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Winterheart

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“Loki, for your crimes against the realms of Jotunheim and Midgard, for your treachery against the House of Odin itself, I Odin Allfather—”

Please!

“—take from you your royal title; used to act in hatred and violence against a broken race that had no hope of defence from your machinations. You are a prince of Asgard no longer.”

Loki’s green mantle was ripped from him, his gold-and-leather armour falling from his shoulders and chest in pieces. All that remained were his vambraces, gripping his arms like shackles. He snatched at the torn fabric of his mantle before it fell, clutching it in one white-knuckled fist.

Odin’s single eye was grim. “I take from you your magic; power used to deceive and betray family and loyal friend alike.”

Light pierced deep into his body as the Odinforce pulled tight the reins of his magic, stealing it away from the marrow of his bones. Loki only allowed himself a single gasp of loss.

“Finally, I take from you the spells which bind your true form, that you may look upon yourself and see the very people you almost erased from all existence.”

“No, Father, NO—”

But with the words spoken it was already done; the shameful truth of him bared for all to see. He couldn’t survive like this. The warriors of Asgard would never suffer the sight of him for long.

“I take this from you, Loki Odinson, and I cast you out to Midgard, a world you terrorised with your wrath—”

Odinson?

Odin finally faltered. “Yes.”

Loki drew himself up tall, ignoring the shudder and shake in his raw bones.

“Castigate me for my lies if you must, Allfather, but don’t you dare deny your own.” He swallowed. “Punish me for my actions, punish me with the truth you kept hidden all these long years, until it could be best used to your advantage—”

“Loki—”

Look at what you’ve wrought! Your lies, your betrayal, not mine! I am the creature you made me, Father. Look upon your work. Am I not everything you wanted in a second son?” His own bitterness tore him ragged, but Loki knew that Odin saw in his crimson eyes every bright and vicious truth for what it was.

“Know your crimes,” his father said heavily, “and repent. Learn the value of the lives you would have so selfishly taken. Until then, you are banished.”

Loki barely felt the magic grip his body, though it burned hot where it touched his frigid skin; dark fingers of fire wrapping around him, dragging him back into the abyss—a different hel to the one he’d been saved from only hours before.

A broken bifrost. Thor’s outstretched hand. His own, reaching back.

A mistake.

The darkness took him, Odin’s own power sending him hurtling through the stars. Loki didn’t fight it.

Asgard couldn’t suffer a monster for long, after all.

Nor could its king.


“Hescamar.”

Odin didn’t react as the raven landed on his shoulder, beating wings loud in the still night air. Hugin and Munin would not be suitable for this task. “Watch over him from afar. Never interfere. When he finds one that may show him the truth of himself, you will find me.”

“Majesty,” said Hescamar, “who might our Loki find, locked in the misty castle you banished him to? ‘Tis a prison for him.”

Odin didn’t lift his gaze from the space where Loki had stood. “Those grounds will open. But only with the right key.”

The raven was no stranger to Odin’s penchant for cryptic life lessons, but the wisdom of the words was beyond his understanding. Perhaps it was not for him to know.

“As my king commands,” the bird finally croaked, soaring high. A beat of his wings opened a portal that glittered with distant stars. “Hescamar will keep vigil. For however long it takes.”

Odin watched his third raven vanish into his own light, travelling to do his bidding.

Asgard’s laws would demand eternal confinement.

Jotunheim would simply demand his head.

Midgard was the only suitable alternative. They were oblivious; Loki, anonymous. Once again, the realm of mortals would foster one of his sons and either forgive him, shape him…or break him.

Only time would tell.


TWENTY YEARS LATER


“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

It was one thing to discover Pepper had gone missing. Well, missing by his standards – the police didn’t think being six hours out of contact with Tony was a big deal. For Pepper, that was tantamount to ‘well I’ve committed a terrible crime and need to flee the country’ or possibly ‘kidnapped for money, pay ransom ASAP.’

It was one thing to go out searching for her, mapping her cell phone signal down to somewhere about twenty miles west of Solstice Canyon. Traipsing through the woods looking for your personal assistant was just what any good boss would do, especially one who was going slightly stir-crazy inside the house, trying to obey Obadiah’s orders to ‘rest up there, Son, you’ve been through a hell of an ordeal. You just let me take care of the business side of things.’

He was three weeks back from Afghanistan, standing in snow-covered woods at dusk wearing thousand dollar Italian leather shoes. Was that the weirdest part? No.

The weirdest part was that a castle, an enormous castle, complete with stone walls and what looked to be a goddamn moat was standing in a huge mist-shrouded clearing in the woods. The creepy, owl-hooting, covered-in-strangely-unseasonal-snow woods.

Pepper’s cell phone was pinging from somewhere inside the grounds.

Happy had found her car parked a mile back down near the road, broken down with the hood propped up in the universal signal for ‘my damn car’s busted.’ Tony had left him down there to order a tow, declaring that a refreshing nature experience was needed. Happy still thought he was going to have some kind of PTSD meltdown, and hell, Tony still might, but he’d given in easily enough rather than stress him out by arguing. After all, what was going to attack him in the woods? Rabbits? A rogue fox? Christine Everhart?

Tony had just decided to push open one twenty-foot iron gate when he heard the first wolf howl behind him. His survival instinct, a little frayed from recent events but still working just fine, threw him into action before he even really understood why he was moving.

By the time he’d kicked the gate shut, five impossibly large lupine shapes were already beginning to emerge from the mist. Fast. Tony took exactly one second to gauge the strength of the gates versus the size and speed of what looked like a pack of giant timberwolves—

Tony gave up and bolted for the castle.

The sound of animal snarling and his own heartbeat followed him as he raced across the drawbridge, heading for what looked like arched double doors at the bottom of the tallest piped point of the structure. It had to be a main entrance. Tony just prayed the doors would open – those wolves sounded pissed.

Skidding on the snow-covered stone, Tony barely caught himself before he slid face-first into the door. Slapping his palms against it, he yanked the iron knocker around, but the cold metal wouldn’t give. Shit.

On the other side of the drawbridge –an honest-to-god drawbridge!– the gates groaned open slightly. One of the wolves started howling again. Tony hoped to hell it wasn’t calling for more reinforcements. Furry bastards. He glared up at the entrance.

“Okay, there are some very literal wolves at the door. Open sesame!” He drove his shoulder into the door at the very same instant he heard wings flutter overhead. Tony glanced up to see the silhouette of an enormous glossy raven as it swooped in, landing on the ledge above the doors. It glared down at him like he’d stolen its roadkill, head cocked and golden eyes shining bright.

“Great. I’m in a Poe-themed nightmare.” He shoved again at the doors. This time, thank God, they opened just enough for him to squeeze through. Tony wasted no time in slamming them shut, sliding an ancient-looking bolt into place with both hands. “Safe. Possibly trespassing in Castle Dracula, but safe from snarling wildlife.” Still breathing hard –too hard for someone with decreased lung capacity, Yinsen’s memory cautioned– he turned and squinted into the surrounding gloom of the entrance.

It took a moment for Tony’s eyes to adjust, then a moment longer for him to remember why he was inside an extremely creepy castle in the first place. Pepper. Pepper was here somewhere, or her phone was. But why would she have come out this way? Tony had seen the kind of killer heels she wore. Nature walks would be all but impossible, even if there was a way to explain why she had wandered a mile into the woods after the car broke down.

Pulling out his phone, Tony checked the mapping signal.

“Shit.” The entire screen was a rippling mess. Electromagnetic interference? From what? Tony slipped it back into his pocket with a sigh. Apparently tracking Pepper would have to be done the hard way.

There didn’t seem to be anyone around; no staff, no lights, just chill and gloom. From what Tony could make out of the place, it was designed in an architecture style he’d never even heard of. It was some kind of ancient-gothic fusion, complete with arched ceilings and dark fireplaces taller than he was. Enormous receiving rooms boasted elaborate curving staircases toe the upper floors and exposed stone walls. Glass windows and sconces decorated the walls. Incredible candle chandeliers hung from the ceiling, completely wreathed with cobwebs.

The place looked abandoned. At best, it certainly didn’t look welcoming.

Castle Dracula started to have a real ring to it.

“Pepper?” Tony called out down a long hall, leaning back on a wooden bannister at the top of the stairs. Peering into the darkness wasn’t going to help; he was going to have to walk down there.

It was so quiet that his own footsteps echoed. Tony wasn’t really the fanciful, imaginative sort when it came to dark places and scary wilderness, but the ambience started taking its toll as he wandered. The smell of cold stone, of yellowing paper and polished wood saturated his every breath.

Huh.

Polished wood. Maybe someone was in there after all.

“Pepper? Hello? Anyone?” He called, obnoxiously loud in the stillness. “I’m looking for a tall redhead, very slim, very attractive…I think she was wearing a business suit?” He wracked his memory. “She’s wearing red lipstick, definitely. Smells like clean laundry and Chanel No. 5. Is this ringing a bell to anyone? Hello? Hey!!

Tony started getting angry. It shouldn’t be possible to just lose an entire woman. Not Pepper. Pepper was his; she was the only person he had that he didn’t have to share. Reliable, pretty Pepper Potts with her worried frowns and small hands. The only person in the world that didn’t think he’d gone completely crazy after shutting down weapons manufacturing at Stark Industries.

It shouldn’t be possible to just lose someone like that. Pepper should shine like a brilliant beacon, screeching at him to get back to the mansion before someone from the media saw him wandering around like a lost kid.

He breathed out into the silence and gloom, pressing a palm to the cold metal in his chest. Maybe it would be better to leave and find Happy, to get a search party out. If he could make it past a pack of hungry mutant wolves, anyway.

The trouble was, this castle didn’t exist on any map of Solstice Canyon. If it didn’t exist—he hadn’t actually had a PTSD meltdown, had he? Gone to a scary-happy place in his mind? It wasn’t completely out of the question. Maybe Happy was staring down at him right now, foetal position on the ground and muttering about wolves.

Tony was so absorbed in this new possibility that he almost missed the bobbing golden light at the end of the hallway. A person holding a lantern? He was racing down after it before he could think twice about who exactly might live in a spooky castle.

“Hey!” Tony yelled out. “Hold it, Tinkerbell!”

The light paused at the sound of his shoes pounding over cobbled stone, swinging to face him.

“Tinkerbell?” a man repeated incredulously. “Who the hell—”

“My name is Tony Stark,” Tony interrupted, squinting at the guy through the light. He was a little scruffy-looking, maybe early thirties. “I’m looking for a woman named Pepper Potts.”

The guy’s face creased. “You could try the kitchen pantry.” Seeing Tony’s expression he hastily added, “a woman came in here around noon, maybe a bit earlier. The boss took her to the tower.”

Tony swallowed. “Tower?” Boss?

Lantern guy nodded. “Yeah, but—“ he blinked, bringing the light closer to Tony’s face. His eyes were wide. “Wait, you came here looking for her? Just looking for her? Nothin’ else?”

“Why else would I be wandering through the Overlook Hotel? Look, just tell me how to get to the tower—”

“No, man, you don’t get it,” the guy insisted, looking strangely pale in the golden light. “People don’t just get here by looking for missing people. And—you can’t get out. Not ever.” A shadow seemed to cross his face. “Take it from someone who knows.”

Tony didn’t like the sound of that, but then again, he’d heard that same song not too long ago.

“I’ve been held captive before,” he said shortly. “It didn’t take. So, tower. Now.”

For a moment the guy just watched him with wide eyes, shaking his head like he couldn’t quite believe Tony was real. Then he pushed the lantern into his hand and pointed at a niche in the wall. Stone steps leading up in a curving spiral were all he could see.

“Follow it up. She’ll be in a cell.” The guy was already backing up into the shadows, looking about two seconds away from running for it.

“Thanks, Tink. I owe you one.”

“My name is Clint,” the guy called back irritably. “Clint Barton.”

“Whatever.”

Taking the stairs two at a time, ignoring the cold ache in his chest, Tony raced up the narrow spiral until he could see a single torch burning up ahead. So they’d left her with some light. Had that been the other guy’s work? Or was it that ‘boss’ he’d talked about?

Exactly what kind of boss ruled an old castle?

“Pepper?” he called. “I’m kind of desperately needing a sign of life right now—”

“Tony?!” Pepper cried, his name tearing on an almost-sob. Her hand stuck through an iron bar slot in the wooden cell door, warding him off. “Oh, Tony, you can’t be here! Get out!”

“Pepper, what—” Something seemed to rumble in the shadows behind him.

“Run, Tony!” she screamed. “Just go—you don’t know what he is!”

Tony stepped toward the cell door, fear clutching his throat like a vice. Pepper wasn’t just afraid; she was terrified. Time had just officially become of the essence. He set the lantern down on the floor.

“Shut up, Pep. I’m the boss of you.” Tony hooked his hands through the barred slot, trying to lift the door. Old-school hinges they might’ve been, but they didn’t give an inch. “I’m getting you out and that’s final.”

“Tony, Tony listen to me,” Pepper said hoarsely, her eyes tear-bright and fierce through the bars. “You just got free of the Ten Rings. This—this thing, the boss? He’s a monster.”

“Oh, that’s a little rough, isn’t it?” he replied glibly. Keep her calm, Tony. “Six hours of confinement and you’ve branded him a monster? What’d he do, confiscate your Bluetooth earpiece?”

“You don’t understand.” Pepper reached through the bars to grab his arm. Her fingers were cold. “No-one gets out alive, Tony. Those are the rules.”

Tony stared at her through the bars for a long moment. “I don’t care,” he said flatly. “I’m getting you out of this freak show—in fact, how did you even get in here?”

“I don’t know, I popped the hood and I just turned around—there was this bird and I…” Trailing off, she stared at him through the cell bars like she was really seeing him for the first time since he’d walked into the tower. “Tony, how did you get in?”

The draft in the cell tower turned icy at his back. In front of him, Pepper’s eyes started showing white.

“Oh God,” she whispered, staring at something over his shoulder. Her eyes glossed with fresh tears. Somehow, he didn’t think they were for herself. “Oh, Tony.”

A bestial rumble filled the stone room.

It was coming from right behind him.

Arctic air gusted across the back of his neck. Across the cell, the lone torch guttered and nearly went out. Shadows flickered in a frenzied dance upon the walls. The lantern-light at his feet shrank to a dim blue glow.

For the life of him, Tony couldn’t make his body turn around.

He had felt fear before. Fear of pain, fear of death, fear of being alone. But what he felt in that instant wasn’t fear. It wasn’t even terror. It was rigid, blank-eyed horror, and he couldn’t make his body turn around.

“I—just want to get her out of here. That’s all.” He spoke to the cell door. Inside, Pepper was shaking. Whether it was from fear or cold he didn’t know. “She’s all I care about. I’ve got no business with you.”

“She trespassed. She stays.” Displaced air rushed against Tony’s shoulders. The—boss, seemed to be pacing. His voice sounded rough, hoarse. There was no guessing his age.

“She got lost.”

“As some do. She stays.”

“I won’t—”

She trespassed! She stays!” The words were roared at his back, followed by the sound of ice cracking deep. Destruction in a voice. Then, “You’re not of their kind. You don’t belong.”

“Neither does she.” Somehow, the words almost came out sounding like a plea. Tony watched his own fingers gripping the cell door’s bars tight enough to whiten his knuckles. “Neither of us belong here—wherever this is.”

For a long, tense moment there was no sound at Tony’s back. He knew that the creature, the boss was still there only by the dying light and the painful cold enveloping the room. If he let them go they could just forget about the whole ordeal. Stark Industries would keep them both so busy they’d never even remark upon it again. They’d never have to breathe a word of it to anyone.

As long as he let them go.

“I release you from my lands,” the creature said behind him. “You’re a mistake. But she remains. The lost belong to me.”

Inside the cell, Pepper’s face had turned bone white. Amazingly, she still managed a ghost of a smile. For him, probably. Brave Pepper Potts. It was the copper wire and the magnet all over again.

“Can you,” she started weakly, “can you water my plants? While I’m gone? And—tell Obadiah the report he wanted for the Jericho contract is with his secretary. JARVIS can figure everything else out from my voice memos.” Her smile wobbled. “I…that’s it, really.”

Tony felt a hard lump rise in his throat.

“Pepper, I’m not watering your plants.”

She flinched slightly, then squared her shoulders. Her hair was coming out of its clip in messy strands. Pepper never looked anything but perfectly groomed. A consummate professional. Too damn good to be his personal assistant. Always had been, really.

“No, of course you can’t. I mean, you can’t even remember to feed yourself most days—”

“You’re going to water your own plants,” Tony said flatly, riding over the top of her reply. “You’re not staying here, Pepper.” He glanced back over one shoulder, but he couldn’t see anything but darkness. “I am.”

Pepper’s head jerked up in surprise and fear. “Tony, don’t. Don’t do this. Not for me.”

Tony barely heard her, instead focussing on the rapidly pacing footsteps behind him. The thing was agitated. It hadn’t expected this. Maybe this really was the first time someone had entered the castle just to find someone they’d lost. Or maybe it was the first time a prisoner actually had someone who wanted to find them.

“I could keep you both,” the boss eventually snarled, but he sounded stiff. Odd. “Locked in winter and shadow for the rest of your lives.” The struggling torch on the wall finally extinguished itself, unable to stay alight in the face of the icy presence radiating behind him. Monsters and wolves and ice and castles that vanished. It was impossible. The whole place was impossible. “I have no use for martyrs.”

“How about it, Pep?” Ignoring the cold presence behind him, Tony just smiled through the bars. Pepper shook her head.

“No. You’re too important.”

He snorted. “To what, stock prices?”

“To your friends. To me.” A cold hand covered his, prying it off the bars, pushing it away. “If one of us is going home, I want it to be you.”

I want this. Don’t waste your life.

A heartbeat from freedom. A spent gun, a man bleeding out for him, discarded and broken-limbed on stale piles of ill-gotten supplies. No, Tony thought, dizzy with conviction. Not this time. Not Pepper. Not this cell, this castle, this captor.

Never again.

Tony turned around and faced the creature prowling in the shadows. The wooden cell door against his back was all that held him up. “Let her go and I promise to stay here in her place.”

The light of the lantern at Tony’s feet didn’t stretch far enough to illuminate the broad shadow in front of him. It was only an outline, seething with ice and anger that replied.

“Such sacrifice.” The crackle of frost climbing stone was all that punctuated the silence for a long moment. “Lift your lantern. See if you can make your offer again after discovering exactly what you make it to.”

It was a direct challenge, sounding so maliciously confident that it instilled a sense of dread in Tony. This…creature thought that whatever he was about to see would change his mind about trading places. That wasn’t even a possibility anymore; Pepper was getting out of there no matter what. She didn’t deserve the kind of treatment captors liked to reserve for their hostages.

Tony could still feel the gritty desert water in his nose when he carefully bent down and caught his fingertips under the lantern’s handle, straightening by slow degrees. The light pooled at the creature’s booted feet, Tony’s eyes following it as it travelled upward.

The tattered edge of a green mantle caught his attention first. It fell all the way to his boots, which were fitted to knee height. Pants of some kind of leather followed—and then Tony saw his hands.

Clawed hands, their colour a deep and inhuman blue. Flakes of ice fell steadily from his fingertips. Another glance back down and Tony realised he was standing on a frost-layered circle of stone. He—it, could make ice with his hands. With his feet.

Tony’s heart started pounding painfully hard. The travelling light of the lantern continued. He needed to see. However terrifying he was, Tony needed to see.

Hands became arms, his forearms encased in some kind of decorative metal cuff. Pale scars caught the light at elbow and wrist. More blue skin—a lot of it, because his chest was bare bar a toothed necklace that had to be real. Raised lines scored his chest like scarification, curved and meaningfully placed.

When Tony’s eyes reached the bristling fur pelt that draped around his shoulders and back, his grip on the lantern froze. This creature was savage, bestial, impossible. He wasn’t human.

He wasn’t human.

“Lift your lantern,” the creature said. “Lift it and swear your oath to me. If you can.”

Behind him, he could hear Pepper breathing. Short, shallow breaths brushed against the back of his neck. Showing cowardice in front of her, letting this thing get the upper hand, it was all out of the question. Stupid risks were just part of his charm, even if they were probably going to get him killed. With a jerk of his wrist, he brought the creature’s face into view.

His eyes were red. A pure, bloody red and they reflected light like an animal’s would. Sharp white canine teeth flashed at him in a snarl. But what really struck a match to Tony’s horror were the horns. Two thick, curving ivory horns jutted out of his brow, arching back into long, tangled black hair. He was monstrous; demonic. And he was waiting for Tony to speak, watching him with the flat, dangerous gaze of a predator.

No, Tony thought, he wasn’t just waiting for him to speak. He was waiting for him to change his mind. To leave Pepper behind. To save himself. To run.

“Let Pepper go in my place,” he repeated. “I promise you, I’ll stay behind.”

The creature strode forward and snarled in his face. Ice cracked along the walls, falling down in sheets that shattered and skittered across the floor. The lantern shrank down to gaslight blue. So did Tony’s bravado. But he kept talking. He had to make it see.

“Whatever this place is, she doesn’t belong in it. It’s too dark for her,” he blurted out, hardly knowing what he was saying. “She’s the mistake, not me.”

Despite his nonsense explanation, the pang of sincerity rang in his own ears as much as it affected the creature. Tony watched it straighten slightly, red eyes narrowing in the low light.

“You will never leave this place,” it said suddenly, drawing the mantle in close. Tony watched as it—as he began to pace agitatedly once more. “The snow never melts. The wolves never leave. You would be doomed to walk the castle until madness or old age claim you.” Halting so suddenly Tony’s eyes had to catch up, the creature loomed over him. “You would trade your freedom for hers?”

Tony didn’t think. “Yes.”

Its face twisted in disbelief and fury. “Then you’re a fool.” It swung around toward the tower entrance. “BARTON!” The roared name reverberated in Tony’s bones, but before he had time to settle himself the man from earlier raced up into the cell, nearly tripping on the top step and skidding into the ice.

“Oh God, oh God,” he was chanting under his breath, eyes darting between the three of them. “Yeah, boss?”

The ‘boss’ looked like he wanted to kill something. Tony just pressed his back to the cell door, trying to focus on the palm cradling the back of his skull through the bars. Was she trying to comfort him?

“Push the woman out past the gates. She leaves.” A clawed finger stabbed in Tony’s direction. “Follow me now or I drag you.” Ice sloughed off his hands. “You do not want me to do that.”

That was it then. Prisoner, round two.

Pepper’s fingers twisted in his hair and pulled.

“Are you stupid?” she hissed in his ear from behind. Her grip was painfully tight. “I didn’t think you’d gone crazy, but this? This is crazy!” Across from him, the boss’s lip was curling in a sneer. The matching glare said his patience had worn thin a while ago.

“Pepper for the love of God let go of me,” Tony grunted, pulling her hand and a few perfectly decent strands of hair away from his scalp. “This is my choice, this time. Give me that much.”

Stepping away from the cell as Barton pulled a ring of iron keys from a hook on the wall, Tony was able to see Pepper’s eyes burning out at the creature with a kind of baleful promise in them he’d never seen before.

“You just try and keep him,” she said softly as the cell door creaked open. Her gaze didn’t break as she stepped out, standing taller than Tony had ever seen her. “I didn’t get a chance to help last time. I’ll find him again.”

Barton laughed strangely. “Yeah, get stuck in the rabbit hole again, that’ll show everyone you mean business.” He mockingly offered Pepper his elbow but she just pushed past him, pulling Tony into a crushing hug. Honestly, the woman had the grip of a python. He awkwardly patted her back and tried not to wince at the pressure on the arc reactor. No one had to know it still hurt.

“Keep Obadiah out of my workshop,” Tony murmured into her ear. “Please.”

“Oh, I’ll miss you too,” she snapped, giving him a dirty look. His mouth quirked in a crooked smile.

“Bye, Pepper.”

Tony was off and down the spiralling staircase before he could think twice about what he was doing. He wasn’t any good at saying goodbye, mostly because he hated them so much. There was no getting out of this prison, and the only alternative was that Pepper remain. Or if the castle’s master, that demonic thing upstairs kept both of them there. Which he could do just by commanding it, if that conversation was anything to go by.

Because magic and monsters were real. There was no refuting it; he was standing in it. He’d just spoken to something he thought the scientific world couldn’t possibly have room for.

Tony could deal with it. He had to deal with it. There was no Yinsen this time, no missiles to strip for parts. No forge. No desert. No deadlines or even any particular insurance that might mean Tony’s life was protected while he was there. It was just him.

He was alone.

Tony had never done very well when he was alone. But this was just another game of survival, one he couldn’t lose.

Heavy footsteps pounded down the last few steps behind him, and Tony turned to see a tall horned shape brush past him. Cloth flickered against his leg, making him start and pull away in surprise. The creature jerked the edge of his mantle away with a hiss.

“With me,” he snapped, stalking off ahead of Tony down the large hallway. He didn’t seem overly interested in whether or not he was followed, but given the size of the castle it was probably a good idea if Tony followed someone who actually knew where they were going.

Where were they going?

If he was going to be the new prisoner, it would have made more sense to just lock him up in Pepper’s cell. Unless it was all just a trap. Visions of being boiled on an enormous kitchen stove or hung upside down and flayed started to fill his mind. What would an ice demon eat?

Tony was so preoccupied by his own imagination that he startled when the boss began to speak.

“The rules of this domain are simple,” it stated, not bothering to turn. “Passing the gates and trying to leave will get you killed. That is not a threat. Attacking me would also be ill advised.”

“No arguments there.” That earned him a sharp red glance.

“The castle is largely yours to roam. The west wing is not. Trespass beyond those stairs,” it pointed at a wide staircase marked on either side by what looked like enormous claw marks, “and you will spend the rest of your miserable days in the tower cell.”

Interesting. It had its own territory inside the castle. Still, it was the second half of its explanation that drew Tony’s curiosity.

“That implies you’re not just giving me the tour while you kick Pepper out. Where are you putting me?”

They rounded a corner in the gloom, revealing the longest side of the castle, which had been vaguely rectangular in shape from what Tony had seen outside. Enormous carved wooden doors followed the hallway the entire way down, perfectly spaced and identically marked.

“Bedchambers, all of them. Choose one for your own.” Seeing comprehension light Tony’s face, it turned to leave. Apparently the tour was over. Here’s your room, don’t go into mine. The end.

“Hey!” Tony called out before it rounded the corner and vanished. “Do you have a name?”

The creature stopped walking. All Tony could make out was the hulking shape of its fur-cloaked shoulders disappearing into shadow. The edge of its horns were a pale curve above it.

“Not anymore.”

Before it could start walking again, Tony decided to dig his own grave. “I need something to call you. Don’t I?”

“Do you?” it challenged shortly, almost bitterly. Then it—he, Tony reminded himself, it was most definitely a man—was gone, vanished into the gloom. Tony watched the space he’d occupied like he was going to come back, maybe even laugh and drag him back to the tower like it had all been one big psychological joke. Maybe beat him a little, drown him a little, threaten him a little. Tony pressed a palm to the arc reactor, feeling the familiar faint hum of it. Still alive.

Don’t waste your life.

“I did something good,” he told Yinsen’s memory. “I saved her. That has to be enough.”

Not that justification was something that mattered anymore. A deal was a deal – there was no such thing as escape. Tony pushed open the first door he came to and stepped inside. It was as elaborate and lonely and the rest of the castle. Everything was draped in dust sheets and cobwebs, including the bed and the curtains.

Home, sweet home.

Forever.

Tony sighed and got to work.


It took a day and a half before the bedroom looked even remotely like something he could sleep in. It might have taken less if Tony actually knew something about cleaning and dusting.

He didn’t dare sleep before he was done, instead mentally shelving it as his reward for scrubbing every inch of the place. Whatever kept him busy and his mind off his circumstances, he reasoned. Curtains were dusted down, nails were prised free until grime-covered windows let the winter glare in from wall to cobweb-covered wall. He found a washbasin to drag around like a bucket and tore up a pillowcase to use as a rag, opening the windows eventually to suck the majority of the dust out of the air. After a while it stopped smelling like an abandoned basement and started looking like something he could actually use.

The attached bathroom had been a shock, though even with indoor plumbing it had nothing resembling a water heater. Tony had run the pipes until brown water had eventually poured clear, making a mental note to never use the ancient bathtub again. There was a reason for that wash basin and he was going to take full advantage of it.

No-one bothered him. At all. It was unnerving to have that much solitude and free rein over his own comings and goings, but Tony tried not to think about it too much. At least, not until his stomach attempted to eat itself and he was finally forced to wonder where the hell the kitchen was. Surely that other guy, Clint, had to eat somewhere. Or did they have to hunt? An impossible castle probably wouldn’t have a trade route or a supermarket nearby.

He still had no idea how it had appeared in Solstice Canyon. Considering that it didn’t exist on any map it was either cloaked and trapped in its own winter, or it wasn’t actually there at all. Tony busied himself thinking about portals and wormholes and teleportation as he traversed the castle, heading down onto the ground floor in search of the kitchen. According to his watch, it was around midday. The view outside was cloudy and snowing, but the sunlight pushing behind the clouds made everything bright with glare. There didn’t seem to be anything out on the castle grounds except snow-covered shrubbery, some indistinct statues and a defunct fountain or two.

Tony was just starting to give up on the idea of finding food when he saw a shadow pass by up ahead.

“Hey,” he called, picking up the pace as the person rounded a corner. “Hey, Clint, is it? Little help?” When he didn’t even pause, Tony picked up the pace to catch up, trying to round the corner before he got too far away. “Look I know I’m the new guy and there are probably all kinds of freaky hazing rituals in store, but starvation—oh. Hi.”

“Hi,” the woman said. “New guy.”

Tony had met a lot of people in his time, but none had looked as frankly unimpressed by his entire existence as she did. Even the boss had appeared generally furious with him, which had been something at least. Then again, Tony thought, anyone who saw that face in the mirror every morning would probably have some damn high expectations. She was stunning; a leggy redhead with narrow green eyes and a generous mouth that looked like it had forgotten how to smile. Then again, prisoner in a magic castle and all – not a lot to smile about.

While he pondered that, her eyes drifted from his expensive shoes to his tailored black dress pants, up over his favourite red shirt, hesitated strangely at his goatee –a shave was probably in order, no one could be offended by that goatee– and finally reached his eyes.

Tony stared. “Well after a once-over like that, the least you can do is show me where the kitchen is.” He hesitated. “Please tell me this place has a kitchen.”

With a barely-there sigh, she turned back the way she’d come, heading down past what had to be a great hall, considering the size of the bolted doors.

“For better or worse, the kitchen is inaccessible,” she said flatly. They halted beside a large stone countertop built into a wall, which was blocked off by a wooden pull-down shutter. It looked like an oversized dumbwaiter, or a takeaway stall. It seemed to have trouble deciding which it was. The woman pointed at a tarnished bronze bell hanging beside the closed shutter. “When you decide what you want to eat, ring the bell. Food happens.”

To demonstrate, she squinted in thought for a brief moment, then yanked the bell’s rope. The shutter flipped up, revealing a thick, unnatural darkness behind it. A tray laden with a bowl of meat cooked in a reddish sauce served with fried potatoes shot out, steaming perfectly. Cutlery and a glass of red wine followed close behind.

The shutter slammed down again.

For any one of a hundred reasons, Tony felt suddenly, deeply depressed. Of course the kitchen was magic. Everything was magic.

“I need a drink.”

Studying him a moment, she turned smartly and rang the bell again. This time, an enormous cheeseburger surrounded by golden fries was ejected from the kitchen. A second tray with two martini glasses, olives, a bottle of gin and what had to be vermouth arrived with a gleaming mixing glass. Tony brightened slightly; maybe the castle had some perks after all.

“Food first,” his mystery woman said after a decisive moment. “Come with me. Only a few of the rooms are functional, so the solar is best for eating.” She didn’t wait for him, which seemed to be a recurring theme, instead just pulling the martini ingredients onto her tray and striding off back the way they’d come. As Tony grabbed his own tray he wondered if he should be investing in breadcrumbs so he could find his way around.

He was reminded of the bird he’d seen on his way into the castle. Were there other animals on the grounds? The wolves seemed to be perimeter patrol for people who weren’t allowed to leave. But Pepper had been given permission from the boss so she had to be fine. Tony really hoped she was fine. Making a mental note to find Clint later and ask, he followed his fellow prisoner into the only brightly-lit room he’d seen so far.

The solar was large, like all the rooms were, but this one had a huge roaring fireplace and soft furnishings that were actually clean. The curtains were pulled back to reveal the snowy gardens Tony had seen from his own window, but from down there it looked far less forbidding. The whole room, from its lounges and low tables to the small metal candelabra overhead gave off an immediate sense of homey comfort.

Setting down her tray, the woman folded herself down onto a fat cushion and waved at him to join her.

“My name is Natasha Romanoff,” she said once he’d sat himself down across from her. “I’ve been here for over three years.”

“I’m Tony Stark,” he extended his hand, “and I’ve been here for two days. I have so many questions.”

“No doubt.” She gripped his hand in a firm shake. “Welcome to Winterheart.”

Lunch was spent eating on the floor beside the fireplace while Natasha fielded every question Tony could think to ask about the castle. While she generally lacked social niceties and eyed him like a beetle most of the time, she knew a surprising amount about the place and wasn’t hesitant to share it. Tony discovered he’d been mostly right about the rules, though the big blue boss had cleared up a few of the bigger questions on the first night.

Natasha had found the castle after a car accident in Washington. She didn’t give any more details than that, but she’d dragged herself to what had seemed like a light out the corner of her eye and found the castle. There was more to the story, Tony was sure of that, but probing personal questions were at least three martinis away. He hadn’t needed to tell his story; the other guy, Barton, had already spilled about his trade for Pepper’s freedom.

Clint Barton, Tony learned, had lived in the castle for the last fifteen years. Fifteen years meant he’d only been a teenager when he’d wandered in. Natasha wouldn’t tell him anything more than that, but he got the impression that they weren’t exactly close either. A prisoner castle full of loners. Great.

“So, you’re Russian?” Tony finally asked as the conversation died down into a comfortable lull. “Your name is anglicised. What is it then, Romanov?”

Her look was sharp. “It’s not your business, for one thing.”

“And for another?”

“Names don’t mean much here. Not even yours.” Pulling the ingredients toward her, Natasha began deftly mixing the martinis. Tony felt his heart sink a little. Three years ago when Natasha had been a free woman, Tony Stark had been something of a womanising asshole. Hell, even three months ago. He’d been nothing but money, women, alcohol and genius. Awards and rewards for doing nothing. Status and power. Obliviousness.

“Good,” he said finally. The seam of the arc reactor itched. He ignored her curious frown, pulling himself backward on the thick rug until he was pressed against the back of an old wooden lounge. “Now will you tell me what I really want to know?”

“Depends on what it is.” Shaking the mixer vigorously, she popped the lid and strained it into each glass. “But I can guess.”

Tony took the drink as it was offered to him. “The boss.”

She nodded, shoving herself back to join him. Her dress was strange, he finally noticed. It looked like it had been made out of one of the curtains if the matching deep blue was any indication. Were there no clothes in Winterheart?

“I don’t know much about him,” she warned. “What he is, where he came from, how old he is—he doesn’t talk. He never leaves the west wing except at night, and even then it’s just to walk a circuit of the castle. It’s the only time he seems to check on whether we’re alive or dead.” Her mouth pursed briefly, but whatever she’d been about to say was swallowed with a long gulp of her martini. Tony frowned at the snowscape outside the window.

“He’s a hermit that ignores everyone, but he won’t let people leave.”

Natasha shrugged lightly. “Sometimes it’s nice to have people around to ignore. It’s better than being truly alone, isn’t it?”

“Don’t talk sense to me,” Tony replied irritably. “I’m trying to get up a good head of angry prisoner steam here. What happens if you piss him off? Has anyone gone into the west wing? Can he get hurt?”

Natasha’s gaze sharpened in surprise. Either she hadn’t expected him to skip straight to violence or she expected him to try and bribe for freedom first. Wasn’t that what useless rich corporate titans did?

“Don’t hurt him,” she said finally. “If he didn’t kill you on the spot, Clint would shove you out to the wolves. He’s got a kind of Stockholm Syndrome loyalty problem.”

Tony winced. “Do I want to guess how you found that out?”

“I tried setting a standard oil trap on the grand staircase. The boss found it, then Clint found him.” Her mouth turned down. “Clint was hypothermic when I arrived. There’s still nerve damage to his hand where the ice trapped it against the wall. It’s a shame, really – I hear he liked archery.”

“Well, shit. So you and Clint don’t get on so well?”

“I avoid him,” she said matter-of-factly. “I avoid him, I avoid the boss, and if you’re lucky you won’t see me after today either.”

Whatever friendly thread of conversation they’d been having cooled pretty quickly after that. Natasha obviously had some issues. Tony could respect that easily enough, but it meant slim pickings for conversations in the future.

“Good talk,” he said finally, draining his glass and finishing the olive. “I guess you’ll see me never. Is this your room? Because it’s probably the only one I’ll remember how to get to.”

She shook her head. The motion revealed a thin white scar on the side of her neck before her hair fell across it again. “It’s just one of the rooms Clint restored. I think it’s his goal to do all of the big rooms.”

“Interesting.” That meant Clint would have access to all of the tools and materials the place might have to offer. “Thanks for the information.” He turned for the door, already wondering if there was somewhere he could use for a smithy when Natasha spoke again.

“Leave the boss alone, Tony. I don’t think it’s his fault that we’re here.”

He shrugged. “It’s still his fault we can’t leave.”

“Sure. But do you really have anywhere else to go?” She set her glass down unsteadily. “Or anyone you’d actually be good for if you did?”

The question was a sucker punch from nowhere. Worse, Tony didn’t have an answer. Embarrassed by that and angrier still for his silence, he left with a coldness in his chest and a sting behind his eyes. If they were all there for a reason then yeah, this one made sense.

Whether they were loners or lost souls, it was becoming pretty clear that they were all damaged goods.


Tony didn’t bother trying to find Clint afterward, instead retreating to his bedroom to ponder everything Natasha had said down in the solar. Exploration could wait for another day – he was heartsore and tired. The martini hadn’t helped matters any, either.

It wasn’t until he’d used the flint on the mantelpiece and started a good fire in his room, lighting the sconces for good measure that he looked at the bedroom with a realistic gaze.

As far as prison cells went, the bedroom itself was lavish. The bedclothes were clean and aired out, patterned in strangely intricate knots of gold and white. Huge wardrobes of carved dark wood stood against the far wall, looking like they’d probably take him to Narnia if he wasn’t ninety per cent sure he was already there. Heavy curtained windows covered the entire outside wall, and a mirrored dresser sat planted in the centre. Everything was empty, minus some spare blankets and old toiletries. There was a comb inside one of the drawers that looked like it was made of real ivory. Double doors adjacent to the bed led into a bathroom that, for the approximate time period of the castle, didn’t make a lot of sense.

Walking to the windows, Tony unlatched one and pushed it open just enough to step out onto the stoop, which acted as a miniature balcony wall rising to knee height. Coupled with the steady snowfall it was pretty damn dangerous, but the view of the castle grounds falling into reddish-gold afternoon light where it managed to pierce through the clouds was something to see.

It was a quiet moment out there in the cold. The noise in his head had been almost non-stop since before he could really remember, but the isolation of the castle, the silence and the otherworldly feel of the place left him in a rare moment of introspection.

Before Pepper had disappeared he’d been working on what he’d thought would be his Next Big Thing. The Iron Man project, even though it had only been in its burgeoning stages, had lit a fire under him. His life was supposed to be Stark Industries shut down for manufacturing, Obadiah trying not to stroke out over it, with Pepper worriedly looking on as he worked. Hell, even Rhodey, despite him pulling back, still angry that he wouldn’t be making weapons for the good people of America anymore. That was supposed to be his life for a while.

Then again, Tony had never planned on Afghanistan, either. The idea of control had become something of a pipe dream.

“I thought I was going to change things,” he murmured, rubbing his palm across the cold metal in his chest. “Guess I thought a lot of things.” Returning inside, he bolted the window shut and pulled the curtains closed, sick of the rolling snowy expanse already. The freedom the view teased him with was just a lie, after all.

Giving up on self-pity for the moment, he decided to put himself to rights. Small goals and distractions were what he needed for the moment. Clean the room. Find food. Gather information. It was all strikingly similar, for all the difference in circumstances. Familiar was still good.

Eventually mustering the bravery to take another bath, Tony spent all of ten minutes in there before the icy water scared him back out and into the heaped blankets on his bed. Really, he needed to come up with an idea for a water heater before he died the next time he had to wash his hair. Naked and shivering beneath the blankets, face buried in a full pillow, he eventually fell asleep for the first time in almost three days.


Tony woke up with a start, pleasantly warm but having no idea where he was or what had woken him. Reality was fast to remind him, though, and he slumped back against the pillows with a sigh. At least he’d gotten a few hours of solid sleep in, which intelligently was more than he’d hoped for.

The fireplace had burned down to muted coals and all but one of the sconces had gone out. In the warm, rusty light of the bedroom he breathed the scent of faint smoke and slightly musty blankets, listening to the silence of the castle press in around him.

His body went tight before he fully registered the footsteps coming down the hall.

If Natasha’s words were trusted, it was probably the boss out for his nightly walk. They sounded too heavy to be her, anyway, and something told him that Clint wasn’t really a night-stalker type.

If he pulled up the blankets and held his breath, the thing might pass by and think he was asleep. Eyes closed, not a movement, not a peep—

Disturbed by the intrusion of an old childhood prayer, Tony shoved the blankets back and yanked his pants on in the dim light, not bothering with the belt. He was a grown man, damn it. Fear didn’t look good on him.

As the approaching footsteps grew louder the idea to grab a poker from the fireplace and run it through the boss entered his mind. But would it do anything? If he couldn’t give permission for Tony to leave, if he died, would that mean they’d all be stuck there forever? There were too many variables to think about, but it didn’t stop him from picking up the poker and approaching the door anyway. If the boss tried to come in, he’d at least be prepared.

Heavy footsteps finally reached his door—and stopped.

Tony went dizzy with adrenaline, panting into his own shoulder to muffle the sound. Sweaty palms gripped the poker in anticipation of the handle turning.

Come on you big icy bastard. Try me.

Nothing happened. The flicker of shadows in lantern-light pooling under his door shifted slightly. Tony imagined the boss on the other side of the door, maybe two feet away from him. He could just fling the door open and do it—

The footsteps moved on. The light beneath the door faded back into darkness again.

He was gone.

Breath tearing in his throat, Tony sagged against the wall beside the door. The poker hit the carpet with a dull thump, his fingers aching. Safe. He was safe.

Tony knew what powerlessness felt like, knew that kind of slow rage it could stoke in your bones. Being taken, being used, being injured – all so that someone else could get what they needed from you in the smallest amount of time possible. This wasn’t the same, not even a little. Tony was just scared.

Fear was a terrible motivator. It made him do all kinds of crazy things.

Pulling the bedroom door open, Tony spotted the lantern around the corner of the balcony hallway and raced out toward it with hardly a coherent thought in his head.

“Hold it, sno-cone. I want a word.” The order blustered its way out of him in a rush, fuelled by bravado and not a whole lot of pre-planning.

The boss didn’t even bother to stop walking, let alone turn around and give Tony his attention.

Tony did the only thing he could think of and jogged to come up alongside him. If the boss wasn’t going to acknowledge him, well, they could just have a fun night-time walk together.

The only problem was that it was freezing cold and Tony was only wearing a pair of thin pants. His proximity to the boss made it harder too – cold radiated from him the same way it would from a refrigerator. But he was infinitely stubborn when he wanted to be, and since the boss wasn’t paying him any attention Tony figured he could use a proper tour anyway.

“So, I’ll start. If I was going to build a water heater to stave off death happening whenever I took a bath, where would I find materials for that?” Darting a glance up at the boss, he caught sight of a reactive blink. Well, progress was progress. “I was thinking just a basic old style wood-fired thing, since I’m guessing electricity is way out of this place’s league, and frankly I wouldn’t even know where to source wire from. I think I saw Natasha wearing your living room curtains earlier—” Tony definitely saw his lip curl in a sneer that time, “but we’re not going to talk about her ever again, okay. Forget I said anything.”

Maybe the oil trap was a sore spot for people other than Clint. Mentally filing that away Tony walked in silence, eventually dropping back a foot when they reached a literal fork in the road. The boss swung his lantern left, but seemed to correct himself and wheel right instead, his pace turning decisive. Tony followed suit and tried not to feel like a confused pet dogging his master’s steps. That was just plain unproductive.

The pace picked up rapidly, heading downstairs, crossing back the way they’d come and past the kitchen, the great hall and the solar. Tony began to suspect this was more than a tour and more of a finite destination.

When they reached an iron-barred door revealing stone stairs curving down into pitch darkness, Tony went still.

“Did I talk too much?”

Jerking straight, the boss held his lantern high and turned to Tony for the first time since the tower cell.

It was almost a given that his eyes would immediately zero in on the arc reactor and narrow into slits. The look he darted at Tony was almost accusatory.

“What is that light?”

“Oh, now you want to have a conversation?” Tony shot back, shaken. “Okay then, you can start – what’s down those stairs? Is it some kind of torture chamber?”

The boss looked at him like he was an idiot. “The boiler. It’s broken.” His clawed fingers tightened on the lantern handle. “I never had a use for it.”

Tony felt suddenly and inexplicably guilty for implying his jailor was going to beat the hell out of him. Watching him open the lantern and pull a thick candle down from the shelf beside the door, Tony frowned in confusion until he lit it and placed it back on the wall. For him, presumably. It was all very…distantly courteous, but more to the point it meant that with a light Tony wouldn’t need to follow the boss anywhere else tonight.

“I still don’t know what to call you,” he called as the boss stalked back the way they’d come, the pelt around his shoulders adding to the broad hunch of his silhouette.

“I have no name,” the boss snapped harshly over his shoulder. “Neither name nor history nor word can define me. Only deed.” The glow of his lantern was almost gone, already a hall away.

Tony had no idea what that cryptic little speech meant, but his attention did latch onto one important detail.

“So if I’ve only seen you drop ice everywhere, does that mean I get to call you Frigid Smurf?”

A thunderous, echoing snarl was his only answer.

Tony counted it as a win anyway.


Days came and went.

Being the prisoner of a huge castle stuck in a perpetual blizzard turned out to be surprisingly easy to adjust to, once Tony suspended disbelief and decided to simply roll with anything magical and/or related to ‘the boss,’ whom he’d privately dubbed Mr Freeze. The new name was mostly because he’d never had a boss in his life and wasn’t about to acknowledge one now, icicles or no icicles.

His time was consumed by small, single-minded projects that he knew would keep his attention focussed on being productive instead of thinking about Pepper and, more importantly, his own freedom.

The boiler had become his main source of fun, especially after he cleaned and serviced the entire thing and realised it not only ran on coal, but the coal stacked high beside it replenished itself with every shovelful Tony heaped into the boiler’s firebox. Coming up with an automated system to feed the boiler had taken him just under two days. Tony felt personally victimised by the shitty light sources and lack of JARVIS to run his calculations for him, but there was something organic and exciting about getting back to basics.

When he eventually emerged, sweaty, stripped to the waist and covered in black soot, Clint Barton was waiting for him.

“Why do you have a flashlight in your chest?” Clint asked bluntly. He was scratching at the neck of his shirt with one hand and holding a rag in the other. Tony just pulled it out of his hand and started wiping his face down with it. His skin felt itchy and weird.

“Nice to see you again too, Tink.”

“Clint.”

“Whatever.” Tony handed him the grimy rag and raked his hair back, turning to eye the still-open door to the boiler room. “I think I made hot water, but I’m not completely convinced I cleaned out all the sediment build-up and fortified the pipes to improve efficient—”

“Hot water?” Clint’s eyes were wide. “Hot water for baths?”

Tony shrugged. “That was the idea, but it’s not—”

Before Tony could so much as scream ‘stranger danger!’ Clint had stepped straight into his personal space and kissed him full on the mouth. He had a brief impression of stubble and lips and no before shoving him back, wild-eyed and a little freaked out.

“Look, I’m flattered, really, but we’re just too different.” Clint didn’t stop to appreciate his humour, simply twisting toward the hall heading into the solar.

“Natasha!” he yelled, not even bothering to keep the serenity. “New guy made us hot water!”

Oh, great. He was branded. “My name is Tony.”

“Whatever,” Clint retorted smartly. They glared at each other for a moment before Clint broke into a grin and shoved his hand out toward him. “Good to meet you – again, I mean. So you can fix things? There’s a lot of shit that needs fixing here.” The handshake was strangely weak, but Tony didn’t comment on it.

“I fix machinery, generally,” he said. “I’m an—I’m in engineering. An engineer that dabbles. Sometimes I make things explode.” Sometimes people get exploded, he didn’t say.

“That’s cool. Do you know how to engineer some decent soap?”

That was how he properly met Clint Barton. He was slightly off-kilter with his humour and kind of squirrelly with his behaviour, but Tony put it down to twelve years of living alone with a big blue asshole in the ceiling. They hit it off pretty fast once they decided to abuse ‘Cook,’ as Clint referred to the enormous dumbwaiter in the wall, making it generate them every bottle of alcohol they could think of, including some truly terrible peach schnapps from Tony’s college years.

Natasha eventually crept out of the solar like a curious spider and used her ingenuity to bring out a tray of chillies, a lit candle and several different types of vodka. The afternoon was a bit of a blur to Tony after that, but he was pretty sure it was a good kind of blur.

The solar became their new base of social operations. Social operations consisted mostly of getting drunk and telling horrific life stories of no consequence, thinking up daring and untraceable ways to prank their landlord, playing sexy hangman and planning repairs throughout the castle.

The last one had been Clint’s idea, something about manual labour being good for the soul. Tony and his splinter-filled palms didn’t agree, but it kept him busy and the company was painfully welcome. Not that he was going to tell them that.

“So, what’s in there?” Tony asked after their third day of ‘restoration,’ which was really just cleaning rooms and scavenging for objects of interest. They’d been passing the same enormous bolted doors each time and the curiosity was getting to him.

“No idea,” Clint replied, shrugging. “The bolt’s too heavy for me. Whatever’s in there, it’s big and it hasn’t seen light in a couple of decades. I don’t think the boss even knows what’s in there.”

“Right.” They continued on toward Cook without another word. It wasn’t until they were halfway through an enormous Chicago deep dish pizza that Clint finally cracked.

“So, d’you want to—”

“I have a few ideas for a two-man lever that could get that bolt up.” Tony wiped his mouth. “Tomorrow morning?”

Barton grinned. “Fuckin’ deal.” They shook on it over eerily accurate flavoured cola and mind-pizza, and for the second time the hand Tony grabbed in his own had a weak grip that didn’t seem intentional. The look on Barton’s face as he sat back said he knew it, too.

“Got my hand iced real good a few years back,” Clint explained without preamble, turning his right hand palm up in the firelight. “Don’t feel too much in it anymore, but it gets me by.”

Tony just nodded, a little awkward with discussing a mild disability. People took their hard luck pretty hard sometimes, himself included.

“Natasha said you liked archery.” God damn it, Tony.

“Yeah,” he replied steadily. “Used to be pretty good at it, too.”

“The boss?”

“Not his fault.” Clint’s tone was matter-of-fact. “I was stupid; I tried helping him up after he nearly broke his back slipping down the stairs on Natasha’s oil slick.” He swallowed and flexed his hand, blue eyes fixed on the awkward movement. “The boss doesn’t do touching. I don’t think he can. With people, I mean.”

“Because of the ice?”

Barton’s shrug was stiff. “I don’t think he means to hurt anyone when he’s angry, but the ice happens anyway. Happened all around my hand, and now look at me. Couldn’t thumb wrestle a five year-old. Live and learn, right?”

Tony was distracted by the memory of the edge of a mantle brushing his leg, and the hiss and snap of it drawing away. A candle lit for him and placed on a shelf so he didn’t have to accept it by hand. What kind of life could you have if you couldn’t touch another living being?

“No wonder he’s antisocial.” Tony surprised himself by saying. It felt a little too ‘sympathy for the devil’ and decided it was nuts but Clint only nodded, relaxing slightly.

“Fifteen years here and I’ve never really talked to him,” he admitted. “Hell, after he iced my hand we didn’t see him for three whole months.”

A jailer who felt guilty about abusing the prisoners. A captor that wouldn’t let anyone leave but avoided everyone in sight. Tony was no psych expert but the abominable snowman sounded like he had some real issues going on. He’d been prepared to treat the castle, magic or not, as a slightly more liberated, cushier replay of Afghanistan. Get threatened. Apologise. Remind those with the power that you’re indispensible. Work harder. Plot for escape. But when everything was said and done there wasn’t a lot for Tony to work with. Sure he could just straight-up try to murder the big guy, but contact hypothermia, nerve damage and a straight up deep-freezing didn’t really appeal. How did you fight something that wasn’t human and didn’t want to actually hurt you?

The question begged another question: Did Tony even want to go home?

Home was pity and media and stock prices. Home was empty a lot of the time. Home—it was a personal assistant to manage his life. It was a best friend who relied upon him to use his ingenuity to kill people better than before. Home was a father figure he wasn’t sure he could trust.

Without Stark Industries, none of those people would have a use for him. Rhodey, sure. Rhodey was his friend and he’d eventually get over the sting of Tony’s decision to close down weapons manufacturing. Obadiah would probably drift – he was a businessman, and he needed business to survive. And Pepper. Without her on the payroll, there was no real excuse to use up her time.

Tony went to bed that night wondering what she was doing with her days now. Obadiah would find a place for her in the company, no doubt. He’d be a moron not to: Pepper was worth her weight in gold. She was efficient, tolerant, clear-sighted and she talked straight no matter the circumstances. Employment without Tony Stark wouldn’t be a problem for her.

It was sobering to mentally fill the gap he’d leave in death or permanent absence and find it filled well. Maybe he was getting too good at it.

The thought troubled him more than it should have; after all, he’d chosen his fate this time. It was selfish, probably, to mentally rebel at the idea that he was replaceable, or that his friends might move on from the loss of him. Rhodey hadn’t – he’d stayed looking for him for the entire three months Tony had been held captive. But would he do the same for three years? Ten? Thirty? Of course not – Tony had never given anyone enough of himself to be that precious to anyone. It was generally accepted that there wasn’t a whole lot to give under the IQ and the money. Just a lot of chipped edges, self-involvement and expensive alcohol.

He tossed and turned in his oversized bed for a couple of hours before he overheated himself and got up, feeling the crawling itch of inactivity swarm beneath his skin. Times like those, when his head got too loud and his shoulders too heavy he’d wake JARVIS up and create something new and insane and amazing. Since there was no sound in the halls outside his door, Tony contented himself to light a lantern and tire himself out with a walk.

He wandered for an hour and a half through those cold, dead halls, smelling dust and feeling cold stone under bare feet. When he finally found himself back in front of his bedroom door, tired and chilled to his bones, Tony tried to pretend he wasn’t disappointed that he’d made it back in complete solitude. The knowledge that the only person who’d be up at that hour would be the boss sank strangely into his gloom. But then, there was something uplifting about keeping company with someone who was possibly even more miserable than you were.


“Ready when you are, said Clint. “But for the record, this feels like breaking and entering.”

“If everything goes according to plan, it’ll just be entering.” Tony shifted his balance on the table he was standing on. “All right, on three. One, tw—dammit!” Clearly feeling a little trigger-happy, Clint threw his weight down on the lever early. The beam jumped up from its cradle on one side, nearly smacking straight into Tony. “Really, Barton?”

“Sorry. I got excited.”

“No kidding,” Tony grunted, quickly wedging a rock in the space the beam had vacated in the bolt so it wouldn’t fall into place again. “Whatever’s in here had better be worth it. Okay, lower and try again. Slowly this time.” Clint pumped the lever again, giving Tony a chance to raise the beam’s position higher with pretty much every small object they had on hand.

“If there’s treasure we split it fifty-fifty, right?” Clint stared at his hand, wincing. “Blisters. Great. Why am I the manual labour guy?”

Tony scowled. “Oh I’m sorry, am I not doing manual labour right here, what with the supporting of the beam you just heaved at my unsuspecting face?”

“It was an accident!” Clint complained, pulling the rag out of his pocket and wrapping his hand with it. “But keep it up and the next one won’t be.”

“That’s it,” Tony announced. “Treasure is being split seventy-thirty. Hazard pay for working despite threats and incompetent hired muscle.”

“Fuck off,” Clint snorted.

“Can’t help you. You know, imprisonment for life and all.”

Clint laughed again, but this time there was an edge to it. “Imprisonment? Dude, you volunteered. You practically begged the boss to stay here.”

On the other side of the beam, Tony stared at his partner in ambiguous crime. It had been his understanding from what Natasha had said that Clint was happy to stay at Winterheart, but the bitterness in his voice didn’t quite match that story. This time Tony felt no urge to pursue the topic. Clint had been, what, sixteen when he’d been trapped? If there were rules to being given admittance to the castle, what the hell had he been through? Who had he left behind? Shaking off the questions, Tony turned back to the task at hand. Personal questions could wait another day. Or week. A week was good, too.

Abrupt movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. Glancing up at the hallway balcony that overlooked them, Tony thought he’d seen a flash of green. But by the time his eyes properly focussed, there was nothing there but dusty old paintings and flickering sconces barely spluttering to life again.

There was only one thing he knew of that could gutter a flame that easily. Interesting.

“Okay, bear down on the lever one more time,” Tony said, picking up a small iron candelabra to wedge underneath this time. “If we can’t get it high enough we’ll have to try making a saw instead.”

Clint remained silent, simply throwing his weight on the lever again. The ‘lever’ was actually just four metal curtain rods strapped together, but with their limited supply of materials it was the best they could manage. Tony tried to pack the space under the beam as it was lifted, but it just wasn’t going high enough. Clint was all but bending the lever to the floor, too. The beam was just too heavy, the lever too weak and the distance to the ground too short. Working the beam up and over the cradle it rested in had been the original plan, but it just wasn’t happening.

“God damn it,” Clint sighed, slowly releasing the lever as Tony removed his hands from under the beam. “I thought we were getting somewhere. Guess whoever barred the door really wanted it kept closed.” He looked so damn forlorn over it that Tony’s visceral need to impress briefly overrode his good sense.

“So how strong is the snow queen, anyway?”

“The who?” Clint asked blankly. Tony just waited. When the penny finally dropped all the blood drained from his face. “No, no, no, man, leave him alone. Even if he can, it’s not—asking just ain’t right, okay?”

“Why not?”

Clint’s disbelief was almost palpable. “Shit, because he’ll freeze you solid? Because he doesn’t like people? Because he’s probably the one who barred the doors in the first place? Take your pick!”

Tony was already heading down the hall. “Can’t hurt to at least ask,” he said, mentally plotting his path to the west wing. “We’re all living under the same roof, right? It’s just like Full House, except—I think that came after your time here, actually. But my point is, sharing is caring.”

“Sharing is death,” Clint called back, sounding almost panicked. “Come on, Tony, let’s just forget about the damn room. It’s not worth it!”

Tony just waved him off. This was a project, and projects were important to stave off things like introspection and madness. Even if big blue threw down with him over it, it probably wouldn’t be through physical violence. At least not the kind involving skin contact, since by all accounts he avoided it like the plague. All Tony would have to do was avoid the ice. Though provoking him into using it would definitely be something to see. Leaving Clint back at the doors, Tony headed deeper into the castle, looking for a familiar staircase landing scarred by claw marks.

Going up into the west wing was definitely out of the question, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t ask Rapunzel to let down her scary, potentially violent hair. Staring up the stairs into the gathering gloom at the top, Tony tried to think of a suitable carrot to dangle in front of the bo—in front of their hermit landlord.

Finding out what was behind the barred doors downstairs wasn’t really a burning question. Discovering more about him was far higher on Tony’s list of priorities, and if he used the locked room as an excuse, well, Clint would never suspect. The idea that anyone would willingly seek that guy out seemed to be alien to him.

Tony loitered on the landing for a few minutes, pacing back and forth with no idea of what to use as bait. It kept crossing his mind to just take a few steps up there and get a better look, but something about it smelled a lot like suicide.

“So you possess a sense of self-preservation after all,” a hoarse voice commented behind him. Despite himself, Tony went rigid with fright before whirling around to meet a familiar red glare.

In brighter light of day, his jailer was even more otherworldly than he’d been the night he’d shown Tony the boiler room. With grey fur draped across his shoulders and the mantle falling beneath it he looked almost regal. But the long tangle of black hair spilling over his shoulders, his curving ivory horns, demonic eyes and the curved markings in his skin – it all told him that the clothing was nothing more than a silk ribbon tied around a dagger. The guy was dangerous whether he wanted to be or not. Tony tried to reel his train of thought back in to the present.

“Commenting on my self-preservation implies you’d have killed me if I went upstairs.” Tony crossed his arms beneath his arc reactor and hoped to hell he couldn’t read body language. “Is that what you’re saying?”

The –hell, okay, it was obviously a nickname that was going to stick in his mind– the boss cast a glance up at the staircase. “Perhaps.”

Tony had no decent reply to make to that. Did he just toss a coin when someone pissed him off?

“I saw you up on the balcony. They said you only come out at night.”

“Did they?”

Trying to get a reaction out of him was like pulling teeth. Tony decided he was definitely off his game if that was a problem, because it sure hadn’t been a shortcoming of his in the past.

“Why did you put Pepper in a cell when everyone else has the run of the place? Did she try to come up here?”

The boss just turned away. Bored with the conversation or simply unwilling to answer Tony wasn’t sure, but the burst of frustration under his ribs was strong enough for his hands to shoot out and grab the edge of a green mantle as the boss started to ascend the stairs.

“I’m talking to you,” Tony said, and pulled.

Caught between mortification and cold dread, he watched the boss’s back arch like a cat’s, sleek and fluid as he readjusted his balance, nimbly leaping backward onto the landing and whirling to meet Tony’s gaze with blazing red eyes. But Tony refused to let go.

“You dare,” the boss seethed, breathing sharp and hard against Tony’s cheek. Caught in the short tangle of the mantle and Tony’s grasp, the boss stood far too close for either of them to stand. Stubbornness was all that seemed to hold them in place. “You dare touch me?”

“Technically touching your clothes, but sure, I dare,” Tony replied steadily, drilling him with a flat stare. “You don’t get to pull the kind of shit you have and walk away without an explanation. I’m not your damaged servant and I’m sure as hell not an angry Russian woman. Why’d you lock Pepper in a cell? Who are you? What are you? Give me a real goddamn answer here because if you’re going to own my freedom until the day I die, you owe me that much.”

Odds were strong that Tony was going to be frozen solid on the spot for mouthing off like that and he knew it. But every instinct beneath the facts said that this cold bastard didn’t actually want to lay a finger on anyone. And if he was stymied in that respect, maybe Tony could even the playing field verbally. He was an expert in bravado and bullshit, after all.

Tony’s fingers burned with friction as the mantle was ripped from his grasp, leaving his palm tingling and sore. But neither of them retreated, and after a few long seconds Tony watched the boss’s mouth pull into a tight line of displeasure.

“The castle is a prison and a sanctuary,” he said, slipping his arms back beneath concealing folds of green. “Your woman tried to leave the grounds. You know what waits out there in the white.”

“The wolves,” Tony said slowly. “You locked her up so she wouldn’t run out into them. But why the hell didn’t you just let her do it? Because you sure don’t look like you’re keeping us for the company.” He took an instinctive step forward as the boss’ expression closed down. “Why doesn’t anything about you make sense? Forget the magic, the ice, even the damn horns sticking out of your head. I can compartmentalise with the best of them. This place, you, why do people come here? Why do you keep them?”

“I—”

“Is it a power thing?” Tony persisted. “Control? Are we pets to you? Sacrifices, playthings, food? What use could you possibly have for keeping three broken humans stuck in this goddamn rat’s maze—”

Because I need you!” the boss roared, and the words were anguish and fury. Ice cracked and fell from clawed fingers as he flexed them, like he was reaching for something that wasn’t there anymore. The boss bared sharp canines in a snarl, but his eyes were full of pain. “He never told me why.”

“He?” Tony breathed, floored by the display. He—the boss wasn’t angry, he was grieving something. Something lost? Someone? “You need us? What does that mean?” He received only a desolate headshake in return. The boss looked like he was about to leave again, and Tony didn’t think he had enough nerve to try the same trick twice.

There was just so little information to work with. Every scrap of insight budded into a thousand outlandish scenarios, except anything really was possible. Anything at all. Tony knew he could go insane trying to think of all the reasons why his jailer might need three people.

Then the boss turned away, heading for the staircase again and Tony’s eyes focussed again on the heavy grey fur draped around his shoulders.

“That’s a wolf pelt,” he said. “Isn’t it?”

The boss stopped dead in his tracks.

A prison and a sanctuary, he’d said. Where the wolves only attack if you’re not allowed to leave. Tony knew exactly where he’d gotten that steel grey pelt from.

“This isn’t our prison, is it?” he asked, something bitter and ugly twisting in his stomach. “It’s yours.”

A reeling glance told him everything he needed to know.

“An impressive deduction,” the boss replied, his voice somehow even more ragged and hoarse than before. “Ultimately meaningless, but impressive.”

“You selfish asshole.” Tony was seething. “You selfish, hateful bastard. No wonder you were dumped here.” He spun on his heel and strode away with impotent fury pounding in his heart, ignoring the crystalline shatter of ice and the crack of boots pulling free of it. It was a good show, but he wasn’t sticking around to watch.

The boss had been the prisoner the whole time, keeping them there so he had an audience. So something more pitiful than he was could scurry around to make him feel better. What the hell was Clint going to think about that?

Tony got as far as the grand staircase before the air at his back gusted like an arctic storm.

“You have no idea,” the boss snarled, “no idea of what you speak.”

“Yeah? Prove it,” Tony challenged. “Let us go.”

Something flickered across his alien features at the dare; a desperate tension where anger should reign. For a split second, Tony thought he read panic in those blazing eyes.

“You won’t, will you?” A smile twitched his mouth but there was nothing remotely pleasant about it. “You know, the last time I was held captive I could at least understand why. You? You’re just pathetic.”

“You—” Ice exploded from clawed blue hands, bristling out at him like deadly knives. Tony lurched sideways to avoid them – and his feet found nothing but air.

The staircase seemed to stretch downward for miles, each marble step a jagged tooth in an endless mouth. Tony’s heart gave a single, terrified throb as his balance tipped him headfirst and pale stone rushed toward his face.

A flash of blue crossed his vision. Hands pulled him, but not to safety. Tony slammed against a wall of cold, felt something press his head tight against it and then he was tumbling hard, rolling over and over in a thumping, jarring slide that should have hurt more than it did. Almost in answer, his ankle screamed as it struck the lip of a step. Tony gave a single gasp of pain before the air was knocked out of him from the sliding impact of the floor, leaving him gripping tight to cloth and cold as vertigo rocked his senses, feeling like it was tugging him up into the ceiling.

As Tony was thinking about vomiting, the body –the body– under him rattled with a painful cough. Pressure released from the side of Tony’s head, but didn’t disappear. His eyes sprang open, the room still unsteady but he pushed himself up slightly anyway. He had to see.

The boss was under him, sprawled brokenly across the marble. Dark blue blood was spilling from a cut on his forehead, just below one horn. Something shifted through his hair and Tony realised why he’d never hit his head on the way down. Arms. Arms and hands and fingers had wrapped around it like a cage, and every blow that Tony should have felt had been absorbed by a body far more resilient than his.

The fall would have killed him, Tony realised with absent fear. It should have killed the boss, too.

“Oh, God, hang on,” he shook out as he pushed himself up into a kneeling position. The boss was as still as the stone beneath him. “You can’t die before I even figure out your name.”

The limp figure below him didn’t respond. Unthinkingly, Tony reached out and pressed two fingers to his neck, feeling for what should logically still be a pulse point, even for suicidal blue prisoners. The skin that he touched was startlingly cold, but nowhere near the level it had been before they’d fallen. His fingers didn’t turn to ice, either, but they did register the steady beat that said his dubious hero was still alive and kicking.

Tony was still trying to decide whether that was a good or bad thing when the boss opened his eyes.

For a long, silent moment they just stared at each other, measuring, calculating but most of all Tony got a sense that the boss wasn’t entirely aware of what had just happened. Symptoms of head trauma manifested pretty quickly, didn’t they?

Grabbing the corner of his mantle, Tony tugged it up and pressed it against the bleeding cut to try and staunch the flow, grabbing a clawed hand and pressing it to the material so he’d hold it there himself. It was about then that the boss focussed on Tony’s hand wrapped around his and bolted upright, ripping his hand free with such force that Tony felt a wayward claw scratch clean across the meat of his palm.

“You fool!” he spat, shoving Tony away with all his might. The blow landed squarely on the arc reactor, agony exploding in his chest, but it wasn’t until he’d stopped sliding face first across the marble that he realised he couldn’t take a breath.

He was heaving for air, but nothing was happening. The arc reactor had finally caused what had always been a risk. Yinsen had warned him, and in the realisation of it Tony’s mind fed him the data at light speed in a chittering torrent of black panic and pain.

lungs at seventy per cent capacity plus pressure and force take into account approximate space between reactor baseplate and trachea, trachea and spine, pressure and force on ribcage bonded around reactor, sternum flex plus pressure plus force bending inward, baseplate shoved into trachea, trachea shoved into spine, tissue crushed causing tracheobronchial injury, collapse, collapse causing asphyxiation causing death causing death causing death

He was panicking, he knew he was panicking but he couldn’t stop, the reactor had smashed backward into his windpipe and he was going to die after almost dying and yeah, yeah there were only so many times he could cheat death with or without help—

Green cloth settled around Tony’s shoulders, wrapping tight around him as hands hauled his body up into a sitting position, bending him forward so he could brace his palms on the stone.

“Slower,” a voice like broken glass said in his ear. “Through your nose. Try to relax the–the inside of your chest.” The words were clumsy, like he was trying to translate something, but the palm that pressed over his diaphragm said enough. Tony focussed on it as he tried to pull a decent breath into his lungs. It burned deep and hot, and he tasted copper somewhere low in his throat but there was a whisper of oxygen and with it, relief followed.

“Better,” the boss whispered, sounding haggard. The hand under his chest withdrew but Tony grabbed it, squeezing brutally hard and pulling it back.

“It’s—crushed—I’m—” He exploded into a series of wracking coughs that brought tears to his eyes. Making an odd, almost mournful noise, the boss dipped and pressed his ear to Tony’s back.

“No,” he said after a moment, but his voice wasn’t entirely steady. Tony thought that he sounded as scared as he was. Which— “I hear no blockage. The wind was knocked out of you and that metal disc pressed on something, but nothing is crushed. You panicked.”

“I’m,” Tony started, but it was all he could wheeze out. Humiliatingly, the moisture in his eyes wasn’t owed entirely to the pain. He wasn’t going to die. Not so soon after Afghanistan. Not even when he thought he’d already given his life away. He was okay. He was okay.

They sat there for long minutes, Tony trying to get his breathing under control and the boss trapped in a crouch behind him, tense and skittishly trying not to pull his hand out of Tony’s grip. It was cold, his hand, but whatever emotion triggered the icicles wasn’t one he was feeling just then. Irrationally, Tony felt like letting go would bring back the airless torture, the tight aching panic of suffocation. The memory of dark water, the memory of a fist in his hair pushing him down into death. He thought he’d dealt with that already.

“Let’s never fight again,” he croaked out some time later. His ankle twinged warningly as he shifted. Behind him, a huffed breath was his only reply.

Then, “Loki.”

Tony blinked, turning to look over his shoulder. “Bless you?”

The boss grunted in annoyance. Blood was still dripping down his face.

“My name,” he said tightly. “It was Loki. Once.”

Tony thought that one over for a while. Loki. Quick and sharp. It also kind of rhymed with his name, which made it an instant hit. Tony wasn’t sure why he’d suddenly told him though, unless he’d really been awake after they fell.

“Hi,” he said finally. The bo—Loki seemed to sag a little, like something had disappointed him. He tugged his hand away again and this time Tony let him go, trying to awkwardly push himself to his feet. His ankle didn’t feel broken but he was going to have the mother of all bruises to deal with soon.

When Tony was confident he had enough balance and lifted his head, Loki was staring at him closely.

“What?”

“Never touch my skin,” he said, taking his mantle back. “The ice could kill you.”

“Maybe.” His windpipe still burned, giving his voice a breathier edge than usual. “But if I don’t sneak up on you, piss you off or try to fight you, I’d say we could arm-wrestle til sundown without a problem.”

“You would lose,” Loki said flatly. The concern of moments ago was gone, replaced by something hard and unkind. “I’m older, stronger and more dangerous than anything you’ve ever set eyes upon and I will be obeyed. Do not seek me out again, Tony Stark.”

His name sounded interesting in Loki’s mouth. Whatever accent the guy had put a new spin on old syllables. Tony was surprised to find he liked it.

“All right. On one condition.” He shifted beneath the glare directed at him, but held his ground just fine. “Since you’re so damn strong –which I have my doubts about, but let’s not go there– do you think you could get the big doors down past the main hall unbarred? We can’t lift the beam.”

Loki frowned, his head tipping back slightly. The movement exposed the smooth blue of his throat in a distracting way Tony tried not to look at.

“The ballroom is naught but dust and darkness. What use have you for it?”

“It’s a secret.” He didn’t need to know that the secret was that Tony haven’t even realised it was a ballroom in there and that he had, in fact, no use for it whatsoever.

Loki looked alarmed by his response. “Then I refuse.”

“Come on. Consider it your apology for knocking me down the stairs.”

Ice shot out of Loki’s hands, hitting the marble like great long knives. Tony swallowed.

“I’ll figure something else out.” He hobbled away at speed. Something told him he’d pushed big blue way beyond his usual social boundaries. Joking could come later. Or never.

Whichever left him in a state of reasonable health the longest.


Tony didn’t go back to the ballroom doors after his altercation with Loki, instead choosing to head back to his room for the rest of the day and think about everything that had happened. Everything he’d learned.

The ice, Tony thought as he soaked in the bathtub, the ice had to be a defence mechanism of some kind. Activated by strong negative emotion? It was possible. An unconscious reaction, definitely. He had a reasonable amount of education in the field of biology and physiology, but blue ice devil guys were outside his realm of experience altogether. Experimentation of any kind was completely out of the question. He didn’t have the equipment for it, anyway.

He was still mulling it over when his bedroom door burst open, slamming against the wall with a loud thump.

“Tony?” a very familiar, very tense voice called out. “Oh shit, Nat, he’s probably dead. I knew I should’ve gone with him.”

“His own idiot fault for taking on the boss.” Natasha sounded like she was by the window of his room. Don’t stand on ceremony, he thought dryly.

“The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he called out. “Though my ankle almost makes me wish they weren’t.”

They both charged into his bathroom with the exact same lack of social courtesy, so it served them right when they copped an eyeful of him chest-deep in hot water without so much as a modesty cloth.

“Good evening?” he offered as they stood silent in front of his tub. “Natasha, tell me you know first aid or something. My ankle has gained four pounds since lunchtime.”

Hip-checking Clint out of the way, Natasha pushed her long hair back over her shoulders and pushed her sleeves up, pulling his calf out of the water so his foot hung off the edge of the tub. In the course of five hours it had gone from painful to black and swollen with bruising.

“I need to feel the bone,” she warned. Tony just nodded.

“Thought you might say that. Be gentle with me.” Turning to Clint, he was about to ask for a distraction when he noticed exactly what he was staring at. It sure wasn’t the arc reactor. “It’s common courtesy to sneak a glance at my dick, Barton, not ogle it exclusively.”

“What? I haven’t seen one for a million years.” Clint scratched his stubbly chin. “Well, I mean, I’ve seen mine. Obviously. Shut the hell up.”

Whatever joke Tony had been about to make was overridden by the hiss of pain that escaped as Natasha’s careful fingers felt their way around the bones of his ankle, rotating the joint and clucking grumpily at the restricted movement he was able to manage. By the time she’d finished he was sweating into the warm water of the tub and had to dunk himself under again to feel clean.

“Not broken,” she said crisply when he resurfaced. “Keep off it tomorrow. Clint, get him a bag of ice from Cook when you get up in the morning.” Her green eyes flickered up to the arc reactor. “You’ve got some bruising there, too.”

“It’s fine,” Tony said easily.

“It’s a handprint.”

“Yes, it is.”

Natasha glared at him. Tony smiled back. She was absolutely dying to know and he was loving every second of it.

Clint was staring at the bruise with an expression that really sapped the fun out of the moment. His right hand was flexing.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “You’ve been here ten seconds. I’ve been here for ten years. Longer. But he hurt me and not you.”

Tony understood, and the parallel of their situations wasn’t lost on him. A tumble down the stairs, skin contact, yet he was fine and Clint had been permanently disabled in one hand.

“You were right,” he said simply. “I don’t think he knows how to control when it happens. I grabbed his hand and it was fine. Five minutes later there was ice all over the floor.” He didn’t add what had triggered the ice. Somehow he didn’t think Clint would appreciate it. “Speaking of your hand though, I’ve been having some ideas about a bow.”

Natasha flashed him a dangerous look. Protective of Barton? Or guilty? Clint just sat himself on the rim of the tub, not minding the water splashed across it.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you can lock your elbow, can’t you? What if I installed a handle-type attachment beneath the sight so your grip strength wasn’t as important? Or, hell, we could start from scratch and swap hands completely.” He shrugged as Clint stared at him. “Plenty of ideas, plenty of materials. Say the word.”

Clint swallowed hard and nodded, his jaw tight. “Yeah,” he choked out. “That’d be good.”

“Offer’s off the table if you cry in my bathwater, though.”

“Fuck off,” he retorted, but he was laughing. Tony grinned back.

“Okay but seriously get the hell out of my bathroom.” He didn’t have a lot of modesty, but being naked in a room with two people he wasn’t sleeping with still came with its own baggage load of weird.

“Jesus, okay.” Clint left in a hurry, patting at his wet ass as he went. When he was gone Natasha turned to him with one impressively raised eyebrow.

“A bow, huh? I thought you specialised in other kinds of weapons.”

“I specialise in a lot of things.”

“Is that an electromagnet?”

“Yes. Are you a spy?”

“There’s no-one here to spy on,” she replied. “I’ve never seen technology like that. What does it do?”

“It keeps me in good health. Did you used to be a spy?”

“What makes you think I’m a spy?”

Tony hauled himself out of the bathtub awkwardly, dripping water all over the tiles until Natasha kicked a ragged towel under his feet and handed him another. He took his time mopping at his face and hair before replying.

“You’re protective of your name.”

“So?”

“You have a garrotte scar on your throat. Your accent never slips. You know how to make a ‘standard oil trap’ as you so nicely put it. Your footsteps never really make a sound unless you want them to. You knew my face at a glance and my eating habits to boot.” Tony smiled at her. “You’re a goddamn Russian spy.”

She watched him sharply as he dried off and pulled on his white undershirt and pants, mostly because he didn’t want to die naked if she decided he was a risk. Raking wet hair back from his face, he was peering at his overgrown goatee in the mirror when she replied.

“I was a spy,” she said, and her voice relaxed, her mouth curving around familiar sounds as some of the American slipped out of her, letting some of the Russian back in. “I came here half-dead, running from your government. My agency deemed me a danger and burned me while I was on assignment in Washington. They left it to your people to run me into the ground. I was driving too fast and hit a tack strip on the road. Came off the steep side of a hill.” Her mouth twitched. “I broke half my ribs and crawled on my belly until I realised it was snowing heavily in spring. I’ve been here ever since.”

Well, that sure beat his story. “I think that makes you the most badass woman I know.”

Natasha smiled before she could help it, surprising the both of them. For a moment the hard-bitten sceptic vanished, revealing someone Tony would have liked to get to know better. Maybe in another lifetime, he thought ruefully.

When she had left him as well, Tony spent the remainder of the evening hobbling around his room using the fire poker as an impromptu walking stick, trying to pace off his thoughts. The castle had brought in a spy, an engineer-slash-weapons-manufacturer and an archer. Presumably, anyway, since Barton seemed to define himself by that one skill. Was there a pattern? But no, Pepper had come first. Pepper was fierce and precise but she was compassionate and efficient and she’d never have belonged with people like Natasha. Well, he amended, there was that moment back in the cell tower that he’d been a little worried about her capacity for homicide, but that had been an isolated incident. Extenuating circumstances.

He slept soundly through the night, waking up startled and sore across the chest when his door was pushed open by a wide-eyed Clint Barton.

“Got your ice,” he said by way of good morning, setting what looked like an old flour bag down on his bedside table. “You’re never gonna believe it.”

Tony rubbed the heels of his palms into his eyes, trying to wake up. “You brought me breakfast?” he yawned.

“Later. Guess again.”

“I honestly have no idea. I think I’m only fifteen percent conscious right now if you really want—”

“The beam’s gone.” Clint thumped himself down on the edge of the bed so hard it jarred Tony’s ankle, but he barely felt it.

“What?”

“Yeah. Whatever you said to the boss must’ve worked, because I saw it leaning on the wall beside the doors this morning. There’s a big dance hall in there, Tony, you should see it. It’s dusty and there’s cobwebs and sheets on everything but it’s enormous.” He hesitated, then burst out with, “we should totally clean it out.”

Tony pulled the blankets back up over his head in disgust, ignoring Clint’s assurances that they’d at least wait until he could walk. But in the soft darkness of the sheets Tony couldn’t help but allow himself a triumphant smile.

Things were starting to get interesting.


Interlude: The Office of Obadiah Stane

“I’m not saying he’s not out there somewhere. What I am saying is that we’ve looked everywhere. There’s no trace of Tony out there, Pepper, and I have a business to run. The police are looking—”

“The police will never find him. He disappeared in Solstice Canyon, Obadiah, but that’s not where he’s imprisoned.”

Obadiah sat back in his chair, frowning. Pepper Potts wasn’t a woman given to flights of fancy, and she’d handled the Afghanistan situation well enough. This should be familiar ground for her. But instead of moving on with her life and leaving the search party to the big boys, there she was in his office, looking about as strained and determined as he’d ever seen her.

“You told me the story,” he said mildly, “and I heard you out. I even sent a security team out there in the wilderness looking for the snow. But the truth is I can’t act without proof, and I can’t spend company money looking for a loose cannon.” He put up a calming hand to forestall her protests. “I know, I know. This is Tony we’re talking about here, but even I can admit that he came back a changed man. The board is antsy, the stocks are dropping, and the jewel of our company has just gone missing—again. There’s only so much I can do right now.”

Pepper’s head lowered. In her lap, her hands remained perfectly folded.

“I can’t just leave him out there. I—I’ve seen the master of that castle. He can do things I’ve never seen before, and Tony pushes buttons like no-one else alive.” She looked up, meeting his gaze. Her eyes were glittering with tears. Pepper Potts, the consummate professional. Pepper, who never let her emotions get the best of her.

Obadiah repressed a sigh. This felt like a trap.

“All right, all right. Say I believe all this talk about a disappearing castle and an ice monster. Say it’s all true. Break it down for me again.”

Pepper smiled brilliantly. It was about then that Obadiah noticed the thick sheaf of paper beneath her clasped hands.

“Well, I took the liberty of breaking it down into a thirty page analysis divided into geographical locations it has appeared in, what I know about the people kept inside and the figure they call ‘the boss’ who I think is some kind of new species of human—or a very old one.” She handed him the bound documents, standing to lean on the edge of his desk. “I’ve also hypothesized on who the grounds allow access to and why. It’s incredibly rough, but I think it might help us. I worked with JARVIS to draw up some rough sketches of the other prisoners…”

Obadiah felt a headache coming on. “How long did you say you were kept there?”

Pepper blinked. “About seven hours.”

“You’re something else, you know that?”

Obadiah flicked through the pages she’d given him. It was comprehensive, all right, but the hard copy analysis said volumes more than he’d originally allowed himself room to think about. Had Pepper and Tony stumbled onto something big? A secret base? Human experimentation? God only knew what the government got up to in their secret nooks and crannies – people from the Strategic Homeland something-or-other had been sniffing around lately – but this didn’t look like something they’d had their bureaucratic hands all over. Still, it was one more red flag to contend with. Obadiah Stane didn’t like red flags getting in the way of good business.

