Steve cleared his throat loudly and Howard’s eyes snapped back up to his. He shot Steve a suitably chastised look and cleared his throat, trying not to look in Natasha’s direction. Natasha’s face was remarkably blank as she tapped each GPS nodule to check that they weren’t going to crap out in the cold weather; she was the best with the finicky tech and could fix almost anything having picked up some of her skills while working undercover at Stark International. She had been assigned as Howard’s personal bodyguard afterwards at his request; she and Howard had gotten along much better after he had suffered a few ‘accidents’, although he apparently still didn’t know when to keep it in his pants. She still worked there when not assigned to the Avengers, just like Clint, who worked in the mail room on his off time to ‘make money’.
Natasha gave Steve a curt nod when she was finished with her inspections, hefting her SHIELD issue pack over her shoulders as if she was lifting a bag of marshmallows. They were all taking packs with them into the field; it was too dangerous to be caught without food or survival gear out here, even if they were only walking an hour or so to the north of their current position. Steve had been adamant about it and no amount if begging had been able to soothe him into submission. Clint had tried the hardest, but he seemed pretty happy now, seeing as how the place didn’t look even remotely friendly. Sure, the snow was nice and all, but this wasn’t New York. You couldn’t just stop in at the nearest Starbucks for a hot chocolate if you got a little chilly. It sort of looked more like the snowdrifts were trying to lure them in like a hungry spider might lure in a foolish fly.
“You’re right, I was on vacation Steve,” Howard huffed in displeasure, picking up where Steve had left off as if he hadn’t just been caught ogling one of his fellow teammates. “But they called me in anyway, so here I am. Coulson claimed that they needed every brain they had, but who knows with them. Of course I’ve been to their world, so it’s not like I’m a stranger to their culture like you lot.”
“I guess they were really worried then. What’s your take on all this Doctor Banner?” Steve asked, turning to the shivering scientist.
Howard and Bruce fought like a pair of territorial feral cats when they worked together. They didn’t seem to care enough to stop even though the Hulk could crush Howard with his pinkie. Steve trusted that they would keep from ripping each other’s throats out long enough for them to finish the mission. Despite the fighting and mutual dislike, they were two of the best scientists to take into the field on short notice; both had thousands of hours clocked from missions and research camps combined. Steve wouldn’t have taken anyone else with him even if Fury had insisted. Just like Howard, Bruce hadn’t been all that happy about being brought along, but Steve hadn’t been willing to take the risk of not having the Hulk around on the off chance that something big decided to come through the portal. He couldn’t blame the scientist for not enjoying being out in the field this time; if Steve had had the choice he would have been back at home wrapped in his blankets instead of out here freezing his giblets off.
Bruce busied himself with his pack, grumbling when his gloved fingers turned out to be too large to properly adjust the arm straps. Bruce sighed. “I think this is a bad idea Steve. Sure, Howard says he’s been there before and that it’ll be alright, but that’s not exactly a glowing recommendation.”
“Oh thank you,” Howard scowled, stuffing his hands in his armpits. “I appreciate that, really, I do.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Bruce said delicately pulling his gloves so that he could get his bag adjusted the way he wanted it, “I’m all for unbiased scientific observation, but I just don’t see how safe it’s going to be for anyone wandering around in a civilization filled with demons who can hormonally induce lust in every living thing with no more than a handful of pheromones. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to end up feeding some horny succubus grapes for the rest of our lives when this is all said and done. Inter-dimensional wars will be the least of our worries if one of them gets their hands on the Hulk.”
“That’s why you’re staying out here with Howard to keep an eye on the portal,” Steve said, helping Bruce lift his pack up onto his back. The scientist nearly tumbled over from the added weight, but seemed happy to have the help; Steve steadied him with a hand, waiting for Bruce to slip his gloves back on. “The rest of us will be fine. As long as we’re careful and diplomatic, they should be okay with us being there.”
“Again,” Bruce said, giving Steve’s hand a gentle pat as if he were talking to his grandmother, “You’re basing this off of thirty year old information. Strange doesn’t have anything new to say about the place. For all we know, they could have become cannibals by now.”
“Oh please,” Howard snorted. “You’re such a worry wart. Maria – Their Queen – is very good at keeping the rest of them in line. If they’ve started eating each other, it’ll be the stupid ones going first – the ones who don’t listen to her.”
“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Clint grumbled, looking over his shoulder at Bucky, “Because it doesn’t sound reassuring to me.”
“I don’t know. Use your imagination or something Barton. I don’t have time for idle banter,” Howard snapped. “I’ll have you know I was in Bermuda when they called me in! I had quite a few lady friends giving me –”
“Whoa!” Bucky shuddered. “Don’t need to know. Seriously. Don’t share the details.”
“Yeah. Don’t,” Clint agreed, disgust written all over his face. “The less I know about you the better.”
“You’re just jealous,” Howard sneered, starting up the nearest snowdrift in a huff. “When you get to be my age, you’ll be lucky to get laid unless you’re willing to pay someone for it. Of course you won’t be able to afford the pretty ones, so I guess you won’t really know what I’m talking about. Although I suppose they don’t have to be pretty considering what they’re used for.”
“Spoken like a man with a wide range of experiences,” Bucky grumbled under his breath, “and I’m betting they were all very happy to see him gone.”
“I’ll bet,” Clint snorted, shaking his head, “Who’d want to sleep with somebody like him?” He and Bucky shared a laugh as Howard continued on ahead of the group, oblivious as usual to the fact that no one really liked him all that much. Steve rolled his eyes, but didn’t comment. He had heard enough filth from Howard Stark’s mouth over the years to be shocked by it now; the Howling Commandos had been just as raunchy.
The rest of the Avengers followed after Howard, plodding through the snow in each other’s footsteps muttering as they went. Steve kept a keen eye on the horizon as he walked watching for any sign of polar bears or other predators that might be sizing them up for a quick meal. He tried not to shudder with each step he took, forcing his panic away. The sound of crunching snow was haunting enough to make him seriously regret not taking SHIELD up on their offer of getting him a few hours of talking time a week with a proper councillor. It hadn’t been this bad before, at least not in the city.
There was just something about being in wide open fields of the white stuff that made his skin crawl. He took a deep breath in through his nose, hoping that he would be able to keep it together. He was going to have to do something soon if he couldn’t keep the shakes under control; he couldn’t continue to lead if he was going to have panic attacks. It wouldn’t be fair to the team to have to carry him along, nor would it be safe for them if he couldn’t keep them out of danger all because he was too worried about the drop in temperature. He noticed Thor watching him and forced himself to smile, lowering his shield a shade if only to keep from looking like he was going to take a swing at the snow like some kind of crazy person. “What’s up? See anything out there?”
Thor slowed to a crawl and even then he was still keeping pace with Steve despite the fact that he was a good four inches taller than him. He smiled at Steve, grabbing him by the shoulder. “The snow disheartens you Captain,” Thor said solemnly, giving Steve’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.
“I guess it does,” Steve agreed, not quite sure he wanted to be having a conversation about it quite so soon. He could barely talk to himself about it most days, and while he knew Thor was a kind-hearted man, he was still wary of making a bad impression even if they had already fought side by side for years. “I’ll just have to get over it.”
“You are a brave man Steve Rogers. Do not worry. You are not alone in your suffering although you may feel like you are. Many who have felt the kiss of winter often fear returning to it. My mother felt the same once when she was a child, and there is no shame in fear. Fear is what keeps you alive. It is nothing to be ashamed of, my friend, to hold fear in your heart for something that could cause you great harm. I myself spent many years frightened the same way as child. It is in us to persevere.” Thor thumped Steve on the back, grinning. “I consider that fear one of my greatest tests, for once it was gone I found myself stronger than ever. You will likely feel the same.”
“I sure hope so,” Steve said softly. He would have been offended if the words had come from anyone else, but he knew that Thor meant well even if he had just compared Steve’s fears to that of a child’s. He had to remind himself that Thor, as a child, probably meant he was a few hundred years old at the time.
Thor’s smile brightened. “Fear not! I believe our journey is nearly over. The portal is but mere steps away. I can already see it from here.” Steve squinted off into the distance using the shield to block the sun’s piercing rays. Even with the serum, he couldn’t see that far ahead.
“The sooner we get this done the better,” Steve sighed. Then he could go back home and beat on a punching bag until the jitters passed. He adjusted his shield and trudged forwards with Thor walking serenely beside him.
As it turned out, the portal wasn’t the kind that they normally encountered; the problem wasn’t that it was some newfangled creation, it was that this portal was a shimmering pink and green saucer of energy almost invisible to the naked eye; to make matters worse, it was also floating a good twenty feet above them.
No one had counted on the portal being horizontal and in the air and suspiciously, SHIELD had neglected to put that into their briefing; Steve wondered what else they could have missed if something this big had fallen off their radar.
“Well this is just useless,” Howard muttered angrily, giving the nearest snowdrift a swift kick. “I swear to god, those idiots at SHIELD should get their goddamned eyes checked. This is not what they said we were here for!”
“Is it a problem?” Steve asked, already certain that it was.
“Yes Steve, it is a fucking problem. None of what we brought with us is useful for aerial work – the change in altitude will make the readings go haywire the minute we get the damned thing off the ground. We just wasted a goddamned hour doing nothing,” Howard snarled, spinning around to viciously assault another snowdrift.
“Language,” Steve growled back.
Howard flipped him the bird.
“So much for our top of the line gear advantage,” Bruce snorted. “And SHIELD’s equipment isn’t going to be much better off. Fantastic.”
“Well let’s make the best of it, huh? There’s no sense in giving up just because some of the equipment doesn’t work.” Steve squinted up into the pink and green void, trying to see if he could spot anything familiar through it. Disappointingly, he couldn’t see anything other than his own distorted reflection; it would have been nice to get a peek at what was waiting for them on the other side.
“Oh, easy for you to say,” Howard snarled, trying to dislodge a clump of snow now caked into his boot’s seams. “You don’t have to use or build the equipment!”
“Oh lay off him Howard. It’s not his fault your equipment doesn’t work,” Bruce said, adjusting his glasses. “I hate to say it Steve, but I think we’re out of options here. We can’t do any modifications here in the field unless someone doesn’t mind losing a few fingers to frostbite. It’ll take us a few days at the very least to recalibrate and build – not counting the time it takes for the new equipment to get shipped in.”
Howard scowled down at his boot. “We’ve got to reprogram the equipment from scratch too. I don’t think we even have the basic math for this.”
“You’re a genius, aren’t you?” Bucky growled impatiently. “Can’t you just figure it out as you go?”
“Get your head out of your ass Barnes,” Howard snapped. “I’m not a goddamned Burger King. We don’t just crap out special orders. This is magic we’re dealing with – before we can even dive into the math we need Strange’s information on the magical output, unless you’d like to see me and the entire area blow up.”
“I don’t think I’d mind all that much,” Bucky grunted, taking a step forwards. “I don’t think it would be much of a loss.”
“We have to go in then,” Steve said with a grimace. The snow he stood on was trampled and stained with blood and urine; the smell of copper and ammonia was faint, flaring up whenever the wind died down but it was still there. Someone had tried scraping the filth away before they had arrived as if to erase the fact that this was where someone had died. Steve sighed; he would let the horror come later. For now they needed to be strong. No matter what had happened here it was their duty to push on as far as they could. People were suffering and lives were at stake – that was all there was to it. They needed to act now, not in two weeks.
“I get the whole urgency thing, but how are we supposed to get in there?” Clint asked, squinting at the portal. “I mean, I can shoot a grapnel up there, pull us up –”
“No.” Steve shook his head. “We don’t want to risk hitting anything living on the other side. We don’t want to accidentally kill someone. We’re just going to have to build a ladder and do this the old-fashioned way. Do we have anything to stack? Maybe some crates back in the jet?”
“No need my friend,” Thor chuckled. “I can throw you up into the portal and then fly in afterwards if that is what you wish. It is not far.”
“Why would you need to throw him? Couldn’t you just… I don’t know, shove him through?” Howard sighed, shaking his head. “Never thought I’d be saying that.”
