Work Header

The Weight of Armor

Work Text:

An alchemical mixture that creates chaos. That was what Bruce, the newly appointed court wizard, had called them once, while they were preparing for their first battle together. And, while Natasha had to admit it had a grain of truth to it – they were indeed an unlikely group – it had been years ago. Things were different now.


Well, all right, so the chaos part was still true.


"What do you mean you don't know where he went? He was in his chambers in the castle. A castle that sits on an island in the middle of a fucking river. Unless he suddenly sprouted wings and went out the window, you should know where he is!"


The guards looked at each other in consternation.


"He never left his rooms, ser Anthony. He never even opened the door. We would have noticed..."


"Perhaps the stable hands down in the yard will have seen something..." the other man began, but a glare from Tony cut him in half.


Natasha placed a hand on her friend's shoulder-plate, silently telling him to calm down. It would do no one any good to have a hysteria-afflicted Avenger causing distress at this time.


A hysteria-afflicted Avenging Knight of the Round Table would have been more accurate, but no one could really be bothered to say all of the words any more. Of course the full name had to be that long, of course. Tony's exact words had been: If we cannot protect Britain, you can be damned well sure we'll avenge it! (he had always been  prone to swagger and bravado, really); but Steve had insisted they should continue king Arthur's legacy, and a well-known and well-honored name should be the first step. The two of them had gone on arguing about it and yelling at each other even though they basically agreed, until Thor came up with the compromise.


Natasha now stirred Tony around, away from the guards, while they waited for Bruce to finish scrying for magical residues. The door between the sleeping chamber and the solar had served as a portal to another place, he told them as they stepped out into the corridor and towards their communal drawing room. Once there, the wizard went on to explain the details, but all the while Tony nudged and prodded Natasha to finish donning her armor. He was already wearing his, of course. He practically slept in the thing.


The longer Bruce spoke, the more Tony's face darkened. Natasha had just decided to somehow step in before he could rush off without having acquired all the necessary information, when Clint slipped into the room.


"Thor's checked the grounds, I've checked the roofs and scanned the surroundings. The visibility is good today." His voice was clipped and efficient as always. "No trace of Steve. No one's seen him either."


Tony looked as if one stiff breeze would send him straight into a rage.


“Look at me.” Tony's brown eyes snapped to her own. “We are going to find him," she enunciated very clearly. "Even if it takes us ten years, we are going to find him. There is not one place on this earth someone could hide him that we won't find. I refuse for any of us to lose any more family members. I'm not going through that again.” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you understand me?”


Tony nodded, eyes hardening in determination. "Let's go."


"Wait." Tony turned to glare at Thor, who had finally decided to join them, but Bruce nodded vigorously, so the red knight hesitated. "Listen," the wizard began, "we need a plan of action and we need to get carefully organized..." Tony just huffed, waved this off with a heavily armored hand and grabbed his huge bastard sword that was propped against the wall.


"I don't know about you guys," he snapped, "but I'm in no mood for delay. I'm off to find my stupid fucking idiot of a king."




It took them nine days.


Nine days of Tony's never-ending fretting and snapping and pacing up and down whenever they stopped for the night. Nine days of Clint's incessant sharpening of his throwing knives and his arrowheads, as well as endless adjusting and readjusting of the fletching. Nine days of Bruce alternating between staring into his scrying bowl (yes, even on horseback, not that he'd been a particularly spectacular horseman to begin with) and softly playing ballads on his lyre. Natasha normally thought his music sweet and soothing, but right now she considered strangling him with a string if she heard The Boy and the Mantle one more time. Nine days of Thor... well, okay, so Thor was mostly calm and collected, but that was just him mentally preparing to get his hands on whoever was responsible for this. He did mutter darkly to himself a lot, though.


It took them nine whole days to find Steve, wet and shivering from being repeatedly dunked into a freezing stream. His ropes were cruelly tight and he was pretty badly beaten too. The Pengwernian raiders had been after information, it seemed, and had no idea who they had actually laid their hands on. Needless to say, Steve had told them nothing. And paid for it.


"Are you shitting me?" Tony snarled as he wrestled a torch out of the hands of a particularly big fella that was going to set fire to the stable thatching; the red knight ran the man through with his bastard-sword in an unusual show of viciousness. "The Pengs are now working with the half-giants out of Wales and renegade sorcerers? Must even multigenerational feuds be broken? Is nothing sacred any more?"


"Nice to know where your concern lies," Steve remarked dryly from a haystack, where he obediently sat while Bruce set his broken arm and looked into his cuts and bruises. (Nothing but the arm apparently needed immediate attention, but he hadn't eaten for a few days and seemed to have developed a semi-nasty cough.)