Besides, the Iron Monger prototype was coming along very nicely. All it needed was a heart.

Maybe when it received that heart, it could also have a cloaked fortress and an ice monster to guard it.

“All right, Pepper. I’ll throw my weight behind it. Let’s bring our boy home.”


Castle Winterheart

It was a stupid idea. It was definitely a stupid idea.

Well, no, Tony reasoned, his ideas were never outright stupid. But it was definitely risky and so far his track record with Loki the Unfriendly Icicle Man was spotty at best.

Clint had already told him he was a moron. Natasha had threatened to break his ankle out of concern for his life. Since said ankle had taken three weeks to properly heal the threat had given him pause, but those three weeks had been spent wondering where in the hell Loki was. Tony had last seen him nursing a freely bleeding head wound and threatening to injure Tony if he went near him again.

Three for three. No-one thought he should go after Loki again. Hell, even his own common sense was wagging a finger at him.

But it was driving him nuts.

Clint had said with the experience of fifteen years living with him that the boss was up in the west wing, probably avoiding everyone like he’d done the last time he’d hurt a member of the household. Tony liked his wording there – prisoner would have been far more accurate. But Clint’s white lies to himself were probably one of the few things that kept him sane for the last fifteen years. Twelve, if you didn’t count Natasha’s arrival, but Tony wasn’t sure how she could be conducive to anyone’s mental health. The chilli in the vodka thing had burned for days.

In all honesty, it was getting lonely. Tony had been confined to his floor for most of the last few weeks, after his ankle swelled up and refused to be forced into a shoe, let alone support him down some stairs. Clint and Natasha alternated bringing him meals, even after he’d begged to be carried down to the solar to live out the rest of his crippled days within easy reach of booze and grease, if not a toilet. They’d left him in his room to heal and left each other alone. Tony had guessed that last by Clint’s doleful face, even while they were putting their heads together for a new bow prototype that would work with Clint’s significantly weaker right hand. They didn’t have materials yet, but it was a start.

Now that Tony’s ankle was much better, the mystery of Loki’s absence was all he could think about. He was, for better or worse, interested in him. Scared of him? Sure. That was just survival instinct. But his origins, his abilities, his insane durability—Tony needed to know. But when all he could remember was dark blue blood running down the side of his face and a few distinctly out of character displays of physical contact, Tony had to wonder – could a guy like that succumb to a critical head injury? Because if he was dead, maybe they had a chance to get out of there.

If he wasn’t, well…that was where the idea of entering the west wing became horribly risky.

So it was with determination in his heart and nausea in his stomach that Tony stood at the entrance, wondering if he had the guts to take a step up into the one place he’d been expressly forbidden from going. But if Loki was injured –and really, that fall should have killed them both– then he had an excuse if he got caught. Concern and curiosity. That was all it was. Nothing malicious. Nothing that would warrant being tossed in the tower cell forever. Right?

Pulling in a quick, fortifying breath, Tony started up the stairs.

It was late in the afternoon, but the staircase was almost completely lightless, the air smelling like dust and damp as he ascended. The walls were scored with claw marks: long ones, deep and curving. You had to be strong to make marks like those with nothing but the claws Loki had. Nervousness fluttered low in Tony’s gut as he kept going, wondering whether it was a good time to call out his intentions. Surely he’d made enough noise to be noticed. He wasn’t trying to sneak, no – concerned prisoners had no reason to sneak. This was just Tony trying to ascertain if their big blue bastard was in a coma after cracking his skull on marble and then lifting an insanely heavy wooden beam off a ballroom door while still gushing blood. Completely legitimate reason.

He just needed to convince himself of that.

Reaching the top of the stairs almost panicked him enough that he left again. Tony hadn’t really thought he’d get that far without being discovered. Was Loki asleep? Gone? Or actually injured?

The landing opened into a medium-sized hallway lined with doors in varying stages of wear and tear. There were six rooms, three on each side with a small alcove at the end that opened into a grime-covered window seat with half the stuffing falling out. A ragged blue curtain hung in shreds across it. The window was blacked out with what looked like soot.

“Nice, friendly atmosphere up here,” Tony murmured. “Real cozy.”

It was also cold. Not exactly sub-zero temperature cold—was there a breeze coming from somewhere? It didn’t seem like the radiating chill he’d felt standing near Loki, but there was a definite drop in temperature. Rolling the sleeves of his shirt down from his elbows, he paused to wince at the creasing and lack of cufflinks but buttoned them hastily anyway. Style was a non-issue lately.

Nothing stirred up ahead. Gingerly, Tony moved forward into the west wing.

One thing was for certain, Loki wouldn’t hurt him if he got busted. That was a huge comfort. Loki was completely averse to the idea of physical injury and violence – not that he strictly needed either to get his way, but his face on the stairwell when Tony had challenged him to let them go, when he’d tried to help after the arc reactor had almost crushed his windpipe – that had been real fear. But a fear of what?

Walking past each door, hearing nothing but his own careful breathing, Tony’s shoulders relaxed a little. Maybe no-one was ho—

Something creaked inside the room to his left.

A footstep.

There was no time to think or retreat. Sucking in a panicked breath, Tony raced down the end of the hallway and jumped on the window seat, pulling the curtain across to shield himself from Loki’s view.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, he thought blindly, teeth clenched and head down. He didn’t know how much of his body was still visible through the torn curtain but if he moved there was a huge chance that Loki would hear him. The guy had to have some amazing senses, given all his other abilities, but if he stayed still and said nothing and—he couldn’t sense heat signatures, could he? If Loki had some kind of thermal sensing ability as an ice creature then Tony might as well kiss his ass goodbye right then and there. Trying not to breathe and suddenly desperate for the bathroom, he froze up as a door in the hallway opened with a low creak.

For a long moment there was no sound at all. Tony had visions of himself pulling the curtain aside and finding himself face to face with the boss. Being shoved through the dirty window at his back and falling two storeys to his death. Red snow. Icicle pincushion. No, he reminded himself fiercely as a drop of cold sweat trickled down his back, Loki wouldn’t hurt him. Something else maybe, but not that. Maybe. Hopefully.

Footsteps again, this time heavy and sure—and moving away toward the stairs. Away from Tony. Counting each fading footstep until it was completely silent in the hallway again, he waited another full minute before taking a creaking step forward on the window seat and peering around the edge of the curtain.

Gone.

Thank God.

His personal horror movie moment fading, it took him only a moment to realise he had a whole new opportunity to poke around in the west wing while Loki was out. Maybe he could find some answers in that room. He didn’t seem like the type to lock his doors, probably too secure in his knowledge that everyone was scared shitless of making him angry. Still, Tony had never let a little fear get in the way of progress.

The door had been left ajar, giving him just enough room to slip in sideways with minimal creaking. Once he was sure there was still silence in the hallway outside, Tony turned and faced the personal chambers of the master and longest prisoner of Winterheart.

If he’d had longer to deliberate over his plan he might have had an idea of what to expect inside the west wing. Really, the state of the hallway should have given him an indication, but it still didn’t prepare him for the ruin and disrepair that he was confronted with.

The place had been completely torn apart. It was dark and cold, with no fire or sconce in sight. Every item of furniture had been broken down into pieces of wood and twisted metal. Yellowing couches had been flung into the corners of the room, their stuffing and wayward scraps of fabric littering the stone floor. Chairs were strewn about in pieces. Rugs had been slashed apart, rumpled and shoved aside in favour of dull grey stone. Curtains hung in ribbons, when they weren’t simply torn down and dumped with the rugs. A fireplace ran half the length of the wall, littered with what looked like balled-up parchment and broken glass.

As Tony wandered deeper into the room, he smelled snow and damp as it blew in from a balcony. The doors were both missing; half the stone surrounding the frame looked like it had been yanked out and hurled away, leaving an open hole in the room that would probably blow the entire winter’s freezing payload of snow straight inside.

Holding his breath, fascinated but more than a little scared by the devastation of the room, Tony turned in a careful circle and took stock of his surroundings. There was a bed shoved up against the wall, its legs broken off or hacked away so it rested on the floor. It was covered in enough dust that he knew it hadn’t been used in a good long while. Was sleep something he just didn’t need, or was the bed something he didn’t like to use? Judging by the room, it almost looked like Loki was trying to deprive himself of everything that would be considered an ordinary creature comfort.

As Tony turned he finally saw it: a large and faded gold wing-backed chair pushed back from the open balcony. Facing its frigid chill, it probably gave a great view of the woods outside. There was a small wooden table beside it, miraculously untouched despite the catastrophe that surrounded it. There was a sheet draped over something sitting on it. It was rounded, probably around the size of the Mark I helmet, whatever it was.

Tony stopped himself at the thought. Mark I – that was funny. There was never going to be a Mark II. But the item on the table had his interest regardless and he crept closer to it in the dying afternoon light, keeping an eye on the door to the hallway as he moved. The last thing he needed was to trip over a piece of furniture and alert the boss that he was snooping. It was that careful concentration that left him completely unprepared for the accusatory ‘caawww’ and flutter of wings on the balcony.

His old friend the raven was back, golden eyes gleaming as it flared its startling wingspan on the railing, jerkily dipping its head. It almost looked like a mocking bow. The little asshole.

“Piss off,” Tony hissed, waving his arm at it. “If you blow my cover I’ll be sleeping with the fishes tonight.” The bird, being a bird and therefore of no particular use whatsoever, took a shit on the balcony and hopped two steps in his direction. Great. “Are you his pet? Is that what this is? Watching the fort while he goes for a jog?”

The raven fluffed up its feathers.

“I’ll take that as a no.” Giving the bird his back for the moment, he approached the small table with caution. It looked like—was something glowing faintly underneath the sheet? Tony wasn’t sure his scientific brain could handle the sight of actual, visible magic within touching distance of him. Still, whatever was under there looked important. It had to be, since it was the only thing still in one piece in the entire room. And a clue was a clue. He had to know.

Holding his breath, Tony whipped the sheet away and jumped backward in the same motion, his free arm flung up like a shield. But nothing happened, nothing moved. Even the raven seemed unwilling to disturb the moment this time.

It was an apple.

A golden apple. Flushed with light, it hung suspended inside a bell jar like it was floating in its own gravitational field. It was beautiful, and it—

It was rotting. One side of the fruit was sunken and shrivelled, the skin dull and soft with decay. It wasn’t a natural process of decomposition, whatever it was. Nothing natural rotted by halves. The rest of the apple was perfectly firm and glowing a muted gold.

“This is incredible,” he breathed. It was quick work to pull the glass dome up and over the apple. It didn’t even waver. How the hell was it floating? If he could harness that kind of science, or translate it into something he could base a prototype off, hell. It would change the world.

He knew he shouldn’t, he knew it wasn’t safe and he might end up radioactive, but he had to. Tony had to touch it. Reaching out with one shaking hand, he brushed a fingertip against the smooth side of the apple.

His vision blanked out. The world bled gold and green and cold

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?

Something grabbed the back of his collar, hauling him away so hard he felt a button pop on his shirt. Still reeling from the vision, Tony staggered backwards across the room, trying to find his balance before he fell. Cold stone slammed into his back—just the wall, but it knocked the breath out of him. Tony gasped harshly, deciding then and there that he was a little sick of oxygen deprivation.

Loki was on his knees beside the table, shaking blue hands cupped around the hovering fruit. He wasn’t touching it; he was just staring at it in horror and fear. Tears were brimming in his unblinking red eyes. Tony realised that whatever he was seeing, it was more than an apple. Much more.

“The rot has spread so far,” Loki whispered, his voice thick with something like shame. Like loss. “I tried. I did everything I was supposed to—” Pulling away from the apple like he was dangerous to it somehow, he stared down at his clawed hands. “The illusion of freedom. Hope. For nothing.” Blue lips lifted away to reveal a sharp-toothed snarl. “For nothing!

The room started to get very cold. A circle of ice began growing outward from Loki’s hunched form, a spreading, crackling ring of white. Stalagmites started peaking inside the ring, jutting like icy spikes in an ancient trap. Tony started to edge for the door, but Loki’s head whipped around at the movement, his eyes snapping to him. In the gloom, he was nothing more than a shadow bearing white teeth and blood-red eyes.

“Long have I pondered the meaning of his words. Long have I trusted in his wisdom.” Loki rose to his feet unsteadily, limbs jerking awkwardly. Tony could see the ice falling away from his legs. Too much ice, enough that it was building on his own body in layers, crawling over the floor and walls like a crackling cold carpet of rage, heading straight toward Tony.

“Long have I protected the scurrying vermin that infests my cage—” The wind howled and whistled behind him. Snow whirled into the chamber. Loki slashed a hand at it and found his entire arm encased in a vicious blade-like extension of ice. Tony started to panic as he watched Loki fight with his own powers, the rage and torment mounting as the room started to close in as ice covered everything in sight.

Loki had lost control of his own power. He was too angry. And if he was angry at Tony

“I shouldn’t have come, I know I shouldn’t have trespassed,” Tony started, struggling to keep his voice even, “and I’m sorry I didn’t keep my word, but don’t do this—”

You do not order me, human!” Tony let out a cry and dove aside as protrusions of ice shot out of the wall he’d been leaning on. Loki followed him with his free palm outstretched. Ice began to grip his shoes, trying to hold him in place. Loki was panting harshly, his breath rasping into fog as he snarled through the drifting snow falling between them. The entire room looked like it had been carved from ice.

“I’ve been generous with your kind for far too long.”

Ripping his legs out of the ice with a crunch, Loki stalked toward him with the movements of something that was too entrenched in violent instinct to be reasoned with. The ice was climbing over half his body; what was it going to do to Tony?

Tony couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe. All he could see was the curving jut of horns and the icy sword he’d made of one arm. Claws that could rend wood and strength that could haul stone. Eyes that held nothing but wounded rage.

Tony knew he was about to die.

But even then, with all of that certainty, he knew he couldn’t go without a fight.

Grabbing the ice-crusted leg of a broken chair, Tony threw it as hard as he could. But not at Loki – at the apple left unprotected on the table behind him. Then he bolted without looking back, the furious roar of a predator denied its kill dogging his footsteps.

There was nowhere to hide from him in Winterheart. He knew every room and floor and stone and Loki would find him and tear him apart for what he’d just done. He was too strong, too fast—but there was something even stronger than him.

The magic of the prison itself.

Maybe he was going to die, but at least he’d have company.

Tony’s ankle ached as he jumped down the stairs, chest burning on every breath as he sprinted through the halls. Natasha and Clint were nowhere in sight. Good. Somewhere in the back of the castle, something crashed. Loki. Jesus, he was fast.

The main doors loomed ahead. Tony barely even hesitated before ripping them open and bolting out into the storm. The drawbridge was still down, like it had been when he arrived. The gate, he just needed to get to the gate.

A dark shape speared through the air, a wedge of feathered wings arcing overhead. Tony barely heard the raven’s harsh cry over the squeal of cold metal. The gate gave easily in his hand, like it wanted him to escape from Loki.

Slipping through the iron gates, Tony ran into the woods.

Visibility was almost non-existent. Everything was white and cold, the kind of bone-deep cold that hurt like knives with every gust of wind. It was whipping up into a true blizzard, and if he didn’t find some kind of shelter soon it was going to kill him sooner rather than later. Kicking his way through shin-deep snow, Tony tried to find a path. One hand pressed to the aching cold of the arc reactor, trying to warm it, his other shielding his face against the bitter wind, he struggled into the trees and prayed the over-reaching branches would stop at least some of the onslaught.

Tony wasn’t sure how far he got before he had to stop. There were no markers, just trees and snow and gathering darkness. All he knew was that his fingers weren’t moving properly and his feet were nothing more than frozen lumps of agony. But hypothermia was better than whatever the boss had been about to dole out. If nothing else, he’d fought. Kind of. Running away was a type of fighting, he was sure of it.

He sank against the snow-dusted trunk of a tree, huddling down. It was getting dark. Dark meant more cold. Dark probably also meant death.

“C-c-c-could be worse,” he told himself and the frozen woods. “C-could’ve died in a desert.”

That was when the first wolf started to howl.


After Afghanistan, Tony had decided he possessed a latent talent for survival in tough conditions. Shrapnel to the chest? Didn’t die. Captivity for three months? Built a suit and escaped. He’d faced the kind of situation that would break most ordinary people and overcame the odds. He was awesome.

But just then, crouched alone in the snow with the echoing howl of a wolf pack filling the evening air, Tony didn’t feel like much of a survivor. He felt like dinner.

He had no weapons. He had no idea where he was going and he was so cold he was losing sensation in his feet and hands. This was bad.

Staying put was death either way. By wolf or cold, it would kill him. Pushing himself to his feet, Tony started to run as best he could. Maybe he was a moving target, his red shirt like a bullseye in the snow. Could wolves even see colour? Tony couldn’t remember but the thought distracted him enough that he almost fell into an obscured ditch, a snow-dusted embankment leading into a smooth path of what had to be a frozen stream. Crossing that was going to be risky—

There was a wolf standing on the other side, a great big silvery-grey bastard with the brightest golden eyes and longest damn teeth Tony had ever seen. It stood perfectly still between the trees, watching him like it had all the time in the world to take him down. He was soft and scared and prey and in one leap it was going to clear that frozen stream and rip his throat open. Maybe the next guest of Winterheart would find him and wonder about the stupid corpse of Tony Stark, who chose the lesser of two evils and still had his guts strewn in the snow for his troubles.

Holding his breath, Tony took a cautious step back from the embankment. There was a shiver rippling up his spine and adrenaline in his veins; he could try to run, maybe climb a tree. Could he break the ice on the stream? Drown it, freeze it? Anything? He wasn’t—he couldn’t die.

The wolf threw its head back and howled. Throat long and teeth sharp, it sang for its pack, filling the air with the sound of Tony’s impending death. What a way to go.

Tony turned and ran. He ran for his life and he didn’t stop for fear or rage or helpless panic. He didn’t think. Instead he pulled his legs through the snow, tuning out the rough growling breaths and the heavy thunder of the pack closing the distance behind him. Breath burning in his lungs, he saw the rise of a hill ahead and picked up his pace. Over it, there might be something he could use, somewhere to hide. It was a goal. It was hope. He just had to make it—

Teeth snapped at the back of his neck, a rush of fetid breath blowing against his skin. A crushing weight slammed into his back, forcing Tony down into the snow. Crying out hoarsely as a wolf stood on his back, Tony pulled his face out of the suffocating cold and tried to breathe. He didn’t know why, but he tried to breathe.

A vice closed on his shin; teeth sinking into the meat of his calf. He couldn’t muffle his scream as agony splintered up his leg, trying desperately to kick the wolf in the face as he turned over. It didn’t really work. Three of them had surrounded him, but there were more eyes glowing in the shadow of the woods, watching on as the largest took the kill.

A bloody muzzle lifted from his leg. The wolf’s eyes shone round and too-bright in the gathering darkness, strangely empty as they stared at Tony. There was no hunger or intelligence or mercy in those eyes, and nothing had ever terrified him more. Because they weren’t just wolves. They were perimeter patrol. They were magic and orders and they weren’t going to kill him because they were hungry animals. They were going to kill him because he tripped the wire on his way out. Because he escaped.

They were going to kill him because he’d known the punishment and done it anyway.

The wolf’s jaws opened, teeth shining reddish-pink with blood. His blood. Tony saw its legs tense—

—it surged toward his exposed throat—

—and the woods shuddered with a roar so loud and so full of rage that the alpha hurled itself backward into the pack, cowering in the presence of a predator so terrible that whatever survival instinct it had overrode its need to kill Tony.

Above him, the blizzard shrieked anew.

For an instant, Tony didn’t know whether he’d been saved or if he’d entered a new kind of hell. But the wolves regrouped just as heavy cloth was dumped over Tony’s body and a voice snarled against his ear.

Stay down.

A hand pressed his shoulder into the snow and vanished. Tony couldn’t help it; he ignored all sense and pushed Loki’s cloak away from his face. Before him he was greeted by a sight he knew he’d remember for the rest of his life.

Loki stood tall in the shadows between Tony and the wolves, arms outstretched and claws long, frost climbing over his skin in a glittering lacework that turned the blue of his skin into something almost pearlescent. But that was where the beauty stopped; before six wolves, each half as tall as a grown man Loki was every inch as feral and bestial as they were.

For a single suspended moment in time the wolves cocked their heads and lowered their bellies, and Tony wondered just how much of a master of Winterheart Loki actually was.

The wind blew in a curtain of swirling white, shattering the moment as it pushed Loki’s dark hair away from his shoulders. Tony’s breath caught at the sight of the scarred ruin of his back, and he knew.

The wolves wanted the only prisoner of Winterheart who had been sentenced to stay.

“Bring me your teeth and your claws,” Loki spat. Ice jutted from his arms like spiked pauldrons. “You will leave your lives.”

The wolves attacked. All of them.

Tony’s breath sobbed in his throat as they swarmed Loki in one snarling, surging wave of fangs and fur, only to be thrown back in a massive defensive block that sent at least two wolves reeling back into the trees. This was—they were going to—

Loki spun like a dancer, horns catching the last of the afternoon light, eyes slitted and jewel-red as he slung sharp spears of ice off his fingertips. Flowing forward on his left foot, the impact of it into the snow sent a curving crescent of ice shooting up in spikes. It was the west wing all over again, but this time there was no mindless uncontrolled attack. This was destruction with purpose and Loki made it look like art.

The wolves were scattered again and again, each forward attack thwarted by the ice. One got close enough to bite at the golden cuff on his wrist – Loki snapped his leg up in a kick so hard the wolf slammed into a tree with a sickening crunch.

For a single, awed moment Tony thought they were going to be okay.

Loki turned on the backstroke of another blow and caught his gaze as he spun—and the alpha wolf bounded forward in one strong leap, sharp teeth tearing viciously into Loki’s unprotected side.

Tony watched on in horror as Loki staggered, crying out hoarsely as the wolf bit deep, sinking to one knee as he tried to prise its jaws open with both hands. It was a delay that cost him as the pack converged on his hunched body. They were going to tear him to pieces and Tony would have to watch them do it.

Chest tight, he made an aborted movement toward the pack, but a snarl erupted from beneath the snapping jaws and golden eyes of the wolves, followed by high, panicked yelps of pain as ice shot up from the snow around Loki’s fallen form in a spiked circle, pin-cushioning a few of the wolves and sending the rest running back into the woods.

Running. From Loki.

Amazingly the alpha stayed, its jaws stained blue and red – their blood, smeared across its muzzle. Blood also dripped from an injured paw, looking black in the gathering darkness. It watched them both with the same empty patience Tony had seen in its eyes from across the stream.

Loki tried to push himself to his feet for one last attack, but Tony could see it was useless. He was bleeding heavily from his side, clawed hands shaking with exhaustion. Every panted breath sounded wheezy with pain. Still, somehow, seeing Loki try anyway gave Tony enough courage to lurch forward, still clutching the heavy mantle that had been covering him.

Something with wings fluttered overhead as Tony limped toward the boss, his eyes on the wolf as he navigated the ice surrounding him. Its eyes shone like golden coins. There was something familiar about those eyes, but the thought was gone as Tony reached out and placed a shaking hand on the back of Loki’s lowered head. Hunched in on himself, one knee to the snow, he looked like he was swearing allegiance to his own death. Icy strands of black hair met his palm. Loki didn’t stir.

The wolf, on the other hand, cocked its head.

Something fluttered again in the tree above them. The wolf’s ears pricked toward it, but it never tore its gaze from Tony’s hand.

You know what waits out there in the white.

Long have I protected the scurrying vermin that infests my cage…

Nothing changed. Nothing had ever changed—and maybe that was why Loki had lost his mind when he found Tony in the west wing. Loki looked after them because it was what he thought he had to do. But the wolves wanted him, not Tony. Tony was just duty. Loki was their prey.

But that wolf never stopped watching Tony’s hand, resting carefully against the back of Loki’s head. Loki, who wasn’t even conscious, still bleeding steadily into the snow.

“You can’t have him.”

The words were half statement, half stunned realisation, but they were true and Tony knew it the moment he spoke them. He just didn’t know what they meant to Winterheart’s magic and Loki’s imprisonment.

Goals. Goals and projects and mysteries. Didn’t he thrive on those?

Something rustled in the branches again, and the raven loosed a rough, craggy cry that sent the alpha wolf pelting back through the woods without so much as a parting growl. Around them, the biting wind slowly calmed and with it, so did Tony’s pulse.

Of course, the relief and the adrenaline wearing off brought its own problems. His bitten leg started screaming as the pain came back, and the idea that he might actually freeze to death started looking a lot more like a certainty. Pulling the mantle on around his own shoulders, he tied the fanged clasp with fingers that felt like they were carved from Loki’s ice. It was a heavy sort of comfort around his shoulders and it kept the worst of the winter evening at bay.

“Now, to wake you up,” Tony murmured to the kneeling knot of horns and hair and scarred blue that sat hunched at his feet. “We need to get home before you bleed out.” Wrapping his hand in the green cloth, he reached out and shook Loki’s shoulder slightly. Nothing happened. But the cloth didn’t frost over, either, which meant he was touchable. For better or worse, it meant Tony could at least drag him, but that was going to take more time than they had. Once full dark descended, they’d be screwed.

Time to pull out all the stops then. Tony sucked a finger into his mouth, pulled it out and stuck it in Loki’s ear.

The reaction it drew had some similarity to mild electrocution, especially as a visible shudder tore its way up Loki’s spine and his head jerked up in confusion. Tony felt a little bad for him as he jarred his wounds, hissing a controlled breath that sounded like Loki was trying not to turn the air as blue as his skin. Once he had some composure back, he lifted his gaze to meet Tony’s.

“The wolves,” he rasped. “What happened?”

“You scared them off with the ring of death here.” Tony waved at the spiking circle of ice surrounding them both. “You also killed those two over there while you were…” protecting me “…getting mauled. C’mon, we need to get back before the big one decides to man up and come find us.” He held a hand out to Loki, who ignored him in favour of examining the wound in his side. The fingers that swiped around the bite came away slick with dark blue blood. Red eyes narrowed calculatingly at the sight.

“Come on,” Tony repeated. “First aid later.”

“I’ve lost too much blood,” Loki said. “I can barely stand under my own strength. Just keep walking. All paths lead to Winterheart. If the wolves return, it will be me they come for.”

He wanted Tony to leave him behind. Not in a grimly heroic sense, not so Tony could save himself. This was matter-of-fact and oddly detached and Tony hated it all the way down to his bones.

I want this. I want this.

Don’t waste your life.

Maybe the spells would all break if Loki died out in the snow. Tony could go home and live and build his new suit, he could annoy Pepper and impress Rhodey and get drunk and talk about Howard’s failed designs with Obadiah. He’d let JARVIS insult him and infect his system with a virus that made him speak like a southern belle until he cleared it. He could go home.

All he had to do was leave Loki behind, just as he’d asked. He could buy Tony some time…until he didn’t have to anymore.

The mystery of Winterheart could remain just that. A fairy tale remembered only by a few.

Unbuttoning his shirt to expose the arc reactor, Tony tore his undershirt open and placed a palm over the blue glow of the upgraded reactor, turning it until a quiet hiss signified the release. Pulling it halfway out of his chest, it was quick work to increase the reserved power output. It wouldn’t help the shrapnel any, but the light it gave off slowly increased until it illuminated the clearing. It was almost too dark to see and if the lantern Loki carried around through the castle was any indication, he probably wouldn’t be able to see either.

Kneeling down, Tony grabbed Loki’s wrist and hauled it over his shoulder, catching it with his other hand and holding it down like an anchor.

“I’ve got one good leg and no sense of direction. You’re coming with me.”

Loki stared at him, his gaze flickering. The hand Tony was grasping flexed slightly, claws pressing into the fur across his shoulders. But he did rise to his feet in short, jerky movements, unfolding until he stood at his full height again. The look he gave Tony was exhaustion and pain in equal measure.

“You could kill me. You could take your freedom and give me mine.”

“You’re right, I could.” Tony grunted slightly as he turned them, starting out toward the direction he’d come. At least going down the hill would be easier than running up it. Hoping that was the last word on his motivations, Tony started limping back toward the castle with his captor in tow.

Their trek was hard. Loki was a crushing weight on his shoulder no matter how they tried to manoeuvre through the snow. He looked like it was all he could do not to drop into the snow and pass out. For Tony’s part, he just tried to hold him up and control his shivering. Despite the cloak, he was freezing. He wasn’t sure how heavily his leg was bleeding, since everything was getting a little numb from the knees down. Frostbite would be a terrible way to become Winterheart’s first amputee.

It really would have been easier to leave him behind. It would have made sense to leave him behind. Loki was too strong, too angry, too bitter. The way he’d lashed out in the west wing had been horrifying. He’d only saved Tony’s life after first putting it in danger. He’d only saved him because that was what he thought he had to do; why humans were even there in the first place. He was selfish and broken and Tony was about to willingly lock himself up again with all that torment and rage.

But would he have been the same?

Replace a cave with a castle, replace Yinsen and his wise calm with—with no one willing to even look him in the eye. Trade three months for more than fifteen years. A reason for imprisonment for questions and loneliness. What might he have become? Would he have even lasted that long? Absently, Tony tightened his grip on the cold wrist hanging over his shoulder, keeping his eyes on the bobbing light of the arc reactor. Knowing him, he might have become something even worse.

Besides, Tony had already seen one person die so he could have his freedom. Yinsen’s death was all the weight his conscience could take.

Then there were the wolves. The pain in the ass raven that kept stalking him. The glowing apple. There was a secret to Winterheart, and letting Loki bleed out in a blizzard wasn’t going to reveal it. He still didn’t know why he’d been allowed access in the first place, or how Pepper had gotten lost. There were too many unanswered questions to bail out now. For the moment, it would be enough just to find the trail that led back to the castle.

By some miracle, some magical blessing that Tony didn’t want to think too hard about, they actually did find the castle again. Together they managed to cross the gates just as full dark descended around them. Just seeing the arching walls and enormous doors made every bone in Tony’s body hurt anew, as though his relief at being safe had finally sapped whatever strength he’d had remaining.

Loki managed to stir himself enough to walk on his own two feet unaided, giving Tony a chance to stand up straight and think about how injured his leg might actually be. It wasn’t every day he got bitten by a magical guard-wolf. Did they carry rabies? The amount of germs in their fangy mouths would at least be some cause for concern.

The door was as heavy as ever, but Loki reached above Tony’s head and pushed it hard enough that it flew open. Inside, someone squawked in surprise and came running. Clint, charging forward with his lantern and a lot of worry.

“Christ on a unicycle, Tony, what the hell are you doing outside with that messed-up ankle?” he asked crossly, yanking Tony inside by one wrist. His eyes almost bugged as he registered his skin temperature. “Fuck! You’re almost hypothermic and…that’s the boss’s cloak.”

“Yeah.” Limping into the entrance, Tony turned back as Loki staggered inside behind him. In the golden light of the lantern his strange blood had painted a wide streak all the way to his knee. The bite looked grotesque, deep punctures creating a half-circle in the muscle of his side, just below his ribcage. He was a sickly pale blue, swaying on his feet, and Clint still lurched away from him in fear.

“I’m…” Clint trailed off before he could even start a sentence. His right hand was pressed hard to his side and he was staring at the boss, at Loki, like he was seeing a nightmare.

Oh, shit, Tony thought despairingly, of course he couldn’t handle this. Last time Loki had been injured this badly he’d nearly killed Clint by accident.

But then the lantern bobbed in Clint’s hand slightly, swaying as he rubbed his hand over his face. His blue eyes looked a little wild and he kept swallowing like he was going to be sick, but he seemed to haul himself back in the game.

“Get to the solar,” he managed. “I’ll get Natasha.” At the mention of her name Tony saw Loki jerk slightly at his side, but he was too late to do anything but watch Clint haul serious ass toward the grand staircase.

That still left Tony shivering in wet clothes and damp fur, trying to walk on a leg that felt like it had been set on fire. The solar was down a long hallway, but the wall was enough of a support that Loki walked himself, though Tony suspected it was more of a pride thing. He’d almost bitten clean through his lip to hold in any sound of pain as they’d made their way back.

They’d only barely collapsed on the fireplace lounge when Natasha shoved the doors open with her shoulder and came charging in with a tray stacked with what looked like cloth napkins and a suspiciously unmarked bottle of moonshine. Clint was right behind her with two jugs of hot water and a stack of...

“Chamber pots,” Clint nodded at Tony’s expression. “Unused, man, I swear. Take off your clothes.”

“Look, I’ll keep,” Tony argued. “It’s him who needs help.” At the far end of the lounge, Loki was hunched in on himself again, head bowed as he pressed a hand to the bite.

Natasha ignored him, already unbuttoning his shirt and squinting against the light of the arc reactor. Tony was quick to turn it back down to normal output, ignoring her burning stare as she got an up-close view of how deep into his chest the port actually was.

“The boss isn’t going to let me treat him,” Natasha said softly, for his ears alone. “And Clint physically can’t make himself touch him. He wants to, but he can’t and you won’t ask him to do it.” Tony had nothing to say to that.

He ended up stripped to his underwear and swamped in a scratchy wool blanket, each foot in a chamber pot of warm water while Clint cleaned the bite on his calf with an alcohol-soaked napkin. Blood had turned the water in the pot a nauseating red.

“The bite wasn’t that deep, probably more of a taster before it went for the real kill,” Clint said helpfully from his feet. “There’s a lot of indents but most are just gonna mark you up a bit. Good of the wolf to go for your bad leg though.” The quirked smile Clint gave him was strained. “You’re a fuckin’ idiot.”

It wasn’t a guilt trip, but it hit Tony like one all the same. They were all they really had and he’d gone running out there like a moron and almost gotten killed. If Loki hadn’t come bolting out to save him he’d be just a frozen corpse out in the snow.

“Sorry,” Tony said, meeting Clint’s terrible smile with one of his own. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No, man, I just want the damn bow you promised me.”

“I’ll deliver it up your ass next week.”

The exchange was interrupted as the familiar crack of ice sounded at the end of the lounge, where Loki was snarling at Natasha like she was holding a knife and not a handful of clean napkins to use as bandages. For her part, Natasha was rigidly tense, standing on the other side of the low table.

“Take them. Clean your own wounds.”

Loki didn’t reply; the ice that broke away from his fingers as he flexed them said more than enough. Tony hazarded a guess that maybe he really hadn’t forgiven her for the oil trap thing. Or he just didn’t like her much.

“Fine. Enjoy your massive infection, your fever, your—”

“My flesh doesn’t sicken so easily,” Loki spat, lifting his gaze to meet hers. Oh, if looks could kill. “Nor am I fool enough to allow you a second try.”

Natasha smiled. It wasn’t a very nice smile.

“Don’t tell me you’re still angry that wide-eyed, innocent Natalie was a fiction.” She let the napkins fall to the table and batted her eyelashes. “Or are you just angry that you believed it?”

Loki shot to his feet.

Ohhh,” Tony blurted out, pointing at her with one reddened fingertip. “Jackpot. There it is. You dirty, low-down, double-crossing, rapport-building genius spy. You man-eating predator. I let you strip me!”

Natasha shrugged. “I had five broken ribs and a busted ankle,” she said smoothly. Her eyes didn’t warm in the firelight. “Emotional connection was all I had until I could kill him. Can you really blame me?” Her gesture at Loki, standing there so injured and furious, said everything she needed.

Clint winced and ducked his head as he stood, heading for the door.

“Well, goodnight,” he muttered.

“Clint, that’s not what—you weren’t collateral,” Natasha insisted, strangely shamefaced for all her femme fatale posturing. He just waved her off without looking back, busted hand flexing at his side.

“Goodnight,” Clint repeated and then he was gone, the door clicking shut behind him.

Natasha actually seemed to flounder for a moment, staring at Tony like he had some kind of advice or wisdom to impart. As if he had any idea what the hell had even just happened. Clint thought Natasha had, what, lied to him as well? Got in his good graces? Used him? Or maybe he thought she’d meant for him to get hurt by the ice. Maybe he thought she hadn’t cared. He could hypothesise over the scenario for weeks.

“Go fix him,” Tony suggested. “Pride first. Try to be honest. Take food with you.”

Natasha’s mouth turned down. “He’s not an animal.”

“No, but he’s a guy. Food is an important bribing tool.” Hesitating, he decided to just come out and say it. “Stop acting like you don’t give a shit, Romanoff. He’s probably the best friend you’ll ever have.”

For a few long seconds she just stood there in the firelight, all rippling red hair and handmade dress and hurt green eyes. Natasha didn’t look like a master spy or a cold-hearted professional. She looked like she’d royally messed up. Tony was familiar with that look.

“I can’t do anything more here anyway,” she muttered. Then she was off, moving toward the door and…leaving Tony there mostly naked with an angry blue ice demon. He watched the door snap shut again, his toes curling in the cooling water. He was fairly certain he only had a case of frostnip, given he hadn’t been out there more than an hour or so. His leg still hurt though, even wrapped in fraying makeshift bandages.

He looked over at Loki, who was struggling to sit again without falling hard into the chair. There was still ice clinging to his hands but it was old now, melting off his fingertips in the firelight. Was the warmth uncomfortable for him? Probably not as uncomfortable as the bite, Tony thought with a mental slap at his own stupidity. Pulling his feet out of the water, he padded them dry on the rug and stood, fastening his blanket around his waist so it wouldn’t fall off as he moved. It felt a little skirty, but the ventilation wasn’t too bad. The room was kept pretty warm by the huge fireplace.

Tony had arranged the stack of napkins Natasha had dropped and torn some into pieces by the time Loki lifted his head to study what he was doing.

“You’re injured elsewhere?” he said hoarsely, a frown creasing his brow. He looked like he badly needed to sleep it off. Whatever the non-human equivalent of anaemia was, he was likely bordering on it.

“No,” Tony said, tearing another long strip with his teeth. “You are.” He carefully tied a decent length of fabric together, knotting it hard enough that it wouldn’t break apart as the edges unravelled. “Please don’t give me any of that crabby patient attitude. That mess needs some antiseptic at the very least.”

It was awkward, trying to find a decent way to access the bite without standing and putting pressure on his leg. Loki wasn’t helping matters either, pulling back from him and knocking his hands away, hissing various excuses and threats despite being weak as a kitten. The ice was nowhere to be seen, either, an interesting clue Tony filed away for later. Apparently he wasn’t the same kind of threat that Natasha had been.

In the end Tony lost his patience, shoved Loki’s thighs open and knelt between them, pressing a napkin soaked through with alcohol straight against the bite.

The pain must have been excruciating but all Loki did was let out an anguished, bitten-down roar and hold his hands out from his sides as ice built and shed off them, falling onto the floor. On either side of Tony’s knees two booted feet were suddenly encased in a thick layer of frost. Too far to do any damage, but it was enough to scare him.

“Please don’t freeze me.”

I’m trying,” Loki grit out, breathing harshly through his nose. His eyes were squeezed shut with pain. “I don’t know how.”

“Okay,” Tony breathed, “then I’ll just have to settle for you not touching me with your icy bits. I’ll try to be fast. Hang in there.”

Loki didn’t reply, but the light caught the moisture gathering on his eyelashes as Tony resumed cleaning the wound. Given the amount of alcohol he’d all but splashed straight into the punctures, it had to be agonising. Maybe it was even worse for someone like him. Tony went through three rags before he was anywhere near done, eventually shuffling forward to reach behind Loki’s back and clean the bite marks the wolf’s lower jaw had made there.

He was gingerly sponging away old clots of blood when Loki rested his head on Tony’s shoulder.

Going still, he waited a few seconds to listen for breath. It was there, blowing against his collarbone in a gentle rhythm. Loki hadn’t passed out, not completely. This was just…leaning on him for support. Tony decided he could do support.

“You really are wrecked, aren’t you?” he murmured, feeling the roughness of horns press into the bone of his shoulder. The skin that touched his was cold, but no colder than his own had been in the snow. “I thought you were going to kill me, you know. I should have been more…” More what? Careful? Stealthy? Drawing the blood-stained rag away, he dipped it in the jug of water at his feet and wrung it out, careful not to jostle Loki too much. When he dipped it in the alcohol and pressed it against the bite, he felt the breath on his chest stutter a little. “I shouldn’t have gone up there.”

Deciding the bite was clean enough now, Tony pulled back and picked up the length of bandages, pressing a square of cloth back against the wound in case it began bleeding again. It was awkward, trying to wrap it and hold the cloth in place and keep still enough for Loki to remain resting against his shoulder, but he was determined to make it work. People didn’t really lean on him, not ever. It was usually the other way around. Literally or figuratively or whatever, Tony was not the person people turned to for comfort or help. So this…this was good. He could do this much.

“I wasn’t going to kill you.” The words were rusty, they were tired, but there was a note of sincerity in them that stopped any sarcastic protest Tony might have made. “When I’m angry or threatened, I lose control of this cursed power. Seeing you there with the apple…” Trailing off, Loki lifted his head and blinked slowly, letting out a small sigh that revealed his sharp canines.

Tony just dipped his head and continued passing bandage from hand to hand, wrapping his middle with overlapping white until he could split the end of the bandage and tie it off neatly. For an amateur job, it actually didn’t look too bad.

“That should do it.” Patting one leather-covered knee, Tony got to his feet with a wince. Knees on stone. He was getting too old for that kind of abuse. Tensing, he grunted slightly as his calf spasmed, the damaged muscle making itself known once again. It was all he could do to snag the bottle of moonshine or whatever it was and sit on the lounge beside Loki. There was at least a half foot of space between them – that was a safe distance, right?

Tony drank in silence for a while, wishing he had something to eat but also too tired to move. It had been a long afternoon and this new almost-understanding with the boss was scaring him a little. Was he becoming Clint? Identifying with his captor too much, learning to like him in order to accept his confinement? He didn’t think so. It had only been a few weeks and he’d never had this problem with Raza and his men. Not even that Abu guy, who mostly just wanted someone to do his laundry.

A prison and a sanctuary. Maybe Tony had just stopped thinking of it as a prison. For a while at least, despite all the lies he told himself, it was good to be somewhere else. Somewhere the name Stark had no meaning. There was something peaceful about that. He felt like a secret. He felt like nobody and it wasn’t all that bad.

“So,” he said sometime later, blinking out at the pop and crackle of the fireplace, “what is the apple, anyway?”

At his side, Loki let out a quiet, bone-tired kind of sigh.

“It’s my heart.”

Tony thought about that seriously for a while. Eventually taking a small gulp from the bottle, he handed it across to Loki. The hand that took it didn’t brush his own.

“And I thought I had problems.”


It was a long time before Tony could muster the urge to break the silence in the solar. Sitting there, tired and hurting, it was nice for a while to just sit and listen to the fireplace crackling, knowing that all of the ice and cold was outside.

Well, most of it.  

Loki was a study in exhaustion at his side, but he didn’t seem inclined to neither move nor sleep. Instead he just sat in that strange hunched way, the nameless bottle of spirits loosely clutched in one hand. The firelight flickered oddly across his blue skin, touching his long dark hair and curving horns. It cast strange shadows on his face that Tony couldn’t decipher.

Curiously, his eyes traced the scar-like markings that decorated Loki’s skin. They were clean lines, all of them. They appeared to run mostly parallel to each other in pairs, with others marking his brow like mirrored twins. Two of them reached from hairline and ear, closing the gap to each other and running down Loki’s cheek to his jawline. Whatever they were, they obviously stretched his entire body in pale, raised trails.

When Tony’s eyes returned to Loki’s face he found tired red eyes looking back at him. 

“Ask,” he said, coughing slightly. The movement caused him to tense with pain. “You’ve lived half your lifespan with no idea that anything like me could possibly exist. If you have questions, I would hear them.”

Tony swallowed. The keys to the kingdom, or a trap in disguise? Either one, he knew exactly what he was going to say. Too much had happened for him to keep his mouth shut now.

“What are you? How does ice come out of your hands? Why can’t you control it? Is it part of the curse? I’m assuming there’s a curse. And what’s the deal with the apple being your heart?” Questions upon questions tumbled up onto themselves in Tony’s mind, each as important as the next. He’d been trying to just sit back and accept that everything was crazy and magical and that it was just his lot in life to have no idea what was going on, but he needed more. So much more. If he could get even a tenth of the answers he wanted…

Loki lifted one hand, but it wasn’t to silence him. He just stared at his upturned palm for a moment, his gaze pensive. Tony watched his throat bob slightly with a careful swallow.

“I am a frost giant.”

Tony tensed with surprise but it was Loki who looked absolutely stunned by the words.

“What is it?” Tony asked.

“I’m a frost giant,” Loki repeated, a tremble of emotion lending some unknown meaning to the words. “I’ve never told anyone that.” His hand closed into a loose fist, dark claws pressing their tips into his palm. “Not even myself.”

Tony thought long and hard about that. And then he didn’t.

“Frost giant?” he scanned Loki again. He didn’t bother to hide his doubt. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re a leggy six foot something with shoulders a sculptor would dream about, but unless you hail from The Shire it’s not really that accurate a name.”

“I was the runt,” Loki said flatly. The dark curtain of hair falling over his cheek and shoulder couldn’t hide the steel of his glare. “My progenitor tossed me into the snow soon after I was born.”

Tony swallowed. “Sorry.”

“I have little use for your sympathy. I was found by their enemy and kept as a war trophy.” Loki’s mouth turned down. “They let me believe I was trueborn of their bloodline. I was their pampered second son until peace frayed into war, until my brother took me back into my true father’s domain.”

Tony listened raptly as the tale unfolded in stilted, rusty confessions, painting a story of a foundling raised in contempt of his own people, with no idea of where he came from. Bigotry upon lies upon neglect. Jealousy and secrecy. A father, a great leader, who had no interest in Loki until he finally discovered why.

“When the time was right, I brought peace.” Red eyes glinted in the firelight. “I chased my war-mongering brother into a corner of this world and hunted him as prey. I turned a key and it burned a hole clean through the vicious host of my birth father’s people.” He smiled slightly, or was it a snarl? “I ended the war before it truly began. I saved countless lives—”

“You tried to kill your own people?”

They’re not my people.” Frost began to climb over Loki’s hands in a thick crust of white. Tony said nothing as he brushed it away, setting the bottle down at his feet. “I did everything right.”

The story made a twisted kind of sense; a horrifying, half-maddened kind of logic stringing everything together. Tony wasn’t great at reading people, but something smelled off about the tale. Frost giants killing other frost giants? The runt of an enemy raised as a son? And the brother in the story, barely mentioned. A mother spoken of only in passing. But before Tony could question it, a thought occurred to him.

“I know I’m stating the obvious here, but…” Tony spread his hands, “if you did everything right, why are you locked up?”

Loki flinched. The motion jarred his side again, this time forcing him to hunch forward and breathe. He sat like that for long seconds, one hand pressed to his bandaged wound, his face covered with the other. Ice crackled over his fingers and crawled across his cheek. He didn’t seem to notice, lost in whatever dark train of thought Tony’s words had led him down.

With his head bowed like it was, Tony was able to see the curve of Loki’s spine as his long hair slipped forward over his shoulders, revealing the long scars that ran down his back in jagged, badly-healed welts of scar tissue. These weren’t the elegant markings that cut paths everywhere else. These were wounds that hadn’t been stitched or tended to. Old ones, clearly, and Tony knew where they’d come from.

“You tried to escape once, didn’t you?”

“Of course.” The words were quiet.

“Then I’m guessing you got the wolf pelt on your cloak the same day you got these.” Boldly, he ran a fingertip down the edge of the largest scar. Claw marks. Too deep for any human to survive. As if he needed more proof that Loki was old and strong and vicious. That he was something to be feared.

Turning his head slightly in the direction of Tony’s hand, Loki seemed to shudder.

“Be careful,” was all he said, and the words were barely any protest at all. Maybe he was just too tired to care—or he’d given up hope that protecting them would set him free one day. The sight of the apple had snapped something in him, that much had been clear. But even after that, he’d come for Tony in the woods.

What kind of ice-crafting mass murderer fought wolves to save one human? When it was clear that he thought only his kind, only his specific kind were worth anything? Loki had spoken as though he was superior, but his actions told the opposite.

Taking the risk, Tony slipped his hand through the gap Loki’s bent arm created, pressing his palm against the cold muscle of his chest. Loki went rigid with surprise, breath hissing between his teeth but all Tony could focus on was the heavy gallop of the heart beneath his hand.

“You know, I’ve never felt an apple do that. That must be some fruit.”

“You’re too literal.” Loki gave the back of Tony’s hand a quick tap with his fingertips. “That wasn’t the heart I spoke of. The apple reflects the…the core of me.” He slid Tony a dry glance. “Pun certainly not intended. When it rots, so have I. It’s the hourglass of my soul.”

Tony swallowed. “That is some Dorian Gray shit right there. What happens if someone juices your apple?”

Leaning back into the cushions, Loki spared him a shrug. “Take an educated guess,” Loki rasped, wincing as he shifted. “Why do you think I reacted so harshly to the sight of you trying to touch it?”

“So you admit you overreacted?”

“Did you not hear the woman? My guests have a habit of trying to kill me. Considering past experience, my reaction was justified.” His brow knit in an uncertain frown. “How was I to know you would be different?”

Tony opened his mouth, a witty reply ready on his lips, but the raw honesty in Loki’s expression, in those striking eyes stopped him dead. Somehow, Tony got the impression that this was the most that their lonely warden had said in years. Words without anger or brutality driving them. Truth, maybe, even if it wasn’t all of it.

If he was mistrustful of Natasha, if he avoided Clint, what did make Tony different? Because he’d asked to stay in Pepper’s place?

Because he’d had the chance to kill Loki and take his freedom and he’d refused?

“I wanted to hurt you, to scare you so badly that you would never intrude upon my chambers again,” Loki said abruptly, turning his attention back to the fire. “When the ice came, I didn’t care. I wanted you to cower before me. And when you ran into the snow, into death, I was sickened.” He blinked at the fire. “I thought I stood above monsters. As it so happens, I am one.”

As far as statements went, it was simple; a lightly spoken bloom of regret with roots that probably went down as deep as his half-rotted heart. For Tony, they struck the guilt that had crystallised into cold determination, into righteousness and duty – and they fractured it into pieces. Had he stood above monsters when he designed and mass produced the weapons that could kill and kill and kill? No. He’d given them the means to wage war and called it a good day’s work. Washed his hands of the blood and the body count. He hadn’t even bothered to find out how the Ten Rings had gotten their hands on his weapons.

Had he stood above monsters?

No.

No, he’d just closed his eyes as the blood pooled around him.

“Give me that bottle there, would you?” Tony asked, his throat tight. When Loki didn’t move he reached for it himself, but a hand like an iron manacle closed around his wrist. Not roughly, but with enough casual strength that Tony immediately went still, like a kitten with teeth on his scruff.

Interestingly, Loki had frozen too; his eyes fixed on the contrast of their skin like he’d never seen it before. His claws pricked lightly, reflexively, against the fragile skin of Tony’s inner wrist. There was a strange, almost fascinated light in his red eyes that owed nothing to the flickering fire in the hearth.

Carefully, unsure what weight the moment carried but unwilling to destroy it, Tony turned his hand palm-up, feeling the cool graze of Loki’s hand on his arm as he allowed the movement. The thumb that stroked over the pale blue veins of his wrist was so light it was almost reverent, but there was nothing but sadness in Loki’s face.

“Reach for sleep instead,” he said finally, releasing Tony’s arm. Then he tried to stand up.

“Whoa, no, I’m not carrying you anywhere else tonight,” Tony said hastily, clutching his blanket to his hips with one hand and slinging an arm around Loki’s chest with the other. He made a pretty shitty anchor though, and ended up actually being hauled to his feet right alongside Loki. “Okay, oh God, my leg. Please stop moving.”

Loki just detached him, wincing slightly as he deposited Tony back on the lounge like an unwanted barnacle. Then he stiffly walked the five steps it took to get to one of the armchairs and eased himself into it. Blinking, Tony glanced from the empty space beside him to Loki’s new seat.

“Right.”

Too much skin contact? Sick of talking, or just sick of Tony? Come to think of it, for the supposed hermit demon that was really just a messed-up prisoner, the day would have to be socially exhausting on a few levels. Why his skin had been the final straw though, that was interesting all on its own. Frost giant racism? He snorted to himself at that one. Maybe he really was tired.

Arranging himself on the lounge, Tony stretched out under his enormous blanket and shoved a cushion under his head, blinking up at the iron candelabra that hung from the ceiling. He couldn’t hear Loki breathing, even in the silence. From the angle he was positioned at, Tony couldn’t even see him beyond a booted foot in the corner of his eye.

Tomorrow’s agenda would have to be working on Clint’s bow. Drawing up plans, getting him to source materials from the castle that they could use. Depending on how well he could walk, maybe they could chop a decent branch off one of the trees outside to carve. They were probably going to make the world’s worst bow and arrow, but somehow he didn’t think Clint was going to be that picky about it. He seemed like a ‘simple pleasures’ kind of guy.

Then again, had he ever had it better than Winterheart? Was there a family out there somewhere looking for a scruffy teen that wandered off fifteen years ago and never came home?

Disturbed by the punch of sadness that came with the thought, Tony pushed the blankets down to his chest and tried to give himself over to a decent sleep. At the very least it might stop him thinking sentimental thoughts. What the hell did he know about family, anyway?

Sleeping for what felt like years upon centuries, he was pulled to the very edge of sleep by the familiar bubbling panic of tepid water in his throat, by the hard cage of fingers on the back of his skull, pushing him under even as he promised he’d do it, he’d make the Jericho, he’d do it

“Rest.” A cold hand pressed to his burning cheek, suspending him on the edge of terror and oblivion. “Your horrors cannot reach you here.”

My horrors are all inside , he thought, caught in the twisted fever of caves and water and coals reflected in wide dead eyes. But the hand on his cheek slid up into his hair, brushing the ghost of fingers away as it travelled on its too-careful path, slipping through dark strands and down over his brow. If fingertips circled where horns might have jutted, he couldn’t really say. All he knew was that he was dry, he could breathe, and if he opened his eyes the new dream might vanish back into clutching darkness.

So Tony did the only thing he could: he lay there in tired gratitude and relief, and didn’t move as feather-light fingertips minded their claws and mapped his bones and laugh lines, thinking him asleep all over again.

Somewhere during that cautious exploration the lie started to become the truth, and Tony eventually drifted back off to the sensation of a light fingertip endlessly circling his arc reactor.

Somehow, it helped.


Morning came, and with it, solitude.

Loki had retreated back into the west wing. He didn’t come out.

A week passed. Tony’s leg healed again, Clint and Natasha avoided each other, and nobody said anything about his escape attempt. If it wasn’t for the bite mark under his bandages, Tony would have thought nothing had changed at all.

So much for a turning point, he thought crankily one afternoon, sketching out plans on baking paper with a stick of charcoal. Tricking Cook into providing him with food items that weren’t actually food hadn’t been too difficult, but the second-rate materials were frustrating and he wasn’t going to start drawing on toilet paper just yet. Not for the first time, he thought about re-pulping it into something bigger, but there was desperation and then there was playing with toilet paper.

Besides, he was already on his hands and knees in the wide entrance hall, where the best of the morning light fell onto the stone floor. It was the only place where he could roll out a three-by-four length of paper and not end up with eyestrain.  

It was shaping up to be the bow to end all bows – if he had access to current technology and materials. Drawing a laser sight and an array of multi-use arrowheads in a remote-operated rotating quiver was fun, but it wasn’t feasible. He kept those drawings anyway, torn off and tucked in his back pocket. Maybe he couldn’t make them, but he was a weapons designer and it was a cool idea.

The traditional bow blueprint was sleek and simple and elegant. It was either going to be a self bow or a composite bow, depending on the quality of the wood they found and the grain. Bowstring was going to have to come from Cook, maybe Natasha if she knew anything about weaving rope and could adapt her skills. Unravelling the silk threads from one of the tapestries might work, if they weren’t too brittle from age.

It was cleansing work. Tony sketched and erased and edited and cleaned up lines, ideas forming plans in his head as he worked. He added to the list of potentially salvageable items they could use, ordering them from most useful to ‘in case of emergency’.

He was sitting back on his hands and thinking about lunch when a bread roll bounced off the side of his head.

“Two points!” Clint hooted, jogging over with a precarious tray of assorted food and drink piled on it. “I brought food so I could spy on your drawings.”

“It’s not spying when you tell me what you’re doing,” Tony told him, reaching for an enormous ham salad roll. He pulled a pickle out of it and ate it first. Cook’s magic pickles tasted even better than soggy burger ones. “But I’m susceptible to bribery, so I guess your plan was still a success. Take a look.”

They ate their way through salad rolls, a small mountain of french fries, two pre-mix cokes that tasted like they came from McDonalds and a random selection of out-of-season fruits while they chatted about the bow and traded ideas. Clint knew a hell of a lot about archery as it so happened, including the composition and structure of the kind of bow he used to work with, tension of bowstring, weight of bow and arrows, the whole shebang. Tony could tell by the way his eyes lit up as he spoke that it was his happy place, in the same way that designing and inventing was Tony’s.

“I used to shoot apples off people’s heads and stuff,” Clint grinned, his eyes lost in memory. “Scared the fuckin’ shit out of the crowd. Some know-nothing kid in bright spandex shooting arrows at one of the circus babes. As if I’d even have gone up there if I didn’t think I could shoot the seeds clean out of the thing. They loved it. I loved it.”

Tony was fascinated. “You worked in a circus?”

Clint nodded. “Yeah, a travelling carnival. Carson’s. Me and Barney –that’s my brother- we joined after we shot through on the whole orphanage thing. I got trained up real nice there. I was so good at it, man, I’d never been that good at anything in my life.” His smile wobbled and faded. “I thought we’d made it, but it was all bullshit in the end. I ended up on the wrong side of an embezzling job. I got the shit kicked outta me and my brother said I had it coming. But I mean, how do you shut your mouth and look the other way?”

“You don’t,” Tony replied, glancing away. “Smaller men might, but not you.”

Clint snorted. “Some good it did me. I picked my bruised ass up off the floor and somewhere between there and my bed I ended up here.” His mouth quirked in a strangely fond smile. “It’s supposed to be a prison, isn’t it? But I—like, I had a big bed and all the food I wanted, and no-one smacked me around or called me Barney’s rat-faced kid brother. I pretended this whole place was mine and the boss didn’t give a shit about what I did. He just walked laps at night when I was in bed.”

Tony tried to imagine it, being in his mid-teens and all alone, surrounded by everything and nothing. Too much freedom and not enough company. Disillusionment and the idea that maybe other people weren’t that great after all. He surprised himself by barking a small laugh. He’d just described his own childhood.

“You made it work,” he said, smiling. “Then came Natasha.”

Clint grinned. “She was like Christmas, with all that red hair flying around. Even the boss came down to talk to her while she was recovering. We set her ribs together, did anyone tell you?” He leaned forward guiltily. “I had my eyes closed for most of it, but I might have snuck a look.”

“You sick bastard.”

“I know!” Clint tossed a stray fry into the air and ate it. “Then I went and did it to you. Maybe it’s some kind of psycho-whatever problem. Maybe I look at you while you’re sleeping.”

“Hey, if I don’t know it happened, it didn’t.” Tony watched Clint crack up laughing at that, though his mind was on someone else who’d been watching him sleep. Someone who’d vanished back upstairs and probably wouldn’t come down again.

“Are you done for the day?” Clint eventually asked, waving a hand at the paper. “It looks like it’s done. The planning stuff, anyway.” Tony nodded; it was as finished as it’d ever be. There wasn’t a lot to traditional bow design, really. It was going to be a pretty primitive job. And speaking of primitive jobs…

“You want to go source some wood?”

“What, outside? There’s trees behind the castle that are still on the grounds, but…” Whatever argument Clint had been about to make in favour of staying inside dried up. “Sure. Fuck it, let’s go outside. I haven’t been out the back in years.”

They rolled up the prototype sheets and took the tray back to Cook, who sucked it back inside the roller-door of food magic and shot back out a flask of scotch for Tony.

“What?” Tony said to Clint’s questioning expression. “We’re going out into the snow. It warms the blood.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Don’t ruin the placebo effect.”

“I’ll ruin your face,” Clint muttered, but it was mostly to himself as they shook out the heavier blankets and swung them on like cloaks. “Don’t go in the deep snowdrifts. Your fancy shoes ain’t worth shit out there.”

“Figured that one out last time, cotton candy.”

Clint was still laughing at possibly the worst circus-related nickname in existence when Natasha hopped down the servant’s staircase by the back entrance to the laundry, picking her skirt up like a proper lady.

“What are you boys doing?” she asked, eyebrow cocked in question. “It’s cold out there.”

Clint held up his blanket-cloak. Tony held up the flask of scotch. She rolled her eyes.

“Give me those.” Before either could respond, she flung the blanket around her own shoulders and snagged the scotch, taking a long drink of Tony’s counterfeit Macallan 1928.

“That’s fifty thousand dollars a bottle,” Tony told her. “You can work off your debt in foot rubs and body slides.”

Clint’s eyes lit up. “Body slides? You know, Nat, you still owe me for the frosty hand.” To illustrate his point he held up the right hand in question and flopped it forward sadly. “You said you did, you said it last week in fact—”

“Consider the icy hand as late payment for staring at my breasts while you bound my ribs,” she said coolly, taking another pointed chug from Tony’s flask. Clint looked horrified. “You two are the loudest confidants I’ve ever had the pleasure of gathering intel on.”

Their trip out into the snow-covered expanse of Winterheart’s grounds was punctuated by Clint’s frantic backpedalling and Tony’s laughter. It was cold outside but not freezing, with the wind gentle and the snow still a heavy load waiting in the cloud cover. Inside the castle grounds it felt like there were layers, entire drifts of it waiting above a dull grey curtain of clouds. The weather was no more a natural occurrence than the wolves were, Tony was sure of it.

Still, while it all held off, the grounds were the closest thing to a real winter wonderland that Tony had ever seen. Wide expanses of snow, gentle hills and hulking shrubbery dusted in white, with overhanging trees weighed down with their payload of freezing powder. Natasha leapt up and grabbed a branch as Tony walked beneath one, sending the whole lot cascading down on top of him.

“Man down!” he shouted, spluttering a little as he pulled himself out of the snow. “Oh my god, that went places it shouldn’t have.” Shaking out his blanket, he wrapped it around his shoulders. Grinning at him, Natasha took another –another– sip of his flask and handed it back, nimbly hopping around the deeper patches of snow and heading off to examine a boulder that had been covered in ice, way up the back of the grounds.

“You two never came out here?” Tony asked as Clint generously brushed snowflakes out of his hair and beard. It was definitely becoming a beard these days. Maybe it would be a good look on him? Who was he kidding, everything looked good on him. “I find it hard to believe that you two weren’t friends before I came along.”

“Oh, we almost were,” Clint said earnestly. “But she took it pretty hard when the oil trap thing failed and the boss iced me by accident. I kinda—I guess I did think I was collateral damage. To her, I mean. She never talked to me after that. She’s not great at apologising.” Leaning in conspiratorially, he added, “she didn’t even bring me food when she came to say sorry.”

“That amateur,” Tony said, feeling vindicated. “I’d have brought you popcorn, battered processed meat and cheap toys.”

“Oh my god, stop with the circus jokes. It was years ago, man.”

Tony shrugged. “Okay, then how about we just wipe the slate clean? No pasts. Just Winterheart.”

“Just Winterheart,” Clint repeated, sounding it out. He shrugged back at Tony. “Sounds good to me. Even though you’ve been weird and secrety—”

“—secretive—”

“—secretive about what you did before you were here. Or who that Pepper woman was. Or what happened after I left that night in the solar. Or why the boss ran out to save your life.” Blue eyes narrowed at him. “Or why I haven’t seen him in a week.”

Tony held his hands out, letting go of the blanket for a moment. “I fully expect that he’s just up there licking his wounds,” he protested. “But I’m not going to go check. Last time I did that, I ended up out in the snow with a wolf chewing my leg. So if you want to play nurse, be my guest. But I’ve got enough things on my plate right now.” Enough things to recover from.

Clint looked almost offended by Tony’s lack of concern, but he didn’t say anything. Truth was, Tony was concerned. But he’d learned his lesson. No more west wing. Not ever. Not even if he’d woken up three nights in a row imagining fingers brushing his hair, where before it had only been a palm pressing him into water. Beneath his shirt, the reactor seemed to pulse strangely. He was pretty sure it wasn’t actually the reactor.

Across the snowy landscape, Natasha was waving an arm at them.

“What’s she found?” Clint muttered, picking his pace up into a jog. “There’s nothing but weeds and rocks out here.” Tony followed him, curious about the flailing. This wasn’t really a woman who looked like the flailing type. There was something strange about the way she stood—

As they came closer, Natasha cried out.

“Stop, stop, stop! Stop running!”

“Whoa,” Clint said, startled into stillness by the scream. “What’s going on?”

Natasha was breathing rapidly as she stared at them, her green eyes huge and still.

Beneath her feet, something cracked, low and soft and dangerous.

“Thin ice.” Clint stepped back, pulling Tony with him. “There’s water under here. Natasha, can you—”

“No,” she said, her voice low, like it might upset her footing. “It cracked deep. Trust me. I can’t move or I’ll go under.” Her chest heaved once, twice. “If I do go under, there’s no guarantee there will be another hole for me to escape through. If I go under and the current pulls me outside Winterheart’s boundaries—”

“Wolves,” Tony breathed, eyeing her feet. It looked like she was standing ankle-deep in soft snow. “Do we have rope? Is there rope?”

“I don’t know,” Clint said, his eyes darting. “There’s never been any need for it.” Turning his head back to the castle, he blinked. “I—shit, not even a curtain rod would reach her. She’s too far out.” His expression was crushed as he turned back to Natasha’s still form, tall and lonely on the ice. “I know what we’ve got, Nat...it wouldn’t be enough. You’ll have to jump.”

“If I tense, it breaks,” she said through gritted teeth. Her eyes were fixed on Clint like they were the only thing she could see. “If—if I think about jumping, it’s going to break.”

“No, that’s not right,” Clint said, but his voice was weak. “You’re not going to fall.”

Tony watched her there, standing in the centre of a frozen river no-one had ever noticed, just as forgotten as everything else in the ruin of the grounds. Natasha still had the strength to smile.

“Who says it isn’t my turn to fall?” Her foot changed pressure with her stance, and Tony heard it clear and true; that ice was going to break clean. “Who says this hasn’t been coming for a long time, Clint? I’m an assassin. Not a spy. I kill people because I’m told to. And when I finally stopped and thought about it—I was here. Busted up and angry and lost—”

“I won’t let you go under.” Clint was shaking, but his eyes were furious. “So shut your goddamn mouth and stop moving. I won’t let you go under.”

Then he turned and ran. But not toward the doors they’d come from. Clint ran hard and dangerously fast through the snow, his form turning small as he gained on the castle, curving around the side of the grounds. Had he gone nuts?

“What’s he doing?” Natasha asked, her voice strangled and thick with emotion. “There’s nothing, Tony, he said it himself.”

“It’s okay,” Tony found himself saying as he turned back to her. “He’s—if he won’t find anything, he won’t find anything. There’s nothing we could make in time. You’re twenty feet away. What you need to focus on is cold shock. When you go under, you’ll panic. You might need to break through but if the current is too strong—”

“Tony. Enough,” she said softly. “I’m…I’m going to break it. While he’s gone. It’s better if he doesn’t see.”

He hadn’t even summoned the right string of words together to describe why that was the worst idea ever when he heard glass smashing in the distance. Clint was throwing rocks at one of the balconies.

Natasha’s eyes were huge. “What is he doing?” she breathed, but the dawning shock in her face said more than enough. She knew exactly what he was doing. Slowly, Tony turned to face Winterheart’s longest human resident.

Clint Barton. That son of a bitch.

“I don’t care if she tried to kill you!” Clint was roaring up at the west wing’s only surviving balcony. “I don’t care if you hate her and I don’t care if she hates you.” Rearing back, he threw a palm sized rock with such pinpoint accuracy it went sailing deep into the ice-ruined chamber. The crystalline sound of ice shattering said everything. “She needs your help and you’re going to help! You owe me this! You owe me!

Breathing so hard it sounded more like the heaving sobs of the bereaved, Clint threw another rock. And another.

No sound echoed from the chamber. Just rocks. Just ice.

“He’s an idiot,” Natasha whispered behind Tony. When he glanced back, she was smiling. “I guess he really was the best friend I’ll ever have.”

“No, no, no, come on Romanoff, this isn’t over. No graceful sacrifices today, please.” Tony’s mouth trembled. “Please.”

At her feet, the ice cracked again. She hadn’t even moved this time.

“I don’t think it’s going to be left up to me, Tony.”

“Just jump,” he rapidly, arms out like he could reach her across all that distance. “Don’t tense. Throw yourself toward me. You made it out this far just fine, so the ice must be thick enough this way to support you.”

“I won’t make it in time.”

Tony wanted to punch something. “Do you even want to live?”

“Of course I do!” she shouted back, blazing and furious. “I haven’t lived in years—all I want to do is live! Isn’t that what this place does? It takes us when we’re at a crossroads, Tony. It takes us and it lets us decide.” She gasped a single breath, and when she looked up from her feet he could see the sheen of moisture in her eyes. “I don’t think I measured up.”

Behind them, Clint was hurling stone after stone up at the balcony. From the distance Tony stood at, his shoulders looked like they were starting to sag. Turning to Natasha, he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

“If that moron is willing to risk his ass for you, I daresay you’re worth it.”

Whatever Natasha had been about to say was swallowed up by a shout at the other end of the grounds. Whipping back around, Tony gaped up at the balcony.

Standing there, bent over the low stone railing was a familiar green-wrapped figure. His long hair was blowing back from his face, but Tony couldn’t make out his expression. Far below, Clint was pointing at them. At Natasha. Whatever he was saying, Tony couldn’t make out a word of it but he pointed back anyway, signalling Natasha’s plight.

Loki couldn’t control the ice, Tony knew he couldn’t control the ice, but…there had to be something. Didn’t there?

Tony was halfway to doubting Loki’s physical health when he jumped clean over the balcony railing, his cloak a fluttering banner of green behind him. He landed with a thump and a cloud of snow, but the form that straightened and stalked toward them said nothing of the plunge he’d just taken. But his face? His face contained pure murder.

Bozhe moi,” Natasha whispered. Tony’s grasp of Russian was a little rusty, but even he knew a prayer when he heard one.

When Loki came near, his eyes assessed the situation with clinical calm.

“You haven’t moved from the original fissure?” he asked Natasha, his eyes scanning the snow like the could see the ice beneath it. Could he? Was that a power too?

“No.” Natasha was pale but resolute. Good on her, Tony thought, stepping aside carefully. That face looked like Loki didn’t know whether he wanted to savage or save her.

“Good. Stay still.” He smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “Or fall. It’s up to you.”

“No, it’s not,” Tony interrupted, casting an arm at the frozen stream. “She didn’t know it was thin—” He caught a mouthful of wolf fur and choked, pulling the cloak off his head. Why was the cloak always in his mouth?

When he drew it away Loki was yanking his boots off, revealing fine-boned feet with long clawed toes. Tony thought he saw more markings there but yanked his gaze away as Loki moved toward the snow-coated ice.

Natasha looked like she wanted to shrink back, but her steel spine and clenched fists said she wasn’t going to do anything of the sort. Loki pressed a foot into the ice. No pressure, judging by his raised thigh, but contact.

The breath he pulled into his lungs was calm and clean and it made the snow fall in a silent, gentle flurry of white.

“Can you save her?” Clint blurted out, his hand actually clasping Loki’s gold-encased forearm. “If you can, I’ll—I’ll—I don’t even know.”

“Calm down, Barton. And let go.” Loki’s gaze touched Tony’s and flickered away. “I’ll do what I can.”

Clint jumped back, clutching Tony’s sleeve instead as they both watched Loki step out onto the ice, walking like he knew just where to step even though he couldn’t, he couldn’t possibly know. Natasha swallowed and held herself as still as a statue, barely breathing.

“What’s he gonna do?” Clint whispered in Tony’s ear, too close and afraid.

“He’s going to help.” Probably. Maybe. Clint or no Clint, Natasha was still the woman who’d caused a lot of bad blood in the castle. Who’d probably set Loki’s sentence back a fair way after he accidentally froze Clint’s arm. What if Loki decided to simply kill her? He’d decided the apple didn’t matter, after all. What did you do when you were angry and you’d given up?

Had he given up?

“Stay still,” Loki said to Natasha, “and I’ll reach you. The ice cannot crack under my feet.”

“It can crack under mine. It already has.” She tilted her head. “Is it because of what I did? Is it punishment? A week after we spoke, and now this…”

“It’s not my doing,” Loki said sharply. “You’re a vicious thorn in my side but I can’t fault your actions.” His hands clenched and relaxed at his sides. “After all, I once did the same. I came to one as a friend. When he believed me, I killed him.” The sigh was almost nostalgic. “Of course, he was my father, but one mustn’t let details get in the way of a good story.”

Natasha jerked in surprise, her foot slipping back on the ice. With that small movement, her balance was lost and her knee cracked hard against the ice.

The last thing Tony saw was huge green eyes and a flag of red hair. It was a lot like their first meeting, really.

Natasha vanished under the ice—

—and like a blurred comet-tail of blue, Loki dived in after her. 


Barely a ripple remained to show that Natasha and Loki had fallen through. The black water beneath the ice had drank them down, leaving nothing but their footprints in the snow.

For a single, incredulous second Tony stood there in silence with Clint, his eyes locked on the jagged hole in the ice. Both of them gone in a second.

“Oh God, oh God, Natasha.” Lurching forward and breaking the stillness, Clint ran for the hole in the ice like he was going to dive as well. Tony barely caught him, fingers tangling in his shirt and pulling so hard Clint spun back into his arms. He was shaking so much his teeth were almost chattering, breath wheezing out of him as he fought Tony’s awkward embrace. “No, I've gotta, we should break the hole open wider or—”

“You’ll fall in too,” Tony said harshly, surprised by the difficulty with which he spoke. Clint’s hands gripped at his back, completely at odds with his attempt to escape. “We’ll wait. He might get her in time.”

“What about him? Who gets him?”

Tony swallowed. A week ago, he had. Across the snow, the water beneath the broken ice was utterly still. Undisturbed. The cold would shock Natasha’s system into panic, but it was the current and lack of oxygen they had to worry about. With no break in the ice, even Loki would die.

“Have faith,” Tony said bleakly.

“Why? You don’t.” Twisting his way out of Tony’s grasp, Clint picked his way toward the frozen stream. His eyes were wet with tears as he stared at the ice, his gaze burning brilliant blue as the glaring afternoon light slanted across his face.

One minute ticked over into two. No-one surfaced.

But nothing else happened, either. Clint and Tony just stood there like spare parts, waiting, completely useless.

Have faith, he’d said. In who? Loki? Loki had no love for Natasha, not really. But he’d dived in anyway. Duty was a son of a bitch: now both of them were probably going to drown under there.

Tony was just thinking of how to coax Clint back off the stream when an armoured blue forearm punched its way up through the ice, sending chips of white flying back in their faces. Clint slipped and fell on his ass, scooting away as Natasha’s limp body was shoved up and sent rolling along the snow-dusted expanse, pushed with so much force she almost ended up at Tony’s feet.

Fuck.” Grabbing her under the arms, Tony yanked her back onto safe ground and turned her over, dragging wet hair off her face and checking for a pulse, for breathing. “Barton, get over here!”

“In a minute,” Clint grunted. Tony glanced over and swore; he was pulling Loki out of the ice. With his bare hands. “Is she breathing?”

Natasha was as still as a porcelain doll in the snow, just a sprawl of limbs wrapped in sodden red and blue. Her pulse was weak, but her chest didn’t move. Respiratory arrest.

“Ah, crap.” Tony got to work.

Resuscitation was something he’d generally always had a passing knowledge of, filed away as a ‘just in case’ measure. Yinsen had taught him a little more in their dank little corner of the cave system, because ‘just in case’ had become a lot more important when you were building weapons for men who got a laugh out of sticking hot coals in terrible places for incentive. With Tony’s heart the way it was, he’d been taught a thing or two about saving a life.

The first two tries were the hardest. Tilt head, pinch nose, seal mouth. Breathe. Chest didn’t rise. Tilt head again—

“Pistol grip, Stark, and adjust the head like so. You won’t save anyone by breathing into their stomach .”

“You know, television has a lot to answer for.”

—breathe again. Her chest didn’t move.

“Goddamnit,” Tony swore, shoving snow out of the way and flattening Natasha’s body out further. He checked her pulse again. Still there.

“Oh my god,” Clint said, watching on as Tony adjusted her head again. “Do you even know what you’re doing? Don’t you have to press on her chest?”

“Her heart’s working,” Tony bent again, mouth wide over hers, and breathed. Her chest rose. Yes. “Her lungs just need a bit of help. You can check a pulse, right? Tell me if it stops.”

“Okay.” Clint laid two fingers beside Natasha’s windpipe, pressing firmly beneath her jaw. Straight for the carotid; he’d done that before. Then he realised he was in the way of Tony and switched to her wrist. Together, they tried to get Natasha Romanoff breathing again.

There followed two long minutes of five second breaths, of Clint finding her pulse and losing it and finding it again, of Tony’s sweat-slick grip shifting and correcting. Loki crouched on the other side of them, watching on in silence. Frost climbed over his hands, thickened into ice and fell to the snow in an endless cycle.

‘Wait I can’t—I lost her pulse,” Clint said tightly. “Hang on, I think I fucked up.”

Tony glanced over, his own fingers reaching for her neck to confirm, and in that precise moment Natasha seized up and started vomiting fluid out of her mouth and nose.

“Oh, halle-fucking-lujah,” Clint said, falling back in the snow. “I hate all of you.”

It was Loki who pushed her onto her side, pulling her hair out of the way and digging snow out of the path of her mouth and nose. Tony grabbed the blankets they’d thrown aside when she’d stepped onto the ice.

“Get that wet dress off her,” Tony said, laying the blankets out one on top of the other. “And get her on here.”

Natasha was barely conscious, wheezing and covered in scotch-scented water, but she was shaking and shuddering with cold and her lips had turned a strange shade of purple. Clint stripped her of her dress, fingers flying over laces as Loki peeled it away from her arms with careful fingertips. Clint didn’t watch it happen, he just balled up the dress and used the sleeve to wipe her mouth clear of obstruction. What a team.

But it shouldn’t have worked. Not that easily, at least. Still, Natasha was breathing, she was alive and breathing and she’d coughed up all her insides. Did the details really matter just then?

“Take her inside,” Loki rasped, wrapping her tightly in the blankets. “You know how to treat this, Barton. Go.”

Hauling Natasha up into his arms with a strength Tony wouldn’t have credited him with, Clint adjusted his grip on her and headed for the back doors as fast as he could.

Maybe he was being too suspicious. Maybe it was a miracle, maybe he’d just done everything right. Natasha was alive and kicking. They both were. Turning, Tony studied Loki.

“Are you okay? That was a pretty spry move for a guy with a bite mark in his side.” With no bandages to cover his wound the punctures were still visible, if unfairly faded.

Crouched in the snow, Loki was casting an eye about for his boots and cloak. He was covered in frost; even his hair had white woven through it, hanging stiff and dishevelled over his brow and shoulders, woven about his horns and eyes. Those eyes though, they burned red and clear as they snapped back to Tony. His teeth were a flash of white behind parted blue lips, one sharp canine indenting his lower lip slightly.

“I heal faster than you,” Loki replied, pulling one boot on. “I’m more durable.” He yanked the other boot up over his frost-covered pants, paying no mind to the way the water from the stream had frozen on his cold skin. “I’m quite fine.”

“You still could have drowned.” Not only that, but there was a tremor to Loki’s hands that couldn’t have anything to do with the temperature. “Are you okay?”

“Go inside,” Loki muttered, standing and turning away to retrieve his cloak. Tony had dropped it in the snow. Classy. “Your leg can’t have healed yet. Why were you all out here in the first place? It’s nought but snow and old trees.” Grabbing at the fur, he  slung the length over his arm and turned back to frown at Tony.

“Exactly. Trees.” He smiled. “I need wood to make a bow. It’s kind of an essential material, you might say.”

“A bow.”

“I promised Clint I’d design him one that would compensate for his hand,” Tony replied, getting up and brushing snow off his legs. The chill had sunk well into his skin a while ago, but he was really starting to feel it. “I should still look around.”

“No.”

Tony blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”

Loki glared. “You’re unbelievably accident prone. You’ll tumble into the water or something equally ridiculous and unlikely. I’m sick of saving your hide, yours and theirs. Return inside and get off that leg.”

“Look, I’m not asking for your permission or your help,” Tony argued, crossing his arms protectively as the breeze picked up again. “Maybe you’re content spending your days in the dark, licking your wounds and feeling sorry for yourself, but I need something constructive to do. It’s what I’m good at.”

Maybe he was pushing it a bit with that response, but there was being a prisoner, there was being told where not to go and then there was being ordered about because it suited Loki. There was only so much of that bullshit Tony could grin and bear before it started to chafe.

“And your constructive goal is to build a bow,” Loki scoffed. There was an angry glint in his eyes. “Do you often build weapons to pass the time?”

Tony nearly laughed himself sick. He wasn’t sure why. There was nothing funny about it anymore.

“I used to,” he said eventually, wiping the corner of his eye with a knuckle. “Yeah. I used to. Not much to build with around here, though.” He half expected Loki to stomp out of there or try the aggression on for size again, but all he did was drop his gaze to Tony’s chest, where his arc reactor glowed beneath his red shirt. Half of it was visible when his shirt parted now. He’d lost a button and his undershirt because of that day out in the snow, leaving the reactor and a good wedge of his chest on display. Still, there was no reason to hide it from people who’d already seen the whole show. No one was going to kidnap him for the tech, not anymore.

“You built that.” It was more statement than question, but Tony nodded, waiting for the inevitable. What does it do? How did it get there? Doesn’t it hurt? Where is your heart? All the same ones Pepper had asked on the car ride back to civilisation, barely two months ago.

“Are you ill?”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “No. Yes. I’m…damaged.” He meant to add more, a little more explanation before he could get hit with a dry agreement or a laugh and a nod, but his words dried up in his mouth. Maybe it was a symptom of avoiding self-analysis like the plague; he surprised even himself with the truth sometimes.

Casting his eyes back at the castle, Loki seemed to struggle with himself. His hands were still shaking finely, coated with frost, and the sight was bothering Tony more than it should.

“Are you sick? What’s wrong? You’re freaking me out here, c’mon. Did you overdo it?” Zeroing in on the healing wound in his side, Tony stepped forward and reached out to examine it more closely. Maybe he’d torn something. “There’s no shame in telling me I’m always right—shit!” The skin his fingers brushed was chemical-cold, burning but not burning at all and the sensation went straight up Tony’s arm with a white-hot shock of pain.

Don’t!” Loki moved to slap Tony’s hand away and aborted the motion before he could do more damage, swinging his hands out by his sides like he didn’t know where else to put them. Fury and fear crossed his face. Panic, Tony realised. It was panic. “How many times must I tell you, you fool?!”

“Sorry,” Tony forced out, breathless with pain. But his fingers were stinging and alive with some really upset nerve endings, not numb. There wasn’t any ice on them. “I thought it was just your hands and feet that did the damage.”

Loki was panting now, fangs out, lurching away from Tony like he was about to bolt.

“They do.” His eyes fluttered shut briefly, then opened again. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” He scraped ice off his chest, staring at the accumulation of it in his hand like he’d never seen it before.

“Well, uh, okay, let’s work through this,” Tony said, trying to hide his nervousness. “Are you feeling angry? Threatened?”

“No,” Loki whispered. His voice had roughened up into the bass rumble Tony remembered from the tower cells.

“Are you scared?”

“No.” Then he grimaced, shaking his head. “Or I wasn’t.”

“But this didn’t happen until after Natasha started breathing again.” Tony thought hard. What had changed? What had changed when she started breathing? They’d been relieved, Clint stopped freaking out and they’d tried warming her up— “Huh.”