“Nay, it would not work. This portal requires force to breach – anything else would merely smear the poor Captain against its surface,” Thor said. “The prolonged contact would most certainly kill him.”
“I guess getting tossed through our only option after all.” Steve nodded. “Alright. That should work.”
“Hold on a sec Steve,” Bucky snapped, crossing his arms over his chest. He eyed the portal suspiciously, drumming his fingers on his bionic arm. “What if that thing up there doesn’t let things pass through without a fight? It might be a one way trip. Do you seriously expect us to just let ourselves be thrown into another dimension like a bunch of frozen peas?”
“No, I don’t expect you to do anything this dangerous,” Steve said. Bucky always had been his voice of reason, and he was glad that his friend hadn’t backed off and let things go without complaint; god knows the messes he could have gotten into if he hadn’t had Bucky standing by his side telling him off for being reckless. “That’s why I’ll go through first and scout things out. If I can come back, I’ll drop something through to signal that I’m alright and then Thor can start throwing the rest of you. If you don’t feel comfortable then don’t go.” Steve looked around at his team, making eye contact with each and every one of them. “I’m not going to ask you to risk your life for these people. This is your choice to make, not mine, but I for one am not going to sit around here watching anyone else die.”
“You’re crazy! At least let Stark throw a camera up there first or something,” Bucky protested angrily, his cheeks dusted with red. “Don’t be stupid!”
“Sure,” Howard scowled, “waste my good equipment by tossing it around like a hacky sack. That’s just lovely.”
“You’d rather we wasted Steve?” Bucky snarled, lunging forward and jabbing Howard in the chest. “I think he’s worth more than a few bits of camera, you cheap motherfucker!”
“Relax Barnes! Good god! I was just kidding,” Howard roared back, slapping Bucky’s finger away. “I’m just not sure if anything will even function up there. It’s a magical portal you moron! It might short out – I didn’t build this stuff with magic in mind you know!”
“You’re supposed to be a genius,” Bucky snapped back.
“I am,” Howard hissed in Bucky’s face. “I’m just not a goddamned wizard!”
“That’s enough!” Steve said; he didn’t even have to yell, Bucky and Howard simply snapped to attention, the arguments dying on their lips. It had been months since he had had a good yell. Once he might have missed it, but these days he found it calming to not be belting out orders all the time. He gave Howard a curt nod, and the elderly man started digging through his equipment looking for something suitable to throw through the portal.
Howard grumbled out curses under his breath the entire time but didn’t question Steve’s orders. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for even with everything packed in tight. Howard pulled a toaster sized piece of equipment from his bag, wresting with the good ten feet of cord attached to it as if he were wrangling a particularly unruly snake. He begrudgingly handed it all over to Thor, his face taking on a sour expression the moment the device left his hands. “Now be careful with that. The cord’s experimental and it’s worth more than you could afford to make in a lifetime. My team will have to pull overtime to get me another one,” Howard heaved a sigh, scrubbing at his iced over moustache again. “I’d rather not have them acting like cocky little shits if it ends up broken.”
“I will do my best to keep your creation safe,” Thor chuckled, wrapping the end of the cord around his hand. He tossed the device through the portal as easily as he might hurl a piece of popcorn at the television back home; the device flew into the air colliding with the portal, passing through without protest. The cord swayed in the breeze, still attached to Thor’s wrist. He gave the cord a great tug, dragging the device back into their world.
It was only through Natasha’s quick reflexes that it survived re-entry. She jumped and snatched it from the air, landing nimbly like a cat that had just caught its favourite flavor of bird.
Thor tossed her the cable. “Well done Lady Widow! You are impressive as always.” Natasha flashed him a rare smile, coiling the cable up in her hands.
“Yes, very nice Ms. Romanoff,” Howard purred, slinking towards Natasha. “I knew they kept you around for more than just your delightful good looks.” He snatched the device away, looking it over with a critical eye; judging by the look on Natasha’s face, he was lucky he hadn’t gotten stabbed for his comment. Howard flipped the device over, intensely staring at the baseplates. There was no sign of damage on it that Steve could see, no trauma or scraping anywhere on the outer casing. In fact, in Steve’s opinion, it looked a little nicer than it had before it had gone through the portal in the first place. Howard pulled off his gloves, tucking them neatly into his pockets. He prodded the casing, pressing his fingers to every side. “Well, I suppose it’s safe to say that portal leads to the same place I went all those years ago.” He gestured with the device, smirking. “It’s warm to the touch.”
“That doesn’t exactly prove anything,” Bruce said, rolling his eyes.
“Oh, Bruce,” Howard sighed. “Grow up. I don’t need to prove anything – Strange’s done my work for me.”
“Lazy,” Bruce coughed. Howard gave him a dirty look.
“It’s warm over there?” Steve asked, ignoring the squabbling. He set his pack on a patch that was the least covered in blood and supressed a shudder, praying that the bag wouldn’t tip over.
“Oh yes, it’s paradise,” Howard said dreamily. He licked his lips and then coughed weakly into the crook of his arm when he got a mouthful of snowflakes. He stooped down and tucked the device into his bag, his hands shaking from the cold. “They like their sun out there. Helps with the whole nudity thing, I suppose. Don’t let the sun fool you into walking around naked though. There’s nothing worse than getting a sun burn on your ass. That’s why I didn’t stick around for long. Believe me Steve; you’re not going to need your parka in there unless you plan on sweating to death before you find your way to Court.”
“Court?” Steve raised an eyebrow. “I assume you mean they’re run by a royal family.”
“They’re ruled by a Queen. Her Majesty, Lady Maria Collins Carbonell, runs things on the other side. She’s a grand old dame – easy on the eyes and smart in the head to boot. She’ll listen to you if you’re humble. We had some fun times together – I guarantee you that she’ll remember me in a good light.”
“I’m sure a little name dropping won’t hurt,” Steve agreed with a chuckle, hoping that Howard was telling the truth and not just making things up to put himself in a better light.
“Her fool of a sister, Bridget-something-or-other is another story,” Howard grunted, fighting with his gloves. “She tried to take the palace by coup when I was there and Maria did not take kindly to it. Frankly, I’m surprised she didn’t have her sister hung from the rafters. Exile isn’t exactly in her vocabulary, so be careful. She loves her executions and your handsome mug isn’t going to be enough to dissuade her if she decides to whip out the gallows.”
“Why wasn’t any of this in the report?” Steve frowned. “Shouldn’t Fury and the others have known about this?”
“Oh I told them all about it. They must have cut it out for some reason,” Howard shrugged, “although I’ve no idea why. Seems like something pretty important to me.”
“Fury probably thought you were writing porn. Dear Penthouse, I stepped into another world filled with naked ladies –” Bucky grumbled.
“Heh, well it certainly had an ending worthy of that,” Howard sneered. “Let’s just say that the Queen repays her favors in a way you won’t ever forget. She’s very bendy.”
“Please. No details,” Clint shuddered, clapping his gloved hands over his ears. “No details!”
“And you’re sure that she’s not going to be angry that you left?” Steve sighed. This wasn’t the first time they had run into someone Howard had slept with; it wasn’t even the twentieth. The man had a knack for leaving women behind wherever he went, and he almost always ended up irritating the psychotic ones.
“She was very satisfied,” Howard drawled. “And when I left she wished me well. She helped me through the portal and that was that. They don’t marry up there, you know, not like we do. Not a whole lot of monogamy going on. They have children through donors. Fucking is like shaking hands to them.”
“What did I just say about details?” Clint wailed.
“Oh get over yourself. It’s a good piece of information. They adore the genetic diversity strangers bring. If the good Captain chooses to find himself someone to bang, then he’ll at least know that he won’t get run out of town if he doesn’t want to stick around the morning after.”
“Pfft.” Clint rolled his eyes. “The day Steve Rogers has a fling with some scantily clad demonic woman is the day I eat my own socks.”
Steve grimaced. “Alright, alright. Quit it you two.” One day he was going to have to sit them all down and have a talk about the fact that they thought he was some kind of celibate nun. “Is there anything else that would be important to know?” He gave Howard the hairy eyeball, hoping that there wasn’t another racy tale on the tip of the man’s tongue. He did not want a bunch of awful mental imagery traveling along with him. It was bad enough knowing that he might have to go into nudist country all by himself. On second thought, maybe going all by himself would be better. At least then he wouldn’t have to watch Howard propositioning anything that walked past him. God knows he had seen enough of it at the yearly Avengers Banquet.
“Well,” Howard purred, “you should probably know that they don’t really care about homosexuality there. They’re very open to sharing, as it were. You’re alright with that, aren’t you Captain?”
“It’s not a problem,” Steve said with a smile. Everyone liked to poke him about that these days. He had been asked if he had problems with ‘the gays’ by practically every reporter and interviewer alive. He had given them the same answer every time – he believed in freedom of individuality, choice and justice for all – and that included freedom of sexuality. He wished that they would actually listen when he was speaking; it was irritating to have to keep repeating things over and over again.
“Oh?” Howard perked up, “it’s not?”
“It’s not. Never has been.”
“Steve Rogers swings both ways? How come I didn’t know about this?” Howard whined, glaring in Bucky’s direction. “You people hide things from me. That’s not nice.”
“You’re the certified genius Stark. I guess we just all thought that you’d figure it out on your own,” Bucky sneered. “It’s not our job to tell you who Steve likes to sleep with.”
Howard let out an angry growl, moving forwards as if to grab Bucky by the throat; he fell conspicuously silent and still when Natasha cleared her throat from directly behind him.
“Behave yourself,” Natasha murmured. Steve wasn’t surprised to see Howard’s face go sheet white.
If he had known Howard was going to have a temper tantrum, he would have just kept his mouth shut. He had thought that the offhand comments he had made over the years had let pretty much everyone he trusted know that he didn’t have a sexual preference, but somehow it didn’t surprise him that Howard hadn’t picked up on anything; Howard rarely cared for anything unless it had to do with himself. It always had been hard to get a good read on Howard. The guy didn’t seem to follow reason. “Alright, I think that’s more than enough discussion about my sexuality for one day,” Steve said.
“Oh, on the contrary,” Howard grumbled. “I think we’ll be talking about this for years to come.”
“Well, you’re going to be having that conversation with yourself then. We’ve got things to do, remember?” Steve pulled his parka off, reluctantly giving his only source of warmth to Bucky.
“Pre-warmed!” Bucky flashed Steve a grin and tugged the warm jacket on top of his own thinner one.
The gust of wind that blew by next had Steve yelping in surprise. The drop in temperature was almost enough to send him back for his parka even with Bucky still in it; with the serum in his blood he could survive sub-zero temperatures, but that didn’t mean that he had to like them. He handed Bucky his shield to cover up his embarrassing jerk forwards, wishing at the same time that his teeth would stop chattering so damned loudly.
Bucky accepted the shield with a look of pure reverence; he held it clutched against his chest, his grin turning sombre. “You sure you want to leave this behind Steve?”
Steve nodded. “Strange said that Vibranium will interfere with the portal’s magic. I don’t really want to get ripped to shreds by taking it with me. Whatever happens next, I know you’ll take good care of it,” Steve said, giving Bucky a one armed hug.
“Are you sure about this Captain?” Thor asked with a frown. “If you go through, you may not be able to return easily. Heimdall might be able to offer assistance if that does indeed come to pass, but I would rather we not take the chance of losing you in the cosmos even temporarily.”
“I understand your concern Thor and really,” Steve said, barely able to hear himself over the sound of his chattering teeth, “I wish there was any other way, but this has to be done. There are people up there who need our help. Don’t worry about me. If I can’t come back through the portal, I’ll find the person who created it in the first place and convince them to send me back. Howard says that they’re not dangerous and I trust him.” Steve kneeled before anyone else could protest, nodding to Thor. “Now throw me.”