Tony lifted his visor just to be able to arch a sarcastic eyebrow at Steve, then let it drop again. "Kings who sleepwalk themselves out of their own castles and into enemy hands aren't allowed to be sassy." Natasha wondered if the others had noticed the carefully concealed haunted look in Tony's eyes.


"I second that," Clint piped in as he jumped lightly into the saddle. Now all they had to do was fight their way back through the enemy lines and rejoin their small army. "You would not believe the amount of moping we all had to deal wi-hey!"


"No stone-throwing in glass houses," Natasha said and cleanly steered her dapple mare to ride down one raider as she took care of another in her usual style; many other knights would have considered it highly dishonorable.


"But it's okay to throw knives?!"


Not these knights right here, though, obviously; not her own knights. "I could teach you sometime, if you like," she said sweetly.


Clint mock-flinched. "Harsh."


Two wings of their party had noticed Bruce's green flame signal and rejoined them. Mainly foot-soldiers, though, the ones that had created a diversion for Steve's friends to sneak into this hornet's nest. Natasha recognized some of the faces, but for the most part these were the new lads from the northern borders.


"Chatter," Steve interjected, cutting off Clint's next remark. The king's voice habitually carried over the battlefield, even though he did sound quite exhausted now. "Tony, I'm afraid I'll need a hand here."


For a moment Natasha thought Steve was, uncharacteristically enough, asking for help with a combat situation, but that made no sense, since he rode safely in the middle... Then her gaze snapped to him and she registered how dangerously he was swaying in the saddle, and: We are idiots, she thought. There wasn't, however, either time or need for her to intervene. Tony was by his side in two seconds flat. He dismounted with a surprising grace and not so surprising haste. As Thor, Natasha and Clint guarded them, he helped Steve down; then, with Thor lending a hand, he lifted him onto his own horse, Jarvis, and mounted behind him. Two grown men, one of them in full armor – well, that wouldn't have been particularly good news for any poor animal, but Jarvis was a huge stallion, and strong. Tony held his king securely with his left hand, his sword still in his right.


Tony, I'm afraid I'll need a hand here.


So. Nobody commented on Steve using Tony's first name on the battlefield. Granted, it was neither the time, nor the place to get into this, and Steve was weak and sick. Still, he wasn't going to be happy about his own slip in front of all these men, later. Also, she suspected it wasn't just weariness. For him to break his own iron rule meant something had happened while he was a prisoner. Something not so good.




They all needed rest, for sure; but as they had found out long ago, it was always better to unwind an hour or two after the battle, calm the nerves first, let the muscles slowly slip into languidness. They were safely back in their camp now, dry and fed and warm in the bosom of their army. And, in Steve's case, forced into some bandages for good measure. They were going about their usual duties – in order to confirm to themselves everything was back to normal, if nothing else; everyone was alive, Steve was back, they could breathe now.


Natasha and Steve were sitting by one of the cooking fires, sipping watered wine, when she decided to bring up his slip regarding the real names and battle names. Steve flushed bright red with embarrassment. This caused a flare of amusement in Natasha's chest (or maybe it was just plain relief, she couldn't be sure). Then he began to tell her what had happened to him.


Apparently, in order to make him spill information, his chief captor, a sorcerer, had made Steve inhale smoke of certain mind-altering herbs. The effect, however, was quite different then expected. Instead of making him prattle, it had triggered a waking dream that felt disturbingly real. It was almost as if he had been transported to another place, another time, where all of them existed, just like here; and yet everything was somehow different.


"Star scholars of old tell us there are many worlds besides the one we live in, and there is a myriad of ways to be transported there," Bruce said as he came to sit beside them. "Of course", he added mildly, "that might be a pile of complete horseshit and we wouldn't know. But." He inclined his head.


Their king had ended up in the head of an otherworldly Steve (an indigenous Steve in that place, Natasha supposed); and, to make things even more complicated, that other Steve had somehow ended up trapped in a body of a giant lizard, being controlled by his captors, the sorcerers. Basically, both Steves were along for the ride in a dragon's mind; they were the dragon. And they had no free will whatsoever.


His friends had come to rescue him, of course. No surprise there. Natasha suspected that, in every world, that was a constant. Steve did inspire loyalty in people, true enough, but it wasn't just that. He knew how to pick them too, she supposed. He would spot you, and like you, and go on fiercely believing in you even if you yourself didn't – until you relented.  Who else, she mused, would befriend Thor, a Saxon hostage who had been  little more than a prisoner, really, and let him guard his back, and give him a war-hammer to wield, and eventually knight him? Who else would accept a lady determined to bear arms (and knight her too, to the general disgust of his court), or take in a low-born petty thief, even a one exceedingly talented with a bow and arrow (whom he had also knighted as soon as he got a chance)? Steve had knighted even Bruce – a wizard of erratic powers, with no real skill with weapons of any sort. Okay, so they were all blind drunk at the time, and Bruce didn't stand the proper vigil afterwards, so it probably didn't count, but still.