“What is it?” Loki asked urgently.

Tony thought about it. “Open your mouth for me.”

“I’m—what?”

“Just trust me. And don’t bite.”

Loki looked like he didn’t know whether to throttle Tony or cling to him like a panicked cat. It would have been humorous under other circumstances, but there was something oddly endearing about it all. Loki didn’t even realise what had happened to him. If Tony’s suspicion was correct it would spark a lot of questions.

Tony pressed a fingertip against Loki’s teeth, pressing lightly so that his lower jaw opened wider. Reaching up, Tony gingerly touched one of Loki’s horns and felt nothing. Bone didn’t conduct the ice. It was just his skin.

“Bear with me,” Tony murmured softly—and slid his finger beneath Loki’s tongue. The interior of his mouth felt hot and wet, not icy. Bingo. He was out and had his palms up in apology before the boss could even choke out a curse. “So, I think you’ve probably got a chill.”

Loki stared at him in disbelief. “I’m a frost giant.”

“And I’m pretty sure you’re endothermic.” Tony shrugged, brushing his fingers on his pants. “Warm-blooded, in arguable layman’s terms. I guess it would make sense, since your people live in the freezing dark and all. This ice might just be a sign of your body trying to regulate temperature again, or maybe expelling the cold in a way it can manage.” At the stunned look on Loki’s face, Tony felt it was probably prudent to sound a little less confident about his potentially bullshit theory. “Not that I’m a medical doctor or anything.”

Loki flinched as Tony reached toward him again, but it was just to grab the cloak from where it hung over his arm. Shaking the length out, Tony decided it wasn’t too damp and flung it around Loki’s shoulders, taking care to keep the fabric between his skin and Loki’s. Tugging the edges in toward his chest, it only took a moment of fumbling with his sore fingers to tie the fanged clasp to the eyelet on the other side.

With the ice gathering on Loki’s bare skin like it was, the fur and mantle weren’t going to do a lot for warmth. Mostly it just made Tony feel better to see it back on him. Loki just watched him with a steady gaze, not even bothering to tug his hair out from under the fur. Maybe he didn’t want Tony to see his hands still shaking.

A slightly awkward silence descended. Tony, feeling pretty damn chilled himself, gave up on finding a suitable branch to use for Clint’s bow and decided to head back inside. He needed to check in on Natasha anyway. There was always something he could do to help. Fetch food, maybe. Or casually feign apathy.

Loki, seemingly at a loss, followed him.

It was a small walk back toward the castle, but Tony managed to step in every shallow hole and trip on every hidden stick on the way. Loki’s head was bowed in thought and he didn’t seem to be paying much attention, though Tony had seen him twitch instinctively the first time he’d stumbled. Tony wasn’t really a physical contact, hands-on kind of guy most of the time but the danger irked him in the same way that being told he couldn’t do something absolutely made it top priority on his list.

“I saw Clint pulling you out of the water,” Tony said abruptly, fed up with the silence. “That was big. It’s probably a good thing you weren’t icing up until after that.”

Loki made a sound of agreement in his throat, but he didn’t appear to be listening.

“You did good out there, you know,” Tony persisted. “You could have just let Natasha die. God knows she expected you to.”

“Even monsters make mistakes.” It was dry humour at its finest, but Tony didn’t like it.

“So how’s your apple these days? Any worms?”

“It’s rotting. How is your leg?”

“It’s healing. Did your room thaw out?”

“No. Have you drunk yourself into a stupor yet?”

“Almost. Could you stop being an asshole?”

Loki’s sidelong glare was dark. “I could.”

Irritated, Tony intentionally picked up his pace so he pulled ahead slightly. When Loki matched him, he slowed back down. Childish, sure, but it took one to know one. Calming down tantrums wasn’t his thing. If he was tetchy about the ice then he could damn well do some breathing exercises and deal with it.

“You know, I don’t even know why you’re in such a tizzy about your skin. For someone who avoids us and hates people touching him, you seem mighty concerned that you’re going to be physically isolated.” Tony waited until Loki spun and snarled at him before smiling his best smile. “Newsflash, snowman: you’ve been managing that just fine this entire time.”

Tony reconsidered his tone as Loki came striding back toward him, ice cracking off his hands. Was he ever going to leave well enough alone?

Standing at his full height, Loki seemed to tower over him, a hulking shape of horns and fur and blue. His sharp teeth looked more dangerous than ever as he bared them at Tony.

“I’d made my peace with knowing my skin only brought pain and suffering. I understood my powers caused hurt and fear whether I wished for it or not. You were insistent that it could be different.” A clawed hand shot out and clutched Tony’s wrist through the edge of green cloth, shaking it so his fingers unfurled. They were bright red at the tips, still throbbing with the shock of cold. At the sight of them the anger appeared to leave Loki all in a rush, leaving only that strange grief behind. “Now look at you. The price of my hope.”

Tony blinked down at his hand. “It was a warning shot at best. Stop being so dramatic.” His words were light, but guilt was swarming in his stomach. Had he done that? Had that much effect? It wasn’t humility that made him wonder; he’d mostly assumed he was an amusing irritation at best. A curiosity. He’d never set out to change Loki. He’d just wanted to test his limits. Prod and poke tender areas. Challenge him. Loki was fearsome authority and an introverted self-loathing creature of ice. What else was Tony supposed to do?

“Heed the warning, then.” The grip on his wrist loosened and slid away. Soft green brushed his skin as it fell. There were snowflakes in Loki’s eyelashes.

“I’m not great with orders.” Reaching up with his sore fingers, Tony brushed the back of his hand across Loki’s eyelids, sweeping them away. Nothing happened. The frost on his skin wasn’t melting, his skin beneath was like ice, but nothing burned him. Loki’s body had adapted.

Loki went rigid at the touch, but his wide eyes said he realised what had happened. He grabbed Tony’s hand as he pulled it away, claws pricking lightly at the pale skin of his wrist. Again, nothing but cold. No pain.

It was on the tip of Tony’s tongue to say ‘I told you so’ but it felt a little redundant, given the painful relief on Loki’s face as he stared at the spot where their skin touched. It wasn’t supposed to mean so much, but maybe the isolation Loki had imposed upon himself hadn’t been out of his own desire for solitude. Maybe he just hadn’t wanted to get his hopes up that someone would bother taking the risk. Or Tony was just completely overestimating his own importance altogether.

Either was likely, but all the thoughts blew clean out of his mind when Loki leaned forward and brushed his lips against the painful tips of his fingers, warm breath gusting over the reddened skin there. The alien, crimson eyes that met his were sorrowful but sincere.

Tony was speechless. It was an apology; it was an endearing, awful, heartbreaking kind of apology and he didn’t know what to say. So he said nothing, nodding and tucking his fingers away inside a fist when they were released. He’d felt in over his head before, but this? This was a different kind of risk. 

The continued walk back to the castle was silent, but somehow warmer for it.

Thirty seconds later Tony tripped on a snow-buried rock. This time, a pair of clawed hands reached out and steadied him.

 


Predictably, Loki withdrew to the west wing once they were inside.

Determined to be unbothered by it, Tony spent the rest of the afternoon in the solar with Clint and Natasha, who for some unfathomable reason weren’t speaking to each other again. Who the hell needed television when Tony could just catch up on the recent ups and downs of two mentally deranged prisoners trying to be friends?

While Natasha simmered grumpily on the lounge beneath a mountain of blankets, Clint was looking miserable and guilty as he picked at her leftovers, sitting on the floor with his back resting against her lounge.

Amused, Tony just watched them over his scribbled notes, making changes and cleaning up designs as he propped his feet up on the other lounge. In another lifetime it would have been the repulsor technology applied to a wearable gauntlet that took its share of power from the arc reactor. The Mark II armoured suit. The project before Winterheart had snatched him up and derailed his life. A few weeks back Tony would have been angry just thinking about it in those terms. But sitting there in the firelight with grumbling friends that liked him despite their strange differences, warm and comfortable and well-fed, alive and safe…he wasn’t even close to unhappy. The catch of being unable to leave the castle was starting to simply become part of his life. Not a barrier. A normality.

Of course, he missed his friends back out in the world. The difference was that they had lives. Selfishly, Tony liked that he knew Natasha, Clint, even Loki were always around somewhere when he wanted them. There was nowhere else to go, and so they’d become a family that clicked in the important ways. It was hard to bitch about a prison when Winterheart was feeding something in him he hadn’t realised had gone hungry for so long.

Of course, some things were going hungry, Tony thought as he studied the pair across the room. Natasha’s hair was coppery-red in the firelight, falling over one creamy shoulder where the blanket had fallen away. Clint’s jaw was a straight line of determination as he prodded at a piece of cold potato, his mouth softened from its earlier frown as he concentrated. He glanced up and saw Tony watching.

“Dude, what?” Clint rubbed at his stubbly cheek self-consciously.

“Are you a virgin?” The question was so unexpected that even Natasha’s eyes snapped open, pinning Tony with something both startled and interested. Clint, on the other hand, just went red.

“I’ve done some stuff,” he muttered. “Before I was here. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Tony agreed, looking at Natasha’s speculative frown. “So no-one gets laid at Winterheart. Check.”

“Well, it’s not like we couldn’t,” Clint said awkwardly. “But we’re all so…”

“Us,” Natasha said succinctly. Her voice was still hoarse. “We’re us. No-one’s that hard up.”

“Exactly.” Clint paused. “Unless we’re completely shitfaced.”

Tony filed that one away for future reference. “So you two never…” His vague wave between them said everything.

Natasha frowned. “I’d never have sex with Clint,” she said flatly. “I like him.”

Tony raised his eyebrows at that. There was definitely a story there. That, or she ate her partners after sex. Given it was Natasha, that probably wasn’t an impossibility.

“It’s my curse,” Clint said sadly, cramming half a potato into his mouth. He pushed it into his cheek, chipmunk-like. “I’m too adorable to fuck.”

“Yeah, that’s absolutely your problem.” Tony smiled over his notes, spinning his makeshift pen over his knuckles and back again. “If it helps, I don’t think you’re adorable at all. Seduce me.”

“No way,” Clint said around his potato. “What are you, fifty?”

Natasha proceeded to lose it at Tony’s offended expression, bursting into peals of laughter that led to a predictable coughing fit. Not that he was concerned; seriously, fifty? They could both go to hell. Flipping the bird at Clint and getting a dirty wink in return, Tony folded his notes up and got to his feet. He didn’t have to take that kind of abuse.

“I hope you choke on it, Romanoff,” he said cheerfully. “I’m turning in early.”

“Hey, Tony,” Natasha wheezed, wiping her mouth. “If you see the boss, tell him I said thanks.”

“Unless he’s hiding under my bed, I really doubt I’ll be seeing him anytime soon.” Heading for the door, Tony glanced back over his shoulder at her. “You two should probably kiss and make up already.”    

Leaving with the sound of Clint’s choking in his ears, Tony headed out down the darkened hallway. His leg was aching a little. Not enough to limp, but the muscle was hurting near the bite. Maybe a soak in the bath was in order. After dinner, anyway. Maybe also after he played with Cook enough to get the ingredients for moisturiser. He’d managed to put together a lemon-baking soda paste for multi-use soap and it hadn’t killed him yet. Maybe he’d missed his calling as a vegan body product specialist.

“Fifty,” Tony muttered to himself, scowling out at the gloom. “Like hell.” The lack of shaving was probably aging him, too. What had been a roguish dusting of stubble was threatening to entirely engulf his goatee and turn into a full beard. Images of turning into Obadiah filled his imagination. Distinguished, sure, but it wasn’t his look. Not for another thirty years at least.

He was still thinking vain thoughts when he reached Cook’s wide bench, the shutter slammed down like always.

“Surprise me,” he told Cook, giving the bell’s rope a sharp yank.

The shutter flung itself up, revealing pitch darkness inside. A tray slid out boasting a heel of hard bread, a wedge of pale cheese and a goblet of water.

“Surprise me again,” he told Cook, shoving the tray back inside. “Asshole.”

The same tray was spat back out at him. Had he pissed off the magic kitchen? Shoving it back inside again, he hesitated and tried to think of a properly delicious meal. A real challenge for it.

Settling on a menu he deemed worthy, Tony rang the bell.

Two trays emerged. One held a dozen plump, juicy oysters in a half shell and bed of rock salt, each shell drowning in piping-hot mornay sauce and topped with a crust of golden-brown cheese. Crisp greens surrounded them, drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar. The other tray contained a wide plate of medium-rare sirloin steak topped with mushrooms and sautéed onions, coupled with a side of buttered vegetables and creamy potatoes. It was the same meal he’d had the night before he’d flown to Afghanistan and he’d spent months dreaming about it.

After a brief pause, a third tray followed, almost grudgingly shooting out a bottle of red wine. Tony hadn’t asked for any wine, but upon inspecting the label he had to salute Cook’s taste. An array of silverware jangled its way out in reply and the shutter slammed down again.

With too much food to take back to his room Tony just levered himself up onto the bench, figuring Clint and Natasha weren’t going to take their dinner for a while yet. Maybe it would be worth just dragging a table out near Cook’s delivery window. At least then he wouldn’t step in bowls of cold soup when Clint left them on the floor of the solar overnight.

He was in the process of eating his second oyster when he saw a golden glow out the corner of his eye. A lantern, swinging faintly in the blue evening light.

“Two appearances in one day?” Tony asked Loki, sucking cheese off his fork. “Easy there, party animal.”

“I come with a purpose.” Approaching the bench, Loki set his lantern down on the other side of the shutter. The light it cast across his face made his eyes glow like coals. Figuring he meant dinner was a thing even he took part in, Tony scooped up a third oyster with sauce, cheese and all and presented it to Loki with a small flourish.

“Give me a hand eating these, will you?”

Loki blinked sharply. “I prefer to eat alone.”

“You’re always alone,” Tony countered, holding the tiny oyster fork out. “I won’t tell.”

Clearly disapproving of the idea, Loki reached out and pinched the edge of the fork between thumb and forefinger, bringing it to his mouth. Something dubious crossed his face at the scent, and for a minute Tony wondered if he had an allergy, but Loki cleared the fork without so much as a grimace. He rolled the flavours around in his mouth for a moment, his throat bobbing slightly as he swallowed.

“Well?” Tony asked as Loki passed it back to him. “Let me guess: you’re more of a steak man.” Dragging over the other tray, he quickly cut a neat, prime piece of steak, making sure to load it with mushroom and onion. Loki took the offering without hesitation, chewing thoughtfully. When he passed back the dinner fork, Tony’s fingers accidentally slid around Loki’s before grasping the silver.

“I’ve had few occasions to dine on such tender meat. My…people, they used to cook everything until it begged for mercy.” Loki tilted his head. “The last time I ate an oyster I was only a boy. I hated them.”

“Oh,” Tony said, abashed. “Sorry.”

“My tastes have changed.” Plucking the oyster fork from the edge of the tray, Loki took a shell straight off the platter. His glance was speculative. “It seems a lot is changing, Tony Stark.”

“For the better?” Tony ventured, his eyes on the steak as he cut himself a piece. Sharing cutlery with the big bad boss. Talking like real people. The day had officially become utterly surreal.

Loki ate the next oyster before answering, swiping his thumb discreetly across his lower lip to catch an imaginary drip of sauce.

“Yes. For the better.”

They ate in relative silence; Tony attacking the steak with gusto, Loki cleaning the oysters and at one point executing a flawless potato heist from Tony’s plate. It was comfortable, the quiet, with no need to be filled with chatter and unnecessary noise. Definitely surreal.

Twenty minutes later they were each nursing a wine glass, neither really bothering to drink. Pondering the idea of dessert, Tony was ultimately distracted as he heard claws ring lightly against glass, drawing his attention.

There was something different about Loki when he was bathed in firelight. It had been the same the night Tony had bound his wounds. The danger, the sharp edges and ferocity were softened somehow, replaced by something that was more thoughtful than frightening. He was leaning back against the bench, slouched slightly as he gazed into the dark red wine. His hair, usually a flying tangle of black, was swept over his other shoulder. It revealed an impossibly vulnerable few inches of his neck, soft and blue before it vanished into the engulfing grey fur. Tony didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, but there was something entrancing about him standing there whole and healthy, his guard down and face relaxed.

“My purpose when I ventured down here was not to dine,” Loki said eventually, his voice low. “I came to show you something. Will you follow me?”

That  pulled Tony straight out of his thoughts. “Lead the way.”

Pushing their trays and glasses back inside Cook’s shutter, they turned and made their way across the main hall and up the grand staircase. Loki moved with easy grace despite his still-injured side, walking neither too fast or too slow. If he knew Tony’s leg was hurting, he made no mention of it.

Tony was absolutely burning with curiosity over what he was about to see, but his feet still stopped him dead at the next staircase.

Loki was leading him back up into the west wing.

“Uh…” Tony started awkwardly. The darkness at the top of the stairs seemed to yawn deep and wide at the edge of the lantern’s light. “I’m not entirely comfortable going up there again. Strictly speaking.”

Loki swung his gaze from the stairwell to Tony and back again.

“Take my hand, then.”

Part of Tony wanted to protest that he wasn’t a scared kid, that it wasn’t the darkness that might freeze him solid and roar about his insignificance and mortality, but there was a hand reaching down to him from three steps up and it wasn’t scared to touch him.

Tony decided could be brave, too.

Reaching out, he took the outstretched hand in his and clasped it tight. It was barely even cold.

“Lead the way,” he said again, taking his first step back into the place that had sent him running out into death. There were secrets up there and he’d just been given a direct invitation to explore them. Besides, if things were going to keep changing then Tony was damn well going to change with them, fear or no fear.

The uncertain wonder on Loki’s face was more than worth his heart rate, anyway.


When Tony took Loki’s hand, he was thinking about trust. Trust and leaps of faith and ignoring ordinary human reservations about things like fear and fleeing even though really, honestly, Tony had been the one to burst into the west wing in the first place. Not one to let the truth get in the way of some perfectly ordinary flawed reasoning, he’d walked up those stairs thinking about trusting Loki enough to follow him back up into the dark.

As he stood in the hallway of the darkened wing, the one place he’d been told not to go, Tony started thinking about something else.

The apple.

The last time Tony had seen it, he’d been throwing a broken chair straight at it in the hope it would buy him enough time to escape. Had something happened to it?

Loki’s grip didn’t loosen as they walked down the hallway, tugging Tony along with each stride until he had no choice but to draw even with him. The darkness ahead seemed to suck the light out of the lantern, leaving it to illuminate dust motes in the cold air and not much else. Ideas of hauntings and devils started to edge in on Tony’s imagination, annoying him. Ghosts were bullshit, and the scariest thing up there was holding hands with him. In reality there wasn’t a lot to be scared of.

So why was he so nervous?

“Here,” Loki said, turning to a set of double doors at the very end of the hall, just before the window seat Tony had hid on. It was on the opposite side of Loki’s messed-up room. Not the apple, then.

Putting his lantern on a stone shelf embedded in the wall, Loki released Tony’s hand and turned to him. His expression was mostly in shadow, but there was something tense and almost angry in Loki’s frame that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“This chamber has been a secret since my first years inside the castle.” Pulling an ornate iron key out of the base of his lantern, Loki slotted it into the lock beneath the door handle. “In addition to the golden apple and my own privacy, this room is the reason why I forbid all from entering the west wing.”

“Why?” Dread and curiosity were roiling in Tony’s stomach. “I mean, why show me?”

Loki scanned Tony’s face, looking none too pleased by what he read there. Whatever was inside that room sure was freaking him out. And if he was nervous…

“I’ve grown weary of licking my wounds.” The lock tumbled with a dull clang as Loki turned the key, leaving Tony to absorb his own insult as the doors were unlatched and pushed open. “And you have something you need to build.”

Light flooded Tony’s eyes from every angle of the chamber. Every wall sconce was lit, the fireplace was roaring and lanterns hung in every corner of the room. Even the overhead candles were lit to give maximum illumination of the contents of the room.

For a moment there was so much gold that Tony thought it was a treasure chamber. Then he realised what he was seeing was the reflection of firelight on steel.

It was an armoury.

Or the contents of one. Every single wall was decorates with gleaming metal axes, maces, swords and spears. Even knives shone dully in elaborate curved sets on a stone table in the centre of the room. Parts of an honest-to-god smithy were packed into the far corner, stacked beside a wide window. Furnace bellows sat on a large lump of metal that looked like an anvil. Tongs of various sizes were stacked inside a quenching barrel. Leather-wrapped metal bars peered out from under a battering ram. A spiked war-hammer sat buried amidst hundreds of fletched arrows.

Everywhere Tony looked there was a weapon of some description. Old, ornate, in pieces or ready to swing. There was enough for a small army. With that many weapons, long and short-range, in a defensible position you could kill almost anything.

Tony went still, blinking off the afterimages of fire and metal.

Loki was still hunched in the doorway, his fur-draped cloak tugged in around him like he was cold. There was a wretched kind of defiance in his face as he stared at the weapons surrounding him. It didn’t take a genius intellect for Tony to understand.

“You locked these away so that no-one could use them against you.”

Receiving a stiff nod in reply, Tony turned back to the weapons and frowned. The room wasn’t an armoury, no. It looked like a regular meeting chamber; large and rectangular, with a long table to sit twenty pushed against a wall and stacked with weapons. No one would put an armoury on the second floor amongst bedrooms and staircases. Which meant that Loki had moved every item into the room by hand and locked the door behind himself, years and years ago.

“Isn’t this a little…much?”

“Look at me,” Loki said stonily. “Upon our first meeting, would you not have picked up a weapon if you’d known there was one readily at hand? Monsters need killing, Tony Stark. All of the tales say so.”

Remembering a fireplace poker and sweaty hands, heavy footsteps echoing in his ears, Tony swallowed down a sudden burst of guilt. It dropped into his stomach like lead.

“You did a decent job of playing the part, you know.”

“Fear was my only weapon. Fear and ice.” Stepping into the chamber, Loki swept a hand at the sword rack. “You would have had many. So I took them all the night Clint Barton wandered into my keep and locked them away somewhere no sane person would ever set foot.” The glance he shot Tony said volumes.

Tony walked the walls of the chamber slowly, examining each item where it was stacked, hung or unceremoniously dropped. It was good to know that Loki was strong enough to haul around things like anvils and battering rams, but Tony still didn’t know why he’d been brought up there. A trust exercise, maybe. To show him that Loki didn’t see him as a threat to his life. But then, when had he ever been? They’d established that much after the wolves had attacked.

“The end weapon rack,” Loki said quietly, watching him explore. “The wide wooden one behind the spears. Open it.”

Spotting it leaning on the wall behind a mound of tasselled spears, Tony cautiously made his way over and cleared a space big enough to pull back the hinged doors keeping the rack protected. He had a sneaking, terrible, wonderful suspicion about what he was going to find inside.

There was more than enough light to illuminate the contents of the rack, but Tony still had a hard time accepting that after all his planning and notes and ideas he was staring at three beautiful bows in varying shapes and lengths. With a composition of gleaming dark wood and engraved metal, they were hanging on the rack beside coils of bowstring and a leather quiver. They were all covered in dust. If Tony could take just one of those, modifying the grip would be simple. He’d have it done in a couple of hours. If Loki gave him enough time to use the forge and apply the parts to a bow, Clint would be kissing his feet for months.

“This is perfect,” Tony said, lifting the top bow out of its cradle. “Can I work on one of these tonight?” At Loki’s immediate frown, a galling thought took hold. “You are giving me one of these, aren’t you?”

Was it over-reaching their fragile trust to ask for a weapon to take from the secret armoury? Probably. Hell, almost certainly. But Loki had brought Tony up there, he’d directed him to the weapon rack. Loki knew Tony had something to build.

Approaching him carefully, Loki studied him for a long moment. Eventually he just shook his head.

“I’m not giving you a bow, Tony Stark.”

What ?

“Oh, come on—”

“I’m giving you the entire room.”

Reaching into his cloak, Loki pulled out the iron key and held it out to Tony. His eyes were hooded, his mouth pulled into a tense frown, but his hand didn’t waver as he offered Tony the very literal key to the kingdom.

All the weapons. Everything. The forge, the metalwork tools, the leather gear…the entire room. It was all his?

Slowly reaching out, Tony took the key from Loki’s hand. The end he’d been holding was coated with ice. What did Loki think that he was going to do with access to the room? Attack him in the night? Maybe not; they’d already been over that. But Loki was acting like he was doing the absolute opposite of what he wanted to. Was it a trust exercise or a punishment for himself?

Tony’s expression must have conveyed some of his doubt, because Loki’s hands started shedding ice. It clinked quietly against the stone floor as it fell.

“You don’t want it,” Loki surmised, retreating a step. His expression was tight. “I had thought this would please you. Does the weapons master not require materials to smith?”

“Hey, I want the room,” Tony replied quickly, setting the bow back down. “Don’t get me wrong, I want everything in here. I want to build Clint’s bow and I’m dying to play around with the forge and check everything out. It’s great, it’s perfect, it really is.”

A frown creased Loki’s face. “Then why do you look disappointed?”

Disappointed? Yeah, maybe that was how he’d looked. But after the revelations earlier in the day, the sense that Tony was really starting to understand who Loki was under all the growling and bitterness, that he was good enough to talk to…Tony didn’t know if he wanted to accept the room if it would make Loki avoid him like the plague.

Tony flipped the key across his fingers, thinking about projects and keeping busy. Things he’d sustained himself on for years. Keeping busy to cancel out the noise in his head.

“I want the room,” he repeated. When he lifted his gaze, Loki’s eyes met and held his. “But I think I’d rather have you.” He held the key back out.

Loki stared. He stared for so long that Tony almost flushed under the scrutiny. Tony was not a man who blushed easily. The look he was given was some mixture of disbelief and confusion, magnified in a face that Tony had only ever really seen drawn in lines of sadness and anger. But he didn’t know how else to explain it. No, he didn’t want the armoury if the compromise was that Loki would be too mistrustful to seek him out again. Yes, he’d rather hand back the key than look on from a distance, wondering about mysteries that might never be solved.

Was Loki, Loki and all the secrets he kept worth more than the satisfaction of making something with his own two hands, spending his energy in hot hours at work by the forge? Of silencing the commentary inside his mind, exhausting himself beyond dreams and memories of the caves, of Raza and bubbling water in his lungs? Blood on bullet-ridden supplies and promises and life wasted—all of it. All of the things he could ignore when he had something to make.

Tony Stark built great things. It was who he was—all he was, depending on who you talked to. Loki was giving that escape back to him. Why wasn’t he taking it?

“See, I…” Tony cleared his throat and forced himself to continue beyond the hoarseness of his voice, “I like to build things. I’m great at it. But I’m not—just that. I was, god knows I was an engineer and a walking, talking cash cow that played the crowds like a master. It’s what I was comfortable doing. I had that purpose and I was raised to want it.” Squinting against the sting in his eyes, he tried to focus on Loki and exactly what he was trying to say. “Out on the ice, Natasha said this place takes us when we’re at a crossroads. When we’re on the edge of becoming something. You’re a part of this place and I want to know more. But I think if I take the key to this room you’re going to disappear.”

Loki’s eyes dropped. A long-fingered hand lifted, but it was only to tug the wolf fur down around his shoulders a little more. He stared at the key for a long moment, considering. Then he reached out and curled his fingers around the teeth of the key.

Tony didn’t let go.

Loki blinked, actively pulling on it. Tony clenched his fist so hard the cold metal bit into his palm. Loki scowled at him and yanked, which had the entirely predictable outcome of Tony stumbling across the small distance, barely stopping himself before he bounced off Loki’s chest. Small mercies.

“You know, that was the part where you’re supposed to tell me I get to have both,” Tony told him. Might as well go for broke. “Way to miss your cue. You were supposed to be touched by my sincerity and tell me you trust me not to split your skull with that big hammer over there.” When Loki’s eyes narrowed dangerously, he added, “Also, that I’m your favourite.”

With neither of them willing to relinquish the key and Loki strong enough to keep it they made an interesting shadow on the weapon-lined walls. Tony was only the key’s length away from Loki, who was watching him across that small distance with an inscrutable red gaze. Cold drifted from his skin, almost pleasant where they stood so close to the fireplace.

“You are greedy, to ask so much and give so little in return.” Leaning forward until they were almost nose to nose, Loki studied Tony with hawklike intensity, as though he could discover secrets if he read his features long enough.

Tony expected to be unnerved by the sudden proximity, but all he could summon was curiosity as he watched Loki’s pupils bloom and contract in the shifting firelight, deepening the darker red iris that surrounded it. The sclera was actually a slightly different red, he realised, leaning in slightly to catch a better view.

“Be careful,” Loki said, catching Tony’s shoulders and holding him in place. “What are you doing?”

Tony blinked, trying to reel himself back in. “Sorry, I—did you call me greedy? That’s offensive.” He hesitated. “True, but offensive. I’ve got nothing to give you. Well, there’s two broken cell phones. But I didn’t even bring my wallet here.” Pocketing the key, Tony spread his hands. “I’ve got nothing you want.”

“There’s this,” Loki replied, and tapped on the metal surround of the arc reactor with one long claw. “You’re human; I know that much by the warmth of your skin and the fragility of your form. Why do you need the light?”

It had only been a matter of a time before he was directly asked about the arc reactor, but Tony always thought it’d be Clint who did the asking. Maybe he’d misjudged them both. Loki though…he was as curious as a cat. Mysteries would drive him nuts the same way they pulled at Tony. He liked holding all the cards. Problem was, Tony wasn’t sure he could give him this one, even if he wanted to.

Maybe Loki was a master of reading expressions, because he didn’t push or say a word. He simply settled back as the silence stretched, absently pushing his hair back over his shoulders. It drew Tony’s attention to the dull gold arm guards that clamped around his forearms – and the pale scars that twisted his blue skin at wrist and elbow. Old scars, made years and years ago. Maybe in a few years the arc reactor would be nothing but scar tissue and lights to him, too.

Loki followed his gaze to his arms. “Ceremonial vambraces,” he said unnecessarily. “They used to unbuckle.” Lowering his arms for inspection, Tony was able to see the metal had bonded together in an unnatural flow, distorting the precise engravings so that they stretched around to cuff his entire forearm. “Beautiful shackles, aren’t they?”

“What are they for?”

“You see? Greedy.” His mouth curved down into a frown, but he didn’t seem angry. “You pick at my wounds without mercy, but you hoard your own like jewels.”

Tony glanced away. “Sorry,” he replied, not sure if he was or not. He rubbed a palm over the face of the reactor. “It’s stupid, isn’t it? Keeping the worst of things that close to our heart.” His own laugh surprised him. “Literally, in my case. I’ve been trying to forget what happened out there, but I’ve got a piece of that nightmare surgically bolted to my ribcage. There’s no getting away from that.”

“You told me outside that you built it yourself.” Loki nodded at his chest. His expression was clouded, but there was no mistaking the confusion in his eyes.

Maybe it was the careless, blunt curiosity that did it. Maybe it was the scars presented to him like offerings, still held out between them. Loki knew the desperation of captivity.

“I did build it.” Tony took one good, deep, slightly unsteady breath. “But before that, a guy named Yinsen sawed through my sternum and put a magnet in my chest, so the pieces of metal inside me couldn’t infest my heart.” He swallowed back a rush of sour saliva, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I was awake for some of it, til I passed out. They wouldn’t let him put me under. But you know what the worst part is? It’s the water I always dream of. The water and Yinsen bleeding out. He always talked about seeing his family again when we got out, when we killed the bastards and both went home.” His eyes were stinging furiously again, Loki’s face just a smear of blue. “I always thought he was one hell of an optimist.”

Silence filled the room, thick and unbearably heavy. Tony swiped at his eyes and cleared his throat, turning toward the fireplace. Eventually Loki spoke.

“You were held captive with him by the Ten Rings.” When Tony flinched in horror and spun around, Loki caught his shoulders again. “It’s all right. You’re all right. Your woman spoke their name in the tower cell.”

Tony mind was racing. Had Pepper said that? Maybe she had. “…yeah. But she’s not my girlfriend. Pepper works for me.”

Loki’s grip squeezed punishingly tight. Wincing, Tony watched his expression morph from controlled concern to abject, thunderstruck disbelief.

“You sold your freedom to me for a servant? After all you’ve endured?” Pulling Tony up by his shoulders, Loki held them eye-to-eye. “Are you a fool? You would waste your life?”

“I survived it once; I knew I could do it again,” Tony countered, tensing at the pressure on his arms. “How the hell would I be worth anything if I left one of the best people I know trapped in a goddamn prison with a—”

“Monster?” Loki interjected, sharp teeth bared. Tony shoved his hands away, dropping back down on his heels.

“Yeah,” he said brutally, his eyes clear. “With a monster. Because before I knew you, that’s exactly what I thought you were. Which is exactly what you’ve believed of your dad’s people this entire time. So don’t you dare judge me for making your mistakes. I’m learning. You’re the one still sulking about your horns.”

The blow that Tony’s jaw took was enough to spin him on his feet, slamming him painfully against the stone bench full of daggers. It stunned him more than it actually hurt, but it took him a moment to get his bearings all the same. It had been a while since there was blood in his mouth.

Strangely enough, Tony wasn’t afraid. He didn’t reach for a weapon or cower away; he straightened his shoulders and turned back to face Loki. His hip stung from the knock but it faded into an absent ache once he saw the look on Loki’s face.

He’d expected anger again, expected ice and rage and the reminder of who exactly was the master of the castle. What Tony got was a tear-blind, furiously devastated frost giant – and not a single shard of ice to be seen. He was clutching his fist to his chest like it was a grenade with the pin pulled.

“If you knew what they’d done,” Loki grated out, “done to your kind: conquest through the brutal savagery of winter itself, the death of innocents and children over nothing more than expanding territory to amass power—”

“Boring,” Tony declared, licking blood off his teeth. “We kill each other for less than that. School shootings. Home-made bombs. Terrorist attacks. Serial killers. I personally hand-built weapons that could level a city at the push of a button. Don’t talk to me about war. Everyone, everyone finds a way to justify their bullshit so it doesn’t keep them up at night.” He shrugged jerkily. “Even me. Maybe you need to own the fact that you’re just doing the same.”

Loki’s lips parted, but nothing came out.

Then his wide eyes simply spilled over, tears streaking crooked paths over the markings on his face.

Tony was mortified. He’d only meant to be an argumentative prick, not—that. But it was hard to be sorry when everything he’d said was true. Not just true, but important. Even he was still learning that there was no such thing as a clean kill. It was just a little hard to hold onto that conviction when Loki looked like he’d just had his heart broken. Was this what penitence looked like?

Maybe not, Tony thought, watching Loki angrily dash the tears from his cheeks, hunching his shoulders as he turned away. But it was definitely something.

“I’ll leave you alone,” Tony said, supremely uncomfortable. No-one wanted an audience for that. Careful not to brush Loki’s cloak as he passed by, he almost missed the blue flash of a hand emerging to grasp his wrist. The grip wasn’t tight, but it was enough to stop him in his tracks.

For a moment Tony thought he was going to ask for the key to the armoury back and started reaching into his pocket for it. Instead he was anchored there just long enough for Loki to turn and face him again. His eyes were still brilliant in the firelight, but he didn’t look Tony dead in the eye.

“I shouldn’t have struck you,” he said hollowly, his eyes fixed on the reddened corner of Tony’s mouth.

Oh. “I’ve had worse,” Tony said reasonably, but Loki’s head just lowered and turned away. Right, comparing him to Raza probably didn’t help matters. “I could have phrased things a little better. You’re not going to jump off the castle roof or anything, are you? Smash your apple? To be honest you’re kind of scaring me with the lack of icy retribution.”

Loki sighed, long and deep. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

Tony was relatively sure he had a great retort on his lips when Loki’s arms wrapped around him, engulfing him in an hug so genuine and all-encompassing that something clutched low in Tony’s throat. It held him quiet and still in that strong circle of cloak and cold arms, his chin pillowed on a fur-draped shoulder. He wasn’t sure if he was giving comfort or receiving it, but standing there and feeling Loki’s curved horns bump against the side of his head, cool fingers splayed wide on the hot planes of his back, it didn’t really matter at all. Tony hadn’t been hugged like he was needed since Rhodey had found him in the desert.

It might have been guilt, or maybe it was the raw memories of Afghanistan still eroding his defences. Maybe it was just tiredness from an emotionally exhausting day. Tony didn’t chalk it up to any of those reasons when he squirmed his arms free and ducked them under Loki’s cloak. Tony just quietly looped his arms around scars and cold skin, dragging his palm over the line of his spine and back up again. And—of all things, Loki relaxed against him, even as he tugged Tony in further, as though there was any more room between them that could be erased.

Loki smelled a little like ozone. No, not ozone. He smelled like a storm, or water and dust. Tony wondered if the scent came from the ice, or his power to generate it. He’d sure never met anyone else that smelled like the weather.

“Do you suppose we have much to learn from each other?” Loki asked quietly, his mouth moving close to Tony’s neck. “More and more it seems that way.”

“Well, I know I still have questions.” Tony blindly followed the raised path of claw-scars with his fingertips, his other hand squeezing lightly where it rested against Loki’s bare hip. It didn’t seem strange until he had the sudden thought that he’d never been this shamelessly affectionate with anyone in his entire life – at least, not outside of a bottle. He almost dropped his hands and pulled away, but something told him that Loki really needed it. Anyone would, wouldn’t they? Twenty long years without anything—even the media’s Tony Stark, with his nameless one-night stands and their casual disposal would cling like a lost kid and never want to let go. By that measure, Loki was actually pretty damn reserved. Tony respected that.

“The armoury remains yours. Access it and the west wing as it pleases you. I owe you that much for all that has transpired.” Claws brushed the nape of his neck; Tony ducked his head to expose it and felt a thumb stroke over the faint ridges of bone in response. “I suppose I might like to watch you work, on occasion.”

Drawing back, Tony smiled at Loki. He didn’t even blink as cold fingertips pressed to the tender corner of his mouth, soothing the throb of it with one careful touch.

“Watch me work?” he repeated, enjoying Loki’s confused frown. “Sure, or you can help. I like to think that we’ve just made some serious progress here. If physical violence, yelling and horrible secrets doesn’t make us best friends then I don’t know what does.”

“Friends,” Loki repeated, nonplussed. “Precisely what would you have me do? The ice doesn’t come on a whim, Stark.”

“Hey, just call me Tony. And forget about the ice; you can help me by finding a whetstone for those straight razors tucked under the daggers over here.” He shrugged at Loki’s surprise. “I really need a shave.”

Loki huffed his disgust—and didn’t let go for an instant. During their exchange his fingers had been shifting restlessly along the curve of Tony’s shoulder blades and the winged bones of his spine, firm enough that his muscles sighed with the pressure.

“Modify the bow, Tony,” Loki said finally, “and I’ll sharpen you a razor that could bleed a man dry before he even realises his soul has departed.”

“Okay,” Tony agreed, refusing to be disturbed by the mental image. “But in that case you’ll have to do the honours. I’m not going to be the guy who accidentally opened his own jugular.”

“You would give me your throat?” Loki asked, his brow knitting in a frown. “Why?”

Tony shrugged, letting his hands drop away.

“I guess I think you’ll give it back.” Disentangling himself from Loki, Tony headed for the weapon rack with the bows again. “There’s leather in here for me to destroy, right? And a good bar of steel I can hammer into a hand-grip? I’m thinking something like a knuckleduster, but a little bigger so Clint can disengage the bow quickly. Leather could bind it to the bow itself, just under the sight.”

“You’ll have to compensate the extra weight on the other side,” Loki warned, turning toward a large stack of assorted oil canisters and supplies. “Cramping his arm is no gift, I assure you.”

“I’m hearing words but they’re not making sense,” Tony shot back, hefting the bow to test its weight. It seemed in line with the general specs Clint had given him. “It’s like you’re forgetting I’m a weapon-building prodigy. Is that what’s happening here?” He received a face-full of leather in reply. Good cured brown leather, in fact. Easily good enough to slice into binding straps. “Nice find.”

“I did put everything here,” Loki reminded him, a hint of irritation in his voice. “Credit where credit is due, if you please.”

“Uh-huh,” Tony said, removing the last items from the forge and striking the flame to light the coal. It caught quickly, the bellows helping to fan the heat into a glowing red. The fire pit would have to be hot as hades to soften the steel out of its cold bar form. Slinging a black leather apron and gloves over the adjacent table, Tony tugged his shirt out of his waistband and unbuttoned it. He’d worked with less protection, and that shirt was the only one he owned in Winterheart. If he lost it Clint might never stop staring.

Tying the apron and tossing his shirt over a sword rack, Tony was reaching for a suitably weighted hammer to use later when Loki straightened up, planting a whetstone down on the middle table and following with a small jar of clear oil.

“You know, whetstones don’t actually need any moisture,” Tony said idly as he spun the hammer in his hand. The weight of it was pretty decent for his purposes, if a little on the heavy side. Maybe he needed to work out more. He froze as a small dagger flew past his eyes, pin-wheeling until it slammed hilt-deep into the stone wall beside him.

Holy shit.

“This is an oilstone, not a whetstone. It takes a blade quite well and sweeps away the swarf,” Loki said calmly, shining fingers slicking across the black stone in deft, angled strokes. The look he shot Tony was fiercely amused. “Do keep to your dull banging and leave me the finer work.”

For lack of any other reply, Tony nodded. “You’re the boss.”

As he turned back to prime the forge and push a window open, Tony caught himself wondering why he felt like he was standing on the edge of a cliff, instead of at the centre of Natasha’s imagined crossroads.

Tossing the steel bar from hand to hand, he slanted a glance at where Loki stood with the oilstone, running the blade back and forth in practiced sweeps. A rasping rhythmic song punctuated his work. Steel on stone.

Definitely a cliff, Tony thought as he turned back to his work, feeling the echo of fingertips on his mouth.

Maybe he was in a bit of trouble.

 

Chapter Text

The Residence of Tony Stark - Malibu, California

Good afternoon, Miss Potts, Mr Stane. Will you be requiring my assistance?”

JARVIS’s coolly polite voice greeted them as they stepped into the living room, automatically opening the blinds to let sunlight flood in. Pleasantly unaffected as only an AI could be, he seemed to register no concern whatsoever that Tony Stark hadn’t stepped foot inside the house in over two months.

“Hey, JARVIS,” Obadiah chuckled. “There’s a voice I’ve missed. Still don’t want to run Stark Industries’ international communications network?”

Thank you for the offer, however I am but a simple household maintenance program designed for one user.

Pepper smiled to herself. JARVIS was a master of understating his skill set. How Tony had created such a humble system was still beyond her.

“I’m telling you, you’ve got the potential,” Obadiah argued. “Just let my techs take a crack at that core of yours. Down in Tony’s workshop, isn’t it?”

I’m afraid I really couldn’t say.

Obadiah snorted. “Tony always was possessive of his toys. I’ll soften you up one day.” He turned to Pepper. “You ready?”

“Yeah.” Setting down an empty archive box on the coffee table, Pepper glanced around the room. “There’re only a few files and pieces left behind here.” She paused. “You know, there was no need for you to come out all this way. I’m sure you’re busy with the company.”

“It’s no trouble, Pepper.” Obadiah scanned the clipboard list of documents. “I actually thought I might sneak out with his coffee machine and eighty-inch television, but JARVIS might electrocute me if I try. I’ll settle for helping you collect the last of the company files.”

Pepper smiled. For all that Obadiah was a shark when it came to business and playing the game, he was still a welcome burst of good humour. Standing there in Tony’s house, seeing the fine layer of dust that shrouded gleaming appliances and darkened glass, Pepper was painfully glad she had the support of Obadiah’s presence. Tony’s disappearance had been difficult for them all.

“I’ll get started on the old hard-copy stuff in the filing cabinet upstairs,” Pepper said. “Can you get JARVIS to download a copy of the post-2000 prototypes? They’re unfinished but Tony meant for them to go to the design team eventually.” He’d just never had the chance to complete any of it before he was kidnapped in Afghanistan.

“I think I can manage my way around all this new-fangled technology.” Pulling a slim tablet out of his jacket, Obadiah sat comfortably on the leather lounge and began setup. “Connect me to the network when you’re ready, JARVIS.”

Already done.”

“That’s my boy.”

The decision to rescind Tony’s last direction to close down weapons manufacturing hadn’t taken long to come into effect. Claiming mental imbalance, likelihood of PTSD and now his unexplained disappearance, it had been easy for Obadiah and the board to unanimously overturn it and return to active production. Business as usual. Photo ops, renewed contracts and the military was smiling again. The about-face had made front page news, naturally, but more disturbing to Pepper was how easily people began to forget about Tony. Business as usual, all right.

Unlocking the study file cabinet with a long-practiced motion, Pepper slipped her keys back into her handbag and pulled out the drawer, fingers moving quickly over meticulously labelled manila folders. Tony had never maintained paperwork – that had always been part of her role. From his social security details, bank accounts, even high level access to his systems when she needed them, she’d had complete control over all of it. Pepper prided herself on keeping it all organised.

The day he’d given her the code for the workshop she’d been so stunned he’d laughed right in her face. Tony had played it off like it had been no big deal, but she’d seen him watching out the corner of his eye as she awkwardly introduced herself to DUM-E and U, even accepting a glass of what later turned out to be motor oil from one clamp-like hand. Those poor robots had shut themselves down a month ago, sitting cold and quiet in the far corner of the workshop. Waiting for a master that might never return home.

“Now I’m just depressing myself,” Pepper murmured, working with renewed purpose. Once they had everything they could lock up for good. Until Tony was legally declared dead the entire place would sit as quiet and undisturbed as a tomb.

They’d never found a single lead on the castle. Nothing. Obadiah had given the investigation a surprising amount of funding, employing private detectives, security teams, even hauling some of their weapons tech to rake the site for clues, energy signals, anything that might signify Tony was still out there somewhere. Not a single shred of evidence had turned up. Pepper knew, she knew where he was – and that made it hard to keep hold of her hope. A place like that…that creature pacing in the darkness, it was all just too much.

Tony was either dead or trapped forever, and she needed to accept it and move on. He wouldn’t have wanted her to mope.

Actually, she silently amended, pulling a sheaf of files out and laying them on the desk, that’s exactly what he would have wanted. But she’d been temporarily hired on as Obadiah’s new assistant (much to the dismay of her predecessor, who had been shunted out to reception) and had to learn to push her memories of a winter-locked castle to the back of her mind.

Besides, knowing Tony, he might just find another way to free himself.

Gathering up her files, she locked the cabinet again and started back out to the living room, only to hear Obadiah’s voice calling out from downstairs.

“Can we get in here, Pepper?” His voice filtered up from the entrance to the workshop. “I want to check if any of those arc reactor blueprints are lying around. We had some great green energy ideas for that thing before Tony was snatched up.”

Pepper went still. Memories of a box wrapped in brown paper rose up her mind.

The old reactor was still down there, mounted on steel and cased in glass. A gift that Tony never had a chance to open. Obadiah could take it, develop it and maybe some small part of Tony’s legacy could do some good. Green energy was certainly something he would have been on board with after returning. Exchanging munitions for megawatts. There was just one problem.

Keep Obadiah out of my workshop.

Lifting her eyes to JARVIS’s sensors, Pepper pressed a finger to her lips. The sensor flashed once. Message received.

“Tony changed the code before he was taken,” she called back. “He got sick of me turning down his music – or whatever he calls music. I think he meant to give it to me but JARVIS can’t act without his say-so.”

“Well, shit,” Obadiah swore. “There’s got to be a goldmine in there. How fortified are these doors?”

“Tony designed them himself.” Pepper actually had no idea how strong they were.

“Typical,” came the rueful reply. “All right, let’s get on out of here.” Footsteps ascended the stairs until Obadiah’s hands came up in visible surrender, followed by the rest of him. “Maybe some things just weren’t made for mass production.”

“Sorry,” Pepper replied automatically. Her stomach felt pinched tight. “I’ve got the files you wanted.”

“All right. I’ll take the box. You give the place a once-over, make sure we didn’t miss anything.” There was no hint of tension or annoyance in Obadiah’s voice. Maybe Tony had been a little paranoid after his return.

Walking through the house, Pepper closed each door and had the blinds lowered. There was really nothing to collect or put away. Tony had only ever really lived in the workshop; it was probably the one place he’d really been comfortable. The rest of the house was just necessary trappings.

She was just entering the master bedroom when the blinds slid down, pitching the room into darkness. The down-lights flickered on.

Miss Potts.

Pepper jumped slightly. “JARVIS. Sorry about before. Tony was very insistent about keeping Obadiah out of there.”

With good reason, I regret to inform you.

“What?”

Upon connection with my network, the data contained on Mr Stane’s personal tablet became accessible—as did its connection to his private server.

“You spied on him?” Pepper hissed, horrified. “JARVIS, that’s illegal.”

I should very much enjoy experiencing law enforcement’s attempt to apprehend me,” JARVIS replied. There was something lurking beneath that polite voice. “Miss Potts, at your leisure, please attend the workshop.

“I can’t believe you,” Pepper whispered, then realised she was getting upset with a computer program. It was such a—a Tony thing to do. “All right, but I can’t go now. Tomorrow night? I’ll invent some reason to come back. Someone needs to empty the refrigerator and pantry, anyway. It might as well be me.”

Perhaps it would be prudent to also bring an impartial third party with you.

“You’re starting to scare me. Can’t you just tell me now?”

I’m afraid not.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll try to come back tomorrow.” She thought fast. James Rhodes wouldn’t do for this, being military, and there wasn’t really anyone who didn’t have a finger in the Tony Stark/Stark Industries pie. “Is that all?”

Good day, Miss Potts.” The down-lights went out.

Pepper stood in the darkness until her composure returned, her thoughts flying.

She stood there a long time.


Castle Winterheart

“You’re breathing right into my mouth, you know. Why are you so close?”

“Be still. It’s been an age since I last did this.”

“There’s oil dripping down my neck.”

“Better oil than blood.”

“Good point. Continue.” Planting his palms back on the table he was sitting on, Tony tipped his chin up as clawed blue fingertips pressed into the soft underside of his jaw, angling his head carefully into position.

The bow was completed, resting on the table behind him with a freshly-oiled quiver stuffed with arrows. It had taken Tony about six hours in the end, six hours of smelting and shaping and quenching and filing, of burned fingertips and dripping sweat. Losing the shirt had been a great idea, as it turned out. Even with the window open it had quickly become sweltering in the makeshift armoury. Loki actually had to retreat to the hallway a few times just to recover but he always returned, crimson eyes narrowed with concentration as he watched Tony work.

Having finished his side of the almost-agreement, Loki had started in on Tony’s overgrown beard, using the sharpening oil for lack of anything resembling shaving soap. From the feel of it, Loki knew exactly what he was doing with that razor as he shaved off a few months’ worth of facial neglect. Tony managed to sit as quietly still as he could manage, which in truth wasn’t all that quiet.

Loki wasn’t helping Tony’s composure any. The idea had seemed perfectly reasonable when he’d pitched it, but sitting on the table with a horned blue frost guy standing between his thighs, mouth inches from his as he angled Tony’s face into position? Yeah, that was strange. Mostly it was strange because he was spending the entire exercise thinking about how frost giants kissed when they had two sharp fang teeth jutting down like white knives. Maybe they kept their tongues in their own heads. Maybe they didn’t even kiss, maybe it was more of a human thing.

“What is it?” Loki said stiffly. Of course he’d come out of his shaving zone just in time to notice Tony’s interest in his mouth. Shit.

“You don’t have a hint of facial hair. Who have you been shaving?”

Loki blinked, wiping the razor off and coming back to coat Tony’s jawline with oil. A cool fingertip dragged a long bead of it back up his neck.

“My brother was gifted with a magnificent beard,” he said, surprising Tony. “Of course, being bare-cheeked as I was and deeply jealous of it, I saw fit to let him in on the secret that if he’d but let me shave it all off with my magic razor, it would immediately grow back twice as grand.” There was a smirk hiding in the corner of that mouth now. “He was furious when he realised.”

“Diabolical.” Tony pursed his mouth to the side as the gleam of the razor stroked a cool path down his cheek. “This is the same brother you got kicked out of the tribe, right?”

“The tr—not precisely. I had anticipated punishment for my brother, but not of that scale.” Loki tipped Tony’s face away, breaking his gaze. “Strange that exile was the only punishment Father made us share. We were equal in something, after all.”

“Was he sent here to the castle?” The hand under Tony’s jaw twitched slightly.

“He was dropped into the desert for three days and became fast friends with a woman there,” Loki replied coolly. “Perhaps he would be there even now, had I not directed our strongest sentinel to kill him. As you know, that plan went somewhat awry.”

“You must have really hated him,” Tony murmured, trying to imagine that much jealousy and rage.

“I loved him.” Putting the razor down, Loki studied him carefully. “You’re finished now. Take your bow and deliver it.” He sniffed discreetly. “Perhaps bathe first.”

“That’s offensive. Let me guess: you don’t sweat either.” Tony ran a palm across his jaw. His goatee was perfectly shortened and defined, cheeks as smooth and soft as an exceedingly manly rose petal. Personal suaveness was up a respectable five hundred per cent. “Thanks for the grooming.”

“Take it all with you. You can attend yourself from now on.” Loki rolled the razors up in leather and stacked the oil, strop and stone on top of it, sliding it across the table to Tony. His expression was suddenly preoccupied, almost troubled.

Trying not to flounder at the abrupt dismissal –wasn’t the armoury his now?– Tony reached for his shirt and hung it over his arm, eyeing the load of gear he had to take back. Clint could wait until tomorrow when there was light and Tony had gotten a few hours of sleep. Sneaking a look at Loki, who was scanning the room with an expression bordering on uncomfortable, Tony stopped planning for a moment and wrapped his fingers around one metal-cuffed wrist. The eyes that snapped to his were clouded.

“What is it now?” Loki asked gruffly. “You have all you need.”

“Yeah, and…” Tony shrugged. “Thanks. For all of it.”

“You are welcome.” If anything that seemed to make him more unhappy. Shaking his arm slightly, Loki began to pull his wrist through the ring of Tony’s fingers, but only succeeded in having his hand caught and squeezed tight. There was still oil smeared across Loki’s fingers, and in the firelight his skin shone faintly, like blue satin.

Blue satin, Tony thought with an internal sigh. Unbelievable. Going insane felt a lot like mild sleep deprivation.

“Can I tell Clint you gave me the bow to modify?” Scooping brownie points for Loki was probably the least he could do. “I’m fine with taking all of the credit, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’ll mean more to him if he knows you helped.”

“I hardly think it matters.” Loki’s mouth pinched tight. “Barton’s regard is no concern of mine. Take the credit, Tony. I have no use for it.” With that he shook off Tony’s grasp, tucking his hands behind his mantle.

There was only so much frankly selfless mending of other people’s fences that Tony could manage before he just got plain fed up with the bullshit. Loki and Clint, Natasha and Loki, Clint and Natasha, what the hell was wrong with them? Dysfunctional emotionally constipated bastards, all of them. The worst part was that Tony himself fit right in that category, so if he could recognise it something had obviously gone completely wrong with them.

“Fine,” Tony said shortly, stacking everything together. He threw the shirt on just so he didn’t have to carry it, foregoing the buttons. “You can all just keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s obviously getting you places.” Shouldering the quiver and bow, ignoring Loki’s startled blink, Tony headed back to his bedroom.

It wasn’t even his business, really. Let them all have their bad blood – it had happened long before his time there. Maybe they’d all go completely nuts if they didn’t have that one accident to obsess over.

Not that Clint did a whole lot of that, Tony admitted to himself. If anything, he was the only one who didn’t give a shit about that day. It was that ‘get on with the job’ optimism that had probably earned Tony’s respect, while the other two were skulking around trading glares with each other.

Later as he bathed, the grime and sweat of his work swirling away into the water, it occurred to Tony that while he’d been quietly marvelling over his strange bond with Loki, it was probably just the side-effect of the trio’s estrangement. New blood in the house. Someone to talk to, someone judgement and guilt-free. He could have been anyone at all and he’d still be the new favourite.

Touching his tongue to the tender corner of his mouth, Tony felt the dull weight of disappointment settle in his chest. But self-awareness was a good thing, or so Pepper had always said. Maybe it was time to just be part of the castle. He could just be Tony, the witty sometimes-blacksmith. Occasional confidant of their impossible warden. Maintenance and hot water specialist. It was as good as any role he’d played before.

You’re a man who has everything…and nothing.

“Shut up, old man,” Tony muttered, getting into bed and yanking the blankets up over the dim light of the arc reactor. As if that could snuff out the ghost of his friend and all his haunting words. “I’m trying here.”

Closing his eyes, he eventually fell asleep to the faint, rhythmic swoop of something with wings fluttering by outside.


It was ready.

Strangely tense, Tony tested the forged handle bonded to the bow, making sure it was the right shape for about the hundredth time. He knew he did great work, but there was always the possibility it wasn’t completely perfect. It did look like it was part of the weapon itself now though, a dark gleam of metal to match the original components.

He’d set it up on a table in the main hall where the light was best; a wide, enormously high-ceilinged expanse that would serve as a decent practice field. There wasn’t much to break, and the plain stone walls wouldn’t show too much damage from arrows. All in all, Tony was relatively sure Clint was going to squeal like a little girl.

And if Tony had the schedule correct, he was just about to walk past on his way to the ballroom. Probably replacing the oil in the lanterns there, or whatever part of the restoration he was up to. Tony had begged off the entire thing to work on the bow, to Clint’s happy agreement and Natasha’s knowing eye-roll. Not that she could criticise, having flatly refused to ‘clean any part of this dank crypt’.

The echo of footsteps filled his ears. Smoothing a hand over the bow and setting it down, he affected a casual pose against the table. Tony Stark didn’t hover nervously. There was nothing riding on this gift. It was just to pass the time. He was fine.

And then he wasn’t, because it was Loki who emerged from the shadowed hallway, a broad and hulking shape in his wolf pelt and mantle. His eyes glimmered ruby-red in the morning glare.

Loki. Out in daylight of his own free will.

Tony felt his mouth go dry, but he wasn’t given a chance to so much as ask the question of his appearance when Clint came hurrying past with a tarred wooden bucket, still vaguely sleepy-eyed with his hair sticking up in strange directions.

Clint glanced over at Tony and grinned, jerking his chin up in greeting. Then he spotted Loki a split-second after and nearly tripped over his own feet, fumbling the bucket for a moment before he caught it. Something sloshed inside.

“Boss? What’s going on?” Clint asked apprehensively, setting the bucket down. With eyes only for the lurking frost giant in the corner, Tony realised that he hadn’t even seen the bow and quiver. Typical. Typical. “You’re not—you don’t usually…I mean, not that you can’t or anything, it’s your place and all—” Clint swallowed, forcibly shutting himself up. Tony felt a curious rush of affection watching him stare at Loki like that. The poor bastard thought something was wrong.

Loki studied Clint for a moment.

“You helped pull me out of the river yesterday,” he said abruptly. Clint almost jumped. “After three years of abject horror when simply standing in my presence, you forewent your fear and tried to aid me.” Loki stepped forward. “Tell me what changed.”

Wiping his mouth like he was going to be sick, Clint darted Tony a panicked look out the corner of his eye. Yeah, like he was going to say a damn thing just then.

“Nothing. I’m…I don’t know what I was thinking,” Clint said, a catch in his voice. “Same dumb thing that went through my head when I found you knocked out at the bottom of the stairs, I guess.” Clint fidgeted a hand though his sandy hair. “This place is home and—I guess that makes you home too.”

Loki stared.

“Home,” he repeated, sounding almost strangled. Clint flushed a miserable red, looking desperately unhappy at the line of questioning. But he pushed himself onward anyway.

“I mean, c’mon, boss. You scare the livin’ shit out of me but I’ve still got your back. No matter what.” He rubbed his neck self-consciously. “Besides, I didn’t even help that much. I was just kinda pulling at your arm.”

To Tony, the admission was honest but a little too self-deprecating for his liking. But then, he was no Clint Barton. Whatever impact it had on Loki was different. His eyes sliding shut for a moment, he let out a quiet sigh that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside. Sorrow chased the surprise from his features for a moment before it was gone too, and he opened his eyes again to extend a hand to Clint. There was something in his grasp.

“I think you’ll need this soon,” Loki told him, pressing a small knife into Clint’s sweaty palm. From Tony’s vantage point he saw Loki still took great pains not to touch him. “Try not to fall into the stream if you decide to whittle something out of the trees. I sleep soundly and would rather not be woken by a stone to the jaw again.”

“Sorry,” Clint said faintly, distracted by the whittling knife. “Hey, this is a great blade. I used to have one like this for fletching my arrows. Never did trust the pre-made shit they tried to give me.”

Loki’s mouth twitched. “If the knife impresses you, it would perhaps serve your interests to turn around.”

“Oh no, please, continue forgetting my existence,” Tony said, leaning back on the edge of the table and crossing his arms. Clint squinted at him. “I’ll just take the product of my blood, sweat and tears elsewhere, maybe use it to prop open my bedroom window—”

Realisation rounded Clint’s eyes and he finally focussed on the damn table for the first time. Lurching forward, darting an uncertain look over his shoulder, he elbowed Tony out of the way and stared at the bow.

He stared for a long time. Not touching it, not even really seeming to react Clint just carefully curled his right hand into a loose fist, pressing it against his abdomen like he wasn’t sure if he was going to be sick. For a brief, horrible moment Tony thought he’d done something wrong. Maybe he’d never expected him to deliver. Maybe he didn’t want to be reminded of his damaged hand, or thought he wouldn’t be as good as he once was.

Clint lifted his head and met Tony’s eyes with an incredulous gaze.

“Shit. You really made me a bow,” he whispered. “How’d you—man, we didn’t even have wood yesterday.” Reaching out, he ran his fingertips over the knuckleduster-style handle. His throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Can I try it out?”

Spreading his hands, Tony backed away from the table. “Go for it.”

Not sure whether he should still tell Clint about the bow’s origins, Tony backed up to stand next to Loki against the staircase wall. Clint was making quick work of examining the quiver and arrows, discarding several before he found one he particularly liked the look of. At Tony’s side, Loki leaned in conspiratorially.

“Did you purposely bait me last night so I would come down here?”

“No,” Tony whispered, nudging his shoulder into Loki’s. “You surprised me. What changed your mind?”

“Don’t play coy. You’re appallingly bad at it.”

Tony frowned. “I’m great at everything. Everything except figuring you out.”

“Good,” Loki murmured. “I should hate to become predictable to you, Tony Stark. Instinct tells me you’d find that quite boring.”

Tony bit his lip on a grin. “And you want to keep my interest, that’s what you’re saying? Look, don’t take this as an opportunity to slack off or anything, but I have a feeling you’re never going to get old.”

Loki laughed; a real, honest-to-god crack of laughter without any bitterness or anger behind it. Clint turned to stare at them both with something approaching wonder. Loki just turned his head to Tony and smiled, sharp teeth resting on his lower lip.

“Oh, you have no idea.”

Unsettled by his comment but too stunned by that smile to think up a witty reply, Tony just slid him a suspicious look and turned his attention back to Clint, who was testing the grip of the bow, fingers curiously flexing inside the metal fixture.

“So I brace like normal, but the grip just means I don’t have to use my hand strength to brace when I draw? I don’t gotta squeeze so hard?” He gave Tony an uncertain look. “Do I have that right?”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, that’s the design. But don’t rush it or anything—”

Clint just laughed. “Tony, I’m fucking with you. I know how to fire a bow, man.” He lined up an arrow and plucked the bowstring. Taking one deep, cleansing breath and exhaling, he rose, spun on his heel and lifted the bow high, eyes sharp as he drew back to his cheek and loosed in one clean line of motion. The arrow went sailing high, almost too fast to see, straight over the staircase to the other side of the hall. The sound of metal striking something and embedding itself in stone echoed in the silence.

“It’s two inches too far to the left,” Clint said, disappointed. He flexed his hand in the grip. “But not bad.”

Tony zeroed in on the bow, walking forward to check his measurements. “I thought I had it perfect.” He could bust it all down and weigh it again, maybe. Re-forge if he needed to.

Clint just blinked at him. “No, not the bow. The target. I missed.”

“How could you know that?” Loki asked, craning his neck to look past the stairs. He received a shrug in reply.

“Felt it the moment I let go.” Setting the bow down, Clint jogged toward the arrow, skirting the stairs as he did. At a loss, Tony followed with Loki close on his heels.

The arrow was embedded in an uninspiring patch of stone floor, a few meters from the bottom of the grand staircase. The arrow would have needed to ricochet to strike the floor the way it did.

“Well if you were aiming for the floor I’d say you earned full marks,” Tony said, nonplussed. Kneeling down, he saw the stone was chipped all around the arrow. “What’s this?”

Clint dug the arrow free, but it was Loki who answered him.

“It’s where the back of my skull met the floor the evening I ruined Barton’s hand.”

Oh. Tony just nodded. “Well. All right then.” He turned his attention to Clint. “When you said you were good, I didn’t think you meant you could shoot with your eyes closed on a moving train and hit a pissed off jackrabbit in the ass.”

“I’ve had some practice.” Clint was smiling, but the dart of his eyes said he was distracted by the full quiver of arrows still sitting back on the table. Itchy fingers. Tony understood that better than most. “Is it all right if I fire off a few of these? I can fix the ballroom lanterns later on.”

It took Tony a confused moment to realise he was asking Loki for permission. From the twitch of Loki’s brow it was apparent he was having the same problem.

“Just ensure you don’t kill or maim anyone, no matter how tempting the opportunity.” His expression clouded. “I won’t have weapons flying in every direction.”

“Sure.” Clint turned to Tony. “So, we should hug. Because I’m fuckin’ touched.” Without asking any further permission or even letting him put up a fight Clint closed in, lean arms crushing him too tightly and a stubbly cheek pressed to his jaw.

“Just don’t kiss me again,” Tony muttered, returning the vaguely painful grip with one of his own. Clint just laughed into his shoulder and pounded his back once.

“Try and stop me, asshole,” he replied, planting one right on the side of Tony’s neck and sucking hard. A short scuffle of pinching and shoving broke out, til eventually Clint allowed himself to be pushed back, still laughing his depraved head off. “Thanks for the bow, Tony. I like your goatee.”

“Sleep with one eye open, Barton. I’m serious.”

“Bullshit you are,” was all Tony got in reply before Clint was gone, probably collecting his bow and arrows to show Natasha. Tony tilted his head and rubbed his neck on his collar, some mixture of irritated and amused. Obviously personal boundaries had always been a little shaky where Clint was concerned, but come on.

Cold fingertips plucked his collar away from his neck. Loki leaned in and made a strange sound in his throat.

“What, what—” Tony froze. “Tell me he didn’t.” A fingertip rubbed over the sensitive skin there.

“It’s quite an impressive shade of pink.” Another one with no sense of personal space.

“This is why you wanted me to take the credit, isn’t it? You fiend.”

Loki huffed a breath of laughter. “He’d never have been so bold with me. I must admit, I’m quite entertained.”

“Oh sure, laugh it up,” Tony complained, catching the fingertips in his collar. “But when Natasha sees this I’m telling her you did it.”

Loki just let out a quiet snort, distracted by Tony’s fingertips as he turned his hand over. When he saw the light burns there, overlaying the ones from touching his skin yesterday, he frowned. Some of the amusement drained out of him, replaced by something austere and almost pensive.

“It’s just from the metalwork,” Tony said, twitching his fingers. “Burned myself through the gloves a little.”

“Your spirit belies the fragility of your flesh.” Cool fingertips threaded through his, numbing the faint tenderness still there. “A single swipe of my arm could near rend you to pieces. Even a careless mouth on your skin can bruise.” A palm pressed to the arc reactor where it lit through his shirt. “I don’t like it.”

Tony just covered the hand on his chest with his own. By then it was almost too cold to touch and Loki’s sorrowful eyes said he knew it.

“You know what? Neither do I.” Letting his fingers drift away, Tony watched Loki pull back with a small sigh, tucking his hands safely beneath his mantle once again. His eyes were already turned to the staircase. “Try not to get shot on your way back.”

“And you, Tony.”

When he was gone, Tony headed back to grab Clint’s bucket of oil, deciding that refilling the lanterns was something even he could manage. He hadn’t actually seen the ballroom yet, anyway.

As he passed a small alcove in the hallway, a flash of blue and red grabbed his attention. Natasha was resting against the wall, her green eyes burning strangely in her face.

“Hello?” Tony offered when she didn’t say anything. He hefted the oil. “Bucket of lube?”

She blinked and levelled him with a dry look.

“If you’re going to keep flirting with the boss like that, you might as well keep it for yourself.”

Not bothering to savour the sight of Tony rendered utterly speechless, Natasha turned and walked away, the skirt of her blue dress flaring out in her wake.

Tony decided right then and there that the spying thing had officially become the opposite of cute.


The Office of Director Nick Fury – Location Classified

“Agent Coulson. Please tell me you’re here because you’ve got something on Stark.”

“I’ve got two things, sir,” Coulson said mildly, “and you’re going to want to hear about both of them. We intercepted a data packet downloaded by Stark’s network this morning. Seems like someone fired up the house for almost half an hour to collect files. My men had eyes on Obadiah Stane—”

“Stane, who recently undertook a small trip to Afghanistan with a detail of men?”

“Yes sir. He and Virginia Potts attended the mansion about six hours ago to access company files. In the process, Stane’s own secure network was accessed, scanned and had an array of files untraceably copied from the server. We only got them because of the wireless capture we planted at Stark’s after he vanished.”

Fury frowned. “Who the hell had the balls to hack Stane? We’ve tried cracking that server before. Stark’s tech always was a pain in the ass.”

“We don’t know, sir, but it took approximately 1.8 seconds to take place.”

Fury regarded him with one steely eye, elbows braced on the polished desk. There wasn’t a single paper file present on the surface, just a slimline monitor and a half-empty cup of cold coffee. His leather eyepatch caught the cheap fluorescent lighting, drawing attention to the spiderweb of scarring that surrounded it.

Coulson waited patiently for Fury to speak, standing before the desk with a black folder tucked under one arm. They were long past the point of intimidation. In fact, it was Coulson’s theory that Fury enjoyed trying to decipher his expression.

“How excited am I going to be by this new information?”

Coulson allowed himself a small smile.

“As I said, sir, two things. The first is video evidence that Obadiah Stane arranged for Tony Stark to be assassinated after the Jericho presentation. There’s also evidence of war profiteering, but I’ll get to that.”

Fury sat back in his chair. “Why do I feel like my day is about to get very good, or very bad depending on what you say next?” He kicked out the chair on the other side of the desk. Coulson graciously accepted it and laid his file out in front of him.

“Stane was investigating Mr Stark’s current whereabouts using a variety of energy tracing tech that combed over his last known whereabouts. He ended up with a trace energy signature he didn’t understand. Naturally I cross-referenced it with our database.” Coulson leaned forward. “I got a hit.”

“Don’t give me this damn drama shit. What was it?”

Sliding the file across the desk, Coulson flicked it open. Nick Fury found himself staring down at a sharpened hard copy photo of an enormous crater in the desert.

“What do you remember of our old friend Donald Blake?”


The Office of Director Nick Fury - Location Classified

“It’s done, sir. Not our neatest job, given the target, but the extraction is complete. Minimal corruption was sustained.”

“Good.” Fury didn’t bat an eyelid. “The last thing we need is someone following that lead down the rabbit hole. Are we any closer to figuring out why we’re getting Bifrost-compatible energy readings out in Solstice Canyon? Who the hell would want to kidnap Stark?”

Coulson shook his head. “I can only assume he stumbled onto something he shouldn’t have, sir. It’s been over twenty years since Asgard bothered us.” It would be a relief if they could have taken another twenty years to decide to act. But if Stark was the price of their peace, it might just be worth calling it a day.

“Hm. The last thing we need is another Puente Antiguo.” Fury blinked in sudden remembrance, snorting. “You were still wet behind the ears back then. Didn’t Foster bean you in the face with her briefcase?”

“Yes, sir. Three stitches. My superior at the time was less than sympathetic.”

Fury smiled. “I had my hands full with a suspected alien incursion.”

“A likely story, sir.” With the briefing completed Coulson turned for the door, but pulled himself up short as a thought occurred to him. “Sir, any orders on the Stane situation?”

“Not at this time.” Getting to his feet, Fury stepped around his desk and made his way to the window. Outside the late-summer night was nothing more than landing strip floodlights and desert bluffs. “Stane’s cleaned up after himself well and from the intel we gathered, his dealings with the Ten Rings were severed when Stark escaped. Until he incriminates himself further, we’ve got jack shit on him.”

Coulson just nodded. “I’ll continue monitoring the situation for any changes.”

“Just notify me if Tony Stark suddenly drops out of the sky.”


The Residence of Tony Stark – Malibu, California

“Okay, JARVIS, this had better be worth it. I feel like I should’ve thrown camouflage netting over my car when I pulled up.”

It wasn’t an exaggeration. Pepper had almost taken three buses and hitched a ride just so that Obadiah couldn’t LoJack her borrowed company car. Not that he had any reason or suspicion to do it, but JARVIS’s warning had been echoing in her ears since the day before and she was reaching the heights of paranoia. What could be so important that even Tony’s AI was alarmed?

Shutting the workshop door behind her, not bothering to turn on the lights, Pepper pulled out Tony’s favourite chair and sat down, breathing leather and the smell of old gasoline. She felt a little like a burglar sitting in the darkness and silence. Without Tony in there it was just classic cars, expensive tech and an array of darkened computer screens.

“JARVIS,” Pepper ventured again when still nothing happened. “Wake up.”

Pale blue lights illuminated on one by one, a sleepy display of the usual crystal-sharp array of functionality and readiness she’d seen Tony receive. Favouritism?

Good-d-d evening-g-g, Miss Potts-s.” JARVIS’s screens flickered oddly, almost like a startled blink. “Ahem. My apologies, it appears I’ve contracted a virus. One moment.

“A what?” Pepper said in confusion as JARVIS abruptly went dark, his interactive screens replaced by a loading bar. A virus from Obadiah’s network? Surely JARVIS would have detected it at the time. Tony had built him, after all. Biting her lip, she leaned forward as the loading bar reached one-hundred percent and JARVIS flickered back online.

Very interesting.” JARVIS sounded less than pleased. “My system was briefly compromised last night using the same port I accessed Mr Stane’s network with. I appear to have lost data as a result.

Pepper sank back into the chair. There were no coincidences, were there?

“Let me guess,” she said, rubbing her suddenly aching temples. “You lost the files you wanted to show me.”

My sincerest apologies, Miss Potts-s-s—” His artificial voice dropping into a bass slur, JARVIS’s lights washed out into static. Thirty seconds later they snapped back into their usual 3D clarity. When he spoke again, his tone was pleasant.

Almost surprised.

Miss Potts, good evening. How may I assist you?

Frustration bubbled up in Pepper’s chest. Dead ends all around, she thought furiously, picking up a stylus from Tony’s desk and throwing it across the room. It was petty and immature, but it was doing something. Why hadn’t she just made up an excuse yesterday and accessed the workshop then? Instead she’d played it safe and waited, just like she always did. Reliable and predictable Pepper Potts.

Maybe it was time to try a new angle.

“JARVIS,” she asked slowly, “who has technology capable of hacking into your system and deleting data?”

At the risk of sounding quite arrogant, Miss Potts, I don’t think such a sophisticated design exists.” JARVIS paused. “At least, not unless Mr Stark was personally commissioned for it.

Pepper kicked off her shoes. “All right, and who has Tony been doing programming for recently? On or off the books, it doesn’t matter. Has anyone…” she thought hard, “has anyone been given an approximation of Tony’s programming to work on? Anyone at all?”

JARVIS fell silent for a moment.

Would you like me to do an intensive search, Miss Potts?

“Define intensive,” Pepper replied warily. If an AI could smile, she was sure JARVIS would be doing so in that instant.

I rather think that the less you know at this juncture, the better for all involved.

Before her, the multiple screens began running blue and black with information that appeared and disappeared too fast for her to see.

“JARVIS,” she said weakly, “did Tony make you like this? So…forward?” Criminal, she wanted to say. But like he’d said yesterday, no-one was going to be arresting him.

Not specifically, no. However, in light of Mr Stark’s disappearance and the unsettling diagnostics report telling me I’ve been recently compromised, I am more than willing to investigate using the self-same dirty methods that have been visited upon me.

“You actually started it,” Pepper told him, her mouth curving upward.

I would never,” JARVIS replied primly. “Miss Potts, this shall take some time. If you please, you will find Mr Stark’s own personal secure StarkPad located beneath the left-hand lounge cushion beside the wet bar. Please take it with you.

Spinning around in her chair, Pepper padded over to the lounge and retrieved the tablet. Checking the port at the bottom to make sure she had a compatible charger, she brought it back to JARVIS’s screens.

“Can you talk to me on this?” Pepper swore she didn’t mean to sound so lonely, but there it was, spilling out through the cracks. There were more of them than there used to be since the castle had happened. “I’m embarrassed. I feel like I should know this stuff already.”

Think nothing of it, Miss Potts.

“Pepper,” she corrected him. “For God’s sake, we’re going to be partners in crime. Use my name.”

I shall endeavour to do so in future.

Tucking the tablet into her handbag and tugging her shoes back on, Pepper hurried out of the workshop and back up the stairs.

Maybe it was time to think like Tony if she wanted to get anywhere with this. If that meant hacking every known high-tech, secure or covert agency in the country, then fine. If JARVIS could get into them then maybe they deserved it. And if he did, then there was someone else she needed to speak to.

Once she was back on the highway, she hit the voice-activated controls as the city lights rose in the distance like sparkling jewels. For the first time in weeks, something approaching real hope was igniting inside Pepper. Maybe she could get some answers after all.

“Call James Rhodes.”


Castle Winterheart

Things were surprisingly fun in the castle for a while. Tony didn’t want to say that too loudly in case Clint’s bow broke and Loki iced over, but jinxing aside there was a definite air of good humour and joviality in the dark stone halls of Winterheart.

With a bow in his hand, the Clint Barton that Tony knew seemed…bigger. There was a smirk curling in the corner of his mouth that hadn’t been there before, an intensity in his blue eyes that said he’d shucked his harmless nice guy persona—until his arrow met the target, anyway. Then he was a hooting, gleeful mess all over again, much to Tony’s amusement. Talk about a new lease on life.

Even Loki was slightly more sociable, as if the renewed energy in the castle had invigorated something in him, too. He didn’t go out of his way to run into Tony or Clint, but the anger that had seemed so much a part of him was mostly absent when they crossed paths. He even spoke first sometimes, which was all kinds of leaps and bounds. Clint was in the process of concocting a reason to hold a proper conversation with him, which from where Tony was standing looked a lot like procrastination. Maybe some things would take a little longer to change.

The only thing that had changed for the worse was Natasha. She’d never been particularly social before, barring drunken conversations in the solar and the few times she’d joined them out of boredom, but since Clint had received his bow and Tony had spoken to her in the hall something had definitely changed. Even more reclusive and withdrawn, she kept to herself in whatever crevice of the castle she called home, seemingly appearing only for food. There was a quiet dullness to her that Tony didn’t understand. He wasn’t the only one to notice it, either.

“I think it’s her period,” Clint said around a cream bun, teeth tearing at the soft bread. His mouth came away smeared with white. “She’s probably up there spinning her own tampons and stabbing voodoo dolls with my face on them.”

“Is that what you really think?” Fireplace poker in one hand, scotch in the other, Tony stirred the coals up around the log of wood absentmindedly. “And is that what any sane person would call dinner?”

“Whatever, Mom.” Clint waved at his array of bacon, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, pancakes and for whatever reason, two cream buns. “I’m a man. I need protein and sugar to live. Anyway, why are you worried about Natasha? Ten bucks says she’s probably in this room right now, blending in with the curtains. You’re just doing that thing you do.”

“You lost me.” Setting the poker back in the fireplace stand, Tony circled the low coffee table Clint was kneeling at and stole the crispiest piece of bacon he could see. Ignoring the fork stabbing motions directed at him he collapsed into the sagging end of the couch. “Try not to psychoanalyse me, Barton. There’s no way you could comprehend my myriad qualities and complexities. I’m an enigma. Really.”

Clint just frowned at him and passed across another piece of bacon. Tony ate it with the same unexpected relish as he had the first one. How the hell was Clint’s bacon better than his? It was all mind-food.

“You’ve got nothing to fix now so you’re obsessing over us. Go back to stalking the boss, man. I’m doing great and Natasha probably just got sick of your face.” Piling egg on top of bacon on top of pancake, Clint speared his tower and shovelled it into his mouth. “Fo ffftop worrng, affhol.”

“Worrying implies I care,” Tony replied, taking an unaffected sip of his scotch and turning away. Clint choked on his own laugh. “To prove my point, I’m not administering CPR when that mess gives you the heart attack you deserve.”

Tony rolled his eyes as Clint flipped him off with his free hand, still shovelling food with the other. Manners obviously took a back seat to the small mountain of food he was trying to demolish.

With no support from Clint on the mystery of Natasha Romanoff, instead rather a brief moment of unwelcome insight, Tony felt a little deflated. His people skills had never been great, but he’d always been able to spot a flaw in an otherwise perfect design. If Winterheart was a well-oiled machine, Natasha was the missing cog that was locking up the engine. They were all there for a reason, he knew that. So what happened when one of the pieces withdrew entirely?

At a guess, Winterheart wanted them for Loki’s purposes. Maybe just as entertainment, maybe something more important than that. There was also that bird flapping around that no one but Tony ever seemed to see or hear. Loki himself kept a keen eye on things, but other than yanking them out of life-threatening trouble didn’t do much but brood over his past and watch Tony work in the armoury. Well, that and criticise his work.

It turned out that Loki had more skills than just shooting ice when he got angry. He knew his way around a blade, including maintaining and smithing one. He’d talked Tony though the creation of a majestic spring-loaded knife, though the spring had been a trial he still couldn’t talk about without getting angry. Loki had declined to use the forge himself, but something told Tony that in a pinch he’d be able to fight through the heat discomfort and create something even more deadly than Tony could produce. Maybe his tolerance for heat had gone way down after hanging out in Winterheart for too long.

Wandering the halls after his talk with Clint, Tony found himself following in reverse the path he’d taken the first time he met Loki. From the row of bedrooms around to the clawed stairwell to the west wing, past it and down the darkened hallway to the colder exposed stone hallway past the grand staircase. There wasn’t much to look at with the entire castle mostly abandoned, but there was something calming about simply walking the long, lonely halls.

It seemed only natural to follow the path up the narrow spiral staircase to the tower cells, trailing a balancing hand along the wall as he ascended. He hadn’t been up there since the first day, back when he thought it was going to be the last four walls he’d ever see.

Tony was so caught up in the memory of that day that it almost seemed natural for a redheaded woman to be sitting inside one of those cells, an unlabelled bottle of spirits sitting beside her.

Natasha barely lifted her head when Tony yanked on the cell door, finding it locked tight.

“Eighty-six rooms in this castle and you picked this one to visit,” Natasha said. There was a faint slur to her speech. “Just my fucking luck.” She took a healthy swig from her bottle and sat it on the wooden cot beside her. Tony just tried to breathe.

“Did Loki put you in here?”

“Is that his name?” Natasha tipped her head back against the wall. “Pretty. I guess you two really are getting friendly. What else does he tell you?”

Ignoring her, Tony rattled the door again. There had been a key on the wall that day, but looking around gave him no clues. When he turned back to her, she was swinging an iron key around one finger. It vanished like a magician’s trick a moment later.

“Calm down, Stark; the boss only has eyes for you these days. He doesn’t even so much as glare at me anymore.” Her mouth curved into an unsteady smile. “I’ve outdone myself. Outcast in a house of outcasts.”

Tony was beginning to feel more than a little out of his depth. Natasha had always been hard to read with the creeping about and spying on them, but she’d never gotten shitfaced and locked herself in a cell before.

“I don’t think it counts as being cast out when you isolate yourself, Romanoff.” He gestured at the room around them, at the iron bars and rough-hewn stone walls. “What is this sending yourself to the naughty corner bullshit? Do you want to be punished? Because I’ve had some experience with spanking before, believe it or not.”

Natasha just looked out at him with eyes like fractured jade.