The portal wasn’t liquid; it felt as if he was immersed in sand and no matter how much he struggled he couldn’t get free of it. His skin burned and tingled on contact with the magic, but at least the cold was being slowly being sucked from his cells. Thankfully the portal didn’t seem to want to keep him. Steve smashed into a puddle of muddy water, settling on the ground with a wet thump. He choked out a breath, his lungs burning and pulled himself up, muddy water dripping from body and face. The air was hot and humid here, almost intolerably so. He peeled away the handful of leaves that had managed to get stuck to his face, cleaning himself up as best he could; the mud stuck around for the most part, but at least it didn’t look like he had been tarred and feathered anymore.
He looked around and saw that he was standing in the middle of a walled off courtyard. He expected to hear someone nearby considering how close he was to buildings, but he couldn’t hear anything aside from his own ragged breathing. Not even the birds were chirping, assuming of course that this place had birds to begin with. He took another look around, mapping out his location in case he needed to run through the area quickly.
The walls themselves were seamless, created from some kind of smooth white stone. There were trees pressed up against the inside of the walls at regular intervals, like someone had planted them there. They were covered with rough looking lilac coloured bark and large enough around the middle to climb if necessary; their orange and grey leaves stood out against the white stone behind them, beacons of colour amidst pale stone.
He turned back to where he had come through and swore loudly.
The portal he had so easily passed through had become nothing more than a disc of carved stone set in the swampy ground; wrist deep in muck, he felt around to see if he could get it to wake up. Nothing happened no matter how many times he prodded it. He wiped his mud-covered hands on the patch of grass beside him and sat down with a grunt, resting his elbows on his knees. Great. Now he was stuck here. Bucky had been right. God, he hated it when Bucky was right. When he got home, assuming of course that he did, Bucky was going to make him do all the housework for a least a month as punishment for getting himself stuck. He pulled his cowl down around his neck as sweat streamed down his back. Howard had been right too. This place was hot.
After ten minutes in the sweltering heat he was forced to pull his uniform down around his waist; he would have preferred being clothed, but at least this way he wouldn’t melt into a puddle of goo. He tied the sleeves in a knot around his hip making himself a pseudo-belt thanking his lucky stars that his uniform was form fitting enough that it wouldn’t slide down on its own. At least this way someone couldn’t just yank it off of him with one well-placed tug.
His skin was glistening with a thin sheen of sweat by the time he was ready to move on, his hair slick against his forehead and plastered around his ears. Well, he thought as he marched through the courtyard looking for an exit, it sure as hell wasn’t snowing anymore.
He didn’t have far to go to find civilization. The portal courtyard was a lot closer to the city than Steve had expected it to be considering the lack of noise. Soon he was within sight of a pair of buxom young brunettes with long black pointed tails. Both of them gawked at him as if he was something they wanted to eat. He scratched the back of his neck and prayed that they weren’t about to leap onto him.
“Hi, my name’s Steve Rogers. I’m from Earth, and we’ve been getting –”
“Ooh! Earth!” The women cooed in unison cutting in. They batted their eyelashes at him, licking their lips when he opened his mouth to try and speak again. “We love Earth!”
Their smiles widened as a bead of sweat dripped from his neck down the middle of his chest; they cocked their heads to the side and watched the bead move, captivated. The air began to smell like cinnamon, the scent so concentrated it was hard to breathe.
Steve’s eyes watered; he sneezed again and again, wiping his nose on his bare arm with a sheepish smile. “Sorry.”
The women turned away from him scowling, their arms crossed over their voluptuous bare breasts. “This one’s Immune? Well that’s no fun. I was hoping for another child,” the one on the left grumbled, flipping her hair over her shoulder; Steve averted his eyes, and then remembered that they probably didn’t care about him staring at them. He looked back up, trying to appear confidant and unconcerned by the way they were naked.
“Well, it’s not like he’s all that. I’m sure we had a better looking one come through here years ago,” the one on the right mused, staring at her immaculate fingernails. “What was his name again?”
“H-something. It started with an H,” the one on the left moaned, clasping her face in her hands. “And he was so dreamy.”
“Yeah,” the one on the left murmured, “he sure was.”
Steve had been ignored by his fair share of beautiful women, but this was just plain rude. “Ma’am? I don’t mean to butt in, but can you take me to someone in charge? I need to talk with your Queen. We’ve had a bunch of injured people coming through your portal, and someone told us about a civil war going on–”
The Succubi cocked their heads to the side again. “Civil war?” they asked in unison.
“Yes. People are getting pushed through a portal and it’s –”
“Oh! You mean the Cleansing! Well why didn’t you say anything? It’s kind of rude to stand around pretending that you don’t know what’s going on when you do,” the one on the left snorted angrily, baring her teeth at him.
“I didn’t know it was called a Cleansing, ma’am. This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Steve said, trying to be as calm as possible despite his growing irritation. “The people who came through the portal claimed that it was civil war, and we don’t exactly have any way of communicating with you to find out what that actually meant.”
The succubus on the right rolled her eyes at him. “She was only joking. Of course we know you don’t know.”
“Of course,” the succubus on the left laughed. “You don’t have to be such a big baby about it.”
Steve barely resisted the urge to knock their heads together. He put on his brightest smile, ignoring the way the succubus on the right was now hungrily eyeing his nipples. “Can I please see your Queen?”
“I don’t know,” the succubus on the left said, tapping her finger on her pink, shimmering lower lip. Her tongue darted out, licking at the digit as if forgetting that it belonged to her in the first place. “She doesn’t really like visitors before dinner.”
“Oh, but for you,” the succubus on the right said, mirroring the one of the left, “I think she’ll make the exception.
Steve was led into the Royal Carbonell Castle flanked by succubus Left and Right. He was tempted to yank his uniform back up to his ears; if he hadn’t spent so many years doing war bond performances, he might have been having a panic attack right about now. There were eyes everywhere, and no matter where he looked he always found someone staring back at him like they wanted to start licking the skin clean off his body.
Left and Right hadn’t even bothered giving him their names. Judging by their conversation, no one really had names here aside from the Queen and Royal Family so he tried not to feel too put out. He held his head up high and followed the still chattering pair into the Queen’s audience chamber, praying that the Queen would have enough common sense to at least listen to him before throwing him out.
Left and Right left him with a wave, prancing out the door while casting lecherous looks over their shoulders; he was glad that they were gone, but at the same time wished that they had stuck around a little longer than they had. It was almost as if they didn’t want to see their Queen for some reason, which struck him as odd considering how much they had been bragging about her on the way in. They had gone on and on her beauty, about how silky her hair was that day and how beautiful her eyes were. He wondered if they had meant for him to overhear them or it if the candied words had been meant for someone else entirely. He pursed his lips, hoping that Howard’s information had been right and that he wasn’t walking head first into a trap.
He sat down on a crushed velvet pillow that had been left out and crossed his legs, hoping that she wouldn’t take too long to come out and greet him.
The entire room was done up in purple and gold tapestries depicting images of things Steve had only every dreamt about; he flushed bright red, mortified by the way his cock stirred with interest.
He stared intensely down at the stones beneath his feet as he tried to get himself under control. He noted idly that each stone was stained different shades of the rainbow; there were runes carved around the edges, and each stone was distinctly different, no two alike. The room itself felt old – and well, for the lack of a better word – well-used. There was no throne around, but there was a square velvet pillow where it should have been. The pillow looked spacious enough for more than a few people to comfortably lounge on it without coming even close to the edge; he hoped that she wasn’t expecting him to join her on it.
A side door somewhere out of sight opened; the movement was whisper quiet, so soft he might not have heard it without his enhanced hearing. He turned on his pillow to face the woman who slipped into the room, putting on the polite but firm smile he used with all the dignitaries he met.
The Queen was a stunning dark haired beauty, her skin sun kissed but unblemished by the freckles. She swayed as she approached, her hair flowing around her as if it were made of water; her eyes held the same hunger Steve had walked past earlier, her smile just as devilishly frightening. She sat down on her pillow with her legs spread in a wide V, and then leered at him from between her knees. Steve kept his eyes locked on hers, fighting to keep his smile on his face.
“So, I hear you’re from Earth,” she said, licking her lips, “and you’ve come to talk with me about the Cleansing?”
“Yes your majesty.” Steve bowed his head politely. It never hurt to throw in a few bows. “My name is Steve Rogers, and I’ve been sent by SHIELD to ask for your help dealing with the current situation.”
“SHIELD, huh? I assume that’s the body that rules you?” she asked with a yawn. “It sounds boring.”
“We’re more protectors than leaders, your majesty.”
“Ah,” she said, pursing her lips. “So you’re not particularly powerful then, are you?”
“It depends on what you mean by powerful,” Steve murmured. “Our team and SHIELD keep the planet safe from harm. We’re very good at what we do.”
“You protect the entire planet, huh? Well, I suppose that’s something at least. So you’re here to talk about the Cleansing….”
“Yes, your majesty,” Steve said. “We’d really appreciate your help.”
“Oh I don’t mind lending a hand,” she said earnestly, sitting up. She scooted forwards to the edge of the velvet pillow and wrapped her arms around her knees. “What’s the problem? I’d hate for Earth to think badly of me.” She wiggled her toes, smiling at him a little more shyly now. He couldn’t tell whether the cutesy bit was an act or not; he hoped she wasn’t trying to mess with his head.
“We’ve been having people coming through the portal in your courtyard,” he said carefully. “They’re pretty badly wounded your majesty, and to be frank, some of them aren’t making it out alive.”
“They aren’t?” The Queen smiled even harder, the tips of her pointed canines peeking over her lower lip. “That’s a real shame.”
Steve tried not to outright frown at her, his smile twisting into a grimace; he had expected some kind of righteous anger on her part, but he hadn’t expected her to be happy about it. Who wouldn’t be angry if the people they were lording over decided to rebel against them? He supposed that it wasn’t really much of a shock considering what Howard had said about her; at least she hadn’t been executing the rebels and dumping their bodies through the portal.
She stretched her hands out over her head, seeming to enjoy the way her breasts jiggled at the sudden movement. “It’s part of the ritual. Betrayers must be Cleansed. You can’t mean to say that you’ve never heard about this? I talked about it with great length with the one you call Fury when I saw him not ten days ago.”
“Director Fury came thought the portal?”
“Oh no!” The Queen laughed shrilly. “You misunderstand. We are creatures of dreams. We can transcend the barriers of our world through sleep in order to communicate and breed with whoever we find on the other side. Your Director was quite sweet. I enjoyed him immensely, although if I were not already with child from that union, I would have taken you in his place. You are far more fetching.”
“I take it that he didn’t know what happened was uh…”
“Real?” She supplied, leaning forwards again. Steve nodded stiffly. “No,” she murmured, examining a strand of hair that had fallen in front of her face. She toyed with it for a moment, winding it around her finger to create a perfect ringlet and then let it drop in disinterest. “I don’t believe he did. If he believed it was real, I don’t think you would be here right now. Do you?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Steve agreed. He added the new information to a list in his head which was now labeled: Things I Didn’t Really Want to Know and filed it away for future use. If Fury was going to have a kid, he would probably want to know about it someday. Steve opened his mouth to speak again and choked on the scent of cinnamon in the air. He couldn’t help the sneezes that snuck out, each one more forceful than the last. He begrudgingly wiped his nose on his arm for what felt like the hundredth time, wishing that he had had the presence of mind to bring a handkerchief with him before he had set out. When he looked up from his arm, the Queen was staring at him in astonishment.
“You’re Immune!” she crowed, clapping her hands together in glee.
“Immune?” he asked in confusion. He remembered Left and Right having said something similar, but unlike the Queen they had seemed fairly disappointed by it. Did it have something to do with their powers? Maybe with that strange smell?
“Yes, darling,” the Queen sang, “it means that you are immune to our magic.”
“I see.” He was pretty sure that Doctor Erskine hadn’t planned for that to be part of the Super Soldier Serum; at least this way he might stand half a chance against them if it came down to a fight.