Who else, Natasha reflected, would decide to put his life in the hands of a mystery knight in reddish armor, a self-titled Iron Man, who refused to show his face or share his name? And, what's more, who would go on trusting him implicitly against all the good sense even after he revealed himself to be Anthony Stark, the estranged son of king Howard of Northumbria, Steve's greatest foe at the time?


Finally, Steve got to the point of his tale. Before being saved, the other Steve, in that other world, had almost killed his own Iron Man, and was suffering through nightmares as a result.


"The real trouble," Steve admitted hesitantly, as if he was spilling a dark secret, "isn't that. Well, it is, which is why I'm so upset. But what made it so bad was the fact that that Steve didn't know who was in the suit of armor." He gave Natasha a haunted look. "He didn't know. And I couldn't stand the idea that he didn't know the real Tony. I saw his memories – it felt like it had all happened to me." He tried for a brittle smile, but it didn't convince Natasha he was all right, which was probably what he was going for. "And not knowing Tony, it just... It made the world seem smaller, in a way. Insufficient. I don't know." He seemed to be puzzling over his own words for a moment, then shrugged. Met Natasha's eyes. "And I had almost killed him..." Seemingly oblivious to what he was doing, he clutched at his stomach, almost as if he was going to throw up.


Natasha could sympathize. Steve and – somewhat surprisingly – Tony had turned out to be the glue of their family. Steve had given them a home, food to eat, a place to be themselves freely, without the restraints of society. But Tony had adopted them all in his own weird way; he worried for them fiercely. And with his passion and excitement, he made them believe anything at all was possible, they could accomplish anything they set their minds to. Unite the British kingdoms again, like in the days of yore? Sure, why the hell not. Attempt to reinstate King Arthur's Peace? Yeah, duh. Crown Steve as the high king? Try and stop us.


The only thing was, Tony still was who he was. You couldn't have your neighboring king's outlawed son lead your armies, at least not openly. The facade was flimsy enough, but for all the official purposes, Tony still had to be Iron Man in the field. Otherwise, Stark of Northumbria would, as honor demanded, have to claim insult. These things tended to start wars. And it simply wasn't worth going to war for. They had enough bloodshed as it was. Hence the battle names. Hence the whole Black Widow and Hawkeye business too. In Steve's service, you didn't have to have origins, you didn't have to have a family name or blood of that certain shade of aristocratic red. You could let your visor down, and pick a code name, and be who you are. Which was... it was noble, in her opinion. But she suspected that protecting Tony was still the main motive for the strict observance of the battle names rule.


The hustle and bustle of the camp had died down a little. They had fallen silent too. She now covertly watched Steve as he regarded Tony from afar. "It's okay, Steve," she said, giving him a tiny smile. She gestured to where Tony was standing, temporarily distracted from inspecting the army. He always ended up where his heart was – among the armorers that were hammering and bending and stretching and repairing various metal things that interested Natasha strictly in the utilitarian sense. He was tearing into some smiths who weren't doing a satisfactory job. When he huffed in irritation and  took the mallet from one to show him how it was done, she suppressed a smile. "He's alive, Steve. And we're here to keep it that way." Something urged her to continue. "You're here to keep it that way."


Some of the tension left Steve’s shoulders at that, and he nodded. "I am. I won't let anything happen to him." With that, he straightened up and walked over to his general, smoothly maneuvering him away from the new armorers, who were beginning to look terrified.


Something about this last statement niggled at her. She watched as Steve took on the full force of Tony's frustration with a soft look in his eyes and a small smile. And she watched Tony wind down in return, relaxing his stance, grinning up at Steve, placing a hand on his shoulder and leaving it there for a moment longer than strictly necessary. Everything was back to normal.


As Tony linked arms with his king, nominally to support him as he walked, and as they went to inspect the watches the way they always did, something clicked for her. Natasha smiled to herself.


Clint slipped onto the blanked beside her and sighed. "Damp night," he said. "I hate the fucking fog."


Natasha nodded towards the pair of warriors walking away together. "You didn't perchance use a Cupid's arrow on them or something?"


Clint raised his eyebrows. "Is that some sort of a classical reference again? Cause I don't have your education and couldn't give a shit, really." He frowned. "Why, do you think they're banging?"


"Well..." She hesitated. "Not yet."