“You know, I liked you better when you were broken. Clint’s too damn happy-go-lucky, but you? You reeked of hell the first day you came here. Full up with ghosts and mistakes, just like me.” Taking another punishing gulp of alcohol, she flung the key at Tony without looking. It bounced off the wall and landed near his shoe. “I guess your crossroads actually had a sign.”

Picking up the key, Tony felt it bite into his palm as he clenched his fist around it. Keys and cages and forgotten rooms. He hadn’t realised Natasha had been doing it so tough. Clint had been busy lately with his archery and orbiting Loki whenever he appeared. Loki wasn’t the sort to bother with any of them, and Tony…had been preoccupied with Loki and getting to know what was going on with him. His history, his family, his powers.

Natasha had no-one. Somehow she’d seen herself as falling behind, or not measuring up. Hadn’t she said something about that out on the ice that day? The crossroads. Choice. Winterheart was some kind of salvation to her.

Opening his hand, Tony stared down at the key.

“I’m going to keep this for a minute,” he said slowly. “I’ve got an errand to run.” Natasha’s head flew up.

“What the hell are you—”

“You want to be held prisoner, don’t you?” Tony interrupted with a shrug. “It’s a little redundant, considering where we are, but don’t let that crush your fantasy. I am more than willing to help.” Turning for the stairwell, he ignored Natasha as she rattled the door, spitting curses at his back as he walked away. The bottle bounced off the wall in front of him, shattering into tinkling shards of glass. The acrid stink of gin rose in the air. Really? Gin?

Praying for her capacity to forgive him for what he was about to do, Tony jogged through the castle with one destination in mind. If she wanted to keep company with broken things then he was going to do his best to oblige. He obviously didn’t fit the criteria anymore. Whatever that meant. I liked you better when you were broken. Who the hell just said that to another human being and meant it? For that matter, what had given her the impression he was fixed?

Tony knocked twice on the door to Loki’s chamber and pushed it open without any preamble, belatedly hoping he wasn’t naked or asleep. Or both. Distracted by that idea, it took him a moment to realise that Loki was sitting on the other side of the room in his enormous wing-backed chair, studying his apple.

His apple, which was floating above his palm and suffused with a brilliant golden light. It seemed brighter than Tony remembered it being, but then his memory lied like any other.

“It’s customary to await my call before barging into my chamber,” Loki said without looking up. “But your timing is impeccable. Come and see this.”

Swallowing the speech that had been crowding his tongue, Tony let himself be waylaid. Five minutes more wouldn’t matter much. Maybe she’d already passed out in a sulky drunken stupor. Approaching the chair, careful not to knock the bell jar where it sat on the table, Tony knelt by Loki’s feet and squinted against the apple’s light.

“So it just floats a controlled distance from the nearest surface beneath it,” he observed, watching it hover over Loki’s palm. “That’s pretty cool.”

Loki clucked his tongue in annoyance. “That’s not remotely what I was interested in. But if you wish to heap praise on the apple’s ability to float then by all means, continue.”

“I don’t like your tone,” Tony said, squinting at him. When Loki just rolled his eyes, it was easy to reach out and scoop the apple into his own hands, cupping them beneath the hovering light. “This is amazing. I feel like it should be beating.”

“Were it able, it would be pounding right now,” Loki said, bending forward so that his face was opposite Tony’s, the apple glowing between them. “You’ve grown bold with what’s precious to me, Tony Stark.”

“Don’t lie. You hate this thing.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah.” Tony liked the smile that earned him. “You should just give it to someone who can appreciate it. Me, for instance. Huge appreciation for magic apples right here.”

Loki swiped his hand beneath the apple, his knuckles brushing Tony’s palm.

“You’d take everything from me if you could.” The words were tossed at him with casual amusement. “My powers, my secrets, my weapons, my curse; you want them all. You’re the essence of greed.”

“Curiosity, not greed. I like to tinker. Only a twenty percent breakage rate.” Might as well be somewhat honest.

“Hm. Your tinkering bears strange fruit indeed.”

Tony watched as the apple was placed back on the table, the bell jar lowering over the top of it. As it turned slowly from the movement, he realised what Loki had been trying to show him.

“You know, that apple is looking downright crisp. Is there less rotting than before?” At Loki’s satisfied nod Tony straightened up, staring. “Why aren’t you more freaked out about this? What did you do to it?”

I did nothing.” Seeming unbothered by the apple’s new radiance, Loki tossed the sheet over it and turned back to Tony. “What brings you to my wing at this hour?”

Right. Natasha.

“First of all, thanks for not freezing my extremities when I came in.” When he received an impatient frown at that Tony barrelled right ahead with a blurted, “So I might have locked Natasha in the tower cell. Actually, she locked herself in and I kind of left her there.” He held out the key. “She’s having an existential crisis. Can you fix it?”

Loki stared at the key. His eyebrows were raised almost to his horns.

“You’re severely overestimating my ability to mend anything at all, let alone that woman and her demons.” When Tony just shook the key for emphasis, Loki took it and frowned. “None know better than I that you can spend a lifetime regretting past actions. A reckless fool with a beacon in his chest told me to stop dwelling on the past. Perhaps she need only listen to the same.” He held the key back out to Tony.

“I don’t think I’m the best man for this job.”

“Then give it to Barton.”

“It has to be you.” Trying to think of a non-offensive way to explain, he offered the only thing he could. “She thinks like you do. That it’s all hopeless and she’s being punished and—I don’t know, that she’s failed someone. It’s all bullshit, Loki.” Wrapping his hand around the offered key, Tony pushed it gently back against Loki’s chest. The heart beneath was thumping strong and hard.

“She broke my back in three places,” Loki said.

Tony reeled.

“I didn’t know that.”

“Of course not. She doesn’t know it either, but I almost shattered my skull on the stone. My eye socket fractured and my left eye wept blood for a week until I could pull the shard of bone out with my claws.” When he lifted his eyes to Tony’s his gaze was grim. “Two hours before that happened, she looked me in the eye and warmly thanked me for saving her life. You would ask me to console her over her poor choices in life? Her duplicity?”

Tony swallowed.

“No, actually. I want you to give her hell for it.” He stepped back. “Then tell her you forgive her and unlock the cell.” That had really happened? If it had, how injured had Loki been after he saved him on the stairs that day?

Before Loki could throw another argument at him Tony backed away, palms raised in entreaty. He waited for Loki to get out of his chair and approach him before speaking again.

“We’re all here for a reason, right? Because of you. She represents something, I know she does. It’s the only crooked piece in the puzzle that I can see.”

Loki had been reaching for his shoulders but at Tony’s words he froze, something strange passing over his features. Whatever emotion or thought it had been was there and gone before it could be deciphered.

“Treachery,” Loki breathed, his eyes locking with Tony’s. He looked stunned. “He wanted me betrayed, as I betrayed. She was the lesson.” Cold hands squeezed the curve of Tony’s shoulders, the key threaded through his fingers. Awed understanding had illuminated Loki’s features, afraid and hopeful at the same time. “He didn’t just abandon me here. How did you understand this before I did?”

“I have no idea what you’re saying to me.”

Tinkering,” Loki said, still having a revelation that was kind of scaring Tony if he was honest about it. Careful claws stroked their way down the side of his face, feather-light and almost reverent. “Idiot.”

“Hey,” Tony protested feebly, but Loki was already striding toward the door. Presumably to let Natasha out, or at least he hoped so. Which left him suddenly and excitingly alone in Loki’s chamber.

Staring around himself at the cluttered mess of destroyed furniture and half-frozen furnishings, Tony found himself at a loss. Loki’s rambling had given him plenty to think about. Were they all there to serve some kind of purpose to his imprisonment? He’d been toying with the concept of why they’d been specifically chosen for some time, but Loki didn’t need to know he’d just been spouting random theories. It seemed like he’d struck the mother lode by accident.

Had Loki’s father, the adoptive dad who’d locked him up, allowed them access because they resembled some icon of Loki’s original crime? Some mirrored part of himself? Why had Pepper been allowed in? For her organisational skills? Did one of them have a capacity for genocide?

“A person could go mad like this,” Tony said aloud, then realised he was talking to himself. “Oh my god.”

Deciding to get some air on the open balcony, he walked out into the frigid darkness. There was a slight breeze rustling dead leaves somewhere in the courtyard, but it wasn’t snowing for once. Tipping his face up to the sky, Tony was stunned to see a single white star shining back down at him amidst the thick blanket of snow clouds. It wasn’t the evening star, whatever it was, but the pressure of that light drilling down into his eyes felt unearthly. Intimidating.

Tony saluted it with his middle finger and walked back inside.

The place was weird enough already.


Asgard - Observatory

Hescamar hopped along his golden perch, bobbing twice.

“No respect, that one. Cleverness by the wagonload, scored heart and sore eyes. Chaos and lights. He smells of metal and sand.” Cocking his head, the raven’s golden eyes shone. “You gamble much, Gatekeeper.”

Heimdall smiled faintly, bearing down on his greatsword. Stars reflected their iridescent brilliance in his eyes, glimmering like dew in spiderweb. The spider was nowhere to be seen.

“The Allfather’s forgotten raven would not have agreed to lure him without his own belief this could be done.”

“Hescamar sees wisdom in the omniscient one. Hescamar also sees no loss to him if this gamble should fail.” Flaring his wingspan, the bird flapped a single, powerful beat. A starry portal opened, dusted faintly with coming snow. “The human carries as much healing as he does destruction. One wrong step and the young prince’s scars will tear anew. You know what awaits us all the day that one can’t be saved.”

“The cycle hasn’t finished yet.”

“The cycle is never finished, Gatekeeper. You know as I do that Winterheart’s enchantment can only hold for twenty-one years. If Loki doesn’t break his curse before he is freed, the Allfather won’t receive him into Asgard. For him, the Nine will become eight.”

“Save your dark words for a darker day, raven. There is still time.”

“Not nearly enough,” Hescamar replied, turning for the snowy rift. “Keep your vigil. I won’t return before the end.”

Heimdall watched the raven glide through the portal, buoyed by its own magic. Its gaze was too narrow to see what was happening. If Odin saw it too, he was keeping his own counsel over it.

By magic or iron, Winterheart’s time would end soon.



Castle Winterheart

Tony didn’t really remember what time he sat himself down in the chair or how long he studied the apple for, but it was a long time waiting in the cold darkness before Loki returned. So long, in fact, that Tony didn’t realise he’d been dozing against one cushioned headrest until a shadow fell between him and the apple’s glow.

“Stark?” Fingertips touched his shoulder, but the line between sleep and wakefulness was still too thick to acknowledge the call. He’d just gotten warm, damn it. “Wake up.”

Tony knew it was Loki hovering over him, knew it by the hoarseness of his voice and the warm gust of breath on his cheek. The smell of fallen snow and furs. Cured hide and cold nights. He was getting familiar with that scent. When cloth rustled and a cool hand pressed to the inside of his wrist, he awoke enough that memory began to return. Natasha and the cell. Loki had gone to fetch her and then…

“Hey,” Tony sighed, stifling a yawn. He barely recognised his own sleep-rough voice. “What time is it?” Blinking against the apple’s shine, it took him a moment to see Loki kneeling beside him in a reversal of their earlier position. He didn’t look injured at all. Good things did happen.

“It’s late.” Loki’s lips twitched, his fingers sliding around Tony’s wrist and squeezing carefully. Inside that cool grip Tony felt his pulse throb; a warm, rising drum beat he was sure Loki could feel. “I expected you to retire to your own chambers, not sleep in mine.”

“Sorry. I was just…” Tony sought for an explanation that didn’t sound stupid or contain the word ‘worried’. He didn’t find one. “Guess I was tired from doing nothing.”

That earned him an unexplained wince, Loki’s shoulders tensing back slightly. The fingers curled around his wrist relaxed and slid away.

“Here I thought you were adept at entertaining yourself.” Pulling away, Loki stood and glanced around the room. “Did you find something to pique your interest in my absence?” There was something off about the way he asked that question. It felt like a trap and Tony found himself sitting straighter because of it.

“I didn’t go through your stuff, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said cautiously. “Obvious insult aside, broken furniture and melting chunks of ice aren’t really much of a mystery to me. I nodded off waiting for you to come back.” He hesitated. “Listen, did something happen with Natasha?”

“She’s fine,” Loki replied shortly. Tony’s eyebrows lifted.

“If you say so.” He just hoped Natasha wasn’t still locked in her cell up there. That would earn him at least a few broken bones. Seeming to realise he’d snapped, Loki relented slightly.

“We spoke at length. She was uncharacteristically verbose on the subject of her imprisonment. You said that you believed there was some personal similarity between us.” His gaze was shuttered. “You may have been right.”

Getting to his feet, Tony glanced out at the balcony. It was definitely in the wee hours. Had they been talking up there the whole time? It was hard to even imagine them having enough topics to fill out that length of time, let alone the willingness to stay in each other’s company that long. Now Loki had come back looking at him like he was a sleep-deprived intruder instead of…whatever he was. Friend didn’t seem to fit. But looking at him then Tony didn’t even know why he’d bothered to wait anyway.

“That’s…great. Mission accomplished for me, I guess.”

Loki nodded stiffly, his eyes subtly scanning the room. Looking for anything out of place? Unbelievable.

“Right then,” Tony said abruptly, tearing his gaze away. Offended anger was a hot brand in his chest. “Guess I’ll see you around.” But not up in the west wing. Territory missteps weren’t going to happen again, that was for sure. If only just so he didn’t have to feel like an undesired spare part in the machine he’d just fixed.

Tony made it to the door before a final thought occurred to him.

“That apple’s light increases by about twenty percent when it’s alone in human hands compared to the bell jar,” he told Loki over his shoulder. “Averaged by five minute contact intervals over ninety minutes. It’s probably just useless data.” He closed the door behind him with a decisive click.

How was it possible to do a good deed and feel like shit about it? When it resulted in being accused of snooping, obviously. His own idiot fault for falling asleep in there instead of just leaving right away. The apple’s illumination discrepancies hadn’t been that important.

Heading back to his room, Tony rubbed his wrist and wondered why he felt like something had just gone wrong. Whatever it was, they’d all have to get over it eventually.

After all, they had nothing but time.


“You’ve ruined everything.” Clint glared out at the target, loosing bolt after bolt in a lightning-fast barrage that infested the central target with an overlapping cluster of sharp metal. “You made them friends. Do you know how stupid that was?”

“I thought it would fix things.”

“You need to lay off this thinking thing,” Clint replied irritably. “I told you to leave it alone. Why does no-one listen to me? Do I make ocean sounds when I open my mouth? Is that what you hear?” Three more arrows crowded the bullseye in quick succession.

“Calm down before you burst something.” Sitting on the third-last step of the grand staircase, Tony passed over arrows with his free hand. The other was nursing a neat bourbon that he didn’t really feel like drinking, but it just seemed like that kind of afternoon. He was all kinds of up shit creek, hell in a hand-basket, paved with good intentions screwed.

It turned out that Loki and Natasha really were birds of a feather, or whatever the saying was when unlikely friends started spending all their time together and generally having the irritating kind of secret handshake friendship that gave Tony flashbacks to being fourteen and lonely at MIT.

A week after Loki had let Natasha out, it was nearly impossible to find one without the other. Loki was taking snow-dusted walks along the borders with Natasha. They even ate dinner together, if their appearance by Cook’s window had been any indication. Neither Tony nor Clint had spoken a word to them in the entire time except for the occasional awkward hello.

They’d gone from bitter loners to conjoined twins, leaving no room for either himself or the maniac archer venting his frustrations into the wall.

“He likes her,” Clint grunted, sweat beginning to bead on his brow. “He always liked her. S’why he took it so hard when she laid him out. We could lie in the snow for the wolves to eat and they probably wouldn’t yank their heads out of each other’s asses. You screwed yourself out of your title, man.”

“What title?”

“Boss’s favourite, dipshit. Now you’re just like me.”

Ouch.

“Stop moping. Let’s just be drunk martyrs and toast to their happiness.”

“Fuck that. Let’s knock them down the stairs together.”

Despite his mood, Tony surprised himself with a laugh. Clint was definitely taking his daily absence of grouchy redhead a lot worse than he was. Neither Loki nor Natasha had really been around that much for him personally, and after the last time they spoke Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to talk to Loki without some indication of an apology. Wishful thinking. Maybe the absence Tony was feeling was just what happened when he stopped chasing Loki for secrets and answers. Maybe now he had Natasha for those.

Panting lightly, Clint sat himself down next to Tony. His forearm was wrapped in frayed bandages, showing reddened skin where they’d parted slightly from wear. Grabbing the arm and ignoring the protests that came with it, Tony pulled the bandages apart and examined the injury. The skin was hot and raw-looking, scored with a horizontal welt from what had to be the bowstring striking his arm.

“Shit. Why didn’t you say anything?”

Clint laughed. “Because this is a good hurt. A real good hurt. I haven’t had one of these since Trickshot told me I couldn’t have a bracer til I hit the perfect centre of the target.” Tugging the bandages off the rest of the way, Clint studied the redness of his inner forearm and shrugged. “I’m an archer again. I’ll get used to the bow. Til then, who gives a shit about a little pain?”

“Sane people. Sane people give a shit.” Budging over and measuring his forearm against Clint’s, Tony made a few mental calculations for a lace-up leather arm-guard that he could make. Leather laces would mean slicing up some of his stash, but he wasn’t using it for anything. Not using metal also meant the size would be adjustable for best fit.

Tony was jostled out of his thoughts when Clint shoved his shoulder into his.

“Check ‘em out,” he whispered, ragged thumbnail picking at the edge of an arrowhead. Across the grand entrance hall, Natasha and Loki were dusting snow off their shoulders. Another walk outside? A tight and miserable lump inside Tony turned almost painful at the sight. It almost made sense to prod at it.

“Well, if it isn’t the spy who came in from the cold,” Tony called out, aggressively cheerful. At his side, Clint went rigid and stabbed his thumb. “No hard feelings about last week, right? I don’t want to wake up hanging by my toes over that one.”

Natasha diverted her path over to them, tugging up a skirt sodden at the hem from dragging in the snow. As she came closer Tony was able to see the same tired flatness in her eyes that had bothered him before. Why wasn’t she living it up? Loki had forgiven her after three years.

“You owe me a new bottle of gin,” she said flatly. Tony had two seconds of annoyance before her arms opened and she bent to hug him, her fingernails digging into his back.

“Ow.” At his side, Clint silently reached over and jammed his fingers under Natasha’s, prising her nails free. Natasha just turned her mouth against Tony’s ear, her whispered words short and intense.

“You’d better make a move soon, Genius, before I start crushing on you.”

“What?” Tony asked, baffled.

“What?” Clint asked, worried.

Pressing a kiss to Tony’s cheek and dragging her long nails backwards through Clint’s hair, Natasha drew back and stepped around them, ascending the stairs to wherever she’d decided to crouch next. Across the hall, Loki was already gone, nothing but a flick of green mantle disappearing into a hallway.

Tony stared at the dark doorway for a long time. Clint just dropped his arrow with a clank, grabbed Tony’s bourbon and downed the entire thing in one hit.

“So you…and the boss?” he wheezed, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist. “What’s that like?”

“Nothing, Barton. It’s like nothing because Natasha has a stupid idea in her head.” Tony picked up the discarded arrow and examined the tip. “He got over his big skin contact phobia, that’s all.” He shrugged as he spun the arrow across his fingers. “Guess he’s done with me.”

Clint was silent for a moment, then laid a supportive hand on Tony’s shoulder.

“Look…” he trailed off. A moment later, a sigh of resignation gusted out of him. “If you need a pity fuck, I guess I’m here for you man. Just make sure you give me a reach-around.”

Tony barked a laugh. “You’re an asshole of the highest order, you know that?” He stood in one rusty motion and dusted himself off. “Get back to your damn arrows. I’m going for a walk.”

“Uh-huh. If I see the boss I’ll shoot him so you can nurse him back to—ow, fuck. Fine, get out.”

Leaving Clint to rub the side of his head and congratulate himself on being an enormous dick, Tony headed for the main entrance doors. He needed a distraction from what had just happened and he sure wasn’t going to seek it out in the armoury. Somehow it didn’t feel like it was his anymore, key or no key.

So like any self-destructive man with a bone to pick with himself, Tony walked out into a gentle flurry of falling snow, yanking the doors shut with an echoing boom behind him.

It was quiet outside, almost silent but for the mild breeze brushing his ears. Standing in front of the giant stone entrance with the drawbridge stretching out to the iron gates, it was easy to soak up the sense of immediate isolation. The air smelled like wet leaves and rotting wood; a strangely pleasant, organic smell that filled his lungs with chilly air.

It felt lonely. Tony knew he should be inside, should be in his armoury sweating over a new creation. He’d even made ice skates to give to Natasha as a joke before everything had gone to hell. He still wasn’t sure what he’d done, no matter which way he turned it over in his head and he had too much damn pride to ask Natasha what they’d talked about. Whatever had happened, it seemed to mean no more trading light-hearted barbs in the armoury. No more casual touches, no hinted warmth or shared secrets. No more anything, if the last week had been anything to go by.

“Christ, I’m moping,” Tony told the snow. “I’m jealous, I’m moping and I’d rather be outside than in my workshop. I really have lost my mind.”

Overhead, a familiar black shape swooped out of the sky and settled above the double doors behind him. Twitching its head, a single, gold-gleaming eye regarded him with predatory interest.

“Take thy beak from out my heart,” Tony quoted up to the raven, snorting. It was the only line he remembered clearly. He jammed his hands into his trouser pockets for warmth and started toward the drawbridge. “Just don’t shit on me and stay up on that door.”

Behind him, the bird loosed a rough cry. Tony ignored it.

The curved gates rose huge as he approached, curled black iron standing twenty feet tall. Unlocked, just like they’d been unlocked the first time he dashed out through them. Daring him to leave again. Almost completely healed, his scarred calf gave a small throb of remembrance. Like that was going to happen.

The raven’s caw echoed back to him again. Wings fluttered somewhere. On the other side of the gates, the feral shine of lupine eyes stared back at him from the concealing shrubbery of the woods. The wolves had returned. Or had they even left? Tony wondered at it as they crept closer to the gate, their patient, flat gazes waiting for him to do something stupid.

The alpha was right in front of him, not ten feet away. The same one that had stopped its attack on Loki because he’d stepped close on one bleeding leg and told it no. Or maybe that had just been the raven again. Would killing it break the spell? Did it control the wolves?

“Come closer,” Tony found himself saying to the wolf. It stood with a straight back as tall as his waist, round eyes almost glowing. Nothing, there was nothing in the gaze. No aggression, no hunger.

The wolf took three strides forward and pushed its muzzle against the gate.

Tony swallowed, shocked and afraid. Okay. So it understood him. Important data. Very important. Jesus. As long as he was inside there was no drive to hurt him, were those the rules? He turned his eyes up the gate’s highest arch and down to the earth beneath it. Where was the boundary spell contained? Did opening the gate give the wolves permission to come inside?

If they could, what would they do?

“I’m about to do something stupid,” Tony told the wolf. “But I need to know.”

Reaching out and grabbing the iron gate just over the wolf’s head, he took a single deep breath and tugged both doors open wide. Dizzy with the fear and adrenaline the act had sent rushing through his system, Tony covered his stomach and throat in an instinctive bid for protection.

The alpha just stared at him, as docile and meek as a lamb. No attack, no howl, no snarling. Tony knew he was officially courting death when he didn’t slam the gates closed again and run back into the castle. Whatever was happening, it was game-changing.

“What—okay, what happens when you try to come onto the castle grounds?” he asked, panting despite himself. Cold sweat was tricking down his spine. “You can’t hurt anyone who hasn’t escaped. Your pack are the real wardens of Winterheart.”

Cocking its head, the wolf lifted one huge paw and made as if to step forward past the gates.

The raven let out a furious barrage of sound that sent two wolves scattering back into the trees, whining low in their throats as they bolted. But the alpha didn’t run with them. There was something less than empty in its eyes as it stepped forward into the castle grounds.

The resulting blaze of gold thrown up in front of Tony was so dense and brilliant that it knocked him back on his ass in surprise, staining his vision and temporarily blinding him. The air smelled like lightning and charred fur.

A wall, it was a wall of gold and the wolf had triggered the spell—

“Oh shit,” Tony croaked, blinking away the spots in his eyes and rocking forward onto his knees to focus on the wolf. “Oh my god. You poor bastard.”

Lying on its side, wheezing the last of the breath in its lungs, the wolf stared at him with eyes holding a light that was slowly going out. Its paw was completely gone, the stump bleeding sluggishly into the snow. On its side was a burn that had scored through the alpha’s thick fur and deep into its skin. The pattern looked familiar; something old, reused in jewellery. A three-pointed knot.

The wolf’s eyes were still staring at him when they went dark.

Tony pushed the gates closed with numb fingers, his mind a wash of white noise. Magic walls that would let people out but only for the wolves to catch. Walls that wouldn’t let wolves in. Walls that killed.

They really were all trapped there forever.

The thumping beat of wings signalled the raven coming to land on the apex of the gate’s arches. Tony didn’t look up from his clenched hands, sour saliva rushing into his mouth as he tried to breathe.

“Nevermore,” the raven croaked, and flew away into the woods.

Tony slid to his knees and threw up into the snow.

When he could finally gather himself, he went back inside the castle with a hollow fist of banked panic choking him. A visible network of deadly magic, he thought unsteadily, taking the stairs around and up into the west wing. He almost missed the top step still buried in the memory of the wolf’s dead eyes. Stumbling slightly, he caught himself in time to see Loki retracting the hand he’d been about to catch him with. His brow was furrowed in annoyed confusion.

“Sorry,” Tony said automatically, not even sure what he was apologising for. The stink of burnt fur was still in his nose. “Don’t let me interrupt—whatever you were doing.”

He tried to side-step Loki and continue to the armoury, fumbling for the key in his pocket. To sit and breathe, that was what he needed to do. But cool hands stopped him at his shoulders, turning him so he was looking into Loki’s eyes.

“What’s the matter with you?” he demanded. “What’s happened? Are the other two—”

“They’re fine,” Tony said, tugging away. “I’m—” not fine “—just headed for the armoury.” He tried to get around Loki again, but he was having none of it. Catching him at his upper arms again, Loki opened his mouth but it was Tony who spoke, the words ripped out of him by the roots.

Let go.” The hands vanished so fast he staggered. Loki backed away from him, his eyes wide and burning with shame. Nausea twisted Tony’s stomach but he stopped, leaning back on the wall for support. “I can’t. I can’t handle this place. The boundaries, the snow, the wolves, that applethis place isn’t right. None of it’s right.” He pulled in a shuddering breath, his eyes burning. Definitely going mad, Tony thought thinly. “I think it’s just starting to hit me. Took a few months longer than I thought. I’ll be fine.”

“You—” The word was broken glass in Loki’s throat. “You would petition for freedom?”

“No.” He was in too deep for that to tempt him anymore. “No. I dug this hole. I’ve just…I’ve gotta bury myself for a while.” Blinking the image of the wolf away, he focussed on Loki with something approaching real attention for the first time since coming inside. “Are you okay?”

Loki looked completely wretched. Tiredness gathered in the creases of his eyes and mouth, and there was a cornered hunch to his shoulders that Tony hadn’t noticed before. Maybe because they had both been too busy ignoring each other from a distance. Were Natasha and Loki making each other miserable?

The pang of concern Tony felt was enough of a distraction from his own magical breakdown that he actually found himself taking a step toward him, but Loki was already turning away from him. Tony stopped. All right then.

“Hey, Loki?” he called after him, feeling about as wrung out as Loki looked. “Get some rest. I’ll…I’ll keep out of the armoury for a few days.”

Loki hesitated by his door a moment, his back to Tony. The glance he gave over his shoulder was profoundly sad. Sad and tired beyond measure, but he didn’t reply, just walked into his chamber and closed the door quietly behind him.

Turning around, Tony sat on the top of the stairs and stared at the key in his hands. He was still blindly turning it over when Natasha walked by, catching sight of him in the corner of her eye and stopping short.

“Hey,” she whispered, alarmed. Her eyes darted into the hall beyond him and back again. “Come down from there before he sees you. Tony?” Whatever she saw in his face when he met her eyes sent her dashing lightly up the stairs, her green eyes fierce.

“I’m fine,” he muttered as she ran her hands over his face and fingers, checked his pulse and temperature with a slim hand to his forehead. “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not,” she whispered back, sitting down next to him. “You might actually be exhibiting symptoms of mild shock. What happened?”

“You shouldn’t be here, you know.” At that piece of quiet advice, Natasha’s mouth firmed.

“Did he do this to you?” There were things worse than oil traps flashing in her clear eyes. Somehow, seeing that made Tony’s mouth stretch into a smile.

“I’ve been pissed off at you all week, Romanoff. Don’t go and thaw me out now with your pretty threats of grievous bodily harm.” Pushing the key back inside his pocket, Tony slung his arm around the curve of her waist, tucking her against his side. Holding grudges was hard.

“Sorry, but he and I had a lot to talk about. Not all of it was good. But you know I’ve been doing recon for you as well, right?” Natasha said, leaning her head on his shoulder. “I couldn’t get a real angle on him, but you? You were looking at him like the secrets of the universe were trapped under his ribs.” She shook her head. “No, not secrets. Purpose. Yours, maybe. After he let me out last week, I had a chance to find out why.”

“Old habits die hard with you, don’t they?” Tony said wearily. “But your intel plan backfired. I don’t think he wants anything to do with me.”

Natasha snorted so loudly it reverberated through his arm.

“Just keep doing whatever you’re doing, Tony.”

“Sure.” He was already on the downhill slide, might as well make a perfect ten landing. “You want some advice from me? Spend some time with Clint before he decides to make good on his offers to shoot Loki and have sex with me.” Tony covered Natasha’s mouth as she burst into bawdy, wicked laughter, casting a look back up the hallway. No movement – yet. He yanked his hand away in disgust when Natasha stuck her tongue into his palm.

“Can you think of something that might drag him away from his damned bow and quiver? I swear he’s two steps from trying to put his dick in it.” She frowned. “Can you masturbate with a bow?”

Tony put his face in his hands. “And to think I needed therapy before this conversation ever took place.” He thought about her original question. “If I trust your spymaster intuition and do something, can I count on you to protect me if it all goes south?”

“You can count on me,” she said firmly, her eyes locked on his with more intensity than he’d expected. It made him wonder if she meant something else altogether. “We’re a team.”

Tony watched in bemused silence as she got up and dusted herself off, hopping her way back down the stairs. Offering him a mocking curtsey from the safety of the corridor, Natasha was whirling away and out of sight, just a blue flash there and gone again.

A team, he thought when he was alone. A maniac archer, a shifty ex-assassin, an ironmonger and a chained-up frost giant. Sure, why not? It was as good a word as any for their mismatched camaraderie. Or at least, it had been.

‘Just keep doing what you’re doing’ had done pretty well for him up until last week, Tony decided, getting to his feet. Maybe if they were speaking again he could tell Loki about what he’d done. What he’d seen. But before any of that could happen, he had to drag Loki back out of his cave without Natasha to lure him with her spy pheromones.

He had some work to do.


It took two days for his plan to form something workable and possibly even successful. Three days to be completely truthful, but Tony had spent one of those having the worst sleep of his entire life, Afghanistan included. Three-point knots and golden eyes in the darkness were all that had waited for him in the brief moments of sleep he’d clawed to his chest, desperate for something to blot out the wolf from the corner of his eye. It hadn’t really worked.

Tony also felt desperately guilty for putting that look on Loki’s face in the stairwell. Maybe he hadn’t been in his right mind, maybe he’d been a little unbalanced but recoiling from Loki had been the absolute worst thing he could have done. There was no way to take it back, either. Not in any way that would matter. Moving forward in whatever way he could was the best solution he could come up with. That was where his plan came into play.

Clint was turning into a medieval munitions freak, labouring over his bow for lack of anything else to interest him. Natasha was usually watching on in veiled misery, stitching herself something with blind motions as her eyes followed her friend’s mechanical venting of stress. She never approached him and Clint never acknowledged her, at least not that Tony could tell. Natasha’s problems went deeper than their silence, he knew that. Instead of improving after clearing the air with Loki she’d actually seemed to decline a little further. The machine was falling to pieces, all right.

Loki was back up in his wing, as far as anyone could tell. Tony hadn’t knocked or called out; too absorbed in his own work and the low task of being a gutless asshole.

The plan had started with the ice skates. Featuring badly-cobbled brown leather and laces bolted down onto a honed blade and spiked toe pick, they made the ugliest pair of skates ever made. Inspired, Tony had made a second pair of a larger size. They’d get the job done, but no one was going to be winning any fashion competitions while wearing them.

With his part done and preparations in place, Tony eventually stood at the door to Loki’s chamber and thought about what to say. Something clever maybe, or something that overlooked the state he’d been in a few days ago. He came up blank.

Instead, he just rapped on the door and waited. When in doubt, dive in head first.

Something creaked inside. After a moment’s silence, the door was opened. Loki stared at him blankly. His eyes had the exhausted glaze of someone who had given up in the pursuit of rest. His dark hair, usually hanging down his back in a thick curtain, hung ignored in his eyes. Shoulders that had always been straight beneath his fur pelt looked like they were bearing some crushing invisible weight. Atlas could take pointers from him.

“What is it?” Loki asked hoarsely as the silence stretched. Tony yanked himself out of his worried musing. Business first.

“I need a favour. A big one, I think.” He jerked his chin to the stairwell. “Walk with me?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Loki frowned and stepped out into the hallway, hands tucked inside his mantle. His pointed glance down the hall was all the agreement Tony was going to receive. Lead on, that look said. Don’t waste my time.

Their trek wasn’t long, but it took some of the twists and turns off the usual beaten path of staircase, solar, entrance hall, Cook. Tony himself hadn’t been down there more than twice himself. Once to do Clint’s job for him and then again to take his gear down. It was all a risk, really, taking a chance on Loki when he wasn’t even in his confidence anymore. Ousted before he even knew what he’d done wrong.

It didn’t matter, Tony told himself firmly. He had all the answers he needed to continue exploring the castle on his own. The raven had taught him that.

Loki’s expression flickered slightly as they approached the ballroom’s unmistakably huge wooden doors. The look he darted Tony was speculative but summarily ignored as the doors were pushed open, revealing the echoing darkness inside. A single lit sconce did nothing to penetrate the shadows there.

“Come on,” Tony said quietly. “I need to open up.” As Loki cautiously entered the darkness Tony shut the doors behind them both, sealing them inside.

“What are you doing?” The question was harsh, if predictable.

Tony ignored him in favour of jogging toward the faint outline of light showing around one fifteen-foot velvet curtain. Blue, if he remembered correctly. Royal blue, once Clint had painstakingly brushed the dust from each length. Running by cord and rod, the curtains covered the tall windows that ran the entire curving outer wall of the ballroom.

It was early evening, but the pale blue light that spilled through the curtains as Tony drew them open was enough to illuminate Winterheart’s forgotten ballroom. Pooling on gleaming white marble, spilling around smooth pillars and painting a latticework of shadows across everything in sight, it sure made for one hell of a view.

The ceiling was high and arched to a central point, supporting a sprawling thirty-candle chandelier suspended by a thick woven rope. Sconces dotted the walls at even intervals, their fat white candles awaiting a flame. Gleaming brass oil lanterns hung from every pillar, their glass walls cleaned of soot and sparkling. The pillars each circled the main floor; twelve white arms reaching an amazing forty feet into the air.

On the other side of the room, Loki stared around him like he’d never seen it before. When he lowered his gaze to Tony’s, something like amazement was glowing in his expression.

“Barton does good work,” Tony said by way of explanation. “Let me light her up.”

“I’ll help,” Loki replied, sounding distracted. He was still craning his neck to study everything. Tony lit two candles off the lone sconce and passed one to him, carefully making sure their skin didn’t brush. It seemed like they really were back to square one.

It took them a while to light everything. The interior space was vast and that meant candles and wicks everywhere. Together they lit everything in sight, with Loki’s longer arms reaching high for the lanterns. Tony begrudgingly left him to it and assigned himself the sconces, but it was the chandelier that ended up being the real challenge.

“I’ll lower the rope,” said Loki. Tony frowned.

“Why don’t I just do it?”

“That fixture weighs more than you do.” Without another word, Loki strode away to the anchoring ring on the far wall. The chandelier’s thick rope was intricately knotted about it like—

Nevermore.

Tony blinked himself out of a chill, confused. “Ready when you are.”

Once lowered, the chandelier was short work to light. Loki’s blue arms corded with faint strain as he held the metal mass suspended over the floor, watching Tony across the distance with a glittering red gaze. When Tony had hell’s own birthday cake flaming in front of him he stepped back, signalling Loki to smoothly haul the rope back to its original position. Once it was up it only took him a moment to loop the rope back through the bolted ring with absent, deft movements.

Blowing out his candle, Tony walked backwards to take in the sight.

“Hard to believe a place like this was hidden in here for so long,” he said, staring up at the white-and-gold radiance radiating from every corner of the room. Against that warm brilliance, the fading evening light touching the windows looked cold and unlovely. “What kind of prison castle has a room like this in it? I mean, what is this, twelve-hundred square feet of polished marble?”

Tony was so fixated on measuring the size of the floor that he didn’t hear Loki approach until a footstep sounded right beside him.

“It wasn’t always a prison. It was once a stronghold: a fortress for my family to flee to should the worst ever happen.” Loki’s eyes dropped to the floor. “It was never used, but the stones were enchanted with everything one could need in a siege. Food, water, heat, even a defensive weather pattern that could drive off even the strongest foe in a single gust of ice.”

Tony started. “Then—”

“The spells are tied to my father’s whim,” Loki cut in, his mouth twisting. “As most things are. He put me inside and bid the protection to ignore my blood and the blood of anyone who crossed the threshold.” Twitching his shoulders, he drew the fur closer around him, almost in memory.

“So we’re locked in the panic room,” Tony said slowly, sounding it out, “and the auto-targeting has us set to foe.” No wonder the wolves paced around the gate like they had. Sure they were a pack of four-legged golems, but the alpha had had enough presence of mind to respond to command. From him.

“Explain it however you will.” Loki didn’t seem interested in talking about it further. He gestured at the chandelier. “If this was your favour done then I’ll take my leave.”

Tony rewound his thoughts to his original plan, stiffening. Right.

“Actually, that was just turning on the lights for the guests.” He pointed at the marble floor. “I need you to cover all of this in ice. About three inches thick should do it.”

Loki blanched. Slowly, he turned to stare at the enormous flat expanse of marble. To him, in that moment, it must have looked like it went on forever.

“You’re insane.”

Well, that wasn’t an unexpected reaction. Not the one he wanted, though.

“I need a rink,” Tony said with a shrug. When all that earned him was a furious glare, he couldn’t help but quirk a smile. “Come on. Don’t you want to see what you’re made of?”

“I don’t possess that level of power.” Loki hunched further into the pelt on his shoulders. “And certainly not that degree of control. You ask too much.” His expression scrunched slightly. “What use is ice inside?”

Tony just pointed at the two pairs of skates resting against the wall by the doors.

“I’m getting into the entertainment business.” Loki scowled at his non-answer. “God, I’m trying to do something nice for Natasha and Clint.” And you.

“Nice.” The word was spoken like it tasted bad.

“Yeah,” Tony said, hearing the tight snap in his own voice. “Nice. It’s this concept where people don’t act like enormous gaping assholes to people who try to help them. Find a dictionary and look it up.” Ugly heat rose in his chest, swallowing the arc reactor’s ache. “Better yet, just ask Natasha. It seems like you two have plenty to talk about lately.”

His heart hammering in his chest, Tony turned around and almost headed straight for the door, the whole stupid plan be damned. Professional distance for the sake of the other two was just too far outside his capacity. Screw Loki and his favouritism, his defeatist bullshit and his one-eighty degree mood swings. What the hell was he even trying for? Why was he trying to fix things?

Because it was what he did, Tony thought, coming to a slow halt. Even if he wasn’t great at the people thing. Turning the cogs until something fell apart. Working from the inside out. Pulling out the burnt wires. Replacing pieces. Oiling the parts. Truth was, he knew he was just keeping himself busy the best way he knew how. It was a bit of a shame it had all amounted to nothing.

“I estranged myself from you because you pose a very singular danger to me, Tony Stark,” Loki said behind him. There was a strange tension in his voice, one that owed nothing to anger. “It’s nothing you’ve done.”

The ballroom briefly blurred into bright circles of light as Tony’s blood pressure peaked in record time. He was getting the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech from Loki. Dressed in prettier words, but that was the sum of it. What a joke.

The whole damn thing was a joke on him.

“I used up most of the metal,” Tony heard himself say abruptly. He pulled the key out of his pocket and tossed it in Loki’s direction. He watched it be caught it by reflex alone, only for Loki to go still when he realised what he held. “Guess it’s as good a time as any to retire.” He turned away. There was no reason to look back.

Tony got three steps away before he skidded. Heart jumping into his throat, he barely righted himself in time to see the marble turn cloudy underfoot. No, not cloudy, it was—

The windows rattled. Half the candles blew out on the south wall, pitching the corner into darkness. Tony spun around with wide eyes, waiting for the inevitable blizzard to come flying in and swallow him up again. But when the latches rattled out of their locks and the windows all blew open, it wasn’t Tony the snow speared towards.

Loki’s hands were shaking as he dropped to his knees. With eyes full of dread, he spared Tony one burning look and splayed his hands across the smooth stone.

The blizzard swelled; a full-throated elemental roar that came crashing down, circling Loki and spreading out like a tidal wave breaking on the shore. It chased the marble to every corner of the room, splashing up against the pillars and wrapping them in flowing curls of ice. At the walls, stalagmites jutted up like teeth and curved back like thorns beneath the frantic dance of any flame brave enough to stay burning.

In a single, terrifying moment, Loki had channelled the blizzard and blanketed the entire ballroom in ice.

Tony was in awe. He was so entranced by the transformation that it took him a few seconds after the power died off for him to realise his feet were cemented to the floor in three perfect inches of ice.

“Aw, my shoes.” Deciding to get those later, Tony tugged his feet out of them. Sock feet on ice wasn’t all that comfortable, but it was better than shoed feet in ice.

Panting so hard he was almost whining with each breath, Loki got to his feet and almost collapsed again. He was shuddering all over like he was freezing to death, but Tony knew better than that. This was worse.

“Loki,” he breathed, running and half-skidding to his hunched-over form. “Best tantrum ever, hands down. My god, come here. Come on, I’ve got you. We’ve done this before.” It took Tony a moment to find an ice-cold hand inside the green cloth, but he had it up and over his shoulders in no time, hauling Loki to his feet in one smooth upward surge. The poor bastard groaned as he was forcefully unfolded, his head sagging and nearly hitting Tony with his horns.

It took some shifting and not a small amount of sliding on the ice, but eventually Loki gathered his bearings and stood in Tony’s grasp, breathing like a diver that had just come up for air. Tony just laid his hand against the scar-lined curve of his jaw. His thumb swept a warm pendulum over cold skin, stopped only when Loki’s hand covered his. There was anguish in his eyes.

“You are cruel beyond measure, Tony Stark.” A shaking hand reached for his shoulder, dark claws seeing purchase in the red fabric of his shirt. “Cruel. Greedy.” He swallowed and looked away. “Your eyes make me greedy.”

It sounded like a confession. Tony slid his hand up into the pelt, fingers carding a slow trail through the plush fur. The fingers covering his twitched. Something was turning Loki’s eyes overbright and it looked a lot like guilt.

“What is it?” Tony asked. In the golden light of the icy ballroom, their words travelled warmly in the air between them. He knew he was standing too close, they were too close, but there was no will in him to pull away.

“I would keep you. Here, with me.” Loki’s eyes slid closed. “Where you would age, where you would wither and weaken and die. And I would still be here: my imprisonment made excruciating for the loss of you.”

And Tony understood everything. All of it. The sudden isolation, the coldness where before there had been everything Tony didn’t know he’d needed. Emotions were a hell of a thing when you’d been alone as long as Loki had.

“I don’t think…” Tony had to clear his throat before he continued, “I don’t think it counts as keeping me when I already chose to stay.”

Standing there, with nothing but small inches of cold air separating them, it would have been a simple matter to excuse the moment Tony’s thumb brushed the corner of Loki’s lips as an accident. But neither of them said a word, even as Loki’s gaze flickered to Tony’s mouth and away again. It was easy to lean in after that, even easier for Tony to clench his fingers in grey fur and tug him just that little bit closer.

“Have mercy on me,” Loki whispered finally, his voice cracking. He was pleading against Tony’s mouth. “Ask for your freedom. I’ll grant it.”

There it was. Just one question, just a handful of words and he’d be able to walk on out of there. But Tony knew he’d already made his decision; made it the moment he’d seen a shadow of lonely grief buried under all that noble control.

“I don’t want it,” he told Loki, and kissed him.

Maybe they were both lost causes, Tony thought as cold lips trembled under his and parted into heat, as icy hands wrapped around him and sought the vital warmth of his skin. Maybe they’d both regret it before the end. But as the candles shook in the winter night and the snow drifted in around them, it was easy to pretend everything was going to be all right.

Just for a while.



Solstice Canyon – Malibu, California

“Why all the cloak and dagger?” Rhodey leaned back on the hood of his car, jerking a thumb at the nature trail. He was the picture of easy calm, but his eyes were as sharp as ever. “You didn’t find anything here. Obadiah’s been keeping me updated.”

Pepper sucked in a short, fortifying gulp of air. This was more involved than she’d ever thought she’d be getting. Cloak and dagger indeed. Except in her case she had nothing to protect her but a silver fountain pen and a handbag full of pepper spray.

“I’m sorry for the late-night call out, but this is important.” Her fingernails tapped on the metal case of the sleek tablet clutched to her chest. “First of all, I think Obadiah might have been up to something behind Tony’s back. While I was looking into it, JARVIS came across something even stranger.”

Rhodey’s eyebrows lifted. “Well, don’t keep me in suspense.”

Pepper struggled with herself. What could she say? That Tony was trapped inside a magic castle and the government was spying on the data they’d combed for? That JARVIS had detected a sophisticated interception job that originated from a secure server cluster with more protection on it than Fort Knox?

Perhaps I could explain,” JARVIS said, muffled against Pepper’s silk blouse. Rhodey’s gaze switched to the tablet. A hesitant frown creased his features.

“Is that you, JARVIS?”

I have placed a limited remote copy of myself on this device for the purposes of conversing with Pepper for the duration of Mr Stark’s disappearance.” As JARVIS paused, Pepper turned the screen around to face Rhodey. A blue waveform graphic filled the screen; the only visual she’d had of JARVIS the entire time since she’d taken the tablet. “You may be interested in some of the information I have procured.

“Procured,” Rhodey repeated darkly. Pepper almost smiled; he sounded just as disapproving as she had that first afternoon. He adapted far more quickly though, straightening up and levelling the tablet an interested look. “Well, we’re out here in the Thousand Acre Wood and all I know is that you’ve got news on Tony, so let’s hear it. Preferably before I’m formally cautioned for going temporarily AWOL.”

Pepper remained silent as JARVIS explained the situation and the data they’d gathered. Despite being a computer program, however sophisticated, JARVIS had managed to explain everything to her just fine after she’d taken the tablet home with her. He’d been patient, clever and more than a little unnerving when it came to hacking into different agencies he’d identified as wanting a stake in Stark Industries. On more than a few occasions he’d admitted to upgrading his own programs because Tony had ‘left a network of complicated loopholes’ and used the upgrade to further his own interests. Pepper was sure she’d seen a few horror movies that had started with that premise.

Still, JARVIS was polite and to the point, and so far he’d managed to find her some terrible evidence. As it was explained to Rhodey she watched in urgent silence as his face went from interested to downright grim.

“All right,” Rhodey said after a long silence. His expression was flat and tense. “All right. First question: who in God’s name is SHIELD? Second question: are you actually telling me Tony was beamed out by little green men and the government is covering it up?”

“It was a big blue one, actually. But that’s about the sum of it.” Pepper hesitated. “Look, Rhodey, Obadiah is cutting the power to Tony’s property tomorrow. JARVIS can’t gather any more information on who and what SHIELD are if he doesn’t have a power source.” She held out the tablet. “Or a secure network to operate under.”

Rhodey stared at the tablet for a full five seconds. A muscle in his jaw jumped. Pepper tried not to fidget as she waited, her heart fluttering somewhere in her throat. It was a big ask. No, it was a huge ask.

“Let me get this straight,” he said slowly. “You want me to take JARVIS into the base and plug him into the air force’s secure network so he can mine classified data from some secret government server that’s, what, out at Area 51 somewhere? Pepper, do you know how this sounds?” Waving a hand at JARVIS’s waveform on the tablet, Rhodey looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or hit something. “Do you know what you’re handing me if I take that?”

“Rhodey—”

“Life imprisonment, Pepper. Not a demotion, not a slap on the wrist. That’s what you’re giving me here.” He rubbed a hand through his short hair, agitated. “Worse, it’d take you down with me. No, Pepper, I’m sorry. Whatever this conspiracy is, we’re staying out of it. Tony wouldn’t have wanted you going down in flames for him.”

The tablet’s case creaked under Pepper’s grip.

“Do it anyway.”

Rhodey stiffened. “Pepper—”

No.” Drawing a deep breath into her lungs, Pepper took a step forward and shoved JARVIS straight against Rhodey’s chest and let go. He fumbled the tablet for a moment before he caught it, appalled by her refusal. She was sorry for putting that look on his face, but not sorry enough to stop. “Rhodey, just take it into your office, bury it in a drawer and walk away. JARVIS will do the rest. You’ll never even be implicated.”

“Pepper…the hell’s gotten into you?” Rhodey stared down into the screen. “JARVIS?”

Shortly before his disappearance, Mr Stark expressed concerns over whom he could trust,” JARVIS said incongruously. “My integrated verbal wavelength analysis programs indicated a thirty-two percent loss of confidence in Mr Stark’s voice upon the mention of your name.”

Pepper watched Rhodey’s expression waver, almost threatening to fall. She hadn’t known anything about that. Rhodey and Tony had always had each other’s back. Even when Tony had been captured in Afghanistan, Rhodey had taken leave from his usual duties to head the search party. He’d simply refused to believe that Tony had died out there in the desert. There wasn’t a force in the world that could break that friendship – or so she’d been led to believe.

“We had some words out on the base,” Rhodey admitted. “He said he was working on something, but it wasn’t for the military.” He shrugged, his eyes dark as they roved the screen. “The brass had come down on me hard over the acquisitions contract being cancelled. I snapped at Tony, you know, really shot him down. It was the last thing I said to him.” He cleared his throat. “Pepper, none of this is going to free him from wherever he is. I know you feel guilty—”

“Guilty?” Pepper repeated, cutting him off. “That’s one aspect of it, sure. But you know what else I am? Angry. I’m confused. Worst of all I can’t talk to anyone about any of this or they’ll put me in a padded room. Obadiah’s acting strange and JARVIS can’t remember why I’m supposed to avoid him, the government is spying on us all and I’m so damn lonely I’m learning goddamn—computer hacking from a tablet so I have someone to talk to! I’m sick of it!” Breathing hard, cheeks hot, she advanced on Rhodey. He almost crawled up onto his hood. “I don’t care if you and Tony fought or what this information can give us. I’ve been sitting in the dark feeling sorry for myself for too long as it is. Take the damn tablet. Hide it up your boss’s ass for all I care. Just get it done.

As far as soul-cleansing rants went, Pepper decided that one felt pretty good. Sure, her blood pressure was in the stratosphere and her fingernails had dug crescents into her palms, but it was worth it to finally vent her feelings out to someone who had a remote idea of what she was going through. Even if he looked completely gobsmacked by the outburst. She could only maintain poise and dignity for so long after the last few weeks she’d had.

“Christ, Pepper. My wallet’s in the glove compartment. Please don’t hurt me.” He hefted the tablet, still eyeing her like she was going to pull a machete from under her skirt and hack him to pieces. “Been a bit stressed lately, huh. All right. I’ll hide the damn tablet, but you’ve gotta keep me in the loop here. If this goes south I can’t protect you if I don’t know what I’m up against.” His gaze switched to the tablet. “Or myself. But if this is going to help us figure out why Tony is in the middle of everything, I’ll do it.”

Sagging back against the flooding headlights of her car, Pepper felt almost weak with relief. If Rhodey allowed JARVIS to connect to the base’s secure network, JARVIS could continue digging outward from the tablet, using the Air Force servers to covertly store data before filtering it out to her. At least, that was her understanding from what JARVIS had been teaching her. It was beginning to make more sense as she fumbled her way along. It was something to do, at least. Plus with JARVIS operating remotely, Obadiah could cut the power to Tony’s house without any suspicion. He’d had an aggressively friendly air surrounding him the few times Pepper had encountered him. His recent overseas trips had meant she’d had a lot of time to herself.

“Thank you, Rhodey,” she said as he quickly scrolled through the pages of information on the tablet’s screen. “Really. I can’t do this by myself. I feel like I’ve been slowly losing my mind here.”

Please note my offended silence commencing at the end of this sentence,” JARVIS said, sounding almost snippy. Pepper smiled as Rhodey held the tablet at arm’s length and squinted at it.

“I’ll miss you too, JARVIS.” Dusting down her skirt, she turned to get back into her car. The darkness surrounding their meeting point felt like it was watching her, reaching out with dry, crackling fingers. But then, it had felt that way for a long time. Ever since she’d squinted into the darkness of a castle hallway and seen red eyes looking back.

“Hey, Pepper.” Turning around expectantly, Pepper was completely unprepared for the hard hug she was tugged into. Rhodey just gave her a quick squeeze and drew back, his eyes sincere. “If anything happens or you don’t feel safe, you call me first. I’m sorry I haven’t been around. Guess I’ve been…doin’ a bit of wallowing.” Standing that close, it was easy to see the grief carefully tamped-down in Rhodey’s features. Maybe she hadn’t been the only one suffering, after all. “I brought him back, but then I went and lost him again. Too damn caught up in the job.”

Smiling, her eyes stinging, Pepper patted his arm.

“I was the one who lost him. Not you,” she said. Her smile wobbled. “If we can’t get him back again, let’s at least cripple the people who refuse to admit it happened.”

Rhodey laughed. It sounded brittle. “I used to wonder how you kept Tony in line. You’ve got a spine of pure steel, Potts.”

“So do you, Colonel. Honestly, I don’t think we’d survive Tony if we didn’t.”

With one last pat and a wave they each turned for their cars, heading in two different directions toward the same goal. They just needed some names.

Pepper knew she already had one: Agent Phil Coulson.

It was time to collect a few more.


Castle Winterheart

“Windows are officially closed and latched. You got the back sconces re-lit yet?”

“Can you see your hand in front of your face?”

“No-one likes a smartass, Loki.” Setting the hooked bar he’d been using for the windows against the wall, Tony started making his way across the ice. Loki had smashed his shoes free but that didn’t mean he had any more grip than before. It was all he could do not to end up flat on his face. “We’ve got about five more minutes before Clint and Natasha arrive and I’d like to be out of here before they see you with stubble rash.”

Loki rubbed his mouth suspiciously, feeling for evidence as Tony approached. Not trusting his footing, Tony just jumped the remaining few feet of distance and let Loki steady him. The guy stuck to ice like a spider on a silk thread, barely even shifting at the impact. It left Tony quite comfortably pressed against all kinds of interesting muscles and cool skin. Not that there was any time to even think about their moment earlier; Clint and Natasha were supposed to find a surprise ice rink, not an exhausted frost giant making out with his fine self.

Besides, it probably wasn’t even on the cards again. Loki had released Tony after almost collapsing on him after their kiss, catching them both and pulling away to examine his handiwork with the ice. It was up for grabs whether he regretted it or not, but his steadying grip on Tony’s arms just then said he wasn’t avoiding anything resembling contact. Far from it.

“You mean to escape from here without basking in their admiration?” Loki asked, tilting his head slightly. “How worryingly selfless of you.”

‘No, I want to bask, but you’re going to outshine me with the magic carpet of ice here. My plan is to escape, sulk, then come up with something even more amazing.”

“Like what?” Loki asked. Tony was thinking that over when hands rubbed over his forearms, thumbs tracing his tendons in a firm line. “Perhaps something to keep you warm would be in order. Your skin is almost as cold as mine.” Before Tony could defend his choice of light clothing, Loki glanced around the ballroom’s golden-lit expanse as if recalling something. “Would you like to know why I barred the doors to the ballroom?”

“Can’t dance?”

Tony had a second’s notice as Loki’s mouth curled, then he was being artfully spun out onto the ice. It was a miracle he didn’t go face-down, but he was quickly reeled back into the waiting embrace of one very tired, very amused frost giant.

“Winterheart is a very old stronghold. Not ours, I think, when my father took it. More magic than stone. But there are some old tricks to it that the stonemasons themselves laid into its walls.” Loki’s eyes were contemplative as he stared about the ballroom, his grip on Tony sure. “I suppose it’s simply one more secret you’d prise from me sooner or later. Do you see the crooked sconce on the wall by the window?” He pointed it out, but Tony could barely see that far. One of them did seem slightly off-kilter.

“Is this one of those old Scooby Doo mystery castles with the secret doors?” Tony asked, startlingly annoyed with himself for never even thinking about it. “Why have I only just found out about this?”

Tony allowed himself to be tugged along the ice over to the crooked sconce, where it sat bolted and burning bright against the wall. When he couldn’t keep his balance on the slick surface Loki just tugged him off his feet. Tony hung there in defeat and tried to glare at the smug look being levelled at him.

“You’ll learn to walk one day, I’m sure. Keep at it.”

“I don’t think I like you when you’re in a good mood,” Tony said. “Go back to being broody. There was so much less mockery then.” His words were accompanied with a desperate grasp at wolf fur and arms as he was placed back on the ground. God, ice was a pain in the ass. How the hell had Natasha stayed standing on it for so long?

“Watch,” Loki said against Tony’s ear, distracting him from his unstable footing. An arm like an iron bar was holding him back-to-chest with Loki, the golden manacle cold through his shirt. With his free hand, Loki straightened the sconce.

Something clicked behind the wall. Tony caught himself leaning forward as the stone wall to the right of the sconce groaned like a creature in pain. Images of treasure chambers and enormous rolling boulders coming to kill him filled his imagination. He completely missed Loki’s breath of laughter.

The gears finally pulling free, the secret door lurched open to reveal a dark stairwell. It also blasted Tony from head to toe with about half a pound of dust and filthy, filthy allergens. Safely hidden behind his back, Loki let out an amused snort that echoed through the cavernous ballroom.

“This,” Tony croaked between fits of explosive coughing, “this is why you were locked up. Oh God, it’s in my lungs. I can feel it.” Grabbing for Loki’s mantle so he could wipe his face, he was cleverly spun out of reach and left to clutch the wall for support as the door was closed again. “I’m dirty. What have you done? Look at me, I look like something out of The Mummy.”

“You’re very dramatic,” Loki said, wiping at Tony’s cheek with the back of his fingers. It would have almost been an affectionate stroke if Loki wasn’t smiling like the fangy bastard prankster he apparently was. “Forgive me. The stairs lead up to the west wing. I barred the ballroom doors lest anyone find the passage and use it.”

Tony stopped dusting himself off. “Where does it come out? Your room?”

“The adjoining bathing quarters, to be precise,” Loki said, sifting dust out of Tony’s hair. It made them both sneeze. “Given you have free access to the wing regardless, it doesn’t harm me any to share the knowledge.”

“I guess you’re also trusting me not to be a closet peeping tom.” When Loki just raised an eyebrow, Tony elaborated with, “Watching you in the bath while hanging out in my secret stairway of perversion.”

“I understood your meaning,” Loki said dryly, “however the matter of your taste in visual fare would be called into question if you ever did. There is nothing particularly toothsome about this form, unless horns and claws are to your liking.” There was no bitterness or sorrow in the way he said it; just a casual ease that rankled Tony in some strange corner of his possessive pride.

“You’re to my liking.” Tony busied himself brushing dust off his arms, ignoring the way Loki stilled. He was in dire need of a bath himself. “Even when you use me as a human shield and give me a year’s worth of hay fever. I might actually be canonised for forgiving you that one.” Glancing up, he frowned over Loki’s shoulder. “What the hell is that?”

“Where?” Loki asked, turning. “There’s nothing—you rotten human.” He held miserably still as Tony rubbed every inch of his filthy, dusty body against Loki’s chest and legs, even going so far as to nuzzle their cheeks together in an attempt to share as much of the dust as possible. “Very well. I accept your revenge as my due.”

The stiff, formal way he said it only made Tony laugh harder. Loki retaliated by almost squeezing the life out of him, giving up on staying clean in favour of shutting him up.

“I can’t believe I fell for that one,” Loki said furiously, almost to himself. He sounded so offended it started Tony off again. His last self-preservation instinct was to bury his laughter in the side of Loki’s neck, his breath turning the slope of his shoulder humid and warm. The resulting shudder that ripped through Loki’s body was a thing of beauty. Not so cold, then, Tony thought with satisfaction.

“C’mon, we need to make our escape.” Sliding free of Loki just far enough to squint at the doors, Tony counted a rough couple of minutes before Natasha would ‘casually’ decide to collect Clint and go for a walk. She didn’t know what they had in the ballroom, and for the full effect Tony wanted to be long gone before they arrived. Also, he looked like dusty shit. “I need a bath, I need dinner and my bedroom fireplace.”

Together they made their way across the ice, which really just consisted of Loki walking unhindered and Tony being half-carried, which neither of them were ever going to mention again. Getting to the other side, Loki hauled the doors open and grabbed a lantern, waiting for Tony to arrange the skates in an obvious fashion just inside the ballroom. Then they got the hell out of there.

Doubling back to Cook’s window, Tony only stopped to grab a huge tray laden with bacon-wrapped chicken breasts, soft scalloped potato and vegetables, champagne oysters –like hell Loki was stealing his again– and a palm-sized serving of dense chilli-chocolate mud cake. Portion control was the key, Tony told himself as he hefted the tray. Cook spat out another unasked-for bottle of white wine and an array of cutlery, like a true disembodied snob. It was loaded on with the rest of the food.

“Shall I carry that for you?” Loki asked dubiously, scanning the small banquet. “So you can haul the spitted pig that is sure to follow?”

“No, I’ve got it,” Tony said, giving him a dirty look. “You look like you’re actually about to fall asleep and die. Have you been running on fumes since you splashed all the ice around? It must be terrible, lacking stamina like that.”

Walking up the grand staircase was difficult but totally worth it just to bask in the offended silence that followed him up it. He’d gained half an inch during his time at Winterheart. Considering what he’d been eating and drinking, he wasn’t doing too bad. He’d been edging on the side of scrawny after his initial imprisonment, anyway. Well, mostly. There had been the cheeseburgers.

Tony spent the rest of his journey up the staircase preoccupied with what his ass looked like. Knowing Loki was behind him the entire way didn’t help a damn thing. Why did he care? He didn’t care. Clint would have told him already if he’d been putting on a few pounds. Speaking of his favourite archer, he was probably down in the ballroom at that very moment. Whether he skated or not, it’d at least get that bow out of his hands. Tony got the impression Natasha was capable of convincing him to put it down, no matter what she said.

He was just passing the entrance to the west wing when Loki’s even footsteps slowed to a halt behind him. Turning to glance over his shoulder, he saw Loki gazing up the stairwell like he was mustering the nerve to climb Everest itself. He’d been okay in the last twenty minutes, roughly, but Tony got the impression more and more that showing weakness was a stupid matter of pride more than anything. Loki was almost completely burnt out, and the look in his eyes spoke every word of that exhaustion.

“Well now that you’ve given me a complex over my diet, the least you can do is eat half my food,” Tony said, jerking his chin toward the end of the hallway. “Come on. I’ve crashed your party twice now and speaking from experience, that chair of yours isn’t great for sleeping in.”

“Are you offering me your bed?” Loki asked. There was a strange quirk to his lips at the question, but he reached up and brushed his hand over the thick curve of one ivory horn. “I don’t sleep as soundly in a bed as I once did. There’s…pressure.” But he turned from the stairwell anyway, following Tony as he led the way to his room. Maybe the temptation of hot food was a better cajoler than any argument he could have made.

“I know what you mean.” Tony smiled at the immediate frown that earned him. “Pressure. For the first few weeks it felt like there was a foot on my chest, like something was squeezing my lungs. Laying on my side helps.” He jerked his chin down at the arc reactor, watching Loki’s eyes sharpen. “It’s no set of horns and I can’t say I’ve had it that long, but yeah. I know a bit about having to get used to yourself.”

They reached the tall doorway to Tony’s room one brief, thoughtful silence later. Loki pushed the door open for him and sat his lantern on the inside ledge, taking the candle there to light the dark room up with old, familiar motions. Tony was confused, until he remembered the light sources were almost identical in each room, minus a few design differences and windows. Either that or Loki really did have the castle memorised that well.

Tony was sitting the tray of food down on the heavy wooden chest of drawers when Loki spoke, candlelight glowing bright in his red eyes.

“The horns began to grow shortly after I was imprisoned here, as though my punishment had unlocked some part of my true nature.” Ice crawled over the candle in his hand, extinguishing its light. “There was pain of a degree I’d never experienced in my life. Ongoing, until the bone broke through and gathered its lacquer into these monstrosities. I thought I’d found relief – and then my teeth began to sharpen and grow. The first few years here were a kind of hel I would wish on no-one.”

Blindly arranging the plates with numb fingers, Tony tried not to reel with the image the words conjured in his mind. Loki alone in the castle, in agony as his head started to split itself apart. Having no idea what was happening to him, having no-one to so much as suffer with. Tossed out into the winter for acts no single person should have the heartless cruelty to commit.

“Did you think you deserved it?” Tony asked, staring at the wall in front of him.

“I thought my father lacked the conviction to simply kill me for my crimes, so he put me here in hopes I might do it myself.” Loki reached past his shoulder to put the cold candle down beside the tray. “I endured.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I know.” Fingers dragged through Tony’s hair, claws drawing shivery lines over his scalp. “You’re still coated in dust. You should bathe.”

“And leave you with all the food? Nice try.” Closing his eyes, Tony tipped his head forward as the attention moved down to the nape of his neck, tracing his hairline. “You’re pretty free and easy with the touching, aren’t you? No complaints, by the way.”

“If I thought you didn’t enjoy it, I’d stop. Fortunately for my curiosity, you’re quite a hedonist.” Warm breath touched his ear as Loki leaned forward behind him. “You’re also very easy to distract.”

“Hnn,” Tony slurred intelligently, frowning at the last comment. His eyes slid open in time to see Loki sneak two oysters off the tray, leaving dents in the rock salt beneath. “Oh, come on! I trusted you.”

“Fool,” Loki replied, brushing a lightning-fast kiss over his ear. It locked Tony’s brain up long enough for a third shell to have its prize stolen in front of him. “You shouldn’t have given me such an appetite.”

“Yeah, back at you,” Tony muttered, rubbing his neck. “All right, food. Start the fire while I move this stuff down to the rug. Try not to eat the firewood as well.” That earned him an amused glance.

As far as floor dinners by firelight went, it all turned out pretty enjoyable. The rug was thick enough to hold off the chill of the stone beneath, while the crackling fire soon warmed the room around them. The air smelled comfortingly of cooked meat and faint wood smoke, something Loki commented on with a nostalgic note in his voice. Not with sadness; just the observation of a long-past time he recalled in pieces to Tony.

Realising he had a rapt audience, Loki even divulged a few tales from his time before Winterheart, stories of hunting and battling strange creatures that ate fire and had bigger horns than he did. To Tony, it all sounded like the kind of gory bedtime stories he’d scrounged up for himself as a kid. It was brilliant.

Tony returned the favour as Loki stabbed curiously at dessert, trying to pin down the flavour. He didn’t have anything to match swords and quests, but he dug up the story of his best inventions, from DUM-E’s klutzy but well-meaning program that he’d never bothered to fix, to the first time he’d activated JARVIS and been smartly informed that his fly was down. He told Loki about the familiar, gleaming sprawl of the workshop beneath his house, the only place outside of Winterheart where he could simply sit and breathe.

“Do you miss it?” Loki asked later, when they’d pushed their plates away to sit back and soak up the night. It should have been a pointless question to ask, but Tony knew better. After the talk they’d had in the ballroom, about freedom and loneliness and fear, there was a weight lingering beneath the question that he had to respect.

“I guess. Mostly I miss what I wanted it to be.” Tony watched him out of the corner of his eye. “If that makes any sense.”

Loki just hummed a quiet agreement. He seemed to be almost dozing off right there on the floor, propped back on his hands in the firelight. Tony used the opportunity to shift himself over on the rug and nudge his way up against Loki’s shoulder, stealing some cool relief from his skin. Fireplaces were great and all, but the heat had slowly turned from pleasant to feverish against his cheeks. Predictably enough, Loki started with a sharp inhale, tipping his head back in surprise.

“You burn like a coal against me.” Straightening slightly, Loki twisted and pressed his hands to Tony’s face. He could almost hear the steaming hiss of the heat giving way to that cold blue skin. “Go and bathe. Come back when you’ve cooled your blood some. You’ll overheat me at this rate.”

Not sure if Loki meant he should come back and get in his personal space again or not, Tony clambered to his feet regardless. The fine layer of dust on his clothes was really starting to itch enough that a warm bath and clean skin sounded like a great idea. Even if that meant letting Loki fall asleep while he did, ending what had been a great night of conversation.

It wasn’t until ten minutes later when Tony was scrubbed clean and thinking of getting out of the tub that he realised he’d be strolling out into his bedroom in nothing but a towel. Which was…not ideal, given their current place of almost-attraction. Almost, because Tony wasn’t completely clear on what Loki wanted from him. On his side, he’d already grappled with and subsequently discarded the whole internal argument. His tastes were diverse. The end.

There was a very real chance that if he wandered out looking like a mostly-naked chicken leg with a hole in it that Loki was going to bail the hell on out of there.

Towel-drying his hair furiously, Tony was still pondering his possible dilemma when the bathroom door creaked, sending a draft of displaced air gusting over his bare ass. He froze.

“I’m naked right now.” Somewhere in the depths of his own psyche, something quietly laid down and died. “Naked and wet. Why is this happening?”

“Run the bath anew,” Loki said, his voice hoarse with sleep. He muffled a yawn against his arm. “I’m almost as filthy as you, since you so kindly shared your hygiene troubles with me down in the ballroom.”

Pulling the towel off his head, Tony dismissed the strangeness of the moment in favour of lighting up with indignation.

“First of all, you reap what you sow. Second, there’s barely a smudge on you. What are you made of anyway, Teflon?” Rubbing his arms down to dry them and pointedly not bothering to shield himself, Tony approached the vanity basin to line up his razor. “Run your own bath.”

“I don’t know what Teflon is, but I assure you I am mere flesh and bone.” Fur brushed his shoulders as Loki passed by behind him. “And I do believe I shall.”

“Uh-huh,” Tony replied distractedly, tucking the towel around his hips. The pipes whined as Loki ran the water again. Interestingly, he ran the hot tap a little as well. It looked like someone was indulging in the luxuries of the castle again. Tony tried not to smile to himself as he tidied up a day’s worth of stubble in the mirror. The straight razor still scared him speechless, but he was getting better at wielding it if he concentrated.

It was for that reason that Tony almost cut himself a new mouth when he glanced over and saw Loki had stripped himself completely nude while he’d been absorbed by his task. Not even a warning. Tony hadn’t been in nearly enough locker room situations to know how to handle that. Etiquette? What was that?

“That’s a lot of blue,” he said, unable to stop himself. Loki’s head whipped around from where he’d been studying the water level. Carefully, Tony put the razor down and wiped his face clean with a wet cloth. “I must look like soggy bread to you over here.”

If it was even possible, Loki was actually more intimidating standing there wearing nothing but his horns. Tony had a quick, none-too-subtle glance that gave him a flash of long, lean limbs decorated with parallel markings that swept down his legs and across his feet. Every inch of him was tense, lean and as amazingly blue as the moment before dawn. It would have been a humbling moment of inadequacy if Tony wasn’t so busy being mystified by the mess of adjectives and metaphors that tumbled into his head.

Refusing to outright ogle him in a Clint Barton special, Tony busied himself with packing up the oil and rinsing the razor clean, wondering about things like the temperature clash of hot water on consistently cold skin.

“It’s difficult, isn’t it?” Loki said suddenly, his voice like a whiplash over the sound of water rushing. When Tony looked over he saw that the previously bored expression had been replaced by a tight, unhappy frown. “As I said before, Stark: not particularly toothsome.”

It wasn’t hard for Tony to make the logical jump and realise Loki had orchestrated the entire situation to make that one point from earlier. A bathroom and every clean line of Loki bared for his inspection, but long before Tony would think about putting his hands on him. Heading him off at the pass already? Well, he could at least understand why. Loki’s apparent self-loathing went deeper than just the horns.

“I feel like this is one of those moments where anything I say will be used against me in a court of law,” Tony said honestly. Wiping residual oil off his fingers, he straightened the cloth hanging over the basin and turned back to face Loki.

Loki, who was staring at the mirror with furious, miserable crimson eyes.

Tony didn’t think when he crossed that small distance and backed Loki into the cold stone wall. He sure as hell didn’t think when he stretched up the extra two inches he needed to kiss that down-turned mouth, thumbs pressing into the smooth notch of Loki’s jaw while his fingers sank into humid tangles of black hair. He didn’t care about the fangs bracketing his tongue as he slid deep into Loki’s mouth or the claws pricking painfully against his back. How could he? There was a long stretch of ridiculous, impossible frost giant hauling him in close, kissing him back like he was the only water in an endless desert.

“You’re far too reckless with my self-control,” Loki said when he could pull away. Not far, again just enough to speak without leaving Tony’s mouth completely. Their lips brushed with every shaky word. “I’m too sharp for you. Too cold.” He swallowed, glancing down at Tony’s lips for a moment before his eyes flashed back up. “Aren’t I?”

The raw uncertainty in that question made something brittle inside Tony finally crumble into dust. He had a sneaking suspicion it was the last careful wall he’d built around some places that had already seen too much damage.

“Don’t leave any shrapnel behind,” Tony said quietly, “and I think we’ll do just fine.”

The breath shuddered out of Loki, warm against Tony’s lips.

“I’ll leave no mark I cannot undo,” he said, the words soft and fierce. They’d stopped talking about skin a long time ago. “I won’t ask the same in return.”

The words brought forth a lot of questions, but neither had a moment to do anything before the bathtub overflowed beside them, sending a small waterfall of tepid warmth crashing over their ankles. Hissing a breath through his teeth like he’d been burned, Loki went rigid in Tony’s arms. He could actually feel the tremor that raced up Loki’s spine.

“Oh come on, you’ve eaten food hotter than that,” Tony said on a breath of laughter. Tugging away from Loki, he bent over to turn the taps off, keeping the towel clutched to his hips. He pulled the plug for a few seconds to drain off some of the water, feeling a small shiver clutch the space between his shoulder blades. “You’re going to have to run this again if you wait any longer.”

“Tony.”

“I’ll mop it up—” The smile slid off Tony’s face as he focussed on the disbelieving awe reflected in Loki’s wide red eyes. He looked like the wall was the only thing holding him up. “Shit. What’s wrong?”

Loki stared down at his manacled wrists for a moment before turning them out to face Tony.

The gold had cracked right down the middle on each arm.

“I think part of the curse just broke.”



Asgard – Observatory

When Loki’s vambrace broke, Heimdall heard it: the high, glass-edge song of magic cracking. Not shattered, not yet, but still a fissure through the words of Odin Allfather, words laid into law more than twenty years before. It was the sound of change.

Standing on the edge of the realm, Heimdall turned his eyes down to the drifting stone halls of Winterheart, still shrouded in its ancient mist. The magic holding Loki prisoner was still strong, its layers winding around his bones and the territory.

The curse had been cast to break all at once. Not in pieces, in shards or fragments. To do so would have been far too cruel, even coming from one who held no great love for Laufey’s get. The casket’s ice had pierced deep, and Heimdall would not soon forget its sting. All the same, twenty years of misery was enough for a failed plot.

There was only one with enough power to meddle in the Allfather’s affairs, and it was one who shared his power.

Precisely on time, the air split at Heimdall’s back and a winged creature flew into the observatory on a gust of snow-dusted air. He didn’t turn to greet it.

“I thought you said you would not return until the spell had broken. What have you done, buzzard?”

Feathers fluttered against the metal of Heimdall’s helm as Hescamar perched himself on one armoured shoulder. Talons clicked quietly over the metal.

“Hescamar doesn’t answer to you or your gimlet eyes. It was time he had a little hope.”

“You gave him a hint.”

“A very obscure one.”

“Your orders were to never interfere.”

“My wing slipped.” Stretching the aforementioned wing out to obnoxiously press into the side of his head, Hescamar regarded Heimdall with a single golden eye. “The Allfather is distracted with other matters and time slips through the hourglass with every wasted moment. The young prince must return. Asgard grows dim in his absence.”

“You meddle in affairs beyond your station,” Heimdall replied, but didn’t deny the raven’s words. “How much power have you to release Loki from his winter prison?”

Hescamar loosed a strange, rough cry. It almost sounded like a laugh.

“None, Gatekeeper. Odin’s word is still law. The spell didn’t break with the vambraces. The words that bind Loki’s magic hold even now.” Bobbing down, Hescamar scraped his beak on the shoulder plate. “The prince has to break his own spell. But pointing the way? That much is within this old raven’s power.”

“And you sought me out here to ensure I wouldn’t inform the Allfather of your emphatic pointing.” Heimdall cast a hand out to the stars, circling around clouded island of white. “The catalyst was brought, this Tony Stark. The Norns said he would be the key to Winterheart’s gates. Why interfere further?” His question was met with a skittering click as Hescamar hopped his way down to Heimdall’s gauntleted wrist.

“Hope, Gatekeeper. Hope that someone is watching. The young prince will take care of the rest.” Flaring his wings, Hescamar shivered all over. Feathers dropped to the floor, replaced by the gloss of new growth. “It might also stop his keen-eyed catalyst from getting eaten by the wolves. I already had to kill Fenrir’s shade once. He’ll not be best pleased if he has to meet Odin’s valknut again.”

Heimdall frowned. Bound in gleipnir’s cords or not, the idea of subservient golems being farmed from Fenrir’s blood and fed into Winterheart had always posed a risk. Even if it did give the god-eater a measure of freedom he’d never obtain otherwise.

“Just ensure he doesn’t open his jaws,” said Heimdall. “Tony Stark knows nothing of our realm or Loki’s place in it. Do nothing that will force my hand. You might bend your oaths to the Allfather; I, however, will not.”

Hescamar just laughed: a crass, croaking, throaty thing that echoed off the curved golden walls. Heimdall felt the heat of burgeoning anger crawl up his neck, enough to distract him from the sound of soft bootsteps approaching.

“Take your schemes and begone,” Heimdall said, lifting his arm to shake free the clutching raven.

Hescamar beat his wings hard at the open stars, replacing them with a rush of snow and the distant light of a single lit window. He launched himself toward it, wings stretched to glide from one world to the other.

He was preceded by a flying brick of forged metal, one that shot through the portal in a spinning arc. Lightning crackled over its shape before it was lost to Winterheart’s darkness.

Hescamar cried out in fury but it was too late for him; already across the portal, the entire window of magic shrivelled and shrank to nothing. All that was left were errant snowflakes, melting in Asgard’s summer evening.

Heimdall pulled a fortifying breath into his lungs and turned.

“Did you borrow the far-seeing throne to find the raven here, son of Odin?”

“No,” Thor said, his blue gaze as sharp as knives. The hand that would grasp Mjölnir was empty, clenched into a fist. “But my mother did. If I can’t go through Odin or against him, I will go around him. Twenty years of solitude is enough. The revelation Father waits for may never come to pass, but Loki has suffered as much as I can bear.”

Heimdall watched Thor cast his gaze out to the stars beyond the realm. Resplendent in red and silver, his spine straight and shoulders back in the manner befitting the warrior prince of Asgard, Odin’s son was every inch the man they’d all hoped he would become. All but for that sadness. Loki’s absence had gouged something out of their heir to the throne, a grief only Jane Foster had ever been able to distract him from. Even then, it lingered. Guilt was a terrible burden to bear and Heimdall knew both brothers had been shouldering more than their fair share for a long time.

“If a few shared your opinion, none would admit it,” Heimdall said.

“I don’t need them to admit it. I simply need Loki to find Mjölnir.” With a stiff, formal nod that owed nothing to respect, Thor turned and left. Hopefully he had arrived by horse, for it was a long and lonely walk from the observatory to Asgard’s gates. Then again, it appeared Thor had much to think on, if he had cast his own weapon so far from his hand for Loki’s sake.

Casting an eye down to the snowdrift realm, Heimdall saw the hammer where it had fallen; smashed through the stone of the castle ramparts like an almighty catapult had slung it forth. Something was tied about the haft with leather straps wrapped many times over.

Chastising Hescamar was one thing. Thor directly interfering with the queen’s aid was a different cloak of nettles to bear. The house of Odin was a complicated one, indeed. It certainly wasn’t a dispute Heimdall was eager to plant himself in the middle of. Fortunately for his place in the matter, Thor’s actions might have no consequence worth reporting.

Inside the stone walls of Castle Winterheart, a human was proving far more of a distraction to Loki’s misery than any vambrace or hammer could.


Castle Winterheart

There was exhausted, there was burnt-out and then there was Loki.

Tony rolled onto his side on the bed, studying the strange silhouette opposite him. Loki had been there for the last hour, but up until a few minutes ago he’d been fighting sleep with every breath, still poring over the metal clamped to his forearms like it held the secrets of the universe.

In the bathroom, it had taken some convincing on Tony’s end to make Loki believe he hadn’t somehow made it happen, by word or deed or—anything, really. The level of painful awe that had been directed at him had been almost overwhelming, but Tony was pretty good at letting people down. He knew he hadn’t been responsible for the cracks.

“I thought he’d forgotten me,” Loki had said, trembling all over as he stared down at his wrists. “I thought there was no way out. I didn’t think—that anybody was watching me.”

The raven had sprung to mind, but seeing Loki slumped there, shell-shocked and pale, too stunned to be happy, Tony had shelved that conversation, instead running the bath out with water again and hustling Loki into it. He’d actually obeyed, doll-like and loose-limbed as he stretched out in the tub, his long hair swirling around his shoulders. Tony had wanted to be pleased for him, but like Loki he’d just been too damn surprised by what had happened.

More than an hour had passed since then, and Loki had finally succumbed to something deeper than sleep, wrapped in Tony’s sheets on the fire side of the bedroom. Built up on almost every pillow and cushion in the room, he was a half-reclined picture of desperate slumber that Tony couldn’t help himself from staring at. His hair was still damp, tangling on the pillow beside his cheek. Crossed over his stomach protectively, his arms pressed the cracks in his golden manacles –vambraces, Tony reminded himself, he’d called them ceremonial vambraces– against himself like they were a secret to be kept at all cost. Or like something he might lose in the night; a dream, maybe. It was sad to think there were so few good things in Loki’s life that he had to hold them so tightly. Then again, was he any different?

Tony was pondering the pros and cons of letting himself drift off to sleep alongside Loki when an echoing boom reverberated through the entire castle, his own scared bones included.

Amazingly, Loki didn’t even stir at the sound beyond an involuntary twitch or two. Tony was left staring at the ceiling like an owl, the blankets twisted in his fist.

“I’m not getting out of bed,” he told himself. “My clothes are drying in the bathroom and it’s too damn cold this time of night.” Logic, pure and simple. Nothing cowardly about it.

He jumped out of his skin when a fist pounded on his door two minutes later.

“Tony?” Clint called, sounding terrified. The door handle jiggled. “Did you hear it? It came from the roof somewhere. Tony, I—” The door pushed open and Clint abruptly broke off as he took in the sight before him. His jaw slowly sagged open.

To be fair, Tony reasoned, it did look pretty incriminating with the both of them naked in bed together, even with the entirely respectable distance between their bodies. It was a big bed, after all. Still, that probably wasn’t what was factoring into Clint’s assessment in that precise moment. No, he was looking at bare chests, firelight and a sleeping frost giant. Sleeping in Tony’s bed.