“Immunity is a rare gift. Not many humans can resist our lust magic. In fact, I’d say that you’re one of the first to survive past the age of ten.” She scowled at him, suddenly seeming annoyed. “And that just takes the cake, doesn’t it? The first one around who can resist and I’m already with child! How unfair!” She slapped her hands against the pillow beneath her, furious. “And to make matters worse, you’re here during a Cleansing!” She let out a huffed breath, blowing the ringlet from her face. “You’ll just have to be the Escort then I suppose. The rules are rules after all. Fair is fair.” She sighed dramatically, gritting her teeth. “They are allowed their voice, and she is allowed her chance to convince me to stop the Cleansing.” She stood up, stretching like a cat; her tail appeared from where it had been hiding, slinking out from under her as if just waking up. It wrapped itself around her thigh as she stared thoughtfully at Steve, the spade-shaped tip caressing her flesh like a lover might. “You will go to her and offer her the chance to speak her mind.”
“I will?” Steve blinked. “I’d love to help you your Majesty, but I don’t really understand what you’re talking about.”
“Oh!” She flushed, looking embarrassed. Her tail unwound itself slowly. “Yes, I suppose you don’t really know what’s going on, do you.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“You will go to my sister Maria and speak to her on my behalf. Offer her the chance to use her voice – to come here without punishment, pain or fear of death and in return, if she agrees to my conditions and I agree to forgive her, the portal will be closed and you will be sent back to Earth unharmed. Do the conditions please you?” She stepped closer, leaning down in front of Steve’s face; her tail was like a hot brand against his neck, the tip casually caressing his jugular, ready to stab into his flesh if she decided that she didn’t like his response.
“You’re not Maria?” Steve grunted.
“No, my dear.” She smiled toothily at him. “I am not. I am Brigitta. Now do you accept the conditions or not?”
“What about the others – the ones who are on Earth now? What’s going to happen to them?” Steve felt the tail tense. The muscles in his neck strained in response as it coiled tighter; the sweetness to her left was gone leaving only bitterness in its wake. “The others?” The queen snapped. “What others?”
“I’m talking about the ones you already sent through the portal. The Succubi and Incubi trapped on Earth,” Steve said. They may not have been Steve’s people, but he wasn’t going to leave them trapped so far away from home. He knew what that was like, how painful it was to be separated from friends and family – to be thought of as dead. “They deserve to come back here. This is their home too.”
The Queen let out an exasperated hiss, the tail coiling tighter around Steve’s throat; he didn’t move, locking eyes with her despite the fact that he was running out of oxygen. It twitched against him as he choked, the tip tapping against his throat in time with his heartbeat like a sullen conductor.
“Fine,” she said as she stepped back. Her tail released him with whip-like crack; his skin burned where it had been like he expected any rope burn might, but it was a tolerable sort of burn considering he could breathe again. There was likely an angry red band around his throat from where the tail had been clutching at him but he doubted that it would last long enough to be a problem. She didn’t seem to even notice what she had done to him. “Your others will be returned to their home to live out their days in peace, provided of course that you fulfil the requirements. She must speak, agree to come here and I must agree to accept her back. Do you understand the terms then? Is the contract acceptable now?” she growled.
“Yes Your Majesty. It is.” Steve rubbed at the raw patch of skin on his throat.
“Then go, and stop wasting my time with your glorious flesh!” She whirled, returning to her cushion, and sprawled lazily on her back. She rolled over almost instantaneously, her tail wrapping around her thigh again as if to console her. “Oh, and just so you know,” she said, gesturing for him to move closer.
He knelt beside her reluctantly, watching her tail to make sure it wasn’t going to dart out and grab him again.
“You may be attacked by my sister’s brethren – after all, they aren’t exactly as tied up as my sister. They don’t want peace, and they don’t think for themselves. They want victory and now you are just another thing standing in their way. They will do whatever it takes to win, so you had better be prepared to fight for your life.”
“I’ll keep that in mind your Majesty,” Steve said. He stood up, dusting off his knees and headed towards the door. If they were going to attack him, then they were going to be in for a few surprises of their own.
Left gave Steve a map on the way out of the castle, telling him that it was the only way to get in to see the Old Queen; Right smiled and waved goodbye, going back to groping Left from behind as he walked away. It wasn’t the best send-off he had ever had, but at least no one had tried to make eyes at his nipples again.
The map they had given him wasn’t the best. It was a piece of wax covered paper with lines gouged into it that might have been roads; there were some other strange markings plonked down at what seemed like random too, but since there was no key in the corner where he would have expected to see one, there was little he could do to read it. Normally he was an expert at reading maps, even the non-traditional kind but this one had him stumped.
It was safe to say that the triangular shapes marked out by notches in the waxy coating were trees, but nothing else looked even remotely familiar. He had read maps drawn out by men on battlefields with broken down hands that made more sense. Part of him wondered if they had given him the map as some kind of elaborate joke, just to see what he would do with it. He hoped that it wasn’t the case, but in all honesty, he wouldn’t have put it past them.
He made his way along the road out of town, searching every few feet in case someone had been nice enough to leave something behind for him to follow; he hadn’t really expected to see signs per say, but a few stone markers or maybe a few posts by the road would have been nice. Unfortunately there was little to see except open road and running forest alongside it and nothing of use no matter how far he walked or how low to the ground he searched.
He continued to follow the road until it came to an end a few hours away from town. The forest had taken over what was left of the roadway, swallowing everything up along the edges; it didn’t seem to be encroaching on the road itself though. He peered at the map, and noticed a set or parallel lines at the end of a slightly deeper indentation in the wax. Could that be the road he was on now? If he looked at it that way things made a bit more sense. If this was definitely where the road ended, then he had a starting and ending point to work with. At least the lines were matching up now. He managed to find what he thought might be a patch of forest drawn on the left-hand side of the map after a few minutes of comparing landscape to squiggled imprints; he was grateful to find that much, but he didn’t expect it to his journey to get any easier.
The pathway he stumbled upon next didn’t look like much, just a gap in the trees a bit wider than it should have been, but it was good enough for him. He stepped off the road, diving head first into the unknown at a slow trot, batting away branches that got too close to his face, flicking leaves and burrs off of his uniform and bare skin whenever he spotted them. He was glad that he had kept the bottom half of his uniform on now that he was mucking about in the woods; he could just imagine where those burrs would be if there wasn’t a layer of fabric between them and his groin.
He followed the tree line, peering at the map every few seconds in a vague attempt at plotting out his course. It didn’t help much, but at least it made him feel like he was doing something other than wandering around like a complete idiot. He froze, smelling something in the air and sneezed violently, nearly knocking himself over. He wiped his nose on his arm. Damn it! It was that same smell as earlier, a crisp burst of cinnamon that seemed to be hovering in the air. He tensed and looked around suddenly very glad he had arrived in the Queen’s Courtyard instead of out in the middle of nowhere. At least Left and Right had had the courtesy to show him a bit of their magic, even if they had been trying to use it on him at the time. He didn’t know the kind of range they could get with their spells but at least he did know that it wouldn’t be a projectile lobbed at his head; sex magic, he reminded himself wearily was probably all related to hormones, just like Bruce had theorized. Bucky was going to have a field day with this when he found out about it. On second thought, maybe this part could be his little secret.
He looked around for something he could use as a weapon but found the surrounding area clutter free, as if someone had done some landscaping in their spare time. There wasn’t a single thing around of use unless he wanted to attempt to attack someone with a blade of grass and a handful of dirt; strictly speaking, it wasn’t exactly impossible to win a fight that way, but he would have preferred something a little more substantial to hold in his hands. He wished that he hadn’t had to leave his shield behind.
The underbrush swayed back and forth.
Steve prepared for battle.
An Incubus strolled out of the bushes whistling a jaunty tune, hips swinging in time with the music; he was shorter than Steve by a few inches, although he didn’t seem to notice and he was completely naked. It was impossible not to get an eyeful of the man’s flawless olive coloured skin; Steve couldn’t seem to look away even as the stranger started getting closer and closer. He was dimly aware that he was supposed to be getting ready to defend himself in case of attack but somehow that didn’t seem as important anymore.
The stranger's smile was so cocky he could have stopped traffic with a single glance. His hair was dark brown and cropped short around his ears. It was sticking up all over the place like he had just woken up and crawled out of bed, but that didn’t make him look any less stunning; he had a well-maintained Vandyke and moustache and while it should have looked out of place considering the state of his hair, it seemed instead to suit him as if he had been born with it.
He looked Steve over just the once, his brown eyes widening when he noticed that Steve was half dressed, and then sauntered up to him. The man’s lips curled into a sensual smile.
Steve was hit by the strangest sense of Déjà vu. He opened his mouth to ask just what was going on but couldn’t bring the words out.
The man reached out and offered Steve a hand. “Why hello there gorgeous! What’s your name?” the man purred, grinning from ear to ear.
Steve wanted to swoon. His knees felt like someone had replaced them with jello; he had never felt like this before, even with Peggy. The smile on the man’s face was so charming. This was the kind of guy he could see strutting around in expensive clothing, with dames on each arm; the kind of guy who would never have the time for a nobody like Steve. He had the urge to drop down onto his knees so that he could –
Steve sneezed violently and his mind cleared. He blinked repeatedly, giving his head a great shake when his vision refused to clear all the way. His eyes watered profusely; he tried to wipe at them belatedly realizing that he had somehow managed to offer the stranger the hand he was trying to use.
“You’re name?” The man repeated, taking Steve’s hand firmly in his own. He lifted Steve’s hand up to his lips and kissed it, smirking up at Steve. “Tell me your name darling. I’d love to be screaming it later.”
Steve punched him in the face.
In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best reaction to a question about what his name was, even if said question had included one of the corniest come-ons Steve had heard in a long time. It was just that he hadn’t been hit on so explicitly since he had sold War Bonds, and even then at least the flirts had been wearing clothes. Of course, he hadn’t meant to hit the guy so hard. He had meant it as more of a warning than anything else and yet he was left with twist in his gut, guilt eating him up when he realized what he had done. Who punched naked people in the face? It wasn’t like the guy had a weapon on him somewhere – he was buck-naked! Oh god, what had he done?
The man recoiled in shock holding his nose, a trickle of blood dribbling down onto his upper lip from his nostrils. “What the hell is your problem buddy?” he hissed, tears of pain streaming from the corners of his eyes. “All I did was say hello!”
Steve moved forward without thinking, taking the man by the chin to inspect the damage, praying that he hadn’t cracked the poor guy’s skull; the man was strangely pliable in his hand, his face warm and slick with tears and blood. Steve wanted to punch himself in the face for hurting the poor guy. What the hell had he been thinking? This wasn’t some Hydra agent – this was a civilian! “I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to hit you so hard – I thought you were trying to attack me, and I just – If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”
“Oh. My. God,” the man said. He wiped at his nose, the blood vanishing as if at the push of a button. “You’re human.”
Steve stared at the man, dumbfounded. He gently prodded the man’s nose and was surprised to find that everything was back the way it had been before his punch had landed; the guy didn’t even wince or shy away from the touch, he just continued to stare at Steve excited by his discovery.
“You are, aren’t you?” The man insisted, going up on his toes to get a better look at Steve’s face. He was still half trapped in Steve’s grasp, but it didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm any.
Steve let his hands drop to his sides, hoping that it would get the guy to back up a bit, but not only did the stranger not back up, he instead got even closer. Steve’s face flushed. The man nose was an inch away from his, their chests so close they were almost touching; he resisted the blind urge to cover up as the stranger’s eyes analyzed every last bit of him. He was struck with the sudden urge to press his lips to the man’s throat, to slid his hands down between his legs – wait. What?
“I’m looking for Maria,” Steve said, pulling his mind out of the gutter. He had a job to do after all, and even if this man was the most sexual thing on legs alive, that didn’t mean he could stop working. He had a job to do after all and – wait. He had just thought that already. He shook his head, taking a step back from the stranger, and sneezed again.
“Tony,” the man said, reaching out and grabbing Steve by the hand again despite having already been brained for doing the exact same thing. The handshake was fierce, the grin on his face back in full force. “I’m Tony. And what’s your name sweetheart?”
“I'm Steve,” Steve muttered. He sneezed again and was mortified when the spray caught Tony in the shoulder. “Oh geeze. Sorry. I think I’m allergic to that smell or something.”