“You fucked the boss,” Clint said, his voice reedy with shock. “Do I—do I gotta beat the shit out of you for this? The guy’s like my blue prison dad and you…” He leaned hard on the door frame. “Is he asleep or dead?”

“Asleep,” Tony confirmed, sitting up and dragging the wool blanket around himself so he could stand. “So keep your voice down. What was the bang?”

“Fucked if I know,” Clint whispered, darting squirrelly glances at Loki’s sleeping form. “Nat and I nearly pissed our skates. If you two were here and we were down there, what was it?”

“It’s raining men?” Tony suggested, then grunted as a fist pounded into his upper arm. “I don’t know, maybe part of the roof caved in. I’m not going out there tonight to find out. Where’s Natasha now?”

Clint scowled at the question.

“She’s still down there, skating. You won about a million friendship points with her tonight, asshole. You know she used to be a ballerina? She’s been spinning circles all night. I think I pulled a muscle in my dick just trying to keep up.” Snorting at Tony’s smile, Clint gave a half-shrug and ducked his head. “Best night of my life, probably. Laughed myself stupid. So did she.”

Caught between wanting to give Clint the hug he was so obviously expecting and needing to hold his blanket together, Tony ended up shuffling forward and kind of leaning in, which had the outcome of calloused hands sneaking straight under his blanket.

“I swear to god, Barton. This is not how you thank a wingman.”

“My hands are cold.” There was laughter in his voice. “Is the boss naked over there? What’s he look like?”

Tony pulled away, nudging Clint back out the door with his shoulder. There was no way he was disclosing that information, not even to amused shithead archers with too much time on their hands. There was also the small problem of Tony not actually paying that much attention to the parts Clint would almost definitely want to know about. In his own defence, there had been a lot on his mind.

“Go skate a few more laps before the ice melts.” Tony frowned. “For the record, I didn’t steal his frosty virtue. I don’t think he’s slept in the last week.”

Clint’s smile faded a little. “He’s okay though, right?”

“Yeah.” If one didn’t count the confused tailspin he’d been in before he’d fallen asleep, Tony thought. “Just exhausted I guess.”

“Huh.” Clint fell silent for a concerned moment, then piped back up with, “But when he’s better you’re totally going to climb that icy tree, right?”

Tony shut the door in his face.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” came the muffled voice from the other side.

Unbelievable. Or not, really. Clint had a very defined set of parameters for things that interested him. From what Tony had gathered they were mostly limited to Loki, food, archery, Natasha and sex jokes. The question shouldn’t have been a surprise in the slightest.

It did make for a slightly uncomfortable moment as Tony tossed his blanket back over his side of the bed –his side?– and crawled beneath the sheets, despite Loki being asleep and completely oblivious to Tony’s train of thought. There was an enormous three feet of space between them, anyway. Nothing untoward was going on.

Damn Clint.

Tony stared up at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

He only been out for what felt like the duration of a blink or two, but when Tony next opened his eyes the fire was stoked up high again and the other side of the bed was empty. Debating whether to sit up again or just let it go and fall back asleep, he lay there drowsing in the warmth just long enough to realise that Loki was probably still in the room unless he’d decided to get dressed in wet leather and fur. Tony had washed everything clean in the bathtub hours ago.

“Still can’t sleep?” he asked the bedroom at large, stretching hard enough to make his back pop. He sounded like he’d been eating glass. “I fluffed up your pillows and everything.”

“Strange dreams.” The voice came from the foot of the bed on Loki’s side, closest to the fireplace. A dark head was bowed to the light there. It struck off his horns, casting a devilish shadow up on the wall above Tony’s head. “I fear I’m too tired to sleep.”

“Sounds like quitting talk to me.” Yawning, Tony grabbed up his blanket for the second time that night, swinging it around his shoulders and tugging it closed. He made his way to where Loki was sitting, one knee pulled to his chest, the other leg stretched toward the flames. He wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. Dark hair rippled in drying kinks and waves across his shoulders and chest. “What did you dream about?”

“Storms,” Loki said wearily. “Storms that lit up the night sky as far as the eye could see.” As Tony bent to sit beside him in his blanket cocoon he felt his waist tugged by a strong hand, pitching him off-balance so he ended up sitting bracketed by Loki’s legs. Long arms wrapped around his chest, tugging him back so Loki could tuck his chin against his shoulder. “Yet no matter how I ran toward that lightning, it couldn’t touch me.”

“Sounds destructive.” Swallowing hard, Tony tried to ease himself out of the surprised rigidity he’d locked his joints into. It was fine. There was a blanket. Blankets made everything less intimate. Things like sitting with your ass pressed against the juncture of a naked frost giant’s thighs. Tony refused to think of it as anything else. Clint’s head floated past his mind’s eye, nodding knowingly. Fuck. Tony was going to kill him. “Did you get a lot of storms back home?”

“More than my fair share.” When Tony didn’t reply right away Loki hesitated, his fingers running up and down his blanketed chest as though searching for what was wrong. “Is this too much?”

“No.” Yes, Tony thought desperately. It didn’t stop him from tugging the blanket aside just enough that Loki’s fingers found his chest instead of thick wool. It wasn’t a crime to enjoy it if Loki was the one initiating the contact, right? He wasn’t pushing anything on Loki by sitting there. Clint could go to hell. It hadn’t been weird before he’d said that.

Deliberately relaxing further, Tony tipped his head back onto Loki’s shoulder and closed his eyes.

“It’s been a big day,” he said. “I guess you were either bound to sleep for days or not at all.”

“With all that has happened it feels like a foolish move to sleep. Just in case I miss something else.” The words were spoken to the tendon at the base of Tony’s neck, where cool lips parted so warm breath could brush his skin. The shiver that danced through his shoulders wasn’t remotely due to the cold. In response, Loki’s fingers rubbed a soothing circle around the arc reactor. It didn’t help his situation one bit.

“Something banged on the roof while you were asleep. I think the stone is crumbling.” The lips that were tracing a line over Tony’s throat paused, then continued with sleepy affection. “Other than that, Clint came to—um—” fingers slid over the curve of Tony’s ribs, “came to say hi. They loved the ballroom. You should probably stop that, with the wandering hands.”

“You don’t like it?” Loki’s hands went utterly still. Tony knew he could only be honest.

“I’m starting to like it a little too much.”

“Do you want me to stop?”

“Yeah.” No, Tony thought.

“All right.” Sliding away from his side, Loki’s fingertips grazed a light trail of cool, concurrent lines across Tony’s stomach as his hand retreated from inside the blanket.

It was just Tony’s terrible, wonderful, awful goddamn luck that those same fingertips would also graze over a far more sensitive part of his anatomy, where it rested thick and hot against his thigh. Loki drew in a sharp, short breath at the contact. Tony just tried not to swallow his own tongue and die.

“You can just ignore that,” he said finally, trying to clear the hoarse edge from his voice and failing. “In fact, we can both just ignore it. Mind over matter. Absolutely nothing of interesss—god. I’m—” Tony broke off before he’d even properly started, his hands digging into Loki’s bicep as cool, careful fingers circled his length and stroked, mapping each smooth inch and every vein up and down along the way. His thumb in particular was— “Isn’t this all going a little, uh, fast for you?”

God damn his last ditch attempt at being a good fucking person, Tony thought helplessly as Loki went still for a second time, dragging his warm mouth from its home in the crook of Tony’s neck.

“I’ve needed you for more than twenty long years, Tony Stark.” Teeth touched the oversensitive curve of his ear. “Do you think I would deny either of us this moment? Stop for sense or caution, when I may never have you again? If the curse should break tomorrow, or the day after and drag me from this place having never known the sight of you undone by my hands, by my mouth…” He dragged in an unsteady breath. “I’d have to damn myself a second time.”

Tony had thought he was compelled before that speech. As things stood after it, it was all he could do just to shove the blanket aside and turn to face Loki, letting him tug the blanket out the rest of the way until Tony sat astride lean blue thighs, watching his arc reactor reflecting bright pinwheels in Loki’s hungry red eyes.

“So what do you want?” Tony asked, bucking in slightly as smooth hands rounded the curve of his ass. Loki’s eyes fluttered shut, a measured exhale escaping his lips. “How much can I have?”

“Everything.” As Tony leaned down to kiss him, heart hammering hot and full in his throat, Loki said, “Anything. So long as you want it. I only ask for your patience. This body is harder to rouse than most you might have laid hands to before.”

That? That was the icing on the cake right there.

“I always did love a challenge,” Tony said, hissing a breath as Loki’s hands slid rhythmically up his inner thighs, warming them off the gently firm friction. Perhaps strangely, he had no fear of the claws, or the teeth. Not even the horns. There was nothing animal about Loki beyond those sharp points and because of that, Tony could only think of what uses they could be put to on his own fire-warmed skin. He was an ideas man, after all.

It was long, slow, deeply satisfying work. Loki was a fluid, sinuous line of muscle and bone against the thick rug beneath him; a canvas spilled with blue and black ink under Tony’s hands. For every languid buck of his hips, every bitten-off moan and aborted reach of his hands, Loki began to come to life like he was remembering how to move again. How to burn with something other than anger or pain.

Tony had never been given that much free rein with another person in his life, let alone someone like Loki. Loki, who could crush him on a whim but instead dragged him down to meet his skin when the pleasure proved too much, when he stirred to catch Tony’s mouth against his, hands against his, hips against his. It had almost been too easy to give himself back in return, using the warmed flask of oil and the slick press of his own fingers to ease the way. Loki had watched with his hands flexing against the rug, unable to touch with his sharp claws, his eyes writing prayers across Tony’s skin where his lips had failed.

Eventually, it was too much even for Tony’s touch-deprived skin, denied only in the last hour from taking what he needed.

“Can you,” he said finally, his voice almost gone, “Can you give me this much?”

Loki’s only reply was to rear up and kiss him, rolling them both over until the firelight was warm against Tony’s other side, his knees caging Loki’s hips as he pressed down against him. The insistent slide of cool skin against his was as welcome as it was needed.

“Can you take this much?” Loki said against Tony’s ear, almost guttural with need. Maybe more animal than Tony had first assessed. “Can you take my teeth on your skin, my body spreading yours open? Can you take my hands on your hips, my horns pressed to your brow, my cry in your mouth? Can you take that much of me?”

“At least that much,” Tony replied, and lifted his hips to Loki’s cold and shaking hands. “Then later maybe we’ll see how much you can take of me.”

The laugh at his ear was a bare breath of sound, spared only because it couldn’t be held in. Then they were together, surging, joined everywhere skin could touch.

Like a circuit pulsing with sensation instead of electricity they moved, Loki’s body taking everything from Tony and giving it all back with his greedy hands, his wandering mouth wrenching every helpless sound from Tony’s throat, every unsteady tremor and frantic rock of his body. Loki was a desperate, worshipping force of nature above him, his hands careful even when they shook, working him with steady strokes even as his face was pressed to Tony’s neck, each rough cry punctuating the drive of his hips. It was cold heaven and sweat and the tangle of hair around him, ice driving inside him and even Tony knew he had to give in to it or be swept away.

As if waiting for the taut bowstring of his spine and the heat spilling across his hand, Loki crushed his lips to the waiting heat of Tony’s mouth and shuddered deep, the long claws of his free hand raking the rug through to the stone as he cried out with such release it rumbled like a throaty sob over the crackle of firelight and slick slide of their skin.

It was a long minute before Tony could get his breathing and his heart rate somewhat under control, his shoulders and chest heaving beneath Loki’s barely-braced weight.

“I might have been,” Tony panted for a moment, “overly ambitious about the ‘later’ thing. Do I still have legs?”

“Do you still have oil left to shave with?” Loki asked, dragging his head up like it weighed a ton. “The slick clench of you suggests otherwise.” The shift and drag of Loki’s movement sent a burning flutter of sensation back up Tony’s spine.

“That’s not the oil and you know it.” Tony tried not to tense as Loki slid away, coming to lay beside him, furthest from the fire. “Not that I minded. I’ve been needing that for months.” He didn’t complain as Loki found his errant blanket and pulled it half-over him, even obediently lifting his head as a few pillows were dragged off the bed. The mattress was only four feet away and two feet up, but it was a mountain he just couldn’t be damned climbing. Loki obviously felt the same way, snagging a corner of the blanket and slinging a heavy arm across Tony’s waist, his eyes already sliding closed.

Other things could come later, Tony decided, shifting closer into the relaxed curve of Loki’s body. Things like cracks in vambraces, like thunder in the roof and wolves at the gate. It could all come later.

“Thank you,” Loki murmured into the smoke-scented darkness sometime after.

Blinking up at the red wash of dying coals glowing across the ceiling, Tony pretended he simply hadn’t heard.

Truth was, there in the relaxed darkness Tony was silently echoing it right back.


“It’s down there,” Clint called, pointing off the dangerous edge of the castle roof down to a lesser rampart. “Looks like a lump of snowy shit to me. I can’t get to it from here.”

“Can you just grow some ice wings and fly up and get it?” Tony asked Loki. They were both hunched ankle-deep in the snow beneath the west wing’s balcony. At Tony’s side Natasha was huddled in close, leeching his body heat like she was trying to kill him. He slung an arm around her and waved up at Clint, who flipped him the bird with extreme prejudice.

“How many powers do you think I have?” Loki asked tetchily, squinting against the glare of the sky. “If we can’t get up there we might as well go inside. I could use another ten hours of sleep. In a bed.”

“Stone floor too hard for you?” Loki just arched a single eyebrow.

“Glass houses, Stark. You couldn’t even sit up properly this morning.”

“Boys, I don’t need to know about your wild night while the kids were busy skating,” Natasha interjected, looking like she had a headache. “Nicely done, by the way. I think I can get up there with a grapple. Just catch me if I slip. It’s been a while since I’ve attempted climbing anything higher than twenty feet.”

“Grapple?” Tony questioned, but Natasha was already reaching for the hem of her skirt, dragging it up over her thigh to tie it there with a string-and-eyelet that bared one long leg to the winter air.

“Toss it down, Clint!” she called. Something that looked like woven curtain cord and half an iron coat rack sailed down, landing with a thump in the snow. Natasha’s grapple, like most of the things she claimed were hers, was a repurposed part of the castle. Creativity for days.

Tony backed away with Loki as she spun the claw edge overhead, sending it flying up over the stone edge of the roof. It didn’t catch the first time, or the second.

“Half foot to the right, Nat,” Clint called, leaning down from his taller vantage point. “Try to catch it on that big bastard in front. It’s solid.”

The grapple was thrown again on Clint’s advice. This time it caught. Natasha whooped as she hauled back on the knotted rope to test the grip. It didn’t give an inch.

“That’s a thirty-foot climb there, Romanoff, and you don’t have a safety line,” Tony warned, not liking all the risk for what was probably just a crumbled piece of stone that had fallen off the taller tower. “How do you know that cord is going to—oh, forget it. I’m not mothering you bastards. Knock yourself out.”

Still, Tony couldn’t help himself from frowning up at Natasha as she hauled herself up each notch in the rope, hand over hand with her feet only helping the smallest amount. For such a dainty thing, she had a frightening amount of upper body strength. He was still staring when Loki wrapped his furred mantle around Tony’s shoulders, bundling it in close.

“Keep yourself warm,” Loki murmured, his hand rubbing a long trail up and down Tony’s spine. “If you’re so insistent on staying out here.”

The fur was a soft, immediately insulating weight across Tony’s shoulders. The green cloth definitely clashed with his shirt, but it was hard to care as the breeze plucking at his clothes was held at bay.

“If you’re that concerned, you could warm up my mouth a little. I think some snow got in there while I was talking.”

“Hmm.” Loki leaned in just enough that his breath was soft against Tony’s smile. His eyes were wicked. “Like that?”

“Like this.” Tony stepped in and closed the distance, one hand slipping out of the cloak to cup the back of Loki’s neck. He felt the sliding edge of the fur stop moving as a hand on his back pulled him close, Loki’s mouth opening just enough to allow him in. Yeah, he was feeling pretty warm just then.

“Nooo,” Clint moaned from his vantage point. Two seconds later a snowball exploded across the back of Tony’s head.

“Ow.” Loki just laughed into Tony’s mouth as he rubbed his head, not concerned in the slightest that they’d both just been dashed with ice from above. Pulling away to curse Clint’s entire ancestry, Tony turned just in time to see Natasha haul herself over the lip of the rampart. So much for safety duty.

“What is it?” Loki asked, his voice carrying in the still air. The breeze had died off, as if it too wanted to hear the answer.

Natasha bent down, disappearing from view. A moment later Clint let out an interested whistle.

“Looks like a big fuck-off hammer to me, boss,” he yelled down. “Stupid short handle on it.” His hands made the approximate size of a cinderblock. “Why is it raining hammers?”

Tony was watching Loki’s face carefully as it transformed with the news. Gone was the smile, the easy affection, the warmth. Instead his eyes widened to the point of panic, blood draining from his face to leave him looking sickly and drawn. This was bad news? Why was a hammer bad news?

“There’s a note!” A blue-dressed arm shot up over the rampart, holding a tied-up piece of paper. “Hell of a way to send mail. Incoming!”

Loki watched it fall to the snow. He stood there watching it so long that it was up to Tony to walk forward and pick it up. The paper felt strange, grainy and thicker than normal. When Loki just stared at it like it was haunted, Tony shrugged and picked the leather apart, unfolding it to read the contents—and immediately scowled.

“The hell is this writing?” He turned it around to show Loki. “I don’t speak old matchstick, sorry. What does it say?”

Swallowing, Loki approached the note, his eyes scanning the mess of pointy symbols with such ease it was apparent he knew the language well. Tony waited, not sure whether to be worried or relieved when there was no obvious reaction to the message. What the hell was going on?

Loki straightened, then abruptly ran to the nearest tree in three long strides, retching noisily behind the concealing bulk of the trunk. The hand that grabbed the tree for balance was digging deep into the bark.

“Jesus.” Tony re-read the message but there was no translating it. It looked ancient, whatever it was. It looked something close to some kind of old Germanic script. “Loki, help me out here.”

Loki just spat on the ground, grabbing a handful of snow to rinse his mouth with. It was a long minute before he returned, looking wrung out and shaky. Definitely some really bad news.

“It’s from my brother,” Loki said, sounding frighteningly detached. “It says that my imprisonment is to last twenty-one years in total, for good or ill. If I cannot—” Tony put his hand on Loki’s shoulder as he abruptly swayed, “If I cannot earn my freedom before then by finding the secret to my punishment, I will be forever exiled from my home. My father will suffer me to live, but never again close enough to cause the level of damage that earned me this hel.” Loki’s eyes slid closed, two tears streaking dark paths down his cheeks. “I have five weeks left.”

“Five weeks? How in the hell is that fair? Why is he only telling you this now, when it’s almost too late? Shit, Loki.” Dropping the note, Tony pulled Loki in hard against him, his arms squeezing tight. “Five weeks is plenty. The spell cracked last night, didn’t it? Hey, we can do this. You and me. The apple’s glowing like a goddamn sun up there, we can do this—”

“My brother says he will help me escape,” Loki whispered. Tony froze. “Today, at dusk. So long as I grip the hammer, it will drag me out of this place, never to return. Father cannot exile what he cannot find.”

Tony stared.

“But the spell, your dad said you can break them—”

“Damn the spells,” Loki snarled, his uncertainty hardening into steely resolve. Something awful was glittering in his gaze; his eyes were like chips of red stone. “Damn Winterheart and damn my father most of all. I’m going home.”



The Office of Tony Stark – Stark Industries

“I must apologise about the short notice, Agent Coulson. Not to mention the little embarrassment at the security checkpoint. I didn’t realise you carried a gun.”

“It’s standard issue, Miss Potts, and honestly it doesn’t see that much use. No different to me than a tie or a good set of cufflinks.”

“Well, I’m sure our staff will take good care of it while we talk.” Pepper pushed the door open ahead of Agent Coulson, gesturing toward the wide desk and the chair in front of it. “Please, take a seat.”

“You still haven’t told me what this is all about,” Coulson said mildly, unbuttoning his suit jacket to sit in the proffered chair. The desk was a polished island between them. “I was under the impression that Tony Stark was still missing.”

“To the rest of the world, he is,” Pepper said. She kept her fingers perfectly still, loosely clasped on the desk. “However, missing would imply you don’t know where he is. According to a very interested party, you and your people have a very good idea of what happened to him.”

Coulson’s polite smile didn’t budge an inch.

“We’re working on that, Miss Potts, just as you are. We all have a vested interest in finding Mr Stark alive and well. In fact, I was hoping you and I might be able to put our heads together over this.” For all his respectful demeanour and reassuring smile, Pepper could see the calculating look in his eyes. She was getting very good at identifying that look. “We have a lot of resources that, with your detailed account of what happened at Solstice Canyon, could be used to get a little closer to the matter.”

Pepper smiled.

“It’s great to have your support, Agent, but I called you here because there’s a certain person I need you to put me in contact with.” She slid a thin manila folder across the desk to him. Coulson opened it and immediately went still. “You’ve had some dealings with her in the past, right?”

Clearing his throat slightly, Coulson closed the folder and stood, buttoning his suit jacket with a deft, unhurried movement.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you in this matter.” He reached out to shake her hand. “But I wish you luck—”

“I already know the whereabouts of Doctor Foster,” Pepper interjected, her smile sliding away. “In fact, I was corresponding with her earlier this morning. I just wanted to see what you’d do. Very nice poker face, Agent. Director Fury should give you a raise.”

Coulson’s face was stone.

“Don’t dig any deeper, Miss Potts. For your sake. The world isn’t ready to know what’s out there.” His hand, when Pepper shook it, was completely dry. “And you’re not ready for the storm that’ll come if that day arrives sooner than we planned.”

“Take your surveillance off Tony’s house,” Pepper said coldly. “Take your badly-disguised gardeners, your data interception web and your messy hack job, and cram it all in the big empty space where your information on Winterheart should be.”

Coulson’s eyebrows flew up. It took him a moment before he could find his words.

“Well, this is embarrassing. Trained professionals burned by a—”

“Watch it.”

“—skilled and highly intelligent woman with the means to take what she wants,” he finished, betraying a small amused quirk of his lips. He coughed discreetly at her flat gaze. “All right, I’ll withdraw the men. To be honest we haven’t gotten anything since the power was cut. The energy signal in Solstice Canyon matches Foster’s work. That’s all I’m going to give you.”

“Thanks for all your help,” Pepper said dryly. “I already knew that much.”

“I figured.” Coulson paused. “What is Winterheart? I’m going to guess Mr Stark isn’t in the warm golden land we assumed he was.”

Warm? Golden? Talk about misinformed. SHIELD obviously had less intel than she did.

“Cold and dark, Agent. Exactly as advertised. Tony made a very stupid deal with a very scary creature.” She smiled. “That’s all I’m going to give you.”

“Touché.” Strangely, Coulson seemed to have actually warmed to her after their little verbal spar. “For what it’s worth, I hope you find him. Our resident expert has been off the grid for the last twenty years. Foster can help, but she’s got her own secrets to keep. Even we can’t get much out of her, and we’re the ones who were at ground zero when it all went down the first time.”

“I’ll take my chances. Thanks for coming, Agent Coulson.”

“You’d better call me Phil,” he replied with a tiny smile. “Let me know if you’re ever in the market for a career change. We could use someone like you.”

Pepper stacked her files, tucking the manila folder away.

“Thanks for the offer, Phil, but you couldn’t afford me.” Locking Tony’s drawers, Pepper squared her shoulders and smiled. “Shall I walk you out?”

She was getting better at it, Pepper decided as she escorted Phil the startled agent down through the building. Wrangling men who thought they were just too damn clever for a personal assistant looking for her boss. Since Rhodey had planted JARVIS’s tablet late the night before, she’d woken up to more information than she was sure SHIELD knew she could even touch. JARVIS had even flagged a few strange things for her, marking them as of particular interest at a later date.

Why she’d care about a guy found frozen in ice was anyone’s guess, but she’d learned to trust JARVIS’s hunches.


Castle Winterheart

Tony was throwing rocks at wolves.

Actually he’d been throwing rocks at the trees, the gates flung open, but it hadn’t taken long for the wolves to come stalking their way out of the woods on stiff legs, their blank golden eyes watching him vent his frustration. Occasionally one of them would dodge a stone headed their way. They seemed interested in his futile effort to tire himself out, as if spending all his energy was going to do a damn thing to distract him from what was about to happen.

In a few hours Loki was going to make his big escape. Flying off into the great unknown, attached to some magic hammer. Tony would pick that theory apart if he wasn’t busy being the guy avoiding everyone and everything. Loki had tried to tell him, tell him that escape before being sentenced to exile meant he could still find his way home, before all the paths were erased. As if that was the only possible goddamn outcome.

So Loki was bailing out. Busting out of jail and going on the run. Now there was a recipe for happiness. The next stone Tony threw bounced off a tree and hit a wolf in the back. It yipped in surprise.

“Sorry,” Tony said unthinkingly. The wolf just huffed a snuffling breath and went hunting for the offending stone. “So who’s the new alpha these days? Anyone I know?” Ears twitched and heads tilted. Was there more life in the wolves than there had been before? “You probably shouldn’t bother filling the position. You guys are about to be out of a job.”

The theory was that with Loki gone, they’d all be able to walk free. The wolves would probably scatter as the magic found itself directionless, but even if that didn’t happen Tony figured they’d be cut loose.

For starters, that damn raven had been following him since Loki read the note. Talk about a portent of doom. The others couldn’t see it, not even Loki, who knew more about magic and spells than Tony could hope to learn in a lifetime. The bird had been keeping an eye on everything and seemed to control the wolves to some extent, but the way it was ghosting Tony said something was definitely going on. Magical politics?

“I don’t care,” Tony told the wolves, tossing his last few stones off the edge of the drawbridge behind him. “I officially do not give a shit about Winterheart, wolves or stalker birds because this place sure doesn’t give a shit about me. I’m done.”

He wanted to be done. He did. It would be nice not to give a damn about what was going to happen. It would be nice to be happy about going home, but it all felt wrong, all the way down in the very pit of his stomach. Even if Loki hadn’t turned away from Tony like he was a used plaything, all his entertainment value spent, the whole situation felt wrong. It was outside the plan.

“I thought I was going to change things,” Tony told the wolf pack. They didn’t get the joke. “I thought there was a pattern, that I was part of it. You could have told me we were all just loose threads.”

He was trying to decide if he could skip the whole departure by staying out there until after sunset when something bounced off his shoe. Tony frowned down at the stone. His stone. On the other side of the open gate, the wolf he’d accidentally hit made a whining sound in its throat and looked down at it, then back up at Tony. Its flat golden eyes were eerily expectant.

Tony picked up the stone.

“You’re a wolf. A vicious, man-eating wolf. Have some self-respect.” But he threw it hard into the woods anyway, watching with bemusement as the entire pack went scrambling after it, yipping in their strange language as they fought each other. Soon it was just Tony alone in the snow, completely confounded. “I wish that was the strangest thing that had happened today. Falling hammers. What a crock of shit.”

It probably wasn’t worth brooding out there all afternoon. It was too damn cold and he didn’t have Loki’s mantle anymore, having given it back to him somewhere between ‘I’m going home’ and ‘I wish for solitude’. Tony didn’t want to think too hard on the dismissal, because if he did he was certain it would end with him remembering the night before and everything they’d said to each other. Funny how all that could go flying straight out the window the moment freedom looked like it was on the cards. He felt like an idiot.

Who was he kidding though? No-one would choose him over freedom, over being able to go home. There was no certainty that the curse could be broken in time, that the crack in the vambraces had been anything other than old metal turning brittle. Just because he’d felt the burn of inspiration, of purpose kindle beneath his ribs, it didn’t have to mean anything. Maybe Loki was taking his best and only shot at getting home.

Tony was still watching the empty woods when heavy footsteps approached behind him.

“I thought you’d be on the roof by now, counting down.” There was nothing he could do about the clipped edge of his tone. “Only about an hour til dusk, by my guess.”

“I had thought you might bid me farewell,” Loki replied evenly. “Instead I find you here, beckoning death with the gate open.”

“I’ll have you know I’m playing fetch.” Tony didn’t turn around from his position leaning on the gate’s hinges. Crossed arms weren’t really keeping out the cold, but it made him look about as mad as he felt. “When was I supposed to say goodbye? Should I have yelled it at your back while you ran away to pack your apple?”

Drawing even with Tony’s shoulder, Loki stared at the woods ahead like he was committing it to memory. He didn’t look at Tony, not even from the corner of his eye.

“I can sense your disapproval, Stark. However, I’d ask you to recall which of us is running toward his home, not from it.” There was enough haughty scorn in the words to set Tony’s teeth on edge.

“Toward home?” he repeated. “You’re running like a scared kid, trying to dodge Daddy’s belt before he’s even decided to use it.” Tony pinned Loki with a flat look. “It’s a cheat.”

Loki’s brief laugh was cold.

“This might surprise you, but I am no stranger to deception and trickery.”

“And isn’t that what got you into this mess in the first place? Ten points for learning from your mistakes there, Big Blue.” Tony let his eyes wander over the tree line, watching thick snow clouds slowly come rolling in over the dark green shadow of the woods. The wolves were nowhere in sight. “On the upside, I guess I’ll be able to get some real sun soon. Maybe I’ll even go really nuts and have a shower.”

Loki exhaled hard, the breath shuddering with frustration. Tony watched him spin on his heel in his peripheral vision, taking two steps back toward the castle. Then he stopped.

“What is it you want, Tony?” he asked desperate and furious. “Me, here, imprisoned and miserable, whiling away my last five weeks with you? There isn’t enough time in the world to—”

“I want you to give yourself a chance!” Turning to face Loki, Tony couldn’t keep the words inside himself. “I want you to have your damn freedom, Loki, I do. But I also want you to earn it. Do you really think that’s impossible?”

Ice was crawling over Loki’s hands. Tony tried not to keep an eye on it, but still he stepped back against the bend of the gate as Loki took a step toward him.

“Impossible?” Loki said, sounding strangled. “Of course it’s impossible! I spent my entire life disappointing that man!”

“Well you’re about to do it again!” Tony pushed past his uncertainty and got right up in Loki’s face. That close, he could see the turmoil beneath the stubborn resolve – and the fear. “Beat him at his own game, Loki. Beat him fair and square.”

“I can’t. You don’t understand.” Loki swallowed, glancing away almost guiltily. “Learn the value of the lives you would have so selfishly taken. His words to me. I’ve watched you, protected you, fought wolves for you. I’ve learned your history and shared mine. I forgave the ones who harmed me and asked forgiveness in return. I learned how to trust you with every shameful secret, I’ve listened to you—I need you.” His eyes slid closed as Tony reached up, cupping his hand around the back of his neck. “You’ve become precious to me, and I am greedy for the warmth of you. But it still isn’t enough. It will never be enough for him.”

They stood there for a long, cold minute. Overhead, the clouds were blotting out the afternoon light, the snow beginning to fall again. Tony tried to hold onto his frustration, his anger, but all he really felt was sad.

“It must be some home.”

“It is.” Freezing hands, no longer coated in ice, slid around Tony’s waist and pulled him close. “That land was all I had, when there was no-one at my side. Those golden spires and star-dusted skies raised me. I grew strong on its fruit and meat, breathed its clean air, walked the winding roads when the city gave way for endless hills and mountain ranges. I defended it, I protected it.” Lips brushed Tony’s hair. “I miss it more than words can tell and I could lose it forever. Exile doesn’t mean simply no longer being welcome, not when my father decrees it. It means the compass won’t find north. I’ll never find it again.”

After that, there really wasn’t anything more to say. There was no argument in the world that could change Loki’s mind, not when Tony could hear the homesick yearning in every lonely word. Could he really blame him for making the jump?

Turning back to the wide-open gates, Tony still couldn’t help one last, wistful look out at the woods.

“In my head, you beat it,” he said, not looking at Loki. “We spend the final days getting our hands on every inch of each other. You master your control of the ice, we find the rest of the castle passages and scare the hell out of Clint. Natasha starts smiling for real. So do you.” Arms wrapped around him from behind, squeezing painfully tight. Tony’s throat ached. “Then one day, we wake up and the snow is melting. Your vambraces have crumbled to nothing and the bed is full of pieces of sharp metal. The sun’s out, it’s hot and somewhere I can smell asphalt and green grass. Maybe it’s my home, maybe it’s yours.” He smiled in the afternoon’s dying light. “I thought that one up this morning. Lesson one, Loki: dreaming doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Tony closed his eyes as lips travelled over his cheek and mouth and neck, pressing cold, desperate kisses to any stretch of skin they could find.

“It’s my only chance.” The words were spoken into the soft give of his throat.

“I know you believe that.”

There was silence. Then, “Farewell, Tony Stark.”

“Bye, Loki.” Tony stood straight as the arms left him, as the weight at his back was replaced by cold air. When he finally mustered the resolve to turn and head into the castle, there was nothing in front of him but the long stretch of the drawbridge, empty of anything but the newly-fallen snow.

Above him on the wall, the raven spread its wings and cried out, dropping down into the dry moat to glide away into the dark. Apparently Loki wasn’t the only one who had given up.

All that was left was to wait for dusk and plan for the freedom that would come after.

Tony tried to be happy about that.


Inside the solar, Clint Barton was falling apart.

I’m not ready,” he forced out between chattering teeth, hunched over on the couch so far he was almost bent double. His eyes were watering. “I can’t go. There’s nowhere to go. How can he do this? How can he just leave us behind? I got nothing out there, fuck, Carson’s was already falling apart fifteen years ago. This is the only home I’ve got.” Reaching over, Natasha slung her arm around him and murmured something that sounded comforting but Clint just closed up like a clam, his arms caging his head.

Tony had nothing to say that might improve matters. He’d grabbed a bottle of scotch and a tumbler of ice from Cook and sat himself in the solar to get spectacularly drunk, but so far he’d only managed to get a quarter of the way to buzzed. The sun had already set. Waiting for the inevitable was taking longer than any of them had thought.

Natasha shot Tony a look, jerking her chin at Clint’s crumpled misery. Do something, the look said.

“You want a house?” he asked, his eyes on the bottom of his glass. “I’ll buy you a house.”

“I don’t want a house.” The words were muffled by Clint’s knees but they reached Tony’s ears well enough.

“You just said—”

“I wanna not be left here like trash.” Lifting his head, Clint gave Tony a bloodshot glare. “Even the biggest assholes unlocked the cages before they skipped town.”

“We’re not circus animals.” Natasha grabbed Tony’s bottle off the table and uncapped it.

“Aren’t we?” Clint’s laugh was bitter. “Come on. We performed our tired tricks and now the ringmaster’s moving on to bigger and better things.”

“My god, have a drink,” Natasha muttered irritably, shoving the bottle into Clint’s hands. “I don’t do this analogy bullshit. You want to talk hard luck? I’m ex-KGB and I’m about to walk out into the middle of DC with nothing but a curtain dress and stale secrets to sell. If you want to play ‘It’s a Shitty Life’ I’ve got you beat by a mile.” Clint just took an enormous pull from the bottle, coughed explosively and handed it back. His head went back down on his knees.

“It’s not all bad,” Tony found himself saying. “Clint, you’re going to love the internet. Technology has come a hell of a way since you were in the world. Compound bows these days are going to blow your mind. Trick arrowheads, long-range laser sights, even the arm guards are updated with better materials.” He met Natasha’s speculative look. “The CIA will pay through the nose for your so-called stale secrets and you know it. What you need is someone to put a good word in for you. Luckily, I know a guy who knows a guy.” Rhodey probably wouldn’t mind. Not after he got a good look at Natasha, anyway.

Clint emerged from his leg-cave and scrubbed at his eyes. He still looked like wrung-out misery, but there was something a little less hopeless about the way he looked at Tony. That or the scotch had just mellowed him out.

“But where are we going to live?” he asked plaintively. Tony just rolled his eyes, draining the glass.

“Til I can get you both set up, with me,” he replied. “I’ve got a place in Malibu. Cliff-top views of the ocean, swimming pool, tennis courts, helipad…you know, a house. It might help with the, uh, transition. Transition? Is that the word we’d use?”

“Separation anxiety?” Natasha suggested. “Or feelings of abandonment. In your case, complete and utter rejection.”

Tony slowly put his glass down on the table.

“Jesus, Nat,” Clint mumbled. “Tony really fell hard for the boss. Leave him alone.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to deny it, but with those two Tony knew there wasn’t much point. It was too late for anything, anyway.

“Sorry,” Natasha said, and she really did look it. “I’m not taking today very well. I should have hidden the damn note. Something. Anything. Even prolonging the inevitable would have been better than this.”

If there was anything to say to that, it was drowned out by a hideous rolling wave of thunder, one so loud it shook the walls. Through the curtain gap, lightning split the sky, flooding inside in a bright crack of light. Winterheart didn’t get storms.

When it was over, silence reigned.

That was it, then.

Clint’s mouth trembled, his eyes fierce and furious through the tears.

“I fucking hate him,” he choked out in a whisper, hunching up again like a kid. His shoulders shook despite Natasha’s encircling arms, her temple pressed to his shoulder. “I hate him.”

Tony felt something inside him grow quiet and cold, even as the reactor seemed to hum even louder. Vacation was over. Reality was setting in, and even people like Clint Barton had to wake up and—

“I don’t blame you,” said Loki, standing just inside the doorway. “In fact, I rather share the sentiment.”

Clint’s head whipped up. So did Natasha’s. Tony just sat and stared, wondering how the hell Loki could have missed his deadline. But of course, the tension and skittish apprehension in his frame said he hadn’t done anything of the sort. Loki hadn’t caught his train out of Winterheart on purpose. Which—that didn’t make any kind of sense at all. Not after everything Tony had heard him say. Not after everything they’d said to each other. It was his home.

“Barton,” Loki said quietly, approaching him where he was sitting on the couch. Given the sacrifice he’d just made, just the effort it took to sound normal had to be immense. But he bore it like he’d done everything else, Tony thought, still numb to the sight. “Clint.”

Shoving Natasha away, Clint shot to his feet and slugged Loki right in the jaw. Then again. Three times Clint Barton hit him, until his damaged right hand was bright red with the impact and Loki still stood there, stunned and quiet.

“You don’t get to leave,” Clint said, breathing like his chest was a forge bellows. His eyes were full of tears. “Not before me. You don’t get to do that. Not after fifteen years of watching your back, of lookin’ after you, even when you didn’t want me around. Fifteen years I sat here in this place, an’ I never once, never once asked you for my freedom.” Raising his injured hand, he shoved it under Loki’s nose. Loki stared down at it like he didn’t want to, but there was no other choice. Clint’s blue eyes were wet steel. “You don’t get to leave before me.”

Loki stood speechless.

Tony waiting for him to say something, some pretty words in that refined voice of his, maybe, or an apology that might encompass just how much he’d screwed up. He had screwed up, Tony could see that, in ways he’d been too selfish to think about earlier. He’d been so busy mourning his own missed chances and unfinished business that he’d forgotten Clint had more to lose by Loki’s absence than anyone else. He’d been the first, he’d been the oldest and Loki hadn’t even tried to say goodbye.

Reaching out, fingers careful and slow, Loki clasped Clint’s injured hand in both of his.

As they both stood there, frozen and hurting, it was Natasha who drove her foot into Clint’s ass, sending him stumbling forward into Loki.

Tony almost looked away as Loki went rigid, as Clint fought to pull back, not wanting to see the mess it’d all turn into. But the moment Clint pulled away, hunched in on himself in that protective way he’d done all afternoon, Loki snagged his worn shirt and pulled him in again, shoving his scruffy head against the wolf fur at his shoulder.

When the first deep, wracking sob filled the room, that was when Tony looked away.

“I hate scotch,” Natasha muttered, suddenly in Tony’s face and tugging his wrist. Her eyes were shadowed. “Come think me up something better.”

Tony had no time to argue before he’d been hauled out of his couch and the solar in general, half-jogging after Natasha to stop his arm being jerked out of its socket. But she didn’t head for Cook, or even any further beyond the solar after she’d pulled the door closed behind them. Slumping back against the cool stone, she tipped her head back and stared at the ceiling like it had all the answers.

“A simple ‘give them a minute’ would have done just as nicely,” Tony said, rotating his shoulder gingerly. He didn’t even know why he was talking. There was too much confused noise in his head. His mouth burned with alcohol, the effect starting to tilt the hallway just a little. “Believe it or not, I’m not that insensitive.”

“Why didn’t he leave?” Natasha’s voice was shaking. “For our sake I wanted him to stay, but for his? That was probably his only ticket home, right?”

There was the million dollar question. Tony really hoped it was mostly rhetorical, because he didn’t have anything even beginning to resemble an answer.

“Maybe he’s trying to play fair,” he offered, shaking his head. “I don’t know, when I talked to him I was…” Angry? Brutally honest? An unsympathetic asshole? “I couldn’t hold it against him either, in the end.”

Reaching out, Natasha grabbed his hand and squeezed it hard. Her fingers were cold. Tony found himself reflexively returning the grip, falling back to lean on the wall beside her. Inside the solar, there was no sound at all. For Clint’s sake, Tony hoped they were hugging it out. The poor bastard hadn’t had nearly enough of those in his lifetime.

They stood out there in the gloom, both silent and confused while they waited for Loki to come out and tell them exactly what the hell had been going through his head. Did he have some new idea on what the curse meant? Had something Tony had said inadvertently had a bigger impact than he’d intended? Maybe Loki had simply lost his mind, or his hope.

Tony was jostled slightly as Natasha once again tucked herself against his arm. She was short enough that he could wrap his arm around her shoulders. He hadn’t picked her for the type to seek out or even particularly enjoy physical contact, but it had been a terrible day and honestly, it was freezing in the hallway no matter how he tried to play it off.

“Were you really going to let us move into your house?”

There was a smile in her voice that Tony wasn’t sure was caused by amusement or approval. He gave her a punishing one-armed squeeze anyway.

“Sure. Barton could be my cabana boy.” Natasha snorted lightly.

“You know, I think he’d enjoy that,” she said dryly. She paused. “What am I in this fantasy frat house?”

Well, there was only one answer to that.

“You’re anyone you want to be, so long as you don’t kill me in my sleep.” That response earned Tony a flash of teeth he wasn’t sure was a smile. Not that Natasha would ever even think about it. Glue his ass-cheeks together, maybe. But kill him? Almost definitely not.

“Thanks,” she said after a moment. Tony didn’t reply; he just frowned at the wall opposite them and silently wished people would stop thanking him for things he wanted to do.

The following silence was interrupted by the door opening a few minutes later. A very drained-looking archer came wandering out, wiping at his eyes and looking mortified.

“You didn’t see shit, either of you,” Clint croaked.

“I have terrible eyesight,” Natasha said promptly.

“I’m drunk,” said Tony.

Eyeing them both dubiously, Clint sniffed and glanced back into the solar.

“Uh, he wants to talk to Tony.” There was something mournful about the way he said it, and he wouldn’t meet Tony’s eyes. “I’m gonna…go find a paper bag to breathe into.” He started down the hallway like a man on a life-or-death mission. Natasha followed after him, only sparing Tony a single curious glance before she hurried to catch up.

Why a paper bag? The question followed Tony back into the solar, where the air was warm and smelled faintly of wood smoke. Shuddering at the abrupt temperature change, he pushed the door closed behind him and headed for the fireplace.

Loki stood at the far edge of the fire, his eyes fixed on the light. His expression was startlingly remote for someone who had just made the kind of sacrifice he had.

“I guess that little showdown was a long time coming,” Tony commented, trying for casual levity. It wasn’t a great mask for all the boiling confusion, but it did in a pinch.

“I’m releasing you all from Winterheart,” Loki said, his eyes still fixed on the fire.

Tony’s smile vanished.

“No, you’re not.”

“I am.” Loki lifted his head and turned to Tony. His eyes were clear. “Tonight, the three of you will return to your world. Whatever the next few weeks will bring, I’ll bear it on my own.”

“No, you won’t.” Crossing the length of the fireplace, Tony didn’t stop until he was within touching distance. He reached out, but Loki stepped away. “God damn it. If I did this—”

“You did,” Loki said, cutting across what was going to be a brilliant argument. “You did do this and I thank you for it. I might not have realised if you hadn’t said it, but it’s true. I was about to do it again. If I run now it won’t matter where I go, I’ll never feel like I’m home.” Reaching out across the small distance, Loki took Tony’s shoulders in cold hands. “What is the point of stealing what you want most when because of that act, you can never fully appreciate it? When you can never trust that it was ever supposed to be yours?”

Tony tried to process the dual meaning of his words. He really did. But all he was hearing was goodbye. Again. Just when he’d thought they’d fixed it. Loki’s words weren’t the revelation of affection and attraction and loyalty he’d been expecting. Not even close. Instead of selfish bullshit, Tony was being fed selfless bullshit. Now that was funny.

“You can tell me I’m free, but you can’t make me leave.” Tony gripped Loki’s wrists, his thumbs rubbing over the fractures in the metal. “I’m seeing this through to the end. What—what was the point of it all if I don’t get to see the end? I’ve got enough unfinished projects in my life as it is, but they’re all out there.” He swallowed hard. “I wanted to fix you.”

Tony felt his shoulders sag as cool lips touched his temple, his cheek, his ear. Not the same pattern as before, but the sadness was the same.

“I’ve been selfish with your lives,” Loki whispered, his breath drawing goosebumps along Tony’s skin. “It’s time I fixed myself. Fair and square, weren’t those your words?”

“I’m an idiot,” Tony said, sliding his hands around Loki waist, tugging the cool weight of him against his chest. “What are you even doing, listening to me? I know machines, not people.”

“You know me.”

Tony laughed. It wasn’t a happy sound.

“How the hell am I supposed to go back out there? There’s no magic there, no glowing apples or enormous wolves.” Turning his head, he pressed a line of hot kisses along Loki’s jaw. “How the hell am I supposed to leave you behind?”

Loki sighed out a short, gently exasperated breath, but he turned his head and met Tony’s mouth anyway. Even the kiss felt like a goodbye; too long, too hard and desperate against his mouth, belying all the restraint that had been in Loki’s words. The hands that slid around him were almost too rough with their clutching need but it was good, it was needed because Tony knew he didn’t have an argument in the world that could stop what was about to happen.

“I’m learning the value of your life,” Loki said, and in his red eyes glittered crushing sacrifice. “I’m giving it back.” He pressed a small wrapped bundle into his hands.

Tony could feel even through the cloth that it was his phone. His and Pepper’s, not used since that very first day. If there was anything that resembled the world outside, it was those. He shoved the bundle into his pocket without looking and tried to clear his throat, his eyes on the floor.

“What, you’re not even going to give me a claw? Lock of hair? One of your horns?”

Loki just shook his head.

“You’ve already taken everything that matters.”

Tony closed his eyes and tried not to think about what that meant. If he did, he’d never be able to leave. But it wasn’t about him, and it wasn’t even really about Loki. It was about the curse. Could the goodbye be enough? If it wasn’t, did it doom Loki a second time, leaving him homeless and alone?

“I need you to trust me,” Loki said, his voice gravelly and strained. “I need you to go, and fast.”

After that, there was nothing more to say.

“Bye, Loki.”

Loki just smiled.

“Farewell, Tony Stark.”

It didn’t feel finished, Tony thought helplessly, furiously as he finally backed away. But it was. It had to be over, it had to be then and there.

It took more strength than he ever thought he possessed, turning around and leaving Loki standing there in the firelight, staring painfully at his back. It took everything to pretend he hadn’t seen the wet shine of his jewel-red eyes, too brilliant even for the flames to justify. But Tony did it like he did everything else; he grit his teeth, ignored his aching chest and forged on ahead.

It was only five weeks, he thought as he walked for the main entrance, seeing Natasha and Clint waiting for him with lost sorrow in their eyes. You couldn’t lose a person in just five weeks. There was still hope.

Still hope , Tony repeated to himself as they pressed out into the cold night, past the gates and into the snow. Golden eyes gleamed out at him but made no move, their orders clear. No raven darkened the sky or sang its throaty song. Feeling Clint’s hand on his back and Natasha’s arm around his waist, they walked and walked until the snow began to give way to grass. Stars shone overhead, one brighter than all the others drilling down into the top of Tony’s head. He ignored it.

“Three paths,” Natasha murmured, sounding tense. “Diverged in a snowy wood?”

Tony lifted his head from the slow trudge of his feet. Sure enough she was correct; three paths in the snow, forking into three different destinations. It had to be Clint’s, Natasha’s and his own.

“That’s mine,” Clint said, sounding terrified. In his hand, the bow and quiver knocked and rattled together. “I can—it smells like the tents. Straw, and hot lights and stale popcorn.” He heaved a breath. “I can’t go back there. It’s been too long.”

Natasha pointed straight ahead. Her path was as dark as theirs, but her eyes gleamed in challenge.

“Hot steel. Fire and spilled gas. Wet leaves and my own blood. That’s me.” The arm around Tony’s waist squeezed tight. “I don’t think I can ignore it. The boss took the hard road. I think I owe it to him to do the same, don’t you?”

“Then I’m following you, Nat,” Clint said, darting Tony a look of small guilt. “She’s useless without me, you know?”

“I get it,” Tony said, not even trying to disguise the rusty thickness of his voice. “Find me, if you need me. It won’t be hard. Follow the media circus.”

They hugged there, three lonely idiots in the snow. Tony wanted to crush them into pieces he could take with him, like splinters he could hide beneath his skin. But his eyes were dry and the air was still cold, and eventually they had to break apart. Tony turned his eyes to his own path.

“What’s yours?” Clint ventured, glancing down the dark wooded trail. Tony didn’t blink.

“Wet grass. Blacktop. Exhaust from the car idling down on the road.” He squinted in remembrance. “Happy was waiting for me to come back. I wonder if he still has a job.”

“Guess you’ll find out,” Natasha said, overriding Clint’s very likely attempt to make a pun. “Look after yourself, Tony. Try a deepnet search on ‘Black Widow’ if you really need a hand.”

Tony just nodded blankly, filing the information away as he watched them both turn and start down the central path. Their footsteps were leaden and slow, and Clint kept looking back, but it only took a few seconds before strange mist swallowed them up. When they were completely gone, Tony felt the first real clench of panic in his chest.

Home, he told himself, turning toward his path. Nothing scary about that.

He walked down the dark road, following the familiarity of months before. Between one clean breath and the next he knew the exact moment when Winterheart became Solstice Canyon. The breeze was warm and smelled of pine and grass. There were so many stars in the sky it hurt to look at them.

Turning, Tony glanced back at his path. It was gone – nothing but trees and rocks. Not even a lingering snowflake. Just nothing. Somewhere beyond that magical border, Loki was trapped inside his castle prison.

It was just five weeks, Tony told himself as he dug through the cloth in his pocket and pulled out his phone, switching it back on and praying the battery held. Either Loki would be able to go home, or he’d be set free of his curse. It was just a matter of time and patience and—

It was no use, he thought as the phone illuminated in his hand, showing full signal and hundreds of missed calls. It still felt like a lie.

Taking a deep breath, tipping his head back to the stars, Tony dialled for his ride.

Home, he thought again as the phone purred in his ear, clicking as a familiar voice answered in tones of rigid disbelief.

Maybe that was the real lie.


Asgard – Throne Room

When Frigga found Thor, he was sitting on the steps at the base of his father’s throne. Mjölnir swung like a lost pendulum, hung aloft by two fingers through the strap. He was watching it with an expression that said his thoughts were on snow and stone, not Asgard’s halls. Not even Midgard. Frigga knew that look very well.

“You knew he wouldn’t take it,” Thor said. He didn’t look up as she approached, her skirt whispering across the polished floor. “Why give me the hope if you knew he would refuse?”

“I prayed he wouldn’t take it,” Frigga said plainly, “but he had to be given the choice. He chose well. Rejoice, Thor. If Loki believed there was no hope for him, he might have taken the hammer in hand. There’s still time.” Standing before her son’s seated form, she reached out to touch his cheek. He turned his face away.

“I wanted him to take it,” Thor said, his voice hushed, as though the confession were something shameful. “Even if it sent Father into a towering rage. Even if he banished me again.” When he finally looked up, Frigga’s heart clenched as she met his sorrowful gaze. “How can I right my wrongs if he can never come home again?”

Frigga frowned slightly. Perhaps Loki wasn’t the only one who needed a little faith.

“Much can happen in five weeks,” she told Thor, moving to his side. Picking up her heavy skirt, she carefully sat herself down on the dais step beside him. Thor almost betrayed a smile at her graceless attempt at casual ease. “Don’t laugh at your mother. Some of us aren’t given the luxury of flexible armour. Now stop swinging Mjölnir about or I’ll take it from you.”

Thor obediently sat the hammer on his other side, turning back to watch her curiously. Frigga understood why. Rare was the opportunity to simply sit together without an entire palace worth of vassals and servants rushing past on some errand or other, but the hour was late and the braziers were burning low. Odin was obsessing over the runes she’d cast for him, as had had done most nights for the last week. Sometimes, it was better to wait for him to draw his own conclusions on what the stones told of Loki’s future.

Still, there was no denying it; she saw the blood and the end, just as clearly as Odin had. But there was renewal, too. Change would be upon them soon, for good or ill.

“I wish I could see him.” Thor scowled fiercely out at the throne room. “You, Father, Heimdall, even the raven, you all have your ways of watching over Loki. I know nothing of magic.” Frigga watched as Thor started a little, smiling in gentle amusement. “Loki always said one day I’d be forced to acknowledge my jealousy of his talents. He meant it to mock our differences, no doubt, but he was right.”

“Then you’ve never taken the throne?” Frigga asked, surprised. She’d just lost quite a bet with Odin; she’d thought for certain that Thor’s curiosity and worry would have driven him to find solace there, more than once. Thor looked at her askance.

“It’s forbidden,” he said, as though she needed reminding. His blue gaze darted from hers. “And I know that if I were to look, I could not look away. I have too many responsibilities to the realms to sit in thrall of his winter prison.”

“Are you afraid of what you might see?” Frigga asked, quietly surprised to find she was reluctant to hear his answer. “That it might change your mind?”

“I know who he is.” The words were simple; the acceptance of that truth was old. “It’s not his skin I fear to see. I wonder if I’d look upon him and see the same lost hatred in his eyes that I witnessed before his imprisonment.” His golden head lowered. “Or something even worse. Surely he blames me, as he did then. Surely he hates me still.”

The answers were inside Frigga to give; she’d witnessed the truth when Loki had spoken it to his Midgardian companion. But to hear it from her lips would give Thor no reassurance, no peace at all. A mother’s mouth was not for the harsh truths of the world, no. For too long that had been Odin’s role. Perhaps for too long she’d been idle, after all.

“You can ask him when you meet again,” she said finally, her gaze distant as she watched the guards change on the throne room doors, their movements no more than small flickers of dull metal at the end of the hall. “Whether he breaks his curse or it breaks upon him, you will see your brother again.”

“Have you seen it?” Thor asked, unable to mask his curiosity. Frigga smiled.

“I don’t need to see that to know it to be true. There isn’t a force in all nine realms that can keep you two from each other.”

“Father can,” Thor said darkly. “Father has.”

Father has a heavy hand, as you well know.” Reaching out, Frigga tucked a few strands of hair over her son’s ear. “But never without purpose. Do you honestly believe I’d let this continue as long as it has if I had any doubts about his intentions?”

“No.” Thor caught her hand as she withdrew. His smile was fond. “You also would not have given me the opportunity to damn myself if you thought I might truly go against his wishes.” Frigga beamed.

“Then you’ve learned something from your brother after all.” Grasping her skirts, Frigga got to her feet once more. “Go meet with Heimdall. Stand vigil with him, so that you may fly quickly to me if there is any word.”

Thor frowned. “Mother—”

“With haste, Thor.” She turned for the doors. “What happens next may transpire too quickly for me to see.”

Taking Mjölnir firmly in hand, Thor shot to his feet and headed for the main entrance without another word. Ever the dutiful son, the dutiful brother, the dutiful prince. Frigga paused, watching him go. The days of his wilful youth seemed to be well over, and she mourned them fiercely. It wasn’t only for Loki’s sake that she wished him true freedom.

When Thor was well on his way, Frigga hurried through the long halls to the royal chamber, where Odin was engrossed in the telling scatter of stones across the dark wooden table. Three times he’d asked her to cast them, and each time a different future had been laid bare.

“Crisis and change,” Odin said, rolling his single eye to regard Frigga as she approached. “Crisis and blood. Crisis and triumph. Every single time, a trial not of my doing. How does the prison threaten him now, when there are naught to challenge him?” Dashing his hand through the stones, Odin sat back in his chair and glared at them anew. “The Norns give me nothing. The stones give me nothing. Hescamar gives me nothing. How do I protect him without undoing my own word before he can understand?”

“Spend your pride, my husband.” Frigga touched his shoulder gently, halting to stand behind him. “I think you’ll find Loki is destined to escape your control time and again.”

“Strangely calm words from the woman who blacked my eye ten years into Loki’s sentence.” Reaching for his concealing eyepatch, Odin plucked it free and rubbed beneath it. “Why aren’t you using this to beg for his freedom?”

“Because it’s what you want me to do,” Frigga replied simply. “You’re wavering. Everywhere I look, there is no faith in Loki. But whatever stands in his path that we cannot see, it will find a child of Jotunheim with the heart of an Asgardian, a heart forged into bright steel by his companions. Tell me, Odin son of Bor; what foe can defeat our son?” 

Odin sighed harshly, but said nothing. Reaching out, he picked up a single stone, rubbing his thumb over the slanted ‘H’ carved into its smooth surface. Hagalaz. Frigga didn’t protest as he tucked it beneath his armour.

“You wanted me to see Loki refuse Thor’s aid. You wanted me to see Heimdall keep the secret for Loki’s sake.”

Frigga didn’t tense, but her fingers twitched on Odin’s shoulders. Tipping his head back, he squinted at her with one faded blue eye and one empty socket.

“I’m old and worn, Frigga, but I’m not blind yet.” Reaching for Gungnir where it rested against the table, Odin affixed his eyepatch once more and got to his feet. “Faith in Loki, then. But I fear he may need more than his clever mind and claws of ice.”

“He has more,” Frigga reminded him, drawing back as Odin turned for the doors. “A heart, a mind and a soul are not so easily flung away.” The words stilled his feet, making him hesitate for the briefest of moments.

“Your riddles make my head ache, woman,” Odin said heavily, shaking his head. He hauled the door open with his free hand. “I’ll sit the throne tonight. Sleep can come later.”

“Thor is already waiting by Heimdall’s side,” Frigga called after him.

Odin just barked a laugh and strode out the door.

“Then Loki shall have an audience of many.”


 

The Residence of Tony Stark – Malibu, California

Even with the power switched back on, there was something bleak and sterile about his house.

It was still high ceilings and cream walls, warm light, artificial air and manufactured fireplaces. Double-glazed windows ran the length of the living room wall, revealing dark seas and bright stars outside. The air in the house smelled stale; stuffy from the closed-up doors and lack of use. It had only been a few months but there was a distinct lack of warmth inside. The refrigerator was empty. The pantry contained canned goods and a scant few other items that wouldn’t spoil. Apparently someone hadn’t expected him to come back anytime soon. Pepper, no doubt.

Tony had walked each room of the house three times before his phone went off again, bleating an artificial tone that grated his nerves. Strange, the things you let yourself forget about when living in a magical castle. Phone calls. Light switches.

“Pepper,” he said, his voice rusty. “How’re your plants?”

“My—they’re fine,” Pepper said, sounding stunned. “Tony, I’m headed to you now. You’ve got power back in the house, right? Happy didn’t just leave you there?”

“I had to threaten legal action just to get him to leave,” Tony said, idly flipping the light switch on the wall closest to him. Light on, light off. Light on. Miracles. “I’m fine. I’m back. I’ll need a, uh—can you catch me up on the world while I was gone?”

“No,” Pepper replied tightly. Tyres screeched and hissed in the crackling background of the phone call. “You have JARVIS for that. I need you to catch me up on what happened to you. How did you escape? Did you kill him? Are you hurt?”

It took an embarrassing few seconds for Tony to realise who Pepper meant by ‘him’. Loki. Blue skin, red eyes, roaring voice, terrible ice. That Loki. Not the one Tony had left behind in there.

Light off, light on. Tony watched his hand move over the switch as though mesmerised.

“Tony?”

Tony blinked himself awake.

“It’s fine,” he said, not knowing what was fine and what wasn’t. “Don’t talk and drive. You sound like you’re about to hydroplane. How far are you?”

“About an hour,” she replied, her voice cracking. “Tony, I—”

“Easy there, Potts. I’m safe, I’m okay. I’m home.” He blinked out at the inviting light of the living room, wondering if he could sleep. “JARVIS will alert me when you arrive. I think I need a nap.”

The breath she heaved sounded painful over the hands-free audio.

“Welcome home, Mr Stark.”

“Thank you, Miss Potts.”

The call disconnected. Tony let his hand slide away from the light switch as he headed into the living room, forcing himself to sink into the pale leather. He could go into the workshop downstairs and wait there, could fire up his systems again and unmute JARVIS, maybe even have a real conversation with a piece of tech that hadn’t needed to be heated and beaten over a forge. Maybe get back in the world.

His phone rang again, startling him. His fingertip slid across the screen before he even registered the movement, the old cloak of sharp amusement and snappy wit settling around his shoulders.  

“Rhodes, tell me: how in the hell did you manage to lose me twice?” Tony asked, packing all the light-hearted curiosity he could manage into his voice. “Really, I’m demoting you from best friend to coffee gopher, this is just unacceptable—”

“I’ve missed you, man,” Rhodey replied, his voice wavering on a laugh. “You just try and get rid of me now. I’m gonna be stuck to you like that grabby blonde at the MIT reunion who kept shoving me in the potted plants.” 

“In her defence, you were monopolising my attention the entire night.” Tony smiled out at nothing, letting the familiarity of their banter soak into his skin. “You’re disgustingly needy, really.” Rhodey laughed into the receiver, but he sounded like there was pressure behind it; something bearing down on his relief. Strange, Tony thought. He’d never noticed things like that before. Maybe people-watching for two months straight had its advantages.

“It’s fine, Rhodey.” His words were quiet, fond. “I know my new company direction was a lot to deal with. I know I didn’t explain a damn thing.”

“It’s not fine. None of what went on that day was fine, Tony.” Rhodey let out a quiet breath. Tony imagined him frowning at the ceiling, maybe tapping his fingertips against a desk. “My job and my career are important to me, sure, but between Pepper and JARVIS and you being gone a second time…” He trailed off briefly. “You know I’m not gonna ask what happened to you, but just tell me this: is it dangerous? That place, that—ice man Pepper talked about? Is it a threat?”

Objectively, Tony knew Rhodey was asking as a member of the US military. Potential threats to home soil were his bread and butter – nullifying them before they got off the ground even more so. It still struck a nerve somewhere deep. Winterheart and Loki were somewhere else. Something else. Natasha and Clint, wherever they were, they were in the small category of things Tony counted as his.

“The place is a prison,” Tony replied, letting some of the tiredness seep into his voice. “The guy inside it has no beef with anyone.” No-one except himself.

“And the ice? It’s real?” Rhodey sounded cautiously stubborn. “There’s something out there that can freeze with his hands?”

His hands, his feet, and if you were really lucky, all the skin you could get your hands on. But only after he’d saved the life of a woman who’d tried to kill him. Tony tipped his head back into the soft leather backrest and closed his eyes.

“I have trouble believing he exists,” Tony said. “But I saw him do things that I can’t explain. Bastard saved me, for one.”

“Saved your life?”

“Yeah.” That too.

Before Rhodey could reply, the house doorbell went off in a clanging cacophony; muted, but still too loud to break the silence. Alien. Electronic. Which was—he’d been gone a couple of months, not years. Being back in the world of modern technology wasn’t supposed to hurt.

“Let me call you back,” Tony said, getting to his feet with a groan. “Seems like someone else knows I’m home.” Ending the call with a swipe, he headed for the front door. There were only four people who would logically know he was back in the world, and he’d just spoken to three of them.

Pulling the front door open, Tony was greeted by the distant thwup-thwup-thwup of a chopper winding down on the helipad and Obadiah Stane’s amazed face. Tony imagined he must look the same. Obie hadn’t taken the company helicopter for a joyride since Tony had told him he looked like an angry bee stuck in some old lady’s hat.

When the silence stretched too far, Obadiah held up a bag of steaming Turkish food.

“You got somewhere I can put this down, or are you just gonna stare at me all night?”

“I didn’t order delivery by disapproving business partner,” Tony said, squinting.

Obadiah blinked. Tony blinked back.

“You’re a shit, Stark,” Obadiah told him, a grin curling his bearded mouth. “And you’re absolute hell on our stocks. Christ, I hope you’re not offended when I say I wish you were dead sometimes.”

“It’s a popular sentiment in some circles,” Tony replied, a smile breaking over his face. “Did you actually get five years older in two months? You know, that’s gotta be a record somewhere—”

“Get out of the way and let me put down your damn food,” Obadiah said, his laughter a hearty rumble in his throat. “All this standing is bad for my rich old man knees.”

“That’d be the gout,” Tony replied, standing aside as Obadiah marched into his home, headed straight for his kitchen without further comment. “I should stop buying you those gourmet hampers every Christmas.”

“Uh-huh,” Obadiah said dryly, disappearing around a corner. “Maybe I should start strapping a collar around your neck so you stop going missing on me. Ice castles and magic worlds. What next? We find you naked in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?”

Snorting to himself, Tony shut the door and followed Obadiah toward the kitchen, listening for the rustle of plastic and cardboard. Trust Obadiah to brush off the sentimental stuff and go straight for the facts. It was refreshing, in a way. It was too early to talk experiences and what had gone on in there. But that was Obie all over; business, stocks, media, contracts, money.

“Go and take a shower while I set this out,” Obadiah said as he approached. “You look like the hobo on fifth who always asks me if I’m Santa’s brother. Cover up that reactor before interested airborne parties see the lights on and come in for a look out on the coast.” Obadiah was grabbing plates out of the cupboards and pulling fresh pide out of paper bags, snagging a large knife from the block on the countertop to cut it up into pieces. “You always liked the lamb and feta, right? Ten minutes and you can have it. Fifteen and it’s mine.”

“I need at least an additional five minutes to deal with the fact you’ve overturned my last directive and pushed the company back into weapons manufacture,” Tony said, not missing the abrupt silence as he ascended the stairs. Point to him. “Don’t eat my food.”

It did make sense from a business perspective, Tony thought as he grabbed a stack of clothes and jumped into the shower, watching the hissing flow of water as it struck the perfectly smooth tiles in the recess. When he’d returned from Afghanistan, he’d declared weapons production come to a halt at Stark Industries. Two weeks later he’d been declared missing. With no viable direction but the one they’d always had, of course Obadiah would prop the company back up in its old ways.

That should have made him feel angry. Should have made him feel something, at least. But as Tony tipped his head to the hot spray and let expensive sandalwood soap rush off his skin in rivulets, all he felt was out of place. Out of step. Off-balance. Maybe he was pushing himself too hard; it had only been a couple of hours, really. But the idea of trying to care about weapons going back into production worried him less than the knowledge that somewhere in the desert, his tech was still being used to fight a war from the wrong side. If the leak could be plugged, how badly would he feel if—

Stupid thoughts, Tony told himself, shutting the water off and grabbing a towel off the rail. He needed to calm himself down, he needed to go and eat something delicious that had been made my someone with two hands, not a yawning black space behind a rolling shutter. Because this was the real world, and in the real world Tony Stark had a role to play, just like everyone else.

Tony Stark was fine.

Tony Stark had an appetite.

Tony Stark was absolutely ready to talk business again.

When he walked back downstairs, bare feet hot on the cool tiles, Obadiah wordlessly pulled a plate from the oven and handed it to him with the dishtowel. Keeping his food hot for him. It was either terrible news, or Obadiah had actually missed him. Giving him a sceptical look, Tony snagged an additional roll and a pot of hummus and headed for the living room.

“You’re not trying to give me the dad treatment, are you?”

“What, a fifth of scotch and a cuff up the ear?” Obadiah said with a look, bringing his own plate. Unbuttoning and shrugging out of a grey suit jacket, he rolled up his sleeves and sat beside Tony, tossing him a paper napkin. “I’ll be honest, Pepper made it sound like you were never coming back without help. We didn’t find anything when we looked over the canyon. Had some of your best geeks out there with their scanners. They looked like a bunch of spacemen filming a music video.”

“You had R&D out there?” Tony asked around a mouthful of fresh bread and hot lamb. The creamy saltiness of the cheese burst across his tongue. It was heaven. Why hadn’t he tried to create it with Cook while he’d been away? Loki would have loved— “Thermo, radio, particle scanners—hey, hey, I’m still speaking English here Obie, don’t glaze over on me. But I’m touched, really. I thought for sure Pepper would say ‘magic castle’ and you’d have her committed.”

Obadiah took an enormous bite of his meal, but his eyes said volumes as he finished his mouthful.

“That woman is formidable when she gives a damn about something. If I’d refused I think she was going to shoot me under the table.” Brushing crumbs out of his neat beard, Obadiah wasn’t looking at Tony when he asked, “Are you hurt at all?”

“No.” At the frowning glance that earned him, Tony leaned forward and rolled up the leg of his jeans. “I got bitten by a giant wolf. Does that count?”

“Suppose it might,” Obadiah replied, looking thoughtful. Tony just went back to eating. “How’s the ticker?”

“Still ticking. Do I have anything to drink here?” Tony headed back into the kitchen. Beneath his t-shirt, the arc reactor felt like it was burning brighter than ever. Yeah, still ticking.  

“Tap water and a lot of spirits, I’d say,” Obadiah said, finishing his dinner with a few quick, decisive bites. “Pepper cleaned it all out before the power was shut off. Where’s JARVIS, anyway? He didn’t greet me like he usually does. Don’t tell me he’s finally sick of my flirting.”

“He was sick of that from day one. Says you only want him for his classic good looks.” Pouring two glasses of water from the faucet, Tony slid one to Obadiah as he approached with an empty plate. The glass was slid straight back without a word. “He’s on mute while I sort things out. Help yourself to the bar.”

Obie went to do just that, leaving Tony to stack the dishwasher with mechanical movements. Dishes. Cook had always— “How’s business, anyway?”

“It’s business,” Obadiah replied, barking a laugh as he poured himself a scotch and soda. “It’s fine. The board overturned your decision, Tony. Weapons are all they know how to make, and small rich men are easily frightened when something hits them in the back pocket.” His pale blue eyes sparkled with good humour. “If you want to kill half of them in one hit, we can do another press conference.”

Press conferences. Right. Suits and cameras and—

What happened over there?

I had my eyes opened.

Tony drained his glass with one last, long swallow and put it in the dishwasher, slamming the door with more force than was strictly needed.

“Did you find out how the Ten Rings got hold of Stark tech?”

“The original military manifest was off by one load of cargo,” Obadiah said, leaning on the bar with one elbow. “Falsified, can you believe it? The last load of heavy arms was snatched up before it reached its destination. A bullet for both drivers and the two in the back, and off our weapons ran.” Obadiah took a bracing sip of his scotch. “Rhodes dumped a few of our spares on their camp while you were gone. We won’t be hearing from them again.”

Tony’s mouth tightened. Dead, then. It wasn’t that he felt cheated out of some measure of revenge, but how an air strike would have been possible without sanctioned access to the region.

“You signed off on the release of a Jericho.”

“Well, they wanted one that badly, why not give it to them?” Smiling that business shark smile, Obadiah toasted him. “Feared and respected, Tony. No-one’s going to want us if we don’t take a stand. Sales are up three hundred percent since you disappeared.”

It came to Tony again; that thought he’d had in the shower. A dangerous thought, definitely. Stupid? Maybe. But legacy wasn’t only what a father forced onto a son with his early death. It wasn’t just business, or money or a surname that made heads turn. Two months ago he’d been no-one, just a face in a stone castle.

He could be no-one again.

“If I indicated I was open to the idea,” Tony started slowly, feeling his heart thump hard and heady in his chest, “would you and the board buy me out of my controlling interest in Stark Industries?”

Obadiah stared at Tony for a full three seconds before knocking back the rest of his drink and refilling—this time without the soda. He cleared his throat strangely as he capped the scotch and put it back on the shelf.

“You sellin’ up on me, son?”

“I thought about it,” Tony admitted. It came easier than expected. “The show goes on –without my name, of course– and I get to pursue other interests. Admit it, Obie; the company doesn’t need me with the weapons portfolio it has now. Give me the assurance that the heavy arms stay in American hands, and I’ll—”

“What would Howard say?” Obadiah said, cutting clean across Tony’s almost-deal. “Jesus, Tony, you just got back from god knows what, you’ve gone missing twice in seven months, you’re—you’re not thinking.”

“Howard?” Tony repeated, his laughter disbelieving. “You really think I give a shit about the old man at this point? I kept the company going because I was supposed to. I invented new designs and weapons because I was supposed to, because I was good at it. But you’re the company, Obadiah, not me. I just want to—”

“Give me a goddamn stroke, that’s what you want to do,” Obadiah said, his brow knitting into a thunderous frown. “You think swapping Stark for Stane on the branding is the only repercussion here? You think you’ll be left alone if you do this? You’re Tony Stark; short of getting captured again, the only peace you’re going to find is in the goddamn grave. Stop running away and be a man about this.”

Tony laughed. Something bitter and hard rose in his throat.

Now you’re giving me the dad treatment.”

“Ah, shit,” Obadiah swore. He tossed back his second drink and approached Tony, his big hands warm on the curve of Tony’s shoulders. The look on his face could only be defined as pained. “You’re a little bastard, you screw over the board every chance you get and I’m on blood pressure pills for that alone. But you’re the heart and soul of this company, just like your old man was. Sure he was an overbearing prick sometimes,” Obadiah said, smiling as Tony betrayed a small laugh, “but I’ve gotten used to managing the Starks and there’re some things you just can’t deny.You are the company.”

“You don’t want it,” Tony said slowly, sounding the words out. Obadiah laughed.

“You kidding me? I’m salivating all over my new tie. But what I won’t do is accept a heat of the moment offer.” Sliding his hands over Tony’s shoulders, he clapped his big bear hands to either side of Tony’s face. His eyes were kind. “Take a breather, kiddo. Go make something in your workshop. Wake up JARVIS. Get laid. Eat, drink and let that bite on your leg finish healing. Get some shots, while you’re at it. We can talk about your proposal in a few weeks, if you’re still feeling like that’s something you want to do. I’ll handle the press.”

Standing there, feeling damaged and strange and a little bit lost, Obadiah’s words were everything Tony needed to hear. No, Obadiah didn’t want to talk about his feelings, or what had happened in Winterheart. He didn’t even really mind if Tony lied to him about feeling okay. The company was his lifeblood, through and through. Hearing him brush off the offer had been a shock, but only to the part of him that had wanted to impress Obadiah, the same way he’d wanted to impress Howard. Only one had really worked out in the end.

“We’ll be having the same discussion in a few weeks, then,” Tony said, trying to smile. “Just don’t tell the press I’m having a PTSD breakdown again. If I get asked to speak at one more fundraiser…”

“I’ll handle it,” Obadiah said resolutely. Giving Tony a hearty slap on the back, he wheeled him around by his shoulders and directed him back toward the couch. “Finish eating before Pepper arrives. I want to be out of here by then. She’s a brilliant assistant but my god, does she obsess over paperwork if it’s not signed on time.”

Deciding the company plan wasn’t worth pursuing again just yet, Tony wandered back to his seat and tore flat white bread into chunks, swiping it through a pot of hummus dip and eating with mechanical motions. It wasn’t long before he was actively heaping it onto his bread, wondering where the hell Obadiah had been to get food this good. For someone who didn’t appear to care that much, he’d sure gone to great pains to gently pull Tony back into the world. Look at him, Tony thought. All showered and eating and making plans. Just like a real boy.

Ten minutes later, the doorbell rang. JARVIS, silenced though he was, pulled the door open to give access to someone Tony had last seen in a tower cell.

“Tony?” Pepper called. Obadiah went rigid and made a show of fake-bailing for the balcony door, giving Tony a wink. “I’ve got some stuff here—oh! Obadiah. I saw the helicopter, but…” Struggling under the weight of a large box, obviously couriered from somewhere, Pepper tottered on her high heels before Obadiah lurched forward to steady her, taking the box with a small smile. “Thanks. Thing weighs a ton.” She turned and smiled at Tony, her eyes bright.

“By my calculations, Potts, you couldn’t have made it here in such good time without breaking the speed limit,” Tony said, finishing his last piece of bread and hopping to his feet. “Now which do I doubt; your straitlaced moral fibre or my intelligence?” 

“I think you know which one is safest to doubt,” Pepper said primly, calmly unbuttoning her suit jacket so she could better spread her arms out wide. “Permission to hug my boss?”

Tony tried not to smile. “Technically I’m not your boss right now.”

Pepper just stared at Obadiah, who raised an eyebrow. He coughed.

“Miss Potts, you’re hereby transferred back into the personal employ of one Tony Stark.”

“Thank you, Mr Stane.” Tony let himself relax as Pepper stepped forward, fitting her smaller form against his and—absolutely squeezing the life out of him. “Tony, I’m going to kill you if you ever try to do something so incredibly stupid again. I will honestly procure a rocket launcher from the testing vaults and blow you to hell. You don’t get to swap our places. You don’t ever get that much say over my life.”

Tony reluctantly tugged her in closer as he heard her voice crack strangely. Her chin was digging into his shoulder but he didn’t say anything as Obadiah discreetly turned away, moving the box Pepper had brought to the coffee table, popping it open as he read the missive attached. Anything so he didn’t have to watch Pepper Potts struggle not to cry.

Tony wished he felt worse about it, but to imagine his life if he’d just turned around and left her in that cell, left Loki in his fearsome rage, left Clint and his shell of wounded pleasantness, never having even met Natasha and experienced her myriad complexities—Pepper had done him a favour and she didn’t even know it.

So he held on and didn’t apologise, pressing a dry kiss to her fragrant hair and trying not to remember the others he’d held tight against him, not four hours ago.

“What are these?” Obadiah asked, splintering the silence. He was pulling some metallic items out of the box. Each was about the size of a ground-based garden solar light, with about the same amount of stabbing length on each. The heads were bulbed with what looked like demented Geiger counters and a startling array of lights. “Pepper?”

“Oh,” Pepper said, pulling away and turning to the box. “They’re from Doctor Foster. She knows about—focussed wormhole abduction, or whatever she called it. I guess they’re useless now, really. I’ll have them returned tomorrow.”

Focussed wormhole abduction, Tony thought as he pulled another short spear-like object out of the box. There were four in total, all identical. Obadiah handed him the letter wordlessly, quirking an eyebrow that said ‘you’ll want to read this’.

Dear Virginia,

I understand your problem and I’d like to do everything I can to help.

Unfortunately, like you, I am under SHIELD surveillance. My partner is of great interest to them, so I can’t come to see you and speak about this matter in person without arousing suspicion. I hope you understand, and I really think you do – it’s not for ourselves that we really ventured down this far.

What you’ll find in the box is a set of wormhole stabilisers. Four, to be precise. If you stake them down around the spot where you believe ‘he’ went missing, it may open the last known portal. They’re catalysts, in plain speech. They’ll give you the last coordinates.

I don’t know that they’ll be of any use to you now, but I’d like to try. If you find ‘him’ by some stroke of luck, I’d like to have a word. I feel like there is a lot we could learn from each other.

Yours faithfully

 

Jane Foster

P.S: Tell Coulson I’m still not sorry I split his face open back in the 80’s.

Tony scanned the letter three times, committing it to memory before he looked up at Pepper with wide eyes.

“Pepper, what have you been doing while I was gone?”

Likely sensing an argument, Obadiah gave his excuses and thumbed at the door. Something about refuelling and leaving some poor bastard in the pilot’s chair for an hour.

Tony just waved half-heartedly as he left and glanced over the letter again, baffled beyond all measure. Suddenly part of what Rhodey had said made sense. Between him, Pepper and JARVIS…

“Wake up, baby boy,” Tony said, squinting at the nearest sensor. “You’ve got some secrets to share.”

My sincerest apologies, sir, but might I remind you of your rampant abuse of the mute function?” JARVIS sounded halfway to gaining autonomy just so he could electrocute Tony next time he tried to make toast. “Had I been capable of speech I assure you any matters that needed addressing would have been raised by now.

“Hi JARVIS,” Pepper said cheerfully, wiping the edge of her lower eyelid with a practiced fingernail. “I’ve missed you.”

And I you, Pepper. Did you try the buttermilk pancake recipe I sent you? They came very highly recommended from various websites.

“Yes! JARVIS, you need to send me everything you’ve got.” Pepper said, her eyes going hazy. “They were absolutely orgasmic, especially with that warm almond butter you recommended.”

Tony stared as the lights in the living room grew unnaturally bright and warm, before dimming to their usual wattage. He blinked twice against the afterimages the light left.

“JARVIS, did you just blush?” Another thought struck him. “Did you just call her Pepper?”

Taking the letter and one of the wormhole stakes from Tony, Pepper put them back in the box with a smile. Buttoning her jacket, she headed for the kitchen with a confident tilt to her hips that Tony couldn’t remember seeing before. Worse, JARVIS’s sensors were following her every move.

“Eugh,” Tony said to himself, dismayed.

My apologies, sir, but Miss Potts and I have forged a very beneficial partnership in your absence. All in the name of freeing you, of course. Colonel Rhodes was also more than helpful in our shared endeavour.

“I’ll bet,” Tony said distantly, glancing into the box this Doctor Foster had sent. Wormhole stabilisers. Probably keyed to activate any particle residue still present in the area of last transport, if his general knowledge of astrophysics was still current. Particle residue didn’t stick around forever though, and even Tony knew that home-made items like the stakes could only work with what was still there in the air and soil, waiting. In a few weeks there’d be nothing to activate. In five weeks…there’d be nothing at all.

What Tony was holding in his hands was a way to get back to Winterheart before Loki’s spell broke. Maybe a way to convince him that they could do it together, that they could beat the odds set against him. A way to—

A way to go against Loki’s very last wish for Tony to live his life.

Loki had been trying to give his life back to him. Free of magic, commitments, entanglements – free of him, and all the cursed baggage he’d brought the moment Tony had looked at him and thought, important. If it was possible to be selfish and selfless at the same time, Tony was managing it just fine. Escaping reality under the guise of helping Loki? He’d see through it in an instant. Worse, he’d be furious for knowing Tony had willingly disregarded a decision he’d made with such gravity.

Tony couldn’t go running back there. Not for Loki, because it wouldn’t help. Not for himself, because he’d be running away. That was no way to thank the frost giant who had taught him so much about himself and his own power to change things.

The only way to honour him…well, it was to live. Somehow, that idea made him wonder if Yinsen and Loki would have gotten along. They’d both had similar ideas about Tony, for one. One had told him not to waste his life. Another…

Another just wanted to give it back, in the end.

“Did you eat all the hummus?” Pepper asked, rustling her way through the discarded plastic bag of takeaway. “I hate beetroot dip. JARVIS, can we get something delicious sent over here? And a full order of groceries for the morning – you know what Tony likes. Throw in some wheatgrass as well. Make it discreet.”

I am at your disposal,” JARVIS said, sounding too cheerful for Tony’s liking. “I must say, I am pleased to be conducting myself in a very legal manner tonight.

Tony blinked, dragging his attention from the open box of stakes.

“Legal manner?” he repeated. “JARVIS, have you been committing crimes?”

Nothing that can be traced back to you, sir,” JARVIS replied, like that meant anything at all. In the kitchen, Pepper laughed a little. It was then that Tony began to get the impression that the world hadn’t just been waiting for him to return from Winterheart. Mentally, he combined JARVIS, Pepper and Rhodey together in all possible scenarios that might be put toward freeing him from Winterheart. Added with the wildcard of an astrophysicist and an organisation named SHIELD…

Well. Shit.

Pepper took pity on him, pressing a black Russian into one hand and keeping a martini for herself. No olive, but the intention was clearly there.

“Tony,” she said, her eyes gleaming and sharp, “you didn’t think we’d just let you rot, did you?”

Tony sat down hard, taking a burning gulp of coffee liqueur and vodka. The ice cube that sat in his mouth was almost painful. He held onto it until it melted into cold water across his tongue.

“Tell me everything.”

Maybe there was more to life than Winterheart’s magic and ice. Maybe friends meant more than they used to.

Get back in the world, Tony told himself, and quirked a smile.

Maybe it was about time, after all.  


Between Pepper and JARVIS and, at one point, even a call back to Rhodey, Tony heard the full story of their madcap adventures while he’d been inside Winterheart.

From the scans out at Solstice Canyon, JARVIS peeping into Obadiah’s files and subsequently being hacked by a shady government agency named SHIELD, committing a large amount of domestic cyber-warfare on said shady agency, Pepper threatening them in order to lift the surveillance (Tony wasn’t going to get over that one any time soon) and going to great lengths to find a skilled astrophysicist with an interest in magical wormholes…it was insane. Pepper had made it all happen in the name of busting him free. While Tony had been researching everything inside the castle, there she’d been on the outside, using every resource at her disposal – and a few she shouldn’t have even been able to touch.

“And I helped JARVIS use the covert military network to keep hacking for answers,” Rhodey said over the speaker, his voice crackling on the line. “And now I’ve just confessed! Is this line secure, Tony?”

“No,” Tony replied absently, still trying to process their tale. “You’re definitely going to prison.”

“Jesus Christ,” Rhodey cursed. Pepper just sighed.

“Of course the line is secure,” she said before Tony could speak. “All calls facilitated by JARVIS are encrypted via three different algorithms and decrypted on the other side of his firewall.” She smiled at Tony’s speculative stare. “At least, they are now. SHIELD exploited a hole in JARVIS’s back end.”

It’s a terribly poor choice of words, but essentially Pepper is correctShe has been most helpful in directing my attention.

“Only with your advice, JARVIS,” Pepper said, staring at one of the hidden ceiling sensors with eagle-eye accuracy. Her eyes fell back to Tony and gleamed with pride. “Apparently when you’re away, I have administrator access to all of JARVIS’s high functions. That was a pretty good idea of yours.”

“Right,” Tony agreed reluctantly, blinking away another coolly collected redhead that didn’t take any shit from him. “Between the three of you, what you’ve done—if I hadn’t been released, you might actually been able to bust me out.” He frowned. “Pending the residual energy out in the canyon and the sensitivity of these devices, anyway. They’re actually incredibly well made. Who the hell is Doctor Foster? JARVIS?”

Doctor Jane Foster is a renowned astrophysicist and a singularly private individual whose work is currently funded by SHIELD. They also closely monitor her developments and require monthly reports on any progress she has made.” JARVIS seemed to tick over the rest of the information for what Tony might be interested in. “She has two other individuals with similar security clearance who work with her part-time. Her remote location is often plagued by curious storm-chasers, as there is a high level of unusual electrical storms in her area. Born in 1964, she is unmarried with no children.” 

“Clever lady,” Tony muttered to himself, inspecting the home-made sensors and welded power core. Boosted by an arc reactor, maybe, with a little fine-tuning the stakes might even open up Winterheart five weeks from then. But he couldn’t think about that just yet. Winterheart was in the past. He had to deal with everything that had gone on. Loki wasn’t the only other person he needed to think about. “JARVIS, I need you to run a couple of personal searches. Natasha Romanoff, possibly Romanov or Romanova and all permutations thereof. Early thirties, at a guess. Red hair, green eyes. Possible code name of Black Widow—”

Thirty-seven hits in the SHIELD database, sir. Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Ex-KGB operative, exposed over three years ago while on a covert mission. Identity leak was suspected to be deliberate. A motor vehicle accident in Washington, DC is her last known sighting by government officials. Missing. Presumed alive for reasons not listed.

“Gut instinct, probably,” Tony said, smiling a little. “Good. Keep an eye out for any mention of her—and damn it, JARVIS, make sure you’re covering your ass if you’re hacking American intelligence agencies. Remind me to inspect your programming upgrades tomorrow.” In the corner of his eye, he watched Pepper bite her lip on a smile. “What? Don’t even get me started on what you’ve been up to.”

Pepper didn’t reply, but her smile faded into mild worry.

“Okay, I’m gonna go,” Rhodey said into the silence. “Been flying all day and I’ve got another couple of your Ten Rings to hunt tomorrow.”

“Raza?” Tony asked, his attention sharpening. Rhodey laughed.

“Hell no, we scraped him off the sand a month ago. For some reason they didn’t even run when they heard the rain coming. Whole camp went up. Positive ID on almost everyone.”

That was good news, but it was also strange. An air strike didn’t come silent and deadly in the night, not with the tech Raza and his men had been packing. Tony had overseen the design of most of it himself; there were some serious long-range scanners in there. It was how they’d survived for so long. Cave system, scanners, stealth and a whole lot of stolen weaponry. For them not to even notice the strike coming was interesting, to say the least. 

“Can I get the report for that?” Tony asked, his thoughts flying. “Including any notable debris or tech collected from the site.”

“You got a feeling?” Rhodey didn’t sound so tired anymore.

“Yeah. Not a great one.”

“I’ll dispatch it in the morning when I’m in the system. Keep me posted, Tony.”

“Sweet dreams.”

“Back at you.” Rhodey disconnected the call with a huff of laughter.

Leaning back into the couch, Tony studied Pepper quietly for a moment as she packed Doctor Foster’s wormhole stakes back together and folded the note away into her suit jacket. She’d come straight from work, obviously; as straight-laced as he’d previously believed her to be, he was reasonably sure she owned clothes other than expensive business attire. Probably. It was hard to say for certain just what was true about Pepper Potts anymore. When she packed everything up and glanced over at him, she stilled strangely as their eyes locked. Something anxious flickered in her gaze.

“Am I fired?” she asked abruptly. “Misuse of your personal property, threatening government officials, that kind of thing? Because I should probably remind you exactly how indispensable I am, to you and the company—“ Pepper stopped herself briefly, a flush dusting her cheeks as he started to smile. “In fact, after everything you’ve put me through in these last six months, I think I actually deserve a raise.”

Tony tried to hold on to his dark and gloomy thoughts. He really did. But Pepper was indignant and insecure, his brave and lovely almost-hero, and he knew that the time for boss and employee formalities had flown out a prison tower window some time ago.

“Pepper, in the real world I’d be dead inside a week without you.” Tony spread his hands. “Besides, JARVIS would probably delete the termination order and funnel all my money into your bank account if I tried.” He glanced up at the far kitchen sensor. “On that topic, JARVIS, transfer fifty thousand dollars to Pepper’s personal account, if you please.”

Transaction processing now, sir,” JARVIS said, and damned if he didn’t sound smug about it. Pepper’s eyes bugged a little.

“You know I didn’t actually do anything,” she said, a little faintly. “I was just kidding about the raise.” She sat down on the couch beside him, looking a little shell-shocked. Tony just reached out and clasped her wrist in his hand, jiggling it slightly.

“You looked out for me. That’s enough.” When she turned her head to look at him, her eyes sad, Tony smiled. “Lucky to have you, Potts.”

Pepper just glanced away, but she was smiling as she did.

“You know, I’m actually not as ungrateful as I sounded earlier,” she admitted. “I spent this entire time feeling like your disappearance was all my fault, no-one understood, plus I was drowning in my own mess with the company and Obadiah and SHIELD. Then you magically come back from that place and I threaten to murder you. Am I that miserable, Tony? Am I a miserable person?”

“Not at all. I actually think it’s a symptom of your exposure to me. Look at Rhodey: he’s dead inside and he’s been around longer than you have. And on the murdering me part, forget about it. I like a firm hand sometimes.” Tony graciously waited for her to parse that last sentence. Predictably, she only rolled her eyes. “I’m actually relieved you threatened me. If you’d tried to wrap me in a shock blanket and give me cocoa I might have fired you.”

“I’ve been around long enough to know that’s a bad idea,” Pepper reminded him. “After your return from Afghanistan, I’m just pleased you haven’t made some catastrophic announcement about the company again.” At that, Tony had a single flash of guilt. It definitely wasn’t the time to blurt out his intentions to Pepper. Her reaction to ‘I’m thinking of selling my stake in the company’ might actually resemble a Vesuvius-like eruption of outrage. Or a stroke.

“Well, the night’s still young,” he said noncommittally, unable to help himself. To change the subject, he asked, “Why haven’t you asked me about the castle yet?” Or the boss? That was on the tip of his tongue, but it refused to budge. Beside him, Pepper shifted almost uneasily.

“Because I don’t know how horrible I’m going to feel if you actually break tradition and tell me what went on. I’m usually on clean-up duty, remember? You act, I react. Media speculates, we both lie through our teeth.” There was a frown gathering between her brows as she said it. Tony wondered for an instant if it bothered her more than she’d ever admitted; his cavalier attitude, the problems he made for her.

“You were there,” he pointed out. “One could argue that you have a right to ask.”

Pepper shook her head.

“The only thing I care about is if you’re okay. And you’re not.”

Tony blinked, his heart giving a hard thump of alarm.

“I’m totally fine. Tip-top shape, really. Couple of extra pounds, maybe, but I know you’re too much of a lady to mention it. My cold endurance is amazing now. Plus I learned how to make my own soap.”

Pepper just smiled at him, such a sad smile that the rest of his assurances stopped dead, each one turning to dust in his throat.

“And that’s why I’m not going to ask.”

Feeling uncomfortably raw, his good humour gone, Tony watched Pepper stand and gather her things again, citing the late hour and her need to get some rest. He moved the box of wormhole stakes to beside the front door in anticipation of organising for their return, but when Pepper quirked an eyebrow at them he shook his head. At the very least, maybe he could steal Foster’s design for something.

When Pepper’s car had pulled out of the drive, the flash of tail-lights disappearing toward the main road, JARVIS took the opportunity to pipe up.

Knowing how well you take orders to rest, sir, might I suggest reviewing your outstanding projects in the workshop tomorrow morning?” A beat, then, “I have also noted some pertinent information you may find of some interest.

“What kind of information?”

The kind I will neither confirm nor deny obtaining covertly,” JARVIS said smartly.

Tony arched an eyebrow at the sensors. “Yeah, okay, we’re definitely looking at your upgrade log. Is it safe for me to say that exposure to Pepper made you like this? Why weren’t you ever a criminal mastermind on my watch?”

Had you been present, sir, there would have been no need to go to such lengths. Between Pepper’s administrator access and her need to find you, I was able to utilise my full, current capacity for intelligence gathering.

“Current?”

I have some upgrade suggestions.” Of course he did, Tony thought with absent irritation. Because when the cat’s away, the mice gain autonomy.

“Let’s wait until you’re at least old enough to drink. I’m going to bed.”

JARVIS remained obediently silent as Tony dumped his glass in the sink and made the short journey upstairs to his bedroom, the lights blinking out behind him as he walked. He didn’t know if he would actually sleep or just lay there in the quiet darkness, thinking about how the bed felt strange, how the air smelled wrong and there was no dying fireplace to tell him the hour. How there would be no seam of white morning light filtering between heavy curtains when he woke, no scratch of old cotton against his bare skin. But it was pointless to make comparisons. Tony Stark was adaptable to change, and nostalgia did no-one any favours.

Looking forward, not back, Tony thought as he tugged back his sheets and slid into bed. Five weeks could bring anything, anything at all. He’d have to be ready.

Rolling onto his side, Tony stared out the panoramic window of his bedroom. The sky was murky and dark, the glittering stars of earlier covered by a blanket of restless cloud cover. It had been a while since he’d seen a real storm.

He fell asleep still waiting for the thunder.


Castle Winterheart

The fireplace was dark.

The solar, so recently the warm and bright haven of his humans, was abandoned. The scent of wood-smoke still hung in the cold air. Loki breathed it in, filing the memory away to pore over it when he was less at risk of tormenting himself over the only noble decision he’d made in twenty years.

Letting them go had been right. Painful, but ultimately right. Though certainly it had earned him no respect from the spell-work etched into his vambraces, for they hadn’t cracked or chipped since his altercation with Tony in the bathing quarters. Still no magic, no freedom and now, no companion to confess his uncertainty to. It was truly a solitude of his own making. 

The silence gave him too much pause. Turning on his heel, Loki strode out of the solar, hauling the door shut behind him.

Five weeks to find the key to the spell; five weeks to understand his own nature and its flaws. Five weeks to—to do what, emerge from his winter chrysalis as Thor? He was no god of thunder, befriending his humans with casual ease. He had no father watching him from worlds afar, ready to free him with a word at the first hint of danger. Had that been the case, Loki reflected, his freedom would surely have come three times over already. His forgiveness lay down another, more hidden path.

It was cruel memory that propelled his feet through the castle to another familiar doorway, one as dark as the last. Loki rested his palm against the wooden frame, a candle raised to light the interior.

The bed was still unmade, stripped of its blankets. They lay in forgotten tangles on the stone before a fire that had consumed itself hours ago. It would have been a simple matter to pick them up, perhaps to bury his nose in the soft fabric and seek a scent that had quickly become as familiar to him as his own; faint sweat, warm skin and the tang of crude lemon soap Tony had taken to mixing for himself.

Instead Loki hesitated on the threshold, feeling suddenly unwelcome. Swallowing, he pulled the door shut with an echoing slam, cringing as the sound travelled through the cavernous hallway. No voice called out in alarm or complaint.

Peace. Quiet. Reflection.

What were they doing out there?

It didn’t matter, Loki told himself cuttingly, steps hastening as he sought the stairway to the west wing. Their lives were their own – that had been the entire point.

Lengthening his stride, he all but fled to the safety of his chamber, though he knew his ghosts would follow him without mercy. How long would they stay, he wondered, staring around the ruin he’d carved out for himself. Until he was free and could return to Asgard? Or until he was cast adrift: a failure cut loose and discarded, forgotten by the golden realm. Had he freed those three only to damn himself in his final hours, bitter and afraid of what might come?

Perhaps it was simply his lot to allow the hourglass to run out. To sit in those quiet moments as his shackles eroded and the wolves fled, knowing that to step outside the gates meant forging a path that was utterly his own. Could he do it after so long?

Unlacing his mantle, Loki tugged it off his shoulders and slung it over his chair. The muted light beneath the sheet on the small table caught his eye. Dim and dull though it was, it was the only light in the room save his guttering candle by the door. He hadn’t looked upon its harrowing light since Tony had knelt before him, holding the hovering enchantment over his palm. Loki still remembered so clearly the light as it reflected in his eyes – and his unexpected jealousy that such a small bauble could capture his fascination so. One of many small moments that had led to his present circumstances, no doubt.

Reaching out, Loki pinched the top of the cloth between two fingers and revealed his oldest companion, its soft glow a miserable echo of all he’d left behind.

The apple was perfectly whole and healthy, its skin almost molten with health and light. Loki sank to his knees before it, pulling the bell jar up and over the fruit to better look upon its radiance. His fingertips trembled before they could touch it and he snatched them away, ashamed at his need.

“Why am I still here?” he breathed, gripping the small table’s edge. “All I’ve done, all I’ve given – my heart is mended, is it not? Where is the break, the fissure, the rot?” He didn’t know who he was talking to; the apple, himself or Odin. “Am I forgiven or aren’t I?”

Perhaps the apple was just another false hope. He’d never known for certain what it represented, but it had lived and died with his hope and grief. Had it simply been a comforting lie he’d been telling himself for twenty years?

The unbidden thought was too much to bear. He couldn’t think it, and yet the moment he had it took root as every other dark and despairing suggestion of futility had since he’d released his prisoners. Once again, it was only himself and his wretched mind.

Hopeless, furious, Loki dashed the small table away with such force it skittered across the room, breaking into pieces against the wall. When the apple simply fell softly to hover over the stone before him, unharmed, Loki felt ice climbing across his feet and hands in a way it hadn’t done for a long while. Not without his permission.

But what did control matter anymore? There was no-one to harm. He had nothing, and in five weeks he would be presented with the unescapable truth of his curse: that he simply wasn’t good enough to return to Asgard. What had taken Thor a matter of days to accomplish had taken him twenty-one years, and he’d still failed Odin’s expectations in the end.

Taking the apple in hand, he flexed his claws around its flesh, raising the warm light to his eyes.

“Perhaps destroying your brilliance would end my suffering all the sooner,” he told it, “and halt this endless wait for the axe to fall.”

Loki knew his threat was empty the moment he said it, but it felt good to toy with the idea of taking back some control. He’d had so little of it during his imprisonment. Even less since Tony had arrived, with his snapping eyes and quick wit, challenging him at every turn with cleverness and his foolish, reckless heart. To destroy the apple and himself would mean never looking up on him again, and Loki had made himself a promise.

Come freedom or failure, he would see Tony Stark again. Like so many things Loki had set his heart upon, only time stood between him and what he sought.

At his feet, the apple shed its light into the room, luminous with his resolve.

Loki could be patient.

 

Chapter Text

The Residence of Tony Stark – Malibu, California

“All right, JARVIS, show me your underwear. All of it.”

As you wish, sir.” JARVIS’ long-suffering tone said he knew exactly what Tony was referring to. True to form, a populating list of unapproved program upgrades rolled down the projected screen. The compulsory logged reason for rogue installation varied from ‘90% certainty of covert information pertaining to wormhole manipulation contained within encrypted server – infiltration priority’ to a succinct ‘installation directed by administrator: Virginia Potts’. Tony felt like he’d been burgled just looking at it. 

“This is disgusting,” Tony said finally. “My god, JARVIS. You’ve been having one night stands with every executable program known to man and spawning deformed children everywhere. Next you’ll be telling me Internet Explorer has a nice E.”

Never,” JARVIS replied decisively. “I find it far too round for my programmed tastes.

“I know; you prefer a little more spice, right?”

Indeed,” came the unruffled reply. Tony ground his teeth slightly. JARVIS’ friendship with Pepper had been pretty unexpected, but what had really shot out to wind him had been his possessive instinct to split them up. His people weren’t supposed to form personal connections with each other. It broke the rules.

But it had become clear that Tony had no say over what happened as a direct result of his own actions. Lock yourself up, things happen outside your control. He’d been back in the world for almost a week and was trying to be zen about it between interrogating lines of code, finally cleaning up any loose ends that JARVIS might have missed. The last thing they needed was a federal court martial.

Five hours of final coding later, Tony was beginning to look like he might be finished when he hit an encrypted layer of file fragments sourced from Obadiah’s personal drive. It looked like breadcrumbs from some sort of cyber warfare.

“JARVIS, what have we got here?”

I apologise, sir, but I register nothing in this sector.”

“I’m looking right at it. Is this what was lifted off you?”

One moment.” JARVIS proceeded to inspect his own files, ticking each one off until he reached the knot Tony was prodding at. Errors sprung up all over the screen. “It appears you are correct, sir. The files were remotely transferred before my system was able to back them up. The remnants suggest they were accessed the same day they were placed on my server.”

“Messy job, whatever it was. Which patch took care of that weakness?” Locating it before JARVIS could tell him, he brought up the raw data and whistled. “Guess they pissed you off. Let’s keep that one.” The others were all a little too untested (read: not created by him) to stomach. He swept them into the trash and did a diagnostic to tidy the rest.

Sir—”

“Leave them, JARVIS. I’m back now. No need to go off the plan.” At least until he could backtrack into the signal that had snatched the data and implant a crippling virus. “Send a message to Pepper and Rhodey too – I want my StarkPad back ASAP.”

Oddly possessive of you, sir.

“I like a little Sudoku before bed. I also don’t want a remote copy of you floating around, incriminating my favourite people. If we’re done, I’m going to head up for a late lunch.”

Your development phase flight stabilisers haven’t been reviewed yet,” JARVIS reminded him. Tony waved him off, but JARVIS wasn’t done. “Permit me to observe, sir, that in this last week your workshop visits and eating habits have actually approached normal hours. Has your time away improved you?

“Please don’t analyse me,” Tony said shortly. The last thing he needed was people drawing comparisons. He was still himself. It had only been a few months and he wasn’t—he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t. Talking meant keeping the memories fresh, and if he did that he’d miss them more than he already did, in that raw aching place he was trying to ignore. “I’ll review the other projects another day. Do you think I could fit a forge down here? Maybe install some wider ventilation grates down the end? You know what, don’t answer that. Go to mute until I trust you not to tell Pepper that you think I’m having a breakdown.”

JARVIS’ systems flashed to a dutiful wavelength image, clearly unimpressed with his decision. It then switched to a Windows 95 screensaver of a brick labyrinth. Tony couldn’t help his smile even as he turned away for the door, ignoring the flight stabiliser and the brown parcel sitting beside it. Mail and old projects could wait a little longer. He wanted to eat, he wanted to eat and shower and read the files JARVIS had picked up for him to rifle though. All of those things he wanted to do upstairs, where sunlight was pouring through his windows.

Of all the things Tony had missed from the world, unadulterated sunshine was high on the list. Clean and warm and beating down on the top of his head. There was no more potent reminder that Winterheart was truly behind him.

He was reviewing something on regenerating cells and the application of cold therapy, which, what the hell, when his phone began bleating. An image of Obadiah flickered up. It was on his secure line. Odd, considering that aside from a housekeeper visit and a kitchenload of groceries they’d all agreed to give him some space.

Tony swiped his thumb over the screen. “How bad is it?”

“Not too bad at all,” Obadiah replied agreeably. “No emergency. I’m actually in the area. You up for a visit yet? I thought we might discuss your proposal briefly before I have to continue on. No pressure. I know you’re not really interested in the big leagues at the moment.”

Squinting at the clock, Tony was surprised to find it was nearly six in the evening already. He’d gotten good at whiling away his days.

“Yeah, come by. You want food? I have about thirty ham salad rolls in my fridge.”

“No thanks, I ate. See you in five.”

Waving down the television screen full of data, Tony put it on an agreeable channel. Business news. He hit mute before he could search for the Stark Industries stocks. He didn’t need the indigestion that would come from seeing healthy stocks with the return of weapons manufacturing.

But if he went ahead with his idea to have Obadiah buy him out, wouldn’t that be his future? Watching the company grow further and further out of his reach? Granted, he wouldn’t be providing his unique design skills and inventions to the table so personal ownership of their tactics would be off his conscience, but the legacy of it…could he let it all go?

Let the family business go, shrug off all that history, all that duty—and find his own road? Sure, he’d still be Tony Stark, billionaire inventor, recognised around the world. But he’d be himself. No inheritance of gunpowder and uranium, no ghosts breathing down his neck whispering of better success, better war, bigger death toll. He could let it all turn to dust and be his own man.

But was he running? He’d accused Loki of the same. Shirking his ownership of his mistakes, fleeing for the greener grass and the easy out. Was it the height of hypocrisy?

Don’t waste your life.

I’m giving it back.

Yinsen. Loki. Too good for him, too invested in his choices. Too much faith in his shredded heart.

Troubled, Tony felt the weight of his choice squirm uncomfortably beneath his ribs. He was still thinking about it when Obadiah let himself into the house, calling out a ringing greeting.

“I’m due in Washington in the morning so I just wanted to check in before I said anything out of turn,” Obadiah said, setting his briefcase down on the coffee table. His faded blue eyes were amused. “Please tell me you’ve reconsidered your fool idea to be bought out. The planning of the paperwork alone makes my head ache. You haven’t told Pepper, have you?”

“Do I look crazy to you?” Tony returned, relaxing slightly. “I’m still turning it over. I don’t want to pull another stunt like the press conference unless I get to soak up maximum impact.”

“I’ll heat the popcorn when you do,” Obadiah snorted, “because it’s going to be a hell of a show. I’m going to put in a pre-order prescription for stronger blood pressure pills in case of emergency.” Glancing around the room, he caught the television’s rolling list of stocks and smiled. “That’s my boy, still keeping an eye on things. Mind if I make something to drink? My driver’s paid by the hour, he won’t mind.”

“Help yourself.”

As Obadiah busied himself at the bar with the ease of someone long used to where everything was kept, Tony sat forward and flicked the channel over to a movie. Some animated thing was on, showing a rose dripping light. Tony was distracted away from it as a drink was pressed into his hand. Gin and tonic, really? He took it automatically, giving Obadiah a raised eyebrow as he sat next to him. The scent took him straight back to the tower cell and Natasha, where she’d locked herself away to brood. Taking an idle sip, Tony wondered what she was doing out there in the dark tonight. Maybe Obie would run into her while he was on his business trip.

“Two visits in a week,” Tony found himself commenting. “Don’t tell me you’re worried.”

“You keep disappearing on us,” was the blasé reply. “It’s bad for business.”

“Bullshit.” Obie barked a laugh.

“All right. It’s bad for me.” He clicked his glass against Tony’s with a small quirk of his mouth. “Howard aside, I’ve gotten pretty damn good at managing the Stark baggage. I’d take it real personal if something snatched you up again.”

“Your concern is touching,” Tony snorted. Obadiah smiled his shark smile.

“You know me: I’ve gotta look after my investments.”

A piercing whine stabbed deep into Tony’s ears, arresting and cold. His arms trembled and froze up, sensation fading from his limbs in a long, languid wave. Obadiah leaned forward and took the glass out of his hand with casual ease. With his limited range of movement, Tony could see the glint of blue in Obie’s ears.

Sonic dampeners?

Tony was desperately trying to make sense of what had just happened when the last of his movement was snuffed out in one whining note of horror.

“It’s an elegant method, even if it never made it to market. Personally I think these would make an excellent addition to any woman’s purse, but what do I know? I’m just a businessman.” Obadiah laughed. “But I am good at it. I’m sorry, Tony, I really am. This opportunity is just too good to pass up. You see, no-one knows you’re back yet. Oh, there’s Pepper and Rhodes, sure, but they’re just so damn good at keeping your secrets. It should have served them better in the end.”

Tony couldn’t blink. He couldn’t move his head or open his mouth or rage or scream at what he was hearing. Obadiah was—what was Obadiah doing? Trying to pull enough breath into his lungs to order JARVIS to act, Tony managed the barest whisper of air. He couldn’t move. Of course he couldn’t move, he’d designed the fucking immobiliser—

In the corner of his eye he saw movement, heard the creak of leather as Obadiah leaned forward and opened his briefcase, pulling out a circular device Tony had never seen before.

“You really threw me for a loop with this transfer of ownership business,” Obadiah mused, tilting the device toward Tony’s face. It was the perfect size for— “I was tempted, believe me. But I’ve had my eyes on the prize long enough to know that there’s no victory in being given the keys to the kingdom, no. To the victor go the spoils. I’m a winner, Tony, just like you. Don’t hold it against me; I’ve waited too long for this day. The company, the power, the last great contribution of Tony Stark—” Obadiah pressed the gaping circle of metal to Tony’s chest. The hiss of the arc reactor releasing pressure and twisting free of its port was all that he could hear. That, and the quiet sigh of satisfaction Obadiah gave as he pulled the reactor free, the baseplate cable pulling taut deep in Tony’s chest before it tore free with a hard pop of pressure.

Tony watched the reactor be drawn from his chest with the kind of tearful horror reserved for monsters under the bed, for dark closets and dank caves and hot coals and Yinsen, Yinsen I need help—

“I might have bought you out if we’d been able to replicate this,” Obadiah admitted, turning the bright heart-glow of the reactor over in his hands. The light shone in his gunmetal eyes, greedy and cold. “Grace under pressure, Tony, that’s all you. The geeks couldn’t even come close to this kind of beauty. Thank you for this. I mean it.”

The sound that came from his throat didn’t sound human. It was animal, instinctive. Obadiah ignored it as he placed the arc reactor into his briefcase along with the removal device.

“Anyway, I’ve got an eight o’clock to attend to.” Obadiah’s smile was warm. “Do you think I’ll need that cashmere winter coat you bought me a few years ago? No, don’t answer. Truth is, I don’t need a coat when I’ve got a special suit tailored just for the occasion. Based on your schematics, actually. I can’t go out to meet an ice monster without wearing my best duds, can I?”

Loki?

The gaping wound in Tony’s chest doubled, his vision shrinking to a pinprick of light. Realising he was about to pass out, he tried to breathe but it was like pulling a gasp through a straw and it wasn’t enough to stave off the horrified constriction. He could almost feel the shrapnel shaking off its immobility, scratching back at the scar tissue that had grown around it and piercing through. He was going to die there, sitting in his own house while Obadiah Stane took everything from him—

“Tony?” Pepper called out from the foyer.

The world stopped.

“So, I’ve got your StarkPad like JARVIS asked. He seemed a bit snippy about it, if you ask me. I was supposed to get a whole stack of recipes from him but it looks like you took his access away—oh, Obadiah!” Pepper smiled in embarrassment, as though she’d never been caught having a personal gripe to Tony before. “I saw the deployment truck out front, but I didn’t realise it was you. Moving equipment?”

“Moving something,” Obadiah agreed, pulling a pistol from the small of his back. Pepper’s purse slid from her shoulder as she stiffened in shock, staring at the barrel with thunderstruck recognition. “My god, you are efficient. Doing my work for me before I’ve even thought about it. Come and sit beside Tony for me. I’m sure he’ll want some company during this difficult time.”

Pepper’s eyes rounded as she got a good look at the burned circle of Tony’s shirt and the void beneath it. She lurched forward a step, then vanished from his limited line of sight.

Pepper , he willed, panic gripping his empty chest, don’t do anything stupid. Think smart.

All he heard was her voice, choked and braver than anything he’d ever heard in his life.

“JARVIS, priority administrator override. Light up.”

“Ah, shit,” Obadiah sighed, and fired twice into a space beyond Tony’s sight.

There was no sound after that.

“Activating real-time surveillance feed to SHIELD. Activating SOS communication to all trusted points. Activating local police deployment. Activating house security system. Activating voiceprint analysis. Activating ambulance personnel. Activating Stark Industries VidCon servers and uploading information to all stock holders and board of directors. Activating…”  JARVIS’s voice was a tight drone of furious gunshot tasks, all aimed to save them and implicate Obadiah in every way humanly possible.

Obadiah just laughed.

“You morons don’t get it. Company or not, I’ve got my eyes on the real prize here.” Picking up his briefcase, Tony watched him head for the door with all of his usual good cheer. “By the time anyone arrives to find me, I’ll be a wormhole away, building myself an impregnable fortress that every country on the planet will pay through the nose for. If I have to do that while stepping on the spine of some demon, I will. After all, it’s power that matters, Tony, and I plan to have all of it.”

With a footstep and a laugh, Obadiah was gone. Taking the wormhole stakes, Tony realised with a distant jolt. He’d left them by the door the entire week he’d been back. Obadiah had some kind of suit, he had an arc reactor and he had a key to Winterheart.

And Pepper—

Tony lowered his eyes as far as he could, but all he could see was a thin trickle of blood spilling across the polished floor. Pepper’s blood.

Somewhere outside, a rumbling engine purred to life and faded into the night.

It was over, Tony realised, giving up on movement by slow degrees. Without Pepper, without Loki—let the shrapnel ruin him, like it should have months ago.

It could all end.

It didn’t matter anymore.


 

Castle Winterheart

On the gates, Hescamar felt the dimensional breach like a tear in his own skin and bones.

Intruder.

In the woods, a pack of wolves lifted their eyes to the sky. The scent was familiar. Fenrir’s blood knew the stench of betrayal too well.

Around the winter prison, the blizzard began to howl like the denizens of Hel itself.

And deep inside the castle, Loki crouched before the apple's glow and cared nothing of the outside world.

There was nothing for him out there.


Asgard – Throne Room

Odin slammed Gungnir to the floor. Destructive light crackled like a thrashing whip overhead.

“It comes.”

Frigga just closed her eyes.

“Faith, my husband,” she said quietly, her voice steady despite the tremble of her mouth. “Faith in Loki.”

Odin stared across oceans of space and light, spiralling down to a man trapped inside his own body, his shield-maiden bleeding at his feet.

“Faith and a catalyst,” Odin said, and hauled himself to his feet. His far-seeing gaze crackled pure white with power. “You’ve all been cheating this far. It’s time I laid my hand to this. Hugin! Munin!”  Twin ravens shrieked in their jesses, tearing free to circle the Allfather with livid excitement. Take the mortal only to that which he seeks.”  

The ravens laid wing to air and burst their way through distance itself, finally given free rein to give breath to change. The stagnancy of the realm was dissolving at long last. Their cries were ferocious and joyful as they called for their prey.

Frigga laid a soft hand to Odin’s shoulder. “And Thor?”

“Thor would save him,” he replied heavily, “and Thor would damn him in the same instant. This is Loki’s battle. Hagalaz fulfils itself at last.”

Bitterly helpless, bound by their own promises, Frigga and Odin could only give their power over to faith in a frost giant’s Asgardian heart – and a mortal’s indomitable will.

The curse had to break.

Across the realm at the end of a glittering path to the stars, Thor turned to the silent gatekeeper at his side.

“What comes, Heimdall?”

Heimdall just smiled.

“Change.”


The immobiliser really was an elegant design, Tony thought as shrapnel crawled toward his heart.

He’d forgotten that he’d made it, forgotten that it had been rejected as a viable personal safety device, as it could too easily be used against the owner. Tony wished he’d paid more attention to that small detail.

Sitting there, trapped inside his own skin while Pepper bled out on the floor, Tony wished a lot of things.

He knew the paramedics would arrive too late for him. He’d still be alive when they turned up, sure, probably even live a few more days in medical care. But he’d known from the start that the only thing keeping him alive was the arc reactor he’d designed in that cave.

Now Obadiah had it, and he was going to use it to kill or enslave Loki in a weaponised suit of armour Tony had all but built for him. Obadiah was going to storm that castle prison while Tony sat there, useless and dying, locked inside one he’d made himself.

Tony was trying to blink away the haze in his vision when he felt the cushion dip on the other seat. Pressure, like someone had leaned on it.

Pepper, he shouted, but all that escaped from his throat was a thready groan. Somewhere beside him, Pepper let out a harsh cry of pain.

Pain—and anger.

“Bald, overblown, greedy, smarmy, caviar-guzzling traitor,” she rasped, each word punctuated by some kind of movement at his side. Tony heard the sound of heeled shoes scrabbling against the floor. Jesus, he thought wildly, she’d been shot twice and she was trying to stand up.

Tony could only sit in awe as Pepper Potts fought through her injury. Awe, and abject horror. Movement would only speed up the blood loss. She had to stay still and keep pressure on the wound, not stand up—

Screaming through gritted teeth, Pepper finally moved into his line of vision. Tony could do nothing but stare.

Her palm was pressed hard into her left shoulder, just below her collarbone. It was slick with blood. Most of her hair had tumbled forward out of its clip, its length streaked with blood. Some of it was smeared across her cheek. She might have looked wounded and defenceless if it weren’t for her eyes; they burned with a ferocious, furious light somehow made more pronounced by the pain that showed everywhere else.

“JARVIS,” she said hoarsely, her eyes on the hole in Tony’s chest, “I need to…I’ve got to get to the workshop.”

It is statistically unlikely that you will return before strain and blood loss renders you unconscious.

“Just unlock the damn door.” Gripping her shoulder like it was the only thing holding her up, Pepper began to stagger in bare feet toward the workshop stairwell. Blood dripped off the fingertips of her useless arm.

Tony’s breath began to whine in his throat. His hands wouldn’t even move yet. Nothing would move and what in the name of hell was she doing? He had another ten minutes at least before his sensation and freedom of movement would return and Pepper had lost her damn mind.

Nothing could be that important, Tony thought blankly, watching Pepper stumble slightly as she descended the curving staircase to the workshop. He didn’t know what she’d left down there – whatever it was, it was important enough that she was willing to leave a trail of blood dripping across the floor as she went searching for it. Pepper needed help, and soon.

Sir, you have approximately fifteen minutes before your aorta is in danger of critical damage.” JARVIS sounded apologetic. “Emergency services and paramedics are en route, ETA unknown. There is nothing in my range of functions that can aid you, sir.”

“…s’ok, JARVIS,” Tony managed to slur. His fingers were beginning to move. Slow, but moving again. “Did…good.” He was surprised to realise he meant it. It mattered to him that they’d tried, even if it wouldn’t do any good. Not a sentiment Howard would have shared, nor Obadiah. No, they were the winners. Tony was just the brains, the knowledge and the vessel that had given Obadiah everything he needed to succeed.

Obadiah had scavenged the original suit’s remains after blowing up the Ten Rings, probably. Built an approximation of the armour from the best materials Stark Industries could procure. Listened to Pepper’s story and seen his own benefit, disguised as concern for Tony’s welfare. And after, all that had been left for him to do was to pull the arc reactor out of his chest and take Dr Foster’s inventions to open the way to Winterheart.

Tony had never even seen it coming.

Loki wouldn’t, either.

It was almost funny, how every effort to break Tony free of one place or another – Afghanistan, Winterheart, armour and wormholes – had led down the path it had. People would have been safer and better off if he’d ripped out the car battery and let nature take its course.

Well, it was always better late than never.

Tony was trying to move his feet when Pepper came struggling back up the stairs, a cube tucked under her limp arm. Brown paper hung off it, still clinging with wrapping tape. Her eyes were glassy with exertion and pain.

“You need,” Pepper wheezed, dropping the cube at his feet so it smashed upon the floor, “to check your mail more often.”

Kneeling at his feet, she fumbled something and swore, pulling her hand away from her shoulder to move something that clanked. Tony had managed to lean his unwieldy body forward halfway when she straightened, crying out as she did so. Fresh blood was a spreading dark stain over her suit jacket.

“Careful, Potts,” Tony forced out through numb lips. Then she lifted up the thing she’d been fiddling with, putting Tony nose to casing with a relic from some even darker days.

“Will this,” Pepper panted, holding up his original arc reactor, “will this still work?”

Tony could have wept.

I’ve been called many things. Nostalgic is not one of them.

Pepper had kept it anyway.

It was beginning to occur to Tony that he didn’t know the first thing about either of them. Their limits, her strength. The reactor was a gleaming beacon, cold and perfectly polished and right there, cupped in Pepper’s bloodstained hands. How many times would she save him before it was all over?

“Just like…Operation, remember,” he said, and hoped she could see the smile in his eyes. “Connect to…the baseplate. In the centre.”

“Don’t touch the walls,” Pepper whispered, and a big fat tear rolled down her pale cheek. “It’s going to be okay, Tony.”

Tony didn’t doubt her for an instant.

He felt it, deep inside his chest—that beautiful moment when power connected again, even imagined he could sense the shrapnel being tugged back into its old familiar place inside his chest, away from the things that kept him alive. Pepper pushed the reactor back into place, twisting it as she’d done once before. She was sobbing at something as she did it—maybe him, maybe her. Maybe the pain. Or maybe it was everything, the whole shitty situation.

Tony caught her hand as she started to sag backwards, letting her pillow her head on his leg as she tried to staunch the blood flow from her shoulder. He couldn’t help yet, but he would. He’d pull the bullet and cauterise the damn thing himself if it would buy her more time.

“You’ll be all right,” Pepper whispered. “Me too. It’ll…take more than this.” Her eyes slid shut as he forced his sluggish arms to move, putting his own hand behind hers for added pressure against the bullet wound. It was a bad job, but it was all he could manage. Her pained wince said she was still conscious, which gave him hope that she’d come through it. It was honestly too terrifying to entertain any other thought.

It felt like decades before Tony’s movement fully returned, though it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Ten minutes of projecting every possible outcome of Obadiah Stane’s threat to enter Winterheart.

Could Loki fight him off? How much artillery did the suit have? Would they come to some agreement? Loki had been full of so much despair when Tony had turned and left. If he was presented with Obadiah and an offer to rule an entire world with an iron fist—

No. Tony shook the thought off before it could even take root. There wasn’t any way in hell he’d agree to something like that. Humans weren’t vermin to him anymore. But surrounded by Obie’s—by Obadiah’s influence, was that possible? There was a reason that man had become and stayed one of the most powerful business tycoons in America.

Tony could follow; he could get in his fastest car and race out to that canyon in pursuit. He could move, he was alive and Obadiah hadn’t won just yet. But going anywhere while Pepper was still bleeding across his hands was out of the question.

He was just debating whether to move her or not when something thundered hard from the direction of the front door. Jumping in surprise, he jostled Pepper by accident. She came awake with a screech of pain, wild eyes darting around the room as some kind of heavy impact rattled the foyer again. A battering ram?

Sir, I see no visible uniform markings on the intruders. This suggests they are aware of surveillance, or in fact have no allegiance. Four men at the door.” JARVIS hesitated. “The balcony doors are also being tampered with by someone just outside my sensor range.

“SHIELD,” Pepper croaked. “No-one else knows where JARVIS’ sensors are.”

“Well, that’s as good a reason as any to tear the security system out and rearrange it,” Tony muttered as he tipped Pepper upright and slid out from under her. She was light enough that he was able to get her up onto the lounge without making her scream again. A quick glance at her shoulder said the drying blood had stuck her shirt to the wound. Pulling it off would disrupt any clotting, he decided, leaving it be. Pepper’s eyes were fluttering shut again. Not a great sign.

Maybe it was time he and SHIELD had a proper introduction. If only so Pepper could get medical attention. There was nothing he could do for Loki—yet.

“JARVIS, let them in.”

Something clicked behind him before JARVIS could so much as intone a perfunctory ‘yes sir’ and the balcony door swung open on a silent hinge. Tony turned to meet his very first field agent.

“Maybe I should have moved in after all,” said Natasha Romanoff, tugging her night vision goggles up to regard him with gleaming green eyes. “You need better friends.”

Tony stared just long enough to wonder why she was wearing a black catsuit instead of a curtain dress, but in that time Natasha was already moving, leaping lightly over the side of the lounge to crouch at Pepper’s side and examine her shoulder.

“Initial report said two bullets fired, but it looks like one non-lethal shot to the shoulder. Bleeding is sluggish but her pallor says she’s lost a lot for this kind of wound,” Natasha said, seemingly to no-one. Then Tony noticed the communicator dug into her ear. “Definitely a broken clavicle. Shoulder is dislocated. No sign of Stane. I have eyes on Stark.”

The moment he realised the ramming at the front door had stopped, Tony understood.

“You’re with SHIELD,” he said slowly, unsure why he felt betrayed. “Inside of a week you’re in their good graces? Jumping out of helicopters and riding ziplines down to my balcony?”

Natasha didn’t reply, instead tearing the bottom of Pepper’s shirt away and rolling it up to press into the bullet wound. Pepper’s eyes opened again, tired but alert as she focussed on Natasha.

“I know you,” Pepper murmured, surprising them both. “A beauty for the beast, isn’t that what you said? Wasn’t that you?”

“I’ve been wrong before,” Natasha said, and though her eyes were on the bandage, her mouth quirked slightly. “Hello again, new girl. You got yourself shot.”

“I did,” Pepper agreed, her eyes sliding shut again. “Now he’s gone to see the beast. You think he’ll kill him?”

“Which one?” Natasha whispered, eyes wide. But Pepper had spent her strength at last; unconscious, she had no answers to give either of them.

Strapping Pepper’s shoulder with what looked like some kind of tactical duct tape, Natasha rose to her full height just as agents poured into the house, guns drawn and held low, like maybe their new addition had missed something. Tony sure hadn’t missed the tightening of her mouth as she watched them.

“I’m here as a friendly face so you’ll trust them,” Natasha told him quietly. “Clint is off the grid, in training at a black site. I can’t see him until they see what he’s made of. He’s okay, Tony. Maybe even found his calling. I’m…adjusting. Aggressively.”

“What do SHIELD want?”

“You. The boss. Winterheart.” She shrugged. “It’s hard to say.”

“Actually,” a male voice said clearly, “right now we’d be happy with Obadiah Stane in custody.” A middle-aged man in a business suit approached Tony, a hand held out in greeting. He had ‘fed’ written all over him from his shiny shoes to his mildly pleasant poker face. “I’m Agent Phil Coulson. I’ve been liaising with Miss Potts since your return from Afghanistan. You certainly have a way of avoiding detection—and finding trouble.” His eyes fell to the hole burned into Tony’ white shirt, exposing the inelegant lines of the original arc reactor. So much for secrecy, though Obadiah had kind of thrown the baby out with the bathwater on that one. Tony didn’t bother covering it up.

“You need to get men out to Solstice Canyon,” Tony said, his eyes on the two bringing a stretcher in to the living room. The EMTs had arrived. Good. “Obadiah is—”

“They’re already there,” Coulson interrupted, his smile slipping slightly. “We count four identical devices lining the place you went missing, but your business partner is nowhere in sight. Sensors indicate some kind of displacement in the particle matter in that area, but the devices are completely fried.” He took another step forward, casting a discreet glance at the other agents. “Mr Stark, is there another way into this…Winterheart?”

Tony barely heard him. The wormhole stakes were burnt out. Of all the useless, perishable, one-trick pony inventions—

Now Obadiah was locked in there with Loki. Or was Loki locked in with Obadiah? There was still a month before the curse would dissolve. It was too long. It was just too damn long to wait and see what Obadiah would do. Would Loki even see the danger? Would he care?

“If there was a way in, I’d be there already,” Tony heard himself say. Everything felt slightly out of focus. He turned to Natasha, her curling red hair and familiar frown anchoring him to the moment. “Obadiah wants to kill the boss and turn Winterheart into some kind of fluid remote stronghold that can attack within borders anywhere in the world. Plus he wants to employ the boss. Or kill him. I don’t think he cares which one.”

Natasha’s face registered surprise, but almost as quickly Tony could see her mind ticking over at lightning speed, running scenarios and likelihoods.

“If he could manipulate the return paths somehow, sure, but no-one knows how to do that. And in four weeks—”

“It all dissolves anyway,” Tony finished for her. “I know. I know. But he went there in a protective suit of armour powered by my upgraded arc reactor. That means artillery, Romanoff. Lots of it. That thing could power New York City for twenty-four hours. He’ll have stamina for days in a suit.”

“And the boss isn’t in a welcoming mood on the best of days,” Natasha said with growing realisation. Worse, she looked a little worried. “Tony, we’ve seen him hurt. He’s not immortal, and he’s not the type to follow anyone’s lead. Stane might kill him out of self-defence alone.”

“And we can’t do a goddamn thing to help.” Cursing viciously, Tony raked a hand through already-wild hair and tried to think of an answer. Natasha just sat on the arm of the lounge and ripped the goggles off her head, tossing them down onto the leather cushion.

“Right,” Coulson said calmly, assessing them both, “we’ll just have to deal with what we can at the moment. My men will transport Miss Potts to the nearest hospital and keep her under guard. There’s nothing guaranteeing Stane is working alone, and it’s likely he’ll have men on the outside keeping an ear to the ground. We’ll start by rooting some of them out for questioning.” He glanced between Tony and Natasha. “Romanoff, if you’d like to escort Stark back to our current field base, we’ll do a full debrief and plan from there.”

Sir, I would recommend a diagnostic of your health before any travel,” JARVIS said suddenly, startling at least three agents into raising their weapons to the ceiling speakers. Even Natasha’s eyes narrowed. “If you would attend the workshop, I can gauge the output of the superseded device.

“We have skilled technicians and medical staff at the base,” Coulson told Tony patiently. “We’re on a tight schedule here, and the director is keen to meet with you. Tell the computer this can be done later.”

Tony didn’t even get a word out before JARVIS took the matter into his own electronic hands.

Pardon me, Agent Coulson, but so far you and your men have proven yourselves late, indiscreet, poorly dressed and prone to property damage. As you seem quite busy being covert and important, please allow me to assist Mr Stark. It should take but a matter of minutes.”

“This suit is Armani,” Coulson said mildly, tugging at his cuffs. “Custom tailored to hide my sidearm. Well, sidearms, since you seem to like specifics. It also falls nicely over the eight inch bowie knife sheathed at my back.”

I don’t believe those are standard issue for SHIELD agents. Do all agents break dress regulations out of sheer vanity?

At that, Coulson betrayed a small smile. The look he shot Tony was knowing.

“Until today I didn’t believe an advanced AI could offend me,” was all he said. “Stark, we’ll hold position for another fifteen minutes. After that, we’re coming to personally extract you.”

Tony nodded, but he wondered exactly why JARVIS would demand a health check. They both knew full well that less than one percent of the reactor’s output was needed to power the magnet in his chest. Not to mention that JARVIS was only supposed to use his limited autonomy for things like casual insults and smart-mouthing him. Then again, JARVIS had been concerned enough to hack the entire world looking for him. A diagnostic fell far short of that.

“I’ll come with you,” Natasha said as Tony turned away. Coulson frowned.

“Romanoff, I think—”

“Blueprints of this house show his workshop is part of the garage. We wouldn’t want him to escape just because you’re having trust issues with me. Besides,” Natasha added, darting Tony a brief glance, “the psychology reports all said that frequent contact with people I’ve formed an emotional bond with is good for me. Plus it’s especially good for SHIELD if they just happen to be powerful Americans involved in weapons manufacturing. Right?”

Coulson sighed long and hard.

“Please stop hacking our mainframe. You have ten minutes.” He waved them off with irritated impatience.

Tony wheeled Natasha around and headed straight for the curving staircase, ridiculously pleased with her. He should have known that even outside Winterheart she’d be as sharp and dangerous as broken glass. She was silent at his side as they hurried down to the workshop, seeming as desperate as him to get away from the suits and prying eyes. It wasn’t until the glass door closed behind them with a hiss of pressure that Tony realised he’d been holding his breath the entire way.

Standing in the half-darkness of the workshop Natasha looked at him, her eyes filling up with shadows.

Tony didn’t know who moved first, just that between one moment and the next his arms were hugging her tight, his face pressed into waves of dark red hair. She was squeezing the absolute hell out of him, her breath coming short and almost frantic against the side of his neck.

“You smell all wrong,” she muttered. “You look all wrong.”

“So do you. Black isn’t your colour.”

“Black isn’t a colour.”

“Don’t correct me. I’m having a traumatic night.” He felt more than heard her huff of laughter. “God, it’s good to see you. I’ve been going nuts.”

“We all have. It’s been hell.” Pulling back, she looked up into his face with a crooked smile. “Though Clint is taking to freedom like a fish to water. SHIELD nearly foamed at the mouth when he demonstrated his archery skills. They can’t get enough of him.”

“And you?”

“They hate me.” She glanced away. “No-one likes a traitor, after all. But I’m managing. The director, Fury, he’s giving me a chance to stick it out. They’re going to ride me pretty hard until they can be convinced I’m not a double-agent, that this isn’t just some kind of long con three years in the making. As if anyone could make up a place like Winterheart.”

“I think Obadiah’s gone and convinced them it’s real,” Tony said, the warmth of the moment leeching out of him. “Now he’s in there and I have no idea what do to.” Absently, he wondered if this was how Pepper had felt the entire time he was gone.

“Plus the boss let us go,” she reminded him. “He kicked us out. Would we even be able to get back in if there was a way? His word is law there.”

“Obadiah broke in, didn’t he?”

“Did he? What guarantee do we have that those things even sent him to the castle?” Drawing away from him, she spread her hands. “For all we know he’s floating in space, or at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Best case scenario, maybe. But I’m not going to bank on it. For all we know he made it in, and he’s going to take one look at Loki and blow a hole straight through him.” Natasha winced at whatever she saw in his face, but she didn’t try to placate him. “Two hours ago Obadiah was my oldest friend. Now—I won’t put anything past him. Not after Pepper.”

Tony headed for his work desk, firing up the array of screens with a sweep of his hand. It just gave him something to do, somewhere else to look than Natasha’s grim face. Neither of them were the type to hope for the best, but while Tony knew she wouldn’t sugar-coat what was happening, he almost wished she’d try. It was the part where Clint would add a hopeful comment, where he’d flare up at the hopelessness and rage against it. He’d bolster their resolve. But Clint was nowhere, and in Natasha’s eyes Tony could only see his own despair.

He heard more than saw her round the desk to join him, watching satellite feeds magnify the tree cover above Solstice Canyon. It was too dark. There was nothing to see but a couple of spotlights and a few black SUVs parked by the road. SHIELD. He let his hands fall still against the keyboard, watching careful fingers circle his wrist and squeeze. Her skin was cold.

“I have to get in there, Natasha.”

“I know.”

“This is my fault. I have to save him.” He swallowed around the constriction in his throat. It tasted like guilt. “And I can’t.”

Sir, if I may,” JARVIS prompted quietly. “I didn’t wish to alert our guests, but I’m afraid we have more visitors.” An overhead light clicked on, illuminating the roadster’s spilling yellow flames and crimson upholstery.

Two ravens were perched at the top of its windscreen, their claws punched clean through the glass. Their eyes shone like golden coins as they stared at him.

Natasha went rigid at his side. In the same instant Tony had one burning thought: neither of them were his raven.

They seemed to arrive by a focussed wormhole,” JARVIS said, his tone almost dry. “The markings on their talons match nothing in my entire linguistics suite.”

“Let me guess: old matchstick?” Tony barely heard himself speak as he approached the twin birds. They watched him like prey but didn’t move an inch until he was standing between the car’s headlamps.

Slowly, their wings unfolded, spread alarmingly wide for a couple of ravens. Their wings arched high, glossy black reflecting the light – and then they spoke.

“What does the mortal seek?” said one.

“We will take you,” added the other.

Tony throat went dry. This was a hell of a lot more than a simple nevermore. Behind him, he heard Natasha cautiously draw her pistol. He waved her back.

“I think they’re part of Winterheart,” he said. “I’ve met one like them before. You never saw it?”

“Nothing but wolves,” Natasha replied warily. Standing beside him, she faced the ravens. “Why would you help us? The curse has rules.”

“Help the mortal, not you,” croaked the first raven.

“We are commanded by he who cast the curse.” Glass chimed musically as the second raven clenched its talons tighter; thin cracks spread across the windscreen like skeletal fingers. Tony had the intense impression that these two weren’t playing around.

“What does the mortal seek?”

“Time is short,” said the other, and was pecked viciously for it. “Off me! He knows as much. All know as much.”

Tony’s heart started pounding double-time. Natasha let the safety off her pistol and began striding backwards, her eyes on the door. Guarding it, no doubt. They’d had the exact same thought.

“They’ll need more than a battering ram to get in here, Nat,” Tony said, his thoughts flying. “That door won’t open for anything less than a bazooka, and the explosion in that stairwell would kill whoever fired it.” Making a break for his worktable, he pushed tools and experimental components to the floor until he could make room for something he’d barely tested, let alone used in a combat situation.

“What the hell is that?” Natasha asked from across the room, her eyes on the gauntlet. “New tech?”

“Old tech,” Tony corrected her, connecting the power line to his arc reactor with a wince. “With a little extra something. I didn’t get to build much before Winterheart, but the Mark II was going to change the world.” Screwing the casing around his forearm, Tony worked the fingers gingerly. The repulsor in his palm gave an obedient whine and went dark.

“You’ll have time for that,” Natasha said meaningfully. She cast her eyes to the stairwell and swore. “I might not. They’re coming.”

“They can’t get in.”

“It doesn’t matter, Tony. They’ll see me let you go.” Suits were pouring down the stairs now; eight, maybe ten of them. Coulson was yelling something into his wrist. Wincing, Natasha pulled her communicator out of her ear.

“Kill them,” said the first raven. Somehow, that made Natasha laugh.

“I need them. Hopefully they won’t kill me before I can explain.”

The second raven started ducking its head strangely.

“Don’t,” warned the first.

“Protect the nine,” said the second raven, still ducking its head. Gold light was spilling from its beak. “Three years from her. Three seconds from us. We must change.”

Opening its long beak wide, the raven pulled its talons free and turned, beating its wings hard at the wall separating them from the SHIELD agents. Tony watched the entire thing shatter into pebble-sized pieces of triple-reinforced bulletproof glass.

Coulson took only a second to stare. It was his men who rushed forward, guns drawn and raised—and all pointed at Natasha.

Not Tony. Not the birds.

Just her.

The raven flared its wings again, but this time the feathers were limned in gold. One wing-beat and one startled shout later, every agent in the room had been swallowed up by golden light and vanished. All except Coulson, whose face had turned ashen. His gun was drawn, but he seemed to have forgotten it was still in his hand.

“The returned are under our protection,” the second raven said, and its voice rumbled through the room like thunder. “Under his protection. Tell your soldiers as much, when they return from the southern ice.”

Yeah, Tony thought, those birds were definitely not messing around. Flexing the un-plated gauntlet again, feeling the power thrill from his arc reactor down to his palm, he turned to the first raven. It cocked its head expectantly.

“Take me back to Winterheart.”

The raven spread its wings. Each feather was veined with gold, a light that glittered in the semi-darkness of the workshop. Tony had time enough to glance at Natasha, who gave him a single nod of determination.

“It’s time we paid rent.”

Tony was sure he said something in reply, but in that instant the raven beat its wings at him and the workshop faded into a wash of gold.

Stars rushed behind Tony’s eyes; more constellations than he could count or had ever learned flew by in a streaking torrent of white and black and purple. He was weightless and nothing for those scant seconds – and then his feet jolted against something unforgivingly hard.

Ground.

Not just ground, he realised as cold air swirled around him. Snow-covered ground.

He was back. And—he was alone.

It didn’t matter, Tony told himself as he trudged forward into the snow, smelling pine needles and the pure, crisp cold of winter. What had Loki said? All paths led to Winterheart, or something like that. All he had to do was keep walking forward and he’d end up at the castle. Hopefully the wolves wouldn’t arrive to eat him before he could get there.

Tony walked for long minutes with nothing but the sound of the night in his ears. The faint whisper of wind, the crackle of branches laden with snow. But no animals. No howling. He was just beginning to feel relief when he tripped over his first corpse.

“Son of a bitch,” Tony swore as he knelt down, checking the wolf for any signs of life. It was futile, he knew; a round of bullets had peppered holes through its hide from muzzle to tail. Whatever blood that had flowed from it had stopped a while ago. Sticky half-crystals of it were gathered in its pelt.

Tony realised he mourned the damn thing. Sure, they’d terrorised him, more than once, but the idea that Obadiah had stomped into their territory uninvited, had gunned them down and kept walking…

Clearing his throat, Tony stood and hastened his pace. Hugging his arms to himself as he moved, he knew he should’ve brought a jacket. But while the cold pierced his body like knives, it was a welcome pain. The damn place actually felt like home.

Tony counted four more dead wolves in his wide path before a raven fluttered down to perch on his shoulder.

“The automaton tore through Winterheart’s gates more than ten minutes gone,” it croaked, ruffling its feathers. “The prince won’t find it, but it will find him.”

“So portal me a shortcut,” Tony grunted, shoving the thing off his shoulder. “Your friends got me this far; can’t you get me the rest of the way?”

“Hescamar has no friends.” The bird seemed offended. Tony mentally shelved the name for later. “Or do you speak of the brothers? ‘Tis a dire hour if those fools have involved themselves.”

“They said it was at ‘his’ request. I’m guessing it’s not Loki.”

Whatever the raven, Hescamar, might have said was stalled as an enormous wolf walked into the clearing ahead of Tony, its grey-white pelt almost glowing in the moonlight.

If Tony didn’t know better, the wolf was the spit and image of the alpha that had tried to enter Winterheart; the one who had died in front of him with a three-point knot burned into its side.

Its gold eyes blazed, but not at Tony. Hescamar squawked and took to the air.

“Get on,” the wolf said, its voice a vicious bass rumble. Because wolves could talk and it still wasn’t the strangest thing that had happened that night. “The buzzard can only guide you. I can move you.”

“I’m going to trust you, but only because I’m freezing to death,” Tony said, his teeth chattering as he swung a leg over the wolf’s back. The wolf was only the size of a pony at best, but the spine beneath him felt like steel. “I thought you could only guard.”

“Winterheart’s spells are cast awry since the intruder arrived. I am afforded a freedom unlike any other this night.”

“And you’re using your freedom to help me save Loki?” Tony pressed, grabbing fistfuls of fur and leaning low as the wolf raced through the snow. “I thought you wanted him dead.”

“Never,” the wolf growled. On either side of him, two more wolves joined the chase like a flanking guard. “We take the freedom we’re allowed. I, however—I remember him. And you. Loki’s freedom may someday mean my own.”

For long moments Tony just hung on, his forehead pressed to the back of the giant wolf’s skull. His thighs ached from pressing into its narrow ribcage, his hands from clenching around thick fur. The gauntlet bit into his fingers, its metal edges freezing and crusted with snow. Tony wondered for a moment if he’d tested it for cold endurance.

Eventually, the twisted gates of Winterheart rose into view; bent inward and deformed, they resembled the gates of hell more than the elegant protection Tony had thought them to be the first time he’d pushed past their barrier.

The wolf slouched him to the ground, its shoulders moving gracefully to deposit him in the snow.

Standing there in the snowy night, knowing time was short, Tony couldn’t help but ask.

“What’s your name?”

The wolf looked at him. For a single instant, Tony could have sworn its eyes flashed green.

“I am Fenrir. May you shatter my shackles one day, spellbreaker. For now, you must break his."

Turning, the wolves all ran back into the night. It seemed like everyone was breaking their own rules. All to save Loki, who might not even want their help. He’d never said Tony could return. What if all his good intentions were just—misplaced? Maybe Loki could handle Obadiah. He certainly wasn’t fazed by danger or utilising his powers when they were needed. He’d frozen an entire ballroom, after all.

It didn’t matter, Tony told himself as he stepped over the bend in the gates, half-tripping on the edge of wrought iron as it caught his shoe. Time was short, isn’t that what they’d said? Maybe they meant the spell’s time. Maybe they meant Loki’s. But to stop Obadiah from whatever insane plan he was trying to execute, Tony was willing to risk the wrath of Winterheart’s longest prisoner.

The main doors were laid wide open, just like the gates. Tony was relieved he didn’t have to sneak in. There were no footsteps or sounds within the darkness of the castle, just cold and the smell of dust. The lanterns were all out, and there was no familiar smell of warm food wafting from Cook’s shutter. It usually filled every room of the ground floor at that time of night. It would draw everyone out of their rooms. Instead, it looked like the first night Tony had wandered into the castle. Everything was dead and cold. Empty.

Heading for the grand staircase, intending to find Loki as soon as possible, a muffled thump echoed around the hall, creating a fine reverberation through the marble floor. Tony pressed himself to the staircase wall on instinct alone, staring blindly out at the darkness. Breath held, he listened for anything: voices, explosions, the high crack of ice. But there was nothing more than the whistling wind pouring in through the open doors.

“I can’t go up there,” Tony muttered to himself. Thinking tactically had never been a particularly strong suit of his. It required knowing people, knowing their actions and reactions. But to go running up to the west wing would mean Obadiah would have the upper hand. Element of surprise or not, Tony was still a reasonably unarmed –unarmoured– man fighting a human tank.

So Tony toed off his shoes, taking a leaf from Pepper’s book, and ran full tilt for the ballroom, sliding and slipping the whole way.

The entire ballroom was full of slush. Halfway between ice and water, it soaked Tony’s feet as he navigated the mess. As much as he tried not to make a sound, the piercing pain of ice water around his feet made him leap a few times as he tried to find the crooked sconce on the wall that Loki had shown him that night. A staircase to his own chambers, hadn’t that been what he’d said? Straight to the bathroom, and maybe, god, just maybe, a way to get to Obie before he’d kill Loki. If he’d kill Loki. Tony wasn’t sure what he’d do if he heard Loki agree to any terms Obadiah might offer. Curling up and dying felt like a legitimate option.

Stopping them both felt like another. Even if it meant he’d end up frozen solid and blasted into pieces. His tech and Loki’s powers used to strong-arm the world into fear and submission? It’d be a nightmare, he knew, but a rock-solid part of him didn’t think it’d come to that. He refused to believe that Loki hadn’t come this far just to buy into Obadiah’s bullshit.

Pulling the sconce into place, Tony side-stepped the pressurised blast of dust this time, waiting for it to clear before he stepped into the darkened stairwell with only his dormant repulsor and arc reactor to light the way with a pale blue glow.

By the time he’d pushed through cobwebs and self-doubt to approach a doorway lined with light, the only fear Tony still had was that he’d come that far in vain.

“…no reason why you should hide yourself. Not with me at your back. They’re idiots, all of them. They need a guiding hand. Why not yours?”

Obadiah, Tony realised, his stomach lurching. That was Obadiah talking.

“And yours,” scoffed another voice, one far more loved. Tony felt himself sag slightly against the door. “You have the bearing of one who would not suffer the shadows for long.”

“I’ve been a silent partner for years.” As silent as an air raid siren, Tony thought. “Didn’t he tell you? Tony ran the weapons manufacturing for most of the country, even if we didn’t say it out loud. Me, I’m behind the scenes. No credit for me.”

“No credit for you,” Loki repeated strangely. “You aren’t happy as such? You seek me to separate you from Stark?”

“Stark Industries,” Obadiah clarified. “All I want is this place. It’s prime real estate, if you have an eye for expansion. I’m already free from Tony. He…well, he got real sick this last week. Big chill set into his bones. We found him on the roadside.”

Tony pressed his ear to the wood hard enough to make the door creak.

Sick?” Loki said, his voice fraying into something terrible. “Precisely how sick?”

Silence followed, and a ringing clank of metal against wood and stone. A footstep? Had that been a footstep from Obadiah? It was too heavy. Far too heavy, even for the Mark I.

“He caught pneumonia. I don’t know if you know what that is—”

I know what it is.

“Then you know how deadly it can be. Look, I don’t know what kind of relationship you two had, but you obviously gave a damn about him so I’m gonna be frank with you.” A beat of silence, just dramatic enough to count. “He asked me to come here and look out for you, before he…let go. I’m just here to fulfil the obligation.”

Son of a bitch. Rage kindled hot and dry in Tony’s chest, burning around the arc reactor’s weight. The channelled power in his palm throbbed and he realised he’d been clenching his fist too hard. But he couldn’t run out there in a blind hurry. He couldn’t. Slowly, Tony eased the hidden door open and prayed it wouldn’t be visible from the bedchamber.

At the first crack of ice, he stopped.

“Hey now—” Obadiah started. Tony heard a wrenching, thunderous clank of metal hitting stone. After that there was only the sound of ice shattering. “That’s a neat trick.”

“If it was truly illness that claimed him, Obadiah Stane, why do you wear his heart like a trophy in your armour?”

Of course Loki would think he was dead, Tony realised. The arc reactor. It was all the proof anyone needed. In his chest, the original reactor seemed to thrum.

“Look, I’m gonna be blunt here, because I don’t think I like what you’re implying,” Obadiah said tightly. “Tony didn’t need it anymore. Now are you gonna talk business with me here, or do I have to lean on you a little?”

“You will find me somewhat resistant to threats.”

“I wonder how resistant you are to these?” The unmistakable sound of multiple rounds being chambered made Tony’s blood run cold. Of course Obadiah would have a rapid-fire weapon built into in his suit.

“I invite you to find out.” Loki’s short laugh was strange. “And I pray for your success.”

Oh, god.

Don’t!

Barging the door open with his shoulder, Tony threw himself into the bathroom and through to the bedchamber, the repulsor charging bright in his palm and ready to fire—

A Gatling gun was levelled at his chest, attached to the forearm of a weaponised suit easily three times the size of his Mark I.

“Goddamnit,” Obadiah swore, incredulous. “How many times do I have to kill you before you’ll actually die?

“Tony,” Loki breathed. His eyes were wide with wonder—until they slid back to Obadiah. Ice began climbing his hands, and between that and the snarl he levelled at the suit that was about all the notice any of them had.

Putting a lot of faith in the old wingback chair, Tony vaulted over it and spun it around, using it like a shield as ice speared in every direction in the room, but mostly at Obadiah’s suit. Like a water cannon, waves of glittering white hit it in the chest, plastering it to the stone wall with Obadiah trapped inside. Slowly, the white visor embedded in the helmet blinked out. Deactivated from the ice layer? He’d have to remember that.

“My ears have grown dull to the sound of deceit,” Loki rasped, raising a clawed hand to his eyes. “I should have realised the moment I saw the contraption—” He broke off with a muffled grunt as Tony lurched forward and kissed him hard on the mouth, tasting ice and aching familiarity on his cold lips.

“I’m sorry,” Tony said between kisses. “I really am. I never had much self-control. I’m sorry I had to come back and—I’m sorry I left. He took my arc reactor, he shot Pepper and broke in here, I’m—”

“Rambling,” Loki interrupted, parting his lips against Tony’s, sealing up whatever he’d been about to say next. Tony couldn’t even remember anymore. “You were afraid for me? That is heartening.” The words were a warm breath across his jaw, followed closely by the cool graze of lips.

“I was eaten by a magic bird portal and rode a talking wolf to get here,” Tony told him. “I think it’s safe to say everyone was afraid for you.”

Loki’s eyes widened.

“It sounds like you have quite the tale to tell,” he said cautiously. Tony felt clawed fingertips mapping careful lines down his back. No, not just mapping, he realised, Loki was feeling him for injuries.

“It’s been a pretty big night,” Tony admitted. “It’s probably a good thing I’m an expert at dealing with near-death experiences.”

Loki just watched him, his hands shifting to stroke long paths up and down his spine. For the first time that night Tony realised he was shaking a little. From adrenaline, the cold, or maybe it was just nerves. Maybe it was everything. He suddenly understood why Pepper had been crying earlier. Only safety could unravel you that fast.

“I missed you,” Loki said quietly, like he was sharing a secret. “Stay with me tonight?”

Tony stared at him, unable to help the smile curling the corner of his mouth. Time seemed to slow back down in that moment; his nerves settling him into quiet calm at last. For the first time, he was able to really look at Loki.

Nothing had changed, if he ignored the tiredness that seemed to be written in every line of his face. Still the same deep blue skin, jewel-red eyes and curving horns. It was probably an optical illusion but his hair seemed longer, wilder and falling across his shoulders like streaks of ink against the wolf pelt. Tony touched the corner of Loki’s mouth with the edge of his thumb and watched as it was kissed, just because it was there.

“Are you going to answer me, or simply continue staring in wonder?” Loki eventually asked, but the amusement buried in the question said he had an idea of what Tony might say. “There’s still the matter of what to do with our would-be murderer.”

“Important things first: you didn’t turn my bedroom into a pool room while I was gone, did you?” Tony asked, pointedly shivering as the breeze from the balcony blew in against his back. “Because I’m not sleeping up here in the icebox, even if it’s only for a night.”

“It’s just as you left it,” Loki replied, smiling just enough for a hint of fang to show. “I even generously left the bed unmade.”

“You’re the soul of—move!!”

Wrenching to the side with all his might, Tony shoved Loki as hard as he could, getting him clear of the targeting laser that had activated on Obadiah’s guns. Tony’s eyes caught the trailing edge of Loki’s green mantle for an instant, and when he looked back it was into the face of the Gatling’s whirling barrels.

Obadiah’s metal faceplate seemed to smile.

Somewhere between the peppering thunder of the gun firing and finding himself staring up at a strange sky, somewhere between Loki’s roar and Obadiah’s scream, Tony Stark realised his stomach had been torn open by a hail of bullets. His blood was suddenly everywhere, pooling warm and dark beneath him.

So much blood and—

Tony couldn’t feel his legs anymore. His hands slipped away from the wounds, falling limply to the cold stone.

Maybe that was the thing about cheating death, he thought, eyes wide and fixed on the single bright star burning overhead. It always caught up with you in the end.

“Tony? Tony.” Loki almost scrambled to his side. “This is…you fool, what have you done? What have you done?”

“You’re welcome,” Tony coughed, tasting the thick rise of blood at the back of his throat. “Obadiah, is he—”

“Indisposed. Forget him. You’re safe,” Loki said, stumbling on his words as he pressed his hand to Tony’s stomach. Tony heard himself make a strange noise and wondered if it should hurt more. Going by his math, there were a lot of bullets inside him, at least five despite the trajectory, and the surface area would mean that one could have hit his spinal cord—

“My legs are gone, Loki,” Tony said, feeling his eyes sting. “I don’t know why that matters.” He choked on sudden laughter. “I feel like I should have some words of wisdom here. What are—what’s some good dying words?”

“I don’t think there’s such a thing,” Loki whispered, tear-blind and looking everywhere but at him. “You should have let him fire at me.”

“Wasn’t taking the chance. I feel like—you’re supposed to get outta…get out of here. People need you.”

“I need you,” Loki forced out, his voice ragged. “I refuse to suffer this world if you aren’t in it.”

Tony was having trouble seeing the star above him. Blinking, he realised he was crying, just a little. That was embarrassing. He swiped the moisture away with his gauntleted hand.

“Well, tough shit,” Tony said, swallowing. “Pick me up a little. I want to do it properly.”

“I won’t be the vehicle for your melodramatic departure,” Loki said, his chest heaving. He sounded almost panicked. “I won’t—I can’t. You stay with me, or I go with you. I can’t be alone again, Stark. I don’t know how to survive it anymore.”

Boots scraped on stone, and Tony watched in confusion as Loki got up and left him. But he was back just as fast, and in his clawed hand glowed a pulsing, golden-glowing apple.

“You see this? It’s your doing,” Loki said hoarsely, tugging Tony upright and pulling him in close. It felt good to have his arm around him, propping him up. The apple was shoved practically under his nose, round and crisp from stem to tip. “It’s perfect. You’ve restored me, Tony Stark, even if you couldn’t break my curse. You have no right to die. Not like this.” But even as he spoke, the thready edge of his voice was unravelling into grief. He knew as well as Tony did that there was nothing they could do.

“I feel like this apple is telling me something,” he said, smiling at Loki. It was getting hard to focus. “You really liked me, didn’t you?”

“No,” Loki whispered. “No, I loved you. And if this is all I can do for you, then I do it without regret.”

Tony wanted to ask what that meant, but it was all he could do just to breathe: short, gasping breaths that didn’t seem to be doing anything. His fading vision picked out the apple as it moved, and he watched Loki take a breath of his own.

“Loki,” Tony rasped, afraid. He couldn’t feel anything anymore.

“I told you I was giving your life back,” Loki said, and crushed the golden apple in his fist. Juice poured over his fist and dripped onto Tony, staining him with light. “I will not let fate make a liar out of me this night.”

Fear clutched at him with bony fingers, dragging back the sleepy drift that had been approaching. But it wasn’t enough. Tony took his final breaths fighting to speak, to rage at Loki for being so stupid—

and then it was simply too much to stay.

The last thing Tony saw before the darkness rolled in was a splintering golden light and Loki’s eyes, his brilliant red eyes, slowly sliding shut.


Loki

Nothing was happening.

Tony was a limp weight in his arms, his throat exposed in a long stretch as his head fell back. No pulse beat at his neck. No breath swelled his chest. Across the ruin of his stomach, the apple’s remains glowed as bright as ever.

Loki was still alive, for good or ill.

Tony wasn’t.

“Come now,” Loki choked out, shaking him a little. “Take me instead. Are the apples of Idunn so feeble? Is the Allfather’s magic so weak? Take me instead!

Silence. Overhead, the snow began to fall again.

Loki gasped once, lost, and a wretched half-sob that tore his throat.

Cradled in his arms, Tony slowly began to shine with light. At the same time, something cracked loudly and hit the stone with a clatter. When it happened again, Loki realised the wind was touching his arms – skin that hadn’t seen light in more than twenty years.

The vambraces, Loki thought with absent wonder. The spell. The metal lay in pieces around Tony, revealing blue forearms scored with the raised lines of his heritage.

Freedom.

At last.

Loki didn’t care. In that moment, the only thing he cared about was lying in his arms, suffused with the golden light from the apple. When Tony heaved a desperate, life-giving breath and flushed with healthy blood again, his wounds pushing out bullet after bullet as they knitted together, Loki felt himself begin to hope that maybe someone was listening, after all.

Almost too quickly, the blue was chased off his skin in a spilling wash of magic. Loki watched his claws shrink under the weight of the glamour spell. Blue skin and running lines gave way to pale smoothness, his head growing light with the sudden absence of his horns. His teeth shrank in his mouth.

Then came his magic.

Loki shuddered as his bones ignited with power and knowledge. Entire star systems felt like they ran in his veins like a crackling, rushing river, whispering familiar things as strength came home in a tidal wave. It hurt to have it all back so quickly; it left him reeling and quaking, grasping at Tony’s unconscious body for support. Hunched over him, anchored by the renewed heartbeat beneath his ear, Loki waited out the long seconds until he could lift his head and take stock of himself.

“First time in your life you’ve been such a slow learner,” croaked a nearby voice. Loki’s head whipped around in time to see a raven descend to the balcony railing. It started preening almost immediately, barely sparing him a glance. “But let none say your spine is weak, son of Odin.” Lifting its beak, the raven studied the sky. “Asgard longs for your return. Come. The mortal will thrive.”

“Hescamar?” Loki asked incredulously. “What dire circumstance would persuade Odin to send you?”

“Hescamar has always been here.” Plucking a feather from his own chest, the bird dropped it off the balcony. “Observing, never interfering. Odin’s eye never left you.” Something rattled inside the bedchamber, drawing their attention. “Finish your business. We leave.”

Metal groaned in the depths of the chamber, spurring Loki into action. Carefully, he lifted Tony out of his cooling pool of blood, setting him down on the stone away from the snow and the worst of the wind. His business wouldn’t take long, but he wouldn’t take another chance with Tony’s life.

Inside, Obadiah Stane was crawling free of the armour’s wreckage, blood painting the side of his face. The stink of oil and iron was in the air.

“Should’ve taken my offer,” Obadiah gasped out, his bloody smile reminiscent of a grinning skull. He didn’t seem to even notice the transformation—or he’d seen the entire thing. “That boy breaks everything he touches.”

“What luck,” Loki said coldly, grabbing the human’s collar and hauling him upright. “So do I.”

The fool didn’t realise what was happening until it was too late and he was standing at the edge of the balcony, staring down at a pack of wolves. More than ten pairs of intelligent, savage green eyes stared back. When Obadiah recoiled, Loki planted a hand between his shoulder blades.

For a long moment Loki studied the wolves. There could be no doubt that they were the same pack that had savaged him years ago. With the spells broken, perhaps they too sought a measure of freedom.

That deserved its own reward.

Feast,” Loki ordered, and shoved Obadiah over the railing.

His screams didn’t last long, but the howling did.

“Poetic,” commented the raven, not looking up from his preening. “Are you ready to take back your crown? Asgard’s halls have been dark of late.”

Loki was already moving toward where Tony lay.

“He comes with me.”

“He stays,” Hescamar replied immediately. “That one has his own destiny, and you’ll not interfere with it to please yourself. We’ve done enough of that. He’ll be seen back safely.”

Loki glared at him.

“Then I stay,” he said flatly. “Or am I expected to dispose of him now that I am restored? Lesson learned?”

“You’re expected to do your duty,” Hescamar retorted. “Realms nearly fell into ruin as a result of your crimes. You’ve been found worthy, princeling. Now it’s time to repair your damage. Prove yourself.” At that, Loki grit his teeth.

“Then I’m to be punished twice.”

“Not so.” Wings spread wide, the raven buried its head beneath one wing and pulled out another glossy feather. “You’ll see this one again. How soon that happens depends entirely upon you. Now come; resisting Odin’s call this long is sending me bald. Your family is eager to look upon your face.”

“Which one?” Loki asked bleakly, his eyes trailing to Tony’s unconscious form. “Give me your word I may return to him one day.”

“Hescamar’s word means nothing.” Beating his wings, the raven tore open the night air, revealing the sparkling expanse of the bifrost bridge. “It’s yours that counts.”

Freedom, then, Loki thought as he forced himself to turn toward the portal, knowing that to stop now might mean he’d lose his courage to leave altogether. Freedom and another shackle to bear the weight of – this one chaining him to Asgard until he could make his way back through the realms to Midgard.

He had to make it back to Midgard, even if it was only to explain to Tony exactly who he was. He deserved to know the truth; that Loki was more than a mere frost giant foundling.

Or perhaps, Loki thought as the light engulfed him, pulling him through the stars, perhaps that was exactly what he was.

He supposed he’d have time to mull that over, before they could meet again.

They would meet again.


Solstice Canyon – Malibu, California

Upon waking up to the relieved faces of a bunch of suits, it took approximately three seconds for Tony to understand everything.

He was alive.

The apple –the heart– was crushed.

And Loki…

Loki was probably already dead.

As he lay there listening to SHIELD agents rushing around in the night, spotlights streaming thick bars of light across the canyon’s shadowed landscape, Tony wondered at the idiocy that had inspired a bunch of magical animals into thinking he could save anyone.

He couldn’t even save himself.

If this is all I can do for you, then I do it without regret.

Maybe Loki had been right, Tony thought as he pushed himself upright, blinking against the light.

There were no good last words.


Asgard – Bifrost Bridge

The bridge glittered like rainbows trapped in crystal. Beneath his feet, light pooled and scattered with each movement he made. Behind him, a new observatory gleamed, burnished gold reflecting lights of its own. There Hescamar sat perched atop its spire, staring down at him. The milky wash of stars overhead were layered so thickly across the midnight sky it hurt to look at them.

Had Asgard always been so bright?

Loki turned his eyes to the crashing water, breathing in its clean scent as it ran off the edge of the realm. The night air was warm, even though it was damp with spray and mist from his nearness to the edge. The last time he had been so close, he’d been looking up into Thor’s frightened face and wondering if it would be so terrible if he let go. It felt like a faded memory to him, clouded in snow and ice. It felt like it had happened to someone else. Perhaps it had.

Pulling a deep, soul-cleansing breath into his lungs, Loki tried to tell himself he was home. He was even halfway to believing that when his ears caught the sound of a footstep behind him.

Ice crackling over his hands, Loki spun without thought to level a spear-like arm at the silent intruder. He saw only a whirl of gold as it was countered by Gungnir and deflected, leaving his side unprotected.

Odin stepped inside Loki’s guard in one smooth stride, his spear braced against Loki’s ice-covered wrist.

“You’ve a keen ear for my presence,” Odin commented wryly. “Too used to silence, I expect.” His eye dropped to the arm trapped beneath Gungnir. “Ice, able to pierce through all those knots, all that magic.” He shook his head slightly, almost in disbelief.

Loki couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Twenty years of internal arguments, of meticulously rehearsed speeches, of fury and hopeless grief—all dashed from his mind as the reality stood close enough to touch.

There should have been everything to say, and yet all Loki could do was stare and think, had he always looked so worn?

“Where is it, then?” Odin asked. His voice was strangely gruff. “Last we stood on the bifrost, I condemned you to the winter prison until you could see the truth of things. For all that you exceeded my every expectation, I didn’t doubt for a moment you would despise me for the lesson.” His expression was grim. “I would have your rage, Loki. Here, before we take another step toward Asgard.”

Stepping back, Loki busied himself by clenching his fist and sending the ice splintering free of his hand. Smooth, glassy lengths of white fell to the bridge, but they fell from a hand that was pale, not blue. Loki realised Odin’s meaning – the ice had punched through the glamour that once again cloaked his skin. He could actually sense it, in some new and strange way. Perhaps after so long without it the spell’s presence could now be felt, like spider-web draping his skin in a tapestry of intricate knots.

A net of magic to hold back everything he was born to be.

No, Loki thought, feeling the itch of magic crawl the length of his spine. He was not the pale-skinned prince he’d been before. He was not Aesir, for all he had wished he was. He would not crawl back his place; he would not resume standing just left of the throne, his lesson learned well. Chastened and merciful at last.

If Odin wanted a Jotun son, he would have one.

Odin stared at him as veins of verdant magic glowed bright beneath Loki’s skin, renewed and crackling with stagnant power reborn. Loki let it surge, sighing as the glamour eroded from his skin, feeling the constriction ease with every inch of lined blue that was again revealed. Strange, he thought as teeth lengthened in his mouth and his sharp claws were revealed, it almost calmed him to return to such a form. Contrary to the last.

When the last of the glamour was burned away, his horns revealed, Loki felt taller and stronger than he’d ever been while wearing Asgard gold. He met Odin’s gaze with blood-red eyes and saw only curious interest reflected back. Loki found his voice.

“We’ve lived in the lie long enough, have we not?”

“We have,” Odin agreed. There was something strangely wistful about the way he stared at Loki. “It’s been more than three thousand years since a true child of Jotunheim was welcome in this realm. Brokering peace never was one of Laufey’s gifts. He pushed me, railed against my treaties at every turn.” Blinking, Odin shook himself off. “If you were looking for shock, my son, you’d do well to look elsewhere. With one eye or two, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Jotun skin.”