Steve sniffled. He had thought the serum had made him allergy free, but apparently that didn’t apply to intergalactic allergies; he made a mental note to talk with Bruce about it later.
Tony’s eyes grew impossibly wider. His tail snaked out from behind his back and wrapped itself around Steve’s waist and leg. It gave Steve’s thigh a friendly squeeze; it was much longer than of the other tails Steve had seen, larger than even the Queen’s tail.
Steve stared at Tony’s tail, mortified, unsure whether or not he should be offended by the fact that it was busy groping him. Was this some kind of Incubus introduction thing? Like shaking hands?
“You’re immune!” Tony whooped. He clasped his hands in front of his face, shuffling forwards until he was stomach to stomach with Steve. “And you’re human. This is perfect.” He grabbed Steve by the arm and whirled around, dragging him into the bushes as easily as he might pull a chair with wheels.
Steve couldn’t bring himself to stop moving, trapped in the grasp of Tony and his tail. He bumbled along feeling far clumsier than normal, his thoughts turning hazy. The bushes parted in front of them as if they had been tugged at by invisible strings, revealing the entrance to a rather impressive looking stone house; it was made from the same white stone that had been used to make the portal courtyard’s walls, each brick perfectly set in place. The bricks were so precisely shaped it was hard to believe that anything other than a machine had done the work; there was nothing hand carved here, and if there was it had to have been done by someone with a very steady hand. This seemed to be Tony’s home because he didn’t bother knocking. He simply threw the door open and yanked Steve inside, shutting the door behind them with his tail.
Steve squinted in the darkness trying to make out where he was with little luck; he felt Tony’s tail slip away and was surprised to feel a pang of loss. “Don’t panic. I’m going to turn on the light, hold on,” Tony said from somewhere nearby.
Steve barely had time to lift his arm up to shield his eyes before the room was flooded with bright white light. “Is that electricity or magic?” Steve asked, wincing.
“It’s electricity,” Tony grinned. “I made it myself.”
Steve looked around, trying to get his bearings so that he didn’t accidentally step on anything important. The only bits of furniture around were a large round pallet piled high with blankets in the centre of the room and a solid looking desk set off in the corner. The desk was a complete disaster zone, covered with books and papers of all kinds, everything scattered about haphazardly amidst the remains of glass ink bottles and half-broken quills; the space around the desk was a mess of ink splattered doodles and scrap metal. Stacked wooden boxes filled with what looked like spare parts of some kind sat against the walls all around the room. Clockwork machines in various stages of completion gathered in a circle beside a small oval shaped window, its curtain still drawn.
“What is all this?” Steve asked as he was walked backwards towards the pallet. He let himself be pushed down, blinking drowsily as the ceiling abruptly came into view. “Tony? What are you doing?” He tensed when he found himself with a lapful of naked Tony. “Hey!”
Tony reached down and put a finger on Steve’s lips, shushing him. “Relax, I’m not going to seduce you. I just want to talk.”
“And sitting on me is doing that how, exactly?” Steve growled, pushing Tony’s finger away; when Steve licked his dry lips after he could taste salt and oil where Tony had touched him. He would have expected Tony to taste like strawberries and chocolate, not grease. It seemed like an odd combination for someone whose life should have revolved around seduction. Wait – why was he thinking about what Tony tasted like?
“You’re a human, right?” Tony murmured, unperturbed by Steve’s irritation.
“Yes. I think we have established that I’m a human. Can I get up please?” Steve pushed against Tony’s thighs to try and dislodge him. Tony’s tails slithered around his hip and wrapped itself around Steve’s arm as he tried to wiggle his way to freedom. It tugged gently at Steve as Tony continued to talk as if trying to get him to pay attention.
“I was working on a mechanical heart before you came,” Tony said solemnly. He started drawing on Steve’s chest with his thumb, every scratchy move sending shivers down Steve’s spine.
“A mechanical heart?” Steve frowned in confusion. “What does that have to do with me?”
“Nothing. That’s not the point. The point is this,” Tony squirmed as he tried to get more comfortable, his hands moving to Steve’s shoulders so that he could brace himself as he moved.
Steve flushed bright red when Tony’s buttocks pressed flush against his bare stomach. He desperately tried to ignore the fact that the man’s cock was now squashed quite comfortably against his belly.
“The point is that I have gone as far as I can with the limited resources and electricity I have access to here. You can’t hook a clockwork heart up to a waterwheel after all. It’s just not feasible in the long run. Sure, I could try and enchant something, but let’s be fair here, enchantments run out and they’re unpredictable at best when I cast them. I’d much rather have a clockwork heart powered by something a little more dependable and replaceable,” Tony drawled.
“Again, what do I have to do with any of this?” Steve grumbled, shoving Tony backwards and off of his belly.
Tony sprawled on his back, rolling in the rough bedding. “The point is that you are human, and therefore have access to human engineering – and I, want access to that information.”
“You want me to do what?” Steve snapped, sitting up. He found himself knocked backwards despite his best efforts with Tony plastered against his front, his lips close enough to Steve’s that they were almost kissing.
Tony grabbed Steve by the shoulders, shaking him. “I an engineer – I want your technical information. Come on – you can’t pretend that you don’t know anything! You made it here somehow! Nothing except for other worldly energy could have activated the portal from your end, so spill. How did you do it? Did you build a machine? Is it here? Can I see it?”
“I didn’t build anything!” Steve protested, managing to dislodge Tony again with a well-placed elbow to the gut. He crawled out of the blanket nest and struggled upright; Tony wrapped his arms around Steve’s thighs, holding on for dear life.
“Come on! You can’t come in here and not say anything! That’s not fair! I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!” Tony said.
Steve shook Tony off of his leg, slowly backing up as soon as he was free. This man, he decided, was completely bat-shit crazy. “Look. I don’t want any trouble. I just need to find Maria so that I can give her a message from the Queen.”
Tony bolted upright, his eyes glinting. He jabbed Steve in the ribs, making him wince. “You’re one of her spies? You came through the portal, and you choose to work for her, the creature who stole my mother’s throne?” He hissed. “I knew you were no good!”
“I’m not spying for anybody!” Steve roared, prodding Tony in the ribs in retaliation. “I’m just trying to get a bunch of injured Succubi and Incubi sent back to this world so that they don’t end up freezing to death in mine!”
“Oh, well that makes it alright then, does it?” Tony said, standing up on his tip toes. He shoved his face in Steve’s glaring at him. “That makes up for the thirty years of us being stuck here in the woods like animals!”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about! I’m from another planet!” Steve snapped.
Something changed in Tony’s eyes; Steve couldn’t say quite what it was, but it definitely wasn’t something bad. Tony’s mouth was wet and hot against his, the kiss urgent and demanding. His fingers tangling in Steve’s hair tugging Steve closer, making him stoop so that he had a better angle to work with. Steve couldn’t help the moan that escaped his lips. He knocked Tony onto his back and kissed him long and hard, his mind swirling as each new kiss seemed to get better and better. He didn’t know what had brought it all on, but for the moment he could have cared less. Tony’s hands were everywhere, his tail exploring every bit of Steve’s body. They kissed for what seemed like hours, breaking apart only when Steve found himself gasping for air; Tony’s lips were bruised and pink, his pupils blown wide. Steve couldn’t stop himself from rubbing the pad of his thumb over the Incubus’ lower lip.
“What the hell just happened?” Steve gasped, sucking in a laboured breath.
“I don’t know,” Tony panted. “Why are you – hey!”
Steve stood up, adjusting his pants where a rather impressive bulge was trying to make its presence known. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, horrified that he had started kissing a complete stranger. Tony and the Queen had said that he was immune, but was he? Was this some kind of sick magical game? He backed up, holding a hand out in front of him for defence. “Look, just stay back, alright? I don’t want any trouble.”
Tony looked hurt. “What’s wrong? I’m not good enough for you?”
“I’m not here for sex. I’m here to find Maria so that I can escort some injured and dying people home,” Steve said, the flush finally leaving his cheeks. “I don’t know what your beef is with the Queen, but frankly, it’s none of my business. All I want is for the Cleansing to stop, and for the exiled demons to go back to their homes. Now, can you tell me where Maria is or not?”
“I can do better than tell you. I can take you there,” Tony said, sitting up. “But you have to do me a favor in return.”
Steve scowled. Apparently there was a cost to everything in this world. He weighed his options carefully using the time to calm down, waiting for his cock to get the message; he had to force himself to stand still so that his pants wouldn’t rub against him. What was he going to do now? He could either take Tony up on his offer, and let the man take him to Maria for a price, or he could go back out into the forest and try and find her himself. He felt at his pockets for the map, wondering if he could find the house on it as a landmark. It might not have been a road sign, but it might just give him an idea of how big the world was. He froze. He felt at his pockets again, double checking every last fold of fabric, even checking his sleeves in case he had tucked it away there by accident.
It was no use.
The map was gone.
Tony smirked at Steve, his tail swishing beside him. “So, do we have a deal or not Steve?”
Steve wanted to scream in frustration. The map may have been hard to follow, and without it, he was as good as blind.
Tony whistled, leading Steve through bush after bush, scampering along logs and through tall grass that should have sliced open his bare flesh; he was a lot more nimble than Steve had suspected, and a hell of a lot more chatty. Steve watched him carefully, sure that something bad was about to happen, but nothing ever did. Tony didn’t seem to notice his hesitation. He chattered away about engineering, asking Steve a thousand and one different questions about what Earth was like and what the technology was like for the average person. Steve responded as best he could, telling Tony all about pizza ovens, computers and television; he felt a little bit like he was talking to himself when he had first woken up from the ice, every detail a new adventure.
Tony listened to everything Steve said completely entranced; he nearly walked into a tree when Steve started tell him about how electricity was available to anyone as long as they could pay the bill. It hadn’t been all that shocking to Steve when he had first heard it considering they had had electricity in the in his day and age, but to Tony it was like Steve had just told him meatballs could grow wings and deliver the mail.
“You’re telling me,” Tony said, his eyes wide like saucers, “anyone can use electricity? You don’t have to build anything?”
“We have companies in charge of making and selling power back home. All the buildings come wired into the electrical grids.”
“So where do they keep the wires? Don’t the houses light on fire?”
“The wires run in the walls, just like the sewage and water pipes do. They’re insulated to keep them from electrocuting someone.”
“And your lighting devices are plugged in directly? Do they have switches?” Tony asked, sounding thrilled.
“We have light switches too,” Steve smiled. “We have bulbs that we screw into the fixtures that are connected to the grid. For the rest of the stuff that needs electricity to run, you just need to plug things into the wall sockets.” Steve shrugged. “The internet is pretty much the same thing - just like cable or satellite television. All you need is a credit card and the receivers and you can get signal anywhere.”
“Credit card? I assume that’s a form of payment of some kind.” Tony led them through a circle of ankle high stones, expertly avoiding them. He tapped three with his tail as if in afterthought. The piece of paper clutched in his tail’s grasp flapping in the wind as he spun around, drawing Steve’s attention.
“Hey!” Steve yelped, making a dive for the paper. “That’s mine!”
“Is it?” Tony grinned, running past the rocks and into the clearing in front of them. “Come and get it back then honeybear.”
Steve ran after him, weaving around rocks and logs; Tony ran ahead of him, his tail whipping back and forth amidst the grass. The incubus was a heck of a lot faster than Steve had expected, leaping over anything that got in his way.
Steve increased speed; Tony put on the breaks. They collided with an audible oomph going head over heels into the grass landing in a crumpled heap with Tony pinned underneath Steve’s bulk.
Tony slapped at Steve’s shoulders, coughing as he tried to get the air that had been knocked out of him back into his lungs. “God,” Tony wheezed, pushing harder at Steve’s shoulders, amazed that he couldn’t dislodge his unexpected passenger. “You weigh a ton!”
Steve spat a piece of grass out of his mouth. “Well if you didn’t run off, I wouldn’t have crashed into you.”
Tony winced, lifting himself up against Steve to fish his tail out from underneath him. He blew on it, scrubbing at the grass and dust stuck to it with a sullen look on his face. “Well you should be more careful.”
“Careful? I should be more careful? Maybe you shouldn’t steal things that don’t belong to you!” Steve growled.
Tony snorted loudly, his breath hot against Steve’s face. “I wasn’t stealing it, I was borrowing it! There’s a difference!”
“This isn’t a game! There are people dying out there!”
“Oh, and you think I don’t know that?” Tony sneered, pushing at Steve’s chest again. “Get off of me!”
“Give me the map,” Steve said through his teeth, “and I’ll get off.”
“Grow up,” Tony hissed, lifting himself up so that he was right up in Steve’s face. “You’re not all human, are you? You don’t really smell like one now that I think about it. What did they do? Make you out of spare parts and forget the brain?” He gave Steve a good sniff, the tip of his nose rubbing up against Steve’s throat; Steve refused to move, forcing himself to stay where he was even though he wanted nothing more than to jump up and walk away. He bristled as Tony’s words ate their way through his defences, tearing at the walls he had put up so many years ago. He wasn’t a lab experiment! He was Steve Rogers – all that had changed was the packaging!
Steve reacted without thinking, the words falling from his mouth with venomous ease. “You’re telling me to grow up? You’re the one that needs to grow up Tony. You’re nothing but a spoiled brat obsessed with engineering! You’re pathetic!” It felt like he was listening to the argument instead of participating in it; he hadn’t been this angry in ages.
“I am not pathetic!” Tony snarled, shoving at Steve again, his face contorting with rage. “Shut up!”
“Oh, I see,” Steve said, getting up, “You can dish it but you can’t take it, is that it?” He turned away, walking back the way they had come. “She’s probably not even out here. This is probably just you taking me on a wild goose chase so you can harass me. I don’t know why I even bothered agreeing to follow you in the first place. You’re obviously yanking my chain.”
Tony scrambled up from the grass, grabbing Steve by the arm. “I’m not some kind of liar!”
“Oh? Then prove it,” Steve said, pulling his arm free. “Take me to Maria and help me do my job instead of screwing around. People are dying every second we spend out here arguing. Your people have already died in my world. Or do you not care? Is that it?”
Tony looked hurt. “What the fuck do you think I am, some kind of monster?”
Steve sighed aloud. “Tony,”
“Well good luck talking with her when you find her,” Tony snapped, shoving past Steve. “Here.” He threw the map over his shoulder, his tail flicking it towards Steve before it could hit the ground; it hit Steve in the face and he staggered backwards as if he had been punched by Thor. He pulled the map free, smoothing the wrinkled paper out, grumbling to himself.
Tony stomped off into the forest.
Steve froze. There was a spatter of blood on the map, and it definitely wasn’t his. “Tony?” He stuffed the map into his pocket and ran after Tony.
Tony hadn’t made it far. When Steve came barreling around the corner he found him sitting on one of the logs they had passed earlier picking rocks out of the backs of his legs. He looked up when Steve got closer, seemingly startled.
“What do you want?”
Steve knelt down in front of him, taking in the damage. Most of it looked superficial, thankfully, and there were only a few large scratches amidst the handful Steve could see. He brushed grass off Tony’s thigh, and then realized just what he had done. “Shit – I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have –”
“It’s fine,” Tony murmured. He put his hand over Steve’s, rubbing his calloused fingers over Steve’s knuckles as if to comfort him somehow.
Steve sighed aloud, scrubbing at his face with his free hand. “Are you alright?” Tony shrugged, wincing slightly as he did. “It’s not like I haven’t had worse.”
“Did you fall on something?”
“I landed on some rocks when we fell down. It’s no big deal.”
“I didn’t ask you to come and get me you know,” Tony grumbled sullenly, pulling his hand away.
“I know you didn’t,” Steve sighed. “I’m sorry that you got hurt when you fell. I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
“It was an accident,” Tony snapped, picking a pebble out of his scraped knee. “Don’t you have somewhere to be? I don’t need a babysitter. I can get home all by myself without you. I’ve been doing it for years.”
Steve stood up, dusting off his knees. Part of him wanted to walk off without another word, to just leave Tony behind and get on with his job and his life. He had met his fair share of infuriating people, but Tony took the cake. He turned to leave, but stopped when he caught sight of Tony’s back. The Incubus was hunched over, pressing his face against his knees as he attacked a particularly nasty looking scrape on the side of his ankle, plucking out a piece of grass that had gotten matted into the wound. Tony’s back was covered with scrapes and scratches; it looked like someone had gone at him with a cheese grater.
Steve sighed in despair. He hadn’t even thought about what it would be like to hit the ground without a layer of cloth between skin and soil. If it hadn’t been a grass field they had crashed into, the mess might have been much, much worse. He wished that he had a first aid kit with him or at the very least a rag to wipe up the blood.
“It’s fine Steve,” Tony grumbled, straightening up. “You can go. I told you, I’m fine. I heal fast.”
“I know you’re fine,” Steve said. He sat down on the log beside Tony, wincing sympathetically as he brushed grass and leaves from Tony’s back. “You’re supposed to take me to see Maria, right? You promised.”
Tony scowled. “She’s in the middle of that circle of obelisks back in the field. You don’t need me to find it.” He stood up, pushing Steve’s hand away. “You’ll be fine. She likes big dumb blondes.” He turned his back to Steve as he tried to limp away.
“Tony,” Steve said in exasperation, catching Tony by the tail before he could get leave; the tail felt strange in his hand, all warm, smooth and heavy. He tried to push his mind away from the fact that it felt a little too close to something else. When Tony went rigid in his grasp, he gave the tail a gentle tug to try and get him to come back. “I’m sorry, alright?”
Tony turned around with a flourish, his arms crossed stiffly over his chest. If he had been dressed in a suit Steve would have thought they were at a business conference instead of standing out in the middle of a forest. Tony raised an eyebrow, his gaze cool and calculating. “What?”
“Please? I’d like you to come with me. I promised I’d make it up to you, remember?” Steve said. At this point he would take whatever advantage he could get, and if Tony was that advantage, well, he would just have to put up with him. He had meant what he said, and he didn’t break his promises unless it couldn’t be helped. Tony had said that Maria was his mother and if that was the truth then it would be worth his time to keep the Incubus around even if he was maddeningly unaware of how selfish he was. Steve smiled, hiding his frustration behind a mask of pleasantness. “Please. Come with me?” The smile likely looked strained, but that didn’t seem to be much of a problem for Tony.
“Really? Well, if you insist.” Tony’s eyes lit up, that oh-so-charming smile returning all at once. He strutted past Steve walking backwards, his tail looping itself around Steve’s palm. He tugged Steve along with him, leading them back to the grassy field as easily as he might if he was facing the right direction. Steve admired his balance.
“So, in your house, do you have a computer?” Tony asked, walking them through the grass.
“And you have the internet on it?”
“What does it do? You said it’s a network but what does that mean? Is it controlled by a group of people or is it controlled by information?” Tony asked, nimbly avoiding a rock that came into his path. His tail pulled free from Steve’s hand as they got closer to the obelisks, parting the grass so that they didn’t have to walk through it.
“I guess you could say that it’s a little of both,” Steve said, trying not to be annoyed by the way Tony had gone straight back to the engineering talk. The guy had a one track mind it seemed. He followed along in Tony’s wake, swatting at the stalks of grass Tony hadn’t managed to snag to keep from getting hit in the face. “The internet connects computers all over the world, and people use it to store information,” Steve said. It was an oversimplification, but he didn’t feel like explaining anything in detail anymore. Explaining things felt far too draining.
The circle of obelisks was far larger than it had appeared from a distance; he had assumed that they might be waist high or so, but instead they were massive, towering well above the tops of the tallest trees. Each obelisk was a good arm length across, the stone some kind of dark marble he was pretty sure didn’t exist on Earth. They all seemed to be the exact same size, every last edge cut from the stone the same way. They weren’t just plain old obelisks either. They were decorated with carved looping runes of some kind; each one had a different combination of characters. Steve didn’t recognize anything he saw carved there; he hadn’t expected to.
The craftsmanship was admirable though, from an artistic standpoint. Every last symbol was the same height, every slice in the stone flawless and decisive with not a single stroke out of place. He eyed the obelisks nervously, unsure if they should be going anywhere near them. The last time he had approached ruins like this it had been to stop a cult from raising the dead, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was in the air here too. The Queen had said that he would be safe from harm, but was that true? Could he trust any of them? Tony had already stolen from him after all.
“And anyone can use the internet?” Tony queried, peering over his shoulder at the obelisks, oblivious to Steve’s inner turmoil. He stopped, turning around and then shifted his weight from leg to leg as he took in the sight doing a sort of hobbled dance. “They sealed her in there. I can’t usually get past the edge of the clearing – but your map broke the seal enough for me to get through. Thanks for that by the way,” he flashed Steve a toothy grin and darted forwards, moving far faster than he had earlier.
Steve barely kept up with him as they ran through the stones. Damn it, he thought in irritation, he had been played again!
He had expected to see the former Queen, but he hadn’t expected to see her quite like this.
She covered in filth, her legs and arms chained to separate obelisks so that she could move no further than a small circle around a dirty looking pile of straw. Her eyes flashed when she caught sight of them and the writing on the stones behind her lit up like lightning bugs at dusk their neon green and yellow light staining her pale skin. She looked angry. Very, very angry.
“Mother,” Tony panted, coming to a halt right in front of her. She turned her head towards him, her gaze slightly to the left of where he was standing. Her eyes were wide, her pupils so dilated it looked as if she was high on some kind of drug. She sniffed the air cocking her head to the side, listening guardedly to their breathing.
Steve came to a dead stop beside Tony. He put a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder to keep him still, afraid to let him get any closer; the former Queen looked like she might snap at them like a guard dog kept too long on a chain. “Can she hear you?” he asked quietly.
Tony shook his head, wiping his face on the back of his hand. Sweat was trickled through his hair and down his body in tight rivulets. He staggered, wheezing as he tried to respond and had to catch himself on Steve to keep from falling to the ground.
Steve caught Tony and almost dropped him; Tony’s skin was unnaturally slick, his olive tan going a sickly white. He had to dig his fingers in to the meat of Tony’s sides to keep him from slipping free. “Tony? What’s wrong?”
“Can’t breathe… spell is too powerful,” Tony gasped, holding onto the sleeves of Steve’s uniform. He mimed something Steve couldn’t understand and collapsed against Steve’s shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut, clearly in pain, his face pressed up against Steve’s skin.
Steve quickly pulled the map out of his pocket, stuffing it into Tony’s hands; he didn’t know if it was going to help, but it was the only thing he could think to do.
The sweat stopped almost immediately, Tony’s struggled breathing growing easier. He took a deep breath in through his nose, his tail wrapping loosely around Steve’s waist; the colour returned to his skin in one fell swoop. “Shit, that was way worse than I thought it would be. Thanks,” Tony said, straightening up. “I read about it when I was trying to research how to break her out, but I guess they missed a few things when they were writing down the side effects of the magic.”
“What the hell was that?” Steve asked, grateful that whatever it was seemed to have passed.
“It is a spell to keep those of like blood and mind separated,” the Queen rasped, turning in Steve’s direction.
Steve tensed; Tony did the same, wrapping his arms tighter around Steve’s middle.
Queen Maria was just as lovely as Tony even in her wretched condition; it was very clear to Steve that the pair were related, even without having heard about it beforehand. Her features were more feminine than her son’s, but her chin was just as sharp and dignified, her eyes just as brown and fierce, yet at the same time there was a deadliness to her beauty. She didn’t look like she would ever truly smile without fangs shown.
“You are the Escort?” Maria sniffed the air much less tentatively this time; she turned and tried to face Steve, but ended up looking to the left of him instead. “You’re human?”