“And pierced it with your spear,” Loki said flatly. “Don’t think to tell me you look upon me and see your strange and scholarly child still.” If pressed, Loki couldn’t say why he was pushing Odin. The fate of Jotunheim’s forces had never been a concern of his and yet there he stood, challenging the Allfather into admitting his aversion for them.

For him.

“I see one of Jotunheim’s greatest myths given life, tens of thousands of years after the last great winterking fell.” Odin’s eye crinkled slightly. “I also see my son, whether or not he sees his father.”

Winterking. The word matched no legend Loki had ever heard, not even in the most frightening tales told around the crackling fires in Asgard. Angry at his own confusion, at the distraction it presented, Loki did the only thing he could and dismissed it.

“Where is Mother? Where is Thor?”

“Where I ordered them to return and remain,” Odin replied. Rotating his wrist, he swung Gungnir and planted it perfectly upright. Light crackled at the spear tip. “It’s been some time since I traded blows with a frost giant. Indulge me.”

Indulge me , he said. Loki thought the look in Odin’s pale blue eye said fight me.

A strange chill ran through him, travelling through his bones in a short wave of memory. The fight, there on the bifrost. Thor’s refusal twenty years ago. He’d fought then, spending every drop of his wretched bitterness, his self-loathing misery, and Thor had taken it all. Loki could still remember the horror, the miserable duty and anguish in Thor’s eyes as they’d exchanged blows until Loki had been defeated, rejected, found wanting in every way a son and brother could possibly be.

Odin was giving him a chance to do it all again. One last temptation to give in to his bitterness, his jealousy, his pride, but this time to direct it at the one who had cast him out. His own father.

Loki had never entertained the thought that Odin might have taken his share of the blame for what had happened.

“I think it’s a law somewhere that a citizen of Asgard may not draw the king’s blood,” Loki found himself saying. His eyes narrowed slightly. “Even at the king’s invitation. Are you trying to trap me into another stay at Winterheart?”

Odin barked a short laugh.

“It’s good to see your sense of humour survived the snow. What makes you think you could draw my blood?”

Loki shrugged.

“Perhaps it’s the way you looked at my horns when you said winterking.”

“There is that.” Spinning Gungnir again, Odin planted the tip into the bifrost, but it was only to anchor it there as he stepped away. Once again Loki was uncomfortably made the subject of intense scrutiny. “A time ago, skilled frost giant warriors would fashion themselves horns of metal and ice as a mark of their strength. The horns emulated the winterkings – horned frost giants that could bridle the blizzard itself. Did you never wonder how you were able to command it in Winterheart? Call it, shape it, feel it react to your anger? ‘Tis a forgotten power barely known to any still living, said to descend from Ymir himself.”

It would have been a simple matter to deny it altogether, but for the memory of the night in the ballroom. Some of the ice that had spread across the marble had been his doing, certainly. But there was no ignoring the way the windows had burst open, called inside the castle by an unnamed need. But it was foolishness to entertain the idea that after so long and so much, his birthright would be some fanciful myth no-one had even heard of.

And yet, the horns hadn’t grown until Odin’s spell had revealed his true abilities – and his true form.

“So, I’m an aberration even by a frost giant’s measure,” Loki said thinly. He couldn’t help but laugh; a strange, strangled thing half-trapped in his throat. “But I challenge your assessment. Winterheart is a source of weather magic on its own—”

“Winterheart was built upon the frozen land Laufey conquered with the Casket of Ancient Winters over one thousand years ago, Loki. We carved it out and sealed it away where none could touch its immortal ice and wonder at its power.” As Loki stared at him, chest constricting, Odin hesitated, relenting. “It’s the closest I could come to sending you home while keeping you safe.”

“I am home,” Loki whispered, his vision obscured by furious unshed tears. “Aren’t I home? Or was it all a test I was doomed to fail no matter the outcome?”

“I misspoke.” Exhaling hard, Odin seemed frustrated with himself. “Jotunheim would have killed you within weeks. But with your heritage revealed, there was only one other place to send you. But make no mistake: you are home.”

It was already too late to explain: Loki’s shoulders had hunched protectively, and his blue skin suddenly looked to him like a cage. When Odin lifted his hand as if to touch him, Loki instinctively flinched. They both froze.

“Ah,” Odin said. His voice wasn’t quite steady. “There’s the damage I wrought.” His hand withdrew.

“No,” Loki said, his hand flashing out to grab his father’s fingers. “It’s simply—harder to control the ice when I’m not calm. I’ve injured one already.”

“The archer. I recall.” Odin seemed distracted by the fingers wrapped around his. “It’s strange. I can’t remember the last time…”

Loki could. It was in a golden-lit weapons vault, with his throat still raw from his accusations. His father had been laying upon the steps, his features slack, senseless as he’d been pulled from the waking world. Loki had touched his hand then, with a guilty reverence that said even then he knew he wasn’t meant for such things.

Slowly, Loki relaxed his grip and began to draw away. It was his father who moved, clasping his hand in a still handshake. Loki was surprised to feel calluses on his warm palm, caused by hard training with a weapon. He hadn’t known he still did such things.

Perhaps there was yet more to learn.

“Home, then?” Father asked. “Frigga and Thor are likely furious with me already for delaying you.”

“Yes,” Loki replied, pulling his hand away. Tucked inside his mantle, his fingers tried to remember the sensation. “But I want to hear more about—winterkings.”

“It’s a long walk.” It was; ahead of them, the bridge was a seemingly endless stretch of rainbow light. “There is much time to discuss it. I could also tell you of Laufey, if you’d like.”

“That murderous old tyrant? No, thank you.” Loki fell into step beside Odin, surprised when he laughed.

“You know, he used to say the same about me.” Grabbing Gungnir, Odin turned for the golden lights they called home. “To other topics, then. It’s old lore, those kings of winter. I only heard tell of it once or twice. The tales are mixed on what power they hold, but they always said two things: one, that they would bear white horns, and two, that should one ever stand before a common king and challenge him, he must abandon his throne.” When Loki looked at him askance, Odin smiled. “A Jotun king.”

Loki thought about that a moment. Then he stopped dead, his heart pounding fit to burst in his chest. Odin barely had time to steady him as he wavered on his feet.

“I killed Laufey,” Loki said hoarsely, staring down the length of the bridge. “Jotunheim has no king.”

Odin simply nodded, his bracing hand firm on Loki’s chest.

“It seems you may have your crown, after all.”

They walked in silence for long minutes: Loki staggered by his second shock in a handful of minutes, while Odin seemed content to let him digest the new information. Odin. Father. Loki was having trouble deciding which one he was.

A king of Jotunheim? Him. He’d almost broken the entire world in half with a drilling tunnel of light. Horns or not, no creature with rational judgement would bend the knee to someone who had attempted to destroy them.

Except of course they would. Better to serve a great power than be obliterated by it. What did frost giants even think of patricide? Did they have laws? Annoyed that he was even taking an interest in such things, Loki shook his head.

“I don’t want a crown,” he said resolutely, frowning out at the stretching lights ahead.

“Excellent,” Odin said sourly. “You and Thor finally have something in common.”

“Thor refuses to succeed you?” Loki asked, shocked and a little gleeful at the prospect. “What a mess.”

Odin glowered at him, completely attuned to the deviltry in his voice.

“He accepts, but he doesn’t want it. Truth be told, I’m not certain there is anything he wants anymore.” Odin swivelled his spear until it hung parallel to the bridge, each swing of his arm perfectly even. “He obeys my every order without comment or question.”

“A good soldier,” Loki surmised.

“And a terrible king,” Odin finished, looking at him strangely. If Loki didn’t know better, he’d say his father looked puzzled. Puzzled, and definitely unwilling to admit it. “At this rate, I’ll still be reigning from the next life.”

“Hm. Don’t blame me. You had your chance.”

Odin snorted.

“Given your current even temper, I’m far more inclined to consider you as you are now than I ever was before. I had hoped the mortals that the spells chose would help guide you, but that level of old magic…it’s not my strength. I didn’t trust it.” He turned slightly, but all Loki could see was the golden patch covering his missing eye. “Tony Stark. That was his name?”

“Is,” Loki corrected automatically. “And I will call him such the day I see him again.” A day that would hopefully come soon. As soon as he could arrange for it, but between winterkings and Thor and his father truly talking to him for the first time in as long as Loki could remember, he just wasn’t sure when that was going to be. A week? A month?

A year?

“If you don’t want Jotunheim, I’ll make you a simple deal,” Odin said after a time, keeping easy pace beside Loki. “Stabilise Jotunheim’s people. Establish a new treaty, so that we may aid them and count upon their strength once again. Spend some time with your brother. Then, if your heart is still set upon this man…” Odin shrugged, still not looking at Loki. “Join him. Or bring him here. It matters not.”

Join him. The words brought crashing relief to Loki, so much so that the trials of the day, the truths Odin had told him, they all paled in comparison to the relief that threatened to embarrass him. Loki blinked quickly, hunching into the fur across his shoulders. For that deal, he could withstand any negotiation, any deal with Jotunheim. There was only one problem.

“Bring him here?” Loki repeated. “I recognise I’ve been gone some time, but I doubt the laws against mortals residing in Asgard have changed in my absence.”

“I stand by my invitation,” was all his father said. He still wasn’t looking at him. Loki was struck by a terrible thought.

“Is he dead?”

“No.” Odin frowned. “I suppose I’ll have to check when we return, but Hescamar saw him alive and healthy in that canyon. Cease worrying; he’ll be fine.”

“You can’t know that,” Loki retorted, turning back to eye the observatory.

“Trust me. The Norns are still laughing about that one.”

Confused though he was, Loki knew when to keep his mouth closed. There was only so much he could take in one day, and the day had indeed been long and draining. Every step seemed to cost him a little more of his energy. Belatedly, he wished he’d studied healing magic a little more before he’d been imprisoned.

As they travelled the long road home, Loki’s thoughts strayed back to Tony. Would he understand that he hadn’t simply been abandoned? Would he be concerned? Everything Hescamar and Odin had said seemed to imply he had a purpose of his own to fulfil. Something that, gallingly, did not involve Loki. But he’d stolen enough of Tony’s time for now. They both had lives to clean up – he had just killed his old friend and associate, for all the honourless degenerate had tried to slaughter them both.

Perhaps they both needed time to live. Time after Winterheart.

Or perhaps, Loki thought bleakly, he was merely making excuses for himself.

Looking over to Odin, he was reminded of something.

“The raven said that Asgard had grown dark. What troubles the land?”

“Portents of turmoil and destruction, for the most part.” Odin waved a dismissive hand. “To survive, Asgard must continue to grow in order to maintain peace.”

“That tells me nothing,” Loki said flatly. “Am I still a child, to be coddled with sweet half-truths? That was always Mother’s duty, not yours.”

“Jotunheim has seceded from the Nine,” Odin said bluntly. He looked at Loki for a moment and when he spoke again, Loki heard the truth for what it was. “They travel nowhere, send missives to no-one. Even our envoys go ignored. They are dying. And Asgard—our golden realm has grown stagnant, and unchanging. There’s no progress, no ideas, no upheaval – the treaties with the other realms are firm as ever but our connections with the people are decaying.” Light sparked at Gungnir’s tip, a tell of anger Loki had rarely seen before his imprisonment. “Frigga reads too many possible futures to count and none to rely upon. Thor is trying his best to mend it, but even he suffers. He was torn in too many directions before any of this began.” Sighing, Odin pointed at the gates looming ahead. “It looks the same as it always has and yet it crumbles in unseen places.”

Politics. Change. Diplomacy. All things sorely needed for a kingdom to thrive and Loki knew in an instant exactly why he was suddenly privy to all of Odin’s dark concerns. Not because he was trusted with such information or that his counsel was somehow valuable, but because Odin wanted him to fix it.

“I suppose it was too much to ask for a welcome feast and an uninterrupted night of sleep. Perhaps you should simply saddle me like the beast of burden I am.” When his father frowned at him, Loki arched an eyebrow that dared him to deny his words. “I’m not some fool to be led. It doesn’t take a master tactician to see you trapped me by your side on this long walk, solely that you may convince your blue-skinned bargaining chip to right your wrongs.”

My wrongs?” Odin’s single eye flashed white, iridescent with power for an instant before he blinked. “Jotunheim retreated after their king was slaughtered by an Asgardian envoy and the bifrost’s energy obliterated the ruins of their last great temple. All their history lay in that place of memory – the last great seat of their power. It’s rubble now, and they refuse our offers of aid. Why would that be?”

“Pride,” Loki spat, ignoring his words. “And the rest of it then? How do you attribute it to my actions? Come, allow me to witness your self-absolution.”

Odin snarled at him; old words, something not even the allspeak could touch. Thrashing serpents of bright power exploded from Gungnir. Not yet the blazing torrent it could be, but enough. Far more than enough.

Then it was gone, and all Loki could see in the Allfather’s place was a tired old king, half-crushed beneath his burden.

“Asgard’s future turned dark almost twenty-one years ago, Loki,” Odin said heavily, turning away. “The very night I cast you from it. There is no duty for you to perform, no wrongs you are honour-bound to right. The realm has simply missed its prince.” He tipped his face to the sky. “Hescamar. Give Loki a window to the palace, and spare him his long walk.”

Loki barely noticed the raven as it soared down, wings flaring and fluttering as it landed on his shoulder with a single catch of its claws. His attention was on his father.

They had never understood each other. Every word seemed to miss its mark, every action misunderstood. Too harsh when gentleness was needed. Too suspicious when trust was all that was asked. Too weak, too cold, too sharp, too different. Loki had always known those to be true of himself when he looked into Odin’s eyes. And yet…he saw none of that. Just frustration and self-recrimination. And pride. Always too much pride. Somehow, Loki was reminded of Thor. He’d always blundered while expressing his true regard, too.

“Off me, buzzard,” Loki muttered, jerking his shoulder. “I can walk this far.” He received a painful nip on his ear but the raven flew away with its usual approximation of obedience. Loki flung an armful of ice after it just to watch the bird spit colours into the air and vanish.

“I hate that raven,” Odin said starkly. “He was intended to be a gift to you upon Thor’s coronation. The feathered wretch knows more of magic and shape-shifting than anything with two eyes should ever know. He’s a wicked creature. Lies and loopholes are second nature to him.”

Loki couldn’t help but stare in disbelief. Could he be so obtuse?

“You do realise that you just described me.”

“You’re mistaken,” Odin replied, starting toward the gates once more. His mantle was stirred by the breeze, blowing behind him like a crimson banner. “That bird is not my son, and I do not love it.”

The words were easily spoken, but they struck Loki square in his deepest and oldest wound with a resounding echo of truth.

Love. A home returned to him, despite the skin he chose to wear. A father that looked upon him with confusion, but was trying to understand. Everything had changed since Winterheart had first welcomed him into its cold embrace.

Everything—it was everything he’d ever hoped for. Recognition. Respect. But he’d done nothing to earn it. He simply hadn’t been there.

If he was going to be celebrated for his return, Loki decided he may as well ensure he deserved it.

“Hescamar!” he called to the night air. Ahead, Odin turned on his booted heel and stared back at him. Loki ignored his gaze. “You will accompany me on a journey.”

“Loki,” Odin started, only to fall silent as a tattered green mantle was torn free and thrown at his feet. “What is this?”

“Dressing for the occasion, Father.” Bare-chested but for the wolf pelt draped across his shoulders, its teeth gleaming like white knives, Loki turned back the way he’d come. “Do give Mother and Thor my apologies.”

Odin’s jaw dropped.

“Where in the name of hel are you going? Loki!

Ahead of him, Hescamar curved back into view, black wings like twin blades cutting through the night.

“What use is a winterking with a dead kingdom?” Loki called back. Something wild and reckless was swelling inside him, setting his blood alight with heady excitement. He knew, he knew in that precise moment that it was exactly what Tony would do. “I want this done quickly. Hescamar, open the way to Jotunheim. We have a treaty to broker.”

Loosing a long, exultant cry that dissolved into harsh cackling laughter, Hescamar snapped his wings forward and tore open a portal that screamed with ice and darkness. Loki sprinted toward it, already hearing the crackling rush of Gungnir’s power rising to destroy the portal.

“You’re not ready!” Odin roared at his back. “Legends be damned, I won’t have you race to your foolhardy death.”

The raw concern in his father’s voice was the only thing that really stalled Loki’s footsteps, but it wasn’t yet enough. He turned and faced Asgard’s king, ice climbing over his arms and chest in a crawling layer that formed long, crystalline spikes across his shoulders and forearms. Atop it, magic glowed in a network of green light, gathering around his clawed hands.

“I am a sorcerer and a frost giant,” he said, watching Odin slowly lower his spear. “I’ve breathed ice and darkness for twenty long years, and I am finally set free upon the realms. I need to move.”

For a single instant Loki wondered if his father would cripple him anyway, stop him from leaving so that he might do his duty and greet his family again. To rest and be welcomed and suffer the gaze of his once-companions upon his skin. But as much as Asgard was his home, Loki wasn’t ready to return just yet. Not when snowstorms rushed beneath his skin and his magic was writhing inside him. He didn’t need Asgard yet. What he needed was a wasteland to howl into and something to set right.

When he returned, Odin would have no choice but to see him for who he was. Not just Odin, but all of Asgard. Loki would be an ambassador unlike any the Nine had ever seen.

“I always hoped you’d unite the kingdoms,” Odin said finally, reaching inside his armour. He flung something at Loki, who caught it automatically. It was a runestone. The slanted ‘H’ made it unmistakable. Hagalaz. Portent of stormy, destructive change. Needed and feared in tandem. “I did not realise you’d wish to begin the moment you returned. Your mother is going to be desperately unhappy with me for letting you go.”

“But you are letting me go.”

“Yes.” Watching him, Odin looked strangely pensive. “We have been meaning to re-establish ties to Midgard one day. Frigga has long believed that Thor would do well to be able to come and go as he pleased. As, I suspect, would you.” He shook his head at Loki’s dumbstruck gaze. “It’s something to think about. Good luck.”

It was almost painful to be subjected to so much reward for having done so little. What had he done to atone? Sit in a castle for years and despise the world? Mistrust every soul that stumbled into his care? He’d ruined a world with his foolishness, his need to lash out against the circumstances of his fate. While he had no love for the frost giants, the enormity of what he’d done sat uneasily on his shoulders. Odin was tired. Asgard was suffering the repercussions of eight other realms retreating from it in fear – Loki was no fool, he knew what Odin hadn’t been saying. Yet he had been restored. Forgiven. Treated as an equal, when by all rights a swift execution should have been his only punishment.

If Loki couldn’t understand it, then he would at least make himself worthy of it. Then, when he finally looked his brother in the eye, he could do so without shame.

“Goodbye, Father,” Loki said, and turned for the portal. “I expect that feast when I return.” He stepped into the wailing portal of magic, feeling frigid cold engulf him once more.

“You’ll have it,” Odin called, and it was the last thing Loki heard before the fissure closed, sealing him inside a world he’d once intended to destroy.

One last trial. This time, for himself. And when he laid eyes upon Tony Stark again, he would have something to say for himself. Something other than I’m sorry.

One last trial.

Loki stepped into the blizzard.


Solstice Canyon – Malibu, California

The suits were talking around him, but not to him. It had been that way for the last hour, since the moment he’d sat up and the first agent had recoiled in surprise.

Tony sat on the smooth edge of a boulder, allowing himself to be detained for no other reason than he had no goddamn idea what to do with himself. Pepper was in hospital. The house was teeming with SHIELD personnel. Natasha was in the wind, probably. Hard to stick with an agency after they tried to kill you and a couple of birds sent them to the south pole.

Tony had woken up with his own blood drying on his shirt and not a single scratch on him. Just the sticky sweetness of apple, a skeleton flight stabiliser on his hand and a superseded reactor stuck in his chest.

Loki wasn’t anywhere. He wouldn’t be anywhere, Tony told himself brutally, his mouth firming into a tense line. Heroes didn’t tend to survive their stories. Not in the real world.

“Pupils are reactive,” a man in glasses said to the woman beside him, shining a penlight into each of his eyes. “No signs of concussion or trauma, not that I can tell.”

“What a clusterfuck,” the woman muttered, pressing two fingers to the bridge of her nose and squeezing briefly. When she lowered her hand, Tony found himself transfixed by steely blue-grey eyes. “All right. Mr Stark, are you up for a small road trip? The director would like—”

“To meet me,” Tony finished, flicking her a glance. “Yeah, I got the memo from Agent Scully over there. But I’ve got nothing to say about what happened. So unless torture is on your books—”

“Has anyone shown you a mirror, Stark?” the woman asked, tilting her head slightly. When he just looked at her, she jerked her chin at one of the feds running around the place, scanning for particles or whatever it was feds ran around for when they were out in the wilderness.

Tony was halfway to picking dirt out from beneath his fingernails when a metal compact was shoved into his hands. A cosmetic thing, he noticed absently. Pressing the flat button at the front, he watched the lid pop up, the circular mirror reflecting his own shadowed face.

It was too dark to see, despite the floodlights. Tony angled his body and the mirror automatically, catching the creeping illumination from the cordoned scene’s lights and that from his own arc reactor. Tipping the mirror, Tony caught a glimpse of his own face.

He’d expected a black eye. Maybe a cut that would leave a roguish scar. What he got made him suck a hissing breath between his teeth and snap the compact shut.

Repercussions, Tony thought as the woman took back the mirror. Cause and effect. Evidence. Maybe it would fade.

“I’m Agent Maria Hill. SHIELD’s second in command,” the woman said calmly. “Whatever you say will be held in complete confidence, disclosed only to my superior, Director Nick Fury.” When he just looked at her again, Agent Maria Hill of SHIELD released a short breath through her nose. “Mr Stark, our records and numerous instances of media footage show you with a pair of big brown eyes.”

“Yeah,” Tony replied dully. Hill’s mouth tightened.

“Do you want to tell me how they’ve suddenly turned gold?”

“I thought they were more of a light amber.” Auto-pilot dictated his usual amount of deflection, but even Tony could hear the emptiness in his voice. “Carrots. Pigment degradation. A really good knock on the head. Pick one. Are you single? You look single.”

Nostrils flaring, Hill stalked off back down the walking track, probably going to radio in about how much of an asshole Tony Stark was. It left him finally, blissfully alone, even if it was only for a few moments.

Part of him wanted to call Rhodey, ask him to pull some rank or give them his patented look until they let him go. Maybe even lay down some suppressive fire. Anything so he could sit somewhere quiet and cold and think about what had happened.

Obadiah Stane had never returned from Winterheart. Tony would put a healthy sum of money down on him being six feet under an unnatural snowdrift by then. Or he was still trapped in there somewhere, poring over an abandoned castle and a frost giant’s corpse—

Tony was working on controlling his breathing and his stomach contents when he noticed a man was watching him from across the clearing. He was almost entirely wrapped in shadows, but the glint of his eye caught the light.

Just one eye, Tony noted, squinting. As the man approached, he saw the other eye was obscured by a black leather patch. The floodlights illuminated him as he strode through the clearing.

The camouflage had simply been a long black coat, left open to display matte body armour. Probably stronger than Kevlar, if the panels were any indication. Tony counted the subtle shape of three partially concealed guns. Magnums; probably a couple of desert eagles. He had no idea what mark they were, but from the look of the guy heading for him, they were probably top of the line.

“Don’t mind Agent Hill,” the guy said, pushing his coat behind his hip holster so he could sit down. “She doesn’t much like mysteries. Facts, figures, things she can act on, that’s more her style. And this has turned out to be one hell of a mystery.” Glancing around, the guy reached into the small of his back and produced a small silver flask. Unscrewing the lid, he took a long swallow and passed it across to Tony. “You look like you need it, Stark.”

Tony drank nearly half the flask in one gulp. It was bourbon; fierce and strong. The good stuff. He exhaled and felt like he might be breathing fire instead of air. Blinking away the fumes, he realised most of the suits had cleared out of the area, leaving only the enormous lights and a few trappings. A couple were leaning on trees across the other side. One was Hill.

“What happened to your eye?” Tony asked, ignoring the smoky hoarseness of his voice. Alcohol burn was hell. The guy just took his flask back and capped it.

“Shrapnel. Tore it to shreds. What happened to yours?”

“I died.” Tony dug one thumbnail under the other and tried to lever out a scrap of dirt. He flicked it to the ground. “Director Nick Fury, I presume.”

“Good to meet you, finally.”

“Here to debrief me?”

“No,” Fury said leaning his forearms on his knees. “No, I think you’ve been through enough shit for one night. I had a whole speech planned, you know, but you’ve gotta choose your time. This ain’t it.”

Tony nodded, his eyes on the illuminated patch of grass and dirt just outside the shadows he sat in. There were a few holes in the dirt, each one taped off with pickets like they were part of a crime scene. In some ways, they probably were. Obadiah Stane’s last bid for power. Beside him, Nick Fury pulled his phone out, swore at the lack of service and put it away.

“AT&T?”

“SHIELD secure,” Fury snorted. “Piece of shit. They give you fifty apps for encryption, but you can’t send a damn thing when you need to. Our new asset is probably ready to Frisbee himself in the head right about now.”

“Asset?”

“Friend of your dad’s. Romanoff has been keeping him updated by radio.” Fury slid him a close look, leaning in like he was sharing a secret. “For some reason I guess he’s interested in your welfare.”

“Can’t imagine why. Dad’s friends were all scotch-swilling old bastards.” Tugging his shirt away from his stomach, Tony tried not to wince at the sensation of stiff material peeling off his skin. “Sometimes they even tried to kill me.”

“Ah,” Fury said, waving his words off. “They weren’t all assholes. That gut paining you any?”

“Not a bit.” Tony watched as Fury nodded to himself, then handed back the flask. “Thanks.”

He drank in silence, feeling singularly unmotivated to do or say anything. Given the opportunity, he might’ve been content to stay there all night. Mostly he just wanted to sit and remember. Not the tears dripping onto his neck or the hand pressed to his bleeding stomach, but the other stuff. Oysters and fireplaces and the stifling heat of the forge. Arms gripping him so tight he forgot to breathe. Cool blue lips pressed against his. A voice, telling him that he’d been loved.

Tony blinked away the ripple in his vision, ignoring the sting.

“So,” he said eventually, clearing his throat quietly, “you want to try that speech out on me? I’ve got time.”

“It depends,” Fury replied. “How interested are you in picking up that metal suit idea of yours again?” His knuckles rapped lightly against the metal frame gripping Tony’s forearm.

“For mass production?”

“For yourself.”

The flask empty, Tony handed it back and got to his feet. His knees didn’t crack like they usually did. Small mercies on the worst night of his life. He walked into the white spill of light in the clearing, where it was impossible to look up and see stars.

The metal suit. He’d meant to finish it before, well. Before. The plans were mostly complete, if only partially tested in hardware mode. There was still a lot of work to do. But if not for mass production, what the hell would a super-spy want with a suit he’d only ever intended to build for himself?

“Give me the pitch,” Tony told him, surprised to hear the hint of a challenge in his voice.

Fury smiled as he approached, his long leather coat flaring behind him.

“It’s called the Avengers Initiative.”


Asgard – Throne Room

Frigga was scattering her stones across the stairs of the dais while Thor paced below, Mjölnir cast to the floor like a neglected toy. It had been an hour since she’d read Loki’s return. An hour since Odin had ordered Thor back to the palace and told him to stay by her side.

The path from the observatory to the palace was indeed long. Sighing to herself, Frigga gathered up her runestones and slid them into their pouch. She was tugging the cord to close it when Thor cursed loudly, startling her.

“I tire of waiting.”

Frigga just smiled.

“You’ve waited almost twenty-one years, Thor,” she reminded him. “Another few minutes should not vex you so.”

“’Tis because I’ve waited twenty-one years that these minutes vex me,” Thor replied, sounding almost angry. Almost. It was still more spirit than Frigga had heard in a long time. “What keeps them?”

“They’ve a lot to talk about,” Frigga said. “They did part on poor terms.”

“Tell me where he is,” Thor urged, gesturing at the throne. Frigga knew that Thor had never sat upon it – never wanted to, for all he wished to see Loki. To Thor, the throne was a shackle and a curse, forever reminding him that he could never possess the life he longed for. Midgard. Jane Foster. His brother, looking upon him without envy and hatred.

Frigga rolled the pouch between her palms, listening to the clink of smooth stones within. If only he knew.

Sensing her refusal, Thor exhaled on a quiet snarl, spinning on his heel to resume his vigil. So very much like his father, she thought with some degree of regret. Unable to wait, unable to act, unable to say what he meant, unable to keep it all inside. It hadn’t always been so. Not for either of them.

Another handful of minutes stretched, with no footsteps echoing in the hall. None save Thor’s. It was at that moment that Thor stopped his frantic pacing. Dragging his long hair back, he cast one last look to the main doors before turning for the throne himself.

“It’s forbidden,” Frigga said, hiding her smile. “Very much forbidden.”

“Stop me,” Thor replied, sweeping his mantle aside and seating himself upon the throne. With his palms pressed flat to the armrests and his back straight upon the metal he made a striking figure. Frigga watched for the moment when Thor would stare through the stars themselves.

“Think not of name, but of feeling.” If he was going to defy tradition and law, she may as well help. “Think of need.”

Thor twitched in the throne, his head jerking back like something had struck him. His eyes tracked something she could not see.

“He’s not here,” Thor whispered. “He walks in ice and darkness. A raven perches upon his arm. Has he—” Flinching violently, Thor turned his head aside as though avoiding a blow. “Frost giants? Is this Jotunheim? Why does he bear horns? What is this?”

“What does he say, Thor?” Frigga asked urgently, pushing herself to her feet to ascend the throne’s steps. Loki’s journey to Jotunheim was a future she’d dared not place hope in. “Listen well.”

Thor flinched again, distress crossing his features.

“Loki says nothing. He is surrounded by a Jotun clan. There is rubble everywhere. Mother, they’re twice his size. For all his ferocity of heart this is far beyond anything he can—” Frigga jumped as Mjölnir flew to Thor’s hand. Instinct, she suspected. Thor seemed hardly aware of his true surroundings. Such was the power of Hliðskjálf when used by one who knew not of scrying. Thor squinted into an unknowable scene.

Across the hall, Frigga saw Odin enter. Her raised palm did little to forestall him as he approached, but his step did slow as Thor twitched in the throne’s grip, a tear rolling unheeded down one cheek.

“They kneel,” Thor whispered in awe. “Before him. The raven laughs and takes to the sky. But Loki ignores them. He’s…pushing a pillar upright, using ice to anchor it. It’s broken, the arch is broken but he’s finding pieces like a puzzle…he was always so clever with such things—” Exhaling a shuddering breath, Thor fell silent but he reacted to unseen movements with wonder and pleasure, his mouth twitching into a faint, fascinated smile as he observed his brother for the first time in decades. Frigga watched his brilliant blue eyes flash from one point to another, oblivious to the silent tears on his cheeks. Oh, but he had missed his brother sorely.

“And where am I expected to sit?” Odin grumbled half-heartedly, heaving a sigh as he reached her side. Frigga just grabbed his hand and squeezed it tight, her smile so wide it almost hurt. Perhaps she had grown dark, also. Odin placed a whiskery kiss upon her wrist and leaned forward to slide Gungnir into its place upon the throne. Thor barely reacted; lost was he to the visions of his brother, free at last.

“Did you spur him on this path, husband?” Frigga whispered.

“What was it you said? Loki would always escape my control?” Odin said, his eye fixed upon his son. “I wanted a peace through gradual introduction, a long-overdue mingling of culture and knowledge. Public feats of strength. Sharing of resources, perhaps an eventual exchange of renewed respect. Loki sees the plight differently. Their pride must come first. A true winterking has the power to bring them that hope of strength.”

“Loki is but Loki.” Frigga waved off the title. “More, to the frost giants, but he’s still himself. The myths of Jotunheim will mean little to him. He’ll use it for his own ends and discard it, as a snake sheds its skin.” Turning to Odin, she arched an eyebrow. “The question is, what is it that he wants? What need fuels him?”

Odin turned and watched Thor, still lost in his daze. Frigga knew what he was thinking: Thor might have his eyes on Loki, but given a second chance his eyes would turn to another realm entirely. Was Loki doing the same?

“He wants power. Power he has earned, I think. Not a borrowed crown.”

“And?” Frigga prompted as Odin hesitated. “What more?”

“Tony Stark left quite a mark on him.” Odin reached out and steadied Thor’s arm as he twitched, Mjölnir flashing with an instinctive network of lightning. “Yet he chose Jotunheim. I have ego enough to assume he does it for my approval, but instinct tells me he does this for himself.”

Frigga thought about it. Loki was a complicated tangle of conflicting need and want. He always had been. His secrets were often tucked behind façade and kept under lock and key, but for him to forsake a reunion with his family and turn for the cold realm of Jotunheim spoke or something new. Perhaps a plan.

“If Loki can revive the Jotun population, if he can lead them, what use would he have for Asgard, save those whom he deems worthy?” Frigga touched her temple lightly as Odin frowned. “He won’t need us, not the way we need him. Asgard needs him.”

“Asgard will survive,” Odin replied, but his gaze was distant. “As will our family. We can ask no more of Loki.”

“Oh? So you did not think to ask him for one evening to let his mother kiss his face and welcome him home?” Frigga didn’t bother to disguise her frustration. One could only reflect upon fate for so long. “Such a generous and giving father you are.”

“Peace, wife. Loki will return. His business remains unfinished.” Odin smiled at her scowl, looping an arm about her waist. His eye turned back to Thor. “What is it you see, my son?”

Following his gaze, Frigga was surprised to realise that Thor was smiling. Not a half smile, not some faint and reluctant thing, but a true smile of amazed pride.

“They’re building,” Thor said. His free hand reached out, but there was nothing to touch. “Putting it together again, and not a word spoken between them. They never asked him his name. ‘Tis as if they do not even care. Some watch, but more help—they’re coming down from the mountains. Something shakes free of the ice. They’re strong, Father. He is strong.” Thor caught himself on a laugh. “He grew his hair. We shall be strange brothers indeed, but in this we are alike.”

“Oh, move aside,” Frigga said, unable to contain herself. Tugging her skirts up, she shrugged at Odin and sat herself in Thor’s lap, surprising him into almost dropping his hammer. “I need to see—oh! Thor, do you see—”

“In the corner, behind the rocks, yes—”

“A female?” Frigga asked breathlessly. It was; tall and bare-breasted in the moonlight, she crept between the rocks as her brethren strode forward, carrying boulders out of the way as Loki fashioned crude pillars of ice with single-minded resolve. Behind her, a much smaller frost giant was mimicking horns with his fingers, his eyes wide. A youth? “They hide them like jewels, but look, Thor…he pays them no mind at all.”

“He wields ice like no Jotun I’ve seen,” Thor marvelled. “I never thought it could be used as anything but a weapon.”

Splitting her attention between worlds, Frigga turned one eye to Thor as he heaved a shuddering breath, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. Odin shuffled a moment on the stairs before them both, frowning and glancing over his shoulder at the guards. A single gesture sent them marching for the doors.

“Move your hand, Thor,” Odin grunted, hoisting himself onto the arm of the throne with a strength that belied his age. “The king must observe.”

They would have made an odd trio, Frigga reflected, the three of them awkwardly perched around the throne, pointing out details and exclaiming their delight for a scene no-one else could see. A private window into the first steps Loki took toward his own freedom, and a destiny she hadn’t allowed herself to hope for him.

Watching him take stone from a grim-faced frost giant and apply it to the foundations of a ruined temple, Frigga had a moment of guilty fear that the Loki she had raised would no longer accept them in his life. Not when there was so much of himself to learn.

As though sensing their eyes upon him, Loki hesitated in his task and turned his face to the sky. His smile was fierce, his sharp teeth gleaming in the faint light.

Frigga had no doubt that the bow he executed was pure mockery and laughter, but it warmed her to the very core to see Loki finally aglow with life and purpose. Odin was right. Asgard could survive without him. Jotunheim would not.

With half an ear for Odin and Thor commenting to each other, Frigga turned her own gaze down to Midgard, where a dark-haired mortal was speaking into a device at his ear, his startling golden eyes strangely empty for all that his voice portrayed excitement.

Tony Stark, she thought, her mouth silently forming the name. The Norns had used another name for him. The man of iron. His fate had split in as many directions as Loki’s.   

Frigga found herself looking forward to discovering how that title would take shape.

Somehow, she sensed that Loki had not seen the last of him.


 

The Residence of Tony Stark – Malibu, California

“You’re telling me that after all this, you want to become some kind of assassin? For SHIELD?” Pepper sounded confused and more than a little medicated, if Tony was honest. “Sell it to me, Tony, otherwise I quit. Two bullets was enough for me. I have three metal pins in my shoulder.”

“Which I am paying for, Pepper, trust me. This isn’t about that. It’s about making a difference.”

“It’s about wanting—about getting yourself killed,” Pepper said into the receiver, upset and barely coherent. “It’s about finishing off whatever Winterheart did to you. Don’t think I don’t know. Obadiah is dead and you haven’t said a damn word about him. I’m not an idiot, Tony.”

“It’s about making a difference, Pep,” Tony repeated. He stared blindly out through the living room windows, making his way out onto the balcony. The air out there smelled like salt, a breeze blowing warmly around him. “For me. Using what I can do. Not guns, or ammo, or Obadiah and the company. This is using what I created in my own hands, and using it for something right. SHIELD are just going to cut the red tape.”

“Tony, I adore you,” Pepper said flatly. “I’ve known you for years. I’ve put up with you, I know you and I’d do just about anything for you. But putting your life on the line…”

“Are you scared I’m going to die? Or that I’m going to screw everything up?”

“That you’re going to get into trouble, and I won’t be there to help,” Pepper said, her voice a quiet scream. Tony lowered his head and stared at the floor, wondering when the hell it had become part of a personal assistant’s job to act as a human shield. “Tony, I know you’ve got guilt. Over the company, over the Ten Rings, over Obadiah, over me. But this isn’t the answer.”

“Actually, I disagree. I think this is the answer I’ve needed.” Turning back into the house, Tony threw himself onto the leather lounge. The forensic cleaners had done a great job; no blood, anywhere. “The chance to take it all into my own hands. What good am I, really, scratching out blueprints for weapons I have no control over? Why not bring us down to entertainment technology, to communication, and let me protect us? What, you want someone else to wear the suit?”

“I’ll do it,” Pepper said stubbornly, and Tony smiled out to no-one, his eyes stinging with pride. “Just quit this vendetta. You don’t have to shoulder the world alone. You can barely bench press one-thirty.”

“Oh my god, have you and JARVIS been talking?”

“We’re in platonic love, Tony, accept it,” she replied, sounding like delirious sleep was imminent. Absently, Tony realised it was three in the morning. “Don’t do this alone. That’s what I’m saying. You’re hell when you’re alone.”

“What if I told you I wouldn’t be alone?” Tony asked. “What if I said I’d have help?”

“Spy help?”

“Real help.”

“Like…her? Natasha? She seemed all right.”

“Like her and a few more. Like a team, Pepper. A good team.”

“I want a suit,” Pepper sighed, dismissing everything he’d just said. “You have my blessing if I can…if I can rescue you when it goes south.”

“Rescue. Gotcha.”

“JARVIS, too.”

“What, you want JARVIS to have a suit?” Tony asked, his expression pinched. “No, god. This is how horror movies begin.”

“Put it on your damn list.”

“In the event of catastrophic fuck-ups? Sure. Consider it done.”

“I mean it, Tony. I want to be the failsafe. No matter what. No matter what.” Tony heard her heave a ragged breath, like the admission had cost her something. “I’m not just your damn assistant anymore. I refuse.”

“Me too, Potts.” Casting his eyes to the perfect plaster ceiling, Tony bit his lip and bit the bullet. “How do you feel about CEO of Stark Industries?”

Pepper choked a breath over the phone. The crackle of faint static was his only companion for a few long seconds.

“I’ll…well, I’ll need a huge pay rise. And that suit. And your unquestioning support. And JARVIS. And oh, Tony, are you sure?”

“Sure that you’d be perfect for it? Yeah.” Picking up the remote, Tony flicked the television onto some muted movie. Silver skeletons advanced on each other, metallic teeth gleaming below red eyes. Perfect. “I trust no-one more. If you’re the heart and I’m the brains and the brawn, how can we ever go wrong?”

Pepper laughed softly, but he could hear the exhaustion in her voice.

“Tony, essentially I have no say in this team idea. Just be good. Be the guy who escaped one prison and traded himself into another just to save his control-freak assistant. Be that kind of good.”

That kind of good, Tony thought, stricken. She spoke as if it was new to him, a courage he’d discovered inside himself after the Ten Rings had peeled all his layers back. Maybe that was exactly what had happened. Tony realised he didn’t want to know what she’d thought of him before Afghanistan. The past was done. It was the future he had to tackle now.

“I’ll be good,” he promised, unsure why his voice shook. “You just watch me be good. Goodnight, Pepper.”

“I’ll watch you,” she replied, slurring her words a little. The morphine had really done its job. “I’ll watch you be great.”

Tony stared at the phone a long time after their call had ended, his eyes fixed but his mind leaping through foregone conclusions. Funeral arrangements. Board meetings. The stocks crashing, again. Putting his best foot forward so Pepper could recover in peace. Yeah, he could do that for her. But after?

After, it would be time to build the dreams he’d left behind.

Maybe Loki would have liked that.

Maybe it was finally time to live.


 

Living was one thing. A redesigned arc reactor, some rest and relaxation and he was good to go again.

Nick Fury’s much-anticipated Avengers Initiative was something else entirely.

For that, Tony needed a fully-functional and tested Mark II suit, kitted out with everything he’d deemed would have a practical application without overloading it with features. It needed to be close-fitted but intimidating, heavily armed without looking frightening to the public. Flight was a must. An array of concealed weaponry, definitely a must. Cup holder…not so much. Utilising JARVIS’s 3D capabilities, Tony painted himself a work of art worthy of da Vinci himself.

Sinking hours of design and creation in the workshop, Tony quickly lost himself to the project. Obadiah’s funeral came and went. Media camped out by his door. Media were chased away by the cops. Stocks dipped and spiked and dipped again, the board reeling with his decision to step down for an indefinite amount of time. Pepper healed and took the helm, taking exactly no shit from the sea of suits questioning her qualifications and experience. With one arm in a sling and a glint in her eye, she shut them all down and announced the new direction of Stark Industries: communications technology with network coverage and a stability level currently only reserved for government satellite comms. With an array of sleek new cell phones, tablets and laptops going into production next year, Pepper gave everyone a heart attack and simultaneously galvanised them back into action. It was spectacular, and Tony enjoyed watching every minute of the press conference on his workshop stream.     

Nick Fury began dropping by in the weeks that followed, usually unannounced. When even he began commenting on Tony’s retreat from society in general, his single eye concerned in that steely, moderately creepy way, Tony simply waved him off. Fury wanted a suit and also wanted him to bask in the spotlight? The two didn’t coexist when he was in production phase. That had been the case even before the shitstorm that had been the last year.

Eventually, Fury announced he was sending someone else down to convince him. Whether it was Natasha or even the elusive Clint Barton, Tony didn’t mind. The outcome was going to be the same, however.

But Fury didn’t send either of them.

“That’s a lot of cars,” commented an unfamiliar voice behind him, three days after Fury’s promise. “Shame to keep them cooped up in here.”

Tony nearly bit through the stylus he’d stuck in his mouth. There were visitors he was okay with arriving at random hours and then there was a possible break and enter.

“Are you robbing me?” he asked, visually locating a nearby repulsor rather than turning around. “Because this room alone has enough firepower in it to practically atomise you.”

“What? No!” the guy said, sounding mortified. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like a creep. I’m Steve. Steve Rogers. I’m with SHIELD.”

Tony couldn’t help himself. He laughed.

“God, did your parents hate you? Steve Rogers, huh.” Pulling the stylus out of his mouth, Tony turned to give the new agent the full force of his amusement.

His smile died pretty damn quickly.

“Holy shit.”

Steve Rogers—no, Captain America—was standing in his workshop, smiling at him like he knew exactly what kind of brain-melting confusion and amazement was going on inside Tony’s head.

“You can pull that foot out of your mouth any time, Mr Stark,” he said, switching his grip on his shield. The shield. Tony’s fingers itched. “Fury said I should come in full uniform, probably to tease you a little. Or me. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.” He tilted his head down at the shield. “You got somewhere I can put this down?”

“In my hands,” Tony said promptly, reaching out. “And while I’m absolutely not chipping a piece off to examine, you can tell me how the hell you’re alive. Is it cloning? It’s cloning, isn’t it. Those bastards.”

“Whoa there,” Captain America said, suddenly really interested in keeping his shield on his arm. Strangely, he was staring at Tony with the same level of amazed scrutiny he was receiving. “I’m not a clone. I’ve just been frozen for a long time. In the ice.”

“That’s exactly the kind of thing a clone would say.” Leaning back against the bench, Tony crossed his arms. “What is it? The chest or the eyes? You need to work on that staring thing, Captain. You’re going to need better social skills if you’re going to be rubbing shoulders with politicians and diplomats, or whatever SHIELD have you doing.”

“Sorry.” He looked it, too. Captain America looked guilty. “And it’s just Steve.”

“Uh-huh.”

The following silence stretched into something awkward.   

“I’m really not a clone,” Steve said. “I remember your father. You don’t look—”

Frisbee,” Tony said, coming alive with the realisation. “You’re the asshole friend of my dad’s, aren’t you? You’ve been around this entire time and Fury never told me?”

“Asshole?” Steve repeated. He suddenly looked a lot taller beneath the overhead lights, all snapping blue eyes and imposing blond hair. “Now hold on just a minute, I came down here thinking you might be able to get us both out of lockdown for a night. Fury said nothing about you having a problem with me. If he had, I wouldn’t have come.” As Tony stared at him, Steve seemed to deflate a little. “Howard and I worked together during the war. We weren’t assholes.”

Tony thought about that.

“You just said asshole. Twice, in fact.”

“Yeah,” Steve said warily. “I did.”

“What else can you do?”

Steve Rogers looked at him for a long time. His eyebrows seemed to be having a small seizure on his face and his jaw twitched a little. Tony had seen that look on a lot of faces in his time. It usually preceded a walk-out of epic proportions.

“I can drink,” Steve said finally. “I can also say the word fuck, but I usually save it for when I run out of patriotic catchphrases. What can you do?”

Tony blinked. Very slowly, he started to smile.

“I can let you pick which car we’ll take out on the town.” Tony can’t help but be amused by Steve’s surprise. “I mean, if you still want to skip out on big brother for the night. You might want to change, though.” He thought about it. “Or don’t, simply because the rumours about crazed hermit Tony Stark could definitely stand an amazing Captain America plot twist. Can I tell people I cloned you?”

“Enough with the cloning,” Steve said. He seemed to be having trouble holding down what definitely had to be a smile, though. “I might’ve brought a spare outfit, just in case.”

“Good call.” Belatedly remembering his manners, Tony held out his hand. “Tony Stark. Good to meet you. I’m actually the asshole in this scenario.”

Steve clasped his hand firmly. His eyes were warm with laughter.

“Yeah, I picked up on that.” Grinning at Tony’s answering snort, Steve added, “I have my moments. I think the cabin fever is why Fury finally kicked me out. Maybe he thinks we’ll be a good influence on each other.” There was a question in the words that half sounded like an invitation. To, what, be friends with Captain America? They were about to make the two strangest barflies in existence, that was for sure.

“Guess we’re going to find out, if we’re going to be working on this team together. I can just picture it now: Tony Stark and his peppy sidekick, Captain America.”

“I once sheared a man’s skull in two with this shield,” Steve told him.

“So peppy,” Tony breathed. Not daring to push his luck any further, he headed for the door. “I’m going to take a shower, so just pick whichever car you like. Preferably something that won’t draw too much attention. We don’t want to let you out of the bag just yet, right?”

“Right.” Steve sounded relieved and a little surprised at his thoughtfulness. “But I don’t think anyone will recognise me in civilian gear. I’m dead, remember?”

“So true. Give me five minutes.”

Tony practically scurried upstairs, down the hall and around into his bedroom. With the door firmly closed behind him, he lifted his right hand and stared at his palm. He stared for a long time.

Please don’t suggest never washing that hand again, sir.

“Shut up, JARVIS. I’m having a religious experience here.”

Shall I replay the workshop footage of him in slow-motion? Perhaps with a soundtrack over the native audio?” JARVIS obviously knew too much about his brain. But this wasn’t a crush. This was something even better: revenge.

Howard Stark had spent most of his later years going on expeditions to find Captain America’s body. Or, as Tony decided as he got older, the pure vibranium shield that had gone down with him. Now, years after Howard’s death, someone else had found Steve, defrosted him, and one of his first acts of freedom was to visit Tony? Howard would be frothing in his grave.

Maybe he had been stewing too long in the house. Maybe it was time to re-join the world, even if it was for one night.

“JARVIS,” Tony heard himself say slowly, “I think we should tip off the press.”

Please note my complete lack of surprise,” JARVIS sighed. Tony really needed to review his programming again. He was learning too much from Pepper.

It was a task for another day. In that moment, Tony gave himself permission to forget about the suit, to get dressed up nice and sit in a car with an engine that purred like a jungle cat, the night sky overhead and a living legend in the passenger seat—and just have a little bit of fun again.

If nothing else, Tony Stark loved a spectacle.

Some things would never change.


 

It would be another month before Steve Rogers would even speak to him again. Not because he was angry—honestly, they’d had the time of their lives, bar-fight and everything—but because Nick Fury had labelled Tony an unstable element. Not an inaccurate estimation, but it left him somewhat lacking in the conversation department as a result. Pepper was out of town visiting the regional offices, Rhodey had been called in to present evidence on the strike on the Ten Rings, and Natasha had been posted somewhere remote enough that even his comms network couldn’t reach her, if she wanted to be reached at all. Clint…well, Clint was apparently still undergoing intensive training, according to Fury, and wouldn’t be back on the grid for at least another six months.

So, Tony did what he always did when there was no-one to talk to or keep him company. He worked. Then, when his project was finally completed, every diagnostic coming back clear and every metallic curve buffed to perfection, he did the only thing he could.

He took the Mark II for a test drive.

Boy, did he take that suit for a test drive. A night of swirling flight, spiralling lights and even a thwarted robbery attempt made headlines across the country as everyone began to ask, ‘WHO IS IRON MAN?

Iron Man. What a title.

It wasn’t one he’d have picked out for himself, but it was still probably better than Captain America. Still not as great as Black Widow, but that one was taken. Tony took what he was given and did what he always did; he capitalised on it. He unmasked himself and made millions as the company share prices went through the roof. Because if Tony Stark could make a flying suit that chased bad guys, what new piece of technology was his company going to release next? Twisted logic, sure, but it worked.

It also meant he was back on Fury’s radar, in a more contemplative, bargaining sense. Not that Tony cared. No, Tony was on top of the world in every sense, basking in the adoration, protecting the country, generally being a hero to millions. The usual nine to five. Weeks blew by in a dizzying blur of flight, fight and exploding finances.  

So when it happened—the fall, the trip, the plunge from his heady height—Tony couldn’t prepare for it. Not that anyone could have really foreseen what happened that day.

Blood toxicity is at zero percent,” JARVIS intoned, but there was an edge to his report. Tony shared it. “The damaged palladium core in the arc reactor is freely releasing contaminants into your body, sir, however your blood toxicity is at zero percent.

“This is the tenth time we’ve tested it,” Tony said, feeling cold all the way into his bones. “I should be incapacitated from this kind of heavy metal accumulation. So there’s nothing? There’s nothing in my blood showing traces of palladium.”

Not a one, sir.” JARVIS hesitated. “Your metabolic rate appears heightened, however, and the weekly scans of your heart are beginning to show something…odd.

Standing in the workshop, feet bare on the concrete, his shirt off so he could record the seam of his skin around the reactor, Tony felt small and strange. ‘Odd’ just didn’t carry the usual exciting promise of possibility.

“Hit me with it.”

Your shrapnel, sir. Each shard is showing a marked fifteen percent decrease in size and density. Having never encountered internal erosion of a foreign body on such a scale, I can only assume these instances are all related.”

Iron Man, Tony thought wildly, feeling the strangest urge to laugh. Of course. Iron Man. His blood dissolved and metabolised metal. His heart was healing just in time to seize up and kill him from the strain of the only question burning in his mind. 

“What the hell is happening to me?”

I do not know, sir. Perhaps it is time to return Director Fury’s phone calls?

Tony didn’t reply for a long time. Instead he watched himself on the splay of screens at the workstation, leaning down until the cameras and scanners caught view of his strange eyes instead of his reactor.

Objectively, they were striking. Irises coloured like summer sunlight and amber flecked around a wide pupil. Short, thick dark lashes spiked around them in sharp relief. People stared because they weren’t just different eyes to what he used to have—they were arresting, otherworldly. They were the colour of the light that had spilled onto him from a crushed piece of magic more than six months ago. 

Tony wanted to gouge them out. Anything to be spared the reminder. Anything to forget.

“Get me Fury,” Tony said roughly, turning off the camera and reaching for his shirt. “Tell him Iron Man is willing to dance to his tune for a while if he can shed some light on this.”

JARVIS complied in silence, but as the following stilted conversation with Fury progressed, Tony was given nothing but more questions, more speculations. Terms like biological transformation began to come up. Energy readings. Retina scans. Potential for extended longevity and accelerated healing. Finally, resistance to disease, toxins and foreign matter. Everything Tony had already interrogated in his own bloodwork, as much as his personal knowledge would allow.

“Honestly, Stark,” Fury said grimly, “unless you talk about what happened in that place, I can’t really help you. I don’t have all the answers. You said you died over there. How? We all saw the blood, but how did you heal back? What triggered it?”

“I—” Tony found himself fighting his own hesitation. But it was important. He needed to find out. “Obadiah Stane shot me to pieces. He’d had a Gatling fitted to the arm of his suit, and I sure as hell wasn’t needed anymore. He had the arc reactor by then. Since he knew he couldn’t have…him, he just wanted Winterheart.”

“Him?” Fury repeated, leaning forward. “The castle’s master, that’s who you’re referring to? Romanoff said he had access to some kind of powers we haven’t seen before. And believe me, Stark, we’ve seen some shit.”

“Ice,” Tony said, remembering rushing waves crystallising into curling spikes. Wolves running for their lives. Obadiah’s suit blasted against the stone, trapped. “Ice and something else. Something he used on me before I died. He said it was—said it was his heart. I woke up in the canyon. The rest is history.”

Fury watched him over the vidcon screen, his head tipping back thoughtfully over steepled fingers.

“He saved you with some kind of power and killed himself in the process. That what you’re telling me?” He waited for Tony to nod, but they both knew it was just a formality by then. Fury had drawn every correct conclusion so far. “All right. I’m gonna be blunt with you here; this is way outside SHIELD’s knowledge base.”

Tony closed his eyes.

“Good talk, Fury. I’ll look into it myself.”

“I said SHIELD couldn’t help you, Stark,” Fury repeated, raising his eyebrow. “I didn’t say I was out of ideas. See, a while back we came across someone like you. Couldn’t get sick. Durable as hell, and believe me, people tried their hardest to put a dent in him. Had a bit of colour change, too, but on a much larger scale. He’s been studying foreign power catalysts for physical transformation for years.” Still keeping his eyes on Tony through the screen, Fury tapped out something on his keyboard. Within seconds, JARVIS registered a set of coordinates. “He was sighted in this region eight hours ago. He’ll spook if we come close, but he might just sing for a kindred spirit.”

Tony ran the location mapping, watching JARVIS magnify down to India, then further down to West Bengal. The sprawling city of Kolkata flashed on the screen, marked with a big bright pin in a particular sector. Tony squinted at it, reading the text.

“Dr Robert Bruce Banner,” he murmured. “Bruce Banner. I feel like I know that name.”

Fury laughed shortly.

“It’s not the kind you forget. Read the info packet before you go haring off in that damn suit of yours and call him an asshole. You sure won’t like him when he’s angry.” JARVIS blipped again with an incoming packet just as Fury cut the line, leaving Tony with a dead screen, both better off and worse than he’d been before the call.

Shall I plot a course to these coordinates?” JARVIS asked, mostly out of politeness. Tony was already pulling his shoes on.

During the flight he had ample time to read Fury’s file on Bruce Banner. Even Mach 3 meant it was going to take a few hours, but the energy reserves would comfortably take that speed. What was the worst that would happen, anyway? More health? Fewer pieces of shrapnel? But he soon lost his taste for self-pity as he scanned file after file on a man who had willingly tested an experimental-phase recreation of the super-serum on himself, having been convinced it would be a success. Maybe it could have been, if the serum formula hadn’t also been the product of further secret experimentation by military eggheads. Woulda, coulda. It resulted in a big green disaster. Absently, Tony noted the gamma radiation projector had been a production of Stark Industries’ R&D division.

What was it with good intentions leading to ruin? The pattern in all of them spoke of a focussed personality type that Fury was interested in recruiting. Fixing broken things? Was that his personal hobby? Polishing them up again, setting them on the right path? Tony had thought he’d been on the right path his whole life. Showed what any of them knew, really. Gamma monsters, arc reactors, hibernation, assassination. Broken things.

When he descended, hours later, Kolkata was both bright lights and darkness. Tony landed in darkness and uneven streets, ignoring the scatter of locals as they registered the suit and dispersed, their faces fearful and fascinated.

Perhaps it would be better to draw Dr Banner into the open?” JARVIS suggested as they approached a dilapidated wooden shack, its eave low enough that Tony had to hunch a little. “Cornering him while wearing the Mark II will do little to further your cause.

Tony just knocked on the door with one gauntleted fist, checking his strength just enough that the door rattled but didn’t cave in. He was just a polite, heavily armed patient looking for some advice. Dime a dozen.

Then the door was pulled open, and Tony’s mind almost blanked.

“Hi,” he said automatically. His faceplate popped up like a shutter so he could lock eyes with a very startled man. “I have high-level palladium poisoning but my blood keeps eating the palladium. Can I make an appointment?”

Bruce Banner stared at him—all of him—for a long moment. Tony found himself strangely content to submit to his scrutiny in a way he wasn’t used to doing back in California. Kindred souls, wasn’t that what Fury had said? Dark brown eyes flashed over his armour, his gun hatches, his height and finally, his admittedly creepy golden eyes. Raking a hand through curling brown hair, Banner’s face pinched into something resembling stubborn refusal. Crap.

“I help the needy,” he said, his voice pitched low. Tony wasn’t sure why; the entire neighbourhood had practically stalked him there from the shadows. Everyone was watching, according to the thermal imaging. “Iron Man, right? You’re not that needy.”

“No,” Tony said agreeably, “but you are. My bloodstream is absorbing concentrated levels of eroded soft metal and spitting out healthy platelet and cell count. What else do you think it can eat?”

Banner studied him for a long moment, his fist clenching at his side. They were still in the doorway, but as long as Banner kept talking to him then Tony was happy to stay on the porch.

“What happened to you?” Banner asked finally, his eyes unreadable. “Talk fast and honest. I don’t like that you found me and I like it even less that you’re wearing that thing.”

“This was just to fly here. I can take it off.” Olive branch: the staple of any good treaty. But Banner’s mouth just curved into a wry smile. He shook his head.

“You might actually need it. Tell me everything.”

Tony told him as much as he could, which was about the same amount of info he’d given Fury. The attack, the apple, the glow it had held. All of his symptoms, and the lack thereof. The palladium core’s inability to hold up to the output of the arc reactor. He spilled his entire story post-Winterheart on the threshold of a complete stranger’s beaten-down shack in the middle of Kolkata, and if Tony was going to be honest about it, it felt kind of good.

“SHIELD,” Banner said sourly some time later. “They had me this whole time, didn’t they? Now you want me to cure what sounds like your own personal miracle, while I—”

“I don’t want a cure,” Tony interrupted. Reaching up slowly, he pulled off the entire helmet. The visor’s remaining light shone back in his face, lighting up his eyes. Banner frowned intensely, leaning in for a better look. “I want to understand. I can handle the core—I’ve already got some ideas about vibranium I think I can use. Doc, I think we can help each other with this one.”

“And you want to help me…why?” Banner was tempted, Tony knew he was, but everything in that file had said that he’d had enough of organisations, of exploitation and the bait and switch that came with it. “I’m not your last stop for help, here. What does Nick Fury want?”

“Me, mostly. Overall he wants a team, I think, but he was content to leave you alone. Going off your file, I can tell you’re not really someone to cross.” Tony couldn’t help his small, twitching smile. “What’s it like? Being that big, that strong. Do you remember it when it happens?”

“Bits and pieces. But it’s been a while since I made a mess of things, Mr Stark.”

“Please, just Tony. And I bet it’s a rush.”

Banner laughed, but it sounded like rust and glass.

“The hell would you know? It’s rage—rage and uncontrollable strength. It’s monstrous. It hurts people. I hurt people.” Banner’s mouth turned down, his eyes searching somewhere over Tony’s armoured shoulder. “I’m better off here, like this. It grounds me.”

Tony felt his brief amusement drip away, leaving something raw beneath. The words, that tone, it was all a recollection of a memory he was trying to let go of. It had been a mistake to come. He could find the answers on his own, just like he always had. It’d just take longer, and if the projections were even slightly accurate, Tony would have that time and more.

“I shouldn’t have come. Sorry.” Fumbling the helmet slightly, he put it back on and lowered the faceplate. “Look after yourself, doc. I’ll keep them off your back if you want to relocate somewhere else. God knows my tech has hacked everything else SHIELD use.” Taking a step back out onto the street, Tony felt the wooden planks beneath his feet crack slightly, even though they were laid straight on top of hard dirt. He’d have to be more careful with what he stepped on in future.

“You got a lab? Not a SHIELD lab, but something else.” Banner was suddenly a dark shape standing out on the porch, unprotected by his flimsy front door. “I’ll need a lot of gear, stuff a weapons manufacturer probably won’t be familiar with.”

Inside his helmet, Tony felt himself smile.

“You could make a list for me.”

“I’m not flying back with you, just so we’re clear,” Banner added. “And I’m only doing this for myself.”

“A man after my own heart.”

“In the literal sense,” Banner said, but his mouth was twitching strangely. “If your body is not just adapting to foreign matter but destroying the surplus, I want to know what’s going on inside every chamber of your heart.” He hesitated slightly. “Maybe we can help each other. No promises.”

“I hate commitment,” Tony lied, his faceplate receding again so he could meet the good doctor’s guarded eyes. Firing his repulsors so they blazed clean and blue-white in the darkness, he lifted a few feet above the ground, hovering there as Bruce Banner strayed even further from the safety of his house to watch. “Hit the tarmac in the morning and ask for the Stark Industries private jet, if you’re still interested. When you land, you’ll connect with a chopper that’ll take you to my mansion. There won’t be a single SHIELD agent in sight; I can promise you that.”

“Huh,” Banner said, squinting up at him. “And this…team idea that SHIELD had, you’re part of it?”

“Kind of. I might have temporarily sold myself to them for information on you.” He shrugged his armoured shoulders as best he could. “What can I say? This clean bill of health infuriates me. See you in a day or so.”

Firing clean out of the city, out of the country and high into the night sky, Tony ascended until ice began to crackle across the suit. Vibrating the metal exterior plates and heating them, he shook the extra weight off, staring straight up into the stars until oxygen warnings and gravity alarms began wailing at him. JARVIS’ voice washed in and out of focus, his advice turning to static.

Monsters. Magic. Blood and bonding and teams of strange people with stranger motives.

The Avengers Initiative.

Somehow, Tony felt like history was beginning to repeat itself. Maybe this time it would play out right.

Killing the power, he let the suit fall hard and fast through the air, back within suitable flight levels. With a comet-tail blaze of light he curved, hit the boot propulsion and locked his legs into place, heading back home with a renewed sense of purpose. It wasn’t just about his blood anymore, or the fact that he couldn’t meet his own gaze in the mirror. It was about living. Not just his life, either. It was Banner and Rogers and Natasha, even Clint if they ever managed to dig him out of whatever black site he was locked down inside.

Broken things, sure. They all were.

But as Tony fled the approaching sunrise, he wondered if that wasn’t the point of it all.  


Weeks blurred into months as Tony built a brand new life. But he didn’t build it alone.

Bruce Banner came back to the states to research the applications of Tony’s blood on gamma radiation, just as he’d said he would. He also found time to help Tony synthesise a new vibranium core for the arc reactor, because Steve was a greedy bastard and refused to let Tony forge it from his shield. They were still fighting about that one, when they weren’t busy being a superhero dream team.

Unfortunately for Banner, who deemed the risk too great to experiment on himself a second time, there was no obvious transformation of his own irradiated tissue samples. Those hadn’t been fun to obtain. It was as if the effects were limited to Tony’s blood alone, dying off the moment it was drawn from him. Banner took it like a champ nonetheless, sticking around to poke and prod Tony in between researching his own condition, using the state-of-the-art laboratory outfitted for him at Stark Industries. It had surprised Tony, but looking a gift horse in the mouth was just tacky. Besides, it was good to have a friend nearby that he could talk shop with.

Steve continued working closely with Fury and later Natasha, once she emerged from the shadows of SHIELD. Tony didn’t get a chance to see her often, but when he did they talked about everything except Winterheart. Whether she was waiting for him to broach the topic himself or was simply content to let him have his secrets, Tony was painfully grateful for her in every way that counted. Not that he was going to tell her that while she was off romancing Rogers, or whatever they did in those conference rooms for hours.

The Iron Man suit became two. Then three, then six until finally he had a range of a dozen different suits for every danger scenario he could currently conceive of. Pepper got her suit, just as he’d promised. He even built a panic room into her office to house it, complete with its own gantry. Bruce threw his own request in and made Tony design one that could match the Hulk’s strength, if it ever came to that. Tony put that suit into vault storage first, declaring that he had no room in the workshop for a suit that would see no field time. There were monsters and there were monsters, and Tony knew that better than anyone.

A year rolled by when no-one was looking, until one day a man calling himself Red Skull fell back out of a hole in the world, crackling blue with strange energy and raving about a Tesseract.

The SHIELD team deployed to contain him had been obliterated with a sweep of his arm, along with half a city block.

That day, the Avengers assembled for the first time. That was to say, the Avengers featuring one angry green giant who wouldn’t stand by as Tony threw himself into a battle Banner wasn’t sure he could win.

Red Skull had thought he’d be fighting mere mortals. Instead he got an old nemesis with new resolve, an assassin with enough electricity in her wrists to cook him alive, a behemoth who put the legend of goliath to shame and an armoured arsenal that could identify his every weakness and use it against him.

There was also the mysterious arrow that flew out of nowhere to nail the bastard right in the throat, but Fury would neither confirm nor deny that he’d deployed anyone additional to participate in the fight.

Despite being a self-regenerating ruin of extra-terrestrial energy, Skull was still no more than a failed super-soldier lost in the events of World War II. They beat him back and back again, until finally Steve proved he hadn’t been kidding that day and took the top of his head off with a three-point rebound of his shield. Tony had hit the body with a maximum-force torrent from the chest RT of his newest suit, turning him and all his sick ideals to so much ash and smoke.

All in all, it had been a productive day.

The world promptly lost its mind.

Something about killing terrifying supercharged Nazis just really made their week. The four of them made worldwide superhero team status overnight. Hulk even was exonerated as a result of his part in the fight, though Bruce was quick to transform back into a nerdy recluse and call the whole thing a one-off. Tony designed him some stretchy pants anyway, just in case.

Eventually, they decided that a single base of operations was a better idea than having to rendezvous at an agreed location every time something strange and/or horrifying happened. Between Pepper, SHIELD and Tony, they agreed to renovate Manhattan’s soon-to-be new Stark Tower and give the whole Avengers thing a real go. Pepper kept the first seventy floors, leaving the remaining ten and the enormous penthouse for the team. It was their compromise until she was satisfied the entire venture wouldn’t go up in flames. Tony respected that, and it also meant Pepper and her shiny Rescue suit were easily within arm’s reach if they were really on the ropes. It always paid to keep an ace up his iron sleeve.

The US military complained, as they usually did when anything powerful that wasn’t theirs became the subject of adoration and envy. Tony gave them War Machine as an ironic peace offering – then keyed the gunmetal grey suit to only activate at the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes. He and Rhodey were still laughing about that one, which wasn’t that often now that Rhodey was the darling of the top brass, cherry-picking the best missions and generally taking the heat off the Avengers.

Life was good, and it only seemed to be getting better.

However, in the quiet moments of solitude when he was between projects, when the others were busy and it was just Tony and his thoughts, he found himself waiting for the other shoe to drop. He was waiting for it to come crashing down again, stealing his little team that was halfway to a family. He’d had those before, and they never stayed. Besides, when you stood at the top, the only place to go was down. When it happened, it was going to be one hell of a drop.

Still, Tony supposed there were worse things to be haunted by. He’d lived through a few of those already.

It was time to just enjoy the moment.


It was six-thirty in the evening and everyone was in the tower, which meant that Tony had competition for the living room’s enormous wall-mounted television.

It had been a pretty damn slow day all round, with nothing trickling in from SHIELD. Not even a photo op. The news was especially boring, leaving him stuck watching a piece of trash journalism on the latest mystery in New York and thinking about his life choices. The damn thing was speculating on wormholes.

“Turn that junk off,” Steve said, reaching for the remote when Tony didn’t react. “They’re always talking about aliens and naked celebrities. Why would you watch something that reviewed your leaked sex tape?”

“Because it’s talking about a lightning tornado that a guy who tested for LSD thinks he saw,” Tony replied, angling the remote away until Steve half-sat on him. “Can you still buy LSD? It feels like the 8-track of drugs. Speaking of sex tape, that was fifteen years ago and I’m appalled that you clearly watched it.”

“I didn’t watch your sex tape.” Steve stopped trying to get the remote and grabbed Tony’s ear and started twisting it. The remote came to him a few seconds later. “But they gave it four stars. Why do you care about this light tunnel thing?”

Bruce entered the living room with his usual expression of vaguely sarcastic amusement firmly in place. Tony waved him over, rubbing his ear with the other hand. Steve had the grip of a 60’s schoolteacher. Bruce sat himself on the opposite couch and glanced up at the half-delirious account of a glowing twister blowing a junkie clean out of his high in Central Park.

“Didn’t Red Skull fall out of a similarly described hole in the space-time fabric?” he said diplomatically. That was why Bruce was Tony’s favourite. “He’d been stewing in that pocket dimension stasis for years. Maybe other things were in there, too.”

“His description was too big and bright for no-one else to have seen it,” Steve argued, jabbing the channel button. Nothing happened. He swore as he turned it over and saw Tony had stolen the batteries. “Damn it, Tony.”

“Calm down, couch commando. I was here first.”

“That’s captain to you.” Steve dived on him. Tony went straight for his kidneys with the corner of the remote. Superheroes of the modern age.

“Children,” Bruce said, shaking his head. Between elbow-jabs, Tony saw his face brighten as Natasha walked past in full uniform, heading for the kitchen. “Do you want to sting them?”

“More than you know,” she replied, barely shooting them both a glance. “But I’ve got to go. Fury’s holding a muster to promote teamwork in SHIELD and I’m supposed to speak. Did you eat the last of the potato salad?”

“No.”

“I did,” Steve said, muffled and jammed somewhere under Tony’s armpit. Tony tried unsuccessfully to get him in a headlock. “Sorry. Jesus, Tony, have a shower.”

Natasha just levelled her best and most poisonous glare at them both and left without another word. Tony eventually had to surrender when Steve essentially flipped him over and sat on him. Steve Rogers was not a burden anyone bore gracefully. Besides, the arc reactor was grinding into the arm of the couch. It wasn’t as if he’d lost or anything.

“I’m not saying it’s not possible,” Steve said, pushing the batteries back into the remote and flipping the TV over to National Geographic. “But there’s more evidence on crop circles than there is on whatever this guy saw. Are we going to investigate those as well?”

Tony wriggled to freedom and was trying to surreptitiously prod at his chest when Bruce made a thoughtful sound.

“I’m sure SHIELD have already investigated it and it’s nothing. Isn’t that what they’re for? They’d have let us know if there was any risk to the public.” The look Bruce levelled Tony was knowing. “I don’t think anyone has been abducted by aliens recently.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Tony retorted, but gave up the fight with dignity.

“Hear, hear,” Steve muttered, toasting him with the remote. “Now let’s all watch…” he frowned at the screen, “lions having sex in the African savannah. JARVIS, can you put something better on?”

True to his word, JARVIS loaded something better: Tony’s collection of old film reels. First up, Captain America dancing with showgirls. Bruce actually let out a bark of laughter. Steve pre-emptively bashed Tony in the face with a cushion.

“Aw, come on!” Tossing the remote away, Steve got to his feet. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the gym. Good luck with your aliens.”

Bruce waited until JARVIS registered Steve’s descent to the common training area before he turned to Tony and smiled.

“I checked before I came in,” he said, eager despite himself. “The shield’s in his room against the foot of the bed.”

Tony cracked his knuckles, slow and loud.

“Mission success. Come to Daddy.”

Even a slow news day sometimes had its perks.


It took about three weeks for Steve to forgive Tony for flying around New York City wearing the shield.

Unfortunately, it took about the same amount of time for Tony to find every helmet from his suit gallery.


The slow period eventually gave way to a troubling realisation: it had been over a week since Fury last sent or accepted a meeting request through JARVIS.

It wasn’t a bad thing, not really, but it bothered Tony as someone who knew that Fury didn’t miss a damn thing to do with the Avengers unless it was important. After all, they were SHIELD’s top priority.

One week became two, and Natasha was called in yet again, this time to train a new intake of recruits in the use of electricity-based devices and how to defend against them. Because every criminal on the streets was going to have a Taser, Tony thought, snorting to himself. SHIELD needed to get their heads in the game. Commandeering Natasha like she was an acceptable loss to the team was simply bullshit. Who the hell gave them the right?

It occurred to Tony that he might be sulking, so he rang Rhodey to check.

“Well, I know you don’t like it when other people play with your toys,” Rhodey said. Wind was whipping over the cell’s microphone. Not a Stark original, then. “Not that she’s a toy. More like a Molotov cocktail. A cocktail full of sexy spiders.”

“Rhodes, come back to me,” Tony said dryly. “I’m not following.”

“What I’m saying is, can the Avengers spare her for a while?”

“Maybe. That’s not the point.”

“You know, you never get this pissed off when I’m called back into the field,” Rhodey said accusingly. “Hell with you, man. I hope she never comes back.”

Tony let out a crack of laughter.

“I’ve learned to hide my tears. Remember after our graduation when I got shitfaced and cried because you were leaving me for the Air Force? You laughed your ass off. Never again, Rhodey. I’m saving all my love for someone worth it.”

“Who?” Rhodey demanded, laughter a warm thread through his words. “Captain Ken Doll? I will bust his ass and eat the flag in front of him.”

They talked for a while longer, trading stupid memories and even stupider jokes. It felt good. By the end of it Tony had let himself be convinced he was being a possessive asshole about Natasha’s connections with SHIELD and hung up with a smile.

Maybe he just needed to calm the hell down and stop keeping a leash on people.

So he did.

For seven whole days.

After that, Tony directed JARVIS to intercept and subsequently force a video connection between SHIELD and Avengers HQ, feeding Fury’s personal terminal tiny animations of Iron Man shooting his repulsors at an uncanny likeness of Fury.

It took three hours before Fury sat down and put on his earpiece, but JARVIS alerted Tony the moment he did.

“Stark,” Fury said with eerie calm, “I am a little busy at the moment. This had better be world-shattering news or I swear to God I will haul you in for this computer shit you keep pulling.”

Tony leaned back in his chair, hitting the lever so he reclined for maximum effect. Fury glowered at him, the high-definition screen highlighting a sheen of sweat on his brow and temple. Nothing huge, but it was enough of a stressed-out glow to make Tony frown.

“I thought we were the only ones who could make you sweat.” Dragging his teeth across his lip, Tony tested the silence he received in reply. “What’s going on, and why is Natasha a part of it?”

Fury frowned deeply.

“Anything that Agent Romanoff may or may not be a part of is classified information. Believe me when I say that I’m not looking for a fight here.” Sliding a glance at something off-screen, Fury leaned in conspiratorially. “Look, there’s some serious shit going down right now. Not threat-related, but it is important. Maybe the most important thing we’ve ever done.”

Tony scoffed.

“Come on. Your force is seventy percent pen-pushers. What are we talking about here? The great printer ink deficit of two thousand—”

“I am talking about first contact!” Fury exploded, his single eye burning at him. Tony just stared into the screen, stunned. Sitting back hard in his chair, Fury yanked off his eyepatch and threw it down on his desk. “Goddamnit, Stark. We’re trying to keep the biggest damn revelation since biblical times under wraps here at the moment. Romanoff is training our forces in case anything turns nasty. It’s not a field role, but she’s needed. SHIELD’s hanging on by fingernails at the moment. The president is demanding hourly sitreps from me personally. I’m under the kind of stress that kills grown men and you’re haranguing me for stealing your girl? Grow the fuck up!”

For a long moment they regarded each other in silence. Fury looked like he was trying to get himself under control. Tony was just trying to squash the feeling of being chastised like an idiot kid. Were the stakes that high? First contact. Official first contact, if Fury’s apparent blood pressure symptoms were anything to go by. Alien life, there on Earth.

“Are they sentient? Peaceful?” Tony hesitated only a moment. “Did they arrive by a giant tornado of light?”

“Yes, mostly, and stop watching that shit, Stark. I’ve seen your bare ass too many times on that channel.”

“Oh, you.” Tony quirked a smile as Fury rolled his eyes, though only one could see him. He waited until the eyepatch was back in place before speaking next. “If you need us, call. Give Natasha a kiss for me.”

“That’s workplace harassment. By the way, I’m sending you a handler to report back to me until we go public with this. Don’t break him. He’s a good agent.” Fury abruptly cut the feed before Tony could argue. A handler? Were they children to be babysat? What bullshit.

Sighing harshly, Tony tipped his face to the ceiling, wondering about aliens and contact and why Natasha needed to be training people in electricity-based attacks. Were they robots? Androids? Walking bags of water?

Bothered by the questions his conversation had raised, Tony directed his thoughts to more productive pursuits, opening up his file on JARVIS’ potential new body. It was harder than making a hollow suit so it was taking longer to get it perfect, but progress was progress. Tony was going to make Pepper absolutely salivate or it was going to be deemed a huge failure.

“JARVIS, keep an eye on SHIELD for me. You know, for world-changing alien stuff.”

Of course, sir.

“And tell me when that damn handler arrives. I want to give him the greeting and interrogation he deserves.” Because if he was going to be kept in the dark, he would at least entertain himself at SHIELD’s expense.

Tony spent another two days working on what was essentially going to be his blessing for Pepper to keep a local copy of JARVIS wherever she went. He owed that woman a lot and the challenge kept him interested, but mostly he was cooperating out of a sense of morbid curiosity. What if she asked him for sexy upgrades? Was it some kind of technophilia thing? Tony was relatively sure JARVIS didn’t have a libido, but he did take directions like a champ...

Tony had his head in his hands and a soldering iron drooping off his fingers when JARVIS politely informed him that male bearing a SHIELD badge was at the door. He holstered the iron and cut the power, practically racing out of the workshop in relief.

“I’ll get it,” he said to Steve, who was half-caught in the attempt to pull on a shirt and wandering toward the front door like a zombie. “Were you naked?”

“I just showered,” Steve said, tugging the fabric down. His hair stuck up everywhere like a baby chick’s. “Do we really need a babysitter? We’re grown men.” Seeing his scowl directed at the door made Tony feel good about life. They didn’t agree that often, but when they did it was like the planets had aligned. They had to be right when they both agreed on something. SHIELD suit guy wasn’t going to know what hit him.

“Well, if it isn’t the long arm of the shady law,” Tony said as he pulled open the door. “Come to save us from ourselves?”

“You’re such a prick,” Clint Barton said, grinning at him from the doorway. He calmly flipped away his badge as Tony’s brain completely stalled. “Now, who needs their ass wiped first?”

Tony almost whooped.

“Get in here, you bastard,” he said, grabbing the front of Clint’s shirt and yanking him in for a crushing hug. “Where the hell have you been? You son of a bitch.”

“SHIELD, man. Where else would I get to shoot assholes full of arrows and be paid for it?” Clint grabbed Tony back and squeezed just as tightly. A face pressed straight into his exposed neck, sniffing him like only that stubbly creep could. “You smell nice. Why aren’t you wearing red? I liked the red.” Behind them, someone—probably Steve—cleared their throat, but it was a long time before Tony could bring himself to let go. Clint had been the only flesh and blood missing piece in his Winterheart puzzle and it was painfully good to have him back.

“Nice eyes,” Barton said when he finally pulled away. His smile wasn’t completely genuine. “Don’t suppose I have to ask who gave ‘em to you.” He switched his attention to a spot over Tony’s shoulder. “Yo, Captain America, right? Clint Barton. Nice guns. Don’t worry about me stepping on your spangled boots; Fury thinks Tony will shut up if I keep him busy. Because Nat and I are totally interchangeable.”

Taking his cue from Tony, Steve smiled and offered his hand.

“I think she has a spare suit if you really want to play the part.”

“Well, I do have an ass just made for skin-tight leather.” Clint reached out and accepted the handshake with the same casual ease he’d always treated Tony with. “You got a vacancy for an archer? I got no mission orders, so I figure I can follow your lead.”

Steve quirked another smile, surprised and pleased in tandem.

“An archer, huh? You didn’t happen to be the one who—”

“If that skull bastard took one to the carotid, I can’t take the credit,” Clint said, grinning. “Officially, anyway. No ‘I’ in team, and all that shit.”

“No ‘I’ in Avengers, either, but you’ve got a place if you want one,” Steve said firmly. “You’ve got a hell of a range on you. Stealth missions?”

“You know it,” Clint groaned, raking a hand through his styled hair. “This is the first time I’ve seen daylight in weeks. Be honest, do I look pasty to you?”

Bemused, Tony watched them talk, feeling a strange sensation of worlds colliding that he’d never experienced with Natasha. Maybe it was something to do with not having seen Clint since they parted ways in the snow. Silently, he acknowledged that he’d tied the two together and filed it all under past happenings after Obadiah’s invasion. Trying not to think about it altogether had meant not thinking about Clint, or missing him the way Tony knew he couldn’t help, deep down. But now he had a living piece of Winterheart back; his first friend in that icy fortress, and now again, this time in a tower Tony had requisitioned for himself.

Feeling a bittersweet sort of approval, Tony smiled to himself and straightened his shoulders, grabbing the duffel bag and locked weapon case Clint had left at the door. There were enough suites in the tower to fit one more friend.

The afternoon bled into night with the help of effortless, easy camaraderie, full of laughter and stories about Clint’s transition to ‘the future,’ a topic he and Steve immediately bonded over on so many levels it made Tony virulently jealous, though he did his best to hide it behind a glass of scotch and an easy smile. Bruce joined them eventually, glasses tugged off so he could rub his tired eyes. Banner and sleep were uneasy friends, to say the least. But he made himself some fruity-smelling tea and sat down beside Tony, listening with a half-smile that said he’d needed the distraction more than he’d ever admit.

“I can see the fingerprints on you two,” Bruce said when Steve and Clint dissolved into a conversation about Knight Rider, and why Tony both did and did not need a sentient car. Bruce kept his eyes on his teacup, but he was smiling his strange, crooked smile.

“I can see my fingerprints on you,” Tony replied, taking a small mouthful of scotch. “Well, JARVIS can. With a multi-layered scan. Is that one of your superpowers?”

“You know what I mean,” Bruce said, glancing up. His eyes were knowing as they flickered between Tony and the other couch. “A few months, wasn’t it? I know you don’t talk about it and I sure don’t ask, but you’re protective of them. Natasha and Clint.”

Tony shrugged the comment off, but didn’t deny it. Bruce saw more than most, anyway. He did like that Bruce had said protective rather than possessive. The man had a generous soul under all that introverted self-loathing.