“Yes I am. I’m afraid I don’t know what the Escort part means ma’am, but that’s what the Queen told me,” Steve said. He meant to move Tony away from her in case something bad was about to happen but found his movements had turned sluggish, his brain unable to keep up with his plans. With the map gone from his hands the air seemed to have changed becoming unbearably hot and muggy around him. He swiped a dribble of sweat from the side of his neck and tried not to let it bother him, resting his free hand on Tony’s shoulder to steady himself; there was something he had been planning to do, but now that thought was fuzzy, hiding in the back of his mind. He didn’t like that feeling one bit.
“So she’s decided that it’s time for my punishment then?” Maria spat on the floor, her lips curling in disgust.
“I don’t know anything about a punishment. All she said was that if I can convince you to come back to the castle to hear her conditions, and if she agrees to forgive you, she’ll stop the Cleansing,” Steve said.
He could tell almost immediately that Maria wasn’t very pleased with what she had heard; her glower could have frozen hot soup. She yanked at her chains, causing the metal to squeal in protest. The obelisks came alive around them as if they were sleeping creatures awoken from a nightmare. They wailed in agony as they were yanked forwards; Steve flinched, clapping his hands over his ears to try and dull the sound, his enhanced hearing making things a thousand times worse than it should have been. He must have let out some kind of a pained sound, because Maria’s hands dropped to her sides as if they had been snapped into place by magnets; he watched her through watery eyes, trying to keep himself from crashing to the ground on his knees.
“Did you hear something?” Tony asked. He squeezed Steve’s middle, rubbing his hands up and down Steve’s back. Steve was startled by the touch, surprised that Tony would do something so tender to someone he had been fighting with.
The look of disgusted hate on Maria’s face fell away as she lowered her gaze to peer sightlessly into her lap. The obelisks fell silent, their screams becoming nothing more than an unpleasant buzzing noise in Steve’s ears.
“She wants to forgive me? For what?” Maria hissed.
“I don’t really know ma’am. The most I can tell you is that if you go back, she’ll give you the chance to speak and end the Cleansing,” Steve gasped, lowering his hands.
Tony leaned back against him, peering up at Steve’s chin. He dragged his finger along the line of Steve’s jaw, staring in fascination at the bead of sweat that stuck to his finger; his tail wrapped tighter around Steve’s waist, tapping impatiently against Steve’s hip. “It means that she abdicates the throne cuts her ties to it – including the ties of her line. She’ll be just another Succubus once Brigitta’s done with her – they might even starve her to death,” Tony murmured, idly looping Steve’s sleeves around his hands.
“That doesn’t sound very nice,” Steve said. He had suspected as much, but it would have been nice to be wrong for a change. He couldn’t see Maria agreeing to Brigitta’s request when it meant the loss of her entire family’s power and position within their society; if he had been in her shoes he wasn’t sure what he would have done.
“It’s not meant to benice.” Maria lifted her head. “But if that is what it takes to set things right for my people, I will do it.” Her pupils shrank as the obelisks behind her started glowing, stirring from their light slumber. A ring of symbols appeared on her irises; they were tinted with a ghastly shade of red, and looked suspiciously as if they had been carved there. The green and yellow magic started dripping its way down the obelisks, the now liquid magic pooling on the ground in a puddle. The obelisks went a dull grey once the magic had left, the polished shine wiped clean from the stone; the carvings that had once stood out so vividly were gone as if they had never been there to begin with.
“Mother – you can’t be serious!” Tony gasped, nearly dislodging himself from Steve. His rebellious tail remained tightly wound around Steve’s waist, completely uninterested in what was going on. The tip started leisurely exploring the inside of Steve’s pants, slipping behind the fabric into the crotch.
Steve yelped in surprise and grabbed for it. He yanked the tail free before it could wrap itself any tighter around his cock, his face going bright red. “Tony!”
Tony cast him an apologetic look and tugged at his tail, giving it a look he might give to a petulant child. “Behave! You’re not supposed to do stuff like that.” The tail wilted, hanging limply against Steve’s hip as if paying penance for the impromptu groping. “Sorry,” Tony sighed, flicking his tail. “It does that sometimes.”
“Aren’t you in control of it?” Steve grumbled, rubbing his stomach in lieu of reaching into his pants to adjust himself. Even if he was in the company of lust demons, he still wasn’t going to start doing something like that out in public, especially not in front of a stranger and that stranger’s mother.
“I am in control of it,” Tony protested, “it just does things on its own sometime.” He tugged Steve along with him as he approached his mother, kneeling down in front of her. He took her face in his hands tenderly rubbing her cheek against his own. “You’ll be thrown out. We’ll be thrown out.”
“I know that – do you think I’ve learned nothing since inheriting the throne?” Maria snapped, smacking him upside the head.
He went back on his heels, rubbing his cheek with the back of his hand. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Her stern gaze softened, lips setting into a grimaced smile. “It’s hardly your fault child. She seized control because of your father, not because of you. You know I don’t blame you for anything.”
“I know.” Tony stared down at the ground for so long, Steve was almost sure he wasn’t going to ever look up.
It was so heartbreaking a sight he couldn’t help but reach out and carded his fingers through Tony’s hair. Tony looked up, startled from his thoughts. He looked much younger than he had before, almost like Steve was looking at an image from the past. He smiled softly at Steve and leaned into the touch, his eyelids fluttering, looking completely content. “Thanks.”
Maria stood and gave herself a great shake. The chains holding her shattered and turning to ash breaking apart into great billowing clouds of black smoke; she cracked her back with a pleased groan, brushing her tangled and matted hair out from her face with one hand as she dusted herself off with the other. “I am sick and tired of festering in these chains – this air is foul and my body even more so. I must bathe, and when I am done I will decide what to do.” She snapped her fingers at Steve to draw his attention away from her son and started walking away, casting an irritated glance over her shoulder when he didn’t immediately spring into action. “Come Escort. Do your job.”
Steve sat perched on a smooth boulder at the side of the river dipping his toes in the crystal clear water; his boots sat beside him, washed clean of the mud and grass he had trampled through. He scrubbed at his uniform to try and get it as clean as possible fretting at the condition of the sleeves. There was still muck mashed into the seams when he was done with it, but it at least looked better than it had. He was tempted to take a bit of a soak, but the sight of Tony and his mother bathing serenely a few feet away made him feel like it would be the wrong thing to do; the thought of dirtying up their water made his skin crawl.
He scrubbed a wet hand through his sweat-sticky hair instead and dumped a handful of water down his back, enjoying the pleasant way the water momentarily chased away the persistent heat. At least the riverside wasn’t actively being patrolled by mosquitoes or other bugs. He was sure he hadn’t seen one yet, which was both surprising and eerie. Somehow it didn’t feel right to sit by a river and not get bitten by something.
He watched Tony and Maria fuss with her hair, trying to untangle the stubbornly knotted strands with their fingers.
Maria scowled, slapping Tony’s hands away when he tugged too hard. “Enough!” she roared, glaring at her reflection. “This is pointless without magic.”
“Hold on, hold on. I can fix it.” Tony ducked under the water and came up with a stone. It didn’t look all that special to Steve; it looked like a plain old rounded river stone. Tony started rubbing it between his hands like it was a fresh bar of soap, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he worked; the lather produced smelled faintly like the perfume Steve’s mother had once used after she came home to block out the coarse antiseptic smell from working in the hospital. Tony rubbed the soapy film into his mother’s hair, taking care not to tug at the knots close to her scalp. He smirked to himself when the hairs easily slid free from their knotted prison, pleased with the way the mess was disappearing one knot at a time. “See? You forgot about the stones again, didn’t you?” he teased.
Maria clucked her tongue in annoyance, stealing the stone away. “Don’t talk with me about forgetting, boy.” She rubbed the stone between her hands to make some lather of her own, grumbling under her breath as she worked the handful into her greasy hair. Together they stripped the grime away, taking it one long strand at a time until there wasn’t a single knot to be seen.
Steve scoped out the riverbed, wondering what else the Succubus world had to offer. Everything here seemed enchanted, every rock and stream with its own unique purpose. He wondered who maintained all of the spells. Did they have someone who went around picking everything up and re-enchanting it when the magic faded? Maybe it was all naturally enchanted. He had heard stories from Thor about stuff like that. A few enchanted stones weren’t any more farfetched than enchanted swords and hammers after all.
Maria peered at Steve from the other side of the water, leaning back against the smooth riverbank with her hair floating about around her in silky waves; her gaze was almost as piercing as Fury’s, and the look on her face was just as pleasant. He considered asking her what she was thinking about but instead looked away into the water in front of him, not wanting to tempt fate any more than he already had. She looked angry, and the last thing he wanted to do was make it any worse; she had a tough decision ahead of her, one he was sure would haunt her till her dying days. He had sacrificed himself for others before, and he knew just how painful it could be to die for the greater good; he knew just how terrible a decision like that could be. She seemed to be a good leader, one who realized that others were suffering for her sake. Maybe she would make the right choice, maybe not. Whatever happened now was up to her.
Tony, however, was still an enigma. He seemed content to be floating on his back in the middle of the river, staring lethargically up into the sky with his tail feeling along the riverbank below him. The man was smart, although he didn’t seem to have anything in the way of social skills; Steve wondered just how educated the Incubus actually was. It wouldn’t have surprised him if the man now blowing bubbles out his nose was a genius of some kind. With all the clockwork inventions he had seen strewn about in Tony’s home, it wouldn’t have surprised him to find out the guy was smarter than Howard Stark. The people he had met hadn’t had much in the way of interest in building or learning; sex had been the name of the game. Tony was apparently in his own little world here. He wondered if Tony been working out of his house the entire time his mother was locked up. The place had seemed well used, and with the amount of clutter lying around it was probably safe to say he had been there for years.
Were there schools here where Tony had learned engineering? Had he taught himself? The way Maria had been talking, it seemed like they hadn’t had all that much time together, at least not recently. He wanted to ask so many different questions, and at the same time didn’t want to know the answers. He reminded himself sourly that he didn’t want to get attached to someone he was going to have to leave behind; he had lost enough people as it was. There was no need to pile another one onto the flames. Besides, he didn’t like Tony. Tony was just another spoiled brat messing about. Right?
He watched Tony in silence, wondering instead how much time had passed on Earth; Doctor Strange’s report had mentioned time differences, but it hadn’t said how fast or slow time would be traveling on the other side of the portal. Had Bucky and the others jumped ahead in time, leaving him behind all over again? He sighed. A few hours or months going by on Earth’s side wouldn’t be so bad, but years…. Well, years would be devastating. It had been stupid to get Thor to throw him through the portal without checking into it more first, but as they said, hindsight was twenty-twenty, wasn’t it?
Steve pushed his waterlogged hair out of his eyes. Sharon was going to kill him, he just knew it. He had sworn that he would meet her for coffee on Friday, and this was the fourth time he had missed their date. She had been nice about it before, telling him that it wasn’t a problem considering the fact that neither of them had total control of their work schedules, but he had a feeling that she wasn’t going to be so forgiving now that he had literally vanished off the face of the earth; he couldn’t really blame her if she deleted his number from her phone this time for good. Four missed dates was four misses too many, and even if Bucky had somehow managed to intervene on his behalf, he was pretty sure that there was nothing he could do to smooth things over. He would probably be lucky to make it out of their next meeting with his arms and legs still attached.
“So….” Steve jumped at Tony’s voice, looking around wildly, his heart hammering in his chest. He had been so deeply in thought he hadn’t even noticed that Tony had drifted across the river towards him. He met Tony’s gaze and smiled weakly, cursing himself for not paying more attention to his surroundings.
The Incubus floated leisurely on his back beside Steve, the soft edge of his hip bumping against Steve’s toes bare toes; Steve forced himself to keep his eyes on Tony’s face, trying valiantly to ignore the fact that Tony’s lower half was suddenly out on display and right in front of him. He was pretty sure his face was going to be permanently on fire by the time he got back to his own world. Tony just looked so goddamned good.
“So they teach people how to work with electricity in your world, right?” Tony drawled.
“I guess so. They call it electrical engineering I think,” Steve said, clearing his throat when he realized that his voice had taken on a far more squeaky tone than normal. “One of my friends employs a bunch of them in his company.”
Tony’s eyes lit up. “You’ve seen them?”