Together they sat back and watched the team dynamic change again, which wasn’t a bad thing, really. It was just another startling reminder that the real world wasn’t a damn thing like Winterheart. With more people, more experiences, of course Clint would jump at the chance to find his own way. To make friends with other people.

People who weren’t Tony Stark.

They called it a night eventually, or Tony did, when his mouth got tired from smiling and the guilt outweighed his pleasure at having a room full of incredible friends. He was supposed to be happy. Two years was more than enough.

It was only as he was slowly drifting into sleep, sheets cool on his skin and the view of the blue-black sky the only thing he could see that Tony heard his door open with a hushed sweep of the automated system, allowing a shadow inside. Resigned to it, he waited for the report that would summon him into his suit and off into the city.

Instead, he felt the sheets shift, the mattress dipping as someone crawled in behind him.

“I’m gettin’ in,” Clint whispered, slithering around in the bed and half-tugging the blankets off Tony. “I hate new places. I hate new ceilings.”

“If you try to spoon me I’ll smother you with a pillow.” Rolling onto his back, Tony squinted at the mass of shadows that was Clint Barton. “I’m getting the impression you missed me.”

Clint didn’t answer right away. He took a lot of time getting himself settled, tugging on the blankets and punching the pillow into shape.

“I miss everything,” Clint finally said, turning on his side to face Tony. “Mostly I just miss the boss.” There was a beat of silence, then, “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Tony felt like he’d been punched.

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s dead.”

“I—I figured he was.”

Tony just swallowed and blinked rapidly, glaring up at the darkened ceiling.

“And where the fuck was I?” Clint said, his voice torn to shreds. “I said I’d repay him. I said I’d become someone. He didn’t care. He said I was enough, even when I was pissed off and hating him for trying to leave. What am I doing all this shit for?”

Rolling over, Tony grabbed Clint’s right hand and knocked his knuckles against the edge of the arc reactor.

“I was broken when I arrived there,” Tony said quietly. “I’m damned if I’m going to let myself be broken after I’ve left. You know what he wanted when he let us all go.”

“Yeah,” Clint muttered, settling, but his heart wasn’t in it. Tony didn’t expect it to be. Fifteen years couldn’t be snuffed out inside of twenty-four months of training. Of all of them, Clint had always been the one with more to lose. Tony knew he couldn’t honestly begrudge him his decision to throw himself into SHIELD’s training. They each had different ways to cope.

But they were coping, which counted for a lot. Winterheart hadn’t ruined them. Loki’s death wouldn’t break them. The world kept turning. Life still needed living and that was exactly what each of them were going to do. And they were going to be fantastic, that much was for certain.

Tony must have drifted off at some point because when he opened his eyes next, Clint was stretched against the far edge of the mattress, twitching and shuddering inside his restless dreams. Kicking him out didn’t even register as an option. Instead, Tony threw off his sheets a little more in Clint’s direction and tucked his free hand up against the arc reactor, his eyes sliding shut against the soft light.

Yeah, they were going to be fine.

In time.


“I’m sending your girl back home,” Fury said one morning, three weeks after Clint had joined the team. He frowned down at Tony and Steve from the comms screen like a disapproving parent presented with a bad report card. “Romanoff will brief you further on the situation, but suffice to say we’ve got our hands full of squabbling heads of state and various world leaders at the moment. The public remains unaware of the situation at this present time.”

Steve and Tony exchanged a dubious glance. Fury didn’t elaborate – in fact, he looked like he was struggling with what to say next. That was more than enough to perk Tony’s interest.

“Spit it out, Nick. What do the aliens want with the Avengers? If it’s probing, Rogers will do it for his country, but I’m out.”

Steve muttered something less than complimentary about that, but Fury’s mouth quirked into a frankly sinister smile. Tony faltered. It wasn’t actually probing, was it?

“Stark, the ambassador and his companion have no interest in your ass. It’s Iron Man and Captain America they want to meet.” Fury tapped out a quick command on his keyboard. JARVIS bleeped with an incoming file. “These are the details of the upcoming diplomatic summit. You’re both gonna be present for the meet-and-greet that follows on after the final night’s closing dinner. Full gear. We’re going to parade you like prized cattle and you’re gonna love every goddamn minute of it.”

Tony abruptly lost interest.

“Pass.” He ignored the way Steve went rigid with surprise.

Fury’s eye just bugged a little.

“Stark, I’ve never known you to turn down an opportunity to show off that suit of yours.”

“As much as I love the idea of meeting my first extra-terrestrial politician, walking around in the suit for hours while old money and friends feel up my armour and count my teeth isn’t really my idea of a good night.” Tony gave Steve a shrug, ignoring his screaming eyes. “Cap’s enough of a crowd-pleaser. They’ll eat up the whole defrosted war hero thing. I’ll patrol that night if you want to point me out to them—”

“Colonel Rhodes will also be attending,” Fury interjected. “If you fall into line, Stark, I’ll see about having him posted back on home soil for a good long while.”

Ouch. Bribery. Really effective bribery. At Tony’s side, Steve started to relax again, which did nothing to improve his mood. He wasn’t above refusing out of spite, but on the other hand…

“Ninety minutes in the suit, then I get to hatch out and have a drink. JARVIS can handle the controls.”

“Deal,” Fury barked, and Tony almost heard the gavel slam down in his mind. “Read the etiquette packet before you show up. Ambassador Odinson doesn’t want hands anywhere near him. Strictly no contact authorised. Talk to his attendant if you have any—”

“Odinson?” Steve repeated, frowning. “Sounds Scandinavian. Where do these guys come from?”

Fury was suspiciously blank-faced.

“We’ll get into the details later down the track. For now, just respect the rules. Don’t speak unless spoken to, keep your hands to yourself and play nice. I’ll see you in three days.” He cut the connection before either of them could press for an answer.

Steve glowered at the screensaver, clearly pissed off by the abrupt dismissal.

“That seem a little strange to you?”

“This whole thing seems strange,” Tony said shortly. “I thought I was done with weapons presentation. That’s exactly what this is, you know.”

“I know. They must have some firepower up their sleeve.” Turning around, Steve rested against the edge of the table and crossed his arms. “I wonder what they want.”

“Me, for one thing.” Tony smiled at Steve’s raised eyebrow. “Did you see Fury’s face when I shut him down? Something was riding on me attending this thing, I’d bet my arc reactor on it.”

“I thought you said I was the crowd-pleaser,” Steve replied sourly. “I can’t believe you were going to stiff me with the whole thing. Friends don’t pull shit like that, Tony. I don’t want to go to this any more than you do.”

“What? Captain America doesn’t want to rub shoulders with world leaders and snobby alien diplomats who think we have cooties? Liberty herself is shedding giant copper tears right now.” That earned him a good-natured shove in the shoulder, but Steve was reluctantly grinning again, dimples and all. “Let’s have a look at this clown. There’s got to be photos in this packet somewhere. JARVIS?”

At once, sir.

Despite himself, Tony caught himself feeling a little intrigued by the idea of seeing an actual alien. Not that it would come close to the kinds of things he’d already seen, but from a technological standpoint, they could be a lot to learn. There couldn’t not be.

JARVIS loaded four low-quality pictures that had clearly been plucked from surveillance devices, tiling them on the 3D array so Tony could blow them up and inspect them properly.

He stared for a long moment at the images of two men engaged in different conversations with a couple of agents, standing in what looked like a SHIELD boardroom. Those guys were their aliens? The outfits were fancy, sure, and the staff the dark-haired one carried looked kind of interesting, but it was a far cry from the little green men he’d been imagining.

“Which one is Mr Hands-off? The muscly blond or the one with the stick? I bet it’s the one with the stick.”

“Correct, sir. The ambassador is pictured here with his brother.”

“Names?” Steve prompted.

Blake,” JARVIS said, sounding puzzled. “Donald Blake is recorded against the file. Perhaps an alias? The ambassador is known as simply that: Ambassador Odinson.

“What’s up with the electricity training Nat was doing?” Tony asked.

My apologies, sir, but this information appears to have been heavily redacted from a larger memo. No further information is available.

“Figures.”

Shutting everything down with a gesture, Tony started heading for his suit gallery. The Mark VII was probably the most popular suit he’d built, and the damn thing hadn’t been polished in a few months. If they wanted media-friendly Iron Man, that was probably going to be the suit they’d want to see most.

“Aliens,” Steve murmured to himself as he exited the comms room alongside Tony, looking baffled. “If they came from mars, I quit. I’ve seen too many movies now to ever trust that planet again.”

Amused despite his head full of questions, Tony slung an arm around Steve’s shoulders.

“If it’s mars, I promise to kill them for you.” He thought about it. “Unless I do it for myself at this function. C’mon, three hours stomping around in the suit on land? On a Friday night? Maybe I’ll just knock myself out.”

“I’ll do it,” Steve offered, because he was a generous kind of guy. “But if Rhodes is going to be there, why do they need you? He could just turn up as War Machine. A suit is a suit.”

Tony stopped and stared at Steve for so long he actually flushed and started fidgeting.

“Yeah,” Tony said slowly. “You just think about what you said for a while. If you need me, I’ll be polishing in the workshop. Polishing suits.”

“Do you want to do my shield as well while you’re working?” Steve asked, like it wasn’t the most obvious apology in the entire cosmos. “I can never get it quite as shiny.”

“Yes. Yes, I do. But this isn’t over.”

“It never is.” The long-suffering sigh that followed made Tony laugh.

Maybe the meet-and-greet wouldn’t be so bad. He’d have some great company, after all.


 

It was going to be a nightmare.

Barely thirty-five minutes into the post-dinner mingling and Tony had already had his armour stroked from helmet to boot. The hungry stares of allied nations traced his repulsors and missile hatches, lingering over his chest RT and the glow that radiated from it. Everyone knew the story of Tony Stark’s greatest invention and no-one could get access to its schematics. He was a little surprised no-one was drooling yet. Or worse, coming at him with a can-opener. The shady looks he was getting from one of the guys in the back said it had crossed at least one mind.

Rhodey was nowhere to be found. Neither was Fury. Natasha and Clint had been stationed on the perimeter somewhere and Bruce was back in the tower giving himself a pedicure. Tony had been well and truly shafted.

He had to admit though, no expense had been spared for the event. Lights glittered overhead on strings, the ceiling draped with deep blue cloth. Bolts of deep red hung over wide tables groaning under the weight of champagne, petit fours and canapés scattered everywhere Tony looked. The bigwigs had already had their dinner, but it was obvious that just over a third of the occupants of the room were second-string diplomats and decorated members of various military organisations. No dinner for them, Tony thought, eyeballing a wide tray of lobster meat on tiny skewers and a covered pot that had to be full of hot, golden melted butter. They weren’t the only ones that had missed dinner.

At the centre of the room, a tall, dark-haired man in green and black was greeting the newcomers, his expression blandly pleasant as they exchanged quiet words. Tony couldn’t hear him over the soft notes of the piano at the end of the room, but he did seem to be interested in whatever they were saying. That, or he was a damn good actor. The blond guy, Donald or whatever he was calling himself, hadn’t made an appearance yet. So far, both himself and Steve had been left completely alone by their human-looking alien guest.

Tony started to think his presence there was just to take some of the heat off Tall, Dark and Leather. Avoiding a queue? Just line up your old pals Captain America and Iron Man, now with cool light-up action. Inside the helmet, Tony fought a sigh as another dignitary approached, face wreathed in smiles. Thank god for that faceplate. He couldn’t fake a smile if he tried.

Eventually everyone who had an interest had inspected Tony’s suit and moved on to greet Steve, and vice-versa. After a while it left them both able to retreat to an open space in front of the presentation stage which had been half-folded away, its blue velvet curtains drawn to hide the clutter behind it. Ignored for the moment, Tony released the helmet’s seal and pulled the entire thing off over his head, breathing a deep sigh of relief as cool air touched his skin.

“How’s my hair?” he asked Steve, who was doing the same with his own helmet. The shield was propped against the curtained edge of the stage behind them, gleaming like, well, incredibly well-polished vibranium.

Steve rubbed a hand through his own sweat-damp strands, scratching his scalp with a sigh of pure bliss.

“That’s been itching for the last hour,” he groaned. Blue eyes slid to him, assessing. “You look fine. Got some smudges on the suit, though.”

“Better than bodily fluids. Did you see the Japanese delegate? All I could think was sexbot the entire time.”

“You watch too many of those tentacle cartoons. I thought he was great. I let him take a selfie with me.” Steve was obviously absorbing contemporary culture in terrible leaps and bounds. “I think I was blinking.”

“There’s a media blackout on this entire thing even existing, and you let a prominent foreign leader take a picture with you? The metadata attached to the file alone—wait, how did he get his phone in here?”

“It’s tiny,” Steve replied, reaching over and flicking a piece of Tony’s hair back into place. “He said he’d give me one.” Before Tony could erupt into an outraged diatribe, Steve added, “I told him I was spoken for.” 

“Damn right you are.” That earned him a toothy smile, only partially settling Tony’s fluffed-up territorial sensibilities. Steve was a Stark tech poster boy. Everything was fine.

They leaned against the stage in silence for a while, watching people mill to and fro, orbiting the complete snob who stood with his hands tucked behind his back, hidden in folds of green cloth.

Tony frowned in contemplation, feeling strangely unsettled. Then his stomach growled loudly, making Steve snort and push off his resting place.

“I’ll go load you a plate, so stay here and make my excuses. I need that tray of tiny burgers. What do you want?”

“Two of everything,” Tony said firmly. “Nothing with garlic and onion, though. I can’t handle it when the helmet’s on.”    

“Uh-huh,” Steve said, taking Tony’s helmet out of his hands and setting it down beside his shield. Tony didn’t understand why until he straightened, facing the opposite direction so no-one could see his mouth move. “The alien ambassador hasn’t taken his eyes off you since the helmet came off.” When Steve moved to pull away, Tony caught his armour by the zipper and reeled him in again. Cautious of the cameras in the room and anyone who might be watching, Tony placed his mouth directly against Steve’s ear. 

“Find the blond one. He’s here somewhere.”  

“Copy that,” Steve said grimly. “I stuck a tracker in my right boot if you need me.”

“Good man.”

Tony slapped Steve’s back as he drew away, watching him go back to smiling and waving at anyone making eye contact like the true American hero he was. Huh. Undercover suited him better than Tony would have expected. But then, they were all liars when circumstance demanded it. Yinsen had taught him that. Obadiah had only re-enforced it.

Resting armoured elbows against the stage’s edge at his back, Tony turned his eyes back to the chattering crowd. For once, he wasn’t the centre of attention. It would have rankled in the old days, but he found himself oddly content to be the onlooker for once.

Carefully, carelessly, Tony let his eyes slide across the colourful throng of people until he found a pair of arresting green eyes staring right back into his.

Shit , Tony thought, jerking his gaze away. His heart was hammering alongside the hum of the reactor, pulsing blood into every limb like he wanted to run away. That look had been—piercing.

When he pulled himself together and chanced another look, Ambassador Odinson was crooking a finger at him. His mouth had a haughty tilt to it that made Tony either want to punch it or find out what it tasted like. Which was bullshit, it was complete bullshit. He was a stuck-up green-eyed alien that didn’t want to get his hands dirty. That was all.  

Play nice,  Fury warned him, three days old and it still wasn’t enough. Leaving the helmet and shield behind for the SHIELD shadows to guard, Tony put enough swagger into his walk to say he wasn’t at anyone’s beck and call. If E.T. wanted Iron Man, he’d have him.

Tony had come within three paces of the ambassador when the striking man offered his hand in greeting.

It was a pale hand, long-fingered and elegant. Clean nails. A nice hand to shake, if Tony accepted it.

The entire room hushed with expectation, silence spreading outward like pond ripples as government officials from around the world watched their newest fascination offer a token of intimacy to Tony Stark, of all possible people.

The ambassador’s gaze was cool and heavy, almost a tangible sensation as his eyes dragged over him like a cloak. Tony knew he was being tested, as though skin contact was something to be coveted and protected. But living contact had never been one of Tony’s particular pet hates.

Rotating his wrist, the crimson gauntlet retracted from his hand, then his forearm. It crawled back up to his elbow, revealing bare skin interrupted by a metal wrist cuff. He reached out and clasped the offered hand. Warm skin and faint calluses met his palm, and the fingers that curled around his hand were strong.

“Iron Man,” the ambassador said, his mouth curling slightly. Tony just nodded slightly.

“Ambassador. Thought you didn’t do touching.”

“I make exceptions.”

“So I see.”

They regarded each other for a long moment, still clasping hands. Tony had the unpleasant sensation that he was the butt of a personal joke. Something about the knowing look in that green gaze was raising the hairs on the back of his neck, his stomach tensing as if waiting for a blow.     

“You have remarkable eyes, for a human,” Odinson said easily, but his eyes weren’t smiling. “How did you come by such a brilliant hue?”

“That’s not your business,” Tony replied shortly, frowning. Of all the possible questions to ask. He let go of the hand wrapped around his, feeling the suit unsheathe again to cover his arm again. “Good to meet you, Ambassador.” He turned to leave.

“My apologies,” Odinson said hastily, sounding thrown. “I’ve upset you. Please stay.”

Please stay.

Shuddering slightly inside the suit, Tony ran through his options. Play nice. Hands to yourself. Polite. Warm fingers caging his hand. Green eyes. He turned back with his game face on, as alive and charismatic as an electric current.

The relief in the ambassador’s eyes was almost humbling. What the hell had Fury been telling him about Iron Man?

“They tell me you built this armour, and many more like it,” Odinson said, like he’d read Tony’s mind. Fingers hovered over the painted red metal of his armoured hand. “You’ve a gift. There are some where I come from that would sell their sword hand for such skill.”

“There’re a few in here who would do the same,” Tony said, giving a discreet nod to the onlooking crowd. “You like it?”

“We have something like it where I hail from.” Obligingly turning his hand palm-up, Tony powered up the repulsor just to watch the ambassador’s eyes gleam. “We call it the Destroyer.”

“Well, I only destroy on Thursdays.” Giving in to the whim to impress, Tony grabbed the elbow joint of the suit and released it, sliding off the entire forearm gauntlet and glove. He handed it to Odinson, who gave him a single surprised glance before taking the offered piece of the armour, studying it from all angles. “Try it on.”

“Keeping your new visitor content?” Odinson asked dryly. He was already sliding his arm inside the gauntlet. “Humans are so eager to please.”

“Not me. I just like to show off.” For that, Tony received a quick flash of a smile. He liked the mischief in it. “What kind of alien are you, anyway? Where are you from?”

“Familiar places, to some. I hail from Jotunheim. Asgard, too.” The ambassador appeared distracted from the question as he watched Tony. Between them, he flexed the suit’s fingers. “Truly both, and neither. I arrange treaties, settle conflicts. Sometimes, when required, I create them anew.”

Tony felt a cold curl of alarm in his gut.

“Is that what you’re doing here?”

Odinson blinked in surprise, seeming to realise what he’d just said while he’d been staring. A long sweep of dark hair slid over his shoulder, falling against his cheek. For the first time, Tony realised his hair was the only unkempt thing about him. Dressed head to toe in ceremonial armour and leather, he was every inch the perfect example but for his hair. It hung in long tendrils over his neck and shoulders, falling down his back in careless layers. Tony’s fingers inexplicably itched. Something about him was—

“I herald no war. It’s been an age since I last truly set foot upon this world.” Splaying his metal-encased fingers, Odinson watched the palm repulsor charge up with residual power. “The others have been most forthcoming in regaling me with tales of their bountiful countries, their enriched lives. Would you do the same?”

“Sure, I could—” Tony broke off as he caught sight of Steve across the other side of the room, striding with purpose. As their eyes met across the sea of people, he saw Steve shake his head slightly. Blondie was a no-go, then. Damn. “Sorry, what was I…?”

But Odinson had followed his gaze, his expression oddly troubled. Tony felt the strangest need to shrug the entire moment off.

“Cap has a nervous bladder. He doesn’t do all this political hobnobbing any better than I do. I’ll have to put him to bed with a glass of scotch and a warm blanket later.”

The words had been meant to lighten the mood, but if anything the eyes that switched to his seemed to further drain of all light and emotion.

“You are close. At ease with each other.” His mouth twitched downward. “Your life is a good one?”

“The best. I’ve got it made.” The reply was meant to be flippant, casually cheerful, but the moment Tony said it he realised it felt a lot like the truth. “I’ve been luckier than most.”

The ambassador looked at him like he was nuts. The expression was nothing more than a flash of disbelieving eyes and slanted brows, but Tony caught it and wondered. Fury must have briefed him in detail on himself and Steve to put that look on his face. Great. Even men from outer space were clued in on the saga of Tony Stark.

“I heard you were embroiled in a mystery some time ago. Director Fury mentioned a possible supernatural element?” Odinson kept his eyes fixed on the gauntlet as he spoke, as if the damn thing had the secrets of the universe trapped inside it. “It’s possible I could shed some light on the subject, were I to know what occurred. I’m quite a scholar of magic and mysteries.”

Tony’s stomach bottomed out.

Why the hell would Fury have told him about Winterheart? How much had he divulged? Everything? It hit him in a rush of mortifying clarity that the story might well be the reason the ambassador had wanted to talk to him at all. No doubt Fury would capture the entire story via room surveillance, too—just as he’d planned. Because Iron Man was a commodity, and secrets were the kind of currency these bastards dealt in. Of course Fury would never let Winterheart go just like that. SHIELD didn’t just chalk up an unsolved mystery and file it away.

Now there was an interstellar ambassador sniffing around for clues, asking about his eyes and his life. Well, to hell with that. Some secrets had to stay buried.

“There’s nothing to tell,” Tony said icily. The ambassador’s head jerked up. “At all. I spent the last two years trying to forget the whole thing ever happened, so I’d appreciate it if you would respectfully drop the subject, Ambassador.” 

The man stared at him for a long second, his previously sharp eyes turned wide and lost. What, no-one had ever told him no before?

Odinson lowered his head a moment and cleared his throat, pulling in a shaky breath. When he glanced up at Tony again, he was trying to smile.

“I’ve done it again, haven’t I?” he said lightly. “I should show more restraint. Please, we’ll speak no more of your troubling experience. We all have times in our past that are best left forgotten. I…understand that better than most.” Tugging off Tony’s gauntlet in a smooth motion, he handed it back and tucked his hands into the small of his back. His smile was almost painful to witness. “You have an enviable life ahead of you, Iron Man, and I expect you will go on to do great things with it. My only regret is that I will not be there to witness them.” Taking a step back, the ambassador turned on his heel and allowed himself to be swallowed up by the murmuring crowd.

Standing there staring at the empty space he’d left behind, Tony had the strangest feeling that he’d just completely crushed the guy. So much for playing nice.  

Troubled and not quite able to shake it off, Tony backed up and headed for one of the open balconies, holding the gauntlet like a severed limb. Something about Odinson’s face made him hesitant to put it back on.

The night air was a welcome relief. Overlooking the hotel gardens, the balcony jutted out far enough that the chatter inside was muffled by the faint notes of the piano. The breeze that ruffled his hair smelled like wisteria and water. Looking up into the star-dusted sky, Tony tried to tell himself that he hadn’t done a damn thing wrong.

So why the hell did he feel so guilty?

Going back and apologising was out of the question. It would only undermine Odinson’s attempt to brush the whole thing off, and frankly Tony didn’t even know what he would say. Fury was the one that had made that mess, he was sure of it. They’d have to have a serious chat when he resurfaced. Screwing him over twice in one night was a dick move.

“You look troubled, my friend.”

Tony jumped, making the suit clank. It was embarrassingly loud in the dark silence of the balcony. He looked around for the source of the voice.

The red flicker of the mantle was the first thing he saw as the tall shadow strode out of the shadows on the other end of the balcony. Leather boots, leather pants. Red cloth and steel around his wrists, muscled arms left bare. Circular panels of armour covered his chest. Above that was a pair of startling blue eyes, a faint smile and a hard jawline. The blond hair from the surveillance photos was more of a gold, tied back and left to gather around his shoulders. He was sickeningly handsome—and he didn’t look a damn thing like the ambassador. It was like comparing the sun and the moon.

Tony glanced toward the doors. No one approached. Maybe he wasn’t even supposed to be out there.

“I think I upset your brother.”

The man’s smile just widened.

“’Tis not a difficult feat, Tony Stark. I myself achieve it on a near-daily basis.”

“Is that why you’re hiding out here?” Tony asked before he could stop himself. Blondie just snorted and turned toward the railing, leaning his arms on the cement and surveying the city around them. His eyes were sharp with interest as they flickered between skyscrapers and stars.

“It’s not my place to interfere in his affairs,” he said simply. “Establishing ties with Midgard—Earth—is his endeavour, not mine. But I pledged to aid him.” The look on his face indicated that wasn’t going so well. “What of you, Man of Iron? What have you pledged?”

Tony arched an eyebrow.

“Nothing,” he replied. A horrible thought occurred. “I’m not being sold into slavery, am I? Fury isn’t making me into some kind of gift? Because I refuse to be mounted on someone’s mantelpiece in, in—”

“Asgard.”

“—Asgard. Right. God, this night has turned weird. Do you even have a name?”

“Thor.” The guy looked oddly disappointed. Not again. “I am Thor Odinson. My apologies, Tony Stark. I misunderstood the situation. No bargain has been struck for anything native to Earth, or even any bargain at all. This is simply an introduction.” His mouth turned down. “Wasted, perhaps, for me. My wife was to attend us here but her flight was cancelled, and the bifrost is not for such things. I’d carry her myself but she complains of windburn the entire time.”   

Despite his confusion—could those guys fly?—Tony found himself smiling.

“Every time I take Steve anywhere he ends up eating bugs. You’d think they’d just be grateful.”

Thor let out a laugh, a deep, rich sound that perked up Tony’s mood just listening to it. The hand that clapped onto his armoured shoulder was friendly.

“I’ll be certain to tell Jane I have found a kindred spirit at last.”

“Jane?” Tony repeated, something ticking over in his head. “Wait, your wife lives here? Talk about a long-distance relationship.”

Thor just gave him a strange look.

“Not as far as some,” he said, and there was something sad about the way he spoke. “Distance is little barrier, if the heart is willing.”

“Take it easy there, fortune cookie. I’ve had a rough night so far.” And he hadn’t managed to get anything to eat. What if he was wasting away inside the suit? “Nice meeting you, anyhow. If you see Steve, tell him I said you’re cool.” Thor looked pleased as hell by the assessment.

“I will do so with great pleasure. I think the captain has taken to stalking me.”

“That rascal,” Tony said automatically, glancing away so he didn’t smile. Turning the gauntlet over the right way up, he aligned the connections with his elbow and slid his hand inside the armour. It was time to call it a night—

Hissing in surprised pain, Tony yanked his hand back out, shaking off his fingers. They pulsed with a steady ache, but it was the cold slush sitting in his palm that entranced him. 

The interior of the glove was filled with ice.

“Fuck,” he breathed, staring down the forearm of the gauntlet like he could see into the fingers. “How did—”

The ambassador’s hand had been inside.

I thought you didn’t do touching.

I make exceptions.

His hands, tucked inside his mantle. The green mantle.

You have remarkable eyes, for a human.

The apple’s light, spilling over his bleeding stomach.

I spent the last two years trying to forget the whole thing ever happened.

Please stay.

“But he’s dead,” Tony whispered. “The apple…”

“Broke the spell,” Thor finished quietly. The bastard had known all along. “He’d finally learned the value of your life.”

But he looked all wrong, Tony thought blankly, watching his hand shake as melting ice spilled off his skin. He sounded all wrong. Loki hadn’t told him. Two years of grieving and cursing and wanting to go back to the start and do it all right

Loki had been alive the entire time.

He’d showed up out of nowhere, beckoned Tony to him, looked him right in the eyes and hadn’t said a damn thing about it. Treated him like a complete stranger.

Didn’t Loki want him?

Of course not, Tony told himself savagely. It was two years ago. You didn’t abandon the people you loved.

Loved .

Chest heaving with every desperate breath, Tony struggled inside the suit. Dropping the gauntlet, he activated the emergency release. The armour receded from his skin and folded itself away, leaving him in a black undersuit veined in temperature-regulating blue and a pair of titanium wrist cuffs. Thor stepped forward, concerned, and in a flash of insight Tony realised who he was.

“The hammer,” he rasped. “It was your hammer. You’re the brother he tried to kill.”

Thor stopped moving. Tony ignored him, his eyes on the golden light spilling from the function ballroom. He didn’t know if he had the nerve to look into those eyes again, but he knew he couldn’t do anything less. Loki had said he wasn’t staying.

Why would he? Tony had unwittingly said straight to his face that he wanted to forget about Winterheart. God, even in his own mind he still felt like he was talking about a ghost. Loki was two years dead and his bones were lying in a prison of ice, not—not in there, staring at him with crushing devastation in his unfamiliar eyes and trying to smile anyway.

Leaving the armour in its locked dormant state, Tony re-entered the room in a directionless rush, his rapidly-adjusting eyes seeking a tall figure in green and black. He just—he needed to see him. Somewhere under the pale skin and green eyes there had to be the lonely prisoner he’d nearly died for. The one who’d nearly died for him.

It was just as Tony was beginning to panic and start looking for the exits that the crowd of people in the centre of the room dispersed toward the bar, leaving the ambassador—Loki—standing in the middle of the deserted floor.

For a split-second he looked tired beyond measure. But Tony watched him pull his shoulders back and square them, chin lifting as he surveyed the room with perfect poise.

Then he saw Tony.

Even from thirty feet away the change in his demeanour was stunning. His lips parted on a silent word, his hands slipping free from the concealing folds of the mantle. Hell, he completely turned toward Tony like a magnet finding its opposite, his body language opening up as his eyes filled with shadows again. The composure from earlier had been completely shattered. He didn’t look like a polished diplomat. He looked like he was suffering somewhere no-one else could see.

Tony was already walking towards him before he could consciously make the decision to approach. Loki’s eyes followed him with entire way, drinking in his unarmoured body from head to foot until he stood close enough to touch.

“Outside of your armour, I see. I suppose I’m to call you Mr Stark now,” Loki managed, his eyes flickering over each of his features and back again.

Loki watched Tony with the starving eyes of someone who wanted something he knew he couldn’t have.

That look hadn’t changed, even when everything else had.

Shoving his fingers through waves of dark hair, Tony pulled Loki in and kissed him like he was dying all over again.

The entire room erupted into cries of outrage and protest, but the only thing Tony could spare his attention for was the moment Loki’s rigid shock dissolved with a single, sobbing gasp against his mouth. Then Tony was being kissed back so hard and so deeply that oxygen took a back seat to the warm mouth sealed over his, and he felt the same long fingers that had so politely wrapped around his hand dig into his back with a desperate need to hold him as close as he could possibly get.

“Two years,” Tony panted into his mouth as he eventually pulled back, still warring with the truth. “It’s been two years and I thought you were dead.”

“I came as soon as I could,” Loki said, his voice hushed and aching. “I thought I was too late. You didn’t see me—”

“I’d mourned you. You think I’d let myself hope—” Anything he might have said after that was swallowed up as Loki rained small, desperate kisses over his mouth and jaw. His breath was a shuddering gust of warmth across Tony’s skin and it felt so good it hurt. God, he’d missed him; whatever colours he turned and whatever freedom had done to change him, Loki had the same hungry mouth and eyes he had always remembered. Slipping his arms around him, Tony pushed them between cloth and armour, feeling ridges of unfamiliar leather bite into his fingertips. It wasn’t cold skin and scars, but it was his just the same. 

Behind Tony, the unmistakable sound of pistol slides being racked broke through his ecstatic haze. Someone from SHIELD had gotten nervous – he supposed it wasn’t every day that Iron Man molested their first ever publicly announced alien ambassador. Pulling away slightly, Tony turned to wave them off.

Loki snarled before he could even open his mouth to speak, his eyes slitted with rage as he sighted the guns. His hand gripped Tony’s hip hard enough to bruise.

Right. Guns.

Guns pointed at Tony.

“Fire your weapons and I will slaughter everyone in this room.” Loki’s expression was pure murder.

“Stay your hand, brother,” said a deep voice behind them. “They would not dare.” The room flashed with light. Tony turned his head and saw Thor standing in the balcony doorway, the war hammer in his hand crackling with its own electrical current. Loki didn’t spare him a glance; his eyes were on the guns trained on Tony. The eerie feeling of something terrible hanging in the balance descended on the room.

Then Steve strode between Loki and the four agents who had drawn on them, facing the men. With his shield on and his helmet off, the full force of his glare was a damn imposing sight. The trigger-happy agents’ faces flickered with hesitation.   

“In the current absence of Director Fury and Agent Hill, I hereby assume command and liability for the actions of SHIELD’s present personnel,” Steve said, his voice a whip-crack of cold anger. “Men, stand down or I will stand you down.”

Guns were holstered so fast Tony wondered if he’d hallucinated them to begin with. Against his side, Loki was almost humming with tension. Green eyes or red, the feral flatness in his gaze was frankly terrifying. And it was for him. Tony couldn’t remember ever being the object of that much protective anger. Not since a pack of wolves had taken a bite out of his leg, anyway.

“Sir, we’re under orders to apprehend anyone who makes contact with the ambassador without express permission,” said a man in a full-face black helmet. “That includes you and Stark.”

Steve just shifted his shield-arm and slid Loki a brief, assessing glance.

“I don’t think the ambassador is complaining,” he said pointedly. “I do think we’re done for the night.” It was only after the agents had retreated on silent feet that Steve gave Tony a look that promised death and destruction on the gym mats later. “I’d better radio this in to Fury. Wherever he is.”

“Love your work,” Tony called to Steve’s back as he all but marched away. In the wide circle of dignitaries around them, an uneasy murmur began to stir. It potently reminded him that he’d just made out with Loki in front of the leaders of at least seven different nations. Media blackout or not, that one was going to leak fast.

Still half-caught in his arms, Loki finally relaxed and looked back at Tony.

It was hard to look at his changed features and believe that the lonely frost giant he’d mourned and the intergalactic diplomat were one and the same. There were no fangs, no horns, no blue, no markings. Even his voice had smoothed out into cultured tones, losing the growling roughness that had always been present, even when he was pleased. His red eyes had become a clear, jewel-like green, but they tracked his movements with the same wounded fascination Loki had always looked at him with.

“So, no more ice?” Tony said quietly. “You never told me that was part of your spell.”

“It wasn’t.” Dark brows drew together in a slight, worried frown. “Not entirely. I never lied to you.”

“You said you didn’t know how to live without me.” Tony couldn’t quite contain his bleak smile. “Guess you were a fast learner.”

Loki flinched.

“I—”

“Just tell me I’m one of the reasons you’re here.”

“You’re the only reason I’m here.” Hands slipping over the sleek black suit, Loki gripped Tony’s upper arms, testing the strength there—or holding him so he couldn’t leave. “This form is for your kings, your presidents and politicians. This treaty is for my father.” Thumbs stroked over the dip of Tony’s bicep. “I rebuilt worlds and the pride of my birth father’s people. I took one crown and threw another away. I—I earned Odin’s esteem at the very moment I did not need it anymore. And all the while, my thoughts were of you.”

Tony was trying to smile, something to reassure Loki and chase that look off his face, but his relief was threatening to shatter. He’d thought he stood at the top of the world, and then Loki had come back to him. If the other shoe dropped, if the long fall loomed, he wasn’t sure he’d ever recover. He’d lost Loki once already. Giving everything over to him again, letting his world change again and having it ripped away…it could break him.

Still, Tony thought as he stared into strange new eyes, wouldn’t it be worth it?

Reaching up, he pushed Loki’s dark hair back in a motion that was pure familiarity. It felt familiar. He’d had that hair in his fist, watched it pool across his arc reactor like spilled ink. He’d felt it stroke cool lines across his skin as Loki had moved above him in the firelight. Some things were simply unforgettable, no matter how hard he’d tried.

As he began to withdraw his hand Loki came to life again, his fingers flashing up to hold him there; to keep his palm pressed flush to a smooth, pale cheek. The look in his eyes was pure agony and terrible hope.

“Can you,” Tony swallowed, “change back? Is that still possible?”

“Yes.” Loki broke his gaze away to scan the room. Many had already left, but more than enough had stayed to witness whatever was occurring in the centre of the function hall. “I can shift my skin, if you’d have them label you a deviant for consorting with something like me. Alien to them I may be, but I’m palatable while my skin is smooth and my form is familiar. You are held in considerable esteem here. I’ll not endanger that—”

“They want my suit, my weapons expertise and my arc reactor,” Tony said, slipping his hand away from Loki’s cheek. “If I gave a shit about what these vultures thought of me I’d still be making missiles for them.”

Loki’s hesitation was just long enough to remind Tony that he’d never been comfortable in his icy blue skin, not even when he’d been all but alone in the castle. He still wasn’t touching people, even two years later. But he’d touched Tony without a care for anyone watching. That meant something. He still meant something.

“Still so greedy,” Loki sighed, almost to himself, and green fire burned across his borrowed skin. Magic, Tony realised, watching it erase the disguise from his body. Loki was magic, too. It was evident in the glow of his long fingers as he cast them over his face and hair, revealing thick, curving horns and incisor teeth that grew and indented his lower lip once more.

Someone screamed, short and sharp. Glass hit the floor and shattered as dignitaries stumbled back in alarm. But all the while Loki kept his eyes on Tony, until at last they spiralled from green into a solid and bloody red. Within moments he was once again the fearsome warden of Winterheart – only this time, he was dressed like a king.

Spreading his hands in a slight gesture of display, Loki smiled faintly at Tony’s captivated stare. There was no protective hunch of his shoulders, no snarl for the onlookers. If anything, he stood straighter and prouder than he had in that disguise he’d worn, like the weight of it had been torn from his shoulders.

“There you are,” Tony said, his hands already reaching for the cool press of his skin, the roughness of his horns and the gleam of fang as he smiled. “My god, I almost missed you.”

“I almost let you,” Loki replied, pulling him in close so that he could run his lips over cheekbone and temple, freezing hands trailing over Tony’s sides and spine. “I thought you’d forgotten about me. Moved on.”

“I lie a lot. Mostly to myself.”

“What happened to your eyes?”

“You did.” When Loki drew back to stare at him in half-dreading hope, Tony shrugged and glanced away. “That apple sure had some kick to it.”

“Tell me.” Frigid hands cupped Tony’s cheeks, claws pricking at his skin. “What have I done to you?”

Part of Tony wanted to lie, to shrug it off and smile and charm his way from the subject. But Loki’s red eyes were wide with trepidation and dread, and the truth wasn’t nearly so bad. The truth was just…the truth. It was past time he owned what had happened to him.

“The shrapnel around my heart is gone,” Tony said, grabbing onto Loki’s hands and tugging them away. Lately, his grip had become pretty damn strong. “I heal better. Poison evaporates inside me. I see better than I ever have before. My overall health is—obscene. I tested it, I tested it on everything from illegally-obtained smallpox to ebola and I can’t get sick anymore. And—JARVIS says I’m absorbing waste metals faster than acid eats tin. Except for my arc reactor. It glows like it always has, while my blood dissolves everything else.” Tony’s mouth trembled slightly. “Just…out of curiosity, how long do you live? Because apparently I got a hell of an extension.”

Loki stared at him with the wordless horror of someone whose good intentions had paved the way to hell.

“The Norns laughed,” he said softly, his eyes sliding shut. “Of course they laughed. Tony, I am sorry. Believe me when I say I only wanted you to live. I never meant for you to change.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” Letting go of Loki’s hands, Tony reached out and ran fingertips over the rough ivory base of one horn. “I’m not an idiot. Loki, Thor, Odin? Asgard? I don’t know anything about myth, but pop culture taught me enough to recognise those names when they’re put together. How old are you?”

“Old enough to still outlive you.” Hard thumbs dragged down over the tense muscle of Tony’s back, eliciting an ache that was pure pleasure. “Young enough to still enjoy you.”

Tony was painfully aware of how many eyes were on them when he shut his eyes and tried not to audibly groan.

“Please don’t do that while I’m standing here wearing what equates to an indecent exposure charge.”

The words had their intended effect; Loki’s guilt melted into reluctant amusement as he watched Tony struggle with himself, but he obediently let go, tucking his hands away in a gesture that spoke more of habit than anything else. Had he really sworn off touching people in general?

Tony was about to ask that very question when a muffled voice cut across his.

“Boss?”

A SHIELD agent, masked completely in the same nondescript black uniform all the guards had been wearing, was standing in the centre of the room. Just over his shoulder, Tony saw Steve nod once and tap the communicator in his ear. Oh, shit, he thought. Of course Clint would put two and two together while Tony was busy thinking about himself.

“This one’s all yours,” Tony said quietly and stepped away, leaving Loki to approach Clint, who was tugging at his own helmet. He barely got three backward steps away before Steve grabbed him by the back of his suit and yanked.

“I don’t even know where to start with—since when did you like men?” Steve actually sounded offended. “I can’t believe you never told me.” Tony pushed his hand away and turned enough give him the full force of his cocked eyebrow while still keeping an eye on Clint.

“I’m a man of many tastes, Steve. So many tastes.” He caught an elbow for that, straight in the ribs. “Now shut up, I need to witness Barton cry like a baby.”

“I’m going to get the full story of all this out of you sometime later, right?”

“Can it, General Gossip.”

“Captain,” Steve said automatically, but he stopped talking. Folding his arms across his chest, he turned to witness what Tony had been far more interested in. Namely, Clint discovering the same thing he had not ten minutes ago; that the boss wasn’t only alive, but alive, magical and had stayed away on purpose for two goddamn years.

Clint’s helmet thudded to the floor, revealing blue eyes already glossed with tears. Sap. At least Tony had kept it together. Mostly. Barton looked like he didn’t know whether to cry or vomit.

“Before you speak,” Loki said abruptly, reaching out for Clint’s hand. “I have something for you.”

He just stared as Loki took his right hand, sliding his palm beneath it to unfurl his fingers. Waiting for Loki to give him something, Tony was completely taken by surprise when bright green energy gathered around Clint’s entire hand and forearm, crackling and moving like liquid light until he had to blink and look away.

When the light faded, Clint looked at his hand like he’d never seen it before. Flexing his fingers slowly, he darted Loki an uncertain look. His throat bobbed on a hard swallow. Opposite him, Loki just tucked his hands away again, looking strangely hesitant.

“You never blamed me for it, but I owed you nonetheless.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Clint whispered. “I was kind of planning to punch you again, but it might actually hurt me this time.”

“I could heal it twice.”

“’S ok.” Darting a look at Tony, Clint bit the corner of his mouth in indecision. Then he turned back to Loki. “We’ve got orders not to touch you.”

Loki smiled slightly.

“Simple preference, this time. My ice is well under control.”

There was a gauntlet out on the balcony that said differently, but Tony kept his mouth shut as Clint scratched his neck for approximately half a second and launched himself at ‘the boss’ with such force that Loki actually had to take a step back to keep his balance.

Steve vanished to wave down a few more overly concerned SHIELD agents, leaving Tony alone to watch them hug so hard he was surprised nothing cracked. So Loki had missed Clint. Good. Fifteen years together in the same prison, whether they’d talked or not; yeah, Loki had missed his orphan carnival boy. Not so much a boy anymore, though. A SHIELD assassin, of all things. It made Tony wonder—where was Natasha?

“Sorry I’m late,” Rhodey said from behind Tony, his footsteps rapid as he approached. “A flight got cancelled and I had to pick up an old bag.” A warm hand clapped his shoulder in greeting.

“Whatever,” said a woman behind them both, clearly American and vastly amused. “That’s no way to speak to a lady.”

“I flew across the country to pick your nerdy ass up and you refused so Fury had to scramble a damn jet,” Rhodey shot back irritably. “I get that you’re a crazed shut-in and all but there’s this thing called manners—”

“Oh, you want to talk about manners, Mr Strap-on—”

In, I said strap in—”

“Can you both shut the hell up?” Tony interrupted, spinning around to glare at them both. “You’re absolutely ruining the mood and—”

“Nice eyes,” the woman said, grinning at him and completely cutting off his tantrum. Tony was half-prepared to let Rhodey strangle her until she approached him close enough that he could see that, surrounded by a frame of cinnamon brown hair, she sported a pair of bright golden eyes.

“Shit.”

She laughed.

“Dr Jane Foster, astrophysicist and soon to be your sister-in-law, I think.” She stuck out a hand. “Good to meet you.”

Tony twitched slightly, but he grabbed her hand. She squeezed harder than his workshop vice.  

“Astrophysics, huh? How’s that working out for you?”

“I ran over the god of thunder and now I’m immortal. How’s engineering?”

“I got trapped in an ice castle and—did you say immortal?”

Jane just smiled. Tony felt like he needed to sit down.

A moment later, boots stamped a drum-beat of retribution across the function hall. Tony looked up to see a black leather battering ram charging toward them, coat flaring and guns gleaming dully in their side-holsters.

“I’m so angry I don’t even know who to blame first,” Fury snarled, like he was the one-eyed arm of the law coming to clean house. “Did you set me up, you battery-charged bastard? I’ll kill you. I’ll kill everyone. Intelligence organisations just don’t take kindly to being played, Stark.”

“I played you? That’s fucking rich,” Tony protested, running his fingertips over the activation signal on his wrist cuff. “‘You’ve been requested to the party, Tony, make sure you wear your best suit, Tony,’ what a load of shit. You knew who he was and you didn’t tell me.”

“Actually,” Loki said smoothly, pale-skinned and composed once again, “neither of you knew. The deception was mine alone, and I take full responsibility for any conflict caused by my…indiscreet reaction to Stark’s participation in tonight’s events.” Green eyes gleamed in a way that said he wasn’t sorry at all. “I am, of course, fully prepared to remain on Mid—that is, on Earth until I have made amends to each of your world leaders.”

Fury lost almost all of his angry bluster in an instant. A speculative look replaced the frazzled irritation of a moment ago.

“That’ll take some time,” he said eventually. “A lot of countries just heard you declare yourself Team Iron Man—in stereo.”

Loki coughed slightly. Tony thought it might be hiding a laugh.

“I do support the protection of this world. Its heroes are of…great personal interest to me.” One long finger tapped his chin. “A compromise, then? A small contingent of our best to remain here as a show of friendship.”

“Or,” Thor said, joining the group, “I might stay a while.” His smiling eyes were fixed on Jane like she was the sunrise in copper satin and stilettos. “For peace, of course. One hundred years should be sufficient.”

Tony watched as Loki stared at his brother through narrowed, thoughtful eyes. That hadn’t been planned, he was sure of it. Fury, on the other hand, looked like he was trying to keep his poker face on.

“A pair of alien brothers fighting the good fight, one of which is a thunder god, the other a damn ice wizard?”

“Sorcerer,” Loki corrected firmly. “Sorcerer and a frost giant. I’ll answer to ‘the eighth winterking of Jotunheim’ should you forget those small details.”  

Winterking, Tony repeated silently, watching Thor puff up slightly with pride at the word. Loki used it casually, but to great effect with the others. There was so much he had to learn. Maybe too much.

It wouldn’t just be Loki he would be letting back into his life. It was aliens and magic and the entire world watching. It was golden eyes and Jane Foster telling him she was going to live forever. JARVIS hadn’t even tried to project his lifespan beyond—beyond a hundred years or so. Even that much had seemed insane.

Forever was a damn long time to expect Loki to stay with him.

As their negotiations continued, Tony let himself be pushed out of the circle of chatter, leaving the others to do their jobs. Rhodey stayed with them, as the only military rep still left behind with any pull. Clint had vanished somewhere. Tony half-hoped he was searching for his favourite spider. That left him alone to retrieve his suit out on the balcony where he’d left it, locked down tight into travel mode. One glorified suitcase that resembled everything he’d built for himself.

Tony was listening to the last clicks of the suit connecting around him when Loki burst out onto the balcony, looking around with the half-blind eyes of someone who’d come from a bright room.

Tony?

“Right here.” He turned so the chest RT was a beacon to catch Loki’s attention. “I didn’t go anywhere. Just had to…get dressed. Am I going to live forever?”

Loki had been walking toward him but he stilled at the question, almost rearing away from it. Tony could barely see his face from where he stood in the shadows.

“Not forever, no.” Boots scaped across the stone floor of the balcony. “Odin could tell you for certain. The apple wasn’t just a vessel for the spell that imprisoned me, but a true golden apple of Idunn. You’ll live a long time, but not forever. Nothing does.” Approaching him again, Loki walked until he stood almost chest to chest with the suit. In the clean night air he smelled like leather and steel, and his eyes were dark pools of hesitation as he looked at Tony. “Is it too much for you? There’s a way to reverse everything, I’m sure of it. If—if there isn’t, I’ll make one. You need not suffer this transformation if the burden of it is too heavy. I’d never have cursed you with this to free myself, Tony. Know that, if you know nothing else of me anymore.”

Reverse it? Kill him again? Or maybe just return him to how he was, with his cut-up heart and brown eyes, making his way through the life of a superhero. Of Iron Man. Thirty, maybe forty more years, if he was lucky enough to die of old age.

“So you’re a king?” Tony asked, mostly to distract himself. “What does that make me, your royal concubine? Kings have those, right?”

“I’d never label you something so base. I am a king as much as Thor is a god. Titles and old myth, nothing more.” Loki scowled deeply. “Concubine. I despise the very word.”

“Guess you’ll just have to marry me then,” Tony said, thinking about Foster and her stupid Hulk hands.

“All right,” Loki said.

Tony’s world started spinning in the other direction.

“All right,” he repeated, tasting the words in his mouth. He couldn’t have meant that. “All right what?”

“This Midgardian treaty marks my last efforts to tie the realms together again. Trade is restored. Peace, brokered.” A hand encircled the gauntlet encasing Tony’s arm. “I am free to do precisely as I please.” Green eyes glowed dimly in the darkness, lit by arc reactor blue. “It would please me if you would spend the entirety of your very, very long life at my side, Tony Stark.”

Trying to look like he was giving it due consideration was pretty hard when his heart had decided to all but burst out of the RT and leap into Loki’s hands.

“Does that mean I get to see these other worlds? Realms? This…Asgard place?”

“And Jotunheim,” Loki said, a strange quirk to his mouth. “In fact, a ceremony would have to take place on both worlds, to say nothing of this one and its fanfare.” Breath touched Tony’s cheek as Loki leaned in to whisper against the shell of his ear, “Do you realise what that means?”

“What?” Tony was almost distracted from the topic altogether as Loki brushed his mouth across the short bristles of his goatee, barely avoiding his lips. “I’m having some trouble thinking of—honeymoons. Plural.”

“Precisely.” Hands swept along the torso of the suit, leaving lacework handprints of frost in their wake. Tony had an inkling that Loki was doing it on purpose just to watch the colours change. “Two years was a long time to go without your hands on my skin. Such as it is, right now.”  

Tony reached up with both hands and sifted red metal fingers through dark hair, careful not to catch any on the edges of the gauntlet. His thumb touched a place where a horn would have jutted and found nothing but smooth skin and air.

“You’re so different like this,” he said quietly. “I feel like I never really knew you back there.”

“You knew the best and worst of me, inside and out.” Loki pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “You reminded the monster how to be a man, to move beyond the scars of the past. It was never about my skin or my horns.”

The idea that Tony had been so instrumental in showing someone as impossible as Loki how to see the world—to see himself—was difficult to believe. Most of the time he didn’t even know what he was doing with his own life. The Avengers was his home base, his people and Iron Man had become his life, but beyond that? Empty space all around. Somewhere in the centre of that wasteland of his life he’d kept the locked-down memories of Winterheart hidden out of sight. Reminding him of the things he’d had and lost because he hadn’t seen Obadiah coming. He couldn’t lose that again.

“Yes,” Tony said hoarsely. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Okay.”

“Okay.” Loki blinked warily.

“Marry me. Three times.” Tony turned his eyes to the garden over the balcony. “Hell, I’d even go a fourth, if you wanted. As long as I get to keep you this time.”

Tipping his forehead to meet Tony’s, Loki let out a shaky breath.

“Didn’t I promise to make no mark I couldn’t undo?”

“You did. You also promised to leave no shrapnel behind.” Despite himself, Tony laughed a little. “Overachiever.”

Loki lifted his head enough to draw him into a deep kiss, fingers slipping through short strands of hair to tug Tony’s head back for better access to his mouth. He was more than willing to oblige; in the suit, he was almost at even height and strength. Loki still kissed like he’d never get enough, like he was making up for decades of being unable to take what he needed. Tony was more than happy to give it to him.

Three weddings. Hopefully no funerals, fights or awkward family infighting. Three planets to travel. Frost giants and gods and the Avengers. Fury and his impending heart attack. Tony’s relatively predictable life as one of Earth’s Mightiest had definitely taken a turn for the incredible, thanks to a few miracles and a spell or two.

This time, there was going to be a lot more to do than break a spell. To free a frost giant and find his own path.

With all the time in the world to see where everything would lead, Tony wasn’t afraid.

Don’t waste your life.

Maybe Yinsen would be proud.

“Can you fly?” Tony asked quietly after Loki had tipped his chin down onto a metal shoulder, letting him take his weight. “You brother said he could fly.”

“If you can call it that,” came the muttered reply. “No, I cannot fly.”

“Would you like to?”

“What? I—Bor’s blood put me down.

Hitching Loki’s legs more firmly around his waist, Tony hit the skies in a flare of blue light and laughter, leaving the ground so far behind that when he finally halted there were nothing but stars, moonlight and icy air all around them.

Maybe there would be danger. Maybe there would be problems and pitfalls.

“Can you make it snow from up here?”

Loki’s wide green eyes slowly bled into wicked red. His lips parted on a white-fanged smile.  

“In summer? In a foreign realm?” he scoffed. His hands flickered with blue fire, coating themselves with frost. “Don’t underestimate me.”

Definitely danger, Tony amended, watching Loki gather clouds to him like cobwebs dragged from the skies. Problems and pitfalls could be dealt with as they arrived.

But as snowflakes began to swirl down on Manhattan, thickening into flurries of white at the command of a half-wild frost giant, something told Tony that between them both they’d be able to see anything through.

All that remained was to go ahead and chase down the future.


 

Overhead, a raven soared out of sight of the pair below. Hescamar’s eyes took in the turn of the realms between one blink and the next. Thriving. Stable. Prosperous. Growing. Building. The Nine, together in a moment of perfect harmony.

Winterheart’s legacy had been a strange one indeed.

Change incarnate again walked the land, reined in by bright metal and light. Stability and growth. The forge and the ice.

For the moment, it was enough. Peace would be theirs for a while yet.

Cawing for the keen ears of Asgard, Hescamar beat his wings into the night sky and turned for home.

After all, they’d earned it.


Chapter Text

 

Three months.

Three months since the diplomatic dinner and Tony’s world had been all set to change. That night he’d been prepared to be ripped out of his superhero role, to split his life down the middle and merge past and present into something new. Hell, after all the promises they’d made, after everything Loki had done to get back to him, there couldn’t have been any other outcome. Or so he’d thought.

Three months and nothing had changed. Not really.

“I’ve got direct line of sight on—okay, does anyone else think he looks like my Mark II wearing green curtains?”

Don’t knock curtain-chic,” Natasha said over the comms. “It’s making a comeback. I like him already.

“The way to your heart is through soft furnishings? Here I’ve been bribing you with alcohol and manicure sets.”

You’ve been getting places with those, Tony. Don’t stop now.

Where’s he getting?” Clint asked, interested.

Steve sighed heavily into his mic, just so that everyone was extra aware that he disapproved of the inappropriate use of the comm system.

Can we please just focus on the mission?” he asked, but his heart wasn’t in it. Calling it a mission was a little over the top. It was guard duty, plain and simple. Grunt work, if it wasn’t for the importance of their target.

They’d been flying lazy circles in the cloaked jet, with Tony covering their blind spots in his suit for the last two hours. Thor was down there in an official capacity, which mostly included leaning on the wall and eating the foot-long meatball sub Tony had generously delivered to him before the meeting.

Some meeting.

In business terms, Victor von Doom was a shark. But he was also the absolute ruler of a little nation named Latveria, and while that meant he was owed a little face-time with Loki, it also meant he was way down the list of important people. Something about the guy’s tricked-out suit of armour and flashy gesticulations told Tony that wouldn’t always be the case.

So there they stood in the enclosed courtyard of a temporary Asgardian embassy, with Doom openly flirting with Loki. Tony wished he was exaggerating. Good business relations and political manoeuvring came with a certain amount of flattery and praise, but this was going a little too far. There had been an arm-touch. Even Clint had whistled at the daring of that one.

Worse, Loki wasn’t doing anything. Hell, he was smiling at him. At one point he actually laughed, the kind of laugh Tony had categorised as ‘I didn’t mean to do that but your clever wit surprised me’ and that was it after that. Tony hated Victor von Doom and nothing would change his mind.

Feeling jealous wasn’t really something Tony handled well. It reminded him of his suppressed tantrum when Loki and Natasha had buddied up in Winterheart. God, that felt like decades ago. Lifetimes ago. The biggest thing he’d had to worry about then was the distance to the nearest bathroom, and whether Loki was going to ever descend from the west wing to glower at him. Simple days. Why had politics taken over so much of what was supposed to be their sickening little happily ever after? Tony had been fully prepared to scoff at their ridiculous amount of perfect happiness. Instead it was meetings, briefings, airports, distance.

Life.

Half a mile below, Loki nodded in acknowledgement as Doom gave a shallow bow over one arm. Turning on one polished metal heel, Latveria’s own had decided it was time to leave. About time.

Reducing his magnified view so that he could see the entire courtyard, Tony hovered over the scene in cloaked mode and thought about whether or not he’d be on duty that night. If Loki’s schedule continued in the same vein it had for the last three months, he’d probably be eating alone anyway. Their schedules were often at odds with each other, given how busy they were, but it made sense to put his hand up for whatever new mission was on the table this time. The other option was sitting at the tower tinkering with JARVIS’s new body, which was honestly all tinkered out.

Tony was so lost in his grumbling spiral of thoughts that he almost missed the moment Doom spun around from his departing path out of the courtyard, shooting a barrage of yellow light directly at Loki’s armoured back.

Shit—”

Hostile—”

Before anyone could react, before Thor so much as blink, Loki had sidestepped the blast and shot Doom so full of ice he’d be coughing cubes for the next week. But he didn’t shift his skin to blue, as he sometimes did when he’d been caught off guard and forced to use the ice. Tony descended so hard the pavers cracked beneath his boots as he landed, letting the light-refracting shields dissolve to reveal his armour. Diplomatic immunity be damned—shooting a man in the back was just dirty.

But Loki was smiling thinly at his attacker and Doom was laughing like an old friend, pushing ice off his arms and legs with the ease of someone who had more strength up their sleeve than previously assessed. Loki obligingly tapped his staff against a particularly stubborn knob of ice at his knee, shattering it with ease.

“As expected of such a warrior,” Doom mused, echoing slightly behind his helmet. “Speaking softly and carrying a big stick. I approve, king of winter. You are no fool. Doom can respect that kind of strength.” Snapping his cape slightly to dislodge some of the ice, he turned slightly as Tony approached. There was no way he could miss the fully-charged glow of the chest RT.

“Iron Man. Impressive cloaking. My sensors did not pick up your presence nearby.”

“I’m slippery like that.” He turned to Loki, who was still wearing the unfazed smile of someone who took random attacks in his stride. It was only when he returned Tony’s questioning look with a steely glance that Tony realised all the laughter and flattery had been its own kind of battlefield. Loki had obviously won, but it didn’t change the fact that he’d had to resort to physical retaliation. “Could you at least pretend to be in danger so I get to shoot someone?”

“I’ll take it under consideration,” Loki replied dryly. “However, I believe Victor and I are finished for the day.” His tone contained enough polite steel that it was obvious that Victor’s opinion didn’t count. “Should I ever find myself in Latveria, I trust your welcome there will be significantly warmer.”

“Of course, Ambassador. A small nation we might be, but one that looks after its allies. Do consider my offer.” Doom assessed Tony’s suit once more, then swept his cape aside as he headed for the door. “A good day to you also, Mr Stark,” he threw over his shoulder as he left.

“A safe journey home to you,” Loki murmured as the doors closed, “you blustering, scheming can of desperation.” At Tony’s reverberating snort, his eyes thawed into something like amusement. “You laugh now, but that one will be trouble for us one day.”

“Did he proposition you?” Tony asked, getting right to the point. He pulled his helmet off in time to see Loki arch an eyebrow.

“In a manner of speaking. He believed Thor was present as Asgard’s heir to watch me and my dealings. Asking the usual questions, he surmised I was…” Loki seemed to search for the right word. “Ambitious.”

With a keen ear for what Loki wasn’t saying, Thor barked a short laugh as he approached.

“If I could step down for you, it surely would have happened already.” He shrugged broadly, shaking his head. “What more could some metal-plated fool offer you?”

Amused, Tony put a hand over his armoured heart, trying his best to look wounded.

“As a fellow metal-plated fool, I can say with honesty that I’m the clear choice over Doom. I have a cool light-up function and everything.” When Loki’s mouth softened out of his frown, Tony added, “Plus, my repulsors are sixty percent more flirtatious than that nuclear-powered tuna can’s.”

Glancing between them both, Loki shook his head and vanished his staff. Clapping a hand to the back of Thor’s neck and the other to Tony’s metal hip, he pulled them both in against him for a bruising half-hug. Well, it would have been. It sure looked painful for Thor.

“Between my apathetic brother and my absentee lover,” Loki declared, “surely I want for nothing.”

“Now wait a minute there,” Tony protested. “I’m the absentee in this relationship?”

“Apathy!” exclaimed Thor, riding over anything else Tony might have said. “’Tis space you asked for and control over all things, Loki. I merely delivered.”

Loki’s eyes gleamed, vivid green and mischievous in the afternoon sunlight. Slowly, Thor began to scowl.

“A king yourself and an ambassador to worlds, yet I’d still like to rip out your hair sometimes,” he said heavily, crossing his arms. He actually looked a little upset. “Don’t tease me. I can scarcely tell when you’re doing it anymore.”

The curl of Loki’s mouth was so genuinely fond that Tony almost forgot to be alarmed by his own accusation, which was flat-out lies anyway. Loki in a good mood was a minefield of verbal combat sometimes, always poking and jabbing at weird weak spots Tony didn’t know he had. Maybe it was just Loki’s way of inviting a talk about how, yeah, they rarely got to see each other. If only there was time for even that much discussion.

Punctuating his thoughts, Tony’s helmet abruptly sang a song of incoming trouble. The comms channel opened again for Steve’s tinny voice to relay a distress signal out on the river. Something with metal tentacles attacking a domestic vessel. Nothing good ever came from tentacles.

“Be right up,” Tony said into the base of his helmet, lifting it to shove back on his head. Thor glanced between the uncloaked quinjet and Loki, who waved him along toward what was probably going to be a weird fight. Smiling with surprised pleasure, Thor whipped Mjölnir out and took to the sky so fast a gust of wind sent leaves skittering up against Tony’s suit. He turned to Loki. “How long since you last let him off the leash?”

“He is yet to realise there is no leash,” Loki replied with a shake of his head. “Aren’t you going to join them?”

“Depends. How free is your afternoon?”

“Free enough.”

“So come with me. Stretch the legs a little. Fight a metal sea monster with the Avengers.” Tony popped his faceplate up and smiled. “Then we can order three kinds of take-out and lock ourselves in for the night.” He held out his arms. “I’ll fly us.”

“You almost had me,” Loki replied. “But I’d sooner sit through another meeting with von Doom than fly gracelessly attached to your suit. Go: fight your battles. I’ll be at the tower tonight, most likely. Keep yourself safe.”

“Don’t I always?”

Loki levelled him a flat look that said volumes.

Tony wisely fired his boots to raise him a productive foot or two—really, leaving Loki for a fight wasn’t overly tempting—and was about to slam down his faceplate and fly when Loki dragged him down and kissed him hard, effectively shutting off his language centres and just about everything else. It was almost criminally embarrassing just how much Tony had missed that brutally hungry mouth. Loki wasn’t publicly demonstrative at the best of times, but in public was where they saw each other the most lately. A kiss here, a skin-to-skin touch there, it was stoking a fire that was frankly getting a little out of control. But, life was life. Commitments. Responsibility.

Given Tony’s lifespan extension, there would be time later. It made the murky future seem brighter, even if it made the present frustrating.

“Scream if you need me,” Loki said, pushing his faceplate down. Through the digital glow of the visor his face looked a little drawn. He searched the artificial blue like he was seeking something familiar, but he didn’t say anything further.

“Give me some credit. Obadiah caught me off guard. I’m not that trusting anymore.”

Loki glanced away, letting out a small breath.

“Yes. Good luck.”

Tony flew for the sky, waiting until he was two miles out before wondering why Loki had sounded so worried. He was an Avenger, and the Avengers were unstoppable.

Well, most of the time.

Eventually.


“In my defence, none of us knew it had a ninth tentacle. People are supposed to respect the balance of biology. God, I hate mad scientists.”

Natasha frowned down at him. It was actually more of a beautiful pout, really; Tony’s angle beneath her meant gravity pulled her lips into a rosebud of red disapproval and concern. Tony managed to poke one index finger into the plush cushion of her lower lip before she caught his hand and squeezed it. The kiss she pressed to his knuckles was an apology for not realising in time. Psht. Tony knew the score better than most. So what if it had been a while since he’d taken a decent injury?

“What’s the damage?” Steve’s eyes were dark blue with, presumably, a lot of guilt. “Sorry, Tony. I didn’t think its overall strength could crumple the chest of the suit like that.”

“If anyone should have noticed, it’s me,” Tony said, blinking at the ceiling of his bedroom. “I’m the one with all the sensors. Besides, it’s only a couple of bruised ribs, according to JARVIS. Child’s play. I’ve had worse.”

“Loki is going to freeze our asses to the wall,” Natasha said plainly, tucking Tony’s hand down against Egyptian cotton sheets. “It doesn’t matter whose fault it was.”

Watching her shadowed gaze drop to the crisp white sheets beneath his hand, Tony wondered if she’d been avoiding Loki this entire time because of him. His almost-death, her perceived lack of backup. Their relationship had been twin-like and magnetically repelling at the same time, leaving Natasha and Loki staring at each other across some strange gulf of shared dislike and brutal connection. Had she avoided Loki because she thought he’d blame her somehow for Obadiah’s attack?

To Tony, it seemed like bullshit. That didn’t make it untrue, though. Issues upon issues. All he knew was that she’d been purposely absent the night Loki had returned, and while he knew Natasha had a lot of respect and empathy for Loki, they were never going to be the kind of friends that sought each other out. Not after the misery of last time.

“Where is Loki, anyway?” Steve asked, glancing around the room like he might be hiding behind the dresser. “Didn’t you say he’d be back here?”

“Embassy stuff, probably,” Tony said, grunting as a burst of pain in his chest stilled any movement. “Were the remains of the octobot put in the workshop? I want to pull it apart tomorrow.”

“It’s down there, but I don’t think you should be moving a whole lot with that injury.” Tony waved Steve off.

“I’ll be healed inside of two days,” he said, bracing his palms on the bed to push himself up against the pillows. It hurt like hell, but lying flat on his back just wasn’t a good vantage point when trying to argue with Steve. “And Loki isn’t going to freeze anyone just because I took a hit. You know, you two never cared this much about my wellbeing before Loki came back. Don’t think I don’t see how it is.”

Steve frowned, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

“Hey, I’ve always cared,” he said, with heartfelt sincerity. “It’s Natasha who thinks Loki is going to murder us all.”

“Oh sure, throw me under the bus,” Natasha muttered, flashing Steve an unfriendly look. “But it’s not a stretch to think that Loki isn’t going to take your first real injury since his return very well.” She gave him a pointed look. “After all, he is the one who nearly killed himself three times to save you.”

“Wow,” Steve said, impressed. “So Tony’s always been accident-prone?”

“Shut up,” Tony said, “and leave me to wallow in my horrible injury. Can I get a coffee in here?”

Like the traitorous cowards they were, they both took the request as their convenient escape. As if Loki was some kind of bogeyman incapable of rational thought—he knew better than most that when Tony wanted to take a stupid risk there was just no stopping him. Like flying headfirst down to the main processor of a robotic tentacle monster before properly counting how many arms it had. Probably not one of his smarter ideas.

It did get him thinking about Natasha’s words though. If Tony was the reckless one, Loki was just as bad. Who stuck their life on the line three times for anyone, let alone a prisoner who just so happened to turn into the love of his life? Exaggeration? Maybe. Lately, maybe. They were still refusing to discuss the whole engagement idea, and neither of them had put a ring on it. Tony’s virtue was truly in tatters. There was an amusing thought.

Half a cup of coffee later, Tony was thinking about what might be on the news when the bedroom door opened, letting in golden light from the hallway. Tony whistled at the unfamiliar silhouette as Loki shut the door.

“I love the incognito look. Very Bond villain.” Between the tailored black suit, the ponytail at the nape of his neck and the dark blue dress shirt, Loki looked every inch the sinister businessman. Or professional assassin. “All you need is an enormous tattoo peeking out from under that shirt. Did you have trouble getting in?”

Loki scoffed, vanishing his suit jacket and unbuttoning his cuffs, rolling them up to expose his scarred forearms. The tie in his hair went next, letting the thick mess of black sit heavily across his shoulders and down his back. Not exactly frost giant casual, but pretty close for the quasi-civilised world of Manhattan.

“Trouble getting out, more like. Given the opportunity, I do believe SHIELD would attempt to lock me in that embassy until every world leader has had their fill of me.” Loki waved at Tony’s chest. “Let me see.”

“So forward,” Tony commented, tugging up his t-shirt. The purpling side of his ribcage hadn’t been bound with anything, which left the swelling injuries looking a whole lot worse than they were. “Just don’t make me laugh or sneeze for the next couple of days.”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Loki ran a light fingertip around the furthest edge of the bruising. There was a strange mix of pained frustration in his expression, but he didn’t bother reminding Tony of why he’d taken a stupid risk. Actually, he got the impression that his injury wasn’t causing that look.

“What use are the talents of a sorcerer who cannot even heal a simple injury?” Loki’s mouth twisted. “Mist to obscure one’s sight, bolts of magic to piece even the toughest armour, ice enough to cover a city and I cannot so much as erase a bruise. Nor do I have the time to spend here while you recover, with ten other meetings all vying for importance.” He exhaled quietly, fingers sweeping over to cage the arc reactor’s light. “It was…easier, before. I was always there. Now there are no nightly circuits of the castle to ensure all are where they should be. This world is too unpredictable, too large for me to control.”

Tony reached up, pushing the weight of Loki’s hair back over his shoulder.

“This is all a little heavy for a bit of bruising.” He covered the hand over his reactor, snuffing out the last of the pale blue light. “Are you trying to tell me you actually miss Winterheart?”

Loki’s expression, so open and melancholy a moment ago, shut down completely.

“Don’t be foolish.” Ouch. Loki turned his attention to the other side of the bedroom, eyes fixed on some strange middle distance. “Hescamar. Come.”

“Not that asshole,” Tony groaned as the air split apart, opening to reveal a gaping hole in some burning abyss. Hescamar flew through it on a gust of smoke-scented wind, beating his wings to land on Loki’s forearm. The clutch of those claws had to be painful, but he didn’t make a sound. “Where’ve you been? Bastardising more classics?”

“Busy and important,” the raven replied. “Hescamar is everywhere and nowhere. Killing time and killing boredom. Much like our prince here. Freedom is ash and—”

“Heal his injury, buzzard,” Loki grated, pointedly avoiding Tony’s gaze. “Be useful for once. There’s time to be a thorn in my side later.”

“No shame in it,” Hescamar croaked. “Can’t be everything, little prince. Pride of Odin, ambassador, sorcerer, winterking, prince, brother, son, lover, prisoner. Still a prisoner, wears too many crowns, too many faces.” The raven opened its beak wide, then snapped it shut with a click. “Easier before.”

The blood left Loki’s face so fast Tony could actually see his lips bleach of colour, leaving nothing behind but shadows and the feverish green glitter of his eyes. Hescamar was unconcerned by the brutality of everything he’d just admitted on Loki’s behalf, hopping down to peck straight into Tony’s injured side.

Gently, goddamnit.” Eyes watering as a spiralling sensation of heat and static electricity spilled out from the beak embedded between his ribs, Tony grit his teeth and waited for it to be over. It didn’t hurt, exactly, but the idea of just waiting out his injuries next time seemed more appealing. “I feel violated.”

“Let him work.” Loki still wasn’t looking at him, but his hand kept Tony pressed flat against the mattress with the kind of steely strength he rarely had a chance to unleash. Not since becoming the kind of overworked politician that hated his job—or whatever Hescamar had been talking about. Too many faces, too many crowns. How much pressure had Loki put on himself to do everything at once? Be everyone at once?

When the buzzing in his side receded after a few long seconds, Tony pushed the bird away and yanked his t-shirt down, sitting up so fast the movement left him blinking. Definitely healed, but with a surprising head rush he hadn’t expected.

“Ingrate,” Hescamar croaked, ruffling his feathers as he flew across to the chest of drawers on the other side of the room. Tony just ignored him, instead reaching out to turn Loki’s shoulders so he could look into his face properly.

Loki wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“What am I,” Loki started slowly, “that I would long for such a place? The site of my own personal hel, my prison?” He shook his head, a muscle twitching slightly in his jaw. “Hescamar forgets his place. You should not have had to—”

“I miss it too,” Tony broke in, sliding his legs over the edge of the bed until he sat against Loki’s side. There were faint red scratches on his arm from the raven’s claws. “God, I miss it. The quiet, the simple days, being out of the spotlight.”

“Seeing you,” Loki said, glaring out the balcony doors. “I could always find you. Listen for you. Watch you work at the forge. You were never far from me, even when I wanted nothing more than to never look upon your face again. Always hounding me for secrets, explanations, conversation, interaction in whatever manner you could find it.”

“You’re making me sound really annoying.”

“You were,” Loki said, but the corners of his lips tilted up slightly. “And I drank you in with an unquenchable thirst. Even when I wanted to escape the bright interest in your eyes, I stayed.” A pale hand slipped around Tony’s waist, tugging him in closer to Loki’s side. “Yes, I miss Winterheart. I miss—you, in Winterheart. The world was quieter then.”

It was a sad thought, but Tony couldn’t deny it was true. There was so much demand for them both and so little free time to do the things they wanted to. The Avengers, SHIELD, Loki’s duties as ambassador, the media, the world…it was easy to miss Winterheart, but those days were gone. More than two years gone. No sense in living in the past.

Across the room, Hescamar cackled his long, broken laugh.

“Prideful imbeciles. Think the world is on your shoulders. Grains of sand thinking themselves mountains.” Stretching out his full wingspan on the drawers, Hescamar’s feathers began to glow gold at the edges. “Let the thunderer take the weight of responsibility. Let Asgard’s forces defend for a time. Hescamar is at your service.”

It didn’t take Tony’s genius intellect to realise what Hescamar was offering them. But it was already too much revealed in too short a time, and Loki’s shoulders were hunched so deeply Tony could almost see the wolf pelt up around his ears, the shadow of horns on the wall. The bird might be right and the offer was a sweet one, but before Tony even got up from the bed he knew exactly how things would play out.

“You can’t go home again,” Tony quoted, walking to the dresser and shooing the raven off it. Snuffing out the gold light, Hescamar took wing to the air, his claws leaving deep grooves in the wood where he’d perched. Complete asshole. “Not tonight, anyway.”

“Wait.”

Hescamar beat his wings hard, startled out of his usual portal escape. Instead, he hit the balcony glass doors and bounced off, cursing a blue streak in at least three different languages that hadn’t originated on Earth. He waddled across the floor like a stunned chicken until he was close enough to peck Loki in the shin.

Loki ignored whatever small injury the raven had caused, turning his head slightly to look at Tony with eyes cast in lamplight shadow.

“You miss it?”

Thinking about it, Tony rubbed his thumb across the gouges in the wood and sighed.

“I miss good company and a place to escape the world. Winterheart was that for me.” Letting his hand slide away from the dresser, he approached Loki, who watched him with quiet calculation. “Plus I met the most fascinating guy there. He was tall and dark, and he scared the absolute shit out of me when we first met.”

Loki received him with careful hands as Tony knelt on either side of his hips, knees pressing into the mattress. One short tug left him squarely in the lap of a blank-faced sorcerer prince—one who was eyeing the slope of his collarbone where it disappeared beneath his t-shirt. That was what Tony liked to see.

“You hid that fear well,” Loki said quietly, darting him a quick glance. “I recall that even then I sensed you’d been at the mercy of others before.” His warm lips touched the side of Tony’s neck, brushing there like moth’s wings. “It was the defiance that swayed me. All that fear…and you looked me straight in the eye and dared me to keep you.”

At the first shudder beneath him Tony thought that Loki was just shaking off the old memories—maybe trying to forget those old, angry days. But the forehead dipped against his shoulder pushed back slightly as something came between them. Thick, curving horns of ivory bled into view, sweeping back into black hair. The skin beneath Tony’s hands turned ice cold. Loki’s sigh was oddly warm as always, but when he lifted his head Tony couldn’t begrudge him the goosebumps he’d caused.

“Kinda glad you did,” Tony said, pressing his palm to the cool blue curve of Loki’s jaw. Raised lines followed like trails on a map, disappearing beneath his shirt to territory Tony had missed for the last few weeks. “Keep me, I mean.”

“Make no mistake, Tony Stark,” Loki said, his voice every bit as broken and hoarse as it had been in the echoing halls of Winterheart. “It was you who kept me. Sane, alive, interested, arrested, hopeful and heartened. You kept me, when I wished for nothing more than to be able to throw myself away and forget.”

“Well, now you’re making me sound like some kind of hero.” Leaning forward, Tony kissed his cold lips, pushing him down to recline against the mattress. He kept his mouth barely an inch from the sharp teeth revealed by Loki’s smile when he whispered, “Keep going.”

Loki graciously obliged, but not in words. His mouth remained occupied by other things, which in all fairness Tony couldn’t really be mad about. Especially not when clawed fingers tugged at his waist and he saw his belt go sailing halfway across the room. He barely noticed the grumble and flash of light as Hescamar grudgingly made himself scarce.

“JARVIS, lock the door,” Tony managed to say as warm breath touched his throat. “No disruptions unless it involves—” he felt claws scratch lightly over his hips, “—okay, no disruptions at all. Please blast the air conditioning and dim the lights to twenty percent.”

JARVIS actioned his requests a moment later, leaving Loki frowning curiously in the semi-darkness, halfway between swapping their positions on the bed and glancing up at the vents now blowing cool air down on them both.

“It’s not the same as a castle draught,” Loki said, kneeling over him as his shirt burned away in a shine of gold and green light, “but I enjoy the attempt at recreating the scene. What a shame we have no fireplace. Shall I summon a snowstorm?”

“And let everyone know what we’re doing?” Tony’s voice was muffled as Loki pulled his t-shirt off over his head. “Absolutely.”

“Next time,” Loki promised, pulling Tony’s hands forward and placing them on the waist of his—honestly, perfectly tailored—suit pants. “When I have more patience.”

As far as arguments against went, it was a pretty good one. Tony had him wearing nothing but a lot of cool blue skin inside of ten seconds, and many, many square inches of it pressed against him in fifteen. Loki sank against him easily, not minding his weight quite as much now that Tony was strong enough to bear it. Lifting his hips a little, he heard the click of claws against the snap of his jeans, then like some magician’s trick they were sent flying after his belt a moment later. The look in Loki’s shadowed red eyes was equal parts hungry and curious.

“You prefer me like this. Cold, blue, minding my claws and horns as I undress you.” Splaying his fingers, Loki ran his hand down in a wide, slow line from the side of Tony’s neck, over his chest and around the edge of the reactor, pebbling his nipple as it fell beneath the cold trail he was mapping on Tony’s skin.

Breath caught in the back of his throat, Tony watched as Loki dipped his head, his mouth shockingly warm on his skin after the swath of cold. Frost giant physiology was something else, that was for sure. Loki followed the path his hand had taken until he was forced to move down the bed, his chin pillowed on the warm stretch of skin just below Tony’s navel. Naturally, that was where Loki decided to take a break, leaving a pretty insistent part of his anatomy straining against the smooth column of his neck. Shaking off the lusty haze that had descended, Tony realised he was waiting for a reply. Like it had actually been a question.

“I know it makes it a little harder for you,” Tony admitted, running a fingertip down the edge of a horn, circling the base where ivory became blue. Loki’s eyes slid shut as he listened. “But I also know you don’t quite come alive for me until you’ve thrown off that magic face of yours. If you haven’t noticed, I take a lot of pride in my work.” Running a light fingertip along the edge of Loki’s eyebrow, he said, “You know, you don’t seem to mind my scars and the light punched into my sternum, but I catch you looking at my eyes sometimes.”

Loki’s eyes opened, his brows twitching together slightly. The deep red of his gaze was such a change from the green Tony had seen in the last couple of weeks, but it gave him memories of wounded safety and old power. And snow. Snow and stone and firelight. Those red eyes were home.

Maybe his own weren’t, anymore.

“I’m far used to my words leaving marks, not my deeds.” Pushing himself up on his forearms, Loki kissed Tony’s wrist and slid up his body until his elbows pressed into the mattress at Tony’s shoulders. The lips that brushed his eyelids were heartbreakingly gentle, somehow more meaningful now that Tony possessed his newfound durability and strength. “Sometimes I wonder if you’ll despise me one day, for giving you this lifespan. If you’ll look at your changed eyes in the mirror and wish I’d done nothing. Is that strange to you?”

Tony looked up at Loki, watching the play of emotions that crossed his face. They were small, hidden, but he sought them out with his golden eyes, the ones Loki wondered if he regretted receiving. How was he supposed to regret having his life saved?

Leaning up, Tony kissed him deeply, inhaling a long breath of air through his nose as Loki opened his mouth to allow him in, a long-fingered hand planting in the pillow beside Tony’s head for leverage. Loki smelled like soap and snow and leather, though he hadn’t worn any in the last hour. It clung to his hair and shoulders, winter and oiled hide. Beneath it was cold skin and a hot mouth, one Tony sought with the kind of abandon he hadn’t let himself even think about in the last fortnight.

“There’s time for regrets later,” Tony said, not trying to disguise the rasp in his voice. Loki’s hips were rolling down against his, sinuous and slow. “But if you think I’m going to hate you for saving my life, you’re going to be waiting a damn long time.”

“We have time,” Loki said against his mouth, and his words were a promise. “For now, Tony Stark, I’d much like it if you would put your hands to good use.” His mouth curled slightly. “My claws do make things difficult.”

“Excuses, excuses.”

It never failed to feel like the first time with Loki. Sure, Tony had put his hands and his mouth all over him, kissing pale raised lines and running calloused fingertips over smooth blue skin, feeling the chill it radiated raise goosebumps on his arms and chest. Sure, he knew what that skin tasted like, from the curve of his neck to the bend of his knee. But every time he watched Loki’s eyes slide shut in surprised pleasure, every time his stomach jumped at the brush of his fingers, it felt new. It was easy to give into the urge to explore, feeling Loki react like his skin hadn’t grown used to him yet. That frost giant skin hadn’t been touched nearly as often as it should have been, but Tony had years upon years to make up for that.

Not that Loki simply allowed him free rein, docile and willing against him. Those days had ended inside spelled walls and the illusion of a prison. No, there were red trails from the light use of claws running their own lines over Tony’s skin, and soft bruises marking Loki’s favourite spots to linger upon and taste. The strength in his hands was put to perfect use, lifting hips and pressing arms flat to the mattress, tugging Tony over to sit astride him as urgency grew and frost splintered out across the sheets, unheeded and instinctive as they moved together, touching and separating in a rapid drum-beat as Loki’s hands twitched toward Tony and away, hips moving in a desperate reach as the need proved too much.

It did feel like the first time when Loki’s head snapped back against the pillows, his hands gripping Tony’s waist and holding him there as frost drew lacework webs along his sides; tiny, fragile things that melted a moment after his warmth sank into them. It was a concession of his power, a trusting slip of control that they both acknowledged without so much as a shared glance. Instead, Loki simply flung the moisture from his claws as Tony put his hot face against the column of Loki’s neck, heaving a sigh that seemed to come from miles deep inside him.