Steve froze; he wondered how much he should tell Tony considering he wouldn’t be sticking around. It seemed almost cruel telling him things about Earth like this. Once the portal was closed it would likely be closed forever or at least until another civil war broke out. SHIELD wasn’t going to want anyone to come through who didn’t belong. The Succubi and Incubi already on Earth would be showed the door, healed or not and while he didn’t like that they would be left to their own fate, he was sure that if they did die, they would appreciate doing it in their own world. Dying alone would be awful; he would know. He had done it.
“Hey,” Tony squeezed Steve’s knee, looking up at him through dark eyelashes. He gave Steve a sleepy smile. “You look like you could use a roll in the hay. I’d be more than willing to lend a hand.”
“I don’t think so,” Steve chuckled, pushing Tony away with his foot. The Incubus floated a few feet out and then rolled over, ducking energetically under the water. He popped back up between Steve’s knees, smiling sweetly up at Steve. “You could just take me with you when you leave you know.”
Steve groaned internally, forcing his face to fall blank. “I’m sorry Tony, but I can’t,” he said, shaking his head. “SHIELD has protocols in place, and I’m not allowed to break them. We’re not supposed to bring anything living back to Earth.”
“But I’m nice – and I’m charming – and I’m smart! I learn fast too, so I won’t be a burden.” Tony clung like a limpet to Steve’s knees. “I’ll be useful!”
Steve ruffled Tony’s hair, smirking when Tony sputtered indignantly at him. “Believe me, I wouldn’t mind if you came back with me, but they’re not going to let it happen; the moment you step through that portal someone is going to shove you right back through. Besides, you can’t just leave your mother here all by herself, can you? She’ll be all alone.”
Tony scowled darkly, slapping the water. “She’s fine on her own. She has plenty of children here to take care of her – she doesn’t need me.”
“What? It’s true! I’m just the youngest – that’s the only reason she’s even still talking with me. I’ll be forty five soon! Then no one’s going to say a word to me and I’ll have to go farm dreams all the time like all the other harvesters. Frankly I’d rather spend my time doing more productive things. I don’t want to just sit around and watch the world through some human’s dreams.” Tony splashed the water, scowling at his reflection.
“You’re forty five?” Steve hadn’t thought Tony was that old. He certainly didn’t look like it.
“I’m forty four,” Tony corrected, jabbing Steve in the shin, “but that’s not that young. Why? How old are you?”
“I’m twenty eight,” Steve said, trying to keep a straight face. If Tony thought forty five wasn’t old, then twenty eight was definitely nothing impressive. As expected, Tony’s jaw dropped in a rather unflattering way. “You’re just a baby!”
“I am not!” Steve grumbled, splashing Tony in the side of the head. “Where I’m from you’re considered an adult by eighteen or nineteen.”
“Oh,” Tony murmured. He ignored Steve, staring intently at Steve’s scale mail covered thighs. He ran his fingers over the sleeve of Steve’s suit, fixating on the material and stitching. “You know, this would be stronger if you refined the material. You’re lucky you haven’t been skewered yet.”
“I have been. Luckily I heal almost as fast as you do.” Steve said, carding his fingers through Tony’s hair again. He couldn’t help himself; it was just so amusing the way Tony’s eyes blinked shut. God, Steve thought wearily as he rubbed his fingers against Tony’s scalp, Tony was winning him over and he wasn’t even using magic.
“Humans have really soft skin compared to us,” Tony said, leaning into Steve’s touch. He rested his cheek against Steve’s knee, letting the sleeve drop with a sigh. “I can really help you out you know,” Tony mumbled. “I’ve got tons of research papers at home – the weapons and inventions I build have been used all over our world.”
“I’d love to bring you home with me, but it’s impossible,” Steve said. He continued to pet Tony’s hair, feeling a little more miserable with each stroke when he realized that he really meant what he said. He sort of did want to bring Tony home. He wanted to see the look on Bucky’s face when they finally met; he wanted to bring Tony home.
Queen Brigitta was waiting for them in her audience chamber when they arrived at the castle. They didn’t even have to wait an obligatory twenty minutes for her to show up; she was lying in wait sprawled on her mattress in the same position Steve had last seen her in. She scowled the moment they made their way into the room, looking a bit like she might spit at them.
Maria, on the other hand, didn’t seem to even notice her sister. She allowed Tony to lead her to the only cushion in the room, settling down with her damp hair curling around her body like a wet sheet. The two Queens were as different as night and day. Where Maria was tall and slender, her sister was short and curvaceous; they shared eyes and lips but nothing more.
Brigitta rolled onto her side, peering at her sister from under her bangs. “So, you’ve finally come to apologize?”
“I have come as you requested,” Maria replied tersely, arms crossing over her breasts.
“What mother means to say,” Tony said quickly cutting in, “is that she wishes to propose a change to the laws.”
Brigitta sat up slowly; Maria’s lips went thin and tight, but she didn’t say a word.
Tony stepped in front of his mother, bowing in suplication before Brigitta’s mattress. He remained bowed until she flicked him with her tail and then looked up smiling the most charming smile Steve had ever seen. “She proposes a compromise.”
“A what?” Brigitta grunted looking even more irritated than before. “A compromise? What idiocy is this? Does your fool speak for you sister?”
“He does,” Maria grumbled. “Gods save us both, he does.”
“It has come to her attention that Queens are often weakest when they are with child,” Tony said, wrapping his tail delicately around Brigitta’s. She frowned at him but didn’t pull her tail free; her tail began to rub against his, their tails moving back and forth together. “The Queen with child must, by rule of law keep her child alive until it can fend for itself, yes?” he said.
She nodded slowly, her scowl softening. “What of it?”
“What if,” Tony said, gently stroking her hand, “there were two Queens? One Queen to rule when needed, the other Queen to rest and care for her child. The Queens could work together – no one would dare challenge their rule.” He kissed Brigitta’s knuckles, smiling coyly at her. “They would be so much better together than apart.”
Brigitta ran her teeth over her lower lip, not quite glaring at him but not quite smiling either. She looked at her sister, who was sitting on her cushion in silence doing nothing more than making eye contact. “And she would agree to this? She would agree to allow me to rule once the child is old enough to fend for itself?”
Tony looked back over his shoulder at his mother, the smile on his face going almost painfully tight. He seemed to be willing her to agree with all of his might; Maria grimaced, her arms still tightly crossed over her chest. “I would agree if the terms were to include my people and yours returning to their homes without fear of a Cleansing in the future.”
Brigitta tapped her chin, staring up at the ceiling. “And the Earth-born? What of them?”
“The Earth-born would be free to come and go as they please. They would be allowed citizenship – it is only fair,” Maria said softly, eyeing Tony.
Brigitta drummed her fingers on her arm. “I don’t see how letting them come and go as they please would be beneficial to the rest of us. They are better used as servants.” She sneered at Tony, yanking her tail away from his so violently that Tony ended up scooting across the ground past his mother’s cushion to get away from her. He rubbed at his tail, wincing in pain.
“I will not have my son serve as someone’s slave,” Maria snapped, standing up. “It is unfair to have my son serve while your three daughters do not.”
“My daughters do not serve because they are of maiden-blood! They do not need to serve!” Brigitta snarled, leaping up. The pair squared off, tails whipping through the air as they struck at each other.
Tony hurried to Steve’s side and pushed him out of the range of their strikes. He grabbed Steve by the wrist, his grip tightening when Steve tried to take a step forward to break the feuding pair up. “Let them deal with it themselves,” he whispered out of the corner of his mouth, still smiling painfully at his mother and aunt. “If you step in they’ll never agree to anything with each other again.”
Steve nodded once, taking a careful and calculated step backwards. He hoped to god that Tony knew what he was doing.
The two Queens looked ready to murder each other in cold blood, circling the room as their tails snapped at each other; they seemed to be arguing through movement alone, shaking and nodding their heads after each blow landed, welts springing up on their bodies. The movements were rhythmic, a dance seemingly choreographed beforehand; this wasn’t a dance though – this was war.
At last, after what seemed like hours of brutality, Brigitta’s shoulders sagged in defeat. She scowled and bowed her head once; Maria did the same, a similar scowl on her face. “It is agreed then.”
“So it is,” Brigitta sighed. Her tail wrapped calmly around her waist, rubbing circles on her welt covered hip. “The Humans will send the Cleansed back – the living cleansed. They may keep the dead.”
“And the Human will go back to his world – unless of course you wish to couple with him?” Brigitta nodded towards Steve. Maria shook her head, smoothing her hair down over her shoulders. “No, I would not dream of it.”
“Fine then. Human,” Brigitta said, snapping her fingers to get Steve’s attention.
“Yes Ma’am?” Steve said, uncomfortably aware that all eyes were suddenly locked on him. It was an unpleasant sensation, one that made his stomach churn; he sneezed loudly, a sudden burst of cinnamon clogging up his sinuses.
“Human, you will return to your world – come here.” She motioned for him to approach, and he reluctantly did as instructed. “Hold out your hand.”
He flinched when she drove a sharp fingernail into his palm but didn’t move, barely feeling the pain as she carved a symbol into his flesh. When she was done she licked his palm and the skin healed, leaving a scar behind in the shape of the symbols she had so diligently carved. She checked her work over and then dropped his hand as if disgusted by it, spitting over her shoulder. “This is your gate key. Guard it with your life,” she said as she plopped down on the mattress, making herself at home again. “Now get out. We have things to discuss and we don’t need distractions to keep us from our work. Brat, take him back to the portal and show him the way back home.”
Tony gave Brigitta a bow so low his nose practically touched the ground, straightening up only when she let out a hiss of displeasure; he turned, took Steve by the hand and led them out of the audience chamber without looking back.
They walked in silence. Tony kept a few steps ahead of Steve, his pace not quite frantic but certainly fast. His tail whipped back and forth in agitation, the tip returning every third swish to rub amiably against Steve’s chest.
Left and Right nodded to them as they passed by, allowing them to make their way to the portal courtyard without comment. They seemed a bit sadder than usual, and Steve wasn’t entirely sure why. The civil war was over – shouldn’t they have been… happy?
“Tony?” Steve hesitated, unsure of what to say. He wanted to thank the man for everything he had done, but couldn’t find the words; misjudging Tony had been a mistake he wouldn’t make again. Tony’s language had been eloquent, his body language passive and yet forceful. It had been strange to stand by and watch him work, and at the same time he would have loved to do it again. Tony had obviously had some kind of royal training as a child, and it must have been intensive if he had managed to keep with it after thirty some odd years away from their Court. He had singlehandedly stopped a civil war with a few well-chosen words and if that didn’t deserve praise than what did? If he had been on earth, he might have been honored with an award for his efforts, yet here… no one seemed to really care. Steve turned when Tony started talking again, wanting to pull him into a hug as thanks. For some reason though, he couldn’t manage to do it. His arms felt frozen in place, too stiff to move.
“You’ll have to hold your hand in the portal to bring it down to the right level. It was designed to both remove and accept travelers, so you shouldn’t have any problems with it once you’re through. It’ll hurt when the portal closes, but you’ll be alright,” Tony said his voice clipped and chilly. He let Steve’s hand drop as if it had burned him, pushing Steve towards the portal stone which roared to life in a flash of pink light. “See you later Steve,” he said, stomping off before Steve could respond.
Steve watched Tony’s retreating figure, his heart feeling heavy; part of him wanted to call out, to tell Tony that they could try and figure something out together, but he knew it was pointless. SHIELD wasn’t going to let him bring some stranger through a portal even if Tony was a brilliant engineer; they wanted their visitors gone, and Fury had made it clear that the ones who stuck around were going to be spending the rest of their lives locked up on the Raft even if they promised to keep to themselves. He could understand Fury and SHIELD’s fears all too well. If one of the Succubi or Incubi set their mind to it, they could take over an entire city. And if there really weren’t all that many immune people around they would probably have the Avengers and god knows who else wrapped around their fingers in a matter of minutes. He clamped down on his emotions, gritting his teeth as he took one last look around and then stepped through the portal, his job finally done. He would miss Tony, but he would be better off in his own